March 31, 2012

Good research isn’t about asking audiences what they want

There’s been a thoughtful discussion lately about whether arts organizations are leading or following their audiences, which they ought to be doing, and whether the two are actually opposites. But a sour note can be heard in that chorus on both sides of the debate: the idea that audience research is a tool for pandering. (Cue the Steve Jobs quote about consumers not knowing what they want.) There’s a better way to think about this.

As usual, some of the most constructive ideas in the conversation have come from Diane Ragsdale (top) and Nina Simon, both of whom see the lead/follow dualism as an oversimplification at best and a self-serving masquerade at worst. From their different vantage points, Ragsdale and Simon suggest that leading and following are necessary aspects of a healthy, mutually responsive relevance that is all too rare among today’s arts institutions.

Simon cites her friend Adam Lerner, head of the MCA Denver and the subject of an admiring New York Times profile a few weeks ago, who wrote in 2008 that art museums should become “less visitor-oriented” and that they’re (in Simon’s paraphrase) “misguidedly searching for direction from audiences.” The answers lie inside the organization, Lerner argued then, not outside: museums “need to look more carefully at themselves.”

I’ve heard a similar view from Martha Lavey, artistic director of the hugely successful Steppenwolf Theater in Chicago. She has no patience for the fashionable notion that the community should be consulted on artistic matters, at least at her theater (she acknowledges it makes sense for some other kinds of organizations). Lavey has argued — in harmony with Simon and Lerner, I think, and maybe Ragsdale on some level — that Steppenwolf’s job is to give people something that’s valuable to them but comes not from them but from an artistic impulse within the organization and the artists who work with it. Not from a “strategy,” and certainly not from a survey.

That’s the idea arts leaders have in mind when they quote Steve Jobs’s dictum that “It’s not the consumer’s job to know what they want” and the fact that Apple does no market research. (One of the commenters on Simon’s post sounds this familiar note.)

Except it’s not a fact. It’s one of the self-mythologizing semi-truths about Saint Steve. Apple during his tenure may have had a had a different relationship to consumer research than some companies, but it also had plenty of ways of understanding its customers and their experiences and needs, from user groups and support forums to surveys and “Apple Customer Pulse,” an online feedback panel the company launched about a year ago. It also has a market research department — sorry, Consumer Insights — with a budget we can only guess at. 

Even if we scale Apple way down to the world of art museums and theater companies, that’s far more audience research than most arts organizations have at their fingertips. ...

The more nuanced story lies in something else Jobs said, a line arts leaders aren’t so quick to quote. “We figure out what we want,” he told Fortune magazine, accent on the second ‘we.’ “And I think we’re pretty good at having the right discipline to think through whether a lot of other people are going to want it, too. That’s what we get paid to do.”

Which is a pretty good way of thinking about the tension in the arts between artistic vision (that “we” being analogous to the artistic team, programmers, or curators) and audience response. Yes, Jobs was designing from the gut, like any artistic director or visual artist worth his salt. But he understood that it wasn’t a foregone conclusion that the public would value what he and his team dreamed up, and that making that leap from inside to outside, from self-knowledge to audience engagement, isn’t a pleasant sideshow — it’s the whole point. Moreover, it’s the hard part.

You may argue that for-profit corporations and cultural nonprofits differ in some profound ways. But to me, the difference in this case is one of scale, not substance: the importance of that leap is the same in both cases.

And in both cases, the best way to make such a leap successfully is to understand your audience as well as, or better than, you expect them to understand you. Adam Lerner is right that art museums “need to look more carefully at themselves,” but wrong if he believes that conducting audience research is somehow anathema to that process. You can’t understand yourself in isolation or merely through reflection. Organizations, like the humans that make them up, are inherently social. You have to get outside your shell and talk to people — about themselves, but also about you. 

Research shouldn’t be about “searching for direction from audiences” or asking what they want to see or hear on your stage. It should be about trying to understand your organization and its artistic vision in relation to the people it serves, and on a foundation of empathy with the lives they lead, the cares they carry, and the songs and visions in their heads.

As another commenter on Simon’s post put it, “Adam [at MCA Denver] may not be canvasing visitors, but he does understand his community.” So does Lavey at Steppenwolf. And so did Jobs at Apple.

Granted, traditional research methods like surveys aren’t always the best ways to gain that relational self-understanding. That’s why anthropological methods like ethnography are becoming more important in arts research, and why we’re developing ways of bringing staff and audiences face to face in the research process and treating audiences like partners rather than “respondents.”

Meanwhile, it's time to stop demonizing “market research” and start redefining it. As Ragsdale observed in her post, when 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.” In other words, it’s about trying to sell them more of what we want to offer, rather than thinking about what we offer in light of who they are.



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