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Why “Where”? Because “Who”

AEA Consulting

Facing waning audiences and challenged relevancy, many arts organizations are paying closer attention to place — the settings where arts experiences are offered — as a way to attract and more deeply engage new audiences.

Why “Where”? Because “Who” examines why and how place has become an important variable for arts practitioners to consider as they chart a course for the future.


This report looks at the historical and social context for this phenomenon. The arts have existed for centuries in public and informal spaces that are only recently considered unusual places to program. In many ways, this new focus on “where” has brought art back to the places in which it once existed, not taken it to places that are entirely foreign.

These places are often more accessible to more potential participants than are “traditional venues.” The arts were once “owned” by a larger portion of the population but that control shifted over the last two hundred years. Programming in unusual spaces has the capacity to reengage a broader public by creating experiences that align with their values and expectations in the places they want to be engaged.


Why “Where”? Because “Who” presents a framework designed to help practitioners understand and make informed choices about the variables at work in arts programming across a variety of places. This framework is applied to project case studies included in this report, offering examples and ideas for interested practitioners and supporters.


Study of organizations featured in this report generated a set of six lessons learned about putting place to work toward an arts organization’s goals for new audience engagement. These are:

  1. Plan the approach. Just showing up isn’t enough. Successful efforts in new spaces that connect with new participants are often the result of many months of planning and engagement.
  2. Share ownership. Invite communities to fully participate by sharing ownership. Don’t just go to new places to “give” art to the people there. Listen to that community and learn from it.
  3. Partner up. Efforts of this type are enabled by a broad array of partnerships involving community groups and other local organizations, private businesses, donors and foundations.
  4. Prepare to invest and adapt. This work is often labor-, time- and resource-intensive. Pursuing it may require rethinking programming, business models and funding.
  5. Aim for engagement. This work is not about luring audiences back to a conventional venue. There may be some audience crossover, but project objectives should focus on engagement at the chosen locations, not hope for engagement somewhere else later on.
  6. Open new doors. It’s not an all or nothing game. New sites have been successfully integrated as part of an organization’s total offering, the majority of which still occurs in less unusual places.

These lessons, and the many more than can be drawn from looking at other examples of best practice, are vital. The increased focus on “where” is not likely to change anytime soon. The future of the arts depends on programming in both new and old spaces, creating experiences that satisfy current participants and speak to new ones. Ultimately, “where” should and will grow to be an ever more important variable in the presentation and production of art, especially as one considers “who” one serves.