Commentary: The growing importance of non-traditional venues to arts audiences

Excerpt from "All The World's a Stage: Venues and Settings, and the Role they Play in Shaping Patterns of Arts Participation" by Alan Brown, principal in the arts consulting firm Wolf Brown

Theaters, concert halls, and museums are conducive to certain kinds of exchanges between art and people. These are, and will always be, critically important spaces for public participation in the arts. But meaningful exchange occurs with greater frequency in many other settings, from old breweries to planetariums, abandoned subway platforms, barges, cinemas, and community bookstores. With the proliferation of virtual spaces for arts programs, it seems now that all the world's a stage. The new emphasis on setting is evident in the rise of site-specific festivals, growing experimentation with temporary or "pop-up" spaces, a new pattern of use of cinemas for high quality digital arts programs, and increased use of outdoor urban spaces for video presentation. It is also evident in the work of young artists who choose to curate the settings for their work as an integral part of the work itself. Inviting audiences to spaces they do not want to visit is a losing proposition, especially when they do show up and feel out of place. Without a clearer perspective on the dynamics between audience, artist and setting, the arts sector will not develop the capacity it needs to engage the next generation of art lovers... A sea change is underway in the relationship between the public and the settings where it engages with culture, both live and digital. To say that the professionalized arts sector has been caught off-guard would be an understatement. "It almost makes you think the arts have been in hiding all these years, playing it safe in their own cultural caves instead of venturing out to where life is really going on," says Peter Linett of Slover Linett Strategies, a leading research firm.... Many artists and arts groups prefer not to perform or exhibit in unconventional settings. There are financial obstacles, artistic limitations, technical barriers, and a host of other legitimate reasons for keeping art in purpose-built venues. Nonetheless, the fact remains that setting is an under-leveraged variable in the stubborn calculus of audience development. Arts groups with fixed spaces have tough choices to make. How to balance the need for operating efficiencies with the longer-term need to replenish audiences through programming in new or different spaces?


In Brooklyn NY, a new arts festival will be performed at non-traditional venues

Jennifer Maloney, The Wall Street Journal, 8/7/12

Stephen Shelley, an actor and director who lives in Brooklyn, had just wrapped up a self-produced staging of "Medea" last year when he realized there was nowhere else to go with it. He had come to something of an empty middle ground in the borough, where there is a dearth of venues for performing artists who are ready to move past self-producing but haven't yet hit the big leagues. So he decided to start a performing arts festival. On Sept. 12, he will launch the Brooklyn Emerging Artists in Theater Festival: a 12-day event encompassing 35 dance and theater performances in seven venues across the borough. Mr. Shelley will bring a diverse collection of acts -- from tap dancing to contemporary opera -- on a tour of venues across the borough, including the Coney Island Circus Sideshow, a 19th-century church in Flatbush and the Waterfront Museum in Red Hook. The new festival's main stage will be the Irondale Center in Fort Greene. That's where choreographer Noémie Lafrance will stage a large-scale participatory dance work. Ms. Lafrance is known for site-specific works that use architecture and public spaces such as the McCarren Park Pool. Her latest piece will be composed entirely of audience-performers, with no rehearsed elements. Ticket holders will receive instructions by email before the performance on what to wear and what to do during the piece. The performance "sort of unfolds as a game," Ms. Lafrance said. "You arrive and pretty much from then on, it's a surprise for everybody." Elevator Repair Service -- which won acclaim for its production "Gatz," an eight-hour-long, unabridged version of "The Great Gatsby" -- will perform an installation piece [at the Brooklyn Public Library's headquarters]. A computer algorithm combines quotes from [three famous] novels to form short, nonsensical narratives, and feeds lines to the actors in real-time on iPhones that are tucked into books. For three nights, actors will roam the stacks of the art and music room of the Brooklyn Public Library's literature division, reciting monologues and converging for scenes with other actors. Audience members will be free to move through the space. "The piece feels like it's coming out of the bookshelves," said John Collins, the company's artistic director. "It's as if a group of people have gone into the stacks and have gone insane from reading too much."


NEA funds project in Long Beach CA to expand arts to non-traditional venues

Arts Long Beach website, 7/16/12

[Recently,] the National Endowment for the Arts announced 80 Our Town grant awards totaling $4.995 million and reaching 44 states and the District of Columbia. As one of the grantees to receive this prestigious award, the Arts Council for Long Beach will receive $150,000 to produce performances for the A LOT series, which will consist of performance-based artwork designed to activate vacant lots in various Long Beach neighborhoods and engage residents in the arts. The program will offer free performances in dance, music, theatre and spoken word by Long Beach-based artists and organizations in non-traditional venues in neighborhoods that traditionally have been underserved by arts organizations. The project is intended to increase access to the arts and broaden the audience to include both the intentional viewer and the casual passer-by. These performances will take place in several areas around Long Beach and happen over the course of the next two years. The goal is to expand who engages in the arts and where they engage. Rather than placing activities in enclosed venues for a limited number of people for a couple of hours, the objective is to enliven vacant lots, streets, and entire areas with creative energy - sound, light, visual art, and performance - for days or weeks at a time. The Arts Council for Long Beach will work with local partners around the city to implement this incredible opportunity given to Long Beach residents by the NEA.


The hottest new music venue in town? Your living room.

Andrea Swensson, blog of The Current [Minneapolis/St. Paul public radio station], 8/9/12

If there's one trend that defines the music industry circa 2012, it's that now, more than ever, artists are deliberately and triumphantly figuring out ways to cut out the middleman. Pay-what-you-can downloads and Kickstarter accounts are the new record labels, beelining money spent on new music into the pockets of the artists who are creating it. And thanks to the cooperation and hospitality of avid fans, bands are figuring out ways to bring their music out of the clubs and into the places we most frequently consume it: our homes. The concept of a house show is nothing new, of course; entire DIY scenes have thrived on the strength of a network of shows booked in basements and other nontraditional venues. But what is new is the concept of an organized, above-the-boards show that is booked [and] promoted in very traditional ways, with the only curveball being that it takes place in someone's living room. This fall, Jeremy Messersmith will embark on a three-month, cross-country Supper Club Tour that will take place entirely in fans' living rooms and kitchens. "Touring is such a drag," Messersmith says. "Bad food, long drives, late nights, forever sound checks, dingy green rooms, dive motels... I simply tried to imagine what an indie tour without those things would be like and boom: living room shows." Messersmith offers up some hard numbers to explain why a living room tour makes sense for him. "You can fit less people into a living room than a club, but I think you can also charge a bit more for the scarcity. I'm charging $15 a ticket whereas my club dates outside the midwest are usually under $10. If you can fit 25-60 people into a home, then that's $375-$900 a night. I'm VERY happy with those numbers!" [Also, a] living room show ensures that more money is going straight into the pockets of the performers. "In a time where big institutions fail and there is a lot of uncertainty, people put a lot more value on things we make and share together, and on getting a quality experience more than a flashy thing," says Carl Atiya Swanson [co-founder of a Minneapolis living room venue called Cake Shop], adding that, "It's a model that I think can be totally replicated." 

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