Data Driven Artistic Programming at The Cultch

Data Driven Artistic Programming at The Cultch

Why do we present art?

It’s crucial that every staff member at an arts organization understand this question. In 2016, we’d undertaken a project to diversify our audiences called “Democratizing Our Stages.” As part of that and in preparation for artistic planning for the 2017-18 season, I did an exercise with our staff that was designed to connect myself and my staff with The Cultch’s “why.” 

Our “why” is this:

At The Cultch, we believe that interaction with art is a human necessity that is transformational, and everyone has the right to partake. We’re a presenting organization with a 44-year history of presenting unique and challenging works of theater, dance, and music. We see our venue as a community gathering place for everyone in the Vancouver community.

 Black Boys

With this context, new questions arose about our programmatic choices and how they related to patron loyalty:

  1. Can data about our programming choices help us to better realize our goal of art access for all?
  2. By reflecting on our data by not just by revenue and attendance but also by genre and values, can we better understand what motivates a patron to deepen their relationship with The Cultch; thus providing art experiences for a broad range of citizens and financial stability for The Cultch from patron generated revenues?
  3. How can this data analysis be applied to be useful to the process of artistic programming?

We truly wanted to figure out how data can inform our artistic programming, and personally I wanted to engage with my marketing team earlier in the process of determining a season. We turned to TRG with these questions.

Taking our “why” and our past programming, we were able to identify nine core values in our programming and eight genres that our programming represented.

The Cultch’s 9 core values


These are projects that we believe are unseen in the community or elsewhere, projects that offer a different voice from that provided by other festivals/companies in town. 

Projects that focus on a current event and/or conversations that are relevant to contemporary society & socio/political stances, etc. 

Projects with companies and other arts presenters that we wish to continue a relationship with, that we believe in the future of/continued existence of. This also consists of projects with local companies that need our support. These can be risky projects because unlike presentations of work we know these projects are usually one-offs (not touring productions), and are mounted just for their presentation at The Cultch.

New Audience:
Shows that engage with audiences we normally don't see in our theatres, often to encourage a more diverse audience base (in cultural background/age/gender)

Projects that create representation for the indigenous community/created by indigenous artists/engage the not only the indigenous community but all of us

Gender Politics: 
Shows that focus on gender performativity/ideas surrounding gender dynamics in society/gender identity

Programming meant to engage the whole family, appropriate for kids (usually 6 years old and up) through to adults. Usually a focus on spectacle and humour along with story

Productions that provide representation and opportunity for diversity of age/gender/sexuality/race/culture/ability.

Current Audience: 
These are shows that fill a want that our current audience base holds. Usually more traditional presentations, but can also extend to bringing back artists that our subscribers/long-time patrons love. 

The 8 genres included more traditional categories like puppetry, dance, and musical.

We then attributed one core value and one genre to each production over the past five years and provided that same five years of transactional data to TRG for patron journey mapping analysis. This analysis with the additional data points included allowed us to see how productions that speak to particular core values and genres affect a patron’s purchase behavior and loyalty with the Cultch. 

What did we do with the data?

When I consider programming for an upcoming season, my decisions fall into several areas. They are:

  • Content – What should we program? Which values and genre does the program connect with?
  • Timing – When in the season should we program it?
  • Community Development: How can we engage new audiences through partnership?
  • Financial – How can we afford the desired programming by retaining new audiences?

When I engaged with data as part of the artistic programming process, I found that:

  1. The data was most useful when I married the genre and values data together.
  2. The data began to influence the timing of the programming heavily.  Seeing this created the idea for “two pack” promotions, where we marketed two shows together with the goal of turning a single ticket buyer into a multi-ticket buyer. 
  3. I needed to engage with my Patron Development Manager early in the decision making process and throughout the process. I realized I was thinking about how to market the program as part my decision-making. I believe I have always done this in the background, but using the data brought it forward.
  4.  The data did not determine the shows I chose for the upcoming season. However the genre/core value exercise made me think about why I was including something in the programming mix. I did use the data to decide not to include contemporary dance in the 2017-18 season. The data got me beyond rationale like “because we have always done it that way” and “patrons will expect it.” Dance as a genre is included in two productions that are dance/drama hybrids.

The Cultch interior 

Turning data into programming and marketing strategy

Retaining single ticket buyers
Based on our data, we decided to program events in the Family and Diverse genres early in the season because these make single ticket buyers stickier. In the chart below, you can see that new buyers who attend Family, Diverse/Disability, and Indigenous genres exit at lower rates than other genres.

We follow up with offers to Puppetry and Music programs, which have been shown to be popular with multi-buyers. These combinations can also be sold as 2 packs.

Converting multi-ticket buyers to subscription

Is it presumptuous to ask someone out on two dates at once? The data showed that multi-single ticket buyers are more likely to become subscribers. Therefore, making ticket buyers “multi up” as soon as possible is the ideal. So why not sell shows in pairs then offer an upgrade?

You can see below that certain genre combinations for multi-single ticket buyers are correlated with subscribing. The Drama-Puppetry combination seems to be a real gateway drug for subscribership at the Cultch.

I decided to program Drama, Puppetry, Unique, and Diverse programming early in the season and put together packages of two tickets from these categories. The goal is to encourage early purchase of multiple single tickets. Then we can follow up with those multi- ticket buyers an upgrade offer to “convert” their purchases into a subscription. The timing of programming becomes very important to offer possible twosome packaging:

  • Goblin Market (Circus/Unique, September) with One-Hour Photo (Drama/Diverse, October)
  • One-Hour Photo or Diwali (Drama/Diverse, October) with Daisy Theatre (Puppetry/Unique, December)

We also devised a plan for multi-buyers later in the season, offering two-packs for this season and then encouraging them to upgrade to a subscription for 2018/19 season.

Goblin Market  One-Hour Photo

Renewing Subscribers

We found that more nuanced genres and core values appeal to subscribers, like gender politics. In the charts below, you can see that gender politics is popular with the subscribers to larger package, particularly in the context of the number of tickets (capacity) available.

I decided to program those during the active subscription renewal period, programming like The Explanation (Drama/Gender Politics), Us/Them (Drama/Political), and Lost Lagoon (Drama/ Indigenous).


I engaged with my Patron Development Manager early to think about how we would communicate strategically. Particularly with the two-packs, we wanted to inspire action and fit into what was important to our patrons. We thought about things that come together in two’s—wine pairings, double headers, etc. and may use some of those ideas to do some playful marketing throughout the season.

At the heart of this project, is our shared idea that art is a right and that it needs to be accessible to everyone. We used data to calculate how to engage our audience through programming. Partly, we did that work to fill our venue more fully and consistently. But to us, a full venue means that we’re connecting with the Vancouver community. It’s our “why.” When we experience art together, we all belong. 

Heather Redfern
Ms. Redfern is the Executive Director of The Vancouver East Cultural Centre (The Cultch) where she curates a program of over 20 different presentations each season.  Before coming to “The Cultch”, she was the Executive Director of the Greater Vancouver Alliance for Arts and Culture. Ms. Redfern has been the Artistic Producer for Catalyst Theatre in Edmonton, an artist driven creation-based theatre company. Heather has sat on numerous boards including The Koerner Foundation, and The Edmonton Arts Council.

Ms. Redfern has been honoured with the City of Edmonton, Business and the Arts Award for Excellence in Arts Management and the Mallory Gilbert Leadership Award for sustained, inspired, and creative leadership in Canadian Theatre. She continues to work on innovative ways to promote Canadian artists at home and abroad. She has overseen $28 million of refurbishment and construction first at The Cultch and then as a driving force behind the restoration of the historic York Theatre. Over the past ten seasons she has built an international reputation for the Cultch through her innovative curation and impeccable leadership.

Posted June 20, 2017

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