Media Mutations

I read a couple articles today about changes in the media. The first was about declining news coverage and the second, about the decline of beauty due to the arrival of HDTV.

The first article, entitled Audiences for US Journalists Decline, appeared in The Guardian.

The article began by saying:


Most American news media are experiencing a steady decline in audiences and are significantly cutting their investment in staff and resources, according to a report issued yesterday.

The study on the state of the US news media by the Project for Excellence in Journalism, which is affiliated to Columbia University’s graduate journalism school, found that only ethnic, alternative and online media were flourishing.

“Trust in journalism has been declining for a generation,” said the project director, Tom Rosenstiel. “This study suggests one reason is that news media are locked in a vicious cycle. As audiences fragment, newsrooms are cut back, which further erodes public trust.”

This isn’t surprising news for many arts organizations who find that their local paper is cutting back on the number of arts reviewers on staff as well as the space devoted to reviews and stories. What this means for arts organizations is that they will need to find alternatives for disseminating information about their offerings.

In addition to reaching patrons directly through emails and websites, arts organizations might also identify individuals in the community who produce well written web based critiques of performances and direct audiences to them as they have referred audiences to newspaper reviews in the past. (The positive and negative implications for the relationships that might develop between a blogging critic and an arts organization are very interesting and one I will explore in a future entry.)

The good news of this study is that arts organizations can achieve the elusive goal of diversifing the ethnic make up of their audiences through newspapers. According to the article “Spanish-language newspaper circulation has nearly quadrupled over the past 13 years and advertising revenues are up sevenfold.” With suitable programming, there exists some opportunities to educate and attract new audiences to an organization through newspapers.

Since an organization is going to be producing press releases in other languages, it would be beneficial to offer a duplicate of the organization’s website in those languages as well. Just because more people are reading newspapers doesn’t mean they are ignoring the web.

The second article was from the Chicago Trib and was listed on Artsjournal.com. It talked about how make-up could no longer hide actor and tv personality’s blemishes from the exacting eye of HDTV.

I had a number of reactions to this. First, I was somewhat optimistic at the idea that audiences might buy HDTV sets to get current with the technology and then out of a longing for the illusion of perfection, would flock to the theatre where they could escape the gritty reality of their idols.

Then I got a little depressed wondering if make-up artists failed to find a way to hide the flaws, would a new, more stringent standard of beauty emerge. Would future movies and tv programs be filled with the very few people who were naturally flawless because it was easier than taking additional hours to make masked flaws look natural. These people would, of course, have extremely brief careers as age quickly began marking them up.

Then I got optimistic again. Perhaps after fruitless attempts to fool the new technology, actors and tv personalities would stop trying so hard and we as audiences would come to accept all the normal picayune things which detract from imagined perfection. Perhaps HDTV will help usher in a more inclusive standard of beauty rather than create a more exclusive one. This seems like one of those battles that you win by losing.

Of A Certain Age

I came across a mention of the Performing Arts Research Coalition (PARC) study, The Value of the Performing Arts in Five Communities. This is an interesting study and will probably fuel a number of future blog posts.

The mention I saw today was in regard to the report’s finding that attendance at performing arts events was not strongly tied to age. The report says:

In contrast to education level and household income, age is not strongly related to attendance levels. This finding is interesting because popular discussions often assume that performing arts audiences are mostly composed of older people – a “graying” of attenders. Our findings, however, indicate that in some communities the 65 and over age category is the one with the greatest percentage of nonattenders. Austin again is an anomaly among the communities in the study. Although the relationship between age and attendance is not strong, it is negative. This indicates that in Austin, performing arts attendance is greatest among young people, with attendance declining among older age cohorts.

That put me in mind of a blog I wrote. I keep a file on my computer called “Good Ideas” where I put copies of articles I find on the web that I think might be of use at some point. (Though many times I find I only realize the value of an article months after it appeared and have a terrible time tracking it down again!) I looked in my file and found the entry I recalled was from Terry Teachout’s blog, About Last Night.

He quoted an article by Eric Felten about why it was pointless for advertisers to focus so much on the 18 to 34 male demographic and quoted a passage directly related to the arts.

A few years ago the Chicago Symphony commissioned a survey that found the average age of its concert-goers to be 55. But the orchestra’s president, Henry Fogel, didn’t fall for the actuarial fallacy. Instead he checked similar research done 30 years earlier and found that the average age at that time was also 55. “There is simply a time in one’s life when subscribing to a symphony orchestra becomes both desirable and possible,” says Mr. Fogel, now president of the American Symphony Orchestra League. Acting on this insight, the Chicago Symphony is wooing boomers who, though they may still enjoy their old Beatles records, long for a new musical experience. The orchestra has targeted new subscribers by advertising on, of all places, a local “classic rock” station.

Mr. Teachout goes on to talk about the fact that he himself didn’t become interested in visual arts until he was 40.

The study and the article gave me some reason for optimism. Certainly my tastes have evolved on many fronts as I have gotten older. As an avid reader, I have noticed that I am now intensely interested in books that bored me at one point. My taste in music has changed as I have gotten older. While I am not terribly interested in ballet and orchestra music, perhaps I will be at one point.

If these things are true for me, then there is a strong possibility that they will be true for many people my age. People may age and become more interested and open to experiences in the arts and resupply the older folks in today’s audiences. (From the study, it doesn’t sound like there are as many older folks as we think there are so that is heartening as well.)

Mr. Teachout points out however that he was already predisposed to find pleasurable experiences in the arts. He questions if it is wise to expect people who have never been exposed to the arts to grow into an appreciation of something that is unfamiliar to them, especially given the increased disappearance of school arts programs.

Indeed, most of Mr. Felten’s examples are about television programs and ads that fail to capture their target demographic and perhaps snag older demographics instead. Cars and television programs aren’t alien to 18-34 year olds. They may not have the means and interest in purchasing Volvos and watching 60 Minutes right now. However, when their interests and bank accounts mature, they won’t perceive too many barriers to their enjoyment and acquisition of things they previously regarded as the province of older folks.

Can the same be said of the arts? If you never laughed at a silly play as a child or were never moved by one of the more familiar classical music or opera piece as a teen ager, how likely are you to make the choice to attend an event when you get older? If you feel intimidated by your ignorance of the etiquette and dress code of an arts event, how willing are you to chance going to one without at least some advice from a friend?

Certainly, there are other elements that contribute to attendance that might influence someone who has never attended to start–friends who patronize an organization or the ability to make social contacts that will advance ones career, for example. But arts organizations can’t afford to depend on people’s friend’s and social/business expectations to drive audiences to their doors.

It seems to me that community outreach becomes more and more important these days. It also would seem that the interests of all arts organizations become more and more intertwined. Not all arts organizations can afford to send programs into schools and community centers. Almost all organizations can eventually benefit from the exposure a community gets to the arts if Mssrs. Teachout and Felten are correct.

It might behoove organizations who can’t afford to do outreach to lend some occasional support to those who can. Perhaps it is administrative support, contributing to study guides, constructing travelling sets, helping to book presentations.

Of course, it would also benefit organizations if they did as the Chicago Symphony did took a look at their audience very closely and determined if there were some untapped channels through which they could reach the non-attendees in their target demographic.

Thinking about what these untapped channels to the right people is going to be one of the things I mull over for awhile. I don’t know of many concrete examples like the one given about the Chicago Symphony and classic rock stations. I would love to hear of any unorthodox approaches other people have taken.

When To Start Acting

I thought I would wax philosophical today and take the day off from looking at practical solutions. I was thinking recently of an article I had read so many years ago that stated that of all the performing arts, theatre was the only one a person decided to devote themselves to when they were 18 years old. Dance and classical musical instruments, it pointed out, you had to start on when you were young. Waiting until you are 12 is pretty much too late if you expected to be any good. Children had the luxury of waiting until they were graduating high school to make the decision to pursue drama.

There is a degree of hyperbole that I have attributed, but that was the gist I came away with from the article. Whether it meant toor not, it made me feel like a dilettante for waiting until I received accolades in high school to decide to be a theatre minor in college. (Though I literally was a dilettante since the word is dervived from Italian meaning one who loves the arts) True, there was my earlier starring role in my 8th grade play as Martin the Cobbler, but I felt guilty for thinking I could become a success when all those dancers and violinists had been working since they were four to have a chance at success.

On the other hand, I should have felt guilty for thinking I could become an actor when there were so many people with actual talent who were working hard for a chance at success. At the time I read the article in question, I had a limited comprehension of what it meant to act. Sure, I understood the whole idea of making myself vulnerable, not censoring my impulses and acting rather than indicating, etc. Though I thought I was doing all those things, I see now that I wasn’t.

It wasn’t until I got a bit older and the hormones stopped raging through my brain and I could actually ponder things uninterrupted that I realized an actor couldn’t really start his/her work until they got older. Musicians have to master and integrate themselves with their instrument, dancers must master their bodies. Actors must master and comprehend life.

Certainly, dancers and musicians must do the same to add depth to their performance. For actors though, it is their performance, they have to present a believable version of being a human they are not. For that, you have to actually understand people you are not and empathesize with their existence. This isn’t an easy thing to do when you are young and think the world revolves around you. Some people can’t even get past the self-centric view when they get older.

Now that I am older, I think I could be a better actor than I was even though my acting classes are some distance behind me. I understand people and the human condition so much more. I have always been an avid reader and have read the same book 4-5 times. In some cases I did it because I often saw things anew, but often because the book fired my imagination and provided an escape. In the past 5 years or so though I have gone back and read books I read many times as a teenager and suddenly gained HUGE insights into the subtle things the characters were going through because of my real life experiences.

The question this sort of leads to then is in relation the formal education an actor should have. Given that they have to experience a wide slice of life, is it really valuable to have them concentrate on theatre as an undergraduate major? I have to admit, the head of my undergraduate theatre program believed it was not and only offered a minor in the program. At the time, I didn’t agree with him, (though the first time I wasn’t cast in a show I was ready to swear off theatre altogether), but now I see the wisdom in it.

The idea of whether potential MFA acting students should have a wide liberal arts base majoring in history, English, sociology, etc vs. having received theatre training as an undergrad has been debated often. There is certainly no guarantee that a person who has concentrated on the sociology or literature of cultures and had some theatre training would have better insight than a person who concentrated on theatre and took sociology and English as a lesser focus.

It comes down to whether a broad base of knowledge or prior technical training in acting better serves two people with equal talent when they enter an acting training program.

The same could be applied to managers. Is it better to have studied theatre as an undergrad or English? Certainly, there would be a benefit to have been a business student with a theatre background if you wanted to enter a career in theatre business. They may have to take some additional non-management theatre courses to round themselves out a bit more, but they already understand the elements which affect all businesses, arts related or not. (Though there is also some debate about whether managers are being trained to know enough about their particular discipline.)

The question is then, does a person who got a BA in something besides theatre belong in a serious management training program? I say serious program because I have seen arts administration programs where the faculty essentially admitted they mainly served primary and secondary school art teachers looking to boost their pay by getting a MA in Administration. Certainly the people getting the degrees were being trained to be administrators, but because the majority didn’t intend to become managers themselves, there was less of a concern on the part of the professors and students alike to guarantee that the graduates had the skills not to plunge an organization into bankruptcy.

So have English majors received the training that can be built upon by an arts administration program? Is a theatre minor enough training on the art side so that the student can concentrate on attaining business skills?

One comment I have heard of late is that undergraduate writing skills are atrocious and that this is the first area a management program has to concentrate on improving. Marketing, public relations and development offices owe their success to expressing themselves well.

Unfortunately, being an English major doesn’t guarantee this skill these days, though you might expect otherwise. I must confess that as an English major, I might have possessed substandard skills myself had I not been pursuing teaching certification in addition to a theatre minor. (Though I am sure stream of consciousness blogging might belie my claim that my skills are not substandard.)

The answer to all this is probably, as one might imagine, that you can’t generalize and have to assess each student as they present themselves. I was an English major with theatre and education minors. It wouldn’t have served my graduate program or me very well had they adopted strict guidelines as to the undergraduate degree type I received as a condition of admission.

Before I went into grad school, I had a fair bit of marketing, front of house, acting and technical background from undergrad training and had worked on an American College Theatre Festival and two Association of Theatre in Higher Education conferences. I had also done lighting and carpentry in summer stock and been on the house crew for a presenting house.

I probably had a fair understanding of the issues facing theatres before I entered my training program. Certainly, I got exposed to some pretty extreme on the job training on these issues before I had earned my degree. (The theatre I interned at was a week or less away from closing its doors the entire time I was there.)

So there you have it. My musings on artist training and a little bit more about my background!

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