INTERVIEW WITH ALAN BROWNHello everybody.
"And the beat goes on....................."
Alan Brown is one of the most influential and widely respected thinkers in our sector, particularly in the area of audience development. He graciously agreed to this interview.
Alan Brown is a leading researcher and management consultant in the nonprofit arts industry. As a principal of WolfBrown, his work focuses on understanding consumer demand for cultural experiences and on helping institutions, funders and agencies see new opportunities, make informed decisions and respond to changing conditions. He has studied audiences, visitors and patterns of cultural participation in almost every major market in the U.S., and has led numerous strategic planning efforts. Prior to joining with Tom Wolf and Bill Keens as a partner in WolfBrown, Alan served as principal of Alan S. Brown & Associates (2003 to 2006) and as President of Audience Insight LLC and Associate Principal of AMS Planning & Research Corp. (1990 to 2003).
From 2000 to 2002, Alan directed the Classical Music Consumer Segmentation Study for the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation and 15 orchestras, the largest private study of classical music audiences ever undertaken in the U.S.
Within the past few years, he has directed proprietary studies for the Brooklyn Museum of Art, Long Wharf Theatre, Jazz at Lincoln Center, the Aspen Music Festival and the University Musical Society, among others. From 2005 to 2007 he directed a groundbreaking study of the values and motivations driving attendance and donation for a consortium of 15 major university presenters. Currently, he is leading a large study of cultural engagement for The James Irvine Foundation in California, segmentation studies for the Philadelphia Orchestra and Steppenwolf Theatre, a major research effort for the Dallas Arts Learning Initiative, and an evaluation of the Creative Campus grant program for the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation.
Alan has directed numerous strategic planning assignments and feasibility studies for arts facilities and programs in New York, California, Florida, New Jersey, Texas, and Ohio. As a facilitator, he has supported many board meetings, retreats, expert panels, industry roundtables, and public meetings. In 2007 he facilitated a meeting of the CEOs of 10 national service organizations on the topic of knowledge management in the cultural sector.
Recently, Alan has been writing and speaking about the value system surrounding arts experiences. His essay An Architecture of Value appeared in the spring 2006 edition of Grantmakers in the Arts Reader, and his work on Assessing the Intrinsic Impacts of a Live Performance serves as the basis for keynote addresses this year in Miami, New York, Seattle, Minneapolis, Denver and Edinburgh.
Prior to his consulting career, Alan served for five years as Executive Director of the Ann Arbor Summer Festival, a multi-discipline performing arts presenter in Michigan. He holds three degrees from the University of Michigan: a Master of Business Administration, a Master of Music in Arts Administration and a Bachelor of Musical Arts in vocal performance. Alan makes his home in San Francisco with a Yellow Labrador Retriever named Golden Brown.
BARRY: In your study The Architecture of Value wherein you posit a new vocabulary for discussing the benefits on arts experiences (based on the Rand Study: The Gifts of the Muse), you suggest that by expanding the terms we use when we try to describe the ‘benefits’ of arts experiences, we might better convey our meanings to a broad array of those we wish to engage in a dialogue.
At a session on the National Arts Policy Roundtable at last June’s Americans for the Arts conference in Philadelphia, a survey of school principals and business / corporate leaders - as to which skills arts education purportedly imparts to students are likely the most valuable to businesses - there was almost diametric opposing views where the school principals cited (as do we in the arts) problem solving as likely the most valuable skill arts education may deliver to corporate America, and the business leadership citing problem identification as likely the number one advantage. The business leaders apparently thought that business is pretty good at problem solving, but less adept at problem identification. This suggests that even after decades of the arts community’s concerted efforts to build bridges by and between the nonprofit arts and corporate America, hopefully leading to meaningful partnerships, we may still be talking to each other without benefit of any common vocabulary. We may, in fact, be making the mistake of assuming we are on the same page, and that fundamental lack of any consensus as to a common language may help to explain why most of our relationships with businesses continue to be surface interactions, more often than not confined to the most simplistic of relationships (e.g., Corporate sponsorship of arts events, but no real partnerships that are premised on mutual benefits). We know what we want from them – money and support. We assume we know what they want from us (if anything), and those assumptions may or may not have any validity at all.
Taking two of the sub-categories of benefits as set forth in your 2006 paper – personal development and human interaction (which seem the most promising as to providing direct benefit to business & industry - from the business perspective) – what can you suggest might be a more promising approach in beginning to craft a vocabulary that would resonate with business?
ALAN: You bring up several interwoven issues here. The disconnect between the cultural sector and the business community is not just a vocabulary problem. The business community fully understands the need for a creative workforce. It’s the only way that they can remain economically viable in the long run. They also understand quality of life and economic impact arguments.
The real disconnect is that the cultural sector is more or less frozen in a solicitous position kneeling in front of the business community, hand extended, asking for more money. Rather, arts leaders need to start an open and honest dialogue with business leaders about what value they need from the arts community (besides “opportunities to entertain clients”), and whether or not they are willing to provide it.
If I were a corporate CEO, I would be supporting arts education and participatory creative activities for my employees, because that’s the front line of the creative revolution.
The other problem we have in making the case for many of the personal and interpersonal benefits of the arts is lack of generally accepted metrics and measurement systems. Public policy tends to accrete around bodies of data. Until we can present business leaders and political stakeholders with yearly progress reports on the levels of creative capital in their community, we’re unlikely to get a high level of support. In other words, you can’t win the game unless you know the score. That’s one of the reasons I’m a researcher.
BARRY: A second question on the Architecture of Value paper: For at least the past decade the arts have been discussing and even debating how we can more persuasively Make the Case for the Value of the Arts. Considerable research has been conducted, and we have amassed significant data to bolster our claims of value to the economic, educational and civic life of communities across America. What is your current thinking, perhaps as suggested in this paper, on how we can move more systemically towards successfully making our case?
ALAN: If our programs were so relevant, so beneficial, so responsive and so demanded by the public, we wouldn’t have to argue so much about their value, would we?
The short-term answer to your question is that we have to talk differently to different stakeholders about the value of the arts. Parents will be more likely to respond to certain language, while business leaders might respond to other language, and so forth. We probably don’t want to tell our legislators about the erotic benefits of dance. Seriously, We have a lot of arrows in our quiver, and we need to get more adept at using them all. Private donors, for example, tend to respond to intrinsic benefits illustrated through stories of impact.
A first step would be for every arts institution to articulate a value agenda. To what ends to you offer programs? What benefits are you working to create in your community? When I present the value framework to arts groups, most of them can’t answer these basic questions – they sort of throw their hands in the air and say ‘we do it all!’ But I think it’s increasingly important for arts groups to develop a very focused value agenda, and then start assessing themselves on it. Of course this can be done without compromising artistic standards, although it might require rethinking mission or strategy. This is really about holding ourselves accountable to a higher standard of public value.
The same challenge applies to funders. A lot of them fund good proposals without really considering what impacts they are privileging. So they wind up supporting the visible, grant-writing parts of the cultural system, while a mounting body of research seems to suggest a shift in public value to other parts of the cultural system (e.g., participatory arts practice). Funders can be architects of impact, not just supporters of delivery mechanisms.
The long-term answer to your question is that increased public support of the arts – the big needle – will not move until much larger percentages of adults are engaged in creative activities that make the essentialness of the arts self-evident, highly personal and, therefore, worth fighting for. In the arts, we’ll never have a crisis like global warming to galvanize support, although the business community has done us a great favor by ‘problematizing’ the creative workforce issue. So I think the best arts advocacy strategy is to awaken the creative voice in every citizen, especially youth.
BARRY: In the August issue of the On Our Minds section on your website (www.wolfbrown.com), you cite a recent news report that the Guitar Hero game featuring Aerosmith sold half a million copies at $50 per on release – a far greater gross than the band’s most recent album release, and commented that “the real messages here are about the tectonic shift towards participatory engagement in culture, new frontiers of interactive creative expression made possible through gaming, and, of course, money changing hands at the speed of light.” I noted that press item and had similar thoughts myself. In a study I am currently doing for the William & Flora Hewlett Foundation on generational succession and management issues, I have heard in focus groups composed of Millennials and Generation Xers the repeated complaint and observation, that our sector is far too slow in adapting to, and adopting current new technological means of both communicating to and capturing our audiences. What are your observations on the way our sector is or is not staying current with the technology and using newer technology in our efforts to address a host of issues – from audience development to courting new donors to generational leadership succession? Where do you see our efforts in this area going? Are we, or should we be, figuring out how to deliver our product in non-traditional (but arguably more marketplace competitive) ways? What advice do you have for the sector?
ALAN: One of the biggest challenges facing cultural providers is how to be relevant to constituents in a range of settings. It’s not enough any more to expect people to come to a central location for a live experience. While the value system around the live experience remains strong, consumers are increasingly facile with multi-channel engagement. At the same time, setting plays a more and more important role in decision-making, particularly among communities of color. The recently released Irvine Foundation study of cultural engagement in California’s Inland Regions suggests that cultural provides that want to serve diverse communities need to start thinking more in terms of venue diversification and getting out into community venues.
The study also identifies the home as the dominant setting where cultural activity happens. Bedroom as cinema, living room as concert hall, and kitchen as crafts workshop. That’s the metaphor that a lot of people are living with. How can cultural organizations be present in this metaphor?
If you’re an orchestra, why would you care about what music people listen to at home, or in their cars? If you’re a theatre, why would you care about what TV shows people watch at home? If you’re a dance company, why would you care about social dancing in bars and clubs? If you’re a museum, why would you care about what’s hanging on the walls in people’s homes? If we truly want to scale up impact, we have to start asking hard questions about how we can involve people in the arts who will never darken the door of a theatre or museum. Until we can start making more points of relevance with people in the settings where they live, eat, drive and exercise, the impact of the arts can never be fully realized.
Then there is the matter of interpretive technologies. We are at the cusp of a new era of music visualization. In a few years, we’ll be able to project high definition images of music visualizations above the stage at concerts. Not the sort of thing you see on a PC, but 3-D animation of score-based visualizations of music in real time. You’re looking at what you’re hearing. The old folks will hate it, but it may attract a new generation of music lovers into the concert hall. Fantasia 2.0. And people will bring their cell phones to concerts, load a web site and get concert commentary synchronized to the music. This stuff is here already – what kills me is that no one is leading the R&D effort to bring it forward and scale it out. We’re already way behind the eight ball with video games, which is the real frontier of creativity in our culture. I’m afraid we’re valiantly fighting small battles but losing the war.
BARRY: In a paper for the Knight Foundation in 2004 entitled: Initiators & Responders – Leveraging Social Context to Build Audiences, in a discussion of the failure of the arts sector to cross market tickets within the sector, you asked the question: “Why shouldn’t orchestras be able to sell tickets to the opera or ballet or vice versa?” Four years later that question remains.
What are your thoughts today about the arts not cross promoting and marketing the panoply of cultural events offerings as a way to expand the potential base for audience development? Why don’t we do that? And is that failure emblematic of a deeper problem? At that same conference you also offered: ‘that the decentralized nature of the arts sector is like having 10,000 branch offices and no headquarters. Without suggesting this is a good or bad thing, but simply a reality, we have no cultural CEO and so our decision making apparatus is hard to identify.’ Is this decentralization a good or bad thing do you think, and why? How does it hurt us competitively with other sectors for audience development or public support? Or does it actually help us?
ALAN: The nonprofit arts industry is like a huge multinational corporation with 10,000 branch offices and no headquarters. The decentralized nature of the system is both a strength and a weakness. Great work bubbles up in unexpected places – that’s a strength, as well as the ability to serve a diversity of publics. But without a coordinated diffusion system, most of the great work evaporates into the ether. A breakthrough fundraising campaign in Anchorage. A brilliant marketing campaign in Ann Arbor. A new audience engagement strategy in Chicago… a lot of this stuff just disappears year after year because no one is systematically harvesting and deploying best practices, lessons learned or human capital. It’s one of those problems without an owner. I’m trying to interest some funders and service organizations in joining together to deal with it, but they mostly want to do their own thing. The irony is that with another 10% investment, they could create the most incredible knowledge management system in the world, which every country would seek to emulate.
The other downside of a decentralized system is redundancy. Every year, donors fund staggering inefficiencies, preserving a latticework of overlapping capacities. Cooperative marketing is one of the areas where collaboration is possible, and I’m pleased to see more and more activity in this area. But it almost always takes major new funding to get arts groups to cooperate, rather than any sort of collective will to maximize efficiencies at the community level. It’s only natural and appropriate for arts groups to be self-interested, but on the other hand I think it’s also very short sighted not to be thinking at the systems level and looking for efficiencies that could free up resources for other purposes.
By the way, if you really care about your audience, why wouldn’t you help them experience other organization’s productions? Why wouldn’t you position your organization as a gateway into the larger world of art, if that’s what your community needs?
BARRY: In a 2007 Paper entitled: Assessing the Intrinsic Impacts of a Live Performance you stated: “Perhaps customer satisfaction is too blunt a measurement tool for arts presenters and producers, and maybe this is why so many arts professionals are uncomfortable with simple satisfaction measures. From a sales and service standpoint, feedback on satisfaction with various aspects of the customer experience (e.g., quality of ticket office service, satisfaction with physical aspects of the facility) can be useful. This information can be used to better understand how to improve the extrinsic part of the customer experience – everything that happens around the program itself."
But isn’t the measurement of satisfaction with the intrinsic experience directly relevant to a quantifiable attempt to put more bodies in seats? Can’t you assess whether customers did or did not have a self-perceived intrinsically valuable (or even just a pleasurable / enjoyable) experience, one that would or would not encourage them to again be a customer of a given arts organization performance? Isn’t, in fact, whether or not I enjoyed my experience directly relevant to whether or not I will come back, recommend the performance to friends, or otherwise want to be supportive of the organization? And isn’t that, or shouldn’t, that be one (though not necessarily the exclusive) priorities for our thinking and strategies? If the mission of a performance based organization is to transform audience members lives through the experience of the art form, don’t we need to offer that experience to as many people as possible to truly fulfill the mission? Isn’t it somewhat presumptuous of us to dismiss the surface level of customer satisfaction with the experience, including the content of the performance, and focus too much on the transformative aspect? I go to movies. Some have actually had an impact on me. Most don’t. Some are enjoyable. And some not. But I continue to go to movies. Isn’t attendance at arts events largely the same deal? If I enjoy them, on balance, that is the principal reason that I will continue to attend? Would not this data at least be useful in our marketing approaches?
ALAN: When it comes to assessing satisfaction with the intrinsic experience, however, satisfaction data are less useful. Two factors mitigate against using satisfaction with ‘the product’ as a performance indicator: 1) some programs are challenging and may leave audiences unsatisfied in some respects, although these programs may be well within the organization’s mission to present, and 2) satisfaction is a proxy for, and an incomplete indicator of, impact received. In other words, satisfaction levels are a good indicator of happy customers, but are not prima facie evidence of mission fulfillment.
Ninety percent of survey respondents said the overall experience was worth the time and expense. In other words, satisfaction levels are typically very high and you have to work really hard to disappoint people after they’ve expended the resources to attend. Once they are invested in an event, they really want to feel good about their decision. Which is why we need to look beyond simple satisfaction measures. The six satisfaction measures that we tested in the impact study were highly correlated with intrinsic impact. In other words, we don’t need to measure both satisfaction and impact because they move together.
Let’s be careful not confuse scale with impact. Of course there’s a huge need for arts programs that operate on a large scale and reach a lot of people. One of the major reasons to do impact assessment, however, is to take the focus off attendance and talk about what really happened. So, for instance, if you succeed in attracting a small audience to a new production, you can talk about aesthetic growth and social bonding outcomes instead of box office receipts. We need to change the conversation.
BARRY: Americans for the Arts has been either conducting or compiling data on research (particularly in the area of measurements of the creative community), and the Rand Corporation has played a principal role in launching new research (particularly in the audience development area). What other areas do you believe we need new, and / or expanded research, on which we can build realistic strategies to move our sector forward?
And where do we currently stand on developing meaningful research into how art transforms people’s lives?
ALAN: The most pressing need in the cultural sector is to build more cultural value around learning. The most successful people in the field are constantly learning and challenging their assumptions. The most successful organizations foster a culture of inquiry and have a hard-wired connection to their audience and community.
However, the predominant mode is one of “emergency learning,” which basically means that you Google something and click on the first link and learn something immediately before you have to know it. I’ve come to the conclusion that most arts practitioners are not going to access written knowledge like research reports on their own. Rather, the most effective form of learning comes through human-to-human contact. So I would like to see large scale learning exercises, sponsored by the national service organizations, where board and staff members of arts groups across the country spend a day or two every year interviewing audience members and talking about what they learn. Honestly, I think this would take the field much farther than any scholarly research initiative. It’s so unfortunate that arts groups, with their regular inflow of audiences and visitors, aren’t talking with them more often. The irony is that most audience members would be happy to come an hour early and participate in an interview or focus group – for a cookie. So let’s start the cookie initiative.
Having said that, I do feel there are a number of research needs in the field, including better customer segmentation models, new methods of program concept testing (i.e., formative evaluation), new measurement systems for impact, and new approaches to assessing an institution’s public value. The impact work is taking on a life of it’s own. Theatre Bay Area has commissioned a study of the impact of Free Night of Theatre, and Dance/USA will be focusing on impact next year. There also seems to be great interest in impact assessment in the U.K.
BARRY: At the Center for Creative Innovation Town Hall Meeting in San Francisco last June, you opined: ‘that the arts sector is an ecology and growth is natural but cannot be forced. You can fertilize it, but not make it grow. You also offered that death in an ecology is not unnatural – but suggested that was whole other topic for another day.’ Were you referring to the often expressed opinion in our field that as a field we may be overbuilt – meaning there are too many arts organizations, too many offerings for the marketplace to support, and that it might be to the health and benefit of our sector if more arts organizations were allowed to (or allowed themselves to) simply fold their tent? Or was this a reference to something else?
ALAN: In a healthy cultural ecosystem, there is natural growth, fierce competition for resources, and regular dying and regeneration. We do a pretty good job at growth and competition, but it’s the regeneration part that concerns me.
This is an ideal time for the field to starting thinking seriously about new models for regeneration. We need a better playbook for endings. Mergers and other forms of creative alliances should be vigorously explored. Maybe we need a new receivership program – a way of transitioning distressed nonprofit organizations – to become “the third option” between bankruptcy and painful downsizing, much like an elderly parent gives durable power of attorney to a child.
Imagine that a nonprofit board votes to dissolve the corporation on a future date, the next day to re-incorporate as a new entity with a fresh start. Half the board is charged with managing the ending. The other half is charged with re-imagining what is possible, unencumbered by existing conditions. Dying is considerably more appealing when new life is part of the deal.
I do not believe that there are too many arts programs. Quite the contrary. But I do believe that the nonprofit infrastructure that supports them is in need of rationalization and conceptual repair. In some of California’s inland regions, for example, there is not enough infrastructure, at least in terms of nonprofits. But if you look harder, there is often a broad array of delivery mechanisms such as places of worship and social service agencies that could be supported. This was a major implication of the Irvine Foundation study.
BARRY: Given the current global economic downturn and the problems we face in every city and town across the country – from lost arts supportive TOT revenue to jobs to leisure income to working harder and longer – what do you think are the principal likely impacts on our sector in the next two years? What advice would you give arts organizations to weather the current storms and prepare for an uncertain future? What considerations ought they put on their agenda?
ALAN: As we enter this financial downturn, many nonprofit arts institutions are chronically under-resourced, over-extended on fixed costs, over-reliant on a few donors and have a long history of walking a financial tightrope with no safety net. Very few engage in meaningful contingency planning. Most do not have explicit policies for managing artistic risk, and few have cash reserves set aside to weather normal fluctuations in demand and support. That we have come to such a high level of vulnerability should hardly surprise anyone.
As the tightrope unravels over the next several months, many arts groups will defiantly tighten their grip on the remaining threads of their financial model, while others will welcome the opportunity to weave a new rope.
Many important strides forward emerge from crisis, for good reason. The first stage of any change process is the realization by all stakeholders that things cannot stay the same. Significant change is simply not possible while the belief persists that the status quo is an achievable outcome. I love to ask arts managers what they would do if their facility burned to the ground unexpectedly. With this license to re-imagine, they are relieved to have a blank canvas and are filled with imaginative ideas for how to emerge stronger and more relevant than ever.
But why must we wait for the house to burn down in order to create meaningful change?
The real crisis, then, is not financial stress but unfocused leadership, outdated business models, and planning methods that do not address the range of strategic alternatives. In this time of uncertainty and accelerated change, board members and staff must honestly and openly discuss a range of strategy alternatives and think about the moment in time at which protecting the status quo becomes counterproductive.
Elegant endings and thoughtful transitions are successful outcomes, not failures. So, go ahead, burn the house down. Adversity is a necessary springboard to paradigmatic change and a vibrant future.
BARRY: I ask this question in every interview. If you had one million dollars to spend any way you saw fit, how would you spend it to have the greatest positive impact on our sector?
ALAN: I would give $100 “arts vouchers” to 10,000 households in a community and let them redeem them for any arts program or activity in their area. Arts groups would then get paid for the number of vouchers they collect. I think it would be really interesting to see where the chips fall.
Thank you Alan.
REMINDER: I will be leading a Workshop on the ABC's OF EFFECTIVE ADVOCACY & LOBBYING at Compasspoint in San Francisco, on December 9th from 9:00 am to Noon. Please contact Compasspoint to register. Click here for details:
Have a great week.
And Don't Quit.