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Arts: Change or Die

Discussing the future of the arts in our changing culture

By Jane Durrell · May 13th, 2009 · Visual Art

Bigger is not necessarily better, and cooperation might ace competition among arts organizations in our changing culture, according to Diane E. Ragsdale of the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, who spoke to an audience of art professionals and supporters at the University of Cincinnati May 6.

“Sharing Our Art in a Changing Community,” presented by UC’s College-Conservatory of Music and the Fine Arts Fund, featured Ragsdale for the 2009 Joan Cochran (Rieveschl) Lecture Series, followed by a panel discussion. The program directly addressed the expanding world of communication and the necessity of adapting the arts to swim rather than sink under the tide of change.

Ragsdale (pictured) urged arts organizations to recognize that “we have a society in which the arts have become marginal.” Big attendance numbers might not equal big impact, she said — deep loyalty from fewer people might be more important, and developing small groups within large ones can foster strength of the whole.

She suggested taking a cue from the Slow Foods movement and asked, “What would a major Slow Arts Movement look like?”

The spaces that arts institutions occupy need to be rethought, Ragsdale recommended, pointing out that art museums have long recognized the pluses of incorporating food/bar services into their spaces and that theaters and concert halls might do the same. (Know Theatre, Playhouse in the Park and Music Hall’s Critic’s Club are ahead of the curve on this one.)

“Finally, we are only hurting ourselves when we believe, and let our patrons believe, that they are meant to be passive and appreciative and well-behaved,” she said.

“(We should) encourage patrons to be actively engaged.”

That means encouraging them to express opinions publicly, even negative ones. “Let patrons feel ownership,” she said.

Ragsdale’s observations on practical points included rethinking the nature of season subscriptions. One arts organization’s concert could appear in hundreds of niche packages that would also include nightclubs, films, gallery exhibits, books and other entertainment options from other sources.

“To adapt to the culture change, organizations may need to focus less on selling better and more on seeing better,” she said.

A panel discussion, “Surviving Culture Change,” followed Ragsdale’s talk and was moderated by Margy Waller, vice president of the newly established Arts & Culture Partnership of the Fine Arts Fund. This arm of FAF is itself a shift in focus, moving the organization into a more direct role in encouraging a vibrant and relevant arts sector for the community.

Panelist Pete Blackshaw, executive vice president of Nielsen Online, said that despite challenges he feels we’re “on the cusp of a potential Renaissance. Creative energy needs to be channeled, and the arts community needs to feed it.”

His own background in software development and audience measurement lead him to envision exciting possibilities for the arts online, he said.

Evans Mirageas, Cincinnati Opera director, spoke directly to the students in the audience, saying, “Most art institutions are broken and need to be repaired. They will sink within a decade unless fundamental changes make them relevant. We need to reinvent why they matter.”

Ragsdale agreed, saying, “Icons are in jeopardy. (We need to decide) why they have meaning.”

Questions from the audience centered on how to communicate about the arts and the loss of arts instruction in the schools. Panelists had general and specific suggestions.

Ragsdale thought that perhaps communities have overbuilt their arts organizations while letting arts education in their public schools decline.

“Perhaps some institutions should convert to arts education,” she said. “Education deserves full focus. Mirageas’ recommendation was to ‘play the music, especially to young children.’ We need to re-invent why it matters.”

More information about SURVIVING CULTURE CHANGE can be found at www.fineartsfund.org, including the CAC’s Molly O’Toole blog, an experiment in reaching audiences through new media developed during the May 6 event.



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