How to increase demand for art


I don't know what this chart says, I was just feeling left out of the hard-core elements of the conversation

The theatre arts world opened a giant can of worms last week at the #newplay convening hosted by Arena Stage.  Rocco Landesman, and Diane Ragsdale led a conversation directly addressing one of the nonprofit arts sector’s unmentionables:  the mismatch that currently exists between supply and demand for not-for-profit arts organizations in our country.  Rocco went on to assert this mismatch cannot be balanced by increasing demand–supply must also be addressed.

Thanks to the power of Twitter, the conversation moved outside the walls of Arena Stage and is being held in every corner of the theatre (and increasingly arts) world  with an Internet connection.

There are a lot of very smart people participating in this conversation from an arts policy perspective.  Diane and Rocco both have follow-up blog posts, and the rest of the conversation is tagged #supplydemand on Twitter.

I’m approaching the subject from a different place.  I’m not the least bit qualified to advise the NEA or major foundations on how their grant strategy can best serve the field.  What I can do is help you build the kinds of relationships you need to move your organization out of the overstocked pond and into a private aquarium.

Focus on what you do best

Your organization cannot fulfill the artistic needs of every member of your community.  By trying to do so, you waste your own resources and endanger the  entire ecosystem.  Instead, narrow your focus until you find the work that best resonates with you artistically and that you are uniquely qualified to do.  Then, stop doing everything else.  In other words, stop marketing to the general public.

Promote an Arts Culture

I see a major flaw in applying a traditional supply/demand model to an arts community.  Conventional wisdom says as the number of artistic opportunities increase, the demand for each individual event decreases.  I’m not sure it’s that simple.  I don’t have graphs to back me up, but experience tells me consuming art is more like eating potato chips than buying durable goods.  Having one doesn’t satisfy your craving, it makes you want more– but before you take the first bite, and after the salty goodness leaves your tongue, it’s relatively easy to ignore the bag in the pantry.

My experience of the arts is the same.  When I am in a theatre groove,  I go out of my way to see plays as often as I can–I am also more likely to check out a street fair, or visit a museum.  Conversely, when I get out of the habit, it’s very difficult for me to work up the energy to get started again.  My memory of how much I love live theatre is clouded by how cold it is outside, the expense of the ticket, and how parking is kind of a pain.

Therefore, unless your company opens its door to the public with a completely new offering every weekend, you need to help patrons maintain their habit between shows.  That’s where “competition” helps you.  Make it easy for your people to discover the work of other companies in your area.  Promote their shows in your program and in the lobby, include reviews for work that will appeal to your people in your newsletter and on your Facebook page.  If you can form actual partnerships that’s wonderful–but they aren’t required.  Even if the companies you promote never return the favor, you and your audience will benefit from your efforts.

Your Turn

What’s your perspective on the role supply and demand play in your organization and the industry as a whole?  Share your thoughts in the comments, then jump into the bigger conversation by searching twitter for #supplydemand. Can’t wait to see you there!

11 thoughts on “How to increase demand for art

  1. experience tells me consuming art is more like eating potato chips than buying durable goods. Having one doesn’t satisfy your craving, it makes you want more– but before you take the first bite, and after the salty goodness leaves your tongue, it’s relatively easy to ignore the bag in the pantry.

    Thank you for this! :>

    Not a non-profit, but I do find it very useful to think about when marketing my own art.

    • Thanks Shoshana, It has been an interesting conversation.

      The piece that seems to be missing (and that I tried to capture here) is as individuals there is so very little we can do to change the arts landscape as a whole–and telling other organizations what they should do it a total waste of time.

      If however, we were each to make sure we were focused on doing the work we do best, and making sure our audience members knew about the great work happening around us–then we might look up one day and see the landscape had changed.

  2. I love the caption on your graph. 🙂

    There is a major difference in assumptions between classical supply/demand versus your potato chip model. The classical supply/demand construct assumes that people know how much they like and how much they want to consume of something (performing arts, in this instance). The potato chip model assumes that they don’t know any of this, until they try it. It seems clear to me that there are many of both kinds of people in the world.

    If it’s about building audiences, then strategically you should seek out those who don’t know what a potato chip tastes like, and give them a potato chip. 🙂 Of course, that may require limiting what kinds of potato chips you make. The sophisticated arts consumers might not want potato chips anymore. (When I say sophisticated, I’m trying to avoid a value judgment, though I know this is somewhat impossible. I can be sophisticated in my theater consumption but unsophisticated in my music consumption, and there is nothing wrong with that.)

    And if our artists are, themselves, “sophisticated” arts consumers, they will be tempted to make art that they, themselves, like. This means their art will more likely appeal to those who are already knowledgeable about what kind of art they can enjoy. Therefore, you’re back in the realm of supply vs. demand (except the education and access programs, which are desperately scrambling to hand out potato chips with hopes that the kids will graduate to more sophisticated fare).

    There are other ways to reach new audiences without condescending. I think a key way is to get over the idea that artists should decide which stories to tell and instead involve intended audiences in guiding/generating the art in the first place.

    • Hi Aaron–it’s so nice to be able to talk about this in more than 140 characters! I also want to acknowledge, I’m approaching this discussion from a really different place that most people. At first I assumed that was a good thing–My goal was to offer organization leaders concrete things they could do to mitigate the supply/demand problems for their work and the work of others in their communities. Upon further reflection I’m starting to fear the role I’ve cast myself in is more like that of dudes who butt into the middle of feminism discussions and try to move the conversation towards talking about how patriarchy hurts men too–because that’s where they feel more comfortable. Not a pleasant realization :/

      That having been said, your comment has helped to clarify my thinking.

      I’ll be the first to admit my grasp of the classic supply/demand model is very weak, so I can’t speak to how well arts consumption fits into it. As for the potato chip model my point was two fold–you got the first part–give new people chips. The second part is people who like art and consume art are not necessarily consuming as much as they care to. My argument there is humans are driven by habit so when “arts people” are attending events regularly, it’s part of their regular process to seek out the next thing to do, and we should make that process as easy as possible. BUT when arts people fall out of the habit (because they move to a new city, or they have a baby, or what have you) they can “forget” that arts attendance contributes to their happiness. My main point about creating an arts culture is that arts organizations in a community should work together to make it easy for people attending their first arts event to make plans to attend their second event. I don’t think the 6 plays a year most regional theatres produce is enough to keep up the habit–so recommending other opportunities between shows is good for everyone.

      As for limiting the kinds of chips you make–I agree with you there. To continue with the far-out metaphors I imagine a thriving arts community could resemble a great farmers market. Each individual vendor focuses on offering the 1-2 things that she does really, really well. By setting up shop in a cooperative manner with other “farmers” offering complementary, but diverse produce, each farmer may be focused, but consumers still have access to all the veggies under the sun. Using this model their is room for the equivalent of regular potato chips, and gourmet potato chips, and pita chips and soy chips–they just wouldn’t all be sold by the same “farmer.”

      The alternative is one big corporate super-market offering pretty-good versions of the same thing. It might get the job done–it might even be more efficient, but it’s not as exciting.

      To continue with the farmers market idea, I also like the idea of people going to the market to buy tomatoes and being invited to try guava by the farmer in the next stand. . .

  3. As someone who knows I might be that dude, and therefore tries not to be that dude, I do not see you doing the same thing at all. If that helps. And lots of people feel that Rocco was butting in with supply/demand where it doesn’t belong. I personally love interdisciplinary applications, and think they are useful. For example, I think we ought be processing this discussion through a better understanding of institutional racism.

    I like the farmers’ market analogy, and I definitely hear you about the value of niche production and niche appeal. And I agree completely. I think that is a good idea for both artistic and market-driven success. But I think niche players aren’t the ones that Rocco is saying are causing oversupply (he seemed genuinely interested in the development of rural, community-driven theater, for example). And it’s not all about sophisticated vs. unsophisticated fare, either, the way I reduced it in my previous comment. Instead, to think about it in the context of sexism (please call me out if I screw this up), it’s like all the theater companies are setup and run by men, and men continue to set up and run more and more theaters. If a theater company by and for women wants to open, and appeal to under-served women audiences, it is not part of the oversupply problem, but that oversupply problem still exists with too many companies run by men…

    In the same way, if a theater is established and run by Latino artists for Latino audiences in Chicago, there’s not much chance that it contributes to oversupply. But all the white-run theaters (which is almost all of them) still do.

    • it’s like all the theater companies are setup and run by men, and men continue to set up and run more and more theaters. If a theater company by and for women wants to open, and appeal to under-served women audiences, it is not part of the oversupply problem, but that oversupply problem still exists with too many companies run by men…

      This is brilliant and helps me a lot. Unfortunately, (sticking with the feminism metaphor) after participating in a conversation like this I think the women’s theatre is more likely to consider the possibly that they are part of the problem and possibly even close while the mainstream/privileged/”male” theatre will remain obvious to the whole thing.

      Since we each really only have control over our own choices–is there anything to be done about that?

      • Yeah, you’re probably right about that. Same on the racism issue. And I actually believe this is more than just a metaphor, unfortunately. Which is perhaps why we have to start having this conversation, which will almost certainly be derailed again and again…

        However, the fact that we all want to have some free expression, and we can all start theater companies, means that even if the sexism and racism were just metaphors, we can’t and shouldn’t stop somebody from starting a theater company. At best, we can maybe get a group of white male college buddies to think twice, first, before setting up shop.

      • Which actually comes back around to my original point–we have no control over the “supply” others add to the mix. We can only make sure our own offerings are unique, and amazing–and that we do the work required to reach the people who will be most touch by them.

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