What’s It Say When Washington Post Critic Say Arts Need To Work Harder At Relevance?

Washington Post music critic Anne Midgette wrote a piece this week about the difficulties classical music outreach efforts face. (h/t Artsjournal)

My first reaction was one of mild intrigue since I don’t think I have ever seen a critic from a major newspaper address these difficulties which arts bloggers have been discussing for years. I took it as a sign of the way things were shifting that there was such a public acknowledgement.

Midgette was watching National Symphony Orchestra (NSO) music director Gianandrea Noseda participating in an NSO outreach to a high school. She noted that as good a communicator as Noseda is, there are some factors conspiring against his efforts.

Noseda himself, an Italian who lives largely in hotels, can’t be expected to gauge the context in which these kids live. He assumes they’ve seen “Mozart in the Jungle,” because he’s heard it’s a TV show; he assumes they’ve watched the Golden Globe Awards. A-plus for the effort to establish cultural relevancy, but as well-meaning and informative as his comments are, he isn’t telling these students why they should care about the roster of unfamiliar European male composers being thrown at them.

She cites the example from 2007 when violinist Joshua Bell played in the Washington, DC metro and no one stopped. (Long time readers may recall I was not impressed with that stunt)

Midgette goes on to say,

In the wake of that controversial performance, one busker said something that stuck with me: Musicians who regularly play on the street, from violinists to singers to trash-can drummers, learn how to connect with passersby in such a way that this doesn’t happen. Classical musicians aren’t usually trained to establish this kind of rapport, and even a born communicator like Noseda can’t do it single-handedly.

Toward the end of the article, she makes the following observation,

Outreach risks taking on a missionary, self-satisfied glow, getting caught up in the innate value of sharing such great music with those who have not been privileged to have been exposed to it. Lurking within this well-meaning construct is the toxic view of music as a kind of largesse: the idea that this music is better than the music you already like. The school concert, with all the best intentions, to some degree demonstrated that if classical music is offered in its own bubble, without context, it has little chance of really connecting with new audiences — though, as some observed before the school show, if even one student leaves with new ideas in her head, the attempt will have been worth it.

I have long supported the notion that arts training programs should include courses and opportunities for artists to develop that rapport. At my last job I started a visual arts fair whose primary motivation was to give students and community artists the experience of speaking to the general public about their art in a relatively low stakes environment.

The classroom environment is pretty safe and everyone around you speaks with the same vocabulary. That can get in the way of relating to audiences when it comes to performing professionally. Students don’t necessarily need to be forced to busk on a street corner five hours a week for a semester, though that might be effective. With a little effort, creativity and a commitment to helping students pick up relational skills they need in their careers, they could be better prepared.

Let’s also acknowledge this isn’t a problem borne solely by artists. Arts organizations in general are struggling to find the language and rapport to position themselves as relevant to audiences.

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/)

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.


1 thought on “What’s It Say When Washington Post Critic Say Arts Need To Work Harder At Relevance?”

  1. Right on! Relevance is THE topic for reaching new audiences. If the offer (concert, play, opera etc.) is not relevant, why should people care? I live in Germany and we have large untapped potential audiences e.g. in the migrant communities (btw: many different communities who do NOT like to be segmented into one single group). They simply do not care about the canon of old or dead white men’s art. I have seen enough cases where relevance led to new audiences from those communities.


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