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Wednesday, June 2, 2010

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NationalAssembly of State Arts Agencies

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Executive Director's Column

Changing Audiences in Changing Times

NASAA Executive Director Jonathan Katz

It is more important than ever that state arts agencies (SAAs) foster the capacity of their grantees to adapt to a changing environment. The recessive economy is not the only factor challenging not-for-profit groups that produce and present the arts. Other factors—that also represent opportunities to increase the reach and public benefits of the arts—include the immersion of youth in social networking, the overall effects of digital technology on competition for leisure time, and increasing population diversity. However, the average age of adult audiences is increasing significantly in several of the performing arts, including opera, classical music, theater and musical theater; and many organizations are particularly stressed by the overhead costs of facilities and information systems.

Recession or no recession, one of the most challenging issues facing artists and arts organizations is how to adapt effectively to changing patterns of participation in the arts. I therefore want to draw your attention to what I think is an especially useful feature of NASAA's newly redesigned website, its Arts Participation resource tools (located under Research on the main navigation bar).

This page offers a number of research tools and provocative ideas that can help arts organizations rethink their relationships with audiences. For instance, WolfBrown's Assessing the Intrinsic Impacts of a Live Performance describes how a group of presenters invested in a variety of marketing and programming strategies to capitalize on the intrinsic experiential values of the arts. The creation of an experiment and a learning community is a great benefit to an arts community and the people of any state—and there's a method described here in detail on how that can be accomplished. Another extremely useful tool comes from an Oliver Wyman Associates study on audience turnover distributed by the League of American Orchestras. This study shows that while orchestras are very successful in attracting large numbers of newcomers, they are not effectively converting them to long-term customers and supporters. The "churn" study identifies various ways that orchestras can improve retention of first-time attendees. Although developed for symphonies, you will find this study and its insights immediately applicable to a wide range of artistic venues and disciplines.

If you are interested in providing your constituents with more training about these topics, consider a session by NASAA's Chief Programming and Planning Officer Kelly Barsdate: Ten Trends Shaping Arts Participation in America. This is a custom workshop, presented by NASAA and designed for delivery at local or statewide conferences or for arts council retreats. This workshop reviews not just how arts participation is changing, but why. It also includes examples of innovative audience engagement tactics and helps each participant to become "an experience architect" to meaningfully engage the public in arts experiences.

Of course, the most successful organizations integrate learning and reflective practice into every aspect of their operations and programming. A strategic question, therefore, is whether operating support investments by public agencies can help organizations learn about and address the most important shifts occurring in their environments. Some grant makers—acting on the premise that general operating support is the most effective way of providing assistance to grantees because it enables them to allocate resources where they perceive the need and benefits are greatest—foster learning that advances the field by collecting information purposefully. For instance, if indicators of successful general operating support are to enable grantees to broaden participation, improve artistic quality and strengthen financial position, then grantees are enlisted as partners to report on how they intended the use of grant funds to achieve those purposes and what the results of their methods were. In this way, the grant-making process is modeled as a collaborative experiment between the grant maker and the grantee.

NASAA serves as a sounding board for questions like these, as well as a clearinghouse for exemplary SAA grant and service practices. In addition to the arts participation tools described above, the Best Practices section of our website includes a variety of strategy samplers on coping with the recession, building public value and operating support. The latest innovations and new programs among state arts agencies are featured each month in State to State as part of NASAA's e-newsletter, NASAA Notes.

The recessive environment heightens the importance of those responsible for stewardship and innovation in the arts thinking strategically about the best ways to use every programmatic tool available, grant making included. NASAA aims to be the primary strategic resource for its members. As always, your comments, questions and suggestions are welcome.