Monday, November 19, 2007

A Reading on the Arts Climate and a Tangent on Arts Education in Arts Organizations

Along a similar line as the previous post, a speech from September by Ben Cameron, Program Director for the Arts at the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation was recently posted by the Southern Arts Federation (mp3 or pdf). You can also see it with introduction by Andrew Taylor.

Cameron's speech is engaging for the depth and breath that he covers in such a short amount of time and I quite enjoyed it. He touches upon the dysfunctionality of the 501(c)3 model, the generational gap in arts leadership, the erosion of audiences, and other issues that I too have been thinking through as an arts administrator and arts educator. But the majority of his speech deals with the arts and technology. It feels strange to parse his comments out like this, and so much of it is great but I've taken a pretty long excerpt from his transcript. There's some differences between the speech and the transcript, but the differences are not significant in terms of messaging, so instead of transcribing, I'm cutting and pasting from the transcript:

... Perhaps most significantly, we heard the struggle to understand more fully the impact of technology on the performing arts—the area that especially for an over-50, cranky Luddite like me can be the most perplexing, the most astounding of all.

The potential of technology as a marketing device is, if anything, too effective: in trying to attract the attention of potential ticket buyers, we now compete with the at least 3,000 different marketing messages a typical American sees every day, according to Peter Whybrow in his book AMERICAN MANIA: WHEN MORE IS NOT ENOUGH. In fact, technology has emerged as our biggest competitor for leisure time: Gen X-ers spend 20.7 hours every week on television and online combined. Gen Y-ers spend even more—22.8 hours—with the majority on line and growing, and last year, computer gaming outsold the combined sales of movie and music recordings. According to Google CEO Eric Schmidt, a new blog is being created every second of every day. Moreover, technology is altering the basic assumptions of consumption: thanks to the web, we believe we can get whatever we want, whenever we want it, customized to fit our personal needs. We can shop at 8 at night, 3 in the morning, expectations of customization and personalization that performing arts organizations, at least, cannot meet. Young people especially can get their culture on demand through You Tube and iTunes any time they want it and at little or no apparent cost--and what will it mean in the future when we ask someone to pay $100 for a theatre ticket when that customer has become accustomed to downloading on the internet for free or at most for a mere 99 cents a song?

In response, we’ve launched websites, expanded our box offices to embrace on-line ticketing, moved from hard tickets to print your own, changed newsletters to email blasts, replaced hard mail subscription brochures with on-line graphics. With late dawning awareness, we have come to recognize the internet—not as a broadcast and marketing space, but as a social space—it’s true purpose—and we have moved from communicating only through our own website but to My Space to Craig’s List to Second Life—yet nothing we do seems to be quite enough, quite fast enough and or quite adequately resourced.
Regardless of the stress of the present, regardless of the uncertainties, how can we—individually and as a community—shift from the reactive to the proactive?
We must recognize that the market for culture has shifted—a seismic, tectonic shift—and is shifting—a shift I heard provocatively described by futurist Andrew Zolli, using the lens of the coffee industry. In the early days of coffee, power lay in the hands of the farmer: if you grew the coffee bean, you owned the market and controlled the flow of the bean in a what we would now term a commodity market. But with time, the economy changed and we went from being a commodity market to being a product market: the power shifted away from the farmer to Maxwell House and their colleagues, those who processed and ground the coffee that you could buy and bring home, etc., etc. This too was of finite duration: soon, the big player in coffee was no longer Maxwell House but was Dunkin’ Donuts where you could buy a cup of coffee already made for you for 25 cents or 50 cents—a transition from product to service. And then the economy shifted yet again, and we went to an “experience” economy, one where we suddenly became willing to part with $1.75 for a miniscule cup that somehow we’ve been convinced is a “tall”—how did they do that?—as part of a larger Starbucks experience: indeed Starbucks, as you may know, has a position called the CEO, which stands for the chief entertainment officer.

Many of us in the arts community are only beginning to appreciate that we have seen ourselves in service industry terms in a time of experience economies. Smart performing arts groups are expanding social lobby spaces, adding coffee bars, challenging themselves to extend the production into the lobby, engaging in re-branding and more—all a recognition that we traffic not merely in artistic production but in a total experience that beings with seeing the first ad, continues through the first call to the box office and doesn’t end until long after the audience member is home in bed.
But just when we think we are beginning to catch up, the economy has shifted again. Those who wish to survive must think, not merely of experience, but of participation—an economy where value will no longer be consumed but where value will be co-created. Let me say that again: in the future, value will no longer be consumed. Value will be co-created.

We already see the power of consumer participation in other industries. The monolithic power of the restaurant critic has been shattered by Zagat where the collective consumer passes judgment and defines a restaurant value. "Dancing with the Start [Stars]," "So You Think You Can Dance," "American Idol"—all are predicated on the active involvement of the consumer.
We are clearly witnessing a veritable tsunami of creative energy unleashed through technology. We are seeing the emergence of a class of amateurs doing work at a professional level—a group dubbed elsewhere as Pro Ams—a group whose work populated You Tube, independent film festivals, dance competitions and more.
This sense of co-creation is an invitation—an invitation to dismantle irrelevant distinctions between professional and amateur, a status once exalted as more precious than professionalism, capturing as it does in its etymological roots the love of practice. This is an invitation to dismantle arts education programs and replace them with community engagement programs. This is an invitation to seeing our mission, not in creating products to be consumed, but in offering experiences that will serve as springboards to our audience's own creativity—to nurture what Henry Jenkins calls a Convergence Culture, utilizing multi-platform narrative and marketing, inviting everyday people to reassert their right to actively contribute to their culture, channeling creative energies to come together. This is a call to a field to see ourselves, not as presenters, perhaps, but as activators, engagers, animators of creative energy.

I actually agree with the vast majority of Cameron's speech and his evaluation of the current atmosphere surrounding the arts industry and the importance of technology. So instead of highlighting what he's already stated so eloquently, I'd like to take the discussion elsewhere.

I take issue with his separation of arts education from community engagement; they are not diametrically opposed. Instead, I argue that education should be central to a successful community engagement campaign. If we are to push for the experience of attending live performance, then we must demystify the arts for audiences. If we are selling the experience of attending a live performance at the Metropolitan Opera, we must value the art itself and help others to appreciate not only social lobby space and the high quality coffee, but they must also appreciate the operatic experience. They must engage with the opera performance in some significant way and come out of it with a sense of curiosity and an enthusiasm to attend more performances for this is why one would travel to the Metropolitan Opera House instead of the local Starbucks (where they can get the "lobby" space and the coffee at a slightly less, though still exorbitant fee!).

But, in its essence, this is one of the main goals of the field of arts education: we study how an audience engages with art and we try to make the act of engagement significant. Who else is doing this work? Arts marketers perhaps, but I'd argue that they would focus on the selling of the brand instead of the art itself. I maintain that arts education is the best way to foster a deep and lasting audience for the arts. Swanky lobbies and coffee bars are en vogue now, but a curiosity about the arts will accompany somebody for a lifetime.

And it's not as if I think Cameron's really saying that arts education programs are worthless, but I do think it underscores the idea that the scope of many arts education programs run by performing arts organizations are too narrow. There's a great breath of activities for arts education departments in different organizations, but they typically operate on a basic level: they run a set of classes, a lecture series, a guided tour, and perhaps a competition. They are often seen as subsidiary activities to the main attraction of presenting professional artists. (Part of this, I think, is because of the 501(c)3 funding structure and the rise of restricted giving, but that's another argument for another day!) I argue that arts education should be seen as central to an organization's mission and, instead of a separate department of the organization, they should be fully integrated into the artistic programming process and the educational activities should coincide with what is happening with the organization as a whole. By valuing arts education and its contribution to building better and more engaged audiences, an organization can also use the expertise of arts educators to better promote the distinctive qualities of the arts and indeed each evening's artistic offerings--that is, organizations can use the expertise of arts education to better sell the experience and this should work for novices as well as the aficionados. By tearing down these artificial distinctions and creating a more unified organization, this is how one can start building a brand and a distinctive experience for a potential audience member.