Commentary: Is there a new way to think about audience diversity?

Clayton Lord, blog New Beans, 1/22/13

We are, as a field, and really looking here at all the arts, woefully undiversified in terms of age, race and class.  Diversification as it is currently being tossed about in the field seems a lot like the legend of Sisyphus to me.  All rocks and hills, no end in sight, and therefore no option but to aim at the impossible or simply not try. The mantra, which is often more of a directive, is simple and non-specific: "Become more diverse."  Where concrete numbers are given, they are most often centered around the top with admonitions that those bodies need to be X% diverse.  The directives come from boards or senior staff, but most often, and most persistently, they lately seem to be coming either formally or informally from program officers and granting guidelines. They are almost exclusively about race and ethnicity, almost never about age, gender or class.  From what I have heard, the goals, if they exist, are arbitrary and not cued to anything particular about the organization.  This is understandable, in a way, because it's very hard to wrap your head around diversification in a way that is specific and actionable without seeming random.  Unfortunately, that ends up being a very heavy rock to roll up an interminable hill -- and sets up both a reality and an excuse that diversification is difficult and arbitrary, and each company too specific and unique, for the conversation to get very far and for companies that do make the effort to feel like they have gotten anywhere.


Commentary: Cheap tickets alone will never solve audience diversity issue

Chrissie Tiller, Arts Professional magazine [UK], 12/21/12

Last night I sat in a West End theatre watching [a] revival of Privates on Parade. Reading the profusion of 5-star reviews the following morning, I recognised the experience I had up in the balcony was very different to the one that had clearly delighted the front rows of the stalls. [But] what dispirited me most were suggestions that this was a trailblazer for a season dedicated to bringing in "new audiences" to (West End) theatre. Maybe it is a "canny" choice for our a-political, anodyne times. A few funny jibes at "bumbling" attempts at post-war social justice, a good old giggle at na´ve young idealists espousing Marxism and a real deep belly laugh at the "bungling amateurism" of the British armed forces relocating millions of Malaysians into prison camps and burning their villages. Maybe it is about time we encouraged ethnic minorities to start enjoying English racist jokes? Or get women to accept [that] misogyny can actually be quite a laugh -- as long as it accurately reflects its time? Or maybe the kind of audiences [that director Michael] Grandage's company are wanting to win over... might really enjoy a light-hearted romp through the good old days of Empire before the working classes became so uppity, and women, gays and foreigners knew their place. Sadly, there's enough research out there to show cheap ticketing schemes on their own will never be the answer to bringing in more diverse audiences: they are mainly taken up by those already in the know. Unless people can see their own lives, concerns, values on stage, or themselves reflected in the audience why would they, or should they, be bothered to engage with what theatre has to offer?


Commentary: Funding is not the only obstacle to audience diversity

Nina Simon, Museum 2.0 blog, 1/23/13

A couple weeks ago, I had a conversation with a funder that shocked me. If you asked me a month ago what the biggest barrier was to American arts organizations adopting practices that support active engagement in the arts by diverse participants, I would have said two: money and legitimacy. Turns out it's not that simple. I was talking with Ted Russell, a senior program officer from the James Irvine Foundation. I asked how their new Exploring Engagement Fund (of which my museum was an early grant recipient) was going. He paused. He said they've been somewhat disappointed by the applications they've received and surprised by the mixed response in the field to their new approach to arts grant-making. Some have raised the question of whether the Irvine Foundation is "too far ahead of the field" with a grantmaking strategy that focuses on active arts engagement for all Californians. I assumed that there were lots of prospective grantees like my organization just waiting for this kind of opportunity to open up. It seems that the Irvine Foundation assumed similarly, and that the results have thus far not lived up to their (or my) hopes.  Why not?  I don't think the problem is the Irvine Foundation's approach, or even their communication around it. In a lot of ways, Irvine's challenge is comparable to that which any organization that changes its strategy faces. Who exactly is the market for this new approach to arts funding? Just as an institution that changes its focus has to either attract a new audience or engage its traditional audience in a change process, the Irvine Foundation has to execute this new strategy in partnership with its grantees.


Commentary: We need to make community engagement central to our arts orgs

Doug Borwick, blog Engaging Matters, 1/12/13

My beliefs are: (1) community engagement is vital to a healthy future for the arts; (2) substantive community engagement is relatively rare in the established arts world; and (3) since there are no extra resources to add "new" stuff to the list of what we do, mainstreaming engagement -- making engagement the core perspective in all management and programming functions -- is the only way to successfully transition to an engagement agenda. I wanted to share a brief passage out of the recent biography of Steve Jobs that is apropos:

Instead of a development process in which a product would be passed from engineering to design to manufacturing to marketing to distribution, these various departments collaborated simultaneously. "Our method was to develop integrated products, and that meant our process had to be integrated and collaborative," Jobs said.

Jobs' total integration of all facets of the Apple business worked fairly well, to put it mildly. The model of artistic directors or curators operating in a vacuum to develop programming and then handing it off to the rest of the staff to "sell," whether or not it ever served arts organizations well, is no longer a healthy approach. It's the interaction between the arts and communities that give the arts the most meaning and can best justify the resources required. Artistic directors/curators have arts expertise, but that's only one element of the equation.


At Cleveland Orchestra, a new approach brings a surge in younger audiences

Zachary Lewis, The [Cleveland, OH] Plain Dealer, 1/19/13
There was a time when Gary Hanson's vow to build the youngest audience in the nation for the Cleveland Orchestra seemed chimerical. Impossible, even. Now, the promise by the executive director isn't just coming true. It's doing so years ahead of schedule. Long before Hanson's pledge for 2018, the orchestra is seeing attendance and ticket revenue skyrocket, mostly as a result of new programs aimed at students. In November and December, over 47,500 people bought tickets to Cleveland Orchestra concerts. That's 28% more than the number of ticket buyers during the same period in 2011. Many of those were children attending for free, through the orchestra's "Free Under 18" offer, a program launched two summers ago. To date, the program has netted some 26,000 young listeners in the company of adults. But revenue is also on the rise. The value of tickets sold during last year's Holiday Festival totaled nearly $1.2 million, almost $200,000 more than the previous year. Overall ticket revenue so far this season is up 24% and is on track to exceed last year's take by $1.3 million. Fueling this increase, it's clear from the data, are high school and college students. If steeply discounted tickets are the bait, students have swallowed it hook, line and sinker. So far this season, student attendance is up 55% and totals more than 18,000 young people. On an average subscription evening at Severance Hall this year, 16% of listeners are students. Some of the success may be attributable to an improving regional economy. Most of it, though, probably stems from active steps taken by the orchestra and its Center for Future Audiences to make tickets more affordable. The orchestra also credits the rise in attendance to a bolstered presence on social media and to more diverse programming. In any case, the conversation at the orchestra has changed. The institution still faces challenges, but no longer are staffers wringing their hands, desperate for the occasional convert. Now they're talking about how many young people they can fit through the doors.

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