The rap on research for the arts, museums, and informal sciences

August 03, 2012

Classical music's biggest audience development problem may be its current audience

You may have heard about an incident last weekend of aggressive rudeness on the part of some London concertgoers to a cougher in their midst. You might assume the story was exaggerated, unless you’ve seen for yourself the muted surliness of many classical music patrons in moments when they have to interact with each other. Yet smart writers are still extolling the virtues of the arts in building empathy and tolerance. Is that just a story we culture-lovers tell ourselves?

I once saw a German opera audience pounce — verbally, I mean, but with hissing gusto — on someone who unwrapped a candy too loudly. That was downright courteous compared to what the New Statesman's music critic, Alexandra Coghlan (pictured), reports happening to her companion the other night at the BBC Proms (a venerable concert series once known for its festivity and youthful informality):

I was attending the concert with a university-age girl... A chronic asthmatic, she had coughed a little during the first half, but infrequently, and had stifled it to the very best of her ability. After the first piece a man turned round and told her off (not a whit of sympathy, concern or even basic politeness to his complaint). We apologised, and moved to some empty seats further away. When the interval arrived three middle-aged men accosted us in the foyer. My companion was told to get out, that she had no right to be there, and the parting shot from one — “You dirty bitch” — was announced loud enough for everyone nearby to hear (including two ushers, who did nothing).

Remarkably, Coghlan is able to offer a thoughtful, balanced analysis of the incident in her article. She also describes how...

One of the angry men followed us as we walked out, stopping us to elaborate more fully the reasons for his frustration. Music was, he explained, something he wanted to immerse himself totally in without distraction or exception. A rock concert, he laboriously added, was quite a different scenario, and there we would (and should) feel free to cough as much as we liked.

His attempt to cast classical and rock experiences as opposites has one obvious truth in it: amplification does make certain audience behaviors possible (something I've blogged about here). But it also embeds an old, increasingly creaky notion that classical music is somehow better, more meaningful than other kinds, and therefore more deserving of protection (from, for example, aural intrusions). After all, it’s one of ‘the arts,’ and therefore associated with a higher class of person: more sophisticated, better behaved, more likely to display liberal values like compassion, reason, and pluralism.

As my teenage daughters would say: Seriously? You would think the claims for a link between civility and classical music had been discredited by all those Schumann-whistling Nazi guards at the death camps. Yet coincidentally, it’s just that link — the idea that art has an ‘ethical power’ to reduce human cruelty and intolerance — that’s on the mind of the formidable humanities scholar Elaine Scarry these days. (Scarry is the Walter M. Cabot Professor of Aesthetics and the General Theory of Value at Harvard. She used to be called an English professor.)

In a long essay in the current Boston Review, Scarry hails “the capacity of literature to exercise and reinforce our recognition that there are other points of view in the world.” Beauty, she argues, gives us “sudden relief from our own minds,” taking our focus away from our own concerns about ourselves and thereby eliminating the self-regarding ‘asymmetry’ that leads to injustice. ...

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Categories: Accountability, Arts marketing, Classical music, Early exposure, Performing arts, State of the arts
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May 20, 2012

From Europe with irony: Symphony marketing that's actually funny

American orchestras, like their cousins in dance, theater, and the visual arts, talk a lot about how to appeal to a younger crowd. The word 'authenticity' crops up a lot in those conversations, and for good reason. But in contemporary culture, sometimes the most authentic thing you can do is make fun of yourself for being authentic. Watch this promo from the Orchestre Philharmonique Luxembourg and see if you can resist a grin.

The video hits some of the same themes that US orchestras have tried to convey to twenty- and thirty-something audiences — that concertgoing is not just for geezers, that classical music is an emotional high, that it draws (or should draw) a multicultural crowd — while simultaneously making fun of itself for having to make such assertions. The orchestra is mocking its own desperation to be relevant to young people and its cluelessness about attracting them, but it’s doing so using some of contemporary culture’s most relevant and savvy modes, including a kind of goofy, improvisatory irony.

Plus, it makes you laugh, which may be the most basic recasting of classical music’s ‘brand’ that we could ask for.

By comparison, most American symphony marketing efforts seem...well, classical. They focus on the big name performers or conductors, the quality of the music-making, the power and timelessness of the repertoire. Even when they’re clever, they’re usually still in that proud, luxury-product mode we’re used to in the arts, in which earnestness is never far below the surface.

To appeal to young people, arts organizations usually assert that they offer experiences they think those audiences value. But the Luxembourg video reveals that sometimes that’s not enough: sometimes asserting can be a problem in itself. Good communication isn’t just about what you say, it’s about the personality and voice with which you deliver the message — your stance on what you’re saying. Or rather, the two are intertwined: the mode of delivery is the message. And in these postmodern times, a little creative friction between the two can signify that you don’t take yourself too seriously, that you get how popular culture works and you're part of it. (I made this point about Alec Baldwin’s self-spoofing NPR spots last year.)

So even when arts marketers have done their research and know what would appeal to young audiences before, during, and after the performance, they sometimes don’t know how to convey those values in a way that feels like they know the people they’re talking to. The genius of this promo is how it manages to do both, while admitting implicitly that it’s a tough sales pitch to make. 

Notice that there’s no concert footage in the Luxembourg video, which raises the question of whether the ticker-buyer's experience at the Philharmonique actually pays off the promises made by the promo. The onstage experience is reimagined with some of the same values (less mockery, perhaps, but equal whimsy and confidence) in a different European ad, this one for the Czech Philharmonic:

If you read ArtsJournal, you may have seen these both on Norman Lebrecht’s blog last month. That’s where I found them, and there are more where these came from. (Thanks, Norman, and keep ‘em coming.) Do they tap your funnybone? Do they feel, in some sense, authentic? And how does your age play into your reaction?

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Categories: Arts marketing, Classical music, Institutional personality, Performing arts, Young audiences
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March 31, 2012

Good research isn’t about asking audiences what they want

There’s been a thoughtful discussion lately about whether arts organizations are leading or following their audiences, which they ought to be doing, and whether the two are actually opposites. But a sour note can be heard in that chorus on both sides of the debate: the idea that audience research is a tool for pandering. (Cue the Steve Jobs quote about consumers not knowing what they want.) There’s a better way to think about this.

As usual, some of the most constructive ideas in the conversation have come from Diane Ragsdale (top) and Nina Simon, both of whom see the lead/follow dualism as an oversimplification at best and a self-serving masquerade at worst. From their different vantage points, Ragsdale and Simon suggest that leading and following are necessary aspects of a healthy, mutually responsive relevance that is all too rare among today’s arts institutions.

Simon cites her friend Adam Lerner, head of the MCA Denver and the subject of an admiring New York Times profile a few weeks ago, who wrote in 2008 that art museums should become “less visitor-oriented” and that they’re (in Simon’s paraphrase) “misguidedly searching for direction from audiences.” The answers lie inside the organization, Lerner argued then, not outside: museums “need to look more carefully at themselves.”

I’ve heard a similar view from Martha Lavey, artistic director of the hugely successful Steppenwolf Theater in Chicago. She has no patience for the fashionable notion that the community should be consulted on artistic matters, at least at her theater (she acknowledges it makes sense for some other kinds of organizations). Lavey has argued — in harmony with Simon and Lerner, I think, and maybe Ragsdale on some level — that Steppenwolf’s job is to give people something that’s valuable to them but comes not from them but from an artistic impulse within the organization and the artists who work with it. Not from a “strategy,” and certainly not from a survey.

That’s the idea arts leaders have in mind when they quote Steve Jobs’s dictum that “It’s not the consumer’s job to know what they want” and the fact that Apple does no market research. (One of the commenters on Simon’s post sounds this familiar note.)

Except it’s not a fact. It’s one of the self-mythologizing semi-truths about Saint Steve. Apple during his tenure may have had a had a different relationship to consumer research than some companies, but it also had plenty of ways of understanding its customers and their experiences and needs, from user groups and support forums to surveys and “Apple Customer Pulse,” an online feedback panel the company launched about a year ago. It also has a market research department — sorry, Consumer Insights — with a budget we can only guess at. 

Even if we scale Apple way down to the world of art museums and theater companies, that’s far more audience research than most arts organizations have at their fingertips. ...

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Categories: Arts marketing, Museums, Performing arts, Research issues, State of the arts, Visual art
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May 01, 2011

Technology and its discontents in the arts — The Culturelab dust settles

My brain is still buzzing from two days of presentations, conversation, and debate at the second annual Culturelab convening at the University of Chicago. Day One was an invitational affair with a small group of philanthropic and government funders from the US, UK, and Australia. On Day Two we were joined by Chicago-area arts leaders (and some terrific grad students who will become arts leaders) for an "emerging practice" seminar. The heart of the agenda was a debate about technological layering onto arts experiences: enrichment or distraction?

I had assumed the conceptual action would be on Day One, with its big-picture agenda built around the recent supply and demand fracas in the arts (I spoke on the demand side of the equation). The topics for Day Two — technology in the morning, pricing in the afternoon — promised a more tactical discussion.

But things got interesting well before the lunchtime debate between Alan Brown, the well-known arts researcher (and founder of the Culturelab consortium), and Martha Lavey, the much-admired artistic director of Steppenwolf Theater, about whether audiences should be able to use their mobile devices during performances. Ron Evans (at left) gave a witty and eye-opening talk [pdf] about mobile interactivity and augmented reality, including a card-game app from the Tate Modern in which visitors (you have to be at the museum to play) pick artworks that they think would win in a fight if the works came to life and started brawling with each other.

You could hear the uneasy chuckles in the room: Sounds clever, but is that how we want people engaging with Art?

Evans was followed by another bright young light in the world of social tech: Devon Smith, who talked about foursquare and its current and potential uses in the arts. Among her examples: an art-treasure hunt and exhibition held last year in New York called Mission: Edition, from an art gallery interested in what it calls “psychogeography.” Not surprisingly, the Brooklyn Museum is also on Smith’s foursquare A-list.

What I began to realize, listening to Evans, Smith and others talk about technologies as simple as supertitles and as sophisticated as this amazing dance interactive, is that what’s “augmented” about these arts experiences is the social connection. There’s someone talking to you. Or you’re talking to someone. You’re not alone. ...

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Categories: Arts marketing, Chicago, Conferences, Culture sector, Participatory engagement and co-creation, Performing arts, Slover Linett events, State of the arts, Visual art
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April 01, 2011

Guest blogger: Clayton Smith on the life of the (social media) party

Articles and blog posts about social media in the arts and higher ed are so ubiquitous that I wasn’t looking to add to the din. But I’ve been impressed with an arts marketer here in Chicago named Clayton Smith, and when I heard him muse about some of the things nonprofits often get wrong in the social web, I asked him to write a post.

Clayton Smith is audience development coordinator at the Goodman Theatre and an adjunct faculty member in the Arts, Entertainment & Media Management program at Columbia College Chicago. He can be reached at

Imagine that you’re at a cocktail party with 100 other people. It’s Friday night, the food is great, there’s an ice sculpture of Groucho Marx on the buffet table, most of your friends are there, and, martini in hand, you’re looking forward to having a good time.

And at first, you do have a good time. You chat with friends who wish you happy belated birthday and tell you funny stories about what they did last weekend. You see a few colleagues who vent a little bit about your boss. A buddy from your college days shows you pictures of his baby in a Van Halen onesie. But every ten minutes, a man you think you know but can’t quite place comes over and tries to sell you a blow dryer.

The first time, you shrug it off. You think, “Well this is a strange place for a salesman to make a pitch,” but he’s nice and he seems harmless, so you politely say, “No, thank you,” and get back to your friends.

Ten minutes later, he’s back. He tells you he has world-class blow dryers and boy, would you be crazy to pass them up! This time you tell him, a little more curtly, “No, thanks,” and go back to your drink.

Ten minutes later, he offers you a two-for one discount. You tell him you’re not interested, please stop asking.

Another ten minutes, and he interrupts to tell you that it’s a special edition blow dryer, available only to people at this cocktail party. You tell him no once and for all and demand that he leave you alone.

But when you go to get another drink, there he is at the bar. With undiminished enthusiasm he says that if you tell three of your friends about his blow dryers, he’ll give you the blow dryer for free, and it takes all the will power you can muster to keep from knocking out his teeth.

By the tenth time he tries to sell you a blow dryer, you scream at him that you do not want to buy his blow dryer, you will never buy his blow dryer, you will tell your friends not to buy his blow dryer, and you finish by explaining to him, in no uncertain terms, precisely what he can do with his stupid blow dryer.

You are officially not having fun at this soiree. ...

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Categories: Arts marketing, Social media
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January 10, 2011

Guest blogger: Seth Boustead on the search for the holy grail

Composer Seth Boustead runs one of the most forward-looking grassroots arts organizations in the Midwest, Access Contemporary Music. When I ran into him at a neighborhood lunch spot recently, we got talking about how he and others in the “modern classical” scene view the future of classical music. I invited him to share that perspective in a guest post, which he was kind enough to do.

At a recent panel presentation attended by numerous people in Chicago's music community, I listened intently as the panelists discussed the future of classical music. The conversation inevitably featured a lot of hand wringing and dire predictions. It seems that everyone is worried about how to attract younger audience members, about getting larger audiences in general, and even about the continued relevance of classical music organizations.

As I listened to this, I couldn't help but think how removed I am from these concerns.  As the director of Access Contemporary Music, an organization dedicated to promoting the music of living composers, I realized that, while we in the contemporary music community certainly have our challenges, attracting young people is not one of them.

I never hear any of my colleagues complain about audience size, and I certainly never hear anyone wishing that they could appeal to younger audiences.  If anything, we have the opposite problem!  We could really use more older people with disposable income and a history of philanthropic giving in our audiences.

At one of our recent concerts I spoke with a person who works at a funding organization in town and was dismayed to hear him say that young audience members are the "holy grail" for any arts organization.  I was surprised how off the mark this was for our organization and that someone who should be “in the know” doesn't realize that there are different kinds of classical music organizations, with very different challenges.

We can't get older people to come to our concerts because many of them are old enough to have had bad experiences with contemporary music.  They've seen the self-indulgent performers dressed all in black who don't communicate anything, who come on stage and bloop, bleep and squawk and then pretentiously walk off.  I'm old enough to have caught the tail end of this performance practice and am truly happy that it is rarely seen in contemporary music circles any more.  But the damage has been done, and the “holy grail” for us is now the silver-haired couple willing to listen to a performance of music by a composer impolite enough to be still alive or only recently dead.

It seems silly to me that the classical world has created a culture that glorifies a select group of works, all over a hundred years old, and then worries about the future of their rarified form of ancestor worship.  It's as if a museum stated that there would be no additional acquisitions of art, no new shows or exhibits, but only a series of renowned scholars coming to the museum to interpret and expound upon the old art that the museum itself has proclaimed a masterpiece.

It is to me a bitter irony that most of the time when people talk about the future of classical music they are actually talking about future performances of music from the past, despite the fact that there are tens of thousands of composers in the world writing music and thereby extending the tradition and creating an actual future for it.

As a composer and as the director of a contemporary music organization, it has always been my fond hope that one day there will be no need for organizations that specialize in the performance of contemporary music.  There will just be ensembles large and small performing music from every part of the living, evolving compositional spectrum.  Judging by what I've been hearing lately—and who I’ve been seeing at the performances of organizations like ours—it seems likely that more up-to-date programming might just help classical organizations find their holy grail.

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Categories: Arts marketing, Classical music, Institutional personality, Performing arts, State of the arts, Young audiences
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October 25, 2010

“Help me destroy public radio” and other lessons in postmodern fundraising

National Public Radio has poked fun at its own earnestness and nerdiness plenty in recent years. But Alec Baldwin’s new fundraising segments take the irony to a new level, putting the whole culture of public broadcasting — including us listeners — on trial. And a funny thing happens along the way.

Funny being the operative word. There are several spots in the series, which was produced by This American Life host Ira Glass and his friends at WNYC, along with Baldwin. This one made me laugh out loud, as did this one.

And that’s an important lesson right there. To make someone laugh is to give them a little gift — it’s an act of generosity and intimacy. And in the context of a fundraising pitch, isn’t generosity exactly the point? Baldwin and Glass are modeling the behavior they’re trying to elicit from us: they’re starting the exchange, offering us a gift in the hope that we’ll offer one back.

Humor is also a way of getting past our rational defenses. Laughter is an emotional response, involving different parts of the brain than those activated by a rational appeal. If the fundraising organization makes an argument, I can always make a counterargument. But if it makes me laugh, we’re already in a kind of relationship. (My old philosophy professor Ted Cohen wrote a great little book about the ways jokes both depend on and foster a sense of community.)

So why don’t more cultural and educational institutions use humor as a fundraising tool? If being funny can model generosity, soften us up, and create community, then why are these public radio promos an anomaly, even during recessionary times that would seem to call for every arrow in our quiver?

I’ve written before about the default seriousness of most cultural organizations and the anxiety about relevance and status that I think underlies it. These fundraising spots may be exceptions that prove the rule. Baldwin and Glass have stepped outside the institution’s accepted ways of thinking about itself and its relationship to its supporters: they’ve broken unwritten rules, especially the very sensible one about never insulting your donors. ...

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Categories: Arts marketing, Chicago, Classical music, Culture sector, Fundraising, General, Innovation, Institutional personality, Other nonprofits, Subjectivity, Young audiences
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June 19, 2010

Guest Blogger (a first for us!): Holly Arsenault on engaging young audiences

You may remember a quote from Holly in my recent post about “pipeline” vs. “parallel” strategies for young artsgoers. Holly knows this turf far better than I do: she runs Seattle Center Teen Tix, a thriving program that lets teens buy $5 tickets to almost any arts organization in the Seattle area. And she has a secret wish.

Guest blogger Holly Arsenault is the program manager of Seattle Center Teen Tix and has taught theater and writing to students from kindergarten through college. She is also a playwright and dramaturg. I asked her whether engaging young people requires a shift in artistic programming to accommodate their distinct needs, or whether we can attract them to existing programming with targeted marketing messages, social events before or after the program, etc. Here’s her full response:

Ha! Yes. That is the question. I’ve always said (actually, I’ve rarely said, but I’ve always thought) that my secret, subversive goal with Teen Tix was to drag the median age of Seattle arts audiences down enough that it would start to have an impact on programming.

I’ll tell you this: if you were to look at our show-by-show numbers, you’d see that there’s no amount of packaging I can do that’s as impactful on our ticket sales to teens as a show simply being compelling to teenagers. Of course, I see a difference in our numbers when I’ve done a good job of illuminating for our members why a particular show is relevant to them in a way that might not have been apparent, but I can’t make something that’s clearly irrelevant seem like it is.

Nor would I want to. The last thing you want is to convince a young person to go see something by claiming that it’s something that it’s not, then have them bored or alienated by the experience. So, despite our success at growing this audience, I do spend a lot of time wishing that I had better (meaning: more youth-friendly) material to work with.

That said, I do find that teen audiences, particularly at the younger end of the age spectrum, tend to be more conservative in their tastes than you might expect. I think some of them have a preconceived notion of what an arts experience should look like, and they like to have that notion confirmed before they become interested in branching out and trying new things. ...

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Categories: Arts marketing, Child audiences, Museums, Performing arts, Theater, Visual art, Young audiences
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June 11, 2010

Strategy for winning young audiences: pipeline vs. parallel?

I was in Seattle last week for meetings with a few of our arts clients and attended a terrific brainstorming session about developing teen and young-adult audiences. I came in — and left — with a big question about the limits of marketing to meet the challenge.

The session was set up for us to generate ideas about how to attract more young people to the organization’s performances. At the outset, those performances were treated as a given; the question was how to enhance the desire to have those arts experiences among the target age groups.

But, tellingly, the ideas that began zinging around the room were about changing the nature of those experiences — about new approaches to programming and the artistic “product” onstage, but also about venue, format, before-and-after events, audience behavior, overall vibe, and many other aspects outside the control of the organization’s marketing department.

A few people in the room made the point explicit: No matter how clever your marketing communications are, no matter how technologically and socially networked your message is, if the experience you’re offering isn’t perceived as enjoyable by young people, they won’t come...or won’t come back. Marketing alone can’t do the trick. It’s the programming, stupid.

To quote my newfound Seattle colleague Holly Arsenault, who runs Seattle Center Teen Tix and wrote me an email after the brainstorming session:

If you were to look at our show-by-show numbers, you’d see that there’s no amount of packaging I can do that’s as impactful on our ticket sales as a show simply being compelling to teenagers. Of course, I see a difference in our numbers when I’ve done a good job of illuminating for our [teen] members why a particular show is relevant to them in a way that might not have been apparent . . . but I can’t make something that’s clearly irrelevant seem like it is — nor would I want to. ...

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Categories: Arts marketing, Arts participation, Institutional personality, Museums, Performing arts, Social media, Strategy and strategic planning, Visual art, Young audiences
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Based in Chicago with an office in Boston, we help museums, performing arts organizations, and informal science institutions take a fresh look at their audiences and discover new ways to deepen the connection and broaden participation. More »

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