Arts Predispositions: pg. 178-182
Whether pursuing a universal or a targeted strategy, one more consideration in dealing with communities is the variety of predispositions that exist in society with respect to the arts. There is a tendency to look at the universe of non- participants in the arts as an undifferentiated whole except for economic class or racial/ethnic status. This gets in the way of basic marketing efforts in addition to being a hindrance in planning for community engagement.
In the early 1990’s, Bradley Morrison and Julie Dalgleish wrote an interesting book on arts marketing called Waiting in the Wings. Some considered it to be a worthy successor to Danny Newman’s iconic book on selling season subscriptions, Subscribe Now! Morrison and Dalgleish proposed an approach for moving non- participants in the arts to participants and then to core stakeholders. A central feature of the work was an understanding of the population as a whole being divided into Yeses, Maybes, and Noes with respect to arts participation. (The book’s process was designed to convert Maybes to Yeses.) Yeses were those predisposed to be arts patrons. Noes were infants, the infirmed, and the incarcerated. Lumping all others into the Maybe category was highly optimistic.
While the book’s promised great migration of people from Maybe to Yes did not pan out, its acknowledgement of predispositions is an important consideration both for traditional marketing and for community engagement. However, a viable future for the arts industry lies in expanding reach into the category of Maybes and, if definitions different from those used by Morrison and Dagleigh are applied, Noes.
- Blissfully Unaware
Yeses likely had exposure to, education in, and experience with the arts as children. They are of an economic class with access to disposable income, and they likely are from a cultural background (in broad terms) shared with the work presented by the arts organizations in question.
This group is the one (and the only one) for whom “getting the word out” can be an effective approach to marketing. (Though even with them it is seldom sufficient.) They know about the arts and have enough experience with them to respond when they hear “the word.” These people make up the core audience of arts organizations. While they cannot (must not) be taken for granted, they do not make up a large enough cohort to support the nonprofit arts industry as it exists today. Certainly work can be done to increase yield among the Yeses and doing so should be an important part of any marketing strategy. However, since its members do not, by and large, represent a new community for arts organizations, addressing them is usually not a part of a community engagement plan. This is, however, a practical rather than a theoretical consideration. They are a potentially identifiable community. At the same time, more effective communication with them (and with Maybes) is an important element of “getting from here to there” discussed in Transitions: Getting from Here to There, p. 144.
Maybes are potentially “winnable” without significant alteration in programmatic content. They share sufficient cultural background with work presented by the arts institution for current arts programming not to feel completely foreign or unwelcoming. However, culturally conditioned norms with respect to dress, decorum, or demeanor in arts presentation settings can be off- putting to a degree that makes engaging with them difficult. Addressing these issues is often necessary in efforts to reach Maybes.
The tongue-in-cheek categories suggested here subdivide Maybes in ways that might be helpful in developing plans for reaching them. In each case, real consideration must be given to messaging, times/venues, complementary experiences, and, most importantly, relationship building.
In religious circles, backsliders are sometimes defined as saved persons who have fallen into sin. For the purposes here, this category consists of those who have arts experiences but for some reason are no longer active. A large subset of this group may be those who have been brought into the arts— usually performing arts—through some form of “pops” presentation but have not maintained a relationship with the organization that did so.
Backsliders have sufficient interest, education, or experience to have made arts participation part of their life in the past but no longer make it enough of a priority to attend arts events. Understanding their reasons for non-participation is critical to engaging with this group.
- Blissfully Unaware
The “blissfully unaware” have no negative experiences or attitudes toward the arts but have simply not ever had arts participation occur to them as an option to consider. They may have some general cultural baggage of the “the arts are not for me” kind, but this is not an article of faith for them. The arts are simply not on their radar screen.
Related to the blissfully unaware, apathetes/agnostics are aware of the arts as an option but simply have no opinion about or pull toward arts consumption or participation. Again, since they have little negative predisposition they are “winnable,” but intentionality of effort is required.
Noes, with the exception of Actual Noes, can be “won” if relationship-building efforts are well thought out, sincere, and persistent. The brief discussions that follow offer an introduction to each that can serve as a basis upon which to build engagement plans.
Arts organizations that focus on work of the European aristocratic tradition are often “blissfully unaware” that their offerings are not of interest to some communities because what they present is literally foreign. Majority cultures can have the luxury of being unaware of their hegemony. This does not mean that the arts presented by these groups cannot have meaning for those from other cultures; it does mean that the presenting organization must make extraordinary efforts to understand those cultures and to devise means of making the work meaningful and accessible to them if it hopes to engage with them. Organizations presenting art of other cultural traditions have identical issues reaching those not from their tradition, but it is far less likely that they will be oblivious to the gulf between themselves and people for whom their work is foreign.
Historically, segregation by law and by social convention excluded some populations from participation in the offerings of the arts establishment. While this is a legacy that continues to have an impact on the arts, these forms of structural exclusion are not the primary ones with which arts organizations must deal today.
The lack of arts education in the schools creates a very real barrier to participation. The arts industry can and does lobby for change and supports arts education efforts. However, since educational policy lies outside the purview of arts organizations, simply lamenting the situation is not productive. In order to reach those with little educational background, real effort must be expended to provide means by which those deprived of education in the arts can benefit from arts experiences.
The associations with wealth that are common in some arts organizations create another structural barrier to participation by those of relatively modest means or those for whom those associations are simply annoying. These barriers have an impact regardless of whether they are simply imagined or are real. As one very small example, impressions that arts attendance requires tuxedos and gowns keep people away even if no one actually wears such attire. Of course, if some do attend in formal wear that discourages some in spite of anything the organization says about all being welcome.
As presented by Morrison and Dalgleish, there are categories of people who are incapable of going to arts events. However, even some in their categories—infants, the infirm, and the incarcerated—can and do benefit from arts activities, especially participatory ones. This category, unlike almost all the others, however, bears little potential for earned revenue increases. Support for programming with this category is most frequently supplied by individual/corporate donations or government/foundation funding.
Each potential community with which an organization seeks a relationship will likely have members in each category, although they will not be evenly distributed among the three. Awareness of the “predispositional” categories in those communities can be helpful both in relationship building and in developing experiences that will be meaningful to them.