No gain without pain in performing arts

What would you do if someone you thought was your audience said they know nothing about your art genre, your marketing doesn’t speak to them, your venue is unfriendly, or they don’t have any idea what you do?

According to audience development expert Dr Bob Harlow, that’s a common experience when targeting new audiences—by definition, they are not familiar with you and your marketing was not designed for them. The most successful arts organisations in the famous Wallace Foundation Project have listened to research from disinclined audiences and been willing to embrace change to make these people  inclined and to gain new audiences

It is not easy to sit behind a one-way mirror at a focus group facility and listen to people criticising your organisation or art form when they’ve never tried either one. (The Road To Results – Harlow 2014)

“No organisational change in the project was the result of the comments of just one person. The really successful organisations talked to focus group after focus group to get to the understand why particular audiences stayed away from their organisation and what might entice them,” according to Dr Harlow.

“When disinclined audiences say something time and time again in research it can be challenging to take notice what is causing them to not be unwilling to engage with an organisation or artform. After all, they are talking about our work—but it’s often just their perceptions of our work not based on actual experience. Successful organisations recognised though, that for those audiences, the perceptions were real.”

Time and again, research reveals that the biggest barriers for a disinclined audience are indifference and low familiarity, often coupled with a perception of the (arts) organisation as elitist. (The Road To Results – Harlow 2014)

“In one research project, a performing arts company was told over and over again that its marketing represented the art form was not inviting to them. In response, they shifted to different kinds of images and copy that communicated excitement and built interest. The huge changes have had a significant, positive impact on their sales.”

“In another research project, a venue was told by key target market youth in a number of groups that they did not feel welcome at the venue and they did not feel it was for them. The company could have decided to move to other markets. Instead they implemented a significant strategy to specifically target youth and gave them their own place of ownership in the venue. The result was a huge increase in the attendance of this target market.”

Neither of these strategic changes were easy or cheap. Both organisations had to commit to significant and lasting sometimes painful change at the top level to be able to develop relationships with new audiences.

There is a saying that if you do what you have always done, you will get what you always get. This is absolutely true for audience development.

“The companies that have benefited most from the Wallace Foundation audience development research are those that are willing to change even if that change is difficult,” Dr Harlow said.

According to CircuitWest Executive Director Ryan Taaffe,  it is really hard for some organisations to make fundamental changes but there is a need to weigh that up against the changing marketplace and competing priorities.

“The costs of change and even research about change can be restrictive against the cost of running a company,” Ryan said.

“But for many, as many of our mainstream audiences and donors we are not seeing the next generation replace them.   The silent generation are slowly disappearing from our venues, baby boomers are also fewer in number, but we are not seeing generation X replace older generations. With the first millennials turning 40 next year, there has to be some change in strategy to bring new audiences to the great table of performing arts.”

“Dr Harlow’s approach to listening to those disinclined audiences and providing invaluable intelligence so arts organisations can evolve is really ground breaking.”

“We know change can hurt, but not as much as seeing audiences and donors in a slow downward spiral, as some are experiencing now.”

You can hear Dr Bob Harlow speak at CircuitWest’s WA Showcase 2019 21-24 May. To read more go to



Contact: Sam Lynch – – 0419971713