How Audiences Are Like The Electorate

Now that the election is drawing to a close, I think all non-profit arts organizations, especially those in battleground states, should go out tomorrow and ask media companies for donations. There has been so much money spent on advertising during the campaigns, those companies are going to have a big tax burden this year if they don’t find some worthy cause to donate to!

Alas, Hawaii is not one of those states. Neither presidential candidate visited this year even though rumor has it one of them was born here. While we did have a 2 term Republican governor, the state is pretty solidly Democratic. The State Senate has 24 Democratic members and 1 Republican.

Voting participation is so bad, CNN did a long study about why the state is dead last.

This where “all politics are local” comes in. There are some situations characteristic only of Hawaii. There isn’t another state where a sizable part of the population views statehood as the result of an illegal overthrow of the monarchy and won’t vote because they feel it legitimizes the occupation government.

Due to the distance from the rest of the continental US, a person living in Hawaii can actually hear the winner of a national election called by 5 pm local time, providing less incentive to vote. (Though Alaska is in the same situation and has 8th highest voter turnout.)

Two things I took away from the CNN article that applies to the arts.

First, the importance of giving people an opportunity to talk about their experiences. I mention engaging people in conversation about their experiences with the arts pretty consistently in the blog, but the CNN article shows it in action.

A group canvassing neighborhoods trying to get people engaged and signed to vote didn’t get much traction with conventional survey questions, but when they asked what was personally important…

“…At least she’d have to look at us before saying no.

Do you vote?


Would you like to register?


Last-ditch effort: Is there an issue important to you?

The volunteers explained that Kanu is asking candidates questions based on the issues identified by the people they meet while canvassing. If the candidates addressed her concern, they told her, they’d report back.

“Oh!” the woman said. I could almost hear her tongue loosening.

She launched into her life story….

…The volunteers asked again. Wouldn’t you like to vote? Your voice could be heard.

After some discussion, the woman, Marlene Joshua, 58, said yes.

The other lesson I came away with is that simply inviting people to attend a show could possibly be surprisingly effective.

“He never cast a ballot himself until age 34. No one had ever asked him to, he said, and politics just wasn’t something he thought much about…. But then, in 2010, he saw a link to Kanu’s website shared via Twitter. He clicked it and found a page that asked him to make a pledge to vote for the first time.

For whatever reason, he said yes. That decision was the start of an incredible transformation. It led to his current hobby: spending weekends convincing other people that their votes matter.”

and in another part of the article:

Michelson, from Menlo College in California, told me that some groups — racial minorities, recent immigrants and residents of low-income neighborhoods — don’t feel like people who are supposed to vote in U.S. elections. But if you ask them to participate, she said, that can all change.

“It doesn’t really matter what you say. It doesn’t really matter who asks you,” she said. “The important thing is the personal invitation to participate.”

We know that like people in these groups, there are those who also don’t feel like they are the type of people who go to see live performances. Changing that mindset may start with something as simple as a personal invitation. That gesture at least starts to confirm that they are perceived as the type of person who attends a live performance.

About Joe Patti

I have been writing Butts in the Seats (BitS) on topics of arts and cultural administration since 2004 (yikes!). Given the ever evolving concerns facing the sector, I have yet to exhaust the available subject matter. In addition to BitS, I am a founding contributor to the ArtsHacker ( website where I focus on topics related to boards, law, governance, policy and practice.

I am also an evangelist for the effort to Build Public Will For Arts and Culture being helmed by Arts Midwest and the Metropolitan Group. (

My most recent role was as Executive Director of the Grand Opera House in Macon, GA.

Among the things I am most proud are having produced an opera in the Hawaiian language and a dance drama about Hawaii's snow goddess Poli'ahu while working as a Theater Manager in Hawaii. Though there are many more highlights than there is space here to list.


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