Intersection of Artist And Audience Engagement

Via Andrew Taylor’s Twitter feed last week, I became aware of an entry on Nina Simon’s Museum 2.0 blog about use of space to engage arts attendees in different ways. What was really interesting about the entry was the conflict of views held by Nina, the Executive Director of The Museum of Art & History in Santa Cruz and one of the artists being exhibited in the museum’s Creativity Lounge about whether the lounge activities were contributing or detracting from the exhibit.

I appreciate that the artist came to realize that the lounge was actually contributing to people’s enjoyment of her work, but what I really loved was that the theoretical conversation about the purpose and role of a museum and the experience visitors should be having was actually being played out in practice. It is easy to talk about audience engagement activities in the abstract and project the wonderful benefits that will ideally be realized. Reality challenges that when an artist feels that the grand experiment is leading to their work not being taken seriously.

Granted, artists’ vision being compromised is nothing new. Historically other artists, administrators, producers, donors and patrons have all contributed to undermining artistic expression. That’s no excuse not to think about the impact of our decisions as we take up the task of trying to engage our patrons.

One of the big debates now is over the place of social media in live performances. Do you allow people to update their Twitter and Facebook posts during a show or do you try to suppress it. If people are engaged and are telling their friends about how much they enjoy the experience, that is a plus. If the glow and activity is distracting performers and audience members that is a bad thing. If people are splitting their attention between the performance and texting, that can be a negative as well.

The fact that back in the day people spoke and moved about during Shakespeare’s plays and Mozart’s concerts is often cited as an argument against the current restrictive nature inherent to live performances.

What isn’t often mentioned is that Shakespeare’s actors didn’t spend 8 hours or more a day for 4-6 weeks rehearsing for the show. I suspect Mozart’s musicians didn’t all invest hours a day from the time they were 8 years old practicing for the chance to compete against others of the same experience for a single seat on an orchestra with whom they would spend additional hours.

High demands are placed on artists these days and they want to be taken seriously for what they are bringing. When they see something happening that seems to undermine that, it is understandable that they be a little skeptical and wary.

One thing I take away from Simon’s post is the need to execute some engagement programs in as careful and deliberate a manner as the design of a performance or piece of art. When the program experience intersects with the art experience, you can’t just say, lets try this and see how people like it in the same way you might try out different ad campaigns to see which approach might be most effective.

Simon’s Creativity Lounge could have fallen flat and been just awful had the environment not been carefully considered. It is clear from her posts and responses in the comments section that it was.

For me this post was very timely because I am immersed in discussions about renovations to our facility. Part of the plans include razing and moving the ticket office and adding a concessions area. We have the opportunity to change the environment in the front of the theatre to one that has a more welcoming vibe through changes in lighting, landscaping and seating design. The factors we need to consider are just starting to percolate to the front of my brain.

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.


1 thought on “Intersection of Artist And Audience Engagement”

  1. I also was very intrigued by Nina Simon’s post this week regarding her Creativity Lounge. I have followed her work closely and am a huge fan of her participatory design approach. As director of audience engagement at Pacific Symphony, it was my job to think about participatory design, from pre- and post- concert events to new concert formats to social media engagement. This is where the work needs to be done in our orchestras and other performing arts organizations. This work is no longer a nice perk for our patrons, it is required and expected by the next generation of audiences. And, as Nina Simon beautifully exemplifies, audience engagement should be carefully crafted and designed.

    Going beyond making the venue a little more comfortable (which is of course important), I strive to take engagement one step further and ask myself, “Am I helping the audience to be more musically curious?” As a field, we have had information-based program notes and talking points from stage that feel more like an academic lecture for far too long. The reason why performing arts organizations have continued this practice is because it is easy – hire a program note writer and share a bit about Beethoven’s biographical past from stage. What is much harder is to find really good questions that create an entry point into the work of art for the concert-goer. I want to help people think about the choices a composer makes, so that they can have a more curious mind when listening to a piece of music for the first time or the hundredth time.


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