Sunday, December 12, 2010

The Connoisseurs: A Different Kind of Audience Development Perspective

Good morning.

“And the beat goes on…………………………”

Moving Beyond One Dimensional Thinking About “Audience Development”:

A documentary (entitled “Public Speaking”), directed by Martin Scorsese, about New York author and wit, Fran Lebowitz, is playing on HBO. I like her – she is the quintessential New York pontificator - acerbic, sarcastic, smart, insightful and merciless in her judgmental observations – in the best of the Dorothy Parker tradition.

In one segment of this feature – shot basically as an ongoing interview – Fran is asked some question about the AIDS epidemic in New York in the 1980s. She recounts one of the benchmark attitudes of the time, and comments that the prevailing sentiment was sadness and horror about how many people in the creative industries and the arts – from designers to choreographers, from photographers to actors – were being lost, and noted the question that remained on the table: how would the New York cultural scene survive such devastation and thinning of its creative ranks? I remember the period well and that indeed was what you heard as funerals (at least in New York, San Francisco and Los Angeles) became a daily reality of life.

Then she made an observation that I think is quite insightful. Speaking specifically about the New York City Ballet, she opined that she thought it wasn’t just the talent pool that was being lost by the AIDS epidemic, it was (and she saw this as equally, if not more, devastating) also that they lost a huge and critical part of the core of their audience – the connoisseurs; a basically gay, devoted and dedicated audience who not only went to the ballet and other performance events, but who were connoisseurs of the ballet and the arts; a sophisticated audience that knew dance intimately as a discipline – its technical aspects, its history, its risk taking, its treatment of the past and the present, both the established and new dancers and choreographers and even the farm system that was the feeding pool for the whole ecosystem. This audience didn’t just go to the ballet for something to do on a Friday night, nor to be seen (though that probably was an element), but rather went to the ballet because they loved it AND appreciated it and its nuances, and followed it and cared about it -- and most importantly, they were very knowledgeable -- an audience developed over time and as much a part of the ballet as those on the other side of the curtain. Inimical only to New York? I am sure many thought so, but probably neither limited to the gay sub-sector nor to Manhattan.

It was, she offered, the loss of that audience that was perhaps the real tragedy, and the New York cultural scene is impacted to this day because of that loss. Losing the “connoisseur” base of an audience is a very interesting notion. The loss of that important segment of an audience (or arguably not just the loss, but the failure to develop such a segment in the first places) is very likely, at least, part of the reason why many New York cultural organizations (and probably those in San Francisco and a slew of other major cities as well) continue to struggle with sustaining audiences, and developing financial supporters, advocates and boosters as well.

When we talk about “audience development” in the nonprofit arts – whether we frame the issue as one of programming and content, production values, convenience of schedule and pricing, or as the depth of shared experiences – we are essentially talking about what we can do to put more bodies in seats. We think about ‘developing’ an audience as principally increasing its size and not much more. Even our forays into thinking about the “experience” of attending a cultural event settle not on expansion of the audience’s knowledge and expertise of the art form, but rather on the social experience and ‘feelings” of the attendees. Perhaps we ought to be talking – at least some of the time – about what Fran Lebowitz was talking about: How do we encourage and nurture the development of connoisseur audiences -- audiences who intimately know not only the discipline of the performance, but the specific company or organization, the history of that creative effort within the city’s history, and all the nuances of its place; people who care about the art form as much, and are arguably as knowledgeable, as those creating the art. Audiences as sophisticated as the creators – and who, because of that sophistication of knowledge, have a unique and intimate relationship with the creators and performers - and, with each other as a self-identifiable crowd of like minded individuals.

Of course, there are countless examples of those kinds of core bases across the globe over time, and the gay audience New York case in point that Lebowitz referenced was only an isolated example. The point is the sophisticated “connoisseur” key, core base is different from other segments of the audience that are in attendance at any given performance – more likely a reliable, dependable audience, more likely to be financially supportive, more likely to advocate on our behalf, more likely to recruit new people to our worlds, and if we want to be even a little more sophisticated in our efforts in “audience development” then we have to stop thinking of our audiences as a single, heterogeneous mass of people – all of whom are basically alike, and whose attendance at our events all have the same impact.  We have to think beyond numbers and just more bodies in seats.

The truth is, of course, that in any given single performance audience there are people in those seats who have never been to a performance (some of whom may never come again), some who are season ticket holders, some who are just sampling the event and discipline (for a variety of reasons), some who don’t even want to be there, some who are there for reasons other than the performance itself – from the social butterflies to the business networkers, and then finally some who are the real connoisseurs. And there is, I think, a difference (very likely a big difference) between those in our audiences we might define as our “regulars” and the connoisseurs. Both may be frequent attendees - reliable and dependable - but they are nonetheless vastly different. I suspect the connoisseurs are more financially supportive, more likely to be responsible for media interest and coverage, more important to the organization’s creative vitality and spark; essential to the recruitment of talent and the development of risk taking artists and creators. It may be the connoisseurs who help to create the positive and encouraging environment that allows creativity to flourish in the first place.  We probably shouldn’t treat each of these audience segments the same nor pre-suppose that they are all there for the same reasons and will all then react the same to our efforts to get them to attend more frequently (or to move them to become financial supporters, volunteers, advocates or other more direct participants in what we do).

I think we ought to take Lebowitz’s observation to heart and further investigate the implied notion that developing and nurturing the core connoisseur audience segment might just be absolutely critical to the health of our organizations. We ought to study that core more – particularly how they came to be the connoisseurs that they became – and why. What circumstances contributed to the formation of that connoisseur class of attendees?  It might even be instructive to examine the impact and effect on the decline of that segment in New York or other places as a result of the AIDS epidemic or even some other cause.

How do we develop and nurture the ‘connoisseur’ audience segment for any given discipline or organization? It seems logical that arts education might play a role in that effort. To the extent children are exposed to, participate in, and learn about an art form, the more likely a percentage of them might move to become part of that connoisseur base. In the first report for the Hewlett Foundation I did on Youth Involvement in the Arts, I remember a program the Los Angeles Opera instituted on local college campuses that created Opera Groups and afforded opportunities for college kids interested in the Opera to interface with the company, its artists and each other. I am sure there are other such programs for other disciplines.

It seems to me anyway that not that much (or certainly not enough) of our combined audience development research and follow up strategies center on the connoisseur audience segment, and we might do well to focus more of our energy and resources on the development of that audience segment, for it just might be the key to sustained investment by local communities in our cultural base.

Have a great week.

Don’t Quit.