Art Works Blog

Talking Arts at Chautauqua

I just gave my Chautauqua talk this morning, so no photos yet. But here's one from my talk at the League of Historic American Theaters. More on that next week... Photo by Richard Lovrich

Today as part of my trip to Western New York, I was honored to speak at the Chautauqua Institution as part of its lecture series called A Case for the Arts. Being a theater guy, it was only natural for me to structure my talk in three "acts." Here's an excerpt from act two--on audiences. (I'll be back on the Art Works blog next week with more from my travels in New York, including an Art Works visit  with U.S. Representative Louise Slaughter, a trip to the League of  Historic American  Theaters, and more.)

I would…like to turn to audiences. And this is a topic that led to one of the most interesting conversations we have ever had at the NEA---a conversation that sprung from [a] conversation at Arena Stage---the notion of the possible oversupply of arts organizations in this country and the potentially shrinking demand for them.

The first major research that we released during my time as Chairman of the NEA was our Survey of Public Participation in the Arts (SPPA) that showed that traditional audiences at traditional venues for the arts are declining.

Andrew Taylor, whom many of you know from his Artful Manager blog, has a talk he gives about broken metaphors.

The metaphor of the box office is, perhaps, the most broken metaphor of them all. It is a metaphor based on the savings bank, and specifically on the teller’s window, where all of the value is locked up on one side and doled out parsimoniously to grateful supplicants through a small hole. In this metaphor, the value proposition is one way---all of the value is on stage and audiences arrive to receive it.

But what if we denied that proposition, and instead believed that the audiences bring as much value to the experience as artists and curators? What would an organization look like that equally valued artists and audiences?

We might see an organization with an artistic director and a co-equal audience director. Rather than a manager of visitor services who reports to the director of external affairs who reports to a deputy director.

We might see fellowships for audience members. I think that is a particularly delicious notion. What if we complemented artist residencies with audience residencies, where we paid some audience members to attend exhibitions and performances? Or, better yet, what if arts organizations gave stipends to “audience fellows,” so that the fellows could go see whatever they wanted to see at other arts organizations?

What if we saw this as an investment in building a stronger, more committed, more literate audience?

I visited the Seattle Art Museum, and they now offer “highly opinionated tours,” in which people paid by the museum walk through the galleries talking about the things they like, but also the things they don’t like.  One of these docents led a tour in which he explained why Seattle’s Pollock isn’t really a very good Pollock at all.

We need to stop pretending that every single audience member needs to like every single thing we do.

Nick Hytner at the National in London, actually has his box office staff track subscribers’ likes, dislikes, and preferences, and has them e-mail the members and suggest some of the plays they way want to skip. I think acknowledging the viewers’ own tastes---in addition to curators’ and directors’ tastes---is absolutely key.

Madeleine Grynsztejn, the director of the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago put it extremely well. She said that arts professionals need to learn how to maintain their expertise, while relinquishing control. Madeleine will always have more expertise in contemporary art than I do, but I am still entitled to my own relationship with it, my own experience of it....

....But because we are talking about audiences today, I want to revisit a few ways that I have thrown out that might, in fact, increase audiences---might actually grown new demand.

Increase arts education. We dove deeper into the SPPA data, and discovered that arts education is one of the only reliable predictors of future arts participation. Not age, race, ethnicity, or income level, but arts education. Exposure to the arts---early and often---builds future audiences.

Take advantage of related demand. As we are watching audiences at not-for-profit arts organizations shrink, we are seeing an explosion of demand for singing and dancing. Prime time network television is filled with Dancing With the Stars, American Idol, Glee, and So You Think You Can Dance. Should we dumb down what we are doing as a sector and ask J-Lo to be America’s cultural arbiter? Absolutely not. But to borrow a phrase from one of my predecessors at the NEA Bill Ivey, Americans are hungry for and will seek out an expressive life. Our not-for-profit arts organizations need to also be feeding that hunger with what we offer.

Offer free samples. I was at the opening of the New World Symphony, which is broadcasting concerts for free on the outside of its building. The highest quality video and audio are allowing people to sample what happens inside the concert hall. It is not exactly the same thing as the grocery stores that offer free tastes of hickory-smoked sausage, but if you offer a taste of a high quality product, people will come back for more.

Technology is key in this: the NEA’s Audience 2.0: How Technology Influences Arts Participation shows that people who consume art via the Internet and electronic media are nearly three times as likely to attend live arts events, that they attend a greater number of live events, and that they also attend a greater variety of arts events.

Examine our arts infrastructure. Resident theaters in this country began as collectives of artists. They have become collectives of arts administrators. Do we need to consider becoming more lightly institutionalized in order to get more creativity to more audiences more often? It might also allow us to pay artists more.

And this concludes Act II.

You can listen to the speech I gave at the Chautauqua Institution in its entirety here.

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