Sunday, September 25, 2016

Arts Participation is Changing

This excerpt is from my regular column, Culture & Kibbitz on July 13, 2016, at The Clyde Fitch Report. You can read the entire post, which discusses the changing interests of younger audiences, here.

Audiences adjust to the times.
“They didn’t come for the quality, they came for the experience.”

This was the conclusion that a colleague and I independently reached regarding a series of sold-out evenings of traditional opera at LoftOpera in Gowanus attended by some 500 people who willingly sat on concrete (or uncomfortable portable seating) throughout a full evening of music, acting and singing, mixed with socializing, cheap or free booze, and a real scene. The performances we sat through would never make it on the Metropolitan Opera stage, but those attending these operas (Puccini’s Tosca and Britten’s The Rape of Lucretia) were engaged and hung on to every moment of the production — in addition to pre-performance, intermission and post-performance socializing.

Interest in traditional artforms, often referred to as elitist, has been repeatedly reported to be alive and possibly even thriving amongst younger audiences, despite earlier reports suggesting the opposite. These arts aficionados are showing particular enthusiasm for modern, new and adventurous work with reports of young people of color flocking to new theater pieces and sold-out music performances of classical music and opera. While surprising to some, it is familiar to those up on the real data of how younger audiences prefer to be engaged. Such data, however, also presents a major problem for traditional performance presenters, who continue to look through the lens of “quality” instead of “experience.”

Leon Botstein, the conductor and President of Bard College once laid out a fascinating theory of audience engagement. Before the piano, all music was referential. There was no standardized tuning and it was the piano’s physical structure that fixed a standardized reference point for tuning, reducing or eliminating the need for musicians and listeners to possess a referential aural capacity. Now, one could create “great” music by exhibiting only physical (musculo-skeletal) expertise. For listeners, this shifted their basis for appreciating music from active listening engagement to being a passive spectator, like those at sports events who appreciate and cheer for the superior execution of physical skills. He then theorized that the digital revolution has now engendered a similar but fundamental shift that restores the primacy of active engagement by the listener through their ability to curate their own experience, implicitly accepting the diminished quality.

If Botstein is correct, then those who continue to view and present art through the lens of “quality” and not “experience” will be doomed to struggle for audiences and relevance because the value proposition has changed. While audiences can and do still appreciate quality, younger audiences may willingly accept performances of lower quality because quality is only part of their experience and engagement.

Like our experience at LoftOpera, there is mounting data that the youngest cohort — age 18 to 25 — shows greater interest in attending and experiencing live performance of traditional artforms. If this does turn out to be true, it is important to acknowledge the shifted value-basis for each cohort’s participation in these artforms, and for the presenters of these artforms to engage with each cohort on its own terms — not on the terms chosen or imposed upon them.

Read the entire fully developed post in Culture & Kibbitz at The Clyde Fitch Report here.

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