Audience Participation: Chop Down Your Old Paradigm

Today’s guest blog post is written by Matt Lehrman, principal of Audience Avenue.

Five times since 1982, the NEA has asked what percentage of U.S. adults attended an arts performance or visited an art museum/gallery in the past year. The trend line of the Survey of Public Participation in the Arts (graphic, below) is no surprise. Arts participation is on a downward trajectory: Barely one-third of U.S. adults participate in arts annually.

NEA SPPA chartI don’t doubt the statistic. But I do question what we are supposed to do with its implications.

Does the advice “Pick the low-hanging fruit” resonate for your organization’s marketing and audience development efforts? (At a recent workshop, I asked rhetorically, “Why do we pick the low-hanging fruit?” and a participant quipped perfectly, “Because we have really short ladders.”) I understand. With time short and resources scarce, conventional wisdom directs us to focus our efforts toward the opportunity for the greatest return on investment potential.

My point: The conventional view drives us to a dangerously wrong conclusion.

You’ve just been told that arts participation has shrunk to one-third of the U.S. adult population. Is your best response really to say, “Oh well, that’s okay. Let’s just content ourselves to serve and exist within the percentage that does participate.”

Where’s your ambition? Where’s your fierceness? Where’s your passion? Whatever the cause of the decline (and goodness knows, there are many causes), we must not accept its inevitability for the future. The future doesn’t just happen; we create it.

And we’d best start creating a new future for arts and cultural participation right now.

Start here: The concept of “low-hanging fruit” is an anachronism. It was planted at a time of abundance and momentum, but it is dangerous and unsuitable to an era of burgeoning entertainment options, intense competition, and limited resources. It is vital that arts and cultural organizations reject the “low-hanging fruit” metaphor specifically because it relinquishes the imperative to invite, engage, and grow relationships among all audiences.

Now, you may contend that your organization possesses barely enough marketing resources for its next production or for its current season. You may argue that it’s unreasonable to expect an over-worked and under-funded organization to take on any challenge beyond achieving its immediate revenue budget. You’d be right, of course.

Still, if we focus only on attracting audiences from the 33.3 percent of U.S. adults who already participate, then we consign ourselves to “playing defense.” And in a world of rapidly transforming technologies, demographics, knowledge, and preferences, playing defense alone is a sure and direct path to defeat.

Look again at the NEA graphic. Now consider what it might mean to start “playing offense.” Can you imagine it? What behaviors, approaches, and activities might you modify to position your organization into a meaningful role of building audiences from among the two-thirds of audiences that did not previously come? The challenge may be daunting, but it is not impossible.

For arts and cultural organizations of every size and genre, replacing the audience metaphor is an immediate imperative. If necessity is the mother of invention, then the arts and cultural sector is ripe for innovation. And there surely are artists, leaders, and arts organizations out there pioneering innovative approaches.

So, if you’re wondering how to get your organization from a place of weakness and anxiety to one of ambition and action, try this: The next time someone suggests you “pick the low-hanging fruit,” tell them you’ve chopped down that paradigm.

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About Matt Lehrman

The principal of Audience Avenue, LLC, Matt Lehrman helps arts and cultural organizations reveal opportunities from the audience side of the mission statement.

Since October 2013, Matt has visited nearly 50 communities throughout the United States and Canada and presented his Audiences Everywhere™ Workshop to thousands of arts and cultural organization leaders. He teaches a whole-organization approach to building audiences and restoring arts and cultural organizations to community leadership, financial strength, and artistic ambition.

Patron Technology is a proud sponsor of the Audiences Everywhere™ Workshop, enabling arts councils and service organizations in select cities to offer this professional development training to their constituencies without cost. Click here for a list of Matt’s upcoming presentations.

Also, since September 2014, Matt has served as interim managing director of Arizona Theatre Company. Previously, he was the founder and CEO of Alliance for Audience as well as, a pioneering statewide initiative in Arizona to activate public engagement in theatre, music, dance, art, and cultural attractions.

For more, visit

Learn More about PatronManager, the powerful CRM platform that helps you sell more tickets, raise more money, and cultivate stronger bonds with your audience, all in one database.

2 responses to “Audience Participation: Chop Down Your Old Paradigm

    1. Nancy, it’s worth noting that the GSS study broadened its question to include performance events previously ignored. This does not give the classical arts institutions a sigh of relief, rather it makes plain the writing on the wall that the classical arts (that Matt writes for) is competing with commercial (pop) arts, trade arts and amateur arts.

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