High Quality Experience, But Not Fulfilling

I was reading about a recent Urban Institute study on attendance at cultural events in the Chicago Tribune today. Many of the results weren’t surprising–people go to live performances to socialize and go to museums to expand their knowledge.

What made me want to read the study more indepth was the report that “…attendees at music and dance performances, plays, and fairs were pleasantly surprised by the quality of the art.” Yet at the same time the article mentions that “…people who go to art museums, dance performances, concerts, plays, or arts and craft fairs find the experience less emotionally rewarding than they had presumed.”

I understand that quality of art and emotional reward can exist exclusively of each other, but the suggestion that people didn’t have high expectations of the quality and yet looked to have a larger emotional pay off didn’t quite make sense.

A short newspaper article can hardly explain all the intricacies explored in a 48 page report of course. Even though the article warns that the report’s author, Francie Ostrower, forms no opinions about why there is no emotional reward, I had my own theory.

My theory being-People view live performance as high art, full of meaning and power. The report of the performance exceeding expected quality is actually an expression of relief at understanding what is going on. However, there is an assumption that if one comprehends the work, one will be enriched with the meaning and power of high art. Walking out with out a profound understanding of the nature of the universe results in an emotional let down.

But that is just the theory with which I started.

In the process of reading the report-The Diversity of Cultural Participation, I picked up some other interesting tidbits.

Interestingly, many people did not go to cultural events that they say they find very enjoyable…Many people who said that they most enjoy dance had not gone to a dance performance during the previous 12 months. The same was true for plays and concerts. On the other hand, this was far less common among those who most enjoyed museums and galleries.12 These findings suggest it is easier for people to attend certain types of cultural events than others…(e.g. because museums do not require advance tickets)

-“Frequent attendees are likely to be civically engaged.” People who volunteer, go to church, belong to associations, vote.

-“Frequent attendees are more likely to donate” Not really surprising.

“Frequent attendees were more likely to have gone to multiple types of events and to have attended each type of cultural event. Thus, frequent attendance at cultural events is associated with more varied attendance, indicating that multiple art forms would benefit from increases in overall arts attendance.”

Don’t know if this result implies that it would be beneficial for organizations to pool their resources and perform at a central location thereby offering the public variety at a familiar location. Other results of the surveys show the people who attend plays are more likely to attend dance, live music, and museums/galleries.

Among the reasons people attended the arts were socialization (it will probably come as no surprise to learn that the survey found people most often attend in groups), wish to experience high quality art, gain knowledge, support a local organization, learn something about ones culture and to have an emotionally rewarding experience.

Interestingly, the more frequent a person attended, the more reasons they stated for attending.

“Frequent attendees also cited a greater number of strong motivations for attending cultural events during the past 12 months. On average, they cited 3.5 major reasons, compared with 2.6 major reasons given by moderate attendees, and 2.2 among infrequent attendees.26 This strongly suggests that frequent attendees’ active engagement in the arts is driven by the very multiplicity and variety of positive experiences they derive from the arts.”

It would seem then that whatever approach one takes in marketing and advertising performances is likely to appeal to one of the motivators for a frequent attendee. Of course, if a competitor offers a similar product in a way that appeals to more of these criteria, you may end up back on square one.

According to the report, attendance at different event types is strongly motivated by the aforementioned reasons in varying ratios so the elements that promotions highlight must change as well.

Minding your audience surveys is very important:

“Interestingly, even substantial percentages of those who expressed a negative judgment about some aspect of their experience said they would attend a similar event again.”

So you get a chance to make things better the next time around. However, there are some deal-breakers right from the beginning-

“The two negative experiences most likely to result in respondents saying they would not attend again were not liking the venue and not having an enjoyable social occasion.”

In regard to the whole emotional reward question, I think the way the Chicago Trib article was written somewhat overstated it as a problem. According to the report, people who expected to get a rewarding experience, got it. In fact, pretty much everyone got what they came for:

two-thirds of those who said that a major motivation for attending was to experience high-quality art strongly agreed that the artistic quality of the event was high. Likewise, most (56 percent or more) who were strongly motivated by a desire for an enjoyable social occasion strongly agreed that they had one; most who were strongly motivated by a desire for an emotionally rewarding experience
strongly agreed that they had one; and most who strongly wanted to learn something new strongly agreed that they did learn something. And almost all who did not strongly agree, agreed.

It made me wonder if this was another piece of evidence for the suspicion that the plethora of standing ovations today are a result of people convincing themselves they got what they paid for.

There were some variations by event type though that need consideration by arts administrators.

“Fifty-seven percent of those who attended a play said a major reason they went was that they thought it would be emotionally rewarding–but only 43 percent strongly agreed that it was.

Forty-six percent of those attending music performances said a major reason was that they thought it would be emotionally rewarding–but only 37 percent strongly agreed that it was.”

It was in terms of high quality that numbers went the other way, few people entered performance halls expecting high quality and a greater number exited feeling they had experienced it.

Since it is tough to know if the people who said they didn’t have an emotionally satisfying experience were some of the same people who had a quality experience, I can’t say if my hypothesis (which, granted was more of a semi-educated suspicion) holds any water. (Though the percentage of change in attitude on both topics is quite close.)

As poor a job as a newspaper article can do summarizing a 48 page report, my blog entry is hardly an improved transmission of all the valuable info (and I haven’t tried to be.) Give it a read! (Especially since the meat of it is only 27 pages long.)

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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