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  1. Michael: Surely there’s a balance between “giving an audience what it wants” and what an artist thinks is important. You write:

    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 don’t see why this is a tug-of-war. The artist might create work, but it doesn’t get its legs until the audience does something with it. Aren’t you rather dismissively writing off the audience?

  2. Here’s a new #2amt post that touches on the Lead or Follow question, as well as the TEDxBroadway conference going on this afternoon…

    Thanks for hosting this debate.

  3. Inhaling and exhaling are sequential processes, just like leading and following.
    As an artist working in public, I lead by making the first mark, visualizing a project, organizing a public discussion of issues. Multiple communities may respond to the creative impulse. It is the critical assessment that we are discussing here. Many audiences – including the ones posting here – are self selecting. Many artists are self selecting too. Some days I lead, some days I follow. That is how we reify culture.

  4. It really gets down to mission, and the delineation between art and entertainment. At a basic level virtually all not for profit arts organizations are categorized as educational, 501c3, organizations under the IRS code. Rather than this being simply an expedient slot in which to force the arts, it has meaningful and philosophical underpinnings which justify our not for profit status and comments on our place in society. Two fundamental implications of being a not for profit organization are that:
    1) We are important to society and are contributors to the advancement of our culture, regardless of market viability, and
    2) We, therefore, are worthy of subsidy through our tax exempt status and should not be expected to necessarily appeal to the masses and the lowest common denominator.

    Having said all of this, I will be the first to acknowledge that when the stakes are so high, as they are with many larger regional arts organizations, there are no absolutes. Balance is always a necessary componant of success, but the most successful organizations, I believe, start with the premise that their mission is to consistantly strive for the very highest levels of excellence in both the education of audiences and the advancement of the art form.

    With this discussion over leading or following audience tastes, I’m reminded of a quote from Steve Jobs. When once asked if Apple shouldn’t conduct focus groups and other forms of consumer research in order to better understand what their customers wanted, Jobs’ reply was that “the customers do not know what they want until we show them”. Of course, not everyone is the kind of vissionary Jobs was, but the point is, I believe, for arts organizations is that we are in the field of creativity and very little has ever been accomplished as a creative endeavor through consensus.

    In conclusion, I firmly believe our mission is to provide enlightment and moving experiences, and to open new doors for reflection and amazement for our audiences. These cannot be given by following.

  5. I agree with the commenters who suggest we need to both lead and follow.

    There is a virtuous feedback loop between the artist and the audience. The latter shapes the former as much as the reverse. It is not an adversarial relation.

    I create a piece of music. I play it. The audience responds. I pay attention. I notice what stimulates the strongest response. I evaluate whether I will approach the music differently or not based on the response. I replay the music. The process recurs.

    True dialogue with the audience most engages the audience. We are best served speaking to the audience, not at it. There is no reason to flatten the relationship into a unidimensional either / or, lead / follow. It is both a particle and a wave.

  6. Leonard Jacobs says

    With all due respect to this terrific discussion and debate, I find the lead/follow question obvious — the answer is both, for reasons well articulated by all the postings thus far and still to come.

    I’m frankly more intrigued by the description of this discussion that arrived in my email this morning. Surely you’ve all read it, but I feel it’s worth quoting. In part, it reads:

    “…when asked what defines [Millennials’] particular generation apart from others, the top spot goes to (no surprise) technology, but the second spot is reserved for music and pop culture. That should be incredibly meaningful to the arts sector if it could just find a way to be perceived as “pop culture.”

    There’s a lot riding on the use of the word “just,” don’t you think? If we could “just” see to it that the arts are perceived as pop culture, then the arts could “lead” again. Or maybe if we could “just” see to it that the arts are perceived as pop culture, then the arts could “follow” anew American tastes and consumerism. In either case, presumably, if we could “just” see to it that the arts are perceived as pop culture, more money — and much more ascribed importance — will follow.

    So: CAN the arts — should the arts — be rebranded as pop culture? If yes, shouldn’t we ask how, when and by dint of who’s actions this occurs? If you told me five or 10 years ago that dance would sit atop the superstructure of American pop culture, I’d have asked you which 10-step program you were in. Call them cheesy sell-outs, but So You Think You Can Dance? and Dancing with the Stars have transformed a woefully neglected, siloed, elitist-tagged art form into a pop culture powerhouse. Indeed, what are the lead-or-follow lessons to be learned from the fact that pop culture, in this case, did the leading — and then did the following?

    Do we lead or do we follow? The answer is both — it ought to be both. What we should fear is when we manage to do neither.

  7. What about “partnering?”

    I find the lead/follow dichotomy bizarre. It’s not either or both to me–it’s something else entirely. I see audience participation on a continuum that is about level of active engagement, not who’s wagging which tail. The ends of the spectrum are not “lead” and “follow” but “ignore” and “co-create.” And while I mostly advocate for arts organizations to push themselves toward co-creation, there’s a lot of fertile field in the middle, where audiences can contribute, comment, or collaborate on the way.

    The mental framework I use for audience participation comes from the citizen science world, where there are fairly well-defined structures for various levels of participation. Even more so than with art, science is a field that demands a high level of professional quality to produce content that is considered valid, let alone good. If scientists can figure out how to involve amateurs in their work to the overall benefit of their research, surely arts organizations and artists can do so as well to the overall benefit of our collective cultural experiences. See for more on this.

    The place where I think we have to ask the “lead or follow” question is about the relationship between artists and arts organizations. As a museum director, I’m constantly pushing my team to see ourselves as creative agents, not just stewards of someone else’s art. This is especially necessary when it comes to audience engagement. I and my staff are constantly working with, debating, struggling, discussing with artists how we want to design experiences to support engagement around their art. Again, the science analogy–in a science museum, exhibit developers are paid to make science accessible and interactive. In an art museum, there are rarely staff members with the creative agency to “lead” on producing the audience experience. The result, I fear, is that many arts organizations leave the question of the level of audience engagement up to the artists, creating a seesaw of leading and following depending on the whim of the current presenting artist. I believe that arts organizations must decide as an institution on a philosophy of audience engagement–and then lead in working with artists to achieve it.

    Nina Simon
    Executive Director, The Museum of Art & History in Santa Cruz

  8. Re: Red pill, Blue pill, three questions:

    1. What was the course the professor was teaching to thousands on the internet?

    2. How does a professor interact with those thousands of students?

    3. How would one teach some of the classes I teach (like dictation and ear training or piano proficiency) to thousands on the internet?

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