Theatre Bay Area Chatterbox

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Building Cultural Participation From Sea to Shining Sea

Over the past two days, I’ve had the incredible good fortune to be part of a small group invited to convene as part of the Project Audience program in Chicago. (To my Chicago friends and family, I’m sorry I didn’t see you – we were sequestered and didn’t breathe outside air for the entire time. Sorry….) Project Audience, funded by the Mellon Foundation, has been going on for just over a year now, with virtual monthly convenings for the last six or so months. I was one of 28 participants in that community to be invited to attend this in-person convening, and I’ve got to say I feel truly fortunate to have been chosen (especially having now come out the other end of it with positive action in sight).

This program is a unique collaboration between the Mellon Foundation’s arts program and another funded program there called Research in Information Technology. This is the first collaboration of those two programs since RIT was founded in 2000. Project Audience’s goal is to facilitate a community of practice (that is to say, a community of action, not philosophizing) to tackle the continuous and problematic lag between the audience development needs of the arts community and our late-adopter stance on new technologies. The participants span the globe, from New Zealand to England, with many of the arts services organizations and certain consultants, individual organizations and other interested parties in the US also in the mix. The goal is to, through this community of practice, develop a community-source (i.e., open source) tool or tools with an eye toward revolutionizing the way we as arts and culture organizations develop and maintain our audiences. And incidentally, the goal is to only do it once, nationally, collectively--a substantial shift from the current de facto model in which organizations in different communities huddle in their garages with their heads down creating new solutions without checking about to see if others are also working on that problem.

There’s some irony in the fact that convening a national group to tackle a complex problem once instead of many separate times is so revolutionary, but there you go.

It turns out that these RIT processes actually encompass three distinct phases, each of which is contingent on successfully finishing the prior one (and submitting a new grant application demonstrating your success). This convening culminated phase 1 of the project, which essentially is the phase during which the needs/goals/fears of the community at large are hashed out and the very slight skeleton of a next step is collaboratively created. It’s been a daunting, at times frustrating, but ultimately rewarding time.

Having come to Chicago with a limited and hazy understanding of this project (a haziness that it turns out was shared by many of the others there at the beginning), I had doubts about the ability of organizations from Theatre Bay Area to to CTG to Seattle Opera to the St. Louis Regional Arts Commission etc. to come to a consensus on anything of such scope, especially given that we arrived to what was essentially a blank canvas knowing neither the scope, nor the intended targets, nor the timeline. Over the last two days, much of that has crystallized, and that which hasn’t has been consciously shelved until later.

As an introduction to the convening, Diane Ragsdale of the Mellon Foundation admonished us to think beyond selling tickets and look at using art to create long-term, sustainable connections and conversations between people and people, people and art, people and institutions, and institutions and institutions. Through Project Audience, which currently has over 180 members providing their voices through the online forums, discussion strings and conference calls, we will actually develop (not just talk about developing) new cutting-edge technologies (still undefined) to break down the barriers between ticket streams, customer relations, community building, conversation and arts making. It will be available at a low cost and will be owned by the community, and it will be open to augmentation by anyone who has the expertise and inclination to try.

Project Audience is meant to raise the bar--increasing audience involvement, attendance and ownership of art and culture on a community by community basis. The involvement of Mellon, particularly through the RIT program, is exciting because, thus far, in the nine years the program has existed, it has shepherded 50 projects to fruition, and all are still functional (two-thirds independently, having finished their funding cycle with the foundation). All this to say, and rather excitingly, that this will happen. Anyone is eligible to participate in the forums and public interactions of Project Audience, though that schedule is now up in the air as we transition into Phase 2: the development of a community design process and workshop to actually tackle the logistics of this project’s creation. At each transition (from Phase 1 to 2 to 3), the leadership on the project changes, so Alliance for Audience and ArtsFund, which shepherded Phase 1, are stepping aside and a nine-member volunteer committee (of which I am one) is currently figuring out how to assign organizations to take their place. We will, in the next week or so, be creating materials to select a steering committee which will submit the grant to fund Phase 2 and will oversee its successful completion during 2010.

To learn more about Project Audience, I encourage you to visit I’ll be writing more about the learnings from this past convening in the next few weeks, and in the meantime you can register to take part in our Tangler online discussions. There are many voices on the conversation already, but the goal of this project is to be pan-arts, pan-geographic, pan-size, pan-budget model, pan-experience in scope, so everyone is invited to take part. This new technology, after all, in whatever form it finally takes, will be created for, and rely on the buy-in from, large swaths of the arts industry. I’m proud to have been involved, and hope (and expect) that Theatre Bay area’s participation will continue.

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At October 8, 2009 at 10:47 AM , Blogger Clay Lord said...

I meant to say in this post that you can follow an interesting discussion on Twitter that went on during the conference. Search #praud.

At October 15, 2009 at 10:30 AM , Blogger Carl Benson said...

Hi Clay,

"We will actually develop (not just talk about developing) new cutting-edge technologies (still undefined) to break down the barriers between ticket streams, customer relations, community building, conversation and arts making."

Can you give a more specific idea on what this new technology might actually do? Or are the details getting hashed out in the next phase? Were there any specific ideas kicked around that sounded interesting?

I'm largely on the fence about these big grant funded research initiatives, but I do know they can be valuable. Everything you wrote above sounds great, I'm just not really sure what the initiative plans to physically do outside of creating new technologies which are as of yet undefined.


PS - Heard from a few folks the Critics Panel was really useful and informative -- seems like the ideas you're talking about above might dovetail well with the conversation at that Panel.

At December 8, 2009 at 11:40 AM , Blogger Clay Lord said...

I encourage anyone interested to join the Project Audience community at and to listen in on the Project Audience conference call taking place this Friday -- it will cover a lot of the questions Carl raised above, and will usher in Phase 2, in which the product will actually begin being designed concretely.

At December 8, 2009 at 3:46 PM , Blogger tiffany said...

Clay, am I reading their website incorrectly? It appears that they do not want individual arts orgs to join at this point in time...rather, they want orgs whose mission is directly associated with building larger community through the arts (service orgs such as TBA). I know we all seek to foster community through the arts; I'm just looking at the FAQ's on their website.

At December 9, 2009 at 2:58 PM , Blogger Clay Lord said...

Hi Tiffany,

The website language is a little ambiguous -- Project Audience is open to interested people of all stripes, from all organizations. While the product(s) being designed will primarily be implemented by service-level organizations, they are meant to be useful and affect positively organizations that aren't service-level, like individual theatres, museums, dance venues, etc. What the FAQ's refer to is that the governing body for Phase 2 of the development process, called the "Oversight Committee," will be made up of 9 service-level organizations - and ultimately the product will probably be mostly administered by service-level organizations on behalf of companies.

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