The Problem

The United States today is home to some 48,200 nonprofit arts and cultural organizations, from opera companies and museums to film societies and performing arts centers. Many of these institutions provide people with extraordinary ways to experience the power of the arts. And yet, many Americans are missing out. Periodic surveys by the National Endowment for the Arts suggest an overall decline in attendance at such key cultural institutions and events as art museums, classical music performances and theatrical presentations. How to change this picture has been unclear.

How We Are Tackling It

In 2015, Wallace embarked on an initiative to develop practical insights into how arts organizations could successfully expand their audiences. Specifically, the effort is assisting 26 performing arts organizations as they conduct a range of audience-building projects—and plans to use this work to generate information and insights about audience building for arts organizations nationwide.

The initiative seeks in particular to probe three questions:

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?
How can they align their organizational workings to their audience efforts?
How can their audience-building work contribute to their overall financial health?

The effort is structured around what we call “learning cycles.” Each arts organization is to design an audience-building project informed by research, carry out the project, assess the results and then use what it has learned to shape a new cycle of work

Independent researchers are studying the organizations’ experiences and are expected to issue public reports about their findings.

The current initiative draws from lessons learned in earlier efforts, including the Wallace Excellence Awards. In that venture, which lasted from 2006 to 2014, 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, diversify them or encourage current audience members to attend more often. The results were promising among the 46 arts groups for which Wallace obtained reliable data; for example, across the 11 organizations that sought to increase the overall size of their audience, the median gain over about three years was 27 percent.