The performing arts in Europe get substantial government subsidies. Yet the performing arts in America thrive with minimal government support. How? Part of the answer can be found in the story of a partnership between a major foundation executive and a master promoter. Their story is entrepreneurial, and uniquely American, and its impact is seen today in nearly every city in America, as well as around the world.
Imagine a foundation executive attempting to revolutionize the economics of an entire field. Now imagine that foundation executive being successful beyond his own lofty dreams.
The year is 1961 and the executive is W. McNeil Lowry, vice president of the Ford Foundation and head of its arts and humanities division. From his perch he saw the nonprofit performing arts, especially theater, lagging behind in America’s postwar expansion.
Few performing arts organizations had any staying power—most were heavily dependent on ticket sales, yet box office hits were inevitably few and far between. Many of those companies simply went out of business because of the unpredictability of hit shows—a dynamic that discouraged artistic experimentation.
As the Ford Foundation’s point man for the arts, Lowry was troubled by this bind and began searching for a solution. He believed the problem was with the economics, not with the artists, and sought to shift the financial pressures that were stunting the growth of art organizations. He found his solution in Danny Newman, a public relations dynamo at the Lyric Opera of Chicago.
Newman’s approach was nothing if not simple-sell as many season subscriptions as possible, whether it was for theater, symphonic music, opera, or dance.
Then, instead of marketing each show individually, Newman packaged the entire season together, months in advance of its opening night. If you wanted prime seats for the most popular repertoire offerings then you would also have to buy the rest of the season, including the new and unfamiliar. You were rewarded for your loyalty with good seats and the opportunity to renew or upgrade them year after year. Those who spurned buying a subscription risked getting poor seats, or getting none at all.
Today, Newman’s subscription marketing ideas are commonplace. If you want good tickets for the Washington Redskins vs. Dallas Cowboys game, you have to buy the entire season as a subscription package. Your desire to see the Cowboys ensures that the Redskins will also sell out the less desirable games.
Spreading the Gospel
Yet in 1961, few knew of Newman’s subscription successes in Chicago. Happily, McNeil Lowry did, and he persuaded Newman to speak at a Ford Foundation-sponsored theater conference. Outside of New York’s Broadway commercial theater and its tours, America had very little professional theater. In 1961 there were but four nonprofit professional theater companies in the entire country, with community and nonprofessional theaters making up the remainder.
But where others viewed the theater scene outside of New York City as a vast wasteland, Lowry saw potential, and he began to envision a professional theater company in every major city in America, devoted to a high-level repertoire.
Lowry was prepared to back this vision with Ford Foundation dollars, but the theaters he would fund then had to support themselves via contributions and sales. That, in turn, meant a fundamental change in the way they sold tickets. And Lowry was betting that bringing Danny Newman to the Ford Foundation theater conference would be the start of the change.
Of the meeting, Newman recalls, “I was initially met with tremendous skepticism. On hand were the few nonprofit theater professionals, plus leaders of university and civic theaters. Most came in thinking that maybe 10 percent of their tickets should be sold by subscription, with the rest kept available for the general public.”
“I asked, ‘What general public? They’re the ones who disdain your new and challenging works and won’t come if there are mixed reviews or if there’s a chance of rain in the forecast. Relying on them for your ticket sales ensures eventual financial ruin, as it is impossible for every show to be a hit. Subscribers, on the other hand, are loyal as long as the artists do a good job. Subscribers grow to understand your work, with many becoming donors and board members.’ I told those gathered that subscribers should be the overwhelming audience element. It caused quite a stir.”
The very next day, the nascent Theater Communications Group-which Lowry had founded-was deluged with calls asking for Newman’s help. Lowry and Ford then named him their audience development consultant, sending him across the country to spread the gospel of subscription sales.
Lowry’s vision of a professional theater in every major city was starting to come true; virtually every resident theater that came into existence throughout the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s received Newman’s assistance-at no charge. In addition to funding Newman’s consulting, Lowry also backed some theaters with significant funding, including-in some cases-challenge grants for new playhouses.
The talents of American artists were finally being nourished in American organizations. In the 1960s, the country went from four professional theater companies to approximately 100. Today there are well over 300.
Professional opera and dance companies and performing arts centers also grew like topsy during this period, as Newman indoctrinated them into his subscription building methods. Newman crisscrossed the country, consulting for hundreds of arts groups, earning himself the nickname “Danny Appleseed.” The seeds that took root under his guidance are now mature trees, bearing artistic fruit in nearly every American city.
Salesman, Missionary, Technician . . . and Philanthropist
But the story doesn’t end there. Just as Newman predicted, those new subscribers became trustees, volunteers, and donors. Some subscribers were connected with foundations or corporate giving programs and advocated funding their favored arts organizations. Newman also stressed the importance of getting current subscribers to persuade their friends and neighbors to subscribe, making for a network of relationships that proved ideal when annual campaign time rolled around.
Newman’s methods are described in his classic book Subscribe Now!. Written in 1977, the book is in use in 31 countries and is in its tenth printing. Now in his 80s, Newman can still whip a skeptical board of directors, an overworked staff, and a weary group of volunteers into a crackerjack subscription sales force. Of Newman, the Ford Foundation’s Lowry once said, “this salesman, missionary, and technician was at bottom a philanthropist.”
Newman, in turn, credits Lowry with being “the great visionary of the American performing arts.” A generation after their collaboration, our cultural landscape is profoundly different. The artists themselves deserve much of the credit for this change. But so, too, do the two men who revolutionized the funding of the performing arts in America.
Patrick Dewane is director of insitutional advancement at the Children’s Theatre Company in Minneapolis, Minnesota, and teaches in the arts management graduate program at St. Mary’s University of Minnesota.