On Michael Kaiser and Engaging Audiences

Last week, Michael Kaiser wrote in The Huffington Post on Engaging Audiences. He suggested that the field’s recent focus on this topic was ironic, as it’s a well established part of arts organizations’ missions. Presuming the emphasis derives from loss of audiences, Michael asked why this is happening, urged a focus on older audiences as well as younger, and noted the importance of tailoring strategies to “audience types.”

It seems to me that Michael is right about one thing: what he calls “audience engagement” is undergoing a “resurgence” in the arts. But I don’t think what we’re seeing now is just a fashionable reinvention of an old concept. The old concept is embedded in Michael’s language of “target groups” and “audience segments” who are “visiting the arts.” This approach has the rapid monetizing of previous non-attenders as its bottom line.

By contrast, what I’m seeing through my work at EmcArts with organizations across the country is the emergence of largely new, and substantially innovative, approaches to how people participate in arts experiences, with arts professionals serving as mediators of those experiences. Indeed, those at the forefront of this movement no longer use worn phrases like “audience engagement.” Instead, they describe the pursuit of broader reciprocal relationships with community members – expressive relationships created through, and embodied in, art.

I can report that the majority of the over one hundred organizations we’ve worked with in our Innovation Labs, New Pathways for the Arts and other programs are in the process of rethinking the invitation they extend to their community members to take part in artistic experiences – moving beyond attendance alone. Many recognize that this means rethinking the core of what they present, as well as how they present it. They are reconsidering and opening up the modes of participation their organization enables, increasing the number of doorways through which different individuals can enter the uniquely compelling stories and images of art work. I see these new leaders casting aside ingrained assumptions and cultures that narrowed their thinking about participation, and insisting that all artistic decisions open up multiple opportunities for participation. The resulting momentum and excitement are tangible.

Studies based on the NEA’s 2008 SPPA indicate that three-quarters of U. S. citizens participate in the arts through attendance at events, personal creation and performance, or through electronic media. But only 35% do so through attendance at “benchmark” professional arts events. There is then a vast territory of opportunity awaiting us, a likely participant pool much larger than the old focus on ticket-buying audiences that has previously obsessed us and painted us into a corner of the country’s artistic life. This enormous disparity means that, in order to capitalize on the potential, we must fundamentally change our personal and organizational assumptions as well as our strategies.

Organizations as disparate as the Los Angeles Music Center (through Active Arts), the Saint Louis Shakespeare Festival (through Shake38), and STREB (through the Teen Action Club) have all done this. They’ve learned that the commitment which leads to new income (both earned and contributed) can be stimulated – on a large scale and across age groups – but only if they hold back old assumptions about monetization (as well as about artistic production). Instead, they focus on increasing their footprints in their communities, and create direct, passionately felt experiences of artmaking and participation that build expressive lives rather than just expose product.

Managers in the field make a mistake, I believe, if they frame new approaches to cultural participation as forms of marketing, so the pressure to monetize the new program (what used to drive strategy) often kicks in much too soon, giving little breathing space for the innovation to grow – or for the community to participate freely and creatively before being more narrowly treated as a revenue source.

This exploration of new approaches to arts participation is clearly an important wave of the future. What inhibits this enterprise field-wide is primarily attitudes and culture, but also the structure of financial support – it’s why we need shorter-term innovation capital like never before, if experiments and prototypes are to be afforded the space to succeed.

And Michael is surely right – these genuinely new approaches will not be successful if they are treated as a flavor of the week. They need to be a core part of our businesses. And they need to be a decisive break from the “audience engagement” of old.



Richard Evans is the President of EmcArts, where he directs program design, research, and strategic partnerships that place a particular emphasis on innovation, adaptive organization change, and effective ways that the arts and culture field can respond to the demands of a new era.

  • I agree with what you say, but I think you have to make a very specific distinction between engagement for the sake of engagement and engagement that’s aimed at building audiences. Engagement for engagement sake is a trend that comes out of a desire in arts funding/policy circles to break out of transactional consumption models. Engagement as a marketing tool is a worldwide business trend that arose out of the emergence of user-controled media. We’re using the same word to talk about two utterly different things.

    We’ll never be able to have a sensible discussion about engagement until we pull these two apart, understand their motives and goals and then figure out how they fit back together.

    • Thanks for your comment, Trevor.  I agree this word “engagement” has been tossed around and stretched like silly putty, and has worn very thin.  I have always thought of “audience development” as referring to the marketing-related work of achieving more income from paying customers; and a variety of phrases circling around “participation” as describing relationships that, in terms of the artistic experience, are intentionally more interactive and less one-way transactional (or consumption oriented, as you say).  “Engagement” seems to fall into a grey area in the middle, and get abused as a result.

      I’m not sure in the end that most “participatory” programs are only about engagement for engagement’s sake.  One great thing about them is that they are a different way to generate commitment to the organizers of the activity, and thereby over time to build loyalty that will pay off.  Pay off, in this context, via contributions (frequently small ones via online fundraising).  I wonder if we will see a strong connection established between participatory programs and tools like power2give (http://power2give.org/)?

  • Hi Richard,
    I completely agree with you. Here at our small museum in Santa Cruz (www.santacruzmah.org), we’ve shifted our model in recognition of the fact that the vast majority of visitors attend through events that are social, participatory… and scheduled at times when they aren’t likely to be working. We’ve increased the number of events we do, and we’re very careful to make sure they invite active participation from people with diverse backgrounds.

    Now, 85% of our visitors attend through events, and that has us pondering several questions:
    –what role do exhibitions play in this kind of model? If people experience exhibitions as part of an event experience (rather than the other way around), what does that imply about our resource allocation and focus as an organization?
    –how do we balance opportunities for intimate and massive scale participation, between drop-in and long-term involvement?
    –what role does aesthetics play? If we screen our partners based on their ability to engage instead of the art world’s valuing of their objects, how does that change what we do?

    …and more. I’d love to see smart people like yourself and Michael Kaiser grappling with all of us on these questions. We have a lot of work to do to explore and thrive in the new world of arts engagement. And it’s a heck of a lot more interesting (to my mind) to experiment and do and mess around rather than just talking about it.

    • Great questions, Nina! And I’m with you on preferring to actually experiment and try stuff, rather than just talk about it. That’s one reason we ask participants to explore a specific project in our Innovation Labs. The underlying goal is to help change the organizational culture to one more adaptive and flexible (to keep on innovating), but you can’t do that in the abstract, or just by talking about it. As Jerry Sternin said: “It’s easier to act your way into a new way of thinking… Etc.” So long as the experimentation arises from a shift in assumptions. That still seems to me the root of it. It’s what I think your questions are doing – surfacing long-held assumptions that may no longer hold for the new world we’re working in. It’s your responses to them I’m interested in, and those of other leaders in this mix of exhibits and events (people like Ken Foster at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, or Renee Baldocchi with Cultural Encounters at the de Young Museum, or what Allison Agsten is doing at the Hammer Museum as Curator of Public Engagement). I certainly hope we can all participate in the questioning, here at ArtsFwd as well as in your museums.

  • Doug Borwick

    Richard, thanks for commenting on my post on the same topic: http://www.artsjournal.com/engage/2012/04/one-way. I responded there, but will invade your blog as well.

    I agree with you that we are expanding our understanding of engagement past the old “audience engagement” cul de sac. I’ll say again, that I have a tendency to over-emphasize deep relationship building as the “meaning” of engagement. I’m aware that’s not the only meaning. I just want us to remember that there’s a lot of historically untapped substance in the deeper meaning that holds much promise for the arts. (That’s a gentler construction than “Ignore this at your peril.”)

    I see Trevor O’Donnell has already commented here. Since he didn’t, I’ll include his blog entry: http://trevorodonnell.com/2012/04/19/is-engagement-sales-or-outreach/ on this topic. It *is* an interesting presentation of at least two meanings of engagement: sales-oriented and “outreach.” That’s a good start, but I think there are more nuances to be addressed. In particular, I cringe at the word outreach. It has such a missionary connotation: “I hold the Truth and am going to seek you out to show it to you.” Perhaps that’s an over-reaction, but there it is. Words have both meanings and connotations. And I’ll certainly buy into the idea that we can’t have a discussion about engagement before the participants in the discussion explain what *they* mean by the word.

  • Michael Bodel

    Ah, the simulacrum of arts management spins on! I am keen on further sussing out important distinctions alluded to by Doug Borwick and Trevor O’Donnell, and wanted to chime in about some of the irony behind branding what many might and have historically call “art”, and what we (eg. EMC Arts) now call “engagement”.

    Art is an exchange. Has it really become so separate from its recipients that it needs to be reconnected via some umbilical cord initiative? Perhaps. But remember before there was a whole industry for arts mitigators who facilitate/organize/support/control/skim-off-the-top/impede artistic production (depending on your lens), art was far more imbedded in the social fabric. Then we inserted ourselves (I implicate myself as much as David White, the curators of this bright blog, or capitalist society as a whole), and art became far more commodified, far less participatory, and greatly circumscribed by our usual 20th Century structures of “professional or amateur” and “non-profit or for-profit”. What ensued were such gems as the copyrighting of dance steps, dynamic pricing of seats, The Lion King® and paid workshops for artists to learn how to market themselves to grantors.

    Now we backpedal, realizing just how far we let art and daily life drift apart. What’s ironic is that this “innovation” is actually just that: a frantic backpedaling, catalyzed by some simultaneous revolutions in user-interaction etc. as alluded to by Trevor. Just in time because many of us arts mitigators would be out of a job, had we not started “engaging”. In fact, the more we can prove to funders and governments and citizens that “engagement” is necessary and complicated and should-be-left-to-professionals, the more we secure and our own position and power.

    Baudrillard’s hilariously provocative term “simulacrum” came to mind. He talks about how people don’t walk anymore, they “go for a jog”; people don’t just eat together, they “do lunch”. We now have “Target First Saturdays®” and “initiatives”. Obviously I’m in support of both people “going for jogs”, “Target First Saturdays®”, and this excellent blog, but there is a funky loop going on where presenters, producers, and mitigators withhold in order that we might then bestow, and take credit for bestowing. We loosen the reins enough to make one forget that we are holding the reins.

  • Think the line of questioning I am going to pose is complimentary to Nina’s first one: what is the role of the art and artists in ‘engagement’? I ask this beyond featuring them in programming before, after, or around their production, or even involving them in the planning of this programming. How are the choices of what we produce or exhibit leading the way for the type of ‘engagement’ arts orgs want to have with their audiences?
    On another track: I wonder if there is something to thinking about curating/fostering/building the experience around a production rather than constructing points of engagement around it. Align all activities from sales to discussions around the work of art, to amplify and resonate. Spending time thinking on that after reading Sarah Lutman’s http://www.artsjournal.com/speaker/2012/04/does-your-organization-need-a-chief-experience-officer/

  • Pingback: Why Teaching Artists Will Lead the Charge in Audience Engagement | Createquity.()

  • Pingback: Set the controls for the heart of the sun….. | CARTER GILLIES POTTERY()

  • Pingback: More on Audience Engagement | North Carolina Theatre Conference()