Overcoming Artcentricity

ICenterOfUniversen Shifting the Center I began a consideration of transforming the way we think about the relationship between art and community. Many of us in the arts see the world from the perspective of our arts discipline, and that discipline–along with the work that is its expression–is a value unto itself. Our commitment to art can be nearly all-consuming. But this is a hindrance to relationship building. It gets in the way of engagement. We cannot and should not expect others to share the depth of our passion. For most people, any art is a choice, an addition to lives that are often full to begin with. It is our responsibility to make the art we love meaningful to them. (If not us, then who?! Think of this as a practical rather than a moral responsibility.)

As is true in marketing, in engagement what the people we are trying to reach think is what must matter most to us. Our own perspective is meaningless.


[NB: I had finished drafting this post before Trevor O’Donnell’s 2012: The Year of Reality-Based Arts Marketing came out. Here is one thing, apropos of this topic, on his list of elements of such marketing:

Whereas arts marketing is almost exclusively self-centered, reality based arts marketing will be focused on potential audiences and the extent to which the products promise to satisfy their stated needs, desires or expectations. Rather than filling season brochures with self-congratulatory information about the events, artists and institutions, reality-based marketers will devote a reasonable portion of their promotional real estate to the audience and to demonstrating how the products they’re selling will make them happy.]


For the record, the fact that someone else does not find [fill in the blank] as captivating, uplifting, or life-affirming as you do does not demean them, nor you! People are different. The idea some hold that if only a person saw a *good* production of opera they would love it is false. Some will be won over. Others won’t. (I have had a similar issue with regard to good readings of Shakespeare. I think everyone will–should?–”get it.” I’m wrong.)

In order first to communicate and then to build relationships we must understand what is important to those we seek to reach. We don’t need to value those same things (although if it is possible, that would be a huge help), but we need to honor the importance of those things to others. If we don’t know what those things are–or worse, if we don’t care–relationships and, therefore, engagement will not be possible.

An artcentric perspective has several negative results. When it is perceived as being condescending, it prevents any possibility of creating trust. Who wants to be around someone who looks down on them? When it narrows our sphere of professional colleagues (especially if our sphere is limited to those in the arts or even those in our own discipline), we are cut off from collaborative options. We cannot form partnerships with people or organizations we do not know. When it precludes us from seeing the world around us, it removes us from identifying possible means of connecting with others. Since no one is looking to us for help, the task of finding collaborative entry points must often begin with us. (The Understanding Your Community questions to which I referred in Well Rounded Organizations are intended to help with this process.)

Expand your horizons and



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  1. says

    Great post, Doug. And thanks for the mention.

    I love the idea of “artcentricity.” I honestly believe that the greatest challenge the arts face – whether it’s about sustaining revenue or reengaging with communities is managing the transition from artcentricity to audiencecentricity (not sure that’s a word that’ll catch on). I honestly don’t know if it’s a transition that existing leaders are prepared to make. And that’s not meant as a criticism so much as a simple observation. Most current leaders rose up in an arts-centric culture so asking them to make such a radical paradigm shift once they’ve reached the top is a tall order.

    • says

      Audiencecentricity (or audiencentricity) *is* a mouthful! I’d probably go with something less nouveau like community focus, but the idea is the same. There are (at least) two huge impediments to a shift. One is conceptual resistance. I think the march of time will eventually take care of that, but eventually could be a far, far horizon. The other is institutional inertia. And that is the reason for the work I’m beginning on helping organizations understand that current systems can be re-focused to an engagement perspective, mainstreaming engagement. I don’t claim it’s simple (!), but it’s an approach that might work.

  2. says

    Well said! This has been my argument for the past two years, though it often falls on deaf ears. The good news is that many of my colleagues in the National Arts Strategies Chief Executive Program are grappling with this very issue. How does it change our work? How do we shift to more fully address this idea of “audiencentricty” – -particularly with our ever changing demographics.

    My fear is that those who are unwilling to consider the shift will be left behind. We have to become more relevant to our richly diverse communities. This is our intent here at the Boston Children’s Chorus

    • says

      Nope. Not easy. But I’m convinced the only path from here to there (if a successful one exists) is through re-orienting the way we think about the things we already do: mainstreaming engagement. Stay tuned!

  3. says

    I stumbled on this article as I was searching Artcentricity. I founded an arts 501c3 non profit, last year, titled Artcentricity Inc. (focus on the arts and child development) Based in CA, with a new partnership with the National Theatre of Ghana.
    Artcentricity Inc works on lessening/alleviate the negative/concerns, etc of the concept of “Artcentricity” by encouraging the positive aspects of art/creation process in all mediums, as well as its application in all facets of society. Basically to promote imagination and individuality. (Part of the definition that we formed for “what is Artcentricity”

    I appreciate your response to honor the importance of things to others, as that is essential to a mutual appreciation for not necessarily the work but what it represents to the individual who created it.

    Additionally agree with the collaborative entry points must begin with us, this is one of the core values of my non profit. Which is still in its early stages.