Social Hubs, The Next Thing Comin’ Round?

Scott Walters says I feel it. Since that is about all I saw of his entry on Technorati, I was wondering what it was that I feel. Turns out that I, among others feel that change in the theatre/arts is nigh.

In looking at what the other bloggers cited were saying, I came across some interesting thoughts worthy of consideration and debate in the arts world on The Mission Paradox blog both in the proposition author Adam Thurman makes in his entry and a comment that Chris Casquilho makes.

Thurman proposes that the arts position themselves as a social hub placing the audience first and artists second.

“We keep talking about finding ways for people to connect with our particular art form.

But people don’t want to connect to art . . . they want to connect to other people.

So instead of a theatre company seeing their performance on stage that night as the point of the evening, perhaps they should just see themselves as the hub . . . as the thing that connects all the people in the audience to each other…

…I think what people are willing to pay for is to be connected to other people.

And maybe one of the reasons that the arts is struggling is because we insist on being the focal point of the whole process….

…Think of what could happen if, for example, instead of just having ushers leading people to their seats, your dance company had people in the aisle introducing patrons to other patrons?”

What Chris Casquilho argues is something akin to the Gifts of the Muse premise that the arts are not well served by arguing their value in economic terms rather than their intrinsic value. Casquilho notes that being a social hub is hardly a function that only the arts can fulfill.

“…while “art for arts’ sake” is a pretty goofy concept – syntactically and otherwise – if the mission of arts organizations is not to create art, then it begs the question: isn’t there some better way to “connect people in a renewing environment?”

Couldn’t you easily succeed at that mission by offering classes on boat building, or starting a folf (sic) league? When push comes to shove, with no artists, there is no art. If your arts organization puts the needs of the community above the needs of the artist, you will turn your product into lukewarm porridge, lightly salted to taste.”

Now it seems to me that these two concepts aren’t necessarily mutually exclusive. Having your ushers introduce audience members to each other before a show is hardly going to detract from the quality of a performance. (Unless your ushers and performers are one in the same, in which case you got bigger problems to worry about.) It is an intriguing idea. Providing more sophisticated and labor intensive opportunities for people to connect, on the web for example, as Thurman mentions elsewhere in his entry, could certainly mean other programs may suffer for want of resources. This could be a good thing if print advertising decreased in a community where online presence was becoming increasingly more effective.

The thing that worries me is that arts organizations have a tendency to subscribe to the newest trends without considering how to most appropriately implement them or even if it makes sense to do so. The best way to get funding is talk about economic benefits and outreach to under served communities? Find studies that prove the first and create programs that provide to the second.

Certainly, part of the blame resides with funders who decide these are the priorities they are going to primarily reward. When a staffer at my state arts foundation told me last Fall not to bother with a section of a grant application because I wasn’t eligible, I have to admit a sense of relief at not having to arrange for a way to comply to the requirements. (I wasn’t so relieved to find our grant award significantly reduced as a result of not being eligible.)

My concern then is that there will be this sudden rush to make one’s organization into a community hub or rationalize how what the organization is already doing is making it a hub. It will become all about butts in the seats again, only for slightly different reasons. While some will do a great job at it, I suspect that the real winners will be coffee and wine shops whose wares become props for the social programs.

So since I have this soapbox from which to speak, let me just encourage everyone to think before they act this time around. Maybe the new big thing isn’t Social Hubs. Whatever it is, think about your effort rather than duplicating another’s even if it takes longer to create your own plan.

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.


2 thoughts on “Social Hubs, The Next Thing Comin’ Round?”

  1. You make an excellent point. What so often happens is that arts organizations will grab a “new idea” and superficially apply it to the surface of their organization. Something as potentially powerful as the social hub idea, in order to truly be effective, needs to be at the heart of the arts organization’s values. If you use this idea instrumentally simply as a way to get more butts in seats, then I doubt it will work. People will easily recognize the craven quality of the decision. But if you and your company are truly interested in facilitating dialogue and conversation within the community of your patrons, then something really wonderful might happen.

  2. Thanks for the inspirational read! It’s a challenge arts organizations face in the ‘new media’ world. What used to work, no longer does or at least not as well as it used to. It will be interesting to see how various organizations adapt.


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