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The Wallace Foundation Releases First of New Case Studies of Effective Methods of Building Arts Audiences

Operatic Feats: New Case Study Explores Novel Audience-Building Effort
December 11, 2014
The Wallace Foundation




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As part of the Wallace Excellence Awards initiative, Minnesota Opera successfully encouraged first-time visitors to attend the opera

NEW YORK, December 11, 2014 ¬¬– The Wallace Foundation today released the first in a new set of case studies analyzing strategies used by arts organizations to build their audiences. Stemming from the foundation’s Wallace Excellence Awards (WEA) initiative of 2004-2014, the Wallace Studies in Building Arts Audiences series provides evidence-based knowledge on audience-engagement efforts that can be applied by performing and visual arts organizations across the country.

The new study, Someone Who Speaks Their Language: How a Nontraditional Partner Brought New Audiences to Minnesota Opera, describes a project by the Twin Cities-based opera company to test new ways to attract women ages 35-60 to performances through an unlikely but effective partnership with a local talk-radio host. The effort resulted in bringing newcomers to performances and generating return visits from some of them. Someone Who Speaks Their Language was written by Bob Harlow, a market research expert who is leading the case study project, and Cindy Cox Roman, a researcher and strategy advisor to businesses and nonprofits. It is the fifth in what will be a series of 10 case studies that seek to add to the body of knowledge about what it takes to engage audiences today. The first four, available free of charge at, were published in 2011.

“Here at Minnesota Opera, the generous Wallace grant enabled us to reach out to a specific audience (myTalk 107.1 listeners) and get them to the theater for the first time,” said Artistic Director Dale Johnson. “This was accomplished through ticket giveaways and then following up with recipients, encouraging them to make a purchase. The grant also made research efforts possible, which influenced our marketing strategies moving forward. All arts organizations are facing changes in their audiences, including their buying habits. We were able to use the grant to experiment with a new media partnership that proved to be successful and have applied this knowledge in new audience outreach initiatives.”

Recognizing that the health of arts organizations depends on cultivating new audience members who will form a long-lasting relationship with the arts, Wallace created the $45-million WEA initiative, which funded 54 visual and performing arts organizations in six cities, to identify, develop and share ways to cultivate new audience members or encourage current audience members to become more involved. The case studies are in-depth examinations of 10 of the organizations and their audience-building projects. The remaining five case studies are scheduled to be released in 2015. Based on an analysis of the 10 efforts, nine practices were identified that arts organizations can use to increase the chances they will succeed in engaging audiences. These practices are explained in the foundation’s recently released publication The Road to Results: Effective Practices for Building Arts Audiences, also written by Bob Harlow.

“In our experience, arts organizations must develop new ways to cultivate audiences, but they often do not have the resources to experiment. The WEA program gave organizations an opportunity to test new strategies and, in return, we were able to study what worked and why – and then to share evidence-based practices with the entire field,” said Daniel Windham, director of arts at The Wallace Foundation. “Opera companies, with higher ticket costs than other art forms and deeply ingrained perceptual barriers, face a particularly tricky set of challenges. Minnesota Opera found an interesting way to break down some of these barriers.”

Minnesota Opera formed a partnership with radio host Ian Punnett and the radio station myTalk 107.1 in order to reach a target group the opera company thought might have potential fans: women between the ages of 35 and 60. An opera lover, Punnett made the art form relatable and exciting to women who had never been to a performance, so much so that they jammed the phone lines when he announced ticket giveaways to Minnesota Opera on his radio show. After four seasons, the study says, more than 1,000 households new to Minnesota Opera had redeemed their free tickets to attend a performance, and 18 percent had paid to come back. The study offers insights into this work and the challenges of making large numbers of newcomers frequent opera-goers.

In 2015, Wallace is scheduled to release the remaining case studies – for the Pacific Northwest Ballet (Seattle), Seattle Opera, Fleisher Art Memorial (Philadelphia), The Clay Studio (Philadelphia) and The Contemporary Jewish Museum (San Francisco) – as well as a report designed to help arts organizations use research to attract and retain new audiences.

Building on the success of the WEA program, Wallace recently launched a six-year, $40-million arts initiative, Building Audiences for Sustainability, which will provide grants to up to 25 outstanding performing arts organizations across the United States. The organizations will create programs designed to not only attract new audiences but retain existing ones, as well as to examine whether and how they can sustain audience gains and whether the audience gains improve their overall financial health. As with WEA, Wallace intends to study these efforts and share what’s learned broadly, in order to strengthen the organizations and to generate knowledge to benefit the broader field. The organizations receiving grants are scheduled to be announced in the first quarter of 2015.

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About The Wallace Foundation

Based in New York City, The Wallace Foundation is an independent national philanthropy dedicated to fostering improvements in learning and enrichment for disadvantaged children and the vitality of the arts for everyone. It seeks to catalyze broad impact by supporting the development, testing and sharing of new solutions and effective practices. At, the Foundation maintains an online library about what it has learned, including knowledge from its current efforts aimed at: strengthening education leadership to improve student achievement; helping selected cities make good afterschool programs available to more children; expanding arts learning opportunities for children and teens; providing high-quality summer learning programs to disadvantaged children and enriching and expanding the school day in ways that benefit students; and helping arts organizations to build their audiences.


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