Terri Theisen is the principal consultant of a management and strategy consulting firm supporting nonprofits, foundations, and academic institutions. She has facilitated the Audience Building Roundtable since 2015.
Arts and culture experiences enrich our lives. Arts and culture experiences provoke critical dialogue, challenge our assumptions, and provide a pathway to understand our diverse and complex world. Arts and culture experiences entertain us. Sometimes, the experience of arts and culture does all of these things. The common denominator in all of these scenarios is no matter the type of experience offered by the arts and culture organization – is that an audience is having that experience.
In the case of nonprofit arts and culture organizations, the audience experience – from a first-time ticket purchase or a visit to a website to learn more about an exhibition, to seeing a show or taking a class – can be a key factor in an organization’s ability to financially sustain its work.
An audience’s loyalty – and resulting financial support – allows nonprofit arts and culture organizations to have a stable base of funding, resulting in “more art and culture” for our community.
In early 2015, a study from the National Endowment for the Arts noted that many people who were not actively participating in arts and culture experiences wanted to attend the show, the exhibition, the film, or the class, but were not doing so because of a variety of barriers, including not having anyone to attend with. And other national data indicated that the majority of first-time ticket buyers or attendees didn’t return for a second sampling of arts and culture experiences. What were the underlying causes – and solutions – to these dilemmas?
The leadership of The Arthur M. Blank Family Foundation decided to explore solutions that could, over time, help arts and culture organizations to attract and retain audiences and lead to greater financial sustainability, which in turn provides the freedom to create even more art and cultural experiences. So in late 2015, the Audience Building Roundtable, an initiative of The Arthur M. Blank Family Foundation, began as a learning community of more than fifty arts and culture nonprofits focused on understanding audience needs and experiences in order to listen and respond to those needs. The participating organizations delved into strategies to attract first-time ticket buyers and attendees, including removing barriers that prevented people from attending in the first place. They have worked to deepen relationships with their audience, testing ideas intended to delight audiences and build loyal, long-term relationships between audience member and organization. They have applied data, tools, and methods gleaned from national experts in audience building and marketing, benefitted from the counsel of local experts, and they have built a peer learning community in which audience building strategies and ideas are tested and shared – the successful and the not-so-successful. These organizations have opened themselves to peer evaluation of their strategies and the feedback of their colleagues so that everyone learns – from real-life examples – what experiences audiences are looking for and what they respond to. They have strengthened their organizations in service of delivering more art to our community.
If you are a participant in our community’s arts and culture offerings – and we hope that you are – that makes YOU a valued audience member, otherwise known as a “patron!” Today, arts and culture patrons come from all socioeconomic backgrounds, all geographic areas, and all areas of our diverse community. We hope that you’ll respond to an arts and culture organization’s attempts to understand your experience with them and to build a relationship with you. That survey that takes a few minutes to fill out, that response to a phone call to thank you for attending the show or the exhibition, those observations about the experience that you provided to the staff or board, that first (and second!) donation or ticket purchase that you made – it means everything to arts and culture organizations as they work hard to entertain us, challenge us, and enrich our lives.