The Five Modes of Arts Participation

Interesting stuff, as always, from arts market researcher Alan S. Brown…this time in his work with the University of Pennsylvania’s ”Social Impact of the Arts Project,” and their efforts to benchmark cultural participation in and around North Philadelphia. There’s lots to dig through in the final report by project leaders Mark J. Stern and Susan C. Seifert (available here as a PDF file), but I’ll focus on a single slide in Brown’s presentation to the area’s cultural institutions (available in PowerPoint).

Specifically, Brown suggests five ”modes” of arts participation, based on the level of creative control by the participant. Moving from total control to no control, he describes these modes as follows:

  • Inventive Arts Participation engages the mind, body and spirit in an act of artistic creation that is unique and idiosyncratic, regardless of skill level.
  • Interpretive Arts Participation is a creative act of self-expression that brings alive and adds value to pre-existing works of art, either individually or collaboratively.
  • Curatorial Arts Participation is the creative act of purposefully selecting, organizing and collecting art to the satisfaction of one’s own artistic sensibility.
  • Observational Arts Participation encompasses arts experiences that you select or consent to, motivated by some expectation of value.
  • Ambient Arts Participation involves experiencing art, consciously or unconsciously, that you did not select.

The implication is that we all engage, create, or consume cultural experiences in different ways at different times, and that an essential variable in that spectrum is the level of personal control over that experience. I’d suggest that the predominant (perhaps disproportional) emphasis of professional cultural nonprofits is the forth mode on the list (observational). Have we been ignoring or discounting opportunities in the rest of the spectrum?


  1. David Pausch says

    The always interesting Mr. Brown does it again. What jumps out at me is how, in my opinion, professional non-profit theatre produces product from the perspective of either the Interpretive or Curatorial perspective (anyone who has been part of the season selection process knows that, though the theatre is mission-driven, the season selections ultimately reflect the tastes and aesthetics of the artistic director or directors).
    In general, however, they present that product to the public from the Observational perspective; i.e. they allow the audience to observe the personal tastes of the theatre’s artistic leadership. I don’t know if this adds up to a disconnect, but it certainly asks the audience to make a big leap of faith.

  2. Pete says

    Very interesting study. I agree with the idea that the act of actually participating in the art form (playing music, acting, painting) creates a connection with that art form. We as arts institutions rarely if ever involve our patrons beyond the observational or curatorial stage. We seem to leave those upper two to somebody else.

  3. says

    To build on what David Pausch said, I submit that a performing arts organization does in fact, operate within the first four of these modes. I hold this view because I see theatre as a community of leaders, artists, designers, and patrons all participating at various levels.
    The Inventive Mode is engaged by the artists and designers whenever they’re in pre-production for a show. Both the performing artists and designers are actively engaged in making art for audience consumption.
    The mode of Interpretive Participation occurs whenever an Artistic Director, and the Production Leadership Team work with a script to bring it from “the page to the stage”. Simply observe some of the latest productions of the works of Shakespeare and the variety of interpretation is readily apparent.
    The Curatorial Mode is, as Mr. Pausch suggests, something of a self-serving process on the part of those who choose the productions for a season.
    I am in complete agreement with him that audiences must have great faith in the Company to be willing to subscribe to a full season’s offerings.
    Observational Arts participation is, of course, what audiences do. And I’d like to think they come away with more than having merely observed the art, but also having experienced it in some very personal way.
    It is, I think, the Ambient Mode that is least often experienced in the context of a performance venue. Many of the most interesting performance venues have a wonderful structural design to the space and offer galleries for the display of artworks which whet the appetite of the patron in anticipation an evening of fine theatre.

  4. John Pearson says

    Arraying the modes as a pie chart rather than a sequential progression would show how the steps touch and blur into one another. The “final” one would touch the “first” one, demonstrating how a random moment of artistic experience may lead a person to creative expression, thus regenerating the cycle.

  5. says

    Great comments, and thank you. The “Curatorial” mode of participation refers to curatorial participation on the part of the consumer, not the arts organization’s artistic director. More and more consumers are learning how to curate the art in the lives, especially music (e.g., making your own CD compilations), but also collecting art for the home, choosing wallpaper for your computer screen, etc. I think this is a huge new mode of participation. I would argue that some audience members, those who are incredibly engaged in choosing the performances they see, are acting in a curatorial role for themselves, while others are much less involved in choosing the art in their lives.