Equitable Capacity Building, Organizational Learning, & Equitable Evaluation

Building Audiences for Sustainability (BAS) Stories Project
Funder: The Wallace Foundation
Project Time Period: 2019

Project Category: Audience Building/Performing Arts Organizations/Performance Measurement

About BAS: Launched in 2015 by the Wallace Foundation, in response to concerns of a declining audience base for a number of major art forms, the $52 million Building Audiences for Sustainability (BAS) Initiative seeks to help performing arts organizations strengthen their audience-building efforts, see if this contributes to the organizations' financial sustainability, and develop insights from their work to share with the field. The BAS Stories Project follows a handful of the 25 organizations in the initiative to see how they are using market research to help them learn about their audiences and address key problems of practice. Their stories can be useful for other organizations interested in using market research to answer their own audience-building questions and challenges.

The Work: MAI partnered with Research for Action (RFA) in supporting the final phase of the Wallace Foundation Building Audiences for Sustainability Initiative (“BAS"), which reflected on a 4- year period ending in November 2019. To inform its next steps, Wallace asked MAI and RFA to conduct focus groups with BAS grantees to learn more about barriers faced by performing arts organizations in becoming the most vital organizations possible. The evaluation team conducted focus groups with representatives of BAS grantee organizations that attended the BAS Learning Community. Fieldwork included six focus groups conducted on November 8th, 2019, and comprised 46 representatives of 24 grantee organizations. The data collection activities and subsequent deliverables addressed the following learning goals:

  • Understand landscape and field priorities to inform Client’s future thinking;
  • Reflections on BAS experience in terms of what was relevant, worth carrying forward, and aligned with broader priorities;
  • Designed to make grantees feel heard and opinions valued.

What We Learned: Participants reported three types of barriers impacting the vitality of their organizations, including barriers within the performing arts landscape, limitations of their business model, and challenges to their community relevance.

Landscape Barriers:

  • Performing arts organizations report increased competition and declining demand for the arts.
  • The arts are perceived to be undervalued.
  • Arts organizations are experiencing shifts in philanthropic priorities and decreases in philanthropy generally.

Business Model Challenges:

  • Many participants reported that their organizations do not have adequate resources.
  • Participants report that they are no longer able to rely as heavily on subscriptions for revenue.
  • Participants face tensions between income and mission when making programming choices.
  • Organizational boards often looked to as donors, don’t understand the business model.
  • Physical spaces and collective bargaining agreements make arts organizations less nimble in response to changes in the landscape.

Relevance, Diversity, and Inclusion Challenges:

  • Defining their target community is perceived as an existential question for some arts organizations.
  • Some arts organizations struggle to understand the interests of their target community.
  • Arts organizations grapple with historical racist and classist structures.
  • Arts organizations’ positionality and history can be at odds with the target community and with diversity, equity, and inclusion values.
  • There is a lack of preparation and funding for diversity, equity, and inclusion work.