An arts blogger named Barry recently posted a piece titled, “How Do We Break Into the Tweens and Teens Busy Schedule So We Have a Future?”
Barry’s blog post is ostensibly about the future of the arts. The generational concern it expresses has by now been covered about as frequently as Irving Berlin’s “White Christmas.”
Here’s a sample, feel free to hum along: “If we are to have a rosy future for the arts, it’s clear we absolutely must figure out a way to insure today’s tweens and teens are part of our mix. We will need them as audiences, supporters, administrators, and artists. We have to figure out a way to recruit them, involve them, entice them and hook them…If we don’t do that, then our performance seats will be empty, donations will be scarce, and who knows whether or not we will be able to attract the best and brightest to our field…”
Arts administrators have been singing this song for years. Their audiences are, for the most part, quite visibly aging. Their donor class is shrinking. To make matters worse, the place of the arts in education has been degraded, cutting into what many understand as the arts’ feeder system.
Incredible as it seems, the future of an array of institutions — theaters, orchestras, ballet and opera companies, museums — that many of us grew up thinking of as cornerstones of urban life appear to have sell-by dates.
This is the kind of disruption that today’s innovation monkeys seem to think is cool; I find it enervating. Cultural continuity, being able to appreciate variations of the same things our grandparents enjoyed, makes history more than an abstraction — it enlivens it.
That said, I am also weary with the way Barry and his fellow arts administrators conflate the arts with institutions. While making a living as an artist has never been easy, there now seem to be more people living off the arts than ever before. Like colleges and universities, arts institutions have adopted the corporate model for their administration, adding layers of bureaucracy and overhead.
This is a decidedly modern phenomenon in most cities. It has swelled the ranks of the so-called creative class and made it possible for people attracted to the arts to earn a respectable, if at times tenuous, livelihood.
But it has also commoditized and monetized the arts in diminishing ways. We talk more today about the arts as tools for economic growth and urban development, less about the ways art grows our souls.
And here’s the thing: art really is a soul-growing activity. That’s what inspired the cave dwellers to paint pictures on their walls; it’s what makes some people post homemade videos on YouTube.
By the same token, there will always be those among us who will want to play a Beethoven quartet, perform a Shakespeare play, or dance to Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring.
Our connections to this human legacy are inexhaustible; whether or not these experiences are presented by logo-endowed arts institutions is a different question.
Barry’s teens and tweens may already sense this. Everybody else is playing catch-up.