SENTANCE DIAGRAM: demographics and/or impact ways in which
artists connect with new audiences

impact how

I was asked to respond to the following:

How rapidly changing demographics and/or evolving technologies impact the ways in which artists and arts organizations across the region connect with new audiences.

My first response was to query the sentence itself. Was it a statement or a question? If read as a statement, it demands documentation or perhaps validation of the conclusion that changing demographcis and (or!) evolving technologies have, indeed, impacted both arts and arts ogranizations to connect with new audiences. Discuss.

It interpreted as a question, it demands an answer: Have rapidly changing demographic and (or!) evolving technologies actually impacted either artists or arts organizations to connect with new audiences?

So there it was, not quite a statement, not a question, not even a sentence (I’ve been assured that it is properly termed a sentence fragment) demanding a response. And even those options ignored my more pressing question, namely, are artists or arts organizations even interested in connecting with new audiences? And, if so (or even if not) is that how they should be directing their efforts? Traditionally, artists have not engaged in serious outreach for new audiences. In fact, the perception, even expectation is that the artist is preoccupied with his or her art, and possibly career — but climbing the career art ladder usually means aiming towards the existing art elite, not away from it. The nation’s art academies and graduate schools encourage, in fact boast, of graduates forming relationships with commercial galleries — it mutually increases their prestige. And, who are these new audiences and do they even want to be reached? Why should they (or we) care?

The assumption is that outreach is good, that more is not merely merrier but better, but it may be that its merits are predicated on the property of being quantifiable. Increasingly, metrics rule the world of public and private foundation funding. Grantors must be accountable to their constituents or their boards and thus demand evidence of effectiveness. Attendance, and zipcodes, can be counted, and, as such, are fodder for funding criteria, but have no bearing on the significance or relevance of the art. The experience of a work of art, its “effectiveness,” is not quantifiable.

Although outside of the art world, The Ashoka Foundation, dedicated to social entrepreneurs, recognizes the limitations of using metrics as a sole approach to assessment. Daniel Bornstein, in How to Change the World, a chronicle of the Ashoka Foundation, argues for a qualitative rather than a quantitative approach:

The quest for quantifiable social returns or outcomes has become an obsession in a sector that envies the efficiency of business capital markets. Given this obsession, it is important to remember that numbers have an unfortunate tendency to supersede other kinds of knowing...Numbers are problematic to the extent that they give the illusion of providing more truth than they actually do. They also favor what is easiest to measure, not what is most important.

“What is most important” in the art world, the art, is impossible to measure. So, how might a foundation approach assessment? Bornstein continues:

One way to improve the capital allocation in the citizen sector would be to design decision making processes that give people the information, incentives, analytic tools, confidence, and encouragement to apply their judgment more effectively and comfortably...to facilitate thoughtful decision making.

In assessing outreach, it is important to understand that the art retains its essential quality whether viewed by the traditional art “elite,” nobody at all or (the new or non-elite) “nobodies.” The tree falling in the forest doesn’t care if no one is there to hear it.

But since the tree is crashing, we might as well alert the neighborhood to the event. Make it accessible. But also, perhaps, facilitate thoughtful contemplation and discussion.

So I approached this project by focusing on the Foundation’s ostensible goal of outreach: a mandate for arts organizations to connect with new audiences. Isolating this phrase from any cause or even intention, I began by investigating a case history where an arts organization literally merged with its city, expanding both its presence and audience dramatically increasing both access and dialogue. How was it achieved?

The case in question was a transitional period between buildings for Walker Art Center’s from 1968-1971, an era known as “museum without walls” yet continued to operate, and flourish, throughout the city. I interviewed Martin Friedman, Walker Art Center’s Director from 1960 to 1991, currently Director Emeritus; Mildred Friedman, Design Curator from 1969-1991, also editor of the museum’s design publication, Design Quarterly (DQ), Dean Swanson, Chief Curator from 1968 -1978, Richard Koshalek, Assistant Curator; and Suzanne Weil, Coordinator of Performing Arts from 1968-1976.

To make it relevant to the commission, John Killacky reminded me of the “across the region” part of the sentence and suggested that I reinforce my efforts with interviews of local curators and supplied me with a list. New to the area and unknown locally, I approached local curator/directors who agreed to discuss their case histories in relation to neighborhood involvement and new audiences.

A nascent theme emerged, the theme of an institution in transition forced to forge its identity during a period without a physical presence. Richard Koshalek, who identifies himself as staunchly “anti-institutional” as a result of his experience, went on to head several institutions, notably MOCA in Los Angeles and Art Center College of Art and Design in Pasadena. He cites the experience at Walker Art Center as hugely influential during the process of building an identity for MOCA through the Temporary Contemporary in downtown Los Angeles. Lawrence Rinder, newly named Director of the Berkeley Art Museum (BAM), discussed, as formative in his career, his first job out of school at New York’s Museum of Modern Art during the period when they had no building and he was sent out to area high schools. Of course, he will be facing that reality soon as BAM embarks on a building campaign. Courtney Fink, the Director of Southern Exposure, described the opportunity that arose from the split from Project Artaud, and their subsequent focus on work done in the community.

In every case, these experiences, recounted, proved formative to the directors and curators of institutions, impacting institutional identity, and by extension, membership and patronage. Rinder remarks, “I think those of us who have had those moments, these ‘institutional down times,’ are lucky because we see how institutions can continue without what most people assume to be their most significant asset — their buildings. And the institution becomes something that transcends that: it’s an attitude, a spirit, a connection; the institution becomes a convening authority. It’s the capacity to bring people together with conversation.” This capacity to bring people together, this “convening authority” is based, not in any impulse to build an audience, but on the public’s perception that it is a conversation worth having; the institution providing a forum for contemplation and criticism, but above all, exposure, to the art.




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