Learning Audiences

Adult Arts Participation and the Learning Consciousness

Published in: GIA Newsletter, Vol 9, No 1 (Spring 1998)

Nello McDaniel and George Thorn

1997, 98 pages, John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, and
Association of Performing Arts Presenters, 1112 16th Street N.W., Suite 400, Washington, D.C. 20036-4823, 202-833-2787

Learning Audiences is the final report of the Adult Arts Education Project (AAEP), formed by the Association of Performing Arts Presenters and the Kennedy Center. They created the AAEP "to undertake an in-depth study of adult arts learning, a topic that has been widely discussed and frequently advocated among arts leaders, but which to date has remained poorly understood. The report was researched and written by Nello McDaniel and George Thorn of ARTS Action Research, and edited by John Cummings. The authors compare effective arts education practices among arts presenters to current research on modes of adult learning to see what lessons and conclusions can be drawn. Two roundtable meetings of artists, educators, and arts presenters helped the project. The resulting report offers a summary of what the authors term "six disciplines which comprise the learning consciousness." A final chapter discusses a specific adult arts education project, a two-year collaboration between UApresents at the University of Arizona, Tucson, and Stuart Pimsler Dance and Theater of Columbus, Ohio.

What is the "learning consciousness?" It is "a process for changing people and their behavior: changing the behavior of uninclined and inclined adults so that they may begin or increase their participation in the arts, and changing the behavior of arts providers to affect the first change. Changing behavior through the learning consciousness is a cognitive process, one involving individual interest, preference, choice, ability, control, and time." Here are the authors' "Six Disciplines."

  1. The learning consciousness only works if the art providers believe that the arts have value and can play an integral role in everyone's life, and in the life of the community.
  2. Within the universe of learning consciousness, the key organizing principle, the point of departure and return, will always be relationships.
  3. The unifying idea is the way an arts provider thinks about how to align the art content with the interests and experiences of those with whom she or he hopes to connect.
  4. Taking the unifying idea from concept to connection with an audience means finding the right opportunities and points of entry into people's lives, experiences, needs, and interests.
  5. The connection field uses relationships, unifying ideas, and points of entry to suggest or give rise to specific arts activities.
  6. Arts providers must define, articulate, and communicate their criteria for measuring success.

The main point of these "disciplines" is that arts providers need to consider their adult participants on the participants' own terms, and that providers should be familiar with known research about how adults learn. While many arts education efforts have helped the nonprofit arts field come to know and to understand better how children learn, less effort has gone into adult learning. Since the majority of arts audiences and participants for professional arts organizations are adults, it makes sense for arts providers to become more familiar with adult learning theory. Beyond that, the report suggests that arts providers could expand adult audience if the suggested approaches were adopted. Arts Presenters offer a three-day seminar with McDaniel and Thorn based on the AAEP in Michigan in May.