Can’t Comp And Discount Your Way To An Audience

You may have seen the video message by Guthrie Theatre artistic director Joseph Haj last week where he laid out why the Guthrie wouldn’t be offering their content virtually as other places had chosen to do. Instead, they will be producing three shows from March through August 2021.

In the video, he makes the case for the value of live performance based on the shared experience. Apparently there was a study in 2017 that showed audiences hearts beat in unison during live performances which generates a sense of trust and empathy you don’t experience when watching a video. (You also don’t get footnotes. I would really be interested in learning more about that study.)

I don’t know about you, but last week I started having a hard time remaining focused on Zoom sessions that were providing content that was of great importance and interest to me and my organization. Lord help me if I had pets or children around to distract me as well.¬† Trying to deliver educational content is likewise experiencing problems with participation and retention of information.

Granted, the fact that people are trying to use a virtual platform in the same way they conduct face to face meetings is probably to blame for this disconnection. In the future we may see presentation techniques and technological features that will make the experience more valuable. Think about the fact that the first motorized vehicles literally were horseless carriages because that was the dominant mode of transportation at the time. There has been quite a bit of refinement since then in terms of design and use.

The biggest cause for concern should be that human contact and empathy is what will be refined away as the virtual delivery experience improves. While there is definitely a romance to horse based transportation and the internal combustion engine has created environment pollution problems, I don’t think there were concerns that traveling swiftly and smoothly in an environment of improved climate control was going to undermine societal bonds. (Though certainly, it may have eroded the human-equine relationship.)

If anything, the challenges of these times is probably going to really clarify where the true value of the arts resides. It is going to be the relationships that organizations build with their audiences that will bring them back. Once organizations answer the questions of health and safety, the opportunity to share an experience with others is going to be the compelling appeal, not discounts and comps.¬† It is going to be important to listen and pay attention to what people expect of their experience. The expectations probably won’t be exactly the same as they were in January. The demographics of those most interested in inhabiting¬† spaces and participating in activities may be quite different as well.


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.


1 thought on “Can’t Comp And Discount Your Way To An Audience”

  1. The enormous economic impact of the virus is also going to be a huge factor in getting audiences back in the door or not. With 14% unemployment now, there’s no way to know just how many people who were furloughed will be re-hired and, if they are, will their salaries be the same? Will they have disposable income?

    Additionally, if many corporations are taking a financial hit, how will that affect their contributions and/or sponsorships to the arts? If foundations are stepping up their support for “basic human needs” projects, that leaves less of their dollars for the arts. I fear that the snowball effect of this will be enormous.

    My mother was right…I should’ve gone to law school!!


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