Guest blog: Barry Hessenius on Arts, Culture, & the Virtue of Good Transportation

The following post originally appeared at Barry's Blog, a service of the Western States Arts Federation:

I live just north of San Francisco, about 40 minutes from the city. Like many major metropolitan areas, traffic in the Bay Area is a problem - and not just during peak commute hours.  It is a growing hassle to go to the city for any purpose - the traffic is exhausting and parking is a hassle; there is the cost of gasoline, bridge tolls and parking.  The Golden Gate ferry system is an alternative - but the last one returns from the city before 11:00 pm.  If you live in the East Bay, there is BART - the Bay Area Rapid Transit system - as an alternative.   The point is that, for me (and for many others I suspect), the inconvenience of getting to an event frequently trumps going at all.

If I want to go to a movie, pretty much anything that is playing is within a 15 minute drive -- easy parking, no cost, and the movie itself is relatively inexpensive.

We spend a lot of time and energy exploring the ways the arts might better, and more meaningfully, engage our audiences as well as ways we might be more relevant to, and involved in, our communities. But I think we spend perhaps too little time considering the mundane, pedestrian issue of convenience for our patrons - particularly those with more limited incomes and time (and that is increasingly the whole of the middle class).  This is probably an issue that breaks down on income as well as generationally (i.e., the cost factor is a factor for those still struggling on a budget to make ends meet, and those skewing older find "convenience" a more important variable than younger people).  Then too, convenience is likely tempered by where you live as well.  The hassle of attending an arts event is likely exponentially greater in the larger, more populace dense, urban areas of the country (at least for those outside the city center area or wherever the arts venue is located) - less so in smaller cities and rural / suburban areas.

So it is not a one-size-fits-all issue.  But it IS an issue. Underestimating the impact of "convenience" overall is, I think, a grave error.  A lot of people who might attend our events, do not - because of the cost and the inconvenience.  It has nothing to do with the quality of the offering - nor with being or not being engaged.

I go to two or three San Francisco Giants baseball games on average each season.  I have the option of taking a specially scheduled Ferry to the ballpark (it's on the water).  This is an especially attractive option as the Ferry Terminal is only 15 minutes from my house and parking is ample and free.  The cost of the RT ticket is considerably less than driving - no gasoline, no parking fees - and the ferry docks right at the ballpark.  But most importantly - there is far less hassle.  Moreover, the experience of riding in with a boat load of other fans is enjoyable.    Those in the East Bay who take Bart have a similar experience.

There are times I wish there were a similar option to attend an arts event.  I wish there were an Arts Bus that I, and fellow arts attendees, could take that would be relative inexpensive - let me out right at the venue and pick me up afterwards.  It would make the whole idea of going so much more attractive.  And so I wonder if such an idea is workable.

Doubtless an Arts Bus would be an expensive proposition for any one arts organization to underwrite (especially as such an enterprise would likely take time early on to catch on with people, and thus would need to be subsidized).  But at least on weekends, several performing arts organizations might share the management workload and cost.  The bus could simply make the rounds of a half dozen venues much like airport bus drop-offs do at various hotels.   It might be interesting to ride in and back with people going to a different event that I might be attending on any given night - and impromptu conversations might peak my interest in other offerings.  You could even have a docent on the ride in talk about the various events on the stops, thus making the whole experience more attractive and more involving.  People going to one event, might think about another event for the future.  It would also I would think help raise awareness of various arts offerings in the area, and help with the branding of participating organizations.

And if such an idea were do-able, over time it ought to be a break even situation.    It might (and I say might because there are a lot of unknown variables)  attract new people to our venues, or at least serve well those who want to attend our events.  And we might target such a service at the sector of the population that simply is not part of our audience.

This may just be a silly idea; impractical and impossible to mount. Maybe there is a much better approach to addressing the "convenience of travel challenge".   I am a person more inclined than the average arts attendee, and I would love such an option.  It would make me attend more events.  We really ought to think more about how getting to and from our events is part of our audience development challenge and directly, and substantially, impacts our attendance figures. There might be some kind of pilot project we could mount that would help in this area.  Just thinking out loud.


Barry Hessenius is former director of the California Arts Council, president of the California Assembly of Local Arts Agencies, executive director LINES Ballet. He is the author of Hardball Lobbying for Nonprofits,Youth Involvement in the Arts, Local Arts Agency Funding Study, and City Arts Toolkit and now works as a consultant and public speaker.