Can the “Church Business Model” Work for Arts Organizations?

November 16, 2011 § 1 Comment

I’m not religious, let’s just get that out there first.

But I was once a devoted weekly church-goer. Going with my sister for a couple hours every week to hear some music, listen to a guy talk about (mostly) positive things and say hello to friendly familiar faces. I didn’t support my church financially (unless you consider that I gave 10% of my $0 salary) but my sister and a large percentage of others in the church did, enough to keep the organization thriving and see some growth. The question was recently brought up that arts organizations should find a way to incorporate something about the church model to get their costumers to feel more like a connected community. Below, I’m going to try and pull out some of the things inherent in some churches and see what that would look like in an arts organization, purely in theory. Obviously one thing that arts organizations are missing is religion (the last I checked no one has been told they would burn in eternity if they missed out on Cosi fan Tutti, but I digress), so let’s just ignore that one facet for the moment and see if there is something else there that connects people or drives the model.

One thing that church has going for it is that it is essentially a free-to-play model (I went to a non-denominational church way back when, so I’m making all of my assumptions based on this). Many people go to church for years without paying, enjoying essentially the same benefits as everyone else that goes but are encouraged at anytime to help keep the organization going by donating a significant gift. Wouldn’t it be interesting to see an arts organization that refused to charge for tickets? This might completely bomb, but if the basic experience of some sort of performing art was completely free, you would have a hard time telling people that you weren’t there for the community. The organization would naturally need to adjust to the amount of funds that they get strictly from individuals and heavily depend on volunteers, but these are things that churches already rely on with success. We rely on the perks from donation level systems to get people to donate more, but to stay true to the model, we would have to insist that a donation only be something that is significant to that individual (and cross our fingers that 10% of their income is what they consider to be significant).

A church service usually happens that same time once or twice during the week and though you know the basics of what you’re going to get (music/sermon) you don’t know the specifics. This church-like organization that we are creating would have to do something similar. Maybe once a week isn’t feasible at first, but the same time, same place could benefit the "creation of a community" that happens with church. Also, following the model, patrons would come not necessarily knowing what was going to be produced, but knowing what kind of thing would be produced. The idea here is that if the art is consistently good, patrons would build trust with the performers/artistic direction and allow the art to surprise them week after week. This model also means that the art would need to be produced in a dedicated space. That isn’t necessarily a weird thing, many organizations have performances in the same place. It just means that, in going with the free-ticket thing I spoke of earlier, a fixed cost would need to be accounted for in order to keep the center of this community there.

Churches also have communities within the church that are built from people consistently coming. The more you go to a church, the more likely you are to build relationships within that community and continue to come in order to see how Fred and Lisa are doing with the kids or something along these lines. Some churches help push that along by having time before or after the sermon that is dedicated to meeting the other people from church. I’ve been to orchestra events that do this too, but not consistent ones. The idea here is to alot time every week that is specifically to make people socialize with each other (*bonus point: My church had free coffee before every service each week. I swear to…err….God that free coffee would easily get me to/through a weekly orchestra concert and make me talkative with people around me).

Now, do I think this would work?….Probably not, but I think it would be a fun experiment on the small scale. There are already some smaller groups that play for free in a space that isn’t specifically dedicated for that group, but nothing on the scale of a large theater, opera, or orchestra (to my knowledge). Surely there are aspects of church that I left out of this post that are integral to the experience (feel free to chime in) but really, the idea of building a connected community of patrons that appreciate the art and the atmosphere of the space where it is contained sounds like something to strive for.

-Zack

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