(Originally posted at ArtsBlog for the Arts Marketing Blog Salon, a weeklong conversation taking place between October 5-12.)

I have to admit it’s a little strange to be part of this excellent blog team on the subject of arts marketing. I’ve never pretended to be any kind of expert on the practice of marketing; though I’ve done a lot of it, I’ve frankly shot blanks a lot more often than I’ve hit gold. (Among my more brilliant ideas was to advertise that there would be no alcohol provided at my twenty-first birthday party. One person showed up.) What I do know is how to look at the big picture when it comes to the arts. And I know from having done a whole lot of that over the past few years that all of you arts marketers are way more important to the future health and success of the professional arts than you may realize.

One reason for this is that the live professional arts have always appealed most to a relatively small niche of society. The recent NEA Survey of Public Participation in the Arts shows that in the year leading up to May 2008, less than 35% of Americans participated at least once in “benchmark arts activities,” which collectively cover the bulk, though not all, of the disciplines and genres we have traditionally considered to be part of our field. That means that nearly two-thirds of American adults went the entire year without seeing a single classical music or jazz concert, attending a single musical, play, opera, or ballet, or visiting a single art gallery or museum. Let me repeat that in case it wasn’t clear: 65% of American adults did none of these things at any time in 2007-08. (By contrast, fully 99% of American households have at least one television, and there are actually more TV sets than people in this country!) Lest you think this is a recent phenomenon, in NEA surveys stretching back to 1982, equivalent arts activities never reached more than 41% of the population, and a landmark 1966 study of the economics of the performing arts by William J. Baumol and William G. Bowen found that audiences for classical music, theater, and dance in the early 1960s were similarly unrepresentative of the general population in both the U.S. and Britain. Then, as today, participants in the arts and culture are disproportionately socioeconomically privileged: almost half of arts attendees made at least $75,000 a year in the 2008 NEA survey, compared to 30% of the overall population, and arts attendees were nearly twice as likely to have a college degree as the general public.

These days, multinational corporations and social entrepreneurs are finding common cause in reaching the billions of individuals around the globe, particularly in the impoverished countries of the Indian subcontinent and Africa, who to date have not been able to participate in the market economy. Smart businesspeople recognize that this so-called “fortune at the bottom of the pyramid” represents a tremendous opportunity not only to increase sales volume but also build brand equity and loyalty in entirely new markets. They look at the challenges of making products available to the poor as logistical rather than existential in nature. Figure out a way to do it cheaply enough, at broad enough scale, and meet the customers where they are, and now you’re talking.

For the arts, our “bottom of the pyramid” is not those with the least means (though there is certainly some overlap there), but those who have never made a habit of participating in the arts. Successfully introduce them to arts experiences in a way that makes them want to come back, and the entire field benefits. No one is saying that’s an easy task – if it was, then the numbers would look very different – but then again, how much of that is a self-fulfilling prophecy? Obviously, it’s easiest (and cheapest) to market art to people who are already interested in the arts, so the inevitable result is that people who are already interested in the arts get the bulk of the marketing attention. And if the people who are already interested in the arts happen to be more well-off, better educated, and whiter than the average citizen, well, you don’t need me to tell you what happens next.

Reaching the other 65% is going to require more than incremental strategies. A play about the plight of the rural working class here or with a largely non-white cast there probably isn’t going to make any great difference. And even when large numbers of new people are reached, attracting and retaining them is another story. We can’t expect that mere exposure, without context or accommodation, is going to instantly convert for life more than a handful of people. Yet even a small percentage of repeat customers, when drawing from a large enough pool, can make a huge difference both for an arts organization’s bottom line and its mission–and in the lives of those new people.

Solving this puzzle is going to take transformational vision and compromises that various stakeholders (donors, board members, artistic leadership) may find uncomfortable, and not every arts organization will be in a good position to make a serious effort at it. To me, two stories from the past couple of years, both coming from very well-established institutions, have epitomized the kind of moves that could really make a difference: the Metropolitan Opera bringing its performances to movie screens around the country, and the LA Philharmonic’s inspired choice and savvy leveraging of Gustavo Dudamel as its principal conductor. Yet many more outreach efforts have failed to, as they say, move the needle in any appreciable way. Unlike Proctor & Gamble, we aren’t marketing products like toothpaste and deodorant whose appeal is fairly self-evident. Nevertheless, if 99% of the household-residing public likes storytelling, visual interest, and/or music enough to buy a TV (or two, or three), I’d venture to guess that there’s some opportunity there we haven’t yet tapped.

  • I think you’re on to an important point here. I do community planning for arts and culture and I remember when plans were “arts” plans, designed to get more money for arts organizations, mostly the big ones. Then came the “cultural” plan which was the same sort of exercise but with a broader purview. And now we talk about “creativity” plans or “creative economy” plans – is it the same story? Mostly, I think so.

    But what I believe is needed is a way to look hard at who our field needs to serve, who can focus community-wide on the interests, needs, priorities of regular folks, those in the 65% you mention. We keep tweaking the same formula and while it does improve, the changes are incremental while our world is changing drastically. Can we catch up??

  • Anna Campbell

    Your post takes an interesting angle on the participation front. I have always wondered why so many people love watching football or baseball, but have zero interest in watching a dance performance – or similarly, why so many people watch TV shows but aren’t interested in watching a theater performance.

    I suspect part of it is a lack of arts education (and the point about college graduation may reflect that) but I also think a lot of it has to do with branding and marketing, making a convincing case for why the arts are relevant to all of us and why they should be part of our lives just like TV or sports. I don’t have answers to this dilemma but am interested to see where this discussion takes us.

  • Your post brought up a lot of important points that sparked my interest. You seem very experienced, and your passion towards the subject matter is certainly contagious. As a student seeking a career in the arts, I think it is essential to reach out to that 65% of people who have not “made a habit of participating in the arts”, and find a way to cultivate their interest in the art world. A big question that I have been wondering about is whether the art should change or the advertising should change in order to do this. I absolutely agree that it is much easier to advertise to those who are already interested in your field. That is, of course, why you see promoters passing out flyers for their bands’ shows when you are on your way out of concerts. You are not as likely to see advertisements for that at sporting events… So how do we get the kind of people who will spend hundreds of dollars on tickets to a football game, to develop an interest in the arts as well? By putting up shows that the general public can easily relate to or would find entertaining? Some people with conservative values will refrain from going to the theatre if the play will potentially have controversial and/or “offensive” content. But how do we consistently present plays and artwork that will be accommodating to everyone? Either the “target” audience could vary from one show to the next (meaning a flashy, old-fashioned musical to draw in the general public and then a controversial play to satisfy the artist community), or companies could find a way of choosing material that has something in it for everyone.

    Perhaps the advertising should be changed. Since you bring up the fact that 99% of Americans own televisions, television is probably the best way to advertise for the live professional arts. It may be a good investment for theatre companies and artists to pay for commercial space that advertises an upcoming play or art gallery. Seeing a [good] commercial for live art in their area could possibly inspire a TV junkie to turn their television off and go see a play. Not only is it important to get supporters for the arts, but the people will benefit tremendously from getting out of their houses and allowing themselves to experience the thrill of a live performance. Since these people need to be exposed to the arts, maybe we need to use their technology to that message across. Since the YouTube phenomenon has swept America, there may be lots of potential in that for gaining support. Along with 99% owning a television, 76% of Americans own at least one computer. Online advertising is a great way to attract new interest in the arts. Even just putting short clips of art and performance on YouTube for the public to see could draw in more people. I agree that the Metropolitan Opera bringing performances to movie theatres was a brilliant idea. Although the general public do not regularly attend plays or dance performances, they seem to have no problem whatsoever with frequenting movie theatres. I think there are many more opportunities for other arts organizations to follow in their footsteps. If 65% of America is watching more television and movies than participating in live performance art, maybe the way to get their attention is through that technology. Maybe both the art and the advertising need to change in order to get their attention? Thank you for your wonderful post!

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