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June 20, 2007

We the Audience

by Lynne Conner

As I leave for the airport and my flight to Nashville, I'm still thinking about Alan Brown's smart and thoughtful post from yesterday. Alan's observations from his recent research on engagement square solidly with what we've seen in Pittsburgh after three years of experimental audience-centered programming taking place before, during and after an arts event.

At the risk of being a copycat (imitation, flattery and all that), I'd like to add to Alan's list three additional observations based on early findings from the Pittsburgh experiment.

1. Engagement is not "development." Marketing strategies for "developing" (that is, increasing in numbers) an audience for a given organization may be valuable, but they are not the same as engagement. In traditional audience development strategies the audience member has been objectified and remains objectified throughout the "development" process. True enrichment programs individualize the people who make up the audience.

2. Engagement is not just a word - it's a value. Real engagement occurs in organizations where there is buy-in from the top on down. The boss and the board have to want to hear from the audience as much as the education director does. Audience-centered programming is like walking a tight-rope. If you pretend, you fall.

3. Effective audience-centered practices dismantle the notion of art object and art maker as "enlightener" and replace it with the ideal of art object and art maker as participants in a civic dialogue. This implies a redistribution of power. Some artists and some arts administrators will resist this.

One final thought. In order to create a more perfect union of arts producers and arts audiences for the 21st century, perhaps the best way to begin is by looking a little more closely at our own behavior as audience members. What are our own desires when we plunk down our hard-earned cash on our rare night off? What do we need in the way of interpretive help when we encounter an unfamiliar art form? And what happens to our level of engagement when we don't get that help?

Posted by lconner at June 20, 2007 5:26 AM


Ms. Connor

Anyone who will "plunk down" their hard-earned cash has likely already done some advance research. How many movies do you watch that you haven't read any reviews of? How many dance performances do you go to where you have no idea what to expect from the choreographer? How many books do you read where you haven't at least read the back cover or the dustjacket?

I once went to a club to see the Norwegian pop singer Annie. A young woman was bouncing on a couch singing along at the top of her lungs to a song from her album Anniemal which hadn't, technically, been released yet. Most people have at least an inkling of what they're getting into, and are far from flying blind.

Posted by: Marc Geelhoed at June 20, 2007 8:30 AM

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