As the dust continues to settle following the historic 2012 election, one giant conclusion is clearly emerging – that leadership and power is no longer the exclusive domain of the straight white world. Those of us paying attention to changing demographics have seen this coming for decades. 2012 made it an unavoidable fact.
Given the, generally speaking, liberal bias of the arts world and the people working within it, you might expect this to be a welcome phenomenon. Well truth be told, in many cases, it is and it isn’t. Major arts institutions especially have an enormous amount of power and resources (donors, subscribers, ticket buyers, foundation boards, government officials) invested in the continued dominance of the straight white male (now former) majority. Mid size and even small organizations have aped this corporate business model and its inevitable reliance on white men of power with short lived and limited success. The result – art has become a consumable commodity as disposable as the latest brand of diet soda. Audience development initiatives to tap into “underserved audiences” have proliferated with as little effect as one would expect when the commitment is to building market share and not systemic change.
So now what?
Well let’s start with an attitude adjustment. How about we not follow the Karl Rove strategy of denial but instead recognize and, in our artist hearts, welcome the excitement that is about to be unleashed on the arts in America when the untapped power of multiple cultures whose identity is embedded in arts and culture begins to take center stage in America. For many nonwhite cultures, and especially the immigrant cultures that are profoundly reshaping America, art is not just a show that you pay a lot of money to go to on the occasional Saturday night. It’s a way of life and living. It infuses your daily life, your family, your school, your church, your community. In many cases it is the glue that holds the community together. What is the glue holding the dominant white culture together – money? Is there anyone working in the arts who wouldn’t want to see that change? Do it.
Next – get out of the way. Stop investing your time, energy and resources into “protecting the base” of your audience. The rich will always be with us; it’s the poor that really need us and, ironically, really want us. Refocus. And I don’t mean another audience development initiative. I mean a radical redesign – of the art and the art experience! Open the gates all you gatekeepers and let people in! There is a whole world of folks out there who really would welcome the chance to be part of the arts superstructure if they could get past the tangible and intangible barriers that have been erected over the past thirty years and designed to keep people out rather than let them in.
Get out of the multi-million dollar culture palaces that you built and go out into the community – in the parks, the streets, the churches and the schools where the people are. Show up and engage in places outside YOUR comfort zone. Stop talking so much; look, listen and learn. Give up power and control, willingly and happily. Let art happen and see what happens. You might be surprised at the energy, excitement and commitment that begins to infuse your buildings, your organizations, your community, your life.
I can hear already the “voices of reason” advising you to proceed deliberately with an orderly transition from the status quo to – what? The status quo only with poorer and browner folks in the seats? Not going to happen. Ignore those voices and unleash your inner creative. Make things happen.
We are on the cusp of what could be the most exciting, life-giving, art-loving, humanity restoring moment in our cultural history. Be part of it. Lead it. You won’t be disappointed.