A lot of conversations I have about audience development with organizational leaders go something like this:
“We want to find ways to make our institution more participatory and lively.”
“We want to cultivate a more diverse audience, especially younger people, and we want to do it authentically.”
“But our traditional audience doesn’t come for that, and we have to find a way to do this without making them uncomfortable.”
Audience development is not an exercise in concentric circles. You can’t just start with who you already have in the middle and build infinitely outward. In most cases, growth means shifting, and shifting means that some people leave as others come.
This is incredibly scary. It requires trading a certain history for an uncertain future—a nerve-wracking prospect no matter the situation. It’s particularly scary if your institution relies primarily on private donors, members, and gate sales to cover operating costs. When funding is tied to a specific subset of your audience, you get protective of them, even if they are not the people most likely to ensure viability and sustainability in the future.
When I took on the director role at the Santa Cruz Museum of Art & History, we were in a dangerous situation. We had a small cohort of members and donors who loved and supported us. Outside of that, our bench was very thin—no brand recognition, no up-and-coming audience, no big funders with an eye on the future of the organization.
Now, a year later, we’ve more than doubled our attendance, increased membership by 30%, attracted national foundation funders, and gotten great ink locally. Our audience has gotten younger and they come more frequently.
How did we do this? We took a risk.
We decided that our future members—the people we hadn’t met yet—were more important than the visitors and donors we already had. We tried to learn as much as possible about people with unmet cultural demand in our area. And then we partnered with them, and the organizations they trust, to shift our programming.
Here are three examples of what this kind of audience development looks like:
- Events produced in partnership with vetted groups. We were always confident of our ability to create amazing programming for young adults and families (two groups we identified as having unmet demand). But we didn’t have any kind of brand recognition with those groups. So for almost all of our big events, we find a partner who is a vetted source. It can be a professional network, a nonprofit, a band, or a business. It’s someone whose name gives our event validity. And then they come and get their minds blown by our programming. We are building our reputation on the shoulders of others.
- Marketing that is entirely focused on the visitor experience. We have a rule that every photo on our homepage must feature people actively enjoying something at the museum. Some have families. Some have adults. The point is not to show off the exhibit or the art. The point is to show off the experience you can have at the museum.
- Participatory approach to program development. We invite visitors and community members to suggest program themes, content, and partners—and then to help us develop and deliver them. Our programming staff spends very little time pursuing their own creative interests and a great deal of time facilitating collaborations that advance creative interests that are preexisting in the community. For example, our most successful event to date in terms of press, attendance, and income was a fire festival that was recommended by a community member and planned with his volunteer help. Our staff stewards a big curatorial vision for our programs and then finds the creative individuals and groups who can take it in their own direction to powerful and diverse ends.