This week I'll be down in Philly at the Audience (R)Evolution Convening which is presented by The Theatre Communication Group (TCG). The focus of the convening is audience engagement.
One definition of engagement is emotional involvement or commitment. It's a good definition because it raises two questions:
1. To whom are the arts (particularly the nonprofit arts) committed?
2. Is that level of commitment appropriate?
When I look at industries like theatre, classical music, dance or museums I see an industry that has overcommitted to one slice of the American demographic. We all know how this slice, wealthy, well educated, older, white, etc. But I think we also need to remember that there is nothing wrong with being any of those things.
The issue is that we have take this group and over engaged them. We expect the same demographic that allowed for the rise of the nonprofit, "professional", arts sector to be the group that sustains it.
We do this because it feels easier and safer to continue with this one relationship instead of building new ones.
Why go through the hard work of wrapping our institutions around new audiences? Let's just work this group until they die.
As with most things, however, the thing that feels safe is actually the most risky move of all. There is a reason why smart industries bring in new blood. Yes, the new blood brings in fresh ideas and energy. Equally as important, they give a chance for the "old" blood to walk away and try new things.
I've always maintained that the nonprofit arts does to our existing audience (and our institutional funders) is simply unfair. We basically tell them because of our inability, or unwillingness, to expand our base they are solely responsible for keeping the field alive.
To make matters worse, we scapegoat this audience. How easy is for an artistic or executive leader to basically say "oh we would love to bring in audiences of color/younger audiences/whatever but you know this audience just will not let us."
I do wonder if we use our audience to mask our own institutional cowardice. Easier to blame them versus blaming ourselves right?
On the other side of the ledger we have a lack of commitment which often manifest itself in a lack of artistic programming that is designed to bring in new audiences.
When people ask my how my day job was able to come from a place that really wasn't welcoming to audiences of color to one that received awards for diversity I always start with the titles:
Since 2006 they include Fences, Flyin' West, Raisin, First Breeze of Summer, Wait Until Dark, Ma Rainey's Black Bottom, Caroline or Change, Spunk, Porgy and Bess, Jitney and Invisible Man. Put it this way, between Jan. 2006 and today the theatre I work at has done about 30 productons. Ten of them have featured artists of color in significant roles.
Is it perfect? Nope. Nothing is. But it something that people can see and feel. That matters.
The other thing to consider is the urgency of the commitment.
Often, when I hear conversations about engaging new audiences, I sense a lack of urgency. I see organizations talking as if they have plenty of time to figure this out. They see their existing audience as the levee that is going to hold back the tide of societal change.
But levees break. Sometimes without warning. And when they do, bad things can happen.
Even the most serious desire to bring in new audience will take time, so you don't really have any to waste. It takes years to make people who were, for good reason, not comfortable with you feel at home.
Start shifting your level of commitment.
You'll provide much needed relief to those who were overcommited and opportunity to the rest.