Patron Relations in the Performing Arts

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Published on April 26, 2018, at 7:17 p.m.
by Elizabeth Driver.

Auditions, choreography, costume design, tech rehearsals. In the performing arts, many audience members never experience the different processes that create a live performance. Performing arts organizations have to manage several behind-the-scenes operations to get a show or concert on stage.

Ironically, one of the most vital functions of a performing arts organization is its relationships with audience members, or patron relations. According to Artsy, patronage is “the financial sponsorship of artists by individuals or institutions.” Patrons can include season ticket holders, donors, corporate sponsors, volunteers and board members.

Jenni Mann, the executive director and principal bassoonist for the Tuscaloosa Symphony Orchestra, noted that the performing arts is a “consumer industry” where patrons are the consumers, and quality customer service is essential.

“Patron relations is central to the success of an organization,” Mann said. “It doesn’t matter how much they love the art; if it’s a terrible experience, [patrons] won’t come back.”

Nonprofit performing arts organizations heavily depend on contributed revenue or patron donations. According to Jamie Clements, director of development for the Alliance Theatre in Atlanta, around 50 percent of the Alliance’s yearly revenue is received from patron donations and the other 50 percent comes from ticket sales. He said that the Alliance raises around $6.5 million in annual donations to stage its plays and musicals.

“Patron relations is at the heart of every artistic institution,” Clements explained. “Every donation that a patron makes, no matter how large or small, makes it possible for us to provide a community benefit.”

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Personal relationships
The key to successful fundraising is developing and maintaining personal relationships with donors. The Fundraising Authority explained that major donors usually give to nonprofit organizations that they have an “emotional connection with,” and most desire a “strong relationship with [an] organization prior to making a financial commitment.” Every performing arts organization uses different strategies to cultivate important patron relationships.

While his job title is director of development, Clements considers himself a “relationship manager” who serves as a “conduit between a donor and the cause that they care about.” He spends many working hours grabbing coffee or lunch with patrons and listening to their experiences, both good and bad.

“You can have creative ideas on how to engage people, but at the end of the day sitting across from someone person-to-person and actually hearing what they have to say is always going to be the best thing for growing a patron relations system,” Clements said. “I’m helping foster relationships in the community for the betterment of the art.”

Through one-on-one conversations with donors, Clements strives to understand how the Alliance can better fit patrons’ needs. According to Clements, around 4,000 patrons donate to the Alliance Theatre every year, of which 400 give over $1,000 annually.

“Everyone who is now giving us $100,000 was once a first-time patron,” Clements said. “I want to know what was it about that first-time patron experience that led them to invest more and more over the years.”

Community ambassadors
The patron relations function doesn’t stop with current donor retention. Performing arts organizations are continuously reaching out to members of the community with the hope of sparking new relationships with potential donors.

First impressions are everything, and Bloomerang noted that these “critical first touches” set the tone for whether patrons want to further build a relationship with an organization.

The Tuscaloosa Symphony Orchestra (TSO) is one of the only orchestras in Alabama to continuously serve the community for 40 years. According to Mann, the organization heavily focuses on the presence of ambassadors in the community.

“Here in Tuscaloosa, social connection is incredibly important, so we focus on a lot of person-to-person contact and word-of-mouth connections,” Mann said. “It has worked well for us to have a social board of directors and guild.”

The TSO partners with several community events to reach potential patrons. Every year the symphony teaches a music class for The University of Alabama’s Osher Lifelong Learning Institute that provides learning opportunities to retired citizens. To reach a younger demographic, TSO hosts an annual children’s instrument petting zoo at the Kentuck Arts Festival and the Druid City Arts Festival in Tuscaloosa. According to Mann, both of these initiatives have brought new patrons to the TSO.

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Providing unique, enriching experiences
Maintaining patron satisfaction encompasses more than assembling a good product on stage. The Alliance Theatre’s mission is “expanding hearts and minds on stage and off.” According to Clements, the thing that takes a patron from being a ticket buyer to a donor is “providing value to their life through unique, enriching experiences,” which often take place offstage.

“We’ve found that the best way to get people to donate is to provide them something that they can’t buy a ticket to,” Clements said. “We want to truly expand their heart and expand their mind to encapsulate what is going on in the world and the community around them.”

According to Clements, the Alliance Theatre gives its patrons unique opportunities to meet playwrights and directors and attend behind-the-scenes panel discussions on the making of a play or musical.

The entry point for TSO patron relations is on the organization’s website, according to Mann. To create an enriching experience online, the TSO website provides patrons with detailed information about its programming beyond the repertoire.

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“We have found the more people know about the pieces beforehand, the more likely they are to come to concerts,” Mann said. “This makes a lot of people feel less intimidated and more knowledgeable on what they are about to hear, especially with classical music.”

Mann has seen an increase in ticket sales after implementing the education page on the TSO website this season.

Patron relations is a highly adaptive operation. The New York Times noted that nonprofit arts organizations are currently experiencing a generational transition in their donors as baby boomers begin to take a step back in their charitable giving. This transition has performing arts directors shifting their gaze to millennials for the future of patron relations.

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