A Place That Is Green

You may recall that two years ago the number one cultural activity people indicated they engaged in, according to the 2017 Culture Track survey, was going to the park.

Last week the Washington Post discussed a survey conducted by the University of Vermont which suggested that going to the park, and even the anticipation of going to the park, created

“a jolt of euphoria one might get on Christmas morning.

What’s more, they found, people’s moods started to improve just from the anticipation of a park outing, and the afterglow of increased happiness subsisted several hours afterward. They also found that while any sort of outdoor public gathering space boosted people’s happiness, large parks with lots of vegetation seemed to provide the biggest benefit.”

The researchers geo-tagged Twitter posts in San Francisco over the course of three months. This allowed them to figure out where people were posting from. They analyzed the word choice of the tweets by assigning words with emotional values and found the greatest positivity expressed while at the park and increased positivity before and after visits as compared to other places.

The Washington Post article has a lot of disclaimers about the limits of sentiment-analysis tools like the one used by researchers, but apparently the tools are effective when applied to large amounts of text.

Ultimately, the reason I choose to call attention to the article is to provide a bit of support for the performance in the park programs many arts and cultural organizations conduct around this time of year. Since groups are doing it anyway, they probably don’t need rigorous, unimpeachable survey results to convince them to continue.

If you pondering doing events away from your home facility, the combined data of the University of Vermont study and Culture Track survey, make a park with lush greenery a smart choice.

Tonight We Have Paired The Seared Scallops With Wine And An Aria

Back in May, American Theatre had an article about audience building efforts Opera Theatre St. Louis (OTSL) undertook with funding from the Wallace Foundation.  In my experience, there is always something to learn from these projects funded by the Wallace Foundation, especially since the case study reports tend to be honest about what things didn’t go well. So it is worth the time to read this short article.

One of OTSL’s efforts that drew my attention was their Opera Tastings project where they would pair tastings of food and wine with short opera performances. What I really appreciated about their effort here was that they took the program a fair distance from their home rather than concentrating on the St. Louis city limits. (my emphasis)

Hosted in a local restaurant or venue, the evening pairs 11 samples of food or drink with 11 operatic excerpts. The evenings have taken place all over St. Louis: in predominantly Black neighborhoods, in Chinatown, in Southern Illinois, or as far away as Columbia and Fayetteville, Mo. (120 miles and 145 miles, respectively).

“If the intent is to draw people in who surround you, then most of our organizations are finding that they have to be more present in the community,” says Ramos. “It’s how you build relevance. It’s how you show the work.”


Newcomers, in other words, discover what type of opera they enjoy, instead of being told why they should enjoy opera. More than three-quarters of Opera Tasting attendees are new-to-file (i.e., first time patrons), and every attendee gets $10 in “opera bucks” to redeem for a ticket to an upcoming show.

As I mentioned before, an aspect of these programs I have valued is the fact they were open about what went wrong. This type of reflection is a core part of Wallace Foundation’s ethic of “continuous learning” according to the article.

There was enough of an upside, despite the cost, to make the Opera Tastings worth retaining and refining. (my emphasis)

A lot of those opera bucks get redeemed: Right now an average of 42 percent of Opera Tastings attendees go on to buy tickets. What’s more, audience members who come to OTSL through Opera Tastings tend to buy more expensive tickets and become donors at a faster rate than expected.

One caveat: The tastings are costly to produce, costing $7,100 per tasting in 2018. And the true cost of audience recruitment may be obscured by the subsidies covered by opera bucks as well as discounted ticket prices

“It’s an expensive way to acquire new audience members,” admits Timothy O’Leary, general director of Opera Theatre from 2008 to 2018. And the majority of people who attend, 58 percent, never buy a ticket. The challenge now is to see how the tastings might be sustainable without Wallace support.

The article also talks about other programs like their Young Friends program which they estimate has a $16,000-$17,000 impact and their Opera Kids Camp for children to attend while their parents are at the opera. Take a look to learn more.

We Will Accompany Them On The Beaches, On The Playgrounds, In The Parks And At The Opera!

After I posted last week about how English towns installation of chat benches aligned with other stories I had covered about organizations trying to create personal connections between strangers, one of my neighbors, Regina Sweeney messaged me on LinkedIn about a study about buddy benches conducted in elementary schools. (I think this is the first time I have had someone I see on a fairly regular basis read my blog and send me a link.)

A number of schools use buddy benches to help kids make connections. If you are lonely at recess, you sit there and other kids are supposed to come over and invite you to play. There hadn’t been a lot of research done on the effectiveness of these benches so a group set out to conduct one at a school in Utah.

They found that introducing the benches reduced the number of solitary students. As part of the study, they removed the benches for a couple weeks and then returned them to the playground. When they were removed, the number of solitary students started to return to the baseline number observed before the benches were introduced. When the benches were reintroduced, the number of solitary students decreased.

While you can’t necessarily make assumptions about adults from the observation of a small group of elementary school kids, this result seemed to point to the usefulness of some sort of mechanism to facilitate connecting people. Providing people with a way to signal their willingness and desire to connect was useful.

There were kids that abused the benches. Some kids would sit on the bench and then rebuff all overtures to play. Teachers observed that kids who were normally very social seemed to sit on the bench to call attention to themselves. There were also those who made fun of those sitting on the bench.

Many students thought the benches were a good idea, but for other people.

“It appears that while students liked the idea of a buddy bench at their school, many may have thought of it as an intervention to help other students and not necessarily themselves.”

Kids in the upper grades (4th-6th) thought it was only useful for kids in the lower grades. Some students felt that they were introduced too late in the school year after cliques had been formed.

I imagine these general perceptions about the utility of benches might be more deeply entrenched in adults. Though I would also say adults might be more apt to resolve to participate in one role or the other if they knew the goal was to reverse a trend toward social isolation.

One take away from the study that I think is applicable for people of any age is the necessity to consistently make people aware of the program. Every teacher prepared their students for the introduction of the buddy benches and the benches were placed outside 100% of the time during the intervention stage. However, the principal reported only encouraging their use in morning announcements 80% of the time and the teachers monitoring the playground were often too preoccupied with other playground activities to seek out solitary students to encourage them to use the benches.

Those conducting the study felt these situations kept the project from being as successful as it might have been.

I would think the necessity of repeatedly communicating the availability of chatting/buddy programs would even be greater for arts organizations given that the attendees change for every event and they aren’t being exposed the availability of these initiatives everyday the way kids at school are.

I had written about the buddy seating program I had created at my previous theater which paired people in the audience chamber. As I read this study, I wondered if it might be good to have “meet someone new” seating in a public place like the lobby as well. People probably aren’t going to arrive alone at an event seeking a companion, but people new to the experience might welcome the opportunity to chat with those who are equally clueless about what to do or with someone who can offer some advice. Having a bench or row of chairs specifically to that purpose might be useful.

While this seems obvious in retrospect, it only occurred to me as I was re-reading the study and saw a line about the buddy benches being useful as”…a reinforcement by giving students a place to gather should they feel intimidated when seeking out play activities on their own.” This resonated with my recollection of a post Holly Mulcahy made yesterday about people who ruin the concert experience for newbies by enforcing a behavioral orthodoxy.

It wouldn’t eliminate the glares at clapping in the wrong place, but a buddy bench would give people a place to ask “Sooooo…I what’s the deal with not clapping at the end of some songs, but jumping to your feet at the end of other songs?”

If you are involved with education and want to bring buddy benches to your school, you need to read the study because I didn’t touch upon even 10% of what was involved and what they felt needed more rigorous study.

Data You Need To Believe Over Your Gut

I so frequently tell my readers that Collen Dilenschneider has made an awesome post on her blog that it makes it difficult to convey the increased urgency to read one of her pieces when she has made an even awesomer post.

Despite this impediment, believe me when I say she recently made a post that is even more awesome than her usually awesome posts. Last week she wrote about how research results often contradict our gut feelings about a situation, despite being true. She confesses that as much as she deals with data every day, there are some instances where she asks the experts to revisit it just to be sure.

She goes on to list five data points that even she and her co-workers really wanted to believe were untrue.

Let me just say, I have seen some of this data before but part of what makes her post so great is this “contradicts our gut” framework she employs. As much as I read and write about arts administration, there are a fair number of instances where I raise mental walls against information I come across. It is useful to be constantly reminded that we need to take a deep breath and open our minds.

1) Local audiences have negatively skewed perceptions of the organizations in their area 

IMPACTS tracked 118 visitor-serving organizations and found that on average, people living within 25 miles of the organization indicate value-for-cost perceptions that are 14% less than those of regional visitors living between 25 and 101-150 miles away. In other words, locals believe their experience is less worthy of the admission cost they paid compared to the perceptions of those living further away. Interestingly, locals paid 20% less for admission, on average, than non-local visitors thanks to local discounts and promotions! They are also much less satisfied with their experiences than non-local visitors.

Even if this is influenced by a sense of sunk cost where long distance visitors arrive with a firmer conviction than local residents they will enjoy an experience given that they have already invested so much more time and money in planning and execution, it is important to recognize this dynamic is operating for different visitor segments.

2) An average visitor attends a cultural organization type only once every 27 months – and the average member returns to take advantage of free admission only once per year.

The average person who visits an art museum will not visit another for 28 months, on average. The average person who visits a history museum will not visit another for 32 months, on average. In total, the average visitation cycle for organization types that we monitor is 27 months. Here’s more on that data and what it means.


Subscription-based organizations such as theaters and symphonies: You’ve got it a bit better. Your members visit twice each year, on average.

I had actually written about this idea around 8 years ago. In the research presented at that time, it wasn’t that people felt they had enough of the organization and were going to wait a few years to go again, it was that people were so emotionally connected with the organization, they would swear they had just been there within the last year when it had been about two or more years.

Don’t immediately delete people from your mailing list if they don’t buy tickets to return, give it 3-5 years before you decide they are disengaged. (This assumes annual/semi-annual mailings vs. more frequent ones.)

3) Millennials are not “aging into” caring about arts and culture

Oooh, pay attention to this one!

This isn’t surprising to me and we have so much on this we’re getting into a “ridiculous” data volume category here, but this shocks other folks, so it’s making this list!

Millennials are not “aging into” caring about arts and culture as a natural function of getting older. Millennials also are not “aging into” other things some entities are banking on, like the belief that dolphins should be kept in captivity.


Millennials are a very important group for cultural organizations to engage. The take-away of these findings is critical: “Let’s just wait for people to think we’re important” is a failing engagement strategy.

Here is another point to be particularly mindful of–

4) On average, attendance goes back to baseline 5 years after a major expansion (but operation costs tend to be increased forever).

In a nutshell, attendance decreases in the years prior to a major building project as folks defer their visits until after the expansion opens. When an expansion opens, attendance certainly increases – 19.6% compared to the ten years prior! But that increase gradually decreases until attendance levels retreat to the baseline of the ten years prior after only 5 years. And the increased building space also means more staff members, more programming, more electricity, and more ongoing maintenance.


If you’re fundraising for or undertaking a major building expansion, make sure that you are clear on your goals and objectives – and that your expectations for long-term attendance and ongoing maintenance are grounded in reality.

And finally… (note the distinction she makes between mobile web and mobile apps)

5) Mobile applications do not significantly increase visitor satisfaction

Interestingly, people who use social media onsite in a way that relates to their visit report 7% greater visitor satisfaction scores than people who do not use social media in relation to their visit. Mobile web users experience a 6% bump in satisfaction. Even though all three of these methods (mobile applications, social media, and mobile web) take place on a mobile phone during a cultural organization visit, social media and the web significantly contribute to the visitor experience. Mobile applications do not reliably do this. One explanation for this may be that social media and mobile web “meet audiences where they are” and are examples of onsite technology facilitating the experience. Mobile applications, on the other hand, can be examples of technological intervention in which a visitor must interrupt the experience to figure out how to engage with the technology, or download it in the first place.

As much as I have quoted here, it is only about 1/3 of the data and rationale she presents in her post so check it out in order to get a more complete picture of things.

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