Why Changing Audiences Call for Visionary Arts Leadership

Updated: Jul 12, 2019

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!

In a 2013 TED Talk, Rosalinde Torres states that leaders must consider whether they are courageous enough to abandon practices that led to success in the past. In an age characterized by significant audience changes, I believe this is the most important question for arts organizations to assess.

Arts institutions like the Metropolitan Museum of Art (established in 1870) and Philadelphia’s Academy of Music (opened in 1857) have been part of America’s cultural fabric for generations, cementing audience bases, funding models and leadership structures that have been used in arts organizations for decades. This has resulted in leadership teams and audiences that look the same as those of the 19th century. According to the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, 28% of U.S. art museum employees are people of color and men are still most likely to hold director-level positions. A James Irvine Foundation report highlights that 49% of California arts attendees reported having a salary of $75,000 or more and 55% of arts attendees were non-hispanic whites. Today, arts attendees, leaders and funders are largely white and upper-class.

Appealing to this subset of the population has served arts institutions well. Consider the long lives of organizations like the New York Philharmonic and the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles (founded in 1913). In comparison, the average lifespan of a company listed on the S&P 500 is less than 20 years. The arts remain a high priority for foundations and the nation’s wealthiest donors; in 2012, 12 out of 50 of the nation’s wealthiest donors gave to the arts and 18% of foundations globally contribute to arts and culture.

However, major demographic shifts are coming. The U.S. Census Bureau reports that international migration will outpace natural population growth by 2030. The non-hispanic white population is expected to shrink by 19 million by 2060, while black, hispanic, asian and mixed-race populations are projected to increase significantly.

In 2016, millennials replaced baby boomers are the largest population group in America. While 61% of millennials have attended college, they also have more student loan debt, higher housing costs and lower employment rates than previous generations. These statistics illustrate that past arts audiences are no longer going to be the largest and most impactful. To retain relevance, arts leaders will have to make significant changes to programming, subscription models and perhaps even their organization’s mission. And as Torres’ discusses in her TED Talk, arts leaders need to start adjusting course today, even if it means upsetting current audiences.

I believe George Davis, Executive Director of the California African American Museum, has embodied this willingness to abandon past practices. In an interview last semester, Davis shared that CAAM was only serving older, upper-middle class African Americans when he assumed his role four years ago. With great foresight, Davis insisted on major change--both in the museum’s internal culture and in the ways it engaged with audiences. After one year, he hired Naima Keith to lead efforts to appeal to young people and those interested in California art. CAAM quickly developed new messaging to appeal to these targets, including a new brand identity and new approaches to exhibitions, programming. This branding change has tripled attendance, earned the museum regular press attention and opened the doors to new partnership opportunities.  

Works Cited

Boehm, Mike. “America's 50 Top Philanthropists Include 12 Arts Donors.” Culture Monster, The Los Angeles Times, 6 Feb. 2012, latimesblogs.latimes.com/culturemonster/2012/02/chronicle-philanthropy-top-arts-donors.html.

“Generations Change How Spending Is Trending.” Morgan Stanley, Morgan Stanley, 26 Aug. 2016, www.morganstanley.com/ideas/millennial-boomer-spending.

“History.” Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County, 15 June 2010, nhm.org/site/about-our-museums/history.

“History of the Museum.” The Met, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, www.metmuseum.org/about-the-met/history.

Johnson, Paula D. “Global Philanthropy Report: Perspectives on the Global Foundation Sector.” The Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University, 2018.

Novak-Leonard, Jennifer, et al. “A Closer Look at Arts Engagement in California.” The James Irvine Foundation, Jan. 2015.

Our History. The Academy of Music, www.academyofmusic.org/about/.

Sheetz, Michael. “Technology Killing off Corporate America: Average Life Span of Companies under 20 Years.” CNBC, CNBC, 24 Aug. 2017, www.cnbc.com/2017/08/24/technology-killing-off-corporations-average-lifespan-of-company-under-20-years.html.

Vespa, Jonathan, et al. “Demographic Turning Points for the United States: Population Projections for 2020 to 2060.” United States Census Bureau, Mar. 2018.

Westernmann, Mariët, et al. “Art Museum Staff Demographic Survey 2018.” Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, 28 Jan. 2019.

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