Welcome to We the Audience, and thank you for joining me in what I hope will be a rich and rigorous dialogue about the meaning and value of the arts in the live + digital era.  I appreciate this opportunity (thank you Doug McLennan) to be in a conversation with smart industry people who really care about ideas and about improving our cultural ecology.  I hope the benefit for my fellow AJ readers will be the same—the chance to push our thinking forward and to learn from each other.

As I write in my biographical note, my background as a cultural historian, a playwright/director and a cultural policy theorist informs my ideology and my writing style: a blend of history, theory, observation and storytelling.

As I write in my manifesto, I believe that our goal as arts workers should be to empower audiences to engage in constructive and pleasurable dialogue about the arts and to celebrate those audiences who, by virtue of their vital and engaged presence, can turn any arts space (live and virtual) into a site of public assembly ripe for intellectual and emotional connection.

I think our vision should include offering twenty-first-century arts goers a bill of rights assuring that every member of the audience has by definition not only the right to interpret but also the right to be heard as a viable interpreter. In order to create a more perfect union of arts workers and arts audiences for the twenty-first century, we need to acknowledge that when it comes to making meaning and ascribing value, our audiences want to have a voice, and they want that voice to matter. All of us—arts workers and audience members alike—want the opportunity to formulate and exchange opinions about the arts events we see, hear, and feel.

I don’t know exactly how this blog will unfold, or what territories we’ll wander into together. But I can assure my readers one thing. I’ll never use the phrase “audience-centered cultural institution” here, because, to my way of thinking, that expression is a redundancy.

The audience is us.

This blog’s central notion—that arts workers (producers, presenters, funders, artists, arts educators) should be enlisted to help in the creation of an audience that knows how to engage in productive meaning making (including a good argument)—challenges both the power of interpretive gatekeepers and the audience’s tendency to relinquish their fundamental responsibility to make meaning.

I plan to begin my new adventure as a blogger by spending some time over the next few weeks laying out my theory of social interpretation and the role that pleasure plays in engaging audiences. Much of this thinking comes from my new book, Audience Engagement and the Role of Arts Talk in the Digital Era (Palgrave Macmillan). It’ll take me a few posts to introduce key concepts and to dig into three guiding provocations:

1. The deep pleasure of arts going is located in the meaning making process surrounding an arts event (and not solely in spectating/moment of reception).

2. Social interpretation is the most effective way to achieve pleasure in the meaning making operation. Furthermore, social interpretation used to be the standard way to measure both the value and impact of the arts. Further than that, everything old is new again: a wide range of contemporary participatory cultures have put social interpretation back in the driver’s seat, and for good reason. Social interpretation is pleasurable in a satisfyingly complicated way.

3. The more audiences are invited to participate in social interpretation the more adventurous (sophisticated) arts consumers they will become.

Intrigued? Then please keep reading. I’ll dig much more deeply into these three provocations over the course of the next three posts.

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  1. says

    In regards to your manifesto, what happens to audiences when they become more “sophisticated”? Do they become more knowledgeable, more experienced, more erudite in their taste and connoisseurship? And isn’t that, in fact, a quality of the ‘gatekeepers’ which you project in such a negative light?

  2. Melanie Parke says

    Suggesting instruction for pleasure and insistence to interpret meaning makes repellant the idea of attending anything. Placing structured obligation and chores on an audience is the death knell to sincere interest/participation. This sounds like a manifest to make audience-workers.

  3. says

    Welcome to ArtsJournal, Lynne. I like your concept that the creation of meaning (or interpretation) before during and after an event contributes to audience engagement and impact. I think that’s what many gatekeepers in my art form of choice have attempted to establish for many years, by celebrating the artists, demystifying what they’re doing, inviting listeners to join in. Easier said than done! But I’m pretty sure smart usage of media, both new and traditional, is key to the task. I’m eager to read your unfolding of these ideas as you develop your blog.

  4. says

    This book is an important contribution to the audience engagement conversation. I have been experimenting with audience engagement for years and Conner’s analysis helps illuminate why and how I did or didn’t achieve success in my endeavors. Regardless, if we want to maintain and grow our audience base, we need to take these ideas seriously. What a delight to imagine a world in which the audience is no longer obligated to passively appreciate, but becomes an active participant in generating their own pleasure when attending an arts event. I’ve already begun applying these ideas in my classroom and have seen my students come to life as they realize they have permission to be heard and shape the meaning in what we study together, rather being asked to passively take notes and absorb and regurgitate the knowledge only I can convey. Bravo and thank you, Lynne.


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