Co-creating an Old Future for the Arts

In the beginning…

“This great Nation…is looking to this handful of extremely talented individuals, looking to you as the representatives of all fields of the arts, for ways in which the Government can maintain and can strengthen an atmosphere which will permit the arts to flourish and to become part of everyone’s life.” (President Lyndon Johnson)

The first meeting of the National Council on the Arts was held in Washington, D.C. on April 9 and 10, 1965. It was preceded by a 12:15 P.M. ceremony in the Cabinet Room of the White House, April 9, during which the members of the Council took the oath of office.  Included among those sworn in that day to govern the newly enacted National Endowment for the Arts were Ralph Ellison, John Steinbeck, Harper Lee, Isaac Stern, Leonard Bernstein and Gregory Peck.

Now 44 years later we read that…

“Between 2002 and 2008, the percentage of US adults attending arts events declined for every art form except musical plays.”

“Performing arts attendees are increasingly older than the average U.S. adult.”

“Since 1982, young adults (18-24 year old) attendance rates have declined significantly for jazz, classical music, ballet, and non-musical plays.”

“The percentage of college educated adults attending arts events decreased in every category from 1982-2008.”

“From 2002 to 2008, 45-54 year olds—historically a large component of arts audiences—showed the steepest decline in attendance for most arts events.”

These statements are all drawn from Arts Participation 2008, Highlights from a National Survey, published by the NEA.

Further, consider the following decreases in the percentage of the population attending performances of these art forms:

Ballet attendance fell from 4.2% to 2.9% of the population–a 31% rate of decline
(Why are we not looking at modern dance as well?)

Opera attendance fell from 3% to 2.1 % of the population–a 30% rate of decline

Attendance at straight plays fell from 11.9% of the population to 9.4%, a 21% rate of decline

For those who want to blame the recent recession, here is what the Rand Corporation said in its 2008 report Cultivating Demand for the Performing Arts, and based on analysis of data prior to the recent financial downturn: “Despite decades of effort to make high-quality works of art accessible to all Americans, demand for the arts has not kept pace with supply. Those who participate in the arts remain overwhelmingly white, educated, and affluent. Moreover, audiences for the arts are growing older: Each year, fewer young Americans visit art museums, listen to classical music, or attend jazz concerts or ballet performances.”

These declines are more than sobering, they’re staggering.  They are especially astounding in light of the incredible investment states and local communities (i.e., taxpayers), and private philanthropists have made in new arts facilities over the same quarter century.

Now what to do…

•    First, stop building. Have the “edifice complex” and “irrational exuberance” about capital projects finally caught up with us? As pointed out in a recent Urbanophile post, the $365 million dollars to open the Kauffman Center for the Arts in Kansas City could fund the operating budgets for the three primary tenants (Kansas City Ballet, Kansas City Symphony, and Lyric Opera) for 21 years. Or, if invested and getting a 5% return, that same amount could provide $18 million annually—enough to fund the entire operating budgets of these organizations in perpetuity. Bring artists into the organizational decision making process. They might be as enthusiastic about making more work over longer periods of time, as trustees and executives are exuberant about building new buildings.

•    Move from a commodity/customer orientation to an experience/participant orientation for fostering audience development.  Last Friday I attended the Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company presentation of Fondly do we Hope…Fervently do we Pray at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts in San Francisco. The house was packed, with people of all ages. No less than half stayed for the post-production dialogue. Recently YBCA has implemented the “Immersive Visitor Experience” to attract and engage their audiences.  Is there a connection between this innovation and Friday’s experience?  How can we share such good practices across the field in support of our universal engagement goals?

•    Reduce the price of admission. How many families of five can afford $275 for ‘medium priced’ seats to attend A Christmas Carol?  No matter what the data say, in good times or in bad, prices like these are a limiting factor for a majority of the population.  A full house of heavily subsidized wealthy people is not the proverbial ‘wider audience’ for the arts so many organizations espouse in their mission statements.

•    Embrace technology.  Investigate Internet2 as a springboard to new, less costly, and more engaging participation opportunities. Early adopters are showing the way! More on this in a week or so.

It remains an open question whether we can assure that the arts “become part of everyone’s life”, as was the aspiration on that April afternoon at the White House in 1965. What we must do at a minimum is place our priority on co-creating with our communities a more fertile future for the arts, and in so doing, even possibly reverse the current trend lines.


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4 thoughts on “Co-creating an Old Future for the Arts

  1. Joseph Futral November 8, 2009 at 11:08 am Reply

    I was hoping some more voices would enter the discussion. In the meantime, I do believe that Modernity has created a somewhat contemptuous relationship between the artist or art and the community. While I am not advocating in any way a Marxist perspective on art, I do think we have created walls that have divided the community and art.

    Some of the walls are simply about creating interesting and compelling art to begin with. Just because it exists doesn’t mean it is worth seeing. Of course the counter to that is just because a large group of people don’t find something of value doesn’t meant there isn’t value in the work.

    Another wall, while I disagreed somewhat with the notion of a moratorium on building and buildings, I do think more thought should be given to where, how, and why we build and not just what we build. I wonder if the idea of an arts district is not somewhat obsolete in the following regard. I think the idea of a castle on a hill surrounded by its fiefdom is no longer viable. Some of the more successful theatres I have toured to (as a tech) in other countries were not separated from where people were, some where even next to or part of shopping malls. If we claim to be or want to be a part of people’s everyday life then we need to be where people are everyday.

    Ethics and issues of religion and mega churches aside, I think there is something to be learned there. I heard one pastor talk about his large church in a way I think we can learn from. His particular emphasis was “the larger we become, the smaller we need to be”. It was very important for this church to be an active part in the communities where their parishioners lived and not just a center where people transport to every so often.

    Additionally if the recent auto and bank catastrophes should teach us anything it should teach us that our society now has an extremely bad taste in its mouth from the idea of something being too big to fail. If one is responsible for a large complex or arts center, I would think there are huge implications on outreach, with emphasis on “out”. The idea of a castle on a hill where the peasants seek an audience with the king is a dead idea.

    There are other related issues (not the least of which is how marketing has turned into being found and less on intrusion), but that’s my thoughts on that. If we really want art (and our art in particular) to be a part of people’s everyday lives, we need to be part of people’s everyday lives. The onus is on us. We are at a point now that we have to justify our existence. Entitlement and elitism no longer rule the day. Luckily, I think people are once again at a point where they want to hear what we have to say.


    • Maureen Carruthers November 9, 2009 at 8:18 am Reply

      “If we really want art (and our art in particular) to be a part of people’s everyday lives, we need to be part of people’s everyday lives.”

      This point is key. For example, I’m happy to see more and more arts organizations dip their toes into the community participation realm via social media, but in order to really use those tools to build community (and ultimately audiences) we will have to use them for more than just talking about our own events. A big part of what makes social media work is is that it’s a two way street. Until these tools are used not only to share information about our own work but also to listen (and respond to!) feedback and, perhaps more importantly, participate in conversations about the work of others we will never see a real return investment in these areas.

      In short, if you only ever talk about you in your twitter feed, you are doing it wrong.

  2. Joseph Futral October 7, 2009 at 1:00 pm Reply

    Interesting numbers. Those do make things sound dire. While I agree that the focus on ballet versus modern dance was interesting, I might be afraid to see numbers for modern. They might be worse. The only problem I have with this assessment is similar to your previous post, it is top down viewing and implies a top down response or solution. I would contend it is the top down structure that has created the problems we are having.

    First, are all arts organizations struggling in similar fashion to the national statistics? Which ones aren’t? Why? What are they doing that others are not?

    Of your solutions or “action list” (as is the trendy way to phrase these things these days) I agree with half. Lose the commodity mentality and embrace technology. What both of those ideas present however, could be a large part of the issue, letting go of control of certain aspects of the presentation. This is certainly the case with the recording industry, for instance. People want to experience art on their own terms. Now more than ever. Technology has played a major factor in that shift.

    To me the question to ask is not “Why aren’t they coming?”, but instead we should be asking “Why should they?”. What this quote fails to address:

    “Despite decades of effort to make high-quality works of art accessible to all Americans, demand for the arts has not kept pace with supply.”

    is making something, even of quality, accessible does not automatically make it interesting, engaging, or desirable. So the cost barrier to me is really a comment on value. If people want to see something they will find the money. I am not saying this is a black and white rule. I have no doubt there are people who truly cannot afford something they truly want. But this is only to point out that there is more at work than just price.

    Similarly, I would also argue that a building’s value is not just the dollar amount for construction. As artists we should also be concerned with the non-material value of projects. Not all benefits are easily or mathematically quantifiable.

    But to the “top down solution” issue I raised earlier. In many regards, artists have no one to blame but themselves for our predicament. We’ve made Art an elitist activity to participate in both as a creative and a viewer. The only Art worthy of bearing the label ART are those works created and presented in approved hallowed halls deemed acceptable by only a certain anointed few. Accessibility, to me, is less the issue than approachability. To me that requires a bottom up solution as much as leaders leading by example.

    Understand, I am not suggesting a “dumbing down” or “least common denominator” or “commercially viable” solution. I am not saying one should sacrifice quality for acceptance. I am saying there are walls other than accessibility that need to be torn down and firstly by the artists. While we want people to recognize that art not only should be but IS a part of everyday life, we have simultaneously created and presented something that isn’t part of everyday life. I would suggest that the arts organizations who are currently successful are tearing down those walls. I could be wrong, but I don’t think so.

    What do those numbers illustrate is actually dying? Maybe what is dying or suffering is what should be dying or suffering? Forrest fires are needed for sustainability of the forrest as much as abundance. Not saying this IS the case, but it is something to be considered.

    Just some thoughts,
    Joe Futral

    • John November 2, 2009 at 1:25 pm Reply

      One of the aspects of the blog that I am relishing is the thoughtful and helpful comments people are sharing. Thank you! As to Joe’s points, I find the question about the statistics—and which organizations are struggling, which aren’t—and what are they doing that others are not quite good as it encourages real examples…any out there?? What happened—to get us to the point, as Joe says where, ‘The only art worthy of bearing the label ART are those works created and presented in approved hallowed halls deemed acceptable by only a certain few”? Have we overemphasized ‘professional’ over ‘amateur’, over ‘community’, over ‘avocational’?

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