Howard Sherman tweeted an article today by Jake Orr about theatre being intellectually inaccessible. I mention this only as a reference point for a comment on the article. I will probably circle back to write about this issue on another date.
What I wanted to address today is the conflict arts organizations often feel between appearing accessible to all potential audiences while simultaneous attempting to project an image that justifies high priced tickets and retains long time donors and subscribers.
One of the commenters on Orr’s post, Mark Shenton related his thoughts about London’s Royal Opera House possessing an ambiance that is intimidating even to veteran arts attendees.
…So often we all feel ‘excluded’ from the club, whether it be a theatre, or a sports event (I’m sure I’d feel the same as your partner if I was taken to a football match….) But the trouble is when the VENUE welcomes the exclusivity and sense of its own (self) importance.
I once had a conversation with the head of PR at the Royal Opera House, and said to him that, as a (relatively!) sophisticated theatregoer (well, it is my job and I do around 5-6 times a week!), I feel intimidated still by going to the ROH. His answer? “I can’t deal with your psychological problems!”
So, it was MY fault that the Opera House feels intimidating! A couple of years ago, I was at the ROH — for the Olivier Awards, as it happens — and seated next to the Reece Shearsmith. And he looked around and marvelled at how beautiful it was, and said to me, “I’ve never been here before!” Now Reece, too, is a sophisticated theatregoer — and a cultural figure in his own right — and for him to have never been here struck me as very revealing.
I reckon that the venue is a club, and a lot of us feel VERY disconnected from it.
This isn’t a new idea. There have been a number of studies and surveys that have emphasized the importance of physical environment to an attendance experience. Ten years ago, I wrote about an Urban Institute study that found not liking the venue along with not having an enjoyable social experience as the factors that would keep people from attending again.
But as I mentioned, there is also a need to create an environment that speaks to the quality of the performance product to long time donors and subscribers that value this type of experience.
Now before anyone starts sputtering about how this perpetuates an exclusionary ideal that alienates people, I would like to suggest that it is actually a matter of almost elementary consumer psychology.
To wit I give you the karaoke singing pick up truck.
Engines in trucks and high performance vehicles are so efficient now that their natural noise profile is much quieter than in the past. In response, car and truck manufacturers are using sound enhancing tail pipes or digital sound effects to replicate a throaty engine noise.
Fake engine noise has become one of the auto industry’s dirty little secrets, with automakers from BMW to Volkswagen turning to a sound-boosting bag of tricks. Without them, today’s more fuel-efficient engines would sound far quieter and, automakers worry, seemingly less powerful, potentially pushing buyers away.
Softer-sounding engines are actually a positive symbol of just how far engines and gas economy have progressed. But automakers say they resort to artifice because they understand a key car-buyer paradox: Drivers want all the force and fuel savings of a newer, better engine — but the classic sound of an old gas-guzzler.
I think it is easy to brand arts lovers as being snobby and elitist for wanting to maintain a traditional experience. If we are honest in the context of this article, the reality is that they are manifesting the same attitude toward the arts attendance experience as people who value the traditional images experience of driving F-150s and Mustangs. Neither is really that distant from the other in the continuum of basic human psychology.
For arts and cultural organizations, I think the last sentence in the quote above provides a key concept: People want advanced features, but the illusion of a traditional experience. I started this blog on the premise that technology was creating evolving expectations of their experience, but that there were still traditional elements that they still valued.
Learning what that ever-shifting balance is, is the challenge arts organizations face. What is important to remember is that not all elements of traditional experience need to be discarded in the name of expanding accessibility.
The article on sound enhancements for vehicles has sums up that conflicting issues arts organizations face pretty well.
“Karl Brauer, a senior analyst with Kelley Blue Book, says automakers should stop the lies and get real with drivers.
“If you’re going to do that stuff, do that stuff. Own it. Tell customers: If you want a V-8 rumble, you’ve gotta buy a V-8 that costs more, gets worse gas mileage and hurts the Earth,” Brauer said. “You’re fabricating the car’s sexiness. You’re fabricating performance elements of the car that don’t actually exist. That just feels deceptive to me.”
Since the arts often involve the creation of illusion, I am not sure they need to worry about coming clean with audiences about fabricating the sexiness of an experience. But both organizations and customers that value traditional experiences need to be aware there is a trade off in trying to maintain them exactly.
It is possible to provide a high quality experience. Technology enables some of this at increasingly lower costs every day. But there comes a time where one has to settle for an acceptable illusion or pay the higher price for the real thing.