Art and culture work is passion work. We enter these worlds because we care deeply about the work being done and about the missions of our institutions. No wonder art and culture leaders think their organizations are the coolest things since cat memes. (Note: Contemporary arts spaces are very into cat memes.)
I hate to be the one to say it, but not everyone thinks you are cool.
I mean, I think you’re cool — because just by nature of being an arts and culture organization, you are contributing incredible things to society, and I am forever indebted to you for making the world a more interesting place. However, just like any industry, A&C professionals can get lost in circular conversations with niche communities, and when that happens, they lose a grip on how the public relates to them.
A recent report by the National Endowment for the Arts studied the motivations and barriers for attending arts happenings.
As the study reveals, not everyone is coming to see the latest social critique or the hottest new Ai Weiwei piece. Some 73% of people attend to socialize, 64% to learn, 63% to experience, 51% to support. What will become increasingly more important is not what you want to show to your audience but what your audience (or potential audience) wants.
Your institution is different from a business because you’re not marketing a product; you’re marketing an experience. You’re not trying to make people want a thing. Your role is to communicate to them that they are invited and that you can provide a unique experience they’re looking for. How about starting from your audience and relating their interests and lifestyles back to the content at your institution?
If you don’t know what that is, find out — ask people to read your content, see who cares and notice what resonates. There is a time, place and way to talk to your industry peers, and there’s a different language and content to put forward when addressing the public, your patrons.
Organizations that are marketing to the public often say that they are marketing to everyone! While I understand that art-for-all might be an ultimate goal, it doesn’t create actionable steps. Take it one step at a time. Ask yourself, who will most connect to the current work? When you’re curating or organizing public events, what audience segment do you have in mind? I’m not asking who walks in your doors, but rather, I want to know who are you trying to get into your doors. Your message will probably be different if you’re trying to bring in students versus art collectors versus local residents — so be realistic, and tailor it.
Don’t just wait for the moment when someone walks in your doors to connect with them. Find them, prime them and create an everyday relationship.
Social media is a great place to create that everyday relationship, and arts and culture organizations easily have a leg up. Your content is interesting! Your space and subject are both visually rich! Engaging an audience should be a piece of cake if you dedicate some time and a strategic direction.
Another part of this everyday relationship is being able to get feedback and perspectives from your audience, which can help your institution grow and cater better to the people it serves.
This isn’t just important from a marketing perspective; inevitably, the incorporation of social media into art has also evolved into being art itself. In an interview with PBS, Lee Rainie, director of the Pew Internet Project, explained that “art is a participatory activity now in a way that it never was before, partly because these technologies let people talk back.” A&C institutions must now evolve their communications strategies to allow for more democratization, and they need to be nimble enough to allow for a two-way conversation.
We’re past the pubescent digital craze phase, and by now, most arts and culture institutions are fitting into their digital adult pants. A 2013 PEW Research Center study, “Arts Organizations and Digital Technologies”, found that 99% of arts organizations have a website, 97% have a social media presence, 85% accept donations online and 72% sell tickets online.
Digitally connecting with your audience outside of your institution through online ads or social media can often be the first step to creating a relationship with new potential visitors. Actively owning digital space can help reach new audiences in new ways whilealso keeping an ongoing, everyday relationship with your current audience. Rather than being that venue they visit once a year, you are a part of a conversation in between, forming a deeper relationship with the visitor.
Of course at the end of the day, your priority as an organization is to get people in the door. For a lot of visitors, nowadays this relationship starts online and translates offline. And it becomes a feedback loop — they want to stay engaged with an institution if they had a positive experience. They begin to learn more information about the organization’s offerings and values by staying connected to you digitally and on a regular basis. And those updates might send them back to you for a different event.
Facilitate intersections so that you offer a program geared towards all of the audience members you hope to attract. If you want to evolve your audience, you have to mindfully evolve your content and your programming. Doing the same old stuff may come off as exclusionist. It’s not uncommon that A&C institutions struggle with the stereotype of being stuffy, so make your space feel inviting for those who you want to bring in. In addition to programming, this can mean language, interior design, speakers, performers and even the food and drink options you offer. Each decision you make about a public program can send a “you’re welcome/not welcome” signal out to your visitors.
At the end of the day, the target may be about numbers, but it is also fulfilling your mission statement to connect people to arts and culture. If part of your goal is to provide people with these enriching experiences at your institution, it becomes increasingly more important to break through the clutter, learn what your community wants and find ways to create real relationships with your public.
EDITOR’S NOTE: The featured image for this post is “Nobody Likes Me” from IHeartTheStreetArt. We are fans of their work.