Rethinking events to fit your audience

By Jessica Stringfield

When I started at the Cincinnati Art Museum in September 2013, Art After Dark was a small happy hour held at the museum on the last Friday of each month. The program brought in around 100-250 people per event. At the time, there were not many advertising or PR efforts promoting the program but shortly after I started, the Marketing and Communications Department began to take a special interest in it. With the right entertainment and advertising, this event had the potential to boost attendance and increase general interest in our current exhibitions and our museum as a whole.

During my first year at the Art Museum, the program was originally managed through our Learning and Interpretation Department and, as much as we value the importance of arts education, we found that this ‘Happy Hour’ kind of event attracted a crowd that was less likely to dive into any heavy academic learning -- the crowd wanted more of an entertainment experience.

Eventually, the event became the Marketing and Communications Department’s responsibility.

Art after Dark outdoors in August 2014.

Art after Dark outdoors in August 2014.

With the right entertainment, the right marketing strategies and the right balance of learning plus entertainment, this free program thrived. In 2014 and 2015, Art After Dark brought in an average of 400-700 people per event. Annually, a total of about 6,000 people enjoy Art After Dark.

The process of building Art After Dark has been a labor of love for me, and my unusual background has helped me to use a creative eye when tackling challenges related to the program. I am a journalism and political science graduate of Miami University who, like most 2011 graduates, couldn’t find a job after college and started applying all over Cincinnati.

I finally landed a job as the administrative assistant at Arthur Murray Dance Studio where I helped to assist with ballroom dancing events, fundraisers and daily sales. I also ran their social media, booked appointments, took photos and wrote press releases for special events. This job of wearing ‘many hats’ certainly prepared me for a job in the nonprofit world. When I was ready to move on, I felt fairly prepared for my position at the Art Museum and that entertainment ‘training’ has helped me to program exciting and engaging Art After Dark events for the museum.

When creating the programming for Art After Dark, from PR to booking entertainment, I ask four important questions:

  • Which exhibition will we choose to highlight this month?
  • What kind of band or other entertainment will help to celebrate that particular exhibition?
  • Is this entertainment something we can afford with our VERY small budget?
  • Does that form of entertainment have a decent social media following that will help to support the museum’s efforts in promoting the event? (Our normal budget for Art After Dark only allows two weeks of radio spots and a print advertisement per month to promote. Earned media and free social media promotions are vital to our success!)

By asking these specific questions, we created a formula that uses creativity, realistic restrictions on staff and resources as well as business common sense to ‘give the people what they want.’ A 2014 survey by LaPlaca Cohen found that the way the everyday person enjoys cultural institutions is changing, and the future lies in programs like Art After Dark, which promote entertainment and learning through osmosis as opposed to lectures or heavy content. "Cultural audiences are seeking both entertainment and enlightenment and it’s less about being 'in-the-know' than it is about being with who you know," according to the survey.

This is the future and this year, we are proud to say that we are on are track to averaging 700-1,200 people per event and hope to surpass that annual 6K attendance goal in 2016.

This event featured the Roja Dance Troupe and was held at the museum in June 2015.

This event featured the Roja Dance Troupe and was held at the museum in June 2015.