Think back to the late 90s, or even the mid 2000s. What fashion were you wearing? How did you communicate with your family and friends? How did you receive your news, or watch movies and television, or spend a typical day at work? (Answers may include chunky heels, flip phones, cable TV, in a cubicle, and DVDs.) A lot has changed in our everyday lives, even in the last decade. For the most part, we simply went with the flow and adapted to these changes. We had to.
Well, now think about the arts and culture sector. What has it been like for them to weather the changing times? What was it like for them to compete with the emergence of 24 hour entertainment? How must it have been for them to keep their doors open in the economic recession of 2008-2011? The arts and culture sector isn’t just in the business of creating innovative art and programming. They also create innovative business models. Why is that? Because like us, they must adapt in order to survive.
A sentiment one hears often is that that Portsmouth is experiencing growing pains. Our downtown is growing. Our demographics are changing. Our parking is inadequate. There are more community events than ever before, and right before our very eyes, long-time cultural institutions are changing.
What may seem like sudden and alarming change has actually been years in the making. Arts and cultural organizations realized, almost as soon as the Internet became an everyday presence in our lives, that competition for people’s attention and spending dollars was fierce. In the last decade, consumers have grown so accustomed to on-demand entertainment options that local bricks and mortar institutions had to figure not only how, but if they could remain viable.
Across the city, missions have been scrutinized, programming has been tweaked, schedules have been reconsidered, partnerships have been fine-tuned and staffing has been restructured as arts and cultural organizations adapted to the not-so-new normal. Many have survived and thrived; some have not fared as well. Some will continue to adapt and grow, and others will not make it still. The reality is that many arts and cultural organizations, in Portsmouth and across the nation, are in survival mode.
While our institutions were going through their changes, their audiences were along for the ride. Some long-time audience members and supporters have adapted to the changes, others have not. It’s very easy to understand why. Each of our cultural institutions has its own personality; its own feel and mission. People respond emotionally to some over others. That connection is a very personal and unique relationship between an institution and a supporter, so when shifts occur suddenly, or even over time, there can be a feeling of disappointment, even betrayal.
But at the end of the day, these are businesses like any other business. They are mission-driven and community focused businesses, but their very existence is tied to a bottom line, and many decisions are based on economics. Perhaps in this context, it is easier to understand how and why some adaptations have occurred. For example, why have some seasonal organizations extended their season? That is basic economics; more events mean more audiences and more audiences mean more revenue. Whether adding a few outdoor concerts to the shoulder season, or adding an entirely new off-season program, extending the season with dynamic programming and events can make a big difference in the economic health and vitality of an institution.
This may also provide context on why an organization may slowly shift its mission away from local and regional acts to concentrate on national and international acts. Competition is tight enough in Portsmouth as it is, so why not carve out a niche by bringing in global talent? Or, why not try and reach a new demographic with innovative programming ideas like a Red Light Series, or supplement a performance schedule with a Speaker’s Series?
Yes, some of the familiarity we have with these long-time institutions may feel a little different- but we can’t ask our organizations to stay frozen in time. We can’t expect them to remain the way we remember them because it comforts us. We must allow them to adapt for survival.
We live in a beautiful, vibrant city, thanks in large part to the dozens of arts and cultural organizations who choose to make Portsmouth their home. Hats off to any organization that tries new programming ideas, forms new partnerships, and seeks ways to bring something innovative to their audiences and supporters alike. Sometimes this pays off, sometimes it doesn’t, but in both scenarios, we learn something. As a city whose identity is synonymous with arts and culture, we should stand up and applaud our cultural community for having the vision and finding the resources to keep up with the changing times.