Audience Development is Retarded

Dumb, Invalid, Retarded, Slow, Brain- Damaged, Psycho, Crazy, Insane, Wacko, Nuts, Handicapped, Physically Challenged, “Special,” Deformed, Cripple, Gimp, Spastic, Spaz, Wheelchair-bound, Lame…  

Please CLICK HERE for an excellent overview of respectful disability language.

Neon wordsThe words we use matter.

Vocabulary doesn’t just express our beliefs.  It shapes our understanding.  Just as our imaginations are propelled by the rich concepts conveyed by a single word, so too is our capacity for advancement constrained by vocabulary that reinforces outmoded and hurtful beliefs.

(Just ask Paula Deen.)

I ask you:  What commonly-used words or phrases constrain the forward-thinking of leaders of arts & cultural organizations?

I call out these few, and invite you to leave a reply (BELOW) to add to the list.

  • “Our” Audience

    You serve an audience but an audience is not something you own.  I’ve written on this before:  The Myth of “Our Audience“.

  • “Patron”

    Nonprofit organizations (and especially our auditors) go to great lengths to distinguish between marketing & development, earned revenue & contributed revenue, ticket sales & donations.  However, our words fail to differentiate between the obvious difference in motivations and expectations of people who (per the definition) are either:

    1. a person who is a customer, client, or paying guest especially a regular one, of a store, hotel, or the like, and
    2. a person who supports with money, gifts, efforts or endorsement an artist, writer, museum cause, charity, institution, special event of the like:  a patron of the arts.

For what it’s worth, I prefer to call a ticket buyer or visitor a “guest” rather than a patron, as that word more more directly addresses the nature of relationship that must be nurtured.

  • “Sustainability”

    Environmental sustainability is its own virtuous buzzword, but what does that word mean to arts & cultural organizations?  Too much talk of “sustainable business models” suggests that “sustainability” is an organization’s highest virtue.  But that’s an absolutely incorrect assertion.  Let’s be clear:  sustainability should describe the MINIMUM of what a healthy organization should achieve.  (If you were working out at the gym, you might recognize an equivalent meaning in the term “core strength.”) Sustainability is the solid foundation from which a healthy organization operates, but it’s far from the culmination of all that is possible or desirable.   Here’s a suggestion: subtly substitute the words “vibrant” or “vital”  the next time someone utters “sustainable” – and see if the conversation doesn’t immediately proceed in a more uplifting and productive direction.

  • “Outreach”

    Perhaps it wasn’t originally intended this way, but the term “audience outreach” seems to connote an antiquated and patronizing relationship in which an arts organization is “up there” – and outreach referred to efforts to go “down to the people” in an effort to “bring them up” to an enlightened level.  Time to retire the word.  It’s just ill-fitting terminology for the nature of contemporary relationships between people and their arts & cultural experiences.

  • “Audience Development”

    The phenomenal success of the GOT MILK? campaign, launched in 1993, fueled numerous other “awareness” campaigns, including several for arts & cultural participation.  To be clear, I am not opposed to collaborative advertising campaigns, but “audience development” deserves a definition greater than “awareness campaign.”

At the moment, I favor the term “Audience Building” as a substitute for both “outreach” and “audience development” because it has the opportunity to be presented as a whole-organization priority rather than as a task delegated to the marketing department.  Even so, it’s an imperfect solution.  The phrase positions arts & cultural administrators as the agents of “construction” and audiences as variously-sized and multi-colored building blocks that exist for us to stack as we see fit.  I’m still searching for a word that reflects the idea that arts & cultural organizations serve, respond & adapt to the evolving interests and expectations of the people who comprise its community.

Let’s think on that further, too.

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  1. says

    The phrase “audience development” was coined back in the early 1980s by folks who worried that “marketing” was far too crass and commercial for something as genteel and important as the arts. They were fine with fundraising, of course, because it was a respected part of the culture of culture so they took the word “development” and slapped “audience” in front of it and everyone was happy.

    I’d like to add the word “engagement” to your list because the same thing is happening today. Folks who are uncomfortable with marketing are now pushing engagement as a way to build audiences even though there’s no evidence to suggest that it can stop let alone reverse chronic audience attrition.

    And I’d like to suggest the word “sales” as the alternative you’re looking for. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with going out into the community, establishing positive relationships with potential audiences and encouraging them to buy tickets. I know there are people who will say that sales is even worse than marketing, but maybe if we call it “goal-oriented engagement” everyone will be happy.

  2. says

    Having an audience is part of the required process for arts organizations to succeed. But it is not the end goal. The end goal is to engage and inspire audiences.

    Webster defines audience as a group of listeners. But having butts in the seats is not all that what we want. The vital, life-sustaining ingredient which must be present within our audiences is a sense engagement. Or to quote Webster again, an emotional involvement and commitment.

    Simply having an audience is by no means a guarantee of success, as proven by the large crowds that attend special events and star soloists, yet never becoming sustaining audience members and donors.

    Engagement is the prerequisite to artistic success. How can my performance be transformative for an audience member if they don’t have an emotional involvement and commitment to what’s happening on stage? And, of course, on an institutional level we need a deeply engaged audience to keep the doors open. I know that the word engagement is thrown around easily these days, and too often it is used to describe events that involve passive listening. But when you go deeply into what it means to be engaged, and make that experience the end goal, it gives the rest of our work the best chance of succeeding.

    I think that you’ve hit on a critical challenge, Matt, which is how do we powerfully articulate our top priorities so that our actions can best serve our communities, and in turn allow us to keep doing what we love.

    • says

      Thanks Paul. I LOVE your point: there’s a world of difference between just physically attending and being fully emotionally present. The former satisfies the budget; but the latter fulfills our purpose.

  3. says

    I have worked with some amazing marketing professionals; one concept that was remained with me came for an Apple Executive. Marketing is about providing people with the information they need to make a decision, guiding them to your product. Sales in closing the deal.
    When we look back, we often forget that we had large volunteer “sales” teams, building our audiences. We assume that marketing alone can take up the slack. My most successful audience building projects have always addressed the question, who is responsible for closing the deal, making the sale.
    I think we have to embrace the fact that we “market” our events and “sell” our tickets.