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Share your passion. Develop your audience.

The Public: An Ally first, Then a Consumer

By: Denis J. Bertrand

A few months ago a performing arts presenter was telling me that he was very pleased with the attendance rates at his shows which were averaging around 80%. I responded that obviously his venue was well known to the public and that they appreciated the programming. Then I asked him if he knew his subscribers and those that attended frequently. He admitted ignorance on who was frequenting his organization. This could present a challenge when the day comes that his attendance rates start dropping and he needs to renew his audience.

One of the first steps in arts audience development is to take the time to get to know your current and potential markets. First, spend some time with those who already know you. For example you could ask them to fill out a short survey online or on paper that will allow you to gather some sociodemographic information, your audience’s preferences in art and culture, as well as their impressions of your programming, venue, etc. This survey can be put into circulation a few times during the year so that you have access to a large enough sample to draw a fairly accurate portrait of your audience. Announce that those filling out the survey will be eligible for a prize draw. It’s always a good idea to offer a reward.

Then, analyze the results. Do they match your expectations? Is your audience representative of the medium you present? Is there anyone noticeably missing? The answers to these questions will allow you to determine if you should undertake new approaches to attract these potential audiences.  If yes, identify and contact members of these audiences to learn more about them and to initiate a dialogue with them. Then you’ll find what you need to do to attract them to your activities.

Whether you are addressing current audiences or newcomers, remember that arts and culture fans nowadays are not passive consumers. Generally they consist of educated, curious and well informed individuals with sufficient  income to afford subscriptions, tickets and sustainable cultural products. Research also shows that women are the primary consumers of arts and culture. According to Huffington Post Canada 70% of theatre tickets sold in the US are sold to women, while a study from the Creative Trust organization in Toronto reveals that they make up 72% of theatre, 71% of dance, and 66% of opera audiences.

People from the arts community who participated in a conference on audience development last year in the US found that “…modern audiences want to be more than passive recipients of art that someone else has decided is good for them.” A similar event, held two years prior, came to a similar conclusion. That, “… what today’s potential arts audiences most want out of an arts event is the opportunity to co-author meaning. They don’t want the arts; they want the arts experience. They want the opportunity to participate in an intelligent and responsible way in telling the meaning of an arts event… they want a real forum – or several forums – for the interplay of ideas, experience, data and feeling that makes up the arts experience.”

What kind of artistic experience are you offering to your clients? Is it similar to this?

  • People wait in line, sometimes outside, sometimes in a confined space to access a box office. They then kill time in a lounge or restaurant while waiting for the venue doors to open. Maybe they could check their coats or have a drink in the meantime. The doors open and people are invited to enter. A recording welcomes them and reminds them to turn off their cell phones or other electronic devices. Then, once the presentation is over, the spectators collect their belongings and leave.

Or this?

  • Volunteers or employees welcome clients. They direct them to where they can drop off their coats, sit, or get a glass of wine. Appropriate music is played in the waiting area. Representatives from the presenting or producing organization circulate and talk with people. The venue doors open. A representative from the organization appears and welcomes everyone and passes on instructions (“Please shut off your cell phones”, etc.) They let people know that a discussion or other activity will be taking place after the presentation to let people know more about what they have just seen, discuss and socialize.

Which of these two experiences seems more enjoyable? Which one would encourage you to return to the venue or to frequent this presenter of producer? It’s in taking note of the interest of the audience that arts organizations are most likely to assure loyalty. Gone are the days when it was directed at arts followers to simply get a few bucks out of them. As illustrated in the second case, audience development isn’t just the domain of one person within your organization. Everyone needs to participate, volunteers and employees.

Nowadays, you have to tame arts and culture consumers, talk to them, listen to them, and when necessary adapt to them. Then you will deepen you relationships with them, and establish a relationship based on common interests and mutual respect. In exchange, audience members will be more disposed to talk highly about you to their circles and on social media, a significant factor even on Broadway. It is always the people who like and appreciate you who are ready to support you, in the form of buying a subscription, a ticket, or goods. That is an important asset in this era of economic uncertainty.

Denis J. Bertrand is a con­sul­tant in audi­ence devel­op­ment for the arts with the 50 Car­leton mar­ket­ing firm. He leads work­shops on the sub­ject and pro­duces strate­gies tai­lored to a vari­ety of arts orga­ni­za­tions located through­out the coun­try. He also dis­cusses the topic on his blog. Denis is a mem­ber of the Arts Con­sul­tants Canada Asso­ci­a­tion. He lives in Sud­bury ‚ON.