Essay #1:art is for audiences first, artists second.

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.

Yet-

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.

Let’s ask.

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 


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Comments

7 Responses to “Essay #1:art is for audiences first, artists second.”

  1. Stefan Dzeparoski, Director & Creative Producer Avatar

    The question of trust is invoked in this essay.
    Trust is an active, integral, and progressive element of any relationship. This bond has been severely damaged not just in personal relationships, but also between society and citizens. For trust to be reestablished as a social contract between the audience and art truth must be present.
    Where is the truth today?
    In art, I would argue that truth is beauty.
    What happens with art when there is an active and ugly war against beauty?
    The arts are NOT in a full-blown crisis, the arts are IN a full-blown war. Unfortunately, the war provides only two resolutions; there are winners and losers. This war will not be won through endless analysing of data, and dynamic ticket pricing strategies (money is relative); this war requires art and artists to rethink their form and practices. When that is done we will discover new or change existing values attached to art. In (re)discovering truth, trust, and beauty we will change art. The path towards that might be in the conscious approach to integrating art into everyday life and making it integral to creative living.

  2. Kari Cullen Avatar
    Kari Cullen

    “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.”

    So let’s engage. This is a brave and powerful idea. Addressing the craving for connection, communication, communion for audiences and, as a consequence, for artists.

  3. Evan Webber Avatar

    I wonder–when you do this work together, are you centering your experiences as artists and practitioners, or are you working more from your positions as arts advocates, policy-lever-operators? Is there a line between these roles? Do you think you can be both at the same time?

    I wonder—because I feel like this piece bears evidence of a tension between the need to muster real curiosity about where people are and what they need on the one hand, and the desire for better data, better impact metrics, sold-out shows on the other. All hands are welcome. But can you square real curiosity about others with a schematic view of their ordinariness?

    Listening and seeing—you call it generosity—is required. And these are wonderful questions. But who do you trust to ask them? With what methods?

    It strikes me that the listening required to attend to any of the answers is specifically the kind of faculty honed and tested in certain kinds of art making—often in the “new creation and experimentation” that comes in for some oblique criticism here.

    Art itself can be the material with which we can understand our relations to each other, our problems, our needs. Performance itself can ask the questions, can do the work that you say needs to be done. But that kind of work usually doesn’t fill holes in peoples’ lives—it digs them. Maybe digging holes is due for a comeback.

    With that in mind, I would have to say there’s at least one thing that artists need as much as they need audiences: rigorous process and the vulnerability that it produces. Without that, what use is the encounter?

  4. Leslie Ting Avatar

    I love this interrogation. And I’ve also been thinking deeply about trust.

    My experience in classical music is a prime example of an art form and institution that isn’t curious about their audience and, I’ve noticed, is increasingly playing blockbuster movie soundtracks and the Nutcracker ad nauseum to bring in the masses to pay the bills. You do what you have to do I guess.

    But the trust piece is huge and I agree it’s been broken on many fronts. (Not being able to tell if you’re chatting with a human on the internet doesn’t help, and that’s probably going to get worse.)
    Unfortunately, I do think that many artists are not really listening and/or don’t like what they’re hearing. I personally feel stuck in a silo that wasn’t entirely of my own making (ok, some of it was), but I’m really glad to read this piece and look forward to more!

  5. Lynn Slotkin Avatar
    Lynn Slotkin

    Brilliant in every single way. Trust. Rigor. Embracing opinions you don’t like. What a thought.

  6. Darren O'Donnell Avatar

    Invite the audience to be in the work.

  7. maja ardal Avatar
    maja ardal

    The essence of engagement within society depends on people being invited to taste and test their own artistic endeavours. This should happen in the educational system as well as in communities. Professional artists should reach into their communities and offer to share skills and approaches to “finding the artist within”. When members of society start to understand the arts and the artist within themselves and each other, they will then develop a much greater interest and respect for the work that we professional do. All people are artists. Some of us passionately pursue the craft and have advanced to professionally create our work Members of society, whether privileged or not, would then understand why it is so enriching to appreciate the work of all types of professional artists. On another note, government funding should be helping the affordability issues of attending arts experiences. This is not being tracked clearly enough.

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