Bahia Ramos, Director of Arts at New York City’s Wallace Foundation, shares her thoughts on a five-year project the Wallace Foundation funded with a range of arts organizations participating, all exploring Building Audiences for Sustainability.
“One of the biggest things we learned through our work with Building Audiences for Sustainability is about identifying your target audience. People say, who would you like to come in? And everyone says, ‘Well, everyone!’ What do you mean when you say everyone? What would you like to change about your audience? So we know that neighborhoods are changing, cities are changing across America, demographics are shifting within our country. People want a more representative sample of the actual country in which we live to be part of the arts audience.”
“Some organizations say, ‘Well, how might we change, to bring these new people in?’
“And they really have to be specific about that target audience so they know what to offer, or how even to create a language and repertoire that represents and reflects those communities. . . The more specific you can be, the more change is allowed to manifest within your organization, and you’re able to do things that are really directed, and have some response that you can measure over time to see whether you’re having any success or not.”
On an opera company trying to grow a younger audience. . .
“Let’s do some focus groups and market research. We learned that, ‘Oh, I have to get dressed up to go to the opera.’ Or, ‘the opera is too long.’ And, ‘I don’t know the opera because I don’t understand the language or the story.’ So they decided they’d try to do something about building one’s palette for opera.
“And so they partnered with local chefs and restaurants and created something called Opera Tastings. It’s a very social event. You show up for a couple of hours on a weekday evening, and you have tastings from a local restaurant or a hot chef in town, that’s paired with a local beverage or wine company. . . but with that you also get a taste of opera. And the opera accompanies each course of the meal.
“And you have a sheet that says, ‘Was this too dry? Was it saucy? Did you get that aura of sweetness from the soprano’s voice?’ And people think about and listen to, just a taste of opera. You get a wide range – you get to experience Italian, German, English. And you’re at a table socializing with people, so it doesn’t feel formal, it’s a very informal approach to opera.
“So we’ve had projects like that, that really think about how do we bring new people in? And recognizing that perhaps the way to bring people in is to go outside of our organization – and not demand that people just come to you because you’re there. But that you go to them, you actually think about and participate in the world outside, in order to make that connection.”
On how do you change what your organization is offering, when change upsets your longtime donors and supporters?
“That discomfort, people think that is eternal when that happens. . . It’s a growing pain for about a year or two, and then it begins to recede. . . And some stay, some go away and they never come back. But I think to ride on that coattail and only cater to that small percentage – small percentage, high dollar, I will firmly acknowledge that – but small percentage of audience, while the entire world is shifting around you, you’re not doing your organization a service by focusing on that.”