Learning from Cleveland

“How do we build the audiences of tomorrow?” The Cleveland Foundation and EmcArts recently posed that enormously challenging question to 12 Cleveland-based arts organizations as part of the Engaging the Future Program. The resulting audio postcards offer a fascinating range of responses, as one would expect from a group that includes museums, orchestras, dance groups, and community arts centers. Yet, while specific approaches may vary, the overarching narrative reveals that arts organizations trying to reach new audiences face many of the same challenges and more often than not are coming to similar conclusions. Here’s a look at some of the emerging trends and themes from the Cleveland audio postcards.

Change Starts at Home

Almost universally, the Cleveland interviewees cited the need to make audience development an internal, company-wide focus. It’s not just a marketing or programming thing, an administrative or artistic thing: reaching new audiences requires total organizational commitment. At Karamu House, that meant making outreach top-of-mind for everybody from “janitors to board members.” After moving to a new location, the Cleveland Play House decided to view audience development as an extension of every position. Verb Ballets implements the idea quite literally, with each company dancer assigned a personalized discount code to help recruit new audience members.

The recognition that audience engagement extends beyond the marketing department arises from changes impacting organizations across Cleveland and the nation. Numerous companies cited declining subscription sales and increasing single ticket sales. Engaging first time or sporadic buyers requires more than just a newspaper ad or brochure mailing. The solutions are still works in process, but some Cleveland companies are finding success with programming culturally relevant works, subsidizing tickets, and creating meaningful experiences beyond the artistic encounter. Acknowledging the very notion of a “work in process” is central, too, as change and positive growth require time, investment and openness to experimentation.

Get to Know Your Neighbors

While aligning audience engagement goals internally is crucial, Cleveland administrators emphasized that the old “build it and they will come” mentality is flawed. A new building, an innovative program, or simply producing at the highest artistic quality is not enough to get new people in the door. Universally, organizations talked about stepping out into the community as a means of growing audiences. For contemporary art incubator SPACES, that meant building a mobile lemonade stand that also served up company information and event invitations to passersby. DANCECleveland is bringing performances to restaurants and professional associations, and the Cleveland Orchestra established community residencies to “meet the audience on their own terms.”

In a city as diverse as Cleveland with a downtown in the midst of revitalization, organizations are saying that they want to get to know their neighbors in the most old-fashioned sense. Ticket sales aren’t necessarily the end goal anymore. For many, the goal is to empower the community to have a sense of ownership of the institution. In doing so, organizations hope to tap the potential for emotional connection and future investment. It might not be the way it was done in the past, but as the Cleveland stories show, it’s time for new approaches to be the new norm.

Brian Hinrichs grew up playing the cello and began transitioning to the administrative side of arts organizations in college. He is interested in innovation through programming and technology, and believes strongly in the power of connecting audiences to the process of creating new works. Brian is currently an MBA candidate at the Bolz Center for Arts Administration in Madison, WI, where he works as a graduate project assistant for the Pro Arte Quartet and is researching the impact of composer-in-residence programs at American symphony orchestras. Previously, he was the director of marketing and community engagement at Madison Opera. As a Fulbright Fellow to Thailand in 2007-08, Brian explored the emerging classical music scene in Bangkok with an eye for organizations and composers fusing traditions. A 2007 graduate of Colgate University, he is originally from Bay Shore, NY. Follow @classicalive