Craveable - The Culture Craver Blog

Monday 27th of February 2012

Jamie Bennett, who is both an early Culture Craver user and the chief of staff and director of public affairs at the National Endowment for the Arts in Washington, thinks not-for-profit arts organizations can learn a lot from Dancing with the Stars. In a conversation with Culture Craver’s Julia Levy this weekend, Jamie shared his opinion on how arts organizations can learn from gyms, 7-Elevens, and Pandora as they work to build new audiences.

Julia: What are you excited to see right now?

Jamie: In DC, I’m really excited because Basil Twist, the puppeteer, is coming down, and there’s going to be a sort of Basil Twist mini-festival, and the Clarice Smith Center at the University of Maryland is doing “Symphonie Fantastique,” Shakespeare Theater is doing his “Petrushka,” Studio Theatre is doing “Dogugaeshi,” and Woolly Mammoth is doing “Arias With a Twist.”

Julia: When you come up to New York, how do you decide to use your limited days and nights?

Jamie: I’m actually seeing less now than I used to. When you live in New York, you develop that whole stable of people that you sort of have to see but don’t necessarily want to see. If you went to a show, you could sit together for two hours and not have to talk, so it was a win-win. Now I come up and see people I actually want to see. Because it’s so limited now — because I come up once maybe every six weeks for one reason or another — it tends to be word of mouth. Tonight, we’re going to see Stew and Heidi’s new thing at the Public Theater because a friend of mine who I’d gone to see “Passing Strange” with had emailed me and said, “Oh my god, we totally need to go see the new Stew piece,” and I said, “Absolutely. It looks like I’m going to be up this weekend in February.” Particularly because my time is so limited, recommendations have to come from people I know and trust.

Julia: And those people are usually friends and less commonly professional critics?

Jamie: It tends to be somebody I’ve gone to a show with. Because I have to read so much and keep up with so much news, I don’t have time to read all of the critics nationally.

Julia: Really? You don’t have time to read thousands of critics?

Jamie: I do, of course, still read The Washington Post and New York Times critics as much as I can, but it tends to be someone I personally trust.

Julia: How do you think creators of art create desire among their potential audiences?

Jamie: I think the not-for-profit arts sector has a lot to learn from the for-profit arts sector when it comes to this. If you look at the NEA’s survey of public participation in the arts data, traditional audiences for traditional arts traditionally consumed in traditional venues is shrinking. Dance is particularly hard hit. At the same time, if you look at the number of hours of primetime network television devoted to dance, it’s never been higher. “Dancing with the Stars,” “So You Think You Can Dance,” “America’s Best Dance Crew,” etc., etc., etc. I’m not saying that “Dancing with the Stars” is the same thing as the New York City Ballet — 

Julia: Well, they haven’t cast Bristol Palin yet.


Jamie:
Right. But I think the desires are similar. Bill Ivey writes a lot about America’s expressive life. I think there is a desire to be around expression and creation and generative activities. The for-profit arts sector sort of couches it in fun — this is going to be fun, come participate, you can do it, too! And the non-profit stance tends to be: you should do this because it’s good for you. It’s like church versus a 7-Eleven. Elizabeth Streb talks about this. Traditionally, arts organizations are structured like churches. You come at a prescribed time, on a prescribed day of the week to receive dose of something that’s very good for you. And we’re going to do that exact same thing whether you come or whether you don’t come because it is a sacred thing. She talked about wanting to re-conceive her arts organization like a 7-Eleven, so it was a place that was open always that whenever you had a need, you stopped by to get it met. You could get a hot dog or a Slurpee or dental floss or a newspaper, or, or, or, or. And Diane Ragsdale writes some about this in “The Excellence Barrier.” We’re so invested in the arts about thinking about whatever we’ve done as being “excellent.” There’s no room for personal taste, there’s no room to say, “Yes, that’s excellent, but that’s not necessarily what I like or what I’m interested in.” Madeleine Grynsztejn at the MCA in Chicago, she had this sentence at a panel that Rocco did with her once. She said, “In the arts, we need to learn to retain expertise while letting go of control.” So, as an audience member I’m never going to be as smart about contemporary art as Madeleine Grynsztejn, but I’m entitled to my own experience of it. How do we allow people to have individual experiences? It might have to be that I love Diego Rivera and I don’t like Willem de Kooning. Those are both excellent shows that MoMA should absolutely be doing, but it’s all right if I only want to see one of them. Generally, the arts take the stance that you should want to see both because both are excellent and both are good for you. There’s something around allowing an individual to have an individual experience that I don’t think we do a particularly good job at.

Julia: You think that the commercial or for-profit sector does a better job at allowing people to have individual experiences?

Jamie: Right. If you don’t like Lady Gaga, there’s not something wrong with you. If you don’t like Lady Gaga, we’ll give you Katy Perry. If you don’t like Katy Perry, we’ll give you Justin Bieber. You’re allowed to make an array of individual selections, and you’re allowed to like and dislike. There’s no impugned judgment.

Julia: It’s almost like it would be easier to create audiences if the attitude were, “There are people who will love this, and we want to give it to them, and we don’t want to force feed it to the people who won’t.”

Jamie: Right. My understanding is that Nick Hytner at the National Theatre in London, has his membership department actually email members telling them to skip certain shows. They’ll say, “Julia, you’re an individual with individual tastes. We’ve been paying attention to what you like and what you don’t like. Don’t come to see what we’re doing in February — it’s not your cup of tea — but be sure not to miss our April show; you are going to love it.” It’s absolutely correct that the National Theatre should be doing all of those shows, and it’s absolutely correct that you shouldn’t have to like every single one of them. I’m not saying we should shut ourselves off to new experiences or only experience things within a narrow band, but if I’ve tried something and I don’t like it, that’s OK.

Julia: Or, if it’s so far outside what you are normally doing, it might just be too big of a leap.

Jamie: Right. And that’s what’s so nice about Pandora. I was actually just out in Oakland and spent a day and a half with the guy who founded Pandora, Nolan Gasser. He really conceived of Pandora, fundamentally, to connect art and audiences, and to allow people to experience things that they didn’t know about. Sort of similar to Culture Craver: you like A. A is not dissimilar from B. You might like B. Give it a try. And if you don’t like B, that’s fine. I’ve got C and D. There’s an encouragement to keep experimenting, to develop a taste, to develop a point of view, and to refine what you’re consuming as a result. Your Pandora algorithm doesn’t stay the same based on your thumbs up and down, in the same way that your Culture Craver algorithm changes with stars and bombs. The system gets smarter. And systems that acknowledge individual taste and individual experience and use them as a lens to help you experiment more are really powerful.

Julia: I’m really intrigued by this question of what not-for-profit arts creators could learn from Dancing with the Stars. Are there any lessons you can share — short of casting celebrities like Bristol Palin?

Jamie: In no way am I saying you should change what you’re doing: I’m not talking about curation or artistic direction. That needs to stay true. But think about subscription models. The traditional arts subscription model is I go to the ballet every third Thursday at 7:30. That’s not really how we live our lives anymore. If you look at gyms or you look at lots of Internet services, you pay and you can go anytime you want and do as much as you want and then leave. What would it look like if a performing arts center has a membership model where you paid $25 a month, charged automatically to your credit card, automatically renewing, and you could come see as much performance as you wanted. Maybe one month you wouldn’t come at all and another month you would come constantly. You’d have to figure out some logistical things around ticketing. The rest of the world has moved to acknowledge that that’s who we live our lives. There’s no reason live performances couldn’t figure out models where it would be similarly “on demand.”

Julia: Obviously, turning on your TV and watching “The Voice” is easier than going to a concert. How would you make it seem that going out to an event is as accessible and as un-intimidating as turning on your television?

Jamie: One, it actually turns out that electronic consumption of the arts is a gateway to more live arts consumption. If you look at the NEA research report “Audience 2.0,” people who consume the arts via electronic media are twice as likely to see three times as many arts events and explore a greater variety of genres as someone who doesn’t. I think we should be less afraid of people who consume arts electronically. I don’t think it’s ever going to take the place of live performance because something magical happens in that space. But it does serve as a gateway to that experience. So, in the same way that we were convinced that records would be the death of live music — once I could do this at home, live music would disappear — there are still great audiences for live concerts and live music. For visual arts, we were terrified that photography was going to obviate the need for painting; we were terrified that color catalogs and slides were to take away the need to ever go visit museums or galleries. We got through that. We’re at another moment where we have to think about electronic arts consumption as a companion to live arts consumption. Two, I do think the subscription model is interesting — allowing me to decide when I come and how often I come and how much I consume. Three, there is that intimidation factor. If you sort of look at the physical architectural metaphors of arts organizations, they don’t tend to be welcoming. The metaphor of the box office is the metaphor of a bank teller’s window. There’s value on one side, there’s something that keeps you out. You come as a supplicant to ask for some value that is doled out parsimoniously. There’s something about that exchange that very much says, you being here isn’t valued by us. Andrew Taylor talks a lot about this. I’m stealing it from him. And I think it’s really important to think about incorporating things like restaurants and bars and spaces where you can process arts casually within the temples of art. So I can go and see a show and I can sit down with a friend and have a cup of coffee after and talk about it and process it. I think arts organizations need to do more to incorporate themselves into the daily lives of people. So that I think about it like, “Oh, I could go to a movie, or I could go to a show, or we could grab a cup of coffee, or, or, or…”

Julia: Do you think audiences or arts institutions think of it that way? It seems like all of my friends go to movies, but it’s a big leap for some people to go to art or theater. How do you get moviegoers to consider other art forms?

Jamie: In recent years, there have been a lot of efforts made around arts calendars and listings. If you live in New York City and you haven’t figured out how to go to the theater, having an alphabetized listing of 330 performance options isn’t going to be the magic bullet that makes you say, “Oh, OK. I’m going to take in a play today,” so I’ve become personally obsessed with looking at the affinity algorithms of preference discovery engines that exist. Amazon says people who bought X also bought Y, so if you bought X, you might want to buy Y. Facebook’s model says, I like Julia, Julia likes art, therefore I might like art. And Pandora says, you like this song, which has the following attributes — a strong narrative, a powerful bass, a lot of vocals — therefore here are other things that have those similar traits. I think we need to spend more time exploring those models. Theater companies tend to buy other companies’ mailing lists with the thought that, “If you went to the Public Theater you might want to come to PS 122.” I think that we need to do more stuff that looks trans-genre, so if you like jazz music and you liked reading “The Color Purple,” you might like Bill T. Jones dance company. And so I think that beginning to explore trans-genre is really important. And the other thing, which I think we talked about in an earlier conversation: In England, there is one centralized ticketing system. And there was a data wonk who was in mining the data as data wonks do, and he was going through the records and looked up his wife’s records, and looked at all the tickets she bought in the last year, and then said, “Oh, I wonder if there’s anyone else who has seen exactly what my wife has seen?” There was one other record that matched his wife’s identically. Then, he looked at the next thing that person bought, and then he woke his wife and said, “What do you know about ‘The Cherry Orchard’?” and she said, “It’s on my list.” And he had this eureka moment about what are the ways that you can predict taste, what are the ways you can predict desire, to predict craving.

Julia: How would you advise arts make to look cross-genre when they are looking to build new audiences? Is it talking differently to audiences, or is it talking differently to colleagues in the arts?

Jamie: I think it’s both. The rule of fundraising is it’s much easier to get someone who’s given a dollar to give a second dollar than it is to get someone to give the first dollar. My gut is that in the arts, it’s much easier to get someone who is going to go to a performance of something to get them to go to a performance of something else. So, the key is looking at the people who are already consuming the art and sharing that audience data, sharing what the audience experience is, and figuring out a way to cross-pollinate it. RoseLee Goldberg runs Performa here in New York City, which is an every-other-year festival of performance art, and she comes at it through the visual arts lens. She’s presenting a lot of the same artists who might get presented at Under the Radar or any of these other things, but she’s bringing a visual arts audience with her. She was asked to speak at the Public Theater about some of the artists that she had presented who were also Public Theater folks, and she did a poll of the audience, and said, “Who here is a visual arts person?” And there was nobody. And if you asked that same question about those artists at a Performa audience, it would be all visual arts people and there wouldn’t be any theater people. They’re consuming the same thing, and yet the audiences don’t cross-pollinate. I was just at a meeting in Oakland that is part of a big research workshop that we’re doing to create a model about how art works, what is its impact on individuals and communities … one of the questions that came up for me is: we draw this arbitrary circle around things we call “the arts.” Some of us draw it very narrowly — things that happen in tutus and travertine marble. Some of us draw it more broadly, and include church choirs. However you define it, there is this circle that encompasses this thing called “the arts.” I’ve begun asking myself, “Why have we drawn that circle? Does it have meaning? Is there something that the arts all have in common with each other? Is painting part of the same cohort as theater? Is dance the same cohort as music?” I believe it is. I’m still working it out in my mind — to have a well-spoken philosophical rationale for this, but I believe it is something. I think creating a real community within that, and not saying, I’m a contemporary dance company and I have nothing to do with classical dance, let alone a museum, I think harms us, and if we saw ourselves as a larger community and worked together that way, I think we’d all benefit tremendously from it. So, figuring out a way to conceive of ourselves as a sector and operate as a sector and realize that more is more. If somebody comes to see something at another theater, that’s ultimately good for my theater, because it’s creating a new audience, it’s building an audience, it’s building an informed community.

Julia: Right. And if you’re a theater company and you are pointing people toward something they’ll enjoy that is not something you produced, you are becoming a tastemaker.

Jamie: I think we need to adopt a more is more, rising tide lifts all boats attitude.

Julia: You think there is a way to expand the pie?

Jamie: Right.

Julia: Fifteen years ago, there weren’t reality shows, and now there are more than most of us have time for. We can make the audience for the arts expand in the same way.

Jamie: Thirty-five percent of America is consuming traditional arts in traditional ways. There’s huge room for growth. Sixty-five percent of America isn’t participating. There’s a lot of audience to be created.

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