Written by: NeXt Ambassador Cathy Colliver
Access to the Arts can mean a lot of things. I spent a decade as an arts marketer and several decades as an arts patron with a big interest in innovative solutions to tackle arts access and audience development. I have seen arts access focus in on three core areas: opportunity, inclination and feeling welcome.
Most of the time when you talk access to the arts, the first things that come to mind are either a lack of arts experiences such as in a more rural area, or a lack of discretionary money to pay for tickets to arts events.
Despite the fact that ticket revenue typically only covers 50% or less of an arts non-profit’s operating budget, average ticket prices can feel steep to someone who is trying to cover rent/mortgage, utilities, food, etc. on a lower income salary. Even on a middle income salary families are making hard choices about what they spend discretionary money on.
This cost factor is then exacerbated for those who don’t own a car and must rely on public transportation, which may or may not have convenient schedules for attending an evening or weekend performance.
Fund for the Arts has made arts access through arts education opportunities a big focus, investing more than $600,000 each year in arts education. Through those investments and the work of Arts Partners, that translates to 400,000 arts in education experiences at over 450 schools and 45 out of school locations in 64 counties in Kentucky and Southern Indiana.
What Arts Groups Are Doing About It
Many arts groups in Louisville have tackled this head on by implementing a ‘bring arts to the community where they are’ approach. From education programs in schools and community centers, to arts performances at library branches and outdoor spaces throughout Metro Louisville and Southern Indiana, the past 10 years has seen big growth in community focused arts programming.
At the March NeXt Group seminar, Louisville Orchestra Music Director Teddy Abrams spoke about the many ways access can change the art for the better. In sharing some of the ways Louisville Orchestra has discovered a path to “transformation generated by random processes and chance encounters,” Abrams specifically pointed out that “if we don’t provide opportunities in the most unlikely places, we miss the mark.” By realizing the Orchestra is competing not with other live events, but rather Netflix and whatever is easiest, they have instead been able to focus on programming new concert concepts and “things you would never expect to see.”
This includes going out into the community and taking the art to the classroom and community centers, but also creating new ways to experience orchestral performances. Abrams shared innovative ways he is teaching students at student concerts: incorporating student conductors, film segments, and performances connected to collaborations with Jecorey Arthur to name a few.
Making the arts accessible sometimes means overcoming perceptions even if the opportunity is available.
As Teddy Abrams noted, arts organizations are competing not against each other or other live events, but rather from every other thing that is clamoring for our attention. Netflix and social media are huge factors now that were not present 10 years ago.
I am only now emerging from another huge competitor for attention with many GenX and Millennial arts patrons: children under the age of 10. I have had one or more children under the age of 6 for the past nine and a half years. It’s exhausting, and even with a potential babysitter you battle a whole lot to overcome that barrier of what’s easiest. So I’m focusing on attending StageOne Family Theatre and other arts events with my kids. However, I’m already inclined to arts attendance.
What Arts Groups Are Doing About It
Lower priced single ticket options or free ancillary events provide an incentive for those who have not previously been likely to attend an arts performance to try it out with a lower risk investment. This is true even when opportunity or income level are not prohibiting factors.
Arts groups have also tried out babysitting rebates or providing professional arts education workshops at the same time as performances to tackle one of the many free time/scheduling obstacles.
However, this is one of the more challenging areas to tackle without improvements in opportunity and feeling welcome. And innovative ideas will be necessary even when opportunity and feeling welcome are not factors.
Sometimes individual artists within the community light the spark:
- Jecorey Arthur is doing this with his innovative approach to music education. At the September NeXt Seminar we learned about the ways the South Central Regional Library is bring arts to the community through onsite arts experiences.
- At the October NeXt Seminar Hannah L. Drake told us about an arts billboard project.
And sometimes creating an impromptu arts experience is about having the right person promote your artwork—like when renowned film director Ava DuVernay tweeted a video of Hannah Drake’s poem, All You Had to Do Was Play the Game Boy, about Colin Kaepernick (and he reshared it to his followers) ahead of the Super Bowl.
Even when cost is not a barrier, some individuals may not feel welcome because of perceptions or prior experiences.
During my time at Actors Theatre in marketing, they conducted focus groups and surveys around brand perception and brand awareness. One of the findings was that numerous people felt like Actors Theatre and other arts groups in Louisville were only for “rich white people.”
There are a lot of factors that can contribute to this. Some of the most frequently talked about are inclusion in programming, artists, administrative/production staff and audience.
If you attend arts performance and never see representation of stories that resonate with your experience, you might not feel welcome.
If you look at who the artists and staff behind the work are and never see anyone that looks like you, you might not feel welcome.
If you look at the audience and don’t see anyone who looks like you, you might not feel welcome.
Representation truly matters when it comes to feeling welcome, and more voices can lead to more innovation in the art itself.
What Arts Groups Are Doing About It
Arts organizations have been focused on diversity in casting of performers and selection of directors and designers. Representation is sometimes simply about who is in the room and contributing to the art. However, who is leading the organizations and what is being produced on stage are typically the most obvious ways people see representation.
Artistic leadership across the country is shifting as a prior generation of arts leaders retire and GenX and Millennial arts leaders take the helm. Increasingly this change in leadership is also bringing about a change in the face of arts leadership. More people of color and more women are in leadership positions.
Here in Louisville, StageOne Family Theatre’s new Producing Director Idris Goodwin and Actors Theatre of Louisville’s incoming Artistic Director Robert Barry Fleming are both the first leaders of color at those organizations. The New York Times recently profiled six women and people of color leading top American theatres, including Robert Barry Fleming.
Actors Theatre has brought to stage voices and contemporary stories from young playwrights and directors of color, and brought to life many experiences around disability, gender, race, sexuality, socioeconomic status and more.
In a press release announcing him as the new Artistic Director, Robert Barry Fleming echoed Actors Theatre’s mission statement in saying, ““I look forward to being a part of the collaborative, radically humanizing and inclusive artistic work at Actors Theatre of Louisville.”
In a keynote address at Write Now 2019, StageOne Artistic Director Idris Goodwin said, “Theatre has an important role to play in the world right now. And as a theatre maker I felt it necessary to suit up and get deeper into work, in a city in the middle of the country.”
In a larger way, art is not truly inclusive if it doesn’t include viewpoints that reflect our society at large. Representation matters.
At the January NeXt Seminar, Idris Goodwin commented on programming being inclusive by including not only Civil Rights era stories of struggle, but also programming plays centered around people of color living life today and showing their perspectives and stories. He spoke on this in more depth in a keynote address at Write Now 2019 conference: “I dream of a theatre that isn’t theatre at all. I dream of theatre that occurs in classrooms, corners, cafes, parks, bus stops, playgrounds, prisons, juvenile detention centers, halfway homes, orphanages, retirement homes, churches, mosques, and synagogues across the entire world.”
At the February NeXt Seminar, Louisville Ballet’s Artistic Director Robert Curran spoke about responses to the production Louisville Ballet’s Human Abstract which explored love and loss. In the face of negative and even hateful comments about homosexuality, Louisville Ballet issued a statement taking a stance for making everyone feel represented and welcome, and Robert Curran stated, “LGBTQ stories are not controversial, they are heartfelt and beautiful and they deserve to be told. It is my mission to create a place where that can happen without hate and prejudice.”
INNOVATION TO IMPROVE ACCESS AND THE ART
Arts access is not a set it and forget it checklist of improvements. It’s a complex web of contributing factors and potential tactics.
What continues to energize me around a commitment to arts access is the amazing outcomes and innovations emerging from the myriad of solutions arts organizations arrive at to impact this important goal.
There are many ways the community at large can support efforts to improve access to the arts, including by contributing to the Fund for the Arts through workplace giving, corporate giving, individual giving or planned giving. Read more about Fund for the Arts’ impact here.
Additionally, access is a key priority in the Imagine Greater Louisville 2020 project. Read more on that plan here.