Sunday, February 26, 2012

Addressing the Big Picture Perceptions?

Good morning.
"And the beat goes on..............."

JOKE:  Matt Kirsten's joke came in second place in a UK Daily Telegraph reader's poll of the funniest joke of the past year:  His joke was:
"I was playing chess with my friend and he said 'Let's make this more interesting.'  So we stopped playing chess."
I know, I know - this is anti-intellectual and even offensive.  But it's funny - based in part on the widespread stereotypical perception that chess is a game played only by egg-heads; that it is intrinsically boring.  Of course, for those who play the game - and there are legions of those people from all walks of life, all ages, all across the globe - the game is interesting, challenging and enormous fun.  But those are the fans.  It is still widely perceived as the province of a small elite group of people and not something for the average "Joe".  Perception -- not necessarily reality.

I think we suffer from the same prejudices and biases. And I can hear the same joke substituting opera or ballet or symphony music or whatever.   In many quarters the arts, for example Opera, is perceived of as boring.  The cartoon of the sleeping husband, dragged to yet another performance, is ubiquitous in the annals of humor.  Again for those that like Opera such talk is just stupid.  It is anything but boring, and again those who like - no love - opera cross every demographic and geographic line.  But the perception undeniably exists.

Those who like us aren't the problem.  It's those who perceive us as 'boring' - as a way to spend time by elite groups to which they do not (and perhaps do not want to) belong.  I suspect this perception is more prevalent within younger cohort groups, and perhaps with the less educated, but that just may be an erroneous personal perception.  While we wisely spend time pursuing those who might like us a 'little bit' (e.g., those who have attended one performance, but are not regular goers), it is the wider group for whom the inaccurate perception keeps far from our doors that is the bigger ultimate problem.   We hear the charge all the time - we are elitist.  Often this is political rhetoric parroted for ulterior motives.  More often it is just ignorance worn as a badge of reverse superiority of some kind, an offshoot of the anti-intellectual, anti-education thread that continues across the planet.

But it exists and I think it has enormous consequences for almost everything we do in terms of garnering support - whether the support of audiences or the support of public officials or the support of the media.  Alas we do not have the financial resources to mount some hundred million dollar ad campaign that would over a period of time help us to re-create the brand that is the "arts".  And even if we did, would that be enough to move the dynamic and make the "arts" hip, and cool, and truly embraceable by the "everyman"?

Probably not.  Changing widespread societal cultural perceptions is no easy task.  It builds on itself over time and generations and becomes the acceptable norm of unspoken conventional wisdom.  Hard to break that chain.  But it has to start somewhere.

There are things we can do.  Things we have been doing - with a modicum of success - for some time.  Making our case.  Telling our stories.  Word of mouth.  Engagement and experiential intersetions.  Unquestionably we have an excellent, and highly marketable, product.  Music, and dance and all the arts are intrinsically 'cool' and 'hip' - just not always our versions of those pursuits.  The internal debate as to how to go about this monumental undertaking lives within.  We debate the necessity of making content more contemporary; we ponder how to make relevant use of new technologies; we research and contemplate 'engaging' our audiences.  We market.  The jokes continue.  The perceptions persist.

There are things we don't do.  We don't often enough get angry about unfair stereotypes.  When we hear the beer guzzling old fart condemn some expressionist painting with the silly comment:  "My dog could paint that!" we smile to ourselves at the ignorance and stupidity.  Perhaps we should say out loud:  "No, not only can your dog not do that, but there are few people in the world that can do it."  We don't celebratize our artists in some attempt to capture media attention as the arts being 'trendy' as a means to elevate in the collective psyche the arts as worthy. There are no awards shows on television heralding our accomplishments; no 'red carpet' treatment of what we do as star studded.  No media coverage of our sector as part of the contemporary cultural scene.  The gulf between us and the popular arts of music and film remains wide.  I twice proposed to the President's Committee that the annual Medal of the Arts ceremony be a television special.  Anchored by the President himself, the combination of awards to known Hollywood life time achievers in combination with the lesser known fine arts achievers, would be, in my opinion, highly marketable television.  That suggestion fell on deaf ears.  Too pedestrian perhaps.

And perhaps our greatest sin is that we don't adapt as quickly as might be necessary to make art more accessible to our public.  We are reluctant to expand beyond our bricks and mortar locations via technology; unwilling to respond to the dynamics of changing generational thinking.  Clinging to the past may just be costing us our future.

There has been considerable (and intelligent, probing) dialogue of late centering on the issue of moving forward to expand access to our performances via technology - to adapt to a changing world and changing demands.  There is general agreement I think that nothing will ultimately replace the experience of the live performance, but the issue is positioned not as an "either / or" choice.   It has been posited that if we do not adapt and expand, that our agenda is too narrow, and really unworthy of our efforts.  I completely agree with that thinking.  We cannot change ingrained perceptions by narrowing the breadth of those who sample our offerings.  And I suggest our failure to adapt to expanding access will only fuel the jokes about our being elitist and boring long into the future.  And that is a perception we simply cannot allow to continue.

Note:  I don't usually promote events (too many worthy contenders to pick among), but this one is organized by my next door neighbor and takes place in my own neighborhood.

Have a good week.

Don't Quit.