Heather Hartley

Audience Architects: Building New and Broader Audiences for Chicago-Area Dance

How and why was Audience Architects conceived? Who does it reach?

Audience Architects (AA) is a dance service organization whose mission is to build new and broader audiences for Chicago-area danceorganizations by providing community-wide audience development initiatives for dance performances and instruction, professional development opportunities, and direct service to the field. AA exists to provide Chicago dance companies with increased visibility, expansive resources, and additional forums to showcase and share their talents.

The beginning of AA can be traced back to a five-year market research study, funded by the Chicago Community Trust in 2002, on how to build audiences for dance. SeeChicagoDance.com launched in 2005 as a direct outcome of this study, serving the need for an audience development website and driving ticket sales for dance in Chicago. The website quickly proved to be a success as many dance companies and the public embraced the presence of a web-based resource for all things dance in Chicago. This response made it clear that the site should continue beyond the duration of The CCT Dance Initiative. With that in mind, Carol L. Fox and Niki Morrison founded Audience Architects in 2006 to support the continuance of SeeChicagoDance.com, and established AA as a full 501(c)3 organization in 2008.

Today, Audience Architects offers free visibility to 200+ dance companies, venues and presenters through SeeChicagoDance.com; provides in depth dance coverage by professional critics; sells discounted tickets to the dance loving public, and supports the dance community in Chicago through other programs, advocacy efforts, networking and professional development opportunities. To learn more about all of AA’s programs and services, including our membership program for Chicago dance organizations, visit www.audiencearchitects.com.

What are Audience Architects' short-term and long-term visions/goals?

Currently, the Audience Architects board and staff are concluding a strategic planning process to determine our vision for the next three years. As part of this process, we conducted focus groups and feedback sessions with the dance community to hear what they have to say about AA programs and services. We feel very fortunate that the organization grew quickly in such a short period of time, and we hope that our strategic plan will allow us to clarify our purpose, mission, and how we hope to serve the Chicago dance community in the future.

We are also examining how we can use our position in the community in the most meaningful way. We believe this is a unique time in Chicago, with a dance-loving mayor and the revision of the City’s Cultural Plan. AA has been very actively involved in the cultural planning process, advocating for dance at every opportunity. In March, we hosted meetings with the dance community that resulted in a three-page document of the dance industry’s recommendations to the Cultural Plan. We were thrilled to be able to convene the field and help serve as a steward and a voice for dance within these larger planning initiatives.

How is Audience Architects serving, or planning to serve, as a resource to the local dance community? Can you describe some of your projects? What's coming up in the future?

Among our current offerings, SeeChicagoDance.com continually proves to be a valuable resource for the public as well as nonprofit dance organizations. The site offers:

  • A comprehensive calendar, with free visibility for 200+ dance companies/venues/presenters
  • A discount ticket sales program, which has generated $135,000 for dance companies
  • A subscriber database of almost 11,000 dance devotees (with 3,600 unique monthly website visitors) 
  • Critical reviews/preview articles by the Chicago Tribune’s Sid Smith and the Chicago Reader/Dance Magazine’s Laura Molzahn (50 pieces annually, serving as a leading news source for dance in Chicago, as print media continues to decline)
  • A companion website, TakeChicagoDance.com, promoting dance classes/schools/social dance for 100+ dance studios/schools

SeeChicagoDance.com continues to be our most highly recognized program, and we are happy to announce that one of AA’s most important short-term goals is to rebuild the site so it is a cutting-edge technology resource. We plan to start working on this project this summer and roll out the new and improved version of SeeChicagoDance.com in early 2013.

In addition to SeeChicagoDance.com, Audience Architects works to develop audiences and create exposure for Chicago dance companies in other ways. Since 2008, AA has traveled to the regional performing arts booking conference, Arts Midwest, to connect presenters with Chicago dance companies. We took this service to the next level in 2010 by producing the first-ever Chicago Dance Showcase. Nine Chicago companies participated, and the showcase helped some to secure booking/touring engagements and professional representation. The showcase also demonstrated the strength of the Chicago dance community to 150 presenters from six surrounding states who are leaders in the field.

We have another opportunity in the fall of 2012 to offer a Showcase of Chicago dance companies at the Arts Midwest Conference which will be held in Grand Rapids, Michigan September 12–15, 2012. Grand Rapids is just a three-hour drive from Chicago, which will allow as many companies as possible to participate. We are in conversations with a couple of potential venues and hope to have a plan in place for participation that we will share with the community soon. If you want to learn more about being in the 2012 Showcase, contact AA Program Manager Carissa Johnson.

AA also works to build the Chicago dance community from the inside out by hosting community gatherings to foster dialogue among artistic directors, independent artists, dance administrators, and funders. AA convenings provide a rare opportunity for dance professionals to network with their peers beyond the reach of their day-to-day activities. Based on feedback we've received from many attendees, we are excited to be expanding the semi-annual event to a quarterly gathering in 2012. We welcomed close to 90 people from the dance community at our last event, and would like anyone interested in attending to reach out to AA for details on our next gathering in July.

We’re also hoping to promote “Chicago MOVES!", a city-wide celebration of National Dance Week, April 19–28, 2013. We have recently submitted several grant requests for this initiative, and if funding comes through, then our goal is to market, promote, and work with presenting partners and cultural hub sites to make dance the “buzz” throughout Chicago during the ten-day period of National Dance Week.

What is your advice to dance artists for best practices in marketing/promotions and in using social media platforms effectively?

From my perspective, the key to successful marketing and promotions is to first develop a communications plan. Create an editorial calendar and see if you can come up with six months worth of creative but mission-related messages and opportunities to engage your potential audience. Constantly seek to create opportunities for dialogue and feedback. 

If you are a self-promoting artist who is already wearing multiple hats, the most valuable bit of advice I have to offer is to be realistic about the time you’re willing to devote to social media tools like Facebook or Twitter, and then pick the method(s) that fit your schedule and lifestyle. Experts recommend choosing the tool you’re most comfortable with and try to post frequently. Studies have shown that posting at different times of the day is a great way to increase your reach. And if you’re swamped, experts have learned that posting a few times, say every Tuesday, can be more effective than posting once every day. Not sure what to post? A good practice is to ask questions and engage your Facebook fans with language or ideas that go beyond routinely saying, “Come see my show!”

You can manage your social media impact by keeping an eye on your insights and reach statistics, which are powerful tools already embedded in your Facebook page. And though social media is GREAT (and cheap), I still believe in the power of email marketing and even (gasp!) direct mail. During financially strapped times, some arts organizations have dropped paid advertising with the hope that social media tools can produce the same results for free. But alas, that rarely seems to be true in the performing arts. Social media should be part of your campaign, but it shouldn’t be your entire campaign. As much as you can afford, seek to strike a balance with other tools and methods, and make sure your message matches the delivery mechanism. I’m also a huge fan of web advertising because it’s so trackable! (I become a bit of a data junkie when I review tracking and clickthrough reports.) One last piece of advice is to consider devoting a season to research. Try putting trackable sales codes on everything—put a discount code on every piece of material that you distribute, including your Facebook invites—and then once the season is over, make sure to tally the results and count which methods/codes actually brought in the most sales.



Heather Hartley (Executive Director) has worked as a dance industry professional and a dance artist in Chicago for the last 14 years. She has served as a senior staff member for two of Chicago’s most respected dance organizations, Hubbard Street Dance Chicago (director of marketing and communications, 2004–2006) and The Dance Center of Columba College Chicago (marketing director, 1998–2004). She also served as director of the Chicago Dancemaker’s Forum and as a nonprofit arts management and marketing consultant for numerous small to mid-sized dance companies through Hartley Communications (2006–2011). As an artist, Hartley has performed in more than 35 works in Chicago. She holds a MA degree in Interdisciplinary and Media Arts from Columbia College Chicago and a BFA in Dance from the University of North Carolina.

Interviewed by CAR Dance Researcher Meida McNeal in Spring 2012.

Published by CAR_Laura on Thu, 05/31/2012 - 3:11pm
Updated on Wed, 02/10/2016 - 11:25am