Press Release

The Wallace Foundation Releases Video and Written Accounts of Ballet Austin’s Market Research Targeting New Audiences

New York, NY

First in a Building Audiences for Sustainability (BAS) Stories series to learn how arts organizations expand and diversify targeted audiences 

The Wallace Foundation today released the first installment in its Building Audiences for Sustainability (BAS) Stories series that looks at the early-stage efforts of arts organizations in a new Wallace initiative that are seeking to attract new audiences, while retaining the ones they have. The new story features Ballet Austin, with both written and video components at www.wallacefoundation.org/BalletAustin, presenting emerging insights into the company’s work to expand and deepen their audience’s engagement in multiple forms of ballet.

Ballet Austin has received funding through the foundation’s Building Audiences for Sustainability (BAS) initiative that provides funding to 25 performing arts organizations across the United States to develop, implement, analyze, and learn from audience-building practices. Using examples from the work of Ballet Austin and other BAS organizations, the BAS Stories project seeks to expose the process of arts organizations working to expand their audiences, with the goal of helping other organizations to understand the significance of market research and continuous learning—and adjustment on the basis of what is learned—as necessary first steps.

“Building audiences is certainly among the most pressing challenges facing arts leaders today, but many organizations lack the resources and information they need to adopt practices that will help them be more effective,” said Daniel Windham, the foundation’s director of arts. “The Wallace Foundation is committed to helping the organizations we fund directly to expand their audiences, while commissioning research on their efforts to build helpful knowledge for the field. This new story on Ballet Austin’s work, and others like it, present an organization in the midst of its work to bring new dance to new audiences.” 

The Ballet Austin story focuses on the company’s use of market research to learn more about what is and is not working. The data they collected challenged their assumptions on the nature of barriers to bringing in new audiences, particularly for less traditional work. The initial assumption within the organization was that patrons would move along a “familiarity continuum” from well-known, narrative works (like The Nutcracker) to more contemporary, non-narrative pieces by less-familiar choreographers.

In 2015, Ballet Austin began a six-year project to study what factors influenced attendance among single-ticket buyers. Using surveys, focus groups, and ticketing database analyses, the staff found that encouraging more attendance was less about increasing audience familiarity with particular ballet productions and more about bridging what they called an “uncertainty gap”—helping audiences feel comfortable with the experience they were about to have. As a result of the research, Ballet Austin ended some programs and developed others that more effectively bridged that gap. For example, the company stopped live-streaming dress rehearsals and, instead, launched Ballet-o-mania! Interactive Discovery Lounge, a pre-performance display that allows patrons to learn more about the works they are about to see on stage.

The story—to be followed by others—details how the company used market research to track the effectiveness of these new programs and provides an insider’s perspective on the company’s premises, research methods, findings, and strategies for implementation. Though the work is just starting, the story highlights the significance of these preliminary insights, which helped Ballet Austin figure out how to more deeply engage the Austin community; to grow as an institution; and to create more targeted programming, events, and resources to bring newer ballet to broader audiences.

“As we began using market research to test our hypothesis of what would draw patrons to attend programs with less-familiar work, we were surprised at what we found, and we adjusted our strategies accordingly,” said Cookie Ruiz, executive director of Ballet Austin. “Market research has become an essential piece of our strategic planning process as we continue to ask ourselves what we know and what we need to know about our audiences. Adopting these practices has had an enormous impact on our organization, and we hope others in our field can benefit by our sharing this story.”

The BAS Stories series captures early insights on the audience-building work of arts organizations participating in the initiative, before the independent evaluative reports commissioned by Wallace have been completed. The foundation has commissioned the University of Texas at Austin to conduct a $3.5-million evaluation of the initiative to enable that the efforts of the selected arts organizations will inform and strengthen the audience-building efforts of performing arts organizations nationwide. The evaluation will assess whether and how the 25 organizations made audience gains, whether these gains were sustained, and whether and how the gains contributed to the organization’s overall financial health. The study will produce a series of public reports to be published over the course of the initiative, beginning with a review and analysis of existing research in mid-2017.

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Andrew Decker

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