Every fall I, along with hundreds of other staff members from museums and dance companies and botanical gardens from around the Philadelphia region, start hunting down facts and figures like so many pigs in truffle season. How many people came through our doors last year? Of these, how many were school children in groups? How many people made financial donations? How many interns do we have? What is the most popular sweater color among visitors? Okay, I made that last one up, but at this time of year I do feel like Cinderella when her step-mother tosses the lentils into the fireplaces and tells her to pick them all out if she wants to go to the ball. Of course, it’s all for a good cause.
I am not a data person, but I don’t deny the power of data. The bits and pieces I and my colleagues hunt down get funneled into an enormous and influential database, The Pennsylvania Cultural Data Project (PACDP), which collects information like this from all over the state. The accumulated data gets used, then, in a couple of ways. One of these ways is good for the organizations: we use our own portion of it when we apply for grants to reassure foundations that we are doing our job responsibility and deserve support.
But even more significantly, the whole kitchen full of information is used to promote arts and culture to the public and the government. Because of the truffles our little snouts root up, organizations like the Greater Philadelphia Cultural Alliance (GPCA) are able to go public with statements like this: Cultural organizations and their audiences in greater Philadelphia spend $1.3 billion annually, and the economic activity of the cultural sector generates 40,000 jobs and returns $158 million in taxes to state and local communities (GPCA report, “ Arts, Culture, & Economic Prosperity in Greater Philadelphia“). This helps keep pressure on City Hall and Harrisburg to support the arts.
Here at ICA, we’re also planning a more personal truffle hunt. Recently a bunch of us met to discuss what kinds of things we’d like to find out about our audience. In the galleries and at our public programs, I’m always wondering who our visitors are. That tall older guy with the faded tattoos, the well-dressed woman with the high gold sandals, the young couple in matching leather jackets: who are they, and why are they here, and will they come back? If not, why not? And if so, what is about what we’re doing that they like? My colleague Ingrid Schaffner recently got back from Europe where she said the art museums were full: families, young people, old people, all strolling through as though going to an art museum were just one more thing you might choose to do, like going to the movies or the mall.
This fall we called around to some of our peer institutions who sent along examples of their own surveys. Some are quite short, others fairly long. Almost all of them ask for age, sex, income, race: these are the usual pieces into which the pie chart gets sliced. Many of them also ask: Where do you get your arts and culture news? How satisfied were you with your experience today? What’s your email address? If you’re lucky, the museum will give a nice postcard in exchange for your cooperation.
I can’t help feeling—or maybe just dreaming—that there should be other questions we could ask that would get at something more essential about our audiences. What’s one of your favorite shows you’ve ever seen at an art museum? What magazines do you read? What country do you hope to visit? What do you believe to be the purpose of art?
Or wait, here are better questions still: What do like to wear when visiting museums? If the ICA were a kind of weather, what kind of weather would we be? Now that you’ve seen the shows, will you contact us tomorrow and let us know what you dream tonight?
The answers to questions like these wouldn’t feed us. They wouldn’t help us get us grants or lobby the government. The yield from these inquiries would be more like magic mushrooms than like truffles: heightening our perceptions, giving color to the air.
Let us know what questions you think an ICA visitors survey should ask. We’d love your input.
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