Last Wednesday, I had the honor of conducting an “Audience Engagement Boot Camp” in Columbus, OH for arts administrators and artists from across the state on behalf of National Arts Marketing Project as a guest of Columbus Arts Marketing Association (CAMA).
From the M words in both of my host’s names, safe bet the attendees would be predominantly marketers. The registration list and a rapid-fire round of live introductions confirmed that a good 70% of the attendees worked in a marketing-related area.
However: in planning calls CAMA’s committee set out goals for the workshop…
- address the shift in participation culture in the U.S.
- question whether arts organizations are embracing or fighting this shift
- establish foundation of understanding for audience engagement
- provide methods for inclusive planning
- share tools and resources
- inspire action
This is the PDF of my slides for that day. If you’ve taken an audience engagement workshop with me before, they probably don’t look radically different. And yet, CAMA’s agenda shifted something inside me. Their titling the workshop a “boot camp” and cheekily calling me a “drill sergeant” in the description allowed that shift to manifest. What good was I doing providing all this information without laying out the hardline truths in the process?
Hardline Truths about Engagement of Audiences in the Arts:
- We are not caring for the spines of our organizations—the audience, the patrons.
- We continue to confuse marketing (selling) with engaging (involving).
- We are not making the audience’s experience with our organization (around the artwork) meaningful, resonant, or relevant.
- We make or uphold so many rules of conduct, that it prevents creative experimentation and forward progress.
- We perpetuate status quo (e.g. interpretive collateral materials have to maintain consistent size, shape, layout to “maintain brand identity”) and look at people who challenge it as renegades.
Companies like Nike and Dunkin spend thousands–no, millions–of dollars engaging consumers around their products, and their products are shoes and donuts. We, artists, make products that are themselves high impact experiences. We are experts in making meaningful experiences, and yet we shroud our products, our works of art, in austere identities and formulaic experiences. Our most common excuse is that we don’t have the resources (e.g. money) to try something new. But it should be that we don’t try, or we don’t think we can try.
If I learned anything from my time in Columbus, it was this: now is the time to make a change. Now. People drove from across the state to attend my workshop. They were hungry. They had lots of new ideas. They were pumped. They just needed permission to break rules. They needed to know you could think big first, and then look at how to essentialize your idea to scale. They simply needed to recalibrate. They needed to remember we love the audience. Artist + Art + Audience = Amazing
I was so inspired by conversations I had in Columbus, I came up with these ideas. Take and use ‘em as you wish:
- Take the dollars you were going to spend on an advertisement and spend it on something like paying 10 local artists to sit in a crowded coffee shop with tshirts and talk amongst each other in pairs about the plays of the season. People can over hear. The artists should have coasters or stickers which they can casually hand to interested parties. At least you know you are having person-to-person contact.
- Don’t pay for a printed program–put it all online. Email it to ticket buyers. Take that money and invest in postcards with pre-paid postage. If people liked the show ask them to take a postcard, write a quick message about the show, and send it to someone local. If that friend calls or orders tickets online, the original audience member gets a personal thank you note and the ticket buyer gets a personal welcome and a free drink. (The postcard should be branded, obviously!)
- Put a call out to street artists and buskers in your city. Invite them to experience a preview of your latest exhibit; feed them; engage them in conversation with one another about the work. Ask them if they would, for a small fee, perform something inspired by this exhibit when they are next out. Give them a piece or two of collateral to have on hand. Raise awareness about art on the streets in your city to your audience.