Monday, 16 June 2014

Old friends, new friends

Seattle Symphony Orchestra with Sir Mix-a-Lot.
Some cultural organizations are interested in evaluating their programming and the ways they package and prmote it, aiming at diversifying their audiences. On the one hand, this is a necessary step towards accomplishing their mission. On the other hand, it is also a question of survival: how long will they exist for if they don´t manage to renew their relationship with people?
When the issue is the diversification of audiences, a certain concern usually emerges: and what if, by trying to establish a relationship with new people, we alienate our old friends, those who have followed and supported us for a long time?

When this question arises, two examples come to mind.

Starting in the US, and now also in Britain and Australia, theatres promote the so-called “relaxed sessions”. They were first introduced to allow families with autistic children to enjoy a play together, as a family. Lights and sound are regulated, absolute silence is not required, people are allowed to leave the room in the middle of the play. Small adaptations which ultimately make these sessions accessible also for parents with younger children, people with mental disabilities and their carers, people who are new to a space or art form, etc. Relaxed sessions are clearly advertised, not only with the aim to promote the offer, but also to inform other people that these sessions will present slight changes to the usual presentations. Thus, the latter may choose to attend them or opt for another day.

The issue is somehow the same when it comes to popular museums or blockbuster exhibitions which attract large number of audiences, many people being first comers. Queues, lots of people in front of the artworks, photos being taken, loud conversations, a constant buzz. Not exactly some museum lovers´ cup of tea. What to do? Apart from controlling the number of visitors through the online issuing of tickets for specific time slots, maybe also let people know when things might be calmer, allowing for a different kind of experience? Like early in the morning and, especially, late in the afternoon; during late night openings; in some cases, at lunch time; in the middle of the week; on beautiful days rather than rainy days? A number of museums and travel guides are already giving this kind of tips.

I guess the real issue here is: is there only one way, some people´s way, of enjoying an exhibition, a play, a concert? Is there a ‘correct way’ of doing it? Does this offer belong only to a specific kind of audience? Are we really sending old friends away by trying to make new ones?

I would like to stress at this point that I am not suggesting altering an organization´s mission or product in order to establish new relationships. A different product would mean a different organization, a different mission and a different relationship, not the one we are concerned about. This means – in order to give a recent example - that when the Seattle Symphony Orchestra boasts of holding a unique place in the world of symphonic music since 1903, its concert with Sir Mix-a-Lot, altough it seems to have been fun, does nothing special towards fostering a relationship with new people for the love, understanding and enjoyment of symphonic music. The orchestra is simply moving into a different territory in order to bring more (and different) people in - although we have to take into consideration the fact that the lady who seems to have enjoyed the concert the most declared that she was thinking of returning and had got the orchestra´s schedule – she will return for what, though?) - read the article in the New York Times.

The cultural offer is not the property of certain audiences, does not belong to a restricted number of people. It belongs to everyone interested and also to everyone that could be interested but hasn´t had the chance to taste it. Thus, I believe that cultural organizations can and should provide for more than one type of audience and by this I mean that they can look for different ways of presenting a specific product. Sometimes, it might not be possible to do this simultaneously, pleasing everyone at the same time; but it´s possible to do it separately so that everyone may find what they are looking for. Other times, it might bring together old and new friends, allowing each side to possibly discover new aspects of what they thought was known to them.

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