Daily Archives: May 4, 2012

New business model for arts audience development?

As I mentioned on Twitter, I am surprised that the following article did not spur a heap full of discussion.  From the very get go, I was intrigued, a little alarmed at first, and very interested in this new audience development business model.

Building audiences at the Skokie Theatre
By BRUCE INGRAM Contributor May 1, 2012 9:04PM

Allow me to quote and ponder:

Not having an artistic agenda, it seems, can be very good business.

Holy arts management danger, Batman!  Can an arts company really function in this matter? Read on…

“Our only agenda is to create shows people want to see,” said Skokie native Dan Abbate, founder and co-owner of Gorilla Tango (along with his marketing-maven wife Kelly Williams). “We find out what people want to see by taking good, educated guesses, then seeing if they work. If they don’t, our attitude is: Forget it; that was a bad idea; what’s next?”

Wow, I can see this ruffling some feathers, but I have to admit, this could be an audience development gold mine if played out right.  Let’s see what this model is all about.

Basically, you open your doors to other producers, who bring their clever ideas to the venue and agree to pay a small percentage of initial ticket sales to cover a share of production expenses. And you don’t care, particularly, if they’re producing cabaret, or comedy, or a concert of operatic arias. If the show’s a flop, you commiserate and say better luck next time. If it’s a success, you book it for a long run and split the profits 50/50.

As a bonus, the communities served enjoy an almost wildly eclectic schedule of attractions that have only one thing in common: some hope of appealing to some segment of the show-going audience.

So instead of doing a complete full run of a show and hoping that it will be successful, this theatre company actually has shorter runs, and if successful, will book a longer run.  If not successful, it’s out.  The audiences are in charge of deciding what they enjoy seeing in this case.

“I am, first and foremost, business- and profit-oriented,” said Abbate…”If I have to produce 10 shows to find one that’s a big hit, I should probably be producing 10 shows constantly and then I’ll be getting hits constantly.”

For this model, they are not afraid of flops, it is all a part of their trial and error process to find the shows that will be successful.  Does this model work?

Abbate’s model (facilitated by his own accounting and scheduling computer software, which keeps traffic jams at a minimum) works well enough that not not-for-profit Gorilla Tango owns its Bucktown and Skokie theaters — and attracted more than 15,000 audience members during its first six months of operations in Chicago.

They are not relying on donations, own their own theaters, and they attracted more than 15,000 audience members in 6 months?  In terms of this business model, it seems to be making sense and cents.  I also like the fact that they are probably more open to new plays than the typical company since everything is viewed as a potential hit.  The variety could also be a huge benefit to their audiences.

“We need to find producers who have a good idea of what’s likely to appeal to audiences in this area,” he said. “When you come right down to it, we’re developing products. And this is like any other business: You have to find a product that people want.”

However, does being so audience-centric and “product” oriented good for theatre in general?  I would be interested in knowing if the quality factor is considered when choosing a production and if not, does quality play a part in which shows flops and which shows succeed?  With choices being less artistically driven, are productions merely “audience pleasers” or are these productions still artistically challenging? Does the marketing of the individual production make much of a difference and/or are some of these productions using audience development programs?  This model definitely seems to bring up important questions, and I might have to contact them to get some answers.

In the meantime, I would love to hear your thoughts too.  Please comment.   Have a wonderful weekend!

Cheers to happy and loyal audiences,

Shoshana Fanizza

Audience Development Specialists



“Never treat your audience as customers, always as partners.”
~James Stewart

Although we are not a non-profit, if you would like to support ADS to continue our work, you can donate here.

My eBook

New eBook!  The How of  Audience Development for the Arts: Learn the Basics, Create Your Plan


Filed under arts management, arts marketing, Audience Development