Is There a Point of Diminishing Returns for the Arts?

Posted by Michael R. Gagliardo, Mar 26, 2012 2 comments

Michael R. Gagliardo

Michael R. Gagliardo

In the arts world, we find ourselves constantly searching for ways to engage the community. Every day we think about how we draw in more constituents: bigger audiences, more donors, a larger base of support, etc. And often the answer seems obvious—offer more.

But is there a point of diminishing returns?

It’s the old question of quantity versus quality. Sometimes it seems like the only way to bring new audiences to the table is to offer more—more concerts, more exhibits, more performances, more, more, more. But does it work?

Are we really bringing a new crowd to the work that we hold so dear? Or are we simply “watering down” the arts in an attempt to make them “user friendly?”

This is a hard question to answer—a hard question to face, really—when arts organizations are struggling for funding and watching audiences fade away and make other choices of where to spend their money and time.

I have heard people scoff at the notion of consumers spending their “entertainment dollars” on the arts. But we have to be realistic—the arts are a form of entertainment, and we have to compete with every other entertainment industry in the market. 

And when it’s Friday night, and a family of four is looking at spending money on dinner and a movie, or dinner and the symphony, then we better be prepared to compete.

But does the need to be in competition justify, for lack of a better term, “selling out?”

The symphony orchestra world, the world I know best, could be considered guilty of this. And I’m certainly not passing judgment on any organization or individual. I could be considered just as guilty.

Sometimes we feel almost desperate to draw in new listeners, by any means possible. But in doing so, we should ask ourselves two crucial questions—do we have a conviction for what we are doing, and is what we are doing truly of the highest artistic standard? Or, is it art, and do we believe in it?

So what is the litmus test for the question, “Is it art?”

This sparks debate constantly, between artists and audiences, funders and administrators, those who create and those who observe. And who, really, should be the judge?

Art is something that is defined by each individual who comes in contact with it. And I can find elements as artistic in a Bruce Springsteen song as I can in a Sibelius symphony. So maybe the discussion should be about the appropriate venue for each art form.

But it all leads back to this—in our desire to appeal to a larger base of support, both funding and audiences, have we diluted the concept of “art?” And are there better ways to bring people to our work than attempting to go the route of mass market appeal?

Beethoven, Picasso, Shakespeare, and Martha Graham are great for a reason—shouldn’t we be emphasizing this, and bringing more people to the arts in a way that celebrates what we do?

2 responses for Is There a Point of Diminishing Returns for the Arts?


March 27, 2012 at 9:40 am

I think I'm simply paraphrasing Richard, but it seems to me that the value of art is its expression or communication. Arts organizations are by their very nature most concerned with the organizational aspect of what they do, and in my experience this doesn't work really well for delivering expression.

My husband and I ran an arts mentoring program for almost 20 years and because the students and the program (progressive, authentic artistic expression) were always the #1 priority, the organization never achieved high status ... the program's reputation was stellar, but because our focus wasn't on making it a high end organization, it simply never became one. I don't care who you are, you can't get down (be 100% authentic) with your art/students and also schmooze with potential funders, and we chose the students/art. What a conundrum!

I think the beauty of today's economic situation is that it may force people to at least begin to look for something real, something nourishing and alive. If that's true, we can start to become a more soulful society. I sure hope so.

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March 26, 2012 at 4:14 pm

I would agree with Mr. Gagliardo that it is time to stop running after a more general audience. But art's organizations and art's advocacy organizations have gotten themselves into this frenzy by the language they use and misuse.

First off let's please stop using the term 'the art's' as if everyone in the arts have the same concerns and interests. We don't. Artists, writers, musicians and even arts administrators think differently about what and they do and who their audience is and how they interact with that audience. We can't advocate for good public art policies if we go about lumping everyone in the same basket. It's too broad and too general a term.

Secondly, we need to stop measuring. Art agencies, and arts advocacy organizations are in a race to prove to each other, to communities, and to politicians how important the arts are by measuring how many people are involved in art and how beneficial art is for the economic health of the country. When is the last time you read an article by an art agency that simply talked about the intrinsic value art has for people? Art is a risk if it's only perceived value is how many people bought tickets or how many people are employed in your organization.

There are more art advocacy organizations and non-profit artists support organizations in this country today than there ever has been. Today more NEA and state art grants go to art's organizations than to actual art producers. Mr. Gagliardo is right, with our emphasis on arts organization and their growth we are diluting the very point of it all....the Art.

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