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

January 10, 2014

Roundtable: Whose needs and wants?

My whole crew has been talking about the recent blog posts by Nina Simon, Diane Ragsdale, and Doug Borwick on the distinction between the needs and wants of arts audiences — and whether it’s really arts administrators and leaders who are doing the needing and wanting. I thought we’d share the conversation we’ve been having among ourselves over email. If this format works, we’ll make it a regular type of post on this blog. And we hope you join these “skull sessions” via comments and even a guest post or two.

Sharisse Butler started the ball rolling by telling my colleagues that she loved Borwick’s post:

It articulates so well my growing concerns about the paternalistic assumptions made by cultural organizations about the needs of the people and communities they aim to serve. Remember [our colleague] Nnenna’s comments about the importance of knowing the needs of a community from the inside, and the example I shared about how a certain citizen science program expects everyone to become wildlife biologists in their spare time? 

My favorite line from Doug’s post: “Giving people what they need rather than what they want is a form of deep respect, if that is indeed what we are doing. If we are simply giving them what we want to give, that is profound disrespect. In order to distinguish the difference, we need to reframe our own perspective and get to know them.”

To which Karlene Hanko added:

I was struck by this point: “The temptation to label what we want them to need as needs is a nearly insurmountable one.” (My emphasis.) This seems to be the heart of the problem. Arts organizations wholeheartedly believe in the value of the arts, and of their artistic product in particular, and it’s easy to project those values onto their communities and confuse what they offer with what the communities need.

Karlene knows about projection, being a social psychologist. Sharisse wrote back that she believes people do ‘need’ the arts in some general sense, and that it makes sense to think of culture as a ‘merit good’ like public health or other social goods (something Sarah Lee and I mention in our soon-to-be-released whitepaper for the Cultural Data Project). But, Sharisse noted, there’s a big temptation to use that general sense of value to try to justify specific interventions or expect certain responses in our communities.

Then Chloe Chittick Patton, just before heading out on maternity leave, reminded us that we’re also talking about ourselves:

I'd just throw out there that we arts researchers aren't immune to this same temptation. It's not only arts orgs that can project their own values or assumptions as the "needs" of the community.  We have to step carefully around that trap ourselves, especially during the interpretation stages of our projects.

So here’s to humility in the arts — including arts research. The idea that we always know what our audiences and communities ‘really’ need or ‘really’ mean is paternalistic. If we can be more about sharing what excites us and less about purveying lofty, ‘necessary’ experiences to those who lack and ‘need’ them, we’ll win more hearts and minds…and probably have more fun. 

For me, the concept that Simon, Ragsdale, and Borwick are all getting at — and the thread that can connect needs and wants — is empathy. If we think of the relationship between arts organizations and their audiences or communities like a friendship or some other personal, one-on-one relationship (a romance, even a one-night stand), then we don’t have to choose between binaries like “give ’em what they want” or “give ’em what they ought to want.” Instead we have to (as Ragsdale and Borwick point out) get to know them. We have to credit who they are and how they see themselves and see the world and see you, and try to negotiate some kind of mutually fulfilling connection...all while remaining authentically ourselves.

It ain’t easy. But only after trying all that — after taking the risks of intimacy and empathy — can we legitimately say, "Well, it just didn’t work out. We weren’t right for each other." (No arts organization can be right for everyone.)

If it does work out, though, a whole range of possibilities opens up.  We can surprise them one day with something they didn’t know they needed and didn’t think they were ready for, and the next week delight them by giving them exactly what they wished for. Just as we would love to do for a friend or loved one.

Okay, I’m getting sappy in my old age. It’s great to be back in the blogosphere with you. Please chime in below. And stay tuned next week for Sharisse Butler’s different take on Borwick’s post.

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Categories: Research issues, Roundtables, State of the arts
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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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Asking Audiences explores the fast-changing landscape in which arts and cultural organizations meet their public. What does relevance look like today? More »

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