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June 13, 2007

Our Conversation Starts Thursday Morning

by Douglas McLennan

Welcome to the group blog Engaging Art. This is a discussion based around the idea that the ways in which audiences and artists are interacting are changing. We have 12 bloggers lined up to participate in our conversation beginning early Thursday morning. In the right column, you'll find links to bios of our bloggers, as well as excerpts and abstracts from from the book Engaging Art: The Next Great Transformation of America's Cultural Life. This discussion is actually a prelude to a live session in Nashville, Thursday, June 21 from 2-5 CDT at the American Symphony Orchestra League's annual conference. Readers and invited to join the discussion. Click the comments link at the bottom of any post. Your comments will appear under the entries as well as in a reader's forum. We'll also pull highlights from the readers' comments and post them in the main blog column.

Posted by mclennan at June 13, 2007 12:52 PM


The public never stopped being engaged with music it could receive as communicative. It has been the institutional crowd which has so codified the analytical basis for everything which has turned things upside down for them as far as audiences go. They are further decieved when they get together in their little mutual admiration cliques on campus, and hogwash each other into thinking their "music" is the next, future thing. This is because we now have teachers who simply have no idea what they are talking about - that is why real composers are turning inward and offering up serious and communicative art to a public which not only understands, but appreciates it. As for those who sneer at whatever is "popular," who cares about their "music?"

Posted by: John Graham at June 17, 2007 9:12 PM

The majority of Americans think going to a symphony concert is boring. And, often times for them, it is. We, as music people, can be inspired simply by sitting and listening to music. But this is our passion and, through experience, our minds have been educated and focused on the intricacies of this music that turn us on so much. Many people need (or think they need) more of an overall stimulating experience these days to relate, understand, appreciate and become inspired by orchestral music. Most people only hear a symphony as the soundtrack backing up a movie plot. It is background music that underscores the emotional movement of the story - subtly touching the hearts and minds of the audience unconsciously. Is this a bad thing? Music, though of course it can stand on its own, is fantastic (dare I say even better?) at supporting other mediums. So combining other forms of entertainment with the symphony experience can be a dynamic and exciting way to touch those hearts and minds that may need a little extra stimulation. Combining visual media, dance, singing, acting, even athletic interests can create a more exciting experience for someone who doesn't understand why you would just sit and look at a bunch of people playing instruments for an entire evening. Combining mediums can pull non concert goers into the world of music. Touch their hearts, inspire their minds any way you can and perhaps they may eventually become educated, aware and appreciative of the music itself. You may even eventually get them to sit through an orchestra concert.

Posted by: Paul Pement at June 18, 2007 8:19 AM

I share William Osborne's conclusion as to arts funding in America as at the heart of our systemic problems. Both the Fine Arts and the more "popular arts" - encompassing everything from classical to avant garde - from music to video and everything in between, need support so as to promote creation and increase public access, and that support absolutely MUST have some public funding component (all the foundation, corporate, patron and other pockets of support simply aren't as deep as the public trough). And public funding in America is pathetically, ridiculously, unacceptably inadequate, and yet it is accepted - by the arts community, the public and the media. And so, for example, California ranks dead last of all 50 states in per capita state support at 3 cents. THREE cents. And has languished in that position for going on four years now. Why? Because there is essentially no "political will" to change that reality, and because to the scant extent their is any willingness to act to change the situation, the arts community here, as elsewhere, clings to the erroneous assumption that if the field can "just more convincingly make the case for the value art brings", legislators and elected officials who control the decision making as to that public funding, will "see the light" and miraculously change their attitudes and not only fund the arts but address the other needs of the sector. That "Oliver Twist" mentality totally ignores political reality and how the system works. Poor little Oliver - holding his bowl out and meekly asking" "Pleas Sir, can I have some more" - thinking that plea will work is what the arts are doing.

There are scores, if not hundreds of ideas and programs, the arts might employ to expand audience participation - some which would likely fall flat on their face, others of which might actually put bodies in seats or otherwise change the dynamics, but most of them will have some cost invovled, and thus most of them will never be tried, because there isn't the money, as Mr. Osborne rightly points out, to even adequately pay competitive salaries to orchestra members, let alone allow the arts to provide public access at prices the public can afford or engage in basic marketing. And those orchestra member salaries and the funds to allow those orchestras to drop ticket prices to the point that more people will attend, aren't likely to just appear magically from the sky. It isn't just the orchestra members who are under paid - the average arts organization leadership in this country is grossly undercompensated as well, and we have a crisis at the lower end with mid-career arts administrators leaving the field for purely financial reasons (like putting their own kids through college). Money is never the only answer, and only part of the problem, so more money, by itself, won't solve all the challenges the sector faces. But the lack of money has direct bearing on every aspect of this discussion.

When will the arts realize that public funding is one of the absolutely essential three legs of any stool on which they will sit and mobilize their efforts to effectively gain that support?

It isn't about advocacy. Advocacy is trying to convince somebody what you do is a "good" thing. It's about lobbying - give us our share of the pie or we will support somebody who will - with money and votes.

Posted by: Barry Hessenius at June 18, 2007 9:13 AM

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