Arts Professionals: Do you Know Where your Audience Is?

The somewhat bleak forecast for arts organizations painted by long-time arts manager Michael M. Kaiser in his recent book Curtains? The Future of the Arts in America comes as no surprise.

The sector as a whole is coming to terms with the need for data collection and interpretation to fuel strategic decision making that can bring about sustainability.

There are signs that the cultural sector is working to improve its future by focusing on the collection and evaluation of audience information.

Here’s the evidence of this cultural data trend and several organizations driving this effort.

In short, arts and cultural organizations must learn all they can from this research and then scrutinize their own organizations accordingly.

1) The Cultural Data Project (CDP) is well known for a system that enables arts and cultural organizations to track data in a standardized form. The CDP released Bridging the Capacity Gap, Cultural Practitioners’ Perspectives on Data and articulated the issues that are preventing professionals in the field from engaging in data-informed decision making practices.

The report’s summary was based on town hall meetings with nearly 200 cultural practitioners from major cities. Professionals from arts and cultural groups discussed cultural data and its role in supporting the long-term health, sustainability, and effectiveness of the cultural sector. The broad solutions proposed to the field’s data issues include building internal expertise in research, evaluation, and data collection, currently a difficult task for most.

2) The Wallace Foundation is a leader in analysis of arts audience and evidence-based research through its initiatives. It funds arts sustainability by helping organizations collect, research and evaluate audience information, including these projects:

• The Road to Results provided hard evidence (and an excellent resource to the sector) as to what works when it comes to building audiences.

• The Foundation announced a six-year, $52-million initiative, Building Audiences for Sustainability, aimed at developing practical insights into how arts organizations can successfully expand their audiences.

• Its forthcoming primer, Taking Out the Guesswork: Using Research to Build Arts Audiences, is a guide to undertaking audience research.

3) Bloomberg Philanthropies announced a nationwide expansion of its Arts Innovation and Management (AIM) program; it includes support for audience development, among other areas. It offers $30 million in unrestricted general operating support to strengthen about 300 small and midsized organizations in six cities. The AIM program was piloted in New York City, where it supported 245 grantees (2011-2013).

These initiatives and reports underscore the priority for arts and cultural organizations, of all sizes and geographies, to grapple with the analytics that will ensure their sustainability.

The commitment to assist cultural organizations including dance, music, theater, and museums and the like is there if only arts professionals devote themselves to the task at hand.