Arts + Education = Butts in the Seats = ?!?

Advocate: It is essential that students experience Shakespeare.
School Leader: I never really liked Shakespeare.

Anne Midgette is always a good read. First, she’s a cracker jack writer. Second, she isn’t shy about her opinions. Third, you should hear her talk about food!!

When she was writing for The New York Times, she had more than a few very pissed off performers complaining about her tough customer reviews.It was an extremely entertaining time for arts journalism in New York City.

Anne posted a particularly interesting piece earlier this week in The Washington Post: Back to School: On Orchestras and Outreach.

The conventional wisdom these days is that music education in the
schools has declined, and therefore we’ve lost audiences, and therefore
we have to put lots of energy into school music programs so that we can
build up our audiences again. A lot of the emphasis is on teaching
instruments. Some 74% of the orchestra audience, according to a Knight Foundation study
based on six selected orchestras, has experience playing a musical
instrument; therefore, let’s get instruments in the hands of schoolkids
who will grow up to be the audience of the future.

As far as conventional wisdom goes, it’s not exactly right. There are plenty of kids, in high performing schools, in wealthy districts, in private schools, in enlightened districts, who are receiving music (and arts) instruction. Precisely how much of it is sequential, how much is quality, and how many are given opportunities for advanced programs in high school is hard to say. It varies dramatically.

But, if you’re a kid in an urban district, particularly in a low performing school, well, you have more than a fair chance of getting a very raw deal indeed.

Now, I’ve written on this topic before, and I am quite sure it won’t be the last time.

Okay, I understand well the impetus to create education programs for reasons of audience development. Let’s say you’re at x orchestra, or x theater company, or x opera company. All concerned are looking at the audience data and hear about the declines in arts education, and well, voila, you have an instant demand for arts education programs.

What is it that they say? Let’s try this: “Where will the audiences of the future come from?”

And, let’s just say this: I’ve heard that phrase from people who should know better, including some people on my board of directors.

So, you’re probably wondering why I take issue with creating education programs to help support the future of x orchestra, etc. Some might find such a position perverse.

I’ve spent a lot of time over the past few years looking at K-12 issues from the outside. What I mean by that is that arts education is really on the outside looking in. And inside, believe me, the matter of whether or not a future graduate will attend opera performances is near the last thing you will hear on very big list of concerns.
It’s not that educators and policy makers are opposed to such thinking, but ultimately the conversation is about something much more fundamental: what is college and career ready, for instance.
And, I am sorry to say, that while many arts educators see the connection between arts education and proficiency in ELA and math, as well as what it means to be college and career ready, in the main, the K-12 public education policy makers don’t get it, at all.
If they don’t get the connection between arts education and core, fundamental issues related to why school in the first place, then does anyone really think that the butts in the seats intent is anything but discrediting?

And of course, there’s not only the butts in the seats propellant, but the matter of the heart. When you realize that the kids who get the arts the least in the home, also get it the least in the schools, well, it’s something deeply troubling. And you want to do something about it.

So, what is the answer? Do you invest in such programming because you hope that it will help build your audience one day, some how, some way, even if when you really, really think about the issue, you realize that a connecting of those two dots is unlikely to happen? To be clear, the two dots are providing a music/arts education program that leads to ticket sales sometime in the reasonable future. It’s the arts + education = butts in the seats equation.

For me, kids need the arts. They need the arts in order to be healthy. The arts are built into our DNA and power the imagination, self expression, and all sorts of other capacities from cognition to emotion. The kids have it in them and it’s our job to provide pathways to explore what is theirs by right, and if their parents cannot afford it, then the public schools must supply it, for the kids will never be whole without it. Student achievement is more than just test scores in ELA and math.

Will providing the arts lead to butts in the seats? At best, its a head-scratcher, but I really don’t think we have any real data to prove the equation, whatever might be done to correlate audience data with the provision of arts education.

Moreover, viewing children as a commodity through the lens of education is really not really very cool.

To the contrary, the question that really needs to be addressed, on the most fundamental level, is how can we help ensure that all children have a quality arts education, whether or not it leads to butts in the seats, because it is what is right for our children and ultimately our society.

Is the arts field willing to educate through the arts, whether or not it has any measurable impact on audience development?

It is the answer to that question that will reveal quite a lot about the role the arts field can really play in education.



3 responses to “Arts + Education = Butts in the Seats = ?!?”

  1. This is a very interesting blog post and a good continuation of the debate for/against arts education outreach programs.
    I completely agree that if an artist/arts organization is only implementing educational outreach programs in order to obtain future butts in seats, this will be a big fail, waste of time, money and energy. The problem with this type of initiation is that it belongs to a marketing mentality only. Butts in seats is a term that to me means people are just a number. This is not audience development.
    If an artist and arts organization were to properly collaborate with the arts education world and implement educational outreach programs for the reason that the arts can make a difference in children’s lives, now this can be an audience development initiative. Let me explain.
    Not everyone is going to clamor to see an orchestra concert even if they had a solid music education. Same goes for offering Shakespeare, which will not equal solid tickets for the future. The arts for these students will have served a different purpose. They will receive the benefits of being exposed to the arts, especially when combined with creative thinking lesson plans.
    Audience development is about building relationships, and an educational outreach program should be about building relationships with the children of your community. This is where many educational outreach programs fall short. The artist/organization does not follow through. When you get to know the students personally, a win-win situation can happen if you recognize the students that are interested in music, theatre, etc. to the point that they are jazzed about hearing and seeing orchestral music and/or a theatre performance.
    When I was 7, a music teacher did this for me. She “filtered” me out of the rest of the class and recognized I had the love and joy for music. I was “cultivated” (although I do hate using this clinical term) at a young age due to this recognition, and yes, I do attend orchestra concerts in my area when I can.
    Here’s the “bottom” line. Audience development needs to be beyond marketing, beyond the butts in seats mentality. It is not simply about providing a taste here and there with the hopes of it catching on in the future. It’s time to use the audience development care that I know and love and instead discover the students that do naturally love the arts and build relationships with them. These are the students that you want to encourage to get more involved, and with this encouragement, it could very well lead to ticket sales in the future, although this is not the main purpose.
    Again, I completely agree that educational outreach programs for the sake of converting children into future patrons should not be the main purpose of these programs. However, it can lead to future patrons if these programs are implemented with the goal and with the care to nurture the discovered young arts lovers in your community.

  2. One could argue that it is exploitive to educate children so that they will become adult patrons of the arts. The problem is, I can’t think of any school program where that is a major concern – if one at all. Most programs are mainly directed toward the more immediate enrichment of children’s lives. In almost all school programs, children make art and learn about art because it is fun and stimulates creativity. The arts are taught because they teach kids sets of skills that help them develop as humans and experience life more fully. I think that is also the main reason why most orchestras work with children.
    A basic implication of the argument you present is based on the formula: arts education = forced enculturation. And a second formula: arts education = brainwashed future arts consumers. Though rather popular these days, those two formulas are rather precious and rarified postmodern conceits that have little to do with how arts education is really practiced. Fortunately, all those heroes actually out in the trenches (which is how I view school teachers, especially those in the public schools) are much more practical minded. They see the immediate and obvious value of teaching children art. When they are teaching kids to play the violin or trombone, they are giving very little thought to brainwashing future consumers. By assigning nefarious intentions to arts education that it never had, we are putting our knickers in a knot by blowing over-intellectualized, pomo smoke rings.

  3. I am not a super hokey type, I am a pragmatist. I know that as an art educator, or frankly a teacher of any stripe, so much of my job is selling; if I don’t fire up the desire to learn, nothing will happen. Ironically, nothing ‘sells’ like passionately, joyfully introducing kids to the thrilling, intricate and ever new world of the fine arts. If I am fired up, yeah, maybe they’ll be some more butts in seats. But that’s because more human beings will be seeking that lovely complexity and surprise that adds meaning and texture to their lives. Butts in seats is a manifestation of that, but so is creation, remixing, blogging, discussing and teaching. If people want to build audiences, why aim so low? Focus on bringing the joy, empowering the mind, and the butts will follow. Maybe even with their wallets.