July 07, 2010

Professionalism in the arts: an eroding beachhead?

I've written a bit here about the downsides of our highly professionalized cultural sector (the lack of passion, personality, and sense of community). Is it my imagination, or is the non-professional side of the arts becoming bigger and healthier while the professional institutions continue to struggle? 

Okay, that’s a little black-and-white. The two can coexist, of course, and they’re even necessary to each other (which I'll come back to in a moment). But there's more evidence every day that non-professional approaches are succeeding in new ways, and in new corners. Consider what caught my eye when I came back after the July 4th weekend and leafed through a few days’ worth of the New York Times:

  • An article about a cool place in Brooklyn called the 3rd Ward, which appears to be a blend of arts collective, small-business incubator, design and craft workshop, DIY school, and party venue. Which spawned a restaurant. “True to their mission, they created a real community,” says someone from the Brooklyn Chamber of Commerce in the article, and it sure sounds that way: the people who use the space are all members, and they range from amateurs taking a woodworking class to established designers, craftsmen, artists, and entrepreneurs. 

    So the hobbyists and the pros work side by side in an atmosphere where that distinction isn’t particularly relevant.
    Which may be why the 4-year-old experiment is such a success. “Demand was so great that last year 3rd Ward opened its overflow space in Williamsburg, across from where its Goods restaurant now sits.” This will be my first stop next time I’m in New York.

  • An interview with Gareth Malone, host of “The Choir,” a BBC reality show in which Malone struggles to create top-tier choirs and opera singers of kids from the most unlikely, hardscrabble schools. Like the meteorically popular American show, Glee, Malone’s show presents music as something everyday people do, not just highly-paid virtuosos in tuxedos. There’s music in all of us, it seems to say: we don’t have to farm it out to professionals.

    And like the much-discussed Venezuelan model of music education, el Sistema, The Choir has a deep social agenda. The lives of a few young participants on the show have apparently been transformed, not by eat-your-vegetables exposure to classical music’s greatness but by the hard work and sheer heart involved. “[R]eally, it’s about getting people to aspire to come together to learn something,” says Malone.

  • A roundup of big issues in the design field today, in which the biggest of them all is how to “empower” people to contribute to the design of the things they use: in other words, “co-designing, customization, design democracy, participation, individualization and whatever else it is called.” Some museums have begun thinking about their exhibitions in just that way, thanks largely to Nina Simon’s work on participatory cultural experiences. (Her blog and new book will be of interest to all kinds of people in the arts and culture, not just museum professionals). ...

  • A piece about the open-mic-style evenings of song that take place in bars around New York City on Monday nights, when Broadway theaters are dark and the cast members are looking for other places to sing, show off, and goof around. It’s interesting that these professional singers have gravitated toward a non-professional setting and form — the rowdy, often gay bar in which audience participation is the rule and repertoire is up to the singer, not a producer — in order to express themselves. “This is reminding him of why he sings,” one ex-opera singer says of a friend.

And that’s from only two or three days of newspapers. This is a tectonic shift, gradual enough that we might not realize it’s happening but big and widespread enough to cause some serious earthquakes under the cultural landscape.

What will the reshaped terrain look like? Will our grand temples of the arts and informal learning still stand? 

Let’s hope so, but what goes on inside them will surely need to change. It’s not that the professionals will become obsolete. What’s most interesting about the examples I’ve just given is that they all involve new forms of interaction between professionals and the rest of us, rather than a replacement of one category by the other. That’s the revolution that thinkers like Clay Shirky have been observing for some time now: we’re all in it together, networked across and within categories to the point where the categories are becoming indistinct and unimportant. 

Advanced training, deep study, and long experience in a particular discipline still matter, but they matter in different ways, and they’re no longer the only thing that matters. The good stuff happens in those interactions: in the human, deeply social work of imagining, making, learning, celebrating, criticizing, sharing, and so on.

Which is a sharp turn after a century or so of cultural values that emphasized both individual creative genius and individual, private aesthetic response.

So how will traditionally-constructed arts organizations, museums, and other cultural institutions need to change in order to make those new interactions happen? I’ve tried to call out promising models here and there. What’s your take? (Don’t be shy, we’re all professionals here.)

Nina Simon — July 08, 2010

I'm loving your blog these days (and not just because you gave me a nice shout-out). I'm really glad you're exploring these topics in such a thoughtful way. It's helping me in my own work (especially as I'm now working on a 3rd Ward style project).

Peter Linett — July 08, 2010

Thank you, Nina! It's a stimulating dialogue you and I are having, which I value greatly. I thought of your Stranger Cafe when I read about 3rd Ward. Interestingly, their restaurant isn't right nearby their main/original space, so its community-building function will be different than your beer-and-frites bar. I'll have to think about how food -- and more importantly, social participation -- works in my Culture Kettle...

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