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June 13, 2007

So you think you can dance?

by Alan S. Brown

Hi all. First of all, this is a great book with some really fine essays that are relevant to both artists and administrators. I had the opportunity to participate as a reviewer earlier in the book's development process, and there's a lot of good stuff here. I especially recommend the pieces by Lynne Conner and Barry Schwartz.

While the various authors look at many aspects of the changing landscape of cultural participation, I would like to focus initially on the unifying construct of engagement. What does "engage" mean to you? That word seems to be on the tip of a lot of tongues lately, though I'm not really sure that we have any sort of shared understanding of what it means. Engage has many different meanings. To have an engaging conversation means that you were meaningfully involved and found it especially interesting or spirited. Getting engaged is a pre-nuptial tradition, which, at its core, is about expectation and mutual commitment. The word also has a business sense (to be engaged to perform), and also a mechanical sense (the gears engaged). Looking across all the senses of the word, I find several core elements of meaning:

• mutuality of intent; common cause
• unusually high level of interest, involvement or participation
• collaboration and partnership
• both parties accepting risk for an uncertain outcome
• to become interlocked or intertwined

Do you accept that these are the new precepts of cultural participation? If so, how will that affect how you make programming decisions? Do you see your audience as a beneficiary of your curatorial prowess, or as a partner and co-creator of meaning? When did education get separated from core programming? How does the job description of the artist change? How does the structure and governance model change? How can you be relevant to consumers in the settings where they create meaning? Developing answers to these questions is proving to be profoundly challenging for all types of cultural organizations.

Witness the rise of the citizen artist, whose home is a museum, whose automobile is a concert hall, and whose bedroom is a cinema. It's an amazing revolution. That artistic expression has entered back into common practice and achieved a new relevance in society is truly heartening. It makes me wanna dance. So why has this phenomenon largely bypassed our nonprofit delivery system? Whose job is it to nurture and engage the citizen artist?

Posted by abrown at 10:46 PM | Comments (1)

So many changes, so many questions...

by Vanessa Bertozzi

I was struck by Doug's comment:

Indeed, some of the more interesting points in the book seem to argue that some of the ways we interacted with art in the 20th Century might be the anomaly rather than the time we're in now. We might, in fact, be returning to more traditional principles. Still, it's a scary time to be creating "content" of any sort. There isn't a creative industry that isn't seeing its business model being reinvented, the rules being changed.

What is the future of the arts--its place in our society, how it's funded, who participates--when boundaries between amateur and professional break down? When the rules of arts consumption change and business models break down? Do we have a meritocracy when it comes to deciding who gets heard and seen? Do we have a popularity contest? Or do we have a folk art?

Henry Jenkins' and my chapter in Engaging Art looks specifically at the ways in which today's young people interact with art and participate in fan cultures. We compare it to a time before mass-media, when an art being "grassroots" wasn't self-consciously trying to salvage something lost. Today see a very active and engaged generation coming up. But who will be a professional artist if changes in the way Americans create and access art continue along such a trajectory? What will our culture and way of life look like if the institutions and ways of doing business in the arts change radically?

What's the root of this feeling that something "scary" is happening at this particular moment? Perhaps it is that the financial mechanisms for the arts may be altered--the scary glimmers of bankruptcy. Or perhaps it is the fear of unknown degradation of a nuanced, sublime art, resulting in a corporate manufactured, homogenized, popular art. Perhaps these two things go hand in hand. Is there some other possibility? The changes are happening. I'd like to discuss roles supporters of the arts can play in making sure change can be something positive--and a little less scary.

Posted by vbertozzi at 9:11 PM | Comments (0)

Something Better Comes Along...

by Douglas McLennan

The pace and magnitude of change is so profound now and technology can accomplish so many extraordinary things, it's easy to think that we live in a special time unmatched by any other in history. While it's exciting, it's also scary, because the rules we used last week might not be the rules we have to use next week. For much of the past century, a big challenge for artists was getting art out to people. One of the founding missions of the National Endowment for the Arts was to bring great art to more people.

Bringing art to the people is hardly the problem these days. The choices are overwhelming, and, just as cheap prints of great paintings and recordings of famous artists revolutionized people's relationship with music and art, so too is digital distribution transforming audiences' relationships with all artists and arts organizations. If we can have whatever we want, however we want it, whenever we want it, perhaps we value the art we use in a different way. It becomes everyday, not special-for-company. The context of how we encounter art matters a lot, and clearly that context is changing for many people.

Then there's the paralysis of choice. How can I enjoy any one thing, commit to any one thing, if I feel like I'm missing out on the other 500 things I could be doing right now? I'm a last-minute decider anyway, but I find myself increasingly stymied by the choices available to me. Even when I do decide, I often spend much of the time wondering if what I chose lives up to other choices I might have made.

It's all enough to change my expectations about where I invest my time. In some situations I'm less likely to take a chance on something. Sometimes I find it comforting to partake of a monolithic blockbuster, where I can be anonymous and nothing is expected of me. But I also have less patience for big organizations that don't speak directly to what I'm looking for. You're doing too much Tchaikovsky this season? Boring! I'm outta here. I insist on peak experiences. But guess what, it's harder and harder to find those peaks.

Like I said at the beginning of this post, it's easy to feel this is all new in human history. But one of the comforting things about the book we're talking about here is that many of these changes have historical parallels. The technology might be new, but the ways we use it, and the things we find useful about it are ultimately subject to longstanding human nature. Indeed, some of the more interesting points in the book seem to argue that some of the ways we interacted with art in the 20th Century might be the anomaly rather than the time we're in now. We might, in fact, be returning to more traditional principles. Still, it's a scary time to be creating "content" of any sort. There isn't a creative industry that isn't seeing its business model being reinvented, the rules being changed. I wonder - how do you engage an audience when it's constantly looking across the bar for something better?

Posted by mclennan at 3:49 PM | Comments (3)

Our Conversation Starts Thursday Morning

by Douglas McLennan

Welcome to the group blog Engaging Art. This is a discussion based around the idea that the ways in which audiences and artists are interacting are changing. We have 12 bloggers lined up to participate in our conversation beginning early Thursday morning. In the right column, you'll find links to bios of our bloggers, as well as excerpts and abstracts from from the book Engaging Art: The Next Great Transformation of America's Cultural Life. This discussion is actually a prelude to a live session in Nashville, Thursday, June 21 from 2-5 CDT at the American Symphony Orchestra League's annual conference. Readers and invited to join the discussion. Click the comments link at the bottom of any post. Your comments will appear under the entries as well as in a reader's forum. We'll also pull highlights from the readers' comments and post them in the main blog column.

Posted by mclennan at 12:52 PM | Comments (3)