Several times in the last few months I have name-checked (and linked to) the new research published by WolfBrown about measuring impact among performing arts audiences. The study has generated a great deal of discussion in the arts blogosphere, partly because it seems to provide a part of an answer to a bigger question about measuring the impact of all kinds of arts, even of all kinds of nonprofit organizations. "Measuring impact" is a holy grail for those who would like to improve the performance of nonprofit organizations across the board, who would like a way to identify great nonprofits as opposed to the merely good, and especially for those who are interested in developing new forms of capital markets for nonprofits. To oversimplify: capital markets work for for-profits because there are universally recognized measures for results, such as share price. If there were such measures for nonprofits, or even for parts of the nonprofit sector, a capital market could emerge around it. [I leave a space here for those whose cocked eyes are watching the turmoil in financial markets and wondering just why the nonprofit sector would want to copy that system right now. ]
Anyway, it's an important study and very much at the forefront of the discussion of the future of the arts sector. And, like any important discussion, there are dissenters. Jason Grote's piece in a blog about the upcoming National Performing Arts Conference gives one such voice, though he would have a stronger argument if he had actually read the WolfBrown study or could speak towards its methodology. Grote namechecks Mike Daisey (who returns the favor), but who also now is performing his "How Theater Failed America" at Joe's Pub in New York. "How Theater Failed America" is very much on this same subject--here's the NYT review, here's a review of the review in Gawker of all places. And here is a piece Daisey wrote for Seattle's The Stranger that gives you the gist.
Does one have to choose between commerce and creativity? Is measurement of audience response inimical to true creativity? Does our current system (patchwork as it is) allow for theatres (or other artists) to be truly, fully creative, even if that means offending audiences and potential funders? What are the alternatives?