Monday, June 23, 2008

Resource Review 1: Invitiation to the Party

First in a series.

I just finished Donna Walker-Kuhne's Invitation to the Party: Building Bridges to the Arts, Culture and Community, which is an excellent starting point for theatre artists interested in developing a more diverse audience for their productions. Walker-Kuhne, who was head of audience development for the  Public Theatre and the Dance Theatre of Harlem, clearly outlines a general approach to diversifying your audience that is based on an ongoing relationship based on trust and dialogue. She outlines "ten tools for building audiences":

1. Investment. Putting in the time and effort necessary for a future return -- this is not a short-term fix, but a long-term commitment.

2. Commitment. You must be creative, tenacious, and focused.

3. Research. Quantitative and qualitative researcg tells you who the audience is.

4. Educating Your Artists and Audiences. So often we focus on educating the audience without noting that it is crucial that artists be informed and committed to the vision of your institution "so they become aware of the larger goal beyond the creation of their own projects." [This is another argument for the value of a permanent ensemble.]

5. Review and Analysis. Figure out what information you have gathered, and what to do with it.

6. Follow-Up. Keep your promise, out the conclusions derived from your data into action, and then "go back to the people with whom you met to discuss your ideas." [So often, we forget that last step.]

7. Partnership. Build your team based on shared benefits and mutual respect. She goes on, "you must be as diverse in your programming as you want your audience to be. This can be difficult. Many artistic directors, producers and presenters have a certain mindset about the type of cultural product they want to bring to their audiences....This does not mean handing over the reins of artistic control or management. It means sharing ideas and concepts and being willing to listen wholeheartedly." [Italics mine]

8. Building the Bridge/Extending the Invitation. Many potential spectators feel excluded from the event and feel as if they were not invited. "It doesn't matter that display advertisements appeared in the New York Times, Los Angeles Times, or Chicago Tribune, or that banner ads were placed on the internet or radio spots broadcast on the all-news stations. Your non-traditional audience is still not responding." This is where your research helps. "You need to determine: Who extends the invitation? What does it look like? What is its form? Are there any caveats? How long is the invitation for? These questions are very important. The answers may be found by considering one of the cornerstones of marketing: 'Know your audience.'" [In other words, be involved in your community, and step outside your comfort zone to really understand.]

9. Creating Value. It isn't just giving away free tickets. The effort is to "open the doors of your institution to diverse audiences and collaborate on programs they want to see." In other words, this isn't a one-and-done, February African-American slot type thing. You are investing in an ongoing relationship.

10. Appreciation. Thank your audience, yes, but truly appreciate their presence.

Walker-Kuhne provides several chapters that are case studies of audience development campaigns that she personally was involved in: the Public Theatre in general (especially George C. Wolfe's commitment to make the Public audience "look like a subway stop in New York City"), and s[ecifically Bring in 'Da Noise, Bring in 'Da Funk; Harlem Song, the Dance Theatre of Harlem. These case studies describe specific programs, but to my mind what this book more importantly does is describe clearly and passionately the importance and value of the goal and the level of commitment necessary to achieve it. "Many small arts organizations say they don't have the resources to build audiences. I believe they can't afford not to." She goes on in words that summarize the thrust of the book: "Create programming that reflects the interests and culture of your target audiences. Allow it to be a collaborative process. Nurture and cultivate your new relationships carefulyl and lovingly. Follw up every step of the way; continue cultivation until new audiences are bringing other constituents to your events....Talk to your communities. Be as creative as you can in enhancing and expanding your ways to communicate. If you are expecting them to participate, what are you giving back? Be active in your neighborhhod: sit on local boards or neighborhood associations. If there are block associations, contests or festivals, place yourself in the arena so that you'll gain knowledge and support and have visibility."

I recommend this book as a starting place for anyone wanting to expand their audiences. While the advice is specifically about diversifying your audience, in many respects the advice is applicable to audience development in general.
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