A compelling artistic vision and a high-quality artistic product are absolutely fundamental to every successful artistic venture. If something incredible, transformative or exciting isn’t at the basis of what you do, you can forget about your ability to perform the other business functions effectively. (My mentor Michael Kaiser is 100% right about this). And most of what’s on stage – maybe not the details, but many of the broad strokes, such as the who, where, and what of the season – is an administrative exercise.
Where, then, does the audience fit in? Beyond buying subscriptions, tickets, showing up, hopefully enjoying what we program, and hopefully coming back for more, what exactly is the role of an audience? Does an audience provide value beyond this implicit contract, upon which most organizations rely for their very existence?
I think the answer is a resounding yes. But the majority of organizations still aren’t looking at it like that.
Usually it’s because we are so absorbed (and rightly so) in creating what is on stage, the artistic product. Artistic excellence, or the creation of transformative art, can be a nearly all-encompassing endeavor. And in those cases, the audience can be an afterthought, but not intentionally so.
Do we sell ourselves short with this attitude? Are there beneficial outcomes that are possible only when we look to the audience as a source of insight?
Again, I think the answer is yes.
Let’s turn to the business world for a moment. It would be insane for a business not to think about the end user, their behaviors and preferences, and to calibrate the experience of their product or service accordingly. That’s what makes a number of them successful, and it’s the reason for updates, bug fixes, rewards cards and more. The idea is to remove barriers to a streamlined user experience or even incentivize the user to return, for the benefit of the business. This is a win-win, because it rewards customers too. A more streamlined user experience is much more likely to yield positive results for the business, when customers re-up or increase their orders, or even refer their family and friends.
What if arts organizations took a bigger page from business, and looked more often at how they could reward their audiences with an improved experience (beyond the art on stage or in the gallery)? What if we passionately pursued understanding the user’s journey – the audience’s experience – and proactively factored that into maybe not what, but at least the way the art is presented?
In the arts, our audiences are willingly choosing not a product or service, but an experience. They know that the experience has the potential to transform them and their lives, even for a moment. That’s why they come. They know that they can turn to us to divert, to challenge, to uplift. And in turn, we rely on them for some monetary investment (admission or membership or a donation), but we also depend on them for their energy, for their engagement, and for the enthusiasm they bring even as they set aside their daily lives to spend a couple of hours with us.
Further, it would be so much easier for many of our audience members to just stay at work, stay home, or curl up with Netflix, than to come out and engage with us. To put it bluntly, for most arts audience members, taking part in what we do is far from convenient, especially considering the increasing convenience provided in other areas of their lives (see above). Because we are experiential, we depend on our audiences to choose us, and we need to recognize what other choices they are not making when they come to us. We dictate when, where and what we are presenting. But we do have control over the how of our work, and have not nearly explored this to the fullest. The fun part is, any experiment with this kind of approach can be valuable and is likely to yield mutual benefit of some sort.
So let’s recognize the vital role our audiences play. In so many ways and on so many levels, we would utterly fail without them. They contribute much more than their ticket price, their butt in a seat, or their donation.
And we have the power to make their journey so much easier and more enjoyable. What are we waiting for? Let's learn. Let's experiment. Let's play.