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Wallace's Engaging Audiences, or, Don't Fear The Amateur

Monday, August 10, 2009 Leave a Comment

Andrew Taylor at the Artful Manager has posted a link to the PDF of the Wallace Foundation's Engaging Audiences, a report that came out of their Grantee Conference in Philadelphia this April. Some parts feature the uneasy truisms of social media; other parts feature interesting anecdotes of one time fixes to long term problems.

But one section stood out: the relationship between the professional and amateur artist. Here is an excerpt:

"(Wolf) Brown cited several surveys of audience members that indicate a strong correlation between the extent to which people engage in various forms of musical, theatrical, dance and artistic experiences in their lives and their propensity to attend professionally-presented events.
For example:
ƒ -Among current subscribers, former subscribers, and single ticket buyers across six orchestra audiences surveyed, 71 to 77 percent reported experience singing or playing a musical instrument.
ƒ -Among a sample of Steppenwolf Theatre Company patrons, 43 percent reported frequently or occasionally reading plays for their own enjoyment and 12 percent reported frequently or occasionally writing, performing in or working on plays or musicals.
ƒ -People taking music lessons or classes, acting lessons, performing dances as part of a group, or visual arts or crafts classes at least once a week were much more likely to attend performances of these art forms than people who had less or no personal involvement in the practice of music, theater, dance and visual arts."
This is not new - Scott Walters has been working with the importance of this idea for some time, including one of my favorite posts regarding the decline of piano sales and the rise of radio here.

But sometimes you have to listen to something a number of times before you actually hear it. Now I've heard it. And the first question I have is why is there such a divide between the professional artist and the amateur?

Fear, probably; when professional arts organizations perceive their value in a state of siege, they must draw rigid lines to protect it. Logical allies are pushed aside out of fear their amateur status will somehow contaminate the brand. The idea of a professional artists' quality over the audience must take precedent to their value to the audience.

But, as Lynne Connor states later in the report:
"I believe what today's potential arts audiences most want out of an arts event is the opportunity to co-author meaning. They don't want the arts; they want the arts experience....They want to retrieve sovereignty over their arts-going by reclaiming the cultural right to formulate and exchange opinions that are valued in the community."
The second question is, of course, what can be done about it. It has to go beyond blog posts and comments (though if you saw Volleygirls, please do comment!) and education programs (though they are important). I think it will ultimately take a reconsideration of the value of ownership of the arts; a reframing that does not diminish the awareness of quality, but places it in its proper context. To re-purpose Byron, the professional artist must be among them AND of them; the amateur must be an equal partner at the table; the audience must be empowered by excellence to create themselves.

How to apply that practically? I don't know. I do know that an excellent example can be found in the work of the SITI Company. For all the recent talk of experimental versus traditional structures, SITI Company has created an immensely devoted following for very experimental work. How? Anne Bogart says:
"An acting student at Columbia once told me that her father is a surgeon and that surgeons have a saying: "Study one, do one, teach one". When I heard this, I jumped with the knowledge that this formula is exactly true for me, too."
Teach one, study one - it's not enough to simply do one. How this will play out in Flux's work, I don't yet know. But I am coming to believe that this is one of the essential steps we need to take as artists - to expect more from our audiences so they will expect more of us.