Sunday, April 25, 2010

The Value of the Amateur

A recent report by the Wallace Foundation got me thinking in a very different way about "the Amateur" - or one who practices an art form, but not professionally. The report is actually a summary of a conference in Philadelphia in 2009 attended by representatives from the six cities who received Wallace Excellence Awards (a link to the report can be found via Hill Strategies' Arts Research Monitor here). What caught my attention wasn't that it talked about the need for arts organizations to grow their audiences as well as the need for courageous programming in these hard times, it was rather how and where this report suggested some of those new audiences can be found: in people who already have an affinity with and knowledge of various art forms - the amateurs.

There is a sidebar in the report that explains this very eloquently, so I won't summarize it here, but what I will say is that it made me realize that our greatest supporters in hard times may be those who are actively engaged in the practice of various art forms at an amateur level: those who sing in choirs or opera choruses, who act in community theatre, who danced when they were children, who took art class in high school or who paint in their spare time. All of these people recognize the skill and quality of professional art because they know what goes into that quality and how much it took to get an artwork to that level.

A personal example goes back to an art gallery show (I cannot remember the gallery) featuring various forms of landmines and the destruction they caused. If I remember correctly, there was information and photo images of the harm done by landmines, but the examples of the landmines themselves were all knitted. In various display cases sat life sized, brightly coloured, knitted landmines. The reason I remember the exhibit was because it juxtaposed a craft that we view as comforting against the terror and strife landmines represent. That was the point of the show, I think. I appreciated the work, but at the time I recognized it only as an innovative way to convey the message. I had no idea of the skill involved in its creation.

Now, however, because I am a devoted knitter (although not at all a fibre artist - more a "fibre fan", if you will), I remember the exhibit primarily because I appreciate the skill it would have taken to create these knitted objects in the first place. Now I appreciate the exhibit in more than one way, and in turn would go to see other, similar exhibits. In fact, now, because I am a knitter, I appreciate fibre arts and the entire skill and patience of craft artists much more than I ever did. This is how I am engaged in that art form and the reason that I will willingly go - and pay money - to see the work of those who take this art to a higher level of creativity and skill.

Amateurs and those who practice the arts in their communities in their time outside of their regular work can be our best and most outspoken advocates. Who better to explain to others who see the Arts as a "frill" the value those same art forms bring to their lives and the lives of others? Who better to explain how much skill and training it takes to get to that level? There is a symbiotic relationship here that we who are involved in professional arts organizations have yet to fully explore. Many of us understand the value of the Arts in education and in our communities as pathways to better understanding of various aspects of our lives, but have we really looked at ways to engage them as potential audience members? I, for one, haven't really thought about it that way, but would love to hear from others who have.

Saturday, April 17, 2010

Intrinsic Value and the Arts

According to, intrinsic is an adjective that means: "belonging to a thing by its very nature..." According to Wikipedia, intrinsic value "is an ethical and philosophic property. It is the ethical or philosophic value that an object has "in itself" or "for its own sake", as an intrinsic property. An object with intrinsic value may be regarded as an end or end-in-itself."

Many people talk about the Arts as having intrinsic value, but what does this really mean? To me, and many I have discussed this with, it means that the Arts are a part of life, and should not be viewed as a separate thing to be enjoyed (or not) as an "add on." It means that once a society gets beyond dealing with its very basic survival (i.e. food, shelter and clothing), it will engage in some kind of creative act that we now refer to as "Art."

There is substantial historical evidence for this. You don't have to look very far to discover that one of the main ways historians, anthropologists, and archeologists learn about various cultures is through the artifacts they find, and through the art these cultures created - the stories, myths, dances, theatre pieces, paintings and sculpture, to name a few examples. We can also see how these examples infused everyday life - in fact they portray aspects of everyday life and this is how we learn about the past now. Therefore we can feasibly conclude that what we refer to today as "the Arts" formed an intrinsic part of the lives of past societies, and by extension, our society today. In my view, we can then refer to art as a "public good", or something vital to our society that everyone needs, and that is therefore more than worthy of public support through government funding. Art then assumes the same stature of health, education, infrastructure, agricultural and even industry funding available from many governments around the world, to various degrees.

And yet, many in North America do not see it this way. To some, the Arts are a frill, an entertainment, an option. Some even see the Arts as a commercial enterprise that should fund itself. How can the Arts rise above these arguments and assume their place in our society? How can we prove what many of us who work in the Arts already know?

There are a couple of approaches we can take: the first is to create a grass-roots awareness of the intrinsic role the Arts play in everyone's daily lives, the second would be to re-frame this debate in terms that those who live by "deliverables" and "measurables" can easily latch onto. I'll return to the first approach in another entry, and continue with the second approach.

Can the intrinsic value of the Arts really be measured? While it is difficult to even conceive of measuring something so subjective and seemingly intangible, there are at least two studies done in the United States that have tried (and I would be happy to hear about more in the US or anywhere else if anyone knows of them).

The Wolf Brown Study "Assessing the Intrinsic Impacts of a Live Performance", was published in 2007 and conducted primarily with six presenters over 19 performances. In very brief terms, it measures the intrinsic impact on audience members of various types of live performance. This study is very illuminating in that it successfully proves that it is potentially possible to use some other tangible measure of the success of a performance than the amount of ticket sales, and may help those who produce and present art to make a measurable case in favour of what we feel needs to be seen by our audiences. The study's Summary version also refers to a similar study subsequently conducted by some of its Associate Partners, one of whom is the Ontario Presenters' Network, so there may be a Canadian example of this type of measurement as well.

So far, I'm not aware that any funding agency has used this form of measurement to assess grants, probably partly because engaging in this type of activity is extremely time consuming (and potentially costly) to the organizations involved. However, the fact that it is possible to measure the impact of a live performance in some other way than ticket sales (ie. raw demand), is encouraging. As we all know, good art doesn't always sell well. Nevertheless, it's impacts can often be felt beyond its immediate audiences. But I digress...

The other study, commissioned by the Conneticut Division on Culture and Tourism - Arts Division and published by Alan S. Brown and Associates LLC in 2004 is called The Values Study. Among many other things, this study points out not only that the people interviewed for the study felt that the Arts were a very valuable part of their lives, but why they felt that way, and what kind of participation in the Arts heightened their value. It also defines more than one way of participating in the Arts and refers to the fact that people have an "aesthetic awareness", which they recognize adds value to their lives. However, people don't always recognize this is the case, as the summary points out, and that this awareness is an indication that the Arts are an intrinsic part of their lives.

However, it can be pointed out that both studies surveyed and interviewed "the converted." In other words, they studied individuals who are already participating in the Arts in some way. This may be interpreted to mean that these studies don't say much about the way that individuals who don't regularly participate in the Arts value this activity, but there is a moment in Max Wyman's book The Defiant Imagination: Why Culture Matters (Douglas & McIntyre , 2004) that does. In Chapter 6, on page 135, he writes in reference to the outreach programs conducted by the Vancouver Opera in that city's Downtown Eastside, one of the poorest and most challenged neighbourhoods in the country, that "Jim Green, at that time the president of the Four Corners Bank [and a prominent anti-poverty activist and later member of Vancouver's City Council], said, 'Cliches suggest that opera is screaming and yelling and has nothing to do with ordinary people...Opera seems to move Downtown Eastsiders more than anything else I've ever seen...It's transforming them.' " This statement illustrates that when the Arts are available to people, even those whose days are spent striving to get to the next meal or to find a roof under which to spend the night, they can still become an intrinsic and transformative part of their lives - something that is incredibly positive and indeed beneficial to society as a whole.

The two studies mentioned here, as well as the example from Max Wyman's book, point out that participation and engagement are important factors in the way that people value the Arts as intrinsic to their lives, and this becomes a huge influence on the way we as arts administrators need to look at the programming our organizations produce. I'm not suggesting that we fundamentally change what we do, quite the opposite. I'm suggesting that the research highlights and supports that audience engagement activities we undertake both on and off the stage (or in and out of the gallery, as it were) are the key to our future survival and perhaps also one of the keys to achieving the true aim of Art itself: that of transforming societies for the better.

Sunday, April 4, 2010

A Little About Myself

I have been an Arts Administrator since 1993, when I “retired” from a career as dancer. The funniest thing about this is that shortly before I took an administrative job in the arts, I had declared in all seriousness that I could never be an Arts Administrator because it was “way too stressful.” This was my first lesson in “never say never.” In truth, I have been “hanging around” theatres in one way or another (mostly as a dancer) since I was 11 years old, and I can't seem to let that go.

I've done several things in this career. I've planned tours, done some “general management” (which as many of you know, includes everything from finance, to human resources, to negotiations of all sorts and with all types of people, unions and agents, and many other things in between), written a lot of grants, done a bit of marketing, a bit of fundraising, and along the way have had the very great privilege of working with some incredible artists and being involved in getting some wonderful, transformational art on the stage. I've worked with large and small theatre companies, independant artists, a large festival, and a large dance organization. Each organization has taught me much, and I have had the benefit of many generous and patient mentors along the way.

I have never had a plan or set career goals – something I have only recently learned is true of many, many Arts Administrators – which has often proved to open more doors than it has closed. While not completely a “neo-Luddite”, I tend not to be the first person to try out new technologies (blogging is now more than a decade old, for example, and I am just beginning), but here I am testing the waters because I have a desire to stimulate ideas and discussion and to share my thoughts with others.