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State of the Arts: Reaching Out

Arts and culture organizations focus on educating and building new audiences

By Jane Durrell · August 27th, 2008 · Visual Art

What's happening to the arts audience in Cincinnati? Is it the same group of stalwarts -- loyal and interested but inevitably growing older -- or is there an infusion of new people with new expectations?

CityBeat invited a group of arts professionals to a roundtable discussion on outreach, education and where the next generation of arts lovers is coming from. The conversation complements CityBeat's interview with Margy Waller, who will be heading up the Fine Arts Fund's new initiative to build broad recognition of and support for the arts throughout the region.

Taking part in this roundtable, from arts organizations large and small, were Rebecca Bowman, managing director, Cincinnati Shakespeare Company; Paula Brehm-Heeger, manager, central region, Public Library of Cincinnati and Hamilton County; Emily Holtrop, curator of learning and interpretation, Cincinnati Art Museum; Colleen Houston, director of programs, ArtWorks; Charmaine Moore, director of education, Cincinnati Opera; and Tommy Rueff, executive director, Happen Inc., a nonprofit arts organization helping children and parents share creative experiences.

CityBeat: Is the arts audience changing? Is that making a difference in your approach?
Charmaine Moore: Absolutely. Changes define who your audience is. If you have a novice, you present material differently than to someone who's been active in theater or music all their life.

CB: Opera has always had an elitist aura. How do you work around that?
CM: Stereotypes about opera certainly affect how we approach our audience. Sharing the message with a group of kids used to being theatrical and musical is different from reaching kids who have never touched a piano or heard someone sing live.

CB: How do you bring those latter kids in? How do you get in touch with them?
CM: We have 45-minute operas for kids and families, fully produced productions designed for touring because it's easier to go to people than expect them to come to you. For the schools, we have age-appropriate study guides for school curriculums. There are also residencies for working on one-on-one level, so that rather than saying "Here's opera, enjoy it," we're saying, "You can do it too."

CB: Rebecca, the Shakespeare Company goes out to the schools, too?
Rebecca Bowman: Our touring program is much like the Opera's. We have a two-hour presentation that goes to middle schools and high schools. We target that niche because Shakespeare isn't taught in the early grades. We can set up anywhere. I think it's important kids get a sense of artists as people, because they don't get that from film, television or the Internet. With us, the artist comes directly into the classroom.

CB: Isn't it difficult, because often you don't have a stage?
RB: It's a great challenge, but it makes the actors more flexible as performers. They arrive an hour before and discover no stage-right entrances or light cues and so forth. It's very hard because they have to think of all this as well as the usual things. So they have to think very hard, but it makes them flexible and adaptable. It's our Young Company, so they have lots of energy.

CB: There's been a major rearrangement of material in the Main Library, which has a new Teen Center. What's going on?
Paula Brehm-Heeger: A focus on young people, particularly teenagers, is new to us and to libraries elsewhere. There are these stereotypes of libraries as quiet spaces where you just do certain things, but now we're meeting them (teens) where they're at (with many new interactive technologies). They're very interested in being involved; they're not passive recipients. We just had a big teen event, with a contest to film their own videos. We showed this on the big screen at Fountain Square and followed up with video gaming.

We want to preserve the traditional elements of the library, so powerful here with 150 years of history. We want to make sure teens are connected to that and that they can help create a library that works for them. We're not prescribing exactly what's happening here. It's an interactive environment.

CB: What sort of response are you getting?
PB-H: We see teens coming into the library -- if you build it they will come! If you engage with teens you find they want to show adults the great things they know. The kids in their late teens are different than those 10 or 11, but all of them are used to making choices, not being assigned what to do. They have an expectation of choice. I'm in my thirties and that certainly wasn't the case when I was a teenager! For the Teen Center, they arranged the furniture, chose the colors. It makes a better product, and it also produces owners.

Emily Holtrop: At the Art Museum we asked teenagers what kind of programs they wanted. We established a Teen Advisory Board and said, "You create it." It's daunting because we had to make sure they weren't hemmed in by museum rules. They did their own promotions -- they've had movie nights and fashion shows. It's scary for all of us, but it works.

CB: Emily, your position has had a change of title. It used to be Curator of Education and now it's Curator of Learning and Interpretation. What happened?
EH: When I took the position last year I talked with our director, Aaron Betsky, and said, "You know, when people hear 'education' it's boring, and we already have the stuffy reputation." I'm not so concerned about whether we're educating people, but I am concerned about how people want to learn when they come. That sounds as though it's not a big difference, but it is.

We took out "education" and now we learn from you how you want to learn from the museum. Interpretation works very closely with the curatorial departments, but it's based on how people want to learn at the museum.

It's interesting, what people want to know. All labels come through my department. We are interpreting the collection for the visitor.

CB: How does Happen Inc. fit into these ideas?
Tommy Rueff: I agree that technology helps reach out to a larger audience. At Happen Inc. we teach art to parents and their children ages 6 to 12. We're bringing together families through immersion in a whole creative atmosphere. We do three things: entertain, then educate and empower. If we can do that in 45 minutes, we've won. We have different programs in our studio and also as outreach to schools, community centers, churches. We do character-based theatricals -- there's always a surprise character! -- as our core, but there are other activities. For instance, we take a copy of a painting, cut it into strips, and the kids weave it into a fence. We have 13 people on staff in summer, fewer in winter.

CB: Colleen, tell us about ArtWorks. You're all over town this summer, painting walls everywhere.
Colleen Houston: ArtWorks is 13 years old, we're nonprofit and our primary purpose is to give youngsters 14 to 19 the opportunity to work as apprentices with professional artists. We partner with many art institutions: the Art Museum, College-Conservatory of Music at the university, for the first time we're working with Children's Theater and we're talking to Cincinnati Opera. We can develop high quality programs through partnerships. Additionally we've expanded to neighborhoods through Mayor Mark Mallory's arts program. We do more than murals; other projects get overshadowed by the murals.

For instance, teens researched and recorded an audio tour of Cincinnati architecture that can be downloaded free to iPods. We've partnered with the Park Board, and we work with the Art Academy and with professional design firms.

We're a job program. We had 400 applicants this year, but we have to hire based on funding so we could only take 125. We do literary and theatrical projects as well as visual. So we employ professional artists, we're public art presenters, we have a gallery and we notify artists of job opportunities and competitions.

CB: Rebecca, do the kids remember the Shakespeare Company when you come back again to a school?
RB: Our school program builds audiences for the main stage on Race Street. Fifteen to 20 percent of our audience can be tracked to "I saw you at my high school." They come with their friends, with their parents, maybe grandparents.

CB: Is Cincinnati a good place to do your job, or would there be advantages in being somewhere else?
TR: In exploring other cities and what goes on there, it seems we do quite a bit. Even though our community is small, there's a lot going here that other communities don't have. Happen Inc. sees it a lot. People reach out to us for information, from the West Coast or from 100 miles away. I think we've got something special, all the different organizations. Other cities don't have the breadth we have or offer so much to young people.

RB: It's a healthy thing when so many people offer art services for children. Because there are a number of us, we collaborate more. A new administrator has a whole community of people already doing that job, so someone takes you by the arm, says here's who you need to know, here's what we're doing in school groups and communities. I think that's the great part of there being so many of us.

EH: I came to the art museum as a transplant from Miami (Fla.), and I moved here because the arts are very much supported here. In Miami it's all about the beach; the city doesn't support the arts as Cincinnati does. It's so impressive that the mayor has a committee for the arts and supports the arts so much.

Around this table, we all know each other; we have a sense of camaraderie. We're not competitors; we work well together. In the end, the visitor is the most important thing. We can create a program together that really benefits the visitor.

CM: Absolutely true, whatever happens to the least of us happens to the rest as well. What makes Cincinnati different is the community. Teaching the young audience how to experience and appreciate arts also gives them a sense of ownership. This is a part of our culture, part of Cincinnati, part of what makes us unique. I grew up here, partook of all the great arts offerings and later moved to Baltimore, with a wonderful arts scene, but chose to move back to Cincinnati because I knew it was rich in support of the arts.

EH: The community is marvelously generous. People support with their own personal time. I see what volunteers do for us at the museum -- we have 150 docents! And I volunteer for other organizations.

CB: Colleen, are there organizations like ArtWorks in other cities?
CH: Yes, actually ArtWorks is modeled after Chicago's Gallery 37, but we're the only organization of our kind in this region. So we strive to look at best practices elsewhere and are in touch all the time. We went to the Philadelphia arts program to mentor our mural projects, because they've done it for more than 20 years. We see teens in our program connect with the city, with their own neighborhoods and other neighborhoods. Kids come in from the suburbs to work side by side with kids from Over-the-Rhine while working on a mural in Over-the-Rhine. It builds respect for others.

EH: When the Art Museum has worked with ArtWorks, it's always been very Cincinnati-based. They did our bathrooms last year, a really stylistic portrayal of different neighborhoods of Cincinnati, looking at the city in a very interesting way. Everybody's in the restrooms sometime -- they're probably some of the busiest areas in the building.

CB: Paula, tell us more about the library's teen program.
PB-H: The library here is so appreciated and supported by the public. Our Teen Spot is one of the largest in the country, and there's a long history of children's services. Teens really use the library in many ways. I think we do a good job of helping them evaluate those opportunities. The library (also) goes out to young people in various situations, in short-term detention and short-term drug treatment programs. We take books to them, we read stories to them. It's always amazing to talk to them. Some are extremely familiar with the library.

People have a certain image of kids interested in the arts, but there are so many ways to get a broad overview. It speaks well for this particular community.

CB: This question particularly concerns the Art Museum, Opera and the Shakespeare Company. Historically, small -- you could say elite -- groups have had the deepest interest in your programs. Have your audiences broadened?
EH: We make a real effort at the museum to overcome appearing stodgy, to be vibrant and accessible, to bring in a younger audience. And we made a discovery: It's easier to work with teenagers and younger children who haven't yet put up barriers and resistance against new things. They can experience and decide if it's their thing. Because they have so many things to pick from, they can make all these wild choices.

RB: I think of our Groundlings. They're high school age, and they love that they're Shakespearean actors. They have big discussions about Titus Andronicus. I think it's easier to get a teenager to come in and enjoy us than someone 50 who says, "That's not for me."

EH: For me, I like seeing your young cast. It's not someone your parents' age. I see myself. There is that idea of a certain kind of person who comes to a museum. We are doing lots to broaden that appeal. Our Wednesday programs for young professionals, 20 to 40 years old, are wildly popular. That age group was not being served; we weren't capturing that set.

CB: Yes, I wanted to know if all effort was on the coming generation, or are you also reaching to other age groups?
EH: We're trying to create life-long lovers and learners of art. If some 50-year-old gentleman is dragged in by his wife to get some culture and comes in past the motorcycle in the first gallery, he's found something he can identify with. There's no reason why anyone can't come to the museum. You don't have to have an art history degree to enjoy looking at Picasso. It's also OK not to like it. Through programming we reach particular niches.

CM: Opera has 400 years of history, but people are not all that impressed now. They want quick, easy access. It has to be quick. We've broadened our understanding of who is an opera lover; we have to continually create new opportunities. We see ethnic and age diversity as goals and build those relationships by presenting operatic experiences in unexpected places: churches, Fountain Square, the zoo. The zoo should not be surprising in this city, as that's where Cincinnati Opera began. But these days we have recitals or children's events there. Also, opera is pretty fortunate in being one of those art forms that can advance with technology, can enhance the experience to a degree an orchestra can't.

PB-H: To go back to the reorganization of the Main Library, we're taking away barriers of "I can't use this, I don't understand." It's all about removing barriers, making things accessible, about listening to people. The young people are not going to be ignored. They are not interested in not being heard.

I also just want to mention about changing audiences. The library has recently had a lot of success with grandparents, matching up that "greatest generation" with youngsters. At the Groesbeck branch we've had gaming with grandparents and grandkids aged 9 to 12. The grandparents embrace it, the young kids show them how to use it, and then they do the library together. When you try something wacky and wild, you can bring people together in ways you would never have expected.

TR: It's surprising how people respond. After 9/11, we got hit hard on funding, but we had a huge upsurge in volunteers. We grew that year. Community is not just where you live but how you live with other people. That's been the theme of our new Northside location all summer.

CB: So you're all hoping to appeal over a wide spectrum?
PB-H: Often in unexpected ways. Multi-generational activities are on the upswing.

EH: We get a lot of grandparents bringing kids to the museum on Saturday, giving mom and dad a break. We see a lot more of that now than we did even five years ago. Families come in all shapes and sizes; we want to serve them.

RB: For the Shakespeare Company, cross-generation appeal makes the difference between modest or great ticket sales.

TR: It has to be entertaining for everybody, like a Warner Bros. cartoon, like Bugs Bunny, with child and adult levels. We have grandparents, aunts, uncles as well as parents.

CB: What keeps you here, personally?
EH: Looking around this table, you can see there are lots of young professionals, 30 to 40 years old, working in the arts.

RB: There's a group of us coming along together, a generation of arts administrators learning from each other and the ones ahead of us.

EH: Those of us who are transplants don't have to stay here. I'm here because I like Cincinnati.

TR: Happen Inc. is turning 10 years old, and I've been here since 1995. I'm here because of the potential and growth possibilities. We're this shining light, and we have a huge responsibility to keep that going. I can't wait to see what the next 10 years will bring.

EH: This is such a welcoming city, if you choose to be welcomed by the arts.



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