Emperor Has No Clothes

So I am of mixed feelings today. Yesterday, the last place I worked enthusiastically welcomed the news that I would return for two weeks to help them run this year’s festival thereby confirming that my skills are indeed valued. But I also got a letter from Wayne State saying they are hiring someone else for the position which, of course, introduces doubts to my mind.

One thing I didn’t mention before-when I got to Detroit, I learned the woman who had held the position for three years was applying for the job as well. Apparently it was an instructor position and was being made a tenure position so she had to re-apply. At the time, I was a little annoyed at not having been told that because I wasn’t sure I would have agreed to fly out knowing I was challenging an incumbent. But I also knew it didn’t matter. These people had flown me out, fed me and had set a lot of time aside so I could discuss a topic about which I was passionate. (No, not myself, arts management!) Overall, I figure I got a pretty good deal.

This conflicted state of mind seemed like a good springboard for introducing today’s topic—My criticisms of the arts. Last week I mentioned all the reasons why I still possess an idealistic attachment for the arts and what I do and why I would seriously consider returning to work for idiots who fired me. This week I want to talk about the detrimental aspects of this thing I love so much.

I have often felt guilty that I perceived the people I worked with and for had the wrong attitude. They worked hard and were trying their best with limited resources. Who was I, as someone relatively new to the arts, to judge their outlook? However, emboldened by the remarks I read by Penelope McPhee at a retreat for symphony orchestras funded by the Knight Foundation, and having accumulated a decade or so more experience, I have to say I still think they were wrong. So, I am taking this opportunity to level some general criticisms about the state of the arts.

First of all, I would highly recommend reading the speech. Though I have a habit of quoting half an article in my entries, I am going to try to abstain from doing so here. Right from the beginning of her speech, she said something that resonated with me.

“Today, I would argue vehemently that communities don’t need an orchestra just for the sake of saying they have an orchestra. The mere existence of an orchestra in a community does not contribute to its vitality. Communities need vibrant, relevant orchestras that give meaning to people’s weary, humdrum lives.

I am increasingly convinced that orchestras that are not relevant to their communities do not contribute to their health and vitality. And I’ll go even further � the more orchestras peel off three to four percent of an economically elite, racially segregated fraction of the community, the more they’ll be part of the problem instead of part of the solution.

The caliber of the playing, the renown of the conductor, the architecture of the world-class hall mean little or nothing if the sound doesn’t resonate throughout the community.”

A little further on she says:

But if you agree with me, and accept this as your mission, you first have to fundamentally change your attitude toward your audience. You have to stop blaming them and start looking inside your institutions for answers.

From my perspective as an outsider who loves the music but is not an expert, I’d argue that for the most part, orchestras have nothing but disdain for their audiences. The whole notion that doing it differently is “dumbing it down” is disdainful. The attitude you communicate to us audience members is that you’re doing us a favor to let us pay for you to play what you want to play. You want us to pay our money and eat our spinach because it’s good for us.

Not only do you want us to eat the spinach, but you want us to choose it over ice cream every time; you want us to eat it in your restaurant at 8 p.m.; you want us to like it the way you’ve seasoned it. And, God knows, you want us to eat it pure, not in a souffle or a salad.

And, oh yes, if we’ve never eaten spinach before, we’re barely worth serving it to anyway, because if we’ve gone this long without tasting it, we must be rubes anyway and we’ll never appreciate it.

So if we’re going to be serious about serious change, we first have to get serious about this question of mission.

This essentially goes to my biggest complaint about the arts world. The “Field of Dreams” expectation that if you perform or present it, people will and should come. Yes, I have been absolutely guilty of the type of thinking I quote above. (It is especially easy to think everyone is a cretin when you are doing a job search!) Yes, I absolutely think that the arts possess incredible value for people’s lives. But I have empathy for the “great unwashed.” I don’t believe everything performed is of interest or significance to me. I feel intimidated going to gallery openings and symphonies–and I know some of the rules. (I play follow the leader to avoid clapping between movements, but still have no idea how to tell the end of a movement from the end of a piece.)

Of course, the Field of Dreams view doesn’t only apply to attendance, but funding as well. I have worked for organizations who lost the faith of thier audiences and launched huge “save us” campaigns. I know that a desire to keep ones job factors into it, but I think it is rather egotistical to expect foundations and governmental bodies to bail you out because you have mended your ways and may possess the potential to contribute something of value to your community again.

On the other hand, I have been employed by organizations who have worked for 5-7 years to develop solid relationships with foundations and politicans. I am not talking about throwing a lot of money at them and wine and dine schmoozing, but painstakingly proving oneself over time. When the organization gets a sizable chunk of funding, smaller organizations cry foul and write editorials saying we were favored because we were the big kid on the block.

Yes, this is essentially true. When you are a small, volunteer run organization, you can’t expect to get the money an institution with a full time development director can get. In many cases, those smaller organizations are getting funded at a much higher ratio to the effort they expended securing the money than my organization was. There are a lot of arts organizations out there working damn hard for what they get and they have very few assets with which to grease palms.

There is no god given right for every arts organization to exist. Everyone has the freedom to give it a try, but it doesn’t mean people have to come see your shows or pay for you to stay open. You can decry the soulless commercialism of the place across town and do avant garde stuff, and the more power to you. You just need to be aware that there are consequences for every decision. You may have to work harder to attract audiences and suffer being labeled as obscene.

I interviewed at a place this fall that didn’t have its own performing spaces and instead presented in churches and outdoors. They were still held in a higher regard than the theatre companies that had their own stages. The theatre companies all competed tooth and nail with each other, insisting that each remain autonomous rather than uniting to focus their energies to achieving common goals.

I used to blame the non-profit system. The fact that non-profits were placed in a position of having to compete for funding to get the majority of their money from unearned revenue. But I realized community service was becoming an increasingly smaller concern for many organizations as they focussed more and more on just keeping the doors open. It might almost be better if some of them became for profit. Although, there is the danger of finding box office receipts unchanged regardless of classification. Audiences seldom make entertainment decisions based on tax status.

I don’t have any easy answers for combatting these perceptions of audiences and each other. Certainly improved empathy and communication will be essential elements in any solution. McPhee’s speech makes some suggestions, but I don’t think they will completely resolve the problem.

For all the critical aspects of Ms. McPhee’s speech that I agree with, there were also some observations in which I saw some hope. She comments:

“But newspaper journalists, decrying diminishing subscribers, worry that the democracy is at risk because people aren’t getting the news – from them.

Orchestras, being mostly led by tyrants, aren’t concerned with the death of democracy. But they do believe the very fabric of Western Civilization is at risk if people don’t get classical music – from them…

…They’re confusing the content with the delivery system. In fact, people are getting much more news, much more quickly, than ever before. The difference is that the content is coming from lots of different places, and newspapers no longer own the franchise.

The solution she suggests, may be found by emulating newspaper’s who now offer both print and internet access to their stories.

And here’s another important parallel. They’ve given up on the crossover idea. They are no longer expecting readers who get their news on the Net to decide to subscribe to the traditional paper. The Internet news is not a marketing tool for the “real thing.” They have thousands of new readers for the “new thing.” I hope if Magic of Music does nothing else, it will put to rest the idea of crossover and adopt the idea that we can sell multiple products to multiple audiences.

To me, one of the promising findings of the market segmentation research it demonstrates is that there’s a vast potential audience of living, breathing individuals with different – but real – connections to the art form and to our orchestras. These aren’t uninformed rubes who need us to show them the light. Neither are they look-alike, think-alike mannequins receiving the Canon as dictated by us. These are individuals who make purposeful and highly personal decisions. Some of them have actually tested our product and found it wanting. The question is are we listening to the very clear signals they’re sending. And, are we willing and able to let go of our prejudices and respond to the message in diverse and innovative ways?

For me, these data validate everything we’ve been trying to accomplish in the Magic of Music. They tell us unequivocally that whether we want to strengthen, deepen or broaden ties to the orchestra, we need to do something fundamentally different than what we’ve done before. We need to put everything – repertoire, musical genres, ensemble configurations, venues, performance times, guest artists – everything, on the table for review and negotiation. The data also makes it clearer than ever before that there is no one solution. No magic bullet. Different folks need different strokes. And we must be nimble, flexible and open enough to allow for that.”

And a little further on

“I believe wholeheartedly in that mission, and I do not believe for a minute that listening to audiences is pandering or diminishes quality. I think it’s just good business.”

This was very reminiscent of the portion of the “Cultural Development in Creative Communities” monograph I excerpted last week. I had cited it because it counseled different strategies for different communities (as McPhee’s does here).

I also stated some concern for the idea that arts organizations had to diversify their services and offerings. Part of my concern was (and still is) that by offering a little bit of everything, organizations would do no one thing with a level of excellence. Part of this was a fear that people’s view of the arts not be debased.

I was also concerned that by answering the expectations of the community, arts institutions would diverge from what funders expected of them. I was encouraged by Ms. McPhee’s speech because it showed that a funder not only understood this was a trend for the future, it also encouraged organizations to embrace the changing times.

So there you go. My candor may not be helping my employment prospects, but the mission of my blog is to provide solutions. The only way to do that is to recognize some problems to comtemplate and discuss.

About Joe Patti

I have been writing Butts in the Seats (BitS) on topics of arts and cultural administration since 2004 (yikes!). Given the ever evolving concerns facing the sector, I have yet to exhaust the available subject matter. In addition to BitS, I am a founding contributor to the ArtsHacker (artshacker.com) website where I focus on topics related to boards, law, governance, policy and practice.

I am also an evangelist for the effort to Build Public Will For Arts and Culture being helmed by Arts Midwest and the Metropolitan Group. (http://www.creatingconnection.org/about/)

My most recent role was as Executive Director of the Grand Opera House in Macon, GA.

Among the things I am most proud are having produced an opera in the Hawaiian language and a dance drama about Hawaii's snow goddess Poli'ahu while working as a Theater Manager in Hawaii. Though there are many more highlights than there is space here to list.


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