The Two-Way Street: How We Behave Affects How Our Audience Behaves

We had the opportunity last month to design and run a three-day innovation gathering in New York for teams from eight terrific performing arts organizations, all being supported in their adaptive work by the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation.  The theme was the use of technology in audience engagement, and there were a number of fascinating sessions.  If you want a blow-by blow account of it all, my colleagues blogged live from the venues throughout and it’s all up here on ArtsFwd.

Participants array themselves on two scales: Transaction vs. Transformational and Open vs. Closed

I’d like to focus on the final session, in which – picking up on a major theme of the event – we devised and played a game.  It grew from a couple of insights that the participants had developed as the convening progressed (and which they shared through a session with a graphic facilitator).

First, they identified a shared desire to move from relationships with their audiences which were transactional in nature, to ones which were transformational.  These words can be defined in many ways, but what they were getting at was to enrich the value they offered the public by inviting people into a two-way conversation in and through artistic experiences, rather than the traditional one-way street in which we deliver the artistic product and you pay money for the opportunity to witness it (when we decide to show it).  They recognized the challenges to authority, to artistic direction, to curation, to traditional notions of quality, and so on, that are implied by this shift; but equally the potential to move beyond a consumerist approach to one in which the quality of the engagement might really transform lives.  I would paraphrase the conversation as being one about moving from excellence of performance to excellence of engagement – a set of competencies most arts organizations are still acquiring.

If the external dynamics of the organization lie along this line, where it got interesting was in combining this continuum with a second one – one that expresses the internal dynamics of the organization, “the way you organize.”  This continuum is from a closed culture to an open one.  Typical of a very closed culture are siloed hierarchical departments, little cross-functional teamwork, fixed ways of doing things, a strong boundary around the organization, and so on.  An open culture supports flexible structures, purposefully varied teams, little vertical hierarchy, a networked approach to organization, and so on.

For our game, we created a space that put these two frameworks together…

The four quadrants: Transactional vs. Transformational and Open vs. Closed

…to explore the idea that these two dynamics are connected, and what it feels like to be in any of the four quadrants implied here.  We may aspire to move from the bottom-left to the top-right quadrant, but what tensions arise if our organization is opening up its culture, but still treats its audience largely on a transactional basis (top-left)?  Equally, what do we do next if we’re succeeding programmatically in engaging our audiences with a transformational intent, but our organization remains unreceptive to the open culture we need to develop to support this effort (bottom-right)?

We had all the participants stand up and physically array themselves on this game board where they each saw their organization as standing right now (we were on a theatre stage), and then compare notes with their neighbors on why they’d chosen that particular spot.  It was provocative that different team members from the same organization stood in different places, so the conversations were mainly cross-organizational, the participants discovering the challenges and successful strategies of their peers who saw themselves in similar positions.  For the record, all four quadrants were populated in the game, illustrating in real-time the variety of work still to be done as these leading organizations grapple with one of the great adaptive challenges of this new era in the arts.  It began important conversations between – and within – organizations that I know will continue.

Try it yourself, either on paper or as a physical exercise, with staff, artists, and board members.  It’s simple, and the rules are few, but the resulting insights can be complex, and even lead to one of those precious A-ha! moments!



Richard Evans is the President Emeritus 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.