Exposing, Part II

Yesterday I gave some information about questions I asked my mother and sisters regarding their experience with the arts. Today I wanted to mention some insights the whole exercise gave me. Some of the lessons learned were just about my family, but the process got me thinking about the way arts organizations go about collecting information.

First of all, out of curiousity I looked up some birth order studies and was mildly amused to learn that as the first born, I am not supposed to be interested in the arts. Though the study also says that I am supposed to be interested in intellectual and cognitive pursuits and I would imagine the fact I am producing this type of blog bears that out.

In speaking with my mother, it was interesting to see that her experience was mirrored in the second section of “Leverage Lost…” that I cited last week. While she didn’t attend any performances until she was in college, the arts had a greater presence in her life via popular culture. I had nearly forgotten that Broadway show tunes once topped the pop charts. I think the last cast recording to ever make it to Top 40 radio was “One Night in Bangkok” from Chess back in the 80s.

I think because she and my father were teachers we benefitted from their impulse to educate and expose us to as many things as they could on a budget. Neither of my sisters really remember going to any of these places which seems strange to me because I remember so many details so clearly. (1st Broadway show-Peter Pan with Sandy Duncan when I was in 2nd grade.) My second sister I can understand because I had a five year head start on her and our parent’s separation when she was nine put a damper on other experiences. All these experiences apparently didn’t make an impression on my other’s sister’s memories. Though a value for such experiences certainly seems to have been instilled in her.

I have to say I was surprised by the fervor with which Sister #1 responded. I had emailed her with my questions whereas I phoned my mother and spoke face to face with Sister #2. Perhaps she took advantage of the additional time she was allowed to answer the questions and mulled over her answers to make them reflect her image of herself as many survey takers do.

Knowing her as I do, I am aware of how enthusiastic she is on certain subjects and how interested she is in new experiences so I really feel her responses are genuine. As I had mentioned yesterday, I never really spoke to my family about their experiences with the arts before. I wasn’t really aware this was how my sister felt and it came as a surprise to me.

What really surprised me though was the answers from Sister #2. Despite having grown up in a house where music was always being played, having been in high school musicals, having lived in and near NYC and possessing a larger disposable income than myself, my mother or Sister #1, Sister #2 has the lowest attendance and participation in the arts and places the lowest value on the experience. Her outlook provided me with some insight into some of the challenges arts organizations may face.

I knew she was often busy at work and didn’t have a lot of time to attend shows. I also knew those she did attend were at the invitation of friends or as a result of something her company set up to entertain clients. It was intriguing to some degree to learn that while attendance wasn’t something she would instigate on her own, she possessed an elitist view that only productions in NYC were worth seeing. I don’t quite know if living and working in New York City shaped her view, (It is oh so very true that denizens of NYC view themselves as the center of the world on many fronts), or if it is because that is the only place she has seen performances.

There are a number of very good theatres in her immediate area like the McCarter and State Theatre as well as museums and two symphony orchestras. She was vaguely aware that some organizations did exist, but even knowing that she would have to travel and pass less for her experience, she was dubious about the quality of performance she would receive. I wonder how many other people living in the Princeton area have the same view of their local arts organizations. Knowing this might inform a better marketing and PR strategy for these places.

The brief process of interviewing my family got me to thinking about the market surveying arts organizations do. I have both administered and taken surveys and been a member of focus groups. I know that when you survey you have to be careful about how you word questions and how your non-verbal cues can indicate how you want people to answer. It occurs to me though that in some cases you might get better answers by being less clinical and more personal.

Instead of asking people what the last show they saw was and how they would rate it on a scale from one to ten, it might be better to draw them out by having a conversation about their experiences growing up and then segue into how they felt about more recent attendance. It seems to me if the interviewer is sharing their own ancedotes, the interviewed will being to feel comfortable enough to open up and provide a deeper sense of their relationship with the arts than they would for a neutral bias survey or focus group.

Certainly, it would be a more labor intensive process to survey in this manner. But when it comes to investigating trends and attitudes, you might be able to derive a better sense of things by talking to 20 people for an hour about their childhood experiences than by asking 60 people to answer on a scale of “often, sometimes, infrequently and never.”

It seems (and I say all this without any empirical evidence to cite) that people will provide a more complete answer if they are in a conversational mode where they feel they have time to think and reflect on past experiences rather than faced by a person with a clipboard whose demeanor suggests they answer quickly so the next question can be asked.

I almost want to say that the most conducive atmosphere is akin to people meeting to chat over coffee where the interviewer isn’t so much asking questions as nudging conversations in certain directions. The real question then is then how to conduct such an interview? I don’t really have an answer.

It is easy to get people who are really interested to turn out for such an event, but all that does is give you answers from people who you know already like you and the type of thing you do. Making sure you aren’t alienating your current audience base is fine. What you really want to discover is more about the people who don’t know much about you and what you do and find a way to educate and attract some of them to your organization. It ain’t easy. Schools have a hard time doing this and they deal with people who are required to be there by law. Getting people who are intimidated or unfamiliar with the arts to sit down and talk to you over coffee could prove difficult.

I would say the only solution is to take it slowly and be sincere about it. Have a juice and cookies reception after a children’s show and use the topic of their children as a conversation starter slowly turning the subject to their experiences as kids vs. their current experience with the arts. Show that you sincerely want to know about them and want to find a way to make it easier. If word gets around that you care and are easy to speak to, people may be more willing to accept invitations to express themselves at slightly more formal meetings. They may even start attending performances on the friendly reputation alone.

This comes back to what I have written quite a few times before–learning about people’s expectations and making a sincere attempt to answer them is really the name of the game for this technological age. The process of gathering the information is time consuming, but technology provides the tools to store, track and then act upon the information in a manner that is specific to an individual.

About Joe Patti

I have been writing Butts in the Seats (BitS) on topics of arts and cultural administration since 2004 (yikes!). Given the ever evolving concerns facing the sector, I have yet to exhaust the available subject matter. In addition to BitS, I am a founding contributor to the ArtsHacker (artshacker.com) website where I focus on topics related to boards, law, governance, policy and practice.

I am also an evangelist for the effort to Build Public Will For Arts and Culture being helmed by Arts Midwest and the Metropolitan Group. (http://www.creatingconnection.org/about/)

My most recent role was as Executive Director of the Grand Opera House in Macon, GA.

Among the things I am most proud are having produced an opera in the Hawaiian language and a dance drama about Hawaii's snow goddess Poli'ahu while working as a Theater Manager in Hawaii. Though there are many more highlights than there is space here to list.


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