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New Report Illuminates Complicated Relationship Between Audience-Building Strategies and Financial Health in the Performing Arts

Outcomes of The Wallace Foundation’s multiyear Building Audiences for Sustainability initiative reflect a need for nonprofit performing arts organizations to challenge their assumptions of audience behavior, and uncouple new audience cultivation from earned revenue goals
February 21, 2024

Emma Gold / Delaney Smith / Caroline Farrell 
Resnicow and Associates / /
212-671-5186 / 212-671-5160 / 212-671-5157


NEW YORK, February 21, 2024—The Wallace Foundation today released In Search of the Magic Bullet: Results from the Building Audiences for Sustainability Initiative, a new report that presents findings from the foundation’s multiyear Building Audiences for Sustainability (BAS) initiative. The report provides insights from the initiative—which explored how nonprofit performing arts organizations could engage new audiences while retaining existing ones, and whether audience-building contributes to organizations’ financial health—and offers broader implications for organizations pursuing their own audience-building efforts. In Search of the Magic Bullet is authored by Francie Ostrower, PhD, at The University of Texas at Austin, and is available for direct download on The Wallace Foundation website.

From 2015 to 2019, Wallace awarded nearly $41M in grants to 25 performing arts organizations with budgets over $1 million to support audience-building projects guided by factors ranging from age, race, and geography to frequency of attendance and interest in new work. In Search of the Magic Bullet analyzes findings from significant data collection efforts, led by The University of Texas at Austin between 2015 and 2022, including hundreds of leadership and staff interviews with all 25 of the organizations, as well as a study of outcomes from 15 of the projects that included audience surveys and ticketing and attendance data across the timeline of the initiative. 

The resulting report sheds light on the artistic and fiscal challenges that each organization encountered while seeking to build new audiences, yielding insights into approaches that worked, and those that didn’t. Overall, the findings suggest that while expanding audiences is possible, it may not always happen on an organization’s desired terms. Therefore, if organizations want to change how audiences engage with them, they must be open to changing themselves.

“The performing arts landscape was already unpredictable at the onset of this project, a state made even more apparent by the pandemic as many performing arts organizations have faced new artistic and economic crises,” said Francie Ostrower. “While this report doesn’t offer surefire solutions for financial and audience sustainability, our hope is that it will inspire a mindset shift for organizations to think critically about why and how they approach new audiences—both because of and despite their bottom line.”

Key findings and implications from the report include:

  • Most organizations expanded their target audience, although changes were often more modest than initially hoped-for gains. Additionally, even dramatic target-audience gains generally did not affect organizations’ total attendance, since organizations largely chose target audiences with a small initial presence. Therefore, organizations should determine whether the goal is increased engagement by a particular audience or expanding audiences overall, as one may not yield the other, at least in the short-term.
  • Unexamined and unfounded assumptions hindered organizations’ ability to connect with new audiences they hoped to reach. These assumptions ranged from communications styles reliant on arts industry-specific language, to, as one interviewee put it, the “myth of the long slow escalator,” which assumes a linear path from new audience member to highly engaged donor. Engaging with data and soliciting external input helped surface some of these assumptions.
  • Successful audience-building strategies met audiences where they were. Organizations consistently found that changing their communications and marketing content helped to reach new audiences; for example, using more welcoming and informative communication styles and expanding their use of digital and multimedia platforms.
  • Strategies such as “crossover” programming—offering different programming specifically to attract new audiences with the hope that they would then attend more traditional programs—and presenting at off-site venues often were not successful in converting target audiences to frequent attendees. However, many organizations found that these programs still held value in reaching new kinds of audiences and diversifying their programming, leading them to adjust their expectations for what special programming can and should achieve. Organizations should therefore determine whether the goal is to expand audiences, even if it involves changing or expanding their programming, or to build audiences strictly for what they already do.
  • Many organizations saw overall audience gains coupled with a decline in frequency of attendance. If this trend holds more widely, organizations would need to attract many more audience members just to fill the same number of seats that would previously be filled with a smaller number of ticket-buyers; find ways to attract deeper engagement; or some combination of the two.
  • Targeted audience building does not necessarily predict growth in revenue. Data did not show a correlation between increases in target audiences and total ticket revenue or other organization-level financial measures, and some target audiences (e.g., younger audiences) were more financially disadvantageous in the short term. Organizations should acknowledge that some audience-building efforts require financial subsidy and serve other important (e.g., mission-driven, artistic) needs that aren’t tied to financial health.

“This report—and the Building Audiences for Sustainability initiative more broadly—suggests that it is possible for performing arts organizations to diversify their audiences, but doing so alone will not solve their fiscal challenges,” added Will Miller, president of The Wallace Foundation. “In a moment when many in the arts are facing big questions around organizational sustainability, it has become paramount for organizations to take a continuous learning approach and stay in close dialogue with the interests of their communities. Importantly, the fact that ticket revenue from either new audiences or traditional audiences seldom covers the full cost of a production highlights a great need for philanthropy to step up and help organizations achieve mission-oriented work.”

In Search of the Magic Bullet complements previous publications from Francie Ostrower’s study of this initiative, including Audience Building and Financial Health in the Nonprofit Performing Arts: Current Literature and Unanswered Questions (2019), Data and Deliberation (2020), Millennials Are Not a Monolith (2021), and Why Is It Important That We Continue? (2021). For more information on Building Audiences for Sustainability, please visit Wallace’s website.


About The Wallace Foundation
The Wallace Foundation’s mission is to foster equity and improvements in learning and enrichment for young people, and in the arts for everyone. Wallace works nationally, with a focus on the arts, K-12 education leadership and youth development. In all of its work, Wallace seeks to benefit both its direct grantees as well as the fields in which it works by developing and broadly sharing relevant, useful knowledge that can improve practice and policy. For more information, please visit


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