The arts economy in New England in general and Greater Boston in particular, is significant. ArtsBoston, a 175-member not-for-profit arts service organization that researches important statistics regarding the local arts community, found that more than 18 million visits are made to arts and cultural events every year, ticketed and free events, including dance, musical and theater performances; visits to museums and art galleries; and attendance at ethnic cultural festivals.
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. The 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 consisting of several 19th century former warehouse buildings and the artists of the smaller collective are all located in one of those buildings.
Both collectives offer nearly identical special events programming as a method to reach out to potential art collectors. Each holds an annual open studios art walk event, where member artists open their studios and invite the public in at no charge to see, discuss and when visitors choose, purchase artwork. Since 1986, the larger group has held its signature open studios event in September and the smaller group holds its annual event in May. Additionally, since about 1998, the smaller group has held the monthly open studios event branded as First Friday.
The smaller arts collective was facing increasingly diminished audiences for First Fridays, which are held on the first Friday of every month from 5:00 – 9:00 PM January through December. Attendance at its May open studios event was likewise softening. Artist membership in the group had stagnated.
Competition between the local artist collectives has in recent years become intense, the result of a proliferation of open studios events that 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 events, with dates coordinated by the city and held from April to November each year. Additionally, nearly 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 action moves to the historic summer artist colonies in MA, including Cape Ann, Provincetown and towns in the Berkshire mountains that beckon to vacationers from around the country.
The collective is managed by two member volunteers. They reached out to their counterparts in the larger organization and asked how that group managed to maintain attendance for its annual open studios event, which has reversed previously declining numbers.
Within two weeks I met with the leaders of the smaller collective and after listening to their story, recommended that an energized marketing plan would most likely provide the remedy. Over the past three or four years, a shortage of time and a dose of complacency had caused the managers to slack off on marketing their events to the target audience. Recently, First Fridays had been listed in only one print and three online events listing services.
Member art sales were shrinking because fewer collectors or potential collectors visited studios. Membership in the collective was dropping slowly, as artists re-examined the value of the collective at renewal time. Operating income was negatively impacted. Artist participation in First Fridays waned, which could only cause the target audience attendance to wane. It was an impending death spiral.
A comprehensive and consistently implemented marketing campaign was launched in an increased number of targeted print and online media outlets, which was the core of a strategy to greatly improve outreach to collectors and potential collectors. More visits to studios would enhance the possibility of art sales and promote the conversion of aspiring collectors to collector status. Over the subsequent months, additional media outlets were identified and included in the campaign. Presently, 14 online media outlets and five print outlets now carry the First Friday listings each month and the listing for the annual open studios event in May.
A paid display ad (one-quarter page) will now appear annually in a free print publication that has high readership among tourists to Boston, since outreach to that group has become a priority. To estimate the potential impact of tourist dollars on contemporary art sales 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 and the Museum of Science each received in excess of 1.1 million visitors).
Content marketing is also part of the campaign launch, designed to reach the collective’s members and non-members through the collective’s newsletter. Membership retention and recruitment are in many ways the heart of the marketing campaign for without active and engaged members who believe in the mission and are happy to carry it out, the collective will cease to exist.
The monthly newsletter now includes a member artist spotlight that features an image of the artist’s work plus a brief artist bio. The artists volunteer to participate and the response has been enthusiastic. As a way to persuade the 10 -15 non-members in the building of the collectives’ benefits, an annual newsletter customized to provide an update of the work that the collective’s members find especially useful and making an appeal to join is now being sent.
The number of visitors to First Fridays has gradually climbed to about 500 on average each month. As documented by the managers, historic lows occur in January and February, when attendance can dip as the temperature drops, the snow piles up and only 200 or so art aficionados will attend First Friday. Months with the highest visitors are April through June and September through December, when up to 700 visitors may appear.
Membership in the collective has risen over the past 12 months from just over 70 to 80 members. There remains 10 -15 artists in the building who are non-members. The group hopes that one or two non-members will sign up each year.
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