Let’s Talk About Demand, Baby

It seems fairly obvious as you survey the field that we create + display/perform more art than people actually want to go see.  Or, to put it more nicely, as a sector, funders, artists and arts organizations have done an amazing job of building capacity.  In the 1950s, there was no regional theater system, just a few new theaters being built in Minneapolis, DC and elsewhere. Now there’s theaters all over the country in all kinds of communities doing all sorts of work.  Prior to the NEA being founded there were very few symphony orchestras. Now there’s too many.

This is remarkable! We should give ourselves a brief pat on the back before we go back to freaking out.

In the face of this wondrous success, many in the funding sector (including the current chair of the NEA and the RAND corporation) have indicated that the time may have come for us to focus not on increasing supply and capacity but increasing demand. And if the end result of this is that supply decreases a little, that might not be that big of a deal. Certainly when I talk to my musician friends they find the steroidal growth of symphony and chamber orchestras over the past few decades to be unhealthy and unsustainable. And it seems that the oversupply of artists (and the art they create) is self-perpetuating. The more artists there are, the more people want to be artists, the more educational training programs there are for artists employing the last decades crop of graduates from the same program and so on and so forth.

I’m on board with the idea that we need to focus on boosting demand (although I’m definitely curious what you all in the funding community think of this).  My question is how?

I ask this because it seems to me the only idea that people come regularly come up with is get ’em young! Focus on arts education to convince kids that art is important and they’ll grow up into the robust audiences of the future.  Don’t get me wrong, as someone getting an MFA in creative writing in teaching-heavy program, I’m all for more money for arts education.

At the same time I wonder… is that the best we can come up with?  And isn’t education for spectators and artists different? And what are we supposed to do in the meantime? The idea seems to me like a kind of triage; let’s abandon the potential audiences of today and work on building an audience for the future and kind of ignore whether or not there’ll be that much art for them to participate in once they get there.

In other words, what do we do to boost demand amongst today’s current crop of adults? I don’t think we should be quite so hasty to give up on them. Given that arts education programs are actually facing widespread cuts right now, people in their twenties and thirties are actually better educated vis-a-vis the arts that people the same age ten years from now will be. Shouldn’t we be trying to retain and boost them as audiences? And how can funders help make that happen?