But Do You REALLY Think It is Good For You?

I recently came to the realization that there may be an attitude out there about the arts which is nearly as detrimental as viewing them as elitist and intimidating.

The director of my division resigned so all the area coordinators recently met with administrator who would be essentially overseeing us until a replacement is hired.

The other two coordinators spoke at length about the challenges their areas faced. My turn came and I mentioned the difficulties geography and competition posed for us. One of the other coordinators told me that the solution was simple, if I could get people to come see one show they would come back for the others just like when many students came to take motorcycle safety, they decided to continue with digital media courses.

I was a little annoyed because I seem to constantly have to explain to people the Field of Dreams situation while once true, is not quite so valid any longer. I tried not to sound too exasperated while I pointed out there was a lot more competition for people’s time and income than there used to be.

I also pointed out that her example was a little flawed because motivations to take motorcycle safety and digital media differ. In her terms the only product I had to offer was different varities of motorcycle safety.

In retrospect, I wondered if I shouldn’t be at least grateful that she felt my performances were of a quality that people would naturally want to come back for more. Then I realized, she hasn’t really been to a performance in the last 10 years or so (and she lives on the far end of the theatre parking lot).

So then I am thinking she may just attribute all performances with a sort of mystique and power. This seemed okay because the arts are always trying to convince the public that the arts have value in their lives.

And that is when it hit me–that doesn’t do any good if people aren’t actually adding arts attendance to their lives!

It sort of reminded me of the Just Say No drug campaign of the 80s. Kids would shout “Just Say No” on command, but since that is as far as the campaign went, the kids didn’t internalize the concept and make it a part of their lives.

I am starting to think maybe I need to go back and look at all those surveys I have recently cited where there was a nice response among people saying they they felt the arts were an important part of their lives. I want to go back and compare the percentage of respondents to that question to the percentage of people who actually attended. (Taking a quick look back at my entry on an Urban Institute study, I get the impression they actually scrutinized that.)

To some extent, arts people only have themselves to blame because “the arts are good for you” is a major reason given when people don’t want music cut from the schools or don’t want funding cut for an organization. Certainly, these claims are usually accompanied by statistics showing things like how math scores improve for kids who take music.

On the other hand, sometimes arts people don’t back it up with evidence or are the worst purveyors of this attitude themselves. One of my predecessors in a job I have held told me the story of how she had the opportunity to have a great choreographer’s company perform at the theatre. Wondering if this person’s work might be beyond the local community, she asked around to gauge interest.

She was told how what a coup it would be to have the company, how wonderful to have the opportunity, etc. Dance people especially were quite enthused.

Performance came–dance community didn’t. When my predecessor asked the dance folks why they were so excited and yet didn’t attend, the answer was essentially that it was important for the public to see this choreographer’s works, but they personally weren’t interested.

So two lessons from this-

1) When you ask if people are interested, you gotta explicitly ask if they will show up.

2) If you find they are really more excited about other people seeing the show, you ought to revisit your cost/benefit ratio calculations.

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.


5 thoughts on “But Do You REALLY Think It is Good For You?”

  1. Great article Joe! I think you hit the nail on the head with some of the fundamental problems in contemporary arts research. I would even add to your discussion that it’s critical to find out why people say and/or believe what they do and how they came to that conclusion.

  2. Joe,

    Good stuff. You touch on two strings that are worth a bit more tugging.

    First: the challenge of asking people for their opinions and their future action is a tought nut not just for the arts, but for all human enterprise. Market researchers figured out long ago that what people say rarely matches what they’ve done or what they will do (they remember things incorrectly, they answer with the goal of impressing or ingratiating the surveyer, they commit to future action because they know they’re not accountable to actually take that action — ”sure, I’d buy a ticket for $75…as long as it’s a theoretical $75”). The methods to mediate these problems won’t be found in arts literature, but in consumer behavior literature.

    Second, the ”arts are good for us” argument is deeply rooted in our current system, and horribly patronizing and off-target. A great book on the subject is Joli Jensen’s *Is Art Good for Us?*, which I describe here:

    Keep nudging those good questions…

  3. Wow, yes, there’s alot to think about here. As a Mom and a singer, I come down solidly into “the arts ARE us” camp. Expressing oneself as an artist is the name of the game, and being inspired as a member of the audience is the other end of the equation. Both are important!

    The problem is that for the most part, the arts ARE NOT us. Used to be everyone sang, if you were going to hear singing, you had to sing. Otherwise, for instance, long trips with the family in carriges or covered wagons could make you go stir crazy. Everyone sang. Everyone played something, harmonica, violin, piano, just to make interesting sounds! (Same with lots of things, painting started out with painting the ancient temple or the barn, knitting, fixing mechanical things, lots of things that just needed to be done.)

    Singing it yourself, doing just about anything yourself, is no longer necessary and so we’ve lost our biggest link to “the arts ARE us” and that is … AMATEURS.

    Amateurs means you just do it because your parents taught you and/or you just love it. Amateur also means when you go to a concert of a real professional, you have a deep appreciation for their skill and artistry, because you’ve tried/are still working at it yourself! Amateur also means that it’s just part of your life.

    Nowadays, you have to make a conscious decision to BECOME A VIOLINIST. Nowadays, you have to make a conscious decision and commitment to LEARN HOW TO KNIT. Nowadays, you have to make a conscious decision …well, you get the idea.

    And we become amateurs (doers and/or lovers) of whatever our society values. Right now, our society does not value amateurs of any stripe.

    Case in point. My daughter attends a very expensive (Quaker) private school and is more of a scientist/writer/dancer/ likes to work with clay type of person, at age 13. She likes to sing, too, and has a nice voice, but is she is *not permitted to even audition* for the middle school musical. Why? Because if you are not in chorus (if you like clay better and choose it over chorus because of the schedule conflict) if you choose not to be in chorus for whatever reason, you may not audition for the middle school musical or be in any of the other school’s singing groups. Amateurs need not apply.

    Similarly, she once expressed an interest in field hockey. But in the same breath she talked herself out of it, because if you’re 13 at this school and don’t already know how to play field hockey, you can’t possibly be on a team, so you’re a loser and forget about it. No intramurals at this school. You’re a star athlete on a team (A or B team, duh!) or you don’t play at all. Amateurs need not apply.

    And it often happens at this school that some other 12 year olds are still up at 10:00 exhausted and in tears because their game went late and they had to get back to school on the bus, then get picked up from school by their parents, then get home, have dinner and, well it’s 10:00 and they’re exhausted but they’re still not finished their homework. (Take an instrument, you must be kidding!)(Go to a concert that night? Not possible for kids or parents!)

    When we start loving it again, and when we have music in our homes again, and when operas and concerts can come into our homes (simulcast on cable would be nice, I’d pay acutal real $5 – $10 for that but not $75), when kids and parents have actual real down time that cannot be filled by electronic media, or when we simply CHOOSE down time for our kids that cannot be filled by electronic media (HORRORS!), then maybe we’ll find a resurgence in the population of that dying breed, that truly endangered species …

    The Amateur.

  4. A couple of things about the business we are in: 1) 90% of everything that is offered at WAA or APAP, in other words, the arts “marketplace” is crap. 2) 90% of arts administrators can’t tell the difference between what is good and what is crap.

    That said, it is entirely possible to engage the public in intellegently purchasing tickets to arts events they will enjoy and will be happy to pay for. Once you have the ability to determine what is good and what is crap (and remember only 10% of us can do that), then the rest of the job is just marketing.

    Know your market and respond to the needs of your market, and you will be successful. I’ve worked in a lot of different markets, and learned to program each one individually. What works in New York might not work in Hawaii, so don’t listen to people from New York about programming! Listen to your customers and you will learn what they want. Program the good (not the crap) from the artists your audience wants, and you will be successful. This season so far, we are at 86% paid capacity. Not a bad record for an arts center. After all, it IS about butts in seats.

  5. Having been involved in arts programming and marketing for years (in the UK), I learned early on that you don’t ask around (even in a systematic way) what people want to see. You nearly always get the same situation – people don’t do what they say they will. I do still concept-test ideas (mostly theatre shows) with very targeted samples but you have to remember that the responses are very very soft. Often “No” is a more sure answer than “Yes” (you can establish that there isn’t much interest but it’s dangerous to think that a positive, even enthusiastic, response will result in people turning up). Research is vital but has to be interpreted very carefully. As another commenter says, people don’t even know what they’ve done in the past (I know this to be true having often asked people how many events they’ve attended and tracked it against their sales histories). They over-estimate how many times and how recently they’ve attended. When it comes to forecasting what they might do in the future, your “Lesson 1” is also nowhere near enough. A good place to start is to study existing data (what have people ACTUALLY done in the past) before asking what they might do if… Ultimately, you have to take a punt but there are ways of cutting the risks, provided you don’t expect too much from feedback, qualitative or quantitative. (But DON’T stop doing research!)


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