There is little agreement about the reasons behind documented declines in arts audiences, this literature review finds, and no proven path for organizations to stem or reverse them. The effects of audience-development efforts on an organization's finances are equally unclear, the review finds. But it highlights questions that may help organizations chart a path to committed audiences and improved finances.
Several factors could explain the declines in audiences at traditional arts organizations, the report suggests, including changing tastes, dwindling arts education in schools, transformations in media landscapes, "outmoded" business practices in arts institutions and policies that seek to increase the supply of art without addressing the flagging demand for it.
There is no shortage of attempts to counter these declines, from market research to help understand target audiences to the use of alternative performance spaces to panel discussions to help place art in its context. Empirical evidence of the effects of such attempts, however, is slim, the report notes. Efforts that work at one organization may not work at another, and attempts to draw one audience segment could drive another away. But a broad commitment to audience development and close coordination between artistic and marketing departments may establish a foundation for success, the report suggests.
Even if such efforts succeed, however, the literature review finds little evidence of their effects on an arts organization's finances—which are little understood. Researchers have many different definitions of financial sustainability, from liquidity to personnel capacity to the ratio of administrative to programming costs. But there is no cohesive body of research that determines how audience-development efforts would affect them.
The evidence is slim, but the authors of the report pose a number of questions that could help organizations devise their own solutions to declining audiences. Among them:
- Does your organization define success based on audience size, ticket sales, audience commitment or something else? Not all efforts increase revenues, even if they engage audiences. Organizations must carefully consider whether they are working to fill more seats, raise more money or build closer relationships with patrons and communities.
- How will your organization cover the costs of audience-development efforts? Can your organization secure funding for these efforts if they fail to generate the revenue necessary to pay for themselves?
- Which audiences are most important? Measures meant to attract one audience, some research suggests, could drive others away. Are the potential benefits of new approaches worth the costs?