Yale Student Group Hosts First Issues in the Arts Conference
The question the panel was asked to address during the first session of the Issues in the Arts conference seemed straightforward enough: How can arts organizations develop new audiences while supporting the work of new artists? But as the speakers outlined their opinions, it quickly became clear that audience development — roughly translated to mean attracting new paying customers at a time when the performing arts are struggling to maintain revenues — lies at the heart of the challenges faced by arts organizations in America.
“Obviously this is a major concern of arts groups of all kinds,” said Jack Myers, assistant to the deputy provost of the arts at Yale University, who moderated the panel. “It’s one of the few generally accepted truths of the profession.”
The discussion Myers led touched on the experiences of a variety of organizations, including the Metropolitan Opera, Yale Repertory, and a small Boston-based dance group. Organized by the SOM Arts and Culture club, this was the first Issues in the Arts conference. The afternoon panel focused on intellectual property and featured experts in IP law and an independent singer/songwriter/producer.
During the first session, the speakers all focused on balancing the expectations of loyal members with the need to attract new people into the audience. Elena Park, assistant manager for editorial and creative content at the Metropolitan Opera, explained how after 9/11, the Met’s audience fell off, and kept declining for six years, forcing the opera to reevaluate its approach. A new creative manager was brought in to revitalize the opera during a time when bigger and bigger spectacles packed the theaters on Broadway. “The Met had never had to do audience development before,” Park said. “9/11 exposed fault lines that already existed: It was an elitist art form, it was really long, it was in a foreign language, and classical music is not very popular anymore. The Met needed a brand overhaul.”
The new management launched a major reconfiguration of how the Met approached its audience. Famous film and theater directors were brought in to stage new interpretations of old classics as well as bring new works to the stage. The Met’s website began broadcasting glimpses of backstage, while live performances were shown in movie theaters around the world. The crowning moment for the Met’s transformation came in 2006, when the premier of a new take on Madame Butterfly was broadcast in Times Square, making the Met front page news. “People responded more than we thought possible,” Park said.
On a smaller scale, regional art organizations must compete just as hard for their audiences. Jennifer Kiger, associate artistic director of the Yale Repertory Theater, explained how crucial it is for smaller organizations to forge personal bonds with theatergoers. “We place a great emphasis on staging new plays,” she said. “To succeed we need to find a core audience that’s invested in the artistry and theater itself to go with something edgy, experimental, and emerging. We put a lot of resources towards high-risk art, and it can only succeed if over time we build a community with the audience. What they have in common is the art. They get invested in the theater.”
Meyers noted that people at arts organizations always worry about alienating their core audiences when they make changes. “But it’s clear this doesn’t have to be either/or,” he said. Donna Walker-Kuhne, who has worked in audience development for several organizations in New York, underlined the point. “The key,” she said, “is to enlist your traditional audience in your efforts.”