The doom-and-gloom reports surged shortly after the pandemic faded. Crowds weren’t coming back to theaters, museums and concert halls. Did Orange County venues and arts presenters experience the same audience desertion?
In 2021 and 2022, the New York Times, Los Angeles Times and many other sources delivered a steady drumbeat of bad news about post-pandemic audiences in different parts of the country.
Market research at the time reinforced the dire atmosphere. In a July 2022 report, nonprofit arts consulting firm Wolf Brown forecast a permanent 25–30 percent reduction in audience attendance nationwide. The reasons, according to its Audience Outlook Monitor report, included consumer insecurity and the explosion of streaming options in most American homes.
“There was a greater magnetic force of people’s couches than I, as a producer, anticipated,” said Jeremy Blocker, the managing director at New York Theater Workshop, in an August 2022 New York Times interview. “People got used to not going places during the pandemic, and we’re going to struggle with that for a few years.”
A year has passed since those dark reports appeared in many areas of the country. As with most trend stories, the underlying dynamics of the shift present a more nuanced picture than initial evidence suggested. Ticket sales have rebounded more solidly in some cities than others.
Denver has suffered significant losses in overall arts participation, according to a February article in the Denver Gazette. “We’re seeing 80% of pre-pandemic attendance,” said Philip Sneed, president and CEO of Denver’s Arvada Center for the Arts and Humanities. “We’re projecting 82% for fiscal year 2022-23 — and the trendline looks to be flattening.”
In San Francisco, the numbers are more mixed-to-positive. “Ticket sales, particularly for top-level, star-powered operatic and symphonic performances, are robust,” reported Jim Farber in an San Francisco Classical Voice article published in May. However, Farber pointed out a problem that evidence suggests is more widespread. “The major impact that companies are facing is a significant decline in the sale of subscription packages.”
Season ticket sales had been shrinking at many large arts organizations well before COVID struck in 2020. Clearly, larger forces are at play that the pandemic reinforced or, in some cases, camouflaged. And each community is encountering its own unique challenges as arts institutions realign themselves to the new normal.
In a recent questionnaire, we asked local arts leaders about audience dropoff and a host of related issues that affect programming, earned income, fundraising and other crucial elements of their operation. Are the changes of the last two years permanent or temporary? Are some of the post-pandemic shifts positive rather than negative? Besides declining attendance, what other significant post-COVID changes have they noticed?
Not surprisingly, their answers reveal that the challenges and surprises of recovery are sometimes strikingly different for each group.
A ‘palpable eagerness’ to return
John Forsyte, president of Pacific Symphony, said there’s no evidence that the downward trend has significantly affected ticket sales for his orchestra’s concerts. But he’s noticed that other musical ensembles are feeling the pinch, and there are additional danger signs.
“We’ve been quite fortunate that our audiences have returned. While we may be down a few percentage points, it's not as bad as some other orchestras that I've learned about. There have been other long-term trends which are real, and I think most orchestras are experiencing, for example, smaller package size” (subscription choices that include fewer concerts).
“We’ve slowly seen the return of our pre-pandemic numbers, but it took a long time for visitors to feel comfortable gathering in crowds like group tours and festivals, despite the museum’s continued precautions,” said Kelly (Bishop) Radomske, vice president of external affairs at the Bowers Museum. “A portion of our visitors still choose to engage virtually, and this makes sense as we tend to cater to an older audience who are ‘high risk.’”
Oánh Nguyen, executive artistic director of the Chance Theater in Anaheim Hills, points to the economy rather than flagging enthusiasm for a decline in attendance at his theater, which he sees as the reason for an accompanying falloff in donations.
“There's been a palpable eagerness among our audience to return to live performances,” he said. “Many patrons seem to have a renewed appreciation for the arts and are enthusiastic about supporting local theater. However, the pandemic has left its mark on people's financial situations, causing some to lower their level of attendance and support.”
At the Segerstrom Center for the Arts, president and CEO Casey Reitz notes there’s been a change in ticket-buying patterns since the pandemic.
“There has been a significant shift towards online purchasing, with many patrons becoming more comfortable with making purchases online. We also introduced digital tickets, allowing patrons the opportunity to share tickets with their friends and family. This new feature has connected us to over 22,000 new customers.”
At some local institutions, recovery was sluggish at first but has gained momentum in recent months.
The Hilbert Museum of California Art was the first public space at Chapman University to reopen its doors, allowing public access on March 30, 2021. “Attendance at first was sparse; between 20 and 30 people a day,” said Mary Platt, the museum’s director. “But as our PR and advertising ramped up, daily attendance began to grow, slowly but surely. It took less than a year to pretty much return to our usual attendance of about 400 to 500 people per week.”
Some arts leaders note that audiences have become more selective about their choices, leading to larger attendance swings and a tendency to go for the tried-and-true.
“Overall, Pacific Chorale’s audiences have rebounded strongly for our holiday offerings, but much more slowly for our classical offerings,” said Andrew Brown, the choir’s president and CEO. “December 2022 holiday concerts (were) some of our highest-attended concerts ever, and pre-sales for holiday programs this year are already tracking similarly to last year. Audiences seem to be craving a deeper connection to programs that are familiar and comforting.”
Renee Bodie, manager of Soka University’s Performing Arts Center, agreed.
“Patrons seem to be going out less often overall and will carefully choose the artists to see and the concerts to attend. There are not as many patrons willing to take a risk on artists they may know only marginally or not at all for the sake of going out to see live music.”
A similar pattern is evident at the Segerstrom Center, Reitz said. “Broadway sales continue to increase since reopening. Cabaret has returned stronger than past pre-pandemic levels. Performances that typically attract an older audience such as dance and chamber music, as well as family series which focus on a younger audience, are slower to return.” The Segerstrom Center has welcomed almost 60,000 first-time ticket buyers to its shows since the pandemic, many of them drawn to popular favorites such as ABT’s annual “Nutcracker.”
Fandom plays just as crucial a role as familiarity in determining the success of a concert, Bodie said. “In my experience, the fan factor – the passion about an artist – is right now the thing that will bring a patron out of their home and into the venue to sell out a show.”
Brown sees an interesting pattern behind falling season subscription sales. “Overall subscription renewals continue to lag a bit. However, many of those patrons not renewing their subscriptions are still attending concerts, even multiple concerts in a season, just without the long-range commitment.”
Such patterns suggest adopting a more flexible approach to subscriptions – something many arts groups were already doing before the pandemic.
“We are … offering greater flexibility in ticketing with the ‘Create Your Own Season’ model, where patrons can pick from any genre to curate their subscription season, rather than being locked into a pre-set series,” Bodie said. “Discounts increase based on the number of shows a patron chooses for their personal season.”
Shorter runs, more crowd-pleasers, some experimenting
The coming arts season reflects the new reality. Along with shortened runs and fewer choices, many arts organizations have far more crowd-pleasers in their line-up.
“I find myself booking more ‘name’ artists and the tried-and-true as far as sales in order to help bring back attendance. For now, booking the experimental is a risky endeavor,” Bodie said.
Brown senses the time is right to give audiences more intimate and immersive experiences.
“More people are increasingly seeking more active and participatory interaction with the arts. So we are exploring how we can provide more activities and programs to encourage more singing and participation.”
Nguyen’s theater is adopting its own audience-involvement approach.
“To enhance our patrons' experience and foster a deeper connection with our shows, we've implemented several initiatives that go beyond the stage. One of these is our post-show talkbacks, held after every performance. These sessions provide an opportunity for the audience to engage directly with the cast, directors and creative team.”
The Segerstrom Center has created a multi-part campaign to engage new audiences and re-energize returning patrons that includes a revamped website, two speakers series that feature well-known performers and authors, new publications and digital content, and more reliance on social media and influencers.
At the Bowers Museum, “We’ve increased accessibility and outreach post-pandemic by continuing to offer programs in (a) hybrid model, both onsite and online,” Radomske said. “We see folks tune in across the country and even out of the U.S., which simply wasn’t possible with our old model.” The Bowers has also found success with virtual school tours.
‘Start making some big changes now’
Most arts leaders agreed that post-pandemic attendance and donation trends are pervasive, and they’ll necessitate permanent and fundamental shifts in the way they appeal to patrons.
“I think we all need to start making some big changes now,” Brown said. “I think that this is a reset moment for many organizations like us. That may mean some resizing, refocusing, or readjusting of our expectations and looking more concertedly at how we are serving our mission.”
Nguyen thinks the pandemic accelerated a sea change that was already underway. Sooner or later, shifting audience tastes and preferences would have forced arts institutions like his to rethink their purpose – and that’s ultimately a good thing, he said.
“The need to create a holistic experience that resonates long after the final curtain call is something we plan to integrate permanently. We see this not only as a trend but as a vital evolution in the arts that aligns with our mission to contribute to a more connected, compassionate and creative community.”
Although most arts leaders saw virtual performances during the pandemic as a poor substitute for the real thing, other COVID-era practices turned out to be keepers.
“During the pandemic, I launched a social-media campaign called ‘The Hilbert Museum @ Home,’” Platt said. “Each Hilbert Museum post on Facebook or Instagram focused on one particular artwork from our collection and told a brief but compelling story about that artist or the work. We received a lot of great feedback during the height of the lockdown from art-starved aficionados who very much appreciated our posts and stories. So we continued that program even after re-opening.”
“By continuing to offer hybrid programs (developed during the pandemic), the Bowers Museum can stay nimble and responsive to the needs of our community in a post-pandemic world, and indeed still reap the benefits of the kind of global reach virtual programming offers,” Radomske said.
The Segerstrom Center took advantage of its large public plaza during the pandemic, finding audiences were less reluctant to attend events outdoors than indoors. That has led to bigger post-pandemic outdoor crowds. The Beckman Arts & Science Family Festival set a record for attendance on the plaza, with over 2,000 attending the one-day event in May.
Arts leaders agreed that such innovations borne of necessity must continue in order to find new ways of connecting to audiences.
Brown thinks it’s time for his choir to try some bold (if carefully considered) experimentation. “I … think there is an opportunity right now to afford ourselves the space and trust among our organizations and constituents to take some risks – to try some new tactics and activities and learn what works and what doesn’t.”
Bodie thinks there’s a path forward in capitalizing on the enthusiasm she sees in returning audiences. A renewed appreciation for the live experience is one of the most positive consequences of the pandemic, she thinks.
“On the positive side, the patrons who do come out are passionate. They seem to be fully engaged and alive in a way that was not as present pre-pandemic. Perhaps we no longer take for granted the ability to gather for the shared experience of live music. No one ever imagined that it could be taken away from us. And just maybe, each experience is that much richer for the knowledge that it is a gift, and not a given.”
Renee Bodie and John Forsyte, both quoted in this story, are members of the Advisory Board for Culture OC.