"Hey, do you want to go to a play tonight?"

As previously mentioned, I recently moved to a new city, and my spouse and I are getting to learn our new surroundings. This past weekend we took a day trip to a town about an hour away from home, without much of an advance plan. We knew we were going to go visit a pumpkin farm (hooray for fall weather!) but beyond that, it was just a day of exploring.

After a couple hours of wandering and window shopping, we saw a poster for an interesting-sounding arts event in the area, which just happened to have a performance that night at 7:30. Tickets were still available, and reasonably priced. We decided to stick around into the evening — considerably later than we’d imagined we’d stay — to check out the show. We had a great time and still made it home by about 10:30 that night.

It strikes me now how rare it is for me to be that spontaneous about attending arts events in particular. I don’t see all that many movies in theaters, but still it’s much more common for my spouse and I to say to one another on a Saturday morning, “Hey, do you want to go to a movie tonight?” than it ever is to take that same approach to other cultural experiences. Theatre or music is always An Event, with plans set in advance, and purchases carefully considered.

Why is that? In my experience, there seem to be four factors that combine to inhibit a habit of last-minute arts-going decisions:

1) Scarcity: There are seven multiplex movie theatres within a half hour of my home, each with dozens of screenings daily; outside of a major metropolis, it’s unusual to find even half that many entertainment options in the cultural space. The calendar isn’t filled up, week after week, the way it was when I lived in Brooklyn.

2) Cost: Even with constantly-increasing movie prices, most of the theatre or music tickets I’ve seen for sale around here are easily double or triple that cost (if not even higher). That can make it harder to try something new or unknown since the risk factor is higher. I mean, even our little unplanned trip to a new town involved reading restaurant reviews on Yelp before stepping inside to ask for a table.

3) Awareness: I can name at least a couple of movies that are out in theatres right now, without having to think about it — there’s a kind of ambient awareness that’s easy to pick up when it comes to wide-release national schedules like that. By contrast, knowledge of local arts events is a little harder to come by. I can (and do!) sign up for lots of email lists, and keep an eye out for good old-fashioned posters (like we did this weekend), but it’s not the same level of automatic fluency.

4) Findability: This goes with awareness, of course, and I’m pleased to say that I even discovered a new resource while writing this post! Every city/geographical area should have a website like this one: DelawareScene. It’s quite a feat to build and maintain such a directory, and I’m pretty impressed with what I see here; the equivalent in my last hometown had a much more limited set of events included. For organizations that are not on my radar yet (and therefore I can’t possibly be on their email list!), a one-stop shop like this is a great way to get noticed.

If I were running an arts organization in a relatively small market, this list of challenges would be at the top of my mind, and when thinking about building audiences, I’d be focusing on ways to address each of them. How can your organization become a household name to someone who’s new to town? Can you find ways to fill out the calendar with a few additional inexpensive, low-priced events? And are you partnering with as many other organizations or companies as possible to get the word out? When we moved in, we got a packet of coupons from local businesses; I’d love to see a local arts calendar arrive in my mailbox at the same time.

Any other ideas to spur casual and spontaneous visits?

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