Marketing the arts in the '90s

December 31, 1992

In the Italian city of Milan, where every cab driver and chimney sweep is an aficionado, the world-famous La Scala Opera House has no trouble filling its seats. But in most American cities, arts groups have to work hard to attract patrons, often using the kind of sophisticated advertising and marketing techniques once reserved for the makers of soap flakes and automobiles.

With public financing down as a result of recession-ravaged state and local budgets, and private donations in a slump, arts organizations are more eager than ever to get paying customers through the door. Meanwhile they are competing with television and a growing home entertainment industry that threatens to turn the children of today's concert audiences and theatergoers into a generation of electronic couch potatoes.

So it's no wonder many museums and symphony orchestras have turned to market research to lure audiences. The Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, for example, commissioned a market survey last year to help it target potential patrons for its popular mini-series concerts. Other groups have conducted focus groups and telephone surveys to get a better handle on how to peddle their product.

So far at least, there's no suggestion that this more aggressive approach to selling has affected the organizations' artistic standards. At the BSO, for example, decisions about what gets performed on stage are still made by the symphony's music director and guest conductors. But the marketing department decides how to package the events, and its choices can mean the difference between mediocre attendance and a sold-out hall.

Arts organizations are also making more vigorous efforts to diversify their audience and to attract young people and minorities. A recent concert at the Meyerhoff featuring the young violinist Nadia Salerno-Sonnenberg drew a significantly younger audience on average than the BSO's normal subscribers. Similarly, a concert by the Harlem Boys' Choir earlier this month attracted an audience almost evenly divided between blacks and whites.

Though some have decried Madison Avenue's influence in the marketing of performers and art works as if they were fancy consumer items, a bit of hype is nothing new to the art world. Nor is there much danger that less talented, but better promoted, performers will crowd out true geniuses. Audiences and history eventually sort these things out regardless of the glitz -- which is as it should be, just so long as they're packing 'em in.

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