By Steve Sucato
The prevailing mantra in the business world is that in order to succeed, grow, and stay in business, you constantly need new customers. For arts organizations that holds true with audience members. Customers will come and go, so, too, audience members. The key is retaining as many of the ones you have while consistently gaining new ones. How to accomplish that is an age-old riddle that seems to have a million different solutions depending on your organization’s situation. Some may move your organization toward achieving its goals, while others may lead it down dead-end roads or toward eventual ruin.
The October 2014 study published by The Wallace Foundation, entitled The Road To Results: Effective Practices For Building Arts Audiences, seeks to take some of the guesswork out of choosing the right answers to your organization’s particular audience-building riddles by examining the examples of ten arts organizations. These large and small arts non-profits, which rose to the top from a pool of 54 organizations in six cities (Boston, Chicago, Minneapolis, Philadelphia, San Francisco, Seattle), were invited to apply for and received The Wallace Excellence Awards. The awards financially supported audience-building efforts of each organization’s own design between 2006 and 2012.
The ten groups highlighted in the 91-page Road To Results were Boston’s Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum and Boston Lyric Opera; Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theatre Company; Philadelphia’s The Clay Studio and Fleisher Art Memorial; San Francisco’s The Contemporary Jewish Museum and San Francisco Girls Chorus; Minnesota Opera; and Seattle’s Pacific Northwest Ballet and Seattle Opera.
The Road To Results follows a string of prior research projects that began with the RAND Corporation audience-building study A New Framework for Building Participation in the Arts, published in 2001. That led to The Wallace Excellence Awards, which sought to answer what was learned from the RAND study and put into practice, if anything, and how could organizations implement it? Road To Results author Bob Harlow of Bob Harlow Research and Consulting, LLC, in New York, N.Y., and his team of researchers and writers were then assigned by the Wallace Foundation to examine ten of those Excellence awardees chosen for their ability to move the needle on their audience-building efforts, cohesiveness in their strategies, and diversity to find out what works. That yielded ten individual case studies, which pointed to nine common practices that contributed to the success of WEA’s audience-building efforts.
“Even though these organizations are completely diverse — you have this tiny community-based arts school in Philadelphia and then you’ve got these $20-million dance and opera organizations in Seattle — there were common threads we found,” says Harlow. “Wallace said we should write up these common threads, which led to The Road To Results.”
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