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Wednesday 18th of July 2012

What is the role of the arts in America — and what steps can artists and arts organizations take to survive (and better serve their communities)? Culture Craver’s Julia Levy had the chance to speak with Doug Borwick, who answered these questions and more. Doug is a musician and arts management consultant who recently authored Building Communities, Not Audiences: The Future of the Arts in the U.S. and who writes an ArtsJournal blog called Engaging Matters. For nearly three decades, Doug served as the Director of the Arts Management and Not-for-Profit Management Programs at Salem College in Winston-Salem, NC.

Julia: What’s the problem that you address in Building Communities, Not Audiences?

Doug: The arts establishment in the United States is not as directly connected with the person on the street as they would like to be and as the person on the street deserves them to be. Imagine people around a campfire singing or dancing, the way we understand the arts developed in human civilization. Compare that to almost any icon of the arts establishment — maybe the entrance to the Met or a really gilded opera hall. What happened?

Julia: You’re a musician and an academic. What inspired you to press for change in the American arts establishment?

Doug: It was the power of the arts on people that drew me to the arts, rather than the art in the abstract. I was around at the start of the culture wars, Mapplethorpe and Serrano, in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s. The thing that I principally observed is the politics of it: there wasn’t a single politician who paid a significant price for beating up on the arts. And there wasn’t a politician who got real credit for supporting them. That got me thinking, “Why is that?” It is because there is no broad political base for the arts. We don’t have a populace that is passionate about the arts. That led me to the question, “Why not?” So, I began to pay attention to arts organizations that were really strongly engaged with their communities … And when I looked at the politics of the arts in the United States and the example of Appalshop and Roadside Theater, combined with the economics and demographics of the future, I said to myself, “The arts establishment is going to need to do something different if it is going to be successful.” I think arts institutions — if they’re going to survive — really need to be serious about engagement, and more people deserve access to what the arts can do than is the case today.

Julia: In your book, you define “reflective” versus “visceral” art. Could you share those definitions?

Doug: Reflective art is art that feeds the soul. It is any kind of art that rewards the perceiver in going back, time after time after time. The greatest art of all civilization does that. But it’s not limited to what we would call classical arts or the high arts of the European tradition. Every kind of art has reflective art, whether it’s hip hop or music of the Subcontinent of India. Visceral art is primarily about entertainment. There’s nothing wrong with that; entertainment is a wonderful thing, but its principal purpose is to grab people from the beginning. The best work of all cultures does both: it grabs you immediately and then it rewards you time after time.

Julia: In this context, what do you think of the existing strategies not-for-profit arts organizations use to market themselves and build new audiences?

Doug: A lot of people in the arts now are talking about engagement, but they’re talking about all kinds of different things. I now divide engagement into audience development, audience engagement, and community engagement. Audience development is primarily about immediate sales. Its focus is: “I’ve got this thing I want people to buy tickets to.” It’s an immediate transaction. Audience engagement thinks about potential audience members as people and considers what their wants and needs are, but its end goal is sales. The core focus of that work is still on the arts organization itself: the audience is an “other” which is being invited in.

My work is about seeing those outside of the arts institution in a different way — as potential collaborators in an artistic exchange. Community engagement begins with, “Let’s develop relationships with people outside of the arts and then let the art be constructed around that relationship.” With audience development and audience engagement, the art is at the center of everything. With community engagement, the center of everything is the relationship between those in the arts and those outside of the art and then the art is what’s used to cement the relationship. It’s a profoundly different way of thinking.

Julia: Do these ideas apply only to new work, or could they apply to old work, too?

Doug: They apply to anything. Let’s talk about West Side Story. A company can present West Side Story as a cultural artifact, a great musical, and that’s what it’s about. They can also present it as a way to generate conversation about insider/outsider, about immigration, about racism. And so the same work, being done the same way on stage, has a very different role in the community.

Julia: Often, creative people say, “I create for myself, and I hope that other people identify with what I’m creating.” It’s kind of crass to think about the audience during the creation process. Is that idea inconsistent with the idea of community engagement?

Doug: The arts began as an expression of the community. So, an artist can say, “I don’t care about whether or not anyone likes this; I’m doing this for me,” but they shouldn’t expect to be supported by the community. That idea is the legacy of the mid- to late-Romantic Era, when suddenly the artist was not a practitioner, doing things with and for other people, but was kind of a separate entity, someone who was above the masses. That is a relatively new thought in the history of civilization. It’s a thought that hasn’t served the arts industry well. That, going hand-in-hand with the patronage system — and the not-for-profit arts industry is a legacy of the patronage system — has removed the arts from the lived experience of people in our communities.

Julia: Are there any rules that arts organizations interested in change can follow to achieve community engagement?

Doug: The first rule is to believe it’s a good idea. Sometimes artists or arts organizations are dragged kicking and screaming to engagement because a funder says, “You have to.” Or they believe, “This is my medicine. I’ve got to take it.” If that’s the reason for doing it, the community’s going to know it in a heartbeat, and it’s going to be unsuccessful.

The second rule is: this is about forming relationships. You don’t go up to a stranger and say, “Now I’m in love with you and I’m going to do this for you.” The stranger is just going to run away. You have to spend time forming the relationship. Part of that is because many people outside of the arts establishment are not simply neutral about the arts; they’re antagonistic because they’ve been burned by the arts establishment. So it really takes time to develop trust.

The third step, and only after the relationship has been developed, is actually figuring out what kind of art can apply to this relationship.

Julia: Do you ever get asked by arts organizations, “What if my community doesn’t want what I’m offering?”

Doug: If someone says, “My community doesn’t want what I do,” I think that comes out of being overly focused on your definition of what you do. There can easily be other ways of thinking about and doing opera than, perhaps, the way that you’re doing it. That also goes for every other art form. This pushback probably comes from the individual saying that being overly committed to a very, very, very specific product.

Julia: Overall, about a third of Americans go to the arts each year. Do you think that the pie is expandable?

Doug: I absolutely think it’s expandable because everyone wants and needs art. The question is, “What art are we talking about?” If we limit ourselves to a narrow understanding of this art from this era from this culture, it may not be terribly expandable. If, however, we think about the capacity of art to touch souls and not just the souls of the people we’re already touching, then there are things that artists and arts organizations can do to demonstrate their value to a far broader range of the population.

Julia: Where should this change you’re advocating come from? Who should lead this transformation? 

Doug: The only place it can come from is from the arts. Who is going to benefit from a change? Who cares enough? The only answer is people inside the arts.

Julia: If you got to create the ideal U.S. arts organization from scratch where would you start?

Doug: The arts establishment has traditionally been very Eurocentric and that made sense when the United States was more Eurocentric than it is today, but that kind of cultural infrastructure is not going to mesh with the United States in the 21st Century. Culture has to be more diverse and more kinds of cultural expression need to be supported by arts organizations. That’s going to happen as a matter of course: the arts will always exist. The current arts institutions — we’ll see.

Julia: What happens if the existing arts institutions do nothing and continue on the path that they’re on?

Doug: I think everyone will limp along for a while, but we’re already seeing some indications of the infrastructure not being supportable without considerable change. We have an industry that’s very labor intensive, and labor is becoming more, and more, and more expensive. This is in the context of a societal demographic that’s shifting further, and further, and further away from the cultural legacy upon which the bulk of our arts infrastructure is based. So, if you look at this from an academic perspective, you can see fairly quickly that something’s not sustainable here. And so, I really do think if major change is not undertaken, we’re going to see a lot of fallout in established arts organizations. I think that’s a shame because we, as a society, have invested so much in the infrastructure that exists.

Julia: What role can social networks and other digital tools play in this transformation?

Doug: A couple of years ago, I was at a session of the Americans for the Arts Annual Conference dealing with social media. After the session someone raised his hand and said, “We know we know about this feedback stuff, but what if someone says something bad about us?” … If somebody’s saying something bad about you, you might want to know that. It might be important information. Another thing is if somebody says something bad about you in social media that is unfounded they get pounced on. But primarily, social media can force an organization to pay attention to its community. The other aspect of social media in the arts is providing access to greater numbers of people. It used to be that in order to raise money, you had to raise money from a relatively small collection of very wealthy individuals. We’re now seeing the opportunity to raise money for projects or organizations from a large number of smaller donors. If that becomes the go-to mode in the arts, that is also going to provide incentive for organizations to be more involved with greater numbers of people in their community. I look at social media and the larger Web 2.0 as potential goldmines — and I don’t mean that just financially — for the arts and community engagement.

Julia: This seems related to the debate about citizen criticism — whether non-experts have the right to express opinions about the arts. What do you think about that?

Doug: Being able to have well-placed and trained critics talk from their points of view is an important thing. I would also say that if it is important that the broad community feels invested in the arts, it’s important for arts institutions to hear what they have to say. If you put on an arts event that no one in the community likes, it’s probably a good idea to figure out why.

Click to buy the book, "Building Communities, Not Audiences: The Future of the Arts in the U.S.," in Paperback or for the Kindle.

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