The Road to Results: effective practices for building arts audiences

The Road to Results: effective practices for building arts audiences

By The Wallace Foundation


Explore the practices that have enabled ten organisations in the U.S. to build audiences for the arts. This publication was written by Bob Harlow and published by The Wallace Foundation.

Throughout the U.S., arts organisations face a changing and challenging landscape. Americans have more options than ever in ways to spend their leisure time, and younger generations have less exposure to the arts in school than previous generations. They may also want to interact differently with institutions than their parents and grandparents did. The good news is that many arts organisations are learning how to adapt so they can continue to fulfill their missions and even expand their audiences in the process.

This publication details the experiences of 10 such organisations 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:

1. Recognising when change is needed
Organisations saw a pattern of audience behaviour that presented an opportunity or a challenge for their financial viability, artistic viability, or both. They recognised that change was necessary to seize this opportunity or overcome the challenge. In some cases, the urgency of the challenge or opportunity actually served the initiative by keeping it front and centre, capturing and sustaining the attention of the entire organisation over the years needed to build a following.

2. Identifying the target audience that fits
Compatibility has two meanings here: first, organisations had reason to believe, based either on research or prior experience, that they could make a meaningful connection with the target audience. Second, leaders agreed that serving the audience reinforced — and did not compromise — the organisation's other activities or its mission.

3. Determining what kinds of barriers need to be removed
Successful organisations identified the types of barriers impeding the target audience's participation and shaped their strategies accordingly.

4. Taking out the guesswork: audience research to clarify the approach
Organisations often started out knowing very little about the new audience they were targeting and why that audience was not participating. Rather than guess, they went to the source — the target audience itself —  for the facts. Using audience research, the organisations gained a clearer understanding of their target group's interests, lifestyles, general attitudes toward the arts, cultural involvement, and opinions of their own institution.

5. Thinking through the relationship
Some case study organisations went so far as to spell out a vision of the relationship they wanted to cultivate with the new audience, including specific roles for the audience and themselves. By doing so, they gave their audience-building initiatives structure and a sense of purpose. Leaders and staff members understood how they wanted the audience to interact with their organisation and developed programs to fulfill that vision.

6. Providing multiple ways in
Staff expanded the ways people could access their organisations both literally and psychologically. Many organisations provided gateway experiences to acquaint newcomers with their activities. Others generated interest by making connections to things that their target audience already knew or by showing them different sides of their institutions.

7. Aligning the organisation around the strategy
Leaders and staff built clarity, consensus, and internal buy-in around the audience-building initiative's objectives, importance to the organisation, and staff roles in implementing it.

8. Building in Learning
Even with considerable research and planning, organisations could never be sure that a new audience would react favourably to their overtures. There were stops, starts, and some downright failures along the way. To stay on track and develop a working knowledge of what clicked with their audiences, many of them did on-the-ground experiments or used formal evaluations that drove program improvements.

9. Preparing for success
Success for the 10 organisations involved serving new audiences and assuming new responsibilities. Staff often worked overtime to handle an increased workload. Organisations found that they had to develop new capabilities and refine existing practices to accommodate newcomers, all while continuing to satisfy existing audiences.

Not every institution that was studied implemented each practice, but generally speaking, the more practices they adopted, the greater the success they achieved. 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 organisation'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 organisation's mission and strengths. As a result, they not only engaged the audience, but also fulfilled important objectives for their organisation, establishing a cycle that reinforced itself and gave the initiative momentum.

Download the full publication to read on:

The Road to Results (PDF)

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Audience development
Resource type: Guide/tools | Published: 2017