New Wallace Foundation Program Targets Audience-Building

New $52-million effort will support and study the audience-development work of 26 arts organizations, including 8 theatres.

NEW YORK CITY: Aiming to address the dismaying national decline of performing arts attendance, the Wallace Foundation has announced a new, six-year, $52-million grant program, Building Audiences for Sustainability, and announced 26 performing arts institutions from across the U.S. that will take part. The initiative is aimed at developing practical insights into how arts organizations can successfully expand their audiences. Grant recipients will design and implement programs to attract new audiences while retaining current ones, measuring whether and how this contributes to their overall financial health.

Among the organizations are a large plurality of resident theatres, including Denver Center Theatre Company, Goodman Theatre, La Jolla Playhouse, Pasadena Playhouse, Portland Center Stage, Steppenwolf Theatre Company, Victory Gardens Theater and Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company.

All selected partners will receive financial and technical support from the foundation to develop, implement and learn from their audience-building work. The evidence gathered from these organizations will be documented and analyzed by an independent team of researchers, providing valuable insights, ideas and information for the entire field.

In a statement, Will Miller, president of the Wallace Foundation, conceded that “attracting and engaging new audiences is challenging for arts organizations because, even as the number of arts groups has grown, national rates of participation in the arts have declined, arts education has waned, and competition for ways to spend leisure time has increased. We are confident that the 26 organizations selected from a pool of more than 300 identified by leaders in the arts nationwide will provide new insights that will benefit the field at large, helping to bring the arts to a broader and more diverse group of people.”

Said Daniel Windham, the foundation’s director of arts, in a statement, “Building audiences is one of the most pressing challenges facing arts leaders today, but many organizations lack the resources and information they need to generate new and innovative practices. Over the past 25 years, we have consistently supported initiatives and commissioned research to build a resource of replicable methods for audience building. The work of these 26 organizations will build on the knowledge we’ve already gained, adding to the resources that we share with the field.”

The projects to be carried out by the arts organizations are designed to reach a variety of diverse audiences, including racial and ethnic groups, age cohorts (primarily young people) and people working in specific sectors. Strategies include commissioning new art that may resonate with particular groups, involving target audience members in the creation and selection of works to be performed, creating events that allow audience members to gather and learn more about the art, and staging works in nontraditional venues more easily accessible to target audiences.

The participating arts organizations are from all major regions of the country, and have annual budgets ranging from $1.5 million to more than $20 million. They will receive grant support from Wallace to fund at least two “continuous learning cycles” of work. Over the course of four years, they will develop and implement a new audience-building program (first cycle), study the results, then use the findings to implement a second cycle of programs. They will also receive funding for audience research to inform their work. Wallace will commission research to capture the arts organizations’ experiences and accomplishments for a series of public reports.

The foundation, which announced the initiative last October with a livestreamed panel discussion on the benefits of bringing new approaches to engaging audiences, invited 87 arts organizations to submit audience-building proposals, from a pool of more than 300 arts organizations, for consideration to receive Wallace grants. The final 26 were selected on the basis of a number of factors: proposals that integrated high-quality artistic programming with innovative approaches to engaging desired audiences, the relevance of proposed projects to the larger field, and the organizations’ internal capacity to participate in a multi-year initiative and report on results.

Due to the strength and complexity of the 26 proposals selected, Wallace increased funding for the initiative from its initial outlay of $40 million earmarked for 25 arts organizations. After seeing the richness of the ideas in the proposals submitted, Wallace increased the number to 26 and overall funding to $52 million.

Building Audiences for Sustainability continues the foundation’s 25-year history of support for the arts, with a particular emphasis on building audiences. The new initiative will add insights gained through this history and especially the more recent Wallace Excellence Awards initiative, a multi-year effort, concluded in 2014, that supported audience-building projects in 54 visual and performing arts organizations in six cities around the country: Boston, Chicago, Minneapolis/St. Paul, Philadelphia, San Francisco and Seattle. An analysis of 10 case studies of these projects identified nine evidence-based actions that organizations can take to successfully engage audiences. The analysis, The Road to Results: Effective Practices for Building Arts Audiences, written by Bob Harlow, an expert in market research, is available on the Wallace website, along with seven of the ten case studies. (The remaining three case studies are scheduled to be published later this year.)

The initiatives have their intellectual underpinnings in a seminal, 2001 Wallace-commissioned RAND report A New Framework for Building Participation in the Arts. It suggests that building arts audiences refers to one or more of three activities: “broadening” audiences (increasing an audience size by bringing in people who are already inclined to enjoy the art form but are not current audience members), “deepening” (having current audience members attend more often) or “diversifying” (engaging new groups). It also identifies ways arts organizations can build audiences while avoiding hit-or-miss efforts that waste scarce resources. The approach stresses that audience-building work must be tightly aligned with an arts organization’s mission, resources and operations, and that the work needs to be continuously studied and refined.

To ensure that the efforts of the selected arts organizations will inform and strengthen the audience-building efforts of the community of performing arts organizations nationwide, the foundation plans to commission an independent, $3.5-million study.

In addition, Wallace has formed partnerships with seven service organizations in the arts to provide the field with findings from the initiative through their publications, presentations, newsletters and other communications. The organizations—American Alliance of Museums, Association of Performing Arts Presenters, Chamber Music America, Dance USA, League of American Orchestras, Opera America and Theatre Communications Group—have been actively tackling audience-building with their members. A partnership with the Association of Arts Administration Educators will help make this knowledge available for use in graduate and undergraduate programs that prepare future arts leaders.

Teresa Eyring, executive director of Theatre Communications Group, remarked in a statement, “The Wallace Foundation is addressing the vitally important issue of audience building in a way that will help us learn from the knowledge that is gained. Our member theatres, as well as other performing arts organizations, are seeking reliable, evidence-based information on effective practices that can be adapted to the strengths of their organizations and needs of their own communities. The entire sector will benefit from this initiative.”

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