Are the arts “building back better” with new audiences?

Row X blog by Hannah Grannemann

When arts organizations went into shutdown in 2020 and 2021, they asked audiences, donors, staffs, and their communities to continue supporting them even when they weren’t producing and open to the public because they were working hard during the shutdowns to improve themselves in myriad ways, including building new audiences.

They weren’t going to let a good crisis go to waste, they said. In other words, they were going to “build back better”.

I’m ready to see what they’ve been doing to building new audiences, and I don’t think it’s too soon to expect it. It may be too soon to expect to see a reversal of the pre-pandemic trends of slowly declining arts participation and audiences, but it’s not too soon to see discernable audience-building activity from the arts organizations who we all kept alive during COVID.

Here’s what I’d like to hear about from any arts organization that promised to reopen better than before:

  • Descriptions of initiatives to attract new audiences and the amount of financial and human resource investments in those initiatives
  • Examples of new programming that are showing promise in getting new audience members back for a second visit (because sustainability is an important goal to measure, not only audiences that come once and don’t come back)
  • Examples of how they are developing relationships with artists they’ve never worked with before whose work has the potential to bring in new audiences (oh, and by the way, drive innovation in the art form)
  • Quotes and data from audience research the organizations have done to inform their post-pandemic strategy

These pieces of information would show that an organization was making a worthy attempt to attract and serve an audience for the next decades, just as they had attracted and served the audience of the past few decades.

I got really worried when I read an article in The New York Times, “Live Performance Is Back. But Audiences Have Been Slow to Return” by Michael Paulson and Javier C. Hernández. The reporters asked leaders of major nonprofit performing arts organizations in New York City, Baltimore, and Wisconsin about the continued “worrisome and persistent” lackluster demand that threatened the health and sustainability of the organizations, if not their very existence. Manhattan Theater Club’s sales were down by “almost a third”. (Executive Producer Barry Grove didn’t say whether that was compared to a pre-pandemic year, compared to the 2020-21 season, or if that WAS the 2020-21 season.)

So what are the arts leaders doing about the continued empty seats left by audiences who hadn’t come back? According to this article, responses include waiting, handwringing, worrying, and hoping that audiences will decide to come back soon, but they think it will take more than a year or two.

These kinds of sales and attendance drop offs mean that making big changes can’t wait. But only Marc C. Hanson, the new (as of April 2022) President and CEO of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra (BSO), gave a gesture towards change in article, when he was quoted as saying that “It would be a mistake to simply focus on trying to restore what perhaps existed before the pandemic, because our world has changed in fundamental ways.” The BSO is cutting 10 concerts to better match current demand.

I’m not using the absence of evidence in this one piece of media coverage to assert that new audience developments aren’t happening; the article was about the persistent reticence of about 15-20% of pre-COVID audiences, not attracting new audiences.

In fact, I know it’s happening in at least some organizations. The BSO is doing three concerts in new locations as a new initiative. Actors Theatre of Louisville produced “A Christmas Carol: Scrooge’s Ghost Encounter Live in VR”. How much new play development is happening for VR? Shanta Thake produced a vibrant mix of free and pay-what-you-can model with the “Summer for the City” series at Lincoln Center that felt like a proof-of-concept of a new, more open vision for arts participation.

What’s happening at an arts organization that you care about? Is hope their only strategy, or have they been taking measurements, drawing blueprints, and breaking new ground to build back better?

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