Post by Guest Editor, Hannah Grannemann
When the pandemic first hit and performances stopped and museums closed in mid-March, I watched.
In 2017, after 17 years working in the arts, mostly in nonprofit theatre, I joined the University of North Carolina Greensboro faculty as an Assistant Professor of Arts Administration and Director of the Arts Administration Program. Just prior to joining UNCG, I was the Executive Director of Children’s Theatre of Charlotte, and Managing Director of PlayMakers Repertory Company in Chapel Hill, NC. I’m a graduate of the Yale School of Drama and Yale School of Management. I’m familiar with making the decisions needed to keep an organization running under challenging circumstances. I can understand how this is working for arts organizations, but don’t have to worry about my own during this crisis.
From my lucky position as a teacher and researcher, I could be a knowledgeable observer from the sidelines. You remember what it was like at the beginning of this crisis. First, there was a rush by arts organizations to communicate to their audiences what was happening with their tickets or opening hours – cancellations, postponements, honest admissions of “we just don’t know, but we’ll tell you when we do.” Then, there were public explanations about what was happening with their staff. (Good, I thought, trying to keep the trust with your audience and donors, plus other stakeholders like artists and community supporters.)
Then there was the rapid and voluminous posting of video content: performances, gallery tours, Zoom panels, home performances, thrown-together online fundraisers. All with a vibe of “the show must go on.” I got worried. Oh no, I thought, we’re forgetting everything we’ve learned about audiences, namely that audiences value the whole experience of attending arts events, seeing them primarily as social experiences. And I worried that organizations were deluding themselves that they would be able to replace the lost income with revenue from online content, which wouldn’t work because audiences won’t see them as holding the same value.
Now we’re many months in, and it’s been fascinating to see audiences, artists, and organizations adapt. Audiences ARE watching online content of all kinds in record numbers. Artists quickly tired of creating performances from Zoom boxes and are making all kinds of new works. Organizations are regrouping with virtual and socially distanced seasons with admirable flexibility.
We don’t know what’s going to happen, but “the show must go on” ethos is serving us well, I think. Besides, what else would we do? Resilience is a hackneyed word by now, but it applies. People in the arts are nothing if not resilient.
It’s taken a long time for the arts to be as audience-centered as we are, and there is a long way to go to become as audience-centered as we should be. But it’s now largely frowned upon to totally look down upon our audiences as we have in the past, sneering at them if they “don’t get it” (at least openly). The best organizations have taken responsibility for having a real relationship with their audiences, though there are as many interpretations of what that means as there are arts organizations and artists.
My goal as guest editor of Lynne Conner’s ‘We the Audience’ blog for the next six months is to share and respond to what I’m seeing happening during this Coronavirus/COVID-19 crisis through the lens of the audience. My deepest gratitude to Lynne for giving me this space to explore for a while. There are important and robust conversations happening about artists and arts organizations, how they survive and thrive. I hope to add to the collective conversation by focusing on the audience and audience experience. I will surely intersect with the issues of artists and arts organizations since we can’t really separate these three groups.
Everyday there are new ideas, plans, calls to action, reasons to despair and reasons to celebrate. In this space I will be sharing and responding to what I’m seeing – and I ask you to share and respond as well. I’m sure that I will sometimes misinterpret and be wrong (I pray that I will recognize it when it happens), and sometimes you will just plain disagree with me. I’ve been heartened to see that there are spirited but generous debates going on about all aspects of what we are facing. I don’t promise to be perfect, but I promise to be open and to learn quickly.