David Brownlee, Director of International Strategy
Over the last fifteen years I’ve been lucky to get a variety of international perspectives on how the arts are funded and delivered in different nations. A trip to China a decade ago blew my mind. Everything thing was so different and changing fast. As managers struggled with the notion of getting audiences to pay for tickets (previously tickets were distributed free and you were expected to attend), armies of builders were constructing massive, iconic new performing arts venues. No-one seemed quite sure what would be filling their stages or where their new audiences were likely to come from.
Over the last three years it’s been fascinating to spend time with North American theatre managers thanks to my work with TRG Arts. The North American model looks similar in some ways to the UK, but the UK’s history of fairly generous national and local government funding means there has not been the same need to generate substantial philanthropic revenues from customers. Until now.
Frequent trips to work with arts organisations on continental Europe seemed to support the theory that Europe and the US were at opposite ends of a spectrum, with the UK sat somewhere near the middle. In some ways this is true: many EU nations still believe generous state arts funding is as important an investment as health or education, where as in the US many arts organisations are as sophisticated as international charities in raising significant, ongoing funds from individuals.
However, a recent trip to Austria made me think again. Subscription is really important for many arts organisations and some organisations are using sophisticated tools to better understand the make-up and behaviour of their audience. Collaboration between arts organisations in some places is well-advanced and shared sales platforms are helping overall audience numbers grow. Impressive stuff.
I was asked to speak in Vienna about the importance of focusing on building loyalty with arts organisations. I think it’s fair to say this hadn’t been a subject much considered previously by most of those in the room. If you can reach your (fairly modest) target for box office income through subscription sales topped up by a few casual bookers, what’s the point?
There are two reasons why everyone from Amsterdam to Zhengzhou should be focusing on building loyalty in their audiences: risk and opportunity.
Public subsidy of the arts is a wonderful thing but, as we have seen in the UK over the last decade, it can’t be relied on. Governments (local, regional and national) and their priorities change. Loyal audiences are dependable. Arts organisations with a very big egg in a single basket would be wise to contemplate how they would cope with a double-digit reduction in their public funding next year. And the following year. And again, the year after that. It can happen and has in many arts organisations in the UK who have been reliant on Local Government support.
If it doesn’t, your focus on building loyalty will see your organisation thrive. A more loyal audience fills more seats, increases box office income, increases donations and reduces marketing spend. This increased revenue can fuel artistic ambition and allow for greater innovation and risk taking. And a more loyal audience is more likely to want to take risks in the art they experience. What artistically ambitious arts organisation doesn’t want to have more money to spend on a more adventurous programme that will still draw a sizable audience? I’ve yet to find one anywhere in the world.
Learn more about how subscription is a viable model for today's audiences and building loyalty. Watch back our webinar, "Subscriptions Are Dead... But Are They?"