Expert Interview: #3 Alan Brown

by Matic Gajsek — 2017-06-12

Alan Brown is recognized as the leading figure in audience development research or 'audience engagement' as a preferred term in the US. Alan is a founding partner of WolfBrown, a cross-disciplinary team of professional consultants with experience in fund-raising, marketing, planning, research, evaluation, program design, arts education and other areas. Brown's reports and studies have not only introduced new vocabulary to the existing body of knowledge in cultural participation, but significantly shaped it towards  a clearer framework. 

While audience development is considered a predominantly Anglo-American term, it is yet to transit into the non-Western European cultural environments. In your works, you distinguish between ‘audience engagement’ and ‘development’. Why is the distinction important?

Organizations need to invest in audience development over the long-term. But after they’ve spent their marketing budget, not much is left for audience development, except through special grants. So I see audience engagement as a strategy for accomplishing audience development goals. If you engage audiences, theoretically they are more likely to come back. Therefore, audience engagement really is a deepening strategy for helping people make sense of the art. But “engagement” has now come to a point when it means almost anything arts organizations do to attract people through social events or educational activities. I think engagement also includes the core programming. Some programmes just are more engaging than the others, so in this sense engagement starts with artistic planning. Now, audience engagement is so widely used as a term that I am not even sure what it means any more. The audience problem is not going away any time soon. Arts organizations need to attract more audiences, to stay relevant and financially viable. I use the phrase ‘building demand’ - we need to learn how to build demand. And programming is the single most important factor in shaping demand. Audiences are inevitably the reflection of what is on stage and it is impossible to break that relationship. So we need to stop talking about audience development as marketing problem, but more as programming opportunity. 

Audiences are inevitably the reflection of what is on stage and it is impossible to break that relationship. So we need to stop talking about audience development as marketing problem, but more as programming opportunity. 

Audience development or engagement is then responsibility of whom? Experts and scholars such as Maitland, Hayes & Slater refer to audience development as philosophically driven concept underlying artistic planning, marketing communications and education?  How can such a framework be translated towards the engagement? 

Audience engagement is a mission driven commitment to increasing the impact of the artistic experience. And with engagement we blur a number of similar things together. I do not believe inviting people to cocktail parties in the lobby is really audience engagement, unless they are talking about the art. Some approaches to engagement blur the line between marketing and programming, as when theatres hold ‘season preview’ events and invite people to the hall to learn more about the upcoming season. It was educational, but also a sales event. This is an example of the grey area in the definition of engagement. Thinking critically, I disagree that engagement activities should be held to the same accountability standard as marketing activities. The return on investment for engagement strategies is not monetary, but is reflected in stronger impact on audiences. Some people disagree with me, but I see it as a deepening strategy, because the investments on audience engagement do not generate short term financial return.  So moving away from the justification of funding?

Yes, that is right. Some arts institutions believe that it is important to engage with audiences around the artistic work. Like Steppenwolf Theatre in Chicago, where they have a ‘talk-back’ sessions after every performance. The cost for such a format is high, with no direct or visible return, but they believe it is important, so they do it.  In my previous interviews with New World Symphony and Sphinx Detroit, both organizations articulated the extension of integrated audience development model (artistic planning, education and marketing) with fundraising and business development.  Encountering the specific cultural context in US, could you recognize such extension and if, could you recognize implication also in European cultural sphere? That is interesting, because audience development has to be capitalized or it just doesn’t really happen. And this is why I think the field of audience development is so under developed theoretically. It is a marginal activity without significant funding and funders historically have invested in audience development projects with no apparent return. Because our field is so de-centralized, you have organizations undertaking experiments that have been done many times before, but nobody is keeping the track of practices. We lack a good taxonomy of audience development practice, even to just begin sorting out experiments into similar categories. This is one of the things I am trying to do – to develop a better theoretical framework and a taxonomy of theories of change that practitioners can draw from. When an orchestra in Alaska wants to experiment with price incentives to attract younger adults, they should be able to look into what has already been done, what works and what doesn’t. But at this stage there is no central resource that compiles and publishes audience development projects previously undertaken or what were the results. If I want to engage audiences via Twitter, who can I learn from? Who did a similar project before? There is so much experimentation with no record. We are hamstrung as a field until we start tracking and classifying experiments according to the underlying theory and building on a previous work. Audience development lacks scholarship, proper field research and referencing of past works. 

Awareness about the need for more knowledge about audience development is becoming more and more relevant. You gave an interesting example about engaging audiences via Twitter, which raises the question of new media within the cultural sector. Are traditional audience segmentation techniques still relevant, or do we need better frameworks? What is your view on the intersection of arts with new media and is there a need for new segmentation concept? 

I would say our field suffers for lack of a better conceptual framework for audiences. Traditionally we have segmented audiences based on what they buy. In the last 30 years we started using demographics and then psychographics. I have been thinking a lot about the benefits of segmenting audiences according to their tastes in art – “taste communities.” Within the opera audience, for example, there are the Wagner people. That’s a taste community. Within the jazz audience there are the people who love Latin Jazz. Taste communities are ever changing and naturally occurring. They can also be curated. An orchestra could decide to cultivate a taste community around twelve-tone serial music, if that is an artistic priority for them. There is so much focus on age in the US and on how we can attract young people. But I do not see demographics as a terribly useful premise for audience segmentation. Some of the most adventurous audiences are old, very old. And conversely, younger audience are often very conservative in their tastes. We make all sorts of assumptions about audiences that are not true. Thus, there is need for looking at naturally occurring preferences for art, as a guide to understanding audiences. I would love to get my hands on the research that Apple has on music preferences (laugh).

Academia is suggesting the shift towards new, non-traditional audiences. How can we programme within an audience development framework, addressing both new and existing audiences without a conflict between the groups?

What is inevitable in the US is the evolution towards program diversification. The diversification of population is inevitable and we have more people from mixed racial backgrounds and more people who are first, second, and third generation immigrants. They have diverse cultural interests, especially in music. I am continually astonished at the eclectic musical tastes of young adults from all backgrounds. 

So it is inevitable that arts organizations must diversify their products, unless they are so committed to one form of art that this is the only way they want to proceed. 

And there is nothing wrong with that, but such organizations should expect their audiences to downsize, as public tastes leave them behind. So if public taste is changing and becoming more diverse, it means that from a policy standpoint we need different kinds of programming to serve increasingly diverse communities. You can see orchestras doing a wider range of programmes, playing film music or small scale concerts in warehouses for young people. The marketplace is driving demand and eventually orchestras and other cultural institutions will need to adjust or otherwise recede in relevance. However, there is lots of exciting new programming going on – mostly addressing young adults, in particularly the rise of branded experiences. San Francisco Symphony has a programme called ‘Soundbox’, where people are buying a brand and it sells out before they even announce the programme. The programme is not the point – it is the experience. I find it very exciting, because for years we were limited with selling the programme and now we finally have the opportunity to sell the experience, which is not dependent on the programme. This is one of the bright spots as I see it.

To go back to participation, the level of engagement is still characterized by attendance and non-attendance. In your publication ‘Making sense of audience engagement’ (2011) you cite increased emphasis on ‘active participation’ strategies. What is the right balance between professional and non-professional engagement? Some organizations seem so focused on artistic excellence. Is there room for amateur engagement?

There is an important place in the ecosystem for professional ensembles, playing at the highest level, because they inspire people on so many levels. These are revered institutions that carry a lot of symbolic weight in the public’s mind. Sometimes they claim to serve the public, but they really serve their art forms or, in some cases, their artistic directors. In protecting their reputation for “excellence” they overlook important opportunities to build deep relationships with their communities. I recently worked on a strategic plan for an orchestra in a large secondary market in the US. We discovered a thriving amateur music scene – many choruses, bands and student orchestras. I challenged the orchestra to consider how it might take up the work of building the musicianship of all the citizens in the community. But they were only interested in playing masterworks in acoustically perfect concert halls at convenient times for the musicians. How are we going to build audiences if we can’t make important connections to the artistic lives of children and adults? I see a sort of blind commitment to artistic excellence in many arts organizations, which in the case of the UK, is fostered by Arts Council England. In my opinion, a lot of organizations confuse excellence in artistry with excellence in mission delivery. They are not the same thing. But I am an outlier on that.

There have been recent examples of intersections between art forms and new media, such as the virtual orchestra of the Philharmonia Orchestra in the UK, driven by the artistic vision of Essa-Pekka Salonen. Do you see significant developments in such intersections of arts and technology? 

I think it is an open question as to how orchestras, theatre companies, operas and even ballet companies incorporate and embrace the digital programming. This is a very difficult area for the field, because it is not live and the value system is built around producing the live experiences. We have pioneers such as the Met, the National Theatre and the Berlin Philharmonic with its Digital Concert Hall. This is especially an opportunity for arts organizations in rural areas to introduce their communities to the world’s greatest art. Why wouldn’t an opera company in a small community show digital programs from the world’s great opera houses? Sure, there are copyright and cost issues, but also major opportunities, particularly in cities where there is one ballet company, one orchestra or one theatre. Those organizations should understand themselves as a gateway into the art form for their whole community. It is selfish of them to only produce their own programs. They should be inviting people to watch digital programming, which they would recommend, streaming via Internet. Over the past five years, we’ve seen an explosion of high quality drama on television. I mean, really high quality stuff. Why aren’t theatre companies recommending the best drama on television to their audiences? There is a vast trove of digital content out there and it will only multiply. But it is important to say that digital will never replace the live experience, because the social aspect of attendance is so important for people.

In context of audience development, it is important to also talk about the role of the 21stcentury artist. The educational aspect of audience development was outlined already in interview with Cristina Da Milano. How should educational systems evolve, considering that music graduates might no longer have a seat in the orchestra secured?

The Chicago Symphony’s Citizen Musician initiative, spearheaded by Yo Yo Ma, is an interesting example. The concept behind it is that the spirit of the 21st century musician is not only a talent, but also an ambassador to the community. That has many potential implications for training that needs to go all the way up to the conservatory level and de-constructing the idea of the virtuoso as the ideal. There are many interesting developments, but you still have some conservatories producing graduates who believe that the only definition of success is winning a spot in a professional orchestra. In example of the New England Conservatory, my business partners Tom Wolf and Joe Kluger helped to re-frame the curriculum to include classes on business, recording and education. So the well-rounded musician is a well-established idea on the training level. The issue here starts with orchestras themselves, which are still doing blind auditions and only admitting musicians based on how well they play on the day of the audition. And until that changes, the education system will not change, because virtuosity is all that really counts. The job description for the 21st century artist, meanwhile, has changed profoundly.

You mention that the museum sector is having a major issue with engaging audiences. On the contrary, European academics have a tendency to say that the performing arts should learn from the museum sector.

That is interesting as museums are historically places where you go to look at things, hanging on the wall, in art museums at least. I think there are a million ways to try and engage people around what is hanging on the walls, but the issue is how to take that out into the community. Some museums are incredibly self-centred  in that they just want people to come see their exhibitions, and don’t have any interest in engaging the community. I’ve found it extraordinarily difficult to discuss the idea of community engagement with some museum curators. Why, for example, should museums care about what’s hanging on the walls in people’s homes? They want more public support, but they don’t know now to project their mission beyond the walls of the museum. Of course there are many exceptions. There is a lot of interest by public now in the lighting as an art form, installation art, and immersive and interdisciplinary arts experiences. Look what’s happened in Las Vegas.

The question of barriers, which is continuously discussed in academic literature, is also about passive or active audience participation. Is the art itself the biggest barrier of all?

I think that the distinction between audiences and non-audiences is often very arbitrary and organizations try to look at it in a very transactional way. You either buy a ticket or not, so if you bought you are a member of audience, if not you are not. And in the museum sector there is the same issue with being considered a visitor or not. In reality, there are people who visit and have no intentionality at all, while there are people who are not visiting who are very sophisticated art lovers. Years ago I did a national study of orchestra audiences for the Knight Foundation which found that there are four or five times as many people in a city who love classical music but don’t attend their local orchestra, as compared to those who do. You can call them “prospects” because they are not coming. But to not call them audiences is a big mistake. So the term “audience” is problematic if it is defined by a transaction. The Audiences Finder project in the UK allow arts organizations to look at audiences in a more holistic way – across the totality of their ticket buying across the community, which is a step in the right direction. But someone who passionately listens to classical music at home or in the car – are they members of audience? I think moving towards the definition of audience as a portfolio of taste communities might be more helpful if it helps to break down the artificial boundary between the ticket buyers and non-buyers.

You can only re-price and re-package programs in so many ways. Audiences respond to creative programming, if it is reasonably accessible. A segment of the audience will always want conventionally formatted presentations in conventional venues. But a growing segment of the public is very open to alternative formats in unusual venues. Perhaps the biggest barrier is lack of a social invitation. An invitation from a friend transcends so many of the perceptual and practical barriers that arts organizations struggle to surmount day after day. People will go see art that they’d never select for themselves if the right person invites them. Taste is socially transmitted. And attendance must be socially reinforced. But I don't know a single arts organization that has a coherent incentive program that rewards people for bringing their friends, or a program that encourages people to join, start or quit a group of like-minded people who go out to arts programs together. Am I missing something?