You Must Be This Smart to See This Show

I don’t know if you have been reading about this new book that is out, Everything Bad Is Good for You in which author Steven Johnson proposes that pop culture, TV and video games are actually making us smarter.

I had an idea that either might be an empty marketing ploy or a subversive, yet effective way to get people to attend shows depending on the degree of subtlety in the execution.

One of the barriers to attendance often cited by people is that they don’t know how to act and don’t know if they will comprehend what is going on. However, these people are getting an unstated, perhaps implied message from an arts organization that this might be the case. This is based on being unfamiliar with the method of delivery and the inscrutable traditions surrounding the viewing of the work. All the attempts at outreach and advertising lower ticket prices fail because of an unspoken, perhaps implicit message that people aren’t up to handling the experience.

It may be counterintuitive, but I was wondering if explicitly delivering that message might be the answer. (Bear with me.) I wonder if it might be effective to program a show that is intellectually challenging, but readily accessible to most audiences and then promote it in this unorthodox manner.

The arts organization, perhaps in collusion with the media might put out the word that the work is somewhat intellectually challenging and that only people who are smarter than average might enjoy it. Underscore the fact that one definitely need not know anything about the arts or how to act to enjoy it, in fact it is being held in an less formal alternate space, but an attendee should be fairly intelligent.

In recognition that intelligent people come in all shapes, sizes and economic backgrounds, you are keeping the price low so that these folks can enjoy this performance.

If not presented in a condescending a manner or laid on too thick (you don’t want to be too obvious about employing reverse psychology nor do you want to imply your regular audience is stupid), people might rise to the challenge. People tend to think of themselves as at least slightly smarter than the next guy and might feel motivated to test out this theory by attending. It is one thing to have someone use body language to imply you are unworthy–it is difficult to figure out how to combat a non-verbal statement. However if someone states you might be unworthy if you can’t meet a specific measure, there is a clear course of action to prove otherwise.

Creating a series of such events for smart people can serve as an entree (and a channel for empowerment) for new patrons to the more sophisticated world of your “mainstream” programming. I have already suggested a “garage band” approach in a posting in an discussion (mirror on my site here because I couldn’t include the links in my commentary.) I think this might be the way to promote that type of program.

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 ( 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. (

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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