Liminal space. Threshold. The boundary space between what has been and what is to come. That’s where we live these days, and it appears that we’ll be living here for quite a while yet. We’re transitioning between our old reality and a new one, and I think we’re mistaken if we imagine we’ll be going back the way we came. We’ll be crossing the threshold into what, for now, is unknown. But if, as arts administrators, we cover our eyes and believe that we just need to hold fast to all that we’ve known about our organizations, our communities, and our audiences until the fog lifts, we risk missing opportunities to engage audiences old and new even as our communities are changed in this period of pandemic and civic unrest. We need to equip ourselves. Our audiences are changing. The zeitgeist is rapidly and meaningfully shifting. And as arts organizations, to borrow a phrase, the fastest way for us to move backward is to stand still.

Before I go on, I want to acknowledge that there is a lot to address about engaging audiences during COVID. Please join me on July 16, 2020 at 3:00 p.m. ET for a webinar, “Engaging Your Audiences During and After COVID-19,” via ArtsU. We’ll be going over what has and hasn’t changed about how we engage audiences, what emerging data tells us, and check out some frameworks to help us figure out how to meaningfully connect with our audiences during COVID and beyond. [Editor’s note: if you’re reading this after July 16, you can still register and watch a recording of the webinar on your own schedule.]

In this post, though, I want to focus on one particular issue: the audience we have now is not the same as the audience we had. The names haven’t changed, but their needs and expectations are shifting. So, what do we do?

The common-sense approach to audience development, especially when resources are scant, is to double down on engaging existing patrons. After all, we know it is less expensive to retain an existing audience member than it is to attract a new one, and people who visited our organizations multiple times last year are the most likely to stick with us, potentially becoming members, subscribers, donors, etc. Let me be clear: that instinct is not wrong, but we won’t be able to do it in the same ways we have before. These people have connected with us in the past based on interests and values they share with our organizations. That means, then, that despite all the changes around us, the core personality of our organizations must remain consistent. Simultaneously, however, we need to acknowledge that our existing audience is changing as a result of all they are experiencing individually and collectively. We must become agile in how we connect with our audiences, recognizing that—though their overall interests and values may not have altered—their needs and expectations likely have.

What are those needs and expectations? Let’s break this down. One line of thinking is that our patrons essentially hire our organizations to do jobs or fill needs in their lives. Some of those “jobs” have stayed the same, placing the burden on our organizations to determine how to meet those needs in the current reality. But for many of our audiences, the ways in which they previously met other needs in their lives have vanished, leaving them wanting for community, social connections, or perhaps even more basic needs. Our job then as nonprofit cultural institutions is to identify those emerging needs and evaluate whether and how we can address them in a mission-based and capacity-viable way.

Equally, if not more important, are the ways that our patrons’ and communities’ expectations are shifting. On one level, they are expecting us, for example, to know when it’s safe to open again. But what I’m really getting at are substantive expectations about the ways that we will engage equitably with our communities, and discerningly with donors, sponsors, and other institutions. Coupled with renewed attention to police violence, COVID and its disproportionate impact on communities of color has served to highlight white privilege and systemic racism that are also reflected in many of our board rooms, on our stages, and in our galleries. This is not something to “flag” or “park” to fix when things are “back to normal,” because our audiences’ expectations will be changing all the while. Some of the changes our organizations make during this time will be due to the lasting effects of COVID, but some of them must be because we are proactively pursuing lasting structural change within our organizations.

The changes that the COVID era is creating may feel largely like a burden, but they also present an opportunity to engage new audiences we’ve been longing for. (I know, you may be thinking I’ve gone a bridge too far. BUILD audiences during a pandemic??) But note that I’m not asking you to stack on; I’m suggesting a recalibration and a deep dig into those values you wrote in the strategic plan collecting dust on a shelf somewhere to figure out what they mean for you and your community now. While holding true to the core of who your organization is, seeking to serve the changing needs and expectations of those you already know may open the door to meeting the needs and expectations of those with whom you have not yet built relationships.

To quote Prior in Tony Kushner’s Angels in America, Part I: “The world only spins forward … The great work begins.” The world is spinning forward, however haphazardly, and to develop our audiences, so must we. And so, I submit, that our great work—the realization of our mandate to serve our communities and the manifestation of our missions—continues as our communities need our organizations, our art, and our deeply-felt impact perhaps more than ever.


Want to learn more about serving the changing needs of your audience during and after the COVID pandemic? Register for “Engaging Your Audiences During and After COVID-19” to join the discussion live on July 16 or for access to an on-demand recording of the webinar.

Photo by Ross Findon on Unsplash.