Kerry Lengel: A Critic’s Take on Arts & Entrepreneurship

StaffPortraitsKerry Lengel is the Arizona Republic’s theatre critic.  His articles are most readily found HERE

Recently, I invited Kerry to address the Seminar on Arts Entrepreneurship that I am teaching at Arizona State University this semester.  In preparation for that class, we got together for a lengthy (and lively) discussion about the nature of arts & entrepreneurship.  The discussion was so fascinating and insightful that I asked Kerry to provide written responses to several of my questions to share in this blog.

In presenting this interview, I offer my thanks to Kerry for his unfailing willingness to engage in deep and thought-provoking discussions about the challenges and opportunities of the arts & cultural sector. 

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  • As a theatre critic – and also as a journalist covering the arts “beat” – you are a professional observer of how companies strive to advance their “art” as well as of the challenges they face to sustain their “business.” Do you see the demands of “advancing art” and “serving a market” as conflicting objectives? In other words, is “arts entrepreneurship” an oxymoron?

“Arts entrepreneurship” certainly isn’t an oxymoron, unless your definition of art is so narrow that any business success disqualifies it – the attitude of the stereotypical rock snob for whom the little-heard indie debut is always better than the major-label follow-up. On the other hand, the conflict between art and commerce is age-old, and there’s no question pandering to an audience can undermine artistic quality. But there’s no magic formula for striking the balance. Broadway theater is a for-profit business where selling tickets is Job One, but it has produced many artistic masterpieces. And often, although certainly not always, the best art has the most crowd-pleasing longevity. (I’m talking “West Side Story” here – not so much “Wicked.”)

A key issue for the non-profit arts industry, if you want to call it that, is that a large swath of the market isn’t interested in advancing art at all. At least in a place like Phoenix, Beethoven’s Fifth outsells an Osvaldo Golijov world premiere any day, and even a 60-year-old Modernist classic by George Balanchine is no match at the box office for “Swan Lake.” The Catch-22 is that the more traditional arts become museum pieces, the less relevant they become to the mainstream, endangering their survival in the long term.

For those who really care about the future of art, then, the goal is to cultivate a market – I’d prefer the word “audience” here – for innovation. This can only really work as a genuine dialogue between artists and those for whom they create. Easier said than done. If I knew how, I’d be running a theater company instead of writing for a newspaper. Speaking of endangered media.

  • If on a given evening you had to choose between covering an event that you expected would be making a really significant artistic statement (but probably to an extremely small audience) versus a highly popular event whose artistic merit was, in your expectation, lackluster – which would you chose and why? (Would your personal preference be different from your professional responsibilities?)

I’ll answer the parenthetical question first. I write for a general audience, and that most definitely influences what I cover and how I cover it. However, since the readership for the arts is still more a newspaper audience than an online one, I am not subjected to the same page-view-counting scrutiny that some of my colleagues are, and that gives me a bit more freedom – for now, at least.

As to the main question, I’d opt for the significant artistic statement every time – assuming one could predict that ahead of time – because that is an opportunity to practice my own craft at a higher level. It would be more likely to produce an interesting read; even people who would never bother to attend the performance might get something out of a well-written analytical review.

At least that’s what I tell myself. The truth is, judging from Facebook recommendations of my reviews, nothing attracts online readers more than a full-throated rave. But since I am too bad a liar to manufacture a rave, there’s still no percentage in it for me to review that touring production of “My Mother’s Italian, My Father’s Jewish and I’m in Therapy!” I’ll cover that with my reporter’s hat on instead.

  • In performing arts, it seems pretty obvious that every performance requires the presence of an audience. Yet, in visual arts, it’s often the case that the artist is completely separate from (and possibly even uncaring about) the act of an audience’s engagement. So, what’s your take on the “if a tree falls in the woods, does it make a sound” question? Is it still “art” if there’s no audience?

Visual art is a second language to me. OK, third. But a musician also can be a solitary creator, in the recording studio, or composing at a piano. I guess I would say that any such work of art has at least an audience of one – the creator him or herself. But an artist of any ambition wants to evoke a response in other people, and to participate in the dialogue of artist to artist through time.

  • It’s a dichotomy, isn’t it, that the nature of “art” is to be progressive (that is, to advance new ideas and means of expression) while the nature of the non-profit organizations that produce/present such work must be cautious and risk-averse as they balance scarce resources and the interests of varied stakeholders. Do you agree with this premise? If so, what are its implications and what could (or should) be done about it?

I mostly answered this under the first question, but I don’t necessarily agree with the premise than non-profit organizations must be risk averse. Indeed, theoretically, working as a not-for-profit is supposed to free you from the most ruthless (and homogenizing) of market forces. That’s the idea behind public radio and television, for example. But it only works if there is an adequate support structure (government or otherwise), which is a dicey proposition in the current cultural and political climate. The real reason arts entrepreneurship is a necessary concept now is that the old social compacts that used to support the arts are breaking down. And yes, that can force organizations to balance their artistic missions with their financial health.

This also means that the organizations with the most artistic freedom are the small ones. The bigger your audience (and your budget), the more of a balancing act you have to perform.

  • In a few weeks, you’ll be addressing the Seminar on Arts Entrepreneurship I am teaching at Arizona State University. What candid career advice will you offer students who passionately aspire to be the greatest artists they can possibly be – but who also recognize the practical need to find a way to support themselves.

Do both, and have a backup plan. Yes, being able to work on your own artistic vision full-time makes it easier to develop your voice, but learning how to engage with an audience also can hone your craft. I know a painter in Phoenix who does commercial art under a pseudonym and produces more personal stuff (ironical pop art with lots “booze and boobies”) that is shown and sold in galleries in several states. And plenty of successful writers have plugged away at their debut novel at night while holding down a day job or two. All it takes is genuine talent and a willingness to work your ass off. Or, if you’re like me, you can come to peace with the fact that you’re a lousy poet and a lazy novelist and apply your writing talent in a way that might be less artistic but is nonetheless fulfilling.

  • Let’s end with a question about the community that you cover professionally: What lessons might arts & cultural leaders in other communities draw from the efforts and accomplishments you’ve seen in Greater Phoenix? What makes you especially proud to cover the arts & cultural affairs of the Phoenix area?

Phoenix has several top-caliber arts organizations, including Ballet Arizona, which the New York Times called “one of the most musically intelligent in the world,” and Childsplay, a national leader in theater for youth that developed four world-premiere shows in the 2011-12 season, all of them good and some of them great. Overall, though, this community has a long way to go before it is a cultural mecca – and my primary measure of that is how much new work it creates, and how much of that finds a place in the national conversation. But I have to say that what I love most about covering the arts, and especially theater, in Phoenix is how much of a true community it is. As a “theater town” it’s small, but that means everyone knows everybody, and the level of positivity and support that I see is truly inspiring.

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Comments

  1. says

    Matt:

    Great dialogue! I hope you will indulge me by allowing me to mention that Phoenix area artists and business folks (and those from outside of Phoenix) interested in this intersection between arts and business may be interested in the Pave Program in Arts Entrepreneurship’s* third biennial symposium, Entrepreneurship, the Arts, and Creative Placemaking April 12-13 in Tempe and downtown Phoenix. http://theatrefilm.asu.edu/initiatives/pave/programming.php
    Thank you!

    - Linda

    * The Arts Entrepreneurship Seminar is a curricular offering of the Pave Program in Arts Entrepreneurshp: http://theatrefilm.asu.edu/initiatives/pave

  2. MWnyc says

    I’m not sure I even accept the premise that “the nature of ‘art’ is to be progressive (that is, to advance new ideas and means of expression)”. I certainly don’t think advancing new ideas and means is the only (or even necessarily the primary) purpose or nature of art.

    (In fact, I think the premise that worthwhile art must be “original” or groundbreaking in some way is one of the unhealthier ideas to have come out of the 19th and early 20th centuries.)

    But this post probably isn’t the place to hash out that argument …

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