Transcript – Episode 62

Announcer: This podcast is a project of the Mass Cultural Council. We believe in the power of culture, the arts, humanities and sciences, to enrich communities, advance equity and foster creativity.

Graham Wright: If we’re going to change anything about you know, the core values or the artistic product itself, we have to make sure it’s being driven by our artistic values. Any audience can usually tell if say an artistic change has been driven by a marketing committee or if it’s really being driven by artistic collaboration.

Anita Walker: Hello, I’m Anita Walker at the Massachusetts Cultural Council, welcome to Creative Minds Out Loud. Our guest today is Graham Wright. He’s the founder and CEO of Opus Affair and Graham, you just told me you were a chemist. What are you doing on an arts nerd program?

Graham Wright: Well you know, I definitely.. I identify with nerds of all sorts. So yeah, no what originally brought me to Boston was I was doing graduate work in chemistry and while on the side, I was always just a very serious musician and over time the balance shifted a bit and I made the move entirely to being a performer for several years. I’m a classical singer, and then after doing that for a little while, eventually shifted to work more behind the scenes.

Anita Walker: So the reason you’re here is you have been doing a lot of work with organizations who want to attract more young professionals into their audiences. It seems to be sort of the target or one of the favorite targets of our non-profit cultural organizations and you have developed some strategies around that but when we started this conversation before we turned the tape recorder on, you said, “That’s what everybody thinks they want but that may not really be the issue,” so say more?

Graham Wright: Well yeah, so that’s usually.. it’s the start of the conversation and then you know, then we see where it goes from there. So I guess I should say, “I’ve been doing young professional outreach or young professional events for almost 10 years now.” So it’s kind of a joke with our team that, you know..

Anita Walker: They’re not young anymore.

Graham Wright: Well, exactly. <laughs> So.. Opus Affair itself is about nine years old now, so I was in my twenties when I started it, I’m much closer to forty now. But you know, over the years, doing our own work, we’ve gotten to work with a lot of organizations and see a range of approaches and see what works, what doesn’t work or you know, how the challenges have changed over time. So when I said that identifying the young professionals is just the start of the conversation, probably the quick way to delve into that is to say, age is just one dimension, right. So as we were scheduling this podcast in fact, I had a conversation with another staff member here who said, “Oh, I’ve never been to one of your events because I’m too..” you know, “I’m not the right age.. I’m too old.” I said, “Well, it’s funny you say that ’cause we’re on the phone, I’ve never met you, I have no idea how old you are, but I’m gonna say, no you’re not.” It’s oftentimes much more about what’s the type of event you’re interested in, what’s your lifestyle like. So you know, say for example, if you’re a 22-year-old single mother, you might not want to go to the same kind of party as a 45-year-old single person with no kids would want to go to. It’s not about age at the.. you know, that sort of primary fundamental level. So any case, that’s usually where we start, and then of course the conversation expands based on you know, “What’s your programming like, what’s your.. you know, the artistic content like, what’s the context for what you do?” So if for example, you’re you know, someone like the ICA or the ART, your programming might already resonate with a younger audience to begin with. So the challenges you have will be very different from a Boston Symphony or a Museum of Fine Arts. So the short answer, age is one dimension, it’s a great place to start but it’s not the sum total of the conversation.

Anita Walker: Sometimes organizations look at their audience and they say, “What don’t we have.. that’s what we wanna go get,” and oftentimes it’s not just the fact that it’s the audience, it’s the programming that they present appeals to a certain demographic and in order to get a new audience, they might have to adjust their programming?

Graham Wright: Yeah and that’s frequently part of the conversation we have and I usually throw up a little bit of a flag to say, “Alright, we have to be.. tread very carefully at this point,” because if we’re going to change anything about, you know, the core values or the artistic product itself, we have to make sure it’s being driven by our artistic values. You know, when we’re talking about changing the context of the art, we can be a little quicker to move, a little bolder and riskier there but I think any audience can usually tell if say an artistic change has been driven by a marketing committee or if it’s really being driven by artistic collaboration or by some kind of artistic venture.

Anita Walker: So give a couple examples?

Graham Wright: I was going to say, I can list some examples.. and usually I like to attach names to the successes and be a little more anonymous with the..

Anita Walker: Yeah, be quiet about the failures.. yes.

Graham Wright: Exactly, or you know, since I said I was a former scientist, I rarely use the term failure. I just like to say unexpected result. <laughs>

Anita Walker: So let’s say the unexpected result we didn’t want. What’s an example of that?

Graham Wright: Well, so, say you know, if you invest a lot of money in a one-off program that’s.. something that’s very different from what you do on a regular basis that might.. well I guess there’s a couple ways this could go wrong. That it might not resonate with your current audience and you haven’t done the groundwork you need to do to connect with a new one. You don’t have partnerships, you don’t have any kind of base yourself and then you find yourself without anyone there.

Anita Walker: Nobody likes it.

Graham Wright: Yeah, well you can kind of alienate your traditional support and not have built that emerging support yet. There’s a really fantastic book that I frequently reference called The Innovator’s Dilemma. It’s very focused on the technology side of things but it’s about that question of how do you take care of your established audience while giving yourself room to create that emerging audience. So you know, I look at.. there was a particular project a few years ago where a music organization in town decided they wanted to do something that was in a very non-traditional venue, do some programming there that was a little riskier and they sold out almost immediately to their normal subscribers so it meant they had no room for anybody new. So what do you do in a situation like that, you know. It’s incredibly difficult to tell your subscribers, “Well no you’re not invited to this..” that’s not going to fly but at the same time, if you’re working with an emerging audience, you need to have some space left over at the last minute so that you know, these last-minute decision makers can take a risk and go. So I’ve seen.. you know, I know with the American Repertory Theater they always hold a certain amount of seats that are not for subscribers so that they can have these last-minute ticket buyers come in. I’d say oftentimes the programs I’d say that are most successful with something like that are when.. like the ART, they’ve sort of cordoned off some resources internally or the other approach is to find some sort of strategic partner from outside, where you can develop the programming with the partner and then the partner is providing the audience and that way you aren’t having to sort of block off your own people, there’s sort of a natural boundary that’s set up because of a partnership.

Anita Walker: So when you develop these strategies, is it essentially with a long view in mind that it isn’t just this one time we’re going to be in a different place or we’re going to have this partner and they’re going to deliver the audience this one time. How do you make a more a sustainable relationship?

Graham Wright: I’m so glad you said that because oftentimes one of the first things we say is I really don’t want us to get involved in a project unless we’re talking about at least a year at a time. You know, because sometimes too fast is just as dangerous as too slow. You know, we really need to gauge what is the right pace for your organization to grow this new audience. I think you know, several years ago actually right around the time I was getting first started, an organization in town invested a tremendous amount of money into having a performance that was just for a young professional audience in the midst of a run of a production they were doing and it was wildly successful. They brought in all kinds of people, but because they devoted so much to this one event, they didn’t necessarily have anything planned for after, and that’s just as dangerous as sort of creeping along and crawling and never really getting anywhere.

Anita Walker: One example that leaps to mind for me, I have two sons and this was probably fifteen years ago, and they had absolutely no interest in classical music. So you could imagine my surprise when my 16-year-old son approaches me in the kitchen and says.. we were in the Midwest at the time, “Mom, I wanna go to Chicago to the Rosemont Concert Hall.” “Really?” “Yeah, there’s a concert there.” “You- you wanna go to a concert in this- in this concert hall?” “Yeah, yeah.. I gotta get the tickets..” “Okay, we’ll go.” I love classical music so I was really looking forward to going to this concert. We get there, the place had sold out in a matter of hours. We walk in, the audience was 16 to 25 in this concert hall. There was an orchestra in their black orchestra outfits. There was a chorus and robes and I’m thinking, “How did they trick these kids into coming to this concert?” Well, what was the concert? It was the music of the videogame Final Fantasy.

Graham Wright: I was going to ask if it was video game music. <laughs>

Anita Walker: And they were exuberant, there was so much life.. they could read the story of the music. It meant nothing to me but we never went back and none of those people.. they had flown in from all over the country, from LA, from Portland, Oregon, to Chicago, to fill this hall.. this young demographic that you would kill to fill your concert hall, and they went one time.

Graham Wright: Yeah, wow.. no, there’s so many stories like that. I mean, I’ll name names this time because I do think it was a successful story that presented an interesting challenge. Several years ago Emmanuel Music did The Great Gatsby opera and for people who might only know Emmanuel from Bach cantatas, that might seem like a huge programmatic leap, but the artistic connection there of course is through John Harbison who’s been a huge part of that community for many years and was the interim artistic director several years ago.. so they had artistic roots in this project. On the surface it might’ve seemed completely different but it did bring in a lot of different people. This was right.. actually, probably would say at the peak of the Gatsby craze when the movie came out. So they had lots of new people come out for this but because it had come from this sort of artistic.. from their core values, they still got their established base to come out. Now you know, the challenge of course is you know, how do you get those folks coming back over time and I know that’s something they’ve been working on but in terms of like how do you do something that feels like an outlier but is still kind of rooted in, I thought they did a really nice job with that.

Anita Walker: So if you were going to leave us with maybe three takeaways.. I’m an organization and I’m thinking I want to get the young audience or I want to get a different.. I want to reach into a new neighborhood that I haven’t been able to attract into my organization. Not just young but maybe our audiences are all white, how do we start to integrate our audiences or just really looking to making our audience look more like the face of the city. What are some of the first three or four things organizations should think about?

Graham Wright: Yeah, organizations to think about or?

Anita Walker: Mm-hm.. whether you’re a.. you know, presenting concerts or plays or?

Graham Wright: Well I’ll say as far as say some principles to think about to guide you on these sorts of things, I always like to start with.. like you said, to identify what’s not there sometimes you do have to take a bit of a leap. You know, we typically are swimming in audience data and we know who we have very well but sometimes to figure out who we don’t have, there’s a little bit of intuition that has to come in play there and it’s a give and take that you can’t live too much in one world or the other, if it’s all intuition, you don’t know where you’re going. But once you take that leap to figure out what you don’t have, look for partners that I think.. you know, that might be another artistic organization as a partner, it might also be a community organization, it could very well be things like restaurants and bars and retail organizations but find a partner that already has a relationship with that audience you want and then you know, figure out the collaboration from there. I think far too often, people want to create things entirely in house and they might skip that step. Another key thing is to figure out you know, what your goals are and along with that, who owns the program. You know, whether it’s a marketing-driven program or a development-driven program, are we just trying to fill seats or are we looking to get donations in a certain amount of time, or is it going to be some kind of all hands on deck sort of hybrid that’s integrated throughout the entire organization. I think that’s really important, and the one caveat there is don’t get so locked down in the goals upfront that you can’t pivot if it looks like you’re getting some interesting results in a different area. Related to that, chances are every organization has some staff that are in that demographic they want to reach. Make sure those staff’s voices are heard. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been in meetings where we’re talking about getting 20 years old’s or 30 year old’s in the audience and everyone who’s well out of that demographic is doing most of the talking and I look around on the periphery of the meeting and there’s a bunch ongoing twenty-something’s and thirty-something’s who are just sort of sitting there and I say, “Well, can we get these voices involved in the conversation.” Chances are they’re there.. let’s let them be heard. And then sort of I’ll bring up that other thing I said before, just think about the context as much as the content.. that if your context is already very welcoming to people who want say a social experience, maybe you don’t need to lean so heavily on like the cocktail thing or the pre-concert or post-concert experience. Maybe what you need is a little more artistic experimentation or if you know.. or the contrary, if you have a very traditional experience and you think your content might appeal more to a broader audience, then think a lot about that context. What’s the box office experience like, what kind of venues are you using, how does someone travel there.. all those sorts of pieces you know, come together.

Anita Walker: Some great advice.. and believe me, all of our organizations are thinking about this, so this is a good leaping off point to start talking within our organizations about how we start going down that road looking at more than one element at a time that’s going to make the difference. Graham Wright, another one of our creative minds out loud.. thank you very much.

Graham Wright: My pleasure.

Announcer: To learn more about this episode and to subscribe, visit