If this is leading, what is following?

In his influential book, Art Worlds, published in 1982, Howard S. Becker writes:

Though audiences are among the most fleeting participants in art worlds, devoting less time to any particular work or to works of a kind than more professionalized participants, they probably contribute most to the reconstitution of the work on a daily basis. Audiences select what will occur as an art work by giving or withholding their participation in an event or their attention to an object, and by attending selectively to what they do attend to. Remember that the object of our analysis is not the art work as isolated object or event but the entire process through which it is made and remade whenever someone experiences or appreciates it. That gives a special importance to the audience’s contribution.

Becker conceives of the art world as an onion with professional artists and support personnel in the center and audiences who are informed being closer to the center than those that are casual attendees. The audience, whether informed or casual, is in the onion. It is part of the art world.

Or at least it was.

Since Becker wrote his book it seems as though professional nonprofit fine arts institutions (producers and distributors in the art world) have increasingly objectified the audience and sought to neutralize its role in the artistic process. They often appear to see their communities as made up of three types of people: consumers (ticket buyers), banks (donors), and the rest (unimportant). Citizens are seen as ‘consumers’ to be hooked, baited, and sold on sometimes great and sometimes not-so-great fare. Even when they endeavor to ‘develop’ and ‘reach out to’ and ‘cultivate’ and ‘engage’ new audiences the end goal is still the same: buy a ticket, buy more tickets, buy more expensive tickets, and then make a donation.

If fine arts organizations do ask for audience feedback it’s more often than not for market research purposes rather than for the purpose of better understanding the community and the experience of the work of art in a particular time and place.

This is not ‘leading’ the audience. It’s duping the audience. It’s disregarding the audience. It’s demeaning the audience. We want cash from our patrons, we want their bodies filling up our venues, but we don’t really want to be in conversation with them. We want to keep the audience on a short leash.

Case in point: back in November Michael Kaiser wrote a post (which I first read about on Createquity) which has sparked comments and debates on blogs hither and yon, in which he rang the alarm bell over the increased sightings of ‘citizen critics’ in our midst:

[T]he growing influence of blogs, chat rooms and message boards devoted to the arts has given the local professional critic a slew of competitors….Many arts institutions even allow their audience members to write their own critiques on the organizational website.

This is a scary trend.

I think I actually snorted when I read this comment. I used to work at On the Boards, a contemporary performing arts center in Seattle. In 2003, artistic director Lane Czaplinski and I worked with AJ’s own Doug McLennan to launch a ‘patron review blog’. The audience was made up largely of artists, arts students, and people who had been attending OtB’s avant-garde or otherwise beyond-the-norm performances for years. We thought they were smart and had something to contribute. So we invited a few of them to post reviews the morning after a show. And we were blown away when we read them. They were intelligent, insightful, thought-provoking, and personal.

The blog was a form of validation for their role in the process … in the art world.

We encouraged other arts organizations to do something similar. They weren’t interested. They were concerned that someone might post a negative comment. By suppressing the opinions of the audience it seems they hoped to negate their power and role. Of course, engaged patrons found other outlets for their comments and, eventually, (and evidently much to the chagrin of Michael Kaiser), many arts organizations got on board with the shift.

The ongoing resistance to patron reviews, however, is a good example of how many arts organizations have routinely sought to tether the audience and diminish its role.

But this is not our worst crime. Our worst crime is that many of us are hypocrites. Despite all the yelping about needing to ‘lead audience taste’ many arts organizations actually pander to the audience—all the while telling themselves and others that they do not, would not, and never could do so. Audience participation has been waning because much of what is put on stage is formulaic, boring, conservative, and suited to the perceived tastes of middle-class, aging subscribers.

If this is leading, what’s following?

As I wrote in a Jumper post a few weeks ago, “there is a growing financial, artistic, and psychic gap between the ‘nonprofit fine arts world’ in the US and the ‘rest of the US’.”

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.

Following is the essence, not the opposite, of leading.

About Diane Ragsdale

Diane Ragsdale has written 3 posts in this blog.

Diane is currently working as at Erasmus University in Rotterdam, where she is lecturing, researching the impact of social and economic forces on US nonprofit regional theaters since the early 80's, and pursuing a PhD. For the six years prior to moving to Europe, Diane worked in the Performing Arts program at The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, where she had primary responsibility for theater, dance, and technology-related strategies and grants. Before joining the Foundation, Diane served as managing director of the contemporary performing arts center On the Boards in Seattle and as executive director of a destination music festival in a resort town in Idaho. Prior work also includes stints at several film and arts festivals and as a theater practitioner and teacher. She is a frequent panelist, provocateur, or keynote speaker at arts conferences within and outside of the US. You can read her blog, Jumper, on ArtsJournal.com and follow her on Twitter @DERagsdale.


  1. Hear, Hear! Audience reviews of work are just the start. We’re getting better at thinking about audience interaction, and audience analysis, when it comes to marketing the art or reviewing it. But we’re not getting any better at doing interaction and analysis as part of the art-making process itself. The challenge isn’t as existential for existing organizations – they have separate marketing departments and can split up the work, but for individual artists trying to create a career, marketing work and engagement work take away from creating. Unless, that is, you can figure out how to do both jobs at the same time.

  2. HA Beasley says

    Is part of the fear, perhaps, around the lack of a clear divide between professional and amateur art making? Arts critics are becoming freelance reviewers because there’s a decreased perception that their expertise has value. Engaging audiences (at least in theatre) brings the risk of turning them into actors, designers, directors–arts participators, in short. Since artists are most often looking for audiences for their own work, not for more colleagues and resource competitors, actual engagement may not be a desired end. And audience engagement efforts get tangled with taste making: our audiences, when asked, most often request to see classic shows they already know, which can be problematic for a company focused on premiering new work. I think the kind of direct audience feedback you mention is promising, and I wonder where the “engagement” road eventually leads in terms of how audiences and organizations define themselves.

  3. Or perhaps B.D. was right 40 years ago


  4. The terms leading and following puzzle me. They seem to refer to social democratic views of educating the people into the arts. On the other hand in the post-modernist view there is a miriad possible forms of art and no one is leading anymore. The difference between professional and amateur art is questionable.
    But somehow we still need gate keepers who help us define good art, what should we see and why?
    The question is rather if these gate keepers only talk bertween themselves and thus keep art for the few insiders, or if they intend to engage a larger public/audience. When we agree that your reason for existence as an artist or institution is that you engage an audience, it is your duty to involve that audience one way or another.
    There is no leading without followers. And if you do not engage with your followers there will soon be nobody to lead. One thing I learned from practising improvisational dance is that leading and following happen almost at the same time. And that flow arises when leading and following are almost happening at the same time.

  5. A case for tweet seats!

    You can’t lead if {new audiences} aren’t listening/comfortable. I love the Woolly Mammoth Theatre experiment — inviting three tweeters to a dress rehearsal. Seems like a great way to avoid the “distraction of others” problem.

    But look here – the artist objects: http://margyartgrrl.bo.lt/6bpmq

    Excepted from the Forbes article:

    While the theater considers its “Tweet Up” experiment as a step toward integrating Twitter into the theater experience and providing more openness with its artistic process, Grote thinks the move is too piecemeal and won’t benefit the play.

    “[Live-tweeting] needs to be integrated right from the conception,” he told the Washington Post, adding that his play “is written in a style [that] requires a certain degree of listening and concentration.”

    Grote says he won’t try to stop Woolly from pursuing its plans, but he may “unfollow” it during the Tweet Up experiment because, as he told the newspaper, “In the context of a new play…quick, shallow impressions…can be a bit delicate.”

    For its part, Woolly plans to follow through with its experiment. It told the Post that it would involve playwrights sooner in any future Tweet Up efforts.

  6. “The ongoing resistance to patron reviews, however, is a good example of how many arts organizations have routinely sought to tether the audience and diminish its role.”

    Ugh, yes, this. This drives me mad. If audience members have strong opinions–positive or negative–about a given work, they’re going to share those opinions. That’s just human nature, and technology has only amplified that. Hosting a blog where patrons can share their reviews seems like an AMAZING idea. At least this way, the organization can actually be a part of the conversation, good or bad. If it’s good, great! And if it’s bad, they have a centralized location where they can respond, share their own insights into the work, thank their loyal patrons for attending, and maybe take away some lessons. How is this not great news? How is this not far and away a huge improvement/benefit?

    But yeah, too many people want to control every single word uttered about their org. Too many people want to stifle the opinions of their patrons, even if those are totally valid opinions! (Let’s be real–not everything put on by every arts org is a winner.)

  7. @Margy Waller – I don’t know, I think that artist has a really valid point when he says that tweeting “needs to be integrated right from the conception.” I think it’s great to provide a venue where people feel comfortable, but I don’t think that means giving into every whim a few audience members may have. And this is coming from someone who is addicted to social media! And, actually, part of going to a performance is giving up a little bit of your comfort zone. You’re subjecting yourself to the vision of the artist(s) and being taken along for this ride they’ve crafted for you. If that ride includes space to tweet or whatever else, then sweet. But if it’s not designed to be an interactive piece in that way, I don’t see why it’s necessary to disrupt the original intentions because someone wants to post an update to the social network of their choice. I also don’t think the ability to tweet is what will make new audiences flock to theaters. Particularly considering fewer than 1 in 10 Americans even use Twitter to begin with–and fewer than that are actually avid tweeters.

    That being said, it would be awesome if more venues had Twitter walls or encouraged live-tweeting before/after a show, or during intermissions. I suspect it would add a really fun element to the live experience.

    • This thread is bumping into a pet issue of mine: how to listen to/care about/involve the audience more in the actual art-making process, without either giving up control of the art, or accidentally running a popularity contest instead of realizing some totally amazing vision. I don’t think it’s a balance anyone really knows how to strike yet, and what works for different people and organizations will, I think, vary. At least for me, when I’m blogging about this issue I wind up talking about Amanda Palmer a fair amount. Not sure what exactly that means for the rest of us, but fwiw she’s got good examples of doing stuff kinda like this without compromising her work.

  8. Diane, Great post. The most disturbing professional experience I’ve ever had was being forced by an ED to work with an NPO arts marketing organization that I’m resisting publishing their name. Most of our conversations went like this:
    Them: You will now do this marketing tactic that seems vaguely unethical.
    Me: That seems unethical.
    Them: No, that’s business.
    Me: But we’re a nonprofit.
    Them: But have to increase your earned revenue.
    Me: But that makes

  9. Diane, Great post. The most disturbing professional experience I’ve ever had was being forced by an ED to work with an NPO arts marketing organization that I’m resisting publishing their name. Most of our conversations went like this:
    Them: You will now do this marketing tactic that seems vaguely unethical.
    Me: That seems unethical
    Them: No, that’s business.
    Me: But we’re a nonprofit.
    Them: But you have to increase your earned revenue.
    Me: Um, but we deliver a public good, and your tactic will restrict access to much of the public.
    Them: No, you have a luxury product and you need the right consumers to be able to have a sustainable business model.
    Me (after being chewed out later): Er, I guess so.