Monday, May 28th, 2007

Must Read David Hoppe Column on the Arts

I previously highlighted David Hoppe, a columnist at Indy free weekly Nuvo, as someone to read for arts coverage. This week he has a great piece about accessibility in the arts [dead link]. His thesis is that in the desire to make the arts more accessible, that those who truly care about them aren’t getting the quality they deserve. Some great quotes:

It seems that most of the arts administrators here are frustrated that such a small percentage of the adult population shows up for local arts offerings….The tactic has been to “reach out,” to play down art’s supposedly stuffy, snobbish image, to talk about how accessible the experiences on offer are in upbeat, reassuring tones….I think this is insulting to what is really the underserved audience here — people who actually know something about the arts. These folks are so hungry for the real thing they travel to other cities to experience what few venues in Indianapolis are willing to offer.


But the real problem is that trying to cajole the uninitiated into the arts tent will never really work. Telling them the arts are friendlier, softer, less intimidating and more fun than they think betrays a whiff of flop sweat. It also fails to identify what it is about the arts experience that might distinguish it from, say, a walk in the park or a trip to the zoo. This is no way to woo people that research shows place a premium on attending events of all kinds that promise the possibility of intensely memorable experiences.

What mystifies me is how most of our arts organizations continue to labor under the assumption that audience disinterest is based on audience ignorance, not on the products on display; that the arts organization’s job is to rally public support, rather than make real news in their chosen field.

Amen, brother. This was written about Indianapolis, but it could have been written about almost any city.

On the one hand, I can appreciate that arts organizations want a broad audience. And there are definitely financial realities that make the arts, like it or not, a business that has to sell tickets. But all too often breadth is pursued at the utter sacrifice of depth.

I really think it comes down to the fact that all too many people, including, unfortunately, those in the arts world itself, see the arts as a means to an end rather than an end in and of itself. Notably, cities now tout the arts for their “economic contribution” to the city as a lure to use to get the “creative class” to want to move there. World class art is only valued to the extent that it generates headlines for the city.

I highlighted a great example of this earlier, in describing Kansas City’s edifice complex. They are spending enough on a new performing arts building to fund the operating budgets of the groups that would call it home in perpetuity and still have change left over for other things. Someone there obviously read about how statement buildings in other cities had boosted tourism and downtown development, and was eager to cash in. The actual artistic product is a sideshow.

It is also evidenced in Indianapolis’ love of “public art”. I am constantly reading about the amount of money that is being invested in public art, such as the new “marbles” installation to go on the cultural trail, but little about how good or not good any of this is. In fact, much of the public art that has been installed in Indy isn’t very good, nor does it say much at all about Indy. Most of what was installed along Mass Ave, for example, amounts to little more than random bric-a-brac. The point seems to be merely that it is there, and that it can be bragged about in promotional literature. The not very good Circle Truss proposal (which I addressed previously) falls into the same camp.

While it can make the local booster groups feel excited to be able to tally up all the local arts orgs, number of patrons, and other quantity over quality measures to put them into their promotional literature, don’t expect it to have much of an affect on getting the truly creative to want to live in a place.

I think instead that arts organizations ought to be focused squarely on a mission that stresses the quality of the product on the field. That’s not to say things like buildings should be neglected. They shouldn’t. Or that they shouldn’t market their products. They should. But this should not come at the expense of artistic excellence. In particular, a city’s flagship arts organizations ought to aspire to world class levels. And the “outreach” efforts should focus less on “exposing” more people to the arts, but on the much harder task of educating and converting the casual attendee into a connoisseur.

And as Hoppe points out, true excellence is what is going to inspire real excitement and loyalty in your patron base. A look at a any successful movement will show that it is very rare for anyone to attract passionate followers by watering down the message. If an arts organization doesn’t have the courage of its own conviction and, yes, a bit of proper pride in what they are doing, don’t expect anyone else to have much feeling about it either. Going around hat in hand begging people to attend some weak, least common denominator program is both disgraceful and not going to work. Constrast, for example, the self-flagellation of classical music with the self-assurance of the indie rock scene, which is equally if not more so pretentious and exclusionary. Only the traditional fine arts, it seems, are expected to apologize for being what they are. I think it is high time these groups stood up and said No to the nay-sayers and reclaimed the artistic and moral high ground with a robust, confident defense of their ideals.

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Topics: Arts and Culture
Cities: Indianapolis, Kansas City

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