The Gallery At The End of The Rainbow

There was a piece on Hyperallergic last month that seemed to be continuing an ongoing conversation about the fact that most university based arts programs seem to be oriented toward training students to enter a narrowly defined career path. Where theater programs seem focused on Broadway and music programs on orchestras, Sharon Louden suggests visual arts programs identify gallery shows as the goal.

I hadn’t really thought about visual arts programs promoting unrealistic expectations about an ideal career path given the myriad media suggest so many options to pursue, but it makes sense that one might exist.

Louden says that for most visual artists, gallery sales are not a stable source of income. Many artists have become adept at diversifying their income streams and gallery sales isn’t at the top of the list of revenue sources most pursue. She argues that by subscribing to an emerging centralized MFA Fair, artist training programs are sending a message that gallery sales should be the central ambition of graduates.

Louden’s second objection really caught my eye because she says art schools are doubly profiting from their students by advancing participation in the MFA Fair.

We are all likely aware of the incredibly high cost of enrolling in MFA programs around the country. If universities end up paying for booths and/or taking a percentage of money from recent MFA artists, shouldn’t that be considered a form of double-dipping? Students who often have to take out huge student loans to pay for their education are now going to provide work to their alma mater so it can take a commission from sales of that work?

If a training program is profiting off the labor of students, Louden asks, doesn’t have a greater incentive to cultivate students’ whose work is more marketable and suppress those who push boundaries and take chances? As she says, time in a training program is the period when artists should have the most permission, (if not insistent prodding), from their mentors to diverge from the commercial motive.

How does the institution-turned-gallery decide who gets to show? Will they only accept artists who make conservative work that’s most likely to sell? What happens to the artist who makes work that is not easily accepted in the gallery paradigm? And most darkly, what happens when a former student sues a university for not including them in this fair?

Finally, she asks, if the metric of number of students selling work at an MFA Art Fair becomes a recruiting tool in the same manner as US World Report university rankings, does this not create pressure for non-participant training programs to join or suffer from the inability to guarantee “employment” upon graduation granted by the imprimatur of having a small percentage of students sell works?

Don’t forget there is a growing general societal pressure that university students pursue majors with proven career paths. It isn’t out of the realm of possibility that training programs will look to accentuate the successes of graduates by arranging high profile opportunities.

Kids Might Be Motivated To Learn If They Aren’t Always Stuck In A Classroom. Imagine That

Last month there was an article in Forbes about the benefits of field trips and arts education. It started out in a way I dislike, discussing test scores and neurological development as if arts and cultural experiences were a special fertilizer you sprinkled on to get stuff to grow better. However, it soon moved on to discuss how field trips and arts education provide a broader context and relevance for learning. Essentially, acknowledging that learning doesn’t occur in a vacuum.

Author Natalie Wexler notes that reading comprehension especially is greatly facilitated by life experiences that provide context to a passage. For many children this experience is gained in after school and family activities. For children who don’t have those same family opportunities, in school education and field trips are important for filling the gaps.

The focus of the latter part of the article isn’t that arts and cultural experiences magically help raise test score but help solidify abstract concepts. It isn’t miraculous that children learning about watersheds or historic events have greater mastery of the subject matter after visiting a river or historic site.

While the Forbes piece doesn’t acknowledge this directly, one of the articles Wexler links to does,

In the Woodruff Arts Center experiment we actually found an increase in math and reading test scores for students who went on multiple field trips after the first year of the experiment. I’m not sure I fully believe that result given that it is simply implausible that students learned significantly more math and reading when they saw a play, visited an art museum, and heard the symphony. My only explanation for the test score increase, if it is not a fluke, is that test results are partly a reflection of what students know, but also partly a reflection of their motivation to acquire that knowledge and to show it to us on a test. Feeding students a steady diet of math and reading test drills may not nurture student motivation to learn as well as these enriching activities. And as Core Knowledge proponents have long emphasized, students become more advanced readers by having more content knowledge and knowledge about the world. Field trips clearly provide that.

For arts people there might be some value in learning that a live performance about a topic seems to connect better with students than watching a video on the same subject. Not to mention, they are more likely to bring their families back with them.

We also see that students absorb a high amount of content knowledge on these field trips. In the theater experiment, for example, students learn the plot and vocabulary of the plays much more fully than if they watch a movie of the same story. Lastly, we find that students have a stronger interest in returning to these cultural institutions in the future. In the Crystal Bridges experiment, for example, we tracked coded coupons that we gave to all participating students and observed that students who visited the art museum on a field trip were significantly more likely to return with their family over the following half year.

You Are Never Too Young To Start Producing Shows

So given the context of all the deserved gushing over a North Bergen, NJ’s stage version of the movie Aliens with a $5,000 budget and recycled materials,  Ken Davenport’s suggestion that high school productions have general managers and press agents doesn’t seem terribly unreasonable.

Davenport’s  motivation is to get as many kids involved in a production as possible. Everyone knows the larger cast you have on stage, the larger an audience you are likely to have as friends and family show up to support students. But he also notes that being involved in administrative roles opens people’s eyes to a much wider range of career opportunities than just actors and technicians. (his emphasis)

Because whether a student decides to pursue a career in the theater or decides to be a lawyer, I firmly believe that there is no endeavor in the world that teaches collaboration better than putting up a musical.

[…]

They’re probably the type that thinks putting on a musical is just a hobby.  Because no one has told them any different. But you and I know it’s a business . . . just like any other.  And that businesses need all sorts of talents to make a show a success.

He outlines the following as tasks students could pursue in the different roles.  Davenport encourages everyone to pass the post link on to any high school teachers who might be interested in pursuing this. He says he will even write up the job description and list of duties so the teacher doesn’t have to.

The Producer would be in charge of overseeing the production, of course, as well as fundraising.  Yep, give him or her a goal of raising $X and let them find a way to do it (car washes, bake sales, Kickstarter and more).

The General Manager would learn how to put a budget together for the show and keep everyone on a budget.

The Press Agent would try to get articles written in the newspapers, online, and even invite people like me to come to see it.

The Advertising and Marketing Director would get the word out to sell tickets, get a logo designed, manage the social media, and more.

The Casting Directors would schedule the auditions, run them, put out the offers and maybe even convince the high school quarterback that he’d make a great Teyve.

Things To Ponder When Endeavoring To Tell Other People’s Stories

There is a lot of conversation about the need for people to see themselves and their interests reflected in arts and cultural experiences if arts and cultural organizations were going to remain relevant.  I saw an article on Arts Professional UK that gave examples of what organizations across the Pond were doing along these lines. Many of the observations about the challenges involved which are just as true in the US as the UK.

Tamsin Curror opens by citing, Glenn Jenkins, who has collaborated on projects with her organization,

“Imagine a scenario where all of the creative choices in your own home, the colour and style of the decor, the music you play and the films you watch were all up to somebody else to decide. This would be pretty disempowering, yet in our neighbourhoods or collective homes this is exactly how it is…”

This is the perception people can have when entities create a work purporting to reflect the experience of a group of people without the involvement and input of those who are/were part of the experience.

As much as we in the arts and cultural sector believe that what we offer contains a degree of universality with which everyone can identify, that may not be the perception in every community.

Project Director, Nancy Barrett, says: “A lot of touring work didn’t ‘speak’ to diverse urban communities and we needed to create something that would resonate with the intended audience.”

As I was reading that I wondered if this has always been the case and the greater arts and cultural community hasn’t recognized it because the focus of work has been so oriented toward a middle-class, Caucasian experience. Or if perhaps the isolating effect of social media has magnified the feeling that no one else shares your experience.

If you are only seeing the best selves of those around you rather than engaging in conversations about the boring, difficult situations they face, and therefore don’t feel you have much in common with your neighbor, it may be doubly difficult to discern shared universal themes in a creative work.

It isn’t saying anything new to observe that the time and energy required to build an authentic relationship with the communities with whom you wish to be involved in telling their stories is pretty prohibitive for most non-profit arts and cultural organizations. Added to that is something I hadn’t fully considered – the disconnect between relationship building and the funding cycle. (my emphasis)

“You need to build good relationships with people on a permanent basis, not just be pulling people in…. because if they think you’re just someone that comes in and then goes… you’re a one trick pony,” said a resident of Mereside Estate in Blackpool.

We’ve learnt that you can’t underestimate the time needed to really listen, facilitate and build mutual trust and respect. Being transparent and open about the process and budgets is also key. There’s got to be a genuine, long-term approach, and this raises questions about responsibility to the communities we work with and how to sustain this work over long periods within shorter-term funding contexts.

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