Big Data May Be En Vogue, Little Data Still Has Plenty To Offer

Apropos of my post yesterday about using big data to customize information to the interests of individuals in your community, I happened to come across an interview with Jamie Bennett who is chief of staff at the National Endowment for the Arts. (Or maybe it wasn’t coincidence and Big Data Big Brother conspired to bring it to my attention based on yesterday’s post!!!)

The interview is on a website without permalinks to its content so you may have to scroll down to February 27, 2012 or search for Jamie Bennett to find it.

One thing I realized upon reading Bennett’s interview is that I may not have been clear it is already possible to offer sophisticated interactions with patrons without access to Big Data. I had forgotten that Nicholas Hynter has the membership staff at the National Theatre in London email patrons and suggest that based on what the theatre has observed about them, the patron may want to skip the next show. Obviously, you need to have the staffing and resources to do this sort of thing, but it is certainly within reach.

Another emerging option is sites like Culture Craver, the site upon which Bennett’s interview appears. Only available in NYC at the moment and still in beta stages, Culture Craver, aims to do for arts and culture what Pandora does for music and suggest events that you might like based on comparing your history and stated preferences with those of others with similar tastes.

While the interview would naturally be oriented toward the types of situations in which services like Culture Craver might be useful, I have to admit to being surprised by an anecdote Bennett related about how self-segregating audiences can be. He mentioned that RoseLee Goldberg who runs the visual and performance art oriented Performa festival often features the same artists who appear at the theatre oriented Under the Radar festival.

(text broken into two blocks for reading ease)

She was asked to speak at the Public Theater about some of the artists that she had presented who were also Public Theater folks, and she did a poll of the audience, and said, “Who here is a visual arts person?” And there was nobody. And if you asked that same question about those artists at a Performa audience, it would be all visual arts people and there wouldn’t be any theater people. They’re consuming the same thing, and yet the audiences don’t cross-pollinate….

I’ve begun asking myself, “Why have we drawn that circle? Does it have meaning? Is there something that the arts all have in common with each other? Is painting part of the same cohort as theater? Is dance the same cohort as music?” I believe it is. I’m still working it out in my mind — to have a well-spoken philosophical rationale for this, but I believe it is something. I think creating a real community within that, and not saying, I’m a contemporary dance company and I have nothing to do with classical dance, let alone a museum, I think harms us, and if we saw ourselves as a larger community and worked together that way, I think we’d all benefit tremendously from it. So, figuring out a way to conceive of ourselves as a sector and operate as a sector and realize that more is more. If somebody comes to see something at another theater, that’s ultimately good for my theater, because it’s creating a new audience, it’s building an audience, it’s building an informed community.

Bennett doesn’t lay all the blame on audiences for not being more adventurous. Arts organizations are responsible for propagating these distinctions and communicating them to patrons in various ways. With all the surveys I have read about arts attendance, I don’t recall any findings that definitively observed a significant degree of inter-and intra-disciplinary self-segregation among arts organizations, but it doesn’t mean it isn’t happening or at least that audiences aren’t moving in this direction.

If it is the case, then services like Culture Craver, perhaps in the form of smart phone apps, might become increasingly valuable for arts organizations. Something that says, “hey you trusted us for 25 theatre performances, trust us when we say you’re likely to enjoy this dance piece” can help diversify audiences if they aren’t.

I am just thinking back to the post I did early last month about how members of Gen Y trust the online opinions of total strangers over that of family and friends when I wonder if this isn’t an area to which we should pay close attention.

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.


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