Constantly Increasing the Sum of Our Arts

Posted by Mr. Clayton W. Lord, Oct 07, 2010 0 comments

Recently, I did a big set of interviews for a series of articles that I was writing for Theatre Bay Area magazine on the intersection of mission, community and art.  In the course of these interviews, I often asked questions about the demographics of the particular theatre companies I was speaking to, and in most cases they didn’t have a clear idea of anything more than the most basic stats in terms of butts in seats, percent of house full etc.  What surprised me here is that this wasn’t just with the small companies, which here in the Bay Area make up about 75% of the 300-400 company members we have at any given time.  This was with big companies, very big companies, the biggest companies.  When I asked, the answer that came back was, “well, we use the Big List for those numbers.”

Setting aside for the moment the fact that it’s frustrating to me, as someone who spends a good chunk of my time trying to encourage people to spend more time getting to know their audiences in an effort to get those audiences to come back, that surveying of basic information isn’t more common, I was pleased to hear that our Big List was filling a need in the community in an unexpected way.  As one of the larger Big Lists in the country, incorporating 151 arts organizations of all disciplines and sizes, our Big List is primarily built as a mailing tool, but has recently been taking on much more importance as a research and advocacy tool.  And seeing that, even if companies weren’t taking the initiative to do it themselves, they were at least taking some time to use the general resource was heartening—and speaks of a new power that such collaborative lists can give member organizations.

At the National Arts Marketing Project Conference, in the session Big Lists, Low Costs: Using List Cooperatives as Powerful Research and Advocacy Engines, we’ll be talking about this exciting expansion of cooperative list building into the research space, and how useful it can be.  Here in the Bay Area, we’re mapping our 1.4 million patron records onto the Bay Area Cultural Asset Map and will be able to see visually how many people in what geographic areas we’re serving – great for advocacy – and perhaps more importantly, companies will be able to see visually where they pull from most strongly, and where they’ve got holes.

As an employee of an arts services organization, I often have the good fortune to think about and speak on Big Issues—I can survey big groups of people, and process the results, because I’m not beholden to a season and a bottom line on attendance in the same way as our members.  I’m excited that the Big List model is now going to be positioning our members who don’t have time to do all that analysis to be able to see more efficiently and effectively how they’re doing with their audiences—and I look forward to how this new technology can be adapted even more as we move into the next couple years.  In particular, I hope that easy access to data makes our companies more aware of the demographic quagmire many of them are in—the homogenous reality of most companies, cross-referenced easily with the ever-more-diverse (especially in the Bay Area) population at large will hopefully turn some lights on—and more importantly, the presentation of useful data in a useful way may spark not just fear, but new ideas about how to tackle that issue, and the others plaguing our industry.

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