TAKING IT TO THE STREETS: THE FESTIVALIZATION OF ARTWEEK BOSTON


Mariko Azis
7/14/2014

Music, food, entertainment, and a conglomeration of family, friends, and strangers all in one place: these are just a few things that come to mind when we think of the word “festival.” Festivals have been a part of the human tradition of celebration since the beginning of civilization – and isn’t art something worth celebrating?

The “festivalization” of the arts has been an emerging phenomenon, partly in response to the slow yet steady decline of performing and public art attendance. Increasing numbers of organizations and arts councils have turned to arts festivals in hopes of augmenting their communities’ participation in the arts, thanks to the unique opportunity festivals offer to arts professionals, allowing them to bring the arts to the people rather than compel people to attend an event in the traditional sense or space. But there’s more to fashioning a successful arts festival than simply picking and choosing local artists and organizations, jumbling them into a single event and hoping for attendees.

Through a rigorous process – from implementation, to post-event measurement statistics, to future planning – the Citi Performing Arts Center has demonstrated the best practices of art “festivalization” with its biannual organization of ArtWeek Boston. Focused on showcasing host artists and organizations based on their freshness and uniqueness (referred to fondly as the “WOW” factor), ArtWeek Boston is the perfect example of a successful festivalized art event: not only did it gain city-wide attention and participation, it transformed the space of the city into a celebratory salute to the conglomeration of talent and creativity hidden within the greater Boston area.

Attendees participated in one-of-a-kind activities such as welding “critter sculptures” at Stonybrook Fine Arts, dining on a four-course meal inspired entirely by Prince’s epic Purple Rain album, and collaborating to create an original dance piece in a choreography workshop – just a few examples of events that illustrate ArtWeek’s focus on involving active participation on the part of attendees.

Inaugurated in fall 2013, ArtWeek’s second iteration in spring 2014 learned many a lesson from its first run which was met with much enthusiasm from Bostonians and the art community alike. As Chief of Staff of the Citi Performing Arts Center, Sue Sullivan has seen the program grow in both scope and cultural importance. In her eyes, “Spring ArtWeek significantly expanded on the inaugural week which was first launched in Fall 2013, surpassing even our own expectations in how rapidly the concept has captured the imagination of the city and surrounding areas.” After all, 130% growth in one year is certainly nothing to scoff at.

ArtWeek’s second success was largely due to significant adjustments in programming in response to the results 2013 yielded – most adjustments focused on diversifying participating organizations and partnerships as well as ArtWeek’s public audience. “The growth of the concept and the brand acted as a valuable catalyst for additional sponsor support and attracted participation from an increasingly diverse group of creative partners throughout greater Boston and beyond,” Sullivan explains.

For example, in an attempt to cater to a greater number of smaller organizations, the previous external judging process was eliminated – this gave an entry point for event proposals and partnership developments, allowing the number of events and participating organizations to significantly increase without a substantial added weight on administrative support. In addition, ArtWeek reworked its pricing model to become more flexible in order to accommodate a greater diversity of organization sizes.

The original model for the event drew heavily from studies on consumer-friendly practices of “restaurant weeks” across the country. Adapting the original prix fixe structure that has worked wonders for culinary events, ArtWeek offered programs that were “free to $50,” resulting in more than 50% of the events being available for free to the public. This proved to be a simpler, more flexible model for both event hosts and participants.

Adjustments to pricing and the selection process allowed for rapid and substantial growth in participating organizations. Sullivan says that “participants and events alike grew exponentially from 29 [in the fall] to 69 [in the spring] unique experiences for a total of 139 gross events in less than one year.” Additionally, the variety of participant hosts expanded massively to include hotels, retail, and neighborhood partners – a perfect shift for the event’s initial mission to emphasize the “quality and diversity of arts, culture, and creative community in Boston and beyond.”

Besides expanding its financial accessibility, the second iteration of ArtWeek expanded its local influence, doubling its local geographic reach from 11 to 22 neighborhoods and attracting approximately 6,700-13,400 visitors throughout the week. The Citi Centers research also showed that events attracted active participation from a diverse and novel audienceThey approximate that around 36% of ArtWeek attendees were new to their host organizations, with 62% of respondents reporting that they would seriously consider returning to the organization they had visited during the event outside of ArtWeek.

In general, the intended effect of encouraging local Bostonians to expand their artistic and local interests seemed to resonate notably as a result of ArtWeek: in fact, 38% of respondents at the Fall 2013 event reported that they were led to explore a neighborhood outside of their own as a direct result of ArtWeek programming, with place-based programming being one of the most preferred features in the host selection process. Moving forward, the Citi Center staff believe that ArtWeek’s influence might extend beyond the dynamic of art and cultural production in its locality – the event may also be a force for tangible economic and social impact.

ArtWeek certainly has chops as a successful strategy for new audience development and neighborhood revitalization initiatives and is a powerful regional and international tourism hook, so marketing opportunities had to be deliberate and carefully planned. “Our marketing team is very small (but creative!) and our resources are limited like any nonprofit,” Sullivan says. The team took the opportunity that the momentum from their past event granted in order to shift their strategy away from event marketing and towards the promotion of individual events and hosts instead. This significantly expanded their marketing campaign to include promotional print material throughout Boston including public transportation ads and signage in addition to 20,000 complimentary pocket guides which were mass distributed at the Boston Common Visitors Center. In the digital realm, the marketing team focused on a brand new formalized social media campaign, targeted email blasts, and public service announcements disseminated through strategic partnerships.

Partnerships and media sponsors were central to the event’s programming and marketing strategies, and were snowballed from initially small advertising investments made possible by grant monies from ArtPlace and The Highland Street Foundation. “With limited resources and big aspirations,” Sullivan remarks, “the most gratifying innovative strategy has been seeing the citywide marketing partnerships and collaborations collectively build ArtWeek into something that benefits the greater community – and potentially other parts of the country!” From the vast diversity in the event’s media sponsorships – which included support from WCVB-TV, the Metro, and Greater Media – ArtWeek was proffered a 1 to 6 cash in-kind value for advertising and promotions, grossing over $575,000 in annual advertising campaign value.

Their expenditures were evidently put to good use, resulting in 26.5 million total paid and bonus advertising impressions in both print and digital media and 5 – 10 times more exposure in bonus value. Additionally, the event’s partnerships helped garner 8 million impressions in editorial coverage for the spring event alone – including its coveted 2014 title as “Best of the New” by the Globe Magazine. Besides publicity opportunities, partnerships allowed for local and corporate organizations to claim ownership over a tangible social impact within their community. As one media partner relayed, “[ArtWeek] helped us develop some good relationships and made us feel proud to work together to do something really important for the city.”

In reviewing both the attendance and engagement of their multiplicity of events, staff at the Citi Center determined two key elements that were shared among their most successful programs: first, those that introduced novel, one-of-a-kind programs fared statistically better than those that modestly added new elements to existing programs; secondly, any events that combined internal marketing efforts with co-promotion with involved partners attracted greater audiences.

Specific programming by participating hosts was also adjusted significantly. In the spring, responding to the demand for diverse, family-friendly events which led to a 250% increase in kids’ and family programming as well as more multicultural events and hosts. In general, unexpected types of host organizations and individuals such as restaurants, hotels, and college students “proved very popular because of their unique and creative programs,” according to Sullivan’s report. The shift in programming did not go unnoticed among attendees either – as Arthur Levine of Boston USA noted, “the focus is on more offbeat, less-heralded artistic events, often with participants playing hands-on roles in the art making.”

ArtWeek’s reverberating effects throughout its community did not stop in the realm of public audience engagement – it caused noticeable expansion and innovation in the institutional dimension as well. After their over-capacity event during 2014 ArtWeek featuring Zarzuela – a unique Spanish brand of opera, music, dance, and comedy – the Boston Arts Consort reported that they were “planning more collaborations and have already had inquiries from other groups from both the art and activist worlds about combining forces. The ArtWeek ideals have really shown proof in our case.”

So, with the enormous successes of ArtWeeks past, we naturally wonder: what can we extract from the Citi Center’s strategies to adopt into our own arts marketing initiatives, “festivalized” or otherwise? Sullivan shared with us her key takeaways:

Think beyond the traditional ticket.

In the end, successfully pulling off an arts event is a matter of staying simultaneously innovative and relevant to the community – to this degree, experimenting beyond traditional admission or ticket-based event programming can be met with high rewards. Find ways to combine programming and marketing in so that you’re selling an experience that is convincingly and completely inimitable. “Unique partnerships, nontraditional spaces, or intimate behind-the-scenes events resonate with today’s audiences,” Sullivan comments. “In this age of the ‘experiential economy,’ it is no wonder ArtWeek events, like a conducting lesson on stage with the popular Boston Pops conductor, a progressive dinner party among theatres linked by ghost lights, and a Fame Jr. pop-up dinner theatre performance in a Caribbean restaurant were so popular!” Really – where else can you find events like that?

Invest time in meaningful (and unexpected) collaborations.

Partnerships that are unprecedented and surprising can be the most fulfilling adaptations to both institutional and event-based marketing. Sullivan believes that the nonprofit arts sector is constrained in their goals to attract and engage new audiences by the traditional frameworks of arts marketing and resource limitations, but new partnerships can allow us to surpass this. “ArtWeek is a model that challenges those constraints by encouraging experimental and new partnerships within each smaller event as well as leveraging the resources of larger scale partnerships,” Sullivan explains. “Yes, collaborations take time, but the return on investment can far outweigh the risk – and ArtWeek has illustrated that again and again.”

Diversify, in every way.

Many of the adjustments to both event programming and marketing in ArtWeek’s spring iteration involved increased diversification in both participating programs and attendees. Collaborating partnerships did contribute to the organizational diversification in a publicly noticeable way, but diversity was also achieved through decisive programmatic changes in pricing and geographical distribution to enhance broader accessibility.

Invite your audience to participate – not just observe.

“We need to rethink our definition of ‘the audience’ because the paradigm is shifting with the next generation,” Sullivan insists. “Passively listening to music, quietly watching a play, or walking through a gallery is simply not enough.” In other words, in trying to innovate arts event programming, perhaps one of the most implementable modifications with the most tangible and immediate results may be the aspect of active participation from the audience. It certainly worked for ArtWeek.


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