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December 4, 2021
ArtsBoston’s Research Helps Members Navigate the Pandemic

October 19, 2021 — When Greater Boston area nonprofit arts organizations stopped their live programing, and performance venues closed, as the coronavirus pandemic spread last year, ArtsBoston, a Boston-based nonprofit that supports and advocates for the arts sector, doubled down on research to help its nearly 150 members figure out when audiences would be willing to return for in-person events.

Backed by funding from the City of Boston Office of Arts and Culture and Liberty Mutual, ArtsBoston partnered with national consulting firm WolfBrown to bring the Audience Outlook Monitor (AOM) to Boston. AOM tracked consumer fears, hopes, perceptions, and feelings about COVID-19, providing up-to-date information to ArtsBoston’s members, most of whom don’t have comparable research capabilities.

Catherine Peterson: We helped our members understand the pandemic’s impact.

“With AOM, we really put our finger on the pulse of how Boston audiences were experiencing the pandemic,” said ArtsBoston Executive Director Catherine Peterson. “They understood what was happening in the world around them, they followed the science and its experts, and they were aware it might be a while before they went back to their favorite theater, dance, and music groups.”

She added, “What’s most fascinating, and most moving, was to see how patrons’ enthusiasm, and their deep desire to connect with others through the arts, never flagged.”

The AOM effort built on ArtBoston’s role, dating back to its founding in 1975, to help its members learn more about audiences, specifically their buying habits, what they liked and didn’t, and how their attendance at events impacted nearby businesses like restaurants, stores, parking garages, and hotels.

Expectations about returning to performances crested earlier this year when it seemed that infection rates had finally dropped. In June, a majority of survey respondents (53%) assumed they’d be back in theaters by August 2021, while just 15% said they’d hold out until January 2022 or later. That enthusiasm didn’t last long.

By late summer, the Delta variant of the coronavirus, and news about it, had appeared and spread. The most recent survey, completed last month, revealed that a majority of audiences couldn’t see themselves settling back into theater seats until at least November. And the number of holdouts waiting until 2022 tripled to 45%.

This level and detail of information proved indispensable to ArtsBoston members.

AOM helped arts organizations navigate their pivot to online programming during pandemic shutdowns and, according to ArtsBoston, gave them the confidence to introduce stricter vaccination policies, as audience support for such measures grew.

Wayne McWorter, senior director of marketing, communications and audience services at ArtsEmerson in Boston, said the AOM has been a lifeline during a difficult time.

“All of us in the arts needed to know more from our audiences, to provide context in the pandemic; we just did not have the bandwidth to do it,” McWorter said. “I can’t overstate the value of the Audience Outlook Monitor and the peer learning that came with it – for me and for all of us.”

For now, ArtsBoston said it plans to continue the AOM project through November, adding crucial data and audience insights to the ongoing process of reopening the arts sector in Greater Boston.

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