If you are reading this outside the United States, this sounds ridiculously basic. Football/soccer is the world's sport. But in the US, it has only recently become something worth watching. For most of my life in America, pro soccer was considered something risible and vaguely deviant, like picking your nose in public.
But now it's everywhere. It's exciting. And it's got me thinking about how we build energy and audience for the arts in this country.
Barry Hessenius recently wrote a blog post questioning the theory that more art into the school day will increase and bolster future adult audiences for art experiences. Like Barry, I feel that more art in schools is always better. I also share Barry's skepticism that there is a direct, premier line between art in schools and adult audiences for art.
I got into museum work because learning happens in many places and many ways. School is just a small part of it. When we talk about what kinds of experiences create pathways to more arts participation as adults, we have to look in AND beyond school. We have to look at what kids are doing after school. What kinds of tools and media they can access. Who their role models are.
Consider soccer. Soccer did not transition into a national phenomenon in the US based solely (or even mostly) on school participation. Soccer isn't just part of school; it's part of life. Millions of youth play in afterschool and weekend leagues. International stars like Pele captured attention on the airwaves. Immigrant families found local leagues where they could participate and feel connected socially. Stronger youth leagues led to stronger college teams led to stronger Olympic and professional performance. And all of that led to more audience--at all levels of the game.
There have been pro soccer leagues in the US on and off for almost a century. But over the past fifty years, soccer has ascended on more levels to a stronger footing overall. Instead of just creating a league for top play and hoping an audience would show up, soccer is developing a constantly-refreshing audience by creating opportunities for kids as young as four to participate in AYSO youth leagues. AYSO goes out of its way to include kids with different abilities, with "everyone plays" as one of its chief tenets. At the same time as it promotes inclusive participation, AYSO is affiliated with the United States Soccer Federation (the pros). AYSO builds both the players and the audiences for soccer's future in this county at all levels.
This isn't just a soccer phenomenon. Across sports, there is a deliberate embrace of practice at all levels to strengthen participation. In basketball, there is street ball and varsity and college play and D-league and the NBA. All of these levels and types of play support a pipeline that accommodates players and audiences at different levels of skill, financial capacity, and enthusiasm.
This pipeline absorbs diversity in quality of play without "dumbing down" the experience or lessening the desire to achieve top levels of excellence. When we talk about embracing participatory experiences at non-professional levels, arts professionals often get worried that the best work will get drowned out in mediocrity. But the diverse world of sports has done an extremely good job of preserving the top levels of play. At the same time, it has cultivated active spectators who understand the subtle differences between the tiers. Imagine if people were as knowledgeable about the specific talents of top symphonic conductors as they are of top athletes.
What would that take? Arts already offer opportunities for participation, grand narrative, and diverse tiers of quality that are needed to make this pipeline a reality. We just have to connect the dots. Imagine if the world's leading symphonies were affiliated with the largest organizations for first-time instrument players. Imagine if every community theater was a development theater for a bigger one. If ballet theaters and ballet schools and dance in the park events were coordinated. If kids were checking out art supplies from the library. If maker fairs were connected to science centers.
To me, this kind of pipeline is necessary to build future audiences and practitioners in the arts. It just requires a few things:
- Mutual respect, coordination, and collaboration among organizations that work at different levels of expertise, budget, and scale. Instead of seeing differences in quality as competitive or embarrassing, we could see different tiers as part of a healthy ecosystem that builds rather than detracts. Enough art already exists to get this going--it just isn't usefully connected yet.
- Emphasis on developing both practitioners and audiences. Why can professional sports leagues charge hundreds of dollars for a ticket? Because they have built demand through hundreds of hours spent playing and watching the game for free or low cost. Sensible tiers lead to sensible discernment when it comes to paying for audience experiences.
- Diversity of opportunities to engage. School is only one of many venues where cultural experiences can happen. If we embrace the abundant diversity of venues and formats rather that declaring some "in" and others "out," we can spend more time building a field and less time parsing out who belongs there.
I dream of a time when we have as much attention and access to creative and cultural activities as we do to athletics. Sure, there will always be non-participants. There will always be audience gaps. There will always be top performers on the bench. But hopefully, there will be a culture of diverse people participating, cheering, and showing up.
If we can do it for soccer, I know we can do it for art.