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Audience Development: Not Just a Marketing Issue

THERE ARE TWO COMPETING REALITIES IN PLAY for arts and cultural organizations that don't seem to be destined for resolution any time soon, and they both have to do with audience.  The first is the fact that for many traditional cultural activities, audiences and volunteerism are declining.  The second has to do with a perpetual lack of resources most arts and cultural organizations dedicate to ongoing audience development, retention and loyalty-building. 

The American Association of Museums' reports in its Museum Financial Information 2009 that museums with separate marketing budgets dedicate anywhere from 2 percent to 8 percent of annual expenses, depending on total organizational budget, to promoting attendance, memberships or products.  The lower end of the range likely doesn't include personnel.  Bottom line:  museums spend on balance $1.29 per visitor per year to get them in the door, on the membership rolls or purchasing from the shop.  

The Theater Communications Group tracks similar data in its Theatre Facts surveys.  The 2008 survey reports a range of 10.8 percent to 12.6 percent of total operating budget spent on marketing/customer service/concessions (including personnel).  However, Joy Zinoman, founding artistic director of Washington, D.C.’s Studio Theatre, notes, "A relationship to your neighborhood, the idea of theatre being very tied to a place, is a very different notion.... That costs different money and has different implications.”  

Most of us tend to think of audiences as those who show up.  Indeed they are that, but they are more than that.  Despite the current economy, which has sliced marketing budgets and staffs at those institutions fortunate to have marketing budgets and staffs in the first place, paying attention to the care and feeding of audiences is more often an after-thought than a top priority.

Chad Bauman takes on this question for theaters here and here in his blog Arts Marketing.  The comments to these posts are good reading, too.

Arts organizations lacking the expertise of marketing staff are left to their own devices to think about audience development and many just don't or can't.  Too busy with mounting productions, exhibitions, classes or festivals, the last questions asked - if asked at all - have to do with audience engagement and communication.  As Bauman and some of his commentators note, often programming is established without input from the folks who are charged with marketing it, much less without input from potential consumers.

The health of arts and cultural organizations surely depends on its audiences,  not just to fill seats, but for long term personal connection as board members, volunteers and donors.

Photo:  I Am The Audience from vaquey


Shoshana said…
This is exactly why I started my business 2 years ago! Audience Development goes beyond marketing to establish relationships with your existing and potential audiences to get them more involved with your art and arts organization.

The audience can no longer be ignored. They want to participate and be engaged. We need to evolve to entertain (in all sense of the word) these relationships.

Audience Development Specialists
Unknown said…
Hi Anne

Thanks for your post. I'm doing some research at the moment about user innovation in the arts sector in the UK (particularly about visual art galleries and museums) and have been alarmed by the lack of resources and importance placed on understanding our audiences. In fact I had to blog to let off steam last week about it!

Because in UK we don't rely on box office income (in most cases) for visual art galleries and museums in the UK this seems to make the situation even worse.
Shoshana -

Perhaps one way to help organizations institutionalize audience development activities would be for funders to require that an audience development plan (with evaluative criteria) accompany a funding request. This may help to move the needle into the area of really thinking about audience relationship building for some organizations.

Just a thought.

Claire --

Are you familiar with the work of Reach Advisors and of Nina Simon? Both have written extensively about audience participation in museums.

Blogs for both are on my blog roll.

The Arts Council of Indianapolis has a summary report on its website (I hope it's still there!) titled "Developing Next Generation Arts Audiences", which concluded that program development for younger audiences needed to be grounded in learning, connecting, and sensing. I'd argue that goes for audiences of all ages!


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