Most arts administrators understand that audience data is important. Yet, why don’t more organizations collect audience data on a regular basis? Many point to staff capacity as the reason for this disconnect, and certainly arts administrators are often stretched too thin. However, if organizations know data collection and analysis is important, the issue may be that they don’t feel the resulting insights are as useful to them as the products of the other tasks they manage to complete.

Frank Lloyd Wright famously said, “form and function are one.” This 20th century architectural philosophy dictated that shape should reflect purpose and that each element must work towards a larger goal. This is just as true in research. While every company can garner great benefit from audience research, if they don’t know why they’re surveying in the first place, they invariably ask the wrong questions.

WolfBrown’s Intrinsic Impact program builds on the premise that the data we collect should help organizations understand if they are achieving their goals. That only works when organizations have clearly articulated those goals, which can be harder than it sounds. Michael DeWhatley wrote in HowlRound about how theaters are often faced with the challenge of defining success for themselves because it differs from organization to organization. Surveys need to be customized to measure indicators of clearly articulated impact goals. Function dictates form and knowing why a survey is being deployed gives vital shape and focus to its design.

To be fully functional, data has to be actionable. This action can take many shapes, from adjusting the patron experience to better communicating the impact of programs. Whatever the potential action, the most useful conversations I have with clients revolve around the question of what they’ll do differently when they see results from their survey. This helps organizations keep the intended uses for the data front of mind, which, in turn leads to fuller organizational investment in the research.

For example, we have partnered with Asimetrica to bring the Intrinsic Impact program to arts organizations in Spain. In a recent case study on the Intrinsic Impact blog, director Raul Ramos showed how the Spanish National Orchestra was able to increase first-time attendance, particularly for young and diverse audiences, using the results of longitudinal surveying. By identifying their goals from the beginning, they were able to craft a survey that collected responses detailing what worked for their audiences. They made adjustments based on these responses, and the survey then tracked how well those adjustments worked. Using this iterative surveying process, the Orchestra has already used data to increase subscriptions and audience engagement.

Strong audience research requires relevance in both the collection and the implementation of data. Data is a tool and implementing surveys without looking at how you’ll use them is like using a screwdriver to install a nail. You end up putting both aside and not discovering the full potential of either. More than a lack of capacity, I think it is having the wrong toolbox that has prevented many arts organizations from more fully realizing the value of audience data.

 

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Season’s greetings from all of us at WolfBrown! Once again, we asked the WolfBrown team to reflect on a particularly memorable cultural experience from the last year to share with our readers. From ballet, to music enjoyed at home, to observing creative play, you’ll find just a few of the experiences that stood out in this holiday issue.

 

We wish you happy holidays and a wonderful 2018!

 

Dennie Palmer Wolf

Transform, Invite, Beckon 

When asked to write about my arts experience of the year, I scanned all my ticketed and curtained and framed events of 2017. But behind me there was the clack, snap, and slide of two boys building with MagnaTiles  (translucent jewel-toned geometric shapes that cling together in improbable shapes due to embedded magnets.) So here I am, against the rules, declaring their play my art experience of the year — because it made so clear what I want from a play or a painting:

 

To Transform and Release: The chance to make a physics-defying structure, pushes back the ordinary socks-before-shoes world, creating a flow of experience out of time, place, and body. Once there is a steep, pitched tower five floors high, no one can even hear that voice calling out for the third time that dinner is on the table.

To Invite:  The boys are brothers. In the presence of the tiles, the younger one can amaze the older with his ideas, the younger has to ask the older for help in execution. They are, for those minutes, bound together: two minds, four hands. Not rivals, only paired gravity defy-ers.

To Beckon:  Within the compass of only a few minutes, the building beckons in Luke Skywalker, bots, plains walkers, invented wizards, tempests, and villains. They assemble, aggregating into a mixed, fantastical heritage, drawn from every book, film, and outdoor game — culture at its most crowded and raucous.

Come 2018, that’s what I’m looking for. Bring it on. Make it happen.

 

Alan Brown

Indelible Moments

2017 was a year of enormous change for me — most notably a torturously long and complicated process of buying and selling real estate. Happily, I am now a resident of Detroit, and eager to figure out how I can contribute to the cultural renaissance of this great city. For the next year, I plan to get reacquainted with the City where I grew up and visit as many arts programs, urban farms, parks, and community events as possible. My view of the meaning and impact of the arts continues to evolve, informed not only through our research partnerships with arts organizations, foundations, and agencies, but also as a caregiver to my very elderly parents, who still live in the house where I was raised in the suburbs of Detroit. Through their profound mental and physical challenges, they continue to enjoy classical music, although getting out to concerts has become less and less feasible. Earlier this year, with the kind cooperation of Christopher Harding, chair of the Piano Department at the University of Michigan School of Music, Theatre & Dance, two PhD students in piano performance came to my parents’ home to play a recital for an audience of four. My father, who is mostly blind and partially deaf, sat close enough to the keyboard to feel the young musicians awaken the giant in a Steinway grand piano. A free flow of conversation with the young artists deeply enriched the experience. For as long as I live, I will never forget the look of utter contentment on his face during the last Rachmaninoff piece. For the year to come, I wish you many of these unexplainable, indelible moments.

 

Steven Holochworst

National Take a Stand Festival 

Without question the most memorable performance I attended this year was that of the orchestra at the National Take a Stand Festival. The orchestra was comprised of students participating in El Sistema-inspired programs of music education across the country, programs that typically work with under-served children of color. Students were selected through competitive auditions to join the orchestra, and after a week of rehearsals, they performed in Walt Disney Concert Hall under the direction of Thomas Wilkins and Gustavo Dudamel.

 

Together with my colleagues Dennie Palmer Wolf and Judy Bose, I have spent the past five years studying the ancillary benefits of participating in these programs. That work requires assessing students one at a time using a combination of paper-and-pencil and computer-based measures. As the students will (quickly) tell you, the measures are boring, but their routinized nature is necessary to producing credible results. That said, as I listened to the performance I was reminded of the limits of such measures, which fall utterly short of capturing the joy exhibited by the students as they played, or the pride on the faces of their families as they listened. Anyone attending that performance would have received tales of the demise of the American symphony orchestra with skepticism. Indeed, they would have been forgiven for thinking that the future of those orchestras was on stage.

 

Victoria Plettner Saunders 

Wonderspaces

Some of the more inspiring arts moments I’ve had this year have been in non-traditional settings… on the beach, in an airport, on a college campus lawn… but the most inspiring was Wonderspaces, a “pop-up arts celebration” with work that ranged from room-sized installations to virtual reality films. The whole thing took place in a big tent on a vacant lot here in San Diego. There were 20+ interactive experiences like Illegal Arts’ The Last Word in which everyone was invited to put the “last words” they would have liked to have told someone but didn’t get the chance to on a small piece of paper and roll it up. We inserted our roll in a metal grid on the wall; co-mingling it with others’. It was as powerful to put mine in the grid as it was to read others’ anonymous words and feel at one with my fellow life travelers. In Matthew Matthew’s On a Human Scale, there was a series of video screens with faces of everyday New Yorkers; each one singing one note when a visitor to the installation plunked a key on a small piano. There were no instructions. People interacted with each other as they engaged with the installation figuring out how to make it work and then sharing surprise when they did. One of the joys of these exhibits was the collective experience I had with others as we interacted with the works. It inspired me to imagine arts venues in a new light. I’m on a team developing an Arts Master Plan for San Diego International Airport. Airports are looking for ways to create unexpected moments and unusual experiences for travelers that take their minds off the stresses of air travel or provide them with activity while they wait. My experience with Wonderspaces inspired me to think about art in airports in ways that reach beyond the permanent collection and surprise us with a creative encounter in an unexpected place.

 

Joe Kluger

Opera Philadelphia: We Shall Not Be Moved

I attended many great performances this past year, including Geoff Sobelle’s Home at the Philadelphia Fringe Festival (full disclosure, directed by my daughter-in-law Lee Sunday Evans), Lights Out: Nat “King” Cole at People’s Light, and Mahler Symphony No. 3 with Yannick Nézet-Séguin conducting The Philadelphia Orchestra.

 

The event that moved me the most, however (despite its title), was Opera Philadelphia’s world premiere of We Shall Not Be Moved, one of the centerpieces of the Company’s inaugural 12-day opera immersion festival. This groundbreaking chamber opera chronicles the challenges facing five fictional teenagers, who take up temporary residence in the now abandoned West Philadelphia home of MOVE, the black liberation organization, on whose compound a police helicopter dropped a bomb in 1985, killing 11 people, including five children. Their ghosts help the teenagers confront their demons and fears, in a dramatic story that is told through a musical gumbo of gospel, funk, jazz, R&B, hip-hop, classical styles, and spoken-word poetry with modern and hip-hop choreography under the inspired direction of Bill T. Jones. The Opera, which was repeated as the initial installment in a multi-year relationship between Opera Philadelphia and New York’s Apollo Theater, moved The New York Times to include it as one of the best classical music events of 2017. I moved to Philadelphia in 1985, shortly after the actual MOVE bombing on which this opera was based. With so many compelling artistic experiences here, I see no reason to move again.

 

Thomas Wolf

Why Don’t They Sing 

What can a grandparent say, when his granddaughter sings with the US National Children’s Chorus at Saint Peter’s Basilica in Rome?  Of course, that cultural event was my favorite of 2017!  But since bragging about grandchildren is probably the least popular form of conversation (for those having to listen), let me make a larger point.  Having watched as those children rapidly mastered music-making by singing, I wonder why we put such emphasis on instrumental training for the young.  Parents so often default to instruments — piano or guitar or violin or (please save me!) drums.  The recent growth of El Sistema programs in the US that put kids into orchestra settings, only exacerbates the trend.  But think about it!  Those young people experience the double whammy of having to learn about music (how to read it, how to count beats, how to be expressive) AND struggle with the technical issues associated with playing an instrument.  No wonder so many become discouraged.  Kids who sing in a chorus can rely on instruments they have been using for years — their voices — while concentrating on the music itself.  If as a result, they are bitten by the music bug, then that is the time to introduce them to an instrument. HAPPY HOLIDAYS!

 

Alan Kline

San Francisco Ballet: Sensorium 

Last March, WolfBrown’s Bay Area team attended San Francisco Ballet’s Sensorium. There is a specter of expert exclusivity that haunts classical arts, so an event targeting new audiences felt appropriate for this non-connoisseur. Despite barely knowing George Balanchine’s work, I found myself captivated  by the way the small movements in his choreography of Diamonds broke traditional ballet’s lines and flow. Often prestige prevents audiences from acknowledging personal taste, but it only took this small  point of connection for me to recognize my own preference for the modern and non-literal in ballet.

 

Almost as revelatory as the dance, were the engagement activities that peppered the War Memorial Opera House. From posting an Instagram photo in a tutu, to getting hair arranged in a proper ballet bun, each of my colleagues found a different activity memorable. For my part, I was deeply flattered when a ballerina told me I was one of the most stable partners who had supported her in an on pointe turn that day. I saw her comment was a gift that I would take with me, just as my colleagues would be taking home photographs and new skills from their experiences. I realized on-site engagement is much more successful if it is presented as an opportunity to receive something.

 

I was lucky to see many beautiful performances that inspired and moved me this year. Sensorium stood out, however, because it helped me better understand my own relationship to the arts and gave personal insight into audience experiences for the field as a whole.

 

Megan Friel

Boro-Linc: Elena Moon Park and Sonia De Los Santos

Over the last year, I’ve spent many hours observing community programs in each borough of New York City as part of our work with Lincoln Center Education’s Boro-Linc program. On January 20th, as many in the city were glued to inauguration night coverage, I was in a school auditorium suspended in the warm and playful energy of the dance party and sing along that Elena Moon Park and Sonia De Los Santos were leading. Children danced at Elena Moon Park’s feet and ran up and down the aisles laughing as they learned the steps to “Diu Diu Deng,” a Taiwanese train song. Parents and children sang together as Sonia De Los Santos taught the lyrics to “Esta Es Su Tierra” or “This Land Is Your Land.” In a room where the audience was as diverse as the musical selection, I watched as families pointed out familiar elements of their own culture to their children and learned new traditions together. Observing families share an evening of music, dance, and play with their neighbors affirmed my belief in the important role the arts play in holding space for these moments. The feeling in that room on that night that stayed with me for a long time and as I watched parents thank the school’s director for hosting the event as they left, I knew that I was not the only one that felt it.

 

John Carnwath

The long, spidery legs of impact

I’ve been thinking a lot about the long-term, cumulative impact that arts experiences have on our lives lately as part of our work for the Canada Council for the Arts. We’ve developed sophisticated methodologies for measuring the initial response to a performance or work of art — what we’ve sometimes referred to as the initial “imprint”–, but art affects us on so many levels and in so many ways that fluctuate over time, that the idea that the total impact, experienced over time, would be a fixed quantity is increasingly troubling to me. One article I recently read criticized the “objectification” of impact, and that really gets to the heart of what bothers me about the concept of impact. The arts affect us in many ways—yes—but “impact” is a construct that we have developed as a sort of shorthand to talk about the multiple ways in which we are affected, as though it were something fixed, knowable, and measurable.

 

In trying to think of performances and art works I experienced in 2017 that made a particularly strong impression on me, I was initially inclined to think it wasn’t a very eventful year in terms of the arts for me. Could any of those works claim a spot beside the truly transformative arts experiences I recall from my youth? But then I realized that I only grew to appreciate some of those early experiences later in life, and as I was lost in those memories, I remembered — seemingly out of the blue — the sculpture of a giant spider that looms over the entrance to Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art. How had I forgotten that when mentally reviewing my most memorable arts experiences of 2017? Standing 30-feet tall, with a bulging sack of white spider eggs, Maman by Louise Bourgeois is simultaneously repulsive/hostile/terrifying and comforting/protecting/nurturing. I doubt I will ever forget that sculpture, and yet, at least for a while, it was completely absent from my mind.

 

In light of these tricks of the mind, how does one begin to compare arts experiences that are so distant in form, place, and time, particularly given that I — the person observing them — have changed so much over the years?

 

These were just some of the many artistic highlights of the year for us. We look forward to creating many more memories with you in 2018

 

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Today, I’m pleased to share the product of WolfBrown’s fruitful collaboration over the past year with Capacity Interactive, the digital marketing consulting firm. The Performing Arts Ticket Buyer Media Usage Study, available for free download, provides a current snapshot of the digital and print media consumption patterns of performing arts patrons, showing a massive trend toward digital consumption.

 

Not wholly unexpected, the study of almost 27,000 arts ticket buyers provides strong evidence of the transformed landscape of arts marketing and patron engagement. As experts in digital marketing, our partners at Capacity Interactive have done a wonderful job of contextualizing the results and reflecting on their implications for arts organizations.

 

Current and former WolfBrown and Capacity Interactive clients were invited to participate in the study at no cost. In the end, 58 organizations across the fields of theatre, dance, classical music and multi-disciplinary presenters cooperated. The aggregate responses yield a nuanced picture of consumers’ preferences and behavior. Although we can’t be sure that the data is representative of all ticket buyers across North America, the large sample size allows for the exploration of trends across subpopulations to a degree that is rarely achieved in arts research.

 

Beyond the results, the Media Usage Study is notable for another reason, and hopefully a harbinger of things to come.

 

For many years, I’ve wondered if there’s a better way to make high quality market research available at a low cost to a broader and more diverse array of arts organizations. As a service provider to foundations and arts organizations who are willing and able to commission professional quality market research, my WolfBrown colleagues and I have an inside view of how applied market research gets bought and paid for, and, to be honest, it’s often an unsettling picture.

 

More often than not, big-ticket audience research gets funded by philanthropic foundations in the context of grants to build audiences or deepen community service. Most grant programs are competitive by design – there are winners and losers. The winners get all the resources, and the losers lack both the incentive and ability to access the learning process. While there are real benefits for the winners, I’m much more interested in the “losers” – by which I mean all the fantastic organizations who are unsuccessful in getting foundation grants that bring access to research.

 

Notwithstanding the good efforts of foundations to diversify their grantee pools, we are still looking at a system that offers privileged access to information to those who write really good grant applications.1

 

In many cases, funded research is proprietary in nature and never disclosed to a broader audience. Assumptions are made about the need to hold the results confidential, regardless of whether there is sensitive information. Of course some research needs to be proprietary. And some foundations make a point of sharing research results in the form of distilled summaries or case studies. Still, the collateral damage to the field as measured in the opportunity cost of existing knowledge that never travels is incalculable. Studies get repeated over and over again at enormous cost to organizations and funders because there’s no system for distributing the learning process more widely, compounded by inefficiencies in the way knowledge is exchanged across organizations and sectors.

 

Consultants like WolfBrown are often complicit in perpetuating these inefficiencies. We make money by doing similar studies over and over again. There is little incentive to tell inquiring organizations that “you really don’t need to do this study because another organization just did it, and here’s who you should call.” And so, the merry-go-round of privileged access to research goes round and round.

 

It’s time for a new approach to applied market research – one that breaks down historical barriers to learning. And that’s why the Media Usage Study released this week is important to me – because it sows the seeds of a new approach to field learning.

 

At our insistence, the organizations that opted into the Media Usage Study all agreed to full transparency – everyone could see everyone else’s results aggregated at the organizational level. Everyone had a chance to comment on the protocol design, and many helpful suggestions were incorporated into the final version. Each organization emailed the survey to a sample of their recent ticket buyers and data was collected in a week’s time. The resulting data was immediately reflected back to the study partners via an online dashboard.

 

This is not as simple as figuring out how to scale up research using technology. That’s half the battle, but the larger and far more difficult challenge is figuring out how to crowdsource the learning that happens after data is collected. I envision a time when arts organizations can opt into multi-site studies at a very low cost, with or without funder support, and help each other interpret the results with minimal support from consultants.

 

Over the months and years to come, I invite you to follow us as we embark on this necessary adventure towards more equitable access to research and learning.

 

1Some foundations aim to make research more accessible to a broader cross-section of organizations. The William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, for example, supported the Audience Research Collaborative, a multi-year program of research support for 40 of its grantees, large and small, on an opt-in basis. Many of the savviest consumers of research were managers and board members of small organizations.

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Teatro alla Scala (Photo:iStock/jericho667)

I spent much of last summer engrossed in the new biography of Arturo Toscanini, the legendary conductor, which was reviewed in the New York Times last June. At over 900 pages, the biography by Harvey Sachs has represented quite an investment of my time — but it has been worthwhile simply to gain historical perspective on the fields of opera and symphonic music in the 20th century. In the early years, people like Toscanini were bigger than today’s rock stars. In Italy, when Toscanini led La Scala, opera was the dominant form of popular entertainment and operas had to be performed many times to accommodate demand. What changed, according to Sachs, was in part the coming of cinema – certainly not a surprise. What was a surprise (at least to me) was the fact that Sachs believes that opera’s decline in Italy was also influenced by its transition from an art form constantly rejuvenated by new work to a form consisting primarily of repeat classics. In Toscanini’s day, fully half the productions at La Scala featured new compositions. Many, if not most, of the operas that were presented there are forgotten today just as the majority of this year’s new movies will be forgotten a decade hence. But the medium was constantly being refreshed and there was always a reason to attend.

So I have been puzzling out the whole question of whether “the new” is helpful or harmful in opera and symphonic music. With “the new” of technology, it has been a mixed bag. Cinema helped kill much of Italian opera’s popularity but around the same time, recordings became a boon to symphony orchestras, contributing millions of dollars to their bottom lines with Toscanini being one of the biggest sellers. On the other hand, more recently, the coming of the internet has led to the collapse of that same recording industry, contributing to the woes of orchestras. With opera, the advent of High Definition (HD) has led to millions of new opera goers enjoying extraordinary Metropolitan Opera productions at local movie theatres for a fraction of what it would cost to see the same productions live. But it has also cannibalized the Met’s own live audiences and been a disaster for many local opera companies that cannot possibly compete with the high production values of the Met. And while new work made Italian opera a popular art form for decades, if not centuries, it was a difficult slog for symphony orchestras over the last half century where ticket-buyers and donors have demanded the same old classics.

The lesson may be so obvious as to seem trite. Only organizations and art forms that are able to adapt can flourish in the long run.

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As the newest member of WolfBrown’s San Francisco office, I want to introduce myself to our readers and share how excited I am to continue learning about arts audiences and organizations with my colleagues and our clients. My own interest in the puzzle of how to capture the impact of arts and culture intensified during my time fundraising for the University of California, Berkeley’s Department of Arts & Humanities. Reporting to our donors on the impact of their gifts was a core part of my work and so the hurdle of procuring data to support anecdotal stories was ever present. As I discussed with my colleagues how best to attract a donor base heavy with Silicon Valley entrepreneurs, the challenge of providing meaningful data on the arts & humanities continued to captivate me.

My interest in assessing the impact of the arts led me to New York, where I pursued a master’s in Arts Administration at Columbia University. There, I combined coursework in cultural policy and arts access with classes on survey research and program evaluation. Throughout my research, I came across report after report authored by WolfBrown. These reports fascinated me and I was fortunate enough to have the opportunity to spend the summer in WolfBrown’s San Francisco office researching how arts organizations can use theories of change to clarify the logic behind their audience development strategies.

As I returned to New York, I felt invigorated by the research I had completed over the summer and excited to pour this new knowledge into my master’s thesis, which focused on the implementation of evaluation findings on community arts programs. With this research fresh in my mind, I joined WolfBrown on a project for Lincoln Center Education. Here, I was out in the field, working to understand the impact of Lincoln Center Education’s community programs by administering surveys, observing performances, and conducting interviews. At family performances, I noticed the ways that parents modeled engagement for their children, acting as the first teachers to shape their child’s creative development. As I conducted focus groups after library screenings of Lincoln Center performances, I listened intently as senior community members explained the importance of formats that allowed for an active cultural life close to home. These experiences served as a powerful reminder of the importance of having access to rich arts experiences at all ages and of taking the time to collect data that can help to sustain this access. Needless to say, I am beyond thrilled to be able to continue this work in my position at WolfBrown.

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Those of you who have read my On Our Minds posts over the years will know that I have a passion for circus arts (although I keep my own feet firmly planted on the ground). Awareness of circus arts has blossomed in recent years, in part due to the popularity of Cirque du Soleil and more recently (and sadly), the demise of Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey. There has also been an explosion of circus training programs across the country, providing people of all ages and capacities the opportunity to enjoy the challenges and rewards of circus training at the amateur level. Further, innovative new permutations of the art form such as social circus, a social intervention approach based on the circus arts, have received increasing recognition.

Dozens of circus organizations were featured this summer in Washington, DC at the annual Smithsonian Folklife Festival. In conjunction with the Festival, the NEA welcomed nearly 200 circus arts professionals to their offices to engage in a conversation about the state of the field, marking another step along the path to broader recognition of circus as an art form. Many in the circus world were happy to see a subsequent article on the NEA website by Michael Orlove, Director of Artist Communities and Presenting & Multidisciplinary Works, in which he stated: “It is our job, collectively, to see that this unique art form receives the requisite attention and unconditional support it so deserves.” While there is still a long way to go before this translates into a formal recognition by funders and actual grant dollars, it marks a significant shift from earlier dismissive attitudes about the world of circus. It will be interesting to see where this leads!

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I’m pleased to announce that arts research, planning, and strategy consultant Victoria Plettner-Saunders has joined WolfBrown. Before joining WolfBrown, Victoria managed her own private consulting practice, v.p.s. cartographie, for 12 years providing “navigational” assistance for arts and culture organizations, philanthropic foundations, government arts agencies, and individuals. She continues this work as a Principal with WolfBrown, bringing her expertise in planning for communities, arts agencies, and cultural institutions as well as providing research and analysis on topics such as the creative workforce, arts education, community arts, arts leadership, creative career development, and the cultural workplace.

Victoria has figured prominently in local arts agency planning and community cultural planning projects that have led to measurable impacts on communities such as Nashville, San José, Santa Ana, and Laguna Beach. She has assisted a wide range of organizations and initiatives including the Millard Sheets Center for the Arts at Fairplex (Pomona, CA); Lux Art Institute (Encinitas, CA); Dance Place at Liberty Station (San Diego, CA), San Diego Junior Theatre, San Diego Cooperative Charter Schools, and the Port of San Diego’s Office of Arts and Culture. She is a recognized arts education advocate, writer, planner and researcher on the role of arts education in community settings, and was Chair of Americans for the Arts’ Arts Education Council from 2010 to 2013.

For 2017, Victoria is teaming with urban planner and public art consultant Todd W. Bressi and public art consultant Meridith McKinley of Via Partnership to create the first Arts Master Plan for the San Diego International Airport, which aspires to engage airport visitors in new and unexpected ways.

Over the years, Victoria has developed an abiding interest in the creative workforce, which infuses all of her work. Her publications on this topic include articles for the University of Oregon’s CultureWork including most recently, Coming of Age: A Decade of Change in the American Arts Workforce. In 2004, she started San Diego’s first leadership program for emerging arts professionals and later conducted statewide research for the James Irvine Foundation on next generation leadership in the arts, which led to initiatives that currently support a network for California emerging arts leaders. She is the Creative Director of ArtCareerCafe.com, a job search website that connects qualified, passionate arts job seekers with employers.

Prior to her consulting career, she was Managing Director for Malashock Dance; Business and Marketing Director for the Playwrights Project; Executive Director of San Diego Dance Institute, and held various staff positions at the City of San Diego Commission for Arts and Culture. Victoria holds an MA in Arts Education/Community Cultural Services from the University of Oregon.

Based in San Diego, Victoria enjoys collaborating with a wide range of consultants including her husband, David Plettner-Saunders, Managing Partner with the Cultural Planning Group.

Contact Information for Victoria Plettner-Saunders:
Email:  victoria@wolfbrown.com
Telephone:  (619) 540-2925

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Although Ira Gershwin said, “Summertime, and the livin’ is easy,” that is not the case for most non-profit arts and culture groups, including those which operate on an academic calendar or June 30 fiscal year. The quest to generate more resources to reach more people is a 365 day a year, 24/7 endeavor, which is why no one in the arts holds a “mission accomplished” celebration.

While passion for an organization’s public service mission is laudable and perseverance essential to success, there is a risk of failure when a non-profit does not manage its administrative resources as carefully as those for its programs. This requires resisting pressure to reduce staff below minimum levels without reducing program scope, as well as not giving into the corollary temptation to increase programs without insuring they are adequately staffed.

This is not to suggest that non-profit leaders should be profligate; conserving organizational resources must always be a priority. In this quest, however, leaders should avoid the resource drain of “perfectionism” that can result from an inexorable, unrealistic pursuit of excellence. Every client I work with has “excellence” or “quality” as a core value, as it should be. Yet any strength can become a weakness, if it is not regulated properly. As non-profit social media expert and author Beth Kanter points out in a recent blog post about non-profit workplace stress, “Perfectionism is an internal mindset where we tell ourselves that bad things in the world will happen if our campaign, program or whatever is not perfect from the beginning, delivered with 500% [effort] and on a self-determined, but unrealistic deadline. Perfectionism is the enemy of learning and ultimately of getting improved impact. It also makes work life really stressful.”

Kanter also provides a link to a 99U.com article called Satisficing, which she says is “the act of stepping back and stopping that perfectionism behavior — and feeling that good enough is okay.  Many people who work in the nonprofit sector are driven by passion for their work because we are doing good and many of us share being over achievers. So, it is hard for us not to give our complete energy, even at the expense of our well-being and stressing ourselves out.”

So, as summer starts, perhaps it is time for those of us who have committed our professional lives to the non-profit sector to respond to an unreasonable request for perfection by telling the person asking to “go jump in a lake.” If that is not possible, at the very least I encourage you all to take a literal swim in a lake, before getting back to work.

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Perched on the banks of a quiet lake beyond which the snowcapped mountains of Switzerland rise into the sky, the South German city of Konstanz (population 80,000) is a relaxing getaway for weekend tourists and tranquil home to many retirees. Both culturally and geographically, it’s hard to imagine a place in Germany further from the bustle of Berlin.

And yet the local symphony orchestra, the Südwestdeutsche Philharmonie (SWP), was recently recognized by the German federal government for its outstanding accomplishments. When we met earlier this spring, the unassuming director Beat Fehlmann claimed not to be sure why his orchestra received this honor, but surmised that it may have had to do with the orchestra’s commitment to public accountability, which has recently been making waves in the German orchestra field.

Mr. Fehlmann is in the enviable position of leading an organization that receives over 80% of its budget from state and local subsidies, with few, if any, questions asked. While utterly unheard of in the US or UK, this situation is quite typical of cultural institutions in Germany. However, given what is happening to cultural budgets in other countries and realizing that politicians everywhere are increasingly under pressure to explain and justify public spending (particularly spending that might be seen as primarily serving the well-to-do elite), Mr. Fehlmann sees the writing on the wall. It seems clear that state and municipally funded cultural institutions in Germany will increasingly need to show how they are using taxpayer euros and explain the value they are bringing to society in return.

For the past three years, the SWP has therefore published an annual report detailing everything from the number of subscriptions sold, to the number of special events that were presented, and the number of sick days taken by the musicians. Not satisfied with managerial accounting, the SWP has identified and is in the process of refining five Impact Goals, to which it wants to hold itself accountable. They include celebrating the breadth of the musical cannon, presenting innovative programs, and fulfilling an educational mission. The annual report presents specific measures associated with each.

In adopting this practice, Mr. Fehlmann has positioned his organization ahead of the curve. Unlike colleagues in the UK who are being required to report standardized audience survey scores, the SWP is in the enviable position of defining the metrics to which it wants to be held accountable. If these measures prove effective, the organization may well avert other external impositions.

As someone who spent more than a little time contemplating the purpose and effects of cultural subsidies in Germany in an earlier life (resulting in a 500-page doctoral thesis on the topic), I have been fascinated to learn about the SWP’s work in the area of accountability. I left our weekend of meetings in Konstanz inspired by Mr. Fehlmann and his enterprising team, and both curious about and full of hope for the orchestra’s future.

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In this special issue of On Our Minds:

 

Introduction
Series Editor: Dennie Palmer Wolf, WolfBrown

The Impact of Raising the Stakes
Courtney J. Boddie, The New Victory Theater

The Impact of Investing in Human Capital
Jamie Roach, Teaching Artist, The New Victory Theater

The Impact of Re-thinking Research and Practice
Steven Holochwost, WolfBrown

Curating Impact, Not Shows
Alan Brown and Sean Fenton, WolfBrown

And so…
Dennie Palmer Wolf, WolfBrown

 


 

Introduction


One of the “specialties of the house” at WolfBrown is thinking with clients about innovative ways to measure the impact of their work. In Counting New Beans: Intrinsic Impact and the Value of Art (featuring the report Measuring the Intrinsic Impact of Live Theatre), Alan Brown pioneered work on capturing the intrinsic impact of performing arts experiences on audiences. Dennie Wolf and Steven Holochwost have pursued new ways to look at intersectional impact, identifying aspects of human behavior that are particularly sensitive to what the arts and culture have to offer, such as socio-emotional development and risk mitigation in vulnerable populations. In this series of blog entries, all of us, together with colleagues at The New Victory Theater, discuss the organizational impact of innovation, a way of taking stock of the consequences of undertaking innovative practices or new programs. Our basic premise: genuinely new ways of working are hard, labor-intensive, and expensive; but they should reverberate throughout an organization.

 

While this issue of On Our Minds addresses the consequences of SPARK for New Victory’s work, we believe the framework for thinking about the organizational impact of innovation speaks clearly to the work of many cultural organizations seeking to cut new paths.

 


 

The innovation: SPARK

 

Photo: Alexis Buatti-Ramos, courtesy of The New Victory Theater

SPARK, or “Schools with the Performing Arts Reach Kids,” is a robust, five-year theatre arts program, funded by The Pierre and Tana Matisse Foundation, specifically designed for elementary and middle schools with no history of arts programming. With this funding, the New Victory challenged staff and teaching artists to learn to work intensively in schools where teachers and students didn’t know what to expect in an arts partnership. Every year, in each SPARK school, students engage in 15 performing arts workshops with highly trained teaching artists who develop and increase student’s creative skills in circus, puppetry, theater, and dance. Young people also attend three varied live performances by international arts companies where they see the skills they’ve been acquiring live on stage. Throughout, teaching artists, working side-by-side with classroom teachers, model the ensemble skills of discussion, collaboration, and rehearsal that are an integral part of theater practice.

 


 

The Impact of Raising the Stakes
By Courtney J. Boddie, The New Victory Theater

 

You might say that the New Victory has a ”thing” for raising the stakes. Who else puts wild urban circuses on the beautifully restored stage of a turn-of-the-century theater? Who else would perform X: Or, Betty Shabazz v. The Nation – a courtroom drama focused on the assassination of Malcolm X — for young audiences? The New Vic’s SPARK program is no different – it raised the stakes by entering into intensive and sustained relationships with a set of New York schools that serve some of the city’s poorest children. The intensity of the partnership brought the entire organization face-to-face with the consequences of trauma — young people, teachers, and schools all of whom live daily with the inequalities that are New York. The work has taught us not just to believe in the power of the arts, but also to live out that commitment in ways that have re-defined our comfort zone. Three examples make this clear:

  • Agency: Many of the schools that have no arts serve students with high needs, spending their discretionary dollars on tutoring and other support services, pushing to meet standards. In SPARK, we wanted to turn this around by calling on principals’ and teachers’ agency. Instead of selecting sites, we asked interested schools to apply as the first step in identifying schools who wanted to partner in building an arts program. From the start, we wanted their ownership and vision as full partners.
  • Acknowledgement: SPARK schools operate under constant stress: in addition to being classrooms, they operate as clinics, safe zones, and community centers. Teachers triple as mediators, social workers, and diagnosticians. They can appear angry or disinterested. But rather than grumble, we had to act collectively. We would never be able to enliven curriculum or change school climate without teachers’ buy-in. We realized quickly that we had to redesign our professional development sessions to acknowledge what teachers were carrying. Every session called out the (sometimes hidden) performer in each teacher, offering humor, relaxation and collaboration. In addition, teaching artists doubled down on showing how theater skills could build literacy and numeracy. Finally, we re-directed one of each school’s teaching artist advisors to focus wholly on working with individual teachers to think through how theatre could make a difference in focus, behavior, and peer interactions.
  • And not least, theater as love: Many SPARK students live with personal traumas: homelessness, domestic violence, or forced migration. Especially in middle school this often translated into withdrawal and apathy or eruptive bullying and fighting. To respond to the students fully — with love rather than with disappointment or frustration – teaching artists needed a whole new set of skills. We invited behavioral counselors to observe and critique how teaching artists addressed conflict, and we worked with experts like Shawn Ginwright to explore concrete strategies for working respectfully with youth with trauma. We realized that teaching artists have to build, not assume, safe spaces for creative learning. (For instance, we learned that a low-stakes final rehearsal might be a much better culminating event than a full-blown show. The final rehearsal can be about growth and persistence, rather than perfect performances where “messing up” can ignite anger or sadness.

In our fourth year, the successes outweigh the challenges but only because we have spent three years mapping out the consequences of raising the stakes on how we work.

 


 

The Impact of Investing in Human Capital
By Jamie Roach, Teaching Artist, The New Victory Theater

 

Two years ago, New Victory asked its teaching artists about joining the research team. The offer was a little mysterious — some of my colleagues joked about putting on “white coats over their plaid pants” — but the chance to stay engaged and gain new skills was intriguing. For many teaching artists, the only chance you get to “grow” is to add more gigs or become an administrator. But this unconventional investment in human capital has turned out to be beneficial to the research and to my own professional development.

What I realized is that, as a theatre teaching artist, I have many of the traits that make for an effective researcher. Specialized expertise in the field — check. Keen observation skills — check. The ability to make sense of complex human interactions unfolding — check. The habit of showing up on time, with props, ready to dive in — check. For example, one of my jobs as a researcher was to ask students to improvise the end to a short story they had seen on video. Right away, my theater instincts told me that students were overwhelmed by the task and not able to engage fully. Drawing on my teaching artistry, I knew that if I gave them clear one-step directions on becoming the character (e.g., “Okay, get in his last position, start moving like he did…) students would be able to take off. I kept it neutral (after all, I was the researcher not a fellow actor), but I found a way to launch their performances — possibly in a way that few PhDs would have hit upon.

And the consequences flowed the other way as well: being a researcher informed my teaching artistry. As a researcher, I had the luxury to witness all the nuances and micro-narratives unfolding in a classroom. I can see a lesson starting to implode: a broken pencil, a boy with no way to sharpen it, frustrated, who then distracts another student, who then throws the unsharpened pencil at a third student, and ka-boom, the theater lesson is over. I feel like I’ve developed a sixth sense for that first moment and ways to dive in and turn it around — for myself and for my colleagues. One day a fellow teaching artist opened up about feeling disheartened: “I don’t know what happened today — one of the most focused students was totally checked out!” As the observer, I saw tiny behaviors he missed among the 35 children. That student had been following closely the whole while, whispering responses to the friend with his head down on the table recovering from an earlier incident.

This chance to become a researcher has also changed my understanding of how impact actually happens. Getting the chance to witness a particular student over the course of a year illuminated the way that progress occurs: two steps forward, one step back, and less linear than it is layered. I now think and respond with that developmental map in mind.

With the SPARK project, the New Vic invested in developing a new kind of human capital: teaching-artist-researchers. We got the rare chance to dig deep. The theater got a trove of insights. We are both like miners who get to keep all the gold we’ve discovered.

 


 

The Impact of Re-thinking Research and Practice
By Steven Holochwost, WolfBrown

 

Increasingly, arts and cultural organizations are asked whether they contribute to the greater good. Answering that question is rarely simple, particularly at a time when public and private funders alike press organizations to prove that something they did (e.g., changing concert format, working with seniors, or running programs in juvenile detention centers) actually caused the change that they would like to claim (a more diverse audience, fewer doctor visits, or lowered rates of recidivism).

In the case of the SPARK program, we were looking to make the case that young people who participated became different from their peers: that time spent in the world of theater could cause stronger inter- and intra-personal skills. Like many evaluators, we turned to the existing research literature to find out how others have measured the growth in these hard-to-capture domains. This method of working from past research to inform new studies has many advantages: measures taken from the research literature often reflect years of conceptualization, testing, and refinement. So, drawing on past research, we decided to use a measure called Reading the Mind in the Eyes which assesses children’s knowledge of other people’s emotions by asking them to look at photos of the upper portion of faces and naming the emotion they detect there. Since becoming available twenty years ago, this measure has been used in over 500 published studies, including those examining the effects of theater education.

But the measure behaved in unexpected ways. We found that children participating in New Victory’s programming — over 90% of whom were young people of color — struggled to identify the emotions in the photos – the great majority of which portrayed adult Caucasian faces. Moreover, when young people selected an incorrect option, it often reflected a hostile emotion (e.g., anger). This was a moment when the tables turned: it was time for practice to inform research. The more diverse youth in SPARK classrooms had a message for research: to assess children’s ability to read emotion expressions validly, our photos had to represent the people whom SPARK students “read” and react to every day. By putting out a call to its diverse population of theater artists, New Victory staff helped to develop a revised measure that included people from a wide array of ages, cultures, and backgrounds.

We have just begun to collect data with this new tool. We may have still more to learn on our way to valid measures. But the experience opened all of our eyes — researchers, staff, and teaching artists — to the ways in which research tools reflect our assumptions, including whose faces are “universal”.  It was investing in sustained work in new neighborhoods, with young people of color who have not been the usual subjects of arts education research, that made this clear.

 


 

Curating Impact, Not Shows
By Alan Brown and Sean Fenton, WolfBrown

 

In the SPARK project we ventured into new territory: we asked students as young as 8 to respond to in-seat surveys about the impact of a performance they had just seen. We wanted to know if young people could help us to develop a deeper understanding of the impact of live theater experiences.

Photo: Alexis Buatti-Ramos, courtesy of The New Victory Theater

Our survey instrument includes quantitative measures of emotional response, anticipation, and impact, as well as open-ended questions pertaining to students’ curiosity and feelings about the performances. To make this work, house staff distribute the printed surveys and special pencils during the Q&A session following each performance. Then staff collect the student responses, and everyone heads out to their school buses waiting on 42nd Street within 10 minutes. As of the end of the 2017 school year, we will have collected approximately 2,000 surveys for nine shows. As completed surveys come in, we clean, code, and upload the data to an interactive dashboard through which New Vic staff can query the results.

So far, the results paint a picture of distinct “impact footprints”:

  • Shows featuring acrobatics, circus acts, and other spectacles tend to spark interest in the artists themselves and their training;
  • Story-based productions tend to elicit more questions about characters’ emotions and production design choices;
  • Shows with more complex narratives and character arcs evoke a greater mix of positive and negative emotions in students, which may be evidence of empathy development;
  • Both spectacle-based and story-based productions can produce powerful social bridging (i.e., learning about other people and cultures) and aesthetic growth outcomes (i.e., exposure to new art forms).

These results suggest that an artistic director is curating impact, as much as specific works. A season is a tour through a varied emotional landscape – an opportunity to explore a magnificent range of human emotions, ideas, and histories. Our work with New Vic has underscored the idea that “challenging” artistic work — work that draws on a wide emotional range, including feelings of sadness or disappointment — has an integral place in a well-curated season, alongside works that elicit feelings of joy and wonder.

The results from this study open a new chapter in our journey to understand the immediate effects or intrinsic impacts of arts programs on both children and adults. But this work is just beginning. Further analysis will investigate how students at different grade levels respond to the same work, whether students with more experience in the SPARK program respond differently, and how multiple points of intervention/exposure may stack to create greater impact.

 


 

And so…

Yes, these entries all focus on SPARK. Yes, we have identified only four of what might be multiple reverberations of undertaking new work. But inside that specificity are a set of fundamental questions that any cultural organization — zoo, museum, film center, or theater — ought to pose when investing in new practices and programs. How can your organization design (and also discover along the way) so that you reap:

  • Impact on the Raising the Stakes: When your organization works in new settings (or with new materials or issues) how high are you willing to set the stakes? Are you tinkering or changing the way you work? When a new program completes, or the funding goes away, has the organization stretched in lasting ways or does it snap back to doing business as usual?
  • Impact on Human Capital: If you undertake this work, who in your organization will have new opportunities to grow? How can those opportunities include employees who work “on the ground”?
  • Impact on Research: When you go to evaluate your work, do you (and your evaluation partners) look carefully at the assumptions that underlie your approaches and tools? Are you learning from what doesn’t work? Are you curious about why? Does your approach evolve?
  • Impact on Programming: Are you curating for impact? Do you adequately consider the array of emotional, social, and learning impacts that are likely to come from different works or experiences?

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