June 18, 2007
The Talking Cureby Lynne Conner
Molly asks: "What else should we foundation funders be thinking about to support increased engagement in arts and culture?"
My answer: TALK! Help citizen-audiences to start talking about the arts. Give them imaginative and participatory educational programming to build up their knowledge of orchestral music. Follow that up with public opportunities to express their opinions about what they've heard. And always always ALWAYS provide professional mediation to make sure that that public conversation is facilitated in a respectful, thoughtful and democratic way (meaning, everyone gets to talk, everyone learns to listen).
I've already said this but I'm going to say it again because it is the single most important thing I've learned in my twenty years making and teaching art: People like to talk through their feelings, their confusion, passion, disinterest, disgust, and pleasure. Talking is a way of processing an opinion. If there is no opportunity to talk, there is likely to be no "opinion" other than a vaguely expressed sense of disengagement. Now how they like to talk varies. Some people enjoy public settings where they can opine in front of other people. Others need more private opportunities to talk through their opinions. Still others prefer to turn public talking into public writing (like we're doing with this blog). But the point is--people want opportunities to express their opinions about the arts event they have just experienced.
Okay, you say. People (especially Americans, and especially Americans under 50) process opinions through talking. So who's stopping them, right? What's that got to do with funders and orchestras?
A great deal of attention and money and human resources have been poured into "arts education" programming for children. But adult audiences also seek to learn "in and through" the arts. The problem is, open learning is a risky undertaking for most adults, because the process underscores what we don't know, and, as such, exposes our weaknesses.
Think about it this way: many careers are built on the notion that as a highly educated, highly trained professional, we know a lot. It's no surprise, then, that for an adult it is very difficult to go into an environment where you don't know the background and therefore don't have a context for understanding and analyzing what you are about to see and hear.
I like to quote educational theorist Thomas Szasz on this subject: "Every act of conscious learning requires the willingness to suffer an injury to one's self-esteem. That is why young children, before they are aware of their own self-importance, learn so easily; and why older persons, especially if . . . important, cannot learn at all."
In my next post I'll have more to say on the kind of professional mediation we need to be sponsoring in order to get our long-silenced audiences talking about the arts again. I'll also tell some stories from a project I've been working on with The Heinz Endowments in Pittsburgh called the Arts Experience Initiative.
Posted by lconner at June 18, 2007 7:39 AM
Yes, yes! Encourage talk. Or to dress it up a bit, support discourse-based epistimology. This is so, so different than "object-based epistimology" which dominates the DNA makeup of museums and traditional performing arts organizations.
Posted by: Ken Finkel at June 18, 2007 8:41 AM
Lynne, you struck a chord with the following comment:
"A great deal of attention and money and human resources have been poured into 'arts education' programming for children. But adult audiences also seek to learn 'in and through' the arts. The problem is, open learning is a risky undertaking for most adults, because the process underscores what we don't know, and, as such, exposes our weaknesses. Think about it this way: many careers are built on the notion that as a highly educated, highly trained professional, we know a lot. It's no surprise, then, that for an adult it is very difficult to go into an environment where you don't know the background and therefore don't have a context for understanding and analyzing what you are about to see and hear."
In today's environment where few children and few adults have any familiarity with our music, it is no longer sufficient for orchestras to play great music well and offer some music education for children. Orchestras must embrace an additional mission of creating a demand for our music.
In 2001, the American Symphony Orchestra League, in partnership with more than 300 of its member orchestras, conducted an Audience Motivation Research study. A striking finding of that study was the Frequency Spiral, which may provide insight into the process of Audience Engagement.
Analyzing nearly 2,000 responses, the study concluded that the most significant driver of Frequency of Attendance was Enjoyment (how much the listener had enjoyed his/her concert experiences). It then found that the most significant driver of Enjoyment was Familiarity (how familiar the listener was with the work being performed or the genre). And finally, it found that the most significant driver of Familiarity was Frequency of Attendance. It sounds circular, but almost like compounded interest, it actually is an accelerating spiral.
The beauty is that you can intervene in the Engagement process at Frequency, at Enjoyment, and at Familiarity. Let's look at an intervention at Familiarity. Familiarity can be gained over many years of concert-going or listening to broadcasts/recordings. It can also be jump-started by conscious intervention.
For example: Many years ago a prominent orchestra opened the season with a tribute to Nadia Boulanger. The most accessible work on the program was Elliott Carter's Concerto for Orchestra. It was well rehearsed and performed, yet after intermission only a handful of ticketholders returned to their seats. It was not a successful concert, and I would venture to say that only a handful of audience members were engaged.
Ten years later, that same orchestra, under a new music director, again performed Carter's Concert for Orchestra, this time on a program with a Rachmaninoff Piano Concerto. The concert was well sold and opened with the Carter work. However, before the performance began, the conductor bounded onto the stage, grabbed a hand-held mike and said (to the best of my recollection):
"Okay everyone, fasten your seat-belts, this is going to be one of the most challenging pieces you will hear this season, but I'm going to help you. This Concerto for Orchestra is one of the most significant works of the 20th Century and one of the most difficult. We've spent extra rehearsal time preparing it for you. It is really a theme and variations. Here is the theme. [The orchestra performed a short sample] You will not hear that again because Carter hides it. It may come back as timbre, or as rhythm. Here it is in the percussion. [Another short musical sample] That you will hear, and it is important to note that at this point you are half-way through." [audience laughter]
That was about it. He then turned around and conducted the piece. You could have heard a pin drop in the packed auditorium. Everyone was on the edge of his/her seat. When it was over, the conductor was called back to the stage for five curtain calls. The Rachmaninoff was also well performed and well received. Did this audience return after intermission? You bet they did, and what did they talk about during the intermission? Not the Rachmaninoff, but the Carter. That audience was engaged.
Posted by: Jack McAuliffe, President, Engaged Audiences LLC at June 18, 2007 8:51 AM
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