Leading with quality art experiences for arts audience development

Today I have a guest blogger for you.  Please welcome Paul Stavish, Audience Development Manager of Oregon Ballet Theatre.  He came to me with an idea of building audiences, not through quirky marketing deals and promotions, but to go beyond with artistic experiences for your audiences and communicating with them passionately about your art.  The combination of providing experiences for them and relating your passion for your art easily can translate into hands on passion for your audience members.  Please do share your thoughts about this topic by replying. 

Leading with quality art experiences for arts audience development
By Paul Stavish

If you’re an arts manager, I suspect the below talking points sound familiar to you:

  • “Subscribe now for the best seats.”
  • “Get your seats at a discount with this special offer.”
  • “We have finished X of the last Y years in the black.”
  • “Your gift of $X will get you a private reception at the conclusion of the performance.”

You probably use these.  I do.  All of them are useful ways to converse with a patron about an arts organization.  There is no escaping the fact that many patrons respond to exclusivity, deals, and special amenities.  Groupon can at times be the best way to get someone to a performance.  For others, the guarantee of the aisle seat they need being there for as long as they are willing to buy it is the ticket.

But there is something about these talking points that I find odd, particularly because we are leading with the marketing of our organization and our performances.  All of the above are secondary benefits to the larger primary benefit of what we aim to provide – relevant, outstanding art experiences that can’t be missed.  Why aren’t we leading with how tremendously important and interesting our art is?  Or, why aren’t we speaking to our audiences about how our arts experiences will benefit them?

When one makes the conversation about the quality of art, I’ve found that the gains are significant.  Overall, it allows one to speak with passion.  This generates energy in prospective audience, and radiates.  Additionally, doors can be opened to groups who otherwise would not have considered the organization.  This can ultimately lead to partnership, and with partnership comes an opportunity to create a long lasting relationship between our arts organizations and our potential audiences.  The true benefits can often not be guessed, but are almost always worthwhile.

Here are two ways to change the conversation to make our arts experiences more about them:

1.  Bring the art to them. Literally. 

Each summer, Oregon Ballet Theatre holds an event called “OBT Exposed” where we rehearse, create new work, and offer free classes to children and adults in a park all week long.  The event is entirely free to the public.  We give away tickets all day as thank you’s for being part of the event.  Here are reasons why it benefits our audiences:

*   Our existing supporters are proud to be there.

*   Our “stumbled upon” audience gets to see how amazing the art is and interact it with it for perhaps the very first time.

*   We instruct patrons to ‘enter to win’, and do so aggressively.  Everyone who sits down in the park is given a program with an enter to win slip.  With each break or prize giveaway, an announcement is made to enter to win tickets.

The Result: Press opportunities.  New audience.  Thankful supporters.  Thousands of individuals who now have their first ballet experience (and we know who they are, and can then market our season to them).

2.  Get them in the performance.  Literally.

Oregon Ballet Theatre is producing a world premiere ballet called “Ekho” whose set requires the help of hundreds to build.  Picture the biggest, craziest arts and crafts project you can think of.

*Because of its scope, we’re currently recruiting the help of hundreds of volunteers to help us build the set.

*   The community response has been unbelievable.  We’re seeing people from so many walks of life join us.  Architecture schools, arts and crafts junkies, young arts enthusiasts, past supporters, current supporters, the rich, the poor, and everything in between.  Simply put, people love to be part of an arts project.

*   For each “shift” of 4 hours that they contribute, each volunteer will be issued a voucher for $10 off tickets to the performance.  People love this.  The conversation has been about being a part of something big, and the voucher is led as a secondary thank you, as it should be.

The Result: Hundreds of people who will tell everyone they know about what a cool project they were part of.  The opportunity for us to tell tens of thousands the story of the set build through media.  Press opportunities due to the partnerships that became possible due to the project.  A tangible and valuable ballet set that can be used for future performances.

I love talking about the art of my organization, and I believe that individuals love to hear about it, especially when we make the art experiences benefit them directly.  Let’s honor what we work for and continue to find ways to demonstrate with them why it’s all so important.

– Paul

Paul Stavish is the Audience Development Manager of Oregon Ballet Theatre.  Start a conversation with him at paul.stavish@obt.org<mailto:paul.stavish@obt.org>.


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.

***Purchasing my book will help support ADS and our mission.***

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Filed under Arts, arts marketing, Audience Development

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