Excerpts of a discussion at the Jerome L. Greene Performance Space, WNYC
Filmed live in New York City on October 1, 2014

Kurt Anderson, Moderator and Host/Co-Creator, Studio360
Robert Battle, Artistic Director, Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater
Jane Chu, Chairman, National Endowment for the Arts
James Houghton, Founding Artistic Director, Signature Theatre Company
Kelly Tweeddale, Executive Director, Seattle Opera
Will Miller, President, The Wallace Foundation


Will Miller:
As individuals, we need arts to experience beauty and insight, to help us make sense of our lives and to envision what is not but might be. As communities, we need art to forge social bonds, to strengthen our economies and to deepen our understanding of each other, especially when we come from different backgrounds or belief systems.

And yet these are challenging times for arts organizations.

Attendance rates at performances have generally slipped over the past three years, with the steepest declines occurring among young adults. What’s more, the waning of arts education in schools over the past three decades means that both younger and middle-aged audiences are less familiar with some art forms and need to be introduced.

All this in the face of an increasing pace of technological change and competition for scarce leisure time.

To rise to this challenge, artistically excellent organizations across the country are undertaking new and vibrant approaches to programming, presentation and outreach without dumbing down.

Kurt Anderson:
Thank you, Will, and thank you The Wallace Foundation for convening this, asking me to be part of it. I’m very pleased by that and I also want to thank my colleagues at WNYC and the Greene Space for providing this great space, which is familiar to me although I’ve never seen such a well-dressed crowd in this hall.

So, how do all these hundreds of organizations - these proliferating organizations - both produce excellent performing art and market it in ways that keep current audiences happy and bring in new people and do all that in ways that are not just a one-shot effort but sustainable year after year?

The Challenge: Changing audiences, changing preferences

Jane Chu:
Technology is booming and American adults - three quarters of American adults now, we’re finding, participate in viewing the arts or listening to art through an electronic media. Another thing that is changing and shifting are the demographics. Non-white and Hispanic individuals, well, they’re holding steady or increasing their participation in the arts. And finally something to pay attention to is that the types of arts are expanding as well. The creation of videos. American adults are now playing more instruments. They’re going to festivals - folk festivals. Social dancing is now one to track as well.

Increasing numbers is great, but increasing relevance is critical.

1. Eliminate the economic barrier

James Houghton:
You have to, from our perspective, break down the economic barrier to start with, create enough of an intimate experience that they feel relevant to it and then tell stories that are relevant to them … In New York, for a family of four to go to the theater on Broadway, that’s - after dinner and parking and - you’re talking about close to a thousand dollars for that moment. So, people are subconsciously, I think, sitting there and thinking, ‘this better be good’ and when you take that economic piece -

Kurt Anderson:
I don’t know if it’s ‘sub’ - consciously.

James Houghton:
You’re absolutely right about that. When we inserted this principle of the ticket initiative, the seats were filled and people were sitting there in an intimate setting knowing that their participation was honored, knowing that they had an access point and feeling a sense of exploration. What’s been very interesting is the person who’s sitting in the chair next to the person who maybe couldn’t afford it before, is giving back because they like that it’s democratized.

2. Make it personal

Robert Battle:
I think the wonderful thing is that with technology, we’re able to use data to personalize how we reach audience members so that it’s not a one size fits all - that we understand the who/what/when/where and how.

Kurt Anderson:
Give me an example of that.

Robert Battle:
So, the notion of - what programs would someone consistently come to see? When do they buy their tickets and how do they get their tickets? What are they interested in? It’s a development tool but I think now with technology we’re able to really look more closely at that. The other thing is making sure that creativity doesn’t stop on the stage but that the creativity exists with the administration, with development, with how we use technology. When I think about dancers - we use every limb that we have in order to reach the audience. If you think of the technology as another limb and you humanize it, I think that’s important.

Kurt Anderson:
We are arts organizations. We’re all about innovation, taking risks, taking chances and that needs to extend throughout these enterprises. Talk about that.

Kelly Tweeddale:
We had this really robust process that we go through to produce our art and the rehearsal process and we’re allowed to take chances and risks and see if they work before they ever get to the stage and that’s what it’s all about - we’re nimble, we’re flexible. I know at the opera, we do that all the time and then in rehearsals if somebody laughs at the wrong time, you gotta change that - you gotta change that staging - and it’s just second nature. Then we look at how we run our organizations and it is so rigid and it is so risk-averse because we don’t have an opportunity to take a breath and try something new because the stakes are so high financially.

3. Be creative in business as well as art

Kelly Tweeddale:
We had four sets of experiments on building new audiences and it allowed us to actually say, ‘oh, we got this wrong’ and ‘oh, we got that right’ and ‘let’s build upon that for the next year’ and it showed up in the numbers of who was showing up and we got actually much more facile at measuring our own work, taking chances, being able to do course corrections without thinking we were putting something at peril. So in our organization, we have started to talk about - how do we become as nimble as we are on the producing stage producing art in the work that we do? And I think it’s critical for going forward. I really do because we have to take chances. Using technology - it’s changing at such a rapid rate that if we stay with what we know, we will always be behind.

4. Make it social

James Houghton:
To me the lobby is - and back-of-house by the way - is all built around this notion of ‘orchestrated collisions.’ We are creating multiple invitations for people to collide with one another. That might mean a digital experience for that generation that’s coming up, which is certainly part of all of us now, where they’re intersecting with oversized I-pads that go into a deep history of who we are. Or it might be directly across from it the bookstore where they could pick up a piece of paper and read words on a page. Or it might be at the bar where they’re having a glass of wine or the cafe or soup or something or just sitting and relaxing.

They’re all engaging with one another. Then we’re creating the potential for each person to realize that they have something to do with this and they’re valued in it and it’s personal for them. You’re never in a situation where you can navel gaze. You’re never closing in on yourself because you’re turning a corner and colliding with that other artist or that other experience.

Robert Battle:
I think about the legacy of Alvin Ailey and I am part of that legacy because he wanted a company that embraced more than his own creativity. He used his creativity to bring others along which is why we have an Ailey School almost from the beginning. Arts and education was important to him not just a way to fundraise but it was really about spiritual reciprocity - growing up as a black man in this country and knowing something about bringing the community along with you.

I think that that’s the reason our audience is so diverse.

5. Share the magic

Kelly Tweeddale:
We have this mystique in many of our art forms that we have to keep that moment for the live performance and if people know the magic behind that moment, they no longer will experience it in the same way. Our audiences are changing. They are absolutely hungry to know how the magic - how it’s working. ‘How do you do that?’ It actually engages them more. It makes their experience deeper and more relevant and more meaningful to them. And so we’ve done an 180 degree turnaround on this idea of ‘mystique’ and we’ve opened up almost every process of what we do because it’s a creative process and that is as meaningful to some of our audience as the performance itself.

James Houghton:
One of the interesting things I think we did was we made the front door the stage door so that every single participant in that building - whether you’re staff, you’re artist, you’re audience - you collide with each other. You have to pass through the same social space.

6. Understand the barriers

Jane Chu:
The question on the survey was, ‘why didn’t you go? Why didn’t you participate?’ One of the findings was - they had children under six. So, that’s a pretty significant amount. The finding may help all of us understand the opportunity to present family-friendly experiences - something more accessible that way. There were many who said that the destination was hard to get to - things like that. It wasn’t about the art itself. It was - the destination was hard to get to. Those were mostly retired persons - people with some physical challenges - that had not been addressed in terms of how they could get to the place and the location. The third and final one was what you’re talking about in terms of colliding in the lobby. They saw this as an opportunity to socialize, too. And so if there wasn’t anybody to go to the arts event with them or the production, they didn’t go.

Kurt Anderson:
On that third point, it sounds like it’s a perfect thing to address in terms of social media. I mean, if social media is about forming online communities, they can become real communities if you find those four people to go to the opera or go to the theater with or go to the dance.

Jane Chu:
It may be indeed and the opportunity also to be very clever - and here we are in the whole field of creativity and innovation - we have the opportunity to be clever on how to make the art accessible - social media or any other way.

Will Miller:
I want to add my personal thanks to Kurt Anderson, Jane Chu, Robert Battle, Jim Houghton and Kelly Tweeddale for a very stimulating discussion about building audiences.

I’m very encouraged by the idea of creativity not stopping at the edge of the stage but informing the entire organization as they arise to those kinds of challenges.

Thank you very much.

For more information on Building Arts Audiences, including case studies of nine exemplary arts organizations and lessons to follow in The Road to Results, please visit www.thrivingarts.org.