A Survey of Wisconsin Arts Patrons: Who They Are, What They Want, and How to Give It To Them

For my master’s thesis a few years ago, I investigated why arts patrons in Wisconsin buy tickets to live arts performances. After received 2,539 survey responses, I was able to pull meaningful information into a cohesive look at the live arts presenting world in Wisconsin. What follows is my Introduction and the Background and Research Topics of my thesis, and the full thesis is then posted below for your reading pleasure. Thoughts, questions, and comments are welcomed in the comments section below!

INTRODUCTION

For arts presenters, finding new ways to attract audiences to live arts performances has long been a challenge. In 1974, the First American Congress of Theater (FACT) convened “to bring the leaders of American theater together to address a number of problems … including declining attendance and the need to stimulate youth and minority audiences,”(Diane Ragsdale as quoted in Clayton Lord) but these issues were not solved and continue to be a source of frustration for arts presenters. With downward-trending ticket sales plaguing performing arts events nationwide (source, page 1), an arts audience that is “older than the general population” of the United States (source, page vii), more existing arts organizations than interested patrons or donors (source, page 9), and rapidly declining contribution levels (source, page 3), it is evident that live arts performances are still losing the battle to the these external forces. Therefore, it is critical that arts presenters reevaluate and update the value proposition we are offering to our communities, a task that can be accomplished in two steps: 1) reframing how we view the problem of declining attendance at live art performances; and 2) reimagining how we program, market, and present art performances. Truly, as seasoned arts leader Kenneth J. Foster proposes, “Nothing less than a revolution in our approach to arts management is required if we are to create a transformative and lasting response” (source, page 4) to the external threats facing performing artists and presenting organizations.

BACKGROUND & RESEARCH TOPIC

During a class discussion between aspiring arts administrators about marketing for the arts, the question of whether young adults have the money to afford going to arts performances was raised. A majority of the class, almost all young adults themselves, responded that, “No, we don’t have the money available,” immediately citing monetary priorities such as student debt, starting ‘adult’ lives, and potential unemployment. The professor listened to these answers, and when the class settled, responded, “But, don’t those same people also spend money going out for dinner and drinks with friends, renting movies, or attending sports events? The issue is not that they do not have the money to spend on attending live arts performances, it’s that they choose to spend it on other forms of entertainment.”

Simultaneously intuitive and obscure, this observation applies to more than just young adults. All people, regardless of age, race, gender, or socioeconomic status, are constantly faced with the decision of how to spend their money on entertainment, whether it is on arts performances, bowling and beer, or not spending it at all. From this intuitive realization emerged the question central to this thesis: What can arts presenters, who “curate not only the art but also the constituency for an arts institution” (source, page 21), do to convince more people to spend their money on tickets to live arts performances rather than spending it on other forms of entertainment (or not spending it at all)?

The full thesis, including survey data, analysis, and results/recommendations, can be accessed here: A Survey of Wisconsin Arts Patrons: Who They Are, What They Want, and How to Give It To Them.

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