Yesterday I wrote about the need for grace in the face of criticism. It must have struck a chord with some folks because the traffic to that post exploded (I am sure a great deal of credit goes to Thomas Cott, though.)
Today I wanted to touch upon the equally frustrating, but much more gratifying “that was amazing, too bad more people weren’t there,” event.
To be clear, this isn’t the show that your staff and arts insiders from your community thought was excellent for its artistic quality. This is the show at which 100 regular members of the community filtered into your 550 seat theater and absolutely loved it.
You know they loved it because right at intermission as you move to use a urinal a total stranger thanks you for taking the time to visit his group and tell them about the show.
(If you are a guy, understand just how much he must have loved the show that he couldn’t adhere to the unspoken rules about not holding a conversation with a stranger at the urinals.)
You know they loved it because strangers keep coming up to you at restaurants and supermarkets for weeks later to tell you how excited they were.
Not to mention the social media conversations that you may catch.
This is the type of reaction that makes a career in the arts worthwhile. Few other professions get this sort of heartfelt thanks.
Except, you know, you would probably be okay trading a “that was awesome” for “that wasn’t bad” if it meant having 300-400 more people in the audience.
That brings me to the real purpose of this post, which is to ask a question.
There is some received wisdom that once people learn they can trust your organization to provide a quality experience, they will be more willing to take a risk on unknown and unfamiliar shows.
So my question is, is that really true? Can anyone point to a case where their local community grew to trust their judgement and attended unfamiliar events in sustainable numbers based on faith?
I am not talking simply about growing an audience. I increased attendance at dance concerts when I was in Hawaii. But that was more about marketing and making dance programs and schools more aware of performances and talking to them about what we were planning for next year.
While this certainly generated trust in our work, it was more a matter of effectively tapping into an existing interest group than cultivation.
I have also definitely had people who have said they weren’t sure about a performance, but attended because they knew we did quality and interesting work.
The problem is that their numbers were relatively small and while they may have represented the unexpressed sentiment of a larger group, attendance often made it clear there weren’t numbers to be sustainable.
At the base of this is the necessity of taking a critical look at whether pursuing audience trust as a long term goal is realistic or is it a pleasant ideal to which non-profit arts organizations have subscribed.
Research has shown that audiences in general don’t discern between whether an event is being held by a for-profit or non-profit entity when choosing what to attend. With that in mine, are there that many in our communities that really appreciate that you are pursuing excellence when others seemingly are not?
It is likely that audiences aren’t thinking in terms of excellence as much as having an awesome or amazing experience, and that is fine. But we all know that it is relatively easy to provide an experience that will be evaluated in these terms by offering a commercially recognizable name.
So again I come back to the question, after having mastered marketing and awareness building, has anyone managed to grow a following/loyalty/what have you, in your community based on faith in your work? How did you do it? Where did you do it? What is the scale of the program?
I don’t doubt that success is possible in cities and communities where the underlying dynamics encourage curiosity and experimentation. But a lot of those places can have higher costs of living so question about being self-sustaining becomes relevant.
Since there is rarely anything in the arts that is truly self-sustaining, what I mean is a program central to the organization’s operations that has become increasingly less dependent on grant support or infusions from other parts of the program. An after hours program doing edgy programming in the black box theater seating 80 is being subsidized by all the other events that keep the organization in business.
A company that has gone from not paying anyone and depending on everyone to costume themselves to paying a stipend equivalent to $1.12/hr and costuming from Goodwill is an improvement, but probably isn’t a proven model yet.