Wednesday, July 9, 2014

Losing Your Audience

Losing Your Audience

A few weeks ago, I was at Avery Fisher Hall to attend the high school graduation of my daughter.  The keynote speaker was Jed Bernstein, the President of Lincoln Center.  After a few of the usual pleasantries and congratulations, he aimed a challenge directly at the 600-odd graduating students.  The arts are under siege. In just two generations, the average age of the audience has gone from about thirty to about fifty.  These 600-plus eighteen year olds who were graduating from one of the country’s premier schools had an affirmative duty.  If they cared about the arts, they needed to be more than just performers, or even patrons.  They had to be missionaries.  And that missionary aspect meant something beyond just earning a decent living, or even going on to be a star. They had to make relevant the old and advance the new, to put their craft and passion on stronger legs for those who followed them.  In effect, it was their responsibility to be preservationists, conservationists, and builders. 

I am not sure how much of that message sank in (especially when tossing caps in the air and parties were soon to follow) but I think more than a few of them heard him, and will act on it.   They have to.  Regional theatre struggles and Broadway often gets by on stupendous blockbusters that are subsidized by the over 50 million tourists that come to New York City each year.  Governments, both strapped for tax dollars and hampered by ideologically motivated opposition, have cut back or eliminated their support for local cultural institutions.  Two important art collections, the renowned Corcoran in Washington D.C., and the Barnes in Pennsylvania, struggled mightily and had to seek stronger hands.   Classical music is in crisis.  The New York City Opera was forced to close after some catastrophically bad management decisions and some worse luck.  The Minnesota Orchestra just ended a 15-month lockout to force lower labor costs, and even the mighty Metropolitan Opera is looking for major givebacks in its latest contract negotiations.

You can blame local factors or poor choices, or even lush labor contracts, but the real problem is that fewer people are taking notice. For at least a generation we have cut back on education in the arts.  We have not found enough other ways to draw younger people in, nor to inspire an imperative to support art, or to make it appear relevant to the community.  It isn’t that Da Vinci or Beethoven have suddenly lost their genius, but even the most beautiful objects or sounds need to be seen and heard.  An empty house, or an empty gallery, eventually extinguishes the light. 

One could make the same point about government.  We live in the greatest nation on Earth.  We have done incredible things, and done it within the context of a high-functioning democracy that values individual decision-making.  Government has worked because we have made it work—we have squabbled, and threatened, and pontificated, and horse-traded, and sometimes earmarked and otherwise greased our way to solving big problems, but we have done it together.  And yet, the very idea of good government, effective government, collaborative government, is losing its audience as well.  It’s not the same benign neglect one sees with the arts; people argue vociferously, but they don’t seem to really care about making it work, and they walk away. And sooner or later, their withdrawal extinguishes the light as well.   

How do you turn these artistic and political cultures around and build their audiences? My daughter, who loves fiercely all music, but particularly classical, says you have to get them early.  She’s absolutely right, but I would go further than that.  You gain audience not merely by making new opera-lovers, but opera-moderates.  Look at the crowds in a museum, or in a concert hall, and you will see plenty of people who occasionally check their watches. They are there for the community, because someone asked them to go.

The same is true in civic culture.  To thrive, you can’t just depend on the unending loyalty of the passionate.  You have to bring in the moderates.  Of course, it’s always nice to have an ideologically moderate middle to find commonalities.  But with polarization increasing, what’s even more important are the “Temperamental Moderates.”  A Temperamental Moderate is someone able to listen to different (political) music without having a physical reaction or stomping out of the concert hall.  The Temperamental Moderate will be willing to go to your son’s middle school recital to hear some-not-entirely-pleasing-to-the-ear French Horn and tell you afterwards how great it all sounds.  Temperamental Moderates do this because a) their emotional makeup does not require continuous confrontation, and b) their parents brought them up to value community and social relationships and c) their daughter plays a mean bass guitar and her band has a gig next month.

What is interesting is that both ideological poles intuitively understand this, although they both reject the obvious solution.  The Pew Study displays some fascinating data about who identifies as a Democrat or Republican.  Included amongst all of the evidence of polarization and ideological silos, there was a startling tidbit that just jumped out at me. 70% of "Solid Liberals" said that America’s best days are ahead of it.  76% of "Steadfast Conservatives" says our past is better than our future.

Why?  Why would Liberals, watching a Democratic President falter under his own weight, and that of the tar and feathers that the opposition smears him with on a daily basis, be optimistic about the future?  And why would Conservatives, who pride themselves on their patriotism, and who very likely will control all three branches of government in January 2017, be so incredibly morose? 

The answer lies in their perception of community.  Liberals see the inevitability of a pluralistic society—more diverse, more multi-cultural, more tolerant, and more polychromatic, and are encouraged.  Conservatives see exactly the same thing, and it frightens and repulses them: our best days are behind us because we are moving away from the homogeneous communities that made us great.  We are going to have to bridge that gap, and face our fears and our hopes rationally.
That is the real challenge we face, analogous to the challenge Jed Bernstein laid out. We can hunker down with our friends, play the same tunes over and over, watch the river rise and hope it doesn’t flood.  Or we can use every ounce of effort and creativity we have to build our audience. To quote my daughter again, new staging is wonderful, but you can’t just only do the Met’s Rigoletto in Las Vegas. Be a preservationist, a conservationist, and a builder.  At the end of the day, staging is great, but it’s the Verdi that counts. Be open to change, but don’t disrespect the master, and don’t disrespect the dowager who has spent the last fifty years supporting the arts, and adores him as he is.

If you do that, you might find the crowd just got a little bigger, and the applause a little louder.

June 9, 2014

Michael Liss (Moderate Moderator)

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