Skip to main content

Building Arts Audiences: Strategies That Hold Up

A lookback at nine effective practices for building audiences and how 10 organizations put them into use
May 21, 2024 5 Min Read

While so much has changed in the past decade or so for organizations looking to build audiences for the performing arts, a lot has in fact stayed the same. 

New research published by the University of Texas shows that a group of performing arts organizations found audience building a useful pursuit, even if it did not bring their hoped-for results. The report points to strategies that worked and some that did not—many of which echo findings from previous Wallace studies. 

Between 2006 and 2012, we funded 54 arts organizations across the U.S. to see if they could expand their audiences. A synthesis plus a closer look at 10 of the organizations point to nine practices that aided their efforts, from the identification of a target audience, to careful evaluation and improvement.

Here's a quick refresher on the nine practices, along with examples of several strategies that worked.

1. Recognize when your organization needs change 

Staff at Fleisher Art Memorial recognized that the organization was not keeping pace with demographic changes in its Southeast Philadelphia neighborhood. As a result, Fleisher increased its presence in the community by changing its annual free community arts festival to feature local performance groups and food representing diverse communities, implementing a mobile workshop that could meet children and families in public spaces, and recruiting local residents to spread the word about Fleisher. 

2. Identify a target group that makes sense for your organization  

The Contemporary Jewish Museum (CJM) in San Francisco museum had long operated in a 2,500-square-foot space, but in 2008, it moved into a new, 63,000-square foot facility. With the move, the staff sought to target a larger audience—families of all backgrounds. After leading focus groups to better understand the needs of families with young children, museum staff developed a multi-part strategy that included new exhibitions, a more welcoming environment, discounts, and partnerships with institutions that had close ties to families, such as schools and libraries. 

3. Identify and remove barriers blocking audience participation

The Boston Lyric Opera (BLO) wanted to reverse bleak trends in participation by removing practical barriers for families. The goal was to build a new generation of opera enthusiasts by providing children with their first experience of opera and also creating opportunities so that their busy parents would be able to attend performances. Minnesota Opera set out to address the perceptual barriers among women by reducing ticket prices. Hundreds of women who had never been to the opera set aside preconceptions that it was stuffy and elitist when the organization offered them a free ticket. 

4. Use market research to understand your target audience 

Through several focus groups with young people, the Pacific Northwest Ballet (PNB) found that young people were not attending the ballet because they thought ballet was elitist, boring, and stuffy. This market research gave PNB the chance to revamp its external communications, website, and social media activity. Staff also made it a strategic priority to produce online videos that showed different sides of the company, its repertoire, and its artists. 

5. Get a clear idea of the type of relationship you want with your audience 

The Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum wanted to find a way to attract more young adults in a way that they’d enjoy, while also ensuring they engaged with the art. After Hours became a monthly event that included innovations such as accessible fifteen minute talks that focused on one small part of the collection and games that enabled visitors to explore the artwork. 

6. Offer a variety of engaging experiences to invite your target audience in.

The Clay Studio in Philadelphia sought to engage culturally active, younger professionals ages 25 to 45. When market research found that both financial and time constraints prevented this new target audience from signing up, the staff implemented “Date Night,” a Friday evening event where novices could experiment with clay in an informal environment. Other key elements that helped attract younger professionals included a chance to socialize, flexible schedules and shorter courses, and online resources. 

7. Align your organization around your audience-building strategy

Steppenwolf Theatre Company developed a series of online and in-person programs that supported a vision of the company as “a public square”—a forum where audience members could participate in discussions with artists and one another about the meaning of a work they experienced. The company’s executive director believed strongly in gaining internal buy-in for the Public Square concept and took managers from key departments on a multi day retreat to discuss its purpose and goals. This sent a clear signal that the Public Square was important to the organization and helped staff develop not just a sense of clarity about it, but a sense of ownership too.

8. Build in learning by testing approaches, evaluating them, then adjusting them–and repeating the cycle 

To engage audiences, the Seattle Opera used technology such as simulcasts, interactive lobby displays, and behind-the-scenes videos. The company kept an experimental mindset and approached every year with a willingness to try new projects and to make changes when necessary. Staff conducted ongoing research that allowed the company the ability to evaluate and improve tactics continually. This approach enabled them to maximize effectiveness by reconsidering what wasn’t working and doubling down on what was.

9. Plan to maintain new approaches, taking into account the impact on staff responsibilities and workload

The San Francisco Girls Chorus (SFGC) produced award-winning vocal music, but had difficulty attracting classical music patrons to its concert series in the San Francisco Bay Area. So it embarked on a rebranding campaign to emphasize the chorus’s artistic excellence. In addition to external marketing, the rebranding required much deeper changes in the fabric of the organization, and quickly learned that turning audience perceptions around for good was going to require ongoing, consistent work. The organization remained dedicated, even a decade later. 

Related Topics:
Share This


Sign up to receive our monthly email newsletter and news from Wallace.