Their eyes were watching you

Via the excellent daily newsletter You’ve Cott Mail, in today’s Wall Street Journal:

More museums are paying to send stealth observers through their
galleries. Based on what they see, the museums may rearrange art or
rewrite the exhibit notes. Their efforts reflect the broader change in
the mission of museums: It’s no longer enough to hang artfully curated
works. Museum exhibits are expected to be interactive and engaging. As
well, many foundations and donors are requiring proof that their
funding is well-spent, and the studies provide data to show a rise in
traffic or exhibit engagement.

Turns out, people-watching ain’t cheap though:

Even with today’s tighter budgets, many museums dedicate 10% of their
operating budgets to evaluation
, which includes observing visitors as
well as passing out questionnaires among other steps, says Kirsten
Ellenbogen, president of the Visitor Studies Association, a
professional organization of museum researchers. She works at the
Science Museum of Minnesota, which spends $900,000 on evaluation
annually, supporting a staff of 12 who produce hundreds of studies a

A few years back, pre-Life’s a Pitch (Who can even remember what life was like before Life’s a Pitch. Boring, I think.), I organized guest bloggers to write for the National Performing Arts Convention’s blog Program Notes, here on ArtsJournal. One especially fantastic post was by playwright Jason Grote, called “Watching the Watchers: Gauging Audience Response.” It used the following conference session description as a launch pad:

Stop Taking Attendence and Start Measuring the Intrinsic Impact of Your Programs. What really happens when the lights go down and the curtain rises? Most
arts groups do a great job of tracking attendance and revenues, but
these are poor indicators of impact. Aside from the buzz in the lobby,
is it possible to define – and even measure – how audiences are
transformed? If you had this information, what would you do with it?
Results of a groundbreaking new study commissioned by the Major
University Presenters consortium in the U.S. suggests that intrinsic
impacts can, in fact, be assessed using a simple questionnaire. Alan
Brown, who directed the study, will discuss the results of the
research, which involved pre- and post-performance surveys at 19
performances by a wide range of music, theater and dance artists…

An excerpt of Jason’s post:

Of course producers and presenters would like to be able to predict and
manage audience and critical response to what they put on out, as arts
presenting is a notoriously stressful and erratic business, but I don’t
think this can be done without severely compromising the integrity of
the art.  Risk is, in most cases, the entire point.  Of course, arts
presenters could probably predict, with some degree of accuracy, the
acts or exhibits that would be most popular, but this would, in all
likelihood, lead to a steep decline in “difficult” but ultimately
rewarding works of art, and the rise of gimmick-driven art, and
ultimately of arts institutions as weak imitators of the multiplex, the
mall, the computer, and the television set – a competition which they
would, most likely, lose.  Why would I go to the trouble of going to a
theater or museum if I won’t be offered an experience that is
fundamentally different from what I can get at home, on TV or on the
internet, often for significantly less money?  Even assuming that the
questions being asked related to being “moved” or “affected” by the
work (as opposed to the simple thumbs-ups or thumbs-downs of Hollywood
test surveys), this is still a flattening and oversimplification of
something that is, when it works, impossible to articulate in any
coherent way.

The best art polarizes as much as it unites.  Most
art that seeks to please everyone is doomed to failure, mediocrity or,
at best, a sort of temporary popularity. This is not to say that genre
art can never be good – I’m a fan of The Wire, Philip K. Dick, sketch comedy, comic books and pop music as much as I am of, say, Lawrence Shainberg’s novel Crust,
the poetry of John Ashbery, opera, or performance art, and often the
two categories are not mutually exclusive (note the references to Flann
O’Brien’s The Third Policeman on the TV show Lost, an
incident that caused the postmodern novel to sell more in the last year
or so than it did in the entire 20th Century).  What I object to is the
attempt to domesticate and commodify a process that tends to sour at
its very contact with such concepts.

Read the whole thing here, as well as George Hunka’s response to Jason’s piece in The Guardian.

10% of an operating budget spent on visitor evaluation and consultants being hired to analyze your audiences: money well spent or money wasted on non-artistic pursuits?

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  1. Kris Morrissey says

    Evaluation is (or should be) integrated into all aspects of museum planning including education, exhibit design, marketing, management, etc. Therefore, its probably more accurate to consider the funds spent on evaluation as also supporting and part of the budgets of other aspects of museum operations.

  2. Kirsten Ellenbogen says

    The article misquoted me. (I don’t think the WSJ has printed the correction yet.) It is 10 percent of a project budget (not 10 percent of the institution’s operating budget) that is commonly put towards evaluation. That 10 percent could be internal evaluators and researchers conducting studies, external consultants, or some combination.
    The $900,000 quoted was only for an internal department that conducts evaluation and education research. That amount does not include external evaluators.