In the arts world, we find ourselves constantly searching for ways to engage the community. Every day we think about how we draw in more constituents: bigger audiences, more donors, a larger base of support, etc. And often the answer seems obvious—offer more.
But is there a point of diminishing returns?
It’s the old question of quantity versus quality. Sometimes it seems like the only way to bring new audiences to the table is to offer more—more concerts, more exhibits, more performances, more, more, more. But does it work?
Are we really bringing a new crowd to the work that we hold so dear? Or are we simply “watering down” the arts in an attempt to make them “user friendly?”
This is a hard question to answer—a hard question to face, really—when arts organizations are struggling for funding and watching audiences fade away and make other choices of where to spend their money and time.
I have heard people scoff at the notion of consumers spending their “entertainment dollars” on the arts. But we have to be realistic—the arts are a form of entertainment, and we have to compete with every other entertainment industry in the market.
And when it’s Friday night, and a family of four is looking at spending money on dinner and a movie, or dinner and the symphony, then we better be prepared to compete.
But does the need to be in competition justify, for lack of a better term, “selling out?”
The symphony orchestra world, the world I know best, could be considered guilty of this. And I’m certainly not passing judgment on any organization or individual. I could be considered just as guilty.
Sometimes we feel almost desperate to draw in new listeners, by any means possible. But in doing so, we should ask ourselves two crucial questions—do we have a conviction for what we are doing, and is what we are doing truly of the highest artistic standard? Or, is it art, and do we believe in it?
So what is the litmus test for the question, “Is it art?”
This sparks debate constantly, between artists and audiences, funders and administrators, those who create and those who observe. And who, really, should be the judge?
Art is something that is defined by each individual who comes in contact with it. And I can find elements as artistic in a Bruce Springsteen song as I can in a Sibelius symphony. So maybe the discussion should be about the appropriate venue for each art form.
But it all leads back to this—in our desire to appeal to a larger base of support, both funding and audiences, have we diluted the concept of “art?” And are there better ways to bring people to our work than attempting to go the route of mass market appeal?
Beethoven, Picasso, Shakespeare, and Martha Graham are great for a reason—shouldn’t we be emphasizing this, and bringing more people to the arts in a way that celebrates what we do?