Shattering the Myth of the Passive Spectator

Entrepreneurial Efforts to Define and Enhance Participation in "Non-participatory" Acts

  • Clayton Lord Americans for the Arts


What does “participation” mean in the context of presentational art forms like live theatre, dance performance or classical music? Is, as has been suggested recently by the James Irvine Foundation and researchers from WolfBrown, “participatory art” only that art in which the audience engages by becoming an active artist? What are the implications of such a shift from one of the major arts funders in the United States, and are they warranted? Increasing research indicates that the simple act of watching a performance event—spectating—is, in fact, participatory. Research into brain activity during such events and studies of performance on subsequent reasoning, emotional maturity and empathy indicate that the act of watching an artistic work requires an extraordinary amount of participation and attention on the part of the spectator, and ultimately dictates that so strongly articulating a spectrum of participation in which traditional presentational art as relegated to a lesser position is premature. Rather, a holistic approach being led by a small but growing group of entrepreneurs who straddle the divide between artist and arts administrator has begun to take root, working to augment and increase the impact of presentational art without sacrificing its presentational aspects.

Author Biography

Clayton Lord, Americans for the Arts

Clayton Lord is the vice president of local arts advancement for Americans for the Arts, where he oversees advocacy, capacity development and cohort building for local arts administrators and advocates in 5,000 communities across the United States. Prior to joining Americans for the Arts, Lord served for five years as the director of communications and audience development for Theatre Bay Area. At Americans for the Arts, the local arts advancement department aims to empower, educate, and support local arts leaders, public artists and arts administrators, emerging, mid-career, and executive leaders throughout the arts sector, arts marketers, and artist-activists as they work to be constantly relevant and transformative in the lives of American citizens and communities. Lord shepherds the New Community Visions Initiative, a multi-year effort to better understand and support the changing role of the arts and local arts agencies in American communities, and Americans for the Arts’ ongoing initiatives around cultural equity, diversity, and inclusion. He is the chief architect of the Americans for the Arts Annual Convention and the Executive Leadership Forum at Sundance. Lord is a prolific writer, thinker, and speaker about the public value of the arts, and has written for ArtsLink, ARTSblog, Theatre Bay Area magazine, Stage Directions, InDance, The Voice, ArtsJournal, and others. He has edited and contributed to three books: Counting New Beans: Intrinsic Impact and the Value of the Arts; Arts & America: Arts, Culture and the Future of America’s Communities; and To Change the Face & Heart of America: Selected Writings on the Arts and Communities, 1949-1992and is working on the forthcoming New Community Visions: A Blueprint for 21st Century Arts-Based Community Development, due out in 2017. He holds a B.A. in English and Psychology from Georgetown University, and lives with his husband and daughter in Maryland.