Audience Development for the Arts

Building Audiences for the Arts

“The arts belong to everyone.” That was the conviction of our co-founder Lila Wallace. It has guided our efforts for more than two decades to support arts organizations as they develop and test innovative ideas to reach new audiences so that many more people might enjoy the benefits of the arts.
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The Problem

“The arts belong to everyone.” That conviction of The Wallace Foundation’s co-founder, Lila Wallace, has defined the foundation’s longstanding efforts in the arts.

As the population ages, demographics shift, funding for arts education wanes and other activities pull audiences away from the arts, many arts institutions struggle to attract the audiences they need to stay relevant and financially strong. The Wallace Foundation seeks to help arts organizations adapt to these trends so more people can experience the benefits of the arts.

How We Are Tackling It

In 2014, Wallace embarked on a $40 million initiative to help about 25 performing arts organizations conduct a range of projects to build their audiences and fortify their finances. The goals of the initiative are to support the work of exemplary arts organizations and to develop evidence from their experiences that can help other arts institutions replicate their successes. Called Building Audiences for Sustainability, the initiative seeks to probe three questions in particular:

  • Can arts organizations embed audience-building activities into their operations, so newcomers become repeat attendees and don’t “churn” — show up once never to return?
  • As they attract new people, how can organizations ensure that they don’t alienate existing audiences, the people most likely to buy tickets and contribute?
  • Can larger, more diverse audiences contribute to an organization’s financial health through increased ticket sales or donations? In other words, can expanded audiences help arts organizations thrive?

Independent researchers will study the organizations’ experiences and issue public reports about their findings, sharing information and insights with arts organizations nationwide. We hope this research will help many arts organizations build their audiences and support their efforts to preserve the arts for generations to come. Seven arts service organizations are working in partnership with Wallace on the initiative. Arts organizations that wish to learn more can find information here.

The current initiative draws from lessons learned in earlier efforts, including the Wallace Excellence Awards. In that 2006-2014 venture, 54 arts organizations in six cities sought to use reliable data and analysis to design and carry out projects to increase the size of their audiences or diversify them. Wallace also commissioned research to determine what worked and what didn’t in 10 of the projects and find commonalities in successful efforts.

Some of the Research Informing Our Work

Our approach is grounded in principles laid out in three landmark Wallace-commissioned reports. A New Framework for Building Participation in the Arts by the RAND Corporation suggests that building arts participation refers to one or more of three activities: “broadening” audiences (attracting people who are inclined to take part but aren’t currently attending); “deepening” them (enriching the experience so current audiences attend more often); or “diversifying” them (bringing new groups into the fold). Gifts of the Muse, also by RAND, concludes that all the broader social benefits of the arts stem from people’s individual, rewarding encounters with art — and that arts organizations need to find ways to introduce more people to those experiences. The Road to Results, by market research expert Bob Harlow, outlines nine practices that, according to the experiences of 10 Wallace Excellence Award grantees, can help engage new audiences.

Our Grantees

Wallace has supported hundreds of arts organizations in its grant making. Our most recent initiative, the Wallace Excellence Awards, begun in 2004 and re-designed in 2006, aims to get more people more engaged in the arts. Wallace funding of about $65 million has included support for: projects in six cities by 54 arts organizations that received Wallace Excellence Awards to broaden, deepen or diversify their audiences; expert assistance to those organizations in matters such as how to measure the progress of their projects; local efforts to inform the grantees and other arts organizations about what is being learned through the work; and the publication of several reports.