January 16, 2012

In the arts, audience-centered business models start with the art, not the business

In my last post, I asked where the consumers are in the Colorado symphony’s new “customer-driven” business model and promised a few examples of ways arts groups are getting audiences into the picture a little more creatively. It’s about not thinking of them as consumers or audiences in the first place, but as collaborators.

Take the street-filmmakers of Germany’s Gob Squad, whose recent film starring passersby in New York’s East Village, “Super Night Shot,” was screened at the Under the Radar festival only minutes after it was shot. (The last scene was filmed in the lobby of the theater, so the crowd watched themselves watching for the arrival of the actors.)

The Gob Squad's Bastian Trost, in mask, with a passerby recruited as an actress. Photo Piotr Redinski for the New York Times 

Or Martha Graham’s “On the Couch” video competition — actually more of a narration competition, in which you’re asked to imagine, write, and record the inner monologue of a Graham company dancer performing an evocative solo in one of two online videos.

Remember “reader response” theory from the ‘70s, that radically postmodern idea that the artwork is completed by the beholder? The object or “text” doesn’t exist as such until an audience engages with it. Well, that idea turned out to be just a foreshadowing of what’s going on today. Viewers are quite literally completing the art. And it doesn’t even feel particularly radical when they do.

Or think of the Plains Art Museum’s “You Like This: A Democratic Approach to the Museum Collection,” which crowdsourced the selection of objects for a permanent collection highlights show. (Apparently even the most progressive practices at art museums still involve a colon in the middle of the title, just like a PhD dissertation.)

Or all the ways that classical musicians are reinventing classical music “without the tuxes,” as one recent story put it.  This alt-classical “revolution” (in, for example, the Pacific Northwest) isn’t news to anyone reading this blog, of course — some of you are the ones taking over bars and coffee shops armed with cellos. It may not be participatory in the same sense that the Gob Squad, Martha Graham, or Plains Art Museum examples are. But it shares their democratic, street-level ideals.

In an era when headlines like Salon’s recent “Can the Symphony be Saved?” are frequent enough to blur together, established orchestras will have to try harder to shake off the chains of caution, self-importance, and (maybe the heaviest shackles) nostalgia. Yes, it’s admirable that Colorado’s new plan was developed by the musicians and staff working hand in hand. That clearly took courage and leadership, and other orchestras should continue trying to tear down the same wall. ...

But for symphonies to make real strides toward relevance and engagement, they’re going to have to put on the table not just their “business” models but some of their deepest, most cherished assumptions about what classical music is and how it works. Assumptions like music-making has a clear “by” and a “for.” Like arts consumers belong in their seats, not on the soundtrack. Like classical music is “serious” art, and therefore “higher” than vernacular culture. Like music making is a collective and anonymous, rather than a personal and self-expressive, enterprise.

Hey, if filmmakers, dance companies, and art museums can do it—and individual classical musicians, especially (but not only) young ones, are doing it all over—then surely established nonprofit symphonies can do it. The Colorado Symphony got it right when it linked relevance to revenue. But it’s going to need to think harder about what relevance looks like these days. The examples I've cited may not be the answer. But the values and vibe they embody may be.

By the way, my friend Greg Sandow is more sanguine about the Colorado plan. Don't miss his post about it, or the follow-up he's planning.

Kendall A — January 27, 2012

I have mixed feelings about this post and I'm going to give a long response as to why, but I'll try to be as clear as possible.

First of all, I absolutely agree that there needs to be more of an effort to bring audiences into participatory and active engagement with classical music, but in arguing this, there's also a danger of seeing music as merely an easy to produce and replicate consumer good. You can ultimately devalue the years of training it takes to bring performers and composers to the heights they can get to, and when we do this to the fine arts, to me it also takes the ceiling of society itself down a notch.

Second, the philosophy embraced by this paragraph:

"Assumptions like music-making has a clear “by” and a “for.” Like arts consumers belong in their seats, not on the soundtrack. Like classical music is “serious” art, and therefore “higher” than vernacular culture. Like music making is a collective and anonymous, rather than a personal and self-expressive, enterprise."

is actually part of what I feel has led symphonies down a road to ruin over the last 40 years or so. You make it sound like being populist is a radical thing, when it's actually a very conservative, reactionary model, and it's the precisely the model symphonies have been following. By consistently caving in on contemporary artistic standards to popular convention, looking to preserve their cultural place rather than take artistic risks and push the culture forward, they whither and rot.

By concentrating on the popular and proven, they've neglected the relevant, and that's when a culture becomes dead. At their height, symphonies are a spectacular display of collective art, far superior in the amount of skill required and quality to the often chintzy and amateurish flash mob art you see prevalent as our collective art du jour. The one great thing that the flash mobs have over symphonies however, the one great thing these audience participatory pieces you envision (and I should say are getting produced, check out Golan Levin's Telesymphony as a fantastic example) is that they have relevance to a contemporary audience. There is a tactile connection to the idea, and to the engineer/designers of the work.

This is where I come back full circle to agreement, that symphonies and composers need to get back to that direct connection to the people that consume the art, yet find a balance and not sacrifice the high standard of artistic quality society should expect/demand from them.

Elizabeth B-D — February 08, 2012

I found the "You Like This" exhibition at the Plains Art Museum to be both innovative and a gimmicky, but perhaps necessary, attempt to increase audience engagement from yet another contemporary art institution. I've been sitting on committee after committee with partnering cultural institutions in Chicago for many years and the question of how to get more people to see and engage with contemporary art to be one of the most head-scratching propositions in the cultural arena.

I was recently at an exhibition about art from the 80s at a very reputable institution and the wall placards read like caricatures of contemporary art speak. I thought, "Who is editing this stuff?". The language was so dense and impossible to understand, I wanted to take out a marker and blacken most of the text. Really, it was almost embarrassing if it wasn't so tragic -- and I was a big fan of the show!

Yet, one of the things I love most about contemporary art is how weird and incomprehensible it can be. I look forward to seeing how certain curators will take on concepts and conundrums. I like the people that contemporary art attracts from the outrageous to the milquetoast. I have a conflict about the idea of taking the curators, tastemakers, arbiters and culture vultures out of the equation and letting "the people" decide. Just as I have never preferred the winners of American Idol, I have always been chagrined to see that the more interesting runners up had better careers post contest.

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