The H Word

letter H“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.




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  1. says

    I love this post, Lynne, and I agree that the hospitality metaphor is useful for an industry that’s lost touch with its audiences. But I tend to bristle at the idea of arts insiders defining audience members as liberal learners. If that definition has come from in-depth research into audience desires and expectations, I’m willing to embrace it, but in my experience, that’s not how audiences see themselves. Audiences are looking for rewarding ways to spend leisure time, and education may or may not be part of the rewards they’re looking for.

    Luring people into our venues by being welcoming and respectful is all well and good, but if we’re going to turn around and treat them as if they need us to educate them, it’s a strategy that isn’t likely to succeed. If you invite someone to dinner and then spend the meal lecturing them about the nutritional science that inspired the recipes, your guests are going to think twice about that next invitation.

    True hospitality means deferring to your guests and learning as much from them as you expect them to learn from you. If the cultural sector continues to view the traditional arts experience as a top-down, one-way process of raising up the less well-educated, the chronic audience attrition we’re experiencing now is likely to continue.

    • says

      Hello Trevor:

      I think we are very much in agreement on all points. But I think our wires crossed over my use of the term “liberal learning,” which seems to have suggested to you a top-down teaching model. That’s not my intention. Your comment makes me realize that I need to do a better job of explaining myself (so thank you).

      For me liberal (free) learning is all about the pleasure of working through new ideas and new concepts and, as I say in my post, engaging in a process of making sense of the world. One of the big lessons from contemporary learning science is the reframing of the definition of learning from being able to remember and repeat information (a top-down approach) to being able to find and use information (as in an authentic conversation). I think the most effective “teachers” (whatever the context might be) treat their learning environments as two-way systems built on a process of sharing, nurturing, sparking. So my argument has to do, in part, with the need for arts workers to create and participate in a two-way conversation about the meaning and value of the arts. When that occurs we all become learners in the best sense of the word.

      In a few of my earlier posts (“Raising Up the Masses?” and “Replacing Gatekeeping with Cultivating”) I’ve attempted to frame my definition of learning by referring to audiences as “de facto learning communities, gathered together to take in and process new information about the world of art that surrounds them.” I’ve also stressed that audiences are successful learners when they take part in productive talk and are in charge of their own interpretive process—in other words, when they are empowered as meaning makers talking to each other rather as passive receptors being told what to think or feel by experts. I could not agree more with your statement that “true hospitality means deferring to your guests and learning as much from them as you expect them to learn from you.”

      I plan to go into much greater detail about what I mean by productive talk, including how to facilitate it, in upcoming posts (using material from my new book—which is largely devoted to the idea). I’ll look forward to hearing what you think.

      • says

        Thanks so much for your thoughtful reply, Lynne. I do sense that we’re on the same page, but I’m so accustomed to hearing arts industry leaders and pundits reinforce an off-putting “we’re here to bring up the little people” attitude that I may be overly sensitive to certain turns of phrases.

        I do like the idea that arts experiences broaden the perspectives of participants (ideally, both the audience and the artists), but I struggle constantly with how to make that persuasive. We won’t be able to broaden anyone’s perspective if we can’t first convince them that participation is worth their investment of time, attention and money.

        • says

          Knowledge and the ability to interpret doesn’t just happen or fall from the sky. People don’t just wake up one day with an opinion or knowledge about what it is they want to see or experience in the arts. Their taste and opinions are taught and influenced. The key question is by who? So why the constant denigration of the “expert” as elitist?


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