On Michael Kaiser and Engaging Audiences

Last week, Michael Kaiser wrote in The Huffington Post on Engaging Audiences. He suggested that the field’s recent focus on this topic was ironic, as it’s a well established part of arts organizations’ missions. Presuming the emphasis derives from loss of audiences, Michael asked why this is happening, urged a focus on older audiences as well as younger, and noted the importance of tailoring strategies to “audience types.”

It seems to me that Michael is right about one thing: what he calls “audience engagement” is undergoing a “resurgence” in the arts. But I don’t think what we’re seeing now is just a fashionable reinvention of an old concept. The old concept is embedded in Michael’s language of “target groups” and “audience segments” who are “visiting the arts.” This approach has the rapid monetizing of previous non-attenders as its bottom line.

By contrast, what I’m seeing through my work at EmcArts with organizations across the country is the emergence of largely new, and substantially innovative, approaches to how people participate in arts experiences, with arts professionals serving as mediators of those experiences. Indeed, those at the forefront of this movement no longer use worn phrases like “audience engagement.” Instead, they describe the pursuit of broader reciprocal relationships with community members – expressive relationships created through, and embodied in, art.

I can report that the majority of the over one hundred organizations we’ve worked with in our Innovation Labs, New Pathways for the Arts and other programs are in the process of rethinking the invitation they extend to their community members to take part in artistic experiences – moving beyond attendance alone. Many recognize that this means rethinking the core of what they present, as well as how they present it. They are reconsidering and opening up the modes of participation their organization enables, increasing the number of doorways through which different individuals can enter the uniquely compelling stories and images of art work. I see these new leaders casting aside ingrained assumptions and cultures that narrowed their thinking about participation, and insisting that all artistic decisions open up multiple opportunities for participation. The resulting momentum and excitement are tangible.

Studies based on the NEA’s 2008 SPPA indicate that three-quarters of U. S. citizens participate in the arts through attendance at events, personal creation and performance, or through electronic media. But only 35% do so through attendance at “benchmark” professional arts events. There is then a vast territory of opportunity awaiting us, a likely participant pool much larger than the old focus on ticket-buying audiences that has previously obsessed us and painted us into a corner of the country’s artistic life. This enormous disparity means that, in order to capitalize on the potential, we must fundamentally change our personal and organizational assumptions as well as our strategies.

Organizations as disparate as the Los Angeles Music Center (through Active Arts), the Saint Louis Shakespeare Festival (through Shake38), and STREB (through the Teen Action Club) have all done this. They’ve learned that the commitment which leads to new income (both earned and contributed) can be stimulated – on a large scale and across age groups – but only if they hold back old assumptions about monetization (as well as about artistic production). Instead, they focus on increasing their footprints in their communities, and create direct, passionately felt experiences of artmaking and participation that build expressive lives rather than just expose product.

Managers in the field make a mistake, I believe, if they frame new approaches to cultural participation as forms of marketing, so the pressure to monetize the new program (what used to drive strategy) often kicks in much too soon, giving little breathing space for the innovation to grow – or for the community to participate freely and creatively before being more narrowly treated as a revenue source.

This exploration of new approaches to arts participation is clearly an important wave of the future. What inhibits this enterprise field-wide is primarily attitudes and culture, but also the structure of financial support – it’s why we need shorter-term innovation capital like never before, if experiments and prototypes are to be afforded the space to succeed.

And Michael is surely right – these genuinely new approaches will not be successful if they are treated as a flavor of the week. They need to be a core part of our businesses. And they need to be a decisive break from the “audience engagement” of old.

  Dr. Hess San Diego


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