EDA: One Piece of the Audience Engagement Puzzle, Part 2

By Suzanne Callahan

The change within the dance field in both the amount of dance and the ways it relates to its audiences has been dramatic, even during the years of EDA. (For background, see Part 1 here.) During Round One, from 2009-2011, nine projects invested in innovative approaches, and shared the range of their results. By the end of that round, Dance/USA leadership had reaffirmed its commitment to providing professional development for its members and the field but hoped to spread the resources more widely among its members. In 2011, through the generosity of Doris Duke Charitable Foundation, Round Two was developed to give more organizations the chance to adapt and advance the learning to their own circumstances and context, but to add their own interpretation, and organizational “stamp,” or brand. It kicked off in the spring of 2012 with two Learning Exchanges, one on each coast, where Round One grantees shared both their project results, and tools to implement them; sessions were videotaped and posted publicly for any who could not be present. Those videos, and many other products, are part of a bank of audience engagement resources that Dance/USA has made available to the field.

Three key findings from Round One were used as framing principles for Round Two and can benefit any arts practitioner who wants to better engage with its audiences. The working definition in Round One was sustained during this round, and indicates emerging practices and new attitudes about the inter-relationships among artists, presenters, and audiences, going well beyond accustomed practices of marketing, outreach, and audience development. Ideally, audience engagement: invites audiences to be participatory rather than passive and values their involvement; may be tied to specific performances, but also may occur independently; plans in good faith that a more knowledgeable and involved audience will lead to better sales or donations and will attract new faces, and inevitably involves risk, investment, and innovation. Ideally, audience engagement: invites audiences to be participatory rather than passive and values their involvement; may be tied to specific performances, but also may occur independently; plans in good faith that a more knowledgeable and involved audience will lead to better sales or donations and will attract new faces, and inevitably involves risk, investment, and innovation.

Two other concepts emerged as being instrumental to building connections with audiences, based on learning from the grantee projects, related research, and a major field study of dance audiences conducted by WolfBrown. The first was the role of social bonding, or the interactions that take place and relationships that are built among people, which can be based on common experience, interests, or beliefs, among other areas. Audience members desire experiences where meaningful connections can be made with their peer audience members, the staff of arts organizations, and the artists themselves, or key informants, such as experts in the art form. The second concept was meaning-making, whereby audience members ground their understanding of dance in a deeply personal and unique fashion.[2] Audience members desire to build understanding or knowledge of artists and art forms through live sessions and/or online content; to gain insight into the artistic decisions and elements, such as the creative process or curation of a season, and/or to learn kinesthetically. To be clear, these are not original concepts, but instead drawn from the prior work of many funding programs and consultants, and they highlight key learnings from Round One, and draw from new and earlier audience research.

From running EDA and conducting audience research, I am convinced that combining these two concepts is one of the best ways to engage audiences. When people are given information or understanding to shape an opinion about the dance they are seeing, and when placed in a group setting where they feel at ease expressing their opinion, they in turn feel greater connection with the art form. This even works for practitioners. As part of an evaluation I conducted for the Dance Touring Initiative, run by South Arts, I interviewed all 10 presenters who had enrolled to increase their skill level at presenting dance. South Arts smartly arranged for the presenters to travel to Jacob’s Pillow and get to know each other in a comfortable setting over four days (social bonding) and provided focused learning about the art form, including talks from experts, a participatory movement class, along with guidance at looking at work (meaning-making). Presenters saw numerous performances and talked about them in settings where great care had been taken to ensure their comfort level. The results were astounding, with presenters raving about the experience and what it provided. They grew in their collective appreciation for one another as peers, their understanding of the art form, and even their love for and interest in presenting it. As one presenter said, “I now realize there are no right or wrong answers, there are just opinions.” (However South Arts avoided my personal pet peeve: they did not merely tell presenters that a dance “means whatever you think it does.” I have heard that direction given repeatedly over the years, to no avail — it is vague to the point of being alienating. If someone is already nervous about sharing opinions or sounding ignorant, giving them no direction as to how to express themselves is a good way to shut them down.)

Round Two Grants and Themes
The concepts above, as well as the theme of supply and demand played out within EDA’s Round Two grantee selection. The panel of seven peers awarded applicants that went beyond business-as-usual practices, where the nature of the engagement activity proposed was two-way, and the strategies to connect with audiences were clear. They chose organizations that were in tune with their audiences and how to target them, based on either prior research and/or an understanding of audience behavior. Activities that had an “if you build it they will come” sense were not as appealing, because they focused more on the program design (or supply side), but less on audiences.

The Round Two grantees include dance companies, presenters, service organizations, and educational institutions. Collectively the organizations will undertake a wide combination of activities that will benefit scores of artists and companies — about 75 directly, or up to 150 in more distant ways.  Grantees, whose projects begin in June 2013, will strive to build connections among artists and audiences, as well as understanding of dance as an art form; here are a few highlights.

A number of projects focus on specific types of people, by either demographic or interest level. Some will involve dance luminaries and experts in other areas. STREB will offer creative conversations with experts in science and humanities, and the Joyce Theater will arrange for audience members to attend performances with choreographers. A few will experiment with the idea of dance ambassadors and affinity groups , such as University Musical Society, whose dance ambassadors will lead activities throughout the season for a group of dance-going novices, and Dance Cleveland (see recent press). Beyond many that involve general audiences, several will target specific groups, including high school and college students, the disability community, and the high-tech industry. Several grantees will involve young people in long-term strategies, such as Wesleyan Center for the Arts, which will arrange for students to intern with dance companies and later serve as ambassadors for the companies during residencies and Gibney Dance Center, which will bring area high school students to their space for a semester-long experience with four professional choreographers.

Other grantees are looking closely at methods, including where and when engagement takes place, encouraging it not only before and after a performance, but throughout a season. A few will test new sites for performances. Several will explore two-way engagement online, including Stephen Petronio Company, which will create a forum for the company’s work and audiences’ response. In order to extend the life of new engagement events and the experts who will lead them, several grantees will video document and post these events or show them to multiple audiences before performances. As just one of its strategies, Ballet X in Philadelphia will host and videotape talks with dance experts the first night of their runs, and screen them on subsequent nights before the show. A few will take a particularly holistic approach to offering engagement opportunities: Vermont Performance Lab will recruit a set group of dance fans in a book club model, offering them educational events the week before performances, and shared transportation to and from the numerous towns where performances take place, which will allow for shared exchange before and after the show. Some of the projects involve guiding a set group of partners in audience engagement strategies, such as Pentacle, which will provide technical assistance to smaller presenters in devising engagement activities for the touring of six dance companies.

The EDA Learning Community: Serving the Broader Membership
Over the next year, staff and the grantees will be capturing the range of learning. Information will be shared with the field, via regular conference calls or webinars, and an online searchable database of engagement practices. Grantees will lead a culminating session at the 2014 Dance/USA annual conference. Sharing the range of experiences is crucial, so that successes can be repeated and failures avoided. Sharing the range of experiences is crucial, so that successes can be repeated and failures avoided. Working with the guidance of social learning consultant Etienne Wenger, who pioneered the thinking around the concept of Communities of Practice, the approach to both sharing and evaluation fosters a sense of connection among grantees, encouraging both new practice and learning. Wenger emphasizes that knowledge, and the sharing of it, is fluid:

What makes managing knowledge a challenge is that it is not an object that can be stored, owned and moved around like a piece of equipment or a document. It resides in the skills, understanding and relationships of [the community using it] as well as in the tools, documents, and processes that embody aspects of this knowledge. Companies must manage their knowledge in ways that do not merely reduce it to an object.

As a group, EDA must remain open to asking new questions, and testing our assumptions about audience engagement. Some audience researchers are exploring alternative methods for gathering information. In a recent interview, consultant Peter Linett spoke about why his firm uses ethnographic methods, due to the limits of surveys and common qualitative methods, which are, in his view, narrow in “the kinds of questions that institutions tend to ask — or let their researchers ask. Are we asking about what really matters to audiences, or only what matters to us? Are we building in our own assumptions about the arts experience instead of letting people tell us how it works? How do we know? Some of the limits are on the audience’s side, because people can’t always tell you why they doing what they do — heck, they can’t always tell you what they just did. They don’t have complete, conscious access to their motivations or behaviors.”

Instead, Linett submits that “sometimes you get more insight by watching what they do, how they interact with each other, how they respond to the arts experience, and talking to them in the moment.” Linett feels this shift in methods mirrors the changes referenced above: “Back when arts organizations could assume a fairly stable, shared ground with the audience, it was okay to get information by deciding what the right questions were and asking them. But now, with culture changing so rapidly around the arts, and with arts organizations and funders trying to understand communities that may be very different from the traditional audience, we need to take a fresh look. Seeing arts participation through our audiences’ eyes is the beginning of being able to make it more relevant and meaningful.”

In Closing
Within EDA, the term engagement has double meaning. Of course it refers to the field’s relationships with its audiences. But, it also refers to our interrelationships as peers in the dance field — our willingness to share our experiences, both successes and failures, so that we learn together and help our colleagues avoid missteps. Despite the challenges on the supply side, and the advent of technology, all of this newfound interaction creates an opportunity to share like we have never have before. Tech leader Clay Shirkey refers to this as “cognitive surplus,” or the surfeit of intellect, energy, and time that encourages us to share information and help more readily.(xx) He reminds us that the best example of how people can learn from each other — when they set their mind and free time to it — is the creation of Wikipedia. No one envisions something that big to come out of EDA. But with the staff of Dance/USA and the grantees we can pose — and begin to answer — some of these questions together.

xiii The other three are better sales and marketing to the best prospects; finding new audiences amongst inclined target populations; and building demand for the art form.  (p3)
xiv  Here Cameron is quoting Lisa Adler of Horizon Theatre, one of the many who has made this distinction.
xv  WolfBrown. How Audiences Engage. 2010 Field Study. Refer to the Key Themes from this study the Dance/USA website here.
xvi  Among them are the extensive research, reporting and tools created by the firm WolfBrown (see in particular Making Sense of Audience Engagement, 2011), the work of the firm Slover Linett Audience Research, and even earlier work by consultants such as Arts Action Research.
xvii  The number of 75 includes all dance groups that will be paid through EDA for audience engagement either directly and/or for their contributions to presenters’ new audience engagement efforts; the larger number indicates all companies involved in festivals whose overall audience engagement efforts are to be enhanced in concrete ways through EDA funding.
xviii  See in particular the section on “taste communities” in the Working Paper by Alan Brown, citied above, which provides an overview of how such groups are developed. Taste Communities are self-organizing groups of people joined by a common appreciation …. They are culturally based but transcend demographics; inherently social in nature; self organizing but can be curated by arts groups; inherently fluid, and span current and potential audiences. More than merely a fan base, they  offer “a more flexible and dynamic framework for arts groups looking for a better way of organizing audiences and programs around preferences as they actually exist”  (21).
xix  Wenger, Etienne, McDermott, Richard A., and Snyder William. Cultivating Communities  of Practice:  A Guide to Managing Knowledge. Boston: Harvard Business School Press, 2002. Chapter 1.
xx  Shirkey, Clay. Cognitive Surplus: How Technology Makes Consumers into Collaborators. New York: The Penguin Group, 2010. His principles are also available via a TED talk.

Suzanne Callahan founded Callahan Consulting for the Arts in 1996, to help arts funders and organizations realize their vision through offering services in planning, fundraising, evaluation and
research, and philanthropic counsel. She has run Engaging Dance Audiences since 2009. 


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