Sunday, June 30, 2013

Brainstorming Doesn't Work?

Good morning.
"And the beat goes on....................."

I've always been enamored with the idea of "brainstorming" - getting diverse people together to come up with ideas about some subject.  I subscribed to the notion that a gathering of people, interacting with, and feeding off, each other's thinking was a good way to come up with ideas - lots of ideas.

The term was originally popularized by ad executive, Alex Osborn in his 1953 book Applied Imagination and his theory was that group brainstorming was more effective in ideation than individuals working alone.  In the decades that followed his book, the concept of brainstorming became so wide spread and accepted that it achieved near universal sacrosanct acceptance.

Osborn's approach incorporated four basic principles:

  • A focus on quantity of ideas; 
  • Sessions that forbade criticism of any ideas put forth; 
  • Openness to any idea no matter how unusual; and
  • The notion that combining ideas would yield better, new ideas
Yet, research has apparently consistently shown that it simply doesn't work as advertised.  As pointed out by Gregory Ciotti in his blog (found on Quora), the three major problems with brainstorming as originally envisioned by Osborn, are:
  • "Social Loafing:  when people are in groups, they are less likely to fully commit themselves because other people will pick up the slack.
  • Production Blocking:  when other people are talking, the rest of the brainstorming group has to wait their turn, causing some people to lose their focus, dissuading themselves from mentioning them, or just plain forgetting some of the insights they just fleshed out.
  • Evaluation Apprehension:  even with criticism of ideas put forth, "contributors know that other people are judging their ideas when they state them.  When you are by yourself, you have more time to build an idea before presenting it to anyone."
Jonah Lehrer in a piece entitled "Groupthink" in the New Yorker quotes Keith Sawyer, a psychologist at Washington University, summarizing the science:  "Decades of research have consistently shown that brainstorming groups think of far fewer ideas than the same number of people who work alone and later pool their ideas."  

Other studies have come to the conclusion that the central tenet of Osborn - the ban on any criticism of an idea being put forth (so as to eliminate the apprehension of being shot down), is the real problem with the whole theory.  The truth is that debating the merits of an idea - even criticizing ideas put forth - is healthy and even essential to coming up with better ideas.  Leher later cites a study by Charlan Nemeth, a professor of psychology at the University of California at Berkeley, that suggested that the:
"ineffectiveness of brainstorming stems from the very thing Osborn thought was most important.  As Nemeth puts it:  'While the instruction 'Do Not Criticize' is often cited as the most important instruction on brainstorming, this appears to be a counterproductive strategy.'  She adds:  "There's this Pollyannaish notion that the most important thing to do when working together is stay positive and get along, to not hurt anyone's feelings.  Well, that's just wrong.  Maybe debate is going to be less pleasant, but it will always be more productive.  True creativity comes with trade-offs."
So, perhaps brainstorming isn't yet dead, but rather just needs to be re-thought, then re-tooled. 

Lesson One may be that brainstorming sessions should allow for the critique and consideration of ideas put forth.  There should be no shame in coming up with an idea that turns out not to be as workable as one assumed early on.  I am hopeful that the Dinner-vention project may yield several new ideas to some specific challenge, and that the dinner guests will feel comfortable in sussing through those ideas in a frank and forthright attempt to sift through what might work and what might not.  The goal of our creative processes should be not only lots of new ideas to choose from, but an attempt to narrow that choice to the ideas that have been thoroughly vetted.

In another study referenced in the New Yorker article, Brian Uzzi, a sociologist at Northwestern University, focused on the ideal composition of a group that would maximize their collective brainstorming capacity to yield positive results.  He ended up studying Broadway musicals because a successful production required all kinds of diverse talent working with each other.   He ended up ranking broadway teams according to whether they had worked together frequently (and thus knew each other well), had no prior working experience together, or were some combination of old hands and new people.  "According to the data, the relationships among collaborators emerged as a reliable predictor of Broadway success."  When the team didn't know each other well or at all, the musical was likely to fail.  But when the team knew each other too well, had been working together too long, the musical was likely to fail too.  It was those teams comprised of some people who had worked together successfully over time,  combined with people new to a given production, that had the best chance of producing a successful offering. 

Lesson Two then might be that brainstorming sessions that marry groups of colleagues that know each other and come from a single field with others they do not know, and that may come from other fields, maximizes the chance of success.  We don't do that enough in the arts.  Indeed, people in one discipline in our universe are remarkably separated even from people in other disciplines.  Each discipline field keeps largely to themselves, with even their own conference, and we rarely intersect or interact with each other.  That isolation one from the other may be one of the chief  obstacles to our coming up with creative solutions to common problems.  Moreover, as a field we in the arts almost never intersect and interact with leaders and thinkers from fields that seemingly have nothing to do with us.  We ought to figure out how to promote those meetings and interfaces with people far afield from us - sociologists, economists, scientists, sports figures and on and on and on.

Finally, Lehrer also considered the impact of space on how people came up with new ideas.  Citing Steven Jobs near obsession with the power of space to enhance the creative work of groups, he talked of how Jobs purposefully tried to create spaces at Pixar that would force the various writers, computer scientists and artists to run into each other thus encouraging random exchanges of information and thinking.

Then Lehrer cites the history of Building 20 on the M.I.T campus.  Originally a clap trap massive wooden structure designed to house the radar research of the Allied war effort - and meant to only be a temporary structure - it was turned into offices for the scientists and engineers who worked on the radar project.  But because the building was so massive, M.I.T began
"shifting a wide variety of academic departments and student clubs to the so-called 'plywood palace'.  Building 20 became a strange, chaotic domain, full of groups who had been thrown together by chance and who knew little about each other's work.  And yet by the time it was finally demolished in 1998, Building 20 had become a legend of innovation, widely regarded as one of the most creative spaces in the world.  In the postwar decades, scientists working there pioneered a stunning list of breakthroughs, from advances in high-speed photography to the development of the physics behind microwaves. Building 20 served as an incubator for the Bose Corporation. It gave rise to the first video game and to Chomskyan linguistics."
The building itself led to the promotion of random encounters of the kind Steven Jobs would come to embrace, as the occupants were free to remake their space in any way they wanted, and, because of the juxtaposition of incongruous other disciplines without any seeming plan to the layout, the occupants were thrown together in random ways.  It is these chance meetings that urban theorist Jane Jacobs "described as 'knowledge spillovers'" - where you learn something from another discipline that may ultimately be of value to your work in your discipline.  As Lehrer concluded:
"The lesson of Building 20 is that when the composition of the group is right—enough people with different perspectives running into one another in unpredictable ways—the group dynamic will take care of itself. All these errant discussions add up. In fact, they may even be the most essential part of the creative process. Although such conversations will occasionally be unpleasant—not everyone is always in the mood for small talk or criticism—that doesn’t mean that they can be avoided. The most creative spaces are those which hurl us together. It is the human friction that makes the sparks."
So Lesson Three is that the physical space in which brainstorming (whether a one time event, or the more ambitious attempt to create an ongoing creative environment) impacts the kind of random interactions and conversations that are the ecosystem of new ideas.  Alas, in the arts there are virtually no Building 20s.  Our spaces are sadly traditional; separate offices for each of our staff people, and offices that house only ourselves.   We need to rethink our physical spaces and how they keep us from maximizing the facilitation and nurturing of creative thinking.  Isolating people is a now outdated and outmoded barrier to sharing information, questions and ideas.  And while technology and the internet can obviate against some of what is negative in that antiquated reality, it is still the personal interface that is essential to the whole process.

Some observers have suggested that the internet has a role to play in making brainstorming more effective, noting that brainstorming online - using chat and instant messaging and more - may allow people to have the benefit of ideas flowing from different perspectives all at once, without the negative of having to wait for your turn, and less worry about being judged.

So Lesson Four may be that there is a role technology can play in helping us to brainstorm and think more creatively.  We simply need to figure out how that plank is one of the planks in the final solution.

Anybody want to brainstorm about how to nurture brainstorming?

Have a great week.

Don't Quit.

Sunday, June 23, 2013

Further Consideration of Failure

Good morning.
"And the beat goes on....................."

Maria DiMento, in the Chronicle of Philanthrophy, reports on the trend of foundations to open up about their failed projects in the hopes others can learn from the experience.
"In a study released last month, 88 percent of nonprofit leaders polled by the Center for Effective Philanthropy said they want foundations to speak more openly about what doesn’t work.
A growing number of grant makers agree and are seeking new ways to share such experiences openly to help donors avoid making similar mistakes or wasting money on ineffective solutions to social problems.
While foundations have made such pushes before, they have rarely done much to transform philanthropy’s unwillingness to talk openly about failed grants. But it’s possible that the growing popularity of evaluation will lead more grant makers to talk about projects that didn’t succeed." 
There are myriad examples of foundations pursuing ways to address major challenges, motivated by the best of intentions, that - at best - have come up short, and at worst have been abject failures.  Not surprisingly, foundations have, in the past, resisted promoting public analysis of these unsuccessful attempts.  In part that is because foundation Boards of Trustees are hesitant to acknowledge money spent that failed to achieve stated goals, least people think the money is being mismanaged in some way.  Consider this (as reported by Ms. DeMento):
"James Canales, president of the James Irvine Foundation, in 2007 posted online a report detailing a $60-million failed effort his fund supported to improve after-school programs in California. He and Paul Brest, then president of the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, pleaded with other foundations to be more candid about failure.
But Mr. Canales says he hasn’t seen much change since then. One reason, he says, is that trustees are especially worried that if they declare failure, outsiders will think grant makers are wasting money.
“One of the impediments to our progress as a field is that we’re still not where we need to be in terms of our relationships with our boards and the ways in which we engage our board in the substantive work of our organizations,” says Mr. Canales. “If more progress on that score were made, then perhaps we would have a culture that would embrace and permit us to talk openly about these issues without fearing that the board would be troubled or worry we’re not doing the right thing.”
Foundation presidents and program officers are also part of the problem, because they often don’t tell their trustees about failure, says Joel Fleishman, a professor at Duke University and author of The Foundation: a Great American Secret—How Private Wealth Is Changing the World.
Instead, he says, they gloss over things that aren’t working, because they know many trustees don’t want hear about it and fear of the effects of the public’s learning about failed efforts.
Foundation leaders, Mr. Fleishman says, need the support of trustees willing to “ferret out the truth about the results of grants.”
There is momentum to acknowledge failure as part of the risk taking process, as exemplified by the Duke Foundation's arts funding:
"Another prominent effort to tackle the issue of failure more directly comes from the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation, which wanted to help arts groups experiment with ways to reach more people.
To do that, it awarded $3.2-million to groups for new projects and promised that it would not pull the grants or otherwise penalize groups if their efforts failed.
If a new project didn’t succeed as well as planned, that nonetheless could provide them with a breakthrough insight, a new strategy, a new set of relationships that are going to pay off in the next step,” says Ben Cameron, Duke’s program director for the arts. 'We shouldn’t abandon them just because they didn’t do what we thought they would do.'"
What would be really valuable is more information on why some well intended approach did not work. In one major program - a $1 billion + effort by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation to improve the care of people with chronic illnesses, David Colby, the foundation’s vice president for research and evaluation, said:   “The overall effort did not make a dent."   Foundation officials hired an outside evaluator to identify the reasons the effort didn’t work and last year published a 78-page report on its Web site that lays out the findings in detail.
"It concludes that the foundation’s grant making was not as well coordinated as it should have been, that grant-making priorities were unclear, and that the scattershot approach undercut the potential of the overall effort."
While I applaud their forthrightness, more specificity in why the project failed would be useful.  Foundations and funders need to come to conclusions about the nuts and bolts of the "why" of failures.  Was the project too ambitious; too large to address in the whole?  Was the approach ill conceived?  Was there too little demand on the grantees?  Some challenges are so large in the abstract, that even a billion dollars is likely not nearly enough to do much good.  How then ought funders to proceed?

One thing that seems clear to me is that - at least in the arts field - there may be a tendency to seek a solution to a given problem or set of problems, without fully trying to understand the root causes of the problem.  We identify a problem (e.g., declining audiences) and we develop seemingly rational theories about how to address the problem (content with more transformational potential, more engaging efforts et. al.), but often without spending enough time or pouring adequate resources in the harder part of identifying the cause of the problem (i.e., why are the audiences declining).

I have no idea how much money we have invested in the last 20 years to support audience development efforts, but unless you believe those efforts have helped slow down the rate of audience decline (and that can be defined as "success"), then, in the main, those efforts have failed. The audiences continue to decline.  Why is the question.  We need to know the answer, and to the extent foundations that fund the arts are more willing to ask that question and attempt to answer it, the better off we will all be.

And, before we settle on what the causes of the phenomenon on the declining audience are - arrived at by research and study - we need to make sure that research and those studies are credible and reliable and not just attempts to skew evidence to support a pre-determined theory of how to address the challenge.  I know we have spent energy in surveying our audiences, but there is credible evidence that people do not always respond forthrightly to surveying.  We have to dig deeper.

We want foundations to take on systemic change challenges.  But we also want foundations to fund approaches that succeed.  And I have no doubt whatsoever that that is exactly what foundations want too.  I think foundations need to more fully understand the root causes of any given challenge they wish to tackle, before adopting whatever approach they want to embrace.  And I don't think we are spending enough time and resources of identifying the actual causes of the problems we face.

So, for example, if the challenge is to address the declining audiences for performing arts programs, then whatever the response is, first we need more thinking to go into why the audiences are declining.  If there are internal studies that answer, even in part, that question - they ought to be made public. Usually, if they exist, they aren't public.  And it simply isn't enough to focus on one of the root causes of the problem - we really have to understand all the causes and how they interact  - even if we are to limit our responses to addressing but a single one of those causes.  And my guess is that in attempting to affect systemic change, we must bear in mind that the core of the challenge may be in that the situation for each organization is unique, and that there isn't one cause, but multiple causes.

Thus in the declining audiences example, for some organizations the real reason their audience is declining is a combination of factors - some are mundane:  too high a ticket price, inconvenient schedule times, difficulty in parking; some have to do with content that doesn't appeal or excite; some have to do with a failure to successfully compete with other forms of leisure activity vying for people's precious time resource; and some may have nothing at all to do what the arts organization is or is not doing.  If people aren't coming because the ticket prices are too high, or the venue is too far away, or the performance start time is inconvenient, then making content more relevant, trying harder to engage people in the process of creativity or any other approach may simply be a waste of time.  Conversely, if people don't believe the content of the performance measures up against the other alternatives available to them, then lower ticket prices, bringing the performance to the audience and making it easier to attend may be irrelevant.   If we wish to fund efforts to stem the tide of declining audiences, then that funding should support a specific plan to address as many of the identified root causes as is possible.  And, unfortunately, that may be a different process for each grantee.  Oh my.

The more we know about what doesn't work and what hasn't worked - the better we can get closer to something that might work.  Kudos to those foundations that are now willing to not only admit where programs and strategies have failed, but to seriously analyze those failures to learn 'why' they failed.  A good place to start such an analysis in the audience development arena would be to delve into why those audiences are declining in the first place.

Have a great week.

Don't Quit.

Sunday, June 16, 2013

Your Other Brand

Good morning.
"And the beat goes on....................."

We talk a lot about "branding" - most often in the context of our marketing efforts.  We seek to build a strong 'brand' that will help us to engage our audiences and supporters.  A strong brand means our product is reliably associated with excellence and value.  But there is another side to branding - the 'brand' of your organization as an organization.

How is your organization perceived - apart from your artistic mission and your product?  Are you seen as highly professional?  Do people think of your organization as well managed?  Is your staff seen as skilled and capable?  Is the organization thought of as flexible and adaptable?  Are you 'cutting-edge'?  What is the 'brand' the organization as an organization has within the field of nonprofits or within any other 'community'?

In part, that aspect of your 'brand' may have a lot to do with your success in everything from fund-raising to audience development.

How is that aspect of your brand established?  I think it is really the sum total of a lot of little things.  Do your people promptly return calls? Are they responsive to inquiries.  Do they follow-up?  Are your reports consistently turned in on time and are they well written and documented?  Is your correspondence professional, succinct and well written.  Do your people write personal thank you notes to people that have in some way helped the organization.   Are your people generally friendly and upbeat?  And are your people on time for meetings and interfaces with other people and other organizations?

That last one seems like a no-brainer, but increasingly I find that people from all kinds of organizations regularly show up late for an appointed meeting.  It's as though it has somehow become alright if you show up within ten or fifteen minutes of the scheduled time.  It's not alright.  It's rude and it sends the message to the person you kept waiting that you don't value their time, that you have no respect for them.  Not only are people more frequently late, it would seem that there is the growing belief that if they are late only ten minutes or so, it isn't necessary for them to call to let you know they are running late.

I have a friend in our field that had his own "ten minute" rule:  if he had an appointment with someone and they didn't show up or call within ten minutes of the appointed time - he left.  He told me the story recently of having a lunch meeting  years ago with a then brand new member of his Board.  After the new Board member didn't show up after ten minutes, he got up and left.  He ran into the Board member in the parking lot who asked him where he was going.  My friend patiently explained his ten minute rule.  The new Board member was incredulous and simply stood there aghast.  But, as my friend relayed, that Board member never again showed up late.

Managers / Administrators:  Teach your people that being late to a meeting (and not phoning to advise his/her running late) - absent some intervening emergency - is unacceptable; that it seriously tarnishes the image of your organization and thereby damages your brand.  And it negatively reflects on you.  There is no excuse really - leave earlier.  Your time is no more valuable than mine.

Pay attention to all the small details that normally we don't think about when considering our brand and image - for it is the aggregate of these small, seemingly insignificant little things, that dramatically affect how people think of your organization.  And those perceptions can impact some big decisions people make about whether or not to support your organization - including whether or not to fund you or otherwise support you.  Teach your people that every interface they have affects your brand.

It is, I suggest, worth a few minutes of your and your staff's time to talk about how your brand is affected by the behavior of all those associated with your organization in all the little things - from being on time, to writing personal thank you notes, to returning phone calls in a timely manner. to dress, to smiling.  It's your brand after all, and it may not be to other people what you think it is.

Have a great week.

Don't Quit.

Friday, June 7, 2013

Survivorship Bias

Good morning.
“And the beat goes on..........................”

Survivorship Bias:
Back in 2010, I wrote a blog on studying our failures.  I suggested that in addition to our looking at “best practices”, we also ought to consider paying more attention to “Worst Practices” – studying and analyzing decision making and model adoption that didn’t work, and looking at why it didn’t work – so we can share ways to avoid at least the worst case scenarios.  “Certainly we can learn from our successes, but very likely people learn as much, if not more, from their failures. And we (the nonprofit arts sector) need to figure out some way to learn from our past mistakes – including the most recent ones in the face of all the challenges now on our plates.”

I recently ran across a blog entry on the concept of “survivorship bias” (thank you Carter Gilles), wherein the author (David McRaney) posited this:

"The Misconception: You should study the successful if you wish to become successful.
The Truth: When failure becomes invisible, the difference between failure and success may also become invisible.
“Simply put, (McRaney suggests), 'survivorship bias' is your tendency to focus on survivors instead of whatever you would call a non-survivor depending on the situation. Sometimes that means you tend to focus on the living instead of the dead, or on winners instead of losers, or on successes instead of failures. 
It is easy to do. After any process that leaves behind survivors, the non-survivors are often destroyed or muted or removed from your view. If failures becomes invisible, then naturally you will pay more attention to successes. Not only do you fail to recognize that what is missing might have held important information, you fail to recognize that there is missing information at all. 
You must remind yourself that when you start to pick apart winners and losers, successes and failures, the living and dead, that by paying attention to one side of that equation you are always neglecting the other. 
Survivorship bias also flash-freezes your brain into a state of ignorance from which you believe success is more common than it truly is and therefore you leap to the conclusion that it also must be easier to obtain. You develop a completely inaccurate assessment of reality thanks to a prejudice that grants the tiny number of survivors the privilege of representing the much larger group to which they originally belonged.”
That theory may have relevance to us in the nonprofit arts field.  We may too often point to the successes and believe that an analysis of what they are doing can be replicated and facilitate the success of others, when in fact, the elements that made for a successful nonprofit organization, operation or project may be so random and individualized as to have very little connection to the prospects of any other attempt to duplicate that success based on their experience as a model.

The author further discusses the concept of ‘luck’ being often critically instrumental in something’s success, but debunks the notion that ‘luck’ itself is necessarily the result of the fates or some uncontrollable intervening hand.
“the latest psychological research indicates that luck is a long mislabeled phenomenon. It isn’t a force, or grace from the gods, or an enchantment from fairy folk, but the measurable output of a group of predictable behaviors. Randomness, chance, and the noisy chaos of reality may be mostly impossible to predict or tame, but luck is something else. According to psychologist Richard Wiseman, luck – bad or good – is just what you call the results of a human beings consciously interacting with chance, and some people are better at interacting with chance than others.” 
“Unlucky people miss chance opportunities because they are too focused on looking for something else. They go to parties intent on finding their perfect partner and so miss opportunities to make good friends. They look through newspapers determined to find certain type of job advertisements and as a result miss other types of jobs. Lucky people are more relaxed and open, and therefore see what is there rather than just what they are looking for.” – Richard Wiseman in an article written for Skeptical Inquirer.”
When we talk about risk taking, we are talking precisely about being more open to possibilities, about altering our behavior to seeing more around us, about doing things differently than we have always done them so as to come up with different results.  Perhaps what we are really talking about is opening the door to what we think of as ‘luck’.

McRaney concluded his blog post with this:
“As best I can tell, here is the trick: When looking for advice, you should look for what not to do, for what is missing as Phil Plait suggested, but don’t expect to find it among the quotes and biographical records of people whose signals rose above the noise. They may have no idea how or if they lucked up. What you can’t see, and what they can’t see, is that the successful tend to make it more probable that unlikely events will happen to them while trying to steer themselves into the positive side of randomness. They stick with it, remaining open to better opportunities that may require abandoning their current paths, and that’s something you can start doing right now without reading a single self-help proverb, maxim, or aphorism. Also, keep in mind that those who fail rarely get paid for advice on how not to fail, which is too bad because despite how it may seem, success boils down to serially avoiding catastrophic failure while routinely absorbing manageable damage.”
Perhaps we ought to heed that advice.

Have a good week.

Don’t Quit

Sunday, June 2, 2013

Other Perspectives on the Role of Entertainment in the Theory of Audience Engagement.

Good morning.
“And the beat goes on.......................”

Note:  Mimi Roberts, Director for Media Projects at the New Mexico Department of Cultural Affairs is the winner of the random drawing to be our guest at the Dinner-vention event in September.

I got a number of responses to last week’s blog on the role of entertainment in the wider engagement ‘audience development theories’ currently in vogue in our field.  Some people thought I was on the mark, others took me to task.  Two comments came in that I thought offered interesting perspectives on the issue, and valid counter points to, and even criticism of, my thinking -- and (even though I might take exception with some of their thinking) I wanted to share those with you (basically in their entirety).

First, from Eric Booth, came this response:

“As I see it, entertainment and art live on a continuum. If successful, there is engagement across the continuum. But the quality of engagement differs. I think the variable is learning. At one extreme there is delightful confirmation of what one believes (entertainment), and the other extreme is transformative expansion of how you understand the world (a big arts experience). We in the arts always have to be engaging, whether our goal is toward the entertainment end of the spectrum or the ambitious arts end. We have many ways (only some of which we use effectively) to draw people into the curiosity or yearning for an empathetic entry a world that changes our sense of what is possible. My career has been about using ALL the ways we have to draw people into arts experiences--moving them toward the arts end of that continuum.  

Below are a few paragraphs from an essay of mine you might find interesting on that topic.”

“In the U.S. we define art by its nouns: individual works in artistic media, art buildings, items deemed art by experts. Particular nouns may spark debate: Is a large Brillo box a work of art? Is a Ricky Martin concert? Is Dancing with the Stars?—and what if one of the dancing stars is a certified artist? Is the Star Wars Overture performed by The Philadelphia Orchestra a work of art? I don’t engage in that kind of debate; I say “wrong question.” Art lives in a quality of experience far more than the object one is attending to. Indeed, I believe what distinguishes entertainment is that it happens within what we already know. Whatever our reaction—laughing, crying, getting excited—underneath, entertainment says, “Yes the world is the way you think it is.” Entertainment confirms. And this feels great; I will pay serious money to have highly skilled people create marvelous expressions of my worldview. It is empowering and comfortable fun.

Art, on the other hand, happens outside of what we already know. Inherent in the artistic experience is the capacity to expand our sense of the way the world is or might be. This amazing human imaginative, empathetic capacity provides the artistic experience. It isn’t the particular noun one is attending to that provides the art; art lies in the individual’s capacity to enter a “noun” one is attending to, any noun, and expand her sense of the possible. Yes, of course, the quality of what you are attending to matters, and, certainly, great “artworks” are exquisitely designed to reward an individual’s investment of the verbs of art (humans haven’t designed anything more rewarding than master artworks), but the nouns don’t produce the artistic experience, only the verbs do that. I have had many dialogues with people about their experiences of what most of us would agree is not art—pop and rock music, club dancing, Neil Simon plays, Thomas Kinkade paintings, Jack Black films—and the descriptions of their experiences make it clear they are having artistic experiences. They may be looking at entertainment schlock by my standards, but the experiences they are having open their world wider, resonate in them, and leave them changed and more interested in the world. They don’t say this because our social norms inhibit this moment, but they have every right to say, “How dare you demean my experience by condescending to give it a second rate label.”

Most Americans define art by the nouns, especially those high-art fancy nouns, and people in the arts tend to do everything they can to affirm that specialness, even though it works against their longterm interests. Most Americans feel they are allowed to visit, adhering to the rules and finances of the art world’s ways, but viscerally feel they have no real place in that world. Most Americans struggle with the verbs that create an artistic experience in the encounter with complex artworks, while they naturally and frequently engage those same verbs in “non arts” parts of their lives. They see something defined as “art”; they don’t have a rewarding or relevant personal experience (or at least not an experience that fits with a high ticket price); so they decide the arts are not for them. Meanwhile they are having arts experiences in bits and pieces throughout their lives, but don’t connect them with the arts at all.

Given those realities, I define art as a quality of experience, and believe all of us have the job of supporting people’s capacity to have such experiences. Everyone in the arts has the same job title—write it on your business card: agent of artistic experience. The musician, the choreographer, the lighting designer, the usher, the assistant marketing director, the sculptor, the museum janitor, all, all have the same job to support people’s capacity to have artistic experiences, expanding their sense of the way the world is or may be.

Second, in thinking about how we bring people into arts experiences, we must divide the people we are talking about into two groups. Group A is “the art club”—the small minority of Americans who feel comfortable, enthusiastic, and at home inside “the arts.” Members know how to “speak” at least one of its languages, understand how to navigate its offerings, and feel excitedly welcome in its buildings. I estimate that some seven percent of Americans are card-carrying Art Club members. There is another significant percentage who like the Club and show up more or less often; they pick up a temporary card upon entry, but don’t identify themselves as Club members. The Group B audience is everyone else—the vast majority of Americans, those who don’t have a feel for “the arts” as commonly defined, who may think of the arts in positive ways, but not as a part of their identity or lives. They may attend sometimes, but that becomes a special occasion. Another way to think about these two groups is as the arts insiders and the arts outsiders.

Art Club members can turn artistic encounters into personal gold. They can find meaning in artworks that are widely accessible (like Shakespeare and Monet) and in more complex works (like Pina Bausch and Philip Glass). Group B lacks the background that enables them to reliably and confidently make meaning of an artistic encounter. Art Club members can read the program notes at the symphony and turn the information into enhanced experience of the music; Group B reads the those same traditional program notes and feels less welcome and less able to successfully connect inside the symphonic listening. Art Club members feel their pulse quicken and attention sharpen when they enter the concert hall; Group B feels insecurity and self-consciousness rise (they might screw up and be embarrassed), and their attention gets more fragmented. Granted, everyone gets lucky sometimes—serendipitous transformative encounters do happen—“Wow,” and “Aha” hits everyone. Family and cultural background strongly influence Club membership, but anyone may be stopped dead in her tracks looking at Disney Concert Hall, may begin to weep when hearing the Ode to Joy inside the Disney Hall, and may love life anew seeing Alvin Ailey’s Revelations. In addition to lucky thunderbolts, the capacities for making meaningful artistic encounter can be learned (and deepened in those who already know how); people can develop a taste for, a feel for, a place in the arts in a variety of ways. This is partly (although decreasingly) why we have arts education in schools. This is why nearly every arts organization has outreach programs. This is why, increasingly, artists learn how to engage with a wide public to help draw people in. This is why teaching artists are so important. My three and a half bestsellers are all ideas that emerge from my thirtysomething years of practice as a teaching artist.”

And from Carter Gilles comes this well taken exception to my offering:

“This post was especially provocative, and I think you might be interested in my take on this issue (whether you agree with it or not).”

“I would point out that the same vagueness adheres to the idea of  'entertainment'. We all know it when we see it, but that doesn't mean we are any closer to a consensus of what it is and what things count towards it.

And so I'd put it to you that the flaw is not so much in the nebulous character of some of the words we use. Odd-job terms with inconsistent usages are a vital part of how we communicate, and clarity is not always dependent on unanimity or uniformity. We can still understand what we mean by them, and if necessary through further defining and limiting cases we can narrow down just what sense of the words we are employing.

There are many ways to be entertained, and some may be more appropriate than others. If entertainment is a virtue then it isn't simply one thing but many, it isn't something with clear boundaries but has blurred edges, it isn't inspired by any consistent source but can be found in all the nooks and crannies that humans are capable of looking, and even then it springs forth differently in different people all the time.

It seems that the issues of entertainment and engagement in the arts can be viewed both in terms of what they aim at and what they reflect. It can be an arrow in a quiver and also the target. In a sense, entertainment is more concerned with presentation and engagement more with representation. And, as you noted, they are not mutually exclusive.

If we look at the role of the arts as a form of entertainment we can see that the value is strictly presentational, that the arts are then a means to the ends of entertainment: the arts present themselves as a form of entertainment, or as useful for this or as good for that. They serve some other goal. Its easy to view the arts, then, as being yet one more commodity in a consumer society. Rather than having intrinsic value it matters more for its extrinsic qualities as the means to certain ends (The same statements can be made for taking art as edification, art as inspiration, art as provocation, etc.). Not to disparage the capacity of art to entertain, but if that is construed as its primary role then art stands on a level playing field with all other forms of entertainment and is in direct competition with them for how well it is able to sustain an audience's interest. It needs to be more entertaining or suffer the consequences. End of story. (And I know you are not even remotely claiming that art is only good for entertainment. Your post seemed to suggest, however, that the main reason for you to personally attend art events is sometimes purely its entertainment quality, and so I will treat that extreme version as a thesis to explore. A straw man, I know, but possibly also illuminating.)

One question is whether if we value art as entertainment we are potentially subverting other qualities and values. By framing it as entertainment are we changing the nature of the public's perception and expectations for art? Are we essentially changing 'art' itself? Changing how it is made and exhibited? Rebranding art (as possibly something more trivial and accessible) for the folks who might 'get it' in this easier more palatable form rather than as sometimes challenging and difficult? If we are selling the arts as entertainment are we potentially motivated only by its capacity for appeal? Will artists be swayed by aiming at this other goal? Puppies and flowers? Dulcet tones and the color blue? Passing on a high caloric and tasty soufflé with little or no lasting nutritional benefit? Easy on the eye, easy on the brain? Puff pastry?

If, on the other hand, the arts are viewed more as representational then we can see that their value lies in what they represent, a point of view, a way of looking at the world, something more integral than a choice between "things that merely entertain". Rather than simply the means to consumer ends, the arts then are the noble ends in themselves. They are virtues in themselves. They represent what things matter to us in a deeper sense than mere transitory extrinsic "worth a good laugh" entertainment. If the arts have value in themselves, then one example is not just as good as another (so long as it entertains us). We can be entertained by anything, almost, and if that is our goal then whatever does the job fits the bill. The playing field is entirely level in that regard. And art isn't necessary to entertainment. There are plenty of other non-art alternatives. And there are persuasive reasons people would choose things besides the arts to be entertained by. Arts as intrinsically valuable means something different, and the question is how personal engagement in the arts differs from being entertained by them.

I'd like to suggest that entertainment is sometimes often importantly passive, and therefor something that happens to us rather than something we necessarily do. We are acted upon rather than acting out. The things that we actively do are things that reflect our autonomous self identity. Its how we are engaged. Its how we manifest in the world. It expresses who we are. They are intrinsic rather than extrinsic qualities. We are farmers, and so we farm. We are mothers and fathers, and so we mother and father. These are not passive entertainment values but actively engaged qualities.

So, in a sense, engagement also offers us the representational view of who we are. And if we think of activities as playing out between things that we are entertained by and things we are engaged by, then sure, we often choose to be entertained. Who doesn't like to occasionally kick back and soak it in? But if a new thing comes along that entertains us better, or our tastes change, then we may also choose to move in different directions. Our commitment to the things that entertain us is brief and impermanent. Its variable. It is purely instrumental, and therefor doesn't extend very deep. The things we are engaged by are the things that we have already and more deeply committed to. They are ends in themselves in the sense that they reflect something about who we are. And while the qualities of entertainment are not foreign to our engagement in activities, in these circumstances they are more side effect than objective. Being entertained by the things we are engaged by is not the goal of our engagement, nor, perhaps, even the means to an end. The entertainment value is incidental and subservient.

And this points to your analogy with food. If we are always swayed by an argument of our taste buds, then it will never be the case that we eat food simply because its 'good for us'. If we think of food solely as 'entertainment' then the taste buds invariably win out, and one night it is Chinese, and Italian the next. Its all whim and fancy. There is no deeper commitment possible if all food is (or most importantly is) is a means to our entertainment/enjoyment, if its purely instrumental in appeasing our taste buds. We are committed to the enjoyment, not necessarily to the individual food things that lead to it. Chocolate? Sure! I'm almost always in the mood. But maybe not while I'm eating pickles and sauerkraut and drinking beer while smoking cigars on a hot summer evening playing cards with the pungent unwashed survivors rescued from a month long imprisonment from a pit in the jungle. When its a matter of taste, virtues are contingent and circumstantial. When its a matter of principle and commitment, of identity, circumstances are irrelevant.

There have been studies recently that examine the relationship between what we do and what we like. The old adage that we do the things we like doing seems a safe enough truism, and this perhaps explains our attraction to the things that entertain us. What the studies also uncovered was the more surprising finding that we also tend to disproportionately like the things that we do. In other words, by being engaged in an activity, by being invested in it for non entertainment reasons, we then also find that we enjoy the activity as well. Its the whole appeal of the DIY movement, the backyard garden impetus, and interest in things like shopping locally. Thinking that the only reason we have for doing these things is because we enjoy doing them puts the cart before the horse. While we may like doing them it is in some instances more a side effect of our deeper commitment: That we enjoy them precisely because we are committed to them.

And if the arts are only viewed as entertainment, as something that people only do for its entertainment value, then we stop well short of that participatory engagement and we might as easily be satisfied by alternately watching a baseball game on TV, watching the grass grow, swinging on a porch swing, etc. If we are not invested in one form of entertainment over another but simply to BE entertained.... If the only reason we have to choose between two activities is how well we are entertained, then art often comes out on the short end. And rather than seeking to make art more entertaining, to compete with the glitz and glamor on that playing field, we need to affirm the other reasons we have for doing it.

We are asking the question of "Why be interested in the arts?" and it is important to define what motivations are in the driver's seat. Entertainment is of the moment. It is about what good its doing me now, not the long term benefits. It may be eye catching and mouth watering, but its ephemeral. Hit the taste buds and then its gone. Maybe a pleasant memory at most. Entertainment is not always a good facilitator of commitment and longevity.

Engagement actually IS a form of commitment, and it inspires longevity. If art is only the means to entertainment then entertainment is the goal, and art is in service to that end and is judged strictly by how well it entertains. It could be achieved by other means and that would satisfy us equally. If, on the other hand, art is something of an end in itself, then being entertained by it is incidental to the value of the art. A nice side effect, perhaps, but not its reason for being. Those other reasons include the various forms of commitment and engagement that justify its importance in our lives.

The question I'm posing is whether the best way to engender sensitivity and appreciation for the arts is possibly to breed more doers, more artists, more people engaged in the arts. If we don't simply do what we like but also like what we do, then it behooves arts activists to put as many people in the position where they are DOING art themselves. It may turn out they are given more reason to be committed than if they were merely stuck passively with their butts in seats enjoying the show. In the long run they will also find it entertaining, but it will be the joy of a long committed relationship rather than a serial interlude of one night stands. There's a reason people get engaged before they are married. Lets get more people engaged to the arts!”

Thank you Eric and Carter.

Have a great week.

Don’t Quit