On Project Audience Assembly

So I just got back from the Project Audience Assembly at the Eaglewood Resort in lovely Itasca, IL. For those of you who haven’t been following too closely, Project Audience is a Mellon Foundation-funded “planning process” to identify next generation technological solutions – and ideas – for addressing the challenges of 21st century audience development for the arts.

The Assembly was a gathering of about 30 individuals from across the spectrum from arts journalists to technologists to marketing directors, gathered to put some ideas down and try and get things moving. I was invited because of my work with Culturebot. In my application I basically argued that Culturebot is a form of audience development in that it serves as a kind of community space and even though we’re smallish, we represent a model for developing a “trusted voice” that people rely on, and an internet space that serves as a community hub. Also my brain is just huge. JK. LOL. But seriously – there were many great people there and I’m excited and proud to have been included. Exhausted, but excited. (“Collaboration is a muscle“)

(NB: I left for Itasca the morning after the PRELUDE closing party and never quite fully recovered, so I’m not sure I came off as searingly intelligent and engaging as I would like to. Also, this write-up is a little sketchy because its based on my chicken scratch notes. Just so you know. Okay? Now cut me some slack.)

Anyway – the Assembly was both exciting and daunting, exhilarating and debilitating. At times I felt like I was at the cutting edge of the arts, other times I felt like a telephone sanitizer on the “B Ship” from Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. You know when you just get so mired in mumbo-jumbo and lingo that you literally feel like people are just making noise to avoid staring the existential void in the face? Like we’re all deluding ourselves into busy-work so we don’t have to contemplate the meaninglessness of existence and our own rapidly-encroaching mortality? I had a few of those moments where my head was just swimming.

I say that because I think there was – and is – always a bit of a disconnect in all gatherings related to identifying technological solutions. There are those who keep thinking about the gizmos and there are other people that think that if you are really trying to come up with next generation solutions then the gizmos haven’t been invented yet and you’ve gotta get really, really macro to start doing any worthwhile thinking. And by macro I mean it isn’t about CRM and metrics, its about getting into large conceptions of cultural ecology and human behavior, about the role of live experience as opposed to mediated experience, its about meaning and truth and definitions of art, and relevance.

Ultimately the arts are facing some serious challenges with audience development and there will certainly be technological tools to help us with those challenges. But the tools will come into existence in response to reality, not imposed on reality. And reality is we have vastly changing demography in America for whom the role of “the arts” is significantly different than what current arts patrons imagine. Plus we have a rapidly evolving mediascape that is changing the sort of art that people are interested in seeing and the ways they relate to “art” in general, if at all. We’ve got to start tackling those questions soon. Plus the economy imploded which means that many of the arts institutions we know are going to go away, or evolve, or mutate or be replaced by something else. So predicating future audience development solutions on today’s arts landscape is a dicey venture to begin with.

One organization, which I will leave unnamed, kept popping up for me as a great example of how change occurs not because of the technology but because of the shift of consciousness that occurs when everyone starts to “Think 2.0”. Basically, this organization knew they were facing some major challenges so they organized a technology task force. They brought together stakeholders from every part of the organization from musicians to staff to board members for a series of information sessions on technology. They then invited experts in to educate the team. What happened was that the stakeholders got engaged with the organization in new ways, they became activated and in some ways the DNA of the organization shifted, creating new pathways to participation. Musicians who normally didn’t have a voice in the program or organizational structure began to bring ideas forward, good ideas that were adopted and implemented successfully. The experts that were brought became excited and engaged, and five of them became new board members. Not only that but the six point recommendation plan for adopting new technological approaches was implemented so successfully that the task force became a committee on the board and is now an ongoing part of the life of the organization.

That is real change that goes beyond twitter or facebook. It is about fundamentally shifting consciousness to embrace new ways of thinking and being in the world.

So what was exciting, to me, about the Project Audience Assembly were those moments when we got macro. And I think we asked some really good questions. We called into question some of the basic terminology around audience development and started to poke around a little bit under the hood, looking for a new framework and new ways to approach arts participation. In some ways we really only started to scratch the surface – because how do you completely redefine the meaning of audience in a fractured landscape? Its pretty daunting. Part of the challenge will be mapping the changes in arts orgs and, not only mapping, but doing some of the scary speculation on which ones are going to go down, which ones can be saved and what arts participation will look like in the future. Another part of the challenge – as I see it – will be breaking down the arts silos to bring development, programming, marketing and tech together in new ways to address audience development issues. Because all these departments are intertwined in an ecology – you can’t market an archaic program that nobody wants and there’s no reason to fund irrelevance, etc. And while discussion of portals and calendaring and CRM and integrated ticketing solutions is important it is not going to really answer those questions.  CRM and metrics is only one small part of a much bigger conversation.

I go back to the arguments I’ve made here countless times – I think the age of big institutions is mostly over. We’re just too fractured and niche. The arts are going to have to embrace small, they’re going to have to reckon with the rise of the amateur and they’re going to have really wrestle with what community means. But that’s just my $.02. There are plenty of people – some of whom at the Project Audience Assembly – who will disagree with me. That’s what made it both exciting and exhausting.

But whether you agree or disagree, if you want to get involved go to the Project Audience website and sign up. As the project moves forward its going to stay open and transparent and porous and hopefully foster some unexpected ideas and input. Its a collaborative effort, so join in.

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  1. […] think it is suitable to end with a quote from one of the Project Audience participants. Andy Horwitz from the blog Culturebot tells a story of how organizational change and these technological frames work together (emphasis […]



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