Revving up marketing machinery raises some uncomfortable questions: Why should donors give funds to a theater if their money is going to pay for focus groups and demographic studies rather than to support the work of artists?
By Bill Marx
In a recent article in the Boston Business Journal, the city’s theaters talk about how they are dealing with the serious economic challenges besetting stages around the country. The litany of woes is familiar: audiences are graying, competition is growing, high ticket prices are prohibitive, and subscription numbers are slipping. Does it surprise anyone that the solution is to spend more money on marketing?
If it works, more power to the marketing wizards. Theaters are in a difficult spot. Audience habits are shifting, and not only when it comes to attending live performance events. Fewer teens are going to the movies because home provides privacy, safety, and plentiful entertainment choices. Young adult audiences tend to pick on a show-by-show basis rather than subscribe to an entire season, perhaps because they are working longer hours and are tuckered out. It is more appealing to hit the couch. The stats are depressing:
Even as Greater Boston performing arts organizations have seen a 6.1 percent increase in attendance over the past two years, many have struggled with declining or flat subscription numbers, according to Boston Business Journal research. One contributing factor to the overall attendance increase is the North Shore Music Theatre, which saw a 39 percent increase in attendance this season, which was the first full season after recouping from a 2005 fire.
Arts leaders said a change in audience trends — more last-minute ticket purchases, greater competition with other forms of entertainment — has forced them to be more nimble and liberal in their marketing efforts.
Some of the ideas make practical sense, such as the Huntington Theatre Company’s lowering ticket prices while creating more “flexible ticket packages that enable buyers to choose how many shows they see and where.”
Other battle plans, such as Robert Orchard’s decision to devote “between 15 percent and 20 percent of the A.R.T. resources…to test audience feedback, gauge demographics and develop methods for outreach” are conventional and problematic. The removal of artistic director Robert Woodruff by an A.R.T./Harvard University board unhappy with the company’s creative direction and bottom line is no doubt one of the reasons Orchard, the executive director of the American Repertory Theatre, wants to reach out.
But revving up marketing machinery raises some uncomfortable questions: Why should donors give funds to a theater if their money is going to pay for focus groups and demographic studies rather than to support the work of artists? At a time when funding the performing arts is tougher than ever, how should nonprofit theaters distribute their resources in ways that do the most good? The flap raised by Josiah Spaulding’s 1.265 million dollar retention bonus is part of ongoing concerns about how much money goes where in the nonprofit world. Also, how much influence will (or should) audience feedback have on artistic decisions?
For just about everybody in the arts, not just theaters, the kneejerk bureaucratic response to the audience slump has been to revamp marketing strategies. But that is not a long-term solution to an alarming cultural change that demands imagination and innovation, not just better salesmanship.
Bill Marx is the Editor-in-chief of the Arts Fuse. For over three decades, he has written about arts and culture for print, broadcast, and online. He has regularly reviewed theater for National Public Radio Station WBUR and the Boston Globe. He created and edited WBUR Online Arts, a cultural webzine that in 2004 won an Online Journalism Award for Specialty Journalism. In 2007 he created the Arts Fuse, an online magazine dedicated to covering arts and culture in Boston and throughout New England.