Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Jason Grote on NPAC Presentation

I must admit to being puzzled by Jason Grote's blog post on the "blog of the National Performing Arts Convention" entitled "Watching the Watchers: Gauging Audience Response." Perhaps it is the difficulty of writing something about an event that hasn't happened yet, but the more I read of his post the more I found myself despairing. Why? The first sentence of Jason's post reads, "While I can't speak to the specifics of the study in question, I generally think that surveys measuring audience response are a bad idea." A little later, he writes, "With all due respect to Mr. Yoshitomi and Mr. Brown, with whose methods I am not at all familiar, I feel that "Measuring the Intrinsic Impact" of any work of art is an idea with potentially disastrous results for the creative process generally." Further down, he draws a parallel to film focus groups (because, I guess, the description of the study reminds him of them), saying "While I can't cite any precise data on the failure or success of these methods, and of course can't speak to their similarity to the study in question, I have heard anecdote after anecdote about its failure as both an aesthetic and a profit-making strategy." (italics in above quotations all mine)

First of all, while this presentation hasn't occurred yet, the study is available as a pdf download. There's even a summary, if reading the whole study takes too much time. In addition, Andrew Taylor wrote about the study on the ArtsJournal blog The Artful Manager on January 9th and January 16th, I wrote about the study on January 18th, and Butts in Seats commented on this study on January 24th.

I know that Jason is a busy man and he can't spend time doing tons of research, but at the same time if you are going to dismiss a presentation as "potentially dangerous" without having read more than a conference blurb is a little irresponsible, especially when a quick Google search would have uncovered all these useful connections.

The fact is that the WolfBrown study has nothing to do with the creation of art, so Jason need not worry, but is actually about what factors lead to a higher level of engagement and satisfaction with the art that is being put in front of an audience. For instance, as I wrote in January, the study discussed the ""Context Index" -- "the amount of information and personal experience with the art and artist" that an audience member has. The Context Index was a "significant predictor for Captivation ["the degree to which an individual was engrossed and absorbed in the performance"], Intellectual Stimulation ["mental engagement, including both personal and social dimensions"], Emotional Resonance ["intensity of emotional response and degree of empathy with the performers"] and Spiritual Value ["transcendent, inspiring, or empowering experience"]. The level of satisfaction with a performance was correlated, among other things, to the level of Captivation."

In actuality, the WolfBrown study might help theatres figure out how best to market and prepare the potential audience for, say, Jason's next marvelous play by examining what sort of pre-show activities and information for a similar type of arts activity leads to an audience most likely to be engaged by Jason's work. It might help theatres to figure out just why they exist and what experience they offer.

Anyway, the point is that this was a significant study that actually has some interesting things to say about how audiences perceive the arts, so instead of defending the arts on the basis of how much people spend in restaurants when they go to a play, or by saying that kids who participate in the arts do better in their classes, we might talk about the impact the arts have on people. To reject it after consideration is one thing -- Andrew loved it, I loved it, Butts in Seats seemed uncomfortable; to reject it having only read a conference blurb, especially when the report is available on line, is another.

I am considering attending NPAC, and if I do I suspect I will also attend this presentation. I also intend to keep up with the NPAC blog, and I look forward to what will undoubtedly be more well-considered and thoughtful posts.


Alan Brown said...

Scott, if you make it to NPAC in Denver, please come by and participate in the debate about measuring intrinsic impacts. I am especially interested in learning from artists how and when they think about the downstream impacts of their work. I do not believe that the artist's creative process should be encumbered by an impact agenda, unless it is one of the artist's prerogative (e.g., theatre with a political message). There are many reasons, however, why curators should concern themselves with the likely impacts of their programming decisions. Mr. Grote's knee jerk reaction to the idea of the study, without even reading it, is an unfortunate illustration of how some artists and curators hide behind the kryptonite shield of their artistic license while their institutions grow sadly out of touch with audiences and community. Knowledge of how art acts on people is an asset to the curatorial process, not a liability. We all accept that art affects people differently, that its impact is impossibly complex, idiosyncratic and never predictable. But does that mean that we should throw our hands in the air and never try to understand what footprint it leaves?

Scott Walters said...

Alan -- Sometimes I think artists need to be reminded that a study such as yours is somebody's life work, the same as a play. If I had dismissed one of Jason's plays based solely on the blurb in the Dramatists's Play Service catalog, I'd have been rightly skewered by my fellow bloggers. In this case, there seems to be silence.

I found your study quite eye-opening, and was particularly fascinated by the information about the the Shakespeare production.

Don't know if I can make it to Denver, but if I do, I'll be at your session!