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Rethinking Arts and Culture for the 21st Century

Posted on 4 August 2009

I had a great long weekend, which involved picking fresh fruit, seeing the Victoria Symphony perform by the ocean, and (finally) seeing Star Trek, in its Imax incarnation, no less.

I also spent some time reading a three-part series of articles by Diane Ragsdale which are adapted from a talk she gave at the Vancouver Arts Summit and published on While these ideas hold true for arts and culture groups, I actually think many of them could be applied to any number of things: newspapers, political parties, businesses– anything that requires an engaged audience to survive and thrive (which is almost everything). While anyone who finds their audiences dwindling would do well do read the whole thing, below the links I have posted my own condensed version of what I felt were the highlights:

Part One: Arts Groups: Surviving the Culture Change »

Part Two: How to Expand Our Arts Communities »
Part Three: Nimble Leaps: How to Foster an Arts Renewal »

Part one is about survival and the need to redefine yourself if you find the audience dwindling. She cites a book by Laurence Gonzales called Deep Survival in which it is found that people who are the most likely to survive a harrowing situation are those who first recognize/accept that they are in trouble:

“Edward Cornell, one of the scientists Gonzales showcases in the book, gives an example of this. He says, ‘Whenever you start looking at your map and saying something like, ‘Well, that lake could have dried up,’ or ‘That boulder could have moved,’ a red light should go off. You’re trying to make reality conform to your expectations rather than seeing what’s there. In the sport of orienteering, they call this ‘bending the map.’… He also says that one of the most difficult steps a survivor must take is to discard the hope of rescue.”

Ragsdale then relates this to the arts community by arguing that far too many will “blame” dwindling interest on the world for not being good enough to understand them, and refuse to adapt. However, one needs to ask themselves:

“‘Would you sooner close your doors than change what you do? What is it that’s important to you and why? You cannot, however, answer these questions without considering your need for audiences and/or enough people willing to subsidize you. And the fact is the number of people willing to subsidize something that is narrowly enjoyed may diminish over time. At which point, you will need to be prepared to go out of business.'”

She concludes by urging arts groups (particularly ones dealing with “old” mediums not to rest on their laurels and assume, like financial giants did, that they are “too big to fail.”

“To exist, to thrive, to be artistically vibrant in the 21st century, arts organizations need to adapt to this culture change in order to attain, maintain, or regain, their relevancy.

“As Laurence Gonzales says, ‘Those who avoid accidents are those who see the world clearly, see it changing, and change their behavior accordingly.'”

Part two is seven ideas to expand your community.

1. Don’t conflate big numbers with big impact. You don’t need lots of half-hearted supporters. You need a core group of devoted fans, and you need to engage them.

2. Go cellular. In the United States, mega-churches succeed by breaking into smaller groups of six or seven who have shared interests. These small groups add to the sense of community that would otherwise be lost in an church that has thousands of members showing up every Sunday. How can large arts groups who have hundreds or thousands of people attending a performance maintain a sense of intimacy among audience members?

3. Go slow. Don’t buy the line “I don’t have time” to take part in the arts. We have the slow food movement. What would a slow arts movement look like?

4. Break down the barriers. 4.1. Non-performance venues (lobbies, bars, living rooms, etc) surrounding the art are as important to the experience as the performance venue. 4.2. Free the art: have YouTube clips or downloads of performances available on your site. Let patrons be critics, as well. 4.3. Recognize that it may be difficult for the uninitiated to feel comfortable in your world. Do not intimidate them with your artistic hierarchies. The idea of hierarchical art is dead, anyways.

5. You can’t fix it in post. Art must be relevant to the lives of its audience.

6. Be concierge: Filter and make recommendations. “Arts organizations tend to tell the public, ‘Hey! We’ve got eight shows this season and they are all fantastic!!’ Well, they may all be pretty good, but they are not all the same, and by not helping patrons find the play, concert, or exhibit that they are most likely to enjoy seeing, there is a greater likelihood that they will either choose none of the above; or not have an enjoyable experience… If you buy a book on Amazon, it often encourages you to buy a book by the same author and get both at a discounted price… If every cultural organization did this in partnership with other peer cultural organizations I have to imagine something good could come of it.”

7. Aggregate supply and demand. Take the above recommendation idea and apply it to an entire city, with arts packages based on themes. Also, expand this to include radio interviews with actors, or DVD rentals of movies based on plays, etc. We are cultural omnivores, arts groups should recognize this.

Part three is about redefining success. Beware of ‘creeping normalcy’—the major changes that we don’t notice because of how long they take, yet which would be unacceptable if they occurred at heightened speeds. To make sure we adapt to these slow changes, we must allow diversity into the system (young leaders, new artists, new partners).

Ragsdale also raises the question of whether growth is always good in arts organizations. If you push too hard, your volunteers, staff members, and audiences become fatigued and you lose them—growth must be sustainable. And at this point you might want to cut back if you are pushing too hard (ie your growth isn’t sustainable).

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