National Cultural Policy

Excerpts of my letter to Drew McManus (much of which is covered in the entry prior to this) and his answers appear today on Adaptistration.

This weekend I came across a couple articles that illustrate the effect of national cultural policy upon a nation. The first was an article from the Minnesota Star-Tribune entitled “Music Education Permeates Finnish Society.” Essentially the article attributes all the exposure and value placed on classical music by the Finns as the reason why there is such a high concentration of musical talent there despite having a national population only slightly larger than Minnesota’s. My favorite part of the article is a comment by an American visitor that he watched 3 television channels one evening. Two had concerts and the third was carrying a debate about whether to build another orchestra hall. In a couple of articles I have quoted, the authors have said orchestras should stop blaming the disappearance of music education from schools as a reason for falling attendance. On the other hand, clearly education and exposure can’t hurt attendance.

The second article I came across was discussing the effect of focusing cultural policy on diversity. While the piece refers to British policy, I saw a number of parallels with the US cultural landscape. As much as I believe diversity is going to be a major influence on cultural programming in the US, I take this article as a warning about the negative aspects.

In the article, “Art for Inclusion’s Sake”, the author, Josie Appleton, believes that by rejecting the old methods for approaching art, current policy has also discarded some valuable principles. The author illustrates this by tracing cultural policy from the 19th century. She notes that Parliment was motivated to fund the creation of the National Gallery by the idea that exposure to the finer things would defuse the unrest among the masses. “In 1841, a Commons select committee saw art as a ‘means of moral and intellectual improvement for the people’. The view was that ‘men cease to become mob when they get a taste’. The National Gallery, said Peel, would help by ‘cementing those bonds of union between the richer and poorer orders of the state’.” The National Gallery was therefore placed centrally in London so that both rich and poor would have easy access.

She notes that the elite was acting in its own self-interest to avoid rebellion and were presenting objects that exemplified their ideal of beauty but there was also an egalitarian sentiment. There was a presumption that everyone possessed the intellect to enjoy and understand the art pieces regardless of social standing or ethnic background.

However, in the 1960s and 70s, the idea that there was a universally shared ideal of beauty began to erode. The concept instead was:

All claims to cultural value were merely the personal opinions of a white middle-class male elite, foisted on to the population in order to maintain power structures. A cultural democracy, by these terms, was a society in which everybody was able to express their opinion and create according to their taste. Only by getting rid of value judgements could culture serve everybody’s needs.

As the 80s arrived, the onus was on cultural institutions to justify their existence in economic terms. This is still very much a factor in the US where organizations justify the value in regard to how much money they bring to the community by their operations and via what patrons spend on food, lodging and gas when they visit. Even the current mania to become one of Richard Florida’s Creative Communities is more about bringing economic prosperity rather than an excitement about how much beauty and truth will enter one’s life as cultural activities become available.

During this time, Appleton says, there was such a push to have art mean as many things to as many people as possible, art lost its meaning altogether.

If you value a painting only because it can tackle unemployment or improve self-esteem, then you have no idea what it is really worth. It’s all about context, about the way in which you are using the painting, rather than the painting itself. ‘Cultural diversity’ policy blossomed as an expression of this situation. Uncertain about how to evaluate artefacts, cultural institutions celebrate difference as an end in itself. ‘Diversity’ here is really a metaphor for cultural disorientation.

She notes that museums have begun putting pieces by the Old Master’s into storage and have started asking people to bring in objects from their own lives and are putting them on display. The aim is to provide a sense of worth to a person by acknowledging that their belongings have some value. “Because cultural institutions no longer believe in cultural value, their collections of Rembrandt and Constable look shamefully narrow and exclusive. By collecting the most everyday things from the most marginalised in society, museums are engaging in self-admonishment, castigating themselves for once being so high and mighty.”

She notes that by using piece of art and artifacts define personal meaning, museums are actually working counter to diversity. If an object is used to learn more about ourselves, we aren’t learning anything about the others who made it, what their lives were like and how they contributed to our current existence. It is self-centered rather than contributing to empathy with people different from ourselves.

This result almost sounds like Orwellian newspeak–“Self-Centeredness is Diversity.” It is this along with an unintentional disempowerment of the participant I see as most worrisome and something to be wary of as arts organizations move into the future. Appleton says:

“This policy also has a low view of its visitors. The assumption is that visitors are uninterested in or unable to learn about the world. Each person is seen as trapped within his or her own private bubble, in constant need of affirmation and recognition. The idea seems to be that if people fail to see their reflection in exhibitions they will feel worthless and excluded…The image is of people wandering around aimlessly, unsure of their right to exist until their family photographs are valued by the museum. With this view of their visitors, it’s no surprise that museums have put the Great Masters in the backroom.”

Another criticism she has for diversity focused policy is that it shifts the criteria for success away from attracting large crowds to attracting large crowds with a certain color skin. For example, “Islamic art is not valued for its intricate, proportioned design, or because it provides us with an insight into one of the great historic civilisations; it is valued because it gets the right kind of punters through the doors.” She asserts that this engenders a segregationist mentality that demeans the intellect and curiousity of different racial groups by assuming they are only interested in collections that reflect their background and experience and wouldn’t understand or care for pieces connected to other traditions.

The situation in England provides some lessons for arts organizations in the US. In a pursuit of diversifying and expanding our audiences, we certainly need to provide a product that is accessible and appealing to our communities on more than a token basis. The most enthusiastic audiences are those who have a relative performing. The problem isn’t just that we can’t possibly present something that has some personal relevance to everyone in the audience. The problem is also that when people come to see their relatives, they aren’t paying attention to how well the show is done or thinking about the themes it is communicating. You aren’t engaged in audience building activities when you program with an eye to pleasing niches. The niche disappears from the seats when the element significant to them disappears from the stage.

This is why education programs like Drew McManus’ docent proposal are so important. Audiences need to be provided with insights into the value contributed by all the nieces and nephews involved with a piece. As the public is able to make choices on television, radio, and the internet that reinforce an increasingly narrow worldview, the arts may end up being the last forum in which a dialogue about wider issues can be presented.

Ballet of the Speedway

Last night the Roanoke Ballet Theatre presented NASCAR Ballet. Their website explains it best:
“NASCAR Ballet centers around 20 ballet and modern dancers (who represent cars) who circle a forty foot horseshoe track that banks around the corner complete with break away railings.”

When I read the story last week in the Toronto Star, my first thoughts were akin to the Penelope McPhee accusations I quoted earlier this week– I felt it was an example of dumbing down the arts. I may have agreed with Ms. McPhee that this was an attitude that needs to be discarded, but I also admitted I recoil at anything that smacks of dumbing down as well.

Of course, I caught and scolded myself for not giving it due consideration before I denounced the idea. Since I haven’t seen the show, I don’t know if it was a good idea. Reading a bit about the development process and the way they intended to execute the concept, I must say I was a bit intrigued.

Good concept and execution or not, it does present a good test of the shift in attitude Ms. McPhee espoused. NASCAR probably represents the antithesis of the arts, at least stereotypically. The reality of NASCAR demographics probably conforms to a “sophisticate’s” perception as well as a “plain folk’s” concept applies to arts attendees.

The company has done some other non-traditional pieces in the past so the regular audience won’t be totally taken aback by the show. I imagine, though, that a traditionalist might be scandalized by “gauche” elements of production which include: three huge monitors. One presents a sportscaster calling the race and interviewing drivers. The second shows the “pit” where dancers/cars bedecked in sponsors’ logos are serviced. The third presents commercials by the show’s sponsors.

When I really got to thinking about it, I couldn’t see why a contemporary subject like death defying racing was any less proper a subject than courage in the face of enchantment is in Swan Lake and The Nutcracker.

The company seems to have acknowledged the reality of their situation and embraced the outlook suggested by McPhee and the creative communities monograph I recently cited.

“We are hoping through this production to expand the traditional dance audience to include others who may never have experienced dance. The race is represented in a fun, wholesome environment and respect for the sport is at it’s heart.

“In order to keep the arts alive, it is up to us to produce higher quality, exciting, never-before seen extravaganzas. We have to entice the audience in, we can no longer just expect their participation. By opening up our thematic interests, we open ourselves to a whole new segment of potential dance lovers…We need to keep experimenting, keep inventing. We have to be willing to take risks. We can’t be scared into thinking small.” says Jenefer Davies Mansfield, Executive/Artistic Director of Roanoke Ballet Theatre. “These elements are integral in keeping the arts alive in a fiscally conservative environment.””

I wish them good luck with this and future events and will be interested to see if what they are doing becomes more prevalent.

Arts Education

My cable modem’s insistence on not working seemed to imply I should take advantage of the turn in the weather to warmth and sun. Thus I do not have a long, involved entry today.

Instead, I bring you some resources for education in various fields. There are a great many organizations with good education outreach programs. The ones I list here have lesson plans and classroom resources or have scads of links to websites that do.

General Links

Arts Education Partnership has the most comprehensive selection of links to sites with education resources for all disciplines I have seen.

ArtsEdge, Part of the The Kennedy Center’s education website has a very extensive selection of lesson plans for every discipline.

AllLearn (Alliance for Life Long Learning) has online courses run by Yale, Oxford and Stanford. While you do have to pay for their courses, the link I list here takes one to a page with links to a number of academic subjects, including Dramatic Literature, Classical Music, Dance and Visual Arts.

The Utah Shakespearean Festival has some excellent articles on themes from all of Shakespeare’s plays, plus all the non-Bard shows they have done. Many of the articles are from their Insights publication which they make available to patrons.

Opera America offers links to study guides by opera compnaies across the US as well as guidance on additional programs.

I didn’t find any resources with lesson plans, but had links to the children’s pages of orchestras across the country (San Francisco, Dallas and Baltimore were my favorites!). These pages have a lot of activity suggestions for kids to do on their own or for their teachers to do in school. These were some of the best interactive education pages I saw in my search. (Translation: I spent a lot of time playing)

Visual Arts
The Getty and The Smithsonian both provide good lesson plan resources for the visual arts.

The New York City Ballet’s study guide for George Balanchine’s The Nutcracker was the only resource I could find at this point.

I am sure there are more study guide resources out there. If people want to make me aware of them, I will assemble this list on to a resource page.

Emperor Has No Clothes

So I am of mixed feelings today. Yesterday, the last place I worked enthusiastically welcomed the news that I would return for two weeks to help them run this year’s festival thereby confirming that my skills are indeed valued. But I also got a letter from Wayne State saying they are hiring someone else for the position which, of course, introduces doubts to my mind.

One thing I didn’t mention before-when I got to Detroit, I learned the woman who had held the position for three years was applying for the job as well. Apparently it was an instructor position and was being made a tenure position so she had to re-apply. At the time, I was a little annoyed at not having been told that because I wasn’t sure I would have agreed to fly out knowing I was challenging an incumbent. But I also knew it didn’t matter. These people had flown me out, fed me and had set a lot of time aside so I could discuss a topic about which I was passionate. (No, not myself, arts management!) Overall, I figure I got a pretty good deal.

This conflicted state of mind seemed like a good springboard for introducing today’s topic—My criticisms of the arts. Last week I mentioned all the reasons why I still possess an idealistic attachment for the arts and what I do and why I would seriously consider returning to work for idiots who fired me. This week I want to talk about the detrimental aspects of this thing I love so much.

I have often felt guilty that I perceived the people I worked with and for had the wrong attitude. They worked hard and were trying their best with limited resources. Who was I, as someone relatively new to the arts, to judge their outlook? However, emboldened by the remarks I read by Penelope McPhee at a retreat for symphony orchestras funded by the Knight Foundation, and having accumulated a decade or so more experience, I have to say I still think they were wrong. So, I am taking this opportunity to level some general criticisms about the state of the arts.

First of all, I would highly recommend reading the speech. Though I have a habit of quoting half an article in my entries, I am going to try to abstain from doing so here. Right from the beginning of her speech, she said something that resonated with me.

“Today, I would argue vehemently that communities don’t need an orchestra just for the sake of saying they have an orchestra. The mere existence of an orchestra in a community does not contribute to its vitality. Communities need vibrant, relevant orchestras that give meaning to people’s weary, humdrum lives.

I am increasingly convinced that orchestras that are not relevant to their communities do not contribute to their health and vitality. And I’ll go even further � the more orchestras peel off three to four percent of an economically elite, racially segregated fraction of the community, the more they’ll be part of the problem instead of part of the solution.

The caliber of the playing, the renown of the conductor, the architecture of the world-class hall mean little or nothing if the sound doesn’t resonate throughout the community.”

A little further on she says:

But if you agree with me, and accept this as your mission, you first have to fundamentally change your attitude toward your audience. You have to stop blaming them and start looking inside your institutions for answers.

From my perspective as an outsider who loves the music but is not an expert, I’d argue that for the most part, orchestras have nothing but disdain for their audiences. The whole notion that doing it differently is “dumbing it down” is disdainful. The attitude you communicate to us audience members is that you’re doing us a favor to let us pay for you to play what you want to play. You want us to pay our money and eat our spinach because it’s good for us.

Not only do you want us to eat the spinach, but you want us to choose it over ice cream every time; you want us to eat it in your restaurant at 8 p.m.; you want us to like it the way you’ve seasoned it. And, God knows, you want us to eat it pure, not in a souffle or a salad.

And, oh yes, if we’ve never eaten spinach before, we’re barely worth serving it to anyway, because if we’ve gone this long without tasting it, we must be rubes anyway and we’ll never appreciate it.

So if we’re going to be serious about serious change, we first have to get serious about this question of mission.

This essentially goes to my biggest complaint about the arts world. The “Field of Dreams” expectation that if you perform or present it, people will and should come. Yes, I have been absolutely guilty of the type of thinking I quote above. (It is especially easy to think everyone is a cretin when you are doing a job search!) Yes, I absolutely think that the arts possess incredible value for people’s lives. But I have empathy for the “great unwashed.” I don’t believe everything performed is of interest or significance to me. I feel intimidated going to gallery openings and symphonies–and I know some of the rules. (I play follow the leader to avoid clapping between movements, but still have no idea how to tell the end of a movement from the end of a piece.)

Of course, the Field of Dreams view doesn’t only apply to attendance, but funding as well. I have worked for organizations who lost the faith of thier audiences and launched huge “save us” campaigns. I know that a desire to keep ones job factors into it, but I think it is rather egotistical to expect foundations and governmental bodies to bail you out because you have mended your ways and may possess the potential to contribute something of value to your community again.

On the other hand, I have been employed by organizations who have worked for 5-7 years to develop solid relationships with foundations and politicans. I am not talking about throwing a lot of money at them and wine and dine schmoozing, but painstakingly proving oneself over time. When the organization gets a sizable chunk of funding, smaller organizations cry foul and write editorials saying we were favored because we were the big kid on the block.

Yes, this is essentially true. When you are a small, volunteer run organization, you can’t expect to get the money an institution with a full time development director can get. In many cases, those smaller organizations are getting funded at a much higher ratio to the effort they expended securing the money than my organization was. There are a lot of arts organizations out there working damn hard for what they get and they have very few assets with which to grease palms.

There is no god given right for every arts organization to exist. Everyone has the freedom to give it a try, but it doesn’t mean people have to come see your shows or pay for you to stay open. You can decry the soulless commercialism of the place across town and do avant garde stuff, and the more power to you. You just need to be aware that there are consequences for every decision. You may have to work harder to attract audiences and suffer being labeled as obscene.

I interviewed at a place this fall that didn’t have its own performing spaces and instead presented in churches and outdoors. They were still held in a higher regard than the theatre companies that had their own stages. The theatre companies all competed tooth and nail with each other, insisting that each remain autonomous rather than uniting to focus their energies to achieving common goals.

I used to blame the non-profit system. The fact that non-profits were placed in a position of having to compete for funding to get the majority of their money from unearned revenue. But I realized community service was becoming an increasingly smaller concern for many organizations as they focussed more and more on just keeping the doors open. It might almost be better if some of them became for profit. Although, there is the danger of finding box office receipts unchanged regardless of classification. Audiences seldom make entertainment decisions based on tax status.

I don’t have any easy answers for combatting these perceptions of audiences and each other. Certainly improved empathy and communication will be essential elements in any solution. McPhee’s speech makes some suggestions, but I don’t think they will completely resolve the problem.

For all the critical aspects of Ms. McPhee’s speech that I agree with, there were also some observations in which I saw some hope. She comments:

“But newspaper journalists, decrying diminishing subscribers, worry that the democracy is at risk because people aren’t getting the news – from them.

Orchestras, being mostly led by tyrants, aren’t concerned with the death of democracy. But they do believe the very fabric of Western Civilization is at risk if people don’t get classical music – from them…

…They’re confusing the content with the delivery system. In fact, people are getting much more news, much more quickly, than ever before. The difference is that the content is coming from lots of different places, and newspapers no longer own the franchise.

The solution she suggests, may be found by emulating newspaper’s who now offer both print and internet access to their stories.

And here’s another important parallel. They’ve given up on the crossover idea. They are no longer expecting readers who get their news on the Net to decide to subscribe to the traditional paper. The Internet news is not a marketing tool for the “real thing.” They have thousands of new readers for the “new thing.” I hope if Magic of Music does nothing else, it will put to rest the idea of crossover and adopt the idea that we can sell multiple products to multiple audiences.

To me, one of the promising findings of the market segmentation research it demonstrates is that there’s a vast potential audience of living, breathing individuals with different – but real – connections to the art form and to our orchestras. These aren’t uninformed rubes who need us to show them the light. Neither are they look-alike, think-alike mannequins receiving the Canon as dictated by us. These are individuals who make purposeful and highly personal decisions. Some of them have actually tested our product and found it wanting. The question is are we listening to the very clear signals they’re sending. And, are we willing and able to let go of our prejudices and respond to the message in diverse and innovative ways?

For me, these data validate everything we’ve been trying to accomplish in the Magic of Music. They tell us unequivocally that whether we want to strengthen, deepen or broaden ties to the orchestra, we need to do something fundamentally different than what we’ve done before. We need to put everything – repertoire, musical genres, ensemble configurations, venues, performance times, guest artists – everything, on the table for review and negotiation. The data also makes it clearer than ever before that there is no one solution. No magic bullet. Different folks need different strokes. And we must be nimble, flexible and open enough to allow for that.”

And a little further on

“I believe wholeheartedly in that mission, and I do not believe for a minute that listening to audiences is pandering or diminishes quality. I think it’s just good business.”

This was very reminiscent of the portion of the “Cultural Development in Creative Communities” monograph I excerpted last week. I had cited it because it counseled different strategies for different communities (as McPhee’s does here).

I also stated some concern for the idea that arts organizations had to diversify their services and offerings. Part of my concern was (and still is) that by offering a little bit of everything, organizations would do no one thing with a level of excellence. Part of this was a fear that people’s view of the arts not be debased.

I was also concerned that by answering the expectations of the community, arts institutions would diverge from what funders expected of them. I was encouraged by Ms. McPhee’s speech because it showed that a funder not only understood this was a trend for the future, it also encouraged organizations to embrace the changing times.

So there you go. My candor may not be helping my employment prospects, but the mission of my blog is to provide solutions. The only way to do that is to recognize some problems to comtemplate and discuss.