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Survey of Current Audience Engagement Practices

March 22, 201022 March 2010

Audience engagement

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Prepared for Dance/USA by WolfBrown as a follow-up to 25 interviews with select Dance/USA members (see “Audience Engagement: Working toward a Definition”), this report outlines dance organizations’ current audience engagement practices and examines “the field’s philosophy towards audience engagement and thoughts on its future role to serve dance”.

The report is based on a survey of 232 dance organizations, 58% of which are producers, 33% presenters, and 9% service organizations. Given that almost two-thirds of Dance/USA’s organizational members responded to the survey, the respondents represent a substantial proportion of the American dance field. The report indicates that respondents might look more positively on engagement activities than other dance organizations because of the fact that “the survey was completed in conjunction with a funding opportunity” related to audience engagement. However, the report does not provide any other indication of how well the respondents might represent all dance organizations (including any estimate of the possible margin of error of the results).

In general, pre-performance activities are more commonly practiced than post-performance activities or those during performances. The most common audience engagement activities are:

· Pre-performance lectures or discussions with artists (79% of responding organizations had done this type of activity at least once during the past three seasons);

· Post-performance discussions with artists (76%);

· Pre-performance master classes (74%);

· Pre-performance open rehearsals (70%);

· Pre-performance opportunities for online social networking (69%);

· Pre-performance artist demonstrations (67%);

· Pre-performance links to digital video files of artists’ work (62%);

· Pre-performance lectures or discussions with a dance expert other than the artist (58%); and

· Introductions of pieces from the stage by an artist or educator (56%). This was by far the most common type of engagement activity conducted during performances, rather than leading up to or following them.

Many organizations (63% of all survey respondents and 71% of presenters) offer “non-performance specific engagement activities”, such as workshops, master classes, panels, lectures, discussions, open rehearsals, social events with artists, community outreach performances, blogging, school-based activities, social groups and email blasts.

In terms of the most important outcomes of audience engagement activities, two-thirds of respondents selected heightening the impact of the audience experience. Just under one-half of the organizations chose more marketing-related outcomes, such as building loyalties and strengthening ties with constituents (45%) or increasing the size of the potential base of future ticket buyers (42%).

Most dance organizations see a distinction between “audience engagement” and “audience development”, with engagement activities designed to deepen the experience for audiences and development activities designed to broaden or increase audiences. As noted by one respondent, “audience development is focused mainly on filling seats; audience engagement is more about filling souls.”

Given that the organizations responding to the survey were also applying for funding for audience engagement practices, it is not surprising that no organization indicated that they believe that “art speaks for itself. No explanation is necessary.” The report does argue that there may be a shift away from “art for art’s sake”, given the finding that 26% of respondents indicated that “audiences benefit from explanations of art”, and another 34% chose the second-highest rating level regarding audience benefits from explanations.

Within the dance organizations, both artistic and administrative leaders are frequently involved in planning and designing engagement activities. Lack of time and cost are the two most significant barriers that prevent organizations from undertaking more engagement activities. “Low participation by audiences” was selected by a substantial minority of dance organizations responding to the survey (32%). “Artist availability or lack of interest” was selected by 28% of all respondents and a much higher percentage of presenters (45%). Interest from both audience members and artists was perceived to be on the increase.

While many evaluations of engagement programs have been informal (via “staff debriefings”), two-thirds of organizations have conducted participant satisfaction surveys during the past three seasons (65%), and one-quarter have undertaken focus group discussions with participants (27%).

The report indicates that there are significant challenges in engaging audience members who are less knowledgeable about dance and therefore less likely to volunteer their time for pre-performance or post-performance activities. Another challenge is finding a funding balance between audience engagement activities and creation or production of dance works.

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