Building Audiences is Key for Arts Organizations’ Health

Many of us believe the arts add critical vitality to life here in Minnesota. The Minnesota State Arts Board demonstrates the importance of the arts to Minnesotans – 67 percent of us have attended an arts activity in the past year, and 95 percent of us believe the arts are an important part of the education of Minnesota children.

But MCF’s Giving in Minnesota research indicates that arts grant dollars have decreased 19 percent from 2004 levels. (Decreases between 2005 and 2008 were due in part to the conclusion of capital campaigns by several major arts organizations. But the drop in 2009 giving was primarily driven by decreases in giving to arts, culture and humanities by many funders.) And Americans for the Arts notes in the National Arts Index (PDF) that nationwide, giving by individuals, foundations and corporations declined 21 percent between 2007 and 2008.

Given the importance of the arts to life in Minnesota, and the challenges of procuring arts funding in our post-recession environment, building arts audiences is critically important. The Wallace Foundation recently released Building Arts Organizations that Build Audiences (PDF) to explore how it can be done. Their top tips:

  • Understand audiences and figure out strategies to “meet them where they are.”
  • Involve the whole organization in audience development.
  • Create a culture that embraces experimentation and learning.

John Holden, an associate at the British think tank Demos, notes that today is a time when audiences want in varying degrees to “enjoy, talk and do.” The evolving environment challenges arts organizations to make smart and cost-effective decisions about strategies to attract and retain audiences, sustaining practices that work and modifying or dropping those that don’t. It also challenges organizations to change themselves in ways that encourage risk-taking, innovation and learning.

Join the Conversation: How do you build audiences for your arts organization? What techniques have been effective? What has been less successful?

-Anne Bauers, MCF research manager

Photo cc Michael Ging

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