Wednesday, May 1, 2013

Musical Toronto | Canadians care about the performing arts but don't ...

(Gustave Dore cartoon from Journal pour rire, June 1850.)

(Gustave Dor? cartoon from Journal pour rire, June 1850.)

The Canadian Arts Presenting Association (CAPACOA) published a report yesterday that throws some light on some interesting issues regarding interest and attendance in the performing arts: audiences are growing, just not necessarily in the ways we expect.

Even discounting a natural bias for a group of people with a specific agenda to cast as positive a light as possible on their field and the tendency for people being surveyed to embellish their answers slightly in favour of of a widely-held ?good thing,? the report makes for encouraging reading ? and raises as many questions as it answers.

One of the most significant questions surrounds experiencing the arts in-person vs at home.

Survey respondents increasingly don?t see the difference between the two, which skews well for survey questions about the overall perception of the performing arts, but raises issues over where artists? and presenters? future income is going to come from.

As the report points out:

There is some softening of what matches Canadians? definition of attending live performance. 29% equated watching a show live on TV with attending live and another 16% equated live streaming on the Internet with live attendance. Interestingly, Canadians over 55 were about twice as likely as Canadians under 25 to equate these activities.

The report notes that attendance ? and we have to include the armchair in the count ? at the performing arts has been rising, and that people aged 35 and under are the most likely to go to a concert, dance performance or theatre.

This flies in the face of everybody?s worry that young people are not interested in the performing arts.

The report carefully provides some reasons why this is so. For me, the venue vs home issue is the most significant. But we also shouldn?t dismiss the 200-year-old split between highbrow and lowbrow:

The definitions used are broad and do not only include high art. There is a persistent sense that high art is a defining characteristic over commercially successful art, a viewpoint reinforced by some public funding criteria. While robust discussions of quality and artistic merit are useful, Canadians themselves say they attend performing arts first and foremost to be entertained and stimulated in a variety of ways. Quality of performance may well be a prerequisite. In essence, the dichotomy of ?art? versus ?entertainment? is not as meaningful to audiences or the general public.

The study is helpful in how it has digested a number of related studies and surveys carried out over the past five or so years. We?re reminded? how the arts are good for an individual?s physical as well as emotional wellbeing and that there are many benefits to a community, both economic and qualitative, not the least of which is social cohesion.

With the exception of some cases like the first performance of The Rite of Spring 100 years ago, people who go to concerts together are not likely to get into fights.

What was new to me was a look at demographics. The study showed not only how more and more people are living to an older age, but also how this fits into a general increase in the population: once attracted to the performing arts, more people will be around longer to enjoy them.

As the report puts it, ?performing arts presenters have the opportunity to expand their adult market from a 40-year horizon in 1971 to a 60-year horizon by 2031.?

But it?s the planning that?s the most difficult.

Because of the scope of this issue, the report doesn?t address the effect of the inexorable disappearance of mass media in favour of news, information and entertainment consumed on mobile devices and computers with software that uses sophisticated algorithms to match reading and browsing patterns with specific tastes and recommendations.

Does one look at the future and say highbrow is out and a broad inclusiveness is in? Or does one say that specialization is the only way to go, vying for the maximum number of eyeballs within a particular preference category?

Participation and engagement with any performing art is an encounter followed by a desire for further discovery. It is a one-night stand that leads to something permanent.

It could be that, like the alchemy of love, artists and presenters will always have to leave part of their work up to chance, of being in the right place at the right time, in front of the right group of people.

For the whole report, click here.

John Terauds


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