Attracting a Crowd

Editor’s note: Don’t miss the free Dance/USA webinar on audience building on Thursday, April 30, 2015, at 2:00 pm ET. Pacific Northwest Ballet Executive Director Ellen Walker and Bob Harlow will present findings from recent Wallace reports on audience engagement and share helpful tactics applicable to arts organizations of all sizes.

Wallace Foundation Study Offers Up More Analytics on Audience-Building

By Steve Sucato

The prevailing mantra in the business world is that in order to succeed, grow, and stay in business, you constantly need new customers. For arts organizations that holds true with audience members. Customers will come and go, so, too, audience members. The key is retaining as many of the ones you have while consistently gaining new ones. How to accomplish that is an age-old riddle that seems to have a million different solutions depending on your organization’s situation. Some may move your organization toward achieving its goals, while others may lead it down dead-end roads or toward eventual ruin.

The October 2014 study published by The Wallace Foundation, entitled The Road To Results: Effective Practices For Building Arts Audiences, seeks to take some of the guesswork out of choosing the right answers to your organization’s particular audience-building riddles by examining the examples of ten arts organizations. These large and small arts non-profits, which rose to the top from a pool of 54 organizations in six cities (Boston, Chicago, Minneapolis, Philadelphia, San Francisco, Seattle), were invited to apply for and received The Wallace Excellence Awards. The awards financially supported audience-building efforts of each organization’s own design between 2006 and 2012.

The ten groups highlighted in the 91-page Road To Results were Boston’s Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum and Boston Lyric Opera; Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theatre Company; Philadelphia’s The Clay Studio and Fleisher Art Memorial; San Francisco’s The Contemporary Jewish Museum and San Francisco Girls Chorus; Minnesota Opera; and Seattle’s Pacific Northwest Ballet and Seattle Opera.

The Road To Results follows a string of prior research projects that began with the RAND Corporation audience-building study A New Framework for Building Participation in the Arts, published in 2001. That led to The Wallace Excellence Awards, which sought to answer what was learned from the RAND study and put into practice, if anything, and how could organizations implement it? Road To Results author Bob Harlow of Bob Harlow Research and Consulting, LLC, in New York, N.Y., and his team of researchers and writers were then assigned by the Wallace Foundation to examine ten of those Excellence awardees chosen for their ability to move the needle on their audience-building efforts, cohesiveness in their strategies, and diversity to find out what works. That yielded ten individual case studies, which pointed to nine common practices that contributed to the success of WEA’s audience-building efforts.

“Even though these organizations are completely diverse — you have this tiny community-based arts school in Philadelphia and then you’ve got these $20-million dance and opera organizations in Seattle — there were common threads we found,” says Harlow. “Wallace said we should write up these common threads, which led to The Road To Results.”

Harlow says he was not surprised by the common threads given that the organizations had the same basic challenge. “No matter who they were, they were all trying to build a following among an audience that really did not know much about them,” says Harlow.

Written for arts organization leaders, arts funders, policymakers, and arts management students, The Road To Results uses supported data examples from the ten organization’s different approaches to audience-building efforts and looks at effective practices, strategies, and tactics that could potentially help other arts organizations achieve their audience-building goals. Through an in-depth look at the nine common threads identified in the study, which includes charts, graphs, and examples from the ten organizations examined, The Road To Results presents a most useful tool to add to any arts organization’s audience-building arsenal.

The common threads as published by Harlow in Road To Results are as follows with examples from several of those studied used to illustrate some of those commonalities:

  1. Recognizing When Change Is Needed. Organizations saw a pattern of audience behavior that presented an opportunity or a challenge for their financial viability, artistic viability, or both.
    The Clay Studio, which offers ceramic art classes, workshops and exhibitions, had an issue with stagnant visitor numbers that threatened its future. They chose an initiative that, over five years says the study, “tripled enrollment and doubled its class revenue by adding opportunities for hands-on creative experiences that attracted hundreds of young adults to its classes and workshops. They, along with Steppenwolf and Fleisher, made their observations in different ways: through on-the-ground experience, analysis of ticket receipts, and gaining the fresh perspective of an internal reorganization.”
  2. Identifying the Target Audience that Fits. Compatibility has two meanings here: First, organizations had reason to believe, based either on research or prior experience, that they could make a meaningful connection with the target audience. Second, leaders agreed that serving the audience reinforced — and did not compromise — the organization’s other activities or its mission.
    “It was a rigorous application process,” says Pacific Northwest Ballet executive director Ellen Walker about applying for The Wallace Excellence Awards. “We first went through a discernment process within our organization to determine that, if we got a grant of this size, what do we need to address? For us it was really about engagement of young people.”
  3. Determining What Kinds of Barriers Need To Be Removed. Successful organizations identified the types of barriers impeding the target audience’s participation and shaped their strategies accordingly. Says Walker, Wallace wanted the organizations chosen for an award and their audience-building initiatives to focus on one of three areas: deepening, broadening, or diversifying their audiences. PNB chose a broadening strategy. PNB’s efforts concentrated on making ballet more accessible to teen and young adult audiences. They overhauled their external communications, including the website by adding behind-the-scenes videos of daily studio life; offered teen-only, exclusive previews of its Next Step choreographers; increased their social media presence; and offered $5 Teen Tix tickets, discounted rush and “two-for” ticket promotions. Over the four years of the initiative, PNB’s ticket sales to teens more than doubled and ticket sales to young adults under age 25 rose by 20 percent. The San Francisco Girls Chorus (SFGC) conversely, says the study, chose a diversifying strategy “targeting ‘classical music patrons’ to engage others beyond their regular audience that consisted of chorus members’ friends and family.”
  4. Taking Out the Guesswork: Audience Research to Clarify the Approach. Organizations often started out knowing very little about the new audience they were targeting and why that audience was not participating. Rather than guess, they went to the source — the target audience itself — for the facts. Using audience research, the organizations gained a clearer understanding of their target group’s interests, lifestyles, general attitudes toward the arts, cultural involvement, and opinions of their own institution. To help in those research efforts, every awardee was assigned a technical adviser. In PNB’s case a researcher provided them with a plan and conducted focus groups for them.
  5. Thinking Through the Relationship. Some case study organizations went so far as to spell out a vision of the relationship they wanted to cultivate with the new audience, including specific roles for the audience and themselves. By doing so, they gave their audience-building initiatives structure and a sense of purpose. The Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum looked to its core values in developing a strategy to engage a new audience of young adults. The museum’s staff wanted to create an event for young, first-time visitors, says the study, that inspired thoughtful observation and discussion about the museum’s collection that did not require knowledge of specific movements or artists — making it a social event with friends after work. They created Gardner After Hours, a program of informal activities, such as brief gallery talks and games, that led to more than 90 percent of the After Hours attendees exploring the galleries.
  6. Providing Multiple Ways In. Staff expanded the ways people could access their organizations, both literally and psychologically. Many organizations provided gateway experiences to acquaint newcomers with their activities. Others generated interest by making connections to things that their target audience already knew or by showing them different sides of their institutions. The study sites Fleisher Art Memorial’s efforts in this area by introducing itself to its Philadelphia community in in different ways “on the theory that multiple experiences will build stronger connections.” Says the study, Fleisher’s “mobile arts studio, ColorWheels, goes to local parks so children can make art and parents can get a feel for what Fleisher’s on-site programs are like. It also hosts ARTspiration!, an annual arts festival in the neighborhood. These aren’t ‘outreach programs’ as they are sometimes thought of, in which bringing art to the community is the goal and the endpoint. Fleisher’s aim is to gradually build a sense of familiarity with neighborhood residents that leads them to feel comfortable with the organization and eventually sign up for a class.”
  7. Aligning the Organization Around the Strategy. Leaders and staff built clarity, consensus, and internal buy-in around the audience-building initiative’s objectives, importance to the organization, and staff roles in implementing it. The study finds that arts organizations often do not give enough time or attention to aligning the organization around the strategy “because it seems tangential to the ‘real’ work of designing and deploying audience-engagement programs.  Among the 54 organizations that received WEA funding, some treated their audience-building initiatives as side projects, peripheral to their core activities. The initiatives got little attention outside of a marketing or education department, and the lack of cross-departmental coordination prevented them from picking up steam.”
  8. Building in Learning. Even with considerable research and planning, organizations could never be sure that a new audience would react favorably to their overtures. There were stops, starts, and some downright failures along the way. To stay on track and develop a working knowledge of what clicked with their audiences, many of them did on-the-ground experiments or used formal evaluations that drove program improvements. Each grantee was responsible for reporting back to Wallace about results and if they needed to make changes in their initial plans. Wallace worked with them to smooth out hiccups in their plans or make course corrections.
  9. Preparing for Success. Success for the ten organizations involved serving new audiences and assuming new responsibilities. Staff at the grantee institutions often worked overtime to handle an increased workload. Organizations found that they had to develop new capabilities and refine existing practices to accommodate newcomers, all while continuing to satisfy existing audiences. In addition to the valuable information in The Road To Results, even more in-depth research and information especially the “how to’s” for folks in the trenches who want to know the logistics of how those ten organizations really went about their audience-building projects can be found in the individual case studies. Four were published in 2011 and three since, with three more coming in 2015. (See below for links to those published studies or go to

In addition to offering practical and helpful information on audience-building, The Road To Results also points out that with successes come failures.

“The other thing that is important in reading The Road To Results is that it is a little disingenuous frankly because it looks like: ‘Wow, The Clay Studio did all these great things and look at PNB, they had this walk down the garden path.’ It wasn’t like that,” says Harlow. “Everyone had some false starts and made some mistakes. Going after new audiences they made a lot of mistakes and we say that in Road to Results.”

With all the observations and revelations that were and could be culled from The Wallace Foundation’s research leading to The Road To Results, one of the most telling comes from the study’s author about the arts field in general.

“I do work in a variety of industries, such as health care and technology, and in the arts, unfortunately, there is a hesitancy to use research strategically and I found that was definitely true in these cases,” says Harlow. “People did market research because Wallace asked them to and
provided resources to support them in doing it. I think many of them became converted into understanding that market research is really important, but I don’t know if they measured things exactly in a disciplined way. I think that this is a problem endemic to the arts field.”

Harlow feels many of the organizations in the study did great jobs, but notes that there is always room for improvement.

While the study can offer many takeaways for its readers and for other arts organizations, Harlow sees perhaps the biggest takeaway being recognition of the real end goal:

“So much of the work done in arts audience-building, I must say, is about the techniques and tactics: ‘We did this great after-hours thing. We had this lively talk back. We did this great social media thing. We had a kiosk.’ Arts organizations tend to focus on these tactics that are sexy to read about, but what we found is that they are sort of red herrings,” says Harlow. “You really need to focus on building relationships. Organizations that focus on building long-term relationships, understanding who they want to build a relationship with, what they can offer them and whether they are a match, that’s the stuff that makes the difference.”

Read More: Links to the Seven Individual Studies Published

Steve SucatoA former dancer turned writer/critic living in Ohio, Steve Sucato studied ballet and modern dance at the Erie Civic Ballet (Erie, Pa.) and at Pennsylvania State University. He has performed numerous contemporary and classical works sharing the stage with noted dancers Robert LaFosse, Antonia Franceschi, Joseph Duell, Sandra Brown, and Mikhail Baryshnikov. His writing credits include articles and reviews on dance and the arts for The Plain Dealer (Cleveland, Ohio), The Buffalo News, Erie Times-News (Erie, Pa.), Pittsburgh City Paper, as well as magazines Pointe, Dance Studio Life, Dance Magazine, Dance Teacher, Stage Directions, Dance Retailer News, Dancer and webzines Balletco, DanceTabs, Ballet-Dance Magazine/Critical Dance, and, where he is currently associate editor. Steve is a chairman emeritus of the Dance Critics Association, an international association of dance journalists.  


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