WolfBrown: On Our Minds

Growing Audiences

September 4th, 2009

Over the last several years, there has been increasing talk about sharing knowledge in the cultural sector so that all can benefit from the lessons learned by a few. Because so much is happening at once in our sector, sometimes it’s hard to know where to look and what to read to find good syntheses. A few issues ago, I wrote about a Wallace Foundation publication that summarized research on effective arts education programs. Now, I’d like to recommend another Wallace publication that summarizes a variety of discussions and “lessons learned” at a recent gathering of more than 50 Wallace-funded arts organizations on the topic of engaging audiences. One of the key points highlighted in the report is the close relationship between personal practice (e.g., playing an instrument) and arts attendance (buying a ticket), and derives in part from our work with several of the Wallace grantees, including the Greater Philadelphia Cultural Alliance, Steppenwolf Theatre Company, and the Philadelphia Orchestra. Building more bridges between arts creation and arts attendance, the report suggests, could be a long-term strategy for audience development.

As fewer and fewer people attend conferences due to shrinking budgets, I wish more conference organizers would produce this kind of concise summary, so that the field might benefit more widely from the dialogues that too often start and end at conferences.


Conversations with nonprofit leaders about evaluation and accountability usually focus on intended outcomes, impacts, and benefits and how to measure them. In our evaluation work, however, we often observe unintended outcomes, which can be favorable or unfavorable. Recently I ran across a provocative paper by Mark J. Stern and Susan Seifert of the University of Pennsylvania’s Social Impact of the Arts Project (SIAP) that explores just such consequences. Their brief about the social effects of creative economy policies addresses the downside of urban policy makers’ reliance on “creative economy” thinking as a strategy for urban revitalization. They acknowledge that “the logic [behind these strategies] is that attracting the ‘creative class’ to [a] region will generate jobs and tax revenue, a trickle down of benefits to all citizens.” In reality, however, the result is too often not only the gentrification of neighborhoods, but also the “gentrification” of culture – unwitting exclusivity. They discuss research and policy related to the role of culture in urban revitalization and propose a new model – a “neighborhood-based creative economy.” Their thinking resonates with my own feelings about the organic, close-at-hand nature (e.g., shared interests and joint efforts) of what spurs creativity, and its power to transform individuals, families, and neighborhoods.

Competing for the Future

September 4th, 2009

It wasn’t as much of an escape as some of the legal thrillers I read on the beach this summer, but Competing for the Future, by Gary Hamel and C.K. Prahalad, is a post-Labor Day “must-read” for anyone on the board or staff of an arts and culture organization today. Although published shortly after the major recession at the beginning of the 90s, it contains a lot of currently relevant advice about which strategic decisions to make – and which to avoid – in any period of economic upheaval. It expresses the standard view that cost reduction, on its own, will not insure survival and that organizational restructuring must be coupled with robust revenue growth. The biggest “takeaway” for me, however, was the case the book makes for abandoning organizational strategies of the past, and even the present, to develop a clear vision of an organization’s future success and disciplined strategies to realize that vision. For arts groups, this means not just trying to sell more tickets or raise more money from the same people for the same activities. It means imagining five to ten years in the future:

• who your audiences will be;
• with what programs and through what distribution channels you will serve those audiences;
• who your competitors will be and what your unique competitive advantage will be; and
• what organizational and financial resources will be needed to realize your mission and vision.

Of course, summarizing a seminal 300+ page book in 300 words does not do it justice. So, I will just pass on the advice of a friend who urged me to read it and suggest that the $12.21 cost of the paperback ($9.56 if you have a Kindle) is money well spent.


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