The rap on research for the arts, museums, and informal sciences

January 10, 2014

Roundtable: Whose needs and wants?

My whole crew has been talking about the recent blog posts by Nina Simon, Diane Ragsdale, and Doug Borwick on the distinction between the needs and wants of arts audiences — and whether it’s really arts administrators and leaders who are doing the needing and wanting. I thought we’d share the conversation we’ve been having among ourselves over email. If this format works, we’ll make it a regular type of post on this blog. And we hope you join these “skull sessions” via comments and even a guest post or two.

Sharisse Butler started the ball rolling by telling my colleagues that she loved Borwick’s post:

It articulates so well my growing concerns about the paternalistic assumptions made by cultural organizations about the needs of the people and communities they aim to serve. Remember [our colleague] Nnenna’s comments about the importance of knowing the needs of a community from the inside, and the example I shared about how a certain citizen science program expects everyone to become wildlife biologists in their spare time? 

My favorite line from Doug’s post: “Giving people what they need rather than what they want is a form of deep respect, if that is indeed what we are doing. If we are simply giving them what we want to give, that is profound disrespect. In order to distinguish the difference, we need to reframe our own perspective and get to know them.”

To which Karlene Hanko added:

I was struck by this point: “The temptation to label what we want them to need as needs is a nearly insurmountable one.” (My emphasis.) This seems to be the heart of the problem. Arts organizations wholeheartedly believe in the value of the arts, and of their artistic product in particular, and it’s easy to project those values onto their communities and confuse what they offer with what the communities need.

Karlene knows about projection, being a social psychologist. Sharisse wrote back that she believes people do ‘need’ the arts in some general sense, and that it makes sense to think of culture as a ‘merit good’ like public health or other social goods (something Sarah Lee and I mention in our soon-to-be-released whitepaper for the Cultural Data Project). But, Sharisse noted, there’s a big temptation to use that general sense of value to try to justify specific interventions or expect certain responses in our communities.

Then Chloe Chittick Patton, just before heading out on maternity leave, reminded us that we’re also talking about ourselves:

I'd just throw out there that we arts researchers aren't immune to this same temptation. It's not only arts orgs that can project their own values or assumptions as the "needs" of the community.  We have to step carefully around that trap ourselves, especially during the interpretation stages of our projects.

So here’s to humility in the arts — including arts research. The idea that we always know what our audiences and communities ‘really’ need or ‘really’ mean is paternalistic. If we can be more about sharing what excites us and less about purveying lofty, ‘necessary’ experiences to those who lack and ‘need’ them, we’ll win more hearts and minds…and probably have more fun. 

For me, the concept that Simon, Ragsdale, and Borwick are all getting at — and the thread that can connect needs and wants — is empathy. If we think of the relationship between arts organizations and their audiences or communities like a friendship or some other personal, one-on-one relationship (a romance, even a one-night stand), then we don’t have to choose between binaries like “give ’em what they want” or “give ’em what they ought to want.” Instead we have to (as Ragsdale and Borwick point out) get to know them. We have to credit who they are and how they see themselves and see the world and see you, and try to negotiate some kind of mutually fulfilling connection...all while remaining authentically ourselves.

It ain’t easy. But only after trying all that — after taking the risks of intimacy and empathy — can we legitimately say, "Well, it just didn’t work out. We weren’t right for each other." (No arts organization can be right for everyone.)

If it does work out, though, a whole range of possibilities opens up.  We can surprise them one day with something they didn’t know they needed and didn’t think they were ready for, and the next week delight them by giving them exactly what they wished for. Just as we would love to do for a friend or loved one.

Okay, I’m getting sappy in my old age. It’s great to be back in the blogosphere with you. Please chime in below. And stay tuned next week for Sharisse Butler’s different take on Borwick’s post.

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Categories: Research issues, Roundtables, State of the arts
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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. ...

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Categories: Arts marketing, Museums, Performing arts, Research issues, State of the arts, Visual art
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March 21, 2011

Nastygram from the NY Times on visitor research

Maybe the Times arts critics have it in for the Brooklyn Museum. Or maybe they just don’t believe museum curators should get to know the audiences they’re creating exhibitions for. Then again, some museums don’t believe that either, which is why “front end” evaluation is often a botched job.

So I tried not to get defensive when I read this paragraph in art critic Ken Johnson’s review of Brooklyn’s new show on Plains Indian tipis.

Beyond some basic historical context, the exhibition offers no revelatory perspective on its contents. That might be partly because, as the organizers, Nancy B. Rosoff and Susan Kennedy Zeller (both Brooklyn Museum curators) point out in their catalog preface, part of the planning process involved focus groups and visitor surveys “to determine the level of visitor interest in and knowledge of the tepee and Plains culture.” They also invited a team of American Indian scholars, artists and tribal members to vet their plans. The result is an exhibition that speaks down to its audience, assuming a low level of sophistication, and that does as little as possible to offend or stir controversy.

On one level, this is the familiar highbrow take on visitor studies: If you ask the public what they want from an arts or culture experience, you’re doomed from the get-go. Focus groups yield lowest-common-denominator thinking, which should have no place in planning encounters with the great or challenging or profound. The museum should exercise its cultural authority and decide what visitors need to see and learn, without getting sidetracked by what they want.

But when you gather museum-goers in a focus group or ask them questions on a survey, do they really tell you, “I want this exhibition to talk down to me. I want the interpretation of objects to be bland and inoffensive”?

Of course not. The real issue here is what kinds of questions the museum asks and how it understands — and makes use of — the answers. I hasten to add that I haven’t seen the exhibition yet, and I may not agree with Johnson’s that it is condescending or bland. (From what I’ve been able to see online, it looks promising.) ...

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Categories: Accountability, History museums, Museums, Research issues, Visitor experience, Visual art
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August 01, 2010

Nudging the visitor research field to think more about [fill in the blank]

Sarah and I were in Phoenix these last few days for the Visitor Studies Association conference, where the debates ran well into the night over drinks. At the “marketplace” session on Thursday, we posed a question to our fellow attendees. Here‘s the data we collected…and an invitation to add your own.

Phoenix was hot, both meteorologically and politically. But in the cool confines of the Wyndham, we set up our table (see photos, a first for the firm) next door to our friends from Randi Korn & Associates. I scrawled this question on a flip chart:

“In your humble opinion, what should the visitor studies field be thinking more about?”

As people stopped by, Sarah and I invited them to write short responses on another pad. Here’s what we got. I‘ve re-ordered the responses to group and link the ideas, but left the wording verbatim.

The visitor studies field should be thinking more about…

  • Visitor studies as a tool for organizational change → need to work with CEOs

  • Accessing boards

  • Influence

  • Organizational culture

This was a frequent theme at the conference this year. Museum evaluators and other visitor researchers naturally want their work to make a difference to the institutions they inhabit (or work with as consultants). And they’re thinking big about visitors, impacts, values, and effectiveness — thinking in ways that could really help those organizations. But the fact is that most trustees and museum directors, not to mention many museum and informal learning professionals in other disciplines and departments, are kept at a distance from visitor studies because of institutional hierarchies, silos, and communication dynamics. So the field feels a little stymied, and its members are asking themselves what they should be doing to educate their colleagues and better communicate the value of their work. (Note this year’s conference theme: understanding the public value of visitor studies.) ...

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Categories: Assessment, Conferences, Learning, Metrics, Museums, Research issues, Visitor experience
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May 03, 2010

Classical music evolution and revolution: our Culturelab talk

Arts researcher Alan Brown invited a small posse of international arts consultants to Chicago for a three-day meeting about how we can help the field. Friday featured a whirlwind seminar on “emerging practices,” with ten presentations and lots of Q&A with the funders, arts leaders, academics, and students around the table. Here’s what Cheryl and I tossed into the ring.

I’m eager to tell you more about Culturelab and our newfound colleagues in this experiment, which will be based at the University of Chicago’s Cultural Policy Center. But for now, I’ll recap my presentation with Cheryl at the Friday session.

Maybe because we’d just hosted a conversation with Greg Sandow here the previous week, we chose to talk about how classical music is changing and how the "institutional" side of the classical business can learn from what’s going on on the “grassroots” side. As many of you know, my thinking on this subject is deeply influenced by Greg’s, and some of his suggestions were instrumental (pardon the pun) as we put this together last week.

Mostly, we showed pictures, starting with these two. Neither depicts your grandmother’s classical concert, but they depart from the old norms in two very different directions, one staying “uptown,” one heading “downtown.”

That’s Sigourney Weaver in the foreground, helping narrate a concert of flight-themed works by the Little Orchestra Society at Lincoln Center last week, with projections on a screen behind the musicians.

And that's Hilary Hahn playing with singer-songwriter Josh Ritter at a CD-release party at a club on the Lower East Side two years ago. (The CD in question, by the way, was Sibelius and Schoenberg, not crossover.)

Then, building this diagram from left to right, I showed examples of five different ways in which the presentation of classical music is shifting: ...

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Categories: Arts participation, Classical music, Participatory engagement and co-creation, Performing arts, Research issues, State of the arts
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January 21, 2010

The truth doesn't have to hurt

An Onion headline caught my eye because it jokes about something close to home: the self-interest at the heart of many institutions’ audience research efforts.

I do empathize with the joke at the core of the article, from back in September, “University Of Illinois Researchers Find Link Between Attending University Of Illinois, Receiving Solid Education At Great Price.” Isn’t that the dream that everyone has for the audience research projects they fund or lead? How could an organization go into audience research not hoping that it emerges with a report validating its worth and proving its indispensability in stark black and white (or better yet, colorful graphs and charts)? 

(On a related note, check out a post that my colleague Cheryl wrote on advocacy vs. empiricism. She could have used the same Onion headline.)

For the people within institutions who are responsible for research, hesitation and nervous anticipation about what the study will uncover are natural. What if the report highlights the areas in which we’re most vulnerable as an organization? Areas where we fall short? Or initiatives that have cost a lot of money but haven’t yet had a measurable impact on my audience or mission? Am I supposed to feel proud to share findings like those? How will I get funders and board members to trust my decisions and open up their wallets to me after research findings like that?

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Categories: Performing arts, Research findings, Research issues, Strategy and strategic planning
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January 15, 2010

Say it ain’t so, statistician

I’m just getting to a recent book about the buying and selling of scientific “truth,” and it’s enough to make a grown researcher cry. Any lessons for us in the culture and higher ed crowd?

Unfortunately, yes. Doubt is Their Product: How Industry's Assault on Science Threatens Your Health by David Michaels, an epidemiologist who last month became Obama’s OSHA chief, is an infuriating look at big industry’s manipulation of scientific evidence to derail or delay safety regulations. Think cigarettes, lead, asbestos, or remember Silkwood and Erin Brockovich.

The book’s title refers to an infamous 1969 memo from a Brown & Williamson tobacco executive who wrote that, "Doubt is our product, since it is the best means of competing with the ‘body of fact’ that exists in the mind of the general public. It is also the means of establishing a controversy."

The companies and their mercenary scientific henchmen didn’t need to work too hard to find uncertainties to exploit, since doubt and uncertainty are built into the scientific method. (The physicist Richard Feynman called doubt the essence of science.) Real science is about disproving hypotheses, and there are always outlier data, competing explanations, and marginal numbers requiring interpretation. Research is supposed to be empirical and objective, but deciding what counts as knowledge – the process of scientific consensus-building by which we decide what it is we know – is messy and human.

Why does this hit home for us researchers in the arts and education? Well, the science we do is social science, but the statistical and interpretive questions are similar. The advocacy impulse in our world may be socially positive, but it’s still an advocacy impulse and has to be kept from influencing our empirical findings about how audiences think, feel, and act.

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Categories: Advocacy, General, Higher ed, Museums, Performing arts, Research issues, Survey research
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Based in Chicago with an office in Boston, we help museums, performing arts organizations, and informal science institutions take a fresh look at their audiences and discover new ways to deepen the connection and broaden participation. More »

About this Blog

Asking Audiences explores the fast-changing landscape in which arts and cultural organizations meet their public. What does relevance look like today? More »



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