How the promotion of excellence could be a barrier to attendance

How the promotion of excellence could be a barrier to attendance

By Diane Ragsdale


This keynote from AMA Conference 2009 poses the argument that selling the superiority instead of the diversity of the arts has not been a particularly effective strategy for developing audiences. It poses an approach to changing a culture of creating barriers that involves brokering relationships.

The Excellence Barrier

To attract and retain new audiences arts organisations may need to stop selling excellence and start brokering relationships between people and art(ists).

Before starting, I need to preface my remarks by saying three things:

  1. a little disclaimer: my viewpoints are personal and should not be taken to be the viewpoints of The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation
  2. many of my examples come from the US - not because I believe we're doing better work, simply because these are the organisations with which I am most familiar
  3. I have extraordinary respect for the staffs and boards of cultural institutions. Prior to coming to the Foundation, I worked for 15 years in arts organisations and I know first hand how difficult it can be to produce great art, sell admissions and memberships and raise contributions, even during a strong economy. I thank you all for your time and look forward to a discussion afterwards.

It’s not you, it’s me

So, I think we kid ourselves when we believe a primary reason people are not patronising the arts is because they have no time. Even if they tell us they have no time. Saying ‘no time’ reminds me of the let-me-down-easy breakup line: 'it's not you, it's me.’

If you've heard this line, or used it, then you probably know it really means just the opposite. Is the barrier really time?

About 14 years ago - long before podcasting, blogging, YouTube, MySpace, Twitter, and IPhones -
I was teaching a general survey course, ‘Intro to Theater’, at a small public university in Idaho (a
rural state known primarily for its potatoes) and on the first day of class each term I would ask the
120 or so students to raise their hands if they had ever seen a professional theatre production.
About 10 hands would go up. Not surprising, perhaps, given that it was ldaho. I would then say,
‘Raise your hand if you would like to see a professional theatre production.’ Fifteen hands, at most
twenty, would go up. And these were the students who had decided to take a theatre class.

So, I would ask the remaining students, who had not raised their hands, ‘Why wouldn't you want to go to the theatre?’ The answer was generally something along the lines of, ‘I've gone this long without seeing a play and I don't feel like I'm missing anything.’

Economics is the science that studies how people and societies make choices about what to do with their limited resources. Economists theorise that an individual evaluates his or her choices, looks at constraints or trade-offs between them and then ultimately chooses the option that will maximise his or her well-being or happiness.

My students did not have direct, personal experience with the theatre and to the degree that it was in their worldview at all (and I'm not sure it was), evidently their general sense – from talking to friends, growing up in their particular families, and from listening to the people whose opinions mattered to them – was that the theatre would not bring them much happiness.

They may not be alone in shrugging off the arts.

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Resource type: | Published: 2013