AJ Discussion: Lead or Follow?

In lieu of a Jumper post this week I have written a post (If this is leading, what is following?) for the Arts Journal Discussion, Lead or Follow.  Here’s the question that launched the debate, posed by AJ’s Doug McLennan:

Increasingly, audiences have more visibility for their opinions about the culture they consume. Cultural institutions know more and more about their audiences and their wants. Some suggest this new transparency argues for a different relationship between artists and audience.  So the question: In this age of self expression and information overload, do our artists and arts organizations need to lead more or learn to follow their communities more?

Doug McClennan has put together a diverse group of debaters: the Kennedy Center’s MichaelKaiser; John Holden of Demos; Chad Bauman, marketing director at ArenaStage; Michael Phillips, movie critic of the Chicago Tribune; culturalhistorian Lynne Conner; Josephine Ramirez, program officer at theIrvine Foundation; Jenny Byrd, a graduate student in arts management at Claremont Graduate University; Bob Harlow, an arts consultant; Stephanie Barron, curator at the LA County Museum of Art; Roberto Bedoya,director of the Tucson Pima Arts Council; Kelly Tweeddale, executive director of Seattle Opera; Trisha Mead, Director of Marketing and Communications for Oregon Ballet Theatre; and Stanford Thompson,Executive Director for the El Sistema-inspired program, Play On, Philly!

I hope you’ll check it out and jump into the discussion.

And if you want to know what the onion is about, read the post. 😉



Share on FacebookTweet about this on TwitterShare on RedditEmail this to someone


  1. Andy Buelow says

    Diane, I have the deepest respect for your ideas and often find them uplifting and inspiring. Your speech about “stop selling excellence and start brokering relationships” is one I refer to all the time with my board.

    So I hope you will take that into account when I say that although I think I understand the points you are making in the “Lead or Follow” post, I find the way it is couched very dispiriting. The comments about us arts administrators and organizations all “duping, objectifying and devaluing” our audiences just seems like a huge generalization. Michael Kaiser’s viewpoints don’t necessarily reflect those of all fine arts organization leaders — they certainly don’t reflect mine.

    I felt similarly deflated by the January 3 post, in which we were all seemingly lumped into a category of “wealthy, well-educated white people” trying to impose our elitist standards on the rest of the world.

    Again I think you make some valid points, but I find these generalizations rather depressing. Maybe these things are more true of the major urban arts institutions, which are more hidebound by tradition, but down here at the level of smaller, part-time professional orchestras, operas and theater groups we are trying very hard to engage with our audiences and communities and provide them with vibrant, if not “world class” (whatever that means) arts experiences — and yes, sell tickets to them.

    Thanks for constantly pushing and urging us to do better, think differently, be courageous… but at least from where I stand we could use a little gentleness too.

    • says

      In the debate, Lead or Follow, Kelly Tweeddale makes a good point, which I interpret as her concern that, in my words, art organisations tend to breath each other’s air too much. Andy’s point, in this thread, I think represents the difficulty arts organisations are having in a more highly connected, and perhaps more ‘immediate’ or ‘on demand’ world. Capturing the essence of a culture’s artistic endowment is a challenge as it is one of the few ways we have for the past to speak to the present and inform our future thinking. This requires making choices independently of the ‘now’ itself and is where leadership of a sort is needed (the sort of leadership that seeks to understand and incorporate a vision rather than the usual strategic leadership stuff from business schools, as the leadership here is ‘on behalf of the culture’ and is therefore empowered to act, it is not sui generis.

      The difficulty for these organisations is what is there role in presenting the present in the 21st century and that requires completely different thinking and may be misrepresented by a simple lead/follow logic. One aspect of the Tao refers to leadership as more like midwifery and that represents a way to collapse the dichotomy. It doesn’t however tell arts organisations what to do.

      (I posted the other day on my own blog (http://www.skythunder.net/?cat=31) a note on how digital technology might be used to create user generated experiences of art and a simple technology that is available today, that might give new thinking to the leader/follower challenge.)

  2. says

    Thank you for the post and rightfully taking me to task for not qualifying my statement. You are right: there are many fine arts organizations that are in dialogue with their communities (yours among them). And I try in my posts to make the point that some organizations are doing very good work (and to even give examples). This is a good reminder for the future. Thanks, again.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *