New book is published on the intrinsic impact of the arts on U.S. audiences

Theatre Bay Area website

We make art because we believe it makes better human beings. We make art because we believe it makes being human better. So why do we spend so much energy quantifying the economics of what we do, and so little time quantifying the impact? Theatre Bay Area is pleased to release final reports for the past two years of intrinsic impact research as well as interviews with 20 prominent artistic directors and essays by Diane Ragsdale, Arlene Goldbard, Rebecca Novick and more in a brand new paperback book, Counting New Beans: Intrinsic Impact and the Value of Art. Project manager Clayton Lord and lead researcher Alan Brown will be traveling to cities across the country to give free public presentations of the final results and lead panel discussions on the impact and implications of the research.

Chicago: Monday, March 12

Minneapolis/St. Paul: Tuesday, March 13
Boston: Tuesday, March 20

New York City: Wednesday, March 21

Washington, DC: Thursday, March 22

Philadelphia: Friday, March 23

Los Angeles: Tuesday, March 27

San Francisco: Friday, March 30


From the foreword: Could understanding impact improve what's on stage?

Ben Cameron, Doris Duke Charitable Foundation

In a time when audiences are overwhelmed with choices, how do we compete for their leisure time? Do we even really know why they come -- and (conversely) why they stay away? If we listened more carefully to what our audiences do value -- instead of to what we think they value -- what would we do with that information? What if we find that what drives them to our theatres is more the social experience than the aesthetic? What if we find that the impact of our work is not as deep as we had thought? Or what if we find that there is more hunger for a kind of experimentation and risk than we had anticipated? That our impact is even deeper? Could what we learn change, not only our marketing, but our approach in advocacy as well? And might it even be possible that understanding our audiences could somehow make our work better? Knowledge is power, and knowing what our audiences value does not dictate what we must do. Rather it opens the door for us to confirm, to distill, to imagine, to change, depending on who we are and what we hear.


From 2-year national study of theater audiences: Key themes and observations

Alan Brown and Rebecca Ratzkin, WolfBrown

  • High response rates (45%, on average) suggest that theatre patrons are willing, able and ready to provide meaningful feedback on their artistic experiences. The investment of time and psychic energy on the part of patrons in completing almost 19,000 surveys was staggering.
  • While the purpose of the study was to engage theatres around impact assessment, patrons also benefit from the process of providing feedback, since, in taking the survey, they are forced to articulate a critical reaction to the art. In future efforts it will be important to provide respondents with immediate feedback on how their results compare to those of other patrons.
  • Results bring to light what might be considered the central riddle of impact: On average, single-ticket buyers report significantly higher impacts than subscribers. [So] why are they not attending more? This might speak to an underlying driver of "churn". It seems to suggest that satisfaction with the artistic experience alone is not enough to drive repeat purchase.
  • Respondents were asked to choose three from a list of 11 reasons why people attend performances. Younger respondents are more socially motivated and more likely to attend "for educational purposes". High frequency patrons (89% of whom are subscribers) are much more likely to cite emotional and intellectual reasons for attending, whereas low frequency attenders (87% of whom are single-ticket buyers) are motivated by production-specific factors (e.g., "to see the work of a specific artist"). Among the least frequent attenders, 35% came "because someone else invited me," illustrating the power of social context to drive attendance. Overall, motivations can vary dramatically from production to production, suggesting a need to carefully align marketing messages.

Sample interview in the book: The impact of 'call and response' on audiences

Dudley Cocke, Roadside Theater's founding artistic director

From the beginning, our relationship with our audience and our local culture has shaped the form and content of our plays and how we produce and perform them. For example, our work has no fourth wall. We speak directly to the audience, and the audience is invited to speak back. And that isn't just some imposed, formal convention; it's part of the culture here. And it's part of the culture in many communities - for example in southern black churches, where we've often performed. The soul of Roadside's plays just shrivels up without a diverse audience. In the late '80s, we, along with a bunch of other theatres, tracked our audiences over six years. The findings for us were almost the exact inverse of the rest of the theatres being tracked in the sample - for example, 73% of our audience earned less than $50,000 a year and 30% of those earned $20,000 or less annually. Our audience diversity success derives in part from our artistic understanding that the audience is part of the show. Often it seems like our plays occur in some third, ephemeral space, which is neither where the audience is seated, nor is it on the stage where the actors are playing. Remember, there is no fourth wall, and we prefer non-proscenium spaces. This intimacy and the opportunity for spontaneous call and response between the audience and actors can cause what I can only describe as a levitating effect. It's probably akin to what athletes describe as "being in the zone," but in the theatre of participation, everyone can go there together.


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FROM TC: Throughout the spring, Theatre Bay Area will be rolling out portions of the book's content on websites across the web. Here are excerpts from some initial blog posts:


Commentary: The intangible aspect of art is more knowable than we assumed

Clayton Lord,, 3/4/12

Alan Brown tells the story of sitting in a presentation about [the 2004] Gifts of the Muse study -- the first articulate argument for shifting the conversation away from the "extrinsic" impact of art and toward the "intrinsic" impact. Brown raised his hand and said, "After ten years of heavy emphasis on measurable outcomes, isn't it funny that you're telling us that the real benefits of the arts are intrinsic and can't be measured?" Ed Pauly [evaluation director at the Wallace Foundation] said, "Alan, if you can describe something, you can measure it." This caught Brown off-guard, and it took him two years to tease out what might be a manageable way to move forward. Many iterations of that effort later, we have come to this work, the most comprehensive analysis of the actual true intrinsic impact of live theater ever conducted. The intangible aspect of the art, while never knowable in a complete way, is more knowable than we have assumed, and by learning to measure and talk about the intellectual, emotional, social and empathetic impact of art on an individual using standard metrics and a common vocabulary, we can move the conversation forward in a dynamic and new way. Envision the artistic process as a beautiful, elusive wild animal, walking down a riverbed, stalking through the land so quickly that it's impossible to catch a glimpse of the real thing. You can never see the animal itself, it's gone. But the footprint is there, to measure and examine, and you can work from the footprint back to something of the animal itself.


Commentary: Will the industry change if assumptions about impact are wrong?

Diane Ragsdale, blog Jumper, 3/5/12

We're rather protectionist in the U.S. nonprofit arts sector because we know, or at least suspect in our gut, that if we start measuring intrinsic impact -- testing our assumptions about the impact of the art we make -- we might find out that there is greater intrinsic impact from watching an episode of The Wire than going to any kind of live theatre. Or we may find that small-scale productions in churches or coffee shops are just as impactful (or more so) than large-scale professional productions in traditional theatre spaces. Are we prepared, if we find this sort of evidence, to change the way we behave in light of it? Because right now it appears we have a winner-take-all system in the arts. The few at the top continue to grow while the rest of the sector is forced to divide a shrinking pie among an increasing number of organizations. Assuming we're not going to have significantly more resources coming into the sector, can we allow for a different idea to emerge about which are the most important organizations to fund? 

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