Curating, Connoisseurs and Consumers

December 20th, 2010 § 0 comments

Early last week, my attention was drawn to two separate blogs about arts audiences, one extremely current, the other some 10 months old. Our friend the Internet is not always a linear purveyor of information, but I am not a linear consumer either.

The recent blog, by Barry Hessenius on the website of the Western States Arts Federation, concerned the issue of whether we should be “cultivating connoisseurship” in our arts audiences. It was provoked by a fascinating monologue by the author Fran Leibowitz, captured by Martin Scorsese for the HBO documentary Public Speaking, which I highly recommend for its subject’s incredible insight and wit. The particular statement discussed the devastating loss of high culture audiences due to the scourge of AIDS, and how the loss of passionate, devoted, educated audiences had an impact on the many organizations they had patronized.

The older blog coincidentally turned up on my radar at about the same time, via the invaluable 2 AM Theatre site. In it, Tricia Mead wrote about “curating audiences,” so that shows are received by the public most likely and best equipped to appreciate them. Each piece is provocative and together they’re irresistible in the intellectual challenge they pose to those concerned about and dedicated to theatre audiences.

Ironically, however, as much as I appreciated both of them, I actually take a contrary position, not because I fear charges of elitism, but because I am at heart a populist. I really don’t understand why theatre isn’t considered part of popular culture, since it sits alongside Star Trek, runaway train movies, Stieg Larsson novels, The Beatles andEntertainment Weekly in the jumbled warehouse of my worldview.

Yet, my copious consumption of popular culture aside, I am, to most, a theatre connoisseur. Though I am not formally trained in theatre, and have no academic underpinning to my enthusiasm or career, I have at this point in my life easily seen several thousand productions and I can recall them, discuss them and debate them with the same passion that sports fans have for their team’s achievements. Much as I wish to be, I am not the average theatergoer, nor will I ever be again.

But I am a firm believer that our greatest efforts must be spent on cultivating new audiences, and so Hessenius’ extrapolation from Leibowitz’s comments strikes me as unnecessary. I believe that connoisseurs are self-made, possibly even genetically coded. We can expose audiences to theatre (or any of the arts), but so long as their early exposure is at a minimally proficient level of quality, it is something within them that ignites and makes them (to use the marketing term) “avids,” which then leads them to consume the arts with ever-greater frequency, seeking out more knowledge of the discipline and more like-minded individuals, ultimately arriving at the level of “connoisseur.” I can only use myself as an example, but if exposure and knowledge were sufficient, I would be an opera buff, but as I have confessed before, I am unmoved at that form of musical drama. Also, despite a memory that easily recalls who did the special effects for the flop Broadway Frankenstein in 1981, I am unable to discerns most pieces of classical musical from each other, despite many trips to the symphony. Fundamentally, I believe connoisseurs are either hard-wired or self-made, not created; I also think we have to remember that there is a fine line between the true connoisseur and the aesthetic boor, so we must be careful that we don’t lead people over that line.

As for Trisha Mead’s musings on “curating audiences,” I think she has taken the language of connoisseurship and used it to elevate the work that every marketing department, every p.r. department is doing every day; if there’s a target audience for a certain piece, they’d better be going after it, or they’re derelict in their jobs. Her admittedly appealing fantasy of an “audience designer,” notwithstanding, shrewd promoters are forever curating audiences, but that language is what brings me up short, not the actual effort. “Curation,” like “connoisseur” carries a dose of elitism that must forever be guarded against, except on those rare occasions where we are truly toiling in the fields of rarified culture.

Our ability to truly curate audience lies in direct proportion to the singularity of our organization’s artistic vision, and the availability of alternative visions in the same market. If your company is in a major city with a variety of established and diverse theatre companies, your artistic director is free to “narrowcast” in their program, just as the marketing team (and the development team, for that matter) then have the latitude to seek a select audience to see and support that work. But if you are one of the very few choices in your market, you cannot afford to be precious or exclusive about the audiences you seek.

Both of these theories are fundamentally based in the actual artistic work of the company, and must not be pursued simply for the sake of marketing ingenuity. But the bottom line is that in order to find the true aficionados, in order to draw in the idealized audience for each work presented, you must be working from the largest base possible, and that returns us to my argument for populism. Let’s face it, unless your work is profoundly narrow and specialized, you need to cast a wide net for each and every outing. That’s not to say that when you have work that may be of particular interest to a particular group, you should not pursue it with every tool in your arsenal, but to focus on such a defined constituency to the exclusion of all others is suicide. The connoisseurs are simply one such constituency, and the wide net will not only drag in the next generation of connoisseurs, but in many cases, the next generation of artists as well.

We are long past the era of Danny Newman’s call to “Subscribe Now,” the basis of most every arts organization’s long running efforts to find audiences who would commit to a season of programming up front. We have watched arts subscriptions, overall, drop from their levels of the 70s and 80s, and single ticket sales, as a result, are a renewed and redoubled focus in order to fill the seats left vacant by departed subscribers. So the job is to find audiences of every stripe: novice, casual fan, avid and connoisseur. But that simply follows the pattern that every arts organization needs: single ticket buyer, repeat ticket buyer, subscriber, donor, major donor. We must focus on the early steps – the first time attendee and how we get them back a second time – or else we’ll never find those who will be our greatest fans and supporters.


This post originally appeared on the American Theatre Wing website.

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