Breeding Elitism in the Arts

no reentry sign I was reading this blog post recently that referenced an interview with the NY Metropolitan Opera’s General Manager in which he talked about the aging of his audiences.  Specifically he advocated that due to the US education system’s lack of adequate support for arts education, we’re not cultivating the audiences of the future for the arts.  And while I agree the education system does not treat arts education equally, in bell schedule nor in funding, I concur with the blog’s author – the Met could do more to cultivate younger audiences themselves. This idea that the real culprits of waning arts audiences are actually the very institutions that are synonymous with the art forms themselves, is only partially correct though.

For me, the real culprits are the established traditions, or policies, of “audience management” we have adopted in both the professional and educational fields.

Recently I took my sister and brother to a local art museum.  My sister was taking an Art History course at a local college, and being the arts administrator in the family and therefore the de-facto arts expert apparently, I went along with her and our younger brother to a gallery for one of her projects.  As we walked around, notebook and text book in hand, I noticed the intensity with which the gallery docents followed us throughout the museum.  I’m not talking about the usual gallery docent role of ensuring no one touches the paintings, or tries to steal them – that I understand and approve of, but at this local art museum we had docents follow us from room to room, stopping when we stopped, following a mere 10ft behind us whenever we moved.  I further noticed that the docents only did this to the younger people in the museum (my sister’s project was museum-specific, and the Art History class is pretty large, so plenty of younger people were there on this Sunday afternoon).

As an arts lover, I can appreciate the use of docents to help patrons and ensure the safety of the artwork, but as an arts administrator this experience left me very angry – they were threatening the future of their own organization. How can you expect people to enjoy artwork while you hover around their shoulder? How can you expect a young person who essentially has never been to an art museum, at least at the local level, to learn to appreciate the artwork on display, and more importantly appreciate your organization and your entire industry, if you follow them around like they are about to steal everything?

It’s not just galleries though.  Theaters who do not allow late seating (especially in university theaters, with audiences made up of first-time users), ushers who forget they are the face of the organization before and during an orchestra performance, and staff who only give their full attention to audience members dressed in a $500 suit – all of these kinds of “audience management” policies, whether stated or simply engrained in our nature, are the reason we’re losing audiences. (I’ve experienced every single one of these examples.)

These experiences, while small in nature, point to a huge problem in the arts world.  We are breeding our own elitism.

We instill these unwavering policies that threaten the flexibility which younger audiences demand.  We may produce new work, create young professional programs, and reduce prices, but we maintain this sense of entitlement that is killing any chance we have at cultivating younger audiences.

At the educational level, we need to not only demonstrate the power of the arts and teach students how to be a respectful audience member, but we need to instill a love for the arts and show our students that the arts are approachable for everyone – even those of us who are five minutes late.

At the professional level, we need to create an environment that welcomes new audiences and guides them to a deeper understanding and appreciation of the artwork being performed or displayed – not force new audiences into a hostile environment because we don’t trust them.

We seem to be focusing on the here-and-now when it comes to management policies, not the future of our entire industry.  All it takes is one bad experience at the age of 19 for a student to never set foot in a theater again.

We praise flexibility in programming, but meet that flexibility with inflexible management policies that negate the great work being done by our own artists. Cultivating a better future the arts starts with the process an audience uses and experiences to see the art.  Make the system better for audiences, and let the art work its magic.

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