Relinquishing Control

By    May 14, 2013
photo: Keith Winsten

photo: Keith Winsten

Editor’s note: As part of our blog event for The Summit at Sundance, we have invited participants in The Chief Executive Program to frame each of our problems to solve. Here, Keith Winsten takes on the problem: Engage users/customers/stakeholders as true collaborators in shaping an institution’s agenda.

Across many types of experiences, from retail to food to leisure, consumers are demanding more and more customization.  And the rise of smart phones and other handheld digital media devices have made this customization available in real time. Some members of the arts and cultural community have embraced this trend by inviting community members to become real collaborators in shaping both their short-term experiences and the long-term agendas of their institutions. This seems to be especially true for art and other museums that traditionally offered passive experiences.  I’m intrigued by how this approach might play out at other arts and cultural institutions – especially in allowing guests to shape the nature of their visit/interaction.

For example, institutions with living collections have always had the advantage/challenge that the guest experience changes hourly based on the fact that the collection is by nature interactive.  At my zoo, guests spend more time engaged and have a vastly better experience when the animals are active and available and weather is pleasant (we have a Maslow hierarchy of needs issues that climate controlled facilities don’t).  Knowing this, zoos and aquariums have been rapidly innovating in terms of creating humane, respectful animal interactions.  We also know that the public has a fascination with what goes on behind-the-scenes, so premium programs, where guests pay top dollars to become a “trainer for a day” or to pet a rhino, have become an important part of the mix.  But these “special” experiences are still authored by the institutions not the guest.  For animal safety reasons, we feel limited with what we can let the guests create.  We are equally attached to our landscape/setting. When living things are concerned, the exhibit and surrounding landscape isn’t a blank space that we can open up to the public to control or an artist in residence to reconfigure.  The one exception is a new generation of interactive children’s play spaces where there are gardens, construction zones or mock exhibits where kids can create anew.  These spaces are important additions to a zoo, aquarium or botanical garden but they aren’t the defining experiences and in fact can be easily reproduced at other types of institutions like children’s museums.

And then what about the performing arts?  We learned about the American Repertory Theatre where the Donkey Show surrounds the audience or their five-story “Sleep No More” experience in NYC where the audience explores the setting at their own pace (I brought both my older kids and my father) and everyone sees different pieces of the show. By choosing our own route, we make choices that affect our experience but don’t actually affect the performance.  So is Diane Paulus really engaging the audience as a co-collaborator or just giving that impression like the premium programs at the Zoo, where the guest feels special but is really interchangeable?

And finally, what is the ROI for this approach.  Does the institution hold a more sacred place in the hearts of its co-conspirators?  Does it become more central to a community when it cedes some control?  And does the process of embracing some of the community alienate others who are looking for a more traditional experience?


More thoughts from the field


“At the Arts & Science Council of Charlotte-Mecklenburg, we work closely with a wide range of arts and cultural organizations across our community, providing both funding and capacity-building support to encourage creative audience development, collaboration and community engagement strategies. One of my favorite local examples of putting an audience-driven mindset into action comes from Carolina Actors Studio Theatre (CAST) – long known for their experiential approach to engaging patrons – who have extended this philosophy to include even their show selection. Here’s how it works: anyone from a volunteer, to a board member, to a single ticket buyer can propose a piece for the coming season, and as ideas come in, director Michael Simmons responds with a simple questionnaire. If all five questions can be answered in the affirmative, the company seriously considers the show. Imagine the delight when YOUR show makes the cut, and the resulting spike in your level of engagement with the organization. Your voice has been heard, and that can make all the difference. I’d love to see even more arts organizations stretching their audience-centric muscles, and in ways that so clearly align with their own core mission and program goals.”

 — Katherine Mooring (Vice President, Cultural & Community Investment, Arts & Science Council)

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