"Cultivating Demand for the Arts"

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Over the years I've spoken with many people about the "state of the arts," especially arts groups' prospects for attracting new audiences. But at a meeting yesterday hosted by the Greater Pittsburgh Arts Council, the author of a new think-tank report put things in stark and perhaps unintentionally ironic terms.

RAND Corp. researcher Laura Zakaras asked: "How can we attract more Americans to their own culture?"

Technically, of course, our culture is simply however we live; we don't need to be attracted to it because we're already in it. But at meetings like this, words like "art" and "culture" have an implicit meaning: Fine arts and traditional performance, usually from the Western canon, and usually as found in nonprofit settings from museums to concert halls.

What's implicitly excluded is the sort of cultural product most contemporary Westerners are utterly immersed in: Pop songs; YouTube; Hollywood movies; Facebook; reality TV; best-selling novels; and commercial expression of all kinds.

For arts groups, the troubles are plain, and not really new. Speaking at the Benedum Center, Zakaras summarized her report ("Cultivating Demand for the Arts") for about 100 arts professionals: For a quarter-century, we've seen rapid growth in the number of arts organizations -- but their average revenue is down and so is demand, especially among the young, the nonwhite and the underprivileged.

Some consider the stakes high. To Zakaras, it's about whether we'll commit to democratizing access to the arts, or just continue the slide into elitism. GPAC panelist Sarah Tambucci, executive director of Pittsburgh's Arts Education Collaborative, said that without the common, enlightening language of the arts, "Our very culture ... our very democracy might be at stake."

The solution, Zakaras says, lies in the fact that people patronize the arts because it's a rewarding experience. So we should focus not on maximizing the sheer number of offerings, but rather in boosting the quality of the experiences people have with art, as well as the number of people who can have them.

Because access to arts education -- especially among kids -- is the single best predictor of future interest, Zakaras emphasized the poor state of said education in the U.S. Suggesting reforms, she cited Rhode Island and New Jersey as states where government arts agencies have successfully worked with schools.

That's great. (The report is downloadable at www.rand.org/pubs.) No one wants symphonies or art museums to disappear. But it all left me thinking about more fundamental dilemmas.

Our consumer society creates enough wealth to support arts institutions large and small, but not enough people who want to consume what they offer. (Most arts groups are heavily subsidized from both public and private coffers.)

Again, though, we do have a plenty of art that's thriving -- popular art. So what the meeting's attendees and panelists spoke so passionately about, in essence, was the struggle to preserve and transmit a canonical culture in a consumer society that demands novelty, simplicity and speed.

Is the insistence on a canon a way of valiantly holding back the tide of pop-cultural barbarism -- or just a means, after all, of defending elitist presumptions?

I'm not arguing against government subsidies for the arts. But what if the specific, mostly centuries-old art forms we're mostly subsidizing -- the ones we've codified as "the arts" -- no longer resonate with people? What if they no longer serve the very purposes of art, to facilitate expression and foster understanding?

Others at the meeting seemed to be thinking this way, too. "There's a demand for the arts, it's just not in the form we might all like it to be," said panelist Janera Solomon, executive director of the Kelly-Strayhorn Theater. Solomon. Solomon grew up playing steel-pan music under her father's tutelage, and recalled struggling to convince the musical authorities at Oakland Catholic that the steel pan was a "legitimate" instrument. As a curator of theater, music and dance, she said, she prefers "things that feel like they're from this time period."

I found most interesting, however, comments by Amos Levy. The 2007 Carnegie Mellon grad now works with CMU's Center for the Arts in Society, whose community-outreach endeavors include a hip-hop project and a neighborhood-news publication, both for city kids. Addressing the meeting, Levy said that the Center's had success reaching kids where they are culturally, especially through hip-hop music and film.

Hip hop, of course, is a genuinely up-from-the-streets culture encompassing distinctive music, dance and visual art. Much (if not all) of it is commercially oriented, which is one reason nobody's nearly as worried about hip-hop as they are about chamber orchestras.

I talked to Levy after the meeting.

While reading the RAND report, he'd written in a notebook: "Do we need to learn to appreciate and support and create the arts that people in communities create on their own, and not just share with them the arts that we appreciate, support and create?"

"We should go and ask the teens and other people what are the arts things they participate in now," he said.

Levy observes that older art forms are simply less exciting to kids, and seem irrelevant to their lives. Compare opera and rap. The latter's rapid free-associations and verbal jump-cuts reflect the hyperlinked world we live in. Youths "enjoy that form because it speak to that experience."

Yet that needn't mean the death of opera, or of Elizabethan poetry, any more than street art invalidates the Old Masters. Kids drawn to art want to know more about it, said Levy. "Expanding on wherever you start, you'll reach all of those things, you'll reach that history."

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