ACA Week: Jennifer Novak-Leonard on Audience Impact

Hi everyone – My name is Jennifer Novak-Leonard, and I’m a Senior Consultant with WolfBrown, an arts and cultural research and management consultancy.

While many museums conduct regular visitor studies and have evaluators on staff, the idea of having an evaluator in a performing arts organization is largely a foreign concept. Performing arts organizations are in the business of transforming individuals through arts experiences, but evaluation is rarely on their radars and box office receipts and the number of “butts in in seats” are used as proxies of how their art impacts and transforms individual people. Pretty poor proxy measures for impact.

How do you measure the impact of a single artistic performance on its audience? This is the key question Alan Brown, and I explored in Assessing the Intrinsic Impacts of a Live Performance.  This research focused on audience members’ aesthetic experience and the intrinsic impact of the performance, and what an audience member can self-report on a questionnaire shortly after a performance’s conclusion.  Through research since our 2007 study, we and our WolfBrown colleagues have refined impact constructs to be:

  • Captivation: degree to which an individual was engrossed or absorbed
  • Emotional resonance: type of emotional response and the degree of intensity
  • Social bonding and social bridging: sense of connectedness, with respect to self-understanding and identity, and a sense of belonging or pride in one’s community; including appreciation for people different from you.
  • Aesthetic growth and validation: exposure to new or unfamiliar art, artists, or styles of art, or the value derived from seeing familiar work
  • Intellectual stimulation: personal and social dimensions of cognitive engagement

To contextualize impact, we attempt to measure “readiness to receive” the art using context), relevance, and anticipation.

Lessons Learned:

  • Audience members say answering questions about intrinsic impact helps them process and reflect on the art.
  • The value of this approach lies not in data, but in conversations between artistic and administrative staff.
  • Applying these measures to orchestral performances, challenges remain in collecting data on concert programs featuring multiple, different pieces. Some audience members like to report on the (least) favorite, some “average out” their reactions to each piece, while others report on the last piece on the program.

Hot Tips:

  • Comparing staff responses on how they thought a program might affect their audience members with audience data can be eye-opening.
  • Measuring the intrinsic impact of performing arts can sometimes be met with resistance given the highly revered artistic autonomy of artistic directors and staff, and virtuosity of the musicians on stage.  Capturing qualitative data from audience members alongside quantitative data helps ease potential chasms between evaluation and artistic staff.

Rad Resources:

The American Evaluation Association is celebrating Arts, Culture, and Audiences (ACA) TIG Week. The contributions all week come from ACA members. Do you have questions, concerns, kudos, or content to extend this aea365 contribution? Please add them in the comments section for this post on the aea365 webpage so that we may enrich our community of practice. Would you like to submit an aea365 Tip? Please send a note of interest to aea365 is sponsored by the American Evaluation Association and provides a Tip-a-Day by and for evaluator.

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