The authenticity of an emerging arts brand

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Note: This article discusses an event in Charleston, S.C., called Kulture Klash 2, a kind of art party that I argue could be a model for "authentic" branding as posited by Bill Breen in a 2007 article in Fast Company. Inspiration for this piece comes from Andrew Taylor's hugely insightful blog on arts and the business of the arts and my fellow Flyoverstani Bridgette Redman's August post about authenticity and audience connection.

Song of Experience
Kulture Klash 2 and the authenticity of an emerging arts brand
By John Stoehr, Charleston City Paper


One way of explaining the astounding popularity of the iPod, YouTube, and Facebook is that they feel authentic.

We, the consumers, are in control. We pick the songs we want to hear, the videos we want to see, and the people we want to befriend.

In a consumerist country saturated by corporate rhetoric, marketing hype, and the commercialization of you-name-it, these devices might offer respite from the out-of-control anxieties of a seemingly out-of-control marketplace. They can provide a comforting break from a heavy psychic burden -- the knowledge that someone, somewhere at any given time is willing to say anything to sell you something.

For those of us in GenX or GenY (if those are still useful terms), this is old news.

We were raised on TV. We've become intimately familiar with the verisimilitudes of bullshit.

We grew up wanting to know that there's more out there than commercials for toys, games, and breakfast cereals interspersed with Saturday morning cartoons. We eventually found ourselves searching -- for what, we weren't really sure. Whatever it was, though, it had to be something we could trust and believe in. It had to be something, as a sage songwriter once put it, that's "really, really real."

When it comes to the arts -- and when I say "arts," I mean all of them, from classical ballet to parkour, from Greek tragedy to krumping -- it's no surprise to see people of this younger generation being put off by the standard strategies of arts marketing.

Marketers typically tout the product -- good actors, good singers, good whatever. A classic case in point concerns the symphony orchestra, which has, since the postwar era, used the term "masterworks" to describe endless performances of Bach, Beethoven, and Brahms.

Hyping the best still sounds like hype, and unfortunately for symphony orchestras, that hype is increasingly falling on deaf ears. For young patrons (i.e., those born after 1964, the last year of the Baby Boomer generation), sensibility, quality, and taste are for the consumers, not producers, to judge. The more arts groups adopt the superlative rhetoric of toothpaste commercials and all-weather tires, the less young people are likely to listen.

I know, I know. Generalizing is a fool's errand, especially when it comes to the ambiguities of generational difference.

But I can't help wondering about these things in the days running up to the second Kulture Klash.

Kulture Klash is a one-night event that might be best described as a semi-annual party featuring visual artists, dancers, musicians, and performers gathered in one place at one time. Organizers Scott Debus (artist and art dealer) and Olivia Pool (editor of ART Magazine) were aiming to invite their friends, and the friends of their friends, to participate in a single night of camaraderie, interaction, and conversation -- oh, and partying.

"We wanted to bring this group together to encourage community and dialogue between artists," Debus says. "We want the graffiti kids to know about the palm tree artists and the palm tree artists to know about the graffiti kids.

"Usually, they clash," he continues, "but this is about collaboration."

After the jump, read about how Kulture Klash 2 might be a model of "authentic" branding.

Participants include underground artists such as Ishmael, John Pundt, and Julio Cotto, along with well-known local artists such as Lese Corrigan, John Dunnan, and Jack Alterman. Works on display have been selected from 42 artists in all. The evening also features performances by DJ James Belk, ARC Experiments in Dance, Homespun Hoops, and Hypnotik Body Rock.

Debus estimates that about 800 people attended the first Kulture Klash back in November, an impressive figure given it was the inaugural event. For their sophomore effort, Debus and Pool anticipate twice as many guests.

Back to an earlier point: Arts marketing is falling on deaf ears. But organizers of Kulture Klash anticipate about 1,600 will attend. Sure, it’s not that many. When you’re managing the North Charleston Performing Arts Center or the Gaillard Auditorium, that’s a small slice of what you need to make your nut. But for smaller organizations, like local theater and dance groups, 1,600 is a fantastic, if not fantastical, number.

And we’re not just talking about volume. We’re talking about quality. More than likely, those attending Kulture Klash are the very people that, say, the Charleston Symphony Orchestra would like to attract — people who are smart, curious, open-minded, and young.

But I wonder if there’s more. I wonder is Kulture Klash provides these people, these young people, a feeling of authenticity, too.

That might depend on your point of view. In any case, Kulture Klash does seem to be connecting, and connecting with, the right people on a basic emotional level. And it does it in a way similar to methods used by the most effective, enduring, and “authentic” commercial brands.

According to Bill Breen, an editor at Fast Company magazine, writing in a 2007 article that was widely read among marketers, administrators, and advocates of the arts, there are four primary factors of authentic branding. If Kulture Klash 2 performs as expected, it might achieve all four.

A sense of place. Authenticity requires a place to connect with, Breen reports. Kulture Klash is rooted in Charleston. Debus told me the party atmosphere is only part of an occasion to build an arts community for Charlestonians by Charlestonians.

A strong point of view. Breen writes that passion is a hallmark of authenticity. I would add that it’s passion rooted in sound ideas. Kulture Klash organizers believe all forms of art worthy of consideration and critique. Debus told me he aims to encourage people to see that there’s less difference between each form of art than we think. Music, dance, visual art — they are animated by the same spirit of human creativity.

A larger purpose. Breen writes: “Consumers quite rightly believe, until they’re shown otherwise, that every brand is governed by an ulterior motive: to sell something.” Kulture Klash has nothing to sell but the idea of itself and a feeling of being part of a community. It aims to foster dialogue, to pierce the formalized experience associated with art galleries, and to return art to its historic place among the rhythms of social life, i.e., a big party.

Integrity. Breen reports that brands fail when they fail to remain true to what they are. In other words, they deceive us in some way. Organizers of Kulture Klash are taking steps to prevent that. Debus and Pool are shooting for transparency and honesty. They plan to change the roster of artists every time they organize an event so that no artist is being showcased more than any other artist, avoiding the appearance of favoritism.

Many arts groups already know these things and many are already taking the right steps to evolve with the times. Others may never be able to change. Traditions do die (take speaking Latin or bear baiting or blackface, for instance), no matter how popular they were at a given point in history. But Kulture Klash is doing something right and it’s worth taking a closer look.

It’s not just offering a product. The product — i.e., the art and music and dance — is secondary to the experience of gathering with like-minded people around a subject that they all love. What would a night of theater look like with that objective in mind? What about an evening of ballet or poetry or even contemporary music?

That experience — of being connected in an honest, open, engaged sort of way — is what makes those artful moments seem “really, really real” to a non-baby boomer audience.

And it’s that experience — that authentic experience — that other kinds of arts groups might learn to emulate and make their own.

This article was originally published in the Charleston City Paper.

April 17, 2008 7:24 PM | | Comments (1)

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Once we scrape past the now rather well-worn ideas about how Gen X & Y are too wired up and too hip to be suckered by received or "imposed" notions of quality in the arts, we get to a prescription for arts marketing that more or less comes down to advice on throwing a rave.

May I suggest that what such an event draws are basically clubgoers? And that clubgoers go to clubs? They generally don't go to theater or galleries or dance performances -- unless the theater or gallery or opera or dance performance already has some social cachet or if it appropriates some of the attributes of a rock concert/party. Hence, the stage production of rock musicals or the hiring of pop musicians for a local stage piece or to liven up a gallery opening. There's also the choreographing of dance pieces to techno or hip-hop music, the transformation of opera pieces into performance art - all of these have been well-established approaches in the arts for, what, 25 years? Whether any of them actually converts a trendy young clubgoer/partyer to an enthusiast of string quartets or Shakespeare is another question entirely, and I'd be interested in any real studies on the matter -- as opposed to Bill Breen's wise suggestions for how to talk to the hip kids without seeming like a complete fud.

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This page contains a single entry by FlyOver published on April 17, 2008 7:24 PM.

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