Arts saturation point and audience development

I had been reading the article in the Ottawa Citizen:  Where have all the theatregoers gone?

The article takes on the question after a theater run that was supposed to run 5 weeks closed one week early due to not enough audience.

The problem seems to be that while Ottawa theatre companies have been springing up faster than revelations about wannabe lobbyists, there aren’t enough audience members, and especially new ones, to go around. Blame whatever you want — competing entertainment, a citizenry too pooped at the end of the day to go anywhere — we don’t attend theatre in the numbers needed to sustain what could be a defining aspect of Ottawa life.

I have been seeing this phenomenon happen right here in Boulder, CO.  Have we hit the saturation point of the arts in ratio to the amount of audience members?

According to the 2000 Census, Boulder County has 291,288 people.  Currently I am counting:

  • Around 10 dance organizations
  • Around 20 music organizations
  • Around 13 theatre organizations
  • Around 18 art/museum organizations and galleries

This is not including individual artists or bands or art venues and associations which have their own events.

Now how many people out of our population actually attends arts events?  The average around the  U.S. has been about 29% according to NEA’s
State and Regional Differences in Arts Participation: A Geographic Analysis of the 2008 SPPA

We need to break it down further.  Average percentages for these individual disciplines in Colorado:

  • 3% for dance (average ballet and other)
  • 8% for music
  • 12-13% theater (average musical/non-musical)
  • 22% art museums and galleries

So for theatre in our area, if we do the math, we have close to 37,000 people that would enjoy seeing a theatre event.  We have 13 theatre organizations competing for those 37,000 people.  If all were to get a fair share of this segment, there would be a little over 3,000 people per theatre company and most companies average 5 shows per season with 3-6 runs per show.  A further complication is the fact that someone who enjoys the theatre might also enjoy dance or music events.  Now imagine the scheduling problems in our county.  You could end up with a weekend that has 3 or 4 theater productions, 2 or 3 dance productions, 3 major benefit events, and 2 or 3 big music events.  Visual art events seem to pop up all year round, and they are plentiful!  Suddenly 3,000 people (assuming you are getting your full fair share, wink, wink) are not enough to fill houses.

So do you think that the arts may have a saturation problem where arts are a-plenty?  How do we deal with this growing problem?  We have come into the day and age that people want to put on their own show and start their own arts company.  Many people want to be the creator!

I feel that audience development is the answer to this challenge.  Remember the 4 C’s of audience development:

  1. Connection – you need to get connected to the people that would enjoy your event/art.  Make the extra efforts to build relationships!
  2. Collaboration – maybe it is time to consider bigger projects by collaborating.  These projects will attract a larger audience that will benefit all involved.
  3. Community – the arts need to begin acting like a community.  Perhaps a community calendar could be set up so it helps alleviate the problem of too many art events scheduled at one time.
  4. Caring – since there is a competition factor, wouldn’t it make sense to care a little more about your audience and your art?  Implement ways that show that you care: create high quality art and engage with your audience regularly.

If an artist or organization takes the time and effort for audience development, the saturation problem won’t be as much of a factor.  Audience development is about building relationships with people, not numbers.  It is about creating a happy and loyal community around your art.  With audience development, you can thrive in any condition or situation that you come up against!

Cheers to happy and loyal audiences,


Shoshana Fanizza
Audience Development Specialists
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“Never treat your audience as customers, always as partners.”
~James Stewart

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Filed under arts advocacy, arts management, arts marketing, Audience Development

5 responses to “Arts saturation point and audience development

  1. This brings up such an interesting point that we rarely think about. We arts administrators are always so driven to sell more tickets and get more donors that we fail to look at the big picture.

    Moving from an area where there was a very high concentration of arts dot orgs to an area where it is relatively low has brought this point home to me more and more lately.

  2. aha! Maybe we have a great opportunity in disguise!

    Why are so many of us are competing for the exact same audience? Because it’s easy and safe! (ok, not really easy, but easier than getting non-arts folks to notice us)

    Our real challenge is to stop thinking of the traditional ‘arts patrons’ and ask: Why are the other 80-90% of the population totally uninterested in what we’re doing? Is it their fault for not caring about the arts, or our own fault for not understanding ‘the outsiders’ better? Can we find ways to create content that appeals to more people without totally compromising our artistic ideals?

    Only 3% for dance?
    8% for music?
    12-13% theater (average musical/non-musical)?
    22% art museums and galleries?

    We can do better than that!

  3. Heather Beasley

    Interesting post. One of the problems I see with this analysis is that not all theatre companies in town are targeting the same audiences, so by failing to look at market segments, you create seeming competition/ oversupply where there is none. For example, the people who go to see their kids onstage at Rocky Mountain Theatre for Kids may have no interest in the devised work of Square Product Theatre…different target markets. The amateur/ professional split is also important to consider. Although a company like Colorado Shakes sold well over 20,000 seats last summer, their summer season doesn’t compete with companies running during the academic year. Again, no competition, although there may well be market overlap.
    The second problem I see is that this analysis implies demand for the arts is static. If we are serving only 12% of the public, is that enough for non-profit theatres to fulfill our mission? I think increasing demand for the arts is a key part of the picture…Micah’s point above is excellent. Local arts organizations are competing for limited resources and dealing with their own internal constraints, and are thus unlikely to “play nice” by scheduling events around each other. Also, it goes back to target markets–for example, the university doesn’t care whether their holiday show is up against other local competition; they’re dealing with student and campus scheduling constraints, which are more important and immediate to them.

    • Hi Heather,

      Thank you for stopping by! I appreciate your input. I did over simplify to prove a point. I agree that a children’s theater would have a different audience than an adult contemporary theater company. Although, the percentage is still for all theater. This means that some theaters may have more (or less) within their own market, but still, a rather small percentage none-the-less.

      I also agree that CSF could be an exception. Even though, more summer theater is popping up in the area, they have a special niche. CSF may have a bigger portion of the small percentage, and this may help them during the summer, but they still need to increase their audience since it is a small percentage relatively speaking for them.

      Yes, Micah’s post is exactly the way I am thinking too. We need to increase the demand by making the arts highly accessible and relevant to more people.

  4. Pingback: Weekly round-up: 24 February 2011 « arts management ireland

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