Our Question


  1. “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?”

    These are two completely different questions.

    Artists create. We do so for deeply personal reasons. The “community,” however you choose to define it, gets to view our art and decide for itself whether or not it’s relevant to them. Once an artist begins to create FOR that community, he/she becomes something else.

    Arts organizations are in a much different position. They have to balance their own perspectives on art and community preferences with the need for financial survival. Organizations that don’t serve their communities aren’t around very long. Of course, we run in to the same issue of how to define “community” in this context. For many nonprofits, community means “people who think like we do and are willing to contribute money.”

    This really doesn’t need to be complicated.

  2. The question itself is lacking in nuance, i.e. is this really such a “black and white” debate? From an institutional perspective, if the leaders within an institution find something significant happening in the world of art, they’re hopefully going to explore its details, meanings, forms, etc. and promote that significance via exhibits, publication, discourse, or private conversation. Obviously, though, this isn’t a perfectly open world (and never will be) where all “significance” is readily apparent–like people in any profession, leaders within an institution have informed biases. So they “lead” according to their preferences, finding significance when it matches up with their own field of study and active involvement. But the institutions themselves are equally biased–by prevailing norms, continued or potential prestige, and unequal access to capital resources–and this is an unavoidable reality. In other words, those who “lead” in an institutional capacity (collectively or individually) already reflect a discourse that rewards them for following established norms that continuously unfold in a changing world. It might be better to ask, what exactly is a leader?

    But I’m not inclined to look at this strictly from an institutional perspective. As a poet, I follow the seemingly never-ending debate about poetry being written only “for other poets,” or about the supposedly estranged audience that can never quite fathom the obscure work of writers who engage in realms of thought and practice that fail to produce accessible poetry. So, as the argument goes, poetry has forgotten its audience and severely narrowed its import in the world at large. Which is to say, there are those who think poets need to do a whole lot more “following” than “leading,” at least in terms of responding to the supposed wishes of a generalized audience that is (presumably) abandoning poetry due to its unrewarding difficulty and increasingly obscure deconstruction of form. However, if I purchase any leading literary journal, I don’t really find very much of this “difficult” or overly “obscure” poetry. Instead, someone else–embodied by institutional clout, credentials, and cultural capital–is leading according to an institutional bias that rewards those who follow, either as artist/writers or as potential institutional insiders.

    Of course, we don’t develop and mature as artists unless, at some point, we’ve followed what others have previously done–or what others are currently doing–thus stepping beyond our own limitations to discover the significant possibilities inherent in an ever-evolving artistic practice (whatever that practice may be) that truly does have a place in the world of human affairs, regardless of how wide-spread (or limited) the acceptance of that practice might be. Nothing happens in a total vacuum–not even outsider art. But the idea of asking “should we lead or should we follow” seems to be just another way of framing real issues in the context of an artificial binary. It’s not that the issue isn’t “real,” but that a more relevant question might be “what does good leadership entail?” Or, if we consider that successful leadership always plays a significant role in developing specific audiences, we might clarify by asking “which is more important–attention to art or audience–when it comes to making decisions about artistic practice and institutional norms?” And I might answer that by saying, “it depends how you look at it.”

    I might also add, is culture really something we “consume”? And, if art has finally been reduced to an issue of consumption (and consumption alone), does your grand question even matter anymore?

  3. Douglas McLennan says:

    Hi Jim: The question was framed in such reductive black-and-white terms in an attempt to provoke debate. Everyone seems to be talking about “engagement” these days but what that actually means is often hazy. Engagement for engagement’s sake is, it seems to me, ultimately an empty exercise. What many mean by the term is actually just getting more people to pay attention to them. Or another way to get more butts in the seats. Is that really the goal – a better marketing tool? In either case it’s a two-way conversation. I think many think of engagement as a kind of enhanced feedback loop, one that can ultimately used to generate more business.

    But I think engagement speaks more to the process of art, an insistance that art is less a product than it is an interaction around culture. What that interaction becomes helps in the end to define the art, if you believe that art gets more powerful as people start to use it. Of course artists have to lead. Of course they also need to follow. And they always have in one proportion or another. But I think the communications revolution has brought about the possibility for more fluid relationships, in which the roles of artists, institutions and community are less rigidly defined.

  4. The artist creates – all else about community , leading, following . is just hot air,-if the artist does it for the community or as social work you end up with what
    Russia had under Stalin – endless dreary garbage ,or “I don’t know much about art ,but I know what I like ”
    crowd .Once the artist begins to create for the community all is lost unless the artist has final say
    in the creative effort and parameters concerning the art work are understood in advance and the artist
    is willing to present a work within the parameters without community interference .
    Arts organizations for the most part are only about themselves -how to present themselves ,how to
    con an unwary public into giving them funds to cover their salaries and whatever is left over for
    the arts they so ardently espouse . As Mr. Moore noted they are two different entities . Most of the
    time the artist gets the short end of the stick . One has yet to see a “great community masterpiece “

  5. Two words: CREATIVE TIME (www.creativetime.org)

    No artist creates just for herself. Art is dead without an audience, and most of the best artists are engaging with critical social and cultural concepts in their work on some level. It is the role of arts organizations to program artists’ work for larger communities. Arts organizations move between artists and audiences with the aim of cultivating connections and experiences that result in even more complex and meaningful contexts for an artist’s work, as opposed to having it sit alone in a studio, or hang in a gallery or museum no one visits (except the same old white, wealthy art crowd) because as an institution it feels stuffy, exclusive, and inaccessible. Art shouldn’t be an activity for the elite or astronomically commercialized; on the other hand, we shouldn’t need to dumb down complex work just to cater to mass appeal.

    My biggest question has always been whether we can reconcile our seemingly fixed notions of “community arts” and “contemporary art” so that the best of both converge. Can contemporary art organizations start offering contemporary art education so more people have a context for this work, so we make its interpretation more accessible and cultivate future generations and more diverse followers of arts organizations?

    My dream for “engagement” is to shed its buzzword status and continue thinking about and experimenting with its potential to be the link between programming art with and for communities, and programming art to challenge and disrupt communities.

    The artist (or artists) should play an integral part in envisioning the experience of the work and how public engages with it, but ultimately the “artist” can’t just trot around the globe having her work installed or exhibited everywhere and not think what it means for the public in that specific cultural context. Art doesn’t exist in a vacuum. We all inform each others’ work and ideas. Feminist art has already debunked the Modernist myth of male genius artist sitting alone in his studio creating “master”pieces. Yet still it seems so many people think of this very image when they think of what art “is” or who an “artist” “is”. And what happened to the last several decades of artists who have been designing work that blurs the boundaries between artist and audience, encouraging collaboration and co-creation? Most Happenings, Fluxus, performance, feminist, and social practice art has never existed without audience interaction or public engagement–the work actually depends on what happens when the public experiences it, or when an artist meets the public and their positions merge. So there’s that.

    If arts programs have challenging stuff to present, good. Conceptual contemporary art is some of my favorite, but I will be the first to admit that arts organizations need to start thinking seriously about how to diversify audiences not for business but for their responsibility to art. Art needs audiences. It wants better. In the long run, the more people who have informed access to art, the more arts appreciators (and supporters) that organization will have in the future. So in terms of community, what would look like to have organizations program artists and projects that are more directly responsive to a community’s cultural context and dynamics? If an art program were designed, should it serve only self-serving artists? We’re all in this together. Art moves among artists, audiences, agencies, and everything in between.

    This all comes down to dual relationships, hybrid roles, collaborative practices, and a little suspension of ego.

  6. We effectively do both:
    - Lead through innovative and extraordinary programming in this world of too much information. We have do be above the noise of today’s world offering the best quality experiences to engage and enrich the lives of those we serve.
    - Follow by being relevant and utilizing the tools our audience is engaging in especially in the area of social media. If by follow we mean listen, then we must follow as well.

  7. So there you have it ! the hot air from the community workers -exactly what the real artist has to deal with
    day in and day out . Feminist art nonsense , and the moment one reads that” no artist creates for herself ”
    you know the nonsense to follow . It is people who have no knowledge of what the creative instinct is
    but are given a platform to prattle endless nonsense on the artist and the relationship to the community.
    Art is dead without an audience nonsense and on and on .The community of air heads .

    • It’s too bad that you feel flippancy and personal attack to be the most effective form of discussion about art and culture, and in turn, that you are so quick to dismiss the social politics embedded in art and to laud the abstract idea of “creative instinct”, as if only people who call themselves artists have one, or that all artists have a single, fixed form of “creative instinct” entirely wrapped up in their own self-interest.

      Plenty of artists would completely disagree with you that their creative instinct is distinct from community work. Your comment suggests that these two categories–art and community worker–are mutually exclusive, when in fact so many artists do both, and don’t see them as separate. You seem to speak for every artist. I know many who would in no way agree with anything you have said; they conceive of their art and their role as artists to be informed by many other factors, not just an elusive notion of “creative instinct” that you never actually define in any of your posts.

      On another note, I won’t even bother arguing with your misogynistic dismissal of feminism and feminist art, though I will say that your violent disregard for such work and its movements in the art world indicates severe lack of knowledge or appreciation for the political underpinnings of so much art creation and programming, and above of all else, I am most fearful that people with viewpoints similar to yours will come to dominate the art world, dilute its political potency and social history, and render it meaningless–leaving those of us who care that people make and experience art with even bigger jobs of convincing the public that it matters.

      Finally, I suggest finding a synonym for “nonsense” (you used it four times). You’re an artist, use your creative instincts! Diversify your vocabulary already. And while you’re at it, think of all the great artists who came before you who reveled in nonsense–Dadaists, Surrealists, Fluxus folks. Maybe that will deter you from attempting to use the term as insult.

      p.s. your ideas sound so 1940s.

  8. The “true ” artist has only one aim and that is to present his or her work as the unassailable truth
    the creation . whether it be in music ,painting or the written word . The community does not exist
    during the creative process nor should it .The people who tie in creative work with community work
    are like a dinner theatre where the dinner is awful and the theatre worse , they probably being less than second rate but “ever so creatively involved with the community” . One very successful museum
    exhibit I curated was by a woman who would have laughed out the door any one who called her
    work feminist art…she presented herself as” first rate artist ” which she was .The community entered
    the picture as a paying public which could accept her work as publicized and reviewed or reject it
    according to taste .She certainly wasn’t about doing social work to gain approval or feel good .
    I used the word “nonsense” to bring home the nonsense of the article,and am glad it sticks enough to make an impression of sorts . . Let me assure the Dadaists , Surrealists ,Cubists etc . looked upon the
    general community with total distain and lived outside the community you so value .
    The latest show by Hockney is all about Hockney and not the community as a social art project .

  9. The community is not society or the masses. Often just the opposite. Dadaists, Surrealists, they were a community of their own. They despised mainstream society and normative social mores, not individual communities.

    Feminist art doesn’t, nor has it ever, been identical to art by women artists. I wouldn’t ever expect all women artists to identify as feminist, nor should they. Hardly any of them make feminist art, thus, it wouldn’t make sense. But good luck to the woman in your exhibition, because the latest statistics tell us that women artists still make up less than 10% of most museum collections, receive far less money for their work–whether in a gallery show or at auction, receive far less publicity and critical exposure, are paid significantly less for equal work, and are rarely, if ever, in the top professional, curatorial, and administrative roles in the arts despite the best credentials and capacity. Until last year, there had only ever been one year of the Venice Biennale curated by a women (two, in fact–apparently, one couldn’t do the job). I can give numbers if you need them, they’re all published. Feminism in art is not just about “feminist art”, is about the politics of gender in the art world. Surely you can acknowledge that THOSE exist.

    I am still baffled that you can claim to know every artist’s position, process, or the way in which they describe and identify themselves as artists. You know YOUR process, not anyone else’s. Plenty of artists today consider concepts and realities of community on creative, theoretical, philosophical, and political levels when they create projects. Curators, too. And programmers. And they are all some of the leading voices in art criticism, theory, and practice. You dismiss any engagement with notions of community as social work, or somehow not real art. How long must we have that wretchedly regurgitated conversation about what “real” art is when art is clearly indefinable, which makes it all the more interesting and challenging? No two artists are the same, nor are their minds, nor their politics, nor their processes. And there is no “true” art. Just to scrape the surface of the absurdity of that claim, I would remind you that you are coming from an entirely Western notion of art. How can we say there is only one definition of art or description of artistic process that exists globally, across time, space, and culture. Have you never heard of context?

    And for the record, I despise dinner theatre as much as the next person. I don’t know who ever told you that dinner theatre was community art. The community artists and community arts administrators I know would absolutely balk at that. At the very least, dinner theatre is for-profit. Community art is nonprofit. And that is one of a thousand distinctions that can be drawn there.

  10. Ok, so back to the topic at hand….
    I currently reside in a small city in North Carolina that I believe is dealing with this very question. Our city has three performing arts organizations: The Gilbert Theatre, Cape Fear Regional Theatre and The Horrible Folks. Its an old city conveniently located on I-95 and less than two hours from the Atlantic coast. But yet I wouldn’t call it a “major” city or one that has completely embraced the arts just yet. That observation gave birth to the very question you folks are asking: Who should lead?
    The answer is simply that there is no ONE answer. The Gilbert Theatre, for example, is vetting some candidates to find a new Artistic Director. Some of them I know well and have had discussions about what they would want to do with the Gilbert in their first few seasons. Overwhelmingly, the response is similar to Ariel’s in that they tend to be art-centric and possess limited regard to MARKETABILITY. And who can blame an artist for wanting to be an artist? Just as who can blame an ant for being an ant, or a rose for being a rose.
    But what strikes me is not the similarities in attitude. What strikes me is the hard-line position the artist can take in defending their craft and their ideas against the institution that will facilitate the medium through which they can express themselves.
    Ariel, I respect your craft so much. And I commend your attitude. Most of us could only wish to have such freedom. But your speaking out of context. You’re an artist who would perform on the street if he had to – that’s your spirit and that’s great. LEAD the way, because hell, you can! But the context in this conversation has more to do with an actual organization and its position in the community.
    To make art, you must exist. To exist, you must have WORKING CAPITAL.
    The definition of “art” includes something about affecting the senses. It is only ‘art’ if people see it so you have to be able to sell your product people aside from just YOURSELF! This is not a selfless world. People don’t go to see theatre because they want to “support” the arts. If they want to support, they will contribute. But even then, your stuff better be good. People go to be stimulated and entertained… and yes, every now and then, to enrich their lives with new perspectives.
    So if you don’t agree with me, at least enrich your life by understanding My perspective. ;)

    • Mr. Val one can understand your point of view, but it was not what I was addressing . The workings of
      regional theatre is a world all to itself and in the climate of to-day only a visionary with deep pockets
      could make a go of it ,if that . The only regional theatre I am aware of having for years great success
      are the two Canadian ones – the famous Canadian Stratford and the Shaw Festival , but I am sure you
      are well aware of them . From what I have seen, they have the highest artistic standards one could want
      and they address their MARKETABILITY with great skill. In both cases the towns benefit much from the theatre presence and for the occasional grumblings support the theatres without trying to run them . having been deeply involved in the arts most of my life I know the life well enough to say it is not an easy existence and the least free person is the artist . The artists’ hard line position is no different from
      what you would take if some community do good group decided to direct you in how to conduct your life
      and by doing so please the community to accepting you and giving you a seat at the table . Perhaps I am wrong . To make art one must exist etc. etc . is just playing with words. You have decided why people go to the theatre and what they may expect and I suppose it will be the kind of theatre they will get.If they come back , you will have won the day and will have all the Working Capital to exist .

  11. Would that you could comprehend and read with more care -there was not any mention of “true art ” as was alluded in your latest rant and you haven’t the slightest idea from whatever “notion ” I am arriving . Your observation of, the Dadaists and Surrealists and society (community ) speaks of ignorance and the willful bending of facts to suit a premise . There are artists and there are artists and it all dependson how one defines the “artist “, there are people who call themselves artists who are in reality social workers using the tools of the artist to further their community work under the umbrella of artist serving the community which is mostly a feel good state about ones self .

    That women have had a tough road in the arts is a given and you are correct there , but in my dealings with galleries museums the change in some is quite dramatic with many women having controls never dreamt of in the past , so much so that I believe a woman who is as an accomplished infighter as the males is on equal footing, power position is a matter of knowing the game. Women as artists is a different ball game- that many are as good as the best from the male dominated art world is not disputed , their visibility or lack of has much to do with the “community ” in accepting them as more than an adjunct to the male art world …it is deplorable that in the arts the distinction of ” the worlds’ greatest woman violinist ” ( pianist }” famed woman photographer ” etc. terms still in vogue -but you can lay that stupidity at the door of society (community ) which views a professional and successful woman as lacking in the maternal warmth that they believe defines the female. There are many women who use the power to great effect- as to be hardly noticeable and then there is the Thatcher type.

    The goal is to like or dislike the artist for reasons other than being female. I look forward to your directing us to” community art” that can stand up to never mind rival the great shows now in London.

  12. The original question is flawed. If you think about it, we’re arguing over what “should we do”, period. The moderator didn’t give us a goal and ask “what should we do to get to this point.” She/he just said ‘how should it be?’ To that, what more can we say than “just do your thing.” Under any other context, I would argue for days.

    As far as communities providing a sustainable environment for whatever-comes-to-mind-art… it can be quite the rarity. But those kinds of artistic groups/individuals are hard to come by, I think, because we all need to make a living eventually, and for some of us, our craft is the only thing we know.

    Enough from me. Can’t wait for the next one. All the best.

  13. Agreed, the question redux is flawed as a number of unrelated ideas are put together as if they correlated, in particular the mix up between artists and art organizations muddies the approach.

    “Some suggest this new transparency argues for a different relationship between artists and audience.”
    Yes, of course, there has to be a different relationships between “audiences and arts institutions” – as far as I can tell the audience has little trouble with this – arts orgs do: Their context and environment has changed completely in terms of technologically empowered audiences and yet so many arts orgs seem to hang on to old thinking and behaviour. (Artists and audiences are engaging in many direct connections today that do not require institutional mediation anymore, so I do not see this issue playing out for artists in the same way; they are figuring out how to make fans using all the technology at their disposal, with musicians and actors leading the way.)

    “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?”

    A better discussion might come from arts organizations grappling with “why should the audience follow me?”, “where am I leading my audience and where am I leading my community/ my city.” “Why should/ do audiences care about my art org brand and how do I foster their desire to associate with me?”

    Leadership is not pronounced, it is earned. Leadership only exists when there are followers. Therefore, it is incumbent on arts orgs to inspire followership.

Leave a Reply