“I guess in all my years, what I heard more than anything was: a town of less than 50,000 population cannot support a discount store for very long.”
To start off this post with a quote from Sam Walton, the King of Wal-Mart, is something I am loathe to do. As readers of my old blog, Theatre Ideas, know three of my most-read posts were called “The Wal-Marting of the American Theatre Part 1, 2, and 3,” in which I use Wal-Mart as a metaphor for everything that is wrong with the theatre. Nevertheless, Sam Walton’s battle is our own.
Conventional wisdom told Walton that a discount store in a small community wouldn’t be financially viable, and he proved them wrong. He did so by examining the business model and creating one that worked. Yes, part of that involved low wages and no benefits, but truth be told rural stores had been following that business model for decades on a small scale. No, what Walton did was lower prices by centralizing purchasing and leveraging the power of bulk buying, and devising a shipping system that kept his stores well-stocked with a wide variety of goods.
Similarly, conventional wisdom in the arts seems to be that in order to survive economically, arts organizations need to be in cities. An examiniation of the professional theatres in the Theatre Communications Group database, for instance, show that nearly 60% of all TCG member theatres are in counties over 500,000, while 96% of American counties have populations of fewer than 500,000. This urbanization of the arts has many negative effects, not the least of which is the lack of support for the National Endowment for the Arts. Most Americans value the arts, but most Americans have little access to them!
This project is focused on small and rural communities. When I initially submitted the grant to the NEA, I used communities with less 100,000 as the cutting-off point (thus, <100K Project). However, the longer I work on these ideas, the more I think that number needs to be lowered even further.
The business model I am developing rests on an arts organization being deeply embedded in the community, with roots in personal connections and broad involvement. While I will go into greater detail in later posts about the business model, the question in my mind that pertains to this post is at what point a community becomes too large for that sort of connection to be developed by a small staff. I don’t want to rely on advertising, but rather personal connection and word-of-mouth. That requires face-to-face communication.
One way to approach this might be to reverse conventional wisdom: start in the smaller communities to develop the model, and then gradually expand to larger communities. Perhaps start by choosing as protoypes communities under 25,000 and go from there.
In invite input, but I suspect that a real solid discussion will be enhanced by more detail about the business model. That will come next.
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