Info You Can Use: Acknowledging The Arts Experience

Welcome readers of You’ve Cott Mail and myriad other places. I appreciate your interest in the blog and yesterday’s entry about speaking more honestly about how an arts experience can occasionally be disappointing.

It is with some chagrin that I have discovered NEA chair Rocco Landesman talked about this very subject at the Chautauqua Institution about two weeks ago. One always likes to fancy they have stimulated lively discussion through the introduction of a timely subject. But of course, even I have made posts on the subject before so I can hardly expect to be the only one thinking about the subject.

If nothing else, the fact that Landesman has been speaking about it gives some indication that it is indeed timely and worth discussing. I have tagged this entry as part of my “Info You Can Use” series because Landesman mentions a number of ideas for better audience relations as well as noting some approaches that arts organizations have already put into practice.

“We might see an organization with an artistic director and a co-equal audience director. Rather than a manager of visitor services who reports to the director of external affairs who reports to a deputy director.

We might see fellowships for audience members…What if we complemented artist residencies with audience residencies, where we paid some audience members to attend exhibitions and performances? Or, better yet, what if arts organizations gave stipends to “audience fellows,” so that the fellows could go see whatever they wanted to see at other arts organizations?”

This last bit about encouraging audiences to see performances at other arts organizations isn’t as far fetched as it may initially sound. Back in 2006 the Marketing Director of the Broward Center for the Performing Arts made a comment on the blog about the organization’s plan to let patrons know about performances at other venues. Looking at their website, I can’t quite tell if they are still providing this information, but it looks like the marketing director is still there and hasn’t lost his job over the program.

More from Landesman: (my emphasis)

I visited the Seattle Art Museum, and they now offer “highly opinionated tours,” in which people paid by the museum walk through the galleries talking about the things they like, but also the things they don’t like. One of these docents led a tour in which he explained why Seattle’s Pollock isn’t really a very good Pollock at all.

We need to stop pretending that every single audience member needs to like every single thing we do.

Nick Hytner at the National in London, actually has his box office staff track subscribers’ likes, dislikes, and preferences, and has them e-mail the members and suggest some of the plays they way want to skip. I think acknowledging the viewers’ own tastes—in addition to curators’ and directors’ tastes—is absolutely key.

Madeleine Grynsztejn, the director of the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago put it extremely well. She said that arts professionals need to learn how to maintain their expertise, while relinquishing control. Madeleine will always have more expertise in contemporary art than I do, but I am still entitled to my own relationship with it, my own experience of it….”

Admittedly, some of these steps are a little bolder than we might be comfortable taking. This is info you canuse, but I make no claims about whether you will wantto use it. Certainly, one probably doesn’t have to adopt something as extreme as advising people not to attend a show. Just acknowledging that the arts experience can occasionally be disappointing in the course of normal conversation may earn good will through its simple earnestness.

Landesman covers other topics in his talk which might be worth a listen to many–especially for the flash mob performance which interrupts it midway. Much of the rest of his talk revolves around the same general theme of the need to support artists and artists needing to eschew the role of being separate and special to become more involved and present in their local communities.

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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