From NASCAR to Cirque du Soleil: Lessons in Audience Development

Published in: GIA Reader, Vol 11, No 2 (Fall 2000)

Western States Arts Federation (WESTAF)

Executive Summary and Report
Based on interviews by Morrie Warshawski and Dinah Zeiger
Contributors to preparation and editing: Sonja K. Foss, Krista Lewis, Glynis Jones, Daniel Buehler, and Daisy Whitney

1999, 54 pages; Western States Arts Federation (WESTAF), Denver, Colorado, 303-629-1166.

Current research into changing audience behaviors suggests that arts audiences are not committing less time to cultural programming, but that their loyalties have changed: they are becoming "cultural omnivores," attending a wider variety of commercial and nonprofit events. Responding to this trend, From NASCAR to Cirque du Soleil looks at strategies for reaching audiences by studying approaches taken by a variety of successful "highbrow" and "lowbrow," large- and small-scale, entertainment and cultural enterprises. Audience development case studies are presented in five categories: nonprofit arts organizations, mega-concert promoters, for-profit entertainment conglomerates, sports promoters, and religious organizations. Specific venues and fields include Walt Disney Company, Bellagio Gallery of Fine Art in Las Vegas, music venues of Branson (Missouri), women's soccer, SFX Entertainment, The Fresno Art Museum, women's soccer, and — of course — the enterprises mentioned in the report title, NASCAR automobile racing and Cirque du Soleil.

Across these very different efforts, a few broad themes seem constant. Having sufficient resources to remain flexible and responsive to audience interests is critical. Use of new technology plays an increasing role in reaching younger audiences (and sophistication in this area marks a major difference between the for-profit and nonprofit enterprises). Cultural and entertainment ventures of all sorts must respond to changing demographics (age, race, and cultural backgrounds). Leisure time is more fragmented than ever before, making convenience — of time, location, and ease of acquiring tickets — critical.

For the most part, the approaches of the nonprofit organizations are different from the commercial venues. Arizona State University/Public Events' program bridges some of the gap by incorporating a commercial “Best of Broadway” series within its annual season, while also using community outreach strategies.

WESTAF is to be commended for its willingness to look at and beyond the nonprofit cultural sector for new answers to the challenge of audience development. The report is well-organized with a helpful introductory essay and synopses of lessons learned included with each case study.

Review by Frances Phillips, Walter and Elise Haas Fund