Arts organizations fretting about an aging, rich, white audience base is nothing new.

What is new, though, is how some of those groups are starting to make major institutional shifts aimed at engaging people who don’t often engage with them. And it’s not just smaller, newer groups trying to reach newer and more diverse folks – there’s a growing trend among bigger and older institutions to make serious moves to reach new crowds.

Expanding access to the arts isn’t just about getting the same messages in front of different people, it’s often about completely rethinking how arts organizations do just about everything.

“What you’re starting to see now, it’s not only a marketing problem,” said Caitlin Fitzwater, communications director for the California Arts Council, which funds various audience-engagement efforts. “Everyone across the board at arts organizations is starting to see the importance of expanding audience access to everyone.”

The James Irvine Foundation, a major arts funder, has taken special interest in expanding access to the arts. Its New California Arts Fund and Exploring Engagement grant programs provide arts groups with money specifically so they can experiment, take risks and make big institutional changes as they attempt build relationships with new people.

Locally, the Irvine Foundation has poured over $3 million in grant funds into aiding arts access efforts.

Here’s more on what’s happening on the ground in San Diego as arts organizations work to expand their reach.

A New Audience for the Old Globe

Freedome Bradley-Ballentine wants to know where he needs to be and who can help him get there.

“I’ve been meeting about 7 million people,” he said. “I’m really looking for people who, for whatever reason, haven’t been serviced by what we do here at The Globe but are interested.”

The Old Globe recently hired Bradley-Ballentine as its director of arts engagement using its $1.725 million grant from The James Irvine Foundation. He’s been tasked with leading institution-wide changes that’ll result in expanding the theater company’s reach.

Since taking his post in October, the mustachioed, former New Yorker has been busy getting to know the lay of the land. He said he’s starting slowly by doing small needs assessments, but eventually his goal is to build dozens of new partnerships with community groups in places like southeastern San Diego and even Tijuana.

While Bradley-Ballentine position was just created, the theater’s engagement efforts aren’t entirely new. Last year, artistic director Barry Edelstein announced Globe for All, free productions of Shakespeare for underserved audiences in places like homeless shelters, rehab centers and prisons.

Bradley-Ballentine will build on Globe for All and present new ideas for programming that get new people involved with all aspects of theater. He said stage direction workshops and hands-on costume design classes are examples of services The Old Globe could offer to communities beyond just free, public theater performances in alternative venues.

“Ultimately, I’ll be out there trying to find out what we need to do to break down the barriers even further and get more people involved in what we do,” he said.

La Jolla Playhouse Wants a Real Relationship

La Jolla Playhouse managing director Michael Rosenberg said his audience expansion strategy will start as a conversation with the community to find out what people want and what kind of art might make the biggest impact.

The theater was awarded a $1.55 million grant from The James Irvine Foundation to increase audience access.

Rosenberg said as the Playhouse starts fanning out beyond La Jolla, he doesn’t want to be seen as an evangelist, trying to save underserved audiences with art. Rather, he wants to start building real relationships outside the theater and find out what issues matter most to each community.

“We really want to find out how do you create authentic, mutually beneficial, ongoing relationships in different parts of San Diego,” he said. “We don’t want to be like missionaries and show up and say, ‘Hey, we’re putting on a play and it will make your life better.’ We want people to tell us what they need.”

The La Jolla Playhouse already has programming catered to younger, more diverse crowds, including the experimental, mostly outdoors Without Walls Festival and its 30 and Under offerings. But Rosenberg said the grant will eventually result in brand new community collaborations and programming created specifically in response to local issues.

“We believe art is a very powerful agent for change,” Rosenberg said. “And if the new people we reach don’t turn around and become subscribers, that’s OK. We’re looking for the art we make to have an impact on the community. The reason we do the art isn’t just to sell more tickets.”

San Diego Opera Is All Ears

The San Diego Opera’s new director, David Bennett, is gearing up to do a series of town hall meetings to the north, south and east of downtown where they’re located. The community meetings will launch in January and run through April.

“We’ll be using smart phone technology to talk about our plans for the future and get immediate feedback,” he said. “We’ll ask people to respond to what they like, what they don’t like about our repertoires and ideas for different venues and us moving around the city.”

After the opera nearly closed its doors last year, Bennett said the board wanted the organization to become more of a community asset. That meant, in part, that it would have to serve more people.

Bennett was brought in to do just that, and his ideas for staging non-traditional opera in alternative venues seems like it could work, but he wants to find out what San Diego thinks.

“Really the town hall series is about testing some of our assumptions, because we’re talking internally about what we want to do and what we think will have resonance with the community but we don’t know whether those assumptions will ring true,” he said. “And what you really don’t want to do is throw things against the wall to see if they stick.”

Bennett said in an effort to reach more people, the opera has also applied for a grant that would use the trolley as a method of engaging audiences.

“Because there are audiences along the trolley line that are people who don’t normally come to an opera,” he said. “We looked at the trolley line and said, ‘Well, this goes right through a lot of the neighborhoods we want to talk to.’”

Another method of new audience engagement in 2016 could involve the opera’s scenic studio on Commercial Street in Logan Heights. He said the big warehouse where they build out sets could actually work nicely as an alternative performance space that’s accessible to a more diverse audience.

“The warehouse offers us a completely new way to engage audiences,” he said. “And it’s just sitting right in the middle of a community we want to reach so to actually have an arts venue there would be an amazing thing.”

Correction: An earlier version of this post misspelled Michael Rosenberg’s name. 

Kinsee Morlan was formerly the Engagement Editor at Voice of San Diego and author of the Culture...

Leave a comment

We expect all commenters to be constructive and civil. We reserve the right to delete comments without explanation. You are welcome to flag comments to us. You are welcome to submit an opinion piece for our editors to review.

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.