Visual and Performing Arts Marketing Insights Part One

Kari Kovach of the San Diego Museum of Art speaks as Mia Fiorella of La Jolla Playhouse, left, and Jessica York of Mingei International Museum look on.

Arts marketing experts’ top priorities: transparency, diversification and personalization

In February 2018, I was privileged to moderate a panel of four marketing experts who are passionate about the arts and the art of marketing. San Diego visual and performing arts marketing luminaries participated in the panel discussion as part of the multi-year AMA San Diego State of Marketing Study.

The four panelists participating in the Arts Marketing Panel included:

  • Jessica York, Deputy Director and Chief Advancement Officer, Mingei International Museum
  • Kari Kovach, Director of Marketing and Communications, The San Diego Museum of Art
  • Mia Fiorella, Associate Director of Sales and Marketing, La Jolla Playhouse
  • Rise Walter, Chief Marketing Officer, San Diego Opera

This article is part of a two-part series on arts marketing. This first article focuses on key themes addressed during the panel discussion, including the importance of transparency, diversifying audiences, and enhancing and personalizing the arts experience. In the spirit of transparency, the second article describes what we learned when our esteemed panel “lifted the hood” to reveal valuable tools in their marketing toolboxes, as well as what keeps them awake at night.


The critical importance of transparency was woven throughout the discussion with the arts marketing experts.

“I have seen a tremendous change since we have become a transparent organization. Since we’ve become a more open organization people are more open to us.” – Rise Walter, San Diego Opera

Transparency around sharing the negative was turned into a positive for one of the arts organizations represented. Mingei International Museum is planning to close at the end of 2018 for a major renovation and transformation of their building. Like most museums across the country, membership has been declining; the museum was concerned about how the temporary closure would be received. The Executive Director sent out a letter clearly stating that the Mingei was going to close, they would still be offering exhibits and programs while they were closed, and they really needed the community to support them during the process. Sharing the unvarnished truth resulted in an uptick in museum membership.

“We twist ourselves in knots to create these special events and special operas but, at the end of the day, the real story, the real truth, the ‘hey c’mon inside you’re one of us’ seems to have really made a difference. This goes back to this idea of transparency of being real with people. Just putting it all out there will make a difference.” – Rise Walter, San Diego Opera 

Story telling is natural for the performing arts, and it is a powerful way to connect with customers on an emotional level. Social media is a valuable tool in this endeavor. Not only is it important that organizations tell their stories in emotionally engaging ways, but it is also important that they provide customers the means to share their stories. To this end, social channels, email, in-person, telephone, and surveys are all used to gather and share customer stories.

“I’m inspired by brands that use storytelling to create an emotional impact with customers. It’s an opportunity for companies to share their values and to connect in a deeper way.” – Mia Fiorella, La Jolla Playhouse

La Jolla Playhouse provided a means of storytelling in conjunction with their production “The Cake.” They reached out to their audience by asking them to share memories of their weddings — encouraging every age, ethnicity, and gender to participate.  The response was overwhelming. As patrons entered the lobby for “The Cake,” they came upon a video of unique wedding photos.

“…we’re trying to engage with patrons before and after the show, and we’ve been able to do this all season long through the support from The Wallace Foundation. The activities range from eating cake, playing lawn games to post-show DJ dance parties. We hope these events create long-lasting memories.” – Mia Fiorella, La Jolla Playhouse

Video is used to highlight what the lives of those who work in the arts are like “behind the curtain” using humor and real-life situations. The medium is used to connect with customers and potential customers, and demystify what arts organizations do. Topics include a range of subjects including development activities; artistic endeavors such as props, sound, and light design; and how arts organizations bring a production or exhibit to life. Video is proving to be highly engaging and generates a lot of feedback.

“Just open the doors, pull back the curtain, let people belong. Don’t get so nervous about who’s going to think what because everybody is going to have an opinion. It’s a time when people really want to belong.” – Rise Walter, San Diego Opera

“We share theatrical and fun moments with people with the hope that they spend an evening with us. We’re trying to showcase the artistry as well as the experience.” – Mia Fiorella, La Jolla Playhouse

The San Diego Museum of Art recently launched an award-winning app. The tone is conversational, relaxed, and it makes references to pop culture while also including historic narrative and cultural context. The app allows users to learn about the art and artists by audio or text. The original target was a younger audience; however, older people are also using the app, sharing their headphones and art experiences, and enjoying the content together rather than individually.

Diversifying Audiences

Understanding diverse audiences, learning about the experiences they desire, how to communicate with them, and what to communicate about the arts is viewed as fundamental to the survival of arts organizations. While simultaneously continuing to focus on legacy audiences, arts organizations must also engage younger and ethnically diverse audiences.

Targeted programming or exhibits are used by performing and visual arts organizations to bring in diverse audiences; however, the question is how to continue to keep them engaged.

“I don’t just want to pander. I want to treat people like everybody can see, hear, and experience the art no matter who they are. It’s a big challenge for the arts to make it accessible to every single human being because the arts are the arts.” – Rise Walter, San Diego Opera

Approaches to ongoing engagement with diverse audiences include communicating with new customers directly via email, advertising directly to the target audiences, participating in community events in specific neighborhoods, and continuing to offer programming or exhibits that are likely to be of interest to the target populations.

To assist in diversifying their audience, La Jolla Playhouse has created the “Playhouse Leadership Council” which is made up of educators, community leaders, retired military, and activists. The Council is designed to help La Jolla Playhouse grow its audience to be more representative of the population in San Diego. The Council is crucial for audience engagement as it allows the Playhouse to meet new people and expose more San Diegans to what the Playhouse has to offer.

Enhancing and Personalizing Experiences

As customers seek experiences and not just “a show,” enhancing and personalizing the arts experience is a key focus for arts marketers.

“It’s no longer ‘oh, I’m going to the opera.’ People want a full experience. They are not just coming in for that particular performance but rather they want to connect to the people there.” – Rise Walter, San Diego Opera

In support of the opera production, “The Pirates of Penance,” San Diego Opera handed out pirate rings and eye patches to the audience before the show. The props served as a way to enhance the audience experience.

Inexpensive methods such as digital photo walls using photos submitted by customers and hashtags are also used to share audience experiences.

“…when people visit the museum, we want to share not just our own interpretation of how people are experiencing the museum, rather, we want to share the people’s interpretations of the museum.” – Kari Kovach, The San Diego Museum of Art

The San Diego Museum of Art is encouraging people to connect to the museum in their own way and one way they are doing this is by use of the hashtag #SDMAYourWay. Customers can attend an after-hours cocktail party, “Culture and Cocktails,” and experience the art, go to the museum restaurant, attend a live jazz event, or participate in family drop-in day.

“We don’t dictate the path to discovery. It’s more focused on inviting visitors through many access points so they can explore and experience the museum in their own unique way.” – Kari Kovach, The San Diego Museum of Art

Passion for the Arts

Commitment and passion for the arts weaved throughout the discussion with these four San Diego arts marketing executives. In an open and frank dialogue, they shared their approaches to arts marketing. Not only was the panel discussion an education for marketers, but given their support of the arts, it was a great privilege to bask in their presence.

Kirsty Nunez is the President and Chief Research Strategist at Q2 Insights, Inc., a research and innovation consulting firm with offices in San Diego and New Orleans. One of Q2 Insights areas of specialization is performing and visual arts marketing research. If you would like to learn more, please reach out to Kirsty and her team at (760) 230-2950 ext. 1 or [email protected].

Q2 Insights, Inc. designs, conducts, analyzes, and compiles the report for the State of Marketing Study each year. FreshForm contributes strategic vision and creative design to the report. If the Chief Marketing Officer, Vice President of Marketing, or the Director of Marketing from your organization would like to participate in the 2018 State of Marketing Study, please have them contact Kirsty Nunez at [email protected] or (760) 230-2950.

About Kirsty

Kirsty Nunez is the President and Chief Research Strategist at Q2 Insights, Inc., a research and innovation consulting firm with offices in San Diego and New Orleans. She can be reached at (760) 230-2950 ext. 1 or [email protected]