What Lyle Lovett Can Teach Us About Audience Engagement

I started doing trainings for arts advocates almost a decade ago. At that time, I gave a lot of thought to what advocates need to know in order to start being advocates. I came up with two messages. First: you already know enough to be an effective advocate. And second: carry a little water for all of us.

Some novice advocates are worried they don’t know the right thing to say. I encourage advocates to start with their individual experiences and truths. Expertise only grows with practice and even the most novice advocates already know more than enough to be effective. Second, while telling their personal stories, I encourage advocates to also carry a little water for the field, to speak to the generalities of what other artists and organizations do and need.

Writing here about audience engagement and audience development, two bourgeoning fields in our industry, I’m reminded of my “first principles” for advocates. Because while the field is busy developing all kinds of exciting new best practices we’re not doing enough to carry water for the twentieth century’s standard-bearers for audience engagement and audience development: arts journalists.

Riva Lehrer's portrait of Alison Bechdel, a winning entrant in the National Portrait Gallery's Outwin Competition, was included in a recent article created by the author's NEA-funded arts journalism project, Artapedia. Image used by permission of The National Portrait Gallery.
Riva Lehrer’s portrait of Alison Bechdel, a winning entrant in the National Portrait Gallery’s Outwin Competition, was included in a recent article created by the author’s NEA-funded arts journalism project, Artapedia. Image used by permission of The National Portrait Gallery.

For generations, the arts community has benefited from the expertise of arts journalists in bridging the gap between professional practice and community participation. (Of course the whole story isn’t all that simple: journalism has also been a tool for exclusion.)

The digital transformation affecting the arts industry is equally impacting the field of journalism. We in the arts are not doing enough to support new business models for arts journalism that also support the arts. One reason we’re not is that we like the increased control we now have over our messaging.

In the song “If I had a Boat,” Lyle Lovett croons the following scenario:

And If I had a boat,
I’d go out on the ocean
And if I had a pony,
I’d ride him on my boat
And we could all together
Go out on the ocean,
I said me upon my pony on my boat

It’s a funny song, in part because of the sincerity of his delivery. And every time I hear it (now) I think about arts organization media operations. Now, we have our pony and we ride him on our boat. But it doesn’t serve us well, and it’s actually ludicrous.

Arts journalism used to be almost entirely financially independent from the arts. We in the arts hoped for great reviews and built relationships with audiences around them. Now, as I noted recently in a post for the National Endowment for the Arts, the arts community is running its own media operations.

Henry Ford, one of the founders of the American automobile industry, once said that if he’d asked his customers what they wanted they would have said “a faster horse.” And from a certain perspective that’s what arts-industry-driven media operations are. In running our own media/messaging operations we have a faster horse. Why would we want it any other way?

In the twentieth century, arts journalism allowed arts makers to have just a little more distance from the audience, because journalism helped bridge that gap between professional practice and public appreciation. Arts journalists continue to help the public understand what arts producers are doing. But as we’re all aware, culture writing for publications with large reach has shrunk significantly. Small community publications are trying to fill the gap, but their business models are as fragile as one might expect.

If we don’t support independent evaluation of arts projects we in the arts industry devalue the thousands and thousands of hours it takes to practice, educate, and develop an arts career. Public and independent evaluation—traditional arts journalism—encourages a functional professional distance between arts practitioners, and the public.

Elizabeth Bruce, creator of the Theatrical Journey project, was profiled in a recent article created by the author's NEA-funded arts journalism project, Artapedia. Image courtesy CentroNia.
Elizabeth Bruce, creator of the Theatrical Journey project, was profiled in a recent article created by the author’s NEA-funded arts journalism project, Artapedia. Image courtesy CentroNia.

In the digital world we really can ride our own pony on our own boat. We can direct reach the public with our own evaluations of our work through innovative audience development and audience engagement opportunities. But if we need to expand arts audiences: why aren’t we also figuring out how to fund a new version of what worked for the field in the 20th century?

The arts empower the human experience and we do that year in and year out, year after year. That makes us professionals. Why are we relying on massively underpaid freelance arts journalists as a primary conduit to potential new audiences in many of our communities?

There’s an old joke that if you put a thousand monkeys in a room with a thousand typewriters, sooner or later one of them will type a Shakespeare play. Our current supports for arts journalism are like that joke. Yes, the more arts writing the better, but good arts writing really does have to be paid for. Only journalists who are paid—day in and day out—to produce arts coverage can be expected to report truthfully, to have conducted more than the necessary research, and to have the expertise necessary to communicate our ideas, and contextualize their judgments.

New arts journalism projects—like the one run by my organization—aren’t funded the way 20th century arts press was funded. We’re trying to provide the same type of product audiences have enjoyed in the past, but we can’t actually do it because that quality of product can only be produced by people who can make a living as arts journalists, year after year. The valuable product that helped make the American arts community a beacon for the world—traditional arts journalism—is becoming devalued.

1. “Queer is Beautiful in Outwin Exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery” by Jonelle Walker

2. “Elizabeth Bruce’s Theatrical Journey” by Jonelle Walker

This piece was written for Americans for the Arts. Read it on their blog here.

Author: Robert Bettmann

Founder of Day Eight, and the DC Arts Writing Fellowship.

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