Charm Offensive (Minus The Offensive)

I was reading the Western Arts Alliance (WAA) Spring Newsletter today and there was a letter from Alliance President John Haynes (page 2) giving his view of what audience engagement is really about.

He tells a story of his time as a programming executive at CBS TV when he pretty much had an unlimited expense account and could do just about anything that struck his fancy. He would regularly order pizza delivered to his apartment and he could hear its approach long before it got to the door thanks to the singing of the Neapolitan deliveryman. At one point the delivery man confessed he was having a hard time saving his money because he was attending the opera a few times a week. Haynes confessed in turn that he had never attended the opera, a fact that flabbergasted the delivery man.

“He was shocked. Here I was, living the good life in a doorman high‐rise on West End Avenue, three blocks from Lincoln Center, but bereft of the most glorious creations of mankind. He sang longer and with more feeling that night than ever before. Neighbors I’d never met came out of their apartments. He sang his way to the elevator and was still singing when the door closed.”

The next time Haynes ordered pizza, the delivery guy showed up at the door with two tickets to the opera. Haynes attended his first opera, Carmen, with the pizza deliveryman. He says that he has seen his role as an arts administrator to do for others what the pizza deliveryman did for him; expanding the scope of his experience. “And that’s how I came to conceive of my role as an “arts leader. I’m just the pizza delivery man. ‘Wanna see something cool?'”

The pizza deliveryman was an apt model for the arts community. He was clearly passionate about a segment of the arts. Even though he couldn’t believe Haynes did not go to the opera, much less love it, he managed to express it in a humble rather than condescending way. (And like the arts, he was poor and funded his passion through donations/Haynes’ large tips.)

Of course the challenge we face today is that unlike Haynes, audiences aren’t necessarily won over after one exposure. And many of us are expending great effort in the direction of audiences who are not CBS executives with unlimited expense accounts. Regardless, we do have the same opportunity the pizza man had. We can unabashedly share our passion where ever we go and maybe after repeated exposure, people will start to open up to the possibility of sharing whatever it is that makes us (metaphorically) sing. (Keeping in mind that constantly singing songs from Wicked, either literally or figuratively, is going to make people want to throttle you.)

I realize that since this is filtered through Haynes’ recollection, the pizza deliveryman sounds very charming. Someone else might have perceived him as pushy and elitist. Though I have to think he was indeed as earnest as Haynes portrays him.

The pizza man has had his victory. For the rest of us, another challenge is to be charming as we talk about our passions and avoid making people’s eyes glaze over as we yammer on–or worse, harden as they feel alienated by the tone and direction of the conversation.

Most everyone in the arts seems to be invested in this shared goal, but there are few clear tips circulating about how to accomplish it. Perhaps it is as easy as the “be yourself” advice dispensed about dating. But if that were effective, there wouldn’t be 1,000 new dating articles on newsstands and the internet every week.

I’d suggest more practical and specific advice about diminishing the appearance of elitism might be what the arts needs. But like I said, advice on any sort of relationship doesn’t seem to provide much clarity or instill confidence.

Dear Thespis-

There is a woman at the supermarket I would really like to get to know better as an audience member. However, she seems to think I am elitist snob even though the resale value on her five year old SUV is still more than I made last year. How do I get her to even consider looking my way?

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 (artshacker.com) 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. (http://www.creatingconnection.org/about/)

I am currently the 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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