It has been my pleasure to work with two of the three most respected collectives of visual artists in Boston including the largest, whose membership exceeds 200. Eighteen months ago, the larger organization referred to me the smaller, 80-member, loosely affiliated sister organization. The two have overlapping memberships, where nearly the entire membership of the smaller are also members of the larger group. Membership of both collectives consists primarily of painters, sculptors and photographers, with a smattering of ceramacists and artisans such as bookbinders and calligraphers. Management for each group is separate and independent.
All artists in the collectives maintain studios in an art and design district consisted of several 19th century former warehouse buildings and the artists of the smaller collective are all located in one of those buildings.
The arts economy in New England in general and in particular Greater Boston is significant. ArtsBoston, a 175-member arts service organization that researches important statistics regarding the local arts community, reports that more than 18 million people in Greater Boston attend arts and cultural events every year, both ticketed and free events, including dance, musical and theater performances; visits to museums and art galleries; and attendance at ethnic cultural festivals.
Both collectives offer nearly identical special events programming as a method to reach out to potential art collectors. Each holds an annual open studios event, where member artists and a few guest artists from other locations throw open their studios and invite the public at no charge to see, discuss and purchase work. Since 1986, the larger group has held its signature open studios event in September and the smaller group holds its annual event in the spring, when the artists throw open their studios and invite the public in to see, discuss and purchase their work. Additionally, since about 1998, the smaller group has held the monthly open studios event branded as First Friday.
Competition between the local artist collectives has in recent years become serious and a proliferation of open studio events has diluted the target audience of middle class to affluent collectors who reside in the tonier city and suburban enclaves. Boston has 22 neighborhoods and 12 annual open studios art walks with dates coordinated by the city and held from April to November each year. Additionally, every city or town contiguous to Boston, plus numerous outlying suburbs, have over the years launched open studios art walks. In July and August the artist studio and art gallery action moves to the traditional summer colonies of Cape Ann, Provincetown, the Berkshire mountains and nearby locations that beckon to vacationers from around the country.
The smaller arts collective was facing increasingly diminished audiences for First Fridays, which run January to December from 5:00 – 9:00 PM and also its May open studios event. The two member artist volunteer managers needed an effective marketing campaign that was within their budget.
They reached out to their counterparts in the larger organization and asked how they managed to maintain attendance for their annual open studios event, which has reversed its previously declining numbers.
Within two weeks I met with the leaders of the smaller collective and after listening to their story, felt very strongly that an energized marketing plan would be effective. Over the past three or four years, for instance, the managers had slacked off on marketing. Recently, First Fridays had been listed in only one print and three online events listing services.
Art sales were less robust because there were fewer collectors and potential collectors visiting the artists’ studios or even the nearby art galleries. Membership in the smaller collective was dropping slowly, as artists would re-assess the benefits of membership at renewal time. Operating income in the smaller organization was beginning to reflect their absence. Artist participation in First Fridays waned, which could only cause the target audience attendance to wane.
A more consistent and comprehensive marketing campaign would be launched in a greated number of targeted print and online media outlets would facilitate outreach to collectors and potential collectors. More collector studio visits increase the possibility of art sales and promote the conversion of aspiring collectors to collector status. Artists would see the most relevant demonstration of the value of membership in the collective.
Content marketing would be the format of outreach to the organizations’ clients, that is, the member artists and the monthly newsletter would provide the platform.
Expanded print and online listings now appear in selected print community newspapers and online arts-specific and general events online calendars. Over the subsequent months, additional media outlets were identified. Fourteen online media outlets and four print outlets now carry the First Friday listing each month and also carry listings the annual event in May.
Selected print ads of one-quarter page (typically) now appear annually in carefully targeted print publications and outreach to tourists to Boston was earmarked as a priority. A popular but modestly priced tourist magazine provided free in many hotels was identified. To evaluate the impact of tourist dollars on contemporary art in Boston, in 2016 the Institute of Contemporary Art/ Boston, which features 21st century art only, received 210,000 visitors according to the Boston Business Journal (and the Museum of fine Arts, the New England Aquarium the Museum of Science each received in excess of 1.1 million visitors).
The primary content marketing upgrade consists of a monthly artist spotlight that features an image of the artist’s work and a brief artist bio. the artists volunteer to participate and the response has been enthusiastic.
Visitors to First Fridays have climbed to about 500 on average each month as of this Season. As documented by the managers, historic lows are January and February, when attendance can dip as the temperature drops and the snow piles up and only 200 or so brave souls will visit. Months with the highest visitors are April through June and September through December, when up to 700 visitors may appear.
The value of membership is being recognized and renewals have increased. The total artist membership has increased from just over 70 to 80 in the past 12 months and organization revenues have increased proportionately. There are 15-20 artists in the building that are nonmembers.
The May 2017 open studios/ art walk brought in about 2500 visitors (the larger collective draws 6,000 – 7,000 visitors to its September event).
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