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Les nouvelles formes de création et de diffusion

Taking Back the Arts: 21st Century Audiences, Participatory Culture and the End of Passive Spectatorship

À la reconquête des arts : audiences du XXIe siècle, culture participative et disparition du spectateur passif
Recuperando las artes: los públicos del siglo XXI, cultura participativa y el fin del espectador pasivo
Retomando as artes: audiências do século XXI, cultura participativa e o fim do espectador passivo
Lynne Conner


À l’ère numérique, de quelles ressources les spectateurs ont-ils besoin pour se sentir des interprètes authentiques et reconnus du sens et de la valeur des arts ? Et, question plus importante encore, comment ces ressources sont-elles liées aux innovations technologiques mises en ligne dans les dix dernières années spécifiquement pour offrir des possibilités de participation spectatorielle dans le processus herméneutique ? Malgré des preuves évidentes du pouvoir et de la prévalence des valeurs numériques émergentes (interactivité, improvisation et priorité accordée à l’expérience collective) dans la culture globale, l’industrie des arts aux États-Unis a mis du temps à réagir aux souhaits croissants de ses publics de pouvoir se livrer à l’interprétation sociale : c’est-à-dire la production de sens par le public, production qui se fait dans/par les configurations et mécanismes publics (sur place et par voie numérique). Le présent article retrace le processus de sacralisation à l’œuvre dans l’industrie des arts à la fin du XIXe et au début du XXe siècle et explore son héritage : des spectateurs privés de tout pouvoir à qui on a appris à laisser l’interprétation aux « experts ». Il se poursuit par une analyse de la façon dont les valeurs numériques émergentes reconfigurent le rôle des spectateurs comme interprètes actifs du sens et de la valeur. L’article se conclut par une étude de cas montrant comment des ressources technologiques et culturelles variées viennent à l’appui d’une correspondance entre l’hospitalité qui règne dans l’industrie des arts et l’agilité interprétative croissante du public des arts contemporains.

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1In theater circles the story of the American premiere of Waiting for Godot is famous for layering the absurd on top of the absurd. The play made its U.S. debut in 1956 at the Coconut Grove Playhouse in Miami Beach, Florida. Billed as the “laugh sensation of two continents,” the production featured Bert Lahr, the well-known Burlesque performer, as Estragon, and Tom Ewell, star of the popular feature film The Seven Year Itch, as Vladimir. Here's how the director, Alan Schneider, remembered opening night:

Up went the plush gold curtain, and instead of “The Seven Year Itch” or “Burlesque,” that audience got “Waiting for Godot,” not the “laugh sensation of two continents” but a very strange sensation indeed. At first, they laughed - at Bert trying to take off his shoe, at Tommy realizing his fly was unbuttoned; but as soon as they realized that the actors were on to more serious matters, they stopped. By the time they got to the Bible and the thieves, they were laughless. As they realized what they were in for, a few of them started to whisper, a few to groan, more and more of them audibly. Somebody walked up the aisle, muttering, to get another drink. Someone else joined him. Whole groups started to sneak out. Then droves. By the intermission, at least a third of the house had left. Another third didn't come back afterward; they were too busy drowning their resentment in the theater bar, where the dialogue was more familiar (Schneider 232).

2It comes as no surprise that a middle class, middle brow audience led to anticipate an evening of boulevard comedy starring a famous burlesque comic and a movie star would find Beckett’s late modernist experiment hard to fathom or to sit through. (One wonders how much more resentful they would have become if they had bothered to stay for the second act, with its willful repetition and utter disregard for the conventions of dramatic rise, crisis and denouement.)

3This essay is more concerned, however, with the audience reaction to the U.S. West Coast premiere of Waiting for Godot one year later at a decidedly different kind of venue ‑ the San Quentin Correctional Facility. The 1400 convicts in that audience made history by contributing some of the first serious analysis of perhaps the single most analyzed play of the twentieth century. “Godot is society” one convict told a newspaper reporter. “He's the outside,” said another (Esslin 20). What conditions allowed these disenfranchised spectators to go ahead and interpret the play for themselves and for each other when ostensibly more sophisticated audiences were left speechless? Or, more to the point, what conditions empowered them to take the process of meaning making into their own hands?

4Critical analysis of the San Quentin response has tended to focus on the presumed similarities between the life circumstances of the convicts and those of the characters: the endless waiting, for example, and the issue of powerlessness in the face of an often incomprehensible hierarchy. What has received little attention or analysis, however, are the circumstances surrounding that particular performance, especially the way in which the inmates were invited into the interpretive realm. The San Francisco Actor’s Workshop performance of Godot on November 19, 1957 began with a curtain speech delivered by Herbert Blau, the show’s director, who stood in front of the inmates and compared the play to a piece of jazz music, “to which one must listen for whatever one may find in it” (Esslin 19). Blau went on to say that he hoped each inmate would find some meaning, some personal significance, in the play. With this sincere invitation to enter into the interpretive process, the San Quentin inmates did not hesitate to turn that art event ‑ the production of Waiting for Godot ‑ into an arts experience whose meaning they had every right to interpret for themselves and with each other. They went ahead and made sense of their world, a world filled with waiting, disappointment and the implicit unfairness of structural power, by articulating a perceived (both cognitively and emotionally) connection with the fate of Didi and Gogo. Key to achieving this surprising level of hermeneutic agility was the deep quality of hospitality embedded in Blau’s invitation to locate “whatever one may find.”

5In this essay I argue that all audiences for the “serious arts” (a term I employ here to designate art forms that are primarily concerned with serving aesthetic inquiry rather than commercial goals) want to be engaged in a process of making sense of the world through their connection with the arts event. And I argue that all audiences, regardless of their educational background and socio-cultural positioning, need to feel a similar kind of hospitality when it comes to being invited into the interpretive arena. The San Quentin story illustrates the way in which the totality of the arts experience ‑ including being invited into the meaning-making process ‑ impacts an audience’s overall experience of a work of art. The Coconut Grove story is also illustrative, though in this case of what happens when hospitality is absent and misdirected expectations estrange an audience and profoundly interfere with its capacity to interpret and evaluate a work of art. These two seminal productions of Godot, then, provide an entry point for exploring the essay’s guiding questions: What cultural and environmental conditions do audiences need in order to feel that they are authentic and actualized interpreters of meaning and value? And, importantly, how do these conditions translate to the changing experience for audiences of the digital era, particularly as they relate to technological innovations that have come on-line in the last decade specifically in order to offer opportunities for participation in the hermeneutic process? Ultimately the essay interrogates the nature of contemporary participatory culture in the serious arts arena by exploring a correspondence between hospitality and interpretive agility. As I illustrate below, emerging technological resources are supporting that correspondence by providing audiences with a new level of interpretive agency.

I/ Participatory Culture and “Democracy”

6When the media scholar Henry Jenkins began identifying the characteristics of online participation a decade ago, he identified a key criterion for the emerging phenomenon of convergence culture: the desire among media users to locate a participatory experience in which they can “believe their contributions matter” (3). This digitally enabled participatory urge has been described by a range of cultural analysts as a “democratic” action. Communications theorist Zizi A. Papacharissi proposes, for example, that “convergent online technologies afford the social spaces upon which newer civic habits are tested out” (17). This process, according to Papacharissi, allows individual users to form alternative spaces where “new, more empowering habits and relations may be cultivated” (15). In a similar vein, cultural sociologist Richard Butsch notes that the discourse surrounding the unprecedented powers of new media include images of “an ideal autonomous audience” liberated into a “vital new public sphere” (2008, 43). This notion of the democratizing influence of a networked self, operating autonomously along new technologies based on two-way digital communication platforms, has influenced a wide range of users beyond those first identified by Jenkins (Facebook users, bloggers, digital samplers) to include what we might refer to as the “traditional” arts audience.

  • 1 See Harrison Rainie and Janna Quitney Anderson’s The Future of the Internet: Hopes and Fears, a fas (...)
  • 2 See “In and Out of the Dark: A Theory about Audience Engagement from Sophocles to Spoken Word,” Aud (...)

7But is this really democracy? Academic and industry discourses evaluating the political implications of a digitized global culture are full of both praise and caution.1 This is in keeping with the shifting reception of previous “new” technologies; as Butsch points out, similar democratizing claims were made for earlier mass media mechanics, such as radio and television, before they were eventually accused of “manipulating, controlling, and enslaving their users” (2008, 143). In the contemporary arts sector this swing between celebration and alarm is frequently focused on the advent of digital platforms that blur the line between expert and lay interpreters. Some cultural analysts express exuberance over the many-to-many capacities of 2.0 platforms, which would seem to allow for greater user autonomy and agency in the meaning-making process, as opposed to the more hierarchical one-to-many structure of previous communications systems, which employ a one-way, top-down strategy. In my writing I have argued, for example, that innovatively designed and well-facilitated audience-centered interpretation platforms (digital and live) have the capacity to (re)democratize the U.S. audience experience by offering more transparent and democratic opportunities for participating in meaning-making discourses.2

8Other theorists, however, express anxiety over a perceived decline in overall cultural literacy and interpretive agility, sounding an alarm not over lack of access but rather over too much access. In his Notes on the Death of Culture, for example, Nobel laureate Mario Vargas Llosa warns of a democratization process that ends in a particular quality of egalitarianism wherein “everything is culture and nothing is” (62). For Llosa, this is a problem of having opened the definition of “culture” so widely that nothing can be considered without value—to someone. “Now nobody is uncultured or, rather, we are all cultured . . . in some way, even if we have never read a book, visited an art exhibition, listened to a concert or acquired any basic idea of the humanistic, scientific or technological knowledge in the world in which we live” (61).

9Media critic John Sobol provides, if not a counter argument, then at least a counter narrative for understanding the current cultural turn toward aggregated knowledge. In his blog, You Are Your Media, he argues that our entire social value system is undergoing a radical sea change. The “literate values” that began their ascension during the Renaissance ‑ values such as fixity, hierarchy, linearity and individualistic communion with the sacred text or the sacred performance ‑ are being replaced by emergent digital values that “reflect the technological ascendance of networked dialogue, and thus celebrate interactivity, iteration, improvisation and an overall prioritizing of collective experience.”3

10The digital values of networked dialogue are not only present in most aspects of contemporary society, they are reshaping the very nature of social relationships and, at least according to some, of cognition. A wave of recent neuroscience research, for example, is beginning to show clear evidence of biological changes in the brain thought to be the consequence of a screening process that now begins in early childhood.4 The wired brain prepares us to be sophisticated parallel processors of information but also promotes relatively shallow capacities for analysis and synthesis of that information. Other consequences of an Internet upbringing include psychological changes that some argue are lessening young people’s ability to cope with normal real-world complexities. “Screenagers,” for example, use digital platforms to personalize everything (thus promoting a delusional emphasis on the self), as well as to avoid confrontation and commitment (Watson 12). Amidst these concerns, it is worth noting that Socrates worried that the invention of writing would interfere with the brain’s capacity for storing information (memory), since readers, as opposed to auditors, were no longer required to maintain and carry information in their brains.5

II/ Digital Talk or Internet Noise?

11For Sobol and other cultural observers, the shift away from the “literate values” of the modern era is not automatically a negative development; it is instead a form of social reconfiguration with positive potential. And, in any event, it is a social reconfiguration that is inevitable and unavoidable. It is abundantly clear, for example, that “digital natives” ‑ those members of Generation Z born after 2000 and brought up in a fully wired environment ‑ are motivated by the wide array of digitally powered engines that have helped to engender a sense of ownership in a range of cultural practices. Yet despite increasing evidence of the power and prevalence of emergent digital values in global culture, the arts industry in the United States has been very slow to respond to the growing expectations, among its audiences, for interactivity, iteration, improvisation and collective experience. The sacred nature of the meaning making and valuation tradition surrounding the serious arts remains in place, with little effort made to interrogate its relevance in the rapidly changing context of digital culture. Some arts managers and artists simply do not believe that the audience belongs in the interpretive realm. As Llosa’s critique exemplifies, they have been trained to view audiences as under-educated and unprepared, and thus incapable of the kind of nuanced interpretative skills necessary for the formation of a valid opinion about the meaning and value of a particular work of art.

12This critical and suspicious attitude about the limited capacities of audiences to enter into the interpretive sphere is of course long-standing and consistent in Western culture. Llosa joins a long line of similarly inclined cultural critics reaching back at least to Plato, who warned that low-brow audiences ‑ he pejoratively refers to them as the “theatocracy” ‑ devalued the theater of his day by making “judgment by uproar” (Wallace 98). At the heart of this kind of rhetoric is a deeply inscribed fear that the power of the mass will replace thoughtful analysis of the arts with generalized notions derived from an uncritical, fashion-oriented crowd mentality. Historically, the way to control “judgment by uproar” is to make sure that the invitation to enter the interpretive arena is restricted to those who, to borrow Pierre Bourdieu’s phraseology, have access to the kind of “social capital” necessary to possess “the code,” that is, an insider view of the cultural importance of a given art form (2).

13As Lawrence Levine chronicles in Highbrow/Lowbrow: The Emergence of Cultural Hierarchy in America, the preponderance of U.S. audiences began losing the meaning-making code at the end of the 19th century, a consequence of a carefully engineered effort to refine the cultural standards of the nation’s emerging professional class. Levine calls this cultural shift the “sacralization” of the arts, in which a “single version of cultural truth, a single model of cultural creation” emerged (168). By the early twentieth century, American audiences had been effectively moved out of the interpretive arena via a system of gates and gate-keepers blocking their access: a set of strict rules of etiquette to be observed while in the arts venue; a new reliance on professional taste-makers in the form of newspaper critics; and the adoption of a clearly enforced binary between professional and amateur art and art makers. The result was the emergence of a new social code that promoted the notion that, in the serious arts sphere at least, the reception experience must be internal and private. Levine attributes this shift to the influence of Matthew Arnold, whose cultural theory of “raising the masses” rested on the belief that high art necessarily “places human perfection in an internal condition” (quoted in Levine 164). As a result, notes Levine, “anything that produced a group atmosphere, a mass ethos, was culturally suspect” (Ibid).

14Importantly, this redefined structure for arts going was not intended to invite any form of social interpretation, a term I employ to describe audience-produced meaning making that occurs in/through public settings and mechanisms. Indeed, it was intentionally engineered to shut down the kinds of group-oriented public meaning-making processes that had long characterized the lively interaction between stage and audience at the Theatre of Dionysus, the Roman amphitheatres, the Elizabeth public theatres, the first proscenium-style grand opera halls of Renaissance Italy and France, and the entertainment emporiums of early nineteenth-century America. In all of these historical sites, an active auditorium was an essential aspect of the live performance itself. Merchants came to do business, the aristocracy came to see and be seen, labourers came to talk, drink, and exchange information. And everyone came to exercise their sovereignty over the meaning-making process, which they understood to be a right rather than a privilege. As Butsch points out, the group energy of historical arts venues was ripe for the “opportunity to assemble and discuss and come to consensus . . .” (2000, 15).

15Promoters of the sacralisation of the U.S. arts industry achieved their goals through a kind of divide and conquer strategy: guide the audience into the sacred arts space with carefully crafted advertising but little if any information about content except that it will be “excellent”; teach us how to sit still in the dark and when to applaud; get us out of the sacred space as quickly as possible (and into the relative isolation of our carriages and later our automobiles); and finally, offer us expert analysis (newspaper reviews) to tell us what we saw and felt. Not surprisingly, the notion that the arts-going experience might also include discussion and debate about the meaning and value of the arts event disappeared. Before the advent of mass media communication platforms, the public sphere was built on the exchange of information through conversation. Suppressing that conversation inside the arts venue, for whatever reasons, was tantamount to suppressing the interpretive process.

16The digital era has redefined the very nature of the public sphere, of course, bringing into play a host of new systems for engendering and facilitating public conversation, consensus and action. But as we know, it has also brought with it many attendant concerns, including the problem of digital noise. In a culture where everyone’s right to express an opinion in an unmediated and potentially exponential manner is only a thumb swipe away, the question of the value of thoughtful conversation and analysis versus talk-for-opining’s sake is ever present. Arts industry professionals complain bitterly that too many screens and the social and cognitive changes that come along with those screens have turned us into boors who do not know how to show respect for the serious work of the serious arts. There is something in that complaint. But whose fault is it if the audience can no longer make thoughtful contributions toward interpreting the meaning and value of the arts? The legacy of the sacralization of the serious arts in the United States is clear; today, Americans do not think of intellectual work when we think about our audience experiences. This has been an enormous loss for the culture of serious arts in the United States, since the hard work of interpreting meaning and value is a practice: a thing we must do, again and again, in order to get the most out of it. When audiences are consistently disenfranchised from the meaning making process, they lose their interpretive agility.

III/ The Power of Hospitality

17Hospitality is defined as the “reception and entertainment of guests or strangers with liberality and goodwill” (Oxford Universal Dictionary 925). The word is derived from the Latin hospes (host) and hostis (stranger or enemy); together those roots elide the insider or outsider status of the individual (host or guest) in the creation of a new community. Hospitality is a form of law (the ancient Greeks were legally obligated to host foreigners), it is a form of economic exchange (as in the contemporary “hospitality industry”), and it is a form of ethics (according to Derrida, it is “the whole and the principle of ethics)” (Westmoreland 2). It is also partly a form of etiquette, partly a form of social mobility, and, interestingly, partly a subversive act, as in the “radical hospitality” of faith communities6 and second wave feminism, both of which seek to use extreme forms of welcoming as a way to actively address issues of inclusion and exclusion.

  • 7 Arts Talk is a metaphor, an ethos and, ultimately, a call to arms. It is a metaphor for a way of mo (...)

18In my theory of Arts Talk7 I identify hospitality as a central ingredient of social interpretation. The concept is rooted in my understanding of the audience member as learner; that is, a person engaged in a process of making sense of the world through their connection with the arts event unfolding in front of them and with the community that surrounds it, artists and fellow audience members alike. As I have written elsewhere, people who experience the arts as learners find opportunities for critical and imaginative thinking, learn how to exercise and defend their own aesthetic judgments, and revel in their capacity to feel, to think, to communicate, to wonder and ponder, to share, to listen, and, perhaps, to collaborate toward the common good (Conner 2013, 98).

  • 8 See, for example, Bransford’s How People Learn: Brain, Mind, Experience, and School, Zull’s The Art (...)

19This ability to position, define and create meaning is dependent on a hospitable environment (whether a physical or virtual one). A learner is, by definition, a guest: a person encountering something new and strange. A teacher or a facilitator is a host: a person inviting the learner to partake of the new and the strange. It is critical, then, that the invitation carries with it the qualities of hospitality, including respect and sensitivity. As recent investigations into the science of learning make clear, an effective learning environment is one in which learners feel comfortable acknowledging ignorance and are prepared to encounter opposing viewpoints without losing the capacity to listen and learn.8 This is true for arts audiences as well. Most critics blame the failure of Waiting for Godot at the Coconut Grove Playhouse on the middlebrow tastes of the audience. But another perspective might just as well blame the management for their profound lack of hospitality: the audience was not only mislead (“laugh sensation of two continents”), it was deliberatively exploited for its buying power. Arts environments that lack hospitality ‑ that are not democratic and friendly but rather hierarchical and snobbish ‑ compound discomfort by suggesting that audience members are not sophisticated enough to “get it.” On the other hand, arts environments that are established with a hospitable gesture, such as Blau’s invitation to the inmates at San Quentin, are much more likely to lead to satisfying social interpretation of the arts.

20Hospitality is an iteration of being kind (Palmer 125), and as such it involves establishing a culture of respect for all participants. For adults, a hospitable learning environment is one that is safe intellectually and emotionally and is nonjudgmental. In an arts context, this means that a person’s taste is acknowledged as a legitimate part of who they are and what they bring to the process of social interpretation. Audience learners must feel that their prior experience and their taste portfolio are welcome, as a starting point, for the new, often difficult learning operation that is about to occur. Genuine hospitality leading to authentic engagement with an art form means encountering, absorbing, listening to and ultimately making space for a wide array of tastes.

IV/ New Engines for Social Interpretation

  • 9 This research often labels the impact of social interpretation as an “intrinsic value.” Examples in (...)

21Emerging quantitative data is beginning to support the supposition that adults are more likely to become regular arts-goers when they have had the opportunity to share in a meaning-making process as part of their overall arts experience.9 The success of social interpretation around the arts is defined, as in any learning operation, by how well we measure our understanding and how fluidly we can articulate (for ourselves and/or for others) what we have learned or experienced. As I argued earlier in the essay, in the realm of contemporary participatory culture success of this type is also defined by a sense of belonging and of equality ‑ in order to become repeat visitors audience members need to know that what they think and feel matters. It is not surprising, then, that “hospitality” has emerged as a new buzz word in the U.S. arts scene ‑ a by-product of a surrounding participatory ethos in all modes of leisure-time activity. In a networked twenty-first century, there is clearly a cultural mandate to employ emerging technological resources in order to open previously closed pathways. This includes pathways to social interpretation.

  • 10 The Heinz Endowments’ Arts Experience Initiative (2004 to 2008) was the first grants-based program (...)

22In this final section of the essay I analyze two audience engagement programs in the United States that use technologically resourced forms of hospitality to reframe the traditional power dynamic between the arts apparatus (artist, arts organization, arts field gate-keepers) and audience members. There are dozens of arts organizations across the United States who claim to be re-democratizing the arts-going experience, and there are scores of programming initiatives, many of them sponsored and funded by arts-oriented foundations, that are devoted to various tactics for increasing audience engagement in and around arts events.10 I focus here on the Santa Cruz Museum of Art and History in California and the Mixed Blood Theatre in Minneapolis, Minnesota because their programming includes and/or leads to social interpretation (though they do not use that label). My analysis of their programming reveals that both organizations promote a hospitable environment for social interpretation by: 1) acknowledging the legitimacy of the existing cultural frames (including the taste portfolio) of the audience-interpreter; and 2) catering to different communications styles.

23The Santa Cruz Museum of Art and History is headed by Nina Simon, a highly regarded curator and museum designer whose 2010 book, The Participatory Museum, has had a significant impact on contemporary museum-going practices in the United States. The museum’s mission is to “ignite shared experiences and unexpected connections”11 and its modus operandi is to establish an ethos of deep hospitality in which the community’s needs are put before sacralized notions of what a museum “should” be or how it “should” operate. Under Simon’s leadership, the programming at Santa Cruz is required to be: relevant (connected to compelling needs, assets, and interests in Santa Cruz County); sustainable (providing important resources to help the museum thrive financially and organizationally); bridging (bringing community members together across differences); participatory (inviting diverse community members to make meaningful contributions as co-creators, collaborators, and energized constituents); and igniting (inspiring curiosity about art and history and expanding opportunities for deeper engagement beyond the museum).12 Simon’s innovations include two structural innovations that question sacred notions of the purpose of museums and upend the control that gatekeepers have over institutional practices and programming. The first is a community initiative she labels “hosted participation,” in which the museum “turns over a portion of its facilities and/or resources to present programs developed and implemented by public groups or casual visitors” (2010, 187). The second is a “me-to-we” design strategy that enables visitors to move from individual engagement with content to social engagement with other visitors around the meaning and value of the art works they are witnessing (2010, 86). By placing the audience at the center of the meaning making process (a placement that is often facilitated by new technologies), Simon’s participatory museum locates new resources for social interpretation.13 These structural innovations are rooted in a democratic impulse to connect visitors from a variety of backgrounds and taste portfolios through conversation and the exchange of ideas. And they are based on a fundamental reconfiguration of the social hierarchy within a museum’s walls (understanding “walls” to be both brick-and-mortar and virtual).

24The mission of the Mixed Blood Theater in Minneapolis is to “use theater to address artificial barriers that keep people from succeeding in American society.”14 In 2011 the not-for-profit organization launched a free ticket initiative, under the title Radical Hospitality, with the intention of providing no-cost access for any audience member.15 The program’s original goals had three points: to build relationships with people who are traditionally underserved by the arts; to eliminate real or perceived barriers to participation; and to increase the number of local residents who attend the arts.16 Importantly for the purposes of this essay, the Radical Hospitality initiative has since been expanded to include “Free Speech,” an initiative that leads quite literally to social interpretation by inviting audiences to engage with a production via social media, in writing, and in person:

Here at Mixed Blood, we understand that theatre is not created in a vacuum; it is presented to the world and, when done right, inspires hours of conversation. Please talk about our shows! Mixed Blood provides many ways for our global community to discuss, engage, challenge, question and enjoy the work we produce on our stage.17

  • 18 Ibid.

25“Free Speech” in-venue programs include Free For(u)m, a series of post-show conversations that avoid the top-down quality of most talkback sessions by putting the audience in charge of the conversation. “These conversations are a safe space for audience members to freely and candidly discuss their feelings and connections to the work,” notes the web-site description. “While Mixed Blood provides a conversation facilitator, the discussions are led by you, the audience.”18 Importantly for this essay, an array of “Free Speech” on-line resources push the (re)democratization impulse of Free For(u)m forward by acknowledging the potential of digital platforms for contributing to the meaning making process. #Tweetviews, for example, invites any audience member to review a show in 140 characters or less. Another program involves recruiting a street team of audience journalists for each show to go out and write reviews and then post them on their own social media networks. In both cases the hierarchy of meaning making in the arts industry is upended while the power of the audience voice is exponentialized; every time an audience opinion is tweeted and/or posted and retweeted and/or shared, the sacralized gates restricting meaning making and valuation are blown up. What might seem like a small innovation ‑ giving an audience member the agency to write a short review of a play ‑ becomes its own kind of revolution.

26The success of Mixed Blood’s Radical Hospitality initiative can be measured in both qualitative (anecdotal) and quantitative ways. I can attest to the efficacy of the free ticket program in terms of diversifying audience demographics for traditional theatrical fare. On May 29, 2015, I attended a performance of Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night produced by the Mu Performing Arts, an Asian-American company in residence at Mixed Blood. I entered the Mixed Blood space in Minneapolis’ Cedar-Riverside neighborhood, home to one of the largest Somali communities in the United States, with the first wave of audience members to arrive that evening, most of who looked like me (white, middle-aged). From my seat I watched as a second wave of audience members entered: a group of about twenty Somali school-aged children accompanied by a smaller group of adult (some of them elders) Somali community members. The third wave of audience members included another twenty or so Asian and/or Asian-American teenage girls. By the time the production started the audience was an astonishing mix of local neighborhood and greater-Minneapolis residents (with a few out-of-towners thrown in). For me, and I assume for others, being part of a highly unusual audience blend was an important aspect of that particular arts experience.

27A quantitative analysis conducted by the Mixed Blood staff after the 2013 season shows that over half of the audience members who took part in the Radical Hospitality free ticket program were under the age of thirty. Thirty-seven percent of those people made less than $25,000 a year, thirty percent were people of color, and nine percent had never been to a live play before.19 According to Artistic Director Jack Reuler, the fact that the theater is developing new audiences for its own programming is important. But, he notes, the “greatest sign of success for Radical Hospitality would be somebody coming to a Mixed Blood show without paying and becoming a subscriber at another theater. That’s the best trajectory we can imagine.”20

V/ Conclusion : A Compass

28In his Notes on the Death of Culture, Mario Vargas Llosa grieves the loss of an essential definition of culture as “a compass, a guide that allowed people to find their bearings in the dense thickets of knowledge without getting lost, and to have more or less clear, as this knowledge constantly developed, what were the main priorities, what was important and what not, what was the main path and what the dead ends” (63). It is easy to sympathize with Llosa’s concern: we all want the structure that his “compass” seems to offer ‑ that kind of longing for order is part of the human condition. But in a world where there can be no single guide to the “main priorities” without establishing a hegemony of knowledge and a corresponding privilege in the structure of value, we simply cannot have what we long for. The next best thing, in my view, is to embrace the idea of the arts experience as a learning operation in which hospitality creates opportunities for robust meaning making and emerging technologies offer new resources for sharing in that meaning making. The compass ‑ that guide that allows us to find our bearings in the overwhelming stream of information available in the digital age ‑ can be found in democratic, transparent and sincere conversations (both live and digital) about the meaning and value of the arts in the twenty-first century.

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1 See Harrison Rainie and Janna Quitney Anderson’s The Future of the Internet: Hopes and Fears, a fascinating collection of survey responses from various stakeholders about the future of a networked and synthetic world.

2 See “In and Out of the Dark: A Theory about Audience Engagement from Sophocles to Spoken Word,” Audience Engagement and the Role of Arts Talk in the Digital Era, and “Replacing Arts Appreciation with Arts Talk.”


4 See, for example, Carr’s The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains, Carter’s Exploring Consciousness, and Bishop’s Psychological and Social Implications Surrounding Internet and Gaming Addiction.



7 Arts Talk is a metaphor, an ethos and, ultimately, a call to arms. It is a metaphor for a way of moving through the world with art as an intimate companion. It is an ethos (a term derived from the ancient Greek word for character) promoting a set of ideals that characterize an arts-infused community. And it is a call to arms championing a move beyond the one-way delivery system that characterizes meaning making in most of the discourse around the serious arts in contemporary America. Arts Talk connotes not just literal talk, but also a spirit of vibrancy and engagement among and between people who share an interest in the arts. Arts Talk connects us in the profoundest of human ways—as hearts and minds looking to make the world mean something through art. See Audience Engagement and the Role of Arts Talk in the Digital Era, 137.

8 See, for example, Bransford’s How People Learn: Brain, Mind, Experience, and School, Zull’s The Art of Changing the Brain: Enriching Teaching by Exploring the Biology of Learning, and Merriam’s Learning in Adulthood: A Comprehensive Guide.

9 This research often labels the impact of social interpretation as an “intrinsic value.” Examples include: National Endowment for the Arts’ “A Decade of Arts Engagement: Findings From the Survey of Public Participation in the Arts, 2002–2012,” Harlow’s “The Road to Results: Effective Practices for Building Arts Audiences,” and Novak-Leonard’s “Beyond Attendance: A Multi-Modal Understanding of Arts Participation.” Outside of the United States see Arts Council England’s “Not for the Likes of You’: Phase One and Two Final Reports for Arts Council England, Vanessa Martin’s Arts Engagement in England 2008/09: Findings from the Taking Part Survey, and McKechnie’s Conceiving Connections.

10 The Heinz Endowments’ Arts Experience Initiative (2004 to 2008) was the first grants-based program devoted solely to supporting arts organizations interested in exploring how enrichment activities surrounding the arts event might deepen audience engagement. In a similar vein, the Wallace Foundation launched its Excellence Awards in 2006 to support arts organizations in six target cites (San Francisco, Philadelphia, Chicago, Seattle, Boston, and Minnesota) charged with pioneering “effective practices to engage more people in high-value arts activities.” More recent iterations of this funding practice include the A.W. Mellon Foundation’s Audience Project and Theatre Communications Group/Doris Duke Foundation’s Audience (R)Evolution.



13 Simon’s philosophy and the resulting changes at the Santa Cruz museum have been robustly criticized by industry commentators (as a simple Google search will reveal). This is not surprising; the implementation of a truly radical form of hospitality that inverts the power structure and questions the very nature of the purpose of a museum will inevitably cause friction and even alarm in the fundamentally conservative culture of the U.S. arts industry, where the preservation of the status quo is a powerful force. Look, for example, at the extremely conservative reaction to an essay written by blogger and arts commentator Devon Smith entitled “We Should Allow Failing Arts Organizations to Die.”



16 Ibid.


18 Ibid.


20 Ibid.

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Lynne Conner, « Taking Back the Arts: 21st Century Audiences, Participatory Culture and the End of Passive Spectatorship »L’Ordinaire des Amériques [En ligne], 220 | 2016, mis en ligne le 13 juillet 2016, consulté le 23 mai 2024. URL : ; DOI :

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Lynne Conner

University of North Carolina at Charlotte

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