Using Psychology to Grow Your Audience: One “Audience Exchange” at a Time

The audience plays a significant role in the art world. They determine success, in part based on whether they choose to participate in the arts at all. However, the power of audiences extends far beyond the direct interactions with arts events. Thus, studying and researching arts audiences can be as crucial to an arts event as the art itself. By understanding how audiences are impacted by arts events, and how they, in turn, choose to create (or not create) their impact through the arts, this research can be used to create developmental tools to enrich audience experiences at arts events.

The scholarship of Stephanie E. Pitts, Professor of Music at the University of Sheffield (UK), provides insight into the experiences of audiences at arts events. In her Psychology of Music article “On the Edge of their seats: Comparing first impressions and regular attendance in arts audiences”, she reports the findings of a questionnaire and interview study that compares arts attenders with those of an audience exchange group1 . An audience exchange group is a research tool used to gather insight from audience experiences. Participants are taken to unfamiliar arts events and then discuss their expectations, first impressions, and intentions for future arts engagement. The study examines the possibility of how the existing beliefs and behaviors of regular arts events attendees may cause first-time audience members to feel distanced or estranged from the event and the environment surrounding it. New attenders of arts events are often faced with psychological barriers that may be influenced by external factors, as they approach these events alongside regular audience members with what appears to be an established and close community. When describing their habits, new attenders presume themselves to be more “eclectic and distinctive” than the more “predictably and sociably” frequent attendees. Taking no action steps to try to diminish these psychological barriers that new audiences members face has the possibility of new attenders being deterred from attending another event, making it difficult for arts organizations to ever expand their audiences2. Pitts’ study highlights the opportunity to use audience research that can serve as a development tool “by encouraging reflective discussion of arts experiences amongst new attenders.”3

In another study outlined in “‘Audience exchange’: cultivating peer-to-peer dialogue at unfamiliar arts events” published in the journal Arts and the Market, Pitts and collaborator Jonathan Gross, further explore the audience exchange approach and its potential to be useful for “audience development and research”.4 Discussion and qualitative research of arts audiences provides the opportunity to collect information far beyond demographic data and numerical scales of basic quantitative data. This study illuminates the possibility for these conversations with first-time attendees of arts events to enhance experiences with arts organizations. Arts organizations benefit from dialog with audience exchange facilitators and exchange attendees benefit from peer-to-peer learning. Connecting new attenders with one another creates an opportunity for these individuals to feel like a part of a community at an arts event. As a result, when reflecting upon the event, this connection has the ability to tear down some of the psychological barriers that may have prevented the new attendee from wanting to take part in another art event.5 This is comparative to a recent NEA study about art events attendees, socializing with friends and family members was found to be the most common motivation for arts attendance. When surveyed, about one in five interested non-attendees said they did not attend an arts event because they had no one to go with.6

In a time when arts funding is constantly being attacked, it is critical for arts organizations to find ways to connect and build relationships with their current and potential audiences. Audience exchange is one tool that provides that opportunity. Though these two studies do have limitations of small sample sizes and are limited to music arts events, both studies’ findings imply that taking the time to engage with and research your audience beyond the basic quantitative data of commercial market research across all art disciplines could expand to new audience attendance. Ultimately, putting in the effort to analyze the psychology of the audience could allow arts organizations to develop relationships that have the potential to be longer lasting and more beneficial for all parties.

  1. Stephanie Pitts, "On The Edge Of Their Seats: Comparing First Impressions And Regular Attendance In Arts Audiences,” in SAGE Journals (University of Sheffield, UK, 2016).
  2. Pitts, "On The Edge Of Their Seats”.
  3. Ibid.
  4. Stephanie Pitts and Jonathan Gross. “Audience exchange”: cultivating peer-to-peer dialogue at unfamiliar arts events," in Arts and the Market, Vol. 7 No. 1 (2017), 65-79.
  5. Pitts and Gross. "Audience exchange," 65-79.
  6. National Endowment for the Arts. 2015. "When Going Gets Tough: Barriers And Motivations Affecting Arts Attendance,” in NEA Research Report. (Washington, DC: NEA Office of Research & Analysis. 2015)