Filling the house, or filling the heart

Source: Flickr user pochacco20

For many reasons, the questions of ‘audience engagement’ have been simmering in my head in recent weeks. For one, I’m working on a project on that very topic, as an advising consultant to AMS Planning & Research for TCG’s Audience (R)Evolution initiative. For another, I’m prepping for this Thursday’s ‘How Art Works’ public forum with the National Endowment for the Arts and their new systems map, which explores how individual and social impacts flow from the arts experience. But there have been other strands, as well:

  • An executive search consultant to arts organizations concerned about the shift in senior-level marketing director candidates, who see their work increasingly as a job rather than a calling (an empty seat is a missed metric rather than a lost opportunity for joy).
  • A choreographer frustrated that we’ve become so focused on getting more butts in the seats that we’re dissipating the effort to deepen and enrich the experience of those already there.
  • My own prep and presentation for my Survey of Arts Management class at American University, where I’ve been trying to rethink how to talk about and teach the dynamic tensions of cultural management.
  • Last week’s short but elegant post by Greg Sandow on our four keys to a better future for classical music.
  • My continuing pondering on the efforts and insights of ‘Counting New Beans,’ from Theatre Bay Area, and Clay Lord’s exploration of participatory practice in the new edition of Artivate.

For myself, I resolved the question long ago about whether an arts organization is a business. Of course it is. But that doesn’t determine for me what business an arts organization is in. In a world of scarcity and competition, we all seem tempted to be in a volume business — grabbing as many participants as we can. But if we’re really in the meaning business, then quantity can’t be our only metric or goal.


  1. says

    As we developed new ways of measuring impact for the sector in the greater Cincinnati area, we talked first about number of participants ~~ next we asked: “And then what? What happened as a result of these people attending, sharing the experience and the space?” It’s the “and then what happened?”answers that became most important to us, and help us think about our outreach, engagement, and experience strategies.

      • says

        Certainly “what happened” is intrinsic impact.

        But also, for example:

        — what did all those people do before and after the show? How did the fact of the show’s audience change the feeling on the street and block and neighborhood? How do those feet on the street change the way people feel about the neighborhood? Does more activity because of the show inspire people to want to live there, move there, visit there, work there? Did people talk about ideas in the show together? Did they get to know each other better or in a new way as a result? How do these new connections shift the civic life and engagement in the community? Is the show extraordinary in a way that builds the reputation and awareness of the community with people OUTSIDE the community?

        I could go on — but you get the idea.

        Our Fringe Festival makes its neighborhood feel very different from other nights. There are many more people walking around, eating, stopping at pubs, talking to each other, meeting new people, talking about the shows in the Fringe, and so on. Those 12 nights are very different from many other nights. And the Fringe has contributed to a shift in the way people view that neighborhood. Now more people are seeing it as a place they could live — certainly as a place they like to visit. Even people who don’t go to the Fringe hear about it and see the images of an appealing place with people, and art, and energy.

        That’s “what happened”.

  2. says

    I like your focus on meaning Andrew — I gave a speech last week at the Arts Midwest Conference and focused on how we deliver meaning outside of markets in our field, and how important I think this is — and was amazed at how many people there told me this felt like the “right” way to approach work in our field. I think you are smart to prod us all to think about not just assuming that being a “volume business” is the right way for us. As always, you give us a lot to think about, and thanks.

  3. Tom says

    Mr. Taylor,

    As a former performing artist turned arts manager (and having since dropped that line of work in disgust), I completely sympathize with your views.

    However, what your words conceal are the many examples where conductors have thought exactly the same way as you: “quantity [of audiences] can’t be our only metric or goal” which has resulted in audiences dropping off to the point where the orchestra ended up in dire straits or folded.

    I have had a conductor say to me when I worried about a piece’s impact on our subsriber base “I don’t care if nobody comes – we are performing beautiful music.” When you hear that kind of nonsense, you just want to shoot yourself.

    Your ideals certainly would work in Europe where concert halls are smaller and orchestras are less dependent on ticket revenues in difficult times due to being government funded. But here in the US, “butts in seats,” whether one likes it or not, is a necessary metric. One which can determine if you end the year in the black or in the red. Love alone doth not classical music sell. That be a tale of yore.

  4. says

    Really appreciate the way you reframed the inquiry in the sentence (“But if we’re really in the MEANING business, then quantity can’t be our only metric or goal.”)
    I was honored to be included in Clayton Lord’s Artivate article, highlighting the work I did at Woolly but, more importantly for this reply, the work of dog & pony dc. This is my biased endorsement of it.
    As dog & pony dc planned a recent remount of one of our shows, and are developing subsequent touring, we’ve had to ask ourselves what the maximum number of people the show can accodate and be artistically successful (ie the success of “what happened”).
    We premiere BEERTOWN in our home “incubator” — the black box at Capitol Hill Arts Workshop here in DC. It had a 60-person capacity… including the performers. The two performance venues we moved to this summer – one with an ~100-person capacity, the other with ~140 capacity — we really questioned whether the impact of the show (which was the building of community every show / the audience leaving feeling like they had been in dialogue with one another) would be diminished with so many people. We learned that 130 pushed but did not undermine. !PHEW! However: the entire company was 100% clear that meaning of the show, the impact, was most important. More important than our ability to earn revenue. This was a terribly hard decision for the manager portion of my brain to handle. It would have made for a much larger surplus for our next projects’ development (it is challenging to raise funds as a developing ensemble-based devised company with neither a space or subscriber base), but our art’s health is integral to our organization.
    We are definitely in the meaning business… but goodness it is hard.
    Thanks for continuing to ponder, question, and postulate about it.