Monday 12 December 2011

Crise oblige? (ii) Programming challenges

"Community relevance is the first and foremost element of sustainability.”

I was asking myself a few months ago if we were paying enough attention to the changes that are taking place in the socio-cultural environment in which we are acting. I had just finished reading two texts that showed me new ways and helped me structure my ideas regarding the relationship between cultural institutions and their audiences: Culture and Class by John Holden and The Excellence Barrier by Diane Ragsdale. There were both defending the urgency, importance and need to look outwards; to try and understand the habits, tastes and expectations of the communities we are here to serve; to try and relate to them, making our offer more relevant to their lives, creating demand together with them. Engaging them.

A photo from the exhibition In Your Face (Art Gallery of Ontario, 2007), an exhibition of portraits collected from the general public to celebrate the inividuality and diversity of Canada.

I have now read a third text, a report on a research that was undertaken in the USA, UK and Australia, called Getting in on the Act: How arts groups are creating opportunities for active participation. It presents the various ways in which we can get the audience involved (from the spectator who´s simply a receiver to the member of the audience who gets involved as an artist) and brings to us a number of case studies from various institutions and initiatives. It also presents some conclusions which stengthen some of my ideas and confirm some intuitions regarding the way forward for us here as well:

- It is believed that, now more than ever, the arts organizations that will thrive in our current environment will be the ones who create new and meaningful opportunities for people to engage (p.2);

- Culture is not ‘being shaped’ by someone or something else. We all are shaping our culture. We all are creating what is meaningful, vibrant and real – the amateurs and the experts, the institutional and the individual, the privileged and the disenfranchised, the mainstream and the alternative (p.4);

- Technology has fundamentally changed the way people interact, learn and think about culture. What is different now is the unprecedented ability of the average oerson to access, make and share art and ideas on a global scale (p.6);

- It is important to recognize that the young people entering today´s cultural scene are not aesthetically bankrupt. More often, their creative interests lie elsewhere – beyond attendance (p.11);

- It is becoming more difficult to satisfy everyone with one experience. Audience development, therefore, is not just a marketing problem. Primarily, it is a programming issue. Attracting the new generation of audiences and visitors will require a transformation in programming, not just better marketing (p.11).

In my previous post I raised some questions regarding the impact the currebt crisis might have on the way cultural institutions are being programmed. Even in periods where there is no crisis, any institution, any business, any sector knows that there are factors that affect their activity and force them to re-evaluate and adapt. These are external factors – social, political, economic, technological – which are beyond our control, but which we cannot ignore, since they present us with opportunities and threats. These are realities we must always be aware of. Thus, I would say that the crisis ‘simply’ makes it urgent for us to wake up, to react, to not continue doing everything the way we´ve always done it.

I don´t think the crisis will make people less willing to partiicpate and get involved in cultural activities. On the contrary, demand might even grow. There is no doubt that people are being much more careful in the way they invest the, little, money they have. But they continue to invest on what they consider essential, unmissable, relevant, entertaining, inspiring. There is no doubt that, due to the crisis, audience numbers have recently decreased, but there are still shows that sell out or sell a significant proportion of their seat capacity. And it is also at this time of crisis that people form a long queue to visit the dinosaur exhibition currently showing in Lisbon, despite the high ticket price (and bad quality of the exhibition).

The question here is: do we know what is essential, unmissable, relevant, entertaining, inspiring for the people we aim to serve in order to, through our programming, keep the relationship with them alive? Maybe not... I believe the majority of us belong to the group John Holden calls “the new mandarins”: we fight for access to culture, but to that culture which we consider valid; we fight for the ‘democratization of culture’ but haven´t realized that this concept has developed into another, that of ‘cultural democracy’. Can the crisis force us to become aware of what has been happening, for quite some time now, around us; to abandon our role of ‘guardians’ and also consider what our audiences crave to experience, discuss, debate, create, share? Can the crisis make us share the responsibilty of programming? Would we be compromising its quality?

The idea of sharing this responsibility is not completely new for cultural institutions. All over the world, there are museums that choose the subjects of new exhibitions and create contents for them with the help of members of the communities they are serving - their opinions, knowledge, memories and objects; when I visited Tate Britain a few years ago, next to the labels written by curators I found those written by visitors – equally interesting and, in some cases, more understandable and touching; and, to give one more example, Concord Museum in the USA is celebrating its 125th anniversary with a temporray exhibition – with the suggestive title Crowdsourcing a Collection -, where members of the public were asked to choose and talk about objects from the museum collection that have a special meaning to them. Also in the field of the performing arts we can find this kind of experiences. For example, in 2009, the Theatre Royal Statford East (known as 'the theatre of the people') started consulting the audience for the preparation of the programme of the first semester of 2012 (read here).

Nevertheless, and although these initiatives demonstrate great willingness on behalf of cultural institutions for a more active involvement of the public, these are still decided and ‘guided’ by them. It´s not exactly sharing the responsibility of programming. The change that is occurring at this moment demonstrates a willingness to co-curate. Just as the public is willing to finance cultural projects (crowdfunding initiatives are multiplying all over the world), there are lots of knowledgeable and interested people willing to contribute for selection or creation of a cultural product. It´s the so-called crowdsourcing. Ian David Moss and Daniel Reid, authors of one of the most inspiring texts I have recently read, Audiences at the Gate: Reinventing Arts Philanthropy Through Guided Crowdsourcing, explore this idea and suggest a wikipedia-like system in order to discover and finance new artistic projects. In this context, I found extremely relevant for the future of theatres a piece of news I read a few days ago about the Slowbizz network, which aims to connect talented musicians and music fans for small, in-house concerts (read here).

Join the artists community from slowbizz on Vimeo.

Does this path towards shared responsibility for programming make sense for our cultural institutions? Probably more than ever, especially in what concerns public institutions. Because the changes in the way arts and culture are being created, distributed and consummed (and the place where this occurs) are a reality; because the volume of production is so big that we would not be able to know and follow everything, in order to remain updated and relevant; because there are, indeed, people, non-professionals, but with an excellent knowledge and experiences, willing to share them. And because, at a moment where people are forced to make choices, the cultural institutions that will win the race are those that will better engage their audiences in their activity and remain relevant for them. We don´t know everything, but I am sure we know enough to be able to manage with honesty, intelligence, creativity and quality (and also with humility) the sharing of such a responsibility, as the programming of a cultural institution, with those we are here to serve.

More readings

And more
Gripsrud, J., Hovden, J.F., Moe, Hallvard, Changing relations: Class, education and cultural capital (report on Norway)

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