In 2012, Visual Arts South West (VASW) received a Grants for the Arts award to develop a methodology to explore and evaluate quality of experience in contemporary visual arts exhibitions. In this interview, VASW Coordinator Grace Davies explains more about how the research came about and captures the key findings of the report published in March 2014.
Q. What motivated the Quality of Experience project?
A. We noted that Quality of experience is a key concept in Arts Council England’s strategy but that Arts Council England had not produced a conceptualisation that would operationalize this concept and allow it to be measurable. We felt that there was a risk that this lack of clarity could leave a gap into which personal prejudice or muddled thinking could expand. We wanted to ensure that it was relevant to the visual arts but could also be applied across all art forms.
Q. What form did it take and who was involved?
A. Visual Arts South West (then Turning Point South West) and Arnolfini, with support from Newlyn Art Gallery & The Exchange, Spike Island and Plymouth Arts Centre commissioned Annabel Jackson Associates Ltd. to produce the conceptualisation for Quality of Experience. The conceptualisation considered the quality of experience in the arts in general, and then the case of the visual arts in particular, and its special features. The paper also considered the purposes of evaluation, and possible methodologies for evaluating quality of experience. The conceptualisation was disseminated at the Turning Point Summit in London, May 2012 to Arts Council, artists and organisational representatives. The next stage was to test out the methodologies. Supported by an Arts council grant, Visual Arts South West commissioned Annabel Jackson to work with 4 organisations in the South West; b-Side Multimedia Festival, Spike Island, Arnolfini and New Brewery Arts to pilot the methodologies. The part of the process took place from August 2012 - February 2014.
Q. What were the key findings?
The results underline the complexity of quality of experience. The contemporary visual arts experience is a strong match for modern forms of consumption because it is visual, symbolic, active user-determined and episodic. Visitors seek novelty and challenge, from which they derive a strong feeling of achievement after resolution. Families see the contemporary visual arts as a natural extension of the playfulness and experimentation of childhood. Critique is part of the contemporary visual arts experience and we observed that audience members often articulated negative views about an exhibition and then rated their overall quality of experience highly. Buildings or events with diverse audiences naturally have more mixed, and potentially some more negative reactions, than those will more homogeneous audiences. Aside from the conceptual element of quality of experience, building related, sense based, social and informational elements are also important. Different groups have different possibilities. For example families with young children tend to need information briefly presented and age related, and staff who talk to the children rather than ignoring them telling them off. Buying is affected by: enjoyment or interest, judgements of value, and thoughts on how the object will fit into the person’s home. The gallery can support the visitor with all of these. Enjoyment is affected by the positioning of pieces, and the tone and nature of interpretation material. Judgements of value are affected by views on or information about: skill and craftwork, the rarity of the materials or piece, personal information about the artist, and expert endorsement e.g. through prizes or competitions. Interest in buying is translated into a purchasing decision through some kind of time pressure such as limited opportunity or competition for purchase (evidenced by red stickers).
Overall, the pilot suggests these touch stones for thinking about quality of experience:
- Thresholds. Lobbies, entrances and the front page of gallery guides are disproportionately important. Staff or stewards are important in drawing visitors into a space and making them feel wanted.
- Sense-based journey. Impressions have scent, sound and lighting components. Elements that are part of the art work are often indistinguishable from with those created by the setting, building, café or social interaction.
- Sight and sound lines. Relatively small changes, e.g. in the positioning of signs, can affect visibility and therefore movement through the building or space.
- Variation. Challenge is satisfying and enjoyable for visitors. However, visitors seem to prefer to be challenged in different ways in different exhibitions. A gallery which continually has one look is more likely to be seen as exclusive. Visitors do not expect to like everything in an exhibition. Loving one art work or experience is sufficient. Quality of experience for an exhibition seems to be defined by its peaks not its average.
- Language. We found no indications that visitors want the ideas behind contemporary visual arts to be dumbed down. However, they would like complex or ambiguous ideas expressed in plain English. Developing new approaches to interpretation would seem to be a major opportunity.
- Interaction. There is a tension between the information or presentation, which often assume an individual visit, and the experience, which is often social or communal.
- Discussion. Discussion is an important part of the contemporary visual arts experience. Having staff who are welcoming, but also knowledgeable, can greatly enhance the gallery visit. The Baltic system, where gallery assistants are part of the education department, presents an ideal model. The discussion can be extended beyond the visit through social media, talks, visitor panels or discussion groups.
Q. How will you use what you have learned and what do you hope the impacts will be?
A. The 4 pilot organisations have already embedded the learning into their operations. This has manifest in a number of ways, for example in alterations to lobby areas, the interpretation text that is available for visitors and how invigilators communicate with the visitors. Ultimately, we want the experience of contemporary art to be as rich as possible for the visitor, and we hope that our research will support organisations to create the optimum experience for their existing and new audiences. The evidence that audiences do not want ideas to be dumbed down and that further discussion and engagement enhances the visual arts experience is encouraging. We would very much like to see the processes and learning adopted by other organisations nationally so that we can as a sector continue to deliver incredible visual arts experiences for broad and diverse audiences.