Since venues have started to close due to COVID-19, there has been much talk about them reopening. More recently, that conversation has shifted to how to ensure that these venues are full again after they reopen.
But that statement and theory is flawed. With a few exceptions, concert halls, theatres and venues were generally not full before this pandemic began. The live performing arts has been suffering a loss of subscribers, declining ticket sales and empty seats long before COVID-19 was a consideration. Marketers can point to numerous reasons for this, and the efforts they were (and are) making to turn these trends around; however, those who don’t have the ways or means to experience live events are often overlooked in these efforts.
The examples of these individuals are endless. Those who are ill, remotely located, overworked, underpaid, impaired, new parents, those who work at night (when live performing arts are typically staged), no-car households, who are more interested in something else, etc. etc. They are those with barriers to attending that are simply not being addressed. However, the closure of venues and the move towards virtual technology has provided the opportunity to rethink the scope of what and who an organization’s “community” really is, and how these artists and organizations are reaching a larger audience.
Just imagine what a dramatic change in technology and shift in mindset could do. COVID-19 could be the start of an artistic revolution, where barriers are removed as organizations and artists bring their work to those who may not be able to attend a performance in person, or at the set time of a traditional show. Where working conditions are modified accordingly to encourage innovation, job growth and new audiences at once. Where the live performing arts lets go of many of its traditions that have prevented them from innovating and expanding outside of its local jurisdiction and is willing to evolve.
The result could be a new age of enlightenment- one that we are currently in the very formulative stages of. Other industries have come to the realization that in an increasingly global society, relying on local and pre-existing audiences alone is a limitation, and one that- for too many artists and organizations- results in not surviving. This moment could be the arts sector’s opportunity to shift focus, to grow audiences in a meaningful way and dive deeper into its community- both locally and globally- while also ensuring that the storytelling that is at the heart of the arts- remains there. However, to ensure that organizations big and small survive, a shift of not just mindset needs to take place- resources and financial modelling also need to evolve.
Streaming alone or providing a downloadable or virtual performance will not be sufficient to develop new audiences- particularly when so much is already available at varying quality online and at low cost or free. But with the number of advances that are occurring in technology, a performance experience does not need to stop at the performance. Increased engagement efforts and the incorporation of new media and markets provide the opportunity to create new experiences and new opportunities for audiences to ensure a meaningful performance- one that could rival, if not surpass, a live experience.
Financial modelling would also need to shift accordingly to match this evolution. Instead of re-imagining the ways that current finances are allocated per season through traditional (and already known) contributions and sources, economic value can be added through stand alone assets and services that organizations and artists already have on hand and are underutilized by a single source. Many theatres have started to do this already on an ad-hoc basis during this pandemic, with costume departments shifting focus to create masks. Through this, arts organizations can become less dependent on traditional sources of funding, while simultaneously becoming increasingly vital contributors to the economic well-being and worth of a region.
It is unknown at this point how long venues will be closed for, and when artists and arts organizations will be able to return to them to present their craft. It is also increasingly likely that the closures, and loss of revenues related to COVID-19 will result in professional artists and organizations being forced to shutter their practice. However, like a phoenix rises out of the ashes, it is possible for artists and organizations to make a shift now that will have a long term and dramatic effect on their operations following this pandemic so that they are not only well-prepared to weather future storms, but also lead others and new audiences to the same success.