Row X blog by Hannah Grannemann
I’m not immune to clickbait, and I like to play Wordle, so of course I clicked on an article from Lifehacker that promised valuable Wordle news. Lifehacker told me that Wordle’s daily word are no longer randomly generated, but are now chosen by an editor, and may be themed. OK, no big deal, I thought. I enjoy whimsy.
But I’m a relaxed Wordle player and I know there are some not-so-laid-back players. So I scrolled down to the comments. Which brings me to the allegory to arts audiences.
The comments followed a predictable pattern. One camp said the game was ruined: “…if ‘BUNNY’ comes up at Easter or ‘FRANK’ on July 4, I’m not gonna be happy.” Another: “I think the theme idea is really lame and bad for the game. I was seriously disappointed when it was FEAST [on Nov. 24, Thanksgiving Day in the United States]. It reminded me of the cheesy holiday crosswords that I used to get in middle school.” And finally: “Boo! This sucks. Bring back random weird shit and serendipitous juxtaposition.”
Then, comments from the what’s-the-big-deal camp: “If you’re checking your word against a list before entering it, you are taking the ‘game’ too seriously.” And: “I like games that are fun, is that an unpopular opinion now.”
And then the backlash-to-the-backlash comments: “Everyone is free to play the game however makes them happiest. Why are you the arbiter of how seriously it should be taken?”
Longtime arts audiences want everything to stay the same. Arts-curious audiences want something at least slightly different if they’re going to attend. They tell us (when we ask) that we don’t need to change the art itself to get them to come, but arts organizations need to make some changes in how the art is presented (venue, time of day, online versions) or changes in the experience of the art (more relaxed atmosphere, more guidance on what to do, more context to help them understand the art) to get them to come, enjoy, and return.
What is an arts staffer to do? Make changes to attract new audiences knowing they will turn off the current audience? Or keep everything the same and allow the slow decline of audiences to continue without replacing them?
If I were in leadership of a traditional arts organization right now, I’d be pretty confident about making changes to attract new audiences. I’d have enough information by now to move on from the idea that we could keep everything in amber waiting for the 15-25% of audiences that haven’t returned since the pandemic began.
It’s time to get brave, try new things, and be ready for a bit of complaining. How many people would really stop attending if some changes were made to become more welcoming? Probably not many. Now, will every single one of them send you (and maybe your Board chair) an email complaining, making it seem like a bigger number? Also probably. Fewer, if the organization explains the changes.
It’s also time for a reality check. Wordle is not fundamentally different because there will be the occasional themed word. A concert is not fundamentally different because there are notes in the program that don’t mention music theory. A theater performance is not fundamentally different because it’s at 7:30pm on weeknights instead of 8pm.
Let’s go a step further. Here are a few other experience changes that also don’t impact someone’s traditional experience, but can make the experience more attractive to those arts-curious audiences:
- Creating a searchable database of images of artworks from the collection on the museum’s website.
- Performing a concert in a casual setting like a club or bar in addition to a concert hall.
- Having “relaxed” performances where people can use their phones, engage in some conversation, or get up during the performance, in addition to typical “no talking, no noise” performances.
- Streaming or sharing a recorded performance in addition to live performances.
These are not new ideas – and that’s my point. They are actually kind of old ideas, but they are changes that I continue to hear that some audiences push back on. (Arts professionals push back on these, too, but that’s another post.)
You may not be able to convince a complaining audience member that change doesn’t harm their experience, and that’s OK. But you can’t wait any longer for them to agree. You’ve got to try new (or new-to-you) approaches. If an audience member decides to stop playing Wordle, or never attend your symphony, theater, or museum again because of one of these changes, that’s their choice. But you can sleep at night knowing that you haven’t betrayed the art form that you and the audience member both love.
Final reality check: you can be proud that you’re using your role as gatekeeper to open the gate wider. Everyone is free to play the game however makes them happiest.