Arts Innovation Day Recap: Building Support from the Roots Up

How do you take a panel discussion rich with complex conversations and distill those insights into a blog post? The same way you build a strong community around your organization’s mission—you look for the common threads.

Building Support from the Roots featured three panelists: Raymond Fraser of Mohegan Holding Company and Tree Sleeve, Aleta Staton of New World Arts Northeast Inc. and New Haven Commission of Arts, and Onyeka Obiocha of Beakfast.Lunch.Dinner. moderated by Josh Borenstein, Managing Director of the Long Wharf Theatre.

Two clear themes emerged from the hour-long discussion, which was designed to address the ways arts organizations can grow their grassroots support: engaging audience to inform programs, and creating meaningful organizational partnerships.

Engaging Audience to Inform Programs

Panelists agreed that creating programs that meet the needs and expectations of your audience is the best way to position your organization as a relevant, valuable community resource—and that means keeping a finger on the pulse of how that audience grows and changes. Aleta Staton’s assertion that “audiences now expect a more tactile experience” was echoed by Onyeka Obiocha, who noted the modern audience “wants to be more involved with the art that they’re consuming.”

So, how do you know what is valuable to your audience? Ask them! Onyeka stressed that there is no substitute for going out and talking to people, whether it’s at your own programs or at someone else’s events. But, as Raymond Fraser explained, the world today is noisy and it can be harder than ever to get your message in front of people. It’s critical to know your audience well enough to meet them where they are—which these days, is often online. Mail a survey to your list, join an online discussion, or look to social media for ways to listen to your audience, learn from them, and keep the conversation alive.

But here’s the thing about asking questions: you have to be prepared for the answers. Moderator Josh Borenstein asked the panelists how organizations can balance public opinion with curating an artistic vision. Referencing his own experience at Long Warf Theater, Josh noted that the goal is to present new or challenging material that might not always be recognizable or popular. “We’re here to show a different way of the world,” replied Onyeka. “No one is going to tell you that they want to be made uncomfortable, but they will remember those experiences.” Aleta added that mining public opinion doesn’t have to be as open-ended as asking what your audience wants to see on the stage. Try approaching it from the other direction—start with the exhibition idea, or the rough script, and ask your audience if they can feel resonance there, or if it reflects on their life in any meaningful way.

Involving your audience in the creative process is another effective way to strengthen the bond between presenter and participant. Take the Know Good Market, where the event itself is only part of the story. Onyeka cites the process of bringing different groups, individuals, and ideas together around a common goal—creating a vibrant and dynamic neighborhood event—as a powerful way to encourage participation and engage the community.


Creating Meaningful Organizational Partnerships

Continuously engaging your current audience is crucial, but the panelists also discussed the importance of continuing to grow your community and expand your organization’s reach. One of the best ways to begin, they agreed, is by creating meaningful alliances with other groups. Raymond advised to “start with partnerships—find people who are successful doing what you do, and reach out.”

From Aleta’s perspective, partnerships can draw new audiences that you might not reach on your own, and create opportunities to further both organizations’ messages. The key is to find common themes. For example, a theatrical production dealing with racial profiling might lead to a partnership with a social justice advocacy group. Sharing a common topic is enough, even if the ways your partner organization usually approaches that topic is different from your own. “We’ve got to get out of our respective boxes.”

Whether you’re working to engage your current audience or collaborating with fellow organizations, remember that the only successful partnerships are the ones where everyone involved is giving as much as they are taking away. “Energy in equals energy out,” says Aleta. So be prepared to listen, and learn as much from both your audience and partners as you feel you can give back in return.

Key Takeaways:

1) Sustain relevance by creating programs that meet the needs of your audience

2) If you want to know what resonates with people, you have to ask them

3) Grow your audience through meaningful partnerships

*Written by Taryn Bunger