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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A little over a year ago, I had the good fortune to participate in a symposium hosted by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and the Kennedy Center entitled “Music and the Brain: Research Across the Lifespan.” Over the course of two days, a panel of experts discussed the therapeutic and educational implications of recent scientific research on music and the brain. A summary of that discussion was recently published in the journal Neuron, and I thought a brief recapitulation of three points in particular might be of interest to our readers, whether they are leaders of music organizations, musicians, or music educators (or perhaps most likely, all three).

The first of these is the potential for musical experience to “foster the development of non-musical skills” among children, from language development to executive function. Much of the discussion focused on topics that may be familiar to anyone who has run a music program, such as the length and intensity (or “dosage”) of musical experience required to yield improvements in a certain domain. The second point is the value of music as a therapeutic intervention for children (and in particular, children with autism or cancer) and adults struggling with mental illness or chronic pain. This work is at the heart of the burgeoning field of music therapy, and as someone most familiar with the educational applications of music, I was gratified to learn about the demonstrable benefits of music for a range of serious conditions. The third and final point concerned the potential for music to sustain cognitive function as we age, and even to restore function that was lost as a result of neurodegenerative disease.

If readers are interested, I would encourage them to read the full article or to go online to learn more about the initiative that grew out of the symposium called “Sound Health.”

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Much of our work for foundations is concerned with assessing the overall impact of grant programs. While many funders realize they don’t deserve all of the credit for the work their grantees do, the basic approach is generally that grantees are asked to measure the impact of funded projects. The foundation then sums up the impact that was reported by its grantees, and that becomes evidence of the foundation’s success.

In a literature review that I conducted as part of a current project, I was intrigued to learn about a radically different way of thinking about the relationship between funders and their grantees. One can argue that a funder is in fact not at all accountable for the outcomes of the work their grants support, but is solely responsible for the quality of the funding decisions that are made. The funded projects may or may not have the desired impact, but that is not a reflection of whether the foundation’s decision to fund them was fundamentally sound.

In the field of Decision Analysis, it is generally accepted that you can’t judge the quality of decisions based on their outcomes (here’s another link on the topic), and what’s more, in speculating on the outcomes of individual grants, funders may be compromising the impact of their grant portfolio as a whole.

Evaluated on its own, a grant application for a project that is likely to fail (let’s give it a 1-in-10 chance of succeeding) is unlikely to be funded, no matter how significant the impact of the project might be if it does succeed. If, however, there are ten such proposals in the pool of applications (each of them with a 10% chance of success), it is actually quite likely that one of them will pan out. So, if the expected return on one high-risk, high-impact investment is high enough to justify the cost of supporting nine other projects that might not succeed, the decision to support that pool of high-risk projects may be better than funding projects that seem like safer bets when considered individually.

In the arts, grants are usually awarded by review panels that are charged with evaluating each proposal on its own merits, but in other sectors, sophisticated methodologies have been developed to select and manage portfolios of grants that promise the best cumulative outcomes. For instance, the RAND Corporation’s PortMan method asks experts to score the risk (probability of success) and value (if successfully implemented) of each project, then uses that data to identify the set of proposals that is expected to have the highest cumulative impact.

While arts funders may not leap to adopt the RAND Corporation’s method for selecting national defense and intelligence contractors, the question of whether the decision-making that goes into selecting grant portfolios could be improved seems worth considering. If funders can indeed increase the performance of their portfolios by improving the quality of their selection processes, foundations could focus their attention on evaluating their funding decisions, rather than worrying about (and asking grantees to report on) the outcomes of individual grants, over which funders have little control.

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There was a sudden crash in the middle of a house concert by the Sixth Floor Trio as the pedals on the grand piano hit the ground. Gasps, silence, and then an audience member, a blacksmith by trade, dived under, and thrust his hand up into the piano’s workings. As one, the audience leaned in watching him figure out the mechanics — almost as if listening to a famous cadence. When the pianist returned and tried the keyboard, there was a burst of applause — just as for any other great performance. The accident cracked open the usually tight and polished surface of the music, showing us the inner workings.

In the Art Institute of Chicago, crowds in front of Seurat’s A Sunday on La Grande Jatte walk up and then back from the canvas, squinting their eyes to see how the thousands of tiny dots merge into figures and then dissolve into daubs close up. They approach and back off: turning figures to dots, dots to figures — the work of painting suddenly visible.

At the Natural History Museum at the University of Washington, the staff is packing up the collections to move to a new building. Instead of hiding the chaos of bubble wrap and straw, the staff have installed windows, creating an exhibit that reveals what it takes to pack a Mayan basket or a giant quartz crystal. The day I was there, visitors from five to eighty pressed up against the glass watching a huge stone sculpture wrapped, cradled, and lifted — perhaps experiencing the museum as theater for a first time ever.

There is a reason we speak of “works of art.” And it is not simply because of the hours practicing or the layering of paint. Behind performances or objects lie mechanisms, labor, invention, and risk — a very human wager about what will work. How different would concerts, exhibitions, libraries, and botanic gardens be — if, alongside of moments of perfection, they shared stories of working?

  • Intermission footage of a quartet arguing their way to an interpretation
  • The many steps and failures to save a rare plant
  • The investigation into whether an Old Master drawing is a forgery
Top Image: Study for “La Grande Jatte,” Bottom Image: Close up of Study for “La Grande Jatte,” Georges Seurat (Courtesy of the National Gallery of Art, Washington)

 

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In January Hamilton arrived in San Diego on a leg of its US tour and I was finally able to experience what everyone has been talking about. I wasn’t sure what to expect. I hadn’t had time to listen to the soundtrack as everyone told me to do. I had enough time to read the synopsis online, so at least I figured I could follow. My concern was that the rap would be hard to understand and that I would miss the story line. But I was wrong. So wrong. I am not a huge consumer of rap or hip hop and have had limited experience with spoken word, but none of that mattered. This was completely accessible and totally engaging. Even my nearly 92-year old mother (who made sure everyone in assisted living knew she had “a ticket to Hamilton!!”) loved it and understood it.

A recipient of the Pulitzer Prize for Drama for Hamilton, Lin-Manuel Miranda is innovative and inspired as he tells a comprehensive historical narrative with spoken word, hip hop music, and dance. Rhythm and rhyme, prose and poetry, clever and poignant, with that non-stop beat of the art form . . . it was exhilarating and educational. As a political science undergrad, one would think I would remember all those Federalist Papers and the making of the government stuff, but through Miranda’s entertaining and memorable work, I understand our nation’s history now in a way I didn’t before. If someone had used this kind of creative work to teach me … well pretty much anything… I probably would have been more engaged and my education would have been more indelible than it was when I read primary texts in my dorm room at 2:00 AM in the ‘80’s.

Lin-Manuel Miranda grew up attending a magnet school in Manhattan where they would culminate each school year by putting on a musical. In 2016, he was quoted as saying in an interview with Stephen Raskauskas at WFMT in Chicago:

For our sixth-grade play, Mr. Sherman and Ms. Ames basically ran out of age appropriate musicals for elementary school children. They ended up going to a summer intensive for teachers where they worked on writing musicals with the kids. When school started, they said, ‘You’re not performing a sixth-grade play, you’re writing your own.’

In the same interview, Miranda was quoted saying, “Arts education … saved my life” and as for his response following the experience he had writing that musical in sixth grade, “I am doing this for the rest of my life if they will let me!”

Arts education has so many facets, from teaching an art form or using the arts in service to subject matter content, to providing opportunities for young people to experience the power of music, dance, theatre or visual arts through observational or experiential learning. When we advocate for arts education in the schools, we do it because we know that in every classroom in America there is someone who will find a means of self-expression, a reason to come to school, a way to share their story or to tell a story that reminds us that we are part of something bigger than ourselves. We advocate for arts education because without it we are failing to provide young people with all of the options for finding what brings them purpose or meaning. And we do it because we never know when the impact of a student’s creative experience in sixth-grade will propel them to know what they want to do for the rest of their life. Let’s not “take away their shot”.

 

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Most arts administrators understand that audience data is important. Yet, why don’t more organizations collect audience data on a regular basis? Many point to staff capacity as the reason for this disconnect, and certainly arts administrators are often stretched too thin. However, if organizations know data collection and analysis is important, the issue may be that they don’t feel the resulting insights are as useful to them as the products of the other tasks they manage to complete.

Frank Lloyd Wright famously said, “form and function are one.” This 20th century architectural philosophy dictated that shape should reflect purpose and that each element must work towards a larger goal. This is just as true in research. While every company can garner great benefit from audience research, if they don’t know why they’re surveying in the first place, they invariably ask the wrong questions.

WolfBrown’s Intrinsic Impact program builds on the premise that the data we collect should help organizations understand if they are achieving their goals. That only works when organizations have clearly articulated those goals, which can be harder than it sounds. Michael DeWhatley wrote in HowlRound about how theaters are often faced with the challenge of defining success for themselves because it differs from organization to organization. Surveys need to be customized to measure indicators of clearly articulated impact goals. Function dictates form and knowing why a survey is being deployed gives vital shape and focus to its design.

To be fully functional, data has to be actionable. This action can take many shapes, from adjusting the patron experience to better communicating the impact of programs. Whatever the potential action, the most useful conversations I have with clients revolve around the question of what they’ll do differently when they see results from their survey. This helps organizations keep the intended uses for the data front of mind, which, in turn leads to fuller organizational investment in the research.

For example, we have partnered with Asimetrica to bring the Intrinsic Impact program to arts organizations in Spain. In a recent case study on the Intrinsic Impact blog, director Raul Ramos showed how the Spanish National Orchestra was able to increase first-time attendance, particularly for young and diverse audiences, using the results of longitudinal surveying. By identifying their goals from the beginning, they were able to craft a survey that collected responses detailing what worked for their audiences. They made adjustments based on these responses, and the survey then tracked how well those adjustments worked. Using this iterative surveying process, the Orchestra has already used data to increase subscriptions and audience engagement.

Strong audience research requires relevance in both the collection and the implementation of data. Data is a tool and implementing surveys without looking at how you’ll use them is like using a screwdriver to install a nail. You end up putting both aside and not discovering the full potential of either. More than a lack of capacity, I think it is having the wrong toolbox that has prevented many arts organizations from more fully realizing the value of audience data.

 

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Season’s greetings from all of us at WolfBrown! Once again, we asked the WolfBrown team to reflect on a particularly memorable cultural experience from the last year to share with our readers. From ballet, to music enjoyed at home, to observing creative play, you’ll find just a few of the experiences that stood out in this holiday issue.

 

We wish you happy holidays and a wonderful 2018!

 

Dennie Palmer Wolf

Transform, Invite, Beckon 

When asked to write about my arts experience of the year, I scanned all my ticketed and curtained and framed events of 2017. But behind me there was the clack, snap, and slide of two boys building with MagnaTiles  (translucent jewel-toned geometric shapes that cling together in improbable shapes due to embedded magnets.) So here I am, against the rules, declaring their play my art experience of the year — because it made so clear what I want from a play or a painting:

 

To Transform and Release: The chance to make a physics-defying structure, pushes back the ordinary socks-before-shoes world, creating a flow of experience out of time, place, and body. Once there is a steep, pitched tower five floors high, no one can even hear that voice calling out for the third time that dinner is on the table.

To Invite:  The boys are brothers. In the presence of the tiles, the younger one can amaze the older with his ideas, the younger has to ask the older for help in execution. They are, for those minutes, bound together: two minds, four hands. Not rivals, only paired gravity defy-ers.

To Beckon:  Within the compass of only a few minutes, the building beckons in Luke Skywalker, bots, plains walkers, invented wizards, tempests, and villains. They assemble, aggregating into a mixed, fantastical heritage, drawn from every book, film, and outdoor game — culture at its most crowded and raucous.

Come 2018, that’s what I’m looking for. Bring it on. Make it happen.

 

Alan Brown

Indelible Moments

2017 was a year of enormous change for me — most notably a torturously long and complicated process of buying and selling real estate. Happily, I am now a resident of Detroit, and eager to figure out how I can contribute to the cultural renaissance of this great city. For the next year, I plan to get reacquainted with the City where I grew up and visit as many arts programs, urban farms, parks, and community events as possible. My view of the meaning and impact of the arts continues to evolve, informed not only through our research partnerships with arts organizations, foundations, and agencies, but also as a caregiver to my very elderly parents, who still live in the house where I was raised in the suburbs of Detroit. Through their profound mental and physical challenges, they continue to enjoy classical music, although getting out to concerts has become less and less feasible. Earlier this year, with the kind cooperation of Christopher Harding, chair of the Piano Department at the University of Michigan School of Music, Theatre & Dance, two PhD students in piano performance came to my parents’ home to play a recital for an audience of four. My father, who is mostly blind and partially deaf, sat close enough to the keyboard to feel the young musicians awaken the giant in a Steinway grand piano. A free flow of conversation with the young artists deeply enriched the experience. For as long as I live, I will never forget the look of utter contentment on his face during the last Rachmaninoff piece. For the year to come, I wish you many of these unexplainable, indelible moments.

 

Steven Holochworst

National Take a Stand Festival 

Without question the most memorable performance I attended this year was that of the orchestra at the National Take a Stand Festival. The orchestra was comprised of students participating in El Sistema-inspired programs of music education across the country, programs that typically work with under-served children of color. Students were selected through competitive auditions to join the orchestra, and after a week of rehearsals, they performed in Walt Disney Concert Hall under the direction of Thomas Wilkins and Gustavo Dudamel.

 

Together with my colleagues Dennie Palmer Wolf and Judy Bose, I have spent the past five years studying the ancillary benefits of participating in these programs. That work requires assessing students one at a time using a combination of paper-and-pencil and computer-based measures. As the students will (quickly) tell you, the measures are boring, but their routinized nature is necessary to producing credible results. That said, as I listened to the performance I was reminded of the limits of such measures, which fall utterly short of capturing the joy exhibited by the students as they played, or the pride on the faces of their families as they listened. Anyone attending that performance would have received tales of the demise of the American symphony orchestra with skepticism. Indeed, they would have been forgiven for thinking that the future of those orchestras was on stage.

 

Victoria Plettner Saunders 

Wonderspaces

Some of the more inspiring arts moments I’ve had this year have been in non-traditional settings… on the beach, in an airport, on a college campus lawn… but the most inspiring was Wonderspaces, a “pop-up arts celebration” with work that ranged from room-sized installations to virtual reality films. The whole thing took place in a big tent on a vacant lot here in San Diego. There were 20+ interactive experiences like Illegal Arts’ The Last Word in which everyone was invited to put the “last words” they would have liked to have told someone but didn’t get the chance to on a small piece of paper and roll it up. We inserted our roll in a metal grid on the wall; co-mingling it with others’. It was as powerful to put mine in the grid as it was to read others’ anonymous words and feel at one with my fellow life travelers. In Matthew Matthew’s On a Human Scale, there was a series of video screens with faces of everyday New Yorkers; each one singing one note when a visitor to the installation plunked a key on a small piano. There were no instructions. People interacted with each other as they engaged with the installation figuring out how to make it work and then sharing surprise when they did. One of the joys of these exhibits was the collective experience I had with others as we interacted with the works. It inspired me to imagine arts venues in a new light. I’m on a team developing an Arts Master Plan for San Diego International Airport. Airports are looking for ways to create unexpected moments and unusual experiences for travelers that take their minds off the stresses of air travel or provide them with activity while they wait. My experience with Wonderspaces inspired me to think about art in airports in ways that reach beyond the permanent collection and surprise us with a creative encounter in an unexpected place.

 

Joe Kluger

Opera Philadelphia: We Shall Not Be Moved

I attended many great performances this past year, including Geoff Sobelle’s Home at the Philadelphia Fringe Festival (full disclosure, directed by my daughter-in-law Lee Sunday Evans), Lights Out: Nat “King” Cole at People’s Light, and Mahler Symphony No. 3 with Yannick Nézet-Séguin conducting The Philadelphia Orchestra.

 

The event that moved me the most, however (despite its title), was Opera Philadelphia’s world premiere of We Shall Not Be Moved, one of the centerpieces of the Company’s inaugural 12-day opera immersion festival. This groundbreaking chamber opera chronicles the challenges facing five fictional teenagers, who take up temporary residence in the now abandoned West Philadelphia home of MOVE, the black liberation organization, on whose compound a police helicopter dropped a bomb in 1985, killing 11 people, including five children. Their ghosts help the teenagers confront their demons and fears, in a dramatic story that is told through a musical gumbo of gospel, funk, jazz, R&B, hip-hop, classical styles, and spoken-word poetry with modern and hip-hop choreography under the inspired direction of Bill T. Jones. The Opera, which was repeated as the initial installment in a multi-year relationship between Opera Philadelphia and New York’s Apollo Theater, moved The New York Times to include it as one of the best classical music events of 2017. I moved to Philadelphia in 1985, shortly after the actual MOVE bombing on which this opera was based. With so many compelling artistic experiences here, I see no reason to move again.

 

Thomas Wolf

Why Don’t They Sing 

What can a grandparent say, when his granddaughter sings with the US National Children’s Chorus at Saint Peter’s Basilica in Rome?  Of course, that cultural event was my favorite of 2017!  But since bragging about grandchildren is probably the least popular form of conversation (for those having to listen), let me make a larger point.  Having watched as those children rapidly mastered music-making by singing, I wonder why we put such emphasis on instrumental training for the young.  Parents so often default to instruments — piano or guitar or violin or (please save me!) drums.  The recent growth of El Sistema programs in the US that put kids into orchestra settings, only exacerbates the trend.  But think about it!  Those young people experience the double whammy of having to learn about music (how to read it, how to count beats, how to be expressive) AND struggle with the technical issues associated with playing an instrument.  No wonder so many become discouraged.  Kids who sing in a chorus can rely on instruments they have been using for years — their voices — while concentrating on the music itself.  If as a result, they are bitten by the music bug, then that is the time to introduce them to an instrument. HAPPY HOLIDAYS!

 

Alan Kline

San Francisco Ballet: Sensorium 

Last March, WolfBrown’s Bay Area team attended San Francisco Ballet’s Sensorium. There is a specter of expert exclusivity that haunts classical arts, so an event targeting new audiences felt appropriate for this non-connoisseur. Despite barely knowing George Balanchine’s work, I found myself captivated  by the way the small movements in his choreography of Diamonds broke traditional ballet’s lines and flow. Often prestige prevents audiences from acknowledging personal taste, but it only took this small  point of connection for me to recognize my own preference for the modern and non-literal in ballet.

 

Almost as revelatory as the dance, were the engagement activities that peppered the War Memorial Opera House. From posting an Instagram photo in a tutu, to getting hair arranged in a proper ballet bun, each of my colleagues found a different activity memorable. For my part, I was deeply flattered when a ballerina told me I was one of the most stable partners who had supported her in an on pointe turn that day. I saw her comment was a gift that I would take with me, just as my colleagues would be taking home photographs and new skills from their experiences. I realized on-site engagement is much more successful if it is presented as an opportunity to receive something.

 

I was lucky to see many beautiful performances that inspired and moved me this year. Sensorium stood out, however, because it helped me better understand my own relationship to the arts and gave personal insight into audience experiences for the field as a whole.

 

Megan Friel

Boro-Linc: Elena Moon Park and Sonia De Los Santos

Over the last year, I’ve spent many hours observing community programs in each borough of New York City as part of our work with Lincoln Center Education’s Boro-Linc program. On January 20th, as many in the city were glued to inauguration night coverage, I was in a school auditorium suspended in the warm and playful energy of the dance party and sing along that Elena Moon Park and Sonia De Los Santos were leading. Children danced at Elena Moon Park’s feet and ran up and down the aisles laughing as they learned the steps to “Diu Diu Deng,” a Taiwanese train song. Parents and children sang together as Sonia De Los Santos taught the lyrics to “Esta Es Su Tierra” or “This Land Is Your Land.” In a room where the audience was as diverse as the musical selection, I watched as families pointed out familiar elements of their own culture to their children and learned new traditions together. Observing families share an evening of music, dance, and play with their neighbors affirmed my belief in the important role the arts play in holding space for these moments. The feeling in that room on that night that stayed with me for a long time and as I watched parents thank the school’s director for hosting the event as they left, I knew that I was not the only one that felt it.

 

John Carnwath

The long, spidery legs of impact

I’ve been thinking a lot about the long-term, cumulative impact that arts experiences have on our lives lately as part of our work for the Canada Council for the Arts. We’ve developed sophisticated methodologies for measuring the initial response to a performance or work of art — what we’ve sometimes referred to as the initial “imprint”–, but art affects us on so many levels and in so many ways that fluctuate over time, that the idea that the total impact, experienced over time, would be a fixed quantity is increasingly troubling to me. One article I recently read criticized the “objectification” of impact, and that really gets to the heart of what bothers me about the concept of impact. The arts affect us in many ways—yes—but “impact” is a construct that we have developed as a sort of shorthand to talk about the multiple ways in which we are affected, as though it were something fixed, knowable, and measurable.

 

In trying to think of performances and art works I experienced in 2017 that made a particularly strong impression on me, I was initially inclined to think it wasn’t a very eventful year in terms of the arts for me. Could any of those works claim a spot beside the truly transformative arts experiences I recall from my youth? But then I realized that I only grew to appreciate some of those early experiences later in life, and as I was lost in those memories, I remembered — seemingly out of the blue — the sculpture of a giant spider that looms over the entrance to Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art. How had I forgotten that when mentally reviewing my most memorable arts experiences of 2017? Standing 30-feet tall, with a bulging sack of white spider eggs, Maman by Louise Bourgeois is simultaneously repulsive/hostile/terrifying and comforting/protecting/nurturing. I doubt I will ever forget that sculpture, and yet, at least for a while, it was completely absent from my mind.

 

In light of these tricks of the mind, how does one begin to compare arts experiences that are so distant in form, place, and time, particularly given that I — the person observing them — have changed so much over the years?

 

These were just some of the many artistic highlights of the year for us. We look forward to creating many more memories with you in 2018

 

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Today, I’m pleased to share the product of WolfBrown’s fruitful collaboration over the past year with Capacity Interactive, the digital marketing consulting firm. The Performing Arts Ticket Buyer Media Usage Study, available for free download, provides a current snapshot of the digital and print media consumption patterns of performing arts patrons, showing a massive trend toward digital consumption.

 

Not wholly unexpected, the study of almost 27,000 arts ticket buyers provides strong evidence of the transformed landscape of arts marketing and patron engagement. As experts in digital marketing, our partners at Capacity Interactive have done a wonderful job of contextualizing the results and reflecting on their implications for arts organizations.

 

Current and former WolfBrown and Capacity Interactive clients were invited to participate in the study at no cost. In the end, 58 organizations across the fields of theatre, dance, classical music and multi-disciplinary presenters cooperated. The aggregate responses yield a nuanced picture of consumers’ preferences and behavior. Although we can’t be sure that the data is representative of all ticket buyers across North America, the large sample size allows for the exploration of trends across subpopulations to a degree that is rarely achieved in arts research.

 

Beyond the results, the Media Usage Study is notable for another reason, and hopefully a harbinger of things to come.

 

For many years, I’ve wondered if there’s a better way to make high quality market research available at a low cost to a broader and more diverse array of arts organizations. As a service provider to foundations and arts organizations who are willing and able to commission professional quality market research, my WolfBrown colleagues and I have an inside view of how applied market research gets bought and paid for, and, to be honest, it’s often an unsettling picture.

 

More often than not, big-ticket audience research gets funded by philanthropic foundations in the context of grants to build audiences or deepen community service. Most grant programs are competitive by design – there are winners and losers. The winners get all the resources, and the losers lack both the incentive and ability to access the learning process. While there are real benefits for the winners, I’m much more interested in the “losers” – by which I mean all the fantastic organizations who are unsuccessful in getting foundation grants that bring access to research.

 

Notwithstanding the good efforts of foundations to diversify their grantee pools, we are still looking at a system that offers privileged access to information to those who write really good grant applications.1

 

In many cases, funded research is proprietary in nature and never disclosed to a broader audience. Assumptions are made about the need to hold the results confidential, regardless of whether there is sensitive information. Of course some research needs to be proprietary. And some foundations make a point of sharing research results in the form of distilled summaries or case studies. Still, the collateral damage to the field as measured in the opportunity cost of existing knowledge that never travels is incalculable. Studies get repeated over and over again at enormous cost to organizations and funders because there’s no system for distributing the learning process more widely, compounded by inefficiencies in the way knowledge is exchanged across organizations and sectors.

 

Consultants like WolfBrown are often complicit in perpetuating these inefficiencies. We make money by doing similar studies over and over again. There is little incentive to tell inquiring organizations that “you really don’t need to do this study because another organization just did it, and here’s who you should call.” And so, the merry-go-round of privileged access to research goes round and round.

 

It’s time for a new approach to applied market research – one that breaks down historical barriers to learning. And that’s why the Media Usage Study released this week is important to me – because it sows the seeds of a new approach to field learning.

 

At our insistence, the organizations that opted into the Media Usage Study all agreed to full transparency – everyone could see everyone else’s results aggregated at the organizational level. Everyone had a chance to comment on the protocol design, and many helpful suggestions were incorporated into the final version. Each organization emailed the survey to a sample of their recent ticket buyers and data was collected in a week’s time. The resulting data was immediately reflected back to the study partners via an online dashboard.

 

This is not as simple as figuring out how to scale up research using technology. That’s half the battle, but the larger and far more difficult challenge is figuring out how to crowdsource the learning that happens after data is collected. I envision a time when arts organizations can opt into multi-site studies at a very low cost, with or without funder support, and help each other interpret the results with minimal support from consultants.

 

Over the months and years to come, I invite you to follow us as we embark on this necessary adventure towards more equitable access to research and learning.

 

1Some foundations aim to make research more accessible to a broader cross-section of organizations. The William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, for example, supported the Audience Research Collaborative, a multi-year program of research support for 40 of its grantees, large and small, on an opt-in basis. Many of the savviest consumers of research were managers and board members of small organizations.

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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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