Data and Deliberation: A Dynamic Duo for Arts Organizations

 New report examines the challenges and rewards of a data-based approach to understanding arts audiences


Even before the COVID-19 pandemic shuttered performances, many performing arts organizations faced challenges. National statistics have shown stagnant or declining attendance across many art forms associated with the nonprofit performing arts (see 2015 and 2018 National Endowment reports, for example). While the problem is widely acknowledged, there is less consensus or confidence about how organizations can respond.

Can data and market research help?

francie-headshot.jpgThe experiences of 25 performing arts organizations in The Wallace Foundation’s Building Audiences for Sustainability (BAS) initiative offer helpful insights. Organizations in the multi-year initiative, which recently came to a close, received grants to try and enlarge and engage their audiences. While their specific projects differed, all the organizations made use of data collection and market research, generally through a mix of focus groups, ticketing database analyses and post-performance audience surveys.

The emphasis on data and market research was part of the initiative’s continuous learning approach, characterized by an iterative process of design, implementation, analysis and determination of changes needed for improvement. My team and I have been studying the experiences of the organizations in the initiative. Interim findings about this key part of the initiative are presented in a new report, Data and Deliberation: How Some Arts Organizations Are Using Data to Understand their Audiences.

The findings underscore that data is not a magic bullet. To the contrary, engaging with data is a complex and challenging undertaking. Despite the challenges, virtually everyone at the participating arts organizations found engaging with data helpful. Our findings, along with examples from participants’ experiences, are presented in full in the report. To briefly summarize here:

  • Engaging with data appeared most productive when embedded in a larger deliberative process. Here, data becomes an input into a broader process of reflection and assessment about whether organizational goals are being pursued.

  • Data can yield useful insights beyond organizations’ immediate and planned purposes. We repeatedly found instances where engagement with data prompted organizations to become aware of unexamined assumptions they held about their intended audience.

  • Productive data engagement can be complex and costly. While organizations expressed enthusiasm for taking a data-based approach, they also said that they rarely have adequate funds to do so.

  • Recognizing the rewards and challenges in advance can help organizations more effectively plan for data engagement. Key issues to consider are what type of data are most relevant and what resources will be needed to support data collection and analysis

  • Effectively using data requires that organizational participants be able to frankly acknowledge what the data say about what is working and what is not working, in a fruitful rather than punitive fashion. Productive data engagement is not just about the data—but about how data are approached, the questions asked and a willingness to revise preconceptions. 

In a review of the audience-building literature we conducted earlier in our study, we found a dichotomy  between those who value market research as a key tool and others who regard it as a somewhat manipulative sales effort rather than meaningful engagement. Our findings suggest a reconsideration of this dichotomy. 

To a striking extent, we found that data, and an openness to what the data said, prompted the BAS organizations to confront their own insularity and recognize the extent to which they had not understood the perspective of external constituencies. Data is not engagement. Knowing about an audience is not the same as developing a relationship with that audience. But recognizing misconceptions, being prompted to ask about the audience rather than assuming that you understand audience members or that they think as you do can significantly contribute to relating differently and thus developing meaningful engagement. As expressed by one BAS participant while reflecting on her organization’s engagement with data: 

It’s changing the way that we interact. We have a thing we say here all the time. Like do we know it or do we really know it? And with audiences, you have to always ask yourself that…. We’ve gone from describing a couple of departments in this [organization] as outward-facing, and now we understand that we’re all outward-facing.

Data is not a magic bullet—but when the appropriate data are used with an openness to change and a willingness to question one’s preconceptions, data can provide a powerful tool indeed. ​