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Finding—

and Keeping—

Your Audience

By Ellen Goldensohn

“What information do you lack that—if you had it—would help you make a breakthrough in audience-building?” The Wallace Foundation first asked that question of arts-organization leaders in 2006. What followed was a multi-year initiative that has yielded a trove of illuminating insights into what draws people to participate in the arts—and what keeps them coming.

Many—if not most—of Chamber Music America’s members have tinkered with their marketing or programming, perhaps to attract youth or young adults, to engage residents new to the community, or just to stop the bleeding from the old subscriber base. Often, however, this is guesswork. For chamber music organizations to enter into strong audience– artist relationships, we need more than the trial and error of our individual experiments. Ideally, we’d be able to tap into a large fund of objective findings—and then apply them to our own case.

Enter the Wallace Foundation. With its track record of seeking evidence-based solutions to problems in the education field, the national philanthropy undertook a sweeping effort to help arts organizations buck the trend of shrinking participation. Starting in 2006, Wallace Excellence Awards were given to 54 arts organizations in six cities—Boston, Chicago, Detroit, New York, Philadelphia, and Seattle. Each recipient had two to four years of support for research and experimental projects designed to expand their audiences or draw new ones.

The information gleaned from the Wallace initiative is now being published in stages. Its relevance to the chamber music profession is clear, and CMA has partnered with the foundation to disseminate the findings to our constituents around the country. While many of the studies and projects on which these findings are based were undertaken by organizations much larger than the typical chamber music ensemble or presenter, many of the resultant strategies can be tailored to the needs of our own field—and the audience-engagement ideas will certainly spark some of our own.

The foundation’s recently released report, Road to Results: Nine Effective Practices for Building Audiences for the Arts, distills elements common to ten organizations whose audience-development efforts yielded particularly instructive results. Some of these practices required internal adjustments on the part of the organization; others were necessary for gathering objective information about audiences. (The nine practices in Road to Results are summarized on page 72.)

Also illuminating are the foundation’s individual case studies of the organizations on which Road to Results is based. To date, the foundation has published four of these studies, each of which details the thinking, the nuts and bolts, and the ups and downs of these organizations’ efforts to engage audiences.

The San Francisco Girls Chorus, Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theatre, and the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum and Lyric Opera in Boston faced basic challenges shared by chamber music ensembles and presenters. Accounts of what these four case-study organizations discovered are offered below. For a fully nuanced view, however, we greatly recommend downloading the full reports. All four are found at www.chamber-music.org/extras, and more will become available in the coming year.

 

Fighting a Stereotype to Gain an Audience

As chamber musicians know, sometimes your popular image is your enemy—consider only the widely held notion that string quartets are “stuffy” or that contemporary jazz is way too abstruse. The San Francisco Girls Chorus (SFGC) had the opposite problem. The 36-year-old organization commissions new works, tours internationally, and has won ASCAP awards for adventurous programming and Grammys for its recordings with the San Francisco Symphony. Yet its concerts were attended mainly by the chorus members’ family and friends.

To investigate why it did not draw the expected audiences, SFGC conducted focus groups made up of Bay Area concertgoers—people who went to the symphony or opera but who’d never attended an SFGC performance. The results were sobering, yet revealing. The very words “girls chorus” evoked amateurishness and “cookies in the church basement,” said the participants. The Vienna Boys Choir and Mormon Tabernacle Choir, on the other hand, were recognized and respected names.

To executive director Melanie Smith, the Wallacesupported research (and the measures that followed) were “life changing.” She and then-artistic director Susan McMane launched a campaign to increase SFGC’s name recognition, to seek out new performance venues (the chorus did in fact often perform in churches), and—with the assistance of a professional marketer— to build a convincing brand that conveyed the group’s sophistication and reputation. Other important actions were taken as well, from soliciting broader membership on the board of directors to professionalizing the demeanor of front-of-house staff before concerts.

A major move was the redesign of the season brochure. Group photos in the old leaflets were snapshotlike, and could have as easily been found in a high school yearbook or teen camp advertisement. These were replaced by professional publicity photos, in which clusters of singers (rather than all 45 chorus members) were shown in close-ups and dressed in formal conceret attire. Images of classical statuary also upgraded the look. The new brochures were sent to the mailing lists of eleven major Bay Area music organizations.

As a result of these and other measures, SFGC has made significant strides in diversifying its audience. Yet, says executive director Melanie Smith, “it’s still a work in process. The Wallace project was the catalyst for us to look at where we want to go.” To this end, the organization constantly re-evaluates its marketing and its programming. More changes await, as SFGC has recently hired new artistic leadership—Valerie Sainte- Agathe, who trained young singers for France’s Montpellier National Symphony and Opera, is now principal conductor. And the internationally recognized composer Lisa Bielawa (an SFGC alumna) is the chorus’s new music director.

 

Of, By, and For the Young

It would seem a no-brainer. Colleges and universities abound in Boston’s metro area, and that city’s prestigious Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum wanted to draw more visitors in the 18- to 34-year-old age group. But the museum faced a challenge that’s quite familiar to the chamber music world. How does a venerable arts institution go about attracting students and young professionals?

In the Gardner’s case, the solution lay in trusting the museum’s younger staff and volunteers do the planning and implementation. Brainstorming sessions by staffers and volunteers in their 20s and 30s revealed the essentials. The best bet for an appealing museum program would be one that took place early on a weekday evening, just after work and classes, but not too late. There had to be food, and wine or beer. And the opportunity to socialize with friends—and meet new people—would be key.

Obstacles were numerous. The museum’s hours were 11:00 am to 5:00 pm. Opening in the evening would require extra security and other staffing. And of course food and drink couldn’t be carried into the galleries.

What’s more, previous research had shown that, in the minds of the target audience, museums are less associated with socializing than are other arts spaces, such as concert venues (good news for chamber music, at least).

But what if all of these obstacles were overcome, and the target audience came only to hang out—and didn’t engage with the art?

The answers—which came gradually and were fine-tuned over time—involved some innovative compromises. Drinks would be served—but only in the museum courtyard, and live jazz ensembles would play there as well. Visitors were drawn into the galleries via informal, cleverly designed, art-related games, as well as by low-pressure 15-minute discussions about the paintings, facilitated (not led) by young volunteers. Games and talks and arts-related studio activities have since been crafted with Gardner’s educational philosophy in mind. Called Visual Thinking Strategies, the approach was developed to help museum visitors examine works in a way that is meaningful to them. And all of these small-group activities fulfilled something else revealed by the formal research—the desire to meet new people.

Today, the Gardner’s monthly after-hours program, called Third Thursdays, is going strong, averaging 645 visitors per event.

 

More than Logistics—Family Performances

In 2007, the national decline in arts participation was particularly acute for opera. The Boston Lyric Opera (BLO), which had a strong program in the public schools, decided to expand its efforts to create a new generation of opera lovers by going directly into the community with family performances.

The repertory was ready-made. The BLO had merged with Opera New England in 1998, and in the process had inherited four school productions: The Barber of Seville, The Magic Flute, Hansel and Gretel, and Daughter of the Regiment. These were abridged, but professionally polished, versions of classics that children might see again as adults.

The BLO believed that family concerts could, theoretically, be win-win situations. They’d offer child-friendly weekend activities close to home, and might even inspire the parents themselves to attend some of the company’s main-stage performances. But as the opera staff learned, mothers and fathers with young children— even those with a good deal of disposable income—are difficult audience segments to attract to arts events. Travel time, parking, planning ahead, babysitting—all are obstacles for anyone with the consuming and often unpredictable task of caring for children. Probably for these reasons, a previous BLO marketing campaign aimed at parents and dubbed Date Night at the Opera—with the tagline “Leave the Children at Home”—had not done well.

To improve its chances, the BLO decided to present its first family productions in neighborhoods that, according to its research on ticket buyers, had high concentrations of adult opera-goers. An unexpected obstacle, however, was finding workable venues. Even scaled-down opera productions require good acoustics and lighting, roomy off-stage areas for sets, and space for an orchestra. Some of the best venues were quite expensive to rent. Over the course of its Wallace-supported project, the BLO’s family productions were staged in seven different venues—two in downtown Boston; three in suburban Weston, Marblehead and Waltham; and, in the project’s final year, in two in Boston neighborhoods where operagoers were scarce—Melrose, and Upham’s Corner in Dorchester.

After four years, the BLO found that approximately 88 percent of adults at the family performances were previous operagoers. Clearly, identifying the neighborhoods where ticket sales were high had been a fruitful strategy. But attendance in Melrose and Upham’s Corner was markedly lower than in the “strong” opera markets. In fact, the BLO was operating in a complete information vacuum where these audiences were concerned. Research studies and/or focus groups might have revealed the barriers—perceptual and practical—that kept the families in those communities from attending and might have yielded strategies for building interest.

Postscript: Income from the BLO’s in-school productions significantly offset the cost of the family performances. When teachers’ demand for opera performances declined, a different type of program—designed to parallel the school curriculum—replaced them. At that time, the family concerts were retired as well.

 

Strengthening the Bonds

Like music presenters, theaters have had to cope with a shrinking subscriber base—previously a steady income stream and often the source of extra donations. Although Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theatre had an enviable subscriber renewal rate, that rate was diminishing by a few percentage points with each passing year. It was easy to do the math. Unchecked, the downward path would eventually lead to extinction.

To counter this trend, the theater company conducted focus groups—of long-term subscribers, first-year subscribers, and single ticket-buyers—to explore audience attitudes toward its productions and to find out whether single ticket buyers differed from subscribers in preferences and attitudes. The leadership learned—with some degree of surprise—that single-ticket buyers scarcely differed from subscribers. Both groups defined themselves as intellectually adventurous, lifelong learners eager to be challenged, and both groups felt a positive affinity with the type of theater that Steppenwolf produced. The theater—the recipient of a Tony award and a National Medal of Arts for its achievements—was known for its thought-provoking presentations; and this was what the audience valued.

As a result, the Steppenwolf decided not to seek new audiences, but to deepen its relationship with the audience it already had— single-ticket buyers and subscribers alike. If it could expand the theater-goers’ connection beyond a one-night, passive visit, it trusted that the audience’s sense of loyalty and belonging would grow—and that gains on the single-ticket side would help offset losses in the subscriber base. Deepening the connection meant drawing the audience members into the same kinds of artistic and intellectual questions that company members themselves engaged in when discussing their work. To that end, Steppenwolf’s multifaceted “Public Square” project was launched. Every performance is now followed by a post-show discussion, facilitated by a member of the production or artistic staff, with the goal of encouraging audience members to explore concepts suggested by the work they have just seen. And since only 12 to 16 percent of audiences stay after a performance, the possibility to engage in interactive conversation was extended to the theater’s website. Online content now includes articles, video discussions, podcasts, essays, and interviews, as well as a blog in which the artistic director, ensemble members, and production and administrative staff discuss ideas related to current (and upcoming) productions. This content is available to all site visitors.

Steppenwolf seems to have succeeded in its goal of attracting more non-subscribers to multiple performances. In two years, the number of non-subscribers who purchased tickets to more than one performance grew by more than 61 percent, to 2,281 households. Subscriber renewal rates remained in the 80 percent range, well above the national average for theaters.

In all of the case studies, insights arose from strategies that had disappointing results, as well as from those that worked. And in almost all cases, there were no instant solutions; instead, the findings set new processes—and new thinking—in motion. As Edward Pauly—the Wallace Foundation’s director of research and evaluation—puts it, “knowing all the evidence and experience, the trials that worked well, and those did not work well—including all the bumps in the road”—can benefit everyone the arts field.

© 2015 Chamber Music Magazine