September 06, 2010

The “dark matter” of the arts: informal and participatory engagement?

Physicists now believe that most of the mass in the universe is something very different from the stuff we’re used to observing and measuring. Could something similar be true in the more down-to-earth realm of arts participation?

I’m preparing for a panel next month at the Grantmakers in the Arts conference entitled “Are the Arts Gaining or Losing Ground in America?” The session was cooked up by Paul Botts, a friend of mine and program director at the Gaylord & Dorothy Donnelley Foundation. Paul is understandably impatient about the fact that, for all the data we’ve complied on arts audiences as a field, we’re not really sure what the numbers really mean, or even whether things are tanking, holding steady, or (as unlikely as it sometimes seems) growing.

As you probably know, the NEA’s Survey of Public Participation in the Arts says that most of the traditional or “benchmark” forms of cultural participation — which is to say, attendance — have been dropping steadily over the last two or three decades.

But many people, including the NEA‘s own head of research, Sunil Iyengar, have noted that times are changing fast and fundamentally, and it might be a good idea to update our definitions of both “benchmark” art forms and “participation.” (To its credit, the NEA's most recent SPPA report does away with the term "benchmark.") Because it’s entirely possible that, while attendance at things like opera, symphonies, ballet, and art museums has declined, engagement with less formal styles of art, culture, and creative expression has risen, and that participation (in the sense of doing something actively, rather than sitting there watching and listening to others do it) has grown.

If so, the question is whether that growth outstrips the declines in attendance at the traditional arts. Which way is the “total” needle pointing?

A strum-along class at the Old Town School of Folk Music's "First Friday" this past weekend. Sorry for the iPhone photo quality.

I had all that question knocking around in my head when I wandered into the Old Town School of Folk Music last Friday evening after work. It’s right in my neighborhood, Lincoln Square, and it‘s one of the most thriving, lively arts institutions I’ve seen. Even if you didn’t know it was there, you’d be able to infer its existence from all the people carrying guitars around here.

I paid my five bucks for the “First Friday” open house, a monthly mix of student performances, faculty-led jam sessions, goofy square dancing for toddlers and kids, and drop-in classes for grownups, capped off at the end of the night by performances by one or two people you‘d actually buy tickets to hear.

I bumped into some friends who had brought their two little kids, and we had a beer while catching sets by one class called 70s Ensemble and another called Rolling Stones Ensemble. As you’d guess, the talent on stage varied widely, from beginning strummers to polished electric licks. The teacher of each class sat in with the students and acted as bandleader, but that didn’t change the homemade, singalong vibe. Even when it was bad it was fun, and it was often pretty damn good. ...

Students take the mainstage at the First Friday. This is the "Rolling Stones Ensemble.

The Old Town School is a nonprofit, but its revenue pie chart looks different from most arts organizations: a much higher percentage comes from earned income than from donated income. And the school is building an additional facility across the street, not because the current one is out of date (it opened just ten years ago) or a major donor wanted to leave a legacy, but because more students keep showing up and more classrooms are needed. In addition to that new space and the main building, the organization now runs busy outposts in another Chicago neighborhood and two suburbs. Each location also has a music store.

Now, I realize that if you’re interested in the future of Boccherini and Brahms, this all may not sound terribly exciting. But if you’re interested the question of whether Americans are buying instruments, learning to read music, making music, listening to others make music — in other words, giving music a decent and maybe increasing share of their mind, time, and wallet — then there’s a lot of good news here.

It all comes back to what we mean by “the arts.” The old lines we drew between high and low, art and entertainment, light and serious, have long since dissolved in fuzziness, and these days the line between beholding and participating is rapidly disappearing, too. But our mental categories are taking a while to catch up. 

I sketched this grid (literally the back of a napkin at the Old Town School that evening) to try to illustrate the conceptual change we‘re in the middle of. Back when the NEA’s first SPPA was conducted in 1982, we used to think of “the arts” largely as what occupies the lower left quadrant of this grid: formal and spectatorial participation, like going to the symphony.

Where do other arts experiences fit on this map? Which quadrant are you paying most attention to in your organization?

Our thinking has broadened since then, thanks in part to studies like Alan Brown’s values framework (and especially page 3 of this pdf) and some obvious shifts in the way audiences are behaving. The NEA added several new questions about technological and participatory forms of arts engagement. But somehow, that upper right quadrant of informal and participatory arts experiences is often missing when we think or say or write that phrase, “the arts.”

In my view, we need the whole grid in mind if we want to understand what’s going on: how the arts, defined broadly, fit into people’s lives. The mental reframing isn’t easy, because it’s forcing us to look differently at arts advocacy, fundraising, marketing, facilities, education, programming, and everything else.

But those changes are as much opportunities as threats — as long as we don’t make the make the same mistake the railroads did in the early 20th century. They thought they were in the railroad business rather than the transportation business, so they stuck to their hardware and facilities and traditional ways of doing business, while trucks and busses and eventually airplanes, ate their lunch. (Sorry for the hoary business-school analogy, but it fits.)

People still enjoy each other’s — and their own — creative expression, and they still engage with the world aesthetically. But the ways they do it are changing, and as a result the overall arts ecology is getting more diverse and complex.

It may also be getting larger, if we measure all that informal and participatory activity. Like the dark matter that the physicists are puzzling about, it may in fact dwarf the more familiar kinds of participation that we’re used to measuring. Only a different research approach will tell.

Elizabeth Merritt — September 07, 2010

Great observations, Peter. It doesn't help to be accurate in your measurement if you are measuring the wrong thing!

About your sketch--I have questions about informal = vernacular and formal = classical. (If these refer to content, rather than the delivery mechanism.) I can think of formal, structured formats for presentation of vernacular performances, and informal formats for classical music. Maybe we need three axis? I think that the old NEA survey format was biased towards presentational, formal, AND classical arts participation, and missed a lot of participatory, informal and vernacular arts.

Anne Lee — September 08, 2010

Nice model, Peter. I think it also helps to realize that the success of the Old Town School can also be attributed to its own redefinition. Rather than a narrow focus on traditional "folk music," the school has expanded tremendously into all types of music, dance, and movement. The school's intentional broadening to serve all forms of "creative expression"--no matter the skill level--is exactly what created the informal, participatory atmosphere that you experienced.

Paul Botts — September 08, 2010

Well I'm thinking that our conference call to prepare for the GIA panel just got shorter -- Peter scripted half of the session! Lots of good points here, you're right on target in describing the conversation I'm thirsting for, and I will now shamelessly rip off that excellent "dark matter" analogy.

A few specific comments:

-- another category which seems just observationally to be booming nowadays and which needs to fit in the model somehow is...well it actually even needs a correct label, but it's something like "semi-pro artistic performance." The drummer I play jazz in local clubs with is, like me, someone with a different primary career but who pursues low-level professional performance as a "serious avocation" or something like that. We are not at and do not aspire to the level of being invited to play in the Chicago Jazz Fest; but we do get booked and paid a bit here and there to play in front of people, we do rehearse and try to write a bit, etc. We sometimes take a year or even a decade off as "real life" comes first, but then when we're active it is more than just another hobby. So is that "professional artists" (and hence "presentational" on the above napkin)? Is it "serious amateurs" (and hence "participatory")? Chris and I dunno, but have more than once puzzled over the label just because people ask. And there do seem to be more and more people active in this culture in that sort of manner, not just in music though that's probably the biggest such category -- I've met folks who I'd describe in a similar manner in the visual arts, in theater, in literature, etc.

-- "The old lines we drew between high and low", some of those lines aren't actually that old, and seem to be significantly unique to modern Europe and North America. Are we in fact not so much creating a new definition of "the arts" as getting over a temporary one?

-- your railroad analogy is missing its second, or maybe its the third, act. Freight railroads have during the past 30 years rebounded from that earlier eating of their lunch and reinvented themselves and are now (in North America anyway) booming again. Profitable, hauling more freight than ever before, expanding their range of customers, etc. The core causes of their decline were understood for two generations, and the basic blueprint for reinvention was on hand for one, before implementation finally actually began. The key final change that freed them to innovate and succeed was provided by Jimmy Carter and Congress in the late 1970s: deregulation. I wonder what that sequence of events might suggest for the arts sector particularly its more institutionalized parts?

Cheryl Slover-Linett — September 10, 2010

And here's a bit more food for thought if you're going to run with the "dark matter" analogy: dark matter is what holds it all together in our humble universe, so perhaps we should actually study participatory arts more than presentational ones. Even if we move the dial a little in this area I bet we'd learn a ton.

Peter Linett — September 10, 2010

Great points, all. Beth, I'm sure you're right that we shouldn't run those two concepts together -- we need another axis. Anne, thanks for the point about Old Town's inclusive focus on creative expression rather than on one or another musical genre; I agree that's been fundamental to their success.

Paul, you've confounded my grid very helpfully: sometimes presentation is participation, and vice versa. (When's your next gig, by the way?) I like your historical point too, and I've argued the same thing myself. Up till the late nineteenth century, there was a much fuzzier line between amateur and professional (and not just in the arts, but the sciences too), and there wasn't a separate "popular," commercial culture that competed with subsidized or patronage-supported "art" culture. We're heading back to the future.

Cheryl, thanks for squeezing more out of my analogy. I love the idea that informal and participatory engagement may be (like dark matter) exerting the real gravitational force that keeps the formal, traditional arts activity (visible matter) from spinning off into fragments and entropy. If so, we need to nurture it all the more.

Post new comment

The content of this field is kept private and will not be shown publicly.