Shall I Not Be On A Pedestal, Worshipped And Competed For?

There are times during the year where I find myself singing “Where Are The Simple Joys of Maidenhood” from Camelot. Now if you have seen my picture on Inside the Arts, you know Julie Andrews I ain’t. Part of the reason I start singing the song is because I spent half a summer in my younger days running spot light for a production. Another reason is that the image of me singing this song amuses me so. But really I can often identify with the raw romantic innocence Guenevere exhibits singing lines like

“Are those sweet, gentle pleasures gone for good?
Shall a feud not begin for me?
Shall kith not kill their kin for me?
Oh where are the trivial joys?
Harmless, convivial joys?
Where are the simple joys of maidenhood?”

Now given those lines fall at the end of the song, I rarely get to them for all the laughing going on by that point — mostly mine.

When people hear what my job is they view it with the same romantic innocence. Surely such a cool job is not susceptible to mundane concerns like bugging agents for contracts and images so you can put a website and brochure together. Or if the mundane does intrude, it must be over shadowed by the joy of working with such amazing artists. Actually, the last bit is true except for the “mundane” concern about why people who praise the artists aren’t buying tickets to see them. So yeah, when I am singing songs like that one, I am trying to get back in touch with the idealism that made me pursuit this path to begin with.

Fortunately, people are familiar enough with the basic functions I fulfill that they don’t assume I should do my job for fun.

And there is the tricky part. Last week, Artful Manager Andrew Taylor cited a comment from the Americans for the Arts conference that, “‘We need to stop making the arts so special.” It occurs to me that the arts community needs to be in control of the way the arts are demystified. With auditioning for American Idol essentially a rite of passage being a good performer appears to be a matter of hard work, luck and getting enough people to vote for you. Anyone can do it if the stars align correctly. The necessity of talent and hard work over decades to hone one’s skill rather than a few weeks doesn’t seem to register.

The scenario shows like “Dancing with the Stars” and “So You Think You Can Dance” promote is that amateurs thrown into a crash course in a subject can compete and be winners. Even Bravo’s “Step It Up And Dance” where the contestants were trained and danced professionally had episodes where a choreographer would say they usually worked on rehearsing a piece for 5 days and the show gave the contestants 2 hours. This isn’t just limited to performing arts. MTV has/had a show called “Made” where high school kids wanting to be basketball players, cheerleaders, stars of the Spring musical, beauty queens, lose weight, promo queen or whatever worked toward their goal for a couple months. Usually the video shot during the first 3-4 weeks consisted of the person resisting the discipline of their coach. This left 3-4 weeks at most to cram the rest of the effort in. Most had some credible results probably helped by the fact that television cameras were following them around for so long.

So what is the narrative the arts world can offer?- “You can cram a lot of training in a short time and win prizes and recognition but honestly only be mediocre or you can devote your life to excellence and barely make a living.” You thought practicing scales was boring for students before? What about now that you can become a virtuoso in six weeks? Sure eliminating one kid from your school/lesson roster a week will add drama and tension and may motivate to practice harder but it will subtract from your earnings.

I agree that we have to stop making the arts so special in regard to putting it on a pedestal. But the message that accompanies it always has to be that you can absolutely participate, have fun, find fulfillment and recognition with a little training in a short period of time so come join in. However, even given great talent to start with there is a certain level you can only attain with long study and practice.

This isn’t just true of stodgy classical music and ballet. There was an article on Salon last week about the emergence of South Korea as a power in the world of hip hop dance. The South Korean dance crews practice 5 hours a day, seven days a week because they know someone is always trying to catch up. Yet the article notes, long hours of hard work on the flashiest moves aren’t enough if you don’t truly understand your art.

“When Koreans first emerged, Americans praised them for their power moves — the highflying crowd-pleasing spins, freezes and gymnastics moves — but criticized the Seoul b-boys for lacking soul. They were thought to be mechanical, unable to rock with the beat, and lacking in “foundation skills,” such as the top-rock and footwork moves that form the historical roots of the dance.”

Even in the idealistic world of Camelot, Guenevere comes to realize it takes hard work to bring dreams to fruition. (She also realizes the hazards of youthful folly, indiscretion and why bitter half sisters of the king shouldn’t be taught magic, but at least some of that can be avoided.)

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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