Assessing the effectiveness of the “Art Message”

So, somehow this quiet little potter got sucked into the world of Arts activism bloggery. How this happened remains a bit of a mystery. But you might be surprised at how much of my days are spent not just making pots, thinking about pots, thinking about making pots, creating, thinking about creativity, trying to get a toe hold on reaching an audience for my work, analyzing why that seems so difficult, contemplating the overlapping connections between all these things, but also reacting to the overarching symptoms of an industry that sometimes seems to be struggling to make the case for its relevance. And I’m talking both niche fields like ceramics and pottery and also the wider game of the Arts in general.

Apparently I’m not the only one who has concerns. If you haunt the Arts advocacy blog world for long you quickly see the uneasiness that underlies the “Rah! Rah!” boosterism. The positive spin sometimes doled out often serves only as a thin veneer that papers over some very real worries about the Arts industry.

ARTSblog had a new post recently that detailed the results of a ten year study on Arts patron behavior. And these findings should be of interest to any artist or person who cares about the place of the Arts in peoples lives. This is some of what the author had to say:

“There’s a huge set of cracks in the foundation of patronage that arts organizations are built upon.

“In patron behavior terms, the “cracks” are caused by Tryers. These are households that have infrequent, one-time, or long-ago transactions with arts and entertainment organizations and they are the most prevalent type of patron behavior.

“Right now the databases of most arts organizations are likely comprised of 90 percent Tryers. And most of them are patrons you’ve allowed to lapse.

Tryers—TRG Arts research has found—are the least loyal, most expensive to acquire, and most difficult to retain patrons. That most audience or visitor bases are built on Tryers is a real threat to the sustainable future of arts and entertainment organizations.”


If 90% of the people who investigate the arts are ‘one and done’, that is a SERIOUS problem. It says that the art they check out just doesn’t meet the needs of their lives. It doesn’t make a lasting impression on them. How can this be? How can art be so ineffective at communicating its message, at communicating its value?

This is the comment I left on the blog:

Thanks for the great post Jill! These seem like important points to make.

But I also wonder if the reason there are so many ‘tryers’ is that the arts they are trying have in some way failed to connect with them. I wonder if the 90% are just not in a position where these arts matter to them. In other words, while we can give them better incentives to move up the pyramid, does this really address why they so frequently lose interest?

The sense I get is that we are asking folks to appreciate these art endeavors without having laid much of a foundation for art to make a difference in their lives. Or maybe just not enough…. Perhaps most folks simply aren’t prepared to investigate these arts deeper than the superficial first introduction.

Why would they? If the arts are a sophisticated form of communication, is our advocacy sometimes like trying to sell an incomprehensible product in a foreign language? Will incentives make it much easier, I wonder? Unless folks already ‘get’ the value on display, putting incentives on something will have only predictable results. Would offering discounts on hamburgers matter to a vegetarian? Would a ‘buy one get one free’ clearance sale on NASA space suits entice a family struggling to get by? Would a free set of encyclopedias help sell farming equipment to an underwater salvage company? You can’t sell a thing if what you are peddling is either unremarkable, inscrutable, valueless, or offensive to potential buyers. Incentives only make a difference if the product already sparks an interest, and the question is whether the Arts have missed the chance of appealing to folks that grew up without them.

So, I wonder if addressing these issues at the stage where folks are already either patrons or not is a case of having bungled our opportunity to make the greatest difference. Asking someone as an adult with adult concerns to suddenly become a financial supporter of the arts doesn’t make much sense without a basic grounding in their lives of why the arts matter. Or of specific arts in particular. And it seems that this argument is less likely to win folks over the more adult their concerns are, the more confirmed they are in their convictions. The question is, is our advocacy speaking to their concerns or to our own? Or maybe there’s a better argument than I’ve been hearing….

It just seems that the foundation of loyalty is something that is best formed at the earliest age possible. Wait too long and the efforts to instil it are doomed to diminishing returns. It seems….

If someone grew up playing baseball, watching baseball on TV, and going to games, doesn’t it seem like handing out an incentive to support baseball as an adult would be an easier sell than to someone who has little exposure to it? It just seems that we train folks to either appreciate art or to ignore it in those ‘formative’ years.

I suppose that’s why they call it ‘formative’. Have we failed to properly take advantage of those ground breaking opportunities and are we paying for it now? Are we simply asking too much of folks that are basically already fully formed, but WITHOUT an appreciation of art in their make-up? Are we really only trying to change peoples’ minds that have already been made up?


That’s what I said on that blog (with slight modifications), but much more can be said….

It really seems like we face a situation where artists and the general public are sometimes not even sitting at the same table. In other words, we are occasionally locked in a contest of mutual disregard, artists pretending that public perception doesn’t matter, and the public utterly unfazed by what art presents to us.

But why? Is there a gap in communication, a communication breakdown? Is it because the language of the arts is something not everyone has learned to understand? Perhaps it doesn’t connect to them because they often don’t relate to it themselves. If the public haven’t learned to speak it themselves, if they haven’t learned to engage creatively, with art in their everyday lives, we may (predictably) find that the public doesn’t always have the best grasp of art when it is ‘spoken’ to them.

Why would it? Do we expect someone to read a few Berlitz books and then blend in like a native? Order from a menu in a French restaurant and now be able to conjugate their way through conversations? Do we expect a public bystander to lead a murder investigation because they have seen a few episodes of CSI? Do we expect someone previously unfamiliar with opera to see and appreciate all the sophistication and nuance of a performance? Do we really expect beginners to have killer taste?…. How can we ask folks to love something with any depth and commitment if they are only kind of vague on what its all about?

To make it even more plain, do we expect folks to respect and/or like art when they have little or no previous contact with it? Do we expect it to matter to them as adults if it doesn’t already? Will they be prepared to understand it when it bumps into them in strange and even familiar places? Is the situation of ‘tryers’ something like a blind first date where your ‘date’ ends up being someone’s pet goldfish?

In other words, is most art just a massive curve ball thrown at ‘tryers’? We put a Cy Young Pitcher on the mound (or even a high school hot shot), hand the poor ‘tyers’ a wispy switch of grass, and push them into the batter’s box. And we expect then to make meaningful contact? Having never faced a fast ball? Having never held a bat? With pitchers aiming only to blow by the batters? The truth seems to be that the Arts sometimes seem less interested in serving up familiar or accessible beach balls for an audience to make contact with than pursuing a narrow agenda that has only tenuous relevance to the general adult public. Just how much of the problem can we trace to this, I wonder?

I’m not suggesting that its artists’ responsibility to serve up only ‘gimmes’, but aren’t we at least in some sense responsible for our audience’s ability to make head or tails of what we are doing? Isn’t our predicament ultimately an issue of compatibility and preparation? Isn’t it about the exposure, training, interest and passions of our audience? Isn’t all meaningful communication a meeting of minds in some important sense? How and where do we find and foster compatibility for the Arts? With whom do we expend our efforts at joining minds? NOT the ‘tryers’ surely! So, where do we plot the best venues for exposure with those other folks? How do we go about training them? How do we best instil and nurture their passion?

It seems like the most open and flexible minds, the most fertile fields for our planting, are also the best candidates for being convinced that art matters. It seems that there is a reason language acquisition happens most easily at the early stages of one’s life. There is a profound truth to the saying that “You can’t teach an old dog new tricks”. We become inflexible as we grow older. Our opinions and habits become ever more ingrained. We are less easily convinced that things add up differently than the way we now put them together. Unless art already is a part of the picture, what jackhammer can wedge a new opening for it in our adult lives?……

And we are worried about reforming a generation that is already mostly lost to us? Well, I won’t argue that too seriously. No stone should be left unturned. But we put so much of our resources and efforts into unlocking doors that have already been shut against us while we studiously ignore the doors that are still open. How can we squander our slim opportunity to make a vital intercession in the next generation of potential arts lovers?…. Just WHAT are we thinking? Isn’t the key to hold onto the kids who already swim the seas of creativity before life beats it out of them? Isn’t that our best shot?

Oh yeah…. Kids don’t vote….. And they don’t have bank accounts…..

What do you all think?


Make beauty real!

About Carter Gillies

I am an active potter and sometime pottery instructor who is fascinated by the philosophical side of making pots, teaching these skills, and issues of the artistic life in general. I seem to have a lot to say on this blog, but I don't insist that I'm right. I'm always trying to figure stuff out, and part of that involves admitting that I am almost always wrong in important ways. If you are up for it, please help me out by steering my thoughts in new and interesting directions. I always appreciate the challenge of learning what other people think.
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3 Responses to Assessing the effectiveness of the “Art Message”

  1. Linda Essig just had a nice post that relates to this discussion. check it out here:

    This is the comment I left on her post:

    Great post Linda!

    I think you hit the problem squarely in that the ‘begging cup’ is a symptom of the difficulty many of the arts are in. I guess its always a manifestation of relevance to the community, and you are spot of in identifying our risk taking as a means of exploring other niches and different aspects of our potential audience. We are not served by playing a conservative hand unless we already have enough to hold onto. Playing it safe is either cashing in a winning hand or stubbornly clinging to cards that we know won’t get the pot. Do we keep on anteing up, or do we know when its time to cut losses or switch to a different game?

    Sometimes desperate times call for desperate measures. Unfortunately that almost always forces us to look most closely at how we salvage things now, in the short run, rather than the longer view of improving things long term. And it makes sense to do so if we think that a bit of slacking off from our drive to make immediate ends meet will cause the whole game to collapse. But what seems most evident to me is that the only long term bet we can place on the future HAS TO include bringing the future generation into the game. And by that I mean doing a better job than we did with the generation that is so evidently failing to support us now. Doesn’t that make sense?

    So it seems that if we put too many of our eggs in the basket of merely potential candidates for supporting us (who to this point have demonstrated no actual love for what we are doing), are we making these efforts at the expense of time we could have spent nurturing the more openminded among us? In other words, do we spend too much time chasing dollars from adults whose minds may very well have been already decided against us, or do we try to convince the folks who are still quite flexible in what things can and will be a part of their lives? Its a simple truth that children are always more prepared to investigate new things because they are simply more curious. Adults have already seen much of the world and made most of their relevant decisions about it. Adults either like Theatre or they don’t. And if they haven’t ever seen it, chances are they will find it incomprehensible or a poor substitute for TV and movies. They won’t always ‘get it’. And if they don’t ‘get it’, why should we expect them to care?

    This is the difference between the openness of our formative years and the closedness of maturity. When we know that “you can’t teach an old dog new tricks” very easily, why do we persist in counting their aproval as the most important thing worth going after? If we eak along with a handful of new adult converts but fail to instil an appreciation in the young, will we have won the battle only to have lost the war?

    It just seems like an interesting question…..

  2. Interesting to read this post since I’ve been thinking about the education aspect after a customer brought the subject up a few days ago. She said she works for an organization that places artists in the schools. The idea is to tie in a project with what the children are learning. For instance, this is one she taught to kindergarten and first grade- puppets with heads formed out of self hardening clay were characters from books the children were reading. She was visiting from New York, but there is an organization call Arts Bridge in my area (Marietta, Ohio) that does something similar. I’ve always associated it with music and theater performances in the schools, not visual arts, but I might contact them just to see what is involved.
    Along the sames lines, I was thinking that art teachers introduce many techniques and materials, and talk about long dead masters, but rarely,(acturally never, to my knowledge) invite local artists to demonstrate or talk about their work. Seems like a missed opportunity for both sides- the children and the artists.

    • I would say “rarely”. I had a post from earlier this year where I talked about how I was invited to a grade school to help the ‘clay cluster’ become more familiar with pottery and the profession of pot making. It wasn’t hands on, so it was like a short introduction where I passed around some pots from my studio and my collection and answered questions. And you may have missed Scott Cooper’s recent adventure where he demonstrated wheel work and talked about pots for an entire day with kids.

      These seem to be special programs that are trying to fill the gaps that the system is creating. But many school systems are willing, and often there are already concerned parents who have spent time organizing these special events. I encourage you and everyone else reading this to search out what’s happening in your community and contribute what you can to keeping creativity alive for these kids. They are the future, and a future without artists or folks who can relate to art would be a real shame (to put it lightly!).

      Thanks for tuning in, and thanks for the comment!

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