Sunday, April 5, 2009

April 05, 2009

Hello.

"And the beat goes on................"

ELITISM, ESCAPISM AND EMPTY SEATS:

For as long as I have been in the nonprofit arts field (and doubtless much longer than that), the field has been trying to overcome the perception (prevalent in at least some part of the populace) that the arts are elitist. How that perception started isn't really a mystery. The Arts use to be the province of the rich. It was royalty and the wealthy that were its supporters and patrons for a thousand years. It took a long time for the masses to gain access to the arts, tangentially at first, and only more recently truly widespread and egalitarian. Hundreds of years ago, symphonies and operas and later theater, though still the province of the wealthy, finally became the 'popular' entertainment of the day -- but they lost that position with the advent of a plethora of other options - from other kinds of music to movies and more (why is it that 'pop' - short for popular -- music is so-called and not classical music? I'm sure the moniker 'classical' sounded terrific at one point - but now it's more synonymous with'old'). We live in 'fast' times with everything "instant". We want convenience, everything packaged and simple. And we want it all cheap and many arts events are at least perceived to be too expensive for the "common folk" (e.g., a $20++ ticket to a play is a lot more than an $8 ticket to a movie); the arts aren't as convenient as the neighborhood movie house, and going to a performance arts event is still largely thought of as more of a "big deal" and a hassle (i.e., though changing, many, if not most people, still think you need to "dress-up" if you're going to the theater or a symphony). All of these elements combine to continually set the arts apart as 'elitist'. Maybe what we need is the arts equivalent of the growing and popular "slow food" movement to combat all that.

As former Superintendent of Public Education in California, Delaine Eastin, a major arts supporter, use to recount: "When you ask a kindergarten class: How many of you are artists? Every hand goes up. But by the time you ask a 9th grade class the same question, only one or two hands are raised." Somehow this society convinces kids who know in their hearts (when they are young) that everybody is an artist, to abandon that knowledge when they get older and reject the very notion of innate creativity.

It is precisely that continuing image that vexes us; makes it harder to sell the pulbic on funding and the importance of a vibrant cultural scene, the wisdom of arts education and even the value of "creativity". We continue to make headway, of course, as the arts expand and more people are comfortable with "fine" arts as a viable lesiure time alternative to sports, television and other activities, but we still suffer from the misperception that "art" itself is elitist and not part of the normal every day fabric of life.

And it is the necessity of fighting that image that is always the 500 pound gorilla in the room whenever we talk about marketing strategies, audience development theories, fundraising and other issues - forever on our plates.

Andrew Taylor cited a recent article in the parody newspaper THE ONION in his blog last week about audiences that don't want to be involved in anything meaningful when they go to the theater(www.http://www.artsjournal.com/artfulmanager/main/what-if-i-want-to-be-passive.php)and though meant as humor, I wonder if there is not a small lesson for us there. Without meaning any criticism or challenge whatsoever for all the brilliant and valuable research having been (and being) done about how the arts can more effectively involve our audiences and give them more relevant, deeper and more meaningful and enjoyable experiences, might we not be ignoring the reality that, at least a part of our audiences don't want that - not even subliminally? Might not a portion of our audiences simply want the same thing they want from other of their leisure time choices - to wit: enjoyable, escapist entertainment. Might not an even huge portion of our audiences not look at an arts performance as anything but a night out with friends (and not necessarily a deeply meaningful bonding experiece at that)? Might we not be putting just a little bit too much emphasis (and maybe even money)on what the arts "experience" means (on some deeper level) to people and not enough on what they want out of it. Yes, I know, those who believe such an observation is heretical at best, will argue that our surveys clearly show that people DO want bonding and meaning et. al. But everyone who works with surveys know the whole process - beyond the simplest categorical investigation - is flawed(i.e, who will you vote for, not 'why' you will vote as you do; which package of cereal is the most pleasing to you, not why do you think of cereal as a comfort food). The more you try to survey emotions, thought processes, thinking patterns - the more susceptible is the effort to false answers and flawed conclusions.

If some portion (maybe even a majority) of our audiences simply want to be entertained at a competitive price, at a convenient location, and without a lot of hassle -- then might not an overemphasis on "meaningful connections and experiences" simply reinforce the notion that the arts are still elitist and not for the average joe? And doesn't that elitist perception influence the average joe's perception of how much s/he will enjoy the experience. With higher costs and ticket prices, less convenient physical access, and an image of being a more "fancy" undertaking, do we need to manufacture other reasons for people not to try us?

I'm sure I will get some feedback on this kind of thinking, pointing out my failure to understand things on a deeper level, and I fully admit that I might well. But I hope those who will challenge me will also accept that we need to address this level of thinking too. The economy is killing us too right now - layoffs, downsizing, seasons cancelled or cut back, doors closing. We need to be higher up on the priority list for the average American in terms of leisure time options. We need to figure out (over the long term) what will really resonate with our audiences - current and potential. But right now our costs are such that we can't compete with an $8 movie ticket, nor the convenenience of a close by dark theater where you can just go as you are with no hassle. We have to figure out how to convince funders - public and private - that we are worth the investment. We have to figure out how to convince people that we are great entertainment. We have to put people in the empty seats now. And too much "deep" meaning doesn't work with government funders and it doesn't necessarily work with audiences either. We have a finite amount of time to allocate to different strategies. I'm only suggesting that we need to be sure we are thinking realistically, and in a practical manner.

I am reminded of the old New Yorker cartoons and comedian barbs directed at hapless business tycoons being dragged to the Opera by their wives and sleeping in their theater seats. Certainly we've come a long way from that, and now our Opera seats are filled by people who not only love and appreciate the art form, but who wish there were more opportunities for them to see great Opera. But that's not the point. The point is that a lot of people who have never been to the Opera, and who might really like it, still have that image that it is boring and stuff-shirt, and that image may keep them from ever trying the experience. And that's not a good situation for us.

THE DENNY'S EXPERIMENT:

A couple of months ago Denny's did this nationwide FREE Gland Slam Breakfast promotion as their bit to help in these troubled economic times. Now I am a cynic by nature, and so I think this was less altruistic on their part and more an attempt to garner publicity and get new customers into their restaurants -- and I have no problem with that; certainly a legitimate objective. I was watching some news program last week and Denny's CEO was on talking about that promotion - which, apparently was way more successful than they imagined. Yes it cost them money, but it apparently got them the buzz they wanted and brought in hundreds of thousands of new (and hopefully now repeat) customers. He even said they are going to do it again - this time encouraging those who came in the first time, to bring a new friend with them, and that person's Grand Slam breakfast would be on Denny's.

Can the arts do that - if not nationally, in individual cities or towns? (I don't think it would be as effective if just done by individual organizations). Could we have a day / night when we invited those suffering from the economic blues to try the arts for free? (On the honor system). Every museum, every theater company, every dance or music group performance would be free to, let's say, those who have lost their jobs this year - no questions asked? I know it would be hard (impossible?) for performing companies to coordinate and dedicate one performance with no income to offset the costs - but could they add an extra performance date? I know that there are already musuems that have free days. Perhaps this idea is simply too complex and expensive to pull off, but we need to do something on a grander (and bolder) scale to get publicity for the arts, to call attention to our challenges and point out our value, and we certainly need to do more to change the image that we are elitist. And the best way to do that is, I think, to get people to try us for the first time. I'm sure some of you out there can come up with ideas to address that challenge and I hope you do. We continue to talk around that problem (and alas we talk mostly to ourselves, not the public); we haven't yet spent nearly enough time, energy and, yes, money to address it. It is, I would argue, central to many of our stated goals - both short and long term.

As Americans for the Arts ASK FOR MORE campaign has helped to educate people that arts education is not a frill, not a luxury - but essential to a child's education, we need campaigns and strategies that will educate people that the arts themselves are not elitist and not inaccessible, and that going to a performing arts event (though neither as cheap or convenient as going to a movie) is great escape and a lot of fun.

Anyway, just another rant.

I hope you have a great week.

Don't Quit.
Barry

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