Much Ado About Numbers

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

Joan Squires, president of the Phoenix Symphony, says the aging audience is driving orchestras and other performing organizations to find ways to reach families and younger people with more diversified programming.

To do that, they've added more performance times and broadened their programming to include music ranging from pops to classical.

With help from their ad firm, they've also done some in-depth focus groups, to better grasp why people are coming and not coming.

Lisa Lynn

Not surprisingly, they've found that the powerful emotions aroused by live, symphonic music is a chief draw for many listeners.

Yet the focus sessions also uncovered some significant perceptual barriers that discouraged people from attending.

"One of the guys said, 'I can't go to the symphony because I drive a Jeep, not a Lexus,'" says Cyndi Suttle, the symphony's director of marketing. "So we said, 'Time out, here. That's a myth.'"

The other stereotype is that everybody wears tuxedos.

"The obstacle we have to overcome," she says, "is that this is elitist."

The ad campaign produced by Cramer-Krasselt tackles that with romance.

One ad shows a couple on the outs at a breakfast table. The gal's reading a newspaper and not talking. The guy's feeling her wrath.

"Dinner and a movie won't fix this one," runs the tag line.

A second ad features a couple returning from a night out. The woman leans into the man for a passionate kiss.

Tag line: "When's the last time three hours of football put her in the mood?"

Not long after the ad began running, a young man called the box office.

"I've seen your ad campaign," he told the attendant. "I'm bringing a girl here. So I'm counting on this being a great experience."

This hunger to have a great experience, to be moved, or to feel, see or convey something unique has long been the driving force and attraction of the arts.

In an age shaped increasingly by the homogenizing pressures of mass production and marketing -- same products in every store, same landscapes along every street, same movies and channels and ads on every screen -- the arts remain one of the few arenas of contemplative individuality.

That basic asset is too often forgotten when arts organizations, in the scuffle for crowds, insist on measuring success by the numbers.

By blockbuster standards, 19,000 -- the attendance at the James Turrell exhibition at the Scottsdale Museum of Contemporary Art -- is a puny number. Yet the show represents an enormous cultural return on its financial investment. It features works not commonly seen -- works that significantly deepen the well of available culture. The ASU Art Museum, which typically draws far fewer people in a year than the Phoenix Art Museum did with the Rockwell show, has also carved a valuable niche with innovative programming.

If the arts are to thrive and grow into the elaborate institutions being built for them here, cultural organizations and funders will need to raise their sights above the bottom lines and distinguish between good art and good business.

Too often, funders and boards have viewed accountability strictly through a fiscal lens, imposing foolish requirements on the art organizations to predict the unforeseeable.

"So when the Acme Corporation says they'll give you $20,000 this year," says Matthew Wiener, artistic director of Actors Theatre of Phoenix, "they want to know not just what are you going to do with it, but how are you going to measure it? How are you going to prove that you're holding up your end of the bargain? Saying that we're going to produce really good theater this year isn't enough anymore."

But that should be enough.

"We're really in the meaning business," says Jerry Yoshitomi.

Finding that meaning in the numbers is the stumper.

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