For Audiences, Experience is Key

Experience. It’s a multi-faceted word, and if the Engaging The Future organizations are any indication, it appears to be the focus of audience engagement efforts in Northeast Ohio’s arts and culture sector. “MOCA doesn’t have a permanent collection. The experience is the collection.” That’s how MOCA Cleveland staff member Megan Lykins Reich frames MOCA’s thinking about its role and offerings.

The twelve audio postcards suggest an orientation away from thinking about audience engagement through solely a marketing and customer acquisition lens. The shift in cultural norms made possible through new technology has set new expectations for arts and cultural organizations. People expect to be active participants, not passive bystanders. Focusing on experience appears to be the organizations’ response to this shift. It recognizes that many players contribute to an encounter and therefore the responsibility for audience engagement becomes the purview of all involved.

The orientation to the audience member is evolving. David Shimotakahara of Groundworks DanceTheater notes: “We are empowering other people in their own creative pursuit” and Christopher Lynn of SPACES Gallery comments “We need to give the audience the autonomy to engage the artwork on their own terms.” These quotes suggest a deeper interest in engaging audiences in the creation of the artistic experience. But collaboration on the artistic experience doesn’t stop there. Many organizations are partnering with other arts organizations on the work – both inside and outside of their disciplines.

A number of organizations reflected a goal of creating work that is germane to their audiences’ lives and reflective of their experiences. Raymond Bobgan of Cleveland Public Theatre noted: “If they don’t see this as their theatre, it’s a problem.”

Creating a sense of community ownership of artistic assets is a priority. A number of organizations are looking at their venues as community gathering places as a result. Gregory Ashe of Karamu House commented that their facility has been used for a wide range of community events. Charlie Fee of Great Lakes Theater noted that the design of their new theater reflects a focus on facilitating more social interaction between audience members.

Experience is key to building relationships that will have long-term value for organizations and community members. So, it is exciting to see arts groups re-examining the overall experience they are creating. It is important to remember, however, that this is a time of enormous experimentation. As a result, outcomes are likely to vary and may differ from our expectations. It doesn’t follow, however, that unexpected outcomes are necessarily negative. As Megan Lykins Reich puts it “Sometimes the best experiences are the ones you don’t plan for.”

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Megan Van Voorhis is the Vice President of  Community Partnership for Arts and Culture, which is dedicated to strengthening and unifying greater Cleveland’s art and culture sector.