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In the field of arts management, audience engagement is an increasingly important and influential area of study. As the arts sector strives to create a more accessible, participatory and democratic experience for audience members, it has become more and more important to accurately measure the ways in which audiences engage with artistic endeavours, and the impact that this engagement has. The positive individual and social impacts of engagement with the arts are often required to justify continued funding from both public sources and private funding bodies. It is not hard to see how this creates an inherently biased system of measurement, which encourages the perpetuation of positive narratives above meaningful and nuanced data.
One way in which it might be possible to help undo these biases is through leveraging digital technologies, particularly social media data mining to measure audience engagement free from potentially confounding variables such as researcher influence on interaction, geographic location and social influence. This essay will look at the ways in which old methods of data gathering fall flat in addressing these potential biases, while examining the use of new data gathering techniques for measuring engagement. Further to this, we will look at a case study of a dance company leveraging digital technology to not only measure audience engagement, but to facilitate engagement and participation at a deeper, more democratic level.
There has long been and is increasingly a criticism of the best way to ‘measure the success of performing arts programs’ which points out that the current and traditional methods of quantitative analysis do not provide the level of nuanced insight that is required in order to meaningfully shed light on the ways that the arts impact audiences. ‘Arts impact evaluations tend to be poorly conceived and implamented’, and, more importantly ‘biased towards the delivery of a positive result’. The reason for this becomes clear: funding bodies do not want to continue or increase funding to arts organisations whose programming has a neutral or negative impact on audience engagement. This appears fair enough from the perspective of these funders, who naturally desire a return on investment. There is a novel solution to the problem of self-selection bias (wherein an audience member is predisposed to give a positive evaluation of any arts programming they have chosen to visit by nature of the fact that they are unlikely to be engaging with art out of the blue). By inviting ‘non-attendees’ to become audience members for a theatre show, the reasearchers hope to measure the difference in response between regular attendees and these so-called ‘non-attendees’. However, by inviting participants along who would not otherwise have gone to the production, there were created a new bias: the non-attendees come to the show knwoing that they will be asked for their input afterwards, and therefore view the production through a lens that wouldn not have existed had they chosen to go on their own. The variable in results, and report that it also appears to bias the audience members towards finding something positive to remark on. This suggests that there needs to be further steps taken to eliminate potential biases in researching audience engagement.
An interesting discussion, and a novel approach to addressing the perpetuation of positive narratives within audience engagement research within the paper is the brief section of the conclusion which covers Tasmania’s Museum of old and New Art’s approach to audience research. As described in the paper, patrons of the gallery are encouraged to take with them on their visit an iPod Touch, which is loaded with a piece of software used to cast judgement on each installation. Patrons can ‘love’ or ‘hate’ the artwork as they move along. It was uggested that MONA’s existence as a privately-owned and funded gallery allows for this embrace of negative feedback, while also allowing the gallery to continue presenting challenging artwork to the public. However, while novel, this method of feedback does not do much to address the ‘virtuous circle’ problem, as galler owner David Walsh has ‘threatened to remove the most popular works from display’. This threat would appear to be entirely tongue in cheek, and even if not, simply serves to invert the viruous circle without addressing the issues which cause it to arise.
One method of researching audience engagement which attempts to address the inherent biases involved in face-to-face surveys and interviews is presented in the Pew Research Center paper regarding the use of digital data gathering to create larger, more diverse and less easily-confounded study groups. The method, called Propensity Score Matching (PSM), is used to ‘correct for bias in online samples’, by creating a control group against which the experimental group can be accurately compared. The method attempts to show the impact of audience engagement by showing whether an audience member who engages with the art shows a change in their knowledge, behaviours or attitudes compared to the control group of ‘very similar’ people who did not engage. The major benefit with this method is that it almost completely eliminates the self-selection bias, as each group in the study is considered equally likely to have experienced the programming – but one group, for whatever reason, has not engaged. One issue with this method is that given it uses social media to leverage the data, it is biased towards an audience that uses social media more often; ie a younger audience. However, given the relative ease with which the researchers were able to create their control and experimental groups, and the ability to control for many of the biases inherent in analogue methods of data gathering suggest that there is merit in further exploring the opportunities that digital technologies, especially social media, provide for insight.
With the continuing rise of social digital technologies, it appears that a great opportunity to change the way audiences engage with the arts is emerging. Thus far in this essay, we have explored, different ways in which we can use these new and some older methods to measure audience engagement. What is more interesting, though, is the ways in which we might actually foster deeper, more democratic methods of engaging with art through leveraging this great digital opportunity, rather than merely using these technologies as a new way to gain insight into audience’s experiences. The methods described in the paper by Walmsley offer a very novel approach to audience engagement, one that happens before, during and after the art is seen by the audience. Using the Critical Response Process 9CRP first described by Liz Lerman in 1990, and adapting it for an online forum, Walmsley has produced insight and created deeper, more thoughtful engagement at the same time. By providing an online platform for audience members to engage critically with the artists, with one another, and to reflect on their own experiences, Walmsley shows that the field of audience engagement research can move beyond quantitative and qualitative analysis and into a type of meaningful dialogue between artist and audience. This is the sort of innovation that emerging and existing digital technologies allow. As described in the paper, there is a concern that social media’s tendency towards encouraging relatively shallow interaction and connection may prove to be a confounding variable for this method of engagement research, the researchers note that almost all participants in the online platform expressed a desire for further, deeper interaction.
While it appears that analogue, traditional methods of gathering audience engagement data still appear to be dominant in the arts management industry, the new opportunities provided by the continuing rise and evolution of digital technologies allow for a range of new procedures and methodologies to emerge. These new methods, whether they be through large-sample data mining or more intimate, democratic cultivation of social experiences, will allow for greater insight into exactly what impact engagement with the arts has on people and society. At the core of this essay is the belief that research into audience engagement should do much more than provide justification for additional funding, or relatively self-evident data about positive impacts on those who choose to engage with the arts, but should instead be used a tool to lower the barrier to entry into a discussion about all art, and to create a meaningful dialogue between audience and artist, with deeper connection between people – not merely between audience member and art – as the overarching goal of future research.
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