Shrink-to-Fit Audience Development; Why Didn’t I Think of That?

I was wrong. Time to admit it.

Regular readers know that I’ve been picking on San Diego Opera lately for what I thought was their embarrassingly amateurish approach to post-crisis marketing. But as it turns out, I missed the mark by a wide margin.

I humbly apologize to San Diego Opera – and any other organization that might have felt unfairly criticized – for having failed to understand that new audiences aren’t worth the effort.

I learned of my misguided thinking when The New York Times praised San Diego Opera in a puff piece the other day about the company’s brilliant survival strategy. As it turns out, attracting new audiences has nothing to do with it. I’ve been preaching for years that new audiences can be found and that they’re necessary for survival, but as The New York Times article seems to suggest, survival isn’t about growing arts audiences, it’s about shrinking organizations to fit available demand. The most sensible choice a troubled arts organization can make, apparently, is to stop trying to attract new audiences and start downsizing when traditional audiences disappear.

Yes. I’m surprised, too. It’s so easy. All this time I’ve been thinking that we should be growing arts audiences when the answer has been staring us in the face all this time: Screw new audiences. The easiest thing to do is maintain the status quo, stay focused on old audiences, die along with them, and sit back and let The New York Times pat us on the back for our accomplishments. Why didn’t I think of that?

So please allow me to modify my core recommendations to fit this bold new way of thinking:

Don’t Change

Change is difficult, especially for arts organizations – and especially for older arts leaders. Rather than responding to changes in the marketplace, as real businesses do, it’s easier to keep doing the same things you’ve been doing for the last thirty years and hope for better results. And when traditional methods no longer work, give up.

Don’t Try to Attract New Audiences

Attracting new audiences means changing cherished traditions and upsetting entrenched organizational cultures, so it’s something you’ll want to avoid at all costs. You can talk about new audiences because the funding community eats that shit up, but actually building new audiences would require change and hard work. The easiest way to avoid having to fill empty seats is to reduce the number of seats you have to fill, so if the going gets tough, get a smaller venue.

Don’t Hire Professional Marketers

Professional marketers are a huge pain in the ass. They may know how to develop new audiences, but they want to change comfortable old traditions and they don’t fit our organizational cultures. It’s much easier to cut costs by firing amateur arts marketers than it is to hire professionals and put up with having to sell all those tickets.

Keep Up the Self-flattery

Constantly boasting about how wonderful and important you are may be off-putting to new audiences, but it helps older arts leaders maintain a fragile delusion about the relevance of their art forms (i.e. “We must be wonderful and important because it says so in the brochure I just approved.”). Focusing on audiences will force you to learn what young, culturally diverse people really think, and that’s something you definitely don’t want to do.

Get a Job in a Growth Industry

Downsizing in proportion to diminishing demand means that good arts jobs will steadily disappear over the next couple of decades. If you’re young, smart and talented and want have a productive, long-lasting career, don’t waste time on an industry that’s given up on new markets. Instead, find a growth industry and work with forward-thinking people who are committed to building something of lasting value.


Whew! There’s something oddly liberating about surrendering to cultural sector inertia and allowing external forces to have their way. I don’t know why I’ve resisted it for so long. It’s so much easier and we don’t have to worry about persuading young people to care about dying art forms anymore.

According to Marc A. Scorca, president of Opera America, San Diego Opera’s shrink-to-fit survival strategy is good news. If The New York Times thinks such news is fit to print, who am I to argue?






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