in Wu Han’s words…
Several weeks ago, I had the opportunity to participate in a panel discussion as part of the 2010 APAP Conference, an annual convention hosted in New York City by the Association of Performing Arts Presenters. The APAP Conference is a major forum for networking and exchanging ideas with colleagues across the performing arts.
Friday’s discussion focused on strategies for expanding and engaging audiences; the panel included a number of distinguished colleagues from classical, jazz, and contemporary music, including Elena Park from the Metropolitan Opera; Sunil Iyengar, Research & Analysis Director of the National Endowment for the Arts; composer Julia Wolfe, one of the founding directors of Bang on a Can; jazz drummer Matt Wilson; and—a special treat for me—my old friend Rob Gibson, Executive & Artistic Director of the Savannah Music Festival; among others. Such a diverse group of panelists made for an array of interesting perspectives on the issues at hand. Topics included use of new technology to enhance audience experience and the importance of arts education.
On one level, the discussion, like many discussions about the contemporary arts climate, was frustrating. What becomes immediately clear in such conversations is the many difficulties facing the arts: funding challenges, competition with mainstream popular culture, misperceptions of classical music and other “marginalized” art forms among the wider public—these familiar refrains among arts presenters have become like tired clichés.
I also find many of the lines of thinking in addressing these problems very misguided. I fear that many strategies confuse engaging audiences with pandering and empowering audiences to remain unengaged. A lot of what I hear at these discussions and see around the industry amounts to sacrificing quality and service to the art for the sake of supposed outside-the-box thinking—as if Facebook and Twitter hold the key to reinstalling the performing arts as a vital component of the cultural landscape. This perspective completely misses the point. Anything that is not a direct effort to present classical music at the highest artistic standard is not a strategy, it is an obstacle
At the end of the day, there may be no ready solutions; it’s easy to come away disheartened. But the conclusion I choose to arrive at from Friday’s panel is a hopeful one. What I saw on Friday was a community of arts advocates who, despite differences of opinion on details, care deeply about what they do. Yes, we face many challenges, and there is a lot of work to be done. The conversation can become further bewildering when considering, as we had on Friday, numerous presenters who are primed to serve different audiences, and therefore fulfill different needs. But the passionate commitment to the arts that I am privileged to witness everyday tells me that today’s artists, advocates, and cultural leaders are up to the challenge.