Climbing out of the hole this pandemic has dug will not be easy.
Arts organizations are likely to see sharp drops in audience participation, which will be compounded by a slow build toward a new normal that could lag well behind pre-covid levels. Developing audiences during this process will be a delicate dance requiring a new set of attitudes and practices that arts leaders are likely find disturbingly unfamiliar.
Here are three survival tools that arts organizations will need in order to build sustaining audiences after the pandemic.
Nobody will be writhing in the aisles with their guts hanging out during your next Noel Coward play. Calling it a side-splitting, roll-in-the-aisles romp may be cute and catchy, and it may ring comfortingly familiar to older arts leaders, but it isn’t true and it’s not effective communication.
New audiences don’t respond to frivolous hyperbole. They want clear, honest, useful information that explains why your products matter to them. If what they’re looking for is a fun, stimulating way to create lasting memories with family, friends or loved ones, your job is to sell social experiences that offer lasting memories; i.e. if that memory is about sharing a funny play, you should probably say something like, “You’ll remember laughing together for a lifetime.”
Same goes for orchestral concerts, operas, dance events, gallery shows, etc. Take a closer look at your pre-covid communications and ask yourself, “Is this literally true?” “Is it fresh, direct and conversational?” “Does it accurately reflect what new audiences have told us they’re looking for?” “Does it honestly describe the experience newcomers will have when they attend our events?”
The pandemic has made new audiences more important than ever before. We’re talking survival-level importance here, so it’s time to stop spraying hokey nonsense at old insiders and start talking openly and honestly with young outsiders about how the art we sell will give them what they told us they want.
Older arts leaders will find it extremely difficult to humble themselves before the audiences on which their futures depend. It goes against everything they’ve ever believed about what they’re there to do: Creating and presenting art is a higher pursuit, administered by elevated people, for the benefit of lesser souls who might be motivated to aspire.
But new audiences aren’t motivated to aspire. They don’t recognize the elevated status of arts institutions and they lack an internal impulse to ascend into the ranks of an elite cultural class. Research tells us that arts audiences want stimulating ways to share quality entertainment with people they care about. For new audiences, the relative value of an arts event may be persuasive only to the extent that it can facilitate a rewarding social experience. (Talk about humbling.)
Take another look at those pre-covid communications. What have you been selling? If you’re like most arts organizations, you’ve been boasting about how wonderful and important you think your products are without bothering to ask the folks on the outer edges of your support systems (a.k.a. your future) what they think is wonderful and important.
Arts leaders who want to grow post-pandemic sustaining audiences would do well to embrace this crisis as a chance to reconnect with their communities – not as self-important, condescending purveyors of cultural elevation, but rather as humble members of diverse societies who have as much to learn as they have to offer.
It’s not about you anymore.
It really hasn’t been about you for a long time, but the pandemic is about to drive this truth home with painful urgency.
Take one more look at your pre-covid communications and measure how much content was devoted to boasting about how wonderful and important you are vs. how much was devoted to your audience and how satisfied they’ll be when they attend one of your events. If you’re like most organizations, the ratio is about 95% / 5%.
Consider the Noel Coward copy above. The side-splitting stuff is about you. The laughing together line is about them. They’re both designed to indicate that the play will be enjoyable, but the laughing together line is immensely more meaningful, relevant and persuasive because it started with them and it leverages real motivating desires. (The side-splitting line started with a marketing staffer who, using no credible market intelligence, regurgitated the familiar cliches her executive director likes to read when he approves promotional materials.)
If there’s any overlap between what new audiences have told us they want and what the art we’re trying to sell is capable of delivering, this is the world arts administrators need to start living in.
Ultimately, if we’re lucky, the pandemic will have had a great leveling effect, bringing the arts down off their pedestals and giving elite arts leaders the opportunity to relate to people in their communities as equals. Only then will we be able to talk with one another honestly, humbly and selflessly about what is truly wonderful and important.