It’s not just the content of the program that counts. It’s why that content matters in your space.
A lot of what we create programmatically can happen at home. You can screen a film on Netflix. You can watch a YouTube video of an author discussing their book. You can do a craft project at your kitchen table.
So we have to make a case for why those things are better in our space.
History matters. I worked for a few years in a cultural center housed in a former synagogue. The space was an historic landmark, and its story and history were deeply compelling. Leveraging that history changed our programming. Not only could we offer our patrons great arts experienced, but we could also give them a connection to history, a connection to a story they were becoming a part of. It added an emotional pull to the things we did, and it helped. What’s the history of your space? What’s the story of your space? Connecting those things to the programming you create will deepen the connections for your patrons.
What else you got? In our library, there’s a whole world of things outside our programming room that patrons can engage in. We try to leverage that as much as we can to make attending our programming special. Like the talk? Here are some other books in our collection to check out. Enjoy the panel? Here’s a MakerSpace activity to complement it. Connect the different parts of your space to your programming. Give people more bang for their time “buck.”
If you aren’t the space, find the space. Maybe your space doesn’t create the right emotional and community connections for a program. Find another space that does. Bringing programming out into the community, to reach patrons where they live and where they are, can really work. We have started bringing some of our traditional library programming into the schools, because we found students didn’t really come to the library for talks or programs. Now, by bringing the programming into the spaces they inhabit, we’re reaching that demographic in a whole new way.
This April, Root & Branch Productions in England will be producing 18 Victoria, my little “asteroid destroys the Earth” play. I’m excited to be working with them on the show.
It’s important to devote energy to expanding the community of people you serve. But we can waste a lot of energy comparing our reach to the reach of other organIzations.
Their success isn’t our failure. Maybe our neighbor organization is really killing it with college-age students. Obsessing about how we can replicate that success in-house is wasted energy. We need to look at who we successfully reach and devote energy into serving them better.
Work together, not against. If an organization is really good at something that we are struggling with, we should see them as a potential partner, not competition. Looking for ways to expand our community through collaboration is more fruitful for everyone.
Change takes time. The communities we envy didn’t grow overnight. Our community didn’t grow overnight. Shaping the audience community for our programming takes time, and so will expanding it. Think incrementally. Have targeted, reachable goals. Be patient.
In arts programming, we don’t build audience. We build community.
Thinking about audience makes our programming transactional. It’s a one-off proposition: We make a thing. People come. We count the numbers. We’re done.
Thinking about community makes our programming about relationships. It’s an ongoing proposition: We make a space. People come. We share experience. And we grow that relationship.
Programming that focuses on community:
- Is connected. People feel a part of a larger whole and feel connected to other individuals.
- Is empowering. It creates systems that support individual success as well as community success.
- Is nurturing. People experience things like safety, validation, visibility.
When we build community over building audience, we give people more than programming. We give them a tribe to belong to. We give them a space to grow and thrive.
Came across a fantastic clip of Issa Rae on Twitter this morning:
Who’s next to you? Who’s struggling? Who’s in the trenches with you? Who’s just as hungry as you?
It’s a great reminder to harness the power we have in our individual circles. Our immediate communities are a rich and abundant resource.
And they matter.