Audiences for traditional art forms such as classical music, theatre, opera, ballet, fine art, etc. have been declining steadily for decades. If the decline continues – and there’s not much evidence to suggest that it won’t – venerable arts institutions that we now take for granted will eventually falter and die. One need only glance at daily arts headlines to know the process is well under way.
Solving the problem is relatively easy, but it requires leadership that appears to be in short supply.
Reversing audience declines and building dependable future audiences demands sophisticated, professional, audience-centric marketing practices, but the cultural sector clings to a marketing tradition that’s simplistic, amateurish and self-centered. We don’t market effectively because we don’t do marketing the way it’s done outside our artsy bubbles. We may be OK at marketing to the audiences we have, but we stubbornly resist learning how to market to the audiences we’ll need when the ones we have are gone.
A broad view of marketing in the arts reveals a troubling deficiency. Marketing expertise has never been a prerequisite for becoming an arts leader so most arts leaders don’t actually know much about professional marketing. Some arts marketers know professional marketing, but most learned their craft inside the bubble and thus merely perpetuate insular industry traditions or strive to appease executive leaders who don’t know what they’re doing. And the greatest tragedy lies in the fact that funders don’t understand marketing because it isn’t a part of their world. Funders are probably the only people who have the influence necessary to initiate a shift from amateur to professional marketing practices, but because they don’t do marketing, they don’t know what that means.
Professional marketing at its core is fairly straightforward: Learn what your customers want and then use that information to show how your products will satisfy their yearnings. This has been true since Aristotle first described persuasion 2500 years ago. But take a look at struggling arts organizations and you’ll find a communications approach that grows out of an entirely different strategic imperative: Tell the world how wonderful and important we are and hope that enough people still care to meet our sales goals. (The first words in these two approaches tell the whole story.)
If traditional arts institutions are going to survive, some person or group that’s in a position to influence significant change will have to step forward, demand a higher level of professionalism across the sector and then help the industry shift its communications focus from being self-important, condescending and boastful to being curious, humble and tuned in to the needs, wants and desires of tomorrow’s audiences. Unfortunately, with so little expertise among executive leaders, so few good marketers rising into leadership positions and a funding community that isn’t equipped to understand the problem, that person or group isn’t likely to arise any time soon.
Building sustainable long-term audiences is the only hope most earned revenue-dependent arts organizations have for survival. Fundraising won’t do it. Cutting artists’ pay won’t do it. Advocating for better public policy won’t do it. Emergency bailouts by deep-pocketed philanthropists won’t do it. New buildings certainly won’t do it. Education won’t do it – not fast enough at any rate. And the community engagement fad, while it’s a lovely idea, won’t do it either. If large paying audiences are the key to survival and marketing is the most sensible, effective way to get them in the doors, using sophisticated, professional, real-world marketing to develop sustainable new audiences should be an ultimate arts industry priority.
The fact that it’s not a priority points to an embarrassing vacuum in arts industry leadership, a bleak future for traditional arts organizations and a devastating loss for the millions of potential new audience members who won’t have been properly persuaded to participate.
The audience problem can be solved. Figuring out where to find leaders who will solve the audience problem, however, is a problem that may have no solution.