The problem with unconscious assumptions is that they are . . . unconscious. Even for me, spending time as I do questioning the status quo in the arts, the basic nature of the arts enterprise–deeper even than the “business model”–often remains unexplored. But the arguments for and against community engagement inevitably have at their root this fundamental question. What is the arts business?
Individual or Community Resource?
A good (and valuable) preliminary question might be “Are the arts an individual or a community resource?” Trick question, of course. The arts inevitably serve both. However, I think much of our focus is on the individual, both as creator and consumer. I certainly believe more attention should be paid to the arts as a resource for community improvement. And, of course, by community I mean any collection of people who are bound–intentionally or, sometimes, de facto–by a characteristic they share: geography, certainly, but also culture, interests, concerns, preferences, background, etc. We speculate that this service to community was one of the origins of the arts but their binding or healing power for communities has been, in my opinion, under-appreciated, under-valued, and under-utilized by the arts infrastructure. (Evil Doug is trying to get me to say that the community service nature of the arts has been under-monetized. Oops, there he went.)
What Is the Business?
The deeper fundamental (and even less consciously considered) question is “What is the business?” I’ve got three metaphors to consider, but let me clarify as I always used to do for my students, the fact that I list three does not mean that I think these are the three, that these are correct, or that three is even the right number. I will also acknowledge that almost no one thinks of their work as part of the first two I list, but I am talking about unconscious assumptions.
This is a work in progress. I may not even agree with myself next week. With that caveat, here goes:
- Reliquary, as in a shrine or container of relics. The only focus here is on the relic. A reliquary would still be a reliquary if no one looked at it. Arts organizations that are “all about the art” are reliquaries whether they deal in visual (fixed) or performing (variable) work.
- Hajj, as in a regularly occurring pilgrimage to a holy place. I am taking a specific religious rite and attempting to make a secular metaphor out of it. The metaphor holds that in a secular hajj, the destination of the journey (the museum, concert hall, theater, etc.) and the content to be found there are primary. A pilgrim is required for a hajj, but the intent is for the participants to be uplifted by objects or experiences. In the arts hajj, it is the audience/visitor who is transformed or edified; the art is fixed and not altered or affected by external concerns, interests, or influences. For the art to be so would be sacrilege. The arts organizations that treat their offerings as a “city on a hill” that the public is lucky to have available fit this metaphor. What is important, again, is the art.
- Commons, as in a resource accessible to all members of society. The commons belongs to everyone, even those who do not take advantage of it. People can utilize it individually or collectively. The commons is extremely valuable, but its purpose is to be of benefit to those who use it. While it might exist if no one took advantage of it, it would not be fulfilling its core purpose. In addition, as time and society changes, the merit of individual expressions of the commons may change. (Hitching posts for horses are not nearly as valuable today as they were in the West in frontier times.) Arts organizations that see art as a means of improving individual lives and collective experience are living out the commons metaphor. For them, if a work of art is not speaking to the community, that’s not the community’s fault; their response is either community-focused education or selection of alternative works.
I suspect I may be missing a metaphor somewhere between hajj and commons, but this is the best I can do today. The important thing is to consider what the focus of an arts organization is. As I suggested in Shifting the Center, the simple act of thinking about community interests in programming decisions can pay great dividends. Moving away from a reliquary- or hajj-like approaches will prove far more sustainable for the long term.