The Desertification of Imagination

grafitti,Drew Tewksbury.

There's lots of talk about artists behaving more like entrepreneurs lately, and by lately I mean over the last decade, maybe longer. The idea is that an artist who is able to easily sell their artistic product has a better chance of making a living at it - simple enough. And I've seen plenty of artists take this idea to heart and start developing entrepreneurial muscle around selling and planning and positioning.

And business-y notions and conversations are running rampant in arts groups of all sizes, many of which are nonprofit and hanging on by a thread. The widely accepted logic is that if artists and arts groups can find a way to operate more like businesses -- get some cash flow going -- then the whole arts field would grow.

This entrepreneurial trend is impacting artistic conversations all over the country. Here's an example of how this business-y conversation might play out in, say, a theater:

Producer: "Let's pick a play with a small cast, so we can keep the budget down."

Marketing Director: "Let's pick a play that will sell tickets."

Managing Director: "I know a guy who had a TV show in 1986, let's pick the play he wants to do -- people will want to see him on stage."

Artistic Director: "Let's pick the one I want to do." Everybody chuckles.

Variations of this conversation are taking place, not just in theaters but in music organizations, museums and dance groups. Visual artists and writers are trying to think this way too. This trend has caught on.

Major art institutions have this conversation most often and most earnestly. Places in Los Angeles like Center Theatre Group, the LA Opera, LACMA, and the LA Philharmonic as well as their slightly smaller counterparts like the Geffen, the Pasadena Playhouse, and MOCA are willing to give primary consideration to the desires of the consumer. Art institutions' need for increased earned income is easily understood because 1) ticket sales or memberships support their expensive facilities and staff, and 2) donors have started looking closely at the arts fields' ability to earn its own keep -- pay its own bills -- without relying on the "generosity of strangers" in the form of hard to come by grants and donations.

But in order for an artist to make a commitment to sales, the artist must also be willing to set aside their own creative and artistic imperatives. It is this setting aside of imperatives that allows the artists to ask: Will it sell? And now, having listened to consumers, artists everywhere are hauling out their smoke machines and trapezes, cranking up the volume, bedazzling, Cirque du Soleil-ing, mass producing, and waiting for people to come clambering to buy.

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The Flip Side

I see another trend that has developed in lock step with the entrepreneurial movement and this one's got me worried: We're losing audiences and arts consumers.

Arts authorities are quick to say that declining audiences are a result of bad or not enough arts marketing. In fact, many well-meaning marketing programs have developed as a result of this theory like the "Free Night of Theater" that New York's Theatre Communications Group cooked up in 2005. The idea is that theaters across the U.S. offer the general public free tickets on a couple of designated nights each February. The expectation is that good and focused marketing combined with free tickets will build audiences. Here's a question for you: "Have you ever heard of "Free Night of Theater?"

Every time I produce a play, it seems someone has the idea to use free or reduced price tickets as marketing ploy. I personally have been involved with this concept at least a dozen times and have yet to see it work. In my opinion, slashed prices most often end up creating the perception of inferior product or producer desperation. Oh sure, it works for people who were planning on seeing the piece anyway, after all who doesn't love a bargain, but I've never seen it convince a non-arts patron to attend.

I'm willing to go out on a limb here and say that I believe that there is a direct correlation between an artist or an arts group's willingness to put consumers first and the decline in arts audiences. I do not believe that it's the lack of marketing or the cost of the ticket that's keeping consumers away; in my opinion these are both convenient excuses. I believe that it's the artist's willingness to put the desires of general public before their own artistic instincts that's gotten us into this mess. We, as artists, have to own up to the fact that we -- often against our better judgment -- have listened to arts authorities and donors and have embraced the notion that the consumer knows best as a means of increasing our coffers.

It's time to man up and consider that it's the constant menu of overly palatable artistic offerings designed to appeal to the masses that started this downward consumer spiral and continues to fuel it.

I did a two-year stint as an interior decorator. Clients would look at their re-done rooms and pretty much all say the same thing: "I never could have imagined this!" That's right. They couldn't imagine it. That's why they hired me. I was the imaginer. That was my value -- my worth in the marketplace. I imagined and they didn't.

It is imagination and instinct (coupled with hard-earned skill sets) that are the artist's stock in trade; this is what we have to sell - we possess and can produce what the audience can't even imagine it's going to love. So setting aside our fundamental abilities and turning to the general public for curatorial advice is antithetical to who and what we are and can only serve to have a negative effect on the arts field now and in the future.

As artists, it is our primary responsibility to cultivate the tastes and desires of the marketplace over time by consistently providing excellent artistic product developed from true artistic impulses. The artistic appetites of audiences will only mature when the artist is ahead of the consumer. Conversely, when audience expectations are not developed, a cycle of superficial artistic supply and demand is created. This is what we see throughout the arts field today, with audiences dwindling in general and those that remain demanding well known, entertainment-based, escapist products.

By accepting the responsibility of audience cultivation through excellent artistic work, the artist will naturally assume his position has a leader. I believe this is the Artist's proper role in society. I believe this because I have seen it countless times. The public naturally turns to its artists in times of both joy and sorrow. Society instinctively knows that artists will interpret or re-interpret what it is unable to process. Particularly in times of crisis, it is the artist who guides us. After 9/11 it was our poets and musicians who helped us get through it by making the inconceivable comprehensible.


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Top Image: Photo by Drew Tewksbury.


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