Do you present performing arts in a small community? You could learn a lot from two dynamic (dynamos, more like it) volunteer presenters from the little town of Burns Lake (population about 2,800) in Northern British Columbia, Canada.
I had the pleasure of speaking with John and Sandra Barth who head up Lakes District Arts Council, a young arts presenting organization that puts on about seven performances each season.
What the Barths have accomplished in a few short years is quite simply remarkable and they’ve done it by being just that, remarkable.
- Market size: 2,800 local plus another 4–5,000 in region
- Average audience: 220 (50% local / 50% region)
- Most common age range of audience: 45+
- Annual Budget: Less than $60,000
- Amount spent on artist fees and artist travel per season: about $30,000
- Amount spent on Marketing: $1,500 for promo/advertising / $2,450 programs and materials
The Lakes District Arts Council has gone from zero to 220 audience members in just a few short years. The town of Burns Lake had no performing arts presenter in 2005. Along came John, a retired school district administrator and Sandra, a retired school principal with a truckload full of enthusiasm and spark.
They treat their roles as volunteer president and treasurer as though they were running a small for-profit company. Getting about 220 people to each performance in a community this small is nothing short of stunning.
But how do they do it?
They stressed—very emphatically—that it all starts with booking only the highest quality artists they can afford. Without that, you may as well not even bother. But once booked you then need to market them.
Everywhere they go in town and whoever they meet, they will discuss the upcoming season or an upcoming show and share their enthusiasm for how great it is going to be. Some people say to them “but you always say they’ll be great” to which they ask back “but they always are, are they not?” and the other person usually agrees.
They take part in local community events such as Canada Day celebrations where they hand out over 500 flyers announcing the next season or by attending the Rotary Club lunch with a young student who is there to share the impact that the service organization’s sponsorship program of the arts council’s shows has on him and his family.
The connections happen all the time.
Sandra and John will send handwritten notes to sponsors following the performances, thanking them for their support and providing them with the positive feedback they’ve received from audiences and artists alike. They stand outside greeting and saying goodbye to audience members, as they enter and leave the performance space.
They are “marketing” all the time but whereas you may think this could become fake or perceived as phony, think again. It is always genuine because they both believe deeply in what they are doing and are incredibly passionate about it, to their core. They are so passionate and convinced of the great product they have to sell that one of their regular audience members jokes that when she sees them coming, it’s like they are promoting a religion.
Along with all the personal, one-on-one marketing activities, they also employ other more traditional methods. With print, they put out about 100 posters around town in businesses and schools and they create a season brochure which gets placed in key areas as well as always being in John and Sandra’s hands for when they run into people.
They advertise regularly in the local weekly newspaper. They have a very good relationship with the paper, which often covers stories of the concerts and prints excerpts from their contributed e-mail newsletter, promoting Arts Council and other community arts and cultural events. The follow-up stories are just one more way of building the awareness. They also advertise in other organization’s publications.
In the digital realm, they use their website for listing the upcoming season. It’s very simple, but it works for them. Their biggest tool is their email list. This is used extensively to stay in touch with members throughout the year.
At the end of every season, they start promoting next year’s season. To do this, they need to be organized enough by having the next season booked. This is common with large presenters but for small, volunteer-based presenters it can be a challenge. John and Sandra are always on the lookout for artists that would appeal to their audience. They book them well in advance of their current season ending so they can create some expectation for the next year.
Connecting the dots. It’s about personal connection. It’s connecting all the dots. It’s about recognizing the dots can connect. So many arts presenters don’t see how everything they do can connect in some way with their community. John and Sandra get this and they live it and breathe it and the results are remarkable.
Do you have any tactics you can share that work in your community?