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.

Perception of Crime Is Impacting Urban Based Arts Orgs, Change Of Framing Is Required

Yesterday there was a report that the rate of violent crimes and some property crimes fell in the first quarter of 2024.  However, that may come as weak comfort to urban based arts organizations because there is still a perception that crime rates are high in urban areas. A recent post on Know Your Own Bone by Colleen Dilenschneider’s team says this is impacting people’s intent to visit arts organizations in urban settings (subscription required).

When compared to 2019, respondents in the first quarter of 2024 indicated less willingness to visit urban based arts and cultural entities. What surprised Dilenschneider’s team was that nearly 50% of people living in urban areas indicated they were less likely to visit an urban based organization.  The further people lived from a city, the less likely they felt they would visit an urban arts organization. Of course travel distance likely was a factor in diminished intent to visit. However, the overall results align with data about  decreased attendance at Broadway shows by people living in NYC suburbs.

Some of the contributing factors Dilenschneider’s folks cite is the lack of activity in urban settings–fewer office workers leads to less bustle and activity on the streets, in restaurants, cafes, storefronts. The lack of activity can help feed a perception of a place being unsafe even if there is no data to back it up.

You may have noticed something: We’re talking about crime perceptions increasing, not necessarily actual crime statistics.

Research suggests that violent crime is declining, but Americans still feel less safe. Though there may be a delta in actual crime vs. perceived crime, it may not matter. Whether it’s real or perceptual, potential audiences are increasingly citing crime as a reason to stay home.

In terms of the crime people cite as creating a disincentive to attendance, it varies according to where people live. In some cases, it is a sense of vague unease about urban environments rather than anything specific.

The top four crime barriers are all the same but in a different order for urban, suburban, and exurban audiences (homeless/unhoused populations, panhandling, news stories, drugs). Audiences who live further away from an urban area rely more heavily on “news stories” in shaping their crime perceptions. “Do not know” also makes the top ten for suburban and exurban potential visitors who cite safety perceptions as a primary reason why they do not visit despite their stated interest in doing so. However, they cannot put their finger on exactly the source of their crime-related concerns or the kind of crime that is most worrisome to them when it comes to visiting their nearest downtown region.

In terms of how to combat this perception, Dilenschneider’s team suggests focusing on the macroenvironment in which your organization operates. Instead of promoting a visit to your organization as an isolated experience, place it in the context of the amenities of the whole neighborhood:

“Is going to the museum worth venturing into the city?” may not be enough on its own to overcome negative perceptions.

“Is going to the museum, walking along the waterfront, exploring the historic district, sipping a cocktail at a café, and then enjoying a terrific dinner worth venturing into the city?” likely represents a very different calculus for visitors.

Mobile Phone Pied Pipers Lead Audiences To A Concert

I saw an novel approach discussed for a concert by the BBC Philharmonic in Manchester, England where the concert is performed by the audience walking to the venue.

Composer Huang Ruo’s  City of Floating Sounds starts when audience members select one of four starting points in Manchester and then start playing one of eleven pre-recorded tracks aloud on their phones as they start their walk toward the performance venue.  The street environment and weather are contributors to the first phase of the performance, along with the decisions the audience members make.

Huang explains that the City of Floating Sounds app detects other users: “It’s like a traffic map. You will see where people are and you can decide whether to join them or not. What you are playing on your phone – say, the horn section – might blend in unexpected ways with another section played by someone else. There are so many ways that people’s participation drastically affects the outcome. No two performances can be the same.

“It’s planned as an outdoor piece. And if there’s noise, or rain, or traffic – it’s all part of the symphony.”

He hopes that passersby will be intrigued enough to join the procession. The whole thing has a Pied Piper vibe, with the twist that nobody is really in control of what happens. “Even the people walking around, who don’t know there’s a symphony going on but hear something flying around with the sounds, they’re already part of it. They will add to it unconsciously through their movements.”

Once people get to the performance venue, they will find the BBC Philharmonic arrayed around the perimeter of a space which attendees can sit, stand, and wander while the piece is performed.

Huang hopes the lighting engineers will realise his vision. “I gave them the idea of those big caves in Vietnam where light comes in through sinkholes. You walk in darkness, suddenly, you see a beam of bright light.”

…He also encourages the audience to walk around during the performance – “this will add to the antiphonal, call-and-response effects going around the auditorium”.

But won’t it be challenging for the musicians if the audience are roaming about and filming? “We’re all really excited to see what it will be like,” says conductor Gemma New. “It’s our first experience of this kind of concert format.”

Part of Ruo’s vision for the experience harkens back to the outdoor opera performances his family attended on Hainan Island in southern China. He wants his concert to provide a more open experience in contrast to “opera and classical music as they so often figure in the west – as expensive cultural products for conspicuous consumption.”

Just tangentially related – I discovered that residents of Manchester, England are known as Mancunians which references the Latin name for the city, Mamucium, when Rome conquered Britain.

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