In most of the arts world, but particularly in my world of the nonprofit arts, there is an understandable desire to bring in a new, more diverse, audience.
The events of the past few days have bought that need into sharp focus. We know that demographics is destiny. We know that any industry that doesn't embrace the full picture of America is headed toward a dead end.
So I wouldn't be surprised if the "diversity" talk in the arts picks up steam in the next few months. Allow me to weigh in.
Last night my day job did an arts performance. Since the venue only holds 250 people and a lot more people that that read this blog it's very probable that you missed the show.
How do you feel about that?
Do you feel like you missed out?
Probably not. That's because you are probably ok with whatever you did last night. Maybe you watched TV, maybe you read a book, maybe you got drunk and did lines of cocaine. Whatever you did, you were ok with it.
What's my point? The point is that you got along fine without what the art I offered.
That new audience your looking for? The younger one? The more racially diverse one? The one with more (or less) money? The one from the other part of town?
They are doing fine without you.
Arts audience outreach efforts fail because of what I call the explorer/savage problem. The arts organization or artist sees themselves as the great explorer filled with knowledge and wisdom. They see the new audience as the savages huddled by the fire in dire need of their theatre, dance, classical music, medicine and blankets.
The reality is that if these audiences never come your way they will be fine. You, on the other hand, will be in serious trouble.
You need the new audience more than they need you.
Any diversity, or audience development plan, that doesn't start with that idea in mind is destined for failure. You can have the best tactics, executed by the best team, but if they approach the audience as if they are doing them a favor . . . things will not go well in the long term.
Of course it's hard for some to reach that level of humility. It's hard to accept that you have backed yourself into a tough demographic spot and now need to build coalitions and relationships with different sorts of people.
It's easier to imagine that you are doing them a favor. It's easier to imagine that you are delivering "real culture" into their life.
That's arrogance. Arrogance, by itself, is a problem. Arrogance directed toward people who have a ton of other viable options, is deadly.
The good news is that change is possible. You mix some humility, a sincere desire to deliver quality work, a good plan and a willingess to work over the long haul and you can bring in any sort of new audience.
I truly believe that.
But it starts with the right perspective. It starts with understanding that the desired audience isn't coming for a specific set of reasons and that is your problem to solve. It starts by honoring the fact that they haven't been coming, but still have embraced other forms of art/culture, and probably had a good time doing it.
If you start with that perspective things will be fine.
If you don't you may end up with that same stunned look Karl Rove had at about 10pm on Nov. 6