Engagement Is Busting Out All Over

What does an arts audience want? To find out, engage. Photo courtesy Catch Box.
What does an arts audience want? To find out, engage. Photo courtesy Catch Box.
What does an arts audience want? To find out, engage. Photo courtesy Catch Box.

Engagement is busting out all over — audience engagement : community engagement : engaging audiences : arts engagement — and I am as guilty as the next person at promoting this. For years, I have proposed that arts organizations will have a diminished future unless they find a way to solidly engage with their communities. While there is no doubt that increasing community and audience engagement solidifies the connection between an arts organization and those it serves, it is less clear whether this can be counted on to increase attendance or earned revenue.

A rich conversation around engagement is currently taking place, oftentimes driven by a desire to address the problem of declining audiences. Sometimes, the conversation also delves into broader policy issues, such as the role and place that an arts organization occupies in its community or in society. For any organization or individual artist, assessing engagement — how to develop it, or, if necessary, adjust it — begins with evaluating the different aspects of engagement and how they relate to institutional imperatives and operations.

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As ongoing technological and demographic changes have altered the relationship between arts organizations and that of artists and the audiences for their work, the value proposition offered during the latter half of the 20th century is in many cases changed and less relevant. Many arts groups therefore struggle with diminishing audiences and instability as the connection between the arts consumer and the arts offerer has frayed. To re-establish a solid connection, organizations and artists must understand their engagement with their audience and community. If they are successful, they will increase their value to their communities and audience, strengthen their impact, and increasingly deliver on the public trust they have been given.

To achieve this, however, an arts organization must look at what it is doing in the context of a shifted landscape and be willing to change, rather than just look for different ways to do what it has always done. It’s a much tougher job now: only those who actually engage and use the information they learn will sustain their future.

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Allan Brown and Rebecca Ratzkin’s 2011 reportMaking Sense of Audience Engagement, attributes the fundamental shift to four factors:

  1. artistic planners have moved the audience point of view to a more prominent place in the planning process, moving engagement activities to the core of their planning;
  2. consumers now demand more interactivity, customization, and interconnectivity;
  3. younger artists have followed a similar path in their practice and experience; and
  4. there is demand for greater diversity of experience.

3d-movie-audienceSo, what do we mean when we talk of engagement? How does it relate to our practice as arts professionals and institutions? For those groups reliant on earned income, how does engagement relate to its business model? And what is different today in the area of engagement?

“Community engagement” refers to the interaction between an organization and its community. (While we only discuss institutional perspectives here, much of the same discussion could be had regarding individual artists.) The nature of community engagement for arts organizations has shifted over time. Robert Wuthnow, for example, in his chapter “Faithful Audiences: The Intersection of Art and Religion” in Steven Tepper and Bill Ivey’s 2008 collection Engaging Art: The Next Great Transformation of America’s Cultural Life, notes that art was intimately tied to religion for centuries and this connection produced deep community engagement by its very nature.

In the late 19th century, as the creation of art grew more centered on individual expression, the community connection, and the engagement with the artist or organization, was severed and reframed. Previously, the arts-going community was not only more homogeneous, but its experience of art was strictly in a live format. Limited to such a live experience, interacting with the art was itself an engagement experience and providing that opportunity for experience was sufficient community engagement for many organizations. With the digital revolution, increasing diversity in our communities and our rising acceptance of mediated experiences, pathways to community engagement are less clear, which leads to the search for the paths to such engagement that Brown and Ratzkin note.

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Given the nature of a nonprofit organization, it seems definitional that institutions should align their community engagement with their mission. The depth of that engagement, however, can fluctuate on a spectrum — from fairly passive (aligning the arts group with the sympathetic common interests of the community) to intentional (program design based on community needs that fall under the organization’s mission).

In addition, arts organizations must consider the diversity of the community with which it aims to engage. The more diverse a community is, the more an organization will need to direct its programming to meet the community’s needs — if, again, it wants to maximize its value to that community. Looked at in yet a different way, an arts organization may locate its community engagement on a spectrum — from self-expression (artist-centric) to social justice (community-centric). Understanding these relationships is critical for the organization because it is the underlying foundation of the value it brings to its community.

Engagement Graph
(Click to enlarge.)

Arts organization must also consider “audience engagement,” which focuses specifically on those who attend or are imagined likely to attend its activities. If community engagement looks to how the institution relates to its community, audience engagement refers to the interaction of an organization with its audience or intended audience, and the interaction between audience members and the artist or artistic work they experience.

This interaction goes beyond the audience member’s real-time experience of the art. In fact, it deepens that experience, presumably also deepening the relationship — including the commitment — between that audience member and the organization. A fairly common way to conceptualize this relationship is on an arc of engagement, one that begins with a basic interest in attending, continues through the experience itself, and concludes with a process of understanding and value-making in the penumbra of the post-experience. In their modeling of this arc, Brown and Ratzkin took inspiration from the corporate idea of “experience design,” which approaches the design of products and services with an emphasis on user experience, and from the Australian Council’s six-stage model of the audience journey online:

Engagement Experience Graph
(Click to enlarge)

The unspoken assumption at most arts groups is that greater audience engagement, and the deepening commitment that audience engagement delivers, is directly related to increasing audience size. For this reason, “audience building” — the analytical, strategic approach to increasing an audience — is typically conflated with audience engagement. While they may, in fact, go hand in hand and overlap, they are distinct and should be viewed discretely for their strategic roles — not every organization engaged in increasing audience engagement is looking to increase its audience. One can imagine, for example, a performing arts organization wanting to increase the depth of its audience engagement without necessarily increasing its audience size because it has no capacity to spare.

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As I noted earlier, much of the current ubiquity of “engagement” results from concern about how to reverse the decline in attendance at traditional performances. Many believe that if we can only understand how audiences today “engage,” we can communicate and design their experience appropriately and, thereby, increase our audience size to a scale healthy enough to help stabilize our organization. The usual approach is to look for demographic or generational generalities of behavior and then repackage our current offerings, or to communicate in what is believed to be a more palatable way, so as to rebuild an audience.

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Noises OffBut what if this premise — that we can solve our problem solely through communication and packaging — is wrong? What if audiences simply no longer have sufficient interest in traditional presentations or don’t find enough value in them? How should we plan engagement to have the greatest impact with our audience and prospective audience?

Unlike in the past, where the only way to experience art was “live” — whether as a spectator or as a participant — recent decades have seen a continuing shift to a world in which almost all of life can now be experienced in a mediated form. The digital age has acculturated younger audience members and artists to mediated experiences and, therefore, a different experience of the arts. Where the very act of attending and experiencing art was an act of engagement for previous cohorts, it is now only one of a number of types of experiences and may not, therefore, carry the same importance or value.

If, in the past, due to the limited ability to create and see art, arts organizations provided the only vehicle for engagement for most people, now that making art is universally accessible, perhaps organizations no longer need fulfill that role. To appreciate the depths of this shift on their business environment, arts organizations need only look at the commercial sphere. Companies that create and distribute content have seen their business model collapse or become severely threatened (newspapers, book publishers, music producers, movies), while businesses providing platforms for participation have reached stratospheric valuations (Facebook, Instagram, YouTube). Whether a similar approach is viable for arts organizations, as Henry Jenkins and Vanessa Bertozzi propose in their contribution to Engaging Arts, can only be answered by each organization understanding and analyzing fully its community and audience engagement.

While there is no single clear pathway to maximizing value to a community and building strong audiences, most commentators acknowledge that audiences have fragmented and can no longer — if they really ever could — be approached as a monolithic group. Such an environment would naturally seem to require a segmented approach dealing with each audience component. Tepper and Ivey propose that the future health and stability of our arts organizations will depend on redefining our engagement in light of the changing habits of participation. As a result, they would say, organizations must reorient themselves “to pay greater attention to the diversity of motivations and experiences associated with cultural participation.” In a similar way, the British consulting firm Morris Hargreaves McIntyre has specialized in analyzing audience segmentation from a psychographic point of view. They identified eight psychographics of arts attendees and then mapped these onto data, such as attendance frequency. From these archetypes, they can design how to most effectively reach an intended audience and allocate one’s resources to achieve the greatest gain in terms of audience building. Such approaches look to design engagement around the artistic event in ways that are most appropriate for the different ways people process their experience, with a goal of increasing the value maximally.

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All of this intuitively makes sense, and there is initial data that may validate this assumption that the arts experience itself has diminished as the central motivator to engagement. For example, the NEA’s When Going Gets Tough: Barriers and Motivations Affecting Arts Attendance reports that the social aspect of arts attendance is increasingly the most prominent factor for numerous cohorts. According to LaPlaca Cohen’s CultureTrack 2014:

[c]ultural audiences are seeking both entertainment and enlightenment … … and it’s less about being “in-the-know” than it is about being with who you know.

We should also be clear that new approaches probably require greater resources, so not only is the task more complex, it is very likely more expensive. This may be the price we have to pay in acknowledging that our audiences have become more diverse and their diversity is much more complex than we thought.

In an earlier time, arts leaders had clearer pathways to understand how to engage with their communities and audience, and how to deliver the value they expected from us. Today, in our tumultuous, continually evolving and diverse environment, we must pursue different pathways to achieve that goal. Success relies on a careful and clear understanding of the strategic imperatives and goals we set for ourselves. This can only be fully done if we set those goals and imperatives while keeping the close relation between audience engagement, community engagement, and audience building in mind, but considering them each distinct areas, and by not conflating them into a single question for consideration.