Audience Trends & What to Do About Them

Lauren Miyamoto - Education Coordinator

As an Arts Management Student at Sotheby’s Institute of Art-LA, I’m studying arts administration in one of the most vibrant places for the arts and culture in the world. Over the next few weeks, I’ll be giving my take on some of the most compelling readings and discussions we’ve had on Performing Arts Administration while drawing from the amazing arts leaders and arts spaces I’ve encountered as a grad student. Stay tuned!

You can’t serve your audience unless you know your audience. It sounds simple, but collecting and analyzing audience data to “know your audience” poses an immense challenge to many arts organizations. To understand how audience research is done, we’ve studied multiple reports on audience trends. Developed by culture-focused advertising and marketing firm LaPlaca Cohen, Culture Track 2017 is a thoroughly researched and artfully designed digital report focused on cultural consumers and how their attitudes towards culture are changing. The report delves into changes in event attendance, efficacy of loyalty models, philanthropic behavior and interest in integrating technology. Theatre Bay Area commissioned an Intrinsic Impact study between 2010-2012, in which researchers at WolfBrown surveyed 19,000 audience members at 18 diverse theatres across the country. This report provided much more information about its research methodology and seemed to give the participating theatres a more significant role in the survey. However, despite the 5 year gap between the surveys and the differences in survey methods, I felt that these two reports had similar findings in several key areas.

Culture Track reveals that one of the largest drivers for attendance at cultural events ia a hunger for something new; 76% of respondents said that “experiencing something new” was a motivating factor in cultural participation. In the Theatre Bay Area report, “discovering something new” was the third most common reason participants elected to attend performances. I found this interesting coupled with the Culture Track’s finding that cultural consumers have become eager to sample a wide variety of content that can be easily customized to their interests. Similarly, Theatre Bay Area found that low frequency attenders at theaters are interested in “picking and choosing” the performances they attend at each theatre. I think these findings emphasize the need for more experimental and digital productions. These types of performances allow audience members to experience the performing arts in ways they have never seen before and will push institutions and venues to offer more elements of  “surprise and delight” with each performance. I also think these consumer attitudes emphasize the need for compelling multidisciplinary practices as well as industry partnerships, as Olga Garay-English and her team have done at the Ford Theatres.

We delved into the rise in immersive and virtual reality productions and the unique partnerships they create by studying a wide range of examples. In a post for her blog Haptic.Al, Michaela Holland, an experience designer with an interest in Virtual and Augmented reality, analyzes a list of 6 videos of performances produced for VR. Her list showcases how VR can be utilized by a wide range of organizations, from a traditional and well-established ballet company like the Dutch Royal Ballet to modern and emerging choreographers like Kyle Hanagami. Holland also uses each video to illustrate how different organizations integrate VR into performances. In some cases, such as The Lion King on Broadway production, a 360 degree camera is placed on the stage and the performance proceeds as normal. In other examples, choreographers have created formations and dance sequences specifically designed for the VR viewer, such as the video featuring work by Matt Steffania. 

I feel that Holland did an excellent job in curating this list, as seeing these examples back to back instantly sparked ideas and thoughts about the internal and external benefits this could bring to arts organizations, artists and audiences. This technology could significantly increase the reach of an organization per performance, meaning they are no longer limited by the audience capacity of their performance space. VR could also increase access to the arts for those who are unable to attend performances in person or who are not able to afford expensive performance tickets. VR could also become a crucial education tool, allowing professionals to study choreography, costuming, set design and more in an entirely new way. VR productions could also provide new opportunities for earned revenue, especially as the technology becomes more widely available. Institutions could charge a very small amount ($0.99, like an app) for audience members to watch VR performances, sell advertising or offer naming benefits to donors on the VR platform. VR could also serve as a crucial tool for preservation and archiving purposes.

In an article for the Los Angeles Times, Deborah Vaskin discusses the widespread--and growing--use of the word “immersive” in art, theatre, music and more throughout Los Angeles. She cites several examples of immersive experiences that occurred throughout the city in October 2016 at MOCA, the Walt Disney Concert Hall and the Gavlak Gallery. These immersive works seem to be characterized by site specificity, incorporation of multimedia and combination of multiple arts disciplines. Vaskin explores some of the societal factors behind this trend, interviewing arts managers who suggest our desire for unique, customized experiences and our reliance and fascination with screens have now seeped into the performing arts. To conclude the piece, Vaskin questions whether the word “immersive” has lost its “resonance” due to its ubiquity, much like Silicon Valley buzzwords such as “disruption” and “revolutionize”. 

I felt this article was well-researched and appreciated the specific examples Vaskin provided. I learned about many new examples of immersive theatre productions and companies in Los Angeles that I previously wasn’t aware of. I was also somewhat surprised that this article was written in 2016; it seems that the idea of “immersive” performance has continued to grow and shows no signs of going away any time soon.

Another trend I observed in the audience data that we studied is that a lack of relevance is what drives cultural consumers away (34% of respondents stated they did not attend a cultural activity because they felt “it wasn’t for somebody like me” in the Culture Track report.) To me, this reinforces the need for for dynamic community engagement and arts education programs, especially for institutions with static elements such as museums or producing houses that show the work of a single company. If an audience member feels that an institution’s static elements are not for them, an organization will never be able to reach that person without an event or piece of content that draws a connection between the individual and the institution. Public programs allow institutions to meet audiences where they are.

The Theatre Bay Area report illustrates that young people are prime for engagement due to their personal involvement in theatre, yet large, longstanding organizations struggle to get them to buy tickets in significant numbers. The 2016 NEA Survey of Public Participation in the Arts highlighted that barriers such as poverty and lack of education are causing a drastic disparity in creative work between Northern and Southern states in the U.S. Organizations can bring bring public programs on the road to literally go to the neighborhoods and public spaces they are not reaching. Institutions can use public programs to dive into topics or feature artists that they cannot highlight otherwise, such as the young theatre makers mentioned in the Theatre Bay Area survey. And arts organizations can engage community partners to keep costs low for participants by seeking others who can help provide space and volunteer staff. However, I find that public programs--and audience engagement at large--are often treated as a second tier priority in arts institutions. Many organizations choose to place static elements, like a museum collection or traditional performance, above reaching and impacting audiences.


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