Follow? No – Informed (Let’s Go To The Data)

  • I like very much William Osborne’s observation that there’s an “administrative” way of thinking about engagement and that there’s an “artistic” way of thinking about it, and that the two don’t necessarily mean the same at all. As I wrote in an earlier poet, I tend to think of engagement as being part of the artistic process, not a check-in after the fact. More often, I think it’s framed in call-and-response mode. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but it’s interesting to me that this has become the default starting definition.
  • I’m struck by Diane’s observation that “You can’t lead if no one is paying attention to you. # If fine arts organizations have any hope of leading in the future, they will need to address this gap. To do so, they will need to spend time listening to their communities and seeking to understand them.” It’s fine to talk about the degrees you’re willing to interact with an audience – engage – but if the larger culture is making new forms of interaction a new norm, then there’s little use in declaring that the new rules don’t apply to the arts. The arts can’t exist in isolation; they’re about culture and if we can’t speak to the larger culture, it will be very difficult for us. In other words: It doesn’t matter how much we want to “lead or follow” (to put it reductively again). If the larger culture operates in a new way, we have to decide how – not whether – we need to adapt.
  • Lastly,  the role of data here is interesting to me. Looking at many of the 54 Wallace engagement projects, I’m struck by how many of them are about experimenting with interaction and collecting data about those interactions as a way of informing decisions going forward. Not being led by the data, but being informed by it. Steppenwolf Theatre is a particularly good example of this. But to step back a bit – we now have the ability to collect mountains of data about what our communities want, how they want it, and how they want to share culture. Is it heretical to wonder how much arts organizations actually want to know about this? Finding out what your audience wants is good, right? But if you have a better and better understanding of your audience, and you dive deeper and deeper into serving that, aren’t you shutting yourself off, at least a little bit to those who aren’t already your audience? In other words, if you appeal to one percent of the people in your community and you find better and better ways of reinforcing serving that one percent, what about the one percent next to them, or the one percent after that?  Maybe that doesn’t matter. Maybe the intense fullfilling experience of the few is more possible because it isn’t the experience of the many (not sure I believe that). But I wonder if our data sets are too small. If we want to have a bigger impact or influence on the larger culture, don’t we need to expand our cultural reference points? Not so we can follow what they want, but so we can be informed by it. Art doesn’t get made in a vacuum. It can’t survive in one either.

About Douglas McLennan

Douglas McLennan has written 4 posts in this blog. #

Douglas McLennan is the founder and editor of ArtsJournal. This year he is a Visiting Professor at Claremont Graduate University. #



  1. AND administrators have taken over the arts, to the detriment of the arts and disempowered most artists while profiting from activities that would be nonexistent without them.
    there is very little balance in this situation. until art work is accorded the same value as spreadsheets, accounting and profit, there will not be enough change to make a difference.

  2. This is like walking up to a giant who is a gazillion times bigger and spitting in his eye. Dumb. Just cause something is true does not mean it is always wise to say it. Life is hard enough. Please take both these comments off, ok Doug? Thanks a lot.