While it may not be an entirely conscious assumption, it’s one that is reflected in engagement strategies and may hurt cultural mission and business imperatives.
Not everyone who differs from the traditional cultural visitor is unable to afford admission to a cultural organization.
That sounds ridiculously obvious and rather insulting, doesn’t it?
…And yet the “free/discounted admission” and “engaging new audiences” discussion may be one of the most confused conversations within the industry at the highest levels of institutional leadership. Why do seemingly so many organizations create free or discounted programs and boast it as their sole or leading contribution to engaging people of different ages, races, ethnic backgrounds, orientations, abilities, or anything else different than the traditional historic visitor?
More than being perhaps racist, ageist, and a whole host of other “ists” by the implication that nobody but a traditional visitor may be able or willing to pay admission for a cultural experience, this “go to” tactic is also a bad cultural business practice.
(Not to mention, data suggest that being worthy of a person’s time is a bigger barrier to cultural participation than money, in general.)
Thanks to the nature of my work (market research and strategy-impacting trends), I have the opportunity to partner primarily with board members and executive leadership within cultural organizations. On the topics of inclusion and diversity, I’ve noticed a bit of a disconnect between the charge “on the ground” within these organizations and the charge in the board room. Maybe it’s because leadership at cultural organizations themselves still isn’t very diverse. (For example, 93% of museum directors are white, and so are 92.6% of board chairs and 89.3% of board members.) Regardless, it seems that inclusion may be more of a “to do” in board rooms, but more of an integrated “to be” among staffers outside of it.
Successful inclusion isn’t a “to do.” It’s a “to be.”
It’s not about hugs and warm fuzzies. It’s about adapting organizations to the world in which we live.
Note: Inclusion and diversity are big, important topics with significantly wiser voices than my own, terrific thought leaders, and a score of resources and toolkits. This article is about prioritizing inclusion and diversity with consideration of sustainability practices so that these initiatives may best succeed – and, thus, so that organizations may thrive overall.
Income-qualified audiences are a subset of nontraditional audiences
Data suggest that cultural organizations are not reaching racially diverse audiences at representative rates. In fact, data suggest that cultural organizations on the whole are reaching the same types of individuals as ever, only better.
Engaging audiences who differ from the traditional visitor profile means engaging people who have different demographic, psychographic, and behavioral attributes than those of historic visitors to cultural organizations such as museums and performing arts entities. This includes folks who are of different racial and ethnic backgrounds than historic visitors (to be glib: Non-white visitors)… But it also includes millennials, for instance. It includes those who are differently abled. It also includes income-qualified audiences who cannot pay an admission fee. It includes many different people.
When organizations talk about reaching people who differ from the traditional visitor profile, they could be referring to any person from any one of these groups, more than one, a group I haven’t named, or all of them. But these are not necessarily the same groups. To a millennial who doesn’t need it, an accessibility ramp matters less than it does to a non-millennial who does need it.
Aside from risking insult, here’s why confusing income-qualified with otherwise diverse audiences may present an existential issue:
Low-income audiences require strategic differentiation from an access standpoint. Engaging different audience profiles (race, age, etc.) is an investment that may be necessary for cultural organizations to thrive long-term. Engaging income-qualified audiences is a cost.
To welcome income-qualified audiences, providing targeted, affordable opportunities may help alleviate a barrier. For reaching a person different than the traditional visitor profile, simply offering an admission benefit and calling it a day ignores the charge and bigger conversation of inclusion.
Reaching different audiences (race, ethnicity, age, etc.) is an existential need. It is an investment in today and the future.
One could argue that reaching folks of different races, ethnicities, ages, preferences, and abilities is a mission-driven initiative because inclusion is a mission-driven initiative. But inclusion is also a business imperative.
If cultural organizations cannot keep their lights on and (in most cases) pay people, then they may have little hope in further pursuing their missions at all.
The cultural industry is experiencing a phenomenon called the negative substitution of the historic visitor. This means that people who look, act, and think like traditional historic visitors are leaving the US market at a faster rate than they are being replaced. The outcome is a shrinking visitor base, and a poor outlook until we are able to better engage diverse audiences at more representative levels. Bluntly, the US is growing in people who do not (yet) have interest in supporting cultural organizations. Some feel unwelcome. And to make matters worse, millennials aren’t naturally “aging into” caring about arts and culture as some might hope, either.
In order to replace lost audiences – or to halt the downward trend of negative substitution – organizations must welcome more people of different backgrounds, beliefs, ages, and preferences than the historic visitor and turn them into regular attendees who will pay admission or provide support.
We need to replace lost supporters and funders with other, different supporters and funders.
No matter how you cut it – for mission or business – inclusion is a critical charge worthy of prioritization and strategic integration. Thus, funds spent on inclusion and better understanding likely visitors are investments for the future. They don’t just feel warm and fuzzy. They are necessary from a business perspective.
Perhaps the ugliest justification for not reaching representative audiences of diverse racial backgrounds, in particular, is the argument that “some people just don’t want to visit a cultural organization.” It is absolutely true that not everybody wants to visit a cultural organization! Only 32% of the US population has a likelihood of visiting any kind of cultural organization. However, there are enough non-white individuals with interest in cultural experiences to make up representative attendance to cultural organizations overall. In other words, lifestyle and education level are a stronger predictor of visitation likelihood than race.
Reaching income-qualified audiences is a mission-driven initiative. It is a cost.
By their very classification as income-qualified audiences, these adults may not be our most reliable investments to become regular, paying attendees, members, or donors. Initiatives aimed at reaching these adults are generally a cost. Indeed, these programs can be a kind of “soft investment,” but they are in a different category than direct revenue generators by way of paid visitation, donor cultivation, or support. The funds are not likely to fuel ongoing sustainability in and of themselves. (Of course, some initiatives are funded by foundations, governments, and endowments and that’s great news!)
This does not mean that welcoming income-qualified audiences is unimportant – far from it! For many organizations, it is mission-critical! But it sure means that there better be a way to fund these important initiatives.
Any hard working cultural leader will tell you that successful mission execution isn’t magically bestowed upon organizations by the happy-thoughts nonprofit fairy. (P.S. Does anyone have her number, please?)
Missions need funding. That funding comes from smart business practices – including the hard work of savvy fundraisers, grant writers, marketers, program designers, content experts, frontline staff, and well managed endowments and government support when applicable. For organizations relying upon the gate for some portion of earned revenues, it also comes from the development of thoughtful access opportunities.
To reach income-qualified audiences, a goal is the creation of targeted access programs to engage these adults and, particularly for some organizations, their children. This is distinctly different than something like broadly publicized free days, which data suggest are largely unsuccessful in engaging income-qualified visitors, and actually result in attendees with higher education levels and household incomes than paid-admission days. (Hey, who doesn’t like a deal?)
When we welcome people who differ from the traditional visitor profile as if they are necessarily income-qualified audiences, we perceptually devalue our experience and train the very people who we need to cultivate to engage with us financially to expect discounts. We “leave money on the table” – money that could theoretically be utilized to effectively reach actual income-qualified folks.
Inclusion does not mean being careless about access strategies or treating all audiences as if they are the same. Inclusion means becoming places wherein diverse visitors feel that these institutions are “places for people like me.” A goal is to make audiences so comfortable that they become totally regular twenty-first century cultural supporters.
It may take a lot of work and some special attention to certain audiences to unpack deep-rooted issues and for new perceptions to take hold. (Anyone else still thinking about that harrowing museum scene in Black Panther?) There is a long ways to go, but it’s important.
Both low-income and otherwise nontraditional cultural audiences fall into the “nontraditional audiences” category, but they necessitate different approaches. They require thoughtful attention to their unique needs.
In today’s world in which personalization and relevance are prerequisite for action, cultural organizations “welcome all” by “welcoming each.” If cultural organizations approach diverse audiences as if they are necessarily the same, they risk not adequately engaging diverse supporters, and leave revenue on the table that may help enable successful inclusion in the first place.
There are far too many wise voices on the topic of inclusion not to encourage a deeper dive. While I cannot even scratch the surface, Dr. Nicole Ivy is the Director of Inclusion for the American Alliance of Museums, and she is a great resource. I’ve been reading nearly every post from Monica Montgomery for years and Museum Hue is a must-follow on Facebook. The Incluseum is also a helpful resource. In the performing arts realm, I recommend taking a listen to two CI to Eye podcasts: David Stewart, the Guthrie Theater’s Director’s conversation about inequality in the arts, and the discussion with Afa Dworkin, the President and Artistic Director of the Sphinx Organization, on classical music’s diversity crisis.