the holy grail: a new, diverse audience

Posted in Uncategorized | July 1, 2009 | by Joyce Lawler | (17) Comments

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It’s not the first time we’ve heard grim news about declining audiences for the arts, nor the first time we’ve heard that a presenting venue hopes a particular artist can be the key that unlocks the door to a new, more diverse audience.  But something about the confluence of these two items makes us wonder: is the voice and vision of a new and different artist enough not only get those bodies into the seats, but to keep them there?  As The Washington Post reported last week:

The National Endowment for the Arts also released new data yesterday showing that fewer adults were choosing an art museum or a visual arts festival as a leisure-time destination. From 1992 to 2001, 26 percent of adults reported that they visited such attractions, but the number for 2008 dropped to 23 percent.

In addition, the agency noted sizable declines between 1982 (when it first started documenting arts participation) and 2008 in almost every performing arts field. It reported double-digit rates of decline for classical music, jazz, opera, musical theater, ballet and dramatic plays.

Then there’s this, from Misha Berson’s thoughtful (and glowing) Seattle Times review of Marc Bamuthi Joseph’s the break/s at ACT Theater:

Bamuthi is too sophisticated and analytical [a] performer to apply simplistic parameters to the many aesthetic, sociological and psychological concerns he raises in his engrossing show. And he’s well aware that much of ACT Theatre’s largely white, over-40 audience don’t know hip-hop from a hole in the wall.

Introducing it on opening night, Valerie Curtis-Newton (the director of ACT’s Lorraine Hansberry Project, which is presenting “the break/s”) called the piece “a bridge” to “a new audience.”

Bamuthi may or may not draw the younger, more racially diverse crowd ACT hopes for, but you don’t have to know who Jay-Z is to be fascinated by Joseph’s theatrical memoir-slash-travelogue.

The universal themes embedded in the spoken word and rhythms of the break/s will undoubtedly touch many who “don’t know hip-hop from a hole in the wall.”  But will it bring in the people who DO know hip-hop?  What will be there for that “new audience” after Bamuthi’s month-long run closes?  Given the distressing statistics quoted above,  it’s a question that deserves consideration.

What do you think?