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Intrinsic Impact Research: A New Frontier in Making the Case for the Arts

by Jessica Ryan

When someone asks you why the arts are important, what do you say?

You might explain that you believe the arts have value because they help students gain the skills needed to succeed in school. Perhaps you say that the arts matter because they contribute to economic vitality or because arts businesses have revitalized your community. Or maybe you state that the arts are important simply for their own sake.

The three arguments are commonly employed to justify support for the arts. The first two highlight the instrumental benefits of the art. That is, the benefits that occur when individuals use the arts as a means to achieve some other end – whether that might raising math scores or making an urban environment more appealing for commerce and residency. In contrast, the third argument argues that the arts are valuable in and of themselves, that they have intrinsic value.  While many of us arts supporters find the intrinsic impact argument appealing, we have difficulty rationalizing this argument to non-arts supporters. We know the arts are uniquely valuable, but we cannot clearly express the nature of this value. Measuring improved math scores and increased real estate values is a bit more easily quantified than measuring the abstractions of an arts experience.

In an attempt to more precisely define the intrinsic impact of visual art, a team of graduate students from Carnegie Mellon University (myself included)  conducted a research study exploring how individuals are transformed by viewing visual art. We modeled our research after previous studies, namely WolfBrown’s Assessing the Intrinsic Impact of a Live Performance (pdf available, click here) and WolfBrown and Baker Richards’ How Audiences are Transformed by Cultural Experiences in Liverpool (click here). The first study exclusively investigated the intrinsic impact of the performing arts, while the second measured the impact of the arts in both performing and visual art venues.

From January to May we conducted our study in conjunction with Pittsburgh’s Carnegie Museum of Art (CMoA). We chose to measure the impact that viewing visual art in the CMoA had on visitors ages 18 and up. In order to compare responses across many museum visitors, we surveyed visitors about their entire museum experiences, rather than their experiences with only particular artworks.

After reading through previous intrinsic impact studies and interviewing experts in the field, we decided to investigate the research questions below:

  • What is the relationship between adult CMoA visitors’ readiness to receive visual arts experiences and the nature and extent of the impacts those visitors receive from their visual arts experiences?
  • Does the experience of observing visual art captivate, intellectually stimulate, or elicit an emotional response from adult CMoA visitors?
  • What increases the odds that adult CMoA visitors will be captivated, intellectually stimulated, or experience an emotional response when viewing visual art?

It is important to add two caveats, relevant especially to the first question examined. First, we defined an individual’s readiness to receive a visual arts experience as his/her expectations for a visual art viewing experience, as well as his/her prior experience with or knowledge of visual art. Second, we decided to look at intrinsic impacts falling under the categories of captivation, intellectual stimulation, and emotional response. We defined captivation as the degree to which a visual art viewing experience engaged a visitor, intellectual stimulation as the degree to which this experience caused a visitor to contemplate the artwork on display and its significance, and emotional response as the degree to which a visitor had an emotional reaction during this experience.

After spending roughly one month collecting 657 surveys from CMoA visitors, as well as conducting nine individual interviews in the CMoA, we discovered that it was indeed possible to measure the intrinsic impact of the visual art experience. Most survey respondents experienced multiple impacts falling under the categories of captivation, intellectual stimulation, and emotional response. Furthermore, respondents who reported feeling high levels of an emotion, being very likely to discuss the artworks after their visits, or having personal viewpoints challenged a great deal by the artworks had greater odds of experiencing other impacts as well. However, respondents’ demographic characteristics, as well as their readiness to receive visual arts experiences, typically were not correlated with intrinsic impacts. A summary of our key findings includes:

1. It is possible to measure the intrinsic impact of the visual art experience

2. As defined by our research, the visual art experience at the CMoA did, in fact, have an intrinsic impact on its visitors

3. The intrinsic impact a CMoA visitor experienced can be categorized under the constructs of ‘Captivation’, ‘Intellectual Stimulation’, and ‘Emotional Response’

4. CMoA visitors’ readiness to receive a visual arts experience often did not determine the impact they felt

5. CMoA visitors did not need to be captivated in order to experience other kinds of impact

6. Most visitors recognized and felt an emotion during their visual art experience, and the emotional impacts they experienced are related to nearly all other kinds of impact

7. If visitors self-stated that their viewpoints were being challenged a great deal and that they were very likely to discuss the artworks in the future, they were more likely to experience numerous other kinds of impact during their visual art experience

8. CMoA visitors’ demographic and circumstantial variables were often not correlated with the impacts they derived from their visual art experiences

This is only a sampling of the key findings we discovered. To view a full report on the study methodology and data analysis results, please click here.

Although our study is simply exploratory research, we believe that our promising findings demonstrate the value of using intrinsic impact studies as audience research tools. Our Project Founder, Jessica Rosenberger, writes: “It is our hope that this research will lead to a continued investment of intrinsic impact assessment within the visual arts field . . . The arts create a unique impact that separates that experience from all other human experiences. This experience is multifaceted and extremely subjective, and the ability to articulate its impact will be essential in establishing its value to society in the future.”

Now we would like to hear from you. What role, if any, do you think intrinsic impact research has in explaining the value of the arts to society? How might this research help you better perform, or make a case for, your own work in the arts? Use the comments section of this article to help us start a constructive dialogue about intrinsic impact research. Together we can work to better measure and articulate the full value of the arts.


Articles of Related Interest from The Muse Dialogue:

“The Power of Personal Experience” by Richard St. John

“The Seriousness of a Child at Play” by Andrew Swensen

3 Comments Post a comment
  1. I read the article but was unable to view the full report on my computer. I’d like to see more emphasis on this aspect of the arts’ value to society. We have drifted away from the primary values, those that are personal. All art is personal before anything else and we should honor that above secondary benefits.

  2. Stephan, I am confused by your question. Do you want the value to society or to the individual? WolfBrown’s methodology assesses the value gained by the individual, personally.

  3. This is great work and an exciting application of Alan Brown’s constructs. I do think you and your colleagues may have the causality arrow a little backward here, though. What you’re interpreting as impacts OF the visit may in fact be preferences and styles that people bring TO the visit. That’s what our psychographic profiling of art museum visitors suggests, anyway. It would be interesting to ask similar ‘impact’ questions prior to the visit, though framed prospectively. I bet you’d see similar frequencies.


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