Newsletters > On Our Minds

2023 – The Year in Transitions

ISSUE 22 • December 2023

Photo of the WolfBrown team
Members of the WolfBrown Team

As we transition from one year to the next, we customarily take a moment to reflect on the milestones and changing perspectives that shaped our work at WolfBrown over the past year. Some of us have shared lighthearted or personal reflections, while others delve into weightier or more broad-ranging topics related to the arts sector as a whole. Some of us look back across decades, while others zero in on the past year or can’t help but look toward what lies ahead in 2024.


  • Celebrating 40 YearsDr. Thomas Wolf celebrates the 40th anniversary of working at a consulting firm and shares a gem of a photograph of work at the firm years ago.
  • Making Memories John Carnwath considers how arts organizations might communicate with infrequent visitors if the goal were to make those rare experiences unforgettable rather than trying to sell them another ticket.
  • Summer Adventures in Indiana Through Research and MusicKathleen Hill shares how two events at Indiana University sparked a desire to infuse more joy, play, and openness into her future music-making and work.
  • The Benefits of Research Teamwork – Alan Kline discusses the transition to collaborative research through the Audience Outlook Monitor program.
  • Cat Goes to the Art Museum Claire Pavlik Purgus created original artwork for this issue, including momentous world events and personal memories.
  • Brand as Home: Keeping Sub-Brands All in the FamilySurale Phillips explores the challenges and opportunities cultural organizations face in integrating popular new concepts while preserving their brand identity.
  • Performing PossibilityDr. Dennie Palmer Wolf imagines a 2024 where live arts events open and punctuate legislative sessions, diplomatic negotiations, and public meetings to signal our shared humanity.
  • Finding Loyalty in Unexpected PlacesErin Gold suggests a pragmatic approach to fostering loyalty in the arts by transitioning from transactional interactions to educational engagements, exemplified by an art museum’s podcast.
  • Transitioning From Clinical to Arts SpacesAnusha Mohan finds a renewed passion for fostering community through the arts in her role at WolfBrown as a research and project manager.
  • The Rumbling of the Ground Beneath Our FeetAlan Brown highlights the need for a fundamental shift in how arts organizations forge relationships with the public.

Celebrating 40 Years

By Dr. Thomas Wolf

Marc Goldring, Thomas Wolf, and Jane Culbert

Sometimes milestones go unheralded, but here is one about which I am quite proud. Our consulting firm is now 40 years old. From its origins as The Wolf Organization, Inc., with a total of two employees, and through the era of Wolf, Keens & Company, we are now a proud WolfBrown. Much credit for our success goes to the dozens of individuals who have developed our brand and contributed to the quality of our work. And many thanks to our clients with whom we constantly learn and grow better and what we do.

Making Memories

By John Carnwath

According to TRG data, about 50% of all tickets to performing arts events in North America are sold to new customers – that is, people who haven’t previously purchased tickets from a given organization. Of those new customers, 80% to 95% don’t return to that organization to see another performancein the following season. That’s up significantly compared to pre-pandemic levels (historically annual “churn” has been between 60% and 80%), adding to the challenge of declining subscriptions faced by arts marketers.

The conventional interpretation is that the people lost due to churn are avoiding us because they didn’t enjoy the experience enough to want to return. But when I think about some of the things I’ve only done once in my life – going up the Eiffel Tower, dining at a world-renowned restaurant, going to a college football game – the fact that I’m unlikely to do them again has little to do with how much I enjoyed them. In fact, they’re often treasured memories. Yet, in the arts, we tend to think that if people aren’t seeing at least two or three of our shows in a given season, we’ve failed to engage them sufficiently. 

Those of us who work in the arts like to think of arts attendance as an essential part of everyday life, something everyone should be doing regularly—like exercising and eating veggies—but for most Americans, going to an arts event is highly unusual. According to the latest SPPA dataless than 50% of Americans attended an arts event of any kind in 2022. While it’s difficult to track what portion of an organization’s annual “churn” may return years or decades later, it’s quite feasible that there’s a sizable portion of your audience each night for whom this will be the one and only time they see your work. In fact, it might be the only live orchestra, play, or dance they ever experience. I find that thought awe-inspiring and humbling. If we only have one chance to touch these people’s lives, how do we make the most of it?

two people happily skydiving and taking a selfie

A great deal of our nonprofit arts marketing is designed to increase attendance frequency, but what if we focused on making once-in-a-lifetime experiences truly memorable? What if we thought about the decision to step through our doors as more akin to the decision to go skydiving than deciding which channel to watch? Could an email with a photograph taken of the visitor’s group arriving in your lobby or an excerpt of the performance they saw help solidify the memory? Wedding cake bakers don’t send you a 50% off voucher two weeks after you’ve said your vows and expect you to buy another cake. How would our business models and communications change if we were in the business of making lifelong memories out of exceptional experiences rather than selling subscriptions?

Summer Adventures in Indiana Through Research and Music

By Kathleen Hill

In June, I attended the Center for Cultural Affairs Biennial Research Convening and the Association for Cultural Economics International Conference. Both events were held back to back at Indiana University in Bloomington, Indiana. 

The conference marked a few firsts for me:

  • Presenting research on behalf of WolfBrown in-person at a conference. I’d had the pleasure of presenting and attending conferences virtually, but I’d never brought my act “on the road”!
  • Traveling to Indiana. I loved having the chance to see Columbus, which is home to municipal buildings designed by some of the world’s best-known architects of the late 20th century
  • Singing karaoke with a live and built-on-the-spot band. I made the foolish mistake of admitting that I sing to a new colleague. Not thirty minutes later, I was on stage with other researchers from the US and Poland. 
Picture of Kathleen Hill and karaoke

Typically, when faced with karaoke, I am spurred on by a bit of liquid courage and a lot of needling and poking from friends or family. I’m never completely comfortable with jumping up to perform because I think my voice was not made for this decade – let alone this century. It’s pieces from the Baroque or Renaissance periods in which it seems to sound best. I’ve known this since I joined my first chamber ensemble in college. (For a taste of what I’m talking about, here’s a YouTube Playlist featuring some of the songs from my most recent winter concert with the Tactus Ensemble in Cambridge, MA. Our own recording is coming to YouTube soon!)

It was different at this conference. Maybe it was the audience or the musicians, but it felt less like a misplaced showcase and more like a collaborative adventure. There were moments in which the lyrics were garbled, or the spontaneous harmony went sour, but there were also moments of soaring triumph that perfectly locked in! Overall, there was joy in the creative and messy unknowns – in play.

Next year, I’d like to welcome more of that spirit – that joy, play, and openness – into my music-making and my work.

The Benefits of Research Teamwork

By Alan Kline

Since 2017, most of my work as the Director of Audience Research Programs has been with the Intrinsic Impact Program. With this program, I had the honor of working one-on-one with dozens of arts and culture organizations to design, deploy, and interpret customized post-event surveys. This year, for the first time, my work was wholly with cohorts of arts and culture organizations through the Audience Outlook Monitor.

Image of all the different surveys we offer

The benefits of the model have been immediately obvious. In one year, our research benefited more than four times the organizations we reached annually pre-pandemic. Those organizations are also more active in the analysis, garnering deeper insights and more actionable outcomes. Our cohort calls have also been a place where administrators can get advice and perspective from their colleagues. All too often, I see institutions siloed from one another, and it has been a joy to be a gathering place for the field.

All transitions come with growing pains, and Audience Outlook Monitor has had its share. Instead of just deploying one type of survey, we have administered the following surveys: the Audience Experience Survey, Communications and Media Use Survey, Demographics and Buyer Behavior Survey, Donor Motivations Survey, the IDEA Study (Phase 1 on inclusion, diversity, and equity)Tastes and Preferences Survey, and multiple protocols for Post-Event Feedback Surveys. Not only did we manage 11 research cohorts, but each survey protocol continues to have a cohort open for organizations who want to deploy on their own schedule.

Image of many different art forms

This program has required much more teamwork on our part. We have had to refine our project management skills, and now, each survey protocol, dashboard, and learning session is unique. We couldn’t have done it without the sometimes unseen work of Alan Brown, Andrew Forsythe, Annick Odom, Erin Gold, Kacie Willis, and Surale Phillips.

Coming out of the pandemic has been challenging, but there are many opportunities. For us, this has been a whole new way of doing research, and I am quite proud of the effect that has had. For organizations I work with, I have seen audiences assert their value, donors band together, new programs find new audiences, and arts and culture organizations prove they are resilient, constant, and essential.

There are so many possibilities in 2024 for collaboration between researchers, organizations, art forms, artists, and administrators. Seeing the results that the beginning of this program has had on audiences makes me optimistic for what the new year will bring.

Cat Goes to the Art Museum

By Claire Pavlik Purgus

A cat sitting on a bench in the art museum
© 2023 Claire Pavlik Purgus

“Hard to figure out what she’s thinking,” thought Cat, patiently waiting for her human, who seemed very absorbed in the pictures on the wall. “Maybe she’s thinking about tuna and chicken… Maybe she’s thinking I’ll get tuna and chicken licky-licks when we get home! They’re my favorite!”

Fern, the cat, is Claire’s pet of 16 years. Claire is WolfBrown’s office administrator and bookkeeper in the Cambridge office of seven months. When Claire isn’t scrutinizing spreadsheets or feeding Fern, she sometimes finds time to make art, like this piece above, which reflects a few memorable 2023 global milestones: a record number of 110 million persons were recorded as displaced around the world; for the first time, the earth’s temperature reached 2 degrees Celsius above preindustrial levels; and globally, 11,650 extreme weather catastrophes have been recorded since 2000, up from 3,548 in the two decades before. It also illustrates hope (u+me=us) and peace. It includes a picture of her grandchildren, who spent a month with her this past summer. And, it reminds Claire to complete the painting of trees on the right in early 2024.

Brand as Home: Keeping Sub-Brands All in the Family

By Surale Phillips

The transitions many cultural missions have made in reconnecting to what audiences look for and show up for are resulting in a bit of a quandary: how to integrate popular new concepts, programs, and audiences that are not historically or easily recognized as part of their existing brand. 

SoundBox performance, with face of a bearded man projected behind musicians
SF Symphony SoundBox is an example of a wildly successful sub-brand experience of SF Symphony.

The flip side of this quandary is how their brand emerges above their programs, many of which are Broadway titles or well-known artists, causing their organization’s brand to get lost in the promotions game.

Label this transition as a blessing and a curse. While some organizations are energized by new levels of relevancy or are grateful to present broadly recognized titles, many are experiencing program silos, splintered audiences, and a disconnect from a cohesive, compelling mission. So, how do you build and keep a loyal following eager to support not just a program but the organization that makes the program possible, through and to the other side of the transition?

It all comes down to a bold, compelling, and human brand and building the right sub-brands. 

Along with my work at WolfBrown, I lead research at DRMTM, where our joy is leading our sector on a bold brand revolution — training arts and culture organizations to understand the power of their brand to forge deep connections and build great capacity. A number of my clients are deep into brand transitions, outlining solutions to keep their houses together in a rapidly changing marketplace.

The concept of brand/sub-brand is nothing new. But the way it’s emerging in the nonprofit arts and culture world is. The arts are different from big national for-profit brands, which have the budget and buyers to enjoy a return on investment in sub-brands that aren’t necessarily related to the parent company. Cultural organizations are usually regional, with finite audiences, donor support, and resources; an independent sub-brand can dilute or drain recognition and support, threatening overall stability. The challenge is bringing this complexity home under one meaningful brand experience.

Think of your brand as home. If the foundation is strong, you can build many rooms (programs) with their own décor and ambiance, inviting guests to enter through different doors to enjoy a variety of experiences at your home. The rooms are distinct but well-designed sub-brands, which all support and uplift the roof. If the foundation is weak, meaning your home brand lacks purpose, cohesion, or unique identity, then misaligned sub-brands can create cracks in the ceiling and walls. Guests may feel no real connection to your home and be left without a place to feel belonging or a reason to come back, no matter what door they entered through.

We are on the brand transition journey with our clients through a new focus within our research projects into good sub-branding as we help firm up the foundations of their homes. More organizations than ever are exploring audience beliefs about their brand and their preferences for new program formats and product lines. We look forward to what the future holds as organizations step out of the comfort zone of their current home to reflect on necessary renovations to their foundations, entryways, and curb appeal.

Performing Possibility 

By Dr. Dennie Palmer Wolf

Music as Medicine

On December 14 – 15, 2023, a coordinated set of federal agencies, including the National Institutes of Health and the National Endowment for the Arts, hosted a conference, Music as Medicine Workshop, that brought together researchers and clinicians to think about the science and practice that could bring science and art together for building well-being. The presentations and panels made it stunningly clear that the scientific evidence for the connections between music and health is growing and increasingly convincing. (For instance, take a look at The Neuro Arts BlueprintMusic and Motherhood initiative from the World Health Organization, and the Sound Health Network for starters). 

But, as is so often the case in human affairs, it’s the small details that fully reveal what such broad initiatives could mean in the future. Throughout the two days, each major session began with an illustrative live musical performance: an original jazz composition by Shelly Berg, a performance by Jeralyn Glass on ringing crystal bowls, a violin-viola duet by Lisa Wong and Jennifer Chang, a flute performance by Grace Leslie accompanied by her heartbeat and brain impulses, a guitar and vocal performance by Raul Midón entitled “Keep on Keeping On,” and a startling drum and vocal performance by Fred Short that summarize the convening musically. The messages about human health were clear: While robust neural connectivity is crucial for our well-being, the ensemble of person-to-person connections is at least as important – loneliness kills. Our bodies, just as much as our brains, make sense of experience – Parkinson’s patients regain function when they sing and dance. Imagination, just as much as problem-solving, is a vital cognitive function. If music is medicine, it has many dispensaries: family gatherings, congregations as much as concert halls.

In the wake of these performances, I’ve spent two days imagining a world where any meeting touching on the funding, facilities, and policies for the arts begins and ends with live samples of what is humanly possible through the arts. So, here is to a 2024 filled with raucous, lively, evocative state legislative sessions, hospital board meetings, and school district hearings.

Even more audaciously, I have been imagining a 2024 that hosts these arts events:

  • An intermission in Middle East negotiations for musical performances in which the melodies that cantors and muezzins have saved for centuries echo and interweave
  • A mandatory bus tour for elected UK officials considering forced refugee deportations with stops to see the astonishing public art made by the Black British artists from Africa and the Caribbean, including Victoria Ryan’s giant tropical fruits that memorialize the Windrush generation made up of thousands of Caribbean citizens enlisted to help rebuild the nation after World War II
  • A joint invocation at the opening of the US Congress featuring Joy Harjo, a Muscogee Nation Poet Laureate, and Ada Limón, the first Latina Laureate, in which senators and representatives close their eyes and listen to how many voices make a nation

Fantasy? No. Romance? No. Performances of possibility.

Finding Loyalty in Unexpected Places

By Erin Gold

While investigating loyalty for the National Arts Center (NAC) in Ottawa, Canada, my WolfBrown colleagues and I discovered that most customer relationships meant to cultivate loyalty are transactional in nature and center the organization’s needs, not the customers’ needs.

If arts organizations want to attract and welcome more people — new and returning — to their venues, then these relationships need to change. Organizations must shift away from an exclusive focus on selling and towards relationships that are more engaging and educational. This could involve creating more extensive educational programs, hosting interactive events, or providing platforms for community discussions. In short, they need to start putting their customers’ needs before their own. 

This transition may feel counterintuitive, even crazy. However, I want to offer a personal anecdote that illustrates my point. While researching the Minneapolis Institute of Art’s (MIA) membership model, I came across their podcast, The Object. To be clear, this product is not part of their membership program. It is a free, educational product that anyone can listen to at any time. For five seasons, MIA has released a new episode each month that explores a true story that loosely ties back to a piece of art in their collection. Almost immediately, I became hooked and binge-listened all 54 episodes. I love that no episode is alike. Some stories focus on famous artists like Van Gogh, while others explore thematic topics like the difference between the meaning of “nude” and “naked.” 

Abstract art
Gram, 1973 Sam Gilliam, American, 1933 – 2022 Acrylic on canvas
Sam Gilliam

While I know and appreciate that MIA is behind this podcast, they are not trying to entice me into buying anything. They are simply offering me a chance to learn, and they are reminding me, albeit subtly, of all the fantastic artwork MIA has on hand. For this, they have earned at least a sliver of my loyalty. Even though I don’t live in their community, I signed up for their free Membership, and I look forward to using it when I next visit. 

In our report to the NAC, we posited a need for arts organizations transition from gatekeepers to gateways into the arts. Through a new set of relationships and technology platforms, arts organizations can once again serve the public as trusted guides accompanying them on their lifelong journey through the world of art.

Although The Object podcast may be a singularly small example of what this might look like, I hope it inspires other organizations to explore what cultivating loyalty might look like for them in the new year. 

Transitioning From Clinical to Arts Spaces

By Anusha Mohan

In a previous, not-so-distant phase of my life, I was incredibly determined to pursue a Ph.D. in Clinical Psychology, immersing myself in neuroscience research and the “art” and science of clinical interviews.
As I worked on these goals, I yearned for the arts and music spaces that gave me a sense of belonging and a place to destress. I began reconsidering my goals and motivations and strongly desired to recenter arts and music.

After receiving several invitations to interview at Ph.D. programs, I found myself wanting something else. This past summer, I worked as a teacher, teaching 1st and 2nd graders in a summer program organized by a local nonprofit organization near my hometown in Connecticut. This experience revitalized my passion for fostering community through music. One of my favorite memories was teaching my classes the “Seed Song,” a song my co-teacher and I created, and we performed for students’ family members at the end of the program.

Group Collage Mural at Creative Youth Development Networking event at the Institute of Contemporary Art featuring collages created by Dennie (1st key on blackboard) and Anusha (between 4th and 5th key on blackboard)

I missed singing. And I missed experiencing the impact of music, particularly its impact on bringing people together and bringing joy to communities. This past year’s experiences led me to search for positions that reflected my values, and thus began my employment as the Research and Project Manager at WolfBrown in Cambridge!

During my first months here, I have had many of those arts and music experiences I felt I was deeply missing before. I attended a Creative Youth Development networking event in October with Dennie Palmer Wolf at the Institute of Contemporary Art. One of the networking activities at the event involved splitting up into groups and making art! Dennie and I joined the group tasked with creating a collage that would be placed in a larger group mural that asked: What support or keys do you need to unlock health and wellness in your communities? The “key” was to include a key in our collage that linked to everyone else’s piece in the larger mural while also answering the question with our art, and this created a theme of connectedness and community throughout the process.

We had so much fun creating art together! In addition to creating art, I have also been able to tap back into my love for music and community. Over these first few months, I have had the opportunity to visit Philadelphia and attend research sessions for the Lullaby Project. It has been wonderful to see the program in action! I am excited about my future at WolfBrown and look forward to recentering the arts, music, and community in my life.

The Rumbling of the Ground Beneath Our Feet

By Alan Brown

The transitions that vex us so are the ones we cannot see, the underground rumblings that we sense beneath our feet but nevertheless fail to heed… until it’s patently obvious that we’ve missed something incredibly important.

It is increasingly obvious that the relationships we offer the public need to be completely rethought. For decades, we’ve conceptualized audience members as ATMs – payees on the other end of a transaction – not as humans with idiosyncratic tastes, preferences, and passions. This year, it has become clear to me that we need to manage a tectonic shift from bilateral transactional relationships to multilateral social and educational relationships that allow community members near and far to fulfill their aspirations and act out their passions.

What I call the “comprehension problem” has also crystallized in my thoughts this year. More and more people leave our presentations, productions, and concerts with an incomplete understanding of the work(s) of art they saw. They might have missed some of the dialogue, never understood the relationships between characters, never had the benefit of knowing the work’s historical significance, or never figured out what motivated the director’s interpretation of the work. They didn’t arrive early enough for the pre-performance talk or have time to read the program notes. So, they went home having had a partially impactful experience and probably a lot of unanswered questions. Are our programs only for those with insider knowledge who can “figure it out” on their own? Any hope of sustaining and diversifying public support for arts programming, in the long run, will require us to support audiences in entirely new ways.

One person sitting alone in a theater

Finally, the past year of research has begun to reveal something sociologically fascinating and a bit perplexing – what appears to be a growing number of people who come alone to arts programs. And they tend to skew both younger and older. While arts marketers have little patience for a “party size of one,” I sense the market is speaking to us and saying something important. Defying oppressive social norms that historically prevented people from venturing out alone, more young people are asserting autonomy over their creative lives and seeking fulfillment in the act of collective participation. What are their needs? What kinds of experiences will they find deeply satisfying? Amongst all this change, it is heartening once again to see the power of the arts to counteract feelings of isolation and foster a sense of belonging.