When Arts Play with Data


As a new buzzword, “Big Data” is all over our daily lives. However, the tech industry specializing in data collection and analysis doesn’t mean that other industries haven’t found value in using data. For anyone who knows baseball (or has watched Moneyball), we know that data analysis has become part of the player selection process. From a business perspective, big data enables companies to mix their patron data into a broader pool of consumer data and extract correlations that help them know with unprecedented specificity who are most likely to respond to their appeals. The great thing about data is that it replaces guesswork with facts and gives these corporates reliable answers, clear directions and predictable results. The not-so-great thing is that it replaces personal expertise and human intuition with cold hard math, a process that arts administrators who’ve built their careers on creative management practices might have trouble getting used to. Big data often has a negative connotation in the arts, a field where emotion and personal choice are highly valued. But does going with your gut necessarily lead to a more innovative arts organization?

Recently, arts administrators are taking advantage of the data revolution and gradually forming several predictions towards the whereabouts of arts.

Arts organizations should seize on big data opportunities and use them to improve their efficiency and build vibrant communities of interactive participants or supporters. This will help them generate more earned revenue, more individual contributions and larger, more avid support systems, thus giving themselves a better chance of surviving as audiences for traditional art forms continue to diversify.

Many organizations that embrace big data, however, use it to send traditional marketing messages to wider audiences and will probably fail to fully maximize their opportunities. Mining data to find more people who are willing to respond to half-century-old messages is a zero sum game, but the arts industry has a well-established history of neglecting to update its strategic message content. History also suggests that some organizations will consider data an end rather than a means. The goal of using data is to identify individuals with whom organizations can forge deeper, more meaningful human relationships, but many arts organizations will be satisfied with initial transactions and treat new customers as data clusters rather than as individuals. We do this now with small data. Big data will simply compound the efficiency with which we separate the humans who work in arts organizations from the humans who consume artistic products.

In the era of big data, many arts leaders are likely to find that their personal opinions, anecdotal observations, favorite styles, or even final executive decisions are not necessarily relevant contributions to the marketing process. That’s because data is asking art orgs to focus on professional, quantitative bottom line-driven strategies. Ultimately, data will end up being a temporary fix. A mining process that extracts leftover gas and oil from spent wells; data can only help managers squeeze more productivity out of a finite resource. Audiences for traditional art forms are likely to continue their decline and no amount of analytics will enable these orgs to manufacture new demand.

As to audience engagements, some administrators are predicting that audiences are diminishing largely because currently, many art orgs fail to make direct, meaningful, personal, human connections with the younger, more culturally diverse people on whom our futures depend. Hence, under the concept of “Big Data”, arts managers may be able to use data to make more efficient contacts with audiences, but if they fail to immerse themselves in their cultures and just let managers be influenced by the audience, they probably risk having used the whole investment in big data for the smallest of returns. The best outcome would be, art orgs have better ideas of audience through data; at the same time, they can leverage the information they gained and lead the audience.