I regularly speak to performing arts organizations that try to do all and be all to their community. The result?
- They struggle to find their audience.
- They burn out, barely hang on, and slowly decline.
- They wonder why the community doesn’t come out en masse to support them.
- “What would your loyal patrons say draws them to you and keeps them coming back?”
- “If you surveyed patrons who have attended only one of your events in the past but have not returned. What would be the reason?”
- “Of patrons who attend other arts organizations but have chosen NOT to attend yours, what caused them to make that choice?”
- “Of all the people working with your organization, what would they say is your artistic focus, that also makes them want to work with you? Would they have an immediate and concise answer?”
If you don’t have a clear idea of what the above responses would be, it’s probably time to hone your niche.
It’s a pretty commonly held concept that no single arts organization can be all things to all people. Otherwise said, we can’t please everyone all the time. It’s also can be said that when we think of a region or population area that “has a great arts scene” or “is culturally rich” that one contributing factor is that there’s a great variety of cultural or arts options available; that there is something for everyone. So we obviously value diversity in arts options, which also translates to a variety of arts organizations. We love choices; different audiences, different tastes, different interests.
Now, let’s imagine. If one organization were to try to be that variety for their community, and if they hope to achieve it with a degree of quality and consistency, some of the challenges might be
- How to attract talent interested in doing your work. While an artist might be interested in one project in your season, they might find no interest in the rest. How do you build and cultivate relationships with a core group of artists and technicians when their interests vary one project to the next?
- Audiences also may be divided over your work. They might be drawn to buy tickets to one show that peaks their interests. If they enjoy it they may want to come back. But the next show isn’t their taste at all and then they are disappointed, alienated, and often won’t be back.
So what does this mean for developing relationships with both the artists who create the work, and audiences who want to come see it? Generally will mean that you’re working to gather talent and audience for each of your projects individually, with greater challenges developing a loyal group interested in your work as a whole.
So is the model of trying to do something for everyone within a single arts organization sustainable? I think if we look historically at these types of organizations, and to the groups trying to please their community with palatable shows that offend no one and try to please everyone, that this just isn’t the case. These groups struggle year after year in their marketing and communications, their ticketing and fundraising, and to sustain without much growth, and often with a gradual decline in their attendance. Without loyalty in your audience, they are also much more at risk of catastrophe if specific projects miss the mark for audience satisfaction. A single ticket audience is far less forgiving than the audience that enjoys your body of work over time.
So, what is the alternative? It is to find and hone your niche and stick to it.
What is it your organization is really about? What is the type of work that the collective members of your organization agree on as their primary interest? Do you focus on classical theatre with a fresh approach? Do you focus on contemporary dance, including a commitment to new work each season? Is it non-narrative musical performance art, or tried and true standards done remarkably well? Dig deep. Find what it is that excites you as a group and that you are accomplished at creating. Make the big decision and agree to stick to it and do it better than anyone else in your area. Become the experts on that particular form. You may find that some of your members don’t agree. If so, it may be time for them to move on as you clarify what your niche is.
Once that is decided, and the quality and passion shows through, you will work to find the audience who loves it as well. Artists interested in that pursuit will seek you out. News will spread and reach other organizations that are passionate about that type of work. You’ll be able to better cultivate relationships and build loyalty in your audience, graduate them to donor support, membership and greater participation.
You must stick to the work you love, so the passion comes through with every project, every performance, every moment. Communicate this clearly in every message. Those who love that work will find you, and will be as passionate about it as you are. They will be your advocates, your army, your cheering section.
Patrick Spike is Marketing Director of Arts People, with the company for over 10 years. He has 30 years in performing arts administration, marketing and creation. www.patrickspike.com