Our long journey of investigation into how audiences are affected by arts programs crossed another milestone recently with the release of a two-year study of audiences at choral music concerts, commissioned by Chorus America. While we’ve previously delved deeply into the impact of theatrical performances and other types of arts programs, the choral study was notable for its scale and focus. A total of 23 choruses across North America participated in the two-year study, including youth choruses, volunteer and professional choruses, and LGBTQ choruses. Over the 2014-15 and 2015-16 seasons, 14,326 audience members at 136 difference concerts completed surveys about their experience. In many cases we have samples of audiences attending the same artistic program (e.g., Carmina Burana) in different cities.

A lengthy article by Kelsey Menehan on Chorus America’s website, “Understanding Audiences: Takeaways from the Intrinsic Impact Audience Project“, summarizes the findings and how they influenced the thinking of the participating choruses. As a choral singer myself, the study carried a deep personal significance. Earlier in life, I sang many of the great choral works that were the object of audience members’ feedback.

It was a thrill to stand in front of the assembled membership of Chorus America to present these results. Different kinds of artistic programs generate remarkably different kinds of impacts, underscoring the strategic importance of program selection to mission fulfillment. Audience participation affects impact, as do audience members’ personal relationships with one or more of the performers. Strong “social bridging” and “social bonding” impacts were associated with specific kinds of programs (e.g., MLK tribute concerts), especially when the audiences for these programs were racially diverse. And both professional and non-professional choruses deliver high-impact programs.

It is gratifying to see the line of inquiry about the impact of arts experiences continue. Audience members are more than capable of reporting how they are affected by arts experiences. Unlike our colleagues in the UK, however, we do not believe that audiences should be asked to adjudicate the artistic quality of performances. More on that front soon.

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Last month, my father and I had the privilege of seeing a performance of Cornerstone Theater Company‘s latest production in their multi-year “Hunger Cycle” of plays: fellowship, a play for volunteers. In one of the most immersive theatrical experiences I’ve ever attended, we were exposed to five unique perspectives and life stories, each with a different relationship to food and hunger. That same weekend, this time accompanied by my brother, I was lucky enough to catch a delightful performance of Pamela Sterling’s adaption of The Secret Garden, presented by MainStreet Theatre Company, a professional Equity theatre for young audiences in Rancho Cucamonga, CA.

At first glance, the two shows I saw that weekend had very little in common. One was an intimate and interactive theatrical piece addressing modern-day issues; the other, a more traditional theatre experience rooted in classic English literature. But a look at the shows’ audience survey data revealed how these productions were remarkably similar: both fellowship and The Secret Garden were highly effective in bridging audience members to life experiences different from their own.

These findings were consistent with my personal experiences with the plays. My time at fellowship made me confront my own relationship to food and how other people, including my parents and friends, might have profoundly different relationships to scarcity and plenty. The Secret Garden transported me to early 20th century Yorkshire, England, and encouraged me to ponder questions about class differences, privilege, and self-determination. Upon my return to the Bay Area, I realized how full my heart and mind were after these performances. The experiences impacted my father and brother as well, inspiring them to find new and creative ways to instill empathy and compassion in my nephews.

Art has the marvelous capacity to connect us to others. And in a time when much is being written on how to break out of our political bubbles and ultra-personalized newsfeeds, it is clear that the need for substantive social bridging is more crucial than ever. What might this look like for theatres and other arts organizations aiming to serve as these bridges? What would it take for the most progressive theatregoer to not only entertain conservative viewpoints, but to deeply understand them, and vice-versa? I would think there is a limit to which this is possible; for example, I personally can’t imagine ever appreciating a white supremacist point of view. Yet past experience tells me to never underestimate the power of art. Perhaps developing a keener understanding for how people come to develop certain worldviews might be a beginning.

Some arts organizations may be better situated than others to be our bridges to experiences and viewpoints that differ from our own. And some art-makers, like Marc Bamuthi Joseph of Yerbua Buena Center for the Arts, may see themselves in an entirely different but equally important role — not as a bridge to others with differing views, but as “a socket” or “battery” for creativity, freedom, and social justice. (I would love to explore this concept much more thoroughly in a future entry.) And still others may be somewhere else along this “bridge-battery” spectrum, or on a different axis entirely. In a time when we are simultaneously more connected and more divided than ever before, I think there is room and need for it all.

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Season’s greetings from all of us at WolfBrown! For this special holiday issue of On Our Minds, we asked the WolfBrown team to think about their most memorable arts experiences of the year. From opera to pop music to theatre for young audiences, these are just some of our highlights from 2016. 

We hope you enjoy these reflections, and we invite you to share your own with us by commenting here. Happy holidays, and best wishes for a wonderful 2017!


Joe Kluger

New Freedom Theatre’s Black Nativity: An African Holiday Musical Play

I attended many great performances this past year, including Cold Mountain with Opera Philadelphia, Friday Night Jazz at the Woodmere Art Museum, Mahler 6 with Sir Simon Rattle conducting The Philadelphia Orchestra, Bruckner 6 with Christoph Eschenbach conducting Carnegie Hall’s National Youth Orchestra, and BalletX’s Sunset, o639 Hours.

In choosing the most memorable event, I found myself drawn to Black Nativity: An African Holiday Musical Play, a re-imagined production of the Langston Hughes classic, written and directed by Rajendra Ramoon Maharaj. Maharaj is the new Artistic Director of Philadelphia’s New Freedom Theatre, one of the few remaining professional African-American theaters, now celebrating its 50th anniversary. I was blown away by the high quality of the acting, singing, and dancing, and emotionally drained by the Story of the Nativity, set in war-ravaged Darfur. It was really moving to hear the juxtaposition of a cappella renditions of traditional Christmas Carols and gospel anthems, hauntingly accompanied by a single African drum. This performance reminded me that my most memorable artistic experiences are those which raise our consciousness, challenge our assumptions, and remind us how fortunate we are.


Steven Holochwost

Al-Bustan Seeds of Culture

Over the course of 2016, I spent a lot of time observing arts education programs in public schools, and it was while observing one of these programs that I had my most memorable arts experience. The Al-Bustan Seeds of Culture program, which is designed to teach students about Arab culture, includes a drumming ensemble, and it was while watching this ensemble that I very nearly began to cry.

I try to avoid crying in public, and I particularly try to avoid crying in front of middle-school students because they will laugh at you. But there I was, watching a group of students from very different backgrounds playing together in perfect unison, and I teared up. I don’t know if it happened because the students were so clearly enjoying themselves, or because I was keenly aware of the fact that without considerable philanthropic support these students would never have had this opportunity, or some mixture of the two. But I have thought about that day many times since — particularly during the Presidential campaign and election — and how opportunities to participate in the arts can make us our best selves.


Jason Tran

Sia’s Nostalgic for the Present Tour

My ears rang with joy as the Australian songstress’s piercing voice cut through the gentle hum of audience members singing along with her. Known for her songwriting chops and chart-topping collaborations, Sia has certainly made a name for herself in the music industry. Yet this concert, in so many ways, felt more like a performance art piece than your typical pop show. Hidden underneath her iconic, black-and-white wig and whimsically large bow, the Australian songstress belted out her popular hits almost entirely from a far corner of the stage. Defying conventions of most pop concerts, Sia let her dancers take center stage song after song, gracing the stage in perfect synchronicity with the pre-recorded videos projected above them. What could have been a typical pop concert experience was instead a captivating series of performance art pieces, packed with exquisite displays of contemporary dance and electrifying moments of sound and silence. By the end of the night, we had been transported to the far reaches of our minds, where we could convince ourselves that we too were pop stars and dancers just like the ones before our eyes — even if it was just for the night.


Tom Wolf

Remembering Joey

When Joseph Silverstein died on November 22nd of last year, it came as a complete shock. It is not as if this great violinist hadn’t lived a full life (he was 83 years old when he died). It was simply that Joey — as everyone called him — was ageless, and he was incredibly active until the moment he died. Indeed, he had played a concert only a couple of weeks earlier and was practicing just a few hours before he was stricken. Like so many musicians, my life was touched in many ways by Joey. He played often with my late brother (including Andy’s final concert), I got to perform with him on occasion, I presented him in concerts annually for years, I attended his masterclasses, and for decades I studied his incredible leadership as concertmaster of the Boston Symphony and later in his role as a conductor. One would think that someone who was so well known by so many famous people would be too busy to be a friend to those less established. But Joey seemed to be everyone’s best friend. He was incredibly approachable whether talking about an arcane bowing with a bunch of students or telling his latest joke for which he was also famous.

And perhaps that is why the memorial concert given at Tanglewood on July 24th of this year was so remarkable. It captured all of these aspects of Joey. It had a star-studded cast of performers as one would expect, but it was also an evening brimming with love and affection. There were brief comments interspersed throughout the concert, but mainly it was about the music and about Joey himself. How wonderful to hear him playing in an audio clip which was accompanied by a video of still photos from Joey’s life and as the grand finale, a video of Joey soloing with the Boston Symphony Orchestra.

The definition of a memorable arts experience in my mind is one that moves you at the time AND one that you remember long after. This concert offered the extra gift of giving me a perfect way to remember Joey as well.


Alan Brown

Online Time Capsule: Live from Lincoln Center

I love asking people, “Of all the arts experiences you’ve ever had, which one do you remember most vividly?” My own answer to that question invariably takes me back to January 22, 1979, when, as a young singer, I sat in a dorm room watching Luciano Pavarotti and Joan Sutherland sing a joint recital, Live from Lincoln Center, simulcast on PBS and FM radio. Some 37 years later — late one night this past summer in a hotel room somewhere — I discovered a bootleg video of the entire broadcast on YouTube. There, an audience of one, I was ripped back to a time and place long abandoned. In the blink of an eye, the operatic icons were once again in peak form. It was so unexpected, which I suppose had much to do with the extent to which I was immobilized and utterly transfixed. The world stopped for two hours. It didn’t matter that the quality of the video was terrible; the audio was just good enough to trigger the musical memory of a defining moment in my teen-aged world. The thrill of hearing their shimmering voices had not diminished, but multiplied. In a world that offers such guilty pleasures so freely, I dare not listen again.


Sean Fenton

Crowded Fire Theater’s I Call My Brothers

When I think back on the performances I saw this past year, the ones that stand out to me the most are the ones that were unapologetically challenging and painfully relevant. These performances left me feeling confronted, engaged, and motivated to take action or make a change. I recall most vividly Crowded Fire Theater‘s production of I Call My Brothers this past April and how I left that experience feeling truly stunned and shaken, deeply impacted in a way I never expected going in. I gained a new level of understanding of the mechanisms of Islamophobia and what it looks and feels like from both inside and out. I gained a glimpse into the fear and paranoia that can be evoked by the persecuting gaze of others, whether real or imagined. And perhaps most provocatively, I got a deeper look into my own subconscious and my own assumptions in the wake of recent events. The performance left a lasting impression on me. And, more broadly, I was reminded of the power theatre has to promote understanding and belonging, build empathy, and connect us to one another. I hope to see many more examples of this kind of work as 2017 unfolds.


Dennie Palmer Wolf

The New Victory Theater: Chotto Desh

It was a school performance of Chotto Desh (at the New Victory Theater, New York), Akram Kahn’s solo piece about coming of age as a Bangladeshi-American boy caught between his hard-working family’s push for responsibility, duty, and working in the family restaurant and his own emerging desire to become a dancer. I was seated in the back row of the orchestra along with other visitors and administrators, a sea of middle schoolers spilling out in front of us. To my left, people chatted as long-term NYC schools colleagues. So I turned to a woman beside me on the aisle and asked what school she came with. “None…I saw the performance last week and it was so spectacular I had to come again before it closed. I talked my way in, I don’t think they let the public into these school performances.”

She rushed to explain, “I taught for 30 years in the schools so many immigrant students who were making their way between their families’ way of life at home and the new selves they were becoming. I watched them balancing, always balancing. The show was ‘that’ danced out — two languages, two ways of being, two lives, one known and one coming. I laughed, I wept the other night when I saw it for the first time. I promised I would get back here. I have to say, in the wake of the election, I wanted it broadcast on the night sky where every single would-be deporter would see it on their walk home from work.” Just then the house went dark, to the yelps and cheers of a young audience.

Yes, the performance was remarkable — the physical boy-dancer climbing and running through the projected scrims of his grandmother’s folk tales, the tumult of traffic recalled from trips back to his father’s urban Bangladesh, and the shadows of the giant chair on which he struggled to “be still”, even as he wanted to dance.

But, in truth, my sense of amazement was spiked the instant the teacher beside me confessed to talking her way in. It amped up with each groan from the audience, as they heard off-stage parental voices calling out, “Sit still, be respectful, we work hard for you, pay attention, help out…” It climbed as the audience cheered for the hero who shadowboxed like a demon behind his bedroom door even as he pretended to answer “dutifully” to his downstairs parents. And I loved the gasp when, in the talkback, the athletes in the audience learned that two dancers had to share a week of performances, so arduous was the role of the dancer-soloist. Pitcher, point guard, quarterback: take note. This was theater in public. There was company both on and off the stage.

Climbing out of the subway later that evening I wanted to tune in that night sky broadcast and watch another performance that would catch off guard all who would seek to deport others, and leave them humbled, amazed, and generous by the time they reached their own doorstep.


Jane Culbert

Machine de Cirque

My daughter is a professional circus artist, and I have seen many circuses. And yet, my most memorable arts experience this year was by a circus company, Machine de Cirque. What moved me about this company was the connection the five performers made with the audience and with each other. They spoke to us; they came off the stage to interact. They clearly had fun with what they did on the stage, and we laughed with them. They worked as a team, caring for and supporting each other. And (surprisingly, last to come to mind) the quality and technicality of performance was breathtaking.


John Carnwath

Street Performers of San Francisco

I stumbled upon one of my most memorable recent arts experiences quite by accident on my way to work. A street musician was playing trumpet on Market Street in San Francisco — I didn’t recognize the piece, something classical — and nearby a homeless man was dancing with remarkable commitment and grace. Being late for work, I couldn’t stop and watch for long, though in retrospect I wish I had. In that moment it struck me that regardless of how much funding is cut and which organizations come and go, we really don’t have to worry that the arts are going to go away. It is in fact remarkably difficult to prevent someone from dancing or singing, and the desire to create, experience, and share through art is seated deep within us. I find both beauty and hope in that thought, and I’m thankful to those street performers for that moment.


Rebecca Ratzkin

MAKE: A Labor of Love and Spirit

It’s a random weekday evening in downtown San Francisco, and I’m standing in a concrete stairwell that smells of greasy fast food, waiting for the doors to open and the show to begin. Although I don’t know anyone, it is easy to strike up conversation by simply saying, “Hello, my name is…” — perhaps because we all aren’t sure exactly what we’re going to see, and yet are in high spirits about it nonetheless. The line starts to move, and we make it upstairs into the re-purposed gallery turned black box performance space. After paying a small donation, I wander in and take a seat in the round.

The room is small and close; the heat from all of us rushing in fills the room immediately. The performance has already started, and the room is quiet except for four performers, each attending to a discrete task: one is singing — a big booming voice that is part prayer, part call-to-action — while carrying around a 20-pound bag of flour; another is hurrying back and forth with a Dixie cup to fill the big plastic tub in the middle of the room with water; a third is bent down in one corner absorbed in crushing sugar cubes one by one; and the fourth is working with oil in the opposite corner.

More audience members filter in as these activities continue, and we all fall into a trance, tracking the rhythms of each performer in their obsessive task. At some point, the song and action change, and the other performers join in the singing. One performer sprinkles yeast into the water, and others adjust their tasks to focus on the tub. The sugar is brought over and added to the tub. After a few moments, the oil is also offered up to the tub. Then the flour bag is opened, and handfuls are thrown into the mix. Flour dust flies everywhere, creating momentary clouds that dissipate into the front rows. The smells permeate the room. The performers gather around the tub, all eventually lending their hands in the effort to mix the concoction within. The singing ebbs and flows as voices join and retreat. Each performer remains independent, concentrating on her or his task, even as they work together towards a common goal — mixing the dough.

After a while, the dough is ready for kneading, and each performer approaches this new task from a different perspective. One takes a big piece and carries it around the space, holding and shifting it as if it were a fidgety child. Another takes pieces of dough and starts to cover herself in it; first one arm, then another, and then up her arms to her neck and face. She is fascinated by the process but also a little scared, and seemingly powerless to stop it. She eventually manages to extricate herself from her doughy confines to join the rest of the group.

At some point, each performer takes smaller pieces of dough, kneading and shaping them into little rounds. They place the individual pieces on sheets of wax paper laid out in front of each seat in the front rows, until all sheets are full. One performer then looks up and counts the number of people in the room, places more pieces of wax paper down on the floor, and they go back to shaping and distributing. Sooner after, that same performer looks up and says, “Take this; this is for you.” And we do. It ends when every last person is holding a piece of wax paper with a raw piece of dough created by song and movement, shaped out of prayer, love, pain, fear, hope, and grace.

I walk the empty streets of San Francisco, holding my wax paper-wrapped dough, heading home to rise.


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 2017!

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Reflecting on the recent election results brings me back to one of the more befuddling observations about trends in arts participation that I’ve been holding in my head since the late-1990s… the blurring line between fantasy and reality. The flourishing of fictitious online personas, resulting in millions of people growing comfortable holding multiple identities, both real and imagined; the rise of gaming, virtual reality, and augmented reality; the false intimacy offered by social media and, especially, dating apps; the valuing of celebrities for no reason apart from their celebrity; the lost line between entertainment and journalism; record sales of lottery tickets; growing dependence on substances that induce altered states; Las Vegas; sustained public interest in ‘reality’ television, which increasingly resembles fiction; and the substitution in political discourse of ‘truthiness’ for truth.

The signs of our society’s departure from reality have all but disappeared for their ubiquity. Some have framed this as a spiritual crisis, a displacement of belief systems from sacred to profane.

Of course we are all guilty of constructing altered versions of reality for ourselves. A million seemingly harmless deceits of truth bring us comfort, simplicity, and validation in a world mired in existential threats. It is hardly surprising, then, that Americans believe whatever politicians tell them, and I don’t mean that in a partisan way. We’ve been building an appetite for unreality for a long time, with a lot of help from commercial entertainment and the media. As Neal Gabler wrote in his searing essay of November 10, “I think that the ideal of an objective, truthful journalism is dead, never to be revived.”

We, in the arts, are hardly innocent of exploiting fiction to lead audiences into our version of “the truth.” In our field, fiction has always been the battleground of truth, and theatres the venue in a lopsided war of ideas, pitting artists against audiences — when, in reality, they are not opponents but allies. Like Don Quixote, we’ve been nobly fighting an imaginary foe, blind to the fact that the proverbial “public” we seek to engage in art inhabits a world entirely different than ours. In a way, politicians have become more like artists — spinning tales threaded together with half-truths and imagined facts.

As a researcher, I struggle mightily with the elusive notion of truth. Another time I will write about the demise of public confidence in quantitative research — and the extraordinary challenges this poses to those of us who purport to be researchers and those who aspire to be savvy consumers of research.

Until we are completely transmogrified into digital avatars of ourselves, fantasy will reliably crash into reality when we cash our paychecks and visit the doctor. However facile we are in toggling between fact and fiction in the blink of an eye, our ability to discern one from the other is what keeps us alive. Unlike much of the media, art invites us to suspend our disbelief for a fleeting moment to consider an idea that offends our sense of order. In that moment of resistance, we are human.

This is a great time of reckoning for our sector. Despite the messages I’ve received from national service organizations over the past weeks assuring me that everything is going to be OK, it’s abundantly clear to me that everything has not been OK for quite some time. Cultural policy has failed us. Patterns of investment in cultural infrastructure too often reinforce class divides instead of tearing them down. Disinvestment in rural arts and declining support for touring programs has taken a toll. More nonprofits and funders should have moved into the realms of gaming and experience design a long time ago. Who dropped that ball?

It is precisely because art offers a different means of understanding the world that it is more central to public discourse than ever before. As traffickers in beauty and confrontation, artists and those who support them have the power to change the world. We speak the language of make believe. We can draw people into parallel universes where they can ask questions they’d never pose in the real world. Unlike politicians, art can teach us to think for ourselves, and that truth often lies at the nexus of opposing ideas.

Spinning tall tales, however, comes with a sobering responsibility. Do we use fiction to entertain, or hold up a mirror to ourselves in search of a deeper truth? Or, do we employ fantasy to seduce those most vulnerable to seduction? What marks the line between play and betrayal? Now more than ever I wonder what role the arts can play in building our capacity as a society to care about the difference.

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I woke up the morning of November 9th and immediately tried to return to an anxiety dream, which seemed preferable to reality at that moment. But I had things to do and people to interview, for that Wednesday marked the beginning of a round of interviews for San Francisco Shakespeare Festival with Asian American community members about arts participation and feeling welcome. Initially thinking, “How am I going to muster the energy to lead these conversations about anything other than the state of the union today,” I ended the day feeling more encouraged, and definitely more thoughtful.

Even if we believe the arts are for everyone, the perception that they aren’t is very real and strongly influences how and if people choose to participate. For a long time, the arts sector has suffered from a stigma of elitism — that the arts are for wealthy white people — yet has struggled to fully understand the underlying issues and address them intentionally. How do we tackle this perception of elitism when it comes to our institutions? What does it mean to create a sense of welcome and comfort for any person who might be interested in attending our programs?

Below are some things I’ve learned over the past few years:

1)    People always come first. The first in-person interaction audience members have when they come on-site — how they are greeted and by whom — can set the tone for the entire experience, as well as the long-term perception of the organization. Small negative interactions — box office staff who don’t make eye contact, security guards who give the evil eye, greeters who barely greet — can adversely affect how welcome a visitor feels. Conversely, a strong positive first impression can last a lifetime.

2)    The design and layout of the venue speaks volumes. Outside events are more open, relaxed, and family-friendly and tend to be inherently more welcoming than indoor events. Outdoor events and installations are also often free, and therefore remove barriers of access associated with cost. Events in light-filled indoor spaces (e.g., lobby spaces with floor to ceiling windows) can reproduce the feeling of openness from the outdoors. However, venues that are more modern in design, perhaps more angular, metallic, concrete, or sleek, can be compelling to some but cold, off-putting, or overly formal to others.

3)    Wayfinding and orderliness contribute to ease of access. “Making it so that it is easy for people to be there” is a key component to creating a welcoming environment, according to one community member I interviewed. Ensuring that every aspect of the event, from ticketing to signage to educational materials, facilitates a setting where everyone is at ease. When audiences know how to navigate a space from the moment they arrive, even if it is just about being able to find the restrooms, they enjoy a greater sense of comfort and have more room to fully enjoy the arts experience itself.

4)    Translating materials is a signal for English and non-English speakers alike. Consistently incorporating bilingual or multilingual signage, programs, and website content is not just about effective communication. It is also a signal to all, including those who are fluent and comfortable with English, that the organization recognizes and celebrates the diversity in its communities and strives for inclusivity.

5)    Food brings people together. Food is a cultural activity. As a universal sign of celebration and community across cultures, the act of breaking bread together can also serve as an entry point to even more substantive cross-cultural exchange. Providing food also makes it easier for families to participate in an event, as they don’t need to worry about scheduling around meal times.

6)    Programming matters. Audience research tells us time and time again that the artist, program, and subject matter are the most influential factors in deciding whether or not to attend. Most of us are drawn to work that we can relate to or has some relevance to our lives. For example, Shakespeare’s work may be something that most Americans have been exposed to, but this may not be the case for all. A lack of connection to the material can be a huge barrier to participation; it is the basis for lack of interest in the work itself. Arts organizations who are most successful at diversifying their audiences find ways to make their work relevant to those they aim to attract.

7)    No group is monolithic; diversity is complex and multi-layered. When arts groups initiate audience development strategies targeting specific populations, it can be easy to lose sight of the diversity within a particular demographic segment. Geographic, ethnic, and generational differences can all influence individuals’ values, tastes, and decision-making when it comes to the arts. In recent weeks, for example, I have gained a greater appreciation for the ethnic and linguistic diversity within our local Chinese and South Asian populations and have realized how much more there is to learn. Ignoring the cultural diversity within a seemingly monolithic population can significantly limit an organization’s success in attracting new audiences.

Of course, this is a complex subject that deserves more time and space for discussion than we have here. For example, some issues that I’m not addressing include the diversification of staffs and boards and the lack of funding and support for existing organizations that serve and celebrate communities of color. But I hope this may serve as a conversation starter for arts administrators interested in creating a more welcoming space for all.

If we want our audiences, and yes, our institutions, to be representative of the beautiful diversity of this country –- to be of the people, by the people, and for the people — we need to figure out how to ask questions, engage in conversations, and help community members of all backgrounds feel that they belong. If we believe that the arts are for everyone, then encouraging this greater sense of welcome and belonging should be our goal. Like political parties seeking to build bigger tents to combat the rising tide of division and fear on a national scale, it is arguably more urgent than ever for arts organizations to be places of welcome for all. 

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Last month, the router in my home died. As a result, I spent nearly a week with no internet access in my home. I had no idea how dependent I had become on this mode of doing business until I was without out it. Moreover, I have limited data on my phone and tablet since I spend most of my life in a Wi-Fi environment. Suddenly I couldn’t check details of an upcoming trip. I couldn’t check my work email. I couldn’t use our printer or scanner. I tried to buy tickets to a dance event that I heard about and couldn’t do so. My list of things to do when I visited my local café (to get Wi-Fi) went on and on.

And then I learned it could be even worse than I was experiencing. At the end of last month, the hacking of Dyn brought much of the internet to a grinding halt in many areas of New England and beyond. Even the New York Times was struggling, not to mention Twitter, Netflix, and other major businesses. It happened via cameras, baby monitors, and home routers (though not mine!). And it turns out it may have been done by amateur hackers, which is even scarier in some ways. So much of what we do now depends on this electronic medium of communication, and yet, it is so vulnerable. Eventually, websites were back up and running. (And back home, I replaced my router.) It was back to business as usual. But what if this were to happen again? What can we do to solve this much larger problem of vulnerability?

The scope of this problem is enormous, as we have seen with recent hacks and cyberattacks on U.S. political organizations this year. Virtually every sector, both public and private, can be affected. With respect to the arts, an area where I spend the bulk of both my leisure and work hours, technology has revolutionized how we conduct business. But how many arts organizations have safeguards in place in case our technology fails? How much do we depend on online platforms for ticket sales and contributions, or electronic communications and social media for marketing? What would you do if the entire system shut down for a day? A week, a month, or more?

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A conversation with Marc Goldring, who retires this year after three decades as a consultant.


How did you get started in your career as a consultant?

It was 1983, and after years of living in rural New Hampshire, I was making a transition. It started by moving from my small, hand-built house in the woods to an old center-chimney cape in a nearby village. From there my craft studio flourished. I got a Fulbright lectureship to New Zealand, taught at several prestigious craft schools like Haystack and Arrowmont, and did freelance administrative work for the National Crafts Planning Project, funded by the crafts program of a then-robust National Endowment for the Arts.

Somewhere along the way, I worked with Dr. Thomas Wolf, the founding Executive Director of the New England Foundation for the Arts who had left to start a consulting business, The Wolf Organization. My skills aligned with his needs and he offered me a job in Cambridge. With a daughter ready for middle school, it was a temptation impossible to resist. My career as a consultant was under way.

That was 31 years ago, and from then to now is a complicated story, both personally and for our field.


What has changed over the past 31 years in our field?

Marc and Jane 1986

Marc Goldring and Jane Culbert in Tom Wolf's basement, 1986.

When I began consulting, the culture wars were just heating up as social conservatives took aim at Federal support for art that they viewed as at best controversial and at worst blasphemous. At the same time, and in part caused by this, state and local funding for the arts was also being curtailed and in some cases eliminated. My consulting assignments in the 80s and 90s took me to many smaller and mid-sized urban centers. I saw a comparatively limited range of cultural opportunities that struggled for visibility and funding. The very definition of “arts and culture” was often narrow and, in many cases, appeared to be elitist.

Fast-forward to the present, and it’s clear that times have changed. And, in some ways, those times held the seed of today’s robust cultural sectors in cities and towns of all sizes. Here, in no particular order, is my impressionistic view of the most significant changes in our field:

  • As local arts agencies engaged in community planning initiatives, there was a tendency to focus on a broader range of arts and cultural activities. This helped make the case for the value of arts and culture more broadly and fostered a stronger focus on individual, active participation in this more broadly defined range of activities.
  • The rise of national, regional, and local service organizations that focused on making the case for the instrumental benefits of arts and culture, in particular their economic benefit, brought a new cadre of business and government supporters to the table.
  • The proliferation of academic training programs in arts administration, as well as a greater emphasis on artist training in business skills, meant that many organizations — and the field as a whole — had the benefit of a new stream of creative and talented leaders.
  • And let’s not forget perhaps the most significant shift, both for arts and culture and our society as a whole: the transformation resulting from computers, the Internet in general, and social media in particular.
Marc and grandson

Marc Goldring with grandson Desmond, 2016

I doubt these observations come as a surprise to readers (who can find more details on WolfBrown’s website), but I did find it surprising when I looked back and noticed how much our field has changed in only the past 35 years of my consulting career. On a personal note, I’ll miss my connections with so many friends and colleagues across the country. But I’m pleased that at the end of this journey, I find the field in such capable hands.


Thinking back over the course of your career, do you have a favorite memory you’d like to share?

It was in about 1989 and I was conducting an interview for a community cultural plan in a mid-sized mid-western community. My interviewee was the vice president of a locally-based bank and he had been reluctant to meet with me. Throughout the session, I would ask basic questions about arts and cultural offerings in the region and he seemed to preface each answer with a comment like, “Well, I don’t really know much about the arts…” From the brevity of his responses, he seemed to have a point!

After about twenty minutes of talking about the local business climate, prospects for job growth, and almost anything except arts and culture — my main topic of concern, I ended the session, to my interviewee’s apparent relief.

As I was leaving, I noticed a framed picture on the wall of four middle-aged men in tuxedos, smiling broadly, one of whom resembled my interviewee. “Are you in a barbershop quartet?” I asked, surprised. He allowed as how he was. I was thunderstruck! It turned out that he had founded the quartet over a decade before and went to statewide and regional meetings to perform, winning several competitions. This was his passion. It just never occurred to him that what he enjoyed had anything to do with “art.”

What a strong disconnect and what a powerful lesson for me. I saw how important it was to define art as broadly as possible to counter the strong, elitist tinge that word had, especially 25 years ago. As my practice matured, I learned to use a dramatically more inclusive definition of art and, thanks to Alan Brown, to pay more attention to creativity and participation. And that interview with a bank vice president laid the groundwork for that evolution.

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Marc Goldring’s insightful “look back” on his decades of working in the cultural sector is characteristic of the wisdom he always has brought to his consulting work — first for the fledgling Wolf Organization, then, after a merger, with Wolf, Keens & Company, and more recently in the expanded consulting firm of WolfBrown. Marc’s perspective — that of someone who had been a full-time working visual artist and one who knew of the struggles that such professionals face — had been very different from my own. My background had been in music, and I had worked comfortably within established arts institutions. He knew the solitude and uncertainty of having to make a working life in the arts by himself. And perhaps that is why we got on so well once we became colleagues. Each of us brought something to the working relationship that was more than the sum of its parts. Marc’s commitment to the arts has never wavered since, nor has his love of making art. Today he is a recognized photographer (take a look at some of his work at his website), and he continues to spend hours each week working on behalf of the artist community. So while we will miss him as one of our senior consultants at WolfBrown, we know Marc will continue to serve the field we both love and make the world a more beautiful place.

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At WolfBrown we work with clients to measure the impact of arts and cultural experiences. Frequently, that means we operate in the “near hereafter” — for example, surveying audience members immediately following a performance, or sampling audiences’ attitudes to other cultures before and after a festival of world music and dance. It is rare, though, that we have the opportunity to think deeply about the lasting impact of such experiences.

CMW musicians perform at La Lupita

CMW musicians perform at La Lupita Tacos Mexicanos as part of their Inhabit ArtPlace Event Series. Photo credit: Community MusicWorks

But just such an opportunity arose when Community MusicWorks, a neighborhood-embedded education and music organization, asked WolfBrown to capture the long-term impact of its Fellows program (a two-year residency in teaching, music-making, and community engagement). The task was challenging for a number of reasons: (1) the organization’s mission is to create more cohesive urban communities through music — a bold objective, but challenging to measure; (2) the program is over a decade old so much of the information was retrospective; and (3) past Fellows are far-flung and busy, presenting additional challenges when collecting data.

Using a participatory evaluation format, we worked closely with CMW staff and former Fellow Rachel Panitch (as a co-researcher with an insider’s perspective), to develop a multi-methods approach that included interviews, surveys, and observations. Through this work, we carved out a set of dimensions that captures and communicates the decade-long impact of the Fellowship:

  • Diversity in Cohesive Urban Communities | What has CMW’s Fellowship contributed as an example of diverse musicians using their artistry to strengthen an urban community? What proportion of participants comes from communities of origin different from those that dominate the field of classical music? In the case of CMW, 40% of its Fellows are people of color, as compared to less than 10% of students of color in post-graduate arts training and fewer than 5% of U.S. symphony musicians.
  • Reach | Once Fellows leave CMW do they continue to teach, mentor, and collaborate in ways that model and spread the work? Compared to other youngindependent classical  musicians, CMW Fellows do more teaching (26% v. 15%), performing in and for social justice programs (17% v. 6%), and mentoring (7% v. 0%).Reach of a Former CMW Fellow
  • Longevity | Once Fellows leave CMW do they stay in the field of music and social justice? In addition, what proportion of participants goes on to work in under-resourced communities? In the case of CMW, 14 of its 16 graduated Fellows have continued to bring music education, services, and performances to 11 under-resourced communities. Many have done so continuously since the years of their Fellowship.
  • Uptake and adaptation of the original CMW model | How many “next generation” music and public service programs trace their origins to CMW? How adaptive has the original model proven when translated to different organizations and communities? Altogether, 16 diverse models of music and public service have been started, including 2 close replications of the model, 6 distinctive community-embedded music projects, and 8 programs that apply elements of CMW values and design to their work.

Taken together, these dimensions provide substantive measures of the long-term success of CMW’s efforts to diversify who participates in classical music, develop a set of practices that can build skills among musicians to engage in social justice issues, and sustain the organizations and individuals who undertake this challenging work. Moreover, these dimensions suggest a framework through which the wider field might begin to gauge the success of other sustained efforts.

The full report, We Are Each Other’s Magnitude and Bond: An Evaluation of Community MusicWorks’ Extending Our Reach Initiative, is available for download.

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It’s no secret that creativity and innovation are highly valued commodities in industries such as advertising and software development. As a result, companies in these fields have developed a number of practices designed to maximize the creative output of their employees. For those of us who work in the arts, it should come as no surprise that corporations in these sectors turn to art as one means of inspiring their employees and that artist in residence programs are often seen as means of bringing the creative energy of artists into corporate headquarters. However, I was intrigued to find that some major employers in sectors such as retail, in which the value of employees’ creativity is less obvious, appear to be getting in on the act.

Photo credit: XiXinXing / Envato Market

Recently, I came across a special issue of a magazine that a “big box”discount retailer produces for its employees, in which the company celebrated the creative talents of a handful of individual employees: a visual artist who works as a janitor at one of the stores, an accounting associate who also works a music therapist, and a sales clerk who is a published novelist. The magazine also reports on the annual company-wide talent contest, and there is mention of the company’s choir. Is this a case in which the arts are being grossly appropriated for the purpose of boosting workforce morale and increasing the company’s bottom line? Absolutely! But it also suggests that the company’s executives believe that their employees benefit from arts in some way (which in turn benefits the company) and that such activities are worth celebrating and supporting.

Americans for the Arts has recently released a series of essays addressing why businesses might want to integrate the arts in their workplaces. One article cites research on the importance of employee engagement in reducing staff turnover and increasing productivity, and maintains that arts programs can keep employees engaged. Another argues that involvement in the arts increases critical thinking skills and leads to more creative problem solving.

Understanding the relationship between employees’ arts participation and their working lives seems particularly pertinent to me, since lack of time is the most common reason people cite for not attending the arts more frequently. Like it or not, our bosses control a significant portion of our waking hours, and if you consider programs like employer-supported sports leagues, volunteerism, and gym memberships, it’s clear that they also have some influence over our leisure time. If employers recognize the arts as something that is vital in the lives of their employees — either because it increases productivity or because it provides necessary balance — it could go a long way towards changing whether workers think about the arts as an indulgence or a worthwhile investment of their time.

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