Doug McLennan, Editor of ArtsJournal, invited me to participate in an online debate on leadership in the arts. To kick things off, a panel of bloggers were asked to respond to the following prompt:
“Increasingly, audiences have more visibility for their opinions about the culture they consume. Cultural institutions know more and more about their audiences and their wants. Some suggest this new transparency argues for a different relationship between artists and audience. So the question: In this age of self expression and information overload, do our artists and arts organizations need to lead more or learn to follow their communities more?”
There has been vigorous debate on this issue, and to check out all the arguments, please visit the “Lead or Follow” online discussion here.
As for me, below is my response to the aforementioned prompt:
This week we examine the nature of leadership in the context of developing the most fruitful relationships with our audiences. Good relationships often strike a healthy balance between competing interests, and frequently this balance is forged over the course of many years. Arts organizations have relationships with their patrons, donors and communities, and those relationships are constantly evolving. As such, I find the framework of this debate limiting, as I would argue that great arts organizations lead and follow, and that we shouldn’t be asking if we should do more of one than the other, but instead ask if we are doing the leading or the following at the appropriate times.
There are moments when arts organizations must lead, and that leadership becomes a catalyst of great change. In 1948, the National Theater in Washington, DC closed its doors rather than integrate, and a twenty-four year old Zelda Fichandler decided it was time for the city to have a producing theater of its own. She was an early proponent of the idea that communities should reclaim ownership of their theaters, and now sixty-one years later, there are more than 1,900 non-profit regional theaters in cities across the nation. It took a leader.
There are also times when we follow. As of 2008, minorities accounted for 48% of all births in the United States. The U.S. Census Bureau projects that by 2050, the Asian and Hispanic population will double, African-Americans will increase and the white population will decline by 9%. In addition, the percentage of the population that is elderly will almost double. Look at your board of directors, staff, donors and audiences—do they reflect your community? Is the physical structure of your building suitable for a growing number of elderly patrons? As a field, we are behind the curve, and we have much to learn from following as our communities are changing faster than we are.
In terms of audience development, it is important for arts organizations to play both roles well. Our principal challenge as arts marketers is presenting art as a viable option for leisure activity. We have many barriers—ticket prices, transportation and parking, lack of arts education in our schools, inaccessible and aging infrastructure, etc. Not to mention, the abundance of free and easily accessible alternatives from our competition. A 2008 Survey of Public Participation in the Arts published by the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) found that American arts audiences are getting older, and their numbers are declining at significant rates. In 2011, NEA Chairman Rocco Landesman delivered his now famous “supply and demand” speech from Arena Stage, indicating that demand for the arts is currently outpaced by supply, and suggesting that we consider pruning our numbers. We have a problem in this country. And if we have to produce more populist work in order to overcome potential barriers for first time patrons, I am fine with that. In fact, I am more than fine—it is what we should be doing.
Populist work is often, for lack of a better term, a gateway drug. Lure them in with a musical, roll out a comedy, put in a Broadway touring production. Do what it takes. Once they have an exceptional first time artistic experience, art becomes an option and then we work to get them addicted. From the perspective of an arts marketer, once a new patron walks through our doors via a “gateway” play, my job is to get them back. Once they have had a few experiences, my responsibilities shift. I now focus my attention on broadening their experiences and pushing their boundaries. And they will be ready. But forcing them to run before they crawl will end up in a disappointing experience for all.
Each patron has an individual relationship to an arts organization. We have a responsibility to offer up a balanced diet that feeds each artistic soul. For those with a developed palate, we lead, push, challenge and sometimes offend. And for those new to us, it is perfectly appropriate to offer up a piece of cake in order to get them to sample the exotic quiche.
Currently at Arena Stage, we have a tremendous production of John Logan’s Red directed by Robert Falls. In the script, painter Mark Rothko’s assistant Ken delivers a powerful speech, in which he says:
“You know, not everything has to be so goddamn important all the time! Not every painting has to rip your guts out and expose your soul! Not everyone wants art that actually hurts. Sometimes you just want a fucking still life or landscape or soup can or comic book.”
Remarkable arts organizations are more than just temples of art. We are relationship builders. Today we lead, tomorrow we may follow, but we take our cues from our communities, for whom we were built to serve.