“Perfect moments.” That’s the beautiful insight that David Ira Goldstein, the beloved Artistic Director Emeritus of Arizona Theatre Company shared with me during my tenure as his administrative partner as ATC’s Interim Managing Director.
When the story is compelling… when the direction is inspired… when the actors’ delivery is flawless… when the set design is beautiful… when the sound is resonant… when the house is full… when the audience is generous… when the stars align…
That’s (some of) what it takes to lose oneself in a perfect moment of theatre; when distractions fade and you find yourself wholly-immersed in a story, a character, a gesture, a word, a sound, a feeling.
I don’t know about you, but I live for those moments.
And they’re not confined to the theatre. I’ve had them at concerts. I’ve had the breath knocked out of me by works of art in museum galleries. (Click the link on Tina Mion’s artwork.) I’ve been captivated by street performers. I’ll even admit to sobbing at movies, though careful to recognize the difference between having my emotions manipulated versus being deeply engrossed in a character. Remember when the Mets won the World Series in 1986? Yes, that produced such a moment, too. (Sorry Bill Buckner and Red Sox fans.)
For those who philosophize about the purpose of art, I have no qualm with definitions grounded in the virtues of creative expression, the nature of perception, and the pursuit of beauty.
But for all my intents and purposes, art is about “Engagement.”
It’s about transporting someone – or many people – into another’s perspective. It’s the ultimate expression of empathy. It’s about delivering an impactful interpretation of a direct experience. As Picasso said, “Art is a lie that tells the truth.”
“Engagement” means that an experience has been delivered and an impression has been left behind; not merely the memory of watching an event or activity, but the sense of having experienced it directly. What’s left occupies the most precious of mental space, adjacent to my wedding, the birth of my children, the passing of my Grandfather, the completion of my first marathon.
Since the launch of this blog in 2011, I’ve focused on “audience development’ as a strategic and tactical extension of an arts & cultural organization’s mission and marketing plan. Previously, I would have said that the primary function of “audience development” is to attract the attendance and revenue of attendees.
That’s no longer enough.
Though arts & cultural organizations must surely continue to grow attendance and revenue and serve relevance to the breadth of the communities they serve, there’s an even greater imperative.
Despite all the wonder and potential of this moment, we live in angry and divisive times. We live in a sense of hyper-awareness, charged by technologies of instant and constant communication. We live in times of rapid change, but with a trajectory that is not always clear. We live in times of suspicion, worry, and fear. We live amidst undeniable and untenable injustice. We live in a time of cynicism and withdrawal.
In other words, we live in a time when the very qualities of eagerness, openness, and trust necessary to the formation of audiences – the same qualities necessary to form communities – is under threat.
“Audience development” needs to be seen as more than the process of gathering bodies and revenue. It must also be about the fostering of spirit by which people come together.
“Audience development” can, today, reflect the reality that many other types of entities (i.e. companies, associations, causes, academic institutions, and communities) also aspire to the same eagerness, openness and trust support of their own customers and constituencies.
To practice “audience development” we must all recognize the responsibility to be worthy of that trust… to take our audiences, customers, and communities on a journey toward something constructive.
Please take a look at my updated ABOUT AUDIENCE WANTED post for an even fuller explanation of this aspiration and how I intend to address the topic of “audience development” in this blog going forward.
As I’ve stated before, non-profit arts & cultural organizations cannot survive if positioned merely as the beneficiary of a community’s attention and generosity. We must assert responsibility to drive the economy, education and inclusive spirit of our communities, and of our nation.
Artistry and empathy are among our “superpowers.” Other kinds of companies and organizations bring their own special powers.
Our shared responsibility must be to community betterment.
How do we bring people together in these divisive times? How do we instill optimism yet address painful conversations? How do we strengthen patriotism and justice while cultivating compassion and respect? How do we pursue strength without magnifying fear? How do we move forward, without triggering the knee-jerk reactions that prompt retreat?
I don’t know the answers to these questions. Do you? Does anybody?
So, we must keep asking them.
We must keep offering “perfect moments” that deliver the opportunity to experience – and appreciate – the world from the perspective of others. “Audience Development” is no longer just about greater marketing – it’s about bringing people together toward shared experience and mutual understanding.
It’s about giving space for education, expression, and dialogue.
That’s why I say, #EngagementisEverything.