ver heard the expression, “don’t think of a purple cow?” Of course, just saying it brings a picture to mind. But the way I’m using it here is to mean purposefully conjuring new creative possibilities for building your audience.
Although she doesn’t use the phrase, conjuring up purple cows is the M.O. of Santa Cruz Museum of Art and History's Executive Director, Nina Simon – who also spoke at last fall’s Silicon Valley Creates Engage(dot)Next conference. In her blog, “Museum 2.0,” Simon talks a lot about art that is participatory, community-bridging, social, and serendipitious.
To see why arts needs a 2.0. let’s talk about some numbers for traditional arts – 1.0, so to speak. According to the NEA’s 2012 study of Americans’ engagement with the arts, only 37 percent of all adults attended a live performance that year. That number includes:
• Outdoor performing arts festivals (21 percent)
• Musical or non-musical plays (18 percent)
• Classical music, jazz, or Latin, Spanish, or salsa music (17 percent)
• Dance of any kind (7 percent)
• Opera (2 percent)
And here’s one of Simon’s sobering thoughts about this: The audience that you already have is the audience that you’re going to get, she said at last Fall's Engage(dot)Next conference. Period.
The reason is, by Simon’s thinking, is that too much performance and visual art is “transactional” – you exchange your money for a product, in this case the product is art rather than, say, a shirt at Macy’s. I make my purchase and there’s no further engagement in my life except Macy’s reminding me to keep spending money there.
Simon’s approach is different. Art isn’t a transaction, it’s a personal engagement, and she has some principles for achieving that engagement:
Be experimental and participatory: Don’t be afraid to "functionally walk off a cliff,” she said. Santa Cruz has frequent “pop-up museums” that only exist for a couple of hours, for which they ask visitors to bring something to show on the theme. “Risk-takers need space-makers,” she said. Provide an opportunity for your audience to participate. “When an artist comes in and wants to do something, we just say 'yes,’” notes Simon.
Exploit your problems: For example, most arts companies are small. But that can be an advantage. Do things that large companies can’t – for example, make decisions quickly, take risks and say ‘yes’ a lot. Show appreciation for your supporters in ways that big companies cannot – for example, hand-written thank you notes to your supporters. Give people who come to your shows something free.
Evaluate outcomes, not activities. Typically arts organizations evaluate themselves this way: We produce programs, therefore mission accomplished. “Its not self-evident just because we do an exhibit, therefore we've been successful,” she said. Look at actual participation in the form of contributions, bringing multiple community groups together, bringing art to people instead of people to art, combining diverse art forms from diverse communities.
Be a social bridge: This is one of the most significant, because grant-giving organizations will be most generous to those organizations that demonstrate how they serve the community.
Don't just be a narrow target reaching another narrow target. Bring strangers together – for example, graffiti artists and knitters. Simon gives the example of Santa Cruz’s Evergreen Cemetery. It was historic, but neglected, and, as a homeless encampment, a social problem. Simon enlisted the homeless campers as volunteers to clean up and restore the cemetery, and they eventually because docents. In restoring a cultural resource, a group of people also gained an opportunity to contribute to the community; and for many, a path to the social services they needed.
Another example, is San Jose Taiko’s collaborative performance with the Bangerz hip-hop/turntablist company. Through crowd-funding sources, they raised over $9,000, and they sold out the show even before it opened. Over a third of the audience had never seen Taiko live. Plus, some promoters have shown an interest in taking the show on the road.
Another example of arts being a social bridge is Santa Clara University’s SCU Presents’ Arts for Social Justice program.
Puzzled by how to start? Here are some “purple cow questions” to start you thinking:
- What kind of art is the polar opposite of what you typically do? For example, Santa Clara’s Triton Museum of Art brought graffiti “in from the cold” in an exhibit last year of local graffiti artists.
- What would your audience least expect from you?
- What’s the strangest, or most unlikely kind of space you can imagine for a show?
- Who are the people least likely to have the means or the ability to attend one of your shows? How could you bring it to them?
Share with us some of your ideas, explorations, successes and failures – they’re all opportunities to learn.