I wasn’t at the National Performing Arts Convention in Denver last week, but I’ve faithfully read the strategies for the future that the conference produced. (If you follow the link, keep scrolling down to read all the strategies that were proposed.)
And the whole thing, I have to say, makes me a little sad. Everyone — and this includes friends of mine, people I respect and have known for years — got so excited. Which is natural. You meet in a supportive environment, you’ve all got the same goals (boost the performing arts!), procedures are developed for constructive talk. So of course you come up with hopes and plans:
Organize a national media campaign with celebrity spokespersons, catchy slogans (e.g. “Got Milk”), unified message, and compelling stories!
Create a Department of Culture/Cabinet-level position which is responsible for implementing a national arts policy!
Forge partnerships with other sectors to identify how the arts can serve community needs!
Create multi-media marketing strategies (including YouTube, Facebook) to communicate and demonstrate value and relevance!
The exclamation points are mine, and of course there were many more ideas. But what was missing from all of this was any discussion of the world in which these initiatives will have to be launched. And without that discussion, how can anybody know which of the many ideas presented are likely to work? Just imagine a commercial company making plans to promote a product. Wouldn’t they do market research? Wouldn’t they want to know what people think of the product, and what things about the product might (or might not) be appealing?
And yet here we have the arts — an endeavor that most people involved would think was far more important than a mere commercial marketing campaign — and all we bring to it is (forgive me) unfocused amateur enthusiasm. Organize a media campaign! Well, what’s it going to say? OK, fine, leave that to the professionals who’ll eventually run it. But if you yourself have no idea, how will you know whether the professionals will make sensible plans? (And, by the way, who’s going to pay for this campaign? It’s going to be expensive.)
What’s going on here, I think, is something I’ve pointed out before. (And also here.) People in the arts won’t talk about what the outside world is really like. What they like to do is go running down a hall of mirrors, shouting out in great excitement. The arts are wonderful! If only people knew that! If only people were exposed to the arts, then they’d love us! And so plans are made for eager, not-quite-thought-about-enough exposure.
And meanwhile, out in the rest of the world, people have no problem in principle with the arts, but they’re also deeply into popular culture, which has (long, long, long ago) evolved art of its own. They don’t make distinctions, any more, between high and popular art. They don’t think anything’s missing from their lives because they don’t spend time enough with everything that people in the arts promote. If you want them to go to opera more, or dance concerts, or theater, one job you’ll have to do is to persuade them that they’ll get something as smart and as deeply connected to their lives as The Sopranos or The Wire.
A lot of arts marketing and advocacy — just look at classical music marketing, which might be effective for the core audience, but is absolutely feeble otherwise — doesn’t come near to doing this. But people in the arts don’t seem to notice, because they’ve conveniently assumed that popular culture is shallow, weak…oh, you know the drill.
You can read people saying, for example (I won’t name any names here) that our current culture leaves no room for thought or for reflection. This might be followed, in one example I can think of (again no names), with suggestions for ways that classical musicians can learn to think — to deeply reflect — on what they do. Meanwhile, newspapers and magazines and TV shows bring us interviews with movie actors, film directors, TV producers, and pop musicians, all of them thoughtful, all of them deeply pondering the issues in their work. But apparently some of us are blind to that.
Enough. There are some useful cautions about the convention from my fellow ArtsJournal blogger Andrew Taylor, who was there. (Scroll down to find the post called “”Changing the players, and the game.” I’d go further than he does, and I want to be particularly clear in saying that my ideas are mine, and his may be quite different. But I’m glad he said the following:
Being unique, under appreciated, and in constant jeopardy seem to be part of our DNA now in the nonprofit performing arts, whether or not the evidence supports the assumptions. And our perception of commercial entertainment as the ”other” and the ”enemy” still block our larger understanding of our work.
So much of the conversation in Denver was driven by frustration with the lack of perceived resonance, value, and importance of what the performing arts do for society. Government doesn’t support us enough. Schools don’t work hard enough to sustain and integrate arts education. Audiences don’t spend enough on our tickets. We tended to blame the outsiders for this problem — if they only understood us, they would value us — but every now and then someone would ask the deeper question: Are we telling our story well? Are we building our story on the values and interests of our community? Are we being as compelling and clear in our organizational narratives as we are on our stages?
These are crucially important issues. We’ve got to break out of our hall of mirrors, and start living in the same world as the people we say we want to reach.