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Marvin and the Vibrations

The impact of arts experiences is back on my mind in a big way, this time provoked by a partnership with the Canada Council for the Arts to develop an impact framework that the agency will use to accumulate evidence of the impact of its investments in artists and organizations. Taking stock of impact measurement efforts worldwide has caused us to ask some difficult questions about the plausibility and usefulness of measuring impact in reference to specific experiences versus impact as a cumulative asset that accrues, dissipates and recombines over many years. I hope to share more of those thoughts soon.

Occasionally, all the theorizing about impact becomes astonishingly manifest in an instant, and one such occasion was last night when several friends accompanied me to a concert by the Detroit Symphony Orchestra. One of them was Marvin, a retired city worker and life-long resident of Detroit who’s become an indispensable member of my household support team and chosen family. Although he lives only a few miles from Orchestra Hall, Marvin hadn’t been to a DSO concert. Nevertheless, he was primed for the occasion, which was abundantly clear in his choice of attire.

The program was fantastic – a new piece by a young composer, Chopin’s first piano concerto played by Seong-Jin Cho, the 24-year old Korean pianist, and Stravinsky’s riotous Rite of Spring, all conducted by Robert Spano. By the end of the program, Marvin was beside himself, as if he’d witnessed a championship sports game decided in the last seconds of overtime. The rest of the audience applauded heartily, but Marvin stood in a prolonged sort of stupor, trying to make sense of what had just happened. At a complete loss for words, he was, quite literally and uncontrollably, vibrating. His biometric data, I thought, would be off the charts. He’d had what I would term a “peak experience” – something he’ll remember for the rest of his life – the kind of thing that happens maybe five or six times in a lifetime if you’re lucky.

Beyond the joy of knowing I had something to do with this combustion of art and self was the poignant frustration that we, as a field, have yet to figure out how to harness the power of a social invitation to draw people into arts experiences they’d not choose for themselves. Study after study points to the transcendent power of a social invitation to circumvent a host of barriers and unlock participation. We’ve been talking about “Initiators” and “Responders” for almost 20 years now. Yet, the arts marketing playbook does not yet have a page for activating, rewarding and celebrating the audience members who act as personal arts shoppers for their friends. It seems clearer and clearer by the day that taste is socially transmitted, and that people will go to just about anything if the right person invites them. Could it be that the audience itself is our greatest hope for building public participation?

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One Response to Marvin and the Vibrations

  1. Christine Young says:

    Oh yes! Focus group research I did some years ago indicated the positive and negative impacts of the importance of social influence. Not only were people prompted to attend by others, but one of the biggest barriers to attendance was the lack of someone to go with.

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