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June 18, 2007

Greetings from Nashville

by Alan S. Brown

Greetings from Nashville, where the ASOL pre-conference activities begin this morning. I am leading a two-day seminar called Building Audiences through Engagement. Assisting me in this endeavor are Joan Cumming, marketing guru of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, and Ted Wiprud, education director for the New York Philharmonic. We have researched audience and community engagement practices, prepared case studies and developed some new frameworks and lessons learned to share with the 60 or so brave souls who will take the journey with us.

Here are some of the overarching observations from the research:

• Engagement occurs when audiences participate actively in designing and interpreting their experience
• Transparency of process and intent invites engagement
• Drawing a line between audience engagement and community engagement is unnecessary and ultimately limiting
• Some successful engagement practices derive from an organization's ability to think holistically about the art form in terms of setting and delivery
• Sometimes, engaging audiences and community requires performing in inconvenient locations at inconvenient times
• New or redesigned physical spaces can enable a higher degree of interaction and engagement; most of our facilities were not designed with engagement in mind
• Constituent input and a commitment to listening are key factors in all successful engagement practices
• Engagement requires accepting people where ever they are in their arc of involvement with the art form and not pre-supposing their pathway through it
• The most advanced organizations with respect to engagement have integrated educational content and outcomes into all of their core programming to the point where there is no distinction between education and programming

I have to disagree that the greatest potential for engaging audiences lies around the periphery of the concert experience - either before or after. The people who go to pre-concert lectures and post-performance discussions are the ones who are already knowledgeable about the art form. It's the big middle that we need to move - the people who only want to know a little bit more, and who will never come to a lecture. So the greatest potential for engaging audiences, I feel, lies within the temporal space of the concert itself.

If anything, this blog underscores the need for us, as an industry, to reach for a higher level of understanding of how people benefit from arts experiences, and the roles that institutions and other delivery mechanisms can play in unlocking those benefits. Although my fellow bloggers make reductive statements for argument's sake, we have to deal with complexity here. There is a valid philosophy that everything you need to get from music can be achieved through the act of listening. There is another valid philosophy that much more needs to be done to open up the experience to people in a way that will help them become more active listeners. We can't afford not to negotiate these viewpoints into some workable plan for the future.

There are people in the audience who idealize a passive listening experience, and there are also people in the audience who idealize a more interactive and dynamic experience. The bottom line is that there is slow and intractable change happening all around us, but it's hard to see, and no amount of additional funding will turn back the tide of change. All of this has profound implications for musicians, who now must not only play well, but also be able to communicate about their art and, ultimately, awaken the creative voice in others.

Fortunately there's an enormous amount of innovation bubbling up in fits and starts, and I know that ASOL will be leading the orchestra field further down that pathway in the years to come. There is a huge need for research (sorry, Greg) and development, and here is where the funders come in. We should have three or four orchestras in the U.S. whose bottom lines are fully underwritten so that they can serve as greenhouse sites for trying out new ways of making music, new governance models, new relationships with musicians, etc. While we squeeze the current model harder and harder, at the same time we have to completely re-imagine a new model, and that's the work that's not being done. We need a new sense of possibility for what a music organization can mean to a community.

At the core, this is a conversation about change. The first and essential precondition for change is the belief that things cannot stay the same. Are we there yet?

Posted by abrown at June 18, 2007 11:15 PM


Alan, you are right of course about more research and I really appreciated your summary of these key observations - (you research guru you). Reflecting on the various posts, I think part of what we need to determine is what we are measuring and how we are doing that.

Connie Yowell from the MacArthur Foundation addressed this subject at a recent conference on Games for Change. These could easily be applied to our field.

Some of her key points:

1. Research - Are we using old measures to look at new things?
She sited a recent NY Times article about taking lap-tops out of schools in N.J. because 'test results' showed no improvement. But did it actual measure other skills that may have been acquired?
2. The need to shift metrics and also rethink learning environments
3. Look at how learning environments reshape institutions - e.g. what should a library look like, how should one be able to access information?
4. New set of research methodologies

Alan, I can't agree more about the concert experience. The Magic of Music program showed pretty clearly that the people who attended the extra-curricular learning events were the people who were already in the family. New acquaintances didn't come, though they may certainly have enjoyed and gotten value out of the experience if they had. Obviously, the 'whole experience' is important and we need to find ways to make it okay to have a whole range of experiences, some of which are okay at the hall and some perhaps online or in other venues. I want it all - to dance to Bolero and also have attentive listening so profound that you hear your neighbor's watch ticking.

Posted by: Rebecca at June 20, 2007 10:12 AM

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