SMU DataArts - Cultural Data Profile


“When We Re-open, Whom Will We Gather?”

A Study to Help Advance Audience Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion as Performing Arts Organizations Re-open Following the Pandemic

As performing arts organizations in the United States emerge from pandemic closures, SMU DataArts has released a new study to help these institutions address the question “When we re-open, whom will we gather?”

Written by Zannie Voss, Glenn Voss, Young Woong Park 


This research examines if and how donor priorities and an organization’s location, subscriber base, and marketing actions affect the extent to which audiences represent the diversity of the organization’s community. It is part of a series of recent publications intended to help arts and cultural organizations contend with the current crisis of systemic racism. It expands on a question raised in our white paper In It for the Long Haul, co-authored with Jill Robinson: “When we re-open, whom will we gather?” Audience diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) are anchored in the notion of community orientation, which surfaced as an essential cornerstone for attaining sustainability in the two-part series of reports on The Alchemy of High-Performing Arts Organizations, co-published with The Wallace Foundation. 

SMU DataArts recognizes that our society is characterized by a complex web of inequities and we are committed to making research, tools, and resources accessible to all persons regardless of race, age, gender expression, sexual orientation, national origin, disability, and/or socioeconomic status. We strive to conduct our work without bias or preference and we value input and creativity from diverse perspectives. We use data and evidence to shine a light on both excellence and inequities within the arts and culture sector. We are committed to advancing equity, recognizing that it is a continuous process requiring ongoing input from the field, accountability, and evaluation. 

Executive Summary

There is a growing sense of anticipation as performing arts organizations make plans to emerge from pandemic closures and re-engage with their local communities in person this year (Paulson 2021). It is against this backdrop of renewal and promise of reconnection that we examine pre-pandemic audience diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) at a set of 24 large performing arts organizations around the country, and the factors that impact the extent to which audiences represent the diversity of their local communities. This look to the past is intended to stimulate conversation about what “business as usual” can mean in the future. Specifically, in this paper we answer three questions:

Q1. To what extent do audiences of nonprofit performing arts organizations in traditionally Eurocentric arts sectors represent the racial and income diversity of the communities they serve, and has audience representativeness improved over time?

Finding: Throughout the timeframe studied (2011-17), BIPOC and lower-income segments of the community were significantly underrepresented in the audiences at the organizations examined. We found that racial representativeness improved modestly over time and income representativeness decreased for organizations in each of the performing arts sectors.

Q2. Does funding from philanthropic stakeholder groups have impact on organizations’ level of audience representativeness, and is there evidence that funder priorities have shifted over time?

Finding: The evidence indicates that different philanthropic stakeholder groups hold divergent and dynamic DEI priorities, which impact organizations’ DEI efforts in distinct and sometimes conflicting ways. Individual support had no association with the racial representativeness of the audience but an increasingly positive impact on the level of income representativeness. Foundation and government support had an increasingly positive impact on both racial and income representativeness. Organizations with lower levels of corporate support increased their levels of racial and income representativeness over time.

Q3. How do organizational characteristics and marketing actions impact audience representativeness?

Finding: Our findings reveal a dark side to having a large subscriber base. The more seats these performing arts organizations filled with subscribers, the lower their levels of audience racial and income representativeness. Organizations located in more racially and/or income diverse neighborhoods have an audience base that is more reflective of that diversity. When people travel within the city, they tend to select destinations where the sociodemographic characteristics are similar to their own. Marketing program diversity and investments in advertising can enhance audience DEI, whereas price has a negative impact.

We believe that arts and cultural organizations have an opportunity to take a leadership role in communities by elevating DEI as a priority as they adapt programming to new realities and consider whom they will serve upon reopening (Voss and Robinson 2020). In addition, we encourage funders to question and examine whether their philanthropic support has resulted in the desired impact, and if there are opportunities to enhance audience DEI by equitably funding arts and culture organizations that primarily serve BIPOC or low-income communities.


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We would like to thank and acknowledge the following entities and individuals that provided data and perspectives that informed this research: TRG Arts staff, and CEO and owner Jill Robinson; the arts leaders who contributed their expertise and viewpoints as part of our qualitative research; and Jen Benoit-Bryan and Daniel Fonner, who reviewed a draft of this report.


Learn how funder priorities and strategic marketing choices enhance or inhibit opportunities for cultural exchange and understanding among the full spectrum of a community's diverse populations.

Our Research

The Intersection of Funding, Marketing, and Audience Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion is one report from a series of SMU DataArts studies intended to help arts and cultural organizations combat racial and income inequities as they prepare for the post-pandemic future.

Arts and Cultural Organizations: In It for the Long Haul

Developed in collaboration with Jill Robinson, CEO of TRG Arts, estimated the pandemic’s effect on the nonprofit arts sector and asked questions to help organizations maintain passion for the communities they were formed to serve.

Read the Report

The Alchemy of High-Performing Arts Organizations

This report, published in partnership with The Wallace Foundation, studies 10 organizations with a track record of high performance and 10 who engineered a turnaround from low to high performance.

Read the Report

The Alchemy of High-Performing Arts Organizations: A Spotlight on Organizations of Color

Research suggests the critical role of strong community engagement and high-quality programming are seen as key to achieving financial sustainability for arts organizations of color.

Read the Report