Stay A Little Bit Longer

Perhaps a positive result of the arts having to justify their value in terms of education, economic benefits, etc., apparently some colleges and universities are contracting artists using availability to do residencies as a primary criteria.

In the article “Campus Precedents” found in APAP’s September/October Inside Arts (alas, the article is not available online) Jenna Russell cites a number of schools like Ohio University and Dartmouth where residencies are scheduled before performances. She quotes Clarice Smith PAC’s (at U. of MD) Marketing Director, Charles Helm, “We won’t have [artists] here if they can’t stay longer to work with students. It is absolutely imperative.”

The residencies aren’t just in topics directly associated with performing arts either. According to the article, a residency at Dartmouth had performers rappelling down the walls of the science center lobby while a physics professor talked about the elements of momentum and gravity in the performance.

But even classes in arts subject areas are getting a more enhanced experience than they have in the past. The residencies allow students to become involved in master classes and open rehearsals essentially gaining insights and skills they won’t get in their normal classes.

Unfortunately, while the residencies have been educationally valuable to students, it hasn’t increased student attendance at performances significantly. There has been some growth, but students still comprise a minority of the audiences at these residential campuses where students can walk to the arts center and student tickets are under $10.

This is all very interesting to me since some faculty on campus have started thinking about how the events in the season can tie into their classes. I have also been thinking that perhaps my ticket prices could be a little lower for students, but that doesn’t seem to be any great incentive according to this article. I have also been following Andrew Taylor and Drew McManus’ recent entries on ticket pricing as an element in deciding to purchase.

Let He Who Has Not Sinned

Couple weeks ago I mentioned that the Western Arts Alliance wanted to change their conference layout in part because they felt the current one created an atmosphere that commodified the artists.

When the session presenters mentioned this I was thinking that wasn’t my approach at all to the conference. While this is absolutely true, I soon realized that it isn’t hard to fall into that mindset and that I had indeed committed the selfsame sin.

Before attending the conference, one of the presenters on the other islands said she would be looking for a country music act because there was a new country radio station going on air to serve a demand for that genre.

Since I had worked with country music acts before, I suggested a few people. I personally don’t like the music, but like her, I once worked for an arts organization committed to serving the local community’s interests and that was an interest they had.

A few days later I suggested a group to her whose music and videos are played on country music stations but really couldn’t be classified as such. At best, some of their music approaches bluegrass, but even that classification only describes their straight instrumental pieces.

The band would probably attract a country audience since that was where they got the majority of their airplay plus be appealing to a wider audience so they seemed perfect for her purposes. Since I am a fan of this group’s music, I told her I would be like to present them as well if she was interested in them.

So I went to the conference and talked to the group’s agent. He sent their CDs to me. I really enjoyed listening to their latest album (it is still in my car CD player) but I realized that they are even further away from sounding like bluegrass much less country. I started to think that maybe we would have to ask them to play their earlier stuff.

Now this goes on for a few minutes before I realize what an idiot I am. I am the one who is suggesting them because they don’t sound country and here I am thinking we might ask them to play the stuff that sounds closer to country so we can appeal to a certain audience.

And yes, even worse, I was thinking about them as a commodity. They weren’t offering the color and flavor I was looking for so I was thinking of asking them if they would mix some of the old stuff up for my audiences even though I really like their new stuff.

And yes, I wasn’t crediting country music fans with the intelligence and taste to appreciate their new stuff since I think most country music is trite, formulaic and full of pretensions. (I have since checked the band’s listing out on the Country Music Television website and they are getting a fair bit of due recognition. Though people are commenting on their deviation from their roots.)

So as I look back I have to think that maybe there is a danger in viewing artists as commodities. Organizations obviously want to balance their offerings with variety and appeal to the widest audience possible over the course of a season.

Even if one didn’t engage in temporary delusional consideration of dictating a group’s artistic choices, I can see how it would be easy to think about a season as a collection of slots fill rather than being on the look out for excellence that reaches out and grabs you. In such a case, walking down the aisles in the resource room at a WAA conference wouldn’t be that much different than walking down a supermarket aisle. Perhaps you pass by a flamenco group because you already have a packet from another group with a much more attractive booth. Or maybe you compare two groups based on price per performer.

Producing organizations can fall into the same trap when they look to program 1 period comedy, 1 Shakespeare, 1 Fall Musical, 1 Spring Musical and 1 Avant Garde piece every year.

I submit that this approach does not appropriately fulfill a mission of serving ones community.

When you are keeping your eyes open for something that grabs you artistically, you aren’t thinking about what slots to fill but rather how you can get them or something similarly exciting in your theatre.

Maybe you can’t afford the group next year or maybe your audience isn’t ready for that sort of show. But if you go back home thinking about how you can work the budget so that in a few years you can afford to present the exciting work or prepare your audiences to accept that sort of show, then your are contributing to the active growth of your organization and community.

I am not suggesting discarding the traditional pattern whole cloth. In fact, presenting those shows that excited you might not necessarily constitute a success. It is the journey that is valuable in this case, not the destination.

The changes enacted in the pursuit of a single, simple exciting different thing can make the difference between artistic appreciation and commodification. It can be the difference between truly offering something to the community and offering the status quo under new names.

Where You Place Your Butt Is Important Too

An article in the September/October issue of APAP‘s Inside Arts caught my eye (alas, the article is one of the few not available online) because it began with those immortal words–Butts In Seats.

The article wasn’t about getting butts in the seats, but rather the seats in which the butts would be placed. While seating is an area that faces cost cutting when renovations or construction goes over budget, there is still plenty of demand for added accoutrement.

Among the options for seating these days are built in headphones and speakers, lumbar support, infrared data transmission capabilities. The only thing the top and bottom of the line seats have in common are that they are ADA accessibility compliant and are generally larger than previous versions given that members of the public are also generally larger than previous versions.

I was somewhat intrigued by the possibilities these options would offer a venue. Obviously, one would want to limit the internet access the dataports had during a concert so that people weren’t using laptops, PDAs, etc to surf or watch movies during a concert.

But if you were looking to feed information to audience members a la Concert Companion this type of seat might facilitate such a program. If the facility would be used for conferences groups might use the dataports to beam sales figures and other information to attendees.

Built in headphones could support everything from helping those hard of hearing to carrying audio descriptions for the sight impaired to audio commentary on an orchestra piece. (On channel 2, Michael Tilson Thomas discusses the influences on this piece.)

Of course, after I get over being intrigued, I think about the upkeep and support costs of the computer server for the dataports, the perils of food and liquids falling into data and headphone ports and the normal wear and tear on you have on seating. Any place with enough seating to generate income to cover this sort of stuff will have enough work to keep at least one guy busy fixing the seats year round.

The one thing I wish the article discussed a little more was the way seating contributed to a planned mood for a space. The project manager at Minneapolis’ Walker Art Center was briefly quoted discussing how he chose seating with “pew-like back trim…designed ‘to increase the sense of a collective experience.”

I took a look at the image of the space and it appears that each person has an individual seat (unlike pews which are much more communal.) When I think of pews, I think of straight backed wooden, uncomfortable seatings. It is hard to see the seats up close, but from the coloration the seatbacks could be wood. (By the same standard, the seats look wooden as well. I can’t imagine that they aren’t cushioned though.)

While I can see where the space would lend itself to an ambiance of collective experience, I would attribute it more to the openness of the performance space than the seating.

Most new theatres promote how plush and comfortable audiences will find their seats. Since it tough to determine if these seats are cozy, I don’t know if the project manager, faced with a tight seating budget, was simply rationalizing why a stark, pew like seating arrangement was a good choice in the face of thrift.

I am sure there were inexpensive traditional looking cushioned seats since that is what audiences expect. So I go back to my earlier wish to have gotten a little more information on seat design theory.

But you know, I am kinda a geek so it may just be me.

You Should Be Better Fed Now

I have been receiving complaints about the fact my feed is not coming across very well for awhile now. I have been doing some deliberate research on a way to make a change with the least impact. I noticed when Artsjournal made their change to MovableType, a lot of the old archive links didn’t work anymore.

Finally, today I crossed my fingers and took the plunge and made a change that should straighten the feed from my blog.

It turns out, I need not have been so concerned. I went over to and checked out the links from other sites to my entries and they worked just fine.

Hopefully now more folks will be able to drink from the font of my wisdom more easily.