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Diversifying Your Audiences: the Financial Argument

Not long ago, I attended the presentation of a fellow audience researcher, who put in numbers what we have known already for a long time: there is a negative growth of current audiences in the next generations. This means that in the near future there will be fewer people who fit the profile of current arts audiences. In other words, we are running out of audiences who look like the ones we are engaging now. It is not only the fact that audience participation is decreasing among typical audiences, it is also that there are less people who fit that profile in our societies.

Knowing this, diversifying your audiences as a strategy for audience engagement and growth becomes more important than ever before. In my opinion, it is not only important, but rather it is a matter of sustainability. The argument that arts and culture organizations have had since the '70s about audience diversification now becomes a financial one. The last census results are here and, even though there are not really any big surprises, the main message is that it is even more urgent to start addressing issues of ethnic and cultural diversity in our institutions.

Some examples: the Asian population is the fastest growing ethnic group in the nation, Latinos are very close to being the majority in the state of California, making it the first state with an ethnic group other than white (non-Latino) as majority, families with parents of the same gender are on the rise, and our communities look more like “Glee” than “The Brady Bunch” (an apology for the cheesy analogy!).  More importantly, these populations are growing in purchasing power, political influence, educational attainment, etc. making them more and more similar to most current audiences, except that their ethnic and cultural identification is very different. Yet, every arts and culture organization that I know have single digit participation from ethnic and cultural minority groups.

There are two kinds of arguments for diversification: the “it is the right thing to do” argument, which is philosophically based and the one that most staff and boards from arts and culture organizations identifies with. The other one is the “financial” argument, which focuses on the economic stability of the institution in the long term: we need to engage diverse audiences now in order to ensure a smooth transition as demographics change.

The sports industry learned this long time ago. Both arguments are powerful and necessary, yet the financial one is seldom used. If you do not make the financial argument at your institution, you are risking its financial health in the future. We need to make the financial case along with the mission case and start putting money for diversification in our budgets, otherwise we are going to wake up in twenty years and find out that everything has changed and we were not prepared to act on that change. We all know that what goes in the budget is what we are going to be working on.

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