A recent guest post by Katherine Gressel on Createquity (The new Brooklyn Philharmonic: A “Site-Specific” Orchestra?) discusses the Brooklyn Philharmonic’s efforts to become more deeply involved with the neighborhoods that make up the borough. The BP is re-emerging after a budget-induced two-year hiatus. In doing so, the orchestra is programming in venues around Brooklyn, attempting in each to present music that matters to the residents “with concerts in Brighton Beach (featuring music from Russian cartoons), Bedford Stuyvesant (featuring rapper Mos Def and a tribute to Lena Horne), and downtown Brooklyn (featuring Sufjan Stevens, and the Brooklyn Youth Chorus).” Ms. Gressel describes the programming as “site-specific,” borrowing from terminology visual artists have been using for years, typically in reference to public art installations.
The post presents two principal critiques of the effort. The first is that artists and arts organizations that enter a neighborhood or community are almost invariably outsiders. Outsiders have a tendency to see unfamiliar cultures through their own frames of reference and, in particular, are blind to the nuances of difference that exist. To that, I would add, that outsiders are seen as outsiders by the insiders. This is a central difficulty with community engagement. It is why engagement requires preparation and practice. The trust-building required for substantive engagement is time-consuming and typically hard-won. Meaningful programming will only come through a process of developing relationships.
The other main critique cited is that in community-based art the “. . . ‘artistic’ merit and vision may be compromised in favor of community and audience-building goals.” Sigh . . . .
At the risk of repeating my current postings on Quality and Community (part 2 will follow this one), let me simply say that, yes, that sometimes happens. But it need not! At least, that is, if the focus is on community building rather than audience building. Programmers who come to understand the cultures with which they are dealing, believe in the value of engagement, respect their audiences, and devote the time necessary to construct experiences that resonate with new communities will create art with substance. But I will be honest that this is not easy. The real message is that it cannot successfully or sustainably be done on the cheap or in a hurry.
Directly related to this point, Ms. Gressel brings up the controversy surrounding the Brooklyn Museum’s outreach efforts over the last couple of years. At least some in the arts world are uncomfortable with what is going on there, and I confess I don’t know enough to thoughtfully assess it. I do know that I’ve heard sincere concern for and interest in their neighbors from the Brooklyn Museum’s leadership. Arnold Lehman, the Museum’s Director, has said that they have added focus on the visitor as a core value. From my perspective, that’s to be applauded. The quality and results of that focus can certainly be brought up for debate.
As with the Brooklyn Museum, I don’t know enough about the depth of the Brooklyn Philharmonic’s work in engaging with its neighborhoods to have an informed opinion. On balance, I’d prefer some engagement attempted to none, so long as the efforts come from genuine interest and belief in engaging and not from a calculated marketing equation. The latter simply won’t work. It is also true, however, that poorly conceived or implemented engagement (engagement that does not really view and utilize the “engagees” as partners) can be damaging to the potential for relationships as well as artistically dubious.
So, to amplify slightly on my typical closing, learn how and then