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.

Magic Bullet May Have Missed, But The Ricochets Hit Valuable Things

Last Monday, Ruth Hartt sent out an email newsletter noting that the Wallace Foundation’s five year, $52 million Building Audiences for Sustainability Initiative basically failed to identify any definitive way to achieve that goal. I have been following Wallace Foundation efforts for years so I was surprised I had missed this news. But sure enough, back in February they released In Search of the Magic Bullet which said just that.

There was a lot of interesting insight in ..Magic Bullet so I will probably take at least two days covering what they discuss. Today, I thought I would address Ruth Hartt’s suggestion that the effort failed because the focus was on the “assumption that demographic characteristics drive consumer behavior” rather than on the problems audiences seek to have solved/outcomes they seek.

There is a difference between saying you want to attract younger, more diverse demographics and learning that people in these demographics seek an experience at which they can relax and share with friends among people like themselves. Providing that experience may involve decisions about programming, timing, framing of the experience, staffing, messaging, etc that differ from what the organization is currently doing. Then there may be other problems to be solved like parking, traffic, and babysitters which the organization over which may not have control, but may be able to facilitate.

A few weeks back, I made a post about research indicating what helps people feel welcome at arts and cultural experiences. It wasn’t just seeing themselves reflected in the programming, stories, and people depicted, but also seeing themselves reflected in the audience and staff circulating through the lobbies, galleries, and walkways.

Despite indicating the initiative failed to identify definitive answers, the reflections by staff of organizations participating in the Wallace Foundation effort show they had started to understand where there had been disconnects with target audiences. And there were absolutely changes groups made that saw significant results, including:

“…hiring paid concierges, to diversify its front of-house staff in terms of age as well as racial and ethnic diversity. The organization viewed this as an important part of conveying a welcoming environment to diverse audience members. According to one interviewee it “has actually been remarkably potent as one simple change.”

One realization shared by multiple organizations in the Wallace initiative was that internally/insider focused promotional messaging had no traction with new audiences:

Repeatedly, and often through market research, organizations learned they were communicating in ways that reflected their values and using language that may have been meaningful to those in the arts—but that did not resonate with audiences they wished to reach. The consequences were communications that undermined, rather than facilitated, the goal of attracting new audiences.

For example, one performing arts presenter learned:

Images that we thought, from years of being in the arts, were the most appealing . . . really meant nothing to many of the audience members. . . .They were replications of our own beliefs. . . . We always put forth the notion of the art and the aesthetic. And for many of the audiences we were trying to reach, price was much more important. Now we just say upfront, “This is what it costs.” . . . That was one of the most important lessons that we learned….

One dance company hoped to attract new audiences through informational and educational programming. The problem? They realized their communications about these programs  “were really geared towards…people that were very familiar with both the art form and what [we] offer.” But one thing they learned from focus groups: “Nobody wants to be talked down to about what they know or don’t know about the art form.” They altered communications about the programs to “make sense to people who maybe hadn’t been around a ton of [dance].”

Similarly, some of the arts organizations realized that not knowing what the experience would be like was a barrier to participation and made changes to their website to better explain or created videos that illustrated what attendees could expect.

Asked one interviewee rhetorically:

Who would go to a new restaurant without checking online to see what the experience was going to be? And we realized that from the consumers’ perspective, they’re thinking about the theater in the same way. So they really wanted to know; okay if I go to see this play, what kind of experience will I have?

In some cases, those videos backfired and the organization shifted gear. In focus groups, one organization was told the videos made the experience look “bougie”, unwelcoming, and off-putting. They decided to record attendees talking about the experience in their own words.

“Rather than someone telling you why you should like coming, we sort of flipped it to; here are people in their own words saying why this is something exciting to them and fun for them.”

Some organizations realized they needed to change the framing of their experiences in order to appeal to the younger audiences they were targeting. Among the barriers identified in focus groups was limited leisure time and competition not only from other arts groups, but other social activities.

Gen X members’ desire to spend their limited free time on social experiences. That desire reportedly included a wish for a full experience, with a “transition” from daytime activities into the theater experience rather than just coming for a play and leaving.

Speaking to the target audience’s perceived desire for a full and social experience, the organization held the series in a smaller theater space adjacent to a café\bar (both of which were additions to the theater’s existing venue). For one interviewee, the main thing learned about their target audience was that “providing [Gen X] with the whole night out, the whole experience, the place to eat, drink, art, and converse, is what they like.”

I just want to say, as a member I am glad someone was actually targeting Gen X and labeled them as a younger audience.

The same theater realized it was futile to try to “mold audiences for different genres” and instead changed the framework of their programming to suit the audiences. In this case, instead of expecting audiences to arrive at a specific time and sit in the theater until a show was over, they provided experiences where it was acceptable to get up and move around occasionally.

So even though the Wallace Foundation initiative was judged to have failed to find their “magic bullet” it appears the foundation’s support did provide organizations with the capacity to try new approaches and lead to some introspection about the results.

There is much more I haven’t covered which I intend to touch upon in coming days.

Are Cultural Resources In The Community A Recruitment Tool For Companies? You Bet

There is frequently talk about how the availability of arts and cultural organizations and activities are frequently a quality of life element that attract employers to communities. I got a germ of an idea to find evidence of that. This is obviously not scientific, but I did a search on using the criteria of jobs paying more than $100,000 listed in the previous 24 hours and using the search terms “arts culture.” Using that narrow frame, I got about 50 results. Many of the positions were in the medical field and there were a number of listings for the same business.

Here is what I found. Many of these positions also listed food, microbreweries, outdoor activities, schools, etc as benefits for living and working in the community. For brevity sake, I am going to limit citations to arts and culture, though I also retained the context of the sentence in which the reference appeared.

This is low hanging fruit research. It took about 20 minutes to cut and paste out off the website and into a word processor document to prepare for this post. So it is pretty easy to make the case that companies trying to recruit skilled labor are using the presence of arts and cultural resources to attract workers.

Connected Health Care, LLC Boise, ID 83726 – Cultural Attractions: Explore Boise’s vibrant arts and culture scene, including museums, theaters, and music festivals.

ilocatum Nixa, MO – The city has a vibrant arts and culture scene, as well as numerous parks and outdoor recreational opportunities….Branson is famous for its live entertainment shows, amusement parks, and picturesque lakes

Connected Health Care, LLC Houston, TX 77082 (appears they are recruiting for their Dallas location) – Explore Dallas, Texas: Discover the vibrant culture and attractions that make Dallas a fantastic destination for your next assignment…Immerse yourself in the arts at the Dallas Museum of Art and the Nasher Sculpture Center….Experience the iconic Dallas Zoo and the Dallas World Aquarium.

Wake Forest Baptist Health Winston-Salem, NC 27157 …Wake Forest Innovation Quarter, boasts multiple restaurants, breweries, theaters, shops and a minor-league baseball stadium – something for everyone

Prestige Care – Creswell Health & Rehab Creswell, OR 97426-Eugene has a dynamic mix of arts and culture, shopping and dining, entertainment and sports.

Mission Hospital Asheville, NC 28801 – Whether you enjoy outdoor adventures, arts and culture, live music, shopping or fine cuisine, Asheville offers something for everyone!

Alaska Regional Hospital, Anchorage, AK 99508 – Located within Denaʼina Ełnena, on the traditional homelands of the Dena’ina Athabascan people and the Native Village of Eklutnathe city combines wild Alaska beauty, convenient urban comforts, mesmerizing outdoor spaces, and captivating arts and culture.

Frankfort Regional Medical Center Frankfort, KY 40601 – The vast array of architectural styles, famous landmarks, museums, and unique shopping make Frankfort a special place for residents….You will also have access to arts and culture and outdoor activities with a comfortable climate and the best of all four seasons.

The Medical Center of Aurora Denver, CO 80012 – Denver is home to rising stars in culinary and craft brewing culture and arts patrons enjoy the largest collection of performing arts stages under one roof in the world.

HCA Florida West Hospital Pensacola, FL 32514 – Pensacola offers 450 years of history, innovative coastal cuisine, art and culture, unique shopping and many festivals throughout the year, celebrating everything from music and food to art and Mardi Gras. Boasting a thriving arts community, the Pensacola Bay Area is home to the “big five,” including ballet, opera, symphony, theatre and an accredited museum of visual arts.

Mercy St. Louis, MO 63128 – The city is brimming with free, world-class attractions and boasts an arts-and-culture scene that’s second to none

Connected Health Care, LLC Indianapolis, IN 46262 Arts & Culture: Immerse yourself in the city’s rich arts scene, from world-class museums to live performances at the Indiana Repertory Theatre.

Indiana University Health Indianapolis, IN Vibrant downtown offering arts, theaters, world-class museums, zoo, concerts and memorials

Concentra Chicago, IL 60607 Chicago is home to a myriad of museums, sporting venues, festivals, and performing arts….. If you’re looking for world-class universities, endless entertainment, unique and plentiful shopping, and easy access to transportation, look no further – Chicago is calling your name!

Anne Arundel Gastroenterology Associates Annapolis, MD – Cultural Abundance: Immerse yourself in museums, theaters, music venues, and festivals that celebrate the arts and diverse cultures.

Transylvania Regional Hospital Brevard, NC 28712 Outdoor adventures, arts and culture, live music, shopping or fine cuisine, western North Carolina offers something for everyone.

Regional Hospital of Scranton Scranton, PA 18510  Scranton is a city steeped in rich history, a vibrant arts scene, outdoor adventures, and a wide variety of delicious cuisine

Champagne In The Ladies Church/Restroom

I was somewhat amused by the story of a museum in Tasmania that had a lawsuit brought against it because one of its exhibits was intentionally designed to exclude those who did not identify as women. The experience of being excluded or welcomed was part of the exhibition.

It was designed to take the concept of an old Australian pub – a space which largely excluded women until 1965 – and turn it on its head, offering champagne and five-star service to female attendees, while refusing men at the door.


The museum had responded by claiming the rejection Mr Lau had felt was part of the artwork, and that the law in Tasmania allowed for discrimination if it was “designed to promote equal opportunity” for a group of people who had been historically disadvantaged.

The person who brought the suit claiming it was a violation of Tasmania’s anti-discrimination law, won the case on that basis.

The exhibit had been closed since that ruling, but last week I saw a follow-up article stating the lounge is being turned into a restroom and a church in order to take advantage of a legal exemption to maintain the original exclusive intent. Envisioning the space operating as a restroom and church is the part that amused me most. And then I read the additional irreverent plans the artist has for the use of the room and I had a little cackle.

“There is a fabulous toilet coming to the Ladies Lounge, and so in that sense the Ladies Lounge will operate as a ladies’ room.

“It’s a toilet that is celebrated the world round. It is the greatest toilet, and men won’t be allowed to see it,” Ms Kaechele said in Australian media reports.

Some of the key artworks, like the ones by Picasso, will be moved into the museum’s existing ladies toilet to ensure “uninterrupted viewing” while she applies for other exemptions.

And only on Sundays, men would be allowed into the space – to learn ironing and laundry folding.

“Women can bring in all their clean laundry and the men can go through a series of graceful movements (designed by a Rinpoche and refined by tai chi masters) to fold them,” she said, in an interview published by the museum on Tuesday.


“Thanks to the ruling, we have no choice but to open ourselves to a whole range of enriching experiences – spiritual, educational… to discover fascinating new possibilities, and to become better,” she said.