I recently came to the realization that there may be an attitude out there about the arts which is nearly as detrimental as viewing them as elitist and intimidating.
The director of my division resigned so all the area coordinators recently met with administrator who would be essentially overseeing us until a replacement is hired.
The other two coordinators spoke at length about the challenges their areas faced. My turn came and I mentioned the difficulties geography and competition posed for us. One of the other coordinators told me that the solution was simple, if I could get people to come see one show they would come back for the others just like when many students came to take motorcycle safety, they decided to continue with digital media courses.
I was a little annoyed because I seem to constantly have to explain to people the Field of Dreams situation while once true, is not quite so valid any longer. I tried not to sound too exasperated while I pointed out there was a lot more competition for people’s time and income than there used to be.
I also pointed out that her example was a little flawed because motivations to take motorcycle safety and digital media differ. In her terms the only product I had to offer was different varities of motorcycle safety.
In retrospect, I wondered if I shouldn’t be at least grateful that she felt my performances were of a quality that people would naturally want to come back for more. Then I realized, she hasn’t really been to a performance in the last 10 years or so (and she lives on the far end of the theatre parking lot).
So then I am thinking she may just attribute all performances with a sort of mystique and power. This seemed okay because the arts are always trying to convince the public that the arts have value in their lives.
And that is when it hit me–that doesn’t do any good if people aren’t actually adding arts attendance to their lives!
It sort of reminded me of the Just Say No drug campaign of the 80s. Kids would shout “Just Say No” on command, but since that is as far as the campaign went, the kids didn’t internalize the concept and make it a part of their lives.
I am starting to think maybe I need to go back and look at all those surveys I have recently cited where there was a nice response among people saying they they felt the arts were an important part of their lives. I want to go back and compare the percentage of respondents to that question to the percentage of people who actually attended. (Taking a quick look back at my entry on an Urban Institute study, I get the impression they actually scrutinized that.)
To some extent, arts people only have themselves to blame because “the arts are good for you” is a major reason given when people don’t want music cut from the schools or don’t want funding cut for an organization. Certainly, these claims are usually accompanied by statistics showing things like how math scores improve for kids who take music.
On the other hand, sometimes arts people don’t back it up with evidence or are the worst purveyors of this attitude themselves. One of my predecessors in a job I have held told me the story of how she had the opportunity to have a great choreographer’s company perform at the theatre. Wondering if this person’s work might be beyond the local community, she asked around to gauge interest.
She was told how what a coup it would be to have the company, how wonderful to have the opportunity, etc. Dance people especially were quite enthused.
Performance came–dance community didn’t. When my predecessor asked the dance folks why they were so excited and yet didn’t attend, the answer was essentially that it was important for the public to see this choreographer’s works, but they personally weren’t interested.
So two lessons from this-
1) When you ask if people are interested, you gotta explicitly ask if they will show up.
2) If you find they are really more excited about other people seeing the show, you ought to revisit your cost/benefit ratio calculations.