Survival of the Arts: an Audience Building Strategy

NAMPC Gala at the Seattle Arts Museum — Looks like a beautiful dying tree to me, how fitting

As a consultant focusing on merging the arts with technology, I attend and plan a fair share of national conferences. I find events like this an important avenue to gauge the industry pulse, get inspired and learn from an aggregate of creative minds. A few weeks ago I went to the National Arts Marketing Project Conference held by Americans for the Arts in Seattle. Compared to the tech conferences (during my time at Adobe, I curated content for their amazing annual martech summit), the arts and creative industry conferences have a very different vibe.

In contrast to the forward-looking optimism and wonder of how tech innovation allows the future to be here now, arts conferences are very grounding, they are largely centered around the idea of scarcity - scarcity of funding, resources, manpower, affordability, access and beyond. We all chose to be there because of our love for the arts, since truth be told there are far easier ways to make a living. We are there because art sustains us, helps us survive and gives us meaning. As noble as it sounds, the industry (except for very concentrated rich pockets) is in fact struggling (see: Museums hit by ‘stratospheric’ art prices and funding cuts), and sometimes I have an overwhelming feeling that people just don’t recognize that if we don’t evolve the way we do things, there might not be an industry there to love anymore.

Survival is the most important thing. Audiences are aging, pockets are getting tighter and competition for attention is as fierce as ever. That is the reality. A recurring theme at the conference boils down to this: Having a sustainable and actionable strategy to audience building is key to the survival of the arts. So where do we even start? Here are some of my insights combined with learnings from the conference.

1. Broaden your audience pool to target the non-art-goers and younger audiences

Needless to say, if arts organizations are only focusing on their current bread and butter, there is a shelf life for how long that can last. Consider the following when looking to build an inclusive audience:

  • Identify misconceptions: Art is universal, not exclusive to the “connoisseurs” to judge and experience. It is for everyone and you don’t need to be an expert to enjoy it. Help tackle the misconceptions: If you think it’s not for you, how can we change your mind that it will be a different experience?
  • Demystify programming: Be clear about what is going to happen and what to expect. A lot of the times people don’t participate in the arts because they are afraid that they would make a fool of themselves. Add an educational component and drop the dry language.
  • Make it low commitment, social oriented and engagement focused: What younger generations look for in the arts is no longer “craftsmanship” but “experience”. Rather than focusing on how good the art is, focus on building a great experience around the art. Help them answer the question: “How does it alter my experiences and speak to me in the broader context of my life and what I’d like to reflect among my social circles?” Offer instead of seasonal subscriptions, options to ease into the experience, flexible scheduling and lower the barrier for purchase.
  • Align marketing communications to the efforts: Reflect this renewed focus in all communications across every audience touchpoint.
Consider the user journey, how do we make it a solid “Yes” to every one of these questions? Credits: New Approaches to Audience Building — Wallace Foundation

2. Be forward thinking and future ready

  • Use technology as a tool, don’t be scared of it: Technologies are invented for a reason, they bring great efficiencies and optimization. It is important to be open-minded, look past the upfront costs and learning curve to understand the true return on investment.
  • Look for opportunities for optimization both on the back-end & front-end: Inspect the pain points of how you are running your organization, there is likely a technical solution built to solve for your specific case. Automate your operations with robust systems for ticketing, patron relationship management, finances…etc. On the front-end, how are you engaging with your audience? Are you developing the right messaging for different age groups, preferences and behaviors? Use marketing technology tools for audience segmentation to ensure the right message is sent at the right time to the right person.
  • Design technology into the experience and programming: Utilize new digital media such as Augmented Reality and Virtual Reality (see: How Can Museums Use VR?) to bring your artwork or programming to life. Creative approaches to how audiences experience the work are key to attracting continuous audience growth, and in this day and age integrating technology is a trend that will only become more dominant as we go.

3. Think about reaching profitability first, then accessibility

“Hey, you need to start making money.” — This can seem like a blasphemous thing to say to the myriads of non-profits and collectives out there, but relying on donations and public funding is not a sustainable approach (see: Trump’s Budget Once Again Proposes Eliminating National Endowment for the Arts Funding). Looking for sustainable revenue streams does not mean you have to compromise artistic integrity, it is actually a way to fund more creativity and access to the arts. This is why more and more social enterprises such as Benefit Corporations & Low-profit Limited Liability Companies (L3Cs) and C3s in Canada are starting to emerge. Even as a non-profit, there are ways to subsidize public access or emerging artists with higher paying audience segments. Arts organizations need to exist and thrive first before focusing on ways to make it more accessible through discounting on price.

4. The organization has to have a sense of urgency and be prepared for the long-haul

“To achieve great things, you need a plan and not quite enough time.”

- Leonard Bernstein

At the conference, I definitely felt a deep sense of urgency in the room. It is absolutely mission-critical for the survival of the organization to invest in new audience building strategies and efforts, but it takes great internal organizational alignment to buy into the vision. According to the Wallace Foundation, it takes around 10 years for new audience building strategies to really start showing results, which makes it exceptionally important that the entire organization is behind the initiative. Involve and listen to the people that are against the change because they are the best experts to help you risk-proof your plan forward (for example, brainstorming strategies to prevent alienating your existing audiences). Don’t expect to get it right the first time and be prepared for the long haul. But all this is not to deter us from trying, it is the critical battle we fight because we believe in living in a world where arts and culture can continue to thrive.

This is part of a series of posts sharing my insights from the conference, stay tuned for my future posts on VR/AR applied to the arts, Creative Hubs & Mixed-use spaces and more.

Want help figuring out how to apply the above to your organization? Book a time to chat or reach out to me at

Marketing & Business Consultant focused on merging tech with arts and culture. @Harvard MBA. I write about business, technology, the arts & life.

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