A couple weeks back I had the privilege to give a talk in Christchurch, NZ at an event called The Big Conversation—hosted by Creative New Zealand, the major arts funding body for the country. The talk, Transformation or Bust: When Hustling Ticket Sales and Contributions is Just Not Cutting It Anymore (click on the link and it will take you to a transcript) was intended to address the general conference theme, Embracing Arts / Embracing Audiences. It was assembled on top of four cornerstone ideas:
- Michael Sandel’s argument that we have shifted from having a market economy to becoming a market society in which, as he puts it, market relations and market incentives and market values come to dominate all aspects of life.
- The notion that, paradoxically, the arts are facing a crisis of legitimacy (says John Holden) at the very moment when we have so much to potentially contribute as a remedy to the erosion of social cohesion that is resulting from global migration, economic globalization, a culture of autonomy, and the Internet (see the David Brooks op-ed, How Covenants Make Us).
- The four futures for the social sectors predicted by NYU professor Paul Light in the wake of the 2008 economic crisis: (1) the unlikely scenario that nonprofits would be rescued by significant increases in contributions; (2) the more probable scenario that all nonprofits would suffer; (3) the most likely scenario that the largest, most visible, and best connected nonprofits would thrive while others would fold; and (4) the hopeful scenario that the sector would undergo positive transformation that would leave it stronger and more impactful, likely only if pursued deliberately and collectively by nonprofits and their stakeholders.
- And a concept I encountered on Doug Borwick’s excellent blog: transformative engagement, by which Doug means engagement with the community that changes the way an organization thinks and what it does.
Building on these, I argue that in the US arts and culture sector we have for too long ignored or denied the costs of so-called progress in the arts–meaning, for instance, the costs of professionalization, growth, and the adoption of orthodox marketing practices including so-called customer relationship management and I suggest five ways that arts organizations may need to adapt their philosophies and practices in relationship to their communities if their goal is deeper, more meaningful engagement.
Ultimately, I pull the various threads of the talk together in a framework that seeks to conceptualize the difference between embracing the community and embracing the market. In setting this up, I build on Internet guru Seth Godin’s notion of, essentially, competing worldviews that inform the way companies approach marketing. In an interview with Krista Tippett on her NPR show, On Being, Godin remarks:
There’s one view of the world called the Wal-Mart view that says that what all people want is as much stuff as possible for as cheap a price as possible. … And that’s a world based on scarcity. I don’t have enough stuff. How do I get more stuff?… There’s a different view, which is the view based on abundance. [And] in an abundance economy the things we don’t have enough of are connection …and time.
Here’s the PPT slide of the framework I created that synthesizes the various ideas in my New Zealand talk:
In many ways, this talk explores an idea that I first began to ponder when I wrote a blog post for the Irvine Foundation in response to its question: Is there an issue in the arts field more urgent than engagement? If so, what is it?
In my post, I answered the question in the affirmative and then offered the following as a more urgent issue:
While lack of meaningful engagement in the arts is indeed troubling, I would offer that a larger problem is that the nonprofit, professional arts have become, by-and-large, as commodified, homogeneous, transactional, and subject to market forces as every other aspect of American society. From where I sit, the most important issue in the arts field these days may be that the different value system that art represents no longer seems to be widely recognized or upheld — by society-at-large, or even within the arts field itself.
For the New Zealand talk I tried to explore the ramifications of the loss of this “different value system” (Jeanette Winterson) and how it relates to the issue of engagement.
Gap Filler: On Sustaining the Social Cohesion that Emerges out of Disasters
Because the conference took place in Christchurch (where two devastating earthquakes struck in 2010 and 2011) I reflected at the top of the talk on the solidarity and social cohesion that often arise in response to natural disasters. In his new book, Tribe, Sebastian Junger introduces the seminal research of a man named Charles Fritz to explain why this is. Fritz asserts “that disasters thrust people into a more ancient, organic way of relating.” … “As people come together to face a threat,” Fritz argues, “class differences are temporarily erased, income disparities become irrelevant, race is overlooked, and individuals are assessed simply by what they are willing to do for the group” (Junger 2016, 53-54).
Yet, as Junger reports, all too often, these effects are temporary. One of the best parts of the conference in New Zealand was being introduced to some amazing organizations and projects here—including Gap Filler, an intiative that began with a few people asking how they could sustain the sense of fellowship, volunteerism, and community that arose out of the first earthquake. One of the co-founders of Gap Filler, Dr. Ryan Reynolds, gave a truly inspiring presentation at the conference. It struck me listening to his story that Gap Filler could be the poster child for Creative Placemaking.
Gap Filler’s first ten-day project was launched in November 2010. It began because Reynolds and others wanted somehow to fill the gaps in the physical and metaphysical landscape of Christchurch left by the loss of hundreds of buildings, including dozens of bars, clubs, and restaurants. They had the idea to gather a group of volunteers together to transform the empty lot where a popular restaurant, South of the Border, once stood into a temporary space for citizens to once again come together and eat, drink and socialize. Over the course of ten days—and driven largely by citizens who showed up on their own initiative to contribute to and enjoy the temporary space—the site came to host a temporary garden café, live music, poetry readings, an outdoor cinema, and more. The success of this first project led to further initiatives including art installations, concerts, workshop spaces and eventually semi-permanent structures. You can read more about Gap Filler’s projects here. (And here is an article, written in 2013, about the revitalizing influence of the earthquake on the Christchurch arts scene.)
Gap Filler was only one of several remarkable organizations/projects I heard about at The Big Conversation.
In any event, if you read the talk, I hope you find it worthwhile and will share any responses to it on Jumper.
And speaking of things worth reading …
Nina Simon has a new book out! Those who have read Jumper for a while, or have heard me speak at conferences, know that the topic of matteringness or relevance is one I have been circling and diving into with some regularity for the past decade—and I am by no means alone in this. One of the greatest minds on this topic is Nina Simon at the Santa Cruz Museum of Art & History and she has a new book out—The Art of Relevance. I won’t be united with my copy until I’m back in the US next month, at which point I look forward to reading it and writing about it on Jumper. In the meantime, I strongly encourage anyone interested in the topics of relevance, engagement, or participation in the arts to buy it and read it, as well.
***This photo is of the stunning sculpture by Michael Parekowhai, On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer, and it was taken at one of the many sites where the work was situated in Christchurch following its presentation at the 54th Venice Biennale. It is currently housed at the Christchurch Art Gallery and is considered to be a symbol of the resilience of the people of Christchurch following the earthquakes.
William Osborne says
You might consider the larger historical context of the evolution of thought that you describe. Over a 50 year period, we moved from a view of the arts as an alternative to the market, to the view that the market should be the sole arbiter of all human endeavor. We transformed from a Rooseveltian social democracy to the strong free market, globalization of neo-liberlaism. As always, the arts were culturally isomorphic with these changes.
And predictably, now that neoliberalism is being strongly challenged around the world, such as in the States by Bernie Sanders or in the UK by the Brexit vote, the arts world is shifting back to the idea that the arts serve as a riposte to the market.
This article is a good example of current criticisms of neoliberalism:
As an aside, and for the sake of illustration, the text of the work by Aaron Copland linked below is a good example of the social democratic worldview of the Rooseveltian era. It also shows that it is little wonder that Copland was hauled before HUAC during the 50s when social democracy was purged from American society:
You might also consider the larger political and economic context about the use of disasters to create social change. This idea has been addressed by two notable thinkers. Naomi Kline’s book, “The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism” argues that neoliberal free market policies often exploit national crises to push through controversial policies while citizens are too emotionally and physically distracted by disasters or upheavals to mount an effective resistance, or even note what is happening. An example is the invasion and effective colonization of Iraq initiated out of the 9/11 attacks even though Iraq had nothing to do with them. One of the most famous historical examples is the Reichstag fire in Germany, which Hitler used to consolidate absolute power.
The Italian philosopher, Giorgio Agamben, is also well-known for his work investigating the concepts of the state of exception, or state of emergency, that governments use to justify assuming absolute powers. He notes how states of emergency lead to the reduction of life to “biopolitics,” the idea that humans are reduced to their bare biological existence and thus deprived of any rights. The bare biological human then becomes the norm for society even after the emergency no longer exists. The massive surveillance of American society after 9/11 is an example of how a state of emergency was used for reduce rights. Guantanamo is example of how life was reduced to its pure biological nature.
This might also correlate to the evolving concepts of behavioral economics and how the web is able to collect detailed information about the desires, interests, social networks, and buying habits of massive segments of society. With this detailed knowledge, society becomes a kind of cyberbia, a kind of collective cyborg reduced to its bare biological nature, a programmable construct to serve a totalizing market.
Perhaps the gap that is being filled is our empty human soul.
Jennifer Armstrong says
“America is coming of age. Note the many changing aspect of America. A maturing America means a nation conscious of its arts among all its people. Communities east, west, north and south are searching for ways to make community life more attractive. The arts are at the very center of community development in this time of change…change for the better. The frontier and all that it once meant in economic development and in the sheer necessity of building a nation is being replaced by the frontier of arts. In no other way can Americans so well express the core and blood of their democracy; for in the communities lies the final test of the acceptance of the arts as a necessity of everyday life. In terms of American democracy, the arts are for everyone. They are not reserved for the wealthy, or for the well-endowed museum, the gallery, or the ever-subsidised regional professional theatre. As America emerges into a different understanding of her strength, it becomes clear that her strength is in the people and places where the people live. The people, if shown the way, can create art in and of themselves. The springs of the American spirit are at the grass roots. Opportunities must exist in places where they never have existed before. A consciousness of the people, a knowledge of their power to generate and nourish art, and a provision of ways in which they may do so are essential for our time. If we are seeking in America, let it be a seeking for the reality of democracy in art. Let art begin at home, and let it spread through the children and their parents, and through the schools, the institutions, and through government. And let us start by acceptance, not negation – acceptance that the arts are important everywhere, and that they can exist and flourish in small places as well as in large; with money, or without, according to the will of the people. Let us put firmly and permanently aside as a cliche of an expired moment in time that art is a frill. Let us accept the goodness of art where we are now, and expand its worth in the places where people live.” – Robert E. Gard, The Arts in the Small Community, 1966 http://gardfoundation.org/projects/arts-in-the-small-community/
William Osborne says
The concepts of regionalism that Jennifer refers to, of course, have corollaries well before the sixties.
During its years of operation, the government-funded Federal Art Project of the WPA hired about 10,000 artists who collectively created more than 100,000 paintings and murals and over 18,000 sculptures during the programs 8 years of existence (1935-1943.) A consistent goal of the WPA was to support and celebrate cultural diversity across the country, including in smaller cities and towns.
The Federal Theater Project existed for four years, from 1935 to 1939. Within a year it employed 15,000 people who created about 1200 productions (not including radio.) It played to an estimated 30 million people in more than 200 theaters nationwide, as well as in parks, schools, churches, clubs, factories, hospitals and closed-off streets.
The Federal Theatre of the Air began weekly radio broadcasts March 15, 1936. It presented an average of 3,000 programs annually on commercial stations and the NBC, Mutual and CBS networks. Radio divisions were also created in 11 states.
This sensibility continued for a while after the war. One example was the NBC Opera Theater which existed from 1949 to 1964. The company performed a total of 43 operas for NBC, the majority of which were broadcast on the program NBC Television Opera Theatre. The organization’s work garnered 3 Primetime Emmy Award nominations. All of the performances were broadcast live from an NBC studio. The program commissioned about ten new operas by composers ranging from Mennotti to Lukas Foss to Norman Dello Joio.
Europe continues this sort of publicly funded arts activity to this day. Americans do not realize the extent to which their country and cultural lives were strongly damaged by postwar political and economic philosophies that destroyed our systems of public arts funding – a situation that can only be described as a form of oppression.
William Osborne says
I’m slowly working my way through the many links you (Dianne) have provided, including your interesting talk. A true richness of thought and material. You describe the problems created by an excessive market orientation in the arts, and propose 5 general solutions. It is strange, however, that you do not contextualize these problems by noting that they are specific manifestations of neo-liberalism.
This greatly limits your observations and proposals because you neglect to identify the ultimate source of the problems. To use an analogy, it would have been like someone trying to describe and solve the problems found in Stalin’s Siberian Gulags without ever acknowledging there was such a thing as Marxism and the Communist Party. You accurately describe the damage an excessive market focus has done to the “arts sector,” but never breathe a word about neoliberal economic philosophy which is the source of the problem.
I think this is symptomatic of arts administration. Its practitioners are seldom allowed to be overtly political. They must conform to relatively conservative, mainstream, establishment norms. They are thus not in a position to fundamentally challenge the status quo even when that is what needs to be done. Even Dianne’s elegant and insightful beating around the bush is pushing the limits of what an establishment arts administrator is allowed to say. If Dianne wanted to add a sixth solution for our current problems, I think it should be that we need more arts administrators who are willing to tell candid, explicit, unvarnished truths about America’s political and economic philosophies. Needless to say, I’m not going to hold my breath until that happens…
Trevor O'Donnell says
Standing on the ground where I’ve spent the bulk of my career engaging with and advocating behalf of ordinary arts participants, I can’t help wondering what the view is like up in that ivory tower.
Audiences are down here. In my experience they’re delightful and eager to tell us everything we want to know.
Richard Kooyman says
What the heck is an “ordinary arts participant”?
Penny Brill says
Diane, I have written a lot for the website I am setting up, MUSACOR, musicians as a community resource, and I just published an article in the IAMM Journal (music and medicine journal) that I’d love for you to see…can we get in touch? email@example.com Your insights are enormously helpful as we look at the changing orchestra field! Thank you for all you are doing.