What Does Audience Engagement Really Mean?

I think arts organizations and the arts sector at large throw around the term “audience engagement” quite irresponsibly, using it as the new buzz word that makes us feel like we are doing something. It is no longer apropos to just focus on putting “butts in seats” or the more delicate euphemism “derrieres in chairs” or having educational programs that focus on the K-12 space with the hope it will pay off in developing audiences twenty years into the future. In this day of fast moving innovation, … [Read more...]

Change We Must (As We Lead)

For a very long time the arts field resembled the companion on a road trip who said "I know the way, I'll drive." Our systems in the nonprofit part of the sector are set up so that arts organizations lead with authority and with the power to dictate much of what is consumed as art. The quality of these products is extremely important and should continue to be, so we have understandably set up our feedback systems to be responsive to their quality production and presentation. If that’s called … [Read more...]

We are the Movers and Shakers of the World Forever, It Seems

My position in this debate was stated most eloquently by a man who studied frogs for a living, as quoted by a Welsh fighter pilot and re-purposed by an Oatmeal company hoping to launch a new candy bar. His name was William O'Shaughnessy. And he said, We are the music-makers, And we are the dreamers of dreams, Wandering by lone sea-breakers, And sitting by desolate streams. World-losers and world-forsakers, Upon whom the pale moon gleams; Yet we are the movers and shakers, Of the world … [Read more...]

Selective and Sophisticated Followership

"Do our artists and arts organizations need to lead more or learn to follow their communities more?" These are two questions. The charge of an individual artist or artist collective is not the same as that of an institution or organization. I believe that artists ought to follow their own inspirations and motivation. I do not feel it necessary for a successful artist to lead anyone else, although it's neat when it works out that way. In order for an artist's work to have any impact, someone … [Read more...]

Art with a Point of View

Think about it. Great art in any genre succeeds because it has a unique point of view and has been elevated from obscurity to accessibility by virtue of advocates, be they organizations, cultural taste makers, or the public. Who would want to read a piece of literature where there is no clear point of view from the author, or go to a play with no dramatic arc or plot, or listen to a piece of music that was a random collection of notes assembled by a community of amateurs with no set of rules … [Read more...]

If this is leading, what is following?

In his influential book, Art Worlds, published in 1982, Howard S. Becker writes: Though audiences are among the most fleeting participants in art worlds, devoting less time to any particular work or to works of a kind than more professionalized participants, they probably contribute most to the reconstitution of the work on a daily basis. Audiences select what will occur as an art work by giving or withholding their participation in an event or their attention to an object, and by attending … [Read more...]

The Problem of Taste

As Michael frames it, the question on the table is whether arts workers (my term for artists, presenters, producers, educators, funder and commentators) should lead “taste” rather than follow it.  But there’s a fundamental problem here, one that needs to be explored before I can take a side.  What exactly do we mean when we use the word “taste?”  The elite has always told the public what to value when it comes to the arts, of course, and gatekeepers have always been concerned with identifying … [Read more...]

Art or Audience; Chicken or Egg?

This week we examine the nature of leadership in the context of developing the most fruitful relationships with our audiences. Good relationships often strike a healthy balance between competing interests, and frequently this balance is forged over the course of many years. Arts organizations have relationships with their patrons, donors and communities, and those relationships are constantly evolving. As such, I find the framework of this debate limiting, as I would argue that great arts … [Read more...]

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 … [Read more...]

The Cultural World Has Fundamentally Changed

The question hangs on the meaning of the word ‘lead’. There are many styles of leadership: at one end the Scottish model, where the chieftain runs in front of his clan as they charge into battle; at the other the English, where an aristocrat sits on a horse and attempts to direct the fighting from a safe distance. Not that long ago, leaders in the arts world adopted one or other of those positions: the avant-garde charged ahead, leaving the rest of us struggling to keep up, while Lord Clark made … [Read more...]

Lead or Follow? A debate about leadership

Increasingly, audiences have more visibility for their opinions about the culture they see. Cultural institutions know more and more about their audiences and their wants. Some suggest this new transparency argues for a different relationship between artists and audience.  So the question: In this age of self expression and information overload, do our artists and arts organizations need to lead more or learn to follow their communities more?   … [Read more...]