Data and Deliberation: How Some Arts Organizations are Using Data to Understand Their Audiences
"There have been things that we suspected to be true that we now know are true. There have been things that we didn’t have the faintest idea were true that now we know are true.” This comment was made by a theater director while reflecting on his organization’s use of data to advance its audience-building efforts. The organization was one of 25 performing arts organizations awarded grants to build audiences as part of The Wallace Foundation’s Building Audiences for Sustainability (BAS) initiative. The organizations’ specific projects differed, but all made extensive use of data collection and market research. Within the initiative, data and market research were emphasized as part of a continuous learning approach that consisted of an iterative process of design, implementation, analysis, and identification of changes needed for improvement. This report, the second publication from our independent evaluation of the initiative, presents interim findings about the organizations’ experiences with this databased approach.
National statistics show stagnant or declining attendance across many art forms associated with the nonprofit performing arts.1 While the problem is widely acknowledged, there is less consensus or confidence about how organizations can respond. Can data and market research help? Our findings emphasize that data is not a magic bullet. Engaging with data is a complex and challenging undertaking. Notwithstanding the challenges, however, virtually everyone at the participating organizations was positive about the initiative’s emphasis on data and market research, and found engaging with data helpful. Engaging with data often prompted organizations to recognize and question assumptions and better understand their external environment. We hope that insights from their experiences will prove useful to others considering ways to engage and expand audiences.