On the distinction between giving people what they want versus what they need.

want needRecently, Nina Simon has written a smart post taking aim at the “Need versus Want” distinction often used to describe the role of (nonprofit) arts organizations—as in, “Our job is not to give people what they want but what they need.” As someone that has, at times, used this distinction to make points in various talks I was eager to read Simon’s post, Let’s Stop Talking About What People Want and Need As If They are Different (and We Can Tell How).

Simon makes three arguments: (1) it’s presumptuous for arts organizations to think they know what people need; (2) sometimes those running arts organizations (rather disingenuously) wrap up what they want to do in something called “serving people’s needs”; and (3) it’s depressing to think that art is not something that people might want. Reading Simon’s post inspired me to think a bit more about why the distinction between Need versus Want is one that has appealed to me in the past and whether I agree that it may be a false and unhelpful comparison for the arts to continue to make.

Taylor Mac on Need and Want:

At the 2013 Under the Radar Festial artist Taylor Mac performed a Manifesto in which he elaborated on “a good number” of his beliefs about the theater. When I read the talk I was immediately taken with a section in which he distinguishes Need from Want in the relationship between artist and audience.

I believe theater is a service industry.  It’s like being a plumber and theater artists are blue-collar workers who wear better clothes, for the most part.

I believe theater artists should be students of humanity

I believe, to learn what your audience needs, is the job

But caution that sometimes we confuse need with want.

Giving our audiences what they want is not the job

Sometimes giving them what they want is a fringe benefit or happy accident but it is not the job

I believe you may be saying to yourself, “That’s very presumptuous of him to think he knows what the audience needs”.  But I believe if I were a plumber you wouldn’t think it was presumptuous of me to say my job is to learn what your plumbing needs. You would say I was a good plumber.

I believe sometimes we confuse what the audience needs with what the artist wants.  That makes crappy art.  But I believe there is room for it all.  Including crappy art.

I am drawn to Mac’s conceptualization for many reasons—not least of which he suggests that the job of the artist is not to presume the needs of the audience as much as learn or discern them. Mac seems to submit that the artist’s ability to comprehend and respond to the world is a skill. Whereas the plumber has the ability to diagnose the needs of a plumbing system, the artist has both the ability and responsibility to do the same with other (social) systems.

Alain de Botton makes a similar argument in his TED talk Atheism 2.0. De Botton rejects the idea of Art for Art’s Sake and asserts, instead, that Art must “do something for this troubled world.” By assigning to Art the responsibility to do more than exist and by characterizing the world as in need de Botton proposes that the ‘job’ (to use Mac’s characterization) of artists and arts organizations is to bring something of value to bear in a ‘system’ (so to speak) in need of repair, maintenance, or perhaps complete overhaul. When I have held up the importance of responding to Need versus Want it has quite often been in this vein.

Moreover, I have often taken the line that effective arts organizations essentially broker an opportunity for people to engage with (and with each other through) the arts experience; and in curating a season arts organizations (ideally) pay attention to their communities and program work that they believe has social or intellectual relevance–that will matter–which can be different from saying that they program work that they believe will sell well.

This alludes to what I would argue is a reason to hold onto the distinction: Need versus Want is quite often shorthand for what it means to choose to work in the part of the sector that is endeavoring to operate outside a market logic. Giving people what they want is often shorthand for being market-oriented and giving them what they need is often shorthand for being artist- and/or community-oriented. This is a potentially critical distinction. Everywhere we look arts organizations (like the rest of society) are encouraged (or permitted, perhaps) to measure their worth (the value of their contributions to society) almost exclusively in short-term, market-driven metrics (positive press garnered, strong box office generated, jobs created, budgets balanced, hotel beds filled).

There can be a tension between serving markets and serving communities and serving the artform and artistic processes—particularly for disciplines like theater which exist in a mixed-market (meaning the markets for theater are occupied by commercial, nonprofit professional, and amateur organizations). I perceive that the Need versus Want language is, at times, useful in helping to parse our relationship to these peculiar masters.

A Caution: Philanthropic Paternalism

Both Simon and Mac rightly allude to the possibility of conflating audience needs with artistic wants. At the organizational level I would characterize this as a caution against what is sometimes referred to as philanthropic paternalism. Philanthropic paternalism is a term I’ve encountered in academic literature primarily drawn from nonprofit studies; it refers to a tendency of those in the private nonprofit sector to identify and address problems as they see them rather than as those they serve see them. Philanthropic paternalism stems from developing programs and services with very little input from those they are intended to benefit. This is a construct that is, arguably, more easily grasped in relation to the health and human services arm of the nonprofit sector, but it still holds in the arts (for both arts organizations and those that fund them).

How might we ‘gather input’ in the arts? Well, what are the processes for identifying where the community’s needs (read: hopes, fears, controversies, voices, stories, history, important events, values, etc.) and the organization’s purpose and goals intersect? We may do market research but are we diligent about thoughtfully accounting for, or engaging the community in, the process of developing missions, vision statements, and strategies? Perhaps tendencies toward philanthropic paternalism are mitigated by inviting a more representative group of individuals from the community to participate in those processes. Even better, why wait for the annual retreat or future-planning summit? Why not change governance and staffing structures and administrative and artistic processes to ensure that the organization (or perhaps a community of organizations working together) will regularly encounter, absorb, and reflect upon knowledge about who lives in the community, what they value, how they live and how they are impacted (or not) by existing cultural institutions in the community?

Need versus Want: Where the distinction makes little sense

While it may be useful for artists and arts nonprofits to distinguish between Need and Want in conceiving of their “jobs” it’s not a distinction we should expect the audience itself to make. Do I need to see Fun Home and Good Person of Szechwan at the Public Theater in New York City when I’m in town next week, or do I want to? It seems a strange question. On the receiving end the distinction begins to evaporate.  Is art necessary and life-saving? Do we sometimes go out of duty or obligation only to find that the experience is (or becomes with time) an enjoyable one? Do we delight in it like a kid in Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory? Sure. Maybe yes to all of the above, or some, or none.

What matters to me is not whether I need or want to see a couple shows at the Public. I value the chance to see these two particular shows sufficiently to pay just over $180 (which is steep on my PhD salary) to see them. What would seem meaningful to me is if I were to browse the offerings of the Public theater, shrug, and come to the conclusion that there’s nothing there I need or want to see.

And that, really, should be our larger concern: Are we losing people? If so, why? Due to what action or inaction on our part in response to ever changing communities, markets, and artworlds? We are perhaps on thin ice if framing our job as giving people what they need (rather than what they want) has become a form of cognitive dissonance reduction–a way of rationalizing declining relevance as a problem outside of our control. Cultural organizations arguably exist to influence the values of the culture as much as reflect or manifest them.

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  1. says

    “Due to what action or inaction on our part in response to ever changing communities, markets, and artworlds?”

    The problem with the “you need us” attitude, Diane, is that it creeps into the communications arts organizations use to connect with their publics and in that context it is utterly false and counterproductive. No single individual needs any given arts organization. People may need art in a broad, generalized, philosophical way, but John Q. Public doesn’t need his local symphony orchestra. It could close its doors tomorrow and he’d get along just fine.

    When the local symphony orchestra talks down to John Q. Public from its “you need us” pedestal, the language is presumptuous and condescending. And when John Q. Public comes to realize that he doesn’t actually need the local symphony orchestra as much as his parents’ and grandparents’ generations believed they did, the language comes off as being artificial, self-flattering, remote and ultimately unpersuasive.

    The reality most tradition arts institutions face today is that they need audiences more than individual audience members need or want them. The tragedy is that they’ve bought into the “you need us” worldview hook, line and sinker, and don’t know how to come down off their pedestals long enough to relate to people who don’t need them with deference and humility.

    There’s is nothing even remotely deferential or humble about “you need us.”

      • says

        You may not realize it, Richard, but you just called John Q. Public stupid and it’s a perfect illustration of the problem. If elite arts insiders insist on talking down to new audiences as if they’re stupid (i.e. “You don’t know it, but you need us.”), it is indeed too late.

        • says

          Richard’s comment doesn’t necessarily imply he thinks the public is stupid. People might not realize they need the symphony due to a lack of education. Ignorance is not the same as a lack of intelligence or carelessness. Or perhaps they lose touch with the symphony because ticket prices for decent seats are too expensive — a common problem in the States. In some genres, like opera, it might mean that there is no opera house even around. The USA only has 3 cities in the top 100 for opera performances per year. Most Americans would have to travel hundreds of miles to hear a fully professional opera performance in a real opera house, so they have lost touch with the genre. Or it might mean that the mass media, with its boundless resources for marketing and delivery, can simply over-power the fine arts in the public’s attention — which suggests that marketing alone will not solve these problems.

          So there might be times when artists can honestly and without arrogance say to the public that they have lost something very special and that they need the arts.

          In any case, we should make room for many kinds of artists, including those who might be elitist. I wouldn’t want to think of a world without James Joyce, Samual Beckett, Arnold Schönberg, or Karlheinz Stockhausen. Or am I missing something here?

          • Ariel says

            Mr. Osborne may not want a world without Joyce,Beckett, Schonberg or Stockhausen but
            millions upon millions live what they consider full lives without the slightest inkling of who is
            Joyce etc. No one needs the symphony orchestra and education has nothing to do with it .There
            are millions of well educated people that are not interested in symphonic music or opera .
            Ticket prices do not enter the picture as such since rock concerts command higher priced tickets
            than most symphony tickets . People spend money on what interests them .Mr. Osborne does
            dance around a great deal to prove a point but one feels that he wants the public to value only
            what he considers worthy of value . There are thousands who do not attend symphony concerts
            but do spend well earned money on tickets to watch trucks with oversized tires drive in endless
            circles then crash into each other to what would be called at the opera “a standing ovation “.
            Could this not be called an art form ,? or does it depend on whose aesthetic ox is being gored .

  2. Aaron Andersen says

    Good post, Diane. I have a hard time, however, trusting arts organizations and artists to do a good job parsing out own own wants from audience needs, even if we try.

    We bring in community representatives, and then rationalize away the differences between what we hear from them and what we want to do. As individuals, we justify away information that doesn’t conform with what we want to do, and as organizations we wrap that justification into our own interpretations of an artistic mission, which are generally broad enough to be intrepreted countless ways, including ways that are self-serving.

    I know this sounds depressingly cynical, but I see it. In multiple organizations of widely varying sizes, abilities, and levels of success.

  3. says

    The need vs. want issue depends on the organization’s ability to take financial risks. Europe’s public funding system allow for more risk, even though they must also keep a close eye on overall attendance. I’ve noticed many institutions use a sort of rule of thumb and strive for overall attendance figures of 80 to 85%. That might be seen as an objective metric for balancing need vs. want.

    This is illustrated in a BBC’s website article published on May 24, 2004 entitled “London is ‘Classical Music Capitol.” The LPO had just performed Howard Shore’s score for Lord of Rings for an audience of more than 3000 people. The article notes that even though the city has five fulltime orchestras, the LPO sells about 82% of all tickets for its concerts, and many events are sold out.

    Mr. Walker said it would be possible to raise attendance to 90%, but he would be:

    “…worried that our program was not adventurous enough. If we program in a conservative way, with great conductors and soloists, we are confident we would sell out the concert hall. With new, edgier work, and younger artists, the risks are higher. Orchestras are very fragile organizations. It is always difficult to balance the commercial and creative aspects of the orchestra.”

    The article stresses that public funding gives the LPO the freedom to find a reasonable balance between popular and innovative programming. I think there are many American arts organizations that do not have the financial security to use the 80 to 85% rule. They do not have the financial security, and often insufficient public for even more “popular” programming.

    I wonder if in these postmodern times, our concepts of artistic integrity have taken a beating. The populist bandwagon could be just as destructive as modernism’s zealous concepts of elitism.

  4. says

    Some of the comments here are based on the now fashionable presupposition that the public doesn’t recognize that experts in the arts might have valuable perspectives about what the public should experience. In fact, I think a large segment of the public is quite willing to allow informed arts leaders to shape programming because they trust in their judgments. This seems to apply to most of the museums, orchestras, theaters, dance companies, and opera houses I have observed. Most people don’t have time to really study and inform themselves about the arts, and so they entrust leaders in the field with programming decisions.

    In any case, let’s not jump to conclusions about how the public views the decision making processes of arts leaders without concrete evidence.

  5. says

    Alain de Botton make an all to common mistake in concluding that the phrase “L’art pour l’art” means that art “should live in a hermetic bubble”. This is a misinterpretation of history, and a crappy TED Talk that doesn’t deserve mention.
    What people like Whistle and Duchamp believed was that art no longer had to serve the wants and needs of religion and the state; that art was important enough and had intrinsic value apart from serving some other cause. It was the birth of Modernism that took the slogan ‘art for art’s sake’ and claimed that art in it’s own right is a valuable human need.
    It’s shocking to see you and others in your field questioning your own self worth by almost suggesting that artists and art organizations aren’t bringing something of value to society.

    I do think you are spot on to conclude that “Cultural organizations arguably exist to influence the values of the culture as much as reflect or manifest them, but what is “depressing”, to use Nina Simon’s words, is to see art organizers and advocates debating whether the value of art, the “L’art pour l’art” is even true.

  6. says

    Thanks Diane for another great post. I think these challenges are fundamental to all organizations, for-profit and nonprofit alike– to identify latent needs and overt wants, to understand our own desires and biases as producers, and to parse the differences and create great offerings for our communities. These are certainly the questions we worked on in my former life in the software industry. What I find different over the years working in the cultural sector is a tendency to blame the audience if the objective results — attendance, donations, word of mouth recommendations, social media buzz, and the like — don’t prove out the analysis. If our software wasn’t adopted it meant we misunderstood the customer and we needed to make changes. Often in the cultural sector I hear people say the customer just needs to change, to be better educated, to catch up.

    I think Diane gets to the heart of the question here. It isn’t (for me at least) whether there is a difference between needs and wants. It is whether we take seriously the information our communities give us about what we offer. Do we adapt to create the most compelling, valuable, high-impact cultural experiences we can for our communities? There is novel art for which one can’t know the audience in advance, that you push forward because it is a new voice and an experiment — but how often do we use that archetype to cover for programming that simply isn’t what many in our communities want or need?

    • says

      Software is a business whose goal is to make money. If people don’t buy it, what’s the point in creating it? Artists, by contrast, don’t merely follow dollars, they follow their visions. That is a necessary condition for art to exist in its fullness. Software is a product. Art is an expression of being. So your comparison is problematic.

      “…how often do we use that archetype to cover for programming that simply isn’t what many in our communities want or need?”

      Until we know, let’s not draw too many conclusions. The issues of marketing, creativity, and artistic vision are vastly more complex than relatively simplistic, undefined, and somewhat biased terms like want and need encompass. How would “need” even be defined in the context of Diane’s article? That word is biased because it almost disqualifies itself with an unnecessarily paternalistic tone.

  7. says

    I see that another ArtsJournal blogger has taken up the question of the public’s “need” and, of course, said we can’t know what that is. Reductive answers for reductive questions. We might put this question of need in the context of the city of Detroit selling off the collection of the DIA. Who needs art museums? We can’t say. Ha! So sell it off. Publically owned art will fall into the hands of the wealthy. Apparently they “need” it…

  8. Laurie Dean Torrell says

    I come at this from a slightly different angle, having spent my entire career within the nonprofit sector but not the arts realm, with 7 years at the American Red Cross and 11 years at Planned Parenthood before becoming Executive Director of Just Buffalo Literary Center. In those earlier jobs, I experienced first-hand what it means to provide programs and services that are matters of ‘life and death.’ At Red Cross, our blood, first aid and disaster relief services truly could mean the difference between life and death. At Planned Parenthood, a local physician was murdered because of taking a stand for services he felt women needed (didn’t always want) and which he continued to provide until he was gunned down in front of his children. Even in those organizations, people didn’t always recognize the things they needed – until THEY personally were struck with some reason for it to hit home. You learn to find stories of what the work really means, why it matters, and to tell those, to have people tell those in their own words, so that more people in the community, and funders, understand why the work matters. I left human services for the arts because I started to feel that I, and that all people, and especially young people, need more than just their physical survival needs met to live. An excerpt from Anne Truitt’s “Daybook: The Journal of an Artist” captures best the thing that drew me forward: ”The Greek poets … learned from suffering, and the way they learned was to make the effort to articulate their personal experience into forms that transcend it. They combined examined experience with the discipline of art to bring forth a statement forever useful to their fellow human beings It was their solution to the problem of universal pain that struck me: not the direct alleviation, which I was pursuing so hotly in my study of psychology, but a way that beckoned people towards aspiration.” Yes, the literary arts saved my life. The words of writers, the people I met through and at readings … I can’t begin to tell you … so yes, if we must talk about saving lives, I’d be happy to speak about this from personal experience. But more than anything else, it was this desire to turn from remediating problems towards inviting aspiration that drew me towards the arts. Do people want it? Do they need it? I’m market oriented enough to feel like we need to be able to make the case strongly, resonantly enough that funders and individuals support it; that staff and board members rally around it to do the work day in and day out to bring the vision we have to life. In the absence of this, it becomes a personal rather than organizational passion and mission. But to act like it’s a simple question of us second guessing our audiences or doing the most good with the resources available, this seems really simplistic to me.

  9. says

    Who is “we”? “How may we gather input?” “We may do market research….” etc. While i am stimulated by the various strands of the argument, my opinion is that, as a former artist, my role is to communicate directly to those who are experiencing the art – whether my music compositions or a play at the Guthrie ( I understand I am not in the same category) an artist requires an institution and a leader of that institution who will ultimately be judged by a more complex question: is the institution relevant, accessible, risk taking, and can it sustain itself. Those experiencing the art, “they” are not a homogeneous group – will ultimately make the decisions, Artists neither respond to a need in the community nor are driven by the wants of community; rather they shape the community.

  10. Taylor Hughey says

    It is an important issue to consider as artists…do we do what we want to do or do we cater to what our audience wants us to do? As a musician, I view art as a way to preserve history and culture. So many symphonies were written in response to world events that it seems hard to argue that artists today aren’t able to be free under the umbrella of an arts organization. There are many current composers who are writing music to reflect current events…from terrorist attacks to noted deaths. John Adams wrote a well-received work to honor September 11th—“On the Transmigration of Souls.” Even many of the classic pop/rock songs we grew up with are based on the artist’s experience (i.e. Billy Joel’s “Piano Man” or the artist’s view of an event (i.e. Bob Dylan’s “Hurricane”).

    I find Mac’s comparison of being an artist to being a plumber interesting. It’s much like the comparison to software companies made above. Yes, both an artist and a plumber have to ‘diagnose’ a given ‘current situation’ (a blocked drain or ‘culture’), but it isn’t for the artist to necessarily ‘fix the problem.’ An artist is meant to give his interpretation of a situation. If an artist presumes he can fix a situation by forcing his art upon people, I would definitely call him presumptuous. But Diane’s response to de Botton is a smart one. Trying to make art market-oriented can pose a difficulty because as much as artists want it to be, the field of fine arts holds a completely different place in this society. Arts organizations aren’t generally deemed successful unless they rake in a huge profit. Keeping that needs versus want distinction that Diane discusses included in the arguments can help organizations find a way to straddle this fence that is being built in society.

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