Hey, Arts Programmers: Um, There’s an Election…

Have you heard about the election? I mean, it's all over the news. And are you factoring the election into your programming?


Ah, December: when the snow falls (election), when the bears hibernate (primaries), when the alte kakers fly down to Florida or Arizona or Costa Rica or some other warm place (ack, Trump) and Criminy! The 2020-21 budget of your arts nonprofit is due in a few months!

Did you know there’s an election going on in the US? No, really — it’s been in all the papers. It even takes up a lot of pixels on this here Clyde Fitch Report.

This election promises to be a doozy. It will flood the airwaves, social media and every conversation from now through Jan. 20, 2021. This election will be nasty, loud, obnoxious, inspiring, hopeful, and nobody will be entirely happy with its results. Just like last time.

And your 2020-21 budget is due in a few months. Maybe less.

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Lalalalalalalalalalala! (Photo: Morton Devonshire.)

Well, there are three general ways to program your nonprofit arts organization in the cacophony of the quadrennial election cycle:

Counter-programming. Also known as “Put your fingers in your ears and continually say “Lalalalala” and program like any other year. This is the option that most artistic directors and general directors use. Usually included in this option are all of the following:

    1. Hammer-locking your marketing and development team into wild-ass increases in their budgets. Face it: you do this every year, and you base it not on history or facts, but on spending. This year, however, isn’t it a bit absurd to forecast increases when competing with so much yelling? It’s hard to justify prodigious pecuniary profusions for your fall production of Pericles, Pippin, Pagliacci or Petrushka when the airwaves are permeated with persistent, prodigious pieces of piercing pomposity.
    2. Programming performances or exhibits on ridiculous days, like the entire two-week period that starts a week before the election, and the week around Inauguration Day. It should go without saying that you shouldn’t program an event on Super Bowl Sunday, Christmas, Thanksgiving, New Year’s Day or Independence Day. If you do, you’re probably doing so because you don’t care about football, because you’re always looking for something to do on Christmas, Thanksgiving or Jan. 1 (New Year’s Eve is another matter), and maybe because you hate America. The week before the election will be as cantankerous a week as there ever has been and, for the most part, the week after the election will be like a hangover of many-tequila-shots proportions, either by celebrating or crying. If a new president is elected, the week around Inauguration Day will be must-see TV, which obviously means anything else will be Won’t See, unless grand parties abound. Do you really think that your arts organization’s programming can compete will all of that chaos?
    3. Telling your board, the press and your aforementioned revenue team that your artistic choices serve as an alternative to that mean, old nasty election. “People will come here because there’s so much noise going on,” you’ll say. This is akin to a 1962 quote from Yogi Berra on the prospect of eating at a popular local restaurant:

Aw, nobody ever goes there anymore. It’s too crowded.

You too can be a part of it! And so can your underwear! (Photo: Mike Licht, NotionsCapital.com.)

Election programming. This option is second-most popular. It includes the programming of pieces with a political bent. In theater, maybe you’re producing Gore Vidal’s The Best Man or the Gershwins’ Of Thee I Sing! Maybe your opera company is offering Nixon in China. Maybe your dance company has created a new set of pieces surrounding the nature of voting, with dancers undulating under, over, around and through little voting booths, set to Springsteen’s Born in the USA. Usually included in this option are the first and second items from the list above, but also:

4. See? My company cares about what’s going on! We’re going to be part of it! Not only that, but with people so focused on the election, I can give them context to the day’s events! This is a win-win situation: people will want to know more about American politics, given the environment! They’ll want to see it on stage! It’ll be all-election, all the time — people will love that! If I use enough exclamation points, I might believe it myself!

While this would seem the opposite of the “alternative programming” argument above, it’s not. Just as the opposite of love isn’t hate but indifference, the opposite of alternative programming is not immersive. Rather, it’s the absence of programming. Which leads us nicely to the third option:

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At least between Labor Day and Inauguration Day 2021. Photo: Creative Commons.

C. Getting the f**k out of the way. This is the least popular option and almost never used on purpose. Sometimes, dates just work out in the right way, but not often. In this option, no programming whatsoever occurs during October and November (except the beginning of holiday programming at the end of November). With Labor Day acting as the traditional beginning of the “home stretch” of the election, perhaps you can avoid September as well, although that may mean that your company will need to extend programming later than usual.

The alternative is cutting expenses with the reduction of income, which is a difficult task even in the best of times.

Speaking of the best of times, many of your donors who live in that magic land of the 1% are going to be giving heavily to political candidates — not just the ones running for the presidency. Remember that as you seek gifts from them. If you can test your nonprofit in some manner to determine whether it is indispensable — and therefore, invaluable to each donor — you’ll have a better chance to convince them to increase their donations in light of the tidal wave of political fearmongering-led campaigns to donate to any of the billionaires running for office.

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There are always challenges programming around holidays, festivals and local traditions. If, for example, your organization is in Pasadena, CA, near Colorado Boulevard, you do not program during the first week of the year or the last week of the year. There is a certain rose-oriented parade route that will always win the day over whatever you could possibly program. People would pass on tickets to The Coming of the Messiah (which is not a play — I mean, the actual coming of the Messiah) to catch a glimpse of the Dole Packaged Foods float, “Sunshine For All.”

Election-time programming is no different. It is no easy trick. For the greatest chance at success, you are going to want to keep those fingers from your ears. Do not fall prey to programming outside your wheelhouse or scope or mission. Most of all: listen to your customer base — ticket buyers and donors. You still have a few weeks before the 2020-21 season budget is due! This election is not like any previous election — it really isn’t — and you don’t want to be caught with your programming pantaloons at your tootsies.