High Quality Experience, But Not Fulfilling

I was reading about a recent Urban Institute study on attendance at cultural events in the Chicago Tribune today. Many of the results weren’t surprising–people go to live performances to socialize and go to museums to expand their knowledge.

What made me want to read the study more indepth was the report that “…attendees at music and dance performances, plays, and fairs were pleasantly surprised by the quality of the art.” Yet at the same time the article mentions that “…people who go to art museums, dance performances, concerts, plays, or arts and craft fairs find the experience less emotionally rewarding than they had presumed.”

I understand that quality of art and emotional reward can exist exclusively of each other, but the suggestion that people didn’t have high expectations of the quality and yet looked to have a larger emotional pay off didn’t quite make sense.

A short newspaper article can hardly explain all the intricacies explored in a 48 page report of course. Even though the article warns that the report’s author, Francie Ostrower, forms no opinions about why there is no emotional reward, I had my own theory.

My theory being-People view live performance as high art, full of meaning and power. The report of the performance exceeding expected quality is actually an expression of relief at understanding what is going on. However, there is an assumption that if one comprehends the work, one will be enriched with the meaning and power of high art. Walking out with out a profound understanding of the nature of the universe results in an emotional let down.

But that is just the theory with which I started.

In the process of reading the report-The Diversity of Cultural Participation, I picked up some other interesting tidbits.

Interestingly, many people did not go to cultural events that they say they find very enjoyable…Many people who said that they most enjoy dance had not gone to a dance performance during the previous 12 months. The same was true for plays and concerts. On the other hand, this was far less common among those who most enjoyed museums and galleries.12 These findings suggest it is easier for people to attend certain types of cultural events than others…(e.g. because museums do not require advance tickets)

-“Frequent attendees are likely to be civically engaged.” People who volunteer, go to church, belong to associations, vote.

-“Frequent attendees are more likely to donate” Not really surprising.

“Frequent attendees were more likely to have gone to multiple types of events and to have attended each type of cultural event. Thus, frequent attendance at cultural events is associated with more varied attendance, indicating that multiple art forms would benefit from increases in overall arts attendance.”

Don’t know if this result implies that it would be beneficial for organizations to pool their resources and perform at a central location thereby offering the public variety at a familiar location. Other results of the surveys show the people who attend plays are more likely to attend dance, live music, and museums/galleries.

Among the reasons people attended the arts were socialization (it will probably come as no surprise to learn that the survey found people most often attend in groups), wish to experience high quality art, gain knowledge, support a local organization, learn something about ones culture and to have an emotionally rewarding experience.

Interestingly, the more frequent a person attended, the more reasons they stated for attending.

“Frequent attendees also cited a greater number of strong motivations for attending cultural events during the past 12 months. On average, they cited 3.5 major reasons, compared with 2.6 major reasons given by moderate attendees, and 2.2 among infrequent attendees.26 This strongly suggests that frequent attendees’ active engagement in the arts is driven by the very multiplicity and variety of positive experiences they derive from the arts.”

It would seem then that whatever approach one takes in marketing and advertising performances is likely to appeal to one of the motivators for a frequent attendee. Of course, if a competitor offers a similar product in a way that appeals to more of these criteria, you may end up back on square one.

According to the report, attendance at different event types is strongly motivated by the aforementioned reasons in varying ratios so the elements that promotions highlight must change as well.

Minding your audience surveys is very important:

“Interestingly, even substantial percentages of those who expressed a negative judgment about some aspect of their experience said they would attend a similar event again.”

So you get a chance to make things better the next time around. However, there are some deal-breakers right from the beginning-

“The two negative experiences most likely to result in respondents saying they would not attend again were not liking the venue and not having an enjoyable social occasion.”

In regard to the whole emotional reward question, I think the way the Chicago Trib article was written somewhat overstated it as a problem. According to the report, people who expected to get a rewarding experience, got it. In fact, pretty much everyone got what they came for:

two-thirds of those who said that a major motivation for attending was to experience high-quality art strongly agreed that the artistic quality of the event was high. Likewise, most (56 percent or more) who were strongly motivated by a desire for an enjoyable social occasion strongly agreed that they had one; most who were strongly motivated by a desire for an emotionally rewarding experience
strongly agreed that they had one; and most who strongly wanted to learn something new strongly agreed that they did learn something. And almost all who did not strongly agree, agreed.

It made me wonder if this was another piece of evidence for the suspicion that the plethora of standing ovations today are a result of people convincing themselves they got what they paid for.

There were some variations by event type though that need consideration by arts administrators.

“Fifty-seven percent of those who attended a play said a major reason they went was that they thought it would be emotionally rewarding–but only 43 percent strongly agreed that it was.

Forty-six percent of those attending music performances said a major reason was that they thought it would be emotionally rewarding–but only 37 percent strongly agreed that it was.”

It was in terms of high quality that numbers went the other way, few people entered performance halls expecting high quality and a greater number exited feeling they had experienced it.

Since it is tough to know if the people who said they didn’t have an emotionally satisfying experience were some of the same people who had a quality experience, I can’t say if my hypothesis (which, granted was more of a semi-educated suspicion) holds any water. (Though the percentage of change in attitude on both topics is quite close.)

As poor a job as a newspaper article can do summarizing a 48 page report, my blog entry is hardly an improved transmission of all the valuable info (and I haven’t tried to be.) Give it a read! (Especially since the meat of it is only 27 pages long.)

Another Crazy Idea

Back in July I posted an entry about how internet sites were limiting access to their content through various means. At the end of the entry, I promised to think upon it and post a follow up later.

Well, here I am posting a follow up.

I had hoped to do a little more reading on consumer psychology before posting, but it doesn’t look as if that might happen any time soon. Since I posted last week about how new media entertainment was taking a page from live performance’s book, I figured that was enough reason to post about how we should steal a little bit from them.

At the end of my entry in July I had posted that the only way I could see arts organizations doing something similar was if the first part of the show was free and then re-entry after intermission cost the ticket price.

The more I thought about it, the less crazy it seemed. (Though granted, was still crazy.) Performing organizations frequently have free performances to try to lure people in, why not partially free performances? Also, there are a number of performing arts companies that have fundraising appeals that point out that the ticket price only pays for the show until intermission. This turns that around so you can claim the sponsors paid for you to get in the first act, now the rest of the show is up to you.

Will people go home at intermission feeling they have gotten their fill? Perhaps. Performances with a plot of some sort would probably fare better than a collection of repetory pieces. A novice theatre attendee is probably more likely to feel a need to go see the end of Death of a Salesman than a novice symphony attendee might feel compelled to hear a Mozart piece based on the Bach he heard in the first half of the evening.

On the other hand, reading the psychology of decision making scenarios Andrew Taylor presented back in May, I could see a newbie deciding that after getting a babysitter, driving and paying for parking, maybe it is worth paying for the second half.

Museums, I am still at the same place, sorry. Best I could suggest is a small exhibit in an antechamber with the ability to pay to enter the exhibit proper after getting a taste of it.

For performances, this sort of suggestion opens big cans of worms, even for those who might experiment with it only once a year to see how audiences like it.

First of all, there is front of house-instead of letting the box office and part of the usher staff go home after the show starts, their fun just begins at intermission.

Also, if you have reserved seating how do you handle that? Subscribers and those who know and trust the quality of your works will have purchased their tickets for the whole night’s performance in advance. But say that only fills up to the tenth row.

At intermission, the guy who got row Z is the first one out of the theatre because he is closest to the back, runs to the box office and buys tickets in row K so he can get closer. Guy in that seat in row K for the first act is annoyed. God forbid and people actually enjoy the show so much they start leaving during the first act to secure tickets closer to the stage.

A lot of theatres use bar code readers now so people can print of tickets at home. While you could use this and only charge people who scan in after intermission, you would then have to force people to scan in by 5 minutes to curtain so you could sell the vacant seats to people waiting at the box office before intermission was over (and of course, most empty seats will be singles and most people wanting seats will be in a party.)

Something like this would be best used either with General Admission audiences or for shows you know will be 80% sold so that you can set aside specific seats for this program and have no need to worry that you might end up with a gulf of 10 rows between your full night buyers and the half night taste testers.

The other issue is artistic-Do you end the first act with a bigger bang than necessary in hopes of luring people back for the second act even though the second act isn’t as exciting as the end of the first act lead them to believe? (I am looking at you Phantom of the Opera)

Then there are shows that are so short, an intermission makes no sense. Some shows are structured in a way that an audience loses its involvement in the momentum of the action if an intermission occurs.

Still, I have to think that there are some organizations out there for whom this sort of scheme might be just the thing they need to excite a community and provide an introduction to what the company does.

Seven Hour Thank you Letter

I have just started the first fundraising campaign the theatre has had in about three years. Prior to assuming the job, the temporary theatre director was also the executive director of another arts organization. Because of the conflict of interest with soliciting donations, he didn’t run any campaigns.

At the 1.5 week mark, we have had some modest returns though we have also seen donations from people who haven’t previously contributed which is always good.

Because the current thank you for your donations note has been used for many years, I have been working on a new thank you letter. Now it may seem like an easy thing, but I had a theme I used in my appeal letter and wanted to complement that theme with my thank you letter.

Essentially, I am trying to educate my audience about what sort of things their money is going for. It always seems to me like fundraising campaigns underscore the sexy aspects of what the money goes toward and downplays the less prestigous stuff. Either that or the appeal is so vague, you don’t know what the money is going for.

I take my inspiration, in part to a post on Artful Manager from two years ago where Andrew Taylor suggests arts organizations have a discussion about “worst practices.” My letter is a long way from mentioning mistakes we made, but that entry got me to thinking that references to less sexy, but essential needs, over time will more broadly inform my audience about elements beyond the curtain line that they can impact and feel good about.

My aim is to let people know what sort of things the money supports without making it sound so unsexy they don’t see any worth in giving again. While we aren’t buying reams of people, we are making purchases that are important to the safety of our operations and contribute to hospitality for our artists. If you aren’t in the business though, it is difficult to appreciate the significance of the materials and how grateful we are to have the funding.

Thus why it has taken me seven hours across three days to write the dang letter. I had a lot to say and then distilled the concepts down to a shorter letter, rewrote that, showed it to people, rewrote some more, rewrote, rewrote, etc, etc.

I did much the same thing with the appeal letter. But of course, I was asking for money at the time so my incentive was obvious, right? My thank you note is part of what I hope will be an ongoing relationship with my donors and ticket buyers so it is just as important as the appeal.

I want to take every opportunity I have to tell them the different aspects of my theatre’s story while attempting to avoid cliche phrases and common platitudes. I want to set my organization apart from the letters they are getting from the other non-profits by writing something different, something interesting…something brief…something sincerely gracious. And it all has to look effortless.

But it ain’t.

Filling The Quiet Places

I was climbing a sea cliff this weekend when I noticed a lighthouse I had been looking for fairly close by. Even better, from my vantage, I noticed the trail that lead to the lighthouse as well. I descended and walked back to my car for water and sneakers (I know I am becoming more local because I am doing bizarre things like clambering up cliffs in sandals rather than “proper” shoes.)

As I was making my way across a field toward the trail, I had to walk over some loose chunks of basalt. Despite testing the stability of each rock, one tilted beneath me and I ended up scraping up my hand, knee and a good portion of my lower back. Undaunted, I pulled myself up, washed my wounds with my water bottle and continued on…until I saw a tour bus pull up and disgorge a horde of folks.

I have already established that I am rather anti-social so regular readers may not be surprised to read that human company stopped me where wounds dripping blood didn’t. It was more than that though.

We have all read or had experience with people with poor cell phone etiquette and that is annoying enough. But I have really come to believe of late that people are afraid to be alone with their own thoughts and feelings. I was over at the Kilauea volcano last Christmas and as my mother and I approached the awesome vista, a woman behind us pulled out her cell phone and related moment by moment to a friend.

Perhaps she was just being an idiot, but many incidents similar to that make me wonder if she and other people just don’t know how to process magnificent sights like that without the insulation of a television or computer screen. In order to cope with the swirling emotions they are experiencing, they need to distract themselves with technology.

There is a safety in movies and television. Even the roller coaster in an amusement park has all sorts of safety mechanisms. But you can walk right up to the edge of the Grand Canyon and there aren’t any safety rails (or at least there weren’t the last time I was there.) While it isn’t the mythical abyss staring back at you, it is pretty overwhelming and frightening to stand there with nothing but your own caution and restraint to keep you from falling in.

It makes me wonder if as many people have attention deficit disorder as seem to. It may be more the case that rather than deal with reality which brings creeping thoughts of economic, social, personal, spiritual, educational, etc., woes and concerns, people are seeking solace and distraction in phones, PDAs, computers, video games.

So what does this all mean to arts management? Why did I choose to categorize an entry that starts with a story about my bloody knee as Audience Relations rather than General Musings?

As I drove away from my hiking excursion, it occured to me that arts people trying to educate new and existing audiences about what they do not only have to instruct people about understanding their art form, they have to make them comfortable with the personal silence needed to process the experience.

The idea that you have to stop and think about a work probably seems self evident when you teach people what to look/listen for. But it may be a false assumption these days. In days of instant gratification, if you have taught someone to look at an artist’s use of light, he/she can deal with Rubens even if they had no previous exposure to Baroque art. However, if they come in contact with an artist who has no concern for use of light, the viewer, having no familiar point of reference may quickly pass by. Even if their teacher constantly used the phrase “what is the artist trying to do”, they may not stop to consider that question when faced with unfamiliar elements.

It may not be enough just to “teach a man to fish” anymore. Now you have to teach the person the critical thinking skills to recognize they are in a situation when the goal of getting fish from the water remains the same, but the fishing tool provided is not appropriate in this situation.

The bad news is, this probably will take a major shift in mindset and way of life rather than the intermittent interaction with the arts to achieve. (And that isn’t even acknowledging that this is even more to do with less funding available.) It has to be schools, arts people, Oprah and Dr. Phil and then some talking about it.

The good news is, recently groups have started to really advocate getting away from technology (but is it enough?) I have seen TV ads in the past week or so for the Take Me Fishing website and read an article about a book titled Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children From Nature-Deficit Disorder.

These efforts obviously don’t address contemplation of the arts directly, but do advocate activities where people have to spend quiet time with their thoughts (lets hope the lake has poor cell phone reception) and critical problem solving skills (like alternative routes that avoid crossing a field of jagged basalt) that allow people to formulate alternative criteria with which to assess a painting.