Wallace Excellence Awards – Yerba Buena Center for the Arts

Wallace Excellence Awards provide support to exemplary arts organizations in selected cities to identify, develop and share effective ideas and practices to reach more people.  Eleven arts organizations with budgets over $1 million received these four-year grants.  Findings from their projects are reported here.

As part of our mission to place “contemporary art at the heart of community life,” Yerba Buena Center for the Arts  (YBCA) invested in a series of online and onsite “tools” designed to broaden our audience base by  attracting more culturally-active Bay Area visitors and to deepen the experience of its current patrons by providing additional background and contextual information, creating greater opportunities to interact with the art and artists, and utilizing technology to provide a customized experience.

Our primary online vehicles were a new website with programming categorized around four Big Ideas rather than by discipline; a concerted effort to move away from print-based advertising and communications, to web based media; creation of a New Media Manager position to oversee online utilization of social networking media (Twitter, YouTube, Facebook, FourSquare, etc.); and integration of online media into our overall promotional and contextual tool kits.

As a result of these efforts, we have seen our online community triple in size over the past three years.  Our web/media team has grown from a single Webmaster responsible for all online media activity, to a team of four which includes Webmaster, Web Assistant, New Media Manager and Media Producer.  Our Curatorial and Community Engagement departments are launching an online/print-on-demand multidisciplinary arts journal in 2012 in response to our rapidly growing online audience, many of whom may never actually visit our facility. Our New Media Manager was recently invited to do a presentation at Facebook headquarters with YBCA serving as a model for how small businesses and nonprofit organizations can effectively use new media to enhance their visibility and strengthen their brand.

Our onsite programs focused on broadening and diversifying audiences included Big Idea Nights, a series of free, interactive, art parties that partnered with a variety of community based organizations that ranged from Oakland hip hop group The People, to The Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence, to Literary Death Match; to the Crucible, a consortium of Burning Man artists; and the Room for Big Ideas, an exhibition/performance space that partnered with an equally diverse group of organizations, including Global Lives, the Chinese Cultural Center, San Francisco Mime Troupe and Red Poppy Art House. Both programs were hugely successful in bringing their own unique following into YBCA, many for the first time.

A recent survey conducted in June indicates that YBCA’s audience has become significantly more diversified, primarily through the success of Big Idea Nights and the Room for Big Ideas at bringing in new audiences. Whereas in 2004, 37% of our audience was non-white, this demographic has grown to 45% in 2011.  42% of survey participants also reported that their attendance had increased from what it was in 2008 – a finding supported by an overall 11% increase in attendance for 10-11.

Onsite programs focused on deepening audience experience were the ones that were the most impacted by our research findings and, as a result, were the ones that resulted in the most change.  They are also now our most successful programs and have become the basis of our overall audience development strategy.

When we first entered the Wallace initiative, we assumed that our non-core audiences (those we hoped to attract) were older, less tech savvy and less comfortable with contemporary art than were our core patrons.  We also believed that while they had considerable experience with other Bay Area arts events and organizations (though not necessarily contemporary arts organizations), they were less inclined to see YBCA as a place that reflected their interests and values as strongly as the other institutions they patronized. We were dead wrong. While it was true that non-core patrons attended other Bay Area arts events, more of them patronized contemporary arts events than non-contemporary arts events; 87% of them were tech savvy (74% report using at least some new technology while 18% described themselves as always looking for the next new thing); more than 60% of them saw YBCA as a place that reflected their values.

This information, combined with what we learned from focus groups about the need for better “guidelines” to help patrons contextualize the work for themselves and the overwhelming desire by Big Idea Night attendees to experience art in a social setting, led us to the creation of YBCA: YOU.

YBCA: YOU is a self-curated approach to experiencing contemporary art where participants engage with a personal aesthetic fitness coach to develop a plan of action to help them reach their aesthetic goals.   Each participant receives an all-access pass to YBCA events, exclusive pre-and post-performance programs, personalized art-fitness training to help navigate the variety of programming offered by YBCA, field trips to other contemporary arts events in the Bay Area, and their own website with recommendations about upcoming programs, information about who is attending what and online conversations, comments and reviews by other “Youers.”  YBCA: YOU participants are encouraged to attend at least one YBCA activity each month and engage each other in online discussions about their arts experiences, sharing resources, thoughts, and ideas about contemporary art.   More than 100 participants are currently enrolled in the YBCA: YOU pilot program and we plan to make it public in 2012.

As a result of our participation in the Wallace Initiative, YBCA has completely changed the way we engage with audiences, both through our marketing and communications efforts and the types of programs we offer.  We have changed our focus from looking for quantitative measures of success, to qualitative measures; from programmatic marketing to an institutional approach; from butts in seats to building a core audience.  Even our mission has evolved, from “bringing contemporary art to the heart of community life” to “revolutionizing how the world engages with contemporary art and ideas.”  Our goal is to build a community that is as vibrant, curious, diversified and daring the artists whose work we present.

To learn more about YBCA and our programs, visit www.ybca.org.

Kathy Budas is the Director of Marketing and Communications at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts.


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In 2008, The San Francisco Foundation (TSFF) and Grants for the Arts/San Francisco Hotel Tax Fund (GFTA) embarked on a four-year funding partnership to encourage systemic and sustainable structural change in the relationships of Bay Area arts organizations to their audiences, supported by the Wallace Foundation. Community offerings during the grant period (2008-2011) included seminars, workshops, large public convenings, implementation grants, development of a regional shared mailing list, and expansion of the SFArts.org website.




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