Liveblogging the Yale SOM Arts & Culture Conference

Hello everyone, I’m experimenting with a new format today: liveblogging! I’m here in room A60 at the Yale School of Management where the Arts & Culture Club is holding its first ever “Issues in the Arts” conference. The first panel is moderated by Assistant to the Provost at Yale University Jack Meyers and tackles the subject of audience development. Panelists include Donna Walker-Kuhne, President of Walker International Communications Group; Elena Park, Assistant Manager for Editorial & Creative Content at the Metropolitan Opera; Jennifer Kiger, Associate Artistic Director of Yale Repertory Theatre; and Jurgen Weiss, Executive Director of Snappy Dance Theatre.

Jennifer Kiger, in introducing herself, said that audience development is a fairly new concept for the Yale Rep, and that efforts revolve around enabling audience members to identify themselves as invested with what’s going on, as well as the development of new work. Elena Park followed and talked about the Met’s transformation under Peter Gelb (whose first work experience there was apparently as an usher when he was a teenager). Said that investment in the previous era was heavier on the artistic side than in education and outreach. The Met needed a brand overhaul–almost all of the marketing materials involved chandeliers, for example! Some measures included showing performances on screens in Times Square, offering $20 rush tickets subsidized by a sponsor, and bringing in more theater directors to mount new productions.

Perhaps the most high profile initiative on the part of the Met was its licensing of its performances to be broadcast live in movie theaters around the country, allowing opera lovers dispersed far and wide to experience the company’s productions. We’re now being shown a video of media reaction to the opening performance of Gelb’s tenure which was attended by movie stars and politicians galore.

Donna Walker-Kuhne is now talking about outreach to African-American audience members. Says that often the problem with audience development is that you don’t have anything to work with that will facilitate the easy extension of your work to a new or different audience; thus, an eclectic artistic product is very important. Her consulting group develops strategies to engage communities of color in the activities of specific arts organizations. She notes that the current presidential campaign has pushed racial issues to the forefront, causing arts councils and other stakeholders to seek more connection with these communities. However, the hardest part of her job is managing expectations: it’s not like, after making choices in the past about how to spend their liesure time, people are just going to switch over en masse overnight. It takes sustained effort over a period of time to make an impact.

Jurgen Weiss of Snappy Dance Theatre is next. He points out the difference between his company and others on the panel, in that Snappy is a touring troupe that is rarely in one place for more than a few days. To overcome this challenge, his organization pursues innovative strategies taking advantage of the intimate environments in which they perform, such as soliciting audience feedback and incorporating that feedback in real time into the performance.

Jack Meyers asked about specific strategies to attract new audiences. Walker-Kuhne advised giving any new initiatives a name and publicizing them, so that people have a context in which to put your efforts. She also pointed out that the world itself is changing, and that diversity outreach merely reflects that change. Park talked about how South Asian audiences were drawn to a new Philip Glass opera about Ghandi. The rush tickets have also been key to attracting unfamiliar faces, because of the low barrier to entry. Jennifer Kiger noted that there has been an explosion of grant money available in recent years for the development of new work in the theater world, and articulated a vision of a diverse community connected around expecting the unexpected. She reiterated the idea that efforts toward this end have to be sustained and that there will be some natural attrition from longtime audience members as the organization evolves. Jurgen Weiss cautioned against overemphasizing the program itself in marketing efforts, because doing so can serve to divide audiences artificially along the lines of their own expectations. BAM is an example of an organization that has successfully pioneered “destination” marketing that promotes the experience more than the specifics of the program. Jennifer Kiger noted the gradual transition in the industry away from a subscription model, and thus the need to appeal to new audiences on a show-by-show basis.

An audience member who works at the Yale Rep shared his experience of outreach in the Latino community for the Rep’s next production by José Rivera. Walker-Kuhne said that it was important not to do “drive-by” outreach efforts that bombard a community for a particular show and then disappear forever. Such practices can actually be insulting to the audience you’re trying to reach. Park also pointed out the importance of having a diverse decision making team (staff and board) if you want to preserve authenticity in your efforts.

Another question from the audience asked about online tools for outreach. Such strategies as SMS, blogging, and online social networks can be very cost-effective for these purposes, and Walker-Kuhne mentioned Verizon in particular as being hungry for content with which to reach audiences of color. Weiss pointed out how a single funny clip on Youtube can do wonders for building audience interest. However, Kiger noted that such efforts do have a cost in terms of time.

Another audience comment lamented that there had been so much interest generated due to outreach efforts that the staff was now overwhelmed with requests for information. Organizations need to be prepared for their own success, or the consequences can be more disastrous than the problem they were trying to solve in the first place.

We’re breaking for lunch now; I’ll be back in the afternoon with the second panel!

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