Sunday, August 19, 2012

"Setting" as a variable in the greater arts debates.

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

On the heel of last month's release of Set In Stone / Buidling America's New Generation of Arts Facilities - a massive study from the Cultural Policy Center at the University of Chicago, comes a new report -  All the World's A Stage - Venues and Settings, and the Role they Play in Shaping Pattens of Arts Participation -  authored by Alan Brown - an excellent beginning analysis and discussion of the role of "setting" in attracting audiences and how artists work.

Set In Stone indirectly called into question the wisdom of the boom in cultural facilities building of the past decade ("The supply of cultural facilities may have exceeded the demand for them"), and alluded to issues of having directed so much funding into a significant uptake in building more facilities.

The underlying question is:   If you built it, will they (still) come?

And the answer is anything but simple, or even yet established.

Alan Brown's Abstract begins this serious discussion of "setting" (where art is staged, performed, seen and accessed) and the increase in the importance consumers are attaching to it.
"Among the subtlest but most important shifts in patterns of cultural participation is the increased importance and meaning that consumers attach to the settings in which they engage in creative activities. Future generations will not ascribe the same importance to permanent venues with fixed seating and fixed staging.  In order to remain relevant, arts presenters and producers must radically re-conceptualize the relationships between their programs and their spaces in order to reach younger and more diverse audiences."
Alan's report embodies several important themes that have been at the center of recent separate discussion threads going on elsewhere in our sector.  These issues are core to much of the decision making we will need to undergo in the near term on a whole host of issues :

First, DEMOCRATIZING CULTURE:   As Alan suggests:
"First-class, purpose-built arts venues tend to be found in larger cities and towns with a strong philanthropic base. As the American population continues to diversify both ethnically and geographically, an inevitable shift in policy towards “democratizing culture” will almost certainly result in a re-allocation of resources to organizations, programs, and venues outside of the major cultural center"
Thought provoking reports tend to raise as many questions as they answer.  And this is no exception.  One question then is to what extent those demographic changes and that reallocation of resources will change the facilities landscape - both that which exists and that which we might build for the future. Would an ethnic power shift result in favoring differing kinds of settings for the arts - ones less euro-centric?  What would be the impact of that kind of change on the existing urban / suburban facilities infrastructure in terms of demand and patronage?  What are the new kinds of "facilities" that might emerge as options in response to wholesale kinds of changes that such democratization might create?  How do we go about trying to envision what those options might look like?  What kinds of research would be informative in such an inquiry?

What about geographic movements in sub-populations and potential future migration patterns - both those brought about by opportunity (jobs, housing, education) and those dictated by circumstances beyond one's control (weather etc.)?  As population shifts respond to job and housing markets, income fluctuations, education opportunities, urban flight and embrace, and the vagaries of time, work and life demands and pressures - "setting" becomes a function of what works for various sub strata populations in practical terms (or more likely, what is even "possible").  In that sense, the arts as housed in fixed facilities, may become less, not more, accessible.  As Alan intimates, that may work against the fixed place facility.  Indeed, he postulates - correctly I think - that:
"The larger problem with the infrastructure of arts facilities is that it is fixed and slow to change, while culture is changing more and more rapidly."
As democratization of culture gathers momentum, there will be all kinds of consequences, including impacts to the infrastructure.  What will that mean for the future of those built facilities?

Second, EQUITY:  Within the above issue is the question of equity.  While considerable money and energy went into the cultural facilities building boom of the past fifteen years, it seemingly benefited larger arts organizations (with bigger budgets), and was concentrated in performing arts centers - more often than not located so as to appeal to a white, mainstream audiences interested in established cultural art forms.  Whatever the future of cultural facilities building in America, there will be increasing pressure to address the issue of a "level playing field" -- wherein all segments of the cultural community have at least some options available to them as to realizing their goals for facilities development (or, if you prefer, in a larger context - dissemination - by whatever means - of the art)..

Moreover, as the arts move increasingly to digitization of content and the myriad ways art can be disseminated and accessed, how will the sector deal with the current and ongoing inequity?  A case in point is the success of the Met in bringing opera to a wider audience by programming for movie theaters around the country.   As Alan states:
"In 2011, over 2 million people worldwide attended the Metropolitan Opera’s high-definition broadcasts in local movie theaters. The Met’s cinema patrons enjoy a good social dynamic – they applaud together and mingle – and often comment about the excellent visual experience.  
Digital experiences, as they gain in quality and selection, will be seen as an inexpensive and attractive alternative to live performance, especially when the setting affords more social benefits and creature comforts than are available in theaters and concert halls. In 20 or 30 years, it is quite possible that millions of people around the globe will be going to movie theaters to watch high quality digital broadcasts of the best opera, dance, classical music, stage plays, and musicals in the world, for a fraction of the price of a ticket to a live performance. While this would be a fantastic outcome in terms of increasing public participation in the arts, it could also divert demand away from live programs. The opposite may also be true – broadcasting arts programs into cinemas may, in fact, fuel demand for live programs. Regardless, arts groups have a limited window of time to integrate digital content into their programs and facilities, or risk foregoing significant opportunities to develop new What do communities need from their cultural facilities? Cultural audiences and regenerate interest in their art forms."
The fact is that while the Met and perhaps a few other large organizations can afford to mount such an effort in cooperation with the nation's movie theaters, by far the vast majority of arts organizations cannot.  Someday maybe the cost of being able to entertain bold new approaches will shrink so that everyone can play, but maybe not, and, at best, it will take some money to accomplish.  What that does right now is make for a continued uneven playing field and an inequity in which the large and wealthy organizations will continue to dominate the limited opportunities.

Equity in the access to built "settings" has been, and continues to be an issue.

Third, ACCESS itself is yet another issue that crops up in the debate on "settings" (related to equity and changing technology):  As I have long thought, and Alan observes in wondering why people will attend one venue but not another:
"The reasons are complex, often relating to cost, mobility, accessibility, convenience, cultural relevance, and expected social norms." 
How do such simple equations as the price of gasoline, the number of miles away from a facility someone is, and the hours in a day all play on fixed facilities located far from the shifting population - in locations that may seem remote, foreign and uncomfortable socially to shifting demographic audiences?

On a larger plane, equity has to do with access to funds, access to political power and access to public opinion - both to build and to manage facilities.  

Fourth, SELF-CURATION:  We have been talking for some time about the challenge of the public - enabled by technology - increasingly taking to curating their own arts experiences, on their own timetables and terms.  Indeed, the whole of the technological revolution has not only given people more choices as to everything - but has established in their minds a sense of entitlement to having choices - of what, where, when and under circumstances of their own dictation.  Nowhere is this sense of "having it my way" as a right, more centered than in the younger generations.  What does that bode for the future for us?

Alan borrows the term "audience sovereignty" from Lynne Conner to characterize the "authority that audiences want over their arts experiences.  Elements of that authority include audience choice in "when to get up, when to get a drink, when to talk - all of which are available in the theater of the home."  The question for us is:  as the "home" experience improves and as the benefits it offers in terms of an improved socialization environment, and as audiences continue to at least subliminally prioritize the advantages of that experience, what does that mean for the "built" environment of existing (and future?) cultural facilities?  What are the various scenarios that might play out in the coming years, and how can we cope with the possible outcomes?

A critical variable in the curation debate is the differences still existing in generational attitudes about "setting".  Alan suggests the younger generation may feel that older, established venues are "your grandfather's experience preferences" and are rejected because of that connection.  Clearly there are generational differences in attitudes towards settings.  But the same might have been said about "Boomers" - rebellious in their youth; rejecting of parental cultural norms - who now(arguably) constitute the majority of those who patronize the built cultural facilities.  Are we not wise to be cautious in racing to embrace some new notion of what will be the norm in the future?  False assumptions may have gotten us to a precarious point whereby we spent treasure and more on a plan of action that now may turn out in the long term to have been a calculated mistake of judgement.  Perhaps we need to be a bit more cautious as we move forward.

It is the individual "curator", not the arts administration field, nor even the artist, who is likely to control how this all plays out.

Fifth, Alan raises the issue of "ARTISTS AS CURATORS OF SETTING", suggesting:
"What seems to be changing, though, is an increased desire among artists (whatever their medium) to control the settings in which their work is experienced, and to afford audiences greater purview over their experiences. Artists’ motivations to work in settings of their own design can be understood both in economic terms, as a means of accessing more affordable spaces, and on artistic terms, as a means of bypassing cultural gatekeepers and gaining more creative control over the entirety of the arts experience, if only to relinquish it back to the audience."
It would seem to me that Artists ought to have more to do with how we move forward on arts facilities, and that to the extent we (the gatekeepers) act in that realm unilaterally, taking the lead independently,  rather than being the follower, that we are usurping the natural order of the way things might best be.  We might make better decisions and have fewer regrets after the fact if we were to take more time in these kinds of decisions and grant that those we theoretically serve are better qualified to head the pack.

What IS clear is that "setting" is a critical factor in audience access and support for the arts and that it deserves (demands) considerably more of a place in our consideration of what matters.

There is, of course, no way to predict the future.  You can't know what macro changes in circumstances in populations, demographics, economics, technology or other areas will happen, and it is the major changes over which we have no real control that render our best intentions to turn out to be brilliant risk taking, or ill-conceived arrogance.  Yet, as administrators and policy people it is our job to try to calculate the best options and to not let our hopes and desires, let alone our projections about what we want to see happen and what we want to believe, cloud our judgment.  It is still too early to yet know whether or not the cultural facilities building boom of the past decade and a half was intuitively savvy or foolish folly.  What is real is that it happened, and we will live with the result for awhile.  But it is not too early to now embrace a decision making approach that urges us not to assume that what is a model of behavior today will still be the same model tomorrow.  

And while the bigger issues of democratization, equity, access, technology, self-curation and artists and placemaking - are all contained within the "setting" debate - there is an even bigger issue involved:  And that is when, and on what basis, is it reasonable for us to make certain assumptions on which we can later justify our actions as well-conceived risk taking.  How much data and information, what processes and protocols (and what kinds) ought we to amass and consider before we jump to action on something that is likely to cost a lot of money, take a lot of time, and with which we will have to live for a long time -- no matter what the decision is about?  We have to disabuse ourselves of the notion that certain conclusions that seem attractive ought to be implemented even though they are unsubstantiated and unprovable.

I might argue that the past building boom was not always based on reasonable assumptions, and that it was often pursued for reasons other than sound and rational decision making.  And that the conclusion that "supply now exceeds the demand" is an understatement.  Future decision making ought to be more informed and aligned with better risk taking management.

As to the question of Setting, Alan's report helps us to see the issues as they are likely to unfold and he is doubtless right on at least two fronts:
1.  His acknowledgement that the problem of fixed arts facilities is:
"Exacerbated when new facilities are modeled on old ones, perpetuating a long line of derivative thinking by architects, theatre consultants, and their clients who seldom take the time to consider what future generations of artists and audiences will require. Once built, arts groups grow comfortable and efficient in their spaces, which can be a boon to artists and audiences alike. When keeping the lights on as often as possible becomes a financial imperative, however, there is little incentive to think about moving the art to alternative settings."
2.  And:
"Without a clearer perspective on the dynamics between audience, artist and setting, the arts sector will not develop the capacity it needs to engage the next generation of art lovers."
Nothing seems to be getting simpler.  Thanks to Alan for a very valuable contribution to what the field must address.  I urge everyone to read the full report - available via the link at the beginning to the Wolf Brown site.

Have a good week.

Don't Quit