WolfBrown: On Our Minds

Trickling UP

January 16th, 2014

Typically, in the world of arts research and policy, the rule is “trickle down”: New ideas and practices designed for adult audiences gradually inform programs for youth and families. In this installment of On Our Minds we turn this approach on its head and explore how new ways of thinking about intrinsic impact, drawn from recent work with children and youth, can inform the ways in which arts organizations work with audiences of all ages.



The New Victory Theater — is a project of The New 42nd Street, located in Times Square, NYC. The New 42nd Street is an independent nonprofit organization committed to the transformational power of the arts. As a part of that larger project, the New Victory Theater focuses exclusively on presenting work for children, schools, and families. Based on their work with young theater-goers, the theater and its staff are re-defining “the event” — and along with that, where and how we ought to be investigating intrinsic impact.

As far as the “New Vic” is concerned, a performance begins with anticipation and never ends until you stop remembering and connecting to what you saw and experienced. The instant you purchase a ticket for public shows you get email connections to print and video materials that connect you and yours to the “backstory” of the production. You get invitations to free family workshops and links to creative activities to do in the days ahead of the performance designed to build insight and anticipation. Participating schools even get juicy questions to discuss en route to the performance from New Victory SCHOOL TOOL™ Resource Guides. Intermission includes a “Try this…” space where you can experiment with the characters, props, and ideas in the performance. Afterwards, on the way home, or in the days following, there are suggestions for projects, further research, and ongoing discussions. (Check out examples at their website.) In short, any given hour-long performance has been redefined — and explicitly designed — as a long-running immersion in the world of a performance. The effort is intended to build the intrinsic impact of a “single event” for young audiences, but it has everything to say to how we think about concerts, exhibitions, and performances for audiences of all ages. It should force us to ask, “When we look for intrinsic impact why do we focus on such a thin slice within the longer arc of aesthetic experience?”


Dr. Dennie Palmer Wolf is a Principal in WolfBrown’s Cambridge office. She has published widely on issues of assessment, evaluation, artistic, and imaginative development and is a recent recipient of the National Guild Service Award from the National Guild for Community Arts Education.

For many years arts education programs have been caught between a rock and a hard place. On the one hand, they have been asked to demonstrate that participation yields instrumental benefits such as improving school attendance or achievement. This is problematic, as these outcomes are subject to powerful contextual influences (e.g., poverty). But when programs constrain themselves to speaking about the more realistic, intrinsic impacts of participation — learning to perform or participating in cultural activities — the reaction can be a shrug and a “so what?” In our recent work, we are developing a new middle ground by working with organizations to develop a theory of change that makes explicit how an activity, like learning to play an instrument, could have effects on other domains. For example, in our work with Play on Philly! — an El Sistema-inspired music education program — the staff has developed a theory of change stating that when young people learn to play an instrument they develop executive functions, a broad set of skills that allow individuals to set and pursue goals, and thus can help them achieve in many areas of life.

Focusing on intrinsic impacts in this way can benefit not only arts education programs for children but arts programming for audiences of all ages. It allows programs to demonstrate that participation in their program is associated with intrinsic impacts while explicitly testing their theories about how these impacts may be associated with improvements in other domains. But perhaps most importantly, it encourages programs to focus the spotlight of evaluation on areas in which positive outcomes are most likely to be observed.


Dr. Steven Holochwost is a developmental psychologist and composer. As Senior Researcher with WolfBrown, his work has centered on projects with children, including Community Music Works and the Dallas Arts Learning Initiative.

A recent study on the educational value of museum field trips may provide a model for assessing other types of arts exposure in school settings. The study, published in EducationNext by researchers from the University of Arkansas, identified significant gains in knowledge retention, critical thinking, tolerance, historical empathy, and future interest in art museums among K-12 students who went on a field trip to the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art versus a control group that did not. The study further showed different levels of impact among subgroups — namely, that this particular field trip had the most impact on students from low-income and rural areas, as well as the very young (i.e., students who were least likely to have had a similar cultural experience prior). In fact, students from large towns and low-poverty areas showed little to no significant educational gains by the study’s measures. Looking purely at the study’s aggregated data would have obscured this revelation. The educational impact of a single school tour of an art museum, therefore, can indeed be measured, and if done thoughtfully, can also yield valuable insights into the diversity of impact on different segments of school-age audiences.

Conceivably, this framework for measuring educational impacts can be adapted to any arts-related intervention, such as group visits to theatre performances, visiting school assemblies, teaching artist residencies, and programs for learners of all ages. Because we know the educational impact of a work of art can differ widely based on who receives it, school-based educational programs can utilize this kind of research to fine-tune the design of their programs, as well as their messaging strategies. Arts programs of all kinds might be wise to embrace this approach to impact assessment as a valuable way to reflect on goals, improve programming, and report success.


Sean Fenton is the manager of WolfBrown’s Intrinsic Impact program and a Bay Area artist rooted in educational theatre and theatre for young audiences.

WolfBrown is pleased to announce the publication of Thomas Wolf’s new book, Effective Leadership for Nonprofit Organizations: How Executive Directors and Boards Work Together from Allworth Press.

The book focuses on one key to success in managing a nonprofit — building strong relationships between an executive director and the trustees and navigating associated personal, political, and legal challenges to an effective partnership. Dozens of case studies illuminate the issues that often impede the progress of nonprofit organizations and show how executive director and trustees can address them. Each chapter also contains a set of questions that enable leaders to reflect on the health of their own organization and also evaluate other nonprofits, as well as to create sustainable, effective business practices and productive working relationships.

Single copies are available on Amazon.com. For information on discounts on multiple copy orders, please email ingrid@wolfbrown.com or call 617-494-9300.

Proudly powered by WordPress. Theme developed with WordPress Theme Generator.
Copyright © WolfBrown: On Our Minds. All rights reserved.