Performing Arts “Crossover” Strategies Fail to Diversify Core Audiences, According to New Report

By Sunil Iyengar
graphic that says Measure for Measure. On the left side of the graphic, there are hatchmarks that suggest bar graphs

"Organizations should frankly assess whether they seek to expand audiences or whether they seek to expand audiences strictly for their artistic priorities, because these can be in tension. Organizations can choose to do either or both but should not conflate the two." Francie Ostrower, PhD, In Search of a Magic Bullet: Results from the Building Audiences for Sustainability Initiative

Barely a page into Ostrower’s magisterial report for the Wallace Foundation, we learn that the first part of the title is meant ironically. Magic bullets? You’ve come to the wrong place. Ostrower, a professor at both the LBJ School of Public Affairs and the College of Fine Arts at the University of Texas at Austin, concedes: “As much as we wish it were otherwise, the reader should be forewarned that neither the initiative nor this study yielded easy solutions to the problems” that performing arts organizations face in retaining audiences, engaging new ones, and staying fiscally healthy at the same time.

Ostrower’s report sums up lessons from research and evaluation connected with a five-year investment of $41 million that Wallace made to 25 large nonprofit performing arts organizations in the wake of reports from the National Endowment for the Arts, and elsewhere, that attendance rates were flat or in decline. In Search of a Magic Bullet is the final of a series that Ostrower produced for Wallace as part of her independent study of the organizations’ audience-building efforts. 

Those projects were undertaken within a “continuous learning framework,” with the organizations pursuing different strategies and different target audiences. From 2015, the initial year of the program, through 2022, Ostrower tracked them all. She and her team conducted hundreds of surveys with the organizations, in addition to surveys of audiences and analyses of ticket data.  

In one survey, 65 percent of the organizations rated the strategy of “encouraging crossover between programs” a major part of their audience-building efforts. As Ostrower explains, crossovers involve “offering special programming to attract the target audience, in the hopes that the target audience would then cross over and attend [the organization’s] main programs.”

Long before the pandemic, nonprofit performing arts organizations sought to reach younger and more diverse audiences, even while attendance levels were shrinking for demographic groups that had been the primary sources of patronage for these institutions. Thus, it became common to consider programming that likely would resonate with a particular audience group—one that might not normally attend the organization’s regular offerings. By hooking the target groups with special programming, some performing arts managers believed they would see them return for more traditional fare. 

Ostrower debunks this assumption. In her study, “organizations repeatedly concluded that crossover strategies did not produce the hoped-for crossover outcomes,” she writes. As an example, she recounts how one organization in her sample, a symphony orchestra, had “developed a new genre-crossing series where orchestra musicians played with indie artists, in the hopes that millennials would attend and then go on to attend main season programs.”

“As one interviewee said, ‘We really thought this was going to be a gateway drug for millennials to come to…some more core product…. That really didn’t happen,’” she reports.

In another case, Ostrower instances an opera company that “coupled food with musical performances around its geographical area” in an attempt to reach younger and more diverse audiences. In an interview, one of the opera company staff said: “I think in our naiveté, we thought: well, we’ll convert 70 percent of these new audiences into mainstage ticket buyers…. Like we see them in a restaurant, and then they’ll buy a ticket to a three-hour opera, and come sit in the dark with us.” 

“In the dark” is right. As with the symphony, the opera company found that its crossover strategy did not meet expectations. Even so, the strategy was credited with raising public awareness about the company and with engaging audiences outside of its performance season. Similarly, the orchestra that was disappointed at not attracting return audiences was loath to call its crossover strategy a bust. One interviewee maintained that “’having a series, a space where millennials feel comfortable coming to the [hall] is enough,’” while another pointed up the intrinsic value of having a more diversified program.

Beyond changes in repertoire to lure a target audience group, some organizations—like the aforementioned opera company—explored strategies such as performing in unconventional spaces, again in the hopes of achieving crossover. One theater company, which commissions works by multi-ethnic artists, and has seen a growing percentage of people of color among its main season ticket-buyers,  also ran a special series that entailed site-specific performances in community settings. “Originally, the organization hoped the series would serve as a pipeline to their main season productions, but that did not occur,” Ostrower notes. 

In the words of one interviewee, the company initially thought “if we get people interested and we go into a community, and people come there, downtown or whatever, and they do an interesting sort of site-specific 30-minute thing that they can do with their friends that’s $20 and that involves a glass of wine, that will be their sort of entry drug into coming into the theater…. And it turns out that’s not the case.”

Rather, “there’s a whole bunch of people who are really happy just doing the [special series],” the interviewee continued. Although these enthusiasts have not become subscribers to the theater’s main season, they constitute a different demographic that the theater wants to include in its total audience. At the same time, the interviewee characterized the work as “hugely, hugely mission-specific [and] cultivating a different set of artists.” (The series also relies more heavily on subsidies than do other projects at the theater.)

Despite these alternative wins for performing arts organizations that attempted crossovers, Ostrower warns: “Some organizations concluded the programming was not attracting even the target audience or experienced no real connection between the special programming and the organization’s identity or goals.” Moreover, “even when organizations did embrace the value of new programming, real challenges remain; a significant one being financial sustainability,” she concludes.

In two other cases, organizations tried to convert people who attended a performance once or maybe twice a season (so-called “infrequent” attendees) into more frequent audience members. This type of crossover attempt failed as well, but, in the case of one of the organizations—a theater company—yielded a fresh insight: the possibility of what one interviewee called a “reverse crossover.” In other words, the theater had managed to persuade its season subscribers to book tickets for special event programming. 

As a result, “instead of trying to attract people from ‘gateway’ productions to different types of productions, the organization is now exploring ways to help audience members connect to other performances that reflect the audience members’ interests,” the report states.

For performing arts managers, Ostrower’s report is chock-full of insights that range far beyond the audience-building strategy of the crossover. Here’s another example: audience gains over the study period were accompanied by declines in frequent attendance. As she puts it, “more people were actually attending, but they were attending less often.” The report erodes a stereotype among many performing arts managers, what one interviewee calls the “old myth of the long slow escalator.” It was the notion that, “once attracted, new audience members would progress to become more frequent attendees (hopefully subscribers) and then donors,” Ostrower says.

This idea, like so many other pre-pandemic constructs, may have exploded already—but if it hasn’t, then her report will gently put it to rest.

Sunil Iyengar directs the Office of Research & Analysis at the National Endowment for the Arts.