Reality is Not Perception

What do you think the general public thinks these days when they hear the words “the arts?” Does it conjure up images of what they do on a daily basis: listening to music, watching television, singing in church choir, reading a book, attending the theatre? Or do most people think of an elite special interest group for people with money? I’m thinking about language again because it gets us into so much trouble.

Over the years, the nonprofit arts sector has been defined with terms like “high arts” and “low arts” “fine arts” and “folk arts.” I’d argue that none of it has made much sense to most Americans who are not directly involved in the making or administration of the nonprofit arts world as we know it.

There doesn’t seem to be this kind of confusion in other fields. Take baseball, for example. Nobody confuses or attempts to make excuses for the “high teams”….the professional teams. Nobody is even making any fuss about how much money is paid to professional athletes, which could, in some people’s opinions, be likened to that of Wall Street hedge fund managers or bank CEOs. And no one seems to be complaining about how much it costs these days to go to a professional baseball game despite the fact that most stadiums and teams are subsidized with our tax dollars. Everyone accepts the value of baseball from little league teams to the pros and that it has benefits to human physical and mental development complete with huge entertainment opportunities, community pride and, at the professional level, economic drivers.

So why do I have this nagging feeling (no research involved here) that when we talk about “the arts” most people think of expensive and out of reach institutions that offer programming that the average American does not attend or appreciate. But when we talk about music, dance, drama or being “artsy-craftsy,” this relates directly to something we all do as individuals.

The phrase “the arts” is an insider term that is usually perceived as being lofty and unaffordable for most Americans. Think of asking this question at your next family reunion: “Do you enjoy the arts?” Now, think about asking it this way, “Do you play or listen to music?” “Do you like going to plays?” “Do you like dancing or watching professional dancers?” “Do you read books?” These are the kinds of questions asked in those big surveys where it’s determined that a huge percentage of all Americans participate in some kind of art form, either as an art maker or as a consumer of art.

So “the arts.” What does it mean to you? What does it mean to your elected officials, your donors, the community you are attempting to serve? I have always contended that there is a great disconnect between the reality of how art affects our communities and our individual lives and how most people perceive “the arts” when we (arts people) talk about it. I don’t know anyone who doesn’t have an artistic preference, specialty or passion. So maybe we need to figure out how to tap into the language used by people who are not artists, arts administrators or arts funders and then we can begin to narrow the gap between reality and perception.

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But, perception influences the reality

I work at a downtown 'art gallery' a couple of days a week. The shop/store/gallery/gift place has been on the same corner for 18 years, but every day someone says, "I've lived here all my life and this is my first time in your place. I didn't know you had all this great stuff." The windows are full of the 'stuff.' Paintings, yes, but also jewelry, pottery, etc. etc. Why haven't they been in? Because it's a 'gallery.' It might be too expensive, too esoteric (my word), only a place for appreciation and looking (not for buying), too....well,....not them. It is the word that creates a negative, unwelcoming impression. The word overcomes the visuals. [Which is astonishing in our world, but that's another discussion.] And the word 'arts' is in the store name. The words associated with our field carry a lot of associated baggage that has gotten very heavy over time. That baggage needs to be lightened in any possible way, and using new words is one way to start jetisoning the old thoughts. I'd really rather work in a 'great stuff store' than an arts gallery.

Regular folk's perceptions of "the arts"

Often when I engage in conversations with taxi drivers, the conversations turn to "what I do." When I say that I work in the arts, the most common response is, "Oh, so you paint?" I use this opening to talk about the decidedly non-artsy work of arts administration ("actually, it's an office job... we work on providing services to help artists and arts organizations serve their communities. What arts activities do you participate in?").

And then most recently, new to Alaska and striking up a conversation with a stranger at the airport, this question comes up again. When I say "the arts," his immediate response is "the arts are for sissies!" Well! Here's an interesting perspective! So I start delving deeper into what, if any, arts background he might have. By the end of the conversation he is affirming the value of playing musical instruments, especially in school.

So, Janet--cheers for starting this dialogue. I believe that we have lost the thread of what "the arts" mean to most citizens; they do not see it as the all-encompassing world of painting, sculpture, performance, music, dance, design, amateur, professional, film, cinema, literature, etc etc etc, that we see it as. I don't think it all boils down to a messaging problem, but that is certainly part of it. The bigger problem, in my view, is that, as a field, we talk too much within our circles--and within our circles of supporters--rather than finding opportunities to hear about how the Average Joe perceives the arts. This is admittedly a difficult task to do on a large scale, but one I think we should be thinking about.

Shannon Daut

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