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A Study Shows How Audiences Are Changing. But Should Data Guide Artistic Decisions?

The study's presentation at Disney Hall yesterdayEXPAND
The study's presentation at Disney Hall yesterday
Danielle Klebanow Photography

No facet of society - not even the arts - is immune to the conversation about metrics, measurement and big data.

On Tuesday in downtown Los Angeles, museum administrators, marketers and cultural leaders gathered at the Walt Disney Concert Hall for the presentation of "Culture Track 14" hosted by the Music Center. Billed as revealing a "dramatically changed cultural landscape," the 2014 study - and the conversations around it - drove home many particulars that audience members already assumed and other dynamics long at play.

Arthur Cohen, CEO of the culture consulting firm LaPlaca Cohen, painted a picture of today's arts audience as overcommitted, hyper-connected, overstimulated and characterized by "cultural promiscuity" - meaning they aren't as likely to join organizations or buy subscriptions, which continues a seismic shift, particularly for performing arts organizations. The idea that "everyone likes everything" doesn't come as much of a surprise in a moment when pressing that ubiquitous "like" button has come to signify so much about how we express ourselves.

"Millennial" (18-29) and "Prewar" (over 70) participants were shown to be the most active, with "Gen X" (30-49) and "Boomers" (50-69) the least active. (Diversity and income range were not covered in this presentation of the research sample, and audience questions on this point led to private discussions when the event dispersed.)

The Culture Track research found that culture is "social first," meaning a big part of the attendance decision is based on making connections and spending time with friends and family. This holds true especially for millennials, who are the least likely to participate in an event alone.

One of the most interesting findings in the presentation was that 79 percent of audiences define going to a national, state or municipal park as a cultural activity, with 87 percent participating at least once a year. It's rare to see constituencies such as museums and parks leaders at the same table, but perhaps a conference bringing them together could result in impactful collaborations. Could the L.A. River be our next great cultural institution? Also along these lines, presenters also brought up the fact that L.A. is ahead of other cities in terms of diversity and trends.

The closing panel discussion brought certain tensions to the surface. Ann Philbin, director of the Hammer Museum, immediately stated that she doesn't make creative decisions based on research; rather, she hopes to guide audiences toward content they didn't know they wanted.

Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA) director Philippe Vergne took issue with the use of the word "culture," and quoted the artist Carl Andre: "Art is what we do. Culture is what is done to us." Vergne pointed out that "we" are in the knowledge industry, not the entertainment industry, which brought to mind the architect Rem Koolhaas' observation that "culture is work, not just passive consumption."

Another topic that deserves further consideration, but was not covered by this event, relates to patronage. Seeing that patrons and foundations are increasingly focused on audience participation and quantifiable impact, we run the risk of failing to protect and promote the immeasurable value of the arts. The balance between scholarship and engaging a fast moving, celebrity-driven culture whose attention is harder and harder to hold is delicate, and we need visionary patrons more than ever.

If art audiences are searching for authenticity and connection, as Culture Track indicates, the study raises the question of why and how arts organizations should use data. Studies such as this one are useful for deciding how to package and promote cultural content - topics on which LaPlaca Cohen is available to advise. But the most authentic thing organizations can do is follow one of Philbin's assertions: artists are leading the way, and organizations should follow the visions of the artists they support. Quantitative value should follow qualitative, not the other way around. As Tom Finkelpearl, the new Cultural Affairs Commissioner of New York, recently stated in The Art Newspaper, "We don't see the arts and culture sector solely through the prism of economics."


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