Economist Joseph Stiglitz said, “What you measure affects what you do. If you measure the right thing, you do the right thing.” For the past two years, we at Theatre Bay Area have taken this statement to heart, especially as it pertains to the theatre—in particular because all signs point to us spending an inordinate amount of time measuring the wrong things.
The truth is, much as we all love extemporizing about the value of our work, when you’re dealing with people who don’t actually work in the arts (not just external parties but, for example, board members), who often approach value and evaluation from a financial perspective, there is an expectation that this pitch will involve graphs and numbers. That means we spend a lot of time measuring numbers: butts in seats, income, amount of money driven into surrounding businesses, etc.
The gap between data and anecdote is profound and frustrating, so wide as to make them seem at times like two separate languages—one the common tongue of our boards and legislators and funders, the other the natural way we speak to each other as artistic souls thinking about ourselves and our value. But if we are to carry forward new arguments about arts and arts education that veer less from our natural inclinations as storytellers, we need to construct a bridge between data and story and use it to take skeptics along with us.
We must turn an analytical eye on the previously “unmeasurable” parts of art, to fill our quiver with a new set of arrows that might be better received by those we’re looking to woo. We have tackled this by commissioning the largest study ever conducted on “intrinsic impact” from research firm WolfBrown, and on March 1 we released the results of that work both as a published book and for free online at theatrebayarea.org/intrinsicimpact.
Intrinsic impact measurement is based in the idea that anything is measureable if you can only learn to accurately describe what you’re looking to measure. It rests in the belief that the intangible aspect of the art, while never knowable in a complete way, is more knowable than it has been, and that by learning to measure and talk about the intellectual, emotional, social and empathetic impact of art on an individual using standard metrics and a common vocabulary, we can move the conversation forward in a dynamic and new way.
The goal is to instigate conversations within organizations, as well as between those organizations and their stakeholders, that pair anecdotal/qualitative responses with more data-driven/quantitative ones to see a fuller picture.
It’s a giant project—six cities, 18 theatre companies, 19,000 survey responses, 24 interviews, hundreds of hours of analysis. In the end, we have a major research report (a book, in fact!) and a new online tool at intrinsicimpact.org that takes this $600,000 project down to something an arts organization can do for less than $1,000. All of this serves the effort that we articulated from the beginning, which is to change the conversation about the value of the arts. We want to make research into intrinsic impact accessible, affordable, standardized, understood and routine.
Read more, including the full research report as well as interviews from 20 artistic leaders and four patrons, at theatrebayarea.org/intrinsicimpact.
Here are some of the study’s highlights:
• High response rates (45% on average) suggest theatre patrons are willing, able and ready to provide meaningful feedback on their artistic experiences.
• Results bring to light what might be the central riddle of impact: On average, single-ticket buyers report significantly higher impact than subscribers.
• The top three motivations for why patrons attend theatre are “to relax and escape,” “to be emotionally moved” and “to discover something new.”
• Women reported higher impact than men across all 58 productions, in particular feeling “emotionally charged” afterward and “reflecting on one’s opinions.” This may be because women are likely to be the primary decision makers on attending, and decision makers reported higher levels of context and familiarity and are more likely to prepare.
• Reading previews, reviews and social media comments prior to attending has a small but significant effect on increasing anticipation levels.
• People who expressed a higher level of familiarity with the story, cast and playwright also expressed higher levels of anticipation for the performance.
Often we don't analyze our life in general, let alone the artistic experiences that filter through it. Tied up in the framing of our lives through the music we listen to, the theatre we see, the dancing we do, the art that bombards our eyes, the crafts and sounds and sights and smells that feed the part of our brain that numbers and figures and facts don’t, there is a powerful, necessary truth about the wayfinding power of art.
We can know more about that power. We can know more about the consequences and impact of what we do, the changes we make in the fabric of lives. We can measure transformation.
We need to get started counting some new beans, and we need to teach the people who control our funding how to understand the worth of those new beans. Art is not optional. Art is life. It makes us smarter, stronger, more coherent. It makes us care and think and innovate. It can, indeed, transform the way we think and act and live our lives.
So let’s put that center stage, and see where it gets us.
Clay Lord is director of communications for Theatre Bay Area. He is also editor of the new book Counting New Beans: Intrinsic Impact and the Value of Art, and author of New Beans, an Arts Journal blog on new art and new audiences. E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.