I’m on the board of an awesome readers/ writer series in Cleveland, called Brews + Prose. I was asked to join because I came from the visual arts world. They hoped I’d create bridges between the two communities. I can’t say that I have. But, the experience of going monthly has given me a rich understanding of cultural arts audiences.
Leisure and enjoyment are intimately connected to identity. As a teen, I would have died rather than listen to “uncool” music. As an adult, with mortality more consequential, I might not accept a death sentence for anything, but I still will never listen to death metal. What we value in our spare time is inextricably linked to who we think we are. Time is an incredibly valuable resource. We use our time for things that feel “right.”
I am an art person. I have never felt more like a visual arts person than when I sit in a great bar listening to famous poets. Monthly (or quarterly, because Brews + Prose brings in all sorts of writers), I remember that I, gasp, don’t get poetry. (But I do love many a poet as people…some of my best friends and all). I look around the room at these events to see a few dozen people truly engaged. Their earnest expressions and knowing eyes make me thankful that someone gets poetry.
Everyone has something they get that enlivens them. As I like to say at work, Sol LeWitt is my poetry. I could wander around MASS MoCA for ages, much to my children’s chagrin. Where someone might see spare stupidity, I see rhythm, cadence, and truths. Sol LeWitt spoke to me long before I studied him, and honestly, the extra knowledge was unnecessary to make me love his art. I just got it.
All of us, everyone, has something that speaks to them. Like magnets, we’re drawn to that art form. Your poetry might be golf on tv or 1960s underground saw music. You might be connected to something with a mass appeal or something within a niche of a niche.
What does this have to do with cultural audiences? First, those of us who create platforms for niche communities should be commended. If Taylor Swift is your poetry, Netflix has got you covered. But, if you love something more niche, your chance to enjoy this pursuit will be less common. Those institutions sharing less mainstream cultural forms should be commended and supported.
But, for some people, they don’t even know what speaks to them. They’ve never come to Brews + Prose, and more’s the pity for them. They’ve never been able to enjoy a Sol LeWitt. Or, they’ve been clouded by one of the most challenging specters in arts and culture, value. If you pay the cash to go to Mass MOCA, you might be annoyed to see a painting on a wall that Sol LeWitt only conceptualized but didn’t paint. I mean, you paid your hard-earned money, and you don’t get why this matters. Your appreciation of the art form is clouded by your feelings of not getting it or of not feeling like it was worth your money/ time. I was lucky because my early times with good ole Sol came at a free museum. I never had to make my feelings for my outlay of cash related to my feelings about the art. I was able to like it for how looking at it made me feel.
I also grew up going to museums and taking all sort of art appreciation classes. I know it is no problem to dislike certain artworks. It doesn’t make me feel dumb to say I don’t get something. In the arts, we often take this ability to have personal taste for granted. You have to have a level of familiarity and knowledge to be able to feel comfortable saying what you don’t like.
Taken together, you cannot connect to something without awareness and comfort. You will not be able to like it if you feel dumb or like you’re being duped. You will not be able to see its value if you are blindfolded by your perceptions of its cost.
What does this mean for purveyors of arts and culture? First, we need to remember we drank the Kool-Aid so naturally or so long ago, as to be wholly different than some of our audiences. We will continue only to draw the inculcated or initiated if we don’t find bridges.
Audience growth is a numbers game. Only a small portion of the world will love minimalist art or certain arcane forms of poetry. Our programming and experience in the sector need to bring in more people, if anything else, so we can connect with the potential lovers of our specialized pursuits.
Let’s go back to my buddies at Brews + Prose. We run one big event a year as part of the Anisfield-Wolf Book Awards. I might not get poetry. But Kevin Young spoke to a large crowd on a buggy, muggy night last year. Every word he read spoke to me. I didn’t need to try to figure out if I hate poetry. I knew I liked him.
Kevin Young is the poetry editor of the New Yorker. And, it makes me think of another big audience engagement issue. We also need to find different access points. Some will surprise us. Some will require some changes to our status quo.
A bit ago, the New Yorker gained a bit of a publicity boost when a short story, Cat Person by Kristen Roupenian went viral online. The story was derided by some as simplistic, but others noted the reach brought writing, as my co-worker said, the New Yorker itself, to new audiences. I’m guessing many of the readers of that story didn’t read her follow-up book, out recently. But, some did. And, those extra readers are why we’re always trying so hard to engage new audiences. We don’t know who could love us. What we know is they won’t even know if they do if they don’t know about us.
In the arts and cultural sector, it’s okay, and even important, to speak to those who are naturally drawn to our most rarified forms. But, it’s also important to find new ways to draw people. We don’t know which person walking in the door will engage with us and realize we are the form of their heart.