Wednesday, February 01, 2012

Lead or Follow: Arts Administrators Hash it Out

Last week, Douglas McLellan of artsJournal ran a multi-vocal forum on the relationship between arts organizations and audiences, asking:
In this age of self expression and information overload, do our artists and arts organizations need to lead more or learn to follow their communities more?
Sixteen arts administrators, journalists, and researchers weighed in on the question over a series of posts. Several decried the oversimplification of the question, arguing that it's not an issue of "lead vs. follow" but a spectrum of forms of participant engagement. A few trotted out familiar arguments for arts administrators as tastemakers (lead) or audience research as incontrovertible (follow). And some made fairly brilliant and impassioned cases for idiosyncratic perspectives. Here are three of my favorites... and a few more thoughts.

Roberto Bedoya: The "Yes And" Argument and its Civic Implications
Bedoya, the Executive Director of the Tucson Pima Arts Council, makes a beautiful statement that arts administrators need to facilitate a multiplicity of leading voices, or as he puts it, "the courage of imagination and the plural." Particularly in an age of cultural and political division, Bedoya argues that leaders in the arts need to responsibly and boldly intermediate among many voices, using a combination of ethics and aesthetics to make policy and artistic decisions. If you care about how participatory art experiences can shape civic processes, read Bedoya's post.

Diane Ragsdale: You Can't Lead if No One is Paying Attention to You
Ragsdale, researcher and author of the terrific Jumper blog, suggests that most arts organizations are not "leading" communities but disregarding and demeaning them. Audience engagement happens strictly on institutional terms, for institutional purposes, and when audience members' views differ from the organization, their perspectives are not taken seriously. Ragsdale equates true following with listening, and acting on listening with leading. It's a good post that is representative of her powerful writing (mostly focused on the performing arts).

Trevor O'Donnell: Leaders Use Their Words 
O'Donnell was not one of the invited bloggers but a commenter from the field (a follower... or a good example of how silly the term "follower" is?). He made a comment on Michael Kaiser's fairly formulaic "great artists lead the nation" post, laying bare the banality of most of the language used to describe and present art experiences to the public. O'Donnell notes that great leaders don't sell their message with generic templates and exclamation points, but with "relevant, meaningful, motivational language that leverages the needs, wants and desires of their listeners." The way we talk about our work helps shape its importance to current and potential audiences.

This whole debate made me think about Adam Lerner, the Director and Chief Animator of the MCA Denver. Adam and I first met in 2008, when we were part of a National Academies think tank-ish thing on the future of museums and libraries. All the participants were asked to write one-page position papers about museums and libraries in the 21st century. Adam and I wrote papers that split dramatically on either side the lead/follow line. Adam argued for museums to become "less visitor-oriented," and I argued the opposite. He said museums were too spineless to project their own voices and so were misguidedly searching for direction from audiences. I said museums were too self-centered and needed to create community spaces with the growing army of people choosing cultural experiences outside of traditional arts institutions.

Turns out we're a lot more alike than I thought at the time. We both believe that institutions should have a strong identity and should boldly pursue and present it with audiences. The problem is three-fold:
  • some of our institutional identities are not culturally or civically significant (see Bedoya)
  • some of our institutions are too lily-livered to deliver a consistent, strong audience engagement strategy that reflects their unique significance (see Ragsdale)
  • some of our institutions are too lazy to develop an authentic and powerful voice for their identity and program blend (see O'Donnell)
Adam concluded his position paper beautifully, writing:
The paradox is that developing a clear, authentic voice doesn’t isolate the institution but infinitely expands its relevance in the life of the city and citizen. It is so clear what the organic supermarket Whole Foods stands for, so they don’t need to worry about just selling food. They sell clothing, books, classes, skin care, yoga supplies, which all relate to the core of who they are. Museums have had difficulty becoming more integral to people’s life because they lost sight of their core, which should be different for each museum. A museum concerned with integrating art into the life of young people might find it appropriate to open a dance club. A museum that believes that it is most suited to be a temple of art can be a truly meditative oasis in the heart of a bustling city. A museum that is committed to childhood education might find it relevant to open a charter school. Museums in suburban locations need to determine how they can integrate themselves into the leisure patterns of their own constituency. Museums shouldn’t change by looking elsewhere; they should change by looking more carefully at themselves. That’s too difficult a task to pass off to visitors.
I'd add the caveat that for some institutions, it's too difficult a task to pass off to visitors. In an institution like mine, where the organizational identity is built on participation, the task can and must include them.

In the end, the issue is not who is leading or following, but the fact that we're dancing with our audiences in the same room, together. Not in separate rooms to separate songs.

What did you get out of the Lead or Follow experience? How do you respond to this question?
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