img_0743-1The penultimate session of the 2017 Opera America Conference featured a conversation with representatives from the opera industry discussing one of the largest issues that seem to continue to stump most organizations today.

How do we turn the tide of decreasing audience attendance for arts by creating environments that encourage both younger and more diverse first-time and returning patrons?

Numerous studies have shown that attendance across all arts sectors is down. In the most recent National Endowment for the Arts study, A Decade of Arts Engagement: Findings From the Survey of Public Participation in the Arts, 2002–2012, attendance to the core arts events, opera, jazz, classical music, ballet, musical theater, plays, art museum and gallery visits — continued to decline, with just 33.4% of US adults attending one of those between July 2011 and July 2012. A decade earlier the figure was 39.4%, and in 2008 it was 34.6%. In a more recent NEA study, Results from the Annual Arts Basic Survey (2013-2015), the number continued to decline in 2015 to 32%, approximately 76 million people.

So against these trends organizations are trying to find a path forward. Some have produced special events in the hope of attracting new audiences. Free concerts abound in sports stadiums around the country. Other organizations are trying to take programming out of the performance hall and into the community by performing in parks, libraries, and other community centers. Still, others are creating affiliate groups to attract younger attendees. However successful these events grow to be a part of the organization’s programming, the resulting spill over into the performance hall is often minimal. If attendees at free events do purchase a ticket and attend a performance in a theater, the experience is so different that many don’t return for a second performance. Why?

Opera America Executive Director, Marc Scorca at first offered a light-hearted but still stinging assessment. Using examples of brochures and event programs of a few organizations he was able to demonstrate that organizations desire to want one thing is at odds with what their brand message is saying.

  • In one season brochure, the number of steps to order a subscription increased with each successive add-on of ever elitist offerings of parties, giving societies and special access, that, nine steps later, a calculator was needed to total up the financial damage.
  • Another program began by listing an in memoriam page of all the people who had made gifts in honor of those who had past.
  • Another program highlighted ads featuring expensive jewelry, clothing, watches, resorts, and other upper crust offerings, 37 pages in total, before getting to the cast page of the opera or a synopsis.

Other examples included pages of white well-heeled older individuals dressed in town and gown fashion. Even when younger people were found, they too were mostly white and clad in tuxedos and ball gowns. Desiring to want younger and more diverse audiences is very much at odds with the images, the very brand that many organizations are projecting to their attendees.

For arts organizations, this is a great paradox. Organizations need rich patrons to contribute to them. There has always been an established quid-pro-quo of access to the organization, its productions, and artists in exchange for donations. The desire of organizations to say thank you for their support has developed into sometimes overt displays of gratitude through naming rights, photos and profiles in programs, special parties and other actions. From the donor perspective, these thank yous can turn into both social status and a social club in which to enjoy the company of other like-minded and financially successful people.

Marketing and development departments find themselves at odds with each other of which message is more important. Both are needed, but how and when they are delivered is difficult to determine and not always in their control.

The discussion nibbled around the edges and included redesigning the look of programs, encouraging audiences members to dress down for performances, and even becoming more egalitarian in granting access to the organization from tickets buyers and lower level donors. One organization, Opera Theatre of St. Louis, long known for its lack of a donor lounge instead opting for a tent where artists and audiences mingle after each performance has appointed a band manager to monitor all communications to the public so that each is targeted correctly and to consistently.

So how do arts organizations break this paradox? Information is the key. Patrons want to have an active relationship with the organization they support. The key is to understand patron demographics and interests. Marketing departments must shape messaging to each patron group. Understanding how and why patrons engage is tantamount to designing and executing the kind of experience desired by the patron.

When was the last time your development department took the time to review the benefits offered to donors? Access to artists, production teams, and conductors use to be held in high regard among donors. These days reserved parking, pre-ordered drinks and special access to bathrooms during intermissions have become just as important. Organizations need to challenge long-held assumptions about what their donors want in return for their donations. In fact, organizations that have entered into a dialogue with their donors often find the majority of them don’t want or use the benefits traditionally given to them.

At the end of the session, there were no silver bullets to be found. However, those organizations that understand and engage all their patrons to have the advantage when it comes to redefining the patron experience and finding true alignment with their brand.