Applause, Please: Doris Duke Builds an Audience for Dance

A few years ago, The Doris Duke Charitable Foundation (See Doris Duke Charitable Foundation: Grants for Dance) awarded Dance/USA a $1.5 million grant to research how dance companies and organizations can build, retain, and engage their audiences. Along with some help from the James Irvine Foundation, Dance/USA began its study into what moves people to attend performances and what dance organizations can do to increase attendance and not only keep people in their seats, but coming back for more.  

Now that Dance/USA has completed its audience recon mission, it's into round two, using what it's learned and putting that knowledge to good use.  

After conducting an a number of extensive national surveys, distributed to audience members attending various dance performances, it found that audiences wanted to be more actively engaged in the performance. Some wanted to be more physically engaged while many others wanted to be more intellectually engaged in the performances.

As far as the physical engagement is concerned, the survey revealed that the audience members wouldn't be opposed to actually standing up and dancing or moving about as part of the show. Some dance purists believe that engaging audiences in this manner not only blurs the line between performer and observer, but takes away some of the mystique of the performance.

With the intellectual engagement, what audiences want is to stop relying on critics and experts to tell them the meaning of the performance. Instead, audience members would rather talk to each other about their thoughts on the performance. This makes sense. An expert or a critic simply telling an audience how they should think or feel about a performance seems too close-minded and a wee bit Orwellian. All forms of art are open to individual interpretation and discussing those interpretations with other audience members who witnessed and felt the same performance is participatory and visceral.

Now that the DDCF and Dance/USA know what audiences are yearning for, how are they going to use this information to stem their seemingly unceasing audience attrition rate?

First, Dance/USA is using its grant funding to host Learning Exchanges. At these events, dance organizations share their ideas with each other and learn a few new ones regarding how they can adapt methods to retain and increase their audience. Next, Dance/USA members will receive financial support for new and ongoing projects and operating costs. Finally, Dance/USA is funding a learning community bringing dance organizations together in one place to discuss audience engagement. This is much like their Learning Exchanges, but on a bigger scale.

It seems that the DDCF and Dance/USA have a solid plan (Check out IP's profiles on DDCF program director Ben Cameron and senior program officer Cheryl Ikemiya). Whether the implementation of their methods and ideas can combat increasing ticket prices that fewer and fewer people can afford remains incredibly unclear.