Today, performing artists and managers hear constantly about the importance of diversifying and developing new audiences for their work. In my opinion, this perspective comes from an attitude of lack, that there are not or could not possibly be enough people interested in what we do in order for us to keep moving ahead, to persevere in the long run.
I much prefer the perspective that this thinking is what is lacking. The arts are a creative field, and like any business operating today, we must adapt to market conditions all around us, which are constantly changing. This includes how our audiences potentially spend their time and money. We must be creative not only in the performance hall or studio, but also in our understanding and perception of the value we offer, and to whom it is not yet, but could be, valuable. When really thinking about to whom our artistic visions and offerings could appeal, there is no lack of potential or opportunity, unless we fail to dream and open new pathways for inspiration and connection. There are no right answers!
Some say that the definition of insanity is doing the same thing and expecting different results. Regarding diversifying and developing or engaging audiences, I tend to agree. I have observed a number of arts organizations, many with very good intentions, “reach out” to new audiences with a slight variation on their typical product or output, packaged in a typical manner, with communications going out through the typical channels, and yet expecting to draw a different crowd.
Nearly 100% of the time, there is a lot riding on these “outreach” or “engagement” experiments. When these do not go as expected – when, despite all the optimism, “they” don’t “show up” – it can often create unintended adverse, long-lasting ripples. When an organization experiences such deep and memorable “burn” that it actively avoids engaging in further such experiments, it is a loss for the organization and the community. These are vitally missed opportunities, the source of which is usually a lack of understanding about the groups we are pursuing.
Just like meaningful relationships, quality audience development is an ongoing, long-term proposition. It is a co-creation grounded in understanding perspectives and values of audience members and designing resonant, relevant experiences for them. Consider the casual atmosphere at the new Broad Museum in LA, Carnegie Hall’s Lullaby Project, New World Symphony’s PULSE concerts, and Miami City Ballet’s Ballet Bus. All of these examples are grounded in an understanding the users, their needs and motivations, and offering an experience that positions those users and those organizations for success. In a similar co-creative model, we as cultural organizations can respond to our desired users’ needs and values. This process is incredibly exciting and rewarding.
So, what can we do to be successful and avoid insanity in audience development? Let’s do something different, and expect different results. Let’s question our thinking and our approach. Let’s embrace that there is a potential wealth of enthusiasm and passion out there for us and our offerings. Let’s imagine specific people whose involvement we crave, learn what is important to them, what keeps them from participating. Then let’s figure out where they hang out, and how they want to communicate or engage with us. Let’s gather information from them directly, let’s invite them to join our family, and let’s see where we land. And of course, let’s have fun experimenting together. As creative people, we will never be done exploring, and there is great opportunity and excitement in unveiling that incredible potential.