The Best Laid Audience Development Plans Oft Go Astray

Continuing from yesterday’s post about the Wallace Foundation’s evaluation of their five year audience building and sustainability initiative, In Search of the Magic Bullet, the best summary of the findings was report author Francie Ostrower’s statement:

…our analyses highlight that expanding audiences may happen, but not necessarily on the organization’s original terms. An overarching message to emerge from our findings: If organizations want to change audience engagement with them, then organizations need to be open to changing themselves.

One of the biggest assumptions the organizations participating in the initiative had was that audiences for the special audience development programs they created would eventually migrate to their central program offerings and that simply wasn’t the case.

“A symphony orchestra developed a new genre-crossing series where orchestra musicians played with indie artists, in the hopes that millennials would attend and then go on to attend main season programs. As one interviewee said, “We really thought this was going to be a gateway drug for millennials to come to . . . some more core product. . . . That really didn’t happen.”

Nor did the efforts seem to result in new audience members increasing their attendance frequency and eventually become donors.

“By the end of the initiative, however, at least a few participants were questioning what one called “this old myth of the long slow escalator.”

To the credit of most of the organizations, it doesn’t appear any expected their audience development efforts to result in the sort of increased attendance that would guarantee financial stability. They were pretty realistic about the fact that audience building was going to require long term effort beyond the five years of the initiative.

In fact,

“Another organization wants “to experiment with unshackling audience growth from earned revenue growth.”

Among some of the interesting results that came from reviewing the efforts of the initiative participants came from those who recognized that their expectations that target audiences would shift from the special programming series to the core series were erroneous. Some decided continuing the special programs was at odds with their core mission and discontinued their efforts.

Other organizations embraced the outcome: (my emphasis)

“Instead of deeming the program a failure because it did not yield crossover, the organization changed its idea of success—and did so because through surveys and other feedback they heard from people, “We love this stuff.” When organizational staff would encourage series attendees to buy a main season subscription they said, “Why would we do that? We like this stuff.” The organization decided it was important to continue the series but doing so requires them to raise money to subsidize it because, in their view, it will never pay for itself…

Others found that the new programming wasn’t gaining traction with their target audiences, but their core audiences loved the expanded offerings:

Another interviewee said: “If you go to our [latenight contemporary music series] . . . it’s not all young people. It’s plenty of older people. But edgier older people.” And, as it turns out, the age profile of most of the target group was not as young as initially anticipated.


The arts presenter found that the adventurous programming proved unexpectedly attractive to the organization’s core audience of regular attendees. As one put it, “The biggest ah-ha was actually seeing . . . ‘reverse crossover.’” Our analyses are consistent with that conclusion: While season subscribers comprised 16.1 percent of main season bookers, they accounted for fully 25.2 percent of special series bookers. This dovetails with our earlier finding that more frequent attendees are more likely to venture to new and less familiar work.

Another response I appreciated came from organizations that decided to target geographic locations experiencing vibrancy rather than a specific age or racial demographic. I liked the fact they were taking a different perspective from some of the other participants and were making an effort to study the audience there. I don’t know that many arts organizations are particularly adept at studying audiences so honing that skillset on a readily available group made sense.

Explaining their reasoning, one interviewee said: Why wouldn’t we want to study the audience, which is on our doorstep? And we know that the people who live downtown . . . that they’re skewed a little bit higher in terms of income, that they’re skewed towards financial, towards cultural entertainment and participation. That’s why people move downtown. So why wouldn’t we want to engage with those people?

The organization anticipated that the downtown area would include a younger audience but chose not to define their target in age-based terms.

One interviewee said, “Most organizations want to focus on the young audiences because. . . that’s the solution to filling in the gap left by the aging outpart of the audience. But I think that wasn’t as interesting to us as the idea of . . . dynamic new growth that was happening [here].”

Finally, I really appreciated this statement about arts and cultural organization needing to move beyond assumptions and internal focus to genuinely listen to audiences and reflect on what they are saying:

Further, as one dance company interviewee said, “It’s very easy to make incorrect assumptions that are consistent with your building, your time, the staff available time.”

An overarching implication of the BAS organizations’ experience is that these assumptions exist, and they need to be examined and addressed. Otherwise, arts organizations risk talking past, rather than speaking with, those they want to reach. That said, this may be a stance that does not come easily to large, established nonprofit arts organizations that have in the past, perhaps, been more able to take their prestige for granted or rely on a steady stream of subscribers willing to commit to a season program curated by the organization.

One interviewee said with some exasperation:

There’s a mentality in the arts that if we build it, they will come. There’s a mentality that we know better than the audiences what they should like. . . . “You need to sit in the seats and love what we do.” There are people who give great speeches about how, just trust that the audiences that like what you like will find you. I mean it’s like, I just want to throttle those people.

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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