Row X blog by Hannah Grannemann
When arts organizations went into shutdown in 2020 and 2021, they asked audiences, donors, staffs, and their communities to continue supporting them even when they weren’t producing and open to the public because they were working hard during the shutdowns to improve themselves in myriad ways, including building new audiences.
They weren’t going to let a good crisis go to waste, they said. In other words, they were going to “build back better”.
I’m ready to see what they’ve been doing to building new audiences, and I don’t think it’s too soon to expect it. It may be too soon to expect to see a reversal of the pre-pandemic trends of slowly declining arts participation and audiences, but it’s not too soon to see discernable audience-building activity from the arts organizations who we all kept alive during COVID.
Here’s what I’d like to hear about from any arts organization that promised to reopen better than before:
- Descriptions of initiatives to attract new audiences and the amount of financial and human resource investments in those initiatives
- Examples of new programming that are showing promise in getting new audience members back for a second visit (because sustainability is an important goal to measure, not only audiences that come once and don’t come back)
- Examples of how they are developing relationships with artists they’ve never worked with before whose work has the potential to bring in new audiences (oh, and by the way, drive innovation in the art form)
- Quotes and data from audience research the organizations have done to inform their post-pandemic strategy
These pieces of information would show that an organization was making a worthy attempt to attract and serve an audience for the next decades, just as they had attracted and served the audience of the past few decades.
I got really worried when I read an article in The New York Times, “Live Performance Is Back. But Audiences Have Been Slow to Return” by Michael Paulson and Javier C. Hernández. The reporters asked leaders of major nonprofit performing arts organizations in New York City, Baltimore, and Wisconsin about the continued “worrisome and persistent” lackluster demand that threatened the health and sustainability of the organizations, if not their very existence. Manhattan Theater Club’s sales were down by “almost a third”. (Executive Producer Barry Grove didn’t say whether that was compared to a pre-pandemic year, compared to the 2020-21 season, or if that WAS the 2020-21 season.)
So what are the arts leaders doing about the continued empty seats left by audiences who hadn’t come back? According to this article, responses include waiting, handwringing, worrying, and hoping that audiences will decide to come back soon, but they think it will take more than a year or two.
These kinds of sales and attendance drop offs mean that making big changes can’t wait. But only Marc C. Hanson, the new (as of April 2022) President and CEO of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra (BSO), gave a gesture towards change in article, when he was quoted as saying that “It would be a mistake to simply focus on trying to restore what perhaps existed before the pandemic, because our world has changed in fundamental ways.” The BSO is cutting 10 concerts to better match current demand.
I’m not using the absence of evidence in this one piece of media coverage to assert that new audience developments aren’t happening; the article was about the persistent reticence of about 15-20% of pre-COVID audiences, not attracting new audiences.
In fact, I know it’s happening in at least some organizations. The BSO is doing three concerts in new locations as a new initiative. Actors Theatre of Louisville produced “A Christmas Carol: Scrooge’s Ghost Encounter Live in VR”. How much new play development is happening for VR? Shanta Thake produced a vibrant mix of free and pay-what-you-can model with the “Summer for the City” series at Lincoln Center that felt like a proof-of-concept of a new, more open vision for arts participation.
What’s happening at an arts organization that you care about? Is hope their only strategy, or have they been taking measurements, drawing blueprints, and breaking new ground to build back better?
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John McCann says
This post, and the conversation it can/should provoke are crucial and timely. Thanks!
In working with the BSO over decades, this brave step of aligning programming scope with anticipated demand makes good sense artistically, organizationally and financially. Kudos!
Hannah Grannemann says
Thanks so much, John. I’m glad that you think the post is useful and relevant!
Peter A. Mello, managing director / coCEO, WaterFire Providence says
For nearly 30 years WaterFire Providence has been transforming downtown Providence with our large public art installation/event/experience which happens approximately 20 times a year. Up to 75,000 visitors attend each evening and approximately 1,000,000 come over the course of each season. Capitalizing on the large economic impact our downtown event creates ($114,000,000 spending and 1,294 jobs), in 2012 , as part of our strategic plan, we purchased an abandoned historic industrial building which we developed into the 37,000 sq. ft. WaterFire Arts Center. We opened in May 2017 and for the first few years, we stretched our staff too thinly across both of our major arts initiatives. But then the pandemic hit us (like everyone else) and for the first time in 25 years there were no WaterFire events downtown Providence for 2o months due to government imposed physical distancing and crowd size limitations. Crisis can present opportunity.
In order for our organization to survive under such uncertain conditions, we had to triage the situation. We quickly shifted all of our resources to the WaterFire Arts Center with our long term objective being to come out on the other side with 2 teams for our separate major initiatives: WaterFire events downtown Providence and the WaterFire Arts Center.
We never shuttered during the pandemic and continued to create art for the community even in the darkest most challenging times. (https://www.nytimes.com/2020/08/12/theater/promenade-theater-walking-pandemic.html) We produced over 300 live, mostly in-person events, many with the Wilbury Theatre Group during this period with zero transmissions of COVID amongst staff, performers or audience members. As a result of our successful, impactful partnership, Wilbury moved into the WaterFire Arts Center in January 2022 as resident theater company.
During this period, we developed a robust exhibition program in the WaterFire Arts Center which is also a very popular event venue that couldn’t be rented due to COVID restrictions and this is where we began developing new audiences for our work.
It’s important to note that none of this would have been possible, and our organization would probably not have survived, without CARES Act and ARPA funding. While restrictions have been lifted, COVID has not gone away, and it’s all still very much a work in progress, but we continue to build upon the successes achieved during the pandemic.
Hannah Grannemann says
Well done, congratulations to all of you there at WaterFire Providence!
“new audience” initiatives? I’d settle for some old audience initiatives. The ROI on “new” is very low, esp’ when the regulars are still afraid of indoor public gatherings. It’s one thing to get quotes from those who come through the doors. It’s exponentially harder to collect data from folks who are still not ready to show up. Maybe it’s different in the south, but up north, we’re just not there yet, so I hope you don’t get your hopes up for another year or so, cuz you’ll really be crushed when the fall variant kicks in.
Hannah Grannemann says
Thank you for your comment. I don’t think it’s an either-or situation where arts organizations can’t continue to try to get the audiences back who haven’t yet returned if they are also working on attracting new audiences. To your point, there are two letters in the NY Times in response to the article I reference in the blog post from readers who say they want the mask mandates in theaters to return in order for them to feel safe: https://www.nytimes.com/2022/08/31/opinion/letters/harry-styles-queer-identity.html#link-1a094e3
Capacity, it’s not either/or; it’s prioritizing. But returning to a mask mandate implies that it did-the-job previously, and I don’t know if attendance #s back that up. We are still weathering this awful storm, so moving forward on such a systemic issue feels impossible for anyone to say what someone else should be doing, right now. It’s not a marketing issue; audiences will decide when they’re ready. They. Are. Not.
Trevor O'Donnell says
Thank you for articulating these concerns and desires so clearly, Hannah. I think we’d all like to see evidence of the changes you describe.
Personally, though, I’m not holding my breath. “Waiting, handwringing, worrying, and hoping that audiences will decide to come back soon” has been the dominant approach to new audiences for several decades. If arts organizations couldn’t rise to the challenge of long-term audience attrition before the pandemic, I don’t see much reason to expect them to do it now.
In fact I’m pretty sure they can’t. It’s not in their DNA. It’s not what they were designed to do. Most traditional arts organizations were designed around people who shared a passion for the art form, and virtually all of the administrators who run these organizations pursued their careers because of similar passions. None of us went into the arts because of a burning desire to engaging with, learn about and adapt to the desires and expectations of uniniated outsiders who lack a self-motivating interest in what we do.
When it comes to finding and keeping new paying customers, you couldn’t ask for a more poorly designed industrial model, or a leadership culture that has less personal interest in doing what it takes to solve the problem.
Some of the pandemic losses may be recovered, but not all, and I doubt that most organizations will find enough new customers to fill the gap. What I do expect is more news like you mentioned from the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra: “The BSO is cutting 10 concerts to better match current demand.”
There’s nothing wrong with downsizing as audiences diminish. The world is changing. Pandemics happen. Fans of traditional art forms are dying. No arts organization deserves to go on forever. And some big, resource-gobbling dinosaurs, to be honest, are ripe for extinction.
I wonder if it isn’t time for those of us who offer assistance to stop asking for things that won’t happen, and instead help alleviate some of the handwringing and worrying that comes with accepting mortality.
Alan Brown says
Thank you, Hannah, for a moment of great clarity. Our sector is not structured for research-based product development. All we know how to do is season planning. So, new products are coming fast and furious out of the commercial sector, mostly in the immersive programming space. Its awesome to watch how demand responds to creativity in programming… outside of the nonprofit arts sector. Meanwhile the creative possibilities for new programming in the digital/immersive/virtual space have never been greater. This is the moment with the greatest possibility for programmatic reinvention, but it will require an entirely different organizational cultures and entirely different approaches to artistic planning.
Numa Saisselin says
I don’t think we (the Florida Theatre in Jacksonville, FL) promised we would “build back better,” but our experience has been contrary to what the NY Times article describes.
First, some disclaimers. We’re in Florida. ‘Nuff said. We are a nonprofit presenter, but we’re more in the concert business than in the Arts with a capital “A.” We might not be comparing apples to apples. However, we have not experienced the continuing lackluster sales that some organizations report. We were closed for 10 months, operated at half capacity for 7 more months, and for the first 3 months at full capacity we did experience lackluster sales, but since October 2021 we have experienced great sales. On average, 56% of capacity, or 1,044 seats per show across 150+ performances.
I attribute that in large part to the fact that we opened as soon as we could, and tried to lead. I have been continually frustrated by the endless surveys analyzing reopening trends. At the end of the day, we’re in the business of aggregating audiences on behalf of artists. Sooner or later you just have to open the door and see what happens.