AJ Logo an ARTSJOURNAL weblog | ArtsJournal Home | AJ Blog Central

« What If Video Saved the Radio Star? | Main | How do we deal with choice? »

June 14, 2007

La plus ça change . . .

by Lynne Conner

Doug has opened this group blog with the question: "how do you engage an audience when it's constantly looking across the bar for something better?" And Alan Brown has volleyed by asking: "Whose job is it to nurture and engage the citizen artist?"

Both are great questions, but I'm not going to try answering them. Instead, I'll ask yet another question that I think reflects the true thinking of a lot of arts professionals (producers, administrators, artists), even if they don't dare say it out loud (at least not to me).

Who cares whether the audience is "engaged" or not? And furthermore, why is that my problem? Making (or delivering or professionally evaluating) art is what I do. How audiences connect with it is up to them.

If we think of our jobs as being restricted to providing the arts event, then this whole discussion on "engagement" will seem extraneous (or worse, the product of yet another cynical incarnation of marketing science).

But, if we see ourselves as part of a larger cultural operation in which the quality of the audience's experience is as important as the quality of the arts event we deliver, then we can have a meaningful discussion about the role and function of today's audiences. As I argue in my chapter, "In and Out of the Dark: A Theory About Audience Behavior from Sophocles to Spoken Word," this notion of audience sovereignty over producing the meaning of an arts event (what I call "co-authoring") is not new, but rather both ancient and long-standing. Only in the late 19th and 20th centuries did the hierarchal idea of arts reception--in which great art will automatically find its true audience without mediation of any kind and without opportunities for public discourse--emerge as a kind of industry truism. In fact, this notion that we need to let the arts event speak for itself is simply ahistorical. If we take the time to look at the histories of our art forms, we'll see that there is an historical relationship between a given community's interest in attending an arts event and the opportunity to inform its meaning; it is a reciprocal status that reflects a healthy balance among the needs of artists, producers, and audiences.

I'm a playwright, a critic and a theatre educator. In all of those capacities I have come to understand that it is simply not enough to hand over my product (play, review, essay) to my audience and expect that to be the end of my responsibilities in this relationship.

I have to be there, listening, when the audience talks back.

Posted by lconner at June 14, 2007 7:43 AM


Lynne, you've written a fascinating essay. The evolution of the passive audience coupled with the movement toward "art as religion" has greatly broadened the gulf separating artist and viewers. And yet, as you question in your post, "Who cares whether the audience is "engaged" or not?" I believe the answer lies within the social nature of human beings. We are communal animals who cannot live in isolation. The impulse to create and share art is found deep within our genetic code. The arts serve a cohesive function within society, transmitting images and emotions that converge the commonalities of human nature. In the highest forms of artistic expression the artist and audience are joined in a symbiotic relationship, each reinforcing and uplifting the other.

What concerns me is all this talk about "market share" and "audience engagement". The arts have evolved into a complex industry in which the commercial and nonprofit sectors have formed an alliance with talent, product and capital flowing from one to the other. Can economic and aesthetic values coexist comfortably?

Posted by: MadSilence at June 14, 2007 8:19 PM

I entered musical life as a musician, and spent a decade and a half as a professional orchestra musician - okay, as a professional violist. I'll wait...

As I was saying, I spent more than a decade of my performing career in The North Carolina Symphony and during that time I shared a view with my colleagues that we, the musicians, were the orchestra, and they, the audience, were ...well, the audience. It was all happening on stage, and those few in the seats who really understood what was going on enjoyed a feast, or perhaps a clambake on a bad night, and the rest of the audience got something out of it I suppose, but I couldn't fathom what that might have been.

Then there came a point that I elected to undergo a conversion to management in lieu of neck surgery, and the scales, so to speak, fell from my eyes. I realized that we musicians were most emphatically not the orchestra. The orchestra was plainly those folks in city after town all around the state whose eyeglasses reflected stage light from the darkness of the house night after night. They were the orchestra. We - musicians, managers, stagehands, conductors - were the hired help. It sounds obvious or absurd, but I knew it to be the truth because I got a paycheck for showing up and performing or managing.

Why is this paradigm important? Because we are always talking about how we can sell what we have to them, but they are not them - they are more us than we ourselves.

I spent about a decade in orchestra management and so far a dozen years in development/ fundraising both as employee and consultant for orchestras, theaters, museums, universities, secondary schools, hospitals, associations, human services, churches, etc. After all of that, I am firmly convinced that my post-performer epiphany was accurate: they are the orchestra, not us.

I know I for sure lost at least one job interview several years ago the moment I said this. Our field looks for stars and strongmen (persons) to sell our art on the strength of charisma. But is that rational? Other nonprofits thrive by appealing to enduring values of community, the shared experience of growing together, shared conviction, recognition, personal validation, and even the desire for immortality (named a building lately?).

Our audience is our orchestra. It is our community, the Petri dish in which we grow our art. It is absurd to treat it like a bunch of commoditized consumers whose wants and needs we need to figure out so we can sell to them. They are our partners. Maybe they don't fully understand the product, but we can still treat them with respect and recognize that they are important, and it's not just their ticket money. If we can shake off our delusions we can build strong, productive relationships with them that will become a solid foundation for our art. How? It's late and I have to get some sleep. If anybody is interested I'll write more later.

Posted by: James Hopkins, CFRE at June 14, 2007 8:59 PM

Post a comment

Remember Me?

(you may use HTML tags for style)

Tell A Friend

Email this entry to:

Your email address:

Message (optional):