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Engaging Audiences

March 22, 201022 March 2010

Audience engagement

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This report summarizes an April 2009 conference in Philadelphia that was attended by 189 arts leaders from six cities that have received Wallace Excellence Awards (Boston, Chicago, Minneapolis/St. Paul, Philadelphia, San Francisco and Seattle). A recurring theme at the conference was that “it is clearly more challenging in hard times for arts organizations to take the long view and continue to devote time and effort to building new audiences, but that work and the resulting lessons are also more vital than ever to the long-term health of arts organizations and the entire arts sector”. The report notes that the health of individual arts organizations and entire cities’ arts sectors are inextricably linked.

Beyond the impacts of the recent recession, many longer-term shifts have also affected arts organizations: technological change, demographic trends, and a vast expansion of leisure-time options. In order to cope with these changes and thrive in the future, arts organizations are encouraged to gather information and research to help them attract new audiences and understand evolving artistic preferences.

Social networking has challenged four traditional dynamics: who creates and who produces art; who curates and who critiques; who controls the message; and what the useful boundaries are of an organization. Control of group action is shifting “from traditional organizations and authorities to individuals of similar interests who choose to gather together”. In this situation, there has been “a redefinition of the nature of communities and community institutions as less dependent on proximity and created more by common interests”.

One speaker at the conference argued that we are “living in the middle of the largest increase in expressive capability in the history of the human race”. Another speaker maintained that arts-goers do not just want the arts; they want the entire arts experience, which means participating “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.”

One specific recommendation is to pay attention to individuals’ personal artistic practices: those who personally engage in art forms, whether taking lessons, singing in a choir, or trying out artistic interests with friends, are more likely to attend professional arts events. To this end, the Los Angeles Music Center has implemented an “Active Arts” program that provides “nonprofessional artists with opportunities for art-making of all kinds in the informal spaces” at the Center.

Other specific suggestions include planning programming further in advance than usual, partnering with other organizations, ensuring that members of governing boards are effective, and attempting “to preserve the budget items [artistic initiative and marketing] that make it possible to attract audiences”.

In order to attract diverse audiences, organizations are urged to “gather reliable information about the real or perceived barriers that might discourage some groups from attending…. Get out and know the people [you] want to reach and build that bridge of trust and respect.”

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