With technology accelerating change in cultural participation, arts professionals packed the Marines Memorial Theater October 24 for a beacon to navigate the shifting landscape. “A revolution is happening across the arts sector as the walls between professional and amateur, audience and artist, curator and spectator start to crumble.” wrote Kary Schulman of Grants for the Arts (GFTA) and Tere Romo of the San Francisco Foundation (TSFF) introducing the day-long Beyond Dyanamic Adaptability conference. The conference concluded activities of a four-year funding partnership of TSFF and GFTA supported by the Wallace Foundation to “encourage systemic and sustainable structural change in the relationships of Bay Area arts organizations to their audiences.”
As a speaker on what Flynn Center Artistic Director John Killacky declared his “dream panel” about “The Changing Nature of Cultural Participation” Josephine Ramirez of The James Irvine Foundation discussed the occurring shift, from a sit-back-and-be-told culture utilizing broadcasted one-way communication, to a making and doing culture requiring conversational two-way communication. This change exists at the heart of Getting in on the Act, Understanding Participatory Arts Practice, a new study commissioned by The James Irvine Foundation, conducted by WolfBrown. The consumption model is going away and the study mines “How can arts institutions adapt to this new environment? Is participatory practice contradictory to, or complementary to, a business model that relies on professional production and consumption? How can arts organizations enter this new territory without compromising their values or artistic ideals?” Ramirez revealed how the nature and extent of the audience involvement can be seen along a spectrum, stretching from receptive at one end to participatory at the other – from audience as spectator to audience as artist.
Also on the panel, Ben Cameron highlighted the paradigm shift from engagement to cultural participation. He noted how arts participation is exploding while audiences are diminishing, specifically with pro-am activity. Cameron challenged attendees, “Must we have a professional artist to intermediate a creative spiritual experience?” Dante Di Loreto, Glee Executive Producer, indicates that the professional artist is not a must, pointing to the “Gleek” video creating community as a model of participation. “Every single teenager’s bedroom is now a television studio.” notes Di Loreto.
Technology allowed a massive redistribution of knowledge with newspapers becoming multimedia companies, and with the multiplication of content creation from both traditional media as well as participating citizens. Cameron’s advice to the field: change management. He calls for arts organizations to put resources toward incremental change in order to innovate, and to deeply consider how they examine their institution’s practices. As a dramaturg, Cameron was taught to analyze, question and respond quickly and specifically, so he invites arts leaders to put on the institutional dramaturg hat in order to rethink current practices.
Responding quickly is also a trademark of Executive Director Nina Simon’s leadership at the Santa Cruz Museum of Art and History. “How can we change the timescales for implementation?” she asks. The Santa Cruz Museum of Art and History employs a suggestion board with Post-It notes. Ideas gleaned through the ongoing open call from visitors are then implemented in as little as 72 hours. Simon attributes the ability to be nimble in order to pilot something new immediately to have a large role in revitalizing the institution. Then decisions are made to either keep the program, tweak it or ditch it based on evaluation of impact. This process of identifying problems, piloting and user-testing reflects human-centered “design-thinking” made popular by IDEO’s Tim Brown.
“The explicit placing of the audience in the center is the shift we are seeing.” Simon said. She confidently states that serving the audience is her top priority, even before her allegiance to the artists.
During a later “Lightning Presentation” Beth Kanter, author of The Networked Nonprofit said “Get past your blind spot and listen. Have an open call. What is the expectation of the people formerly known as the audience?” Her presentation showcased “backseat tweets” as an example of giving people a voice, as well as Moms Rising, a group that doesn’t begin by broadcasting their own messages, but rather calls out to members for input. (It is worth noting that a recent panel at The Foundation Center, The Bold Italic’s Jennifer Maerz similarly discussed using public pitches to get expertise and ideas from outside the organization. They work regularly with IDEO to implement design thinking at their media company, successfully mixing online content with offline live events and engagement.) Asking better questions, really listening and actually implementing ideas from the audience ensures greater value and relevance in programs. Design, social media and user engagement strategy weave together the unique social architecture of the institution.
Experiments big and small come with failure, also part of incremental innovation, making crucial a good relationship with failure. Sean San Jose of Intersection for the Arts and Campo Santo understands. He comments how at Intersection for the Arts, engagement is the job, so the creators utilize an open process to make dialogue the intention from the start of planning. “Its all a failure because you’re trying to engage the whole world in real issues.” said San Jose at an afternoon fishbowl discussion titled “How can we invite audiences to become active collaborators?” For him, failure serves as a point of reference to go for more.
Power and the Participatory Ghetto
Regarding the difference between collaborating and participating with audiences, Simon asks where in the institution’s process collaboration is useful and how the audience can become a co-creator. It’s about giving power to the folks who aren’t necessarily the trained experts and offering a clarity and cohesion in the message to collaborate. San Jose maintains that people want to be seen and heard. He asks how professionals can make the gap thinner and thinner between who is performing and spectating. Sabrina Merlo from Maker Faire discussed how her event is truly built around getting audiences to change behavior. As an open source program, the DIY festival allows anyone to create their own Maker Faire by giving over the power, so people can take the idea and leverage it. “Makers aren’t coming at it with the egos the artists do.” said Merlo about giving power to the audience.
“How can we create an opportunity where its about a visitor inviting someone else?” asks Simon, whose museum built an advice booth in which anyone could become the advice giver or seeker. She challenges arts workers to be comfortable separating the distribution of power from those with expertise. Simon also noted how in science museums, the assumption about the scientist is that no one understands what the scientist did and the museum has to translate their work through exhibition content and design. However in museums working with artists, the assumption that no one should understand the artist is frowned upon and therefore a different attitude about how to build the engagement.
Finally with the discussion of power comes the participatory ghetto. If you are asking the audience to participate, particularly in the case of the museum, “Get it on the real wall.” asserted Simon. For the audience to be a collaborator, visibility and street cred matter and become the currency of value.
Synthesizing many of these ideas, a meaty centerpiece of the conference was WolfBrown’s new report, Making Sense of Audience Engagement presented by Alan Brown and Rebecca Ratzkin, which defines engagement as “A unifying philosophy bringing together marketing, education and artistic programming in common service of maximizing the impact on audience.” Through designing the before, during and after of the performance experience with interpretive assistance and curatorial insight, the presentation communicated that an institutions goal before the performance is to get people to a high level of anticipation, and after, to help audiences remember and memorialize experiences. Some of the discussed strategies included live introductions from stage, interactive interpretive activities, real-time interpretive assistance via digital devices, lightly facilitated post-performance discussions for processing and meaning making, scaling audience feedback and nurturing the citizen critic. The study also asks how one’s institution programs engagement for “the big middle” – the majority of audiences who want a little more than program notes. Re-imagining engagement for this major group will determine the success and relevance of the work.
Originally published in the December 2011 issue of In Dance.