Way beyond butts in seats

Many of us have complained about the metrics we use in the arts to inform our management and measure our success. Number of tickets sold. Growth/decline in audience numbers year over year. Overall budget growth. These are inelegant and off-mission indicators that distract us rather than focus our work. But our complaints always ended the same way: what else is there?

Intrinsic Impacts StudyBlissfully, a new and extraordinary research study on the impact of cultural experience has dived right into the deep end to find out.

The WolfBrown report, Assessing the Intrinsic Impacts of a Live Performance, just released from embargo this month and posted yesterday for free download, works to bring both intent and insight to the transformative power of live performance. Says the report summary:

The true impact of performing arts experiences is what happens to individual audience members when the lights go down and the artist takes the stage — and the cumulative benefits to individuals, families and communities of having those experiences available night after night, year after year. If this is true, it would seem that efforts to assess the impact of arts programs would aim to better understand and measure how audience members are transformed — what happens to them in their seats.

Most other discussions on intrinsic value conclude that we lack the language and the tools to discuss and measure such values. This effort takes that conclusion as its beginning. The three driving assumptions behind the work are simply stated but radically conceived:

  1. Intrinsic impacts derived from attending a live performance can be measured
  2. Different types of performances create different sets of intrinsic impacts
  3. An individual’s ‘readiness-to-receive’ a performing arts experience influences the nature and extent of impacts.

I’ll be digging into this report in greater detail in the weeks to come (I’ll be attending a series of discussions involving its findings at the upcoming Arts Presenters conference to help me understand it more clearly myself). But I wanted to provide the pointer as soon as it was available.

This is important stuff.

Thanks to Alan Brown and his team for taking on the challenge. And thanks to the consortium of leading university presenters that brought their money, their time, and their significant attention to the project to bring it to life.


  1. Joshua Marchesi says

    Andrew, thank you so much for this link — I am agog at the rightness of this approach, and can’t wait to dig deeper to see what they’ve found.
    Having spent over 25 years working in theater and the performing arts, I can’t even count the number of times I’ve argued this approach. I’ve long felt that the recent past’s overwhelming focus on studying the economic value of the arts to a community is helpful, but misses the point. This is particularly true, it seems, in the case of some performing arts presenters. My own experience in that field left me with the feeling that the nature of what was presented was always secondary to growth. This free-market approach to programming, in which the goal is to continue to increase profitability, seems to me to be, as the study suggests, in direct opposition to the stated mission of most organizations.
    More depressing than that, I have more than once seen organizations actually change their mission statement to diminish focus on the “intrinsic” impact of the art, instead phrasing their ideas in terms of market penetration.
    Perhaps this study, along with recent discussions regarding the efficacy of focusing on economic impact studies as a tool for justifying funding, will at least bring the importance of the actual art back into the discussion.
    I certainly hope so!

  2. joe says

    Where’s the beef?! Without sharing (and thus being able to evaluate) the assessment tool (the survey) we have no way of knowing how valuable this project really is!