The New Paths of Connection in the World of Arts and Culture
The world of arts and culture is home to some of the most passionate communities there are. The experiences we have in this world inevitably shape who we all are today. That is the power of the magic and impact of arts and culture brands.
If you've ever purchased a ticket to an arts or cultural experience, odds are you did so through the Tessitura Network. Tessitura is the leading ticketing and CRM platform for nonprofit arts organizations. And in the age of Covid-19, few industries were impacted more significantly than the arts and culture business. The last two years challenged age-old norms of the industry and forced a reimagining of what the future can (and must) bring for these communities to thrive.
I sat down with someone who is on the front lines of this industry transformation, Andrew Recinos, president and CEO at Tessitura, to get his perspective on building communities in a world full of new realities.
Damian Bazadona: You recently stepped into the role of president and CEO at Tessitura, succeeding its co-founder who held the top spot for 20 years. When an organization is going through a sea change, what have you found to be most effective in keeping your community strong, connected and moving forward?
Andrew Recinos: Our co-founder, Jack Rubin, built a very successful, member-owned technology company. Sometimes a new CEO is brought in to tear it all down, but that isn't what Tessitura needed when I took over. The company is in solid shape. At the same time, we serve an industry that has been thrown into chaos by the pandemic, and we need to evolve rapidly to meet that challenge.
As a leader, I have tried to keep one eye on our core strengths and the other on innovating as quickly as possible to meet the ever-changing needs of our sector. That is the crux of how I have approached this leadership transition for our team and our members: We are the same Tessitura you know and trust, AND we are evolving in real time to support you.
As you were preparing to take over as CEO, you embarked on a nine-month, "listening tour" where you interviewed more than 100 of the leaders of the 750+ arts and culture institutions Tessitura supports. Why was this tour so important? And how critical has the (often not so) simple act of listening and vulnerability been in building and sustaining your own community?
On average, once a day I speak to the leader of a cultural organization that is part of the Tessitura community. My agenda is always a single question: "How's it going?" That one question can lead in countless directions. "What are you hearing in your community?" "How's your team?" "What is keeping you up at night?" "How can Tessitura help?"
Sometimes the calls become very specific discussions of Tessitura functionality. Sometimes the calls become philosophical ruminations on the future of arts and culture. Sometimes it is a free therapy session for one or both of us. I can't imagine doing this job without that daily touchpoint. It informs every decision I make, from technology direction, to service offerings, to our messaging.
Did you hear any overarching themes from these calls?
Yes, absolutely. I was so impressed by the sheer grit of arts and culture leaders right now. Leaders I spoke with consistently emphasized the importance of accepting the reality of their situation and being transparent with their teams. There was also a huge theme around caring for their teams when life and work both had such huge struggles. This, of course, was especially poignant as it was coupled with the economic reality of huge layoffs across the industry. To me, the most surprising insight—and I heard it many, many times—was that this time has become a moment of deep soul searching. The combination of the enforced pause and the existential nature of this crisis led many in our sector to turn inward and examine the "why" of their organization's work.
As we all know, arts and culture institutions were among the hardest hit during the pandemic. While some chose to stay shuttered until live experiences could return, many of the organizations you support chose to massively innovate how they engage with their audiences. What were some of the most creative and successful approaches that you saw? What do you think made them so successful with their communities?
The sheer innovation of cultural organizations is one of the great unsung stories of the pandemic. The successful ones had a ruthless focus on their core missions. The most exciting leaders I spoke with saw the pandemic not as a disaster that shut their doors, but as a grand challenge to continue bringing culture to their communities.
Just one of the many visionary leaders I spoke with is Zenetta Drew, executive director of Dallas Black Dance Theatre. They became the first major dance company to launch a paid digital dance season, within months of the shutdown. Unable to perform for a live audience, and uninterested in devaluing their work by offering it for free, they began a series of digital films featuring their dancers on rooftops, street corners and gardens around Dallas. They ended their pandemic fiscal year in the black, having touched thousands of new audience members around the world.
A nonprofit, digital CRM company might not typically be a place you'd think of having a deeply rooted, vast community, but you've made almost an art form out of connecting with the institutions you serve, as well as arts and culture as a whole. You continuously invent new technologies and services to better serve your community's needs—especially during the pandemic—and you host hundreds of events every year to bring together thousands of Tessitura users. Why has taking such a hands-on, communal approach to something that others might view through only a transactional lens been so important to how Tessitura functions?
Community is why we exist. Tessitura is more than a nonprofit, we are a member-owned nonprofit. We are a co-op. I report to a board made entirely of executives of Tessitura member organizations. In the earliest days, our "annual conference" was just 100 arts administrators in a room discussing and debating what the next features of the software should be. I don't know how you get more community than that.
Last August, we had 4,000 people from 10 countries at our virtual global conference. And while it (still!) includes discussions of new features, our gatherings have evolved to conversations large and small about arts, culture and innovation around the world. As an executive told me a few months ago, "The best thing about Tessitura is that you are us and we are you." I nearly wept. I can't imagine it any other way.
When the pandemic hit, one of Tessitura's core functions—helping arts and culture institutions sell tickets—came to an immediate halt. We know how devastating this was for the institutions themselves, but you've mentioned how traumatic it was for your own team as well. When going through such a massive and unexpected change as an organization, how do you keep morale alive? How do you grieve what is happening, but simultaneously reset the course and create hope for the future?
We are a fully work-from-home company, and always have been, with staff living in about 100 cities around the globe. In the second week of March 2020, on our internal company Slack channel, people started posting links, Tweets and press releases as Tessitura organizations began closing. The Slack room would ping about once a minute. New York. Closed. London. Closed. Miami. Sydney. Perth. Chicago. It was heartbreaking.
The closures were personally wrenching to the large portion of our team who are also active as musicians, actors, dancers, artists and scientists. And for the first 24 hours we just felt helpless. We all derive meaning by helping cultural organizations succeed, and we couldn't.
But then we did what we always do: We started listening to our members. The team watched the Tessitura member chat rooms and new helpdesk tickets and quickly saw a major trend emerging. Our organizations were forced to cancel hundreds of events and potentially give back millions of dollars of ticket revenue, which would have cratered their businesses. They were desperate to hang onto some of that revenue and started posing questions: "Can we ask the ticket buyer to turn that refund into a donation?" "Could we ask them to put that money on credit for a future performance?"
Well, those are smart and important questions, as there is nothing worse for an arts organization than giving back hard-earned revenue. What did they end up doing in response to the money being lost to cancellations?
That was the moment our team channeled the energy of despair into energy of innovation. Our engineering team quickly figured out that they could develop functionality that would present all refunding ticket buyers with a friendly option to donate or hold their money, rather than refunding it. Our team worked nights and weekends and, within six days, donations were rolling in. Nothing I could have said to the team would have improved morale as much as being able to genuinely help.
A few months later, we ran the numbers. That one utility allowed Tessitura organizations to retain more than $20 million in contributed revenue that otherwise would have been refunded. That was our first feature created in response to the pandemic. We would ultimately put out more than 40 others during the lockdown.
I truly appreciate your time for this interview, as I know you are knee deep in getting arts organizations back up and running across the globe. In closing, I would love you to complete the following question: "The future of passionate arts and culture communities looks _________."
Pervasive. When the early 2020s chapter of arts and culture history is written, I actually suspect that the biggest catalyst for change in the sector won't have been the pandemic, so much as the reckoning that resulted from the murder of George Floyd and the protests that followed. The story of arts and culture institutions has for so long been a story of haves and have-nots, with artificial barriers separating cultural experiences from society–geographic barriers, economic barriers, racial barriers. My greatest hope is that the energy that has been unleashed around equity will remove those barriers and lead us to a place where arts and culture is a meaningful part of every life.
Building Passionate Communities is a regular interview series where Damian Bazadona, president and founder of Situation Group, sits down with extraordinary leaders at organizations that have paved the way in both cultivating passionate communities and driving them to meaningful action. For more about Building Passionate Communities, or to be considered for the series, please get in touch.