“Arts marketers often ask how they can attract more people to attend their performances. But they should consider not only identifying what factors will entice people to attend but identifying and breaking down the barriers that prevent people from attending.” — “This is Marketing” by Joanne Scheff Bernstein

So, what are some of the main barriers preventing people from attending arts events?

 Beyond the typical reasons why a person may not attend an event, arts organizations are now presented with a whole new set of barriers for virtual programming as well as looking ahead to the future in a post-COVID world. According to “COVID-19’s Impact on the Arts," a June 15th report by Americans for the Arts, since January 20, 2020 “cancellations and closings have taken place at nearly every arts organization across the country and nearly two-thirds of the nation’s artists are now unemployed.” Now more than ever, it’s crucial for all arts marketers to consider the full spectrum of barriers to learn where potential audiences are being left behind.

Even in the time before COVID, the most frequent arts patrons among us could experience the occasional attendance anxiety when attending a performance that was a new style or in a space they’d never been. I’ve worked professionally in opera for over five years, but I still had to confront my nerves the first time I attended a performance at the Met. Fortunately, my fears of doing something wrong as a patron were mitigated by a deeper personal embarrassment: I got caught in a snowstorm earlier in the day and ended up using the hand-dryer in a Lincoln Center restroom to dry my socks before the performance. This was not the “Moonstruck” fantasy I had envisioned for my first Metropolitan Opera performance, but then again, I’m rarely as glamorous as Cher.

This story does have a happy ending. Once I felt content with my dryness, I headed to my seat. The ushers mitigated my nerves by being attentive, helpful, and kind. My seat mitigated my nerves by offering a full range of languages for supertitles right on the back of the seat in front of me. My fellow patrons also mitigated my fears. I was sat next to an elderly couple who had been subscribers for decades and were so excited to share their evening with a newcomer.  How can we mitigate the barriers for attendance to get people in the door in the first place?

“Normal” Barriers

Before COVID made its debut, there were already enough barriers to arts attendance that could be explored for an entire blog series. What are some of the barriers for arts attendance outside of COVID? A report titled “When Going Gets Tough: Barriers and Motivations Affecting Arts Attendance” by the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) can offer some insights.

According to the NEA report, the biggest barriers included time and cost, not having someone to go with to a performance, and location and perception. Here are a few things to keep in mind when responding to these traditional barriers:

  • As marketers, we can try to understand what our target audiences value and how we can better fit into their lives and busy schedules. Consider their lifestyle stage, obligations, and what will provide the most value for their time.  
  • Many people value time spent with friends and family more than time spent alone, and it’s easier to try a new experience for the first time with someone you trust. Offering two-for-one ticket nights, opportunities to socialize before or after the event, and incentives for audience members who bring a friend to the organization for the first time are some ways to help bridge this barrier.
  • Arts venues often have a habit of being beautiful and daunting buildings in inconvenient locations with no parking. While this fact is luckily worth the small sacrifice for many loyal patrons, it can be a major deterrent for prospective attendees. Performing in different venues or making your space more welcoming by adding community art and comfortable communal seating options in the lobby, having a greeter at the door, and providing more information about what to expect on your website can help potential audiences feel a stronger sense of belonging.


Barriers for Virtual Programming

Virtual programming offerings have been the saving grace and a source of exciting innovation for many arts organizations. These digital offerings are also a great way to overcome barriers such as location, parking, cost, accessibility for people with disabilities, and now public health. According to Culture + Community in a Time of Crisis, a special edition of Culture Track, “many respondents who are using online cultural offerings had not physically visited the same kinds of cultural organizations in the past year.”

infographic of pink and white circles showing breakdown of digital users by content category and prior visitation

With all of that in mind, there are many benefits to be gained from virtual programming both now and moving forward. What are some barriers to digital events and performances?

Barrier: A lack of information: What will the level of engagement be for participants? Will videos be on for the audience? Will attendees be placed in breakout rooms and asked to have conversations? Will there be access to a chat feature or opportunities to ask questions?

Response: We are in a time of immense uncertainty, and many can’t handle adding any more to their lives. When marketing these events, include as much information as possible including the level of audience engagement and what to expect.

One demonstration of this is the Irish Repertory Theatre’s  step-by-step guides to watching their free digital performances on a screen and how the viewing link will be made available depending on the time you book your tickets. The company also provides important information such as running time, intermission details, and which shows will include captions.

Barrier: Time. Here’s a perk to digital events! Pending any certain agreements or rights that may not allow for later access, in many cases audiences can access a recording at a later time more fitting to their schedule. And we should let them know about this option.

Response: Many organizations provide a link to view the digital offering after the fact for those who registered. This provides a greater chance to reach more people as they will not be beholden to one time that may not work in their busy schedules. Here at Virginia Tech, the Moss Arts Center’s HomeStage Series offers that flexibility which is especially important on a college campus. When you reserve a ticket for a virtual performance, you can watch the event live or you can access a recording any time in the week following the event through a link they send out to all ticket holders.

Barrier: Digital Accessibility

Response:  "How to Make Your Virtual Meetings and Events Accessible to the Disability Community" offers a crucial breakdown of everything you need to consider in advance and in the planning process of your virtual events to ensure accessibility for those living with audio, visual, intellectual, or developmental disabilities. The article also pulls from 3-Play Media’s top three things needed to ensure live-stream content is accessible: live captions, live descriptions, and a good audio environment.

Another accessibility issue to keep in mind is access to reliable Wi-Fi. Consider whether or not people can access your event from home without using the internet or a computer. Some possible solutions could include ensuring there’s an option to call in with a phone or partnering with local television or radio stations to broadcast your virtual event. Offline communication is also important for reaching those without reliable Wi-Fi. Send out physical mailings, provide information at your local libraries and community centers, and pick up the phone and call those in your loyal audience base who you notice are not engaging in the new digital offerings.   

Barriers for In-Person Programming During and Following COVID

In a recent article for "The New York Times,” Sarah Bahr wrote, “As theaters look to see how they might reopen with safety accommodations including mask use, Dr. Anthony Fauci says it will likely be more than a year before people feel comfortable returning to theaters without masks.” 

While this is our present reality, many arts organizations are looking at ways to open safely right now or considering how to ensure audiences feel comfortable in their spaces again in the months and years to come. These are going to be some of the largest barriers we’ve seen as the public begins to heal and recover from life in a pandemic. What are some of the barriers for getting patrons back in your space over the next year?

Barrier: Real health concerns pre-vaccine. Inviting people into our spaces now or any time before the majority of the population has received a vaccine comes with risk and should only be done while following CDC rules and guidelines for social gatherings. According to the Culture + Community in a Time of Crisis report, “organizations control 6 out of 10 factors that will influence respondents’ decisions to return to cultural activities.”

These include increased cleaning, reduced admission levels, mask requirements for guests and staff, health screening measures prior to entry, and the organization’s decision that it is time to reopen.

Response: The best way to overcome this barrier is to go above and beyond these safety measures and also, importantly, communicate the protocols and work your organization is doing towards health and safety. Put it on your main website page, add a COVID FAQ, post updates on social media platforms, and send out email updates.

Barrier: Lingering fear post-vaccine. The four remaining factors that will influence decisions to return to cultural activities include an available vaccine, announcements from government and public health officials that it’s safe to return, wide availability of COVID immunity testing, and seeing other people starting to attend again. It will take time for a lot of people to feel safe attending large events again.

Response: While the external factors of vaccines and public safety announcements are outside of the control of arts and cultural organizations, arts marketers can work to make people comfortable coming into our venues again. Continue to promote any safety measures you’re taking, post updates from public health officials, show that other people are attending your events and encourage audiences to get the word out and bring their friends, and continue to offer some outdoor or more spread-out events so patrons can ease back in to being in public space with others again.

An example of an organization already doing this is the recently reopened New Museum in New York. They have their full list of health and safety measures for both attendees and the organization listed on their website along with updated operational policies. In order to get people back in the door again, they’re offering free admission for all visitors the first 12 days of their reopening!

How do we move forward? Wolf Brown recently launched an Audience Outlook Monitor, “an international collaboration between top researchers, funders, service organizations, and hundreds of cultural organizations who want to make informed decisions about how and when to re-start programming based on rigorous research data."

Nobody can fully predict what will happen to the industry, but as arts marketers we can do the work to extend our reach and bring in as many people as possible to be a part of our art and our community. Taking the time to understand and empathize with our audiences is always crucial for unpacking barriers and motivations for attendance. This is even more important now in our place of change and uncertainty. We have the power to help people through difficult times, but it’s the job of the marketer to bring people into this place of healing. 

The barriers in this blog are not the only barriers for arts attendance. As an industry, we must look deeply into our practices of equity, diversity, and inclusion. Please read the demands laid out in We See You, White American Theatre to gain a better understanding of the barriers traditional white theatre has built up to keep others out, and begin doing the transformative work necessary to break down these barriers.