“Hospitality” is a new buzz word in the arts right now—a by-product of a surrounding participatory ethos in leisure activity and the attendant urge to open our doors in new, more friendly and generous ways.
I’m all for it.
I love Mixed Blood Theater in Minneapolis’ adaptation of the concept of “radical hospitality,” a term with roots in both spiritual and feminist practices. At Mixed Blood, a free ticket initiative begun in 2011 has expanded to “providing our audience access to our space, to the artists, access to our process.”
I love the way friendliness becomes modus operandi at Elizabeth Streb’s Lab for Action Mechanics in Brooklin: “a gathering spot for exchange of creative ideas across cultures of kids, dancers, gymnasts, circus specialists and pedestrians.”
I love the deep generosity of the Baltimore Symphony’s Rusty Musicians program, where nonprofessional adult instrumentalists and vocalists are invited to play a concert alongside the orchestra and under the direction of Maestra Marin Alsop.
And I love the reconceived relationship between host, guests and environment in the work of Classical Revolution, a Bay Area collective of musicians dedicated to performing “high-quality chamber music in nontraditional settings.” According to founder Charith Premawardhana, “We’re trying to put on concerts of great music with low overhead and high impact, reaching the audience on their own terms / level, and creating new connections that will continue to bear fruit over the years.”
All that said, my take on hospitality is a bit different. In Audience Engagement and the Role of Arts Talk in the Digital Era, I explore hospitality as a central ingredient of Arts Talk, my plan for revitalizing the culture around the serious arts. The Arts Talk model is based on understanding an audience member as a liberal learner—a person engaged in a process of making sense of the world through their connection with the arts event unfolding in front of them and with the community that surrounds it, artists and fellow audience members alike. People who experience the arts as liberal learners find opportunities for critical and imaginative thinking, learn how to exercise and defend their own aesthetic judgments, and revel in their capacity to feel, to think, to communicate, to wonder and ponder, to share, to listen, and, perhaps, to collaborate toward the common good. With regard to arts audiences, however, perhaps the highest value associated with a liberally educated mind is the capacity to reflect into the heart of things. Reflection is the sine qua non of interpretation; the starting point for positioning, defining, and creating meaning. People who can reflect on their arts experiences and talk about them with others can also talk about the world.
This ability to position, define and create meaning is dependent on a hospitable learning environment. As education reformers Parker J. Palmer and Arthur Zajonc articulate it in The Heart of Higher Education: A Call to Renewal/Transforming the Academy through Collegial Conversations, hospitable spaces promote learning “not merely because kindness is a good idea but because real education requires rigor. In a counterintuitive way, hospitality supports rigor by supporting community.” The authors call attention to the fact that an effective learning environment, one in which we can admit our ignorance and encounter opposing viewpoints without losing the capacity to listen and learn, is “not going to happen in a class that lacks hospitality, a class where people feel too threatened to say anything that might get them crosswise with the professor or other students.”
This is true of adult arts audiences as well. Most audience members, brought in from the cold without much preparation or context for what they are about to see and hear, have a very difficult time talking about the arts, particularly when the work is new to them. The difficulty is compounded when adult audience members are confronted by an environment that is inherently inhospitable to authentic learning, such as a talk back dominated by an “expert” facilitator or an arrogant (and sometimes defensive) artist. In this kind of environment, very few adults will be willing to expose their ignorance on the subject at hand or to risk being chastised for coming up with the “wrong” reaction or response. Adults (especially professional class adults) are accustomed to being in control. Environments that challenge our control make us uncomfortable. And environments that lack hospitality—that are not generous and friendly but rather hierarchical and snobbish—compound that discomfort.
As Palmer and Zajonc intone, being hospitable is an iteration of being kind; as such it involves establishing a culture of respect for all participants. For adults, a hospitable learning environment is one that is safe intellectually and emotionally and is nonjudgmental. In an arts context, this means that a person’s taste is acknowledged as a legitimate part of who they are and what they bring to the group. This notion of safety does not preclude expecting audience learners to be willing to experience new aesthetic ideas and structures, however. “Safety does not obviate the natural challenge of learning new concepts, skills, or attitudes,” notes educational reformer Jane Vella in her book Learning to Listen, nor does it take away the hard work that goes into accessing new data and acquiring new knowledge.
It means, instead, that audience learners must feel that their prior experience and their taste portfolio are welcome, as a starting point, for the new, often difficult learning that is about to occur. In an arts context, if we sponsor a postshow talk back program in which an expert of some kind (a scholar, a critic, an artist) lectures rather than listens and does not work to create opportunities for productive talk or authentic conversation, then we are sending the message that we aren’t truly interested in the audiences’ response.
We send a message, whether intentionally or not, that we are not, in fact, hospitable.