Turn out

A few weeks ago on the great communication tool we call Facebook, Captain Walker Art Talker challenged curator Michele Bosak over why, he, a connected relevant art dude like himself didn’t know about the “Acts of Recognition“show at the Kendall Gallery. Over the next 13 days 50 relevant posts discussed the diligent efforts of curators and gallery owners to promote their shows, the lack of attendance to shows, and/or maybe the lack of Grand Rapidians interested in art.

We all want to have bomb-ass openings where tons of art loving fanatics crawl out from beneath their double feather down comforters and brave the cold to talk shop about content and form.  But the reality of the situation is: sometimes the people just don’t show. You can hype a show six ways till Sunday and still; beckoning Facebook messages aren’t heeded, postcards are left in the bill pile and personal assurances of “I’ll see you there” are forgotten. If this hasn’t happened to you, you are either a genius or you haven’t been in the game long.


So now it is time to get down to the nasty of it:  Many people don’t like art, or they are indifferent. And many of the people who DO like art have to balance their lives with other social engagements, including family, school yada yada.Thus how many people should you expect at an event? Or for that matter, at an art related event in general? Lets play the numbers…. On an average weekend evening there will be about 65 events posted on GRNOW (busy weekends have up to 80+). Say 7 of those events per day are art related*….evening hours at the GRAM, an art exhibit opening at a gallery, a show including both art and music at the DAAC, open hours at a coffee shop with new work created by a friend, lecture about art, a show at Meijer Gardens. This makes an average of 1,092 opportunities to see art in a year.


There are 188,040 people living in Grand Rapids. Of those 75.3% are 18+, totaling a possible audience of 141,594. (Yes, kids count but we are doing an experiment here!) If you apply an attendance rate of 26%** then there are approximately 36,814 potential art viewers who will attend 3.5 art events in a year, which means approximately 128,850 unique visits to events in a year.


Take the number of visits, divide by the approximate number of opportunities to see art annually and you come up with an approximate 2,477 people potentially attending any singular arts opportunity on any given weekend. Split by 21 events this averages 118 per event. When venues like the UICA and GRAM only record an average attendance of 65+ per org on an average weekend day , and 200+ during an event they stand to attract a combined a draw of 525 attendees per weekend. The resulting attendance for the other 19 opportunities might end up in the ball park of around  130 attendees each. SAY WHAT??? I find this number to be quite astounding, mind-boggling-ly high. If  and average of 130 people attended each arts opportunity I know quite a few artists and venues that would be quite pleased. So why aren’t we hitting the mark? Why are many of our events drawing less then the market share? First,  this analysis is based on a National Average supplied by the NEA. As one proof-reading-stats-savvy-reader pointed out, perhaps Michigan is below the national average. (It wouldn’t be the first time we ranked lower then a national average when it comes to arts, ranking as one of the top 3 states spending the LEAST amount of state funding for the arts)


Lets go back to the beginning. On an average weekend there are around 60-80 additional events happening in GR not to mention birthday parties, personal budget, family dinners or one of those rare 1.6 annual average visits to the ballet.** On the flip side I would be amiss not to mention that we do have some shows that draw more then their market share (ex: Nice’s 100 Grand Show). Perhaps we need to look at what is happening once visitors decide to visit one of GR opportunities to view art. After all of our social media promotion, hype and cheer leading do we take the time to engage visitors in an exploration of the content of our shows? Are visitors throwing down? Are they getting into the work, accessing the experience, having a quality experience? Did we facilitate discussions about the work with visitors, introducing them to the artist and pushing to further the content of the conversation?


For artists, gallery owners, cultural organizations and organizers, before you play the numbers game and obsessively count heads, take stock. Frankly, I think that QUALITY engagement is what we should be striving for… not QUANTITY. A one-on-one connections with our visitors and viewers, we can grow attendance and create a robust 26% of the Grand Rapids population that WANTS to see art. If we can directly connect 50-100 people who do attend events to the work and the artist, they are more likely to up their 3.5 attendance level and maybe next visit, they might even bring a friend.


*During the sample span of April and March, from Friday until Sunday, there were 3-8 events.
**The national rate for adult attendance to visual art events estimated by the NEA. NEA attendance stats rise for festivals and live music but drop significantly for opera and ballet.

Submitted by Jenn Schaub… an obsessive head counter and total cheerleader, special thanks to Jeremy Pyne for the 1am stat evaluation.

3 Responses to “Turn out”
  1. This is a great post. I would have to say that is could be a best practice to view an exhibition through the lens of human centered design. How well is oneserving these phases: Entice, Entry, Engage, Exit, and Extend. — Seems that the struggle for a quality relationship with an art attendee may be that a lot of focus is put on enticing people and very little on engaging the guest in the moment or extending the experience into something that can be experienced again later.

  2. Kevin Buist says:

    AJ is right. I don’t think we should assume people will like an art show just because the work is good. What is it about an art show that would make someone want to experience it when they could experience so much else?

    I think these questions aren’t asked very often by people in the arts because we like art and we tend to thing is precious and fragile. Art is not fragile. We can poke it with a stick and see what happens. Why should anyone care about this stuff? Even before we find an answer, we’re better off having had the courage to ask the question.

  3. Giovanni says:

    What has been left out is the time spent viewing art. The viewing audience will not spend 45 minutes per piece to stare at something and think about it. They are not in class being graded for how well they critique a piece. People want the social interaction that goes along with an art event, the art is secondary. How many times have you gone to see a band you cared nothing about but went to see solely on the fact you knew that people were going AND the fact that you like local live music in general? ‘Art’ as an experience kept in a room to show off is boring. People don’t make going to an art event their last stop of the night, it is their ‘warm up’ event. The problem that these events have is their inaccessability to the average person’s extra curricular activities. To be successful as artists we must reinvent what an art event is.

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