Much Ado About Numbers

Arts groups are discovering that counting heads doesn't really add up to arts success

That last question represents the new frontier of cultural data mongering: a long-overdue attempt to uncover the qualitative factors that bring people to the arts.

The new data trails are being blazed by a number of key philanthropic foundations. In recent years, the Heinz Foundation, in Pittsburgh, which has invested millions of dollars to help arts organizations build programming and audiences, funded a landmark study about the fundamental lure of metaphor.

This summer, the Lila Wallace Reader's Digest Foundation will release a study -- commissioned from the Rand Corporation -- about the meanings and motives underlying cultural participation.

Lisa Lynn

The study evolved from the foundation's well-publicized efforts to expand arts audiences in the past decade. During the 1990s, the organization poured some $300 million into raising arts attendance across the country.

Midway through that effort, it concluded that arts participation meant a good deal more than simply counting heads.

"The realization," says Michael Moore, director of the foundation's art program, "was that there was a commonality to successful arts organizations across the country. And this was true with organizations producing different kinds of art."

Their success wasn't one-dimensional, Moore says. Thriving institutions managed a consistent balance of artistic excellence and financial stability. "And as a result, they enjoyed higher prestige and support from their communities."

Wallace is building upon the Rand findings by funding 13 state arts agencies around the nation with five-year, $500,000 grants to develop qualitative tools to assess local arts programming.

The Arizona Commission on the Arts is one of 13 agencies receiving the grant.

Shelly Cohn says the agency is still discussing how the money will be used.

"We know we need to find a better way to measure the quality of what we do," she says. "We need to understand what these numbers mean, so we can make the case in a public and policy way what the value of the arts is. We haven't been as systematic, thoughtful and strategic about that as we could be, and, until now, we haven't had the resources to understand the data."

The search for qualitative data is hardly new or confined to the art world.

"Businesses and corporations have typically included a lot of this kind of information in their work," says Jerry Yoshitomi, a national arts consultant and former assistant director of the Arizona Commission on the Arts. "And they're using it to compete against nonprofits for leisure dollars and leisure time.

"I wouldn't call it marketing. On the commercial side, you understand the consumer to the point where he helps shape the product. If you think that customers want a different kind of tie, you stock a different kind of tie. Marketing in the arts is different. You tend to say that this is the ballet we've chosen to do this year. Then you figure out who you're going to sell it to."

For years, selling well in the arts connoted selling out.

"There's almost this perverse sense in the arts," says Becky Gaspar, director of Arizonans for Cultural Development, "that says if something's popular and everybody's doing it, it must not be challenging or cutting edge or terribly insightful."

As a result, arts organizations here and elsewhere have been exceedingly slow to understand and embrace marketing as a business tool. But fierce competition for audience attention and the rising costs of professionalization in the arts have made marketing essential. Unfortunately, too few arts organizations here have had the wherewithal to make it a regular part of their programming.

The Phoenix Art Museum has invested heavily in marketing in recent years, significantly raising its advertising budgets and conducting fairly sophisticated attitude and exit surveys to determine the level of public awareness about the museum and how well viewers like its blockbuster exhibitions.

"You have to have a certain level of advertising to be effective," says Tony Basche, who heads the museum's marketing program. "In combination with sponsors, if we can, in a given year, develop an advertising budget of about three-quarters of a million dollars, we can have a significant impact. But as you drop down from that, you really lose impact pretty quickly."

The ad firm Cramer-Krasselt has been developing a comprehensive marketing program for the Phoenix Symphony. And ASU's public events program, which runs Gammage Auditorium, has been working with Jerry Yoshitomi to better understand its audiences.

Smaller organizations, with bootstrap budgets, have had to rely instead on press releases, word of mouth and chance media coverage to catch the public's eye.

That isn't easy to do in a market dominated occasionally by blockbusters, such as Norman Rockwell, Monet or The Phantom of the Opera.

Nor is it easy given the frenzied demand on leisure time. There's a sense, and not just in the arts, that the multiple distractions of modern life are devouring the free time people have to attend anything cultural.

Another looming concern is that audiences have not kept up with population growth.

"There's a great fear," says Yoshitomi, "that the number of cultural subscribers is aging and declining.

"The attendance of art audiences drops precipitously when people reach their 70s. And the younger generation, the boomer generation, are not attending the arts in the numbers or as actively as their parents did. They're also tending toward a broader array of things. They're omnivores. They're going to see Broadway, Springsteen, the Stones concert, the Diamondbacks. But they're not necessarily buying subscriptions to the symphony."

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