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What is quality of experience in the contemporary visual arts and how do we measure it? Grace Davies discusses the findings of a research project.

Image of Spike Island exhibition
David Batchelor's Flatlands installation at Spike Island (2013)

Stuart Whipps

Over the last two years, four visual arts organisations in South West England and their audiences have taken part in a pioneering project examining how we measure and evaluate quality of experience in the arts. Commissioned by Visual Arts South West, our motivation stemmed from a concern that although quality of experience is a key concept in Arts Council England’s strategy, there was no conceptualisation that would 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 considered the quality of experience in the arts in general, 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.

Visitors do not expect to like everything in an exhibition – loving one artwork or experience is sufficient

In partnership with four visual arts organisations in the region – Arnolfini, Spike Island, New Brewery Arts and b-side's Multimedia Arts Festival – and led by evaluators Annabel Jackson Associates Ltd, the project tested out some methodologies (visitor panel, observational questionnaire and a paper questionnaire), which were designed to work together. The system was explicitly designed to be rooted in organisational change: through the experience of staff sitting in on visitor panels or reading transcripts, through the group discussion of the observational questionnaire, and through the adoption of former visitor panel members as advocates for the arts, with knowledge, articulation and influencing skills honed in the heat of the visitor panel. The project spanned an 18-month period, traversing multiple exhibitions and acknowledging the importance of time lapse in thinking about affect, impact and experience.

The results of the project underline the complexity of quality of experience and reinforce the need for a more complex approach to qualitative evaluation:

  • 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 surprisingly 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 with more homogeneous audiences.
  • Aside from the conceptual element of quality of experience, building-related, sense-based, social and informational elements are also important.
  • Enjoyment is affected by the positioning of pieces and the tone and nature of interpretation material.
  • Judgments 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, our pilot suggested several touchstones for thinking about quality of experience that could be considered for other artforms:

  • 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 artwork are often indistinguishable from those created by the setting, building, café or social interaction.
  • Sight and sound lines: Relatively small changes, for example in the positioning of signs, can affect visibility and therefore movement through the building or space.
  • Variation: Challenge is satisfying and enjoyable for visitors but they 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 artwork or experience is sufficient. Quality of experience for an exhibition seems to be defined by its peaks and not its average.
  • Language: We found no indication 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 some 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. Staff who are welcoming and also knowledgeable can greatly enhance the gallery visit. The Baltic has a model that can be learnt from where gallery assistants are part of the education department. The discussion can be extended beyond the visit through social media, talks, visitor panels or discussion groups.

One of the more surprising aspects of the project was the support for challenging work, even among audiences who had no previous engagement with the arts. For example: “We have found that the work that is the most challenging is the work that the visitors like the most, the one that they experience as the most powerful.”

Ultimately, we want our research to encourage broader thinking around quality of experience, to avoid binary evaluative methods that negate the richness, subtlety and complexity of the contemporary visual arts, and to support and develop the presentation of meaningful arts experiences.

Grace Davies is Regional Development Coordinator at Visual Arts South West.

A full report of the project includes theory, information from other qualitative experience studies, as well as a ‘Quality of Experience Project Manual’ to support implementation of the methodologies.

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Image of Grace Davies