Wallace Is Funding a Big Push on Audience Engagement. Where's the Money Going?

Back in October of 2014, after the Wallace Foundation announced an ambitious plan to drive audience engagement, I asked, "Can $40 Million Find the Secret Sauce for Boosting Audience Engagement in the Arts?"

Six months later, I have an answer, which is actually a modification of the previous headline: "Can $52 Million Find the Secret Sauce for Boosting Audience Engagement in the Arts?"

In other words, there are some recent developments that should be brought to light.

First off, the foundation is so keen on audience engagement that it's upped the initial plan by $12 million. The initiative is called "Building Audiences for Sustainability," and it is aimed at "developing practical insights into how arts organizations can successfully expand their audiences."

The core mission of the initiative hasn't changed in the last six months. The foundation, acutely aware that many arts nonprofits struggle with dwindling audiences, wants to develop a set of best practices to share with whoever wants them. It's a noble goal, but one that's fraught with operational challenges. After all, who's to say that a killer audience-building program rolled out in Miami will translate to a nonprofit in Denver? Or that a program that serves traditionally under-served communities in Oakland will work when superimposed upon an organization in Vermont?

Of course, the Wallace Foundation understands these distinctions, and we've been interested in seeing how this initiative unfolds.

All of which brings us to news that the foundation has awarded a round of grants to 26 nonprofit arts organizations across the country. (Back in October of 2014, it initially pledged funding for a mere 24 nonprofits.) 

By examining this round of recipients, we can get an idea of what, in real-world, practical terms, the foundation means by sustainable "audience building." We examined some of the strategies of the winning recipients, and were struck by at least two approaches that, believe it or not, can be implemented by (mostly urban) arts organizations elsewhere.

Downtowns are booming. Don't miss out. Equipped with $355,000 in Wallace funds, SF Performances will target the city's growing "downtown-centric professionals who are open to new cultural experiences." The project includes intimate salon programs at clubs and small theaters, featuring young artists.

Consider the Millennials. A $500,000 grant to Cal Performances seeks to broaden participation of 18-to-30-year-olds, the millennials, "considering that soon this generation will make up almost 40 percent of the U.S. population and potentially a powerful source for ticket purchases (estimated by Cal Performances as currently less than 10 percent of its audience) and making contributions."

Ultimately, the challenge facing nonprofits isn't acknowledging fact-growing demographics as much as creating programs that speak to them, engage them, and most importantly, keep them coming back. This is why I'm particularly interested in SF Performances' salon programs. Sounds very promising.

Time will tell if these programs succeed, and we'll be sure to keep an eye on them. In the meantime, click here for more information on the foundation's initiative.

Keep in mind that Wallace is hardly the only foundation working the issue of audience engagement. This is an area much on the minds of other big national arts funders (Doris Duke, most notably), as well as regional and local funders. We've been tracking this topic closely, since there are some significant grant opportunities in this areaand since, well, the future of the arts may depend on how well efforts like this go.

In fact, while the question of what works with audience engagement and where funders should put their money remains crucial, at some level we feel that anything that tries to gets people to stop looking at screens and engage more with each other and the arts deserves applause.