Audience development is the long-term process of encouraging and assisting people in your community to become engaged in the arts and more deeply involved in the arts. The term describes activities undertaken:
- To engage uninitiated members of your community in the arts experience.
- To deepen the commitment of existing audience members.
If there are 300 people sitting in the auditorium at your performance tonight, there are dozens of different reasons why they decided to come. For some, it may be their interest in the artist or the art form that you are presenting. For others, the evening is a social night out with a friend or family member. Some people see attending the events as a way of supporting the community. Some may be there because their boss is on your board. Some may be there simply because someone else asked them to come.
In your community, there are many more people who didn’t come to the performance tonight. Some may have wanted to go and had a social conflict of some kind. Some may feel that the arts are “not for them” (either from a lack of experience or from a bad association with an earlier experience.)
A lot of people, if asked, would say that they did not even know the performance was taking place, despite your best efforts to blanket your community with promotions about the show. With all the ads and posters and the articles in the local media, why did they not know about the show? The fact is, we are all confronted by thousands of advertising messages each day, and our filters are so well developed that we do not “see” or “hear” anything that is not already of interest. Your job as a presenter therefore includes creating interest in the arts in general and in the shows you present in particular.
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Here are a few interesting facts about participation in the arts that make a good argument for why having audience development activities incorporated into your presenting program is an important investment. Research has shown that arts education as a child more than doubles the chances that you will participate in the arts as an adult. It has also shown that people are four times more likely to attend if their peer group attends (whether they had arts education or not). Finally, research has shown that the more knowledgeable people are about the arts, the more likely they are to find arts experiences to be a satisfying way to spend their time.
Objectives of Audience Development
Generally, "audience development" is the term used to describe the activities you will undertake to engage uninitiated members of your community in the arts going experience and those that are undertaken to deepen the commitment of your existing audience members. You might set out one or more of the following objectives for your audience development activities:
- Broaden participation: increase the number of people in the community who are participating in the arts.
- Deepen participation: encourage those who are attending to participate more frequently and/or in a broader range of arts experiences
- Diversify participation: encourage specific constituencies (such as children or specific cultural groups) to participate.
Engaging Young Audiences
Touring companies undertake a lot of audience development activity with a focus on young people or on community artists. For a modest additional fee, you may be able to arrange auxiliary activities as part of the company’s visit to your community, as follows:
Workshops can take anywhere from 30 minutes to 2 hours. Generally, they use the artistic form of your performance as the basis of a structured activity.
Generally, masterclasses involve teaching emerging artists in your artistic field in a structured environment.
The audience at an open rehearsal could be made up of students, sponsors, donors or members of the general public. Someone in the company with a microphone should introduce the performance before the rehearsal begins.
Most dance companies organize a class in the afternoon before the performance to allow their artists to limber up. Sometimes, they open the class to spectators, and this is a perfect opportunity to invite students of local dance classes to see professional artists at work. If the audience is composed of regular rather than dance students, someone in the company – for a small fee – could provide a narrative describing the class.
Some artists have a shorter program that can be performed for school matinees. It is important to know how the program relates to the school curriculum so that you bring in students of an appropriate age. Also, ask if the artists have study guides so that teachers can prepare their students for the performance.
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Engaging Culturally Specific Groups
Canada’s artistic community offers a broad spectrum of work, many culturally diverse artists and groups (e.g., Aboriginal theatre companies, South Asian dance troupes, musicians performing world music) are touring today. These allow you to collaborate with local culturally specific organizations to celebrate their various cultures. At the same time, you will be introducing new arts experiences to your traditional audience!
A few years ago, I lived next door to a great neighbour who had a pool in her backyard. There were many days I would come home from work and hear the sounds of a party going on… laughter, music and splashing. Even though she had always said I was welcome anytime, I never actually walked through the gate without a direct invitation. I keep this in mind when I think about attracting audiences to attend performances. When the invitation is personal, it makes us feel special and truly welcome.
Simply programming a local artist will not guarantee attracting audiences from all parts of the community. We found that our core audience for contemporary dance was just as interested in Indigenous Dancelands as in the rest of our season, but not so the Indigenous community, which was not familiar with us. Bill Kimball
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Engaging the Uninitiated
Many adults in your community may never have attended a performing arts event. For them, ticket prices may not be the barrier: it could simply be that they have no context to suggest that this is an enjoyable way to invest their time and money. In fact, few people attended their first arts event alone: someone – an aunt, teacher or girlfriend – brought them. The key here is to find some way to encourage people who enjoy the arts to invite the uninitiated. But how?
There are lots of options:
You could encourage your local service organization or bank branch to purchase a group of tickets for employees. Make the evening special by arranging for a pre-show chat with the artist. Or let them know you could invite the artists to attend a reception following the performance. The more you can help organizations create a social context around the performance, the better chance you have of catching their interest.
Some presenters offer a significant discount (as much as half the price) to other non-profit organizations in their community for fundraising purposes (the tickets being sold on to members at regular price).
If you have subscribers, encourage them to bring others to the performances by offering a special discount on the purchase of additional tickets to individual events. Or give them a voucher for a free complimentary ticket to “treat a friend” when they buy their subscription.
Work with a nearby restaurant to create a dinner and a show package that you can promote to your audience and the restaurant can promote to its customers. Such packages are a great gift idea for the holiday season or for Valentine’s or Mother’s Day.
Your organization can be a good community citizen at the same time that you engage new people in the arts. Work with local organizations like Big Brother or Big Sister. Offer the Big Brother or Sister a free child’s ticket with their ticket purchase. Then, arrange a post-performance discussion with the artist for the group.
Sometimes, you can make arrangements for the artist to visit your community prior to the performance. Work with other community organizations or local schools to pay the fees for workshops while you cover the artist’s travel, accommodation and hospitality costs. Then, at no extra cost, you can add media interviews and other non-paying activities, such as:
Community college and university departments may schedule the artist to present a lecture to groups of students.
Many artists are comfortable speaking on a range of topics, from how their career developed, to how they prepare for a role or how the rehearsal process works or the state of the arts in today’s society. Service clubs and professional organizations are often pleased to welcome speakers at their meetings.
Deepening the relationship with your audience
Make the experience as rewarding as possible with social enrichments, like receptions, or secondary events around the performance itself. Some touring companies delegate a member to participate in a pre-show chat about the performance or to give a lecture or speech about some aspect of their art form. Generally, these events should be no more than 20 minutes long and completed by approximately half an hour before the performance.
If you have arranged for a masterclass or workshop for earlier in the day, ask the touring company if you can invite a small number of people to watch it. This is a great way for board members, sponsors, donors, volunteers or regular audience members to gain a greater knowledge of the art form, which will ultimately enhance their enjoyment. If you are inviting students to an open rehearsal or class, invite some other people as well.
You might like to also develop an e-club so you can email information from the artist’s press kit to your audience a few days in advance of the performance. Reading background on the show enhances the audience’s enjoyment.
Small steps forward
Think of audience development as a ripple in a pond. It might feel like a lot of work to get a dozen students out to attend an open rehearsal, but that one arts experience might inspire a lifelong habit of arts attendance for all 12. The first time you approach a new target group to invite them to participate, you might get only a handful of people responding, but if they have an enjoyable experience, there will be a few more the next time, and a few more after that.
“Listening is more important than talking.” Stephen Covey, 7 Habits of Highly Effective People
Audience development is an investment in the future of the arts. Its success depends largely on developing effective partnerships with community organizations and educational institutions. All good relationships are a two-way street so, in contacting an organization in your community to partner with you, make sure that there are potential rewards for both of you. Partnerships, to be effective, are about shared benefits and mutual respect.
A New Framework for Building Participation in the Arts
Kevin F. McCarthy and Kimberly Jinnett (RAND), March 2001, 122 pp.
Available on-line at the Wallace Foundation.
Engage Now! An Arts Workers Guide to Deepening Experience and Strengthening Participation in the Arts
Gerald (Jerry) D. Yoshitomi (prepared for the Arts Experience Initiative in Pittsburgh with support from the Heinz Endowments), February 2002, 48 pp.
Increasing Cultural Participation: An Audience Development Planning Handbook for Presenters, Producers, and Their Collaborators
Paul Connolly and Marcelle Hinand Cady (The Unit for Contemporary Literature, Illinois State University), 2001, 176 pp.
Arts Participation: Steps to Stronger Cultural and Community Life
Chris Walker w/ Corey Fleming and Kay Sherwood (Urban Institute), August 2003, 19 pp.