In any case, that’s not the topic of this week’s blog. What I want to try and explore is the role of the critic in the arts organization, and particularly, how they interact with the organization. This is particularly of interest given the recent decision by Opera Australia to deny complementary tickets to two critics who had recently written articles that the organization had deemed an attack on their policies.
Naturally, the response to this decision from the media, both traditional and social, was quite angry, accusing Opera Australia and in particular Artistic Director Lyndon Terracini of playing favourites and being overly sensitive to criticism. But the whole incident got me thinking about the relationship between arts organizations and critics plays out, and how it is changing as the nature of media consumption and consumer preferences change.
Now, in the interests of full disclosure, I have to point out that I’ve had my own share of brushes with critics, and more than one unfavourable (and in the eyes of many, unfair) review. I’ve seen reviews become no more than expressions of politics between different theatres, and many critics have thrown insults to singers without understanding the context of the situation (or in some particularly egregious cases, the plot of the opera).
In defense of the critic:
That’s not to say that there is no place for the critic. In fact, the arts critic has an important role to play. Ideally, they are experts in the art form, aware of the nuances and difficulties of production, and yet forthright in serving their audience by informing them of which works are worth paying money to see. It’s a tricky balancing act at times, as many critics are art lovers (and artists themselves), and it can be hard to disparage a work knowing the effort and time that has been put into it.
But because they are art lovers, they also have an important role to play in defending artistic integrity. If they see an organization implementing policies that appear to be detrimental to the art form, they are obligated to make reasoned, defensible arguments as to why this is the case, and to call the organizational leadership into question. This appears to be the case with Opera Australia, whose recent programming has included less and less opera, favoring musicals at the expense of presenting local and new operatic works and singers.
In defense of the arts leader:
That said, an arts leader should not and can not be beholden to the views of critics. From an artistic perspective, the arts leader is entitled to chart the creative course that they believe will create the most powerful artistic outcomes in alignment with their organizational mission. Similarly, the financial imperative is to put in place programming and initiatives that will not only generate revenues in the short term, but assure longer term financial stability for the organization.
In the case of opera companies where in general revenues have been shrinking while expenses have risen, it is natural to consider different modes of programming such as musicals in order to shore up the bottom line. All the more so if those programs can be shown to be “gateways” for audiences to consider traditional or new operatic programming as a result. From a leadership perspective, the option cannot be dismissed out of hand – it may be unpopular with the critics in the short term, but it may be the tough medicine that keeps the organization (and by dependency, the traditional media critic) in employment.
A third way:
However, both these arguments are largely emotional – the passion of the critic against the artistic independence of the arts organization. In thinking about not just the recent events at Opera Australia, but in the general case of the symbiotic relationship between the critic and the arts organization, we must understand that have to be strategic in our thinking as arts leaders.
From an arts leadership perspective, that means combining hard data on the value of critics with the soft skills of relationship management, in order to extract the greatest value from the relationship with each and every critic. What do I mean by this?
From the hard data perspective, there are now the tools in place to attribute a value to critics. Coarsely, one can look at the “bump” in sales or enquiries due to a review of a show, or an article on the organization, and attribute that to its source. More sophisticated analytics can combine traditional media data such as circulation with web and social media platform linkage to better determine the contribution that a critic (being journalist, blogger, or even tweeter) is making to your bottom line through generating (or diminishing) revenue for your organization.
Note that a negative review doesn’t necessarily mean negative impacts; their audience might perceive the review as overly critical, or may be intrigued enough to go see the work to form their own opinion. Conversely, positive reviews may not generate sales as intended; one can damn with faint praise.
Now I know that this view of the critic as revenue generator is going to raise hackles on both sides, but from a financial standpoint, we must acknowledge that a critic has some power to impact the revenue stream of an organization. What I am adding is merely logical, that we should seek to measure the magnitude of this impact, positive or negative, and act accordingly. What return on investment does giving a complementary ticket to a critic create? If you can show that they generate more revenue than the value of the ticket foregone, then that’s a positive outcome, but if they are not generating sales, or even reducing sales, then there’s no point in losing any more revenue than necessary.
Which brings me to the soft skills side of the equation. Once you are able to measure the impact that a critic has on your revenue, you can begin to manage that impact in a positive way. A critic is a stakeholder in your organization whether you like it or not. They are vocal, and they can impact your ability to achieve your mission. As an arts leader it is critical to manage the critic as a stakeholder like any other.
That means keeping in touch with them, ensuring they are aware of upcoming events and shows, and giving them the information and the artistic context in which they can evaluate your policies and the success of your productions. At the same time, it means giving them the opportunity to connect with you personally to provide their own feedback and views, positive or otherwise. Invite them to special events, not just performances or openings. Let them interact directly with your organization. And if they have negative feedback, it’s better that they have the ability and the desire to discuss it with you face to face than to find it in the media. Make managing your critics part of your organizational strategy.
(As an aside, why stop there? In the age of social media every audience member is a stakeholder and potential critic too, but understanding how to manage that scenario requires a much longer blog post...)
So back to the original controversy that precipitated this article. I don’t work for Opera Australia, so I can’t tell you whether they’re looking at the return on investment that critics bring to the organization. But I’m going to take a guess and say that they’re not measuring it; few organizations do. On the face of it this looks reactionary, founded on a simple logic that negative opinion is correlated with less sales (even if that may not always be the case), or worse, simple tit for tat aggression. The critics who were “blacklisted” were genuine opera lovers, and from what I understand made their comments out of a genuine passion to see high quality opera, not to bring down the reputation of the organization.
The fact that it got this far says to me is that there were clear relationship issues, issues that didn’t have to progress to this point. Sadly, the public way in which it has transpired won’t help the situation, either for the critics or for the company.
And that’s why a better, measured approach is needed.