Demanding Too Much?

Let's face it: We demand a lot from arts and culture. We want the arts to educate our children, revitalize our neighborhoods, save our economy and develop new audiences in every age group, racial d

Let's face it: We demand a lot from arts and culture. We want the arts to educate our children, revitalize our neighborhoods, save our economy and develop new audiences in every age group, racial demographic, socioeconomic segment and geographic area of the city.

And why shouldn't we? The claim that arts perform these miracles is one of the most frequently touted cases for public funding.

What we hear less about is what art can do, what art was meant to do: transform individuals. Utilitarian claims of the social impact of art overshadow its unquantifiable — but certainly more attainable — personal impact.

What happened to art being an awesome force on its own? Why do we require it to fix social inequality and injustices, where our government and educational systems fail?

Cincinnati's arts organizations face some pretty serious — and often legitimate — criticism for a lack of diverse audiences. White, middle-aged to elderly people with a college education continue to make up a majority of performing arts audiences, well beyond the size of their slice of the population pie graph in the community.

Most arts organizations want to serve audiences that look like the city but struggle to present programming relevant to the entire community.

In my classes at UC's College-Conservatory of Music, where I'm wrapping up a master's degree in arts administration, we talk about this topic quite often. Like our professional peers running Cincinnati's arts institutions, we struggle to define the right balance among the arts' various roles in society — right or wrong, we're making the case for public support for the arts by counting the ways art supports the public.

When Donna Walker-Kuhne visited Cincinnati last month to explain how the arts might attract more diverse audiences, I thought her talk would be the perfect kickoff for CityBeat's revised arts column. (Look for Arts Beat every other week from here on out.)

Walker-Kuhne is a veteran in the arts world who's considered an expert at bringing diverse audiences together, having served as audience development director for New York's Public Theater. In a special session conducted with UC graduate students on April 10, someone asked her how to reach underserved audiences. This set off a round of dissension.

"I want you to know," Walker-Kuhne said, looking very serious, "that these groups you call 'underserved' are being served very well, thank you very much."

People who aren't attending the opera or the symphony don't feel like they're missing out or not being "served," she said. Instead, they think they have plenty of opportunities for leisure activities.

To reach new communities, she advised, arts organizations need to make contact — not once, but frequently. Building relationships is crucial.

Most organizations realize that just offering programming that should, in theory, appeal to a particular demographic, then sitting back and waiting for new audiences to emerge won't work. In fact, that approach will alienate existing audiences and serve no one.

On the other hand, when an arts organization embraces the community for one spectacular event designed to raise awareness and introduce new audiences, they should be able to consider the event a success — even if it doesn't lead to vast advances in attracting a permanent new audience.

Cincinnati Opera brought record numbers of new patrons for Margaret Garner in 2005, many of whom probably won't return for Tosca this summer. Other organizations such as the Cincinnati Art Museum with One World Wednesday, Ensemble Theatre of Cincinnati and Playhouse in the Park contribute significant resources to diversifying audiences for specific programs.

As nonprofits, these arts organizations shouldn't measure success on whether they sustain new revenue streams from program-specific diversity promotions but rather whether they give new audiences an opportunity to experience the art form.

The point, Walker-Kuhne insisted, is not for organizations to change their missions — and thus the art they present — to attract diverse audiences. And it's not the responsibility for nonwhite audiences to change their own cultures to embrace old European art forms.

Instead, she advised organizations to provide access. People new to the arts experience shouldn't have to face an arduous initiation into the "in crowd." Arts organizations must provide a welcoming community that involves and embraces diverse audiences — not because of some moral obligation or pressure from funding institutions but because of market necessity.

Why can't we devote more resources to supporting organizations whose mission is to encourage diverse audiences to participate in the arts rather than to forcing every arts organization to achieve the impossible: convince people to appreciate art that's irrelevant to them? It makes more sense to encourage mission-related audience development for organizations such as Know Theatre Tribe and InkTank that embrace diverse audiences as their core patrons.

The average American of the next generation is anything but average — races, cultures, backgrounds and beliefs are all merging into a new fusion American, an asymmetrical aggregation of cultural and racial identities. Arts organizations will struggle to remain relevant in the context of these new realities.

Cincinnati can support a multicultural artistic environment. We do need to continue to pressure organizations to serve the whole community with their programming. But at the same time we should remember why we look to the arts — to enrich and inspire, not to fix a broken social system.


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