Teatro alla Scala (Photo:iStock/jericho667)

I spent much of last summer engrossed in the new biography of Arturo Toscanini, the legendary conductor, which was reviewed in the New York Times last June. At over 900 pages, the biography by Harvey Sachs has represented quite an investment of my time — but it has been worthwhile simply to gain historical perspective on the fields of opera and symphonic music in the 20th century. In the early years, people like Toscanini were bigger than today’s rock stars. In Italy, when Toscanini led La Scala, opera was the dominant form of popular entertainment and operas had to be performed many times to accommodate demand. What changed, according to Sachs, was in part the coming of cinema – certainly not a surprise. What was a surprise (at least to me) was the fact that Sachs believes that opera’s decline in Italy was also influenced by its transition from an art form constantly rejuvenated by new work to a form consisting primarily of repeat classics. In Toscanini’s day, fully half the productions at La Scala featured new compositions. Many, if not most, of the operas that were presented there are forgotten today just as the majority of this year’s new movies will be forgotten a decade hence. But the medium was constantly being refreshed and there was always a reason to attend.

So I have been puzzling out the whole question of whether “the new” is helpful or harmful in opera and symphonic music. With “the new” of technology, it has been a mixed bag. Cinema helped kill much of Italian opera’s popularity but around the same time, recordings became a boon to symphony orchestras, contributing millions of dollars to their bottom lines with Toscanini being one of the biggest sellers. On the other hand, more recently, the coming of the internet has led to the collapse of that same recording industry, contributing to the woes of orchestras. With opera, the advent of High Definition (HD) has led to millions of new opera goers enjoying extraordinary Metropolitan Opera productions at local movie theatres for a fraction of what it would cost to see the same productions live. But it has also cannibalized the Met’s own live audiences and been a disaster for many local opera companies that cannot possibly compete with the high production values of the Met. And while new work made Italian opera a popular art form for decades, if not centuries, it was a difficult slog for symphony orchestras over the last half century where ticket-buyers and donors have demanded the same old classics.

The lesson may be so obvious as to seem trite. Only organizations and art forms that are able to adapt can flourish in the long run.

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As the newest member of WolfBrown’s San Francisco office, I want to introduce myself to our readers and share how excited I am to continue learning about arts audiences and organizations with my colleagues and our clients. My own interest in the puzzle of how to capture the impact of arts and culture intensified during my time fundraising for the University of California, Berkeley’s Department of Arts & Humanities. Reporting to our donors on the impact of their gifts was a core part of my work and so the hurdle of procuring data to support anecdotal stories was ever present. As I discussed with my colleagues how best to attract a donor base heavy with Silicon Valley entrepreneurs, the challenge of providing meaningful data on the arts & humanities continued to captivate me.

My interest in assessing the impact of the arts led me to New York, where I pursued a master’s in Arts Administration at Columbia University. There, I combined coursework in cultural policy and arts access with classes on survey research and program evaluation. Throughout my research, I came across report after report authored by WolfBrown. These reports fascinated me and I was fortunate enough to have the opportunity to spend the summer in WolfBrown’s San Francisco office researching how arts organizations can use theories of change to clarify the logic behind their audience development strategies.

As I returned to New York, I felt invigorated by the research I had completed over the summer and excited to pour this new knowledge into my master’s thesis, which focused on the implementation of evaluation findings on community arts programs. With this research fresh in my mind, I joined WolfBrown on a project for Lincoln Center Education. Here, I was out in the field, working to understand the impact of Lincoln Center Education’s community programs by administering surveys, observing performances, and conducting interviews. At family performances, I noticed the ways that parents modeled engagement for their children, acting as the first teachers to shape their child’s creative development. As I conducted focus groups after library screenings of Lincoln Center performances, I listened intently as senior community members explained the importance of formats that allowed for an active cultural life close to home. These experiences served as a powerful reminder of the importance of having access to rich arts experiences at all ages and of taking the time to collect data that can help to sustain this access. Needless to say, I am beyond thrilled to be able to continue this work in my position at WolfBrown.

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Those of you who have read my On Our Minds posts over the years will know that I have a passion for circus arts (although I keep my own feet firmly planted on the ground). Awareness of circus arts has blossomed in recent years, in part due to the popularity of Cirque du Soleil and more recently (and sadly), the demise of Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey. There has also been an explosion of circus training programs across the country, providing people of all ages and capacities the opportunity to enjoy the challenges and rewards of circus training at the amateur level. Further, innovative new permutations of the art form such as social circus, a social intervention approach based on the circus arts, have received increasing recognition.

Dozens of circus organizations were featured this summer in Washington, DC at the annual Smithsonian Folklife Festival. In conjunction with the Festival, the NEA welcomed nearly 200 circus arts professionals to their offices to engage in a conversation about the state of the field, marking another step along the path to broader recognition of circus as an art form. Many in the circus world were happy to see a subsequent article on the NEA website by Michael Orlove, Director of Artist Communities and Presenting & Multidisciplinary Works, in which he stated: “It is our job, collectively, to see that this unique art form receives the requisite attention and unconditional support it so deserves.” While there is still a long way to go before this translates into a formal recognition by funders and actual grant dollars, it marks a significant shift from earlier dismissive attitudes about the world of circus. It will be interesting to see where this leads!

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I’m pleased to announce that arts research, planning, and strategy consultant Victoria Plettner-Saunders has joined WolfBrown. Before joining WolfBrown, Victoria managed her own private consulting practice, v.p.s. cartographie, for 12 years providing “navigational” assistance for arts and culture organizations, philanthropic foundations, government arts agencies, and individuals. She continues this work as a Principal with WolfBrown, bringing her expertise in planning for communities, arts agencies, and cultural institutions as well as providing research and analysis on topics such as the creative workforce, arts education, community arts, arts leadership, creative career development, and the cultural workplace.

Victoria has figured prominently in local arts agency planning and community cultural planning projects that have led to measurable impacts on communities such as Nashville, San José, Santa Ana, and Laguna Beach. She has assisted a wide range of organizations and initiatives including the Millard Sheets Center for the Arts at Fairplex (Pomona, CA); Lux Art Institute (Encinitas, CA); Dance Place at Liberty Station (San Diego, CA), San Diego Junior Theatre, San Diego Cooperative Charter Schools, and the Port of San Diego’s Office of Arts and Culture. She is a recognized arts education advocate, writer, planner and researcher on the role of arts education in community settings, and was Chair of Americans for the Arts’ Arts Education Council from 2010 to 2013.

For 2017, Victoria is teaming with urban planner and public art consultant Todd W. Bressi and public art consultant Meridith McKinley of Via Partnership to create the first Arts Master Plan for the San Diego International Airport, which aspires to engage airport visitors in new and unexpected ways.

Over the years, Victoria has developed an abiding interest in the creative workforce, which infuses all of her work. Her publications on this topic include articles for the University of Oregon’s CultureWork including most recently, Coming of Age: A Decade of Change in the American Arts Workforce. In 2004, she started San Diego’s first leadership program for emerging arts professionals and later conducted statewide research for the James Irvine Foundation on next generation leadership in the arts, which led to initiatives that currently support a network for California emerging arts leaders. She is the Creative Director of ArtCareerCafe.com, a job search website that connects qualified, passionate arts job seekers with employers.

Prior to her consulting career, she was Managing Director for Malashock Dance; Business and Marketing Director for the Playwrights Project; Executive Director of San Diego Dance Institute, and held various staff positions at the City of San Diego Commission for Arts and Culture. Victoria holds an MA in Arts Education/Community Cultural Services from the University of Oregon.

Based in San Diego, Victoria enjoys collaborating with a wide range of consultants including her husband, David Plettner-Saunders, Managing Partner with the Cultural Planning Group.

Contact Information for Victoria Plettner-Saunders:
Email:  victoria@wolfbrown.com
Telephone:  (619) 540-2925

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Although Ira Gershwin said, “Summertime, and the livin’ is easy,” that is not the case for most non-profit arts and culture groups, including those which operate on an academic calendar or June 30 fiscal year. The quest to generate more resources to reach more people is a 365 day a year, 24/7 endeavor, which is why no one in the arts holds a “mission accomplished” celebration.

While passion for an organization’s public service mission is laudable and perseverance essential to success, there is a risk of failure when a non-profit does not manage its administrative resources as carefully as those for its programs. This requires resisting pressure to reduce staff below minimum levels without reducing program scope, as well as not giving into the corollary temptation to increase programs without insuring they are adequately staffed.

This is not to suggest that non-profit leaders should be profligate; conserving organizational resources must always be a priority. In this quest, however, leaders should avoid the resource drain of “perfectionism” that can result from an inexorable, unrealistic pursuit of excellence. Every client I work with has “excellence” or “quality” as a core value, as it should be. Yet any strength can become a weakness, if it is not regulated properly. As non-profit social media expert and author Beth Kanter points out in a recent blog post about non-profit workplace stress, “Perfectionism is an internal mindset where we tell ourselves that bad things in the world will happen if our campaign, program or whatever is not perfect from the beginning, delivered with 500% [effort] and on a self-determined, but unrealistic deadline. Perfectionism is the enemy of learning and ultimately of getting improved impact. It also makes work life really stressful.”

Kanter also provides a link to a 99U.com article called Satisficing, which she says is “the act of stepping back and stopping that perfectionism behavior — and feeling that good enough is okay.  Many people who work in the nonprofit sector are driven by passion for their work because we are doing good and many of us share being over achievers. So, it is hard for us not to give our complete energy, even at the expense of our well-being and stressing ourselves out.”

So, as summer starts, perhaps it is time for those of us who have committed our professional lives to the non-profit sector to respond to an unreasonable request for perfection by telling the person asking to “go jump in a lake.” If that is not possible, at the very least I encourage you all to take a literal swim in a lake, before getting back to work.

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Perched on the banks of a quiet lake beyond which the snowcapped mountains of Switzerland rise into the sky, the South German city of Konstanz (population 80,000) is a relaxing getaway for weekend tourists and tranquil home to many retirees. Both culturally and geographically, it’s hard to imagine a place in Germany further from the bustle of Berlin.

And yet the local symphony orchestra, the Südwestdeutsche Philharmonie (SWP), was recently recognized by the German federal government for its outstanding accomplishments. When we met earlier this spring, the unassuming director Beat Fehlmann claimed not to be sure why his orchestra received this honor, but surmised that it may have had to do with the orchestra’s commitment to public accountability, which has recently been making waves in the German orchestra field.

Mr. Fehlmann is in the enviable position of leading an organization that receives over 80% of its budget from state and local subsidies, with few, if any, questions asked. While utterly unheard of in the US or UK, this situation is quite typical of cultural institutions in Germany. However, given what is happening to cultural budgets in other countries and realizing that politicians everywhere are increasingly under pressure to explain and justify public spending (particularly spending that might be seen as primarily serving the well-to-do elite), Mr. Fehlmann sees the writing on the wall. It seems clear that state and municipally funded cultural institutions in Germany will increasingly need to show how they are using taxpayer euros and explain the value they are bringing to society in return.

For the past three years, the SWP has therefore published an annual report detailing everything from the number of subscriptions sold, to the number of special events that were presented, and the number of sick days taken by the musicians. Not satisfied with managerial accounting, the SWP has identified and is in the process of refining five Impact Goals, to which it wants to hold itself accountable. They include celebrating the breadth of the musical cannon, presenting innovative programs, and fulfilling an educational mission. The annual report presents specific measures associated with each.

In adopting this practice, Mr. Fehlmann has positioned his organization ahead of the curve. Unlike colleagues in the UK who are being required to report standardized audience survey scores, the SWP is in the enviable position of defining the metrics to which it wants to be held accountable. If these measures prove effective, the organization may well avert other external impositions.

As someone who spent more than a little time contemplating the purpose and effects of cultural subsidies in Germany in an earlier life (resulting in a 500-page doctoral thesis on the topic), I have been fascinated to learn about the SWP’s work in the area of accountability. I left our weekend of meetings in Konstanz inspired by Mr. Fehlmann and his enterprising team, and both curious about and full of hope for the orchestra’s future.

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In this special issue of On Our Minds:

 

Introduction
Series Editor: Dennie Palmer Wolf, WolfBrown

The Impact of Raising the Stakes
Courtney J. Boddie, The New Victory Theater

The Impact of Investing in Human Capital
Jamie Roach, Teaching Artist, The New Victory Theater

The Impact of Re-thinking Research and Practice
Steven Holochwost, WolfBrown

Curating Impact, Not Shows
Alan Brown and Sean Fenton, WolfBrown

And so…
Dennie Palmer Wolf, WolfBrown

 


 

Introduction


One of the “specialties of the house” at WolfBrown is thinking with clients about innovative ways to measure the impact of their work. In Counting New Beans: Intrinsic Impact and the Value of Art (featuring the report Measuring the Intrinsic Impact of Live Theatre), Alan Brown pioneered work on capturing the intrinsic impact of performing arts experiences on audiences. Dennie Wolf and Steven Holochwost have pursued new ways to look at intersectional impact, identifying aspects of human behavior that are particularly sensitive to what the arts and culture have to offer, such as socio-emotional development and risk mitigation in vulnerable populations. In this series of blog entries, all of us, together with colleagues at The New Victory Theater, discuss the organizational impact of innovation, a way of taking stock of the consequences of undertaking innovative practices or new programs. Our basic premise: genuinely new ways of working are hard, labor-intensive, and expensive; but they should reverberate throughout an organization.

 

While this issue of On Our Minds addresses the consequences of SPARK for New Victory’s work, we believe the framework for thinking about the organizational impact of innovation speaks clearly to the work of many cultural organizations seeking to cut new paths.

 


 

The innovation: SPARK

 

Photo: Alexis Buatti-Ramos, courtesy of The New Victory Theater

SPARK, or “Schools with the Performing Arts Reach Kids,” is a robust, five-year theatre arts program, funded by The Pierre and Tana Matisse Foundation, specifically designed for elementary and middle schools with no history of arts programming. With this funding, the New Victory challenged staff and teaching artists to learn to work intensively in schools where teachers and students didn’t know what to expect in an arts partnership. Every year, in each SPARK school, students engage in 15 performing arts workshops with highly trained teaching artists who develop and increase student’s creative skills in circus, puppetry, theater, and dance. Young people also attend three varied live performances by international arts companies where they see the skills they’ve been acquiring live on stage. Throughout, teaching artists, working side-by-side with classroom teachers, model the ensemble skills of discussion, collaboration, and rehearsal that are an integral part of theater practice.

 


 

The Impact of Raising the Stakes
By Courtney J. Boddie, The New Victory Theater

 

You might say that the New Victory has a ”thing” for raising the stakes. Who else puts wild urban circuses on the beautifully restored stage of a turn-of-the-century theater? Who else would perform X: Or, Betty Shabazz v. The Nation – a courtroom drama focused on the assassination of Malcolm X — for young audiences? The New Vic’s SPARK program is no different – it raised the stakes by entering into intensive and sustained relationships with a set of New York schools that serve some of the city’s poorest children. The intensity of the partnership brought the entire organization face-to-face with the consequences of trauma — young people, teachers, and schools all of whom live daily with the inequalities that are New York. The work has taught us not just to believe in the power of the arts, but also to live out that commitment in ways that have re-defined our comfort zone. Three examples make this clear:

  • Agency: Many of the schools that have no arts serve students with high needs, spending their discretionary dollars on tutoring and other support services, pushing to meet standards. In SPARK, we wanted to turn this around by calling on principals’ and teachers’ agency. Instead of selecting sites, we asked interested schools to apply as the first step in identifying schools who wanted to partner in building an arts program. From the start, we wanted their ownership and vision as full partners.
  • Acknowledgement: SPARK schools operate under constant stress: in addition to being classrooms, they operate as clinics, safe zones, and community centers. Teachers triple as mediators, social workers, and diagnosticians. They can appear angry or disinterested. But rather than grumble, we had to act collectively. We would never be able to enliven curriculum or change school climate without teachers’ buy-in. We realized quickly that we had to redesign our professional development sessions to acknowledge what teachers were carrying. Every session called out the (sometimes hidden) performer in each teacher, offering humor, relaxation and collaboration. In addition, teaching artists doubled down on showing how theater skills could build literacy and numeracy. Finally, we re-directed one of each school’s teaching artist advisors to focus wholly on working with individual teachers to think through how theatre could make a difference in focus, behavior, and peer interactions.
  • And not least, theater as love: Many SPARK students live with personal traumas: homelessness, domestic violence, or forced migration. Especially in middle school this often translated into withdrawal and apathy or eruptive bullying and fighting. To respond to the students fully — with love rather than with disappointment or frustration – teaching artists needed a whole new set of skills. We invited behavioral counselors to observe and critique how teaching artists addressed conflict, and we worked with experts like Shawn Ginwright to explore concrete strategies for working respectfully with youth with trauma. We realized that teaching artists have to build, not assume, safe spaces for creative learning. (For instance, we learned that a low-stakes final rehearsal might be a much better culminating event than a full-blown show. The final rehearsal can be about growth and persistence, rather than perfect performances where “messing up” can ignite anger or sadness.

In our fourth year, the successes outweigh the challenges but only because we have spent three years mapping out the consequences of raising the stakes on how we work.

 


 

The Impact of Investing in Human Capital
By Jamie Roach, Teaching Artist, The New Victory Theater

 

Two years ago, New Victory asked its teaching artists about joining the research team. The offer was a little mysterious — some of my colleagues joked about putting on “white coats over their plaid pants” — but the chance to stay engaged and gain new skills was intriguing. For many teaching artists, the only chance you get to “grow” is to add more gigs or become an administrator. But this unconventional investment in human capital has turned out to be beneficial to the research and to my own professional development.

What I realized is that, as a theatre teaching artist, I have many of the traits that make for an effective researcher. Specialized expertise in the field — check. Keen observation skills — check. The ability to make sense of complex human interactions unfolding — check. The habit of showing up on time, with props, ready to dive in — check. For example, one of my jobs as a researcher was to ask students to improvise the end to a short story they had seen on video. Right away, my theater instincts told me that students were overwhelmed by the task and not able to engage fully. Drawing on my teaching artistry, I knew that if I gave them clear one-step directions on becoming the character (e.g., “Okay, get in his last position, start moving like he did…) students would be able to take off. I kept it neutral (after all, I was the researcher not a fellow actor), but I found a way to launch their performances — possibly in a way that few PhDs would have hit upon.

And the consequences flowed the other way as well: being a researcher informed my teaching artistry. As a researcher, I had the luxury to witness all the nuances and micro-narratives unfolding in a classroom. I can see a lesson starting to implode: a broken pencil, a boy with no way to sharpen it, frustrated, who then distracts another student, who then throws the unsharpened pencil at a third student, and ka-boom, the theater lesson is over. I feel like I’ve developed a sixth sense for that first moment and ways to dive in and turn it around — for myself and for my colleagues. One day a fellow teaching artist opened up about feeling disheartened: “I don’t know what happened today — one of the most focused students was totally checked out!” As the observer, I saw tiny behaviors he missed among the 35 children. That student had been following closely the whole while, whispering responses to the friend with his head down on the table recovering from an earlier incident.

This chance to become a researcher has also changed my understanding of how impact actually happens. Getting the chance to witness a particular student over the course of a year illuminated the way that progress occurs: two steps forward, one step back, and less linear than it is layered. I now think and respond with that developmental map in mind.

With the SPARK project, the New Vic invested in developing a new kind of human capital: teaching-artist-researchers. We got the rare chance to dig deep. The theater got a trove of insights. We are both like miners who get to keep all the gold we’ve discovered.

 


 

The Impact of Re-thinking Research and Practice
By Steven Holochwost, WolfBrown

 

Increasingly, arts and cultural organizations are asked whether they contribute to the greater good. Answering that question is rarely simple, particularly at a time when public and private funders alike press organizations to prove that something they did (e.g., changing concert format, working with seniors, or running programs in juvenile detention centers) actually caused the change that they would like to claim (a more diverse audience, fewer doctor visits, or lowered rates of recidivism).

In the case of the SPARK program, we were looking to make the case that young people who participated became different from their peers: that time spent in the world of theater could cause stronger inter- and intra-personal skills. Like many evaluators, we turned to the existing research literature to find out how others have measured the growth in these hard-to-capture domains. This method of working from past research to inform new studies has many advantages: measures taken from the research literature often reflect years of conceptualization, testing, and refinement. So, drawing on past research, we decided to use a measure called Reading the Mind in the Eyes which assesses children’s knowledge of other people’s emotions by asking them to look at photos of the upper portion of faces and naming the emotion they detect there. Since becoming available twenty years ago, this measure has been used in over 500 published studies, including those examining the effects of theater education.

But the measure behaved in unexpected ways. We found that children participating in New Victory’s programming — over 90% of whom were young people of color — struggled to identify the emotions in the photos – the great majority of which portrayed adult Caucasian faces. Moreover, when young people selected an incorrect option, it often reflected a hostile emotion (e.g., anger). This was a moment when the tables turned: it was time for practice to inform research. The more diverse youth in SPARK classrooms had a message for research: to assess children’s ability to read emotion expressions validly, our photos had to represent the people whom SPARK students “read” and react to every day. By putting out a call to its diverse population of theater artists, New Victory staff helped to develop a revised measure that included people from a wide array of ages, cultures, and backgrounds.

We have just begun to collect data with this new tool. We may have still more to learn on our way to valid measures. But the experience opened all of our eyes — researchers, staff, and teaching artists — to the ways in which research tools reflect our assumptions, including whose faces are “universal”.  It was investing in sustained work in new neighborhoods, with young people of color who have not been the usual subjects of arts education research, that made this clear.

 


 

Curating Impact, Not Shows
By Alan Brown and Sean Fenton, WolfBrown

 

In the SPARK project we ventured into new territory: we asked students as young as 8 to respond to in-seat surveys about the impact of a performance they had just seen. We wanted to know if young people could help us to develop a deeper understanding of the impact of live theater experiences.

Photo: Alexis Buatti-Ramos, courtesy of The New Victory Theater

Our survey instrument includes quantitative measures of emotional response, anticipation, and impact, as well as open-ended questions pertaining to students’ curiosity and feelings about the performances. To make this work, house staff distribute the printed surveys and special pencils during the Q&A session following each performance. Then staff collect the student responses, and everyone heads out to their school buses waiting on 42nd Street within 10 minutes. As of the end of the 2017 school year, we will have collected approximately 2,000 surveys for nine shows. As completed surveys come in, we clean, code, and upload the data to an interactive dashboard through which New Vic staff can query the results.

So far, the results paint a picture of distinct “impact footprints”:

  • Shows featuring acrobatics, circus acts, and other spectacles tend to spark interest in the artists themselves and their training;
  • Story-based productions tend to elicit more questions about characters’ emotions and production design choices;
  • Shows with more complex narratives and character arcs evoke a greater mix of positive and negative emotions in students, which may be evidence of empathy development;
  • Both spectacle-based and story-based productions can produce powerful social bridging (i.e., learning about other people and cultures) and aesthetic growth outcomes (i.e., exposure to new art forms).

These results suggest that an artistic director is curating impact, as much as specific works. A season is a tour through a varied emotional landscape – an opportunity to explore a magnificent range of human emotions, ideas, and histories. Our work with New Vic has underscored the idea that “challenging” artistic work — work that draws on a wide emotional range, including feelings of sadness or disappointment — has an integral place in a well-curated season, alongside works that elicit feelings of joy and wonder.

The results from this study open a new chapter in our journey to understand the immediate effects or intrinsic impacts of arts programs on both children and adults. But this work is just beginning. Further analysis will investigate how students at different grade levels respond to the same work, whether students with more experience in the SPARK program respond differently, and how multiple points of intervention/exposure may stack to create greater impact.

 


 

And so…

Yes, these entries all focus on SPARK. Yes, we have identified only four of what might be multiple reverberations of undertaking new work. But inside that specificity are a set of fundamental questions that any cultural organization — zoo, museum, film center, or theater — ought to pose when investing in new practices and programs. How can your organization design (and also discover along the way) so that you reap:

  • Impact on the Raising the Stakes: When your organization works in new settings (or with new materials or issues) how high are you willing to set the stakes? Are you tinkering or changing the way you work? When a new program completes, or the funding goes away, has the organization stretched in lasting ways or does it snap back to doing business as usual?
  • Impact on Human Capital: If you undertake this work, who in your organization will have new opportunities to grow? How can those opportunities include employees who work “on the ground”?
  • Impact on Research: When you go to evaluate your work, do you (and your evaluation partners) look carefully at the assumptions that underlie your approaches and tools? Are you learning from what doesn’t work? Are you curious about why? Does your approach evolve?
  • Impact on Programming: Are you curating for impact? Do you adequately consider the array of emotional, social, and learning impacts that are likely to come from different works or experiences?

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During a recent trip abroad, I attended a New Year’s Eve concert at London’s historic Wigmore Hall. I was especially looking forward to it since it was the location of London debuts of several of my relatives who had always raved about the acoustics and ambiance of this beautiful 550-seat venue. During intermission, I took out my phone and started to snap a few photos of the hall to remind myself of some of its features and to share with family, only to be told, rather emphatically, that photographing was not allowed. I said I understood that taking photos was off limits during a performance, but this was intermission. When I was told that it was still not allowed, I asked why and was told, simply, that that was the rule. I pressed the point, saying I had taken photos of halls throughout the world and this was this first time I had encountered such policy. At this point, the attendant, clearly angered, asked to see my ticket and by this time, my evening spoiled, I decided it wasn’t worth pursuing the point any further. But as I looked around the hall on what was supposed to be a celebratory New Year’s Eve, I wasn’t surprised that there were no more than ten people in the audience under the age of forty. This was clearly not an audience-friendly venue hospitable to a younger generation that has grown up with cell phones. And then, imagine my amusement when a colleague who heard about my experience sent me this link. I learned I was not the only person who had gotten his hand slapped at Wigmore Hall!

Thinking about all of this later, I was reminded of a concert I attended a few years before at the Meyerson Symphony Center in Dallas when the immensely popular Russian baritone Dmitri Hvorostovsky appeared with the magnificent Moscow Chamber Orchestra. The audience was filled with ebullient Russians who, when the popular Hvorostovsky came on stage, whistled and cheered, and shouted bravo and took out their phones to snap photos. Ushers ran from person to person admonishing them to stop, but they refused to be denied. It was a happy crowd and the feeling was infectious. By the end of the concert, the audience was singing along when the baritone offered a popular Russian folk song that served as one of his many encores. I left the hall feeling completely upbeat.

Where does one draw the line about cell phone use in the concert hall, especially for a classical music concert? Though I know how I felt after the two evenings, I am still not at all sure there is a simple answer to the question. Cell phones can be a terrible distraction when the music is playing. But does that preclude their use at other times? Should we, as one of my colleagues once remarked, think of every photo taken and shared as a free form of marketing that classical music so desperately needs and that we should celebrate?

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Our long journey of investigation into how audiences are affected by arts programs crossed another milestone recently with the release of a two-year study of audiences at choral music concerts, commissioned by Chorus America. While we’ve previously delved deeply into the impact of theatrical performances and other types of arts programs, the choral study was notable for its scale and focus. A total of 23 choruses across North America participated in the two-year study, including youth choruses, volunteer and professional choruses, and LGBTQ choruses. Over the 2014-15 and 2015-16 seasons, 14,326 audience members at 136 difference concerts completed surveys about their experience. In many cases we have samples of audiences attending the same artistic program (e.g., Carmina Burana) in different cities.

A lengthy article by Kelsey Menehan on Chorus America’s website, “Understanding Audiences: Takeaways from the Intrinsic Impact Audience Project“, summarizes the findings and how they influenced the thinking of the participating choruses. As a choral singer myself, the study carried a deep personal significance. Earlier in life, I sang many of the great choral works that were the object of audience members’ feedback.

It was a thrill to stand in front of the assembled membership of Chorus America to present these results. Different kinds of artistic programs generate remarkably different kinds of impacts, underscoring the strategic importance of program selection to mission fulfillment. Audience participation affects impact, as do audience members’ personal relationships with one or more of the performers. Strong “social bridging” and “social bonding” impacts were associated with specific kinds of programs (e.g., MLK tribute concerts), especially when the audiences for these programs were racially diverse. And both professional and non-professional choruses deliver high-impact programs.

It is gratifying to see the line of inquiry about the impact of arts experiences continue. Audience members are more than capable of reporting how they are affected by arts experiences. Unlike our colleagues in the UK, however, we do not believe that audiences should be asked to adjudicate the artistic quality of performances. More on that front soon.

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Last month, my father and I had the privilege of seeing a performance of Cornerstone Theater Company‘s latest production in their multi-year “Hunger Cycle” of plays: fellowship, a play for volunteers. In one of the most immersive theatrical experiences I’ve ever attended, we were exposed to five unique perspectives and life stories, each with a different relationship to food and hunger. That same weekend, this time accompanied by my brother, I was lucky enough to catch a delightful performance of Pamela Sterling’s adaption of The Secret Garden, presented by MainStreet Theatre Company, a professional Equity theatre for young audiences in Rancho Cucamonga, CA.

At first glance, the two shows I saw that weekend had very little in common. One was an intimate and interactive theatrical piece addressing modern-day issues; the other, a more traditional theatre experience rooted in classic English literature. But a look at the shows’ audience survey data revealed how these productions were remarkably similar: both fellowship and The Secret Garden were highly effective in bridging audience members to life experiences different from their own.

These findings were consistent with my personal experiences with the plays. My time at fellowship made me confront my own relationship to food and how other people, including my parents and friends, might have profoundly different relationships to scarcity and plenty. The Secret Garden transported me to early 20th century Yorkshire, England, and encouraged me to ponder questions about class differences, privilege, and self-determination. Upon my return to the Bay Area, I realized how full my heart and mind were after these performances. The experiences impacted my father and brother as well, inspiring them to find new and creative ways to instill empathy and compassion in my nephews.

Art has the marvelous capacity to connect us to others. And in a time when much is being written on how to break out of our political bubbles and ultra-personalized newsfeeds, it is clear that the need for substantive social bridging is more crucial than ever. What might this look like for theatres and other arts organizations aiming to serve as these bridges? What would it take for the most progressive theatregoer to not only entertain conservative viewpoints, but to deeply understand them, and vice-versa? I would think there is a limit to which this is possible; for example, I personally can’t imagine ever appreciating a white supremacist point of view. Yet past experience tells me to never underestimate the power of art. Perhaps developing a keener understanding for how people come to develop certain worldviews might be a beginning.

Some arts organizations may be better situated than others to be our bridges to experiences and viewpoints that differ from our own. And some art-makers, like Marc Bamuthi Joseph of Yerbua Buena Center for the Arts, may see themselves in an entirely different but equally important role — not as a bridge to others with differing views, but as “a socket” or “battery” for creativity, freedom, and social justice. (I would love to explore this concept much more thoroughly in a future entry.) And still others may be somewhere else along this “bridge-battery” spectrum, or on a different axis entirely. In a time when we are simultaneously more connected and more divided than ever before, I think there is room and need for it all.

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