Commentary: Surveying audiences on an emotional level makes a lot of sense

Joe Patti, Butts in the Seats blog, 3/23/11

Two thought-provoking articles about surveying:

(1) Crystal Wallis recounts how North Carolina turned to folklorists to help establish an arts council in one of the counties. It made perfect sense to include them. Then I started wondering why more surveys don't involve folklorists.  [They] are some of the best trained interviewers out there. They also have a particular advantage when it comes to arts research: folklorists are trained to seek out and recognize creativity in all forms, especially that which comes from people who don't consider themselves "artists."

(2) Peter Linett talks about a New York Times piece criticizing a Brooklyn Museum exhibit for the use of focus groups and visitor surveys in the planning process. Linett addresses the problem most arts organizations face when asking audiences about future programming: programming per popular acclamation of committee results in something that is uninspiring to everyone. [But] foregoing feedback entirely risks appearing highbrow and elitist. While Linett makes this observation in term of museum exhibitions, I am sure you can think of similar examples in other disciplines.

 "...We're interested in what visitors know...rather than what they feel, what they wish, what they fear, what they find beautiful, what they find sad.  What kinds of questions would we ask if we cared just as much about emotional, spiritual, social, ethical, imaginative, and physical connections to that material? How would we start a conversation with our audiences about those kinds of engagement?"

Surveying on an emotional rather than an intellectual level makes a lot of sense. People react to art and even the idea of the arts on a visceral level that they can have difficulty verbalizing. Surveying factual information isn't going to help elicit a truly valuable response because people often don't know why they do or don't like art.  At least once a day when I am reading about arts topics, there will be a comment that says "as long as no tax money is used for it..." and/or "art(ists) should support themselves." I suspect these phrases are just convenient ways for people to get past the fact they don't really know how to discuss how they feel about the arts.  Certainly this inability is shared by those who want to offer praise as well.  Asking Linett's questions about what people felt, feared, admired and pitied might bring more sophisticated answers.


FROM TC: The Intrinsic Impact study began in the fall of 2010, and is expected to be completed by summer 2011. Spanning 18 companies in 6 cities across the country, this work will ultimately [provide] a new set of tools to measure and understand the intellectual, spiritual, emotional, and social impact of [theater] on the people who watch it. Their final report should be ready at the end of this year.  In the meantime, you can get some mid-point progress updates on the project:


Updates on a national "Intrinsic Impact" project, examining theater audiences

Theatre Bay Area website

         In February, Alan Brown and his associated Jennifer Novak-Leonard presented a webinar on

measuring intrinsic impact.  Check out and log into the Members Only section [you must be a member of AFTA to view it in the archives].

  • In March, [project manager Clayton Lord] contributed to blog conversations at and  Check out "We Need New Beans to Count" here, and "The Space Between Stories and Numbers" here and "How Do We Make People Care?" here.
  • Also in March, Theatre Bay Area's Executive Director Brad Erickson [was] at the Association of Performing Arts Service Organizations conference.  Find his PowerPoint here.
  • [Clayton Lord] spoke with David Dombrosky for a podcast about the intrinsic impact project in general, and the web-based dashboard in particular.  Listen here.
  • Coming up, [Lord] will be presenting at Theatre Bay Area's conference on May 23, and at the Americans for the Arts conference and Theatre Communications Group conference in June.
  • Read an interview with Aaron Schwartzbord, marketing director at the Pearl Theatre Company in New York City, about their experience with the project thus far.
  • Read a blog post by Tara Demmy, professional apprentice at the Arden Theatre Company in Philadelphia, about that company's participation.

3-year project, combining research and neuroscience, examines dance audiences

Watching Dance website

'Watching Dance: Kinesthetic Empathy' uses audience research and neuroscience to explore how dance spectators respond to and identify with dance. Arguments have been made that dance audiences can experience physical and imaginative effects of movement without actually moving their bodies; that is, spectators can react in certain respects as if they were moving, or preparing to move. However, these views have remained controversial.  Current techniques of neurophysiological investigation make it possible to investigate these claims more closely. [Our] results will provide, for the first time, strong grounds on which to assess the role of kinesthetic response in dance spectatorship. In addition to having a decisive impact on the field of dance studies (with implications for reception of other art forms), this knowledge will be valuable for audience development and education.  The insights into responses to dance and the context in which it is seen by spectators with different levels of experience will be helpful to those seeking to widen access and will thereby potentially enrich the cultural experience and quality of life of greater numbers of people.

FROM TC: Although the final report on this research won't be available until later, their website does include some results from the earlier portion of their research:

         How audience members watch different styles of dance

         The effect of sound and music on audience response to dance

         The kinds of language audiences use to describe their experiences watching dance 

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