How Driving Demand for Performing Arts is Doable

Hundreds of theater lovers in front of the Richard Rodgers Theatre. Photo:

Last month I wrote about the challenges of predicting markets for proposed performing arts facilities, with market prediction being one of the four tests we consultants use to determine facility feasibility. With an unknowable future and unpredictable consumer behavior, this task is particularly challenging.

Often someone in the process inevitably suggests that the team “build it and they will come,” to which we answer that this tactic rarely leads to a Hollywood ending. And when public funds are deployed in the building or sustaining of arts venues, longterm success is rare.

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No market for the building, but for the programming within.

Beyond the traditional tools analysts use to predict market response to arts facilities, there are two important approaches that facility developers can take themselves.

The first approach is to focus on the programming and the market for those programs, having confidence that the building will be brought to life with content that is in demand. For this there are at least four steps to take:

  1. Start with programs that already are in demand. Identify meaningful programs that have existing demand which can be satisfied in a new space and hopefully in a better fashion. For example, a dance company brings their audience from the high school auditorium to a kitted-out theater hoping to increase the audience, given the better product they can offer in a better space. This should reasonably increase demand.
  2. Prepare the product to be ready for a new space. Often this entails arts groups fully investing in their product — their performances — such that they are ready to succeed in a new space. Back to the prior example, that small dance company needs to build the skills and resources necessary to attract a larger audience and/or to increase ticket prices in new and better facilities.
  3. Be ready to pilot something different and shift directions. Not all programming succeeds, and what succeeds and fails is not easily predicted. Thus, facilities — and their users — must have resources to survive failed programs. New facilities must also have the capacity to test out various program-types and accept the fact that it takes time to decipher the market’s response to the content being offered. Creating enough physical flexibility in new spaces to allow for such testing, and adapting the programming mix to the environment, are both critical.
  4. Add more spaces for active participation as opposed to passive programming. Facilities can mitigate some of the risk in predicting their audience by responding to the demand for the experiential. Many performing arts facilities now include classrooms, dance studios, practice rooms and digital media centers — and these spaces drive independent revenue streams.

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The second approach is to take responsibility for influencing the entire experience: the purchase of tickets, learning about the program in advance, finding the venue and a parking space, dining before or after the experience, arriving at the venue, picking up tickets, getting to one’s seat, sharing the experience with others, finding one’s way out of the venue, and so on. I would especially focus on helping audiences prepare for and process the experience of a performance, which has been shown to be so valuable by Alan S. Brown and his work on Assessing the Intrinsic Impacts of a Live Performance and Measuring the Intrinsic Impacts of Arts Attendance.

Alternatively, programmers are making more radical changes to the live arts experience in ways that attempt to make it more attractive to more people. An increasingly popular strategy is to bring traditional programs into non-traditional environments — such as the Juilliard String Quartet performing at Poisson Rouge. Just as intriguing is bringing non-traditional programs into traditional arts spaces, such as Video Games Live at the historic Beacon Theatre.

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Perhaps the most important trend today is the shift from the notion of the cultural palace to the notion of the cultural district. Whereas cultural palaces emphasize performance, cultural districts can enhance the broader experience from arrival to departure. With cultural districts, there is more to do and more to see, such that coming for a different activity can become the animating idea that encourages people to also buy a ticket.

Yet there’s also something that should not be ignored. As more venue owners and operators become interested in selling the experience of attendance, they are often focusing on the bars, restaurants and retail inside or near the venue. I predict that entertainment providers will soon invest and own more of the experience in order to control what is offered and to use commercial elements to fund performances. None of these sectors are easy to fund and manage. The larger, commercial enterprises that have the skills and resources to integrate these elements are the ones that can more effectively drive demand towards busy and sustainable facilities. Thus, their influence is growing.