“Arts Groups Struggle to Stay Relevant,” is the title of a recent column by Kerry Lengel, theatre critic for the Arizona Republic. In it, he summarizes the challenges facing the arts and culture community of the region due to significant leadership changes at major institutions, declines in private and corporate philanthropy, and competition from “digital entertainment options.” He notes, “Programming that appeals to a wide audience is a crucial part of the relevance question.”
Does art have to be popular to be relevant, and who decides? In one of its practical lessons, “The Big Picture: The Marketing Challenge for the Arts,” The National Arts Marketing Project asserts, “it is important to remember that the audience determines what is relevant to them, not the artist.” Does that mean that for art to be relevant it needs to be something the audience already connects with and understands? NO. It is useful to remember why nonprofit arts organizations have federal tax-exempt status. What is their tax-exempt purpose? If you guessed “art-making” you would be wrong. The exempt purposes listed in section 501c3 of the Internal Revenue Code are:
“charitable, religious, educational, scientific, literary, testing for public safety, fostering national or international amateur sports competition, and preventing cruelty to children or animals. The term charitable is used in its generally accepted legal sense and includes relief of the poor, the distressed, or the underprivileged; advancement of religion; advancement of education or science; erecting or maintaining public buildings, monuments, or works; lessening the burdens of government; lessening neighborhood tensions; eliminating prejudice and discrimination; defending human and civil rights secured by law; and combating community deterioration and juvenile delinquency.”
Many nonprofit tax-exempt arts organizations qualify as such because of the inclusion of “the advancement of education” in the definition of charitable. The “Art of Video Games” exhibit at the Phoenix Art Museum is inherently relevant to many people because video games are ubiquitous. But museum director Jim Ballinger, quoted in the Republic article, ties the exhibit to the educational mission of a museum: “the idea of game theory as an educational device is staggeringly powerful in a positive way…so how can we harness that at the art museum? Something tells me we’re on the front end of some pretty interesting things to keep ourselves relevant.” In other words, the museum – or any museum – can use game theory and digital interactivity to keep relevant those aspects of museums whose relevance is not inherently obvious. A museum educates people about how its collections are relevant; interactivity can be one element of that educational effort. Similarly, a theatre company can live up to its “advancement of education” mission by educating its audience, contextualizing the relevance of its work. If-you-build-it-they-will-come programming only works in baseball fantasy movies, not at civic performing arts centers. The community-oriented programming a generative artist might consider superfluous to the artistic product is there to engage and incite interest – to educate the existing audience and the potential audience about the relevance of the work.
Endnote: In reviewing the definitions of “charitable purpose” for this post, I was struck too by this: “lessening neighborhood tensions.” How can arts organizations lessen neighborhood tensions and in doing so become not only “relevant” but “necessary?” This could be the up-side of the creative-placemaking movement – arts and culture not (solely) for economic development but for true community development.