April 15, 2011

The arts debate du jour is about supply and demand. But of what?

Unless you’ve been vacationing on Saturn’s moon Titan, you’ve probably heard about the flap over NEA chairman Rocco Landesman’s suggestion, at a conference back in January, that since nonprofit theaters (and by extension the rest of the arts) can’t expect to build demand, they’d better start thinking about reducing supply. Some sharp questions have been raised in the ensuing debate, and they’re on my mind because I’ve been asked to talk about demand-building at a symposium later this month.

I wasn’t going to blog about the Landesman kerfuffle since everyone else did. (By the way, why are there so many fun words for this kind of communal dismay and debate? I could have said brouhaha, hullabaloo, ruckus, or dustup.) When I first heard what he had said, it seemed like such a patently self-defeating position. Of course the arts can build demand, I thought; to say otherwise is to throw up our hands (not to mention our marketing budgets) and go home. Forget every outreach and education program, forget audience research on needs and perceptions, forget innovation, forget participatory experiences, social marketing, collaboration, pricing…

But wait a second. Haven’t we been doing all that, and doing it with increasing sophistication and funding and a quiver full of new technological arrows? Yet the Survey of Public Participation in the Arts and plenty of other evidence tell us it’s not working (not for the performing arts, at least, although art museum attendance appears to be holding steady). When I started laying out for my talk all the ways that the arts and culture sector works to stimulate demand, and thinking about how few of those ways actually seem likely to grow the audience overall, I found I had more sympathy with Rocco’s point than I realized. ...

The problem is a conceptual catch-22. (Stay with me here.) Many, or perhaps most, of the things arts orgs do to build demand operate at the level of the “shell” rather than the “nut.” They make the message about the performance, or the pathways to it, or the service and environment around it more appealing, accessible, social, witty, hip, whatever. The artistic experience is a given, except for the choice of repertoire or the occasional star performer (or, in an art museum, the occasional blockbuster exhibition). So when new audiences or infrequent ticket-buyers make the effort and break open the shell, the nut inside tastes pretty much how they expected it to taste. It’s an instance of the same category they haven’t found appealing in the past, or not appealing enough to make it a regular part of their diet. Can anything we do to the shell really change that?

But other things arts organizations are doing these days to create demand are about the nut, especially when the artists or artistic staffs are involved. Some of those trends and experiments do, in my view, have the potential to bring newcomers into the fold and maybe even grow the audience over time. (I’ll get to examples in my next post.) The trouble is, when you start to talk about altering the core experience in the arts, you arrive pretty quickly at some thorny questions of purpose and definition.

For example, if you work at an orchestra and you find that offering participatory experiences (think Rusty Musicians at the Baltimore Symphony) creates energy and engagement and actually brings newbies into the hall, then your mission statement (the one about “presenting classical music at the highest levels of artistic achievement”) may start to seem a little, um, rusty itself.

If a couple of scruffy young cellists play a little indie rock and contemporary minimalism at a neighborhood bar, for a mostly-accidental audience of their peers, are they “building demand for the arts?” (Assume that the people in that bar will not become more likely to buy tickets to orchestra hall as a result of hearing the cellists do their thing — even if they loved what they heard.)

Ditto for watching dance clips on YouTube, or indie films on Netflix. Ditto for knitting with friends in a coffee shop, or joining a book club to read those novels everyone’s talking about. Most of these things are unlikely to build demand in the sense Landesman intended (more butts in the seats, more sustainable presenting organizations). But all of them are what we’re telling the NEA to capture in its next survey of arts engagement. All roads lead back to the question, What are we trying to build demand for? And that leads still further, to the question, What do we mean by “the arts”? If all kinds of creative expression and craft — including vernacular and informal and amateur and electronically-mediated kinds — count as “the arts,” then do all those big beautiful museums and concert halls still hold pride of place? Are the interests of established arts organizations really aligned with the ideal of “building demand for the arts,” or are they merely aligned with building demand for their own offerings (butts in their seats, feet on their gallery floors)?

I don’t have an answer, but I do have a hypothesis about why we’re asking the question now. Stay tuned…

Keith Robbins — April 17, 2011

I think that your nut and shell analogy is spot on and thus, the 'instance of the same' is a serious concern. If success = performance - expectation, then you will never succeed if you don't exceed expectations.

I have seen this problem in the reverse in the popular music industry. Prior to The Black Crowes fall tour, I noticed that several venues were using one of my videos embedded in the calendar page for the event. So I visited the websites of several other venues to see what they were doing. When I saw the listing on the Florida Theater's (Jacksonville) website, I almost cried. The entire listing consisted of one small B/W photo and four sentences that were useless. The first sentence referenced Melody Maker magazine which is a British mag that went out of business 11 years ago.

Your first reaction may be that the theater knew The Black Crowes would sell out. But here is why I think it is still a big mistake. I attended over 120 Grateful Dead concerts, but the best concert I ever witnessed was Tina Turner. Turner is not near the sweetspot of my musical taste but I know I could bring ANYONE to one of her concerts and they would enjoy it. The Black Crowes come pretty close to meeting this criteria as well. No one seeing Turner or the Crowes will have an 'instance of the same'. Therefore, the theater should be trying to sell tickets to new fans that would be grateful. This action is also trust-building and increases the likelihood a fan will accept a future recommendation from the theater.

Instead, the band probably sold out the show but made few, if any, new fans and got no publicity. The music industry let The Black Crowes (and fans) down. Whatever we mean by 'the arts', it'd better include the goal of attempting the kind of success Tina Turner achieved with each performance.

Erika — April 18, 2011

I think you, Peter and Keith, are both on to something with "blockbuster" offerings. They seem to create unsustained blips in the attendance numbers. So if every 5 years I go see Tina Turner but am not a Tina fan in general and don't own any of her CD's - what is my role in the supporting the arts? Or, in the museum context, every other year I go to the major Monet/Manet/Gauguin show but don't visit that museum in between. Am I not valuable in the long term arts ecosystem? Of course blockbusters are rather controversial for just this reason. And to your point Peter in this post and your Flash Mob post - art happens everywhere and many, many people engage with artful experiences outside of museum, whether they realize it or not - how to bridge the chasm?

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