Monday, 28 March 2011

The long tail

Last week I was in Guimarães, where I participated in a one-day conference on the importance of marketing in the promotion of museums, organized by the Palace of the Dukes. Registrations surpassed the expectations of the organizers – as well as room capacity -, and that, in my opinion, is a proof of the interest museum professionals have in the subject, as well as the need to get to know it in depth, given that, one way or the other, all museums today develop marketing actions, but few have adequately qualified professionals who would be able to integrate them in a specific marketing strategy.

My presentation was about “The need to define communications and marketing strategies for museums” and one of the questions I was asked in the end was if the creation of brands for small and large museums could in any way be an obstacle in the establishment of partnerships between them, since the brand suggests competition.

Each museum has a unique offer, starting, obviously, from its collection. Museum may compete at other levels – in terms of services, for instance -, but at the same time they can establish partnerships, join forces and the ‘small ones’ may take advantage of the visibility and popularity of the ‘big ones’. While I was answering the question, the image I had in my mind was that of the Amazon site, where, once we purchase a book, we are informed that: “People who bought this book, have also bought…”. Which could be translated into: “If you enjoyed visiting this museum, you might also like to visit…”.

The issue of the small and the big ones, the more or less popular ones, the more or less known, made me read again the book The Long Tail by Chris Anderson, which has the subtitle “Why the future of business is selling less of more”. In this really inspiring book, Anderson analyzes the transformation of the mass market into a mass of niches. Thanks to new technologies, and especially the Internet, the market today does not only consume the big hits, but also countless niche products, of which the total amount of sales turns them into the big (enormous) new market. This mainly happens because, as we can see in the case of Amazon, the lack of a need to store products and exhibit them on shelves has radically reduced the costs of putting them on the market. And once on the market, they start selling. At the same time, consumers, who have always liked having a choice, are today the new cosmopolitans who appreciate and consume both mainstream and underground products. The result is not only quantitative (larger offer, larger choice), but also qualitative, since it has made obvious the demand for non-commercial contents.

Anderson says that the long tail has three main forces: the democratization of the tools of production, that opened the way for new producers and defined a new “Pro-Am era” (Professionals – Amateurs), making the tail longer; the democratization of distribution, that motivated the creation of aggregating promoters (Amazon, eBay, iTunes, Google, Wikipedia), which make the tail fatter; and the connection between supply and demand, through those people who determine the tastes and options of others, that is… all of us and our circles of friends and acquaintances, who, through blogs, reviews, comments and recommendations shared online move the demand from head to tail.

All these developments directly affect the cultural sector, in terms of production, distribution and consumption. In what concerns Communications, those who work in this field know that word-of-mouth has always been the best promotion, the one consumers trust the most. “The Web is the greatest word-of-mouth amplifier”, says Anderson, and the implications, or the opportunities, it presents affect and influence the way we develop our work. Many cultural institutions create nowdays their own contents for the Internet and the social media, trying not to be dependent only on the media when promoting their offer. This is, actually, a fundamental part of the work we have to develop. But it is equally important to ‘listen’ what is being said about us on cyberspace. Who are the people who influence others? We have to identify them and we have to know what they say about us. How, where? Using tools such as Google Alerts, Google Trends, identifying references to our brand on Facebook, etc. It is essential to pay attention and to get to know how to use these new channels and communication tools. And when managing this work, just as all the others, efficiency can only be guaranteed with the development of concrete plans, the elaboration of evaluation tools and their integration in a larger communications strategy.

So, coming back to the question I was asked in Guimarães, which ended up taking me so far, there are small museums that can surprise and delight us… if we only knew they existed. All together they constitute a kind of a long tail, not exactly threatening for the head – the big, popular, visible museums. Partnership with them seems natural, it is something one should wish for, it is not competition the way it would be in any other business. Nevertheless, it will not bring results if the ‘small ones’ don´t invest in the quality of their offer. For the majority of the people, visiting a museum is an option for occupying their leisure time. Museums which are not able to guarantee a quality experience will easily be deleted from the options list. And actually, that goes for the big ones too.

Monday, 21 March 2011

Is it possible to measure the impact?

Pororoca, by Brazilian choreographer Lia Rodrigues,
presented at Culturgest in April 2010. (Photo: Sammi Landween)
When we speak about the intrinsic value of culture in general, and the arts in particular, we believe there is no way to evaluate it. We defend it by intuition, from our own experience, using empirical evidence, but it doesn´t seem possible to us to research it scientifically. This is a subject of particular interest to me, so I was very curious when I came across a reference to a study entitled Assessing the intrinsic impacts of a live performance. What I found on the Interner was this summary of the results of the study, which I started reading with great interest.

The study was carried out by WolfBrown, an american company dedicated to the study of the arts and culture. Alan Brown, in particular, has carried out various studies related to the intrinsic impact and community involvement. Together with the co-author of the study, Jennifer Novak, Brown explains that through their research they tried to define and measure how audiences are transformed by a live performance. More specifically, they based their research on three hypotheses: 1) that the intrinsic impacts from attending a live performance can be measured; 2) that different types of performance create different sets of impacts; and 3) that an audience member´s ‘readiness to receive’ the art affects the impacts received. Between January and May 2006, they surveyed audiences of a total of 19 performances of various genres of music, dance and theatre. They used two questionnaires, one before the performance, that would evaluate the respondents´s mental and emotional preparedness for it, and another one after the performance, filled in at home, that aimed to investigate a range of reactions to that specific performance.

Through the first questionnaire, the researchers aimed to measure: the context index (how much experience and knowledge the individual had about the performance and the performers); the relevance index (an inidividual´s comfort level with the performance experience, that is the extent to which one was in a familiar situation, socially and culturally); the anticipation index (the individual´s psychological state immediately prior to the performance, his/her expectations). Through the second questionnaire, Brown and Novak tried to identify and measure the impacts of the performances on respondents. The indices defined were: captivation, intellectual stimulation, emotional resonance, spiritual value, aesthetic growth and social bonding.

All this sounded fascinating. But I couldn´t imagine what kind of questions they had asked in order to evaluate and reach some conclusions regarding these factors. So I wrote to Alan Brown and he was kind enough to quickly send me the complete report, including the questionnaires and tables of results.

Neva, by chilean company Teatro en el Blanco, presented at the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation in June 2010, part of  the programme Next Future.
(Photo: Taina Azeredo)
The first part of the study tried to identify the openness / preparedness of people for living the performance experience. Questions in this questionnaire, that aims to explore the above mentioned three indices, seem to be quite obvious and direct: previous knowledge of the work of the performers and familiarity with the specific art genre; frequency of attending performances of this or other kinds; information sources regarding the performance; details about organizing going to the performance; group constitution; main reasons for attending; state of mind, enthusiasm and expectations that one would enjoy the performance. Very briefly, the results of this first part of the survey indicate that respondents with a higher context index were more likely to benefit from the performance; the majority buys tickets for performances within their cultural comfort zone; expectations for a pleasant experience are the best indicator that the performance will result in satisfaction.

In what concerns the second part of the survey, questions regarding each index of impact were the following:

Captivation: to what degree were they absorbed, lost track of time and forgot about everything else?

Intellectual stimulation: did they feel provoked, challenged, intellectually involved, did they reflect on their own opinions and ideias, were there things they would like to ask the performers about, did they discuss the meaning of the performance with others who attended?

Emotional resonance: was the emotional response strong, which were most intense emotions, did they relate to the performers, was the performance therapeutic for them?

Spiritual value: did they feel inspired, empowered, was it a transcendent experience?

Aesthetic growth: were they exposed to a style or type of art with which they were not familiar, did they change their minds about it, did they feel more equipped to appreciate it in the future?

Social bonding: did they feel a sense of conectedness with the rest of the audience, a feeling of belonging, did the performance serve to celebrate their cultural heritage, were they exposed to a new culture, were they left with a new insight regarding human relations and social issues?

Once again very briefly, and highlighting only some of the results that were of particular interest to me, the study showed that the captivation index is related to high levels of satisfaction and influences other impacts; the majority of those surveyed would have questions to ask the performers and discussed the meaning of the performance with other people; there is a strong connection between the emotional index and the memory of the experience; feeling inspired is not necessarily an impact sought after by audiences; the majority felt better prepared to appreciate the specific type of art to which it was exposed; social bonding occurs when people are exposed to new cultures and also when they attend performances related to their cultura heritage.

In the summary of results mentioned above you may find many more details about this study and also about people´s levels of satisfaction. This survey does not aim to evaluate the quality of the performances, although some impacts may be related to it. I have some doubts whether respondents understood the meaning of some questions in the second questionnaire, especially it being self-completion one, that is, people filled it in at home without being able to ask any questions should they have any doubts. Nevertheless, I can say that reading this report satisfied my curiosity. It seems that yes, it is possible to measure and reach conclusions regarding the impacts of a live performance. My curiosity now extends to those impacts that persist, months or years later; to what remains; to how and why it remains. Registers in our memory and in our soul that don´t fade away.

Sonia, by The New Riga Theatre, presented at Maria Matos Theatre in June 2009, part of the programme Days of the (un) probable stories. (Photo: Ginta Maldera)

Tuesday, 15 March 2011

1st Anniversary

Today it is this blog´s first anniversary. And it celebrates by changing looks. Thank you, Rui Belo.

Monday, 14 March 2011

The power and magic of the real thing

A science centre is an interactive museum with exhibitions composed by exhibits especially fabricated so that visitors can explore various scientific phenomena and concepts, as well as different technological applications. I worked for five years at the Pavilion of Knowledge. A number of times I had the opportunity to observe the curiosity, the bewilderment, the joy of discovery, the enthusiasm, the enjoyment that results from the interaction of visitors with the exhibits. But I especially recall one time when I witnessed the fascination; caused not by a fabricated exhibit, but by a real, historical, object: Neil Armstrong´s suit. The Pavilion was going to receive the last astronaut to have stepped on the moon, Eugene Cernan and on the occasion of that visit we were going to exhibit Neil Armstrong´s suit. An interminable queue of people os all ages was formed in order to take a photo next to the suit. I had never seen such a thing before. This is the power of the real object.

I have been thinking a lot about this, the real object, the live experience. At the time I was doing my master´s degree, in the early 90s, museums all over the world were testing the possibilities offered by a new medium, the Internet. The first sites were created, collections were made available online, the first virtual tours were produced. At the same time, questions were raised regarding the dangers presented by this new medium, in the sense that it could keep people, potential visitors, away from museums, since it would allow for a remote, and free, access to them.

Pavilion of Knowledge, October 2001. Photo: Maria Vlachou
Their fears were not confirmed. Personally, I have always shared the conviction of those who believe that nothing can substitute the fascination for the real thing; the emotion it provokes, the connection it creates. My conviction was not based on scientific research, but on my personal experience. It was never the same thing seeing a favourite painting in a book and standing in front of it in a museum, realizing its dimension, its depth, the intensity of its colours; seeing the painter´s signature in the lower corner. The recently presented Google Art Project creates a level of access never experienced before to thousands of works of art in a number of museums, it gives us the opportunity to discover details that had never been observed before with a naked eye. But, even though, the kind of emotion it creates is very different from the one we experience when standing in front of the painting. I believe that Google Art Project will also contribute in creating a bigger desire to see one day the real thing.

In what concerns the performing arts, there´s no doubt that between not seeing at all and watching on TV, even recorded, or nowadays on a DVD, it was always good to be able to see. But also, it was always much more exciting watching a live transmission instead of a recording. And, of course, nothing compares to being able to really attend, seated in a performance hall, experiencing a very special connection to the interpreters on stage and the rest of the audience with whom we´re sharing the experience. The expectation that seems to rise as the lights go down, the silence, the unforgettable and unrepeatable moments of a live performance, hanging around after the performance outside the theatre to talk about what we have just seen. Almost twenty years later, I can still remember the eagerness to get up at 7 in the morning on the 12th of July 1992 to watch the last act of Tosca, transmitted live from Castel Sant´Angelo in Rome, the precise location where the story was taking place. The day before, I had watched the first act at noon, transmitted from the church of Sant´ Andrea della Valle, and the second in the evening, from Palazzo Farnese (read here). But going even further back, I can almost still feel the emotion, mixed with fear, of watching one of the ‘sacred monsters’ of greek theatre, Alexis Minotis, interpreting Prometheus Bound at a 4th century BC open air amphitheatre. He was 81 years old; I was 9. Years later, I watched that performance on TV. There was no magic. I was not in the middle of the countryside, surrounded by darkness, feeling cold, listening to the crickets and sharing poor Prometheus´s suffering.

Prometheus Bound, 1979. Photo: The Greek National Theatre Archive.
A few days ago I read in the Guardian an article entitled Can a filmed stage show be as good as the real thing?. Theatre critic Mark Shenton said no; Hermione Hoby, the Observer´s art writer, believed that yes. I became very curious, and even a bit distrustful, when Hoby referred that according to a study carried out by the National Endowement for Science, Technology and the Arts regarding the live transmission in cinemas of National Theatre patrons in the cinemas were more emotionally involved than those attending the performance at the National Theatre. I looked for the report, entitled Beyond live: digital innovation in the performing arts, and found the answer. In order to assess people´s involvement, it is necessary to first identify the reasons for opting to attend the theatre performance or watching from a cinema and people´s expectations as well. The main reason why people that were surveyed had attended Phèdre was to see actress Helen Mirren and their main expectation was to have an emotional or uplifting performance; whereas cinema patrons had mainly wanted to see a theatrical performance broadcast in the cinema, their main expectation being to experience a new way of presenting theatre. These differences may perhaps explain the impact on each type of spectator and one´s consequent involvement.

Anyway, what is important to highlight is that, since 2009, thanks to the National Theatre´s live transmissions, thousands of people in various countries have had access to those productions, people who otherwise, due to geographical distance, the price of the tickets or even the fact that tickets were sold out, would have not had the opportunity to see the show. It is equally significant the fact that these transmissions have created the desire in 34% of cinema patrons to visit the National Theatre, in particular among people with lower incomes. A third of cinema patrons would be willing to pay a maximum of 21 to 30 pounds to attend a live performance, whereas the maximum amount they would pay for a cinema ticket to watch a performance would be 11 to 15 pounds.

The impact of a live performance in people´s lives is frequently discussed when trying to assess the value of culture and the arts. Can it really be evaluated? It seems difficult. But it also seems that it is not impossible. More news (and proofs…) soon.

Monday, 7 March 2011

Free to visit an art museum

Various friends forwarded to me last week Timothy Aubry´s article How to behave in an art museum. I felt distressed with this testimony of a person who defines visiting an art museum, although with a sense of humour and some irony, as a neurotic experience. Who says that he doesn´t know what he´s supposed to think or say or feel. Who feels observed, inadequate and hopes to impress other people. How profound it was (and still is) for some people the ‘trauma’ caused by those who John Holden, in Culture and Class, calls the cultural snobs. Those who consider themselves to be the gatekeepers of art, who despise those who don´t understand or appreciate it the way they do, who have some ever so ´special´ ways of making them feel unwelcome, excluded, not so intelligent. In this case, they´re both museum professionals and museum visitors. “We were better off when we were just kids”, says Aubry, “when we knew what we liked effortlessly, when our passions were not learned”. Why should that change? To be accepted? By whom?

Commenting on Timothy Aubry´s text, Kyle Chayka asks in the blog Hyperallergic: Does the younger generation have a new attitude toward museums? Yes and I am glad it does so. But here we should recognize the fundamental role museums themselves have played in this change of attitude, in creating a new relationship.

This issue is not as recent as one might think. George Hein, in his book Learning in the museum, quotes Professor Edward Forbes who in 1853 said that curators “may be prodigies of learning and yet unfit for their posts” if they don´t know anything about pedagogy, if they are not equipped to teach people who know nothing. And in 1909 the visionary John Cotton Dana wrote: “A good museum attracts, entertains, arouses curiosity, leads to questioning and thus promotes learning. (…) The museum can help people only if they use it; they will use it only if they know about it and only if attention is given to the interpretation of its possessions in terms they, the people, will understand.” (In: E. Alexandre, Museums in Motion).

One hundred years later, there are still many museums that don´t understand the importance of giving cognitive access to their collections and the need to create a space of comfort; that insist on defining the visitors´s agenda, imposing their curators´s agenda; that are determined to teach and not open to learn; that are incapable of telling a story and also allowing for more than one narratives. They are not very welcoming places for those not initiated.

But there are also museums which are open, welcoming, inspiring, involving, funny, which make all the difference. Museums that wish to be true spaces of encounter, dialogue, confrontation, discovery; but also of entertainment and of time well spent with family and friends.

Pour Your Body Out by Pipilotti Rist. MOMA. Photo: Maria Vlachou
Timothy Aubry refers in his text that he looked at people enjoying Pipilotti Rist´s installation Pour Your Body Out at the MOMA and felt confused. People of all ages lying on the floor, hugging, talking, laughing. And he thought: “This is not right! Don´t you realize that museums are supposed to make you feel miserable and insecure?”. In 2008 I had to opportunity to see this work. I loved the installation, it made me dream, it made me fly. I loved the environment. And I loved seeing people enjoying that immersive experience in so many different ways. Informal, relaxed, content. I loved the socializing and that feeling of complicity shared with strangers. Probably, each one of us took something very different from that experience, just as our agendas had been different when entering the museum. But are there ways of enjoying and relating to art that are more valid than others? And who defines them? The artist? The curator? When I was a teenager, the most irritating question at school was “What does the poet mean by this?”. How to answer such a question? Why didn´t they ask me “What does this poem mean to you”? And would they take “nothing” for an answer?

I don´t mean to say that the artist´s (or the poet´s…) intentions are irrelevant. That the deep knowledge a curator has on a given subject doesn´t interest me. That they both interfere with my freedom. On the contrary. But I think that they shouldn´t be presented as dogmas. As a visitor, I should be able to feel that my experiences and knowledge are equally valid. But also that the lack of them is respected and that the museum is the ideal place and means to deal with them, should I wish to.

Museum have various ways of showing they´re open, able to recognize that people have different ways of living and interpreting the experience. I remember the labels written by visitors themselves for the paintings of Tate Britain. Touching and surprising testimonies and interpretations, in a direct and accessible language. And I also remember the first and only time I saw on a museum´s text panels a table at the bottom corner explaining the scientific terms that were necessary and inevitable to use. It was the Museum in Docklans in London, that didn´t assume that everyone had a degree in archaeology or roman history.

But there are still other approaches that recognize the different profiles and needs of the people we aim to serve. The Metropolitan Museum of Art´s campaign It´s time we met, now in its third edition, was an amazing way of presenting the museum´s different faces, common faces, and to involve the public. Thus the museum gained a physiognomy (actually, more than one) and it wasn´t that of a cultural snob. Another initiative was that of the Columbus Symphony Orchestra, that wanted to get rid of its elitist and stuffy image: in a TV spot we see at the theatre foyer an African-American couple – the lady wearing a long dress, the gentleman a tuxedo. They look around uncomfortably. They see a younger couple, casually dressed. The gentleman thinks: “I know I should have dressed more casually. I feel uncomfortable”. The young man also looks around uncomfortably and thinks: “I know I should have worn a jacket and tie”. The announcer says: “You don´t have to feel uncomfortable to enjoy a concert”.

How many of us, culture and communications professionals, are trying to put this message across? How many of us work actively in order to bring down the psychological / cognitive barrier? I would say that the best examples are found in museum education services. Actually, last week I read the National Endowment for the Arts most recent report, Beyond attendance: a multi-modal understanding of arts participation. I found a reference in it that African-Americans, Hispanics and American-Indians participate more than white people in cultural activities not traditionally presented in cultural institutions, with one exception: visiting art museums. Would this be the result of decades of museum work aiming to make their offer relevant for more diverse audiences? I would like to think so.

Wednesday, 2 March 2011

Guest post: On voices, by Cecília Folgado

Once again I borrow Musing on Culture. I could have my own blog, but I believe I would be only contributing for the debate and opinion pulverization we deal with most of the time and I don’t find it productive. So, let us keep concentrated here, as long as Maria Vlachou allows it and challenges us to do it.

Jorge Marmelo’s article in the newspaper Público, P2 section, on the 15th February, reflected on lusophony and ironically connected its use in the cultural discourse to cultural marketers. Being a cultural marketer myself, by choice, option and training, this comment has touched a rather sensitive point, better saying, two sensitive points, both related to the voices that speak for the cultural sector and to the people who make up the sector itself.

So, let us start by marketing and by what cultural marketers do. Risking sounding defensive, I’ll start by saying that marketing is neither good nor bad. Marketing is just a tool, a management tool that, if well used, can be of great benefit to the organization. The benefits for the organization are mainly related to efficiency, effectiveness and to building a strong and long-term relationship with consumers (with the audiences, as we say in the cultural sector). It is true that there was a time when it made sense to talk about ‘hard marketing’, about the classic image of a salesman that would try to sell a vacuum cleaner to a household without electricity; later on, marketing started identifying the households that had electricity to sell them the vacuum cleaner; today, it knocks on the door, asks permission to step in, checks what is needed, presents what it has and starts a conversation that envisions a long-term relationship. We call it “relationship marketing”. If put like this it seems really nice and for some it may be difficult to believe it, but, like many other ‘blockbuster expressions’, namely Lusophony, the word marketing has also entered the cultural vocabulary, and if there are nowadays many ‘cultural marketers’, there are not that many people actually ‘doing‘ cultural marketing.

Let us also say that marketing doesn’t invent anything, it doesn’t create anything, especially in the cultural field. Working on marketing starts with vision, with a mission, and operates them, it makes them happen. It can bring words, like lusophony, into the organization’s vocabulary, but it will always be a ‘cliché’ if the organization’s action and mind-set don’t embody it.

The reference to ‘cultural marketers’ takes me to my second point, a point that is bothering me for quite a long time, which is who makes up the cultural sector and who speaks on its behalf.

Let us start with who has ‘a voice‘ in the sector, who speaks on its behalf: for reasons that I believe are connected to tradition and practice, but mainly to the imaginary and symbology, artists are the ones who have a saying (with the exception of a few cultural thinkers and programmers, some very strong references within the sector*). Artists are the ones who represent the sector and express its concerns, building up its ‘official’ speech. Taking a look at the diversity that the cultural sector expresses, this doesn’t seem enough.

Looking at the cultural sector: we may see that it includes the performing arts, cinema, museums and crafts, visual arts, design, architecture, heritage, etc., in its institutional, independent and commercial versions, national, regional and municipal, urban and rural. I believe that all the sub-sectors each one of these combinations would have a lot to say. Then, let us look at the people: the producers, managers, administrators, marketers (yes, us as well), all of them with different experiences and perspectives on the sector.

It is necessary to claim voices, it is necessary to speak up, it is necessary to organize thoughts about the ‘state of the art’. It is necessary to lobby and to work with the media in order to keep them and public opinion informed about us, the sector. It is necessary to show what we do, what we aim for (so they don’t think us to be all state dependents and TV stars), but first it is necessary that the sector within itself recognizes its diversity and opens up a non-hierarchized space to other voices.

* These few people that over and over again speak up for the sector showing its dimension and diversity are needed. Very much so.