This post is part of our “Optimizing Your Arts Marketing Practice” blog salon.
Arts organizations often find a delicate balance in planning a season that generates necessary revenue and attendance, while still being driven by a meaningful purpose. Attached to this balancing act is another set of spinning plates: how do you target specific audiences without alienating others? From classical concert halls to avant-garde museums, to community theatres and university art centers, many organizations feel an underlying duty to provide artistic and cultural experiences not only to entertain and engage but to educate and provide a platform for exploration that is welcoming to the widest audience possible. The ultimate goal is to provide opportunities rooted in a place of purpose, guided by your mission, that have the ability to reach a largest possible range of individuals.
When planning a season, I feel there are two main approaches—plan a season focused on audience engagement with revenue in mind, or plan a season focused on audience engagement with the organization’s mission in mind. The two are generally combined, but I argue that keeping the stronger focus on your mission will benefit your organization in the end and increase overall attendance. Producing off-mission or pure “entertainment-value” pieces only to generate revenue may provide short-term success for your budget and attendance numbers but has long-term effects on your mission and brand. The key is in planning a season that supports your mission with opportunities for “cross-interest” connections to increase attendance to new audiences.
Planning a meaningful arts season on a college campus provides a clear example of “cross-interest” connections or, in academia, cross-curricular connections. If the mission of your organization is to provide intentional learning opportunities in the arts for students on campus, for example, then the season should be designed as an educational resource for faculty that enhances academic programming. Faculty have influence over their students’ decision-making and can also mandate requirements for attendance; so, offering an art season with inherent cross-curricular connections leads to increased engagement.
Similarly, there is great power in using cross-interest connections when presenting work that honors or explores a specific gender, culture, race, sexual orientation, or any self/demographically identified community of individuals. Take an exhibition that features traditional textiles from an indigenous community. One cross-interest connection would be to find representations and appropriations of these patterns in modern culture to reach to a wider audience, both raising awareness of the culture and the art behind their weaving traditions. If the exhibition marketing only focuses on the traditional materials featured in the exhibition and does not highlight the modern-day connections, there is an audience being missed—and it is the most important audience too: a new audience.
If the work you are presenting speaks only to those who are already paying attention, then the potential audience is of course limited. You also limit the power of the work being presented to educate and provide a platform for exploration to those who wish to learn, and even better, for those who need to have their eyes opened. Increased attendance and revenue go hand in hand with increased awareness and understanding. Often those cross-interest or cross-curricular connections need to be made overtly transparent and targeted to the various communities you wish to reach and engage.
This notion of cross-interest connections can even be applied in the most basic terms. For example, if you are presenting traditional classical music and want a stronger interaction with a younger demographic, see if there are any movie or commercial references with the music you are presenting that can serve as a stepping-stone to engagement. Another example would be a theatre wishing to push the envelope in design. The choice to utilize a classic piece to showcase the design offers the ability to attract young audiences without alienating the old. Please note that I mean old as in the age of your patrons as well as loyalty, although this may be one in the same. Finding common threads to engage new audiences while still reaching the old can be difficult, but the balance is possible.
Season planning that is guided by your mission should present connections into new audiences without too much stretching or searching. There can be a desire to force connections where they do not naturally occur, yet it is better not to make a connection than make one that is not clearly defined. There is a definite balance in supporting your mission and offering opportunities with intrinsic connections, but the process is worth the results. The image of spinning plates often bears a strong resemblance to the balancing act of planning a season; it all comes down to a strong and stable foundation, from which new plates can connect to the first, spinning apart but together in motion.