TRG blog: Do new works create loyal arts patrons?
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Do new works create loyal arts patrons?

Vincent VanVleet | November 3, 2015 8:47 AM

Photo by James Jordan (CC BY-ND 2.0)

A year and a half ago I was invited to join TRG’s bi-annual Executive Summit in Colorado Springs. Taking the time away is always difficult but I decided to take two days to make the journey. I was grateful to reconnect with and be re-introduced to many things I already knew and some I didn’t. The session was a good reminder of what I should be focusing on. The distractions of running an organization tend to take you down distant trails into the wilderness.

There was one thing that really grabbed my attention. TRG’s President & CEO Jill Robinson reported on work that they had done with the Guthrie Theater, examining loyalty as it related to genres of programming. The genre breakdowns were pretty typical, i.e. blockbuster musicals, dramas, new works, Shakespeare, etc. There were also no surprises that blockbuster programs generated the most revenue, had the highest price point, and, of course, the highest attrition rate. Like pouring water into a funnel, most of the blockbuster patrons had flushed through and right back out again.

As Jill proceeded though, there was a shocking finding, at least to me.

The data showed that patrons who attended a new work offering, while a significantly smaller segment than blockbuster programming, had nearly twice the ticket and donation household spend with the Guthrie over the last five years. Jaw-dropping. 

How DO loyal patrons engage with programming?

This finding prompted a number of questions I had never asked of my own organization:

  • I wondered how my most loyal patrons and donors cluster around programming. Are my most loyal patrons and donors also grouped around an affinity for new work?
  • I wondered about correlation vs. causation. Is taking a chance on new artists and new voices the glue that is keeping my loyalists coming back over and over? Or are they coming to absolutely everything, and so they show up disproportionately in lower-demand works? Or is some combination of both true?
  • I wondered about risk and our perception of it. My artistic director believes in certain works so passionately. We’ve told him (and ourselves) that we can’t produce them as often as he would like because of low revenue potential. Do the works that may not sell as well have much more importance than we originally realized?

Lastly, I contemplated what we could do with this knowledge. Could we use it to create more loyalists? What if we looked at the profile and demographics of the patrons and donors already attending and donating to new works? We could use these patrons as a model, finding patrons with similar demographics in our database who have not yet been exposed to new work.

The idea of programming not just as a loyalty keeper, but as a loyalty maker is exciting (and yes, rather nerdy.) What if the findings from the Guthrie were true in our organization? With the right cultivation through our development department, we might be able to more frequently do what our mission and vision wants us to do but financial constraints have previously limited the number of times in which we could do it.

Are marketing and artistic goals truly at odds?

Many organizations have inclusive artistic directors when it comes to program selection. Often marketing/sales directors (see my last blog post about splitting these two positions apart) are invited into the show selection process and enjoy the ability to engage around whether they can or cannot sell certain amounts of tickets for a particular title. That is not often the only deciding factor in whether or not our artistic director selects an offering; he is known to pick productions that will push our audiences and has an exceptional gut for these things, like many artistic directors. However, the feedback from the marketing director has significant weight.

This revelation, however, has flipped my thinking upside down. Marketing directors often feel strongly that new works are a tough sell since they have no immediate brand recognition. If new work development is a loyalty keeper and a possible loyalty maker, marketing directors will have to think more about the upside of new works as well.

You also have to question anew who should be at the table for programming decisions. Given these findings, the development director could have an incredible opportunity if given a seat at the table with the artistic director in the show selection process.

Imagine this. Maybe a project or production could be produced not based on the ticket income it will generate, but on the total patron-generated income it could generate, inclusive of contributions. We’d be deepening the relationship with those who are most loyal to us and those who we want to become more loyal to us. This the very definition of innovation and business model change.

How Phoenix Theatre is taking action

We decided to find out where our loyalists congregated. So, with a small grant to conduct a data study, we recently learned the same held true for us as it did with the Guthrie. Our loyalists were very active and cared deeply about new work. In fact, our largest gift in our 96-year history came from one of those advocates. But as we dug deeper, it wasn’t just about new work. It was a group of donors passionate about participating in the process as much as it was about giving opportunities to artists to share new voices and new stories with the larger community.

This small data study armed us with the information we needed to know and helped us formulate a funding plan to test this theory. Phoenix Theatre is now the proud recipient of a Flinn Foundation grant and over the next two years, we will be commissioning new plays and musicals as well as expanding our readings of new work. Most importantly, we’ll be inviting members of our patron base into the play creation process to build loyalty towards one of the central pinnacles of our mission. The New Work Creative Cultivation Initiative is unique in that it is specifically about the process. We’re taking the time and care needed to create new work. At the same time, we’re creating opportunities to share that artistic process with the donors and potential donors to educate them, to share with them, and engage them with something they that they want most, to be part of something bigger than themselves.

Artistically we are fueling our vision of using our assets to create a space for new voices and new artists to be heard. Culturally we are fueling the deepening of loyalty amongst a wider group of patrons who in turn engage and contribute, powering and empowering us to continue the process well beyond the two year study period the Flinn Foundation is funding. Kudos to the Flinn Foundation for their bold support of capitalizing projects that are intrinsic to our institution’s programmatic core.

Not until the Guthrie study did it dawn on us that this small but mighty group of folks within our base of support existed and were ready to be cultivated and engaged. They want to be part of making something happen on stage from the very beginning, to make a difference and play a part, similar to what drives folks to invest in Broadway productions even when the odds are against a financial return on their investment. Learning this and finding the foundational support to explore a new level of engagement will provide a window into the process and allow these loyalists and future loyalists to come together and help create great art.

Where do loyal patrons cluster in your organization? How can you garner support for what they are most passionate about?  Go to TRG’s next Executive Summit this January and you may be inspired to find out.


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After a poor year for earned revenue in 2012, Lyric Theatre of Oklahoma (LTO) had rebounded and was experiencing a growth spurt. In 2013, Director of Marketing Danyel Siler had turned her attention to single tickets.

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