They won’t even come when it’s free!
That lament from an arts administrator, with eyes rolled and hands thrown up, demonstrates a profound lack of connection with the subject of the exclamation. It is usually expressed in a “safe space” in an arts organization’s office or conference room. I get the frustration but let’s break it down a bit. First, nothing is ever really “free.” At the least there is opportunity cost: what might someone be doing other than the thing with no financial cost associated? The list of other costless and/or, to the potential attendee, more compelling opportunities is long. In addition, for those unfamiliar with the art form or venue there is also the psychological cost of stepping into the unknown. This is exacerbated where the venue or art form has negative connotations in their minds.
But I would go further and bet that there are a number of things the speaker would not consider doing even if they were free. Try it for yourself. Quick, put together a short list of things you’d pass on even if they were free. We’ll wait.
There are a number of things that many people enjoy that would be for me a kind of torture. Here’s just a tiny representative list:
- Games of almost any kind. I (metaphorically) break out in hives if someone suggests we play charades. (This is why I tend to be the timer, scorekeeper, or judge when my family plays board or other kinds of games. They love me enough to tolerate my near-phobia yet include me nonetheless.)
- Skiing. Almost everyone I know loves to ski or would take advantage of a free opportunity to learn. I am not even remotely interested in participating in something in which becoming cold and wet is a central feature.
- Kickboxing lessons. I have no inherent philosophical problem with the sport. And I fully respect those for whom it is a cherished activity. But it’s not for me.
You get the idea. (Putting this together sobered me to the fact that I could easily make this list go on and on. I’ll probably not pursue that revelation too closely.) The point is that just because something is free does not mean that we should assume everyone wants to do it. The nonprofit arts industry has reputational, relevance, and relationship issues that make a lack of “freeness” only one element in a person’s decision to pass on a giveaway.
Without a doubt, cost can be a reason people choose not to attend arts events. However, it is only one factor among many. Focusing on the price of admission is, frankly, far simpler than addressing other inhibiting factors. But if we are to expand our base, we have to be looking at as many of those stumbling blocks as possible.
If people are not taking advantage of your free offerings, you probably should consider those other issues rather than complain about “them.” (And by the way, don’t get me started on the default to “them” and “they” in talking about people with whom we need to build relationships.)