‘Audience Development is primarily a programming challenge’

According to US arts researcher Alan Brown, in a speech on ‘Artistic vibrancy and creativity in programming’ that he gave in November 2013, audience development is primarily a programming challenge:

‘Artistic excellence has been conflated with creativity in programming. Too often, excellence is used as a defensive shield to dismiss creative programming ideas, as either ‘off mission’ or ‘dumbed down’, when in fact they are neither. Attaining higher levels of creativity in programming is not about dumbing anything down, but about applying ourselves to an even higher standard than excellence. Good marketing is absolutely strategic to the arts, and we can always do a better job of marketing and communications. But audience development is not a marketing problem. Drawing new people into the arts and replenishing the constituencies for the art forms is, first and foremost, a programming challenge.’

I used to think that my job as a marketer was to get people into the theatre, and the artist or artistic director’s job was to make them want to come back, by supplying an amazing experience. I was wrong. We can’t expect to get people in to the theatre if we don’t program experiences that are relevant to them. The more I’ve researched and listened to performing arts audiences, the more I realise that it’s the frequent attenders who are more likely to have a spirit of adventure about the artform. They are more likely to have established a relationship of trust with the artistic director or the ‘brand’ of the venue. Infrequent attenders, and first timers, on the other hand, are more likely to need something familiar or reassuring to entice them.

I’m now exploring the relationship between programming and marketing, in audience development. It’s looking increasingly like this relationship needs to be incredibly close, to be successful. To achieve real impact for arts organisations, programmers/artistic directors and marketers need to work together, to program and market experiences aimed at attracting particular audiences. The audiences for some experiences will be larger or smaller than others: that is fine, and as long as it’s factored into the overall strategic and financial planning of the organisation, should be no barrier to organisational success. But the essential message which is developing from my explorations is that if you want to attract and grow particular audiences, you need to program work that is relevant to them, market it well, and do it for long enough to build loyalty.

What do you think?

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