It's Been Two Years Since Wallace Went All-In On Engagement. Where Do Things Stand?


In October of 2014 the Wallace Foundation pledged a whopping $40 million to help performing arts organizations around the country fill seats and expand audiences through its Building Audiences for Sustainability (BAS). Roughly six months later they upped the ante, earmarking an additional $12 million towards the initiative.

Which brings us to the present day. It's been almost two years since the New York City-based foundation boldly calibrated its grantmaking efforts. To paraphrase former Mayor Ed Koch, "How are they doin'?"

The short answer is..."Hold tight." Studies on the BAS initiative have yet to be published but are forthcoming. However, a deep dive into a previous like-minded initiative, known as Wallace Excellence Awards (WEA), can prove illuminating.

The WEAs, which wrapped up two years ago, supported audience-building projects in 54 visual and performing arts organizations. The results were rather promising. According to the foundation, over a three-year period, organizations seeking to increase their overall audience saw median gains of 27 percent, while those targeting a specific segment saw median gains of 60 percent. 

Wallace-commissioned researchers identified nine practices that ten of these organizations used to successfully engage audiences, examined in a 2014 report, The Road to Results: Effective Practices for Building Arts Audiences. The last of the WEA case studies, published in June, looks at how the Contemporary Jewish Museum in San Francisco saw a nine-fold increase in family visitors of all backgrounds after moving to a larger space. While we encourage you to read the entire piece, here's a CliffsNotes summary:

The Contemporary Jewish Museum launched new programs designed to attract and engage San Francisco families of all backgrounds and eliminate financial barriers to their participation. It created exhibits based on the works of well-known Jewish artists and authors that were designed to appeal to both adults and children.

It also established regular programs to guide families through such exhibits, including family-oriented tours, special gallery hours for preschoolers, opportunities to explore art with teaching artists and activity packs families can use to help children interact with art.

Meanwhile, back in May, Wallace published a video on its site entitled How Audience Research Can Help Build Arts Audiences in which market research expert Bob Harlow shows how arts organizations can use qualitative and quantitative research to attract and retain new audiences. Check it out here.

August of 2015 featured another video, Removing the Hurdles Between Audiences and the Arts, in which leaders of two Philadelphia arts organizations, the Clay Studio and Fleisher Art Memorial, describe how they engaged new, more diverse audiences. Much more useful research can be accessed at the foundation's Knowledge Center.

In related news, check out our piece on University of Texas at Austin Professor Francie Ostrower, the woman who was tasked with tracking the effectiveness of Wallace's aforementioned Building Audiences for Sustainability initiative.

As these findings are forthcoming, we imagine Ostrower is rather busy at the moment. Stay tuned!