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Inspiring Albertans to Reconnect with Arts Experiences

By Guest Contributor Mathew Stone 

 


It has been four years since the world paused for the COVID-19 pandemic and arts leaders across Alberta continue striving to reconnect with audiences whose habits and expectations have changed significantly over that time. Early on, it became clear the province would take time to recover; not only were audiences reeling from the pandemic, but many were also grappling with the implications of a restructuring of the Alberta economy. As a result, consumers have adopted new habits and adjusted how they connect with the arts in their community.  


Since the first days of the pandemic, the Rozsa Foundation has supported efforts to gather relevant information about audiences here in Alberta. Last fall, they approached us about an arts-focused research program to gather current insights about how Albertans want to connect with arts experiences again. With additional support from the Alberta Foundation for the Arts, Calgary Arts Development, the Calgary Foundation, the Edmonton Arts Council and the Edmonton Community Foundation, fresh research will be available for two years about what Albertans are thinking, how they want to connect with the arts, and more. The point is to get our community leaders the data they need to inform programming, engagement and development strategies. Full details from this first phase of work are available at: https://www.rozsafoundation.com/spotlightonartsaudiences.

 

This first phase of research shows the extent to which engagement with arts experiences has shifted in the province. Fully 95% of Albertans are interested in some type of arts experience – from the performing arts to galleries and museums and even creating their own art. Ultimately, Albertans remain keen pursuers of experiences generally and arts experiences in particular. This is the good news as arts leaders have a strong pool of potential audiences to draw from. But interest does not always translate to engagement – and how Albertans are interacting with the arts is shifting.


Results from this first wave of research show large proportions of the province are consuming content (79%), attending arts experiences (81%), creating (69%) or supporting the arts (43%). But since the pandemic, they are doing all of this much less often. In fact, the passive audience who engages with the arts on an infrequent basis has grown from 18%1 in 2018 to over 51% today. That is a notable challenge. At the same time, 41% of the market says they are attending less often. What to make of this change in habits and decline in attendance? 


  • First, economic factors are at play in the current environment and the spending power for many Albertans has been compromised in the past few years due to either smaller incomes or inflation. About three-quarters (76%) of those who are attending less often cite some type of financial barrier.  

  • Second, there is a potential issue of consumer relevance. About 66% of audiences report losing interest, finding new activities and simply not having time. All of these are symptoms of not seeing the relevance for them in activities they are aware of.  

  • Third, audiences are not only considering how to spend their money but also how to invest their time. This work shows audiences only have about 15 hours a week to spend on discretionary activities. That means of all 168 hours they have in a week less than 10% is available for all the things they want to do – from fitness to learning to engaging with the arts. Organizations are competing for a very small amount of availability.  

  • Finally, there are issues of convenience – given the limited amount of time available, consumers tend to opt for those activities and experiences which are easy to do, closer to home or easy to include others in. Simply put – in a crowded market, even the simplest barriers may inhibit engagement.  

 

So what? If we know audience habits are shifting and they are engaging less often, yet high proportions continue to be interested in arts experiences, how can organizations think about this predicament? It’s clear from these results that in order to reverse audience trends and grow attendance at arts events, organizations are going to have to widen their reach and inspire passive audiences to reconnect. As a sector we are already getting a lot of attendance from deeply engaged segments of the market. The key will be in reaching more of that 51% of passively connected Albertans. This means tackling some of the main barriers. With that in mind, what are the main barriers to tackle? 

 

Let’s start with the financial barriers. If audiences are going to spend on arts experiences, they will need to know the money they invest was worth it. What does ‘money well spent’ on an arts experience look like? It is perhaps more emotional and less rational than we might expect.  

 

While having the right pricing strategy is certainly important, it is not the only thing. Consumers are clearly looking for an emotional payoff for their dollar. Organizations would do well to ensure their programming choices deliver on these expectations and their messaging elevates them in their promises to the audience.  



 Attacking relevance is another consideration and to get there, leaders will need to be striving to deliver remarkable experiences. But what makes an arts experience remarkable?  When asked for a definition audiences come back to mainly emotional benefits that are quite similar to how they determine value.  

 


Now that audiences have told us what value and relevance looks like, there are some opportunities we might want to consider: 


  • Organizations should think in terms of widening reach more than increasing frequency of attendance. Passive audiences will need to be inspired to engage more often.  

  • Showing value will be important in uncertain markets. Value is rated on increasingly emotional and experiential terms. Elevate these emotional principles in both programming choices and marketing messages.  

  • Growing relevance is personal and leans on proving the benefits of remarkable experiences. Elevate the promise of emotional return to connect (Fun, feel something, unique, transformative.) 

  • Eliminate the inconveniences that will dissuade engagement: flexibility, make it easy.  

 

The next phase of work will be coming out later this spring and the focus will be on exploring what content audiences take in and how that can inspire greater consideration, understanding more about the types subscriptions or memberships they really want, and finally, working to understand what motivates financial support for organizations in this sector.  

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