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First Steps for Engaging New Audiences

Category: Building Audiences
Infographic image of a circle with the 9 Effective Practices displayed.

In the Wallace  Foundation report The Road to Results: Effective Practices for Building Arts Audiences, (2014, The Wallace Foundation), Bob Harlow identifies and examines nine practices of arts organizations that successfully expanded their audiences. Following is an adapted excerpt from the book as previously published in the March/April 2015 issue of Museum magazine.

The Road to Results details the experiences of 10 organizations that were among 54 arts institutions that received funding from The Wallace Foundation between 2006 and 2012 to develop audience-building initiatives. An analysis of these programs—each supported by evaluation data—revealed nine practices contributing to their success.

Taken together, these practices promoted audience engagement in two ways. First, they created a shared sense of purpose that kept an audience engagement program front and center for leaders and staff, thus enabling the initiative to permeate a wide range of an organization’s activities. Second, the practices helped an arts institution make meaningful connections with its target audience. Staff members developed programs that reflected both the audience’s inclinations and the organization’s mission and strengths. As a result, they not only engaged the audience, but also fulfilled important objectives for their organization, establishing a cycle that reinforced itself and gave the initiative momentum.

Recognizing When Change Is Needed

Successful initiatives were born out of an observation, when staff members saw audience attendance patterns or behaviors that they believed had significant implications for the organization’s artistic mission, financial viability or both. Acknowledging the weight of those implications prompted action and gave the initiatives momentum.

One example comes from The Clay Studio, which provides ceramics instruction and operates a gallery, studio and retail shop in Philadelphia’s Old City arts district. Senior staff members who interact with the public throughout the day recognized that the organization’s audience was not growing. The institution was not only serving the same demographic—well-educated middle-aged or older patrons—but also welcoming the same people day after day, month after month. Seeing so few new faces even at special exhibitions “panicked us a little,” says Jeff Guido, artistic director at the time. Staff knew that The Clay Studio’s future depended on growing its base of visitors, but where would they find them and how would they attract them? This concern kick-started an initiative that ultimately succeeded in drawing hundreds of young adults to workshops and classes.

Making art accessible to all has been the mission of the Fleisher Art Memorial in Philadelphia since its establishment in the late 19th century. Founder Samuel Fleisher pictured a place where people from different cultures, backgrounds and artistic experiences in the surrounding community could create art side by side.

Heading into the 21st century, Fleisher ran classes and workshops in its large South Philadelphia facility, as well as offsite programs in schools and community centers. Different staff members managed onsite and offsite programs until a reorganization made some individuals responsible for both. These staff members now had the perspective to see that students in Fleisher’s offsite programs tended to be very ethnically diverse—a reflection of the diversity in the surrounding neighborhoods—and included many newly arrived immigrants. Meanwhile students in its onsite programs were primarily white and from more affluent Philadelphia neighborhoods and suburbs. This divide concerned the staff because it went against Samuel Fleisher’s vision of bringing together people of diverse backgrounds and providing access to the arts. The organization channeled that concern into a successful initiative that is beginning to attract more students and visitors from its ethnically diverse neighborhood to onsite programs. As with most diversity efforts, progress has been slow but steady. Keeping the faith could easily be a challenge, but the importance of this initiative to Fleisher’s mission strengthens staff members’ resolve and helps them to persevere.

The Clay Studio and Fleisher made their observations in different ways: through on-the-ground experience and gaining the fresh perspective of an internal reorganization. What they have in common is that their observations captured the attention of their entire organizations because they revealed genuine threats to missions or financial sustainability that could not be ignored.

In fact, some top management experts believe that organizational change can only get traction when it invokes a sense of urgency based on a realistic appraisal of opportunities and hazards. That urgency galvanizes leadership to initiate and commit to a course of action. In addition, serving “new audiences” inevitably requires focusing on different objectives and doing some things differently. A sense of urgency combats complacency and motivates staff to move beyond their comfort zones.

This does not mean arts groups should succumb to hysteria over imagined or manufactured crises. The observations at The Clay Studio and Fleisher were grounded in organizational and environmental realities, often complemented by knowledge of broader audience trends. The sense of urgency came naturally because staff members understood that they faced a bona fide challenge or opportunity with major consequences for their organization’s future.

Identifying the Target Audience that Fits

It is no surprise that successful audience-building initiatives target a specific audience. After all, it is hard to address attendance barriers or build a meaningful connection with people using a one-size-fits-all strategy.

At some case study organizations, the mission-critical observation prompting the initiative implied a specific audience. When Fleisher Art Memorial discovered that newly arrived immigrants living in the surrounding area were not coming to its onsite programs, it presented a clear challenge to target them in order to fulfill its mission as a community arts organization.

The target audience wasn’t so obvious for many of the other arts groups. Figuring it out required both creativity and strategic thinking. In the end, they asked themselves two critical questions:

  1. Is the audience likely to be receptive?
  2. Do leaders agree the audience is important to the organization?

Receptive Audiences

Case study organizations pursued audiences that research or past experience led them to believe they could satisfy. When The Contemporary Jewish Museum (CJM) in San Francisco moved from a 2,500-square-foot space to a 63,000-square-foot facility, Connie Wolf, president and CEO at the time, naturally felt pressure to fill it with visitors. She recalled her experience as director of education at New York’s Whitney Museum and how families made the museum feel dynamic. “The stuffiness of a museum immediately exits the minute families walk in the door,” she says. Moreover, she saw how many families made the Whitney their personal space, returning time and again as loyal visitors.

Wolf envisioned a central role for families in The CJM’s new home, and her staff built programs to achieve that vision. They organized exhibits that would appeal to both adults and children, and developed family-oriented tours, artist-led art-making activities for kids and other activities that families could enjoy together. They created a family-friendly environment with seating nooks and other areas where parents and children could read, draw or just take a moment to refresh themselves. They also forged a series of partnerships with preschools and elementary schools that involved not only teachers and students, but also parents in workshops and museum visits. Within four years, The CJM was welcoming more than 22,000 families a year, compared to 1,300 in its previous facility. Families went from 10 percent of all visitors to 18 percent.

Leaders Must Agree the Target Audience Is a Priority

Importantly, leaders need to agree that a particular audience, and the programs and activities developed to serve it, align with the organization’s mission and identity. Without that support, momentum will stall. At one performing arts organization, for example, an initiative led by the marketing department attracted many new patrons, but efforts to re-engage them were stifled when others in the institution resisted efforts to change the wording in some advertising to make the art form more accessible to newcomers. Those who objected did so because they believed the new copy “dumbed down” how they spoke to the public. At the core of the dispute was a lack of consensus on the importance of this audience to the organization’s future.

At that organization and some others, executive directors did not seem to have a clear sense of why a target audience mattered, nor did the initiative capture the attention of many department heads. When leaders did agree about an audience’s importance, they rallied their organizations to make audiences feel welcome and provide different ways for them to connect with the art. That kind of consensus may be easiest to achieve when initiatives mesh with the organization’s core values or are linked to a mission that ignites passion in leaders.


Bob Harlow, Ph.D. is owner of Bob Harlow Research and Consulting, LLC.

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