What do you think of when you envision cafeteria food in a state government facility? Meat loaf? Carrot coins? Jell-O? I bet it isn’t chicken tikka masala or vegetable korma, but that’s what Kentucky workers get treated to every Wednesday at the Mero Street Café (located in the Kentucky Department of Transportation building). The story of how this came to be is interesting and holds an important lesson for arts organizations.
Food Operations Manager Mike Vaughn considers Indian food a personal favorite—the ultimate comfort food. It’s something he has wanted to offer for a while and even slipped it in as a Friday chef’s special a few times. Mike also noticed that many Indian state government workers would come to the Mero Street dining room to eat but would bring their own lunch. Rather than letting possible, regular customers slip through his fingers he made up a menu and approached some Indian workers to approve the selections. On Wednesday, July 20, 2011, the Mero Street Café offered an Indian food bar for the first time. It was a success. One diner even sent her recipe for biryani to add to the menu. Word spread. By the following Wednesday, there was a line out the door composed of people who have eaten Indian food from the time they were born to people trying it for the first time and everything in between. State workers were actually flocking from agencies and buildings located in other parts of town.
Mike is proud of the selection offered by the Mero Street Café, and he would like to offer some new cuisines in the future, including Thai and Chinese. An urge to try something different paired with a desire to serve a neglected, potential-consumer base led to a packed house. So what does this have to do with the arts? The answer is, everything.
Audience development is a daunting buzz term for arts administrators. It’s something you hear, it’s something you want to do, but how to do it is a little scary. In order to grow your patronage, you may risk alienating your die-hard supporters. But here are the lessons we can take from Mike’s risk: 1) People have an image of the type of programs you offer on your “buffet,” whether their image is based in truth or not. 2) In order to grow your patronage and dispel some falsehoods, you must diversify your target audiences. 3) To get those target audiences into your space, you need to be relevant to them. 4) To be relevant to them you have to give them a voice in your decision-making.
You should look around your community and identify the people who are not taking advantage of your arts programming. Then you need to ask them why and what to do about it while they are in an empowered position to propose some answers. The best place to start is by offering representation on your advisory board and/or board of directors. People want to see themselves in the arts programming they view, hear or participate in, and luckily there are just as many people who want to try something new. If you don’t believe me, come to Frankfort on a Wednesday to have lunch with us.
Sarah Schmitt, arts access director