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Neutral questions and considered opinions
Liz Lerman's Critical Response Process offers tools not only for arts inquiry but also for arts management.
I ask them to take a poem
and hold it up to the light
like a color slide
or press an ear against its hive.
Billy Collins, from “Introduction to Poetry”
Author, anthropologist, and filmmaker Zora Neale Hurston defined research as “formalized curiosity,” as “poking and prying with a purpose.” The playful persistence of her definition should be a model for any arts manager’s work.
Arts Management, after all, is largely about inquiry – about discovery and discourse around creative work, as well as the relentless pursuit of pathways to make that work thrive. Arts managers play a role in curation, connection, and communication of artistic practice and its conversation with an audience. All of those roles demand a generous attention and a curious spirit.
But Hurston’s emphasis on formalized curiosity suggests a method and not just a “vibe.” And one such powerful method of artistic inquiry is Liz Lerman’s “Critical Response Process.” While primarily designed to help artists gather useful feedback on works in progress, the process is a versatile and handy toolkit in many domains.
In brief, the Critical Response Process defines three players – the artist/maker, the responder(s), and the facilitator – and moves them through four steps following a presentation of the artistic work.
Step 1: Statements of Meaning
Responders state what was engaging, interesting, stimulating, or striking in the work they have just witnessed. Discomforts, doubts, and negative opinions are withheld until later in the process.
Step 2: Artist as Questioner
The artist asks questions about the work. After each question, the responders answer, being mindful to stay on topic with the question.
Step 3: Neutral Questions
Responders ask neutral questions about the work (questions without an opinion embedded in them). The artist answers.
Step 4: Opinion Time
Responders offer opinions, subject to permission from the artist. These are commonly framed as: “I have an opinion about [topic], would you like to hear it?”
There’s much more depth and detail to the process, of course, available in two books about it (I’d recommend the most recent). But even this brief overview shows many of the core qualities that make this approach so powerful. It centers the artist and their needs. And it offers a structure (a “formalized curiosity”) designed to avoid judgment and interrogation – both of which close down discovery.
In particular, I use the concepts of the final two steps all the time, in all sorts of settings beyond artistic feedback.
Neutral questions are a challenge to construct and a gift to receive. And like most forms of inquiry, demand constant practice. Building a capacity to notice and defuse loaded questions is an essential skill for any arts manager. As Lerman and her co-author John Borstel frame it, the neutral question seeks “to diffuse defensiveness on the part of the artist and inspire reflection on the opinion of the responder.”
Opinion with consent can also feel awkward at first, but it’s a revelation when used as consistent practice. Instead of blurting out a full opinion of the work or some aspect of it, this stage requires responders to state (neutrally) the topic they have an opinion about, and then to ask if the artist would like to hear it. For example, “I have an opinion about the music of this work and its relation to the movement, would you like to hear it?” The artist can say “no.”
If that idea upsets you, take a breath and ask yourself why.
Arts Managers are certainly in the business of business. But they’re also in the business of discovery. Building a repertory of inquiry is an essential aspect of the craft.
From the ArtsManaged Field Guide
Function of the Week: Program & Production
Program & Production involves developing, assembling, presenting, and preserving coherent services or experiences.
Framework of the Week: Critical Response Process
Liz Lerman’s method for giving and getting feedback on work in progress, designed to leave the maker eager and motivated to get back to work.
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