How to remain culturally relevant

A few weeks ago, I saw an interview with the director of the National Theatre’s new production of Hedda Gabler. Ibsen’s 1890s play has been reworked to take place in present day and stars Ruth Wilson (Luther, The Affair). The reason for the update, the director said, was that he didn’t want to stage a “museum piece” that was irrelevant to today’s audiences.

He implied that as culture changes, so must our cultural institutions change to respond to current tastes, interests and mindsets. Otherwise they become irrelevant.  

Is “high culture” considered irrelevant by today’s audiences? If so, what do cultural institutions have to do to maintain (or regain) relevance with the wider public in the 21st Century? 

There are four models that institutions can use to build audiences for the future:

  • “entry point” programming,
  • multiple programming streams,
  • revised positioning,
  • or a complete rethink of the core product.

What’s the best approach for your organization? I’ll look at the first two in this article and the other two in my next post.


During a recent trip to London I visited the Victoria & Albert Museum and saw their exhibition, You Say You Want a Revolution? Records and Rebels 1966-1970.

At its core, the exhibition was the standard museum display of “artifacts behind glass”. The staging, though, was anything but traditional. It was an immersive, sensory audio-visual experience.

It was a cold, rainy Thursday afternoon in January – hardly peak tourist season – but the exhibition was full to capacity, and the audience was demographically diverse.

Who were these people and why were they here? I spoke to a few, who said they lived in London and were drawn by the subject matter. They said it sounded like it would be an entertaining experience.

Most were not regular V&A visitors, but some had seen David Bowie Is, the record-setting 2013 V&A exhibition that followed the same immersive format.

Cultural institutions hope that programming like Revolution and David Bowie Is will lure new audiences and act as an entry point to the institution’s traditional programming. Once they’re in the door, they will hopefully take in the full museum experience.

I asked my small sample group if they would be interested in seeing the V&A’s permanent collection. Most said they would wander around “because we’re here”, but it wasn’t a priority.

Would they return again? Yes, if there was another exhibition like Bowie or Revolution. But it would have to be something different and special.

Another example of “entry point” programming is social nights held in museums and galleries: an evening of cocktails, finger food and music amongst the dinosaur bones. They’re becoming a popular method of attracting Millennials to museums.

The flaws with the “entry point” model are clear from the V&A example: people who are interested in David Bowie are not necessarily interested in viewing artifacts from ancient civilizations. Programming like Revolution is expensive to curate and stage, and if only a small percentage of attendees make the transition to regular customers, the cost may outweigh the reward.


A few years ago the Toronto Symphony Orchestra (TSO) premiered the film Back to the Future accompanied by the live symphony. Prior to the show, TSO’s then-CEO Jeff Melanson asked the audience if it was their first time attending a TSO concert. Nearly half the audience raised their hands. He then joked that he was confident they’d be back… because he had taken the Delorean into the future and had seen them in the audience.

Melanson later told me that while some of the film series customers would likely make the transition to the TSO’s core classical music programming, it wasn’t his priority. The TSO had created a separate, parallel programming stream that was generating its own audience and revenue stream.

There are challenges inherent in this approach, starting with the cost: as with the “entry point” model, developing multiple programming streams for multiple audiences can be expensive and inefficient.

Secondly, where does diversification end? Should an institution create separate programming for each target group? Millennials? Multicultural audiences? Families with kids? Boomers? Does this fragmentation water down an institution’s brand until it has no clear identity? Consistency is key to building a recognizable and memorable brand.

As well, if an organization like the TSO continues to diversify, does its core classical programming become even more marginalized and irrelevant? If an institution is focused on diversification and is not building the future audience for its core programming, there will be continued attrition as the audience ages. Eventually the core programming will be less profitable – and less important – than the secondary product.

The TSO may already recognize this as the case. On its website, the TSO states that it has “a commitment to innovative programming and audience engagement through a broad range of performances”. There is no mention of classical music as their core mandate.


In my next post on April 26th I’ll look at two alternative models to building relevance in the 21st Century.

Andrew Arntfield, President, Field Day Inc.

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