WolfBrown: On Our Minds

Posts tagged ‘impact’

Audience Participation

December 5th, 2013

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.

It’s not new: understanding – and trumpeting – the “economic impact” of arts and culture has been a small industry in the field for some time. Most notably, Americans for the Arts has conducted three national studies of “The Arts and Economic Prosperity,” and is beginning a fourth. The rationale is that policy-makers continue to be convinced of the value of arts and culture by highlighting their impact on jobs and revenues, even if those policy-makers see no intrinsic benefits to arts and culture.

In a recent Financial Times article, John Kay, a leading British business economist and academic, bemoans the standard methodology of cultural economic impact studies.  What arts impact studies typically measure “is not the benefits of the activities they applaud, but their cost; and the value of an activity is not what it costs, but the amount by which its benefit exceeds its costs,” suggesting that measuring resources consumed is not a valid method of evaluation.

I’ve always felt that economic data about cultural activity worked best as part of a broader set of advocacy strategies that articulated all of the ways arts and culture add value. As Randy Cohen, AFTA’s Vice President of Local Arts Advancement, pointed out in an e-mail to me, “this sort of [financial] measurement is standard procedure in most industries. Perhaps [Kay] doesn’t view the arts as an industry.”  He also commented that Alan’s research into the intrinsic value of the arts is an important part of the story, as is the impressive data emerging about the impact of arts education: “it’s really a question of ‘and’ not ‘or’ when making the case.” The moral of the story? As long as civic leaders are swayed by economic numbers, they have a role to play in describing the value of arts and culture.


Conversations with nonprofit leaders about evaluation and accountability usually focus on intended outcomes, impacts, and benefits and how to measure them. In our evaluation work, however, we often observe unintended outcomes, which can be favorable or unfavorable. Recently I ran across a provocative paper by Mark J. Stern and Susan Seifert of the University of Pennsylvania’s Social Impact of the Arts Project (SIAP) that explores just such consequences. Their brief about the social effects of creative economy policies addresses the downside of urban policy makers’ reliance on “creative economy” thinking as a strategy for urban revitalization. They acknowledge that “the logic [behind these strategies] is that attracting the ‘creative class’ to [a] region will generate jobs and tax revenue, a trickle down of benefits to all citizens.” In reality, however, the result is too often not only the gentrification of neighborhoods, but also the “gentrification” of culture – unwitting exclusivity. They discuss research and policy related to the role of culture in urban revitalization and propose a new model – a “neighborhood-based creative economy.” Their thinking resonates with my own feelings about the organic, close-at-hand nature (e.g., shared interests and joint efforts) of what spurs creativity, and its power to transform individuals, families, and neighborhoods.

Several weeks ago I visited Catherine Bunting, head of research for Arts Council England (ACE), in her London office. We compared our research ‘wish lists’ and talked about the growing demands of public and private sector authorizers in both of our countries to produce evidence of positive outcomes. In the U.S., WolfBrown has studied impact at the microcosmic level (i.e., the impact of a live performance on an individual), and more studies along this line are in the works, both in the U.S. and the U.K. But much work remains to be done to understand impact in the macrocosm. For example, what is the cumulative benefit to an individual of a lifetime of arts participation? What is the cumulative impact of an arts institution on its community? What is the impact of the totality of a community’s arts and cultural programs on its citizenry? A new “Culture and Sport Evidence Programme” (CASE) was recently launched by Catherine and her colleagues at sister agencies under the Department for Culture, Media and Sport. The three-year effort aims to elevate “the quality of evidence underpinning public policy in culture and sport.” You can read more about it here and sign up for a monthly e-mail briefing. The initiative aims to tackle fundamental questions such as “What is engagement?” and “What is value?” Once again, the Brits are way ahead of us. More of our country’s leading arts agencies and funders need to get serious about new methodologies for tracking creativity and cultural engagement over time, and expanding the base of evidence of the impact of the arts on children and adults.

Returns on Investments

May 15th, 2009

At WolfBrown, we think a lot about effectiveness and impact and how to frame our understanding and assessment of them. I was recently fascinated by an article in the Chronicle of Philanthropy detailing the Gates Foundation’s innovative effort to assess the return on its investment in schools.

With the help of the Center for Effective Philanthropy and AmericaSpeaks, Gates went directly to students – not principals, teachers, or data-tracking administrators, but 5,400 students at 20 of the 2,000 high schools it has worked with – to take the “YouthTruth” survey. According to Fay Twersky, Gates’ Director of Impact Planning and Improvement, the “YouthTruth” survey will provide feedback to its grantees and “add rigor to Gates’ process,” though it won’t have a direct bearing on their future funding. The article focuses on Woodrow Wilson H.S. in DC’s Northwest Tenleytown neighborhood and describes how the young people were equipped with wireless devices whose instant polling feedback immediately compiled results on a video screen for everyone to see. The devices were a tool to capture the kids’ attention and prepare them for more serious questioning that followed in an online survey later. The article suggests the survey may also prompt students to think in ROI terms. Questions like “What obstacles, like drugs, crime, or family responsibilities make it difficult for you to perform well in your studies?” were designed to keep them thinking about effectiveness and impact, too.

A New Argument for the Arts

March 10th, 2009

The arts community has struggled with the challenge of communicating the value of the arts. While still believing in “arts for art’s sake,” arts advocates have felt compelled to make a series of arguments about economic impact, translating outcomes from investment in arts and culture into dollars and jobs. Greg Sandow, in a recent Wall Street Journal article, argues that the economic argument is no longer enough, that it doesn’t distinguish the arts sufficiently from other job and income creating activities, and that in a time of scarcity, the arts will not beat out other sectors as an economic engine. He says, “The arts are going to need a better strategy. And in the end it’s going to have to come from art itself, from the benefits art brings…” At WolfBrown we are exploring with clients other compelling reasons why the arts deserve broad community support; for example, with Leveraging Investments in Creativity, which is demonstrating that investment in individual artists builds communities; with Big Thought, a “creative learning organization striving to make imagination a part of everyday learning,” which works to “lift children up and better their lives using arts, culture and education as tools and catalysts…”; with the Duke Charitable Foundation’s Creative Campus program, which is demonstrating the impact of arts on interdisciplinary learning for Wesleyan University’s Creative Campus initiative; and with our Assessing Intrinsic Impacts of a Live Performance study for Major University Presenters, which develops a methodology to define and measure for the first time the transformative experience of a live performance.

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