WolfBrown: On Our Minds

Posts tagged ‘participation’

Focusing on Creativity

February 17th, 2011

Createquity is a blog written by Ian David Moss, Fractured Atlas’ Research Director. His “top ten” list of important arts policy stories was posted late last year, but if you missed it, it is well worth a read (and not just because he highlights WolfBrown’s work). New ways of measuring impact, new priorities for the focus of public relations and advocacy, new organizational structures, and more- taken together, the ten stories signify a startling degree of change in our field.

Clearly there’s a lot going on. What I find most interesting is the focus on creativity expanding beyond the traditional sphere of “arts and culture.” I notice increasingly complex ways in which people actively claim or reclaim their creative selves: through new performance types, new and unusual venues, and new forms of media, among others. This article highlights the ways in which arts organizations have started tapping into the interest in flash-mobs and the role of social media in their formation. In fact, Clarke Mackey’s Random Acts of Culture focuses on “vernacular culture” which gives priority to engagement and tends to focus on participation more than our customary European forms do.

As someone who works on planning for and with local arts agencies, I see this expanded focus on creative participation as a major step forward for our field. Of course the message about the creative economy is being heard (perhaps a bit too loudly, according to some). But I hope we can think more broadly about creativity and its impact on education, communities, and our lives in general.

How would your community – or your local arts agency – look if there were a stronger focus on supporting and enhancing access to creativity?


Changing Spaces

January 10th, 2011

This past Friday at the annual conference of the Association of Performing Arts Presenters in New York City, I was thrilled to participate in a forward-looking discussion about the pivotal role that venues and settings play in performing arts experiences.  All else being equal, why will some people attend programs in one setting, but not another?  What will artists require in terms of performance spaces in 10 or 20 years?  While most arts presenters are hardwired to offer programs in conventional venues with good acoustics and technical capabilities, the public is increasingly drawn to nontraditional, unusual, multi-use and temporary spaces that add a unique dimension to the live experience.  An increasingly impatient audience, with a shorter attention span and a higher threshold for pleasure, wants spaces where they can move around, be comfortable, eat, drink, socialize, be creative, and participate more actively in the experience.  What does this portend for the future of arts facilities?

I worry that cinemas will become the venue of choice for a large segment of the arts-going public, where they can sit in really comfortable seats and watch high quality digital broadcasts of the best art in the world for a fraction of the cost.  In fact, this train has already left the station.  While multiplexes might be the new frontier of arts participation, and a boost to overall levels of public participation in the arts, conventional spaces might be left in the dark.

I’ll be researching this topic over the coming months and plan to publish a white paper later in the year.  If you have an opinion to share, or if you would like to pass along examples of how arts groups have used non-traditional settings to reach new audiences, I would love to hear about it.  You may submit your comments here or via email.


Over the past several months, I have been deconstructing what we, as a field, mean when we talk about “arts participation” in light of what we are discovering about how people actually engage with arts and creative activities in their daily lives.  This thinking is inspired partly by our recent work on a forthcoming research monograph for the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) about arts participation and creation utilizing data from the Survey of Public Participation in the Arts(SPPA).  The focus of the work has been to analyze the multiple modes in which a person can participate in the arts using SPPA measurements – attendance, personal arts creation, and media-based participation.  How do people participate across and between these modes?  What is the relationship between creation and participation?  Most importantly, what new measures of arts participation could be effective in advancing policy nationally?  Thinking about these types of questions brought me to a recently released report by the Australia Council for the Arts called More Than Bums on Seats: Australian Participation in the Arts.  While the SPPA concentrates on measuring arts participation through behavior (e.g.,”Have you attended a ballet performance in the past 12 months?”), More Than Bums on Seats expands its focus to include attitudes towards arts and creative activities (e.g., “The arts should be as much about creating/doing these things yourself as being part of an audience”), and perceived benefits of the arts (e.g., “The arts help me feel part of my local community”). The final result of the study is a community segmentation model based on a combination of attitudes and behaviors towards arts participation.  I wonder what kinds of implications for practice and policy would such information yield if a national study of arts participation here in the U.S. were to include such measurements?  I’m looking forward to that discussion.

We will be sharing more about the NEA monograph in the upcoming months. Expected publication is September 2010.


In the past few months, I have been clipping articles about a so-called “new” trend towards more amateur participation in the arts.  First there was an article in Newsweek that pointed to the global recession as an explanation for the uptick in non-professional arts activity.  More recently, the New York Times, in a heart-felt story of amateur music-making gave credit to an inspiring teacher.  My own feeling is that we are not experiencing something new, but a pendulum swing back to a time when Sunday living rooms – like the one I grew up in – were full of non-professionals who enjoyed making music together.  On the walls and tables were paintings and sculptures made by people who lived there.  Perhaps the return to this kind of participation is the best indication that the arts are alive and well.


There are few art forms in which the artist’s tools, techniques, and processes are being as dramatically transformed by digital technologies as photography. An interesting juxtaposition: the loss of important film stocks, most recently Kodachrome, which Kodak will soon retire, and the astonishing growth in the capacity of simple, inexpensive, digital point-and-shoot cameras. We are witnessing the swift evolution of digital imaging technology, both hardware and software, and it’s continuing to make profound changes in the way photographers work. Moreover, as I’m sure you’ve noticed, it has expanded the number of casual and amateur photographers who are taking snapshots by the billions, sometimes of astonishing quality.

The impact of technology on the ways in which we engage with creative activities is striking, and its relationship to cultural participation is worthy of particular note. For example, WolfBrown’s recent cultural participation study for the Greater Philadelphia Cultural Alliance, the Cultural Engagement Index, finds an important correlation between personal practice activities and audience-based activities. Specifically, increased frequency in “taking digital photographs with artistic intent” indicates more frequent attendance at museums and galleries. There’s an opportunity to build on this synergy by figuring out how to employ these more powerful and less expensive artistic tools to feed participation in creative pursuits and establish a personal connection between programming and audience or visitor. By building interest and connection to arts and culture as a personal activity with personal relevance, we can develop new avenues of audience development.

Taking Part is an ongoing longitudinal survey of cultural participation in England, commissioned by the Department for Culture, Media and Sport and the Arts Council England. Every year it asks residents across the country (age 16+) about their attendance at art museums and galleries, art events, historic sites, and library use. The survey also asks about frequency of participation in arts and culture activities such as ‘writing poetry’ and ‘playing a musical instrument for an audience,’ overall barriers to participation, and the frequency and degree of childhood encouragement and exposure to arts and culture. It is the last set of questions about childhood experience that shows how encouragement and exposure early in one’s life significantly increases the probability of engaging with the arts (e.g., attending museums and art events) as an adult, even when a range of other socio-economic factors have been taken into account. The findings hint at the importance of settings for arts activities outside of the traditional classroom environment, and how one’s home and parents may be as important as the education system in determining whether a child grows up to be interested in the arts. The importance of the home for education generally has been documented in Paul E. Barton and Richard Coley’s The Family: America’s Smallest School from Educational Testing Service, while WolfBrown’s research in cultural participation, such as the Irvine study referred to above and the Richmond Region Cultural Action Plan, has repeatedly found the over-riding importance of the home as a setting for creative activities.

Wanna Dance?

April 17th, 2009

Dance has been on my mind a lot lately as important findings about dance seem to pop out of our research efforts on a regular basis. A study of Dallas public school children commissioned by Big Thought found broad interest in many forms of dance among young people. Is dance a way to address parents’ worry about lack of physical activity? Despite what could be called a perfect storm of interest in dance, it is often the last form of arts instruction offered in schools. It is not just kids who want to dance, adults want to dance too. A recent study we conducted for The James Irvine Foundation found that a third of adults in several inland regions of California would like to take dance lessons, and just last month we released a study of Philadelphia adults for the Greater Philadelphia Cultural Alliance which found that the most frequent form of dance participation is ‘watching television programs about dance.’ Like it or not, dance has jumped to the forefront of public consciousness. Will leaders in the cultural sector allow this moment to pass us by, or can we manage a strategic response? How can this energy be harnessed? Last month, Dance/USA, with support from the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation, announced a new grant program to support the development of innovative approaches to Engaging Dance Audiences, which WolfBrown will help to assess. Until we can bridge the gap between personal practice (dancing) and attendance (watching dance), the professional dance field will not benefit from the groundswell of interest in dance, and the public will not benefit from the great artistry of the dance field.

Converging Views on the Future

December 18th, 2008

University of California Press

Within weeks, two leading thinkers in very different parts of the cultural sector came out with major new writings that are variations on the same theme. As Marc notes, John Holden considers what a more “democratic culture” would look like, citing new statistics from Arts Council England that show that only a small percentage of British adults frequently attend museums and theatres. Meanwhile, Bill Ivey, head of Obama’s arts and culture transition team and director of the Curb Center, has written a highly critical assessment of the U.S. cultural system in his new book, Arts, Inc. It’s a must read for funders and arts managers who want to be part of the solution and not part of the problem. It’s almost as if these two authors sat down together to work out a common point of view. Both authors criticize the legislative policies, copyright laws, nonprofit infrastructure, and lack of a coherent public policy that balances artistic innovation and preservation of cultural treasures with public access. Holden argues that “culture should be something that we all own and make, not something given, offered or delivered by one section of ‘us’ to another.” Ivey goes a step further and describes a new “cultural bill of rights” that guarantees every American the right to an “expressive life.” Individually, they are compelling arguments. Together, they are a clarion call for a serious rethinking of cultural policy on both sides of the pond. Arts groups and their supporters might use these writings as an opportunity to consider the social costs of “excellence” and “quality” in an environment of profound inequity.

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