"Taking off the training wheels

I was running errands the other day when I heard a spot promoting a local show about the arts on public radio. The gist of this message was that the arts aren’t just for “stuffy” people.

The day after that I picked up a copy of our town’s daily newspaper wherein I found an interview with a local arts administrator who talked about how her institution tries to make the arts “accessible.”

Now, let me say that I know these folks. I like them and hope they have success. But I wish they’d quit talking about the arts this way. They mean well, but they sound like grown-up children trying to convince grandpa to use a walker.

They are not alone. It seems that most of the arts administrators here are frustrated that such a small percentage of the adult population shows up for local arts offerings. They also seem to assume that, when it comes to the arts, most of these adults don’t know the difference between negative space and a hole in the ground.

The tactic has been to “reach out,” to play down art’s supposedly stuffy, snobbish image, to talk about how accessible the experiences on offer are in upbeat, reassuring tones. It’s the marketing equivalent of putting training wheels on Marcel Duchamp’s “Nude Descending a Staircase” — something, come to think of it, Duchamp might have done himself if he was still around to see the world he helped create.

This is art as missionary work. It goes with such commonly used trade jargon as “underserved” to describe people who, for whatever reason, are not availing themselves of the good news that arts advocates would like them to receive. The arts advocates, of course, consider the arts to be as wholesome as vitamin C, a basic building block for a fully dimensional life. On that we wholeheartedly agree. But I’m sick and tired of hearing the arts in this town being boosted like they’re fat-free carrot cake.

In the first place, I think this is insulting to what is really the underserved audience here — people who actually know something about the arts. These folks are so hungry for the real thing they travel to other cities to experience what few venues in Indianapolis are willing to offer. These are the wistful souls who hover over pamphlets that come in the mail from the Columbia Dance Center or Lookingglass Theatre in Chicago; from BAM in Brooklyn, or the Dance Theatre Workshop in Manhattan. They know they’ll rarely see anything like that in Indianapolis — as far as arts administrators here are concerned, they don’t count.

But the real problem is that trying to cajole the uninitiated into the arts tent will never really work. Telling them the arts are friendlier, softer, less intimidating and more fun than they think betrays a whiff of flop sweat. It also fails to identify what it is about the arts experience that might distinguish it from, say, a walk in the park or a trip to the zoo. This is no way to woo people that research shows place a premium on attending events of all kinds that promise the possibility of intensely memorable experiences.

What mystifies me is how most of our arts organizations continue to labor under the assumption that audience disinterest is based on audience ignorance, not on the products on display; that the arts organization’s job is to rally public support, rather than make real news in their chosen field. I hate to drag in a sports analogy but here it is: When the Colts were losers, there were plenty of seats to be had in the Dome. Winning changes everything. In the arts this means developing and presenting work that earns the attention of what has become a global marketplace.

If Indianapolis wants to be an arts destination, our arts administrators and advocates need to develop a critical vocabulary when it comes to talking about what they do. They need to be able to tell us that the work they’re offering us is important — and they need to be able to tell us why.

This approach won’t change the behavior of people who think the arts are for someone else. But trying to win these people over by making the arts seem reassuring as a soak in a hot tub only serves to make art interchangeable with every other recreational option. It obscures art’s true relevance and infantilizes the audience. I know Indianapolis prides itself on being family-friendly, but, at a certain point, art that matters is an adult proposition. If you want to get anywhere, you have to take off the training wheels. 



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