Sydney Opera House
8 min read

Sydney Opera House

Alison Nadebaum, Head of Operations and Business Management for SOH Presents, outlines their evaluation strategy and some of the key things learned.

The Sydney Opera House has been using the Culture Counts platform to evaluate their five major festivals over the past 18 months. In this interview case study Alison Nadebaum, Head of Operations and Business Management for SOH Presents, outlines their evaluation strategy and some of the key things they have learned using Culture Counts. She also reflects on the importance of bringing data that proves the immense intrinsic value of their work into the picture alongside financial results and bums on seats saying, “it’s up to us to change the discussion” and “we can’t have one conversation without the other”.

Can you tell us a little bit about your role and key areas of responsibility?

SOH Presents is the Sydney Opera House’s internal programming, presenting and producing department. Each year we deliver up to 150 projects or 800 individual performances that attract around 350,000 attendees. We present work that complements, rather than competes with, the work of our Resident Companies. I look after all the non-art components of our department such as the finance, legal, compliance, reporting, resourcing, process and systems, as well as the artist liaison and event delivery associated with our projects. 

How did Sydney Opera House encounter Culture Counts?

We have a robust process for capturing and reporting the ‘hard’ data around our shows (box office revenue, net result, paid attendees) but wanted to bring an increased qualitative depth and nuance to our reporting and assessment methods, rather than solely focusing on the financial results to prove whether a project was successful or not. At the same time, one of our former programmers had Culture Counts recommended to her by another arts organisation. Upon meeting the Culture Counts team and hearing more about it, our leadership team (consisting of both artistic and business managers) agreed it was an ideal methodology and tool for us to trial. We’ve since been using it for about 18 months.

What are some of the key things you measured?

We selected a set of core dimensions to measure all festivals against and agreed that the rest of the dimensions would be specific to the aims and ambitions of that particular festival or genre. We are particularly keen to know whether our events are considered relevant, meaningful, and well-conceived by our audiences and peers. We include dimensions to ensure we receive feedback on the way we execute our events, the local impact of the event taking place at the Opera House, and the level to which our events help attendees feel connected to the community. 

How do these measures align with Sydney Opera House’s overall vision or strategic objectives?

Our organisational vision is to be as bold and inspiring as the Opera House itself. Our two-fold mission is to treasure and renew the Opera House for future generations of artists, audiences and visitors; and to inspire, and strengthen the community, through everything we do. The vast array of Culture Counts dimensions makes it easy to select measures that align with our overall vision and mission, including Excellence, Innovation, Inspiration, Rigour and Connection.

Has evaluating your activities using Culture Counts influenced decision-making or the way in which you communicate your value? 

Whilst we don’t compare our festivals in a competitive way, as they all exist for different reasons and serve different purposes, it has been helpful to have a standardised set of measures and a consistent methodology across all festivals. It helps us do a sense-check of whether our festivals are living up our aims and ambitions. It also allows us to identify any festivals that may be unexpectedly underperforming on a particular dimension or performing above our expectations.

Whilst we intend to expand our use of the Culture Counts insights we’ve received, so far we’ve primarily utilised the data for internal purposes. It helps us to provide solid qualitative data, rather than anecdotal opinions, to our Executive and Board when proposing new projects and reviewing past projects. Culture Counts insights certainly help to reiterate our impact to our much-valued sponsors and funders as well.

One key example of Culture Counts assisting programmatic decision-making was with a Talks and Ideas festival that had enjoyed many years of critical and box office success. Whilst ticket sales were as strong as ever, we slowly began to feel the concept may be on the decline in terms of its relevance and impact. We used Culture Counts to evaluate the views and experiences of our attendees and the results spoke loud and clear. People loved attending Talks and Ideas festivals and felt the Opera House delivered them well, however believed this particular festival wasn’t living up to its original conceptual premise anymore. Having this data to back up our gut instinct allowed us to make a considered, timely, strategic decision to retire this festival concept and conceive a new offering.

Do you think that access to this type of data will impact the way people value what Sydney Opera House or other organisations in the sector do? 

The programming team at the Opera House has recently been reflecting on how we tell our story and how we reiterate the immense intrinsic value and impact of our art, which may or may not be backed up by huge commercial returns. We’ve agreed that we need to get better at it and I believe this is true of a lot of arts organisations. We (meaning artists and those working directly in the arts industry) intuitively and effortlessly understand the impact and inherent value arts and cultural activities bring to the community. To speak candidly, it can sometimes feel really boring and frustrating to have to keep explaining it over and over! However, like it or not, arguments and imperatives relating to the significant financial pressures associated with creating art can often drown out discussion about these intrinsic benefits.

It’s up to us to change the discussion. Financial results and bums on seats should always be viewed alongside the intrinsic and social benefits of any given project or show. We can’t have one conversation without the other. Utilising tools like Culture Counts provides arts organisations with an easy, consistent, robust, and cost-effective way to source and communicate reliable qualitative data to assist us in making this shift, both in our own organisations and across the sector as a whole.

Image: Vivid Live (2017), Lighting the Sails: Audio Creatures by Sydney artist Ash Bolland with score by musician / composer Amon Tobin and visual animation by Spinifex and Luxx. Photograph by Yaya Stempler.