Open Your House To Welcome New Audiences

DTH alumni Donna Walker-Kuhne, Ronald Alexander, Director of Youth Arts Academy, RestorationART Dionne Figgins, cast member of Smokey Joe’s Cafe

I recently had the pleasure and honor to serve as host for the Sunday Matinee at Dance Theatre of Harlem. The matinee is the company’s Open House—an open invitation to its neighbors and potential new audience members. It offers participants the opportunity to visit the DTH school and experience the legacy of the company’s late founder Arthur Mitchell, as well as experience and enjoy performances by a diverse array of artists.

DTH began its Open House series shortly after the birth of the company in 1969. DTH was founded by Mr. Mitchell and Karel Shook with the goal of breaking down the barriers of classical ballet by showcasing African-American dancers. For decades, the Open House has been a tremendous resource for audience development. During my tenure as Marketing Director of DTH, I used to produce these events. They currently take place in the company’s Studio 3. The studio accommodates about 100 people, providing the audience with an intimate and visceral experience with the performing artists.

At the recent DTH Open House, I asked the crowd how many were attending for the first time. About half the room raised their hands. Following the welcome by the company’s executive director Anna Glass, in which she shared some of the company’s history and connection to the community, the audience was treated to one of the most delicious artistic meals I have experienced in quite a while. With the perceptive and intuitive producer Sonia Morris at the helm, the program featured: critically acclaimed pianist Taka Kigawa; a dance performance by former DTH student Nia Lyons, featuring the work of DTH resident choreographer Robert Garland; nationally ranked poet and performer Roya Marsh; excerpts from the Tony-nominated Broadway production of Smokey Joe’s Café, performed by cast members Dionne D. Figgins (DTH alum) and Dwayne Cooper, and a performance of “New Bach,” by members of the DTH company. It was truly an exceptional showcase of talent, with DTH as its centerpiece, and the performances received one standing ovation after the other!

The showcase was followed by a reception where cake and snacks were served. It’s DTH’s way of thanking everyone for coming to visit its home. During the reception, all the artists mixed, mingled and talked with the audience. Many people, including me, were eager to congratulate them on their beautiful work. In turn, the artists were bubbling, basking in the adoration and praise, and exchanging congratulations with their peers for their excellent performances.

Open Houses also can be used to expose potential audiences to forthcoming works. As the Marketing Director at the Public Theater in New York for 9 years, our annual Open House was used to present excerpts from the season and to provide a tour of this historic, cultural institution. I didn’t have a budget for this event when I first began at The Public, so I invited neighborhood restaurants to provide samplers so that they, too, could present their tasty dishes to a new, targeted audience. It was a win-win for the theater, the restaurants and the perspective audience!

If your arts organization or cultural institution is seeking to develop new audiences, an Open House is certainly a great opportunity and another option for utilizing your venue. Amongst the attendees, you’ll find future ticket buyers, social media promoters of your work, donors, as well as potential board members. An Open House cultivates connection and, if done right, a sense of belonging.

So, what do you need for a successful Open House? I recommend five action steps:

First, executive team and board buy-in, as well as participation.

Second, hire a skilled and noteworthy producer. This person should not only know your work, but also understand your vision and mission for cultivating and developing new audiences. It also helps if they can work with your organization or institution to put together a program that not only showcases your artists’ work, but also cultivates partnerships with other artists and local businesses.

Third, cooperation of your artists. Their buy-in to the mission of audience development secures the future of their arts organization and their jobs. But even more important, their interaction with the audience helps dispel the myths that art and artists are elite; that the arts or are only for a “special few” who can “understand” the work.

Fourth, guest artists willing to present for the opportunity to expand their audience and/or network. This is especially important if you don’t have a budget for your Open House. Create a win-win opportunity by allowing the guests artists to share printed information about their upcoming performances or ongoing work.

Fifth, a reception with food. Offer light snacks or invite local caterers or restaurants to join in for the exposure and opportunity to expand their outreach. Encourage the artists to participate in the reception—its an opportunity to forge those bonds with future patrons.

Open Houses can be held several times throughout the year, or as a launchpad for your upcoming season. For all arts organizations, the expense of an Open House is a consideration, but don’t let that stop you. Some Open House events are free; some ask for a donation, and others make it a paid-ticketed event. You can decide which type of event best supports your organization’s mission and will accomplish your goals. Also consider it as a great opportunity to new develop community and business partnerships.

I encourage every arts organization to extend an invitation to future audiences by having an event that demystifies the work you do and opens the doors to graciously welcome your future audiences. Follow-up with a thank you note and continuous communications that invite them back. It’s like any new relationship—the more you massage it, the more you will see your audiences grow.