The Baltimore Symphony Orchestra is among the 26 institutions slated to receive a total of $52 million from the Wallace Foundation to work on audience-building initiatives. (David Harp/Chesapeakephotos.com)

One of the biggest questions today in the sector commonly and somewhat misleadingly known as “the arts” is how to build audiences for the future. Audiences for orchestras, opera, dance and theater are in a gradual declining trend, gently or rapidly, and there’s a lot of conventional wisdom out there about the reasons why. A frequent scapegoat is the lack of arts education in the schools, which implies that if people were only better educated, they would love these art forms — despite the fact that a lot of the audience members who are not going to performances these days are in their 40s and 50s, and therefore DID have the benefit of arts education. More immediate culprits, to my mind, are social change, the evolution of artistic tastes, and a far greater number of ways to occupy one’s so-called leisure time, or what’s left of it.

Looking at ways to solve the problem is a more productive approach; and the Wallace Foundation is putting $52 million where its mouth is, to attempt it. Today, the foundation announced a new initiative called “Building New Audiences for Sustainability,” which has selected 26 organizations across the country, from a pool of some 300 applicants, for awards earmarked for specific audience-building projects.

Local area awardees include the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, which has been particularly active in a range of community initiatives under its music director, Marin Alsop, and Washington, D.C.’s Woolly Mammoth Theater. Others are Opera Philadelphia, the Opera Theater of St. Louis, and the Seattle Opera, as well as some traditional heavy hitters not notable for their lack of funding: the Los Angeles Philharmonic, the New York Philharmonic, and the Lyric Opera of Chicago.

This isn’t a new area of interest for the Wallace Foundation, which has funded other audience-building ventures in the past; the last, involving ten arts organizations, led among other things to the idea of a “Road to Results,” with nine practices that, if followed, will help you to build an audience of your very own. (Go ahead. Try this at home.)The Road to Results: Effective Practices for Building Arts Audiences

How innovative is any of this really? And does it need to be? The unofficial mantra of marketing directors around the country is “butts in seats”: the bottom line (pardon the pun) is that you want people to attend, and getting them there shouldn’t be rocket science. If they’re not attending, it may be a sign that they’re not that interested in what you’re offering. The conventional wisdom about arts education and outreach often boils down to the idea that if only they understood, they would be interested, and that educating people can make them be interested. I’m not so sure that’s the case, and as an approach it’s unwittingly patronizing by making unflattering assumptions about the very people you’re trying to attract.

Another approach is to change what you’re offering to come more into line with what your audience wants — an approach that is self-evident if you’re a business trying to market a product, but that, invoked with application to the “arts,” will earn me the label of a Philistine among the many people who believe that our field — music in particular — should rise above base concerns of supply, demand, and economics. This approach, however, has given rise to some of the more successful initiatives among orchestras, not only in recent years but in recent decades – Leonard Bernstein’s Young People’s Concerts with the New York Philharmonic predated my birth, and it wasn’t long after that that Pierre Boulez was having the same orchestra scatter rugs across the auditorium floor for late-night concerts. “There is so much formality involved in the performance of music that we make it hard for audiences to get emotionally involved,” Boulez said in the New Yorker — in 1973. (Take note, those who say that Alan Gilbert has been the first to bring that institution into the modern age.)

The Wallace Foundation’s 26 grantees are about equally divided, the foundation said in a press release, between groups trying to build audiences through the art itself, and those trying to build them through various auxiliary programs. Wednesday’s announcement included only cursory outlines of a couple of the projects, some of which sounded more promising than others. A new global music festival (World Music/CRASHarts) or new broadcasts of performances in various community venues (Opera Theater of St. Louis) could well be ways to reach new people. By contrast, the New York Philharmonic’s “plan” — “Expanding reach to younger adult audiences by spotlighting young talent and developing informal chamber concerts that will be promoted via social media” — doesn’t sound all that different from what it’s been trying to do for some time; nor do I find it necessarily convincing. (Do young audiences really want to hear young talent? And is the New York Philharmonic actually effective with social media?)

There’s no question that arts organizations could use some new tools to deal with a current climate that seems to have left many of them adrift. And it’s nice that there are still some major foundations left prepared to put significant money into addressing some of the field’s particular, pervasive problems. I’ve postulated before that the era of large-scale investment is over, and that the 40- or 50-something-year-old potential donors coveted by the New York Philharmonic or the Metropolitan Opera may be more fulfilled by more specific and tangible acts of philanthropy: helping to fund an artist they like on Kickstarter, for example, where one can really feel one is making a difference, as opposed to having a $5000 donation drop into a multimillion-dollar pool almost unnoticed. Given this, I was a little regretful that so many of the foundation’s awardees in the music field are more traditional big-budget institutions, as opposed to organizations like Opera Philadelphia, which has been working hard to redefine both itself and the opera-company model. If you want to capture the interest of a new audience, giving them concrete ways to make a tangible difference seems like one promising way to do it.