“Anyone who tells you what the American theater will look like in 20 years is lying through their teeth,” said Guthrie Theater artistic director Joseph Haj. “We have no idea. More has changed in the last 15 years than in the 85 before that. I’m thinking more about how we can be present in the moment we’re in.”
Only 10 months into his job, Haj continued to expand his footprint in the arts world Tuesday night at the first Star Tribune Arts Forum, at the Cowles Center in downtown Minneapolis. In front of an audience of about 300, the leaders of four top Twin Cities arts institutions expounded on topics including ticket pricing and staying relevant in the digital age.
Haj, Walker Art Center director Olga Viso, Minneapolis Institute of Art director Kaywin Feldman and St. Paul Chamber Orchestra artistic director/principal violin Kyu-Young Kim joined moderator Graydon Royce, theater critic and arts reporter for the Star Tribune. It was a rare opportunity not only to hear them together in a setting outside their usual comfort zones, but to get a sense of their personalities as well. Each had his or her own cheering section in the audience, letting out occasional whoops of approval.
Here are some of the best comments from the panelists:
On audience building:
Viso: “The Walker was one of the first to have a teen arts council, and we allow teens to help curate shows. It’s been going for 20 years now, and 60 percent of graduates are in a creative field. Thirty percent of our audiences are now youth or teen, so we’re seeing that impact.”
Haj: “One of the prevailing myths in American theater is that audiences were ever young. There’s a sense that in 1963 the Guthrie had audiences of 1,400 young people. Now they’re old, and what are we going to do to replace them? Outside my office there are these two very big photos of productions from 1963. The audience looks exactly like the demographic makeup of our audience today.
“If you invest in people when they’re young, the field has shown they’ll come back. … They have to go to college, start careers and families, [but] then when their kids are grown and they come into maturity, they come back to us, in their 30s, 50s, and they stay with us forever.”
He also noted that no matter how cheap tickets are, the art must resonate with and feel relevant to the audience, or they still won’t come.
Kim: “We’ve been a national leader in reducing barriers to access. The biggest one is ticket prices. Since lowering them we’ve had a 44 percent audience increase. We’re trying to have a bigger footprint in the community by going out into neighborhoods all over the metro area. We’ve been selling out concerts. Some people would rather not go to a church, but a bar, so we’re trying things like playing at Icehouse [a bar in Minneapolis]. We had a happy hour at the new [Ordway Concert] Hall and had 1,000 people there; 50 percent had never before been to an SPCO concert. It was earlier in the day; we had food trucks outside. You have to do new things to attract new audiences.”
On digital media:
Feldman: “First of all, inside all that brick and stone at Mia is free Wi-Fi. The beauty of digital is that people can have any experience they want with the art and come and sit down on comfy furniture with iPads and our storytelling app, then get up and go look at the art. It’s not an either/or, but more that we can augment the experience.”
Haj, a bit of a contrarian on the social media front, got a big round of applause after sharing what he called “an embarrassing story” about trying out “tweet seats” — a section of the audience where people could tweet during the show — at a theater he previously led.
“You can use it to say the thing is going on, or describe the thing, but it’s not the thing,” he said.
On audiences, new and old:
The panelists were asked: Can art serve traditional audiences while trying to reach out to new ones?
Kim: “Elitism is a really dangerous thing, but at the same time we don’t believe in compromising our programming. We don’t do any pops [music]. It’s about how you set up the experience for people, make them feel welcome. If something costs $10, that already helps a lot. I never mind if people clap between movements. If they don’t, I feel like they’re holding themselves back, almost a Minnesotan thing. A lot of these conventions are 20th-century constructs.”
Feldman: “An NEA study found that the wealthy are funding the arts but the audience is predominantly lower middle and middle class. It’s a fallacy to call the arts elitist.”
The audience laughed knowingly when Royce pointed to the Walker’s Cat Video Festival as a possible example of populist efforts that could be seen as compromising high standards.
Viso: “We have so many points of access. We are a museum, a performing arts theater, hundreds of education programs and this amazing 19-acre campus with art that’s free and accessible to the public. On our free Thursdays we’re seeing a quarter [who are] new audiences — 56 percent under 40, 36 percent millennials — and we’re reaching out to them in different ways. Different points of entry expose them to more challenging art, too. They like to share with each other so we talk more about engaging with the experience of art than the artist or artwork. And how you see yourself in relationship to the art.”
Haj defended the Guthrie’s doing popular musicals as part of its mandate to serve everyone.
“The book musical is America’s only contribution to world theater; it’s a hugely important genre,” he said. “Some of the most sophisticated works right now, like [the hip-hop musical] ‘Hamilton,’ are the most exciting works in theater, period. We can’t go anywhere in this state without people feeling a sense of ownership. It’s their theater. But they don’t all love the Guthrie for the same reason. Some come for the musicals and ‘A Christmas Carol’; others want to see the classics. We have to be that theater.”
Feldman: “One of my favorite things for a couple of years now is our [Third] Thursday nights. One fell over Valentine’s Day. When people arrived at the front door, they were given 10 works of art and picked their favorite one. And you wore a sticker that said ‘Rembrandt’ all night so you could find other Rembrandt people, too. At 8 o’clock everyone met in front of their work of art and the docent talked about it, and at the end they taught everyone French pickup lines. So at its core, it’s still about traditional works of art.”
Kim: “We have our online listening library. We don’t want to stop there. Some people can’t get to a concert. The frequency of interaction with the art form is a big part of it, too.”
On the point of art:
Royce postulated that the point of art is to provoke change and move people. When he asked, “How are you provocative?” there was a bit of hedging.
Feldman: “There’s a quote about books, that some are meant to be chewed, some tasted and some digested. The same applies to visual art. Reactions to looking at it can be emotional, intellectual or physical. Social scientists have shown that the moment you feel wonder, you become less narcissistic, more connected to people.”
Kim: “We’re really committed to performing new work. There are hits and misses; that’s part of the risk taking. But the audience can have strong opinions about that.”
On reflecting change:
Questions from the audience sparked more conversation. One man asked about how the organizations are dealing with generational changes in giving. The number of deep-pocketed philanthropists who make lifelong commitments to one or two institutions and give them millions are dying off, and the next generation isn’t replacing them.
Feldman: “The hardest part is staying current with change and not always waiting for the old models to work. I have a Square [app] on my iPhone; I can take all of your credit cards tonight! Young people want to work for change that has meaning. Their sense of philanthropy is different. They tend to give online more, give smaller amounts more often, and tend not to join as a member.”
A first-grade teacher said that 60 percent of her students are not white, and when they go on school trips they see mostly “white art,” with white performers and white visitors around them. All panelists agreed increasing diversity is important, but it’s a bigger challenge for some art forms than others.
Kim spoke of the SPCO’s “blind audition” policy in recruiting new musicians, but noted that while whites and Asians are well-represented in the orchestra world, blacks and Hispanics are much less so. “It’s going to be a long-term project for us.”
Haj observed that “theater is supposed to reflect our society. … A variety of voices makes us better.”
He ended the evening on a hopeful note, saying that every year people say it’s never been harder to keep arts institutions healthy. Haj rejected that kind of thinking.
“I’ve never been to a region as committed to the arts as this one. Those difficulties have always been there. We may look back on this as a golden age. We should be doing brave things, big things.”