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creative:impact - Alan Brown returns to talk about audiences returning

Alan Brown
Alan Brown

A leading expert on cultural audience behavior, Alan Brown returns to "creative:impact" after his first appearance in April 2020 just weeks after COVID-19 shut down cultural venues. He announced then that he was launching the Audience Monitor Outlook, a study of COVID’s impact on audiences and when they would comfortably return to cultural venues. He gives an update on his findings to "creative:impact" host Deb Polich of Creative Washtenaw.

Deb Polich
Deb Polich, President and CEO of Creative Washtenaw

Creative industries in Washtenaw County add hundreds of millions of dollars to the local economy.  In the weeks and months to come, 89.1 WEMU's David Fair and co-host Deb Polich, the President and CEO of Creative Washtenaw, explore the myriad of contributors that make up the creative sector in Washtenaw County.


Alan Brown is a leading researcher and management consultant in the nonprofit arts industry. His work focuses on understanding consumer demand for cultural experiences and helping cultural institutions, foundations and agencies see new opportunities, make informed decisions and respond to changing conditions. His studies have introduced new vocabulary to the lexicon of cultural participation and propelled the field towards a clearer view of the rapidly changing cultural landscape.

For 2017-18, Alan’s work will follow several veins. Assessing the intrinsic impacts of arts experiences continues be a focus of his work, most recently through projects with the Australia Council for the Arts, the National Endowment for the Arts, and Theatre Bay Area. His paper, “Measuring the intrinsic impacts of arts attendance” (co-authored with Jennifer L. Novak-Leonard) was published in the journal Cultural Trends in 2013. From 2012-2015, Alan and his staff led a large capacity building program for 46 performing arts grantees of the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation to learn from audiences. The capstone paper from this initiative, “Building Capacity for Audience Research,” takes stock of lessons learned. He is currently leading a major initiative for the Canada Council for the Arts to develop an impact framework and recommendations for measurement approaches.

Understanding patterns of arts participation has been a career focus of Alan’s. With Jennifer L. Novak-Leonard, Alan prepared Research Report #54 for the National Endowment for the Arts, Beyond Attendance: A Multi-Modal Understanding of Arts Participation, which was released in 2011. Recognizing the need for better approaches to measuring participation, Alan has designed and developed measurement systems that communities can use to track levels of public engagement in arts and culture, including the Philadelphia Cultural Engagement Index, a Province-wide study of arts participation for the Ontario Arts Council, and a study of patterns of arts participation in Greater Cincinnati for ArtsWave. In 2014, Alan led a team of consultants in an analysis of the cultural ecosystem of Northwest Arkansas, providing the Walton Family Foundation with an assessment of gaps in the infrastructure and strategies for filling them.

With funding support from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, Alan completed a multi-site study of student engagement in the performing arts for a consortium of university presenters led by the Hopkins Center for the Arts at Dartmouth College, and an assessment of concert format innovations for the New World Symphony in Miami Beach. His essay, “All the World’s a Stage: Venues and Settings and the role they play in shaping patterns of arts participation” was published in 2012 by Grantmakers in the Arts, and appears in the book, The audience experience: A critical analysis of audiences in the performing arts (University of Chicago Press, 2013).

Applied audience research, including customer segmentation, remains a thrust of Alan’s work, with recent studies for Steppenwolf, Chicago History Museum, Welsh National Opera, Pacific Symphony, South Coast Rep, San Francisco Ballet, Major University Presenters (MUP) consortium and Glyndebourne Opera Festival. He is presently working to develop improved methods for incorporating customer preference data from survey research into ticketing databases.

Alan works at the nexus of cohorts of arts organizations striving to build audiences, deepen community connections, and capitalize appropriately. In partnership with Arthur Nacht, Alan led a multi-year evaluation of Nonprofit Finance Fund’s Leading For The Future initiative, a groundbreaking grant program building on the principles of capitalization to transform nonprofit arts organizations, with funding from the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation. He has evaluated several other grant programs for Duke, including the Doris Duke Building Demand for the Arts program. Alan advises the Flinn Foundation (Phoenix) on its Initiative for Creative and Financial Health, supporting the work of a portfolio of Arizona’s largest cultural institutions to learn and implement stronger capitalization plans. In 2016, Alan was engaged by The Wallace Foundation to design and facilitate cross-site learning for a cohort of 26 grantees working to build audiences.

While research and evaluation comprise the majority of Alan’s work, he occasionally leads strategic planning efforts in situations where the planning work depends on a more substantial approach to stakeholder interviews and market research. In 2014, Alan completed a strategic plan for Dancers’ Group, the Bay Area service organization, and more recently collaborated with Joe Kluger on a strategic plan for Pacific Symphony.

Alan is the founder of CultureLab, an international consortium of arts consultants who aim to build a bridge between academic research and everyday practice, and to speed the diffusion of promising practice into the cultural sector. As a contribution to the field, he developed the CultureLab.net website – a knowledge hub and archiving solution for students, researchers and practitioners working in the cultural sector. He has chaired the Cultural Research Network, a worldwide network of researchers working in the cultural sector, and speaks frequently at conferences in the US and overseas.

Prior to his consulting career, Alan served for five years as Executive Director of the Ann Arbor Summer Festival, where he presented Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughn and many other artists. He holds three degrees from the University of Michigan: a Master of Business Administration, a Master of Music in Arts Administration and a Bachelor of Musical Arts in vocal performance. After living on both coasts, he resettled to Detroit in 2017, in hopes of participating in the cultural renaissance of that great American city.



Alan Brown

Audience Outlook Monitor


Deb Polich: This is 89 one WEMU, and I'm Deb Polich, president and CEO of Creative Washtenaw and usually David Fair's co-host for WEMU weekly feature, creative:impact. David is out on medical leave, so, until he returns in full health sometime after Thanksgiving, I'm pleased to serve as your solo host. Join me over the next few weeks as we welcome creative guests and continue to explore the impact of the arts and creative industries in Washtenaw County. I am so pleased to welcome back Alan Brown to the show. He is principal of WolfBrown, a market research and consulting support company for cultural organizations. He's also known as one of the world's best, if not the expert on cultural audiences. Alan, it's so great to have you back. 

Alan Brown: Thanks, Deb. Great to be here.

Deb Polich: You know, it was 18 months ago, April 13th, when we last had you on the show. And looking back as word as we were then, we were pretty optimistic that the pandemic would be contained, and we'd be back to our daily lives rather quickly. And here it is, 18 months. And even though we're armed with more knowledge and tools, the pandemic is a fight we continue with every day. Alan, you had the foresight to anticipate that no matter how long it lasted, the pandemic was going to have an long-term impact on the arts and culture organizations. And turning to data as you do, you launched the Audience Outlook Monitor within weeks of the virus striking. Remind our audience is what the monitor is and why you began to track this data. 

Alan Brown: Sure, Deb. Well, first of all, thanks for having me on. And greetings to all your good listeners. The Audience Outlook Monitor is a longitudinal tracking study of audience attitudes about returning to cultural events during the COVID pandemic. It became very clear early on that we needed a way of hearing from audience members who, after all, will vote with their feet in terms of whether or not they're ready to go out again. So, it's been quite a roller coaster since the spring of 2020. We've been collecting data monthly in about 15 or 20 different cities in the US. We also have partners in Australia and Canada and Scandinavia who are deploying the same survey. So, we've really been able to compare and contrast results across cities and across countries over the last sort of 16 months. 

Deb Polich: Are you tracking both the audiences attitudes and confidence about venues--going to venues--and also tracking perhaps the losses to organizations? 

Alan Brown: Well, we're focusing on audiences and through survey tools, essentially. Over 600 cultural organizations are deploying our survey, which means they send out a request to take the survey to a random sample of their patrons--of their ticket buyers--every month. And that's the data that comes in. Of course, arts and cultural organizations are closely monitoring their actual sales. They're so different for different kinds of organizations. Museums opened much earlier at reduced capacity here in Metro Detroit. You know, the Henry Ford reopened last year, the zoo reopened, and everyone is kind of slowly climbing out of it. But, more recently, just in September and October, many of the performing arts organizations have begun programming again. Andm of course, we're watching that carefully. 

Deb Polich: This is creative:impact on eighty nine point one WEMU. Our guest is Alan Brown, former Ann Arborite and principal at Wolfe Brown, a market research company for cultural organizations. And we're talking about WolfBrown's Audience Outlook Monitor. Alan, what do you know about cultural audiences and their vaccine levels? 

Credit Audience Outlook Monitor / audienceoutlookmonitor.com
Audience Monitor Vaccination Percentage


Alan Brown: Sure. Well, within the audience, if you will, which includes ticket buyers to all sorts of programs and visitors to museums and outdoor attractions, the uptake on the vaccine was really astonishing. Recall the rollout of the vaccine started in mid-December last year, and, by April and May, we were north of 90 percent of arts audience is vaccinated, and we continue, you know, obviously we're still monitoring that, but we're at anywhere from 90 to 98 percent, depending on the city. There are some regional variations. I think the lowest figure I've seen anywhere is about 85 percent in some southern cities. But, in the northern cities by and large, especially the coastal cities--New York, Boston, L.A., San Francisco--, we're seeing rates of vaccination in the sort of 98, 99 percent range. So... 

Deb Polich: So really pretty significant. You know, the vaccination rate. And, for those audiences. But still, you're seeing a different response in different... 

Alan Brown: Sure. 

Deb Polich: ...areas, not only by geography, but also by the cohorts like classical music theaters or museums. Correct? 

Alan Brown: Right. Correct. Correct. Yeah, it's, you know, we've gone through a process, I think, as a country of sort of learning what level of protection vaccination provides us, and, you know, there was this, I think, initial euphoria. After we all got vaccinated or most people got vaccinated, you know, "My God, I am out of the woods and I am ready to get back." And then I think really over the summer months, we began to learn about breakthrough infections and some of the limitations of our protection. And I think that was a tough pill to swallow for a lot of people, particularly those who were caring for people who either cannot get vaccinated or who have serious health issues. So, right now, you know, with the Delta variant surge, we were doing really well in June and July. And then things really tanked in August. Our data suggest about 25 percent of demand for cultural events just evaporated in one month, and we're climbing back out of that now. We're not yet back to where we were pre-surge, but we're getting there. But we're still showing roughly about 30 percent of all ticket buyers are just not ready to go out yet. They're thinking they might come back in the next year or a little later, but they're really waiting for conditions to improve on the ground. 

Credit Audience Outlook Monitor / audienceoutlookmonitor.com
Audience Monitor Executive Briefing 1


Deb Polich: Yeah, I know. It's still continuing and in will for quite some time. This is creative:impact on WEMU eighty nine point one, and our guest is Alan Brown, and we are talking about WolfBrown's Audience Outlook Monitor. Your October briefing includes an update on the Southeast Michigan Detroit Hope cohort that includes a lot of Washtenaw County. What are the key indicators from that report? 

Alan Brown: Well, Detroit, through CultureSource and its philanthropic funders, has been a partner in our studies from the very beginning. In fact, they were the first partner to sign on packing 

Deb Polich: Yay, Detroit and southeast Michigan! 

Alan Brown: Yeah, exactly. So, it's been fantastic and, actually, when we sort of re-rolled over the studying and started a new phase in January, additional cultural organizations joined the course, and we have almost 30 cultural organizations in southeastern Michigan in the cohort. It's deploying our survey, everything from the very largest organization to some very small ones. So, it's a really great cross-section. And the trends in Detroit are quite similar to what we're seeing. Detroiters are a little less cautious than perhaps people in New York and Boston and out on the West Coast, more similar to what we're seeing in Pittsburgh and Milwaukee. I think vaccination on average, vaccination rates in southeastern Michigan, are more like 90 percent, which is still super high. 

Deb Polich: Right. 

Alan Brown: But, you know, we're in a little bit of a quandary right now. Most people have kind of figured out the drill of vaccine-only admittance policies and mask requirements and distancing, and people have kind of figured out what their conditions are. They're, you know, they're willing to go out. And most artists are unable to offer distancing because they really need to sell every seat.

Deb Polich: Right, right.

Credit Audience Outlook Monitor / audienceoutlookmonitor.com
Audience Outlook Executive Confidence


Alan Brown: And it's not economically viable to do distancing. But, unfortunately, we're still showing about a quarter of all our audiences won't go out unless there is distancing. So, we're really suggesting to arts and cultural organizations to look for distancing opportunities. For example, if they're unsold sections of the theater to invite people to reseat themselves, or to hold a few rows in the back of their house for people who, at the last minute, don't feel comfortable and want to move. 

Deb Polich: Sure. Sure. 

Alan Brown: You know, there are a number of options available, and we really need to explore that. 

Deb Polich: Well, you know, this has been an amazing tool, this monitor, and I know that's been very important to the field. And we will look first to you and your data to guide our sector as we recalibrate and respond to our audiences. Alan, thank you so much for joining us on creative:impact and giving us this update. 

Alan Brown: My pleasure, Deb. I just want to say that going to the theaters probably about the safest place on Earth you can go, given in the high vaccination rates and all the safety protocols. So, I just encourage people when they feel comfortable to get out. It's amazing to be back. 

Deb Polich: Absolutely. Well, that's Alan Brown with WolfBrown, and he's been speaking with us about WolfBrown's Audience Outlook Monitor and the long term study that they've been doing. So learn more about Alan and find the October Outlook Monitor briefing at WEMU dot org. I'm Deb Polich, and this is your community NPR Station WEMU eighty nine point one and WEMU HD one Ypsilanti. 

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Polich hosts the weekly segment creative:impact, which features creative people, jobs and businesses in the greater Ann Arbor area.
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