At it's most basic level what we are trying to do is use everything at our disposal, from artistic choice to the way we generate revenue, to create meaningful differences.
The hope is that these meaningful differences will cause people to purchase our paintings, downloads our songs and buy tables at our gala events.
The key is, of course is the word meaningful, so let's consider it.
Are you ambidextrous?
Probably not. Most estimates say that less then 3% of the population are equally skillful with each hand.
But still, imagine if you were.
That's a difference. By it's very definition, people who are ambidextrous are not like everybody else.
Now imagine you are applying for a job as a website designer. They ask you to highlight what makes you an unique fit for the job. You say: "I'm ambidextrous." Eyebrows would raise and rightfully so. You presented a difference that may have great meaning for you but very little meaning to the people you are trying to engage with.
I'm at an event. Hundreds of artists and reps are arts orgs are present. I'm talking to a lot of them. I'm probing. I'm trying to discern areas of meaningful difference. In a somewhat frenzied attempt to distinguish themselves from the masses they keep trying to slice the proverbial apple very thin:
This particular acting ensemble is full of attractive, competent performers but they went to School X, not School Y and that makes all the difference.
Sure, there are a lot of dance companies, but this one is filled with passionate dancers . . . not like those other places that are filled with hacks going through the motions.
Very thin slices.
Entire careers are being staked on these very thin slices.
I've joked with my friends that having a career as an individual artist, or running an arts organization, is like running for President. On one level it requires an almost unthinkable level of optimism and self confidence. On another level it requires the sort of blunt, reality based thinking that you need to grind your way through the primaries and to those 270 electoral votes.
Being an artist requires both a solid belief in your own abilities and the wisdom to regard everything (including yourself, especially yourself) with a critical eye. A key part of that wisdom comes from asking yourself and those around you this question:
What is meaningfully different about this artistic project/organization?
Is it our artistic process?
Is it the way we engage with the community?
Is it the way we generate revenue?
Is it the way we train our artists?
You've got to come up with answers to those questions and be brutal in your assessment of them. Your BS radar has to be turned way up.
What if your honest answer to the "what's meaningful different" question is that there really isn't much difference?
Well that's the moment that you need to stop and think about what differences you are willing to create.
If I could make any of my fellow artists and artists orgs who are struggling do just one thing, it would be asking the meaningful difference question. It's a question that can change everything.
Reminder: Chicago marketing workshop coming soon. It shall be awesome. Details here