Presumed Disappointing

Adam Thurman at The Mission Paradox made a great blog post yesterday pointing out that, unfortunately, when it comes to the question of whether they will enjoy an opportunity to interact with the arts, the default assumption many audience members hold is “no” until convinced otherwise.

“Most people, when given the option to attend a performing arts event, are more scared that the performance is going to be disappointing then they are excited that the performance is going to be good.”

He goes on to say:

“This is the thing we have to remember:

We are in the trust business.

Not the theatre business.

Not the museum business.

The trust business.

When you are dealing with a risk averse public the only way to get them to do a risky thing is by earning their trust.

How do you earn their trust?

By building a relationship with them.

My observation is that most of us in the arts are very good at putting up programming, but we aren’t good at building relationships.”

It put me in mind of an entry I did about three years ago where I cited an entry on Neill Roan’s old blog (oh why, oh why did you shut down that blog!), titled “How Audiences Use Information to Reduce Risk.”

In the entry I talked about the efforts I was going to inform people about performances since they often commented they hadn’t seen anything about the show. Reviewing the entry, I realize now that the problem we likely face is that people’s primary expectation is to receive notice in the newspaper or radio because that is where they traditionally have gotten the information. The problem is, people aren’t using those media in the same way they used to. Their expectations don’t align with their practice any longer.

In that entry I spoke of using electronic notifications, word of mouth and opinion leaders to help disseminate information about performances. One thing I missed that Adam speaks about is relationship building. It is true that people need to view the information you provide as credible, but they also need to believe that you will provide an enjoyable experience even if they end up less than thrilled about the performance.

Just last week Drew McManus cited a situation where the non-artistic elements of an evening combined with a partially disappointing/partially sublime artistic experience with the net effect being negative. Some of the non-artistic elements were entirely out of the arts organization’s control, others could have been ameliorated to some degree.

Certainly people aren’t coming for the parking and an easy ticket office experience. You gotta deliver the goods artistically. The relationship building comes when people know your artistic quality is pretty dependable and can trust that you will make an effort meet their needs and expectations and reduce problems that arise.

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 ( 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. (

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.


2 thoughts on “Presumed Disappointing”

  1. I had a good conversation with someone in the business about the non-artistic elements that are beyond an organizations control. At one point she asked “so why should they care, it’s not like you’re going to change the number of bathrooms for women anytime soon.”

    I agree, they won’t but the more it becomes an issue, the more likely it is that the organization (or the house owners if the orchestra doesn’t won the hall) will find the motivation to raise funds to make those changes.

    What strikes me in this conversation is how easy it is to lapse into apathetic positions. Yes, parking garages, variety of nearby restaurants, etc. are not always within an organization’s direct sphere of influence. But that doesn’t mean they are helpless either. If nothing else, this is a good example behind the value of having a VP level government affairs officer. But that’s a larger conversation.

  2. All good points.

    When I went to the concert that Drew cited* I think I went with a fairly open mind. I’d heard the orchestra in question play both very well and quite badly. If I had any preconceptions, it was the entirely racist and entirely wrong assumption that since Yuja Wang is chinese, she would probably perform in a technically impressive but cold and inexpressive manner.

    In the end, the orchestra played well in half the program, and Yuja demonstrated herself to be a very gifted musician. The concert was a positive experience but flawed experience. What made me angry was the apparently widely held assumption that nothing could or should be done to improve it.

    A lot of musicians took issue with my review. Knowing nothing of my musical training or experience, they told me that I was mistaken: the orchestra played well, and I was a hick to think otherwise.

    A hostility to constructive criticism will alienate any member of the audience who is thinking critically about it. I feel much better about taking a risk on something if I feel like it is ok for me to dislike it. The blind (and deaf) acceptance of mediocre performances is a symptom of an audience that isn’t really engaged at all.

    This is probably part of the reason that galleries and museums are growing their audiences at a time that we’re losing ours: they don’t tell the people what to like.

    *you can read my original post here:


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