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August 21, 2007

A Wisconsin take on Generation X and the arts

Jennifer A. Smith

I'll jump in to a conversation kicked off by Bridgette last week and continued by numerous commenters and John. Bridgette wrote about how authenticity is one of the hallmarks of what Gen X arts audiences are seeking. She used a Michigan theater company as an example of a group that's pursuing a successful and artistically worthwhile strategy.

Commenter Mike Boehm and my co-blogger John raised the issue of trying to reach Gen X through their kids. Is this strategy for arts marketing advisable? Does it even work?

To be blunt, my own take is that writing off Gen X adults in favor of their kids is misguided and dispiriting. First off, the obvious: not all X-ers have kids. I'm one of 'em. So trying to reach me about the arts, a political issue, what-have-you "through my kids" is a non-starter.

Second, I think John was on to something when he stated: "Is it possible that at some point, given the intensity of arts marketing being leveled at children, that the arts will be something that's considered child's play? Something kids do, not adults?"

I don't know if things are quite that drastic (and John's not necessarily saying that they are), but I do worry about a view of art as primarily something enriching for kids, an educational nugget to be digested along with long division or something to boost ACT scores in a testing-focused climate.

Don't get me wrong: I am not knocking arts education for kids. I am all for it, both in the schools and through whatever parents may have the means to provide after school. I am a product of public schools and, although I don't recall much being available on the elementary level, I did have access to art and music in middle school and ceramics and creative writing electives in high school. Through my parents, I had ten years of private piano lessons, plus a year or two of ceramics courses at the local art museum. As a middle-class kid, I was lucky in that regard. I know how important these formative experiences can be.

Yet I believe the arts--both witnessing and doing--are equally important to adults. That is why I believe we can't write off a segment of the adult population as arts participants. One figure whose ideas guide me in that area is Wisconsin's Robert E. Gard.

Gard (1910-1992) was the author of The Arts in the Small Community, Grassroots Theater: A Search for Regional Arts in America and dozens of other books. He championed rural arts and the belief that everyone had something to contribute; all people's lives could be enriched by making art. He argued that all people had a right to create art that was an expression of themselves and their places.

Gard was the recipient of the first rural arts development grant from the NEA. His project nearly wasn't funded, but no less than Leonard Bernstein, who was sitting on the review panel, argued in favor of it and the rest is history. What Gard started in 1964, the School of the Arts at Rhinelander--a summer art school for adults in a northern Wisconsin community of about 8,000--continues to this day.

You can find out more via the Robert E. Gard Foundation, which seeks to carry on his ideas. But for now, here's a brief summary of Gard's beliefs, which I've shamelssly cribbed from the Foundation's website:

Robert E. Gard exemplified the Wisconsin Idea of University outreach--"the boundaries of the campus are the boundaries of the state"--but also the Wisconsin Idea that the fulfillment of an individual's talents are a foundation of participatory democracy. While boiling down Gard's ideas is unfair--they are more complex than this--they might be summarized thus: In order for American democracy to be fulfilled, we must adhere to these principles:

• Acknowledge and explore the cultural roots of each person
• Bring diverse people together to explore one another's cultures
• Acknowledge and explore the individual's and community's relation to place
• Dream big: "If you try, you can indeed alter the face and the heart of America"
• Honor the people: listen to them, and offer them only excellence
• Take the arts to where the people are
• Honor and enable the creative expression of all individuals
• Recognize that creativity, spirituality and life are inextricably bound together
• Articulate a personal philosophy of meaning, how the arts relate to that meaning, and how you as an enabler of the arts will behave accordingly

Bringing this all back to practical terms, I realize that not every arts group has the marketing resources to blanket all segments of the population. However, as a general principle, I think it's unwise and unfair to write off Gen X on broad generalities or assumptions that they (we) are not predisposed to the arts.

Gard's ideas, while formed with rural Wisconsinites of a different era in mind, are still relevant and inspiring, regardless of age, race, class, location or other factors. If we believe the arts matter, don't they matter for everyone?

Posted by Jennifer A. Smith at August 21, 2007 6:00 AM

COMMENTS

I agree that we shouldn't "write off" Gen-X adults in favor of their kids. However, a danger of adult arts education is that it often borders on the insulting in terms of assuming ignorance within its audiences. A lot of us aren't looking to be "educated" on our nights out, perhaps, even when we want to encounter serious, thought-provoking drama.

How would you structure an adult arts education program that is NOT participatory to appeal to Gen X'ers?

Participatory workshops in creative writing/ acting/ painting are comparatively easy to market, but they don't sell season tickets or ensure big museum donations. How do you connect a theatre production or museum exhibit with Gen X'ers through "adult education" without denigrating the knowledge base of the people you're targeting?

Posted by: habeas at August 21, 2007 8:26 AM

Hello habeas: You mention that "a danger of adult arts education is that it often borders on the insulting in terms of assuming ignorance within its audiences." Elsewhere, you mention "denigrating the knowledge base of the people you're targeting." Can you offer a specific example or two of that? I'm not sure how to respond to this without knowing what you have in mind.

Posted by: Jennifer Smith at August 21, 2007 8:47 AM

Robert Gard's ideas are fascinating and very much to the point: You inspire people to get interested in the arts by making the arts part of their daily life. Do so requires radical steps, a radical re-think of what art is. What I don't like about the "get 'em while they're young" approach is that it just skims the surface of the problem.

Posted by: gary panetta at August 21, 2007 11:47 AM

A few examples of "adult arts education" I've seen from local events targeted at adults or young adults:

1) "V-Day" style theatre fairs of local charities who equate political activism with being loud and passing out flyers with sourceless alarming statistics. These have an unclear relationship with the political drama they tend to accompany and tend to polemicize or turn off audience rather than educate them.

2)Talkbacks after performances with bored actors who don't want to be there and poor moderation on the part of the theatre company.

3) "Reader's guides" to plays that are meant to encourage book-club style reading and discussion for playgoers, yet have questions about as deep as your average 8th-grade reading comprehension quiz.

These are a few examples from my home artform. We need more fruitful dialogues about successful means of adult education instead of reliance on a few fallback forms that often fail when poorly implemented. I hope these clarify my point.

Posted by: habeas at August 22, 2007 7:43 AM

Two points:

1) The focus on kids through the arts comes from the utilitarian obsession that the arts first and foremost must be justified (and most easily resourced) through more comprehensible frameworks, e.g., education. So art for education's sake becomes a plea for self-justification, rather than simply one honorable application of the artistic process and enterprise.

2)There is a legitimate and fast-growing concern among artists with intergenerational work, i.e., work that targets and affects audiences of different ages simultaneously. That means not getting to adults through their children, but getting to both simultaneously on what might be different cognitive tracks. So an adult without kids in the picture should be just as important a partner to the artists.
It is be a holistic rather than a compartmentalized view of the arts in community experience, rather than a slice-and-dice of predetermined audience development.

Posted by: David R. White at August 22, 2007 9:12 AM

From many years ago I remember Bill Dawson of ACUCAA (now known as APAP) once sharing the results of a test audience survey that was done solely on arts administrators. It was on the value of the arts. The administrators checked off words like "educational," "informative," and "enlightening." When the same survey was given to a sample audience they overwhelmingly checked off -- "fun." My point: who said educational couldn't be fun? I believe the best education is, indeed, fun. And that starts a long discussion in many different arenas. For this point, however -- I guess I want to respond to your readers that I attend a concert or exhibit for enjoyment and good program notes or a quality gallery talk invariably end up educating me. But I attended for the enjoyment factor.
A second point to consider: the reason for all the attention to arts education is multi-pronged. (1) If you follow the sports analogy you acknowledge that professional sports in America is only viable at the level it is because of the early exposure children get to sports with little league and school sports. We in the arts seek to -- and must -- adapt that model to work for us. (2) We can only value what we've experienced. If we don't provide arts experiences to children they will never know what options are available when they are adults. (3)Let's be truthful that we chase the funds and its easier to write a grant for a children's educational program than a no-frills concert series. (4) Its not always so easy to implement that funded arts ed program! (5) We can follow Bob Gard's lead (THANK YOU for reviving that important man's work as a role model)and think seriously as individuals and institutions about WHY we go the work we do; then we must put aside seriousness and be genuine, lighthearted and joyous about implementing that work and sharing the arts.

Posted by: D.G.Hill at August 22, 2007 1:20 PM