Why Theatre Matters to Your Community

October 17, 2011

Kirby Theatre_Evening Exterior

By Whitney Estrin
Capital Campaign Manager
The Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey

When I arrived at The Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey in July, 2010 one of the first projects assigned to me was to find someone to conduct an economic impact study for us. “We have an out of date study from 2003, but we need something current and deeply quantitative to give to funders” explained my boss, Director of Development, Molly Dunn. “Oh, and we need them to do it for free.” Off I went reaching out to all of the Universities in the area, but very few of them had any kind of program that would be conducive for a project of this nature. It wasn’t until I expanded my reach to Connecticut that I was able to find the Yale School of Management Outreach Club, a consulting group that takes on 20+ projects per school year from not-for-profits in need of pro bono consulting. Our RFP was selected out of a large number of applicants, and an incredible group of graduate students was assigned to our study.

Over the course of eight months I worked closely with our four consultants as well as several key senior staff members to prepare the study. The group made two trips to New Jersey: the first to see the theatre, interview senior staff, explore the Madison area and see a production at the theatre; the second to present their findings to our board and staff. The majority of the data used in the study was collected through surveys taken by our patrons, staff, artists and students. Prior to distribution, we discussed the details and logistics of the surveys at length. What constitutes a statistical sample? What survey distribution method will yield the largest number of responses? Would an incentive “gift” given to respondents sway their answers? Should we use price points or price ranges when asking questions about ancillary spending? Conference calls were often lengthy, and while at times these conversations felt laborious, we knew that these details would guide the overall methodology used for the study, which in turn would directly affect the credibility of the final product. Once these topics were exhausted, five different surveys were crafted, one for each constituent group: subscribers; single ticket buyers; full-time, part-time and seasonal staff; contracted artists; and students who participated in our Summer Professional Training Program. The surveys were distributed electronically.

Once the data was collected, our team went to work analyzing and vetting the data, and compiling it into a readable format. Throughout the process, they sought guidance from their faculty advisors – specifically in the areas of statistics, economics and consumer behavior – to ensure accuracy and best practice. Once we received the first draft of the study, it was interesting to see how many different ways the data could be examined. Lively conversations were born out of the healthy tension between how the consultants read the data as objective outsiders and how the staff, who were more intimately familiar with both the raw data and the Madison community, interpreted the results. In the end we erred on the conservative side, using only the locally focused findings and a very low multiplier in order to make sure that the study was indisputable. The study approximates a $5.7 million annual impact on the Madison area alone – a 138% increase from the previous study. It also showed that audience members contributed $1.5 million in ancillary spending to the Madison area as a result of attending the Theatre and that 62% of the Theatre’s institutional spending goes to vendors located in the state of New Jersey.

In order to get at an impact number with a larger geographical reach, we created a supplement to accompany the Yale study. This document estimates an overall economic impact, including the Madison area and beyond, of at least $9.5 million, gleaned by applying additional tools – including the Arts and Economic Prosperity Calculator, designed byAmerican for the Arts – to the data collected for the study. This significant impact number can be attributed to the ripple effect of not only every dollar spent by the Theatre itself, but by every dollar spent by our audiences, artists, students and staff in conjunction with attending or working for the Theatre.

To-date, we have distributed the study to over 100 local funders, vendors and community leaders, and across the board the reaction has been positive. A study like this allows arts institutions to demonstrate their value as an economic engine for their community, strengthening their case for support. It also illustrates the durability of that impact during a national economic downturn — a point that is arguably one of the most important findings emerging from the data.

Whitney Estrin is the Capital Campaign Manager at the Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey and a recent graduate of the Theater Management program at the Yale School of Drama. The Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey is a not-for-profit arts institution that brings hundreds of students from all over the country to New Jersey each year, employs up to 200 actors, designers, and staff members, and welcomes 50,000 audience members through its doors each season.

A copy of the study is available upon request by calling 973-408-3685 or email westrin@shakespearenj.org.

Images courtesy the Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey