Cézanne’s studio attracts tens of thousands of visitors each year.  This nearly empty space (only a few familiar objects of the painter are exhibited within the room) fascinates Cézanne’s admirers. Visiting the place is a way to intimately feel the presence of the painter and to enjoy an authentic feeling experience.

But why are visitors so captivated by such a plain and bare place? What makes the experience so intense? What processes can lead the invisible to becoming an authentic experience?

A recent study states that staged authenticity and the invisible both influence the visitors’ experiential perceptions, imagination, and knowledge of the artist.

33 semi-directive in-depth interviews were conducted at Cézanne’s studio in Aix-en-Provence after attendees had completed their visits. Content analysis led to identifying key themes that describe how imagination at work during the visit creates an authentic experience. More specifically, results show that material dimensions (e.g., the studio setting, familiar objects, and guides – staged authenticity) mixed with immaterial dimensions (e.g., Cézanne’s aura, stories, and atmosphere – the invisible) stimulate visitors’ imagination through immersion, embodiment, and narrative transportation.

The study illustrates the contagion of the tangible by the invisible, and also underlines that consumers are committed to their quest for authenticity through their involvement in imaginative processes. Indeed, they are not mere passive “consumers”, but co-producers of their own experience, by providing meaning and value to it.

Figure: Imagination at work in the artist’s studio. 2 streams, linked by 'Contagion and Animation': 'Staged Authenticity': Material dimensions (Studio setting, Familiar objects, Guides) plus Knowledge, leads to Immersion and Embodiment (an imaginative process) 'The «Invisible'»: Immaterial dimensions (Cézannes aura, Stories) plus Knowledge, leads to Narrative Transportation (an imaginative process) The 2 streams combine into 'Perceived Authenticity'.A conceptual model (see Figure) based on findings was developed that can be used as a diagnostic instrument to identify and test imagination processes in different settings, such as heritage-based museums or historical reconstructions.

Curators and managers of heritage-based sites should focus on exploring ways to propagate the immaterial or intangible aspects and embrace the power of visitors’ imagination.

Sufficient empty space is necessary to provide visitors with the freedom to project their imagination, engendered by the confrontation with a few items (sacred objects or emotionally charged ones), or to fill gaps in the story conveyed to them. The access to an almost empty physical space enables visitors to create their own experiences, to be immersed or transported. Material aspects of the heritage-based site must be carefully thought out so that “customers” perceive its aura of authenticity.

Finally, to ensure that visitors (experts or novices) fully enjoy the experience of the heritage-based site, managers might focus their communication on their potential customers in the pre-visit phase, for example by providing more information about the artist on their website. They could also customise the experience by organising adapted group tours based on the visitors’ depth of knowledge of the artist.

Read the original research article: Derbaix M. & Gombault A. (2016). Selling the invisible to create an authentic experience: imagination at work at Cézanne’s studio. Journal of Marketing Management, 32(15-16), 1458-1477. http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/0267257X.2016.1199588

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Maud Derbaix

Maud Derbaix

Maud Derbaix is professor of marketing at Kedge Business School, France and member of the Creative Industries Research Group. Her research interests has focused on consumer behavior within the context of arts and cultural activities including live performances, events and heritage.

Anne Gombault

Anne Gombault

Anne Gombault is professor of organizational behaviour and management at Kedge Business School, France, where since 2013 she has headed the Creative Industries Research Group. Her research covers organizational identity, behaviour and strategy of artistic and cultural organizations and creative industries.

Disclaimer: Any views expressed in this posting are the views of the Author(s), and are not necessarily the views of the JMM Editors, Westburn Publishers Ltd. or Routledge, Taylor & Francis Group.