The Latest from a Forward-Looking Funder Using Technology to Engage People with the Arts

photo: Iakov Filimonov/shutterstock

photo: Iakov Filimonov/shutterstock

Less than two years ago, the Knight Foundation laid out its updated strategy, doubling down on its commitment to identify, explore and invest in "innovative technology approaches and applications with the greatest potential to advance the fields in which we work."

True to form, a few months later, it awarded $1.87 million to help 12 art museums experiment with "new ways of using digital tools to improve the visitor experience." Earlier this year, it threw its support behind the Community Listening and Engagement Fund, which pairs newsrooms with mobile engagement platform providers to produce more relevant, differentiated and engaging content.

Now comes word that Knight Prototype Fund has awarded $600,000 to 12 projects that "explore avenues for connecting people with arts through technology." The projects will receive $50,000 each to uncover "new, potentially replicable strategies for cultural organizations to adapt to and thrive in the digital era."

The announcement is telling because it speaks to one of the hottest issues in arts philanthropy right now: How organizations can better engage with audiences.

A signal event here came in 2014 when the Wallace Foundation pledged $40 million to help performing arts organizations expand audiences through its Building Audiences for Sustainability initiative. Roughly six months later, it earmarked an additional $12 million towards the initiative.

Wallace has been methodically rolling out its findings in the intervening months, publishing case studies on Ballet Austin's efforts to expand audiences for unfamiliar works, Seattle Symphony's efforts in engaging new residents, and the Denver Center Theatre Company's success in attracting younger attendees.

A read of each these case studies underscores the complexity of the engagement challenge.

For starters, consider the inherent relativity of the term "engagement." A couple of years back, the National Center for Arts Research at Southern Methodist University published a study on audience engagement, finding that the average arts and culture organization in the U.S. engaged with 13.4 percent of its local population either in person or online in 2013.

It's a somewhat useful number, but it doesn't speak to the depth and substance of audience engagement. The study's authors acknowledge as much, noting that their metric of "total touch points" does not reveal the duration, depth or quality of engagement each person has with the organization. So the crux of the issue isn't engagement as much as it meaningful engagement.

Now, consider the various tools available to organizations to drive engagement.

The Wallace Foundation's case studies focus on best practices in areas like organizational planning, marketing and capacity building. For instance, the Denver Center Theatre Company successfully engaged the millennial demographic by tapping the power of market research.

After each production, staff analyzed ticket sales and conducted focus groups and audience surveys, tracking average age and the "net promoter score," a measure of audiences' eagerness to recommend the show to others. The process yielded significant and actionable dividends.

This engagement strategy fits on the traditional side on the tactical spectrum. There's no inherent "creative disruption" here, which is perfectly fine, especially when, according to Charlie Miller, associate artistic director of Denver Center Theatre Company, "our ability to learn from each new production through market research, sales data and audience feedback has been critical in helping us make strategic decisions for continuous improvement."

If it's more cutting-edge tactical approaches you seek, I suggest we turn to the other end of the spectrum, where the Knight Foundation resides.

Its Arts Tech Initiative aims to help institutions "accelerate that process and use digital tools to meaningfully engage visitors in high-quality art." Tools have included nascent technologies like augmented reality and friendly chatbots to improve the audience experience.

This same spirit animates the recent Knight Prototype Fund winners.

"While the importance of arts institutions in building community remains unchanged, the preferences and expectations of audiences have transformed in the age of technology. Museum-goers increasingly demand personalized, interactive and shareable experiences," said Victoria Rogers, Knight Foundation vice president for arts. These projects help pave a way forward for cultural organizations to expand and command their use of technology to connect with and inspire audiences."

Winning prototypes aim to better engage in-person visitors through mobile apps or interactive labels that accompany art pieces. Others focus on attracting remote audiences through virtual reality and conversational interfaces.

"Exploring the Gallery Through Voice," a project from New York's Alley Interactive, will explore how conversational interfaces, like Amazon Alexa, can provide remote audiences with access to an exhibition experience at Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum.

Other projects complement more traditional organizational planning practices by providing institutions with improved audience data. ArtsESP, a project courtesy of Miami's Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts, will develop forecasting software that "enables cultural institutions to make data-centered decisions in planning their seasons and events."

Add it all up, and Knight is continuing in its unusual role of art-tech venture capitalist, funding experimental projects that have the potential to generate returns. Will they all work out? Probably not. But that's the point, and it mirrors Knight's "throw more spaghetti on the wall to see what sticks" approach in its other core funding areas of journalism and urban development.

"There is no textbook detailing how the cultural sector should adapt to keep pace with—and benefit from—rapidly evolving technology innovations," said Chris Barr, director of arts and technology at Knight.

"These experiments will help fill this knowledge gap and provide lessons learned for connecting people to the arts through technology."