A Wisconsin take on Generation X and the arts
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?
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