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June 19, 2007

On Mediation: The Pittsburgh Experiment

by Lynne Conner

Molly asks why the orchestra industry is afraid to have fun. It does seem a shame, and a waste of some of the world's most beautiful music, to continue to cloak the orchestral experience in sacred robes that hardly anybody wants to wear.

But I think there are plenty of musicians and orchestras, both large and small, who are willing to at least experiment with taking off the so-called "cloak of culture" in order to engage their audiences. In my post yesterday I promised to write a little bit about the experiment we've been conducting in Pittsburgh called the Arts Experience Initiative. This project of The Heinz Endowmments' Arts and Culture program (and its gutsy leader, Janet Sarbaugh) was launched in 2004 as a grants-based laboratory designed to test new practices dedicated to enhancing an arts event through experiences that support and expand the event itself.

Of the 14 arts organizations that have participated thus far, the three music groups (the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra, the Pittsburgh New Music Ensemble and the Pittsburgh Chamber Music Society) have contributed some of the most experimental ideas--creatively and willfully re-drawing the line between education and programming in ways that test all kinds of established and perceived boundaries. They are also, I would argue, not afraid to have some fun. The results are not fully in, especially since these organizations have been given the freedom to treat their grant money as scientists treat their research money--as a tool allowing for true experimentation. Only time and continued openness to the spirit of inquiry will tell the Pittsburgh tale.

BUT, as the principal investigator of the Arts Experience Initiative, I am quite certain about the validity of one finding. The best audience-centered programming is rooted in good mediation. In fact, I would go one step further and argue that the only lasting way to get long-silenced audiences (especially those in the orchestra world) truly engaged is to get them talking, opining and debating (what we in higher ed refer to as "critical thinking").

To mediate--meaning literally to be in the middle--implies the process of a middle agent effecting communication is some way. Most aspects of our society require some kind of mediation, especially those based on metaphor. Think, for example, about religion. What is a priest, if not the mediator of a certain system of metaphor? What about a classroom teacher? And how about the sports announcer? If we look closely we see that most of our cultural functions rely heavily on the work of professional mediators to provide opportunities for enriching an experience.

But here's the key to good mediation--the mediator is an instrument dedicated to processing information, NOT AN EGO looking to be fulfilled. The mediator does not make the meaning and give it to an audience. The mediator creates the environment and the tools for artists and the audience to make the meaning together.

It won't come as a surprise when I tell you that my other clear finding from the experiments of the Arts Experience Initiative is that good mediation and good mediators are hard to find. We industry types start out with the best intentions, but more often than not we don't lead discussions, rather we fill the air with ourselves. Sometimes we do it because we aren't really interested in what the audience thinks. Sometimes we do it because when we asked a leading question and no one raised a hand after 3 seconds we panicked and started talking. And sometimes we do it because we really don't get the point of "engaging" the audience through talking. After all, we're not professional mediators/faciliators. We're artists and artistic directors and composers and conductors and administrators and education department staff . . . .

What attitudes have other cultures and other cultural periods had toward the role and function of arts mediation, and how have those attitudes affected the quality (and even quantity) of arts engagement in their communities? I believe we can learn a lot about good mediation, and about how to apply it to this issue of audience engagement, by looking carefully at the history of arts mediation and applying that data to emerging data from the science of learning, particularly the field of active learning.

Posted by lconner at June 19, 2007 7:55 AM


The myth: orchestras simply don't want to have fun, they play shrouded in seriousness, they ought to just cut loose.

I wonder why the bottom line is "fun" insofar as it means a lack of seriousness? After all, what's wrong with a temple? Yes, I admit that this is blood and guts music that is often mistaken for holy writ, but come on, what's wrong with something being a little holy?

I spent 18 or so hours at symphony space watching a group of devoted people both take James Joyce (our most difficult son) deeply seriously and enjoy themselves doing it. Was it "fun" in the way of Knocked Up or an Iggy Pop concert? Not hardly, but there are times I want to be serious. I think, then, when I am repeatedly told that's the attitude supposedly killing the music I love most, it puts me off.

If people want rock bands, who supposedly cut loose, they are out there, they should go see them. Yes, I think the shroud of mystery should be lifted a little, but that's a matter of availabilty and not accesibility. What's wrong, from time to time, with having to work for something. There's great reward there.

Posted by: Daniel Felsenfeld at June 19, 2007 11:03 PM

I agree with you completely. The audience has been left out of the feedback "loop" long enough. They have opinions. They know what they like and what they expect.

I lament the lack of feedback I got as a student musician. Eveyone was afraid of criticism. Without it, we breed, oversensitive and unprepared musicians who don't know a good performance from a bad or worse, mediocre one. They live in an imaginary world where they think they are great.

If there were a venue, electronic or otherwise, where audiences could say what they liked or disliked about various programs, a place where everyone from lighting designers, to divas could be critiqued, the whole industry would benefit.

Posted by: Megan at June 20, 2007 9:32 AM

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