Today, particularly in this economy, it seems to be very popular among the “art” crowd to moan about the financial problems of orchestras, opera, and particularly more avant-garde forms of art and performance. To these folks, losing these institutions is a great tragedy, and I agree with them, but maybe not for the same reason.

Closeup of a Cello

This was brought into focus for me by Nathalie Christie, “The Tiny Soprano,” in her post Can Art Afford To Ignore An Audience.

I think it’s really an important question, particularly for those of us who are artists and performers, to consider what is it that makes a piece of art or performance “good” or “important”? Is it the opinion of a small group of experts: other artists, reviewers, etc.? Is it only the opinion of the creator of the piece that actually matters? Is it a matter of the audiences opinion? Or is it even something to be discussed? Something left to be determined by the divine (if the artist believes in such a thing)?

I have a very strong opinion about this, and it’s one that’s not currently popular in many circles. I believe that the quality and the importance of a given work can only be determined by the audience who is experiencing that work. Yes, I really do think it’s up to the audience. Now, does that mean that we should all program to the lowest common denominator, of course not. We, as the creators get to define who we are creating for. However, if we’re creating a piece that is difficult to grok, we need to be prepared when people who don’t like difficult work don’t like it. That’s okay.

But there’s more to it, if we’re not happy with the size of our current audience (symphony orchestras and opera companies, are you listening?) It’s up to us to reach out in some way. I see two basic ways of doing this, either find stuff to perform which more people will like, or find more people who like the stuff we perform. I want to talk about both of these.

Finding stuff to perform which more people will like, is often a very unpopular thing to do. It’s seen as programming to the lowest common denominator, and somehow that’s bad. I think it can be bad if it’s the only thing that we’re doing. On the other hand, it can be a way of extending a hand and welcome to people who might not otherwise come. It also generates needed funds from people purchasing tickets. So, it can be one important part of building a larger audience.

Finding more people who like the stuff we do can also be hard, often many of them are already coming, and it takes a lot of work to find a few more.

I actually think, the most important thing to do is a third thing. Help people who don’t know that they love our stuff, even the difficult, not so accessible stuff, to discover that they can love it. Let me tell you a story:

When I was in college, I joined a coed professional performing arts fraternity called Kappa Gamma Psi. One of the things about this group which was really amazing is the variety of backgrounds, and performance styles which members came from. This is a great thing for me to be exposed to, and that was illustrated by one particular experience that I want to share with you. Early in my association with the group, it might even have been while I was pledging, although I don’t remember, my big sister Ruth called me one night and asked me to come down to one of the practice rooms in the music school. She was working on a piece for her recital, and wanted to play it for somebody.

I went, and sat in this tiny practice room, maybe 3 feet from her cello as she played a suite for solo cello by George Crumb. Crumb is a modern composer, who writes some very strange stuff, which was not at all my taste at the time. As I listened, I found the piece very, very strange, but I also found it captivating and powerful. A number of things happened that night, one of them was that I fell in love with the cello, and another one was that my mind was opened to a new kind of music.

As I was putting my thoughts together for this post, I searched YouTube for a performance of this piece, and when I found it I was surprised that it didn’t seem as strange as I remembered. I find that fascinating, but I have been stretched in what I listen to by experiences like this.

So what was it that allowed me to expand my definition of “interesting and good” music? Well, part of it is an invitation, if I hadn’t been invited to hear it I would’ve never had the opportunity to like it. But there’s more to it than that, it’s also being able to experience it at full power, at close range. That’s a different experience than listening from the back of a concert hall. And there’s also learning about it, discussing it with people who know, so that I can listen in a way that it feels less foreign.

So I think that there is some important lessons here about how to build an audience:

  1. You have to invite them in
  2. Create opportunities to have optimal, full power experiences of the material
  3. Give audience members an opportunity to learn more about what they are going to hear or have just heard

I think that Benjamin Zander, in his work with the Boston Philharmonic has demonstrated the power of this. He gives brilliant pre-concert lectures about the music that is about to be performed, typically 75% of the concert audience comes to the lecture, and they sell out virtually every concert that they give. I think this is a really good model.

It’s also helpful to mix the familiar and the unfamiliar, this was Arthur Fiedler‘s great innovation as the conductor of the Boston Pops Orchestra. He would create a program in three parts, the first part was selections of the recently popular favorites and light classics that the orchestra was known for. Then, having made the audience comfortable, he would present a “heavier or more difficult” major piece, then in the third segment of the program he would play timeless, favorite music. It gave people in his audiences a gentle introduction to stretching their palette. I think this is also a really good model.

So what do you think? What makes good art? How do we build the audience for the art that we think is important?

  • good art always has a timeless quality, as though it has always existed and has merely become tangible through the medium of the artist.

    • admin

      Stella – that’s a really interesting way to look at it – and it certainly has fit with what I have experienced when I’m at my best as an artist – very much an experience of letting go and “letting IT do” rather then “me doing.”

      Thanks for a great comment!

  • good art always has a timeless quality, as though it has always existed and has merely become tangible through the medium of the artist.

    • admin

      Stella – that’s a really interesting way to look at it – and it certainly has fit with what I have experienced when I’m at my best as an artist – very much an experience of letting go and “letting IT do” rather then “me doing.”

      Thanks for a great comment!