Lead we Must

Not-for-profit arts must lead audience taste rather than follow it. Just read the mission statements of not-for-profit arts organizations. Their missions are proactive and reflect a desire to bring a specific aesthetic, or a range of aesthetics, to their audiences. I know of no arts organization with a mission to do simply what the audience wants it to do. (Of course the mission of for-profit arts organizations is to make a profit and pandering to audience tastes is not only acceptable, it is considered a mark of success.)

On the contrary, our job is to produce art that artists feel moved to create. And our second job is to market the product in a way that will make that art interesting and accessible to the audience and to donors.

But art must lead for practical reasons as well.

Our audiences and our donors are looking to us to create work that will engage, energize and surprise them.

Here is a simple test that I perform often:

I ask someone, “What was the most exciting arts experience of your life?” Almost always the answer surprises me –and them. It will rarely be something the subject expected to love; it is almost always something new, novel and thrilling.

In fact, we learned from the Edsel, New Coke and numerous other failed consumer goods that products created by audience focus groups are a disaster while people didn’t even know they wanted iPads, iPods and BlackBerrys.

Some will argue that if we give the audience what they want we will find broader audience acceptance and therefore be able to perform more in larger houses and with larger budgets. But I know of few serious artists who believe that the goal of their work is simply to have a larger audience or budget.

I learned a great deal early in my career from an important American avant garde playwright who mounted his productions in a tiny theater. I asked him why he did not spend the large foundation grants he received on performing in a larger theater. He said he knew that there were only 99 people a night who enjoyed his work and if he performed in a larger theater he would have to change the nature of his work, which he was not willing to do, or trick people into coming, which he found distasteful.

Not-for-profit arts organizations must be true to their creative impulses while appreciating the financial implications of these choices. Arts organizations that do end up far more successful financially as well as aesthetically.

Arts organizations that create great art (and market it well) attract a family of audience members, board members, donors and volunteers who support the vision of the organization. Look at the tremendous success of La MaMa over the past fifty years, producing challenging art true to the vision of its founder Ellen Stewart or the Mark Morris Dance Group, the most successful American modern dance organization formed in the recent past fifty years, not to mention the companies of Martha Graham, Alvin Ailey, Paul Taylor and others. These great artists led audience taste with their artistic vision their companies thrived under their direction.

And each company continues to surprise, capture, enthrall and teach us and shows us new vistas we never knew existed.


  1. I present here a general comment, and not one specifically toward Mr. Kaiser’s interesting post.

    It is interesting that there are 15 bloggers and they are all administrators or journalists – or something similar. Why aren’t some artists included? If concepts of the artist/public relationship are solely in the hands of administrators, I think we’re headed for a very dull and misinformed world.

    The relationship between artists and their publics, of course, has never been a simplistic dichotomy where one follows and the other leads. It has always been a very complex and dynamic interaction in which both sides variously play both roles. The Internet hasn’t changed this relationship, even though it makes communication faster and more convenient. The change is thus more quantitative than qualitative. The dichotomy might be useful for starting discussion, but if taken too literally it will create confusion by being excessively reductive.

  2. You rightly point out, Michael, that the arts have “to market the product in a way that will make that art interesting and accessible.” But if the question is about leadership, we’ve got a lot of work to do.

    The mark of a leader is the ability to convince others that he or she is worth following. Look at great leaders in politics, religion, business or social movements and you’ll find inspirational, charismatic, persuasive individuals who describe their causes in relevant, meaningful, motivational language that leverages the needs, wants and desires of their listeners. Think of the way Barack Obama spoke to undecided voters in his first campaign: “This isn’t about me; this is about you!”

    But listen to the way the arts speak to their audiences and you’ll find presumptuous, boastful institutions speaking to diminishing audiences of aging fans in a language that consists mostly of worn out clichés and inane wordplay: “Celebrate Spring!” “Experience the Magic!” “Take a Journey of the Imagination!” “Join us for our glorious fiftieth anniversary season!” “It’s a zany, madcap romp!” “The New York Times says we’re “Sensational”!

    Why on earth would younger or more culturally diverse audiences want to follow people who talk like this? If Barack Obama talked this way, John McCain would be president right now.

    I agree that the arts should lead, but I think we have to start speaking to would-be followers in a more persuasive language that reflects what’s important to them. It doesn’t mean we have to let them dictate the content of the art, but it does mean letting their needs, wants and desires influence how we convince them that we’re the leaders they should be following.