How Cleveland’s once-fragile arts sector is shaping the city’s future

A decade ago, Cleveland Public Theatre’s audience had dwindled by half and the organization was sitting on a $450,000 deficit. Today, it’s had an operating surplus for the past nine years and its audience has gone up 30 percent since the 2008-2009 season.

MOCA Cleveland has also gone through a growth spurt. Since moving to Uptown, annual attendance has tripled from 18,000 to 50,000. The organization has experimented with ways to engage audiences in its shows and also to make contemporary art more accessible to diverse groups of people.

And while the Cleveland Playhouse lost a share of its subscription base when it moved to Playhouse Square in 2011, its audience has also gotten younger and more diverse. Single ticket sales are up and so is community engagement, and leaders here see themselves on a successful trajectory.

These three organizations – pillars of Cleveland’s vibrant, cosmopolitan arts community – faced potentially radically different futures just a few years ago. In Cleveland and across the country, audiences for art forms in the nonprofit sector had been eroding since the 80s. Arts groups were in the process of reinventing themselves in the wake of the recession.

“The proportion of adults who attended at least one of several kinds of performances or an art museum or gallery in the past year declined from 1982 to 2008 by 11.3 percent overall,” state authors Holly Sidford and Nick Rabkin in a white paper written for Cuyahoga Arts and Culture (CAC). They cite a 33 percent decline in ballet attendance, a 21 percent decline in attendance at non-musical plays and a one percent decline in attendance at art museums and galleries.

In the past five years, however, while some nonprofit arts organizations have struggled or gone out of existence, still others have reinvented themselves and thrived – or at least turned the corner. One program that’s made a difference has been Engaging the Future, a Cleveland Foundation supported effort that offered operating support, project funding and technical assistance to spur innovation.

“Ten years ago, we saw considerable debts and declining audiences,” says Kathleen Cerveny, Director of Institutional Learning and Arts Initiatives with the Cleveland Foundation, of the groups that participated in Engaging the Future. “There were concerns about arts organizations’ ability to attract patrons of the future. Today, these conditions have changed or are changing for the better.”

A Proactive Approach

The effort to strengthen Cleveland’s arts organizations and cultivate new audiences began in the 1990s. The Cleveland Foundation published an influential study that underscored the fragility of the city’s arts scene, and that helped set the stage. Two of the weaknesses that were identified were lack of professional development for arts managers and lack of public funding for the arts.

In the late 1990s, the Cleveland Foundation and George Gund Foundation commissioned a strategic plan called the Northeast Ohio Arts and Culture Plan. An arts research, public policy and capacity building group called the Community Partnership for Arts and Culture (CPAC) was established to help carry it out.

The Cleveland Foundation, meanwhile, took on professional development programs for arts managers. Throughout the 1990s and 2000s, the foundation launched key programs to strengthen the arts. Sometimes that meant investing in technology; other times, it meant helping groups build capital to achieve stability. When voters approved public funding for the arts in 2006, that was another victory for the city’s arts scene, which benefited from operating support.

Engaging the Future was launched in 2011 to spur the next level of innovative thinking. The $4.6 million program included executive-level seminars, hands-on workshops, and trainings in how to incubate an innovative idea. Financial support was offered in the form of annual operating support, grants to test innovative prototypes and implementation grants. For groups that raised matching funds, the foundation also awarded “innovation capital funds” to seed ongoing innovation.

Arts groups that completed Engaging the Future were the Cleveland Orchestra, Cleveland Play House, Great Lakes Theatre, MOCA, SPACES, Groundworks, Beck Center, DanceCleveland and Cleveland Public Theatre (CPT). Although these groups were already thinking about how to innovate to develop audiences for the future, ETF provided them with invaluable time, space and funding.

“The timing was great because we were rethinking our marketing and had just done a strategic plan,” comments Raymond Bobgan, Executive Artistic Director of CPT. “But we were planning in a vacuum and didn’t have that outsider’s perspective and we didn’t have an outsider saying to us, ‘This is really important.'”

In the past few years, CPT has launched a host of new initiatives to strengthen its audience. The group implemented “Free Beer Fridays” and piloted ways to engage audiences in content. One of the biggest changes, however, was starting Teatro Publico – a new Hispanic theatre company that was launched last year.

“Our community is really richly diverse, but we weren’t seeing these actors on stage and that was wrong,” says Bobgan. “We thought, ‘Can we go to a community, taking the skills we’ve developed, and help that community to make their own theatre?’”

Since its debut, Teatro Publico has produced successful shows with an ensemble cast of local Hispanic actors – including Mi Munequita (My Little Doll), a play written by Uruguayan playwright Gabriel Caulderon that recently premiered as it was written, entirely in Spanish.

Taking Risks to Grow Audiences

CPT offers one example of an arts organization forced to think differently, but the issues it faces are the same ones affecting every local arts group. In 2012, just one-third of U.S. adults visited an art museum or gallery or attended a performing arts event, “and those that did attend were older, better-educated and higher-income than the population at large,” according to the CAC white paper.

In other words, if arts groups were going to survive, they needed to innovate and engage new audiences. Yet the news isn’t all bad: “At the same time, robust cultural activity is taking place outside those nonprofit cultural institutions – at the community level, online and in public spaces of various kinds. Demand for active participation in the arts is going up across demographic groups. Fully half of all adults ‘created, performed or shared art through various methods’ in 2012.”

ETF was designed to help organizations better understand themselves in order to spur internal change. “As much as it is an audience development program, it really is an institutional innovation program,” says Cerveny, stressing that there are no formulas for success. “It’s not just about marketing; it’s not just about looking out and finding different groups to target. It’s also about looking inside to see how you may have to change to affect that outcome that you may want.”

The program allowed the time and space for deep thinking. “The real benefit was bringing thought leaders to bear on something that we were already grappling with — and having the benefit of discipline and time,” says Kevin Moore, Managing Director of the Playhouse, of the executive-level seminars. “If I hadn’t been there, I probably would have used that day working through a lengthy to do list instead.”

Although Moore says “the jury’s still out” on whether or not the Cleveland Playhouse is stronger in terms of its audience than it was before moving downtown, he would argue that it is much more connected to the community. “You’re not going to engage the future if you’re not relevant,” he says.

The Cleveland Orchestra’s “At Home” residency program, which takes place this year in Slavic Village, was also shaped in important ways by ETF. “The story I like to tell is that the orchestra is very good at putting on a gig,” says Ross Binnie, Chief Marketing Officer. “But if we hadn’t been involved in Engaging the Future or some format like that, we would have gone to neighborhoods like Gordon Square and told them, ‘You’re going to get this, this, this and this and then we’ll go away.’We’ve learned to listen better because we went through the program.”

The residency is part of a long-term bid to breed the next generation of orchestra goer, Binnie says. Last year, the group saw a one percent growth in its audience despite a decline in season ticket holders, and Binnie credits that to innovative marketing strategies that reach younger audiences and non-subscribers: “We’re attracting more households, but they’re coming less often, and that’s OK.”

MOCA’s audience growth has come not only from the allure of its stunning, gem-like Uptown building, but also engagement strategies such as the wall used to share food memories during last year’s Ferran Adria show. “We had all of these new visitors coming to see contemporary art that was intimidating, so we thought, ‘How do we lower the intimidation threshold?'” says Director Jill Snyder. “We were able to design some experimental ideas to test the behavior of new audiences.”

Innovating the Future

Although the Engaging the Future program is over, one key legacy will be the creation of what Cerveny has called  “Innovation Funds.” Ranging from $40,000-$400,000 or more, these funds are being used as either permanent or semi-permanent ways to support ongoing innovation within arts groups.

Additionally, the Cleveland Foundation has partnered with a foundation in Great Britain to produce a book, due out later this year, that will examine several case studies of innovation within arts groups from Cleveland and the UK.

Cerveny says Engaging the Future’s long-term impact can be seen in how these arts organizations in Cleveland now look at themselves and approach audience development: “ will inform us going forward. Arts organizations will bring us new ideas and ways of attacking this challenge. This is a priority.”

This story was originally published on reshWaterClevelandcom and is being republished here as part of a content-sharing partnership with Issue Media Group, a Detroit-based media company that publishes stories about investment, growth, and the people leading communities in cities nationwide.


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