WolfBrown: On Our Minds

Audience Participation

Kyle Marinshaw

The lights dim, my pupils dilate, the curtain draws. As the anticipation builds, I’m reminded of a roller coaster: the slow clicks of the train as it ascends the first hill. Music stirs, and movement erupts. The tension in the performance rises, manifesting in angular and twisted shapes. I grow anxious. Suddenly, the dancer’s movements grow soft and supple, seemingly reacting to me. It’s as though we are connected, intertwined in our own dance of lead and follow.

Yet I am not on stage. I’m in the audience. In my seat.

When we sit in a theatre, we are not merely “passive observers.” We engage in a continual exchange: the artist on stage transmits a message; we receive and refine said message; then we remit our interpretations and reactions back to the artists, beginning the cycle all over. This relationship between performer and audience — what Erika Fischer-Lichte refers to as the “autopoietic feedback loop” — is complex, with numerous factors at play (e.g., an audience’s proximity to the stage, the quality of the performers, the use of the “fourth wall,” etc.). However, all else being equal, I think we can start to boil this notion down to a basic concept: there is a give and take between audience and performer.

The artist’s “gift” is quite clear (i.e., the performance), but what is less explicable is the audience’s role in reciprocating. While often abstract, this feedback can also manifest tangibly: a standing ovation, a yawn, or even the absence of sound. And while audiences are ostensibly aware of the many ways they offer feedback to performers, I wonder if they are as aware of the effect this feedback can have on the very performance they are viewing.

As the holidays are in full swing, and we all bustle about attending those annual productions of The NutcrackerA Christmas Carol, or perhaps a sing-a-long of Handel’s Messiah, I hope we can all take a moment and think about the role we play as audience members. Let us be reminded that observation is active and does not operate in a vacuum.


Kyle Marinshaw is a consultant in WolfBrown’s San Francisco office. He is currently managing a two-year impact assessment project for a regional arts organization and leading a strategic program evaluation study for one of the country’s largest presenters. Kyle danced professionally for several years before pursuing a career in arts management and cultural research.

Elizabeth Whitford, Executive Director of Arts Corps
Chicago, November 2, 2013


The National Guild Service Award was established in 1989 and is conferred annually to an individual who has given exceptional service to the National Guild and to community arts education. Some of the prior recipients of the Award include: Margaret Perry, Michael Yaffe, Kalman Novak, Alice Pfaelzer, Azim and Lolita Mayadas, and Betty Allen.

The recipient of this year’s award is a leader in our field for whom I have great admiration. I am proud to present the 2013 National Service Award to Dennie Palmer Wolf in recognition of her lifelong dedication to advancing access to arts education and building the capacity of the community arts education field to increase its impact on the lives of students and communities.

Dennie is a principal researcher at WolfBrown, an international arts research and consulting firm. She has a doctorate from Harvard in developmental psychology, and she served as a researcher at Harvard Project Zero for more than a decade. At WolfBrown, Dennie pioneered evaluation that builds the capacities of schools, cities, and cultural organizations to support young people’s development as the next generation of thinkers, innovators, and creators. In recent years, Dennie particularly focused on supporting a number of city-wide and regional consortia and initiatives that build systemic efforts designed to support critical and creative learning in and out of the school day.

I first met Dennie a few years ago when I had a special opportunity to tour the Weill Music Institute’s Musical Connections program, for which she was serving as an evaluator. My first impression of Dennie was that she was cool. You know, like “New York cool”.

My second impression was that she was really smart. She was developing a rich, full-spectrum approach to evaluation in areas many of us doubt can be measured: the impact of a one-time, powerful music experience during a time of duress; the way arts learning might impact the activities a young person chooses to engage in throughout their day.

My final impression from that first meeting, perhaps counter to my stereotypes of “New York cool” and Carnegie Hall, was that she was completely unpretentious and accessible. I saw her on the floor engaging with kids naturally, welcoming of critical feedback and never defensive.

I was able to confirm these first impressions and get to know Dennie much better when I asked her to come help Arts Corps with some work we were doing to expand classroom-based arts assessments to include 21st century skills for Seattle Public School arts classes. This effort is part of our city-wide arts education initiative now called the Creative Advantage.

A significant part of this work involved collaborating with district arts teachers; some of whom, after years of feeling professionally marginalized, initially approached the task with wariness. We knew that one of the most important tasks of the project was to build trust with the teachers, and Dennie was able to do so quickly through her special mix of expertise, openness and responsiveness.

Dennie also proved to quickly learn our school district’s unique context and to be pragmatic without sacrificing quality. My initial inclination was that we needed to dump the old arts assessments and start anew. Dennie helped me recognize the value of what was already in place, and instead, look to build off of those strengths. Through Dennie, I learned to strive for incremental changes toward greater depth and quality in instruction and learning when working in a large system, such as the school district. And, through relationship-building, pragmatism and responsiveness to the context in which we were working, we have in fact exceeded our expectations around the level of quality of the new arts assessments in Seattle Public Schools today.

I know that many of you here today have also had the great privilege of working alongside Dennie, and I have no doubt there is much more you could add in celebration of her incredible service to this field. So without further ado, please join me in congratulating Dennie Palmer Wolf.

Last month, the French national police announced plans to convert all 72,000 of their desktop computers to Linux and become one of the largest open-source installs in the world. This tremendous vote of confidence is a clear signal that Linux is ready for general-purpose enterprise computing and can be considered a serious option for organizations of various sizes and structures. Only within the last few years have free, open-source projects become – dare I say – marketable to a typical user who needs to get things done without worrying about the technical details of their system.

Taken from the point of view of a small, budget-conscious arts organization, there are several advantages over a typical commercial operating system:

  • Cost: Free! The Linux Foundation is itself a non-profit, and the principal architects are committed to keeping Linux free forever.
  • Customizability: From certain perspectives, Linux may seem like a fragmented ecosystem, with hundreds of unique varieties (known as ‘distributions’) available at any one time. Many of these distributions are purpose-built for specific industries or fields, but several are designed around an easy and intuitive user experience. Ubuntu and its offspring (Mint,Elementary, etc.) are dead-simple to install and configure, easy to expand, and easy to understand, given experience with any other operating system. It’s also possible to build your own distribution, making it quick and painless to set up new computers with the right mix of software for the organization.
  • Hardware compatibility: Contrary to popular belief, Linux has the best hardware support of any modern operating system. It runs reasonably well on older systems that have long since been unsupported by their original operating systems, meaning cash-strapped organizations can take advantage of nearly-free hardware but still get all of the security benefits of a modern operating system.

Despite the benefits, an outright switch into Linux probably isn’t the smoothest transition for an office already familiar with another system. Luckily, it can be taken in stages, as much of the open-source software made for Linux is also available for Windows and Mac. The French police’s announcement comes at the end of years of gradually adopting such software, to the point where their users were comfortable enough that changing the underlying system wasn’t disruptive. Additionally, with the growing availability of viable web-based software like Google Docs, organizations are increasingly free from the constraints of a specific operating system’s desktop software.

I am somewhat surprised at how difficult it is to find examples of arts organizations who have adopted Linux or other open-source platforms. From what I can tell, the open-source arts management ecosystem is still fairly small, but there are a few companies pioneering the sector’s own movement (notably Fractured Atlas, who have released the source code of their Artful.ly ticketing and event management system).

Now that larger enterprises are throwing their weight behind Linux, I suspect we will soon see a number of arts organizations follow suit.

This past summer, Peter Buffett’s piece in the New York Times about the so-called charitable-industrial complex was an unusual example of one of the class of super-rich taking his peers to task for their self-important, often ineffective approach to using a fraction of their wealth to do good. Too often their “feel-good” panaceas do not get at the root cause of society’s problems-problems often caused by the very inequity that their wealth has created in the first place.

Peter is not the only member of the remarkable Buffett family to take a different approach to philanthropy. His aunt Doris, now in her mid-eighties, gave away over a hundred million dollars, much of it directly to individuals who had had hard luck in life thereby eliminating the well-fed philanthropic middle men (and women) who siphon off so much of the charitable dollar. She does not approve of the philanthropic superstructure of intermediaries but likes giving money directly.  She also created education programs in prisons. Her story is told in the book Giving it All Away.

Recently, Doris created, along with her brother Warren (who himself gave away much of his fortune), what is described as “the first MOOC (massive open on-line course) in philanthropy.” Its intent, in part, was to teach young people about philanthropy. It looks like it was so popular it will be given again. Doris spares no sacred cows and tells it like it is. Watching the Buffetts and listening to them on the subject of philanthropy is certainly more interesting and more fun for me than reading foundation annual reports written by public relations consultants.


Nina Simon’s recent Museum 2.0 blog post about how to measure the impact of the arts on “social bridging” (i.e., bringing people closer across diverse cultures and communities) struck a powerful chord with me. Nina highlights the challenge of measuring social bridging, the desire to transition from “feel good anecdote” to concrete evidence of social impact, and the possibility of using different approaches from the social psychology sector. I am particularly interested in a similar, related issue: the challenge of engaging diverse audiences in the measurement tool itself, regardless of the approach. In other words, why do some people opt to cooperate with surveys while others don’t?

For nearly a decade, we have been developing and revising methods for measuring the intrinsic impacts of art experiences, including social bridging and bonding. There are inherent biases in nearly all approaches to data collection (e.g., loyalty bias that predicts subscribers and members will respond at a much higher rate; age bias associated with online methods), but there are always opportunities to learn and grow in our methods and improve reliability of results. How do we more effectively engage diverse communities in research and evaluation efforts?

As a researcher looking to gather valuable audience feedback from diverse communities, I am coming face-to-face with the need to develop my own skill set around cultural competency. I am working on building cultural context prior to data collection in order to inspire greater audience participation in the research. Currently we are experimenting with a number of different tactics to build cultural context in our work, including appointing a community representative as a research partner and conducting interviews and focus groups as part of the research plan design. With these efforts, we hope to mitigate certain data collection challenges, such as varying levels of literacy and comprehension and participants’ aversion to recording personal information on paper. In general, we must listen harder and learn to communicate differently, in a vocabulary and tone that is less about gathering information, but more about learning and growing.

Drawing from the principles of action research, I find it helpful to consider a three-step process for increasing cultural competence:

  • internal review and revision of researchers’ existing cultural assumptions;
  • recruitment of and buy-in from community leaders; and
  • evaluation and continued commitment to questioning assumptions in order to change course as needed.

Additionally, Harvard University’s Program for Cultural Competence in Research published anannotated bibliography of cultural competency research in the healthcare sector (updated in 2010) that provides useful resources for further investigation into this topic. I am looking forward to testing my own assumptions over the next few years.

Over the last year I have been working with Carnegie Hall’s Musical Connections program that brings extra ordinary music to people in need throughout New York City. One strand in that work, inspired by composer Tom Cabaniss, is the Lullaby Project. In a women’s prison, at a homeless shelter, and at public hospitals working with young and single mothers, musicians meet with new parents to write lullabies for their babies. The point is to give shape to hopes, fears, and dreams for those new lives created — not only the child, but the mothers, fathers, aunts and grandmothers. Inside a single workshop and recording session we have seen some remarkable changes: young women speaking up, grandmothers passing on wisdom, young parents bonding, imprisoned mothers realizing they have the means to be in touch with their children. So when I imagine the study I would do if cost and time were no object, I want to test the hypothesis that music can create moments of intense and sustained exchange that strengthen our social, emotional, and even our somatic state, even in the most adverse of circumstances.

The study would begin before birth with caregivers writing a welcoming lullaby; it would last throughout childhood, with adults and children composing and trading songs. With limitless resources, we would video record parent-child interactions around these songs. We would track mutual gaze, vocalization, attention, even the flow of neurotransmitters in those moments of intense exchange as compared to daily activity. There would be a YouTube channel for parents to share the lullabies they (and their children) compose. The program would offer homeless families a ‘musical roof’ they can take anywhere, returning veterans a way to reconnect with children, and imprisoned parents the chance to stay a beloved part of their children’s lives. We would look at those families who have and those who lack this musical resource and gauge the consequences.

As long as I am fantasizing, let me assure you the results will be amazing. On the one hand, we will have evidence that musical exchanges can help to strengthen some of the most vulnerable relationships as they begin. On the other hand, pediatricians will realize that songs are powerful diagnostic tools for examining attachment, emotional health, and language development. Simply put, song charts will replace height and weight charts. The World Health Organization will announce that the musical capacity to invent on someone else’s behalf and the capacity to respond with delight are powerful predictors of lives that will be well-lived.

While researchers in the commercial sector long ago developed methods for gauging consumer tastes and preferences for different product attributes, research on preferences in the arts sector is still nascent. In light of our recent work over the past year investigating tastes across disciplines (primarily theatre, music, dance, and opera), it is clear that many audience members have little idea how to describe what they like and don’t like. The “I just know it when I see it” answer is not sufficient, and can be misleading.

Although we have begun to re-organize our understanding of preferences in the performing arts, we have yet to truly break down the walls around visual arts preferences. I would propose one possibility: install a heatmapping survey system that allows museum visitors to express which works of art in a gallery or exhibition are most appealing, striking or moving. Using interactive touchscreen devices, visitors would review images of each work, and simply touch the parts of each image to indicate which elements were most compelling. Heat maps and “hotspots” would be visible to visitors as they enter the museum, and on the website. Museums might even consider promoting a “hotspot of the week.”

Our work in the classical music field deepened greatly over the past year, leading to more questions and a few revelations. One of those revelations, which arose from several studies of the music preferences and concert-going habits of younger adults, is that for many, music is fundamentally a visual experience as well as an aural one. A hypothesis, I suppose. For a generation that grew up with music videos and now YouTube, the piling on of sensory stimuli is hardly news. The inter-relationships between sight and sound are constantly negotiated in film, dance, and theatre, but presenters of live jazz and classical music are often less comfortable in this nexus. I dream about a study that brings more clarity to the relationships between live music and visual stimuli of different sorts. As part of the study, lighting artists and filmmakers — drawing on the full panoply of new technologies — would be commissioned to create original visual elements for specific pieces of music. What works artistically, and what doesn’t? For whom is the live music experience enhanced by visual elements, and for whom is it degraded? Is visualization of music a long-term opportunity for building demand?

While most non-profit arts organizations are active on at least one social networking site, few have fully adopted what non-profit social media expert Beth Kanter calls the “network mindset.” A network mindset engenders participation, openness, and collective action. It is about engaging external stakeholders as well as internal ones, and using network cultivation to listen and achieve impact. Indeed, non-profits employ social media tools like Facebook and Twitter to build communities and audiences, but generally pay less attention to the larger organizational implications of the social shift surrounding these devices. We live in a world where stakeholders expect deep engagement: social missions, compelling storytelling, and even social design continue to blossom into increasingly essential business concepts. Now, “social”- beyond a simple platter of platforms for engagement – requires that organizations also redesign how they work.

At the recent Social Media for Nonprofits Silicon Valley Conference, Debbie Alvarez-Rodriguez, CEO of SF Goodwill, spoke about her personal journey transforming Goodwill from a traditional non-profit into one governed by the network mindset. The process began with an open employee and CEO conversation during a difficult layoff period. This led to a deeper examination of company culture, and changes to attitudes about exchange: valuing every person and organization in their network, sharing information by default, and decentralizing decision-making. At its core, Goodwill now views open communication as more than just strategy- it is an essential part of internal and external learning.

I would argue that the arts and culture sector is particularly well-poised to benefit deeply from the network mindset. Whether through conducting a heartfelt arts crowdfunding campaign through one’s network, enabling more organizational transparency and efficiency through Trello, sharing place-based network stories on Findery, or cultivating a board via LinkedIn’s Board Connect, arts organizations can more intimately engage and change communities not only through their work, but also through opening up their own work process.

I recently discovered Artsicle, an amazing new website that allows regular people with regular paychecks the opportunity to live with real live art from real live visual artists. How do they do it? Instead of buying, you can rent with the option to buy.

While other art rental services exist, Artsicle is unique. Their “Discovery Game” helps users develop their taste in art. “It’s really hard to look through 2,000 pieces of art and figure out which one is for you,” notes Alex Tryon, one of the co-founders of Artsicle. The Discovery Game displays two works of art side-by-side, sometimes of similar styles and sometimes dissimilar. As a user, the game asks you to choose which one “you love,” and then another pair pops up with the same question. This continues until your gallery is full. Artsicle also shows which works and artists have the most “favorites” on their blog.

Establishing, understanding, and influencing artistic tastes and preferences is a core focus of our work. We have found find that while people develop taste primarily through social networks (e.g., my brother introduced me to Jane’s Addiction and John Zorn), arts organizations are also responsible for many audience members’ preference development, curating taste through programming decisions. In this way, arts organizations are just like Artsicle – they offer a select roster of shows, exhibits, films, festivals, and other events from which audiences can choose. However, only a few organizations provide guidance for individual audience members as to what they might like. Jazz St. Louis is one my favorites. The middle of their homepage asks, “Do You Know Jazz?” There are three options (“I’m an Aficionado,” “Call me a Newbie,” and “I’m somewhere in between”), each of which takes you to a customized page with a list of artists, events, and news the organization recommends for someone with that level of knowledge.

We live in a world of suggestion. Social networking and websites like Amazon, Netflix, and Goldstar have amped up the scale and power of external influences on taste development. But the non-profit art sector is still trying to figure out how best to harness this energy. Artsicle is a good example of how to help people develop their taste in art (know what they like and don’t like) through a platform that builds a direct connection to artists, or, as Ms. Tryon says, “makes everybody a collector and allows every artist to make a living.” Or as I might say, bringing art into everybody’s everyday lives, and encouraging aesthetic growth and impact.

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