Productive Talk and the Digital Arts Conversation : An Interview with Lynne Conner

Recently AMT Lab Contributor Stewart Urist sat down to talk with Lynne Conner, a professor at Colby College and author of the book Audience Engagement and the Role of Arts Talk in the Digital Era.  What followed was a rousing conversation about her book as well as the idea of meaningful audience engagement and how arts organizations are--and are not--doing this correctly.


The first premise of Conner’s book is that engagement with the arts is not just about watching an arts event or looking at an arts object, but rather about having an arts experience, which encompasses everything that goes into preparing for that experience and for processing that experience after.  The second is that satisfaction with an arts experience has to do with the audience’s ability to help make meaning.  

Conner says that arts organizations spend too little time thinking about the audience’s chance to do this, and this is one of the reasons for continual decline in attendance in so-called “serious” art forms. She says that lectures and talkbacks are one-way delivery systems that do not improve the situation, and stresses that there needs to be a two-way conversation.

 Lynne Conner

Lynne Conner

Conner goes on to share that the trend of silent observation and reverence is historically a “blip on the screen”.  Looking through history, audiences were very vocal and physically involved and only in the late 19th century did the silence become more standard.  This does not meet with digital era expectations of participation, driving us to look once more to the past.

Her book pulls out key ingredients of productive talk (talk with an end objective in mind) drawn from various modalities, from religion to business to therapy, in which meaningful conversation is essential. These key ingredients are then presented to readers as tools for facilitating conversation with their organization’s audiences.

Several examples of organizations who do this well are mentioned, and include:

  • ArtPrize, a competition in Grand Rapids, that features a crowdsourced exhibition that stipulates audiences must participate in a certain amount of the exhibition before they have a say in the winner of the ArtPrize.

  • Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company in Washington DC was cited as good example due to their lobby experiences and the structures they create that facilitate productive talk.

  • Attack Theatre, a dance company in Pittsburgh, is successful due to their interactive, community-based model and the fact that the founders have never considered their work too “sacred”.

The rest of the podcast discusses creating meaningful conversations within the digital space, as well as Conner’s opinion on the future of the arts based on her intensive research of their history.  

What do you think?  Are there some examples you have seen of productive talk?  Share your thoughts in the comments below!