Beyond Guessing: The How-to of Audience Engagement

The nonprofit arts community owes a great deal to Lila and Dewitt Wallace, who founded Readers Digest, an early 20th-century precursor to the The Huffington Post (sans all the cute cat and dog videos). Their self-made fortune endowed The Wallace Foundation, which was created after their deaths to advance their abiding beliefs in the societal benefits of educating youth, as well as experiencing art. For over two decades now, the Foundation has committed its resources to helping to develop new audiences for the literary, performing and visual arts. This work couldn’t be more welcome, as new studies have confirmed a continued decline in cultural participation, especially for traditional art forms.

I recently met with Daniel Windham and Lucas Held, the Foundation’s arts program director and communications director, respectively, who explained that Wallace’s focus on the “architecture” of arts organizations — both institutional infrastructure and the field-wide ecosystem — as a conduit for the arts comes directly from Lila Wallace. Interestingly, they noted that Wallace considers itself a research institute that uses its grantmaking to answer critical questions as a way of furthering its goals. This underscores why, since 1996, the Foundation has invested heavily in commissioning research and publishing reports to serve the field, much of which is readily accessible online.

Photo Credit: Shen Yun Symphony Orchestra at Lincoln Center in New York, 2013

Photo Credit: Shen Yun Symphony Orchestra at Lincoln Center in New York, 2013

The most recent of these reports — The Road to Results: Effective Practices for Building Arts Audiences and Taking Out the Guesswork: A Guide to Using Research to Build Arts Audiences — showcase both lessons learned and how-to methodologies in audience development. The knowledge shared in these well-written materials, gathered and analyzed by market researcher Bob Harlow, is based on data from the Wallace Excellence Awards recipients, 54 organizations in six U.S. cities, which received funding between 2006 and 2014. 

The reports are a treasure trove of useful information and highly recommended reading for any arts organization seeking to expand or diversify its outreach. Road to Results offers nine practices illustrated by 10 case study organizations that adopted strategies to successfully engage audiences new to them. Taking Out the Guesswork is, literally, a step-by-step, DIY guide to audience research — how to plan, conduct and evaluate market research, and then apply the data to develop targeted audiences. The appendix is chock full of sample tools and templates, too. 

At the American Alliance of Museums (AAM) annual meeting in Atlanta this past April, my co-author, Beth Tuttle, and I had the pleasure of joining Lucas and two of Wallace’s grantees from Philadelphia — Chris Taylor of The Clay Studio and Magda Martinez of the Fleisher Art Memorial — to address the overlapping lessons of Road to Results and our book, Magnetic: The Art and Science of Engagement. AAM was kind enough to feature a write up of our presentation in its July-August 2015 Museum magazine, a pdf of which can be found here.

Here are just a few takeaways from the reports, much of which dovetails with the learnings from Magnetic:

  • Transformation begins with awareness that change is needed. And it's most successful when outreach goals align with organizational mission and values, and are co-created by many stakeholders working in collaboration. Leadership from the top is needed for change to stick.
  • Be open to what you hear and learn from your community, as it may well differ from your assumptions. Use research results to inform decision-making before moving forward.
  • Utilize design thinking strategies to test and prototype new ideas as a way to keep costs contained.
  • Cultivate an attitude of ongoing learning, because this kind of engagement effort works best on a continuum. And cultivate patience, because creating change takes commitment over a longer term.

Wallace is now funding 26 performing arts organizations across the country in tandem with its next phase of research. The Foundation’s intent is twofold: to discern how arts organizations can attract new audiences while retaining current ones, and understand the relationship between audience development and financial sustainability. 

So keep an eye on Wallace, because there’s sure to be great new information forthcoming. And in the meantime, download and digest these reports, because there’s no more excuse for guessing when it comes to engaging new audiences.