That Great Experience Two Years Ago? Seems Just Like Yesterday

A confluence of events and information made me realize that it might be time to revisit the subject of one of my favorite posts.

Last week I was talking to one of my staff about who to include in our season announcement mailing list. I told her we should reach back at least 2-3 years and then cited the fact that people maintain an emotional investment with an arts organization for 2-4 years after a visit.

When I mentioned this, I was thinking about a talk given by Andrew McIntyre  back in 2011 that I wrote about.  He talked about a number of people in focus group conversations that gushed about the great experience they had at a show last year….except that it was 2+ years ago. In their minds, they were still connected with the organization and considered themselves frequent attendees and supporters.

Thanks to Arts Midwest for maintaining the video link, you can watch it. Still very much relevant today and caused me to re-evaluate the concept of butts in the seats to be brains in the seats.

When I was catching up on reading my backlog of blog posts by others this weekend, I saw that Colleen Dilenschneider recently covered the same topics in two recent posts.

In the first, she mentions this same idea about people re-engaging on a roughly two year cycle (her emphasis):

We at IMPACTS often encounter a myth among cultural executives: That audience retention means that people come back every year… and if they’re not coming annually, then you aren’t retaining them as visitors.

As it turns out, this is a high bar – and one that does not line up with actual visitor behavior.

Museums have members and performing arts organizations have subscribers who may visit specific organizations more than once per year. In reality, most people who visit cultural organizations do not visit another organization of that type in two or more years.

She goes on to talk about how there is a disconnect between thinking about attendance in annual terms and actual human behavior. This can be an important consideration in regard to efforts to increase inclusion and diversity. Measuring success on an annual basis may cause you to misinterpret flat attendance as failure. The fact may be that you have doubled the number of people who feel invested in the organization over a two year period– it is just that attendees from the first year may not have started to cycle back to the organization. Your efforts may not bear visible results for three or four years when people begin returning in larger numbers.

In her second post, she warns arts organizations not to assume that people who buy memberships but don’t use them are disengaged with their organization. For many of the most highly engaged people, purchasing a membership is viewed as one of the best ways to support their organization. They are motivated by their passion for the organization, not by the availability of membership benefits.

Not only are the infrequent visitors more likely to buy a more expensive membership than those who regularly attend, they are also more likely to renew.

One reason these members aren’t visiting may be because they don’t live near the organization. (We’ve found that the more admired a cultural organization is perceived to be by the public, the higher percentage of non-local members it has.) Like non-visiting members, non-local members buy more expensive memberships and are more likely to renew them!


People believe the single best way to support a cultural, visitor-serving organization’s mission is to become a member. (Yes, even more than becoming a donor.)

We also know that mission-based members – people whose primary motivation to become a member involves supporting the organization and its mission – are particularly valuable

As Dilenschnedier is wont to do, the second post has a video that wraps up the concepts of both entries pretty well so be sure to check it out.

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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