This essay is for artists and all the people who work with artists. We begin by asking if there is anything that artists could possibly need more than an audience? If the answer is no, as we believe it to be, then why don’t we trust what audiences are telling us?
An anecdote from an exchange between an engineer and an artist. “You say you have all kinds of power to transform things. But as a brown body trying to make my way home from my office in downtown Ottawa during the Freedom Convoy, I have to ask: where were the artists? You weren’t even part of the conversation? And certainly not part of any transformation. Where were you?”
How has it come to pass that “the arts” and “artists” are not a central part of every financial, political, and social conversation?
The cultural contract in Canada is broken. As part of an imaginary future world, envisioned in the 1950s, a culture contract was forged between artists and audiences to build a new and mighty nation-state called Canada. This institutionalized culture was supposed to create a unified identity distinct from that of our big sister south of the border and the one with the Queen across the pond. Well, the Queen is dead, her grandson makes podcasts in LA and our sister to the south is falling apart. Our distinctive “Canadian” identity has been remixed through reconciliation and immigration. And neither of these was part of the contract in 1951. Everything has changed.
Our pervasive idea in the nonprofit arts sector is that we are filling a hole in the lives of Canadians. But what is the hole exactly? How was that hole filled for Canadians during the pandemic? During the Freedom Convoys?
If we are first and foremost hole fillers, why then does the ideology in the nonprofit arts sector appear to centre the artists and arts organizations instead of the holes? Open up any funder’s strategic plan, to verify this assertion. This tendency to centre artists in everything was strong enough in the before-times, yet, now, in post-pandemic times its necessity appears as fact. We should be clear: our goal here is not to diminish artists themselves. To deny that artists’ livelihoods were imperilled during the pandemic before the pandemic and post-pandemic is foolish. We are painfully aware that artists have lost much. Artists are the mirror and the audiences are caught in its reflection. We need both. We espouse interdependence.
But that interdependence hinges on realigning our north star. Instead of continuing to insist that artists are at the centre, we propose the uncomfortable idea that audiences are at the center. Audiences vote. Audiences spend money. Audiences, let’s call them people, have the power. Why, then, is it so disturbing to contemplate putting their needs ahead of the needs of artists and arts workers? Before you throw your phone/tablet/computer against the wall, we hope you will hear us out. At root, we have come to believe that everything hinges on a deep lack of trust. Only 33% of Canadians believe that we can trust each other. Trust in institutions, in government, and even in charities, is dropping. We are not exempt from these undercurrents. And so, we are asking you to entertain the possibility that our motives are trustworthy.
To be clear, we are not disputing that more money for culture, and the people who make it, is a good thing. More money for the arts sector is a very good thing. But when we call this work “charitable” and demand it is publicly funded, we need to question who exactly is the beneficiary of the “charitable arts”? The answer, legally and practically, cannot be the artists themselves, it has to be the general public. Is this public money reaching a meaningfully representative segment of the general public? Is the public engaged with something that they consider a sacred part of their lives akin to healthcare, parks, or religion?
In response to point one of this manifesto, we have been charged with populism. But what does populism mean, exactly? Without prejudice, it is defined as a political approach that strives to appeal to ordinary people who feel that their concerns are disregarded by established elite groups. According to this definition, we might be guilty as charged but let’s unpack this.
First, is it possible that the arts sector has been ingesting their own populist narratives? The ways in which we repeatedly broadcast to one another that in the face of all evidence to the contrary, what the public really needs is more arts funding for more artists to continue doing more of the same. And the only reason we haven’t yet achieved funding nirvana is because of some elite political leadership that “doesn’t get it”.
This narrative lays the blame squarely on the politicians and lets us off the hook. The much scarier proposition is that those politicians are just reflecting the will of their constituents. If the constituents are apathetic, where does that leave us?
Second, we recognize that there is a certain terrifying brand of populism in the larger milieu that offers a quick fix by taking away all power from the places the elitism lives: the institutions. We know that this kind of burn-it-all-down populism only serves to empower a new, more tyrannical group of power-wielders. We are not advocating this.
But, we are sympathetic to the apathetic response of the ordinary person who has turned away after repeatedly being ignored. We posit that there is a reflection worth catching in the mirror. Let’s call this reflection peoplism. We believe appealing to the “ordinary person” and their needs without losing experimentation and new creation is possible. To do this we must begin with generosity. We start by accepting where our audience is, and not judge them as being uncultured or ignorant. We start by accepting the premise that we may have to do more than just convince people that they really do want what we have unsuccessfully been selling. We have to accept the possibility that we will need to meaningfully change what we do, and how we do it, if we are to rebuild the trust that has been lost.
Make no mistake, the arts are in full-blown crisis. We launch this first essay the week after the closure of yet another signature festival of new work, The Under The Radar Festival in NYC – and, in Toronto The Art of Time Ensemble announced it was closing up shop and the Toronto Fringe is looking at halving its future productions. Post-pandemic audience numbers are down between 25-50% across the country. But this crisis far predates the pandemic. We should have noticed the writing on the wall when arts sector advocacy arguments first started shifting from the social good to the economic benefits. And now in our endgame, we can neither truthfully claim to be social nor economic powerhouses.
The arts are no longer working with audiences to build a unified nation. So we can blame a broken mirror for all the cracks it’s showing us or, we can thank it for reflecting back the truth. “The arts” as a generalized, nationalist ideal, might just be an idea that needs to go. And audiences, let’s call them people, might be trying to help us see this.
The sector seems set on fixing the problem of audience engagement with data. But are we asking the right questions? Are we asking the mirror on the wall who is the fairest of them all? Instead of asking who is missing in the reflection? Are we relying on datasets plagued with confirmation bias about the importance of the arts? The truism that culture is good for everyone, and we just need to figure out how to explain and package it better, might be utterly false. Especially, if we cleave to a definition of arts or culture that is actually not relevant to most. Our approach to research to better the sector cannot be to validate our biases. Our approach to research, evaluation, and impact, all have to be in search of what the public needs and how the arts might serve those needs authentically and meaningfully. Artists need people. We need to learn how to trust one another.
How might we actually do that? For starters, what if we were to ask fundamentally different questions of our audiences? Instead of asking them why they didn’t see the play with the $80 ticket on Thursday night at 8pm, what if we asked them:
What do you actually need right now?
Do you feel like your life is out of control? If so, what do you do to help mitigate this?
Do you feel endangered? What helps make you feel cared about?
Do you feel valued? What helps you feel valued?
Do you have beauty in your life? Where or what is it?
Do you have rhythm in your life? Where do you find it?
Do you have community? Where is it?
Do you have power in your life? How do you deploy it?
How do you celebrate? How do you grieve?
Engaging with this investigation would require us to abandon a lot of our attachments to current forms, practices, and activities. It may mean rethinking seasons, or the relationship between professionals and nots, even the primacy of the show itself. We cannot create a new kind of value if we are not prepared to create a new kind of offer.
In the aftermath of the greatest disruption in our lives, people are still grappling with an overwhelming loss of control. We are witnessing the alarming growth of senseless acts of violence, in public and private spaces. We also know that people are feeling isolated and are craving social connection, it turns out spending all our time on screens is actually anti-social media. They are craving sold-out crowds as much as we are, magnets for communing, for feeling reconnected, feeling part of something. The big shows of today are hitting really big. Offering connection, comfort, union. And the destabilizing thing about this picture is that the big show, the Wembley stadium crowd, conjures the same image and likely similar feelings to a Trump Rally.
We need to see this. Not seeing this is a choice. And we need to take responsibility for our choices. We need to build trust. Let’s choose wisely, and with good questions in mind. Let’s try to see.
Is there anything that artists could possibly need more than an audience?
“Look at the world around you. It may seem like an immovable, implacable place. It is not. With the slightest push—in just the right place—it can be tipped.” — Malcolm Gladwell, The Tipping Point