Can $40 Million Find the Secret Sauce for Boosting Audience Engagement in the Arts?

Imagine if some Google engineer designed an algorithm that would increase online ad clicks by 450 percent. Then imagine if Google voluntarily gave the algorithm to Facebook, Yahoo, Twitter, and Microsoft, saying, "Hey guys, check this out. You can thank us later."

Needless to say, Google's shareholders wouldn't be too happy.

Voluntarily sharing the "secret sauce" is frowned upon in the private sector, but thankfully not so much in the arts philanthropy world. Take recent news from the Wallace Foundation. The foundation realizes that arts nonprofits face a perennial struggle of boosting attendees while simultaneously expanding their audience bases. It realizes that this task is only getting more difficult as social media, mobile computing, Netflix, and a host of other entertainment options vie for audience attention.  

All of which helps explain why the foundation is laying out $40 million over six years to find the best strategies for audience engagement. And when it finds them, it's going to spread them around. Wallace's money will help 24 selected nonprofit organizations design projects to build audiences through a variety of ways, including new programs as well as nontraditional venues. 

Wallace is taking a methodical approach here. Its plan is to fund an independent $3.5 million study to assess the effectiveness of its Building Audiences program, which it will share with other arts organizations.

William I. Miller, president of the foundation, isn't promising miracles, but he does have high hopes. "This new effort will not only support the plans of up to 24 great arts organizations to expand and diversify their audiences, it will also provide new insights and knowledge that we hope will be useful to the entire field."

Of course, foundations sharing successful strategies for building audience engagement isn't new, and we've written often on this subject. For example, the Doris Duke Foundation's Audience (R)Evolution grant program, which is designed and administered by the Theatre Communications Group (TCG), has a "Dissemination" phase, whereby after three years of research, experimentation, and performance, they disseminate their findings to theaters around the country, allotting them free access to the data and program specifics.

With Wallace's big give, who will be the 24 nonprofit organizations getting the money? We don't know, but we will know in February 2015 when the Wallace Foundation names them. Second, what will their best practices for audience engagement actually look like? Will their approaches resemble that of purveyors of Knight Foundation-funded "site-specific dance?" Or will they embrace a more participatory model of audience engagement, which was one of the takeaways from the Irving Foundation's analysis of its Exploring Engagement Fund?

There are a lot of ideas floating around in this area. It will be interesting to see which prevail and why. But there is something we do know. Whatever insights do emerge from this $40 million give, they won't end up locked in a vault. The Wallace Foundation will enthusiastically share them with the world.