How and why people attend

by Jini Stolk

The more you know about your audiences and why they attend, the more successful you’ll be at filling your house. That’s the theory.

Not everyone is as immersed in research as I am. And that’s okay.

The National Endowment for the Arts research paper When Going Gets Tough: Barriers and Motivations Affecting Arts Attendance says that barriers to attendance include time, difficulty in getting to the venue, and cost. the University of Chicago’s literature review on The Changing Landscape of Arts Participation concludes that cultural participation can no longer be understood as attendance alone: people are increasingly expressing themselves artistically, live and online. Even when time and cost are not a factor, people with low incomes and less education still don’t come out to arts events as much as anticipated, according to this piece. (Don’t they feel welcome? Are they not interested? Follow-up studies to come.) Free admission days don’t actually attract a lot of underserved or low-income attendees it seems, because we tend to target the people who are already coming with information about affordable admission days.

The plenaries and workshops scheduled at the Arts Reach Conference coming to Toronto in June are focused on data, research, and measurement. Yet Alan Brown’s study of the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation’s Audience Research Collaborative found that this program was not fully successful in moving performing arts companies to a more research-based approach to audience development and engagement. Data-driven decision making often hit the rocks of staff transitions, lack of capacity or prioritization of the project, silos between departments, especially between marketing and programming, and lack of ownership or buy-in.

I’m really not against using audience data to refine and improve outreach and marketing. But I don’t see a big upgrade in people’s box office and data base systems, nor an increase in marketing staff to input and analyze attendance details.

Are we back to basics, then? If we are then we’d better be doing the basics well. And I think, for the most part, we are.

Like the Theatre Centre’s Eight Companies Under One Roof marketing campaign. “Sharp-edged. A treasure. Vigorous and intense. Redolent with disturbing beauty. Dynamo. These are some of the words which have been used to describe the work of the eight celebrated dance companies which, by some happy coincidence, are all renting our space at some point this year to present their creations.” It makes the season sound so very exciting.

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