Arts For What They Are, As Opposed To What They Are Opposed To

Back in April, Peter Linett posted about the development of arts organizations during the 50s and 60s, commenting:

This was a negative identity, premised on oppositions rather than intrinsic attributes. The arts were non-commercial, non-profit, “high” culture as distinct from “low.” It’s almost as if the purpose of the arts, as that category came to be defined, was to be an antidote to the rest of culture: civilized because everything else was increasingly uncivil; elegant and “serious” because everything else was coarse and frivolous; formal because everything else seemed to be coming loose.

This oppositional approach has actually brought about some pretty vibrant works as artists rebel against what their contemporaries and those who preceded them do. This is what a lot of marketing and advertising efforts base their appeal to us on- that what one company offers is better than the other options. It may be related to your self-identity or making your life better/easier for an economic price.

Somewhere along the line, arts and culture got out flanked as the appealing alternative. For a long time it was holding its own against radio and television. Other alternatives developed or perhaps there was a shift in what people were looking for an alternative to. The question of “what exciting thing can I do tonight,” may be been replaced with “my life is so busy, what can I do tonight that doesn’t require me to get back in my car.”

Since it is likely that people’s criteria about what constitutes an interesting alternative is likely to shift, and shift rather often, Linett’s suggestion about presenting the intrinsic value of the arts for its own sake makes sense.

Right now the big push is to engage with audiences. If successful, these efforts should result in a much more positive and constructive relationship with audiences. But lets face it, everyone is pretty much scrambling to engage with audiences for the purpose of shifting choices toward them over someone/thing else. The race is to offer better engagement than the next guy and engage the socks off audiences until they don’t know what to do with all the engagement they are getting thrown at them. And god knows, thanks to the support of your board, you have the resources to pull it off and make everyone else’s efforts look puny by comparison.

C’mon, admit it, that is the internal conversation you are having. You have to meet payroll after all, so while part of you is sincere in your efforts, part of you is calculating the value of engagement efforts as a tool for attracting people to you in some manner.

I suspect in spite of any self interested element, individuals will come to value the arts for themselves thanks to the changes organizations make. I also suspect that arts and cultural organizations will come to enjoy providing engagement activities for their own sake and not as a means to secure grant funding or event attendance. In the best of all worlds, there will be a greater alignment between audiences and artists as the former comes to better understand the value of the arts as the artist does and artists no longer see one of their primary roles as interpreter/explainer.

Please don’t take this to mean that I think audience members don’t possess a deep appreciation for the value of the arts. Since engagement programs of necessity need to provide audiences with a different perspective on the arts experience and greater permission to be involved and understand, I anticipate that audiences will gain insights they did not possess before and artists will come to realize they can trust audiences to be smart enough to understand on their own.

Essentially, I am extending the idea of brains rather than butts in the seats toward an optimistic conclusion. Love and understanding can be ours if arts people can get past the idea that they are the arbiters of understanding. Of course, if arts people are going to cede this control, audiences have to embrace the opportunity and make an effort to understand. Good news is, a lot of them already are.

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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