by Jon W. Sparks
Running a nonprofit is nothing like running a business, except when it is.
Ned Canty is acutely aware of that, having been at the helm of Opera Memphis since 2011. He jumped aboard as general director, which, as he notes, meant having to answer to everyone about both business and artistic aspects. “The artistic is why we exist — the fun part,” he says. “But the majority of the job is the CEO part, thinking strategically about the company and trying to make sure we’re flexible and strong enough to grow but also to weather whatever kinds of changes and tsunamis might happen.”
Such as the recession of 2008.
“I don’t think anybody in any arts organization across the country was prepared for it,” he says. “I’m lucky I didn’t start running a nonprofit until after the recession had already established itself and people realized it was going to hold on. I’ve always had to think about the CEO parts of the job: the audience, growing it, meeting the needs of customers and supporters. You have to think about every choice that is made and you have to know things, like the idea of finding a new customer is many times more expensive than keeping an old one.”
Canty loves opera, but hasn’t been a lifelong fan, a fact he thinks works in his favor.
He came into opera’s embrace in his 20s, but before that, had only attended one opera in college. “When you grow up in opera, you love it so much that you can’t imagine others having a fulfilled life without it,” he says. “If you have never questioned it, then you’re stymied in a certain way. That’s one reason the presentation I frequently give is called ‘Opera Doesn’t Suck.’ I talk about how great opera is, but for the vast majority of people, that’s not what they believe. There are people who might come and see the opera you love and just not love it. That’s okay. If a person goes to a movie and doesn’t like that movie, they don’t say, ‘I’m done with movies, I’m never going to another movie.’”
Opera is a hard sell, so Canty uses the language of business to promote the creative arts. “I think as a CEO in determining if there’s still a market for what we’ve been selling for 60 years.”
He knows that the expertise of the organization in mounting grand operas isn’t enough to sustain it. “We’re the only fully produced professional opera for hours in any direction,” he says. “If we can do that, and we know it will cost x, and the ticket revenue will be y, then we need to think about a different product that has a different cost to produce and a different cost for the audience.”
The need to cultivate a new customer base prompted Canty to turn things upside down. Soon after he arrived, he was proposing what would become 30 Days of Opera, a monthlong series of daily performances all around the city, from predictable venues to unlikely pop-up arias presented at farmers markets and busy intersections.
Before he came aboard, he says, “A majority of our time, effort, and energy was spent trying to get a couple of thousand people to come and see a show for two hours. What if, instead of just doing that, we’d take a small amount of money and try to get 50,000 people to experience opera for 10 minutes? It’s sampling, and that’s the oldest strategy in the book.”
It worked. The community delights in it and the idea has gotten national attention plus a couple of generous NEA grants. Opera Memphis will do it again this year for the sixth time.
The company has diversified in other ways as well. “If we were in business, we’d say we had three product lines,” Canty says. “We’ve still got our grand opera with an audience and we’re proud of how we do it and the level at which we do it.
“Then we have 30 Days of Opera, an entirely different proposition because it’s free,” he says, but purposeful as well as a way to cultivate sponsorships, donations, and philanthropy to support the idea that free art of quality improves the life of everybody.
“We also have this new line with the Midtown Opera Festival,” Canty says, “with pieces that are smaller in scope and that don’t require the same outlay for musicians and people and costumes and sets. That doesn’t just mean we can save money, but we can charge less.”
The different approaches also allow experimentation. For example, in the first year of 30 Days, Opera Memphis staged The Playground King, an original production that youngsters and parents could enjoy on different levels.
That encouraged similar programming as well as marketing to families for other productions, such as the upcoming Pirates of Penzance in February, with a Pirate Festival and various family activities during the opera’s run.
Canty is mindful of the time the Memphis Grizzlies were named the best sports franchise in America by ESPN in 2013. “That was a revelation,” he says. “It wasn’t because they were the biggest or the best funded or had the longest track record of winning, because they didn’t. They were the best because they were the best for their fans, the best value. I want Opera Memphis to be the best at satisfying our patrons and meeting the needs of our city that make it a better place.”
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