Tuesday, November 08, 2011

Getting in on the Act: New Report on Participatory Arts Engagement

Last month, the Irvine Foundation put out a new report, Getting In On the Act, about participatory arts practice and new frameworks for audience engagement. Authors Alan Brown and Jennifer Novak-Leonard pack a lot into 40 pages--an argument for the rise of active arts engagement, a framework for thinking about ways to actively involve audiences, and lots of case studies. It is framed as a kind of study guide; pop-outs provide questions that tease out opportunities and tensions in the narrative. This report is not an end-all; it is the opening for a conversation.

Here's what I think is really strong about the report:
  • Coordinated, succinct research findings supporting the rise of active arts engagement. Pages 9 and 10 pull together data from the NEA, the Irvine Foundation, Dance/USA, RAND, and the Knight Foundation to tell a tight, compelling story about the demographic shift from consumptive to active participation and the extent to which traditional arts audiences are also participating in art-making outside of traditional arenas.
  • Excellent case studies, especially from the performing arts sector. I've often been asked about examples of participatory practice in theater, dance, and classical music, and this report is a great starting point. I was particularly inspired by the case studies related to art and civic action (like Paint the Street) and intrigued by the "implications" pop-outs asking questions about how the case studies might impact your own organization's practice.
  • Useful differentiation in their Audience Involvement Spectrum (see image at top) between programs that provide "enhanced engagement" and those that invite audience members to make contributions that impact and alter the end result. It can be easy to conflate engaging activities with participatory opportunities, and I'm glad they were explicit about the difference.
  • Useful definitions of participatory activities as "curatorial, interpretative, and inventive"--this is a reframing of the Forrester research framework for online participation which is probably more appropriate to the arts context.
  • Useful designations of four broad goals for active participation (page 14):

    1. Participation in Service of a Community Need or Societal Goal
    2. Participation in Support of, or as a Complement to, Artistic Vision
    3. Participation in Service of an Artistic Process or Product
    4. Participation as the Fundamental Goal

What's challenging about the report is how many different frameworks it presents. I counted at least five different schemes in the six-page section on "Participatory Arts in Practice," and none of these were explicitly referenced in the subsequent case studies. I found many of the frameworks useful, but the lack of context and detail was frustrating. How did the authors come up with the intriguing blend of curatorial, interpretative, and inventive opportunities shown in the Audience Involvement Spectrum's Venn diagrams? Why is a photography contest an example of "crowd sourcing" wheres a community drawing contest is an example of "audience-as-artist"? What's the relationship between the goals of participation and the techniques employed?

I admire and wholly appreciate the brevity of this report, but I fear it's too short to be genuinely useful for organizations that want to act on it. The authors present complex ideas about active arts participation, and it's clear that a lot of research and thought went into their work. I'd love an extended version with more explanation about how these frameworks might work in practice, how they map to the case studies provided, and how organizations with particular participatory goals might best achieve them. If the goal is for organizations to adopt these frameworks as their own, I think we need a lot more supporting material--and maybe fewer different taxonomies.

What do you get out of the report? What next steps do you think we need to make it as useful as possible--and how can we, as active participants--take the lead?

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