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A Different Kind of Arts Advocacy


I remember coming of age in the early ’80s and listening to my older colleagues bemoan the rise of popular culture and the dwindling support for the arts. Much of their ire was motivated by the seeming lack of opportunities to realize one’s artistry. This vitriol usually found a very unsympathetic public ear. In some artists, this indifference and lack of respect was met with an angry exterior; they carried around an attitude of defiance and disdain for the public. Others made an inward retreat to the rehearsal studio or practice room. And for still others, the only apparent solution was to leave the field altogether in pursuit of happier hunting grounds.


The general public’s indifference to the artist’s struggle is something that persists today. For a different perspective, consider this: If a local steel plant suddenly closes and tens of thousands of factory workers find themselves out of work, there is a public outcry. These are “real” jobs, and these are “serious” people with families to support. But while the public has some sympathy for the factory worker unable to earn the weekly wages that will support his or her family, many people forget that artists also do their work and support their families. So why does the persona of the “starving artist” have such an unsympathetic public image?

And what should the response of the artistic community be to this indifference? More outrage? Or should we begin thinking more progressively about our responsibility to our communities and the real solutions that will bring about a change in public attitudes?

I strongly believe that the traditional notion that artists are only valued when the art they produce is truly exceptional is the root of the problem. As audience numbers began to decline in the second half of the 20th century, we the artistic community became overly obsessed with our product—to the exclusion of almost everything else in life, including ourselves. Inadvertently, we became victims of the “product” mentality of our general culture, thinking that if we focus everything on creating “sublime” art, audiences would throng the stage door waiting to greet us. We decide what is valuable and what is not, and we present it to the public. The full weight of our energy is focused on our presentation—and the result is likely to be more polished and more sublime than at any time in history. But across the three disciplines of music, dance, and theater, more and more seats are winding up empty for the evening.

If we can shift some of our attention away from the product and onto those who create, we bring the public’s eye to real people. We also bring attention to the marvel of man’s greatest genius: his creativity. Those who live their lives dedicated to creativity should be among the most cherished of our citizens. Culturally and economically speaking, the creative class (see Richard Florida’s seminal 2002 work, The Rise of the Creative Class: And How It's Transforming Work, Leisure, Community and Everyday Life) is both the engine and chassis of our society. Yet creativity in our schools and in our communities is sadly marginalized, because we have done a poor job of advocating for the value of creative people. This is partly because we have taken our cue from society to value product over people. Artists need to stop advocating for our product (art) and start advocating for the people who create art.

Recently, the artistic community has taken up the word “process” to help describe creativity and to draw attention more to the process of our work. But this word is missing the mark with much of the public because the process that artists present is frequently focused on the artistic thoughts, ideas, and choices they make in the creation of the artistic product. Thus, the focus tends to be on the more systematic process of creating art and frequently fails to draw attention to the personal and more organic process of creating. What changes do artists experience in their daily lives that affect how they interpret the music, character, or movement they present?

If we really want a larger audience to connect with the arts, we need to think first about common denominators. And the greatest common denominator is the process of life. When artists stand on stage before or after a performance and speak to an audience about why they chose this work/character/piece, what it did to them, how it is related to something they experienced, or how it affects them personally, audiences pay attention. They smile. They nod. They experience a deeper connection to both the work and the person performing it, because they connect with the life of the artist (either performer or creator). And this most definitely translates into more audience.

If we learn to turn the spotlight on the lives that create the arts, I believe we will see a very different attitude from the public. And a more supportive public attitude is what we need to cultivate more opportunities and keep our existing institutions flush with the sponsors and benefactors needed to run their seasons. The current public attitude needs to change if we are to develop a new respect and understanding about the value of the arts. And artists and the people they become are the solution.

More by Derek Mithaug

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