Stuff To Ponder: Surveying The Whole Person

Two thought provoking articles about surveying popped up on my computer today. While you may not think surveying is terribly exciting, I encourage you to read on. I promise there is no talk of statistical analysis.

The first I found on the Createquity blog where Crystal Wallis recounts how the North Carolina Arts Council turned to folklorists from the North Carolina Folklife Institute to help establish an arts council in one of the counties. Once Wallis explained the reason the state arts council tapped the folklorists, it made perfect sense to include them. Then I started wondering why more surveys don’t involve folklorists.

Folklorists, as it happens, are some of the best trained interviewers out there. They also have a particular advantage when it comes to arts research: folklorists are trained to seek out and recognize creativity in all forms, especially that which comes from people who don’t consider themselves “artists.”

From all accounts, it looks like the folklorists achieved excellent penetration into all corners of the community, including many niche populations that revealed the diverse historic and present influences in daily life. They didn’t just identify these elements in the community, but spoke with them as well.

Wayne Martin, Senior Program Director for Community Arts Development at the North Carolina Arts Council, explains the benefits that came from using folklorists in this project.

* Authenticity

“By having folklorists trained in interviewing, we got some really eloquent statements that we were able to quote exactly. The results of the research were in the words of residents, which was a different tone than when other consultants would come in and write about a place. We were confident that the assets they reported on were valued by those in the community, lending an air of authenticity and connection we hadn’t had from other reports.”

Martin’s words came back to me when I read the next article on Asking Audiences blog. Peter Linett talks about a New York Times piece criticizing a Brooklyn Museum exhibit on Plains Indian tipis for being bland, blaming the use of focus groups and visitor surveys in the planning process.

Linett addresses the problem most arts organizations face when asking audiences about future programming. Programming per popular acclamation of committee results in something that is uninspiring to everyone. Foregoing feedback entirely risks appearing highbrow and elitist. Because people are often at a loss to offer suggestions and questions on topics they know nothing about, the best intentions to avoid confusing complexity and condescending simplicity result in a middle of the road product in which “you can sense the oversimplifications even if you don’t know enough to say exactly what they are, and you can feel the flat, pedantic tone.” While Linett makes this observation in term of museum exhibitions, I am sure you can think of similar examples in other disciplines.

Linett identifies a likely source of the problem. (emphasis his)

But that’s because we’re starting with a narrowly cognitive, educative purpose in mind. We’re interested in what visitors know about tipis rather than (for example) what they feel, what they wish, what they fear, what they find beautiful, what they find sad. We’re looking at a single, isolated aspect of human connection to the material. It’s not necessarily the most interesting aspect, but it’s the one that museums, as Enlightenment institutions, have traditionally cared about most.

What kinds of questions would we ask if we cared just as much about emotional, spiritual, social, ethical, imaginative, and physical connections to that material? How would we start a conversation with our audiences about those kinds of engagement…

Upon reading this last bit, I was struck that this was what the North Carolina folklorists were asking of those they surveyed — or at least these elements were present within the answers they were recording. The greater degree of authenticity Wayne Martin observed in the survey results was likely due in part to answers that reflected these aspects of the interviewees’ connections with arts and the idea of a county arts council.

Surveying on an emotional rather than an intellectual level makes a lot of sense. People react to art and even the idea of the arts on a visceral level that they can have difficulty verbalizing. Surveying factual information isn’t going to help elicit a truly valuable response because people often don’t know why they do or don’t like art.

At least once a day when I am reading about arts topics in a newspaper article or a blog, there will be a comment that says “as long as no tax money is used for it…” and/or “art(ists) should support themselves.” I suspect these phrases are just convenient ways for people to get past the fact they don’t really know how to discuss how they feel about the arts. Certainly this inability is shared by those who want to offer praise as well. Asking Linett’s questions about what people felt, feared, admired and pitied might bring more sophisticated answers and avoid that question all performing artists fear–“How did they memorize all those words/steps/notes.”

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. (

I am currently the 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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2 thoughts on “Stuff To Ponder: Surveying The Whole Person”

  1. Glad you enjoyed the article! You bring up a good point about asking people how they feel . . . Oftentimes, an audience doesn’t know exactly what they want, but they know how they want to feel about it, or after it. It’s a difficult balance between artistic innovation and incorporating feedback from audiences, but I think that audience engagement is something that can help bridge that gap. Also, props to the tipi exhibition. It was an experiment, and not all experiments succeed. Now we know the pitfalls and we can work on avoiding them in the future. Their next venture into audience-curated shows will stand on the shoulders of this one.

    • Crystal-

      Thanks for the comment. I really enjoyed the piece on the use of folklorists (obviously). Are you familiar with the tipi exhibition? The way I read it, the pre-exhibition survey process isn’t new or uncommon. Did the museum do something a little more experimental? Or was the process new to them?


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