Alan Brown (San Francisco, USA), the head of WolfBrown company and a world-class consultant of cultural organisations, has recently visited Lithuania and the team of Kaunas 2022. The well-known expert of the art industry gave a give a scientific talk at the Vytautas Magnus university and met many of the culture field specialists. During his stay, A. Brown also agreed to answer a few questions about his experience in the US and the contemporary trends in culture programming.

Welcome to Kaunas, Alan. As you’re been invited here by the Kaunas – European Capital of Culture 2022 team, we must first ask what you think of the ECoC concept in general.

It’s my first time in Lithuania! I’m brand new to the community. Also to the European capitals of culture – I’ve heard of the idea before but we do not have this in the US. I think it’s a wonderful program that gives an opportunity for a city to really come together and develop itself and create a stronger identity. I think we should do it in the US!
For Kaunas, I think it’s opportunity to develop a new creative capacity in the community, to come together around an idea or an artistic impulse of some kind. I’d also encourage the team to start now in developing this new creative muscle and to show real creative leadership. It doesn’t necessarily mean bringing in outside people but rather developing what’s here. I know that’s very difficult, because in any community like this you have people running art organisations who are maybe not thinking that they need help. So, the most difficult thing Kaunas 2022 has to do is to bring the cultural community into a learning process.
A lot of cultural institutions in Lithuania, same as in other countries in the region, are state-owned and funded. Hence, people working there see little reason in trying harder. What is your experience in dealing with that? What is the right way of talking to the institutions?

I think this is very difficult to create organisational culture of entrepreneurship, risk-taking when you have little motivation to take risks because you know you have a budget for next year. In the US, everyone wishes we had more state support, and there’s a very good argument for that. But we have this ecosystem of private support which is very competitive. It has benefits, for example, theatres in the US, if they have a very successful new play, it will transfer to Broadway and make them millions and millions of dollars.
Everyone understands that you cannot be complacent, you cannot rely on old formulas. The world is changing, no matter whether you’re in Kaunas or London. People are changing. Public tastes in art are constantly changing because of demographic changes and media. Today, art travels at the speed of light and we cannot stop that. The environment in which organisations operate is changing so rapidly and it’s sometimes difficult to understand what is changing, because it’s very subtle.
Young people need more visual stimulation, for example. Public interest is shifting towards interdisciplinary artistic work that blends together, dance and music… Look what’s happening on television. This is what’s so frightening to many artists and art administrations – the reality TV is driving public taste in art. You turn on “X-Factor” or “America’s got talent” and you’re seeing some hip-hop dance and some opera and some clowning. It’s a variety show. The public sees this and they like it, even if they don’t know what it’s called. It doesn’t matter for them. And, meanwhile, we have institutions defined around very narrow definitions of art, which are no longer useful to the public. There’s tension between the environment and the institutional structures in our communities. Most arts managers want to be relevant, they really do, so I like to give the benefit of the doubt that even in nationally funded organizations there’s a great need for risk-taking and change.
Will there be place for traditional institutions such as concert halls and theatres in the future?
Oh, yes, absolutely. I don’t see this as a choice between classical culture and contemporary culture. We need to celebrate our cultural heritages. The theatre will always need Shakespeare. But also, Shakespeare’s contemporary reinterpretations. I don’t see is as an either/or.
I think much is changing in the US because of arts education in schools. It’s… almost gone. You have adults graduating from college with very little exposure to the arts.
Doesn’t that mean the culture instutions then have to take up the role of educators?
Yes, more and more, and this is controversial. Some professionals believe art needs no explanation and speaks for itself. I totally disagree with that. The public seeks insight into the work because they have not had the training. So, when they go to see ballet, they need help enjoying it. What should they look for? What is significant about a particular piece? I think art groups have a huge obligation to help the public appreciate the work.
I’ve done a lot of market research for theatres, particularly around audience engagement. Most theatres spend a lot of resources hosting post-performance discussions in the premises. Actually, the primary way that theatre audiences make meaning of the work is by talking about it on the way home. So, if you are a theatre, how would you encourage people to converse with each other on their way home? Maybe you should just publish a list of questions in your programme that people can take home and ask each other? Not answers, just questions. Maybe you go to the website and learn more. This is very important.
What is the role of social media in your research and work?
A number of institutions have opted into an ongoing study by my company – this is what we do, we give tools to art groups in order to investigate their own data. The results talk for themselves. Younger audiences are inseparable from social networks and smartphones, so there’s simply no better way to reach them. There’s a generational change happening in the role of social media, it’s very much age-driven. Kids between 18 and 24 of age spend more than 3 hours on their smartphones. Even middle-aged people nowadays tend to buy tickets on their smartphones, too. So, you have to have a mobile-optimised website. You have to have the capacity to sell tickets on phones if you want to be relevant to younger people.
Beyond that, some playwrights are starting to create work that takes place in social media. I think this is maybe the most provocative trend in participation – the blurring line between fact and fiction. Young people are very comfortable jumping from fantasy into reality.
Another topic we would like to touch with you is sponsorship. How do we help companies see the value of investing in culture?

There are so many different approaches to that! Some corporations encourage their employees to take up volunteer positions in cultural organisations and they give them time off and celebrate their stewardship in community work. It contributes to leadership, particularly with junior-level executives. Then there are the marketing sponsorships when it’s really just about exposure. The evaluation of that is very much in how many impressions do we make and that’s very transactional. And then you have the philanthropic side of the corporate which is also very rare, that’s basically corporations making donations. More typically they’ll buy a table in the annual gala benefit and will have their name mentioned. I think in the US, on average, corporate support is maybe 5% of budgets It really favours the larger organisations because they have the corporate executives on their boards. Smaller companies very rarely support arts.
Do you think they could?
In some communities in the US, there are consolidated corporate fundraising campaigns. For maybe 3 months a year, arts groups are forbidden from raising money individually through corporations, and all the corporations are asked to give to a central fund to support all of the cultural institutions. It’s helpful to some companies because it allows them to say “ok, check, I did my gift”, and then the rest of the year they say “no”. This allows corporations who would never support an individual company to make a gift to the whole community. And then you have to divide up all that money among the organizations. Many arts groups really hate that because it’s very democratic! The big organizations feel like they can get more money if they do it themselves.
So, I think it’s difficult for small companies to support culture unless there’s some direct benefit. I would love to see more cultural organisations do projects with corporations, helping build creativity. There’s a few programmes in the US like that. Some jazz ensembles work with corporations and teach them teamwork and improvising and teaching skills. Theatres work with corporations to help people develop speaking skills. These are very practical things, right? Dance organisations can help people learn to present their bodies and how to stand correctly. So, there’s a lot that could be done but the problem is that in the US the arts organizations, the relationship with the corporate sector has been very supplicant. Like, please, give money, please, buy tickets. There hasn’t been a really authentic exchange. An organization should think about what assets it has to help a company become a more successful business.
Let’s talk about the role of media in the relationship between a cultural institution and its audience. There has been a significant decline in the quality of art criticism – how do we cope with this?

In the US, we have been seeing an extraordinary decline of journalism in general. I see the absence of good art criticism as a strategic threat to the whole sector, because the media plays an absolutely critical role in stimulating the public participation. How do we recreate criticism? Arts organisations are conflicted; they only want positive criticism. I believe theatres should send at least two reviews of a show to their audience members. Not one, at least two, because everyone has different reactions to art and everyone’s reactions are legitimate. The arts organizations need to actually take this up and invite criticism and train critics, maybe even invite them from abroad to Kaunas to teach criticism to young writers.
This could actually be another leg of the Kaunas 2022 effort – to foster local capacity for criticism, because it will only stimulate public interest. The art groups will never want negative reviews, of course, but negative criticism serves an important role in public discourse about art. It builds public appetite! Most people are very much interested to hear what other people think.
Photo: R. Ščerbauskas