A few years ago, I was chatting with a good friend who earned his MA in Arts Management. At that time, he knew my plan to pursue the MBA in Arts Administration at the Bolz Center and shared some of his learnings with me – “my professor used to ask every student a very basic question: why is Arts Administration necessary?" The answers vary from person to person, but then the professor gave a “standard” answer that – artists, especially good artists, do not accommodate what the general public wants to see, and they focus on what they want to express from the heart (otherwise they might be called entertainers). The general public, in contrast, would like to be entertained and do not have any obligation to appreciate and support what artists do. Consequently, the two groups, artists and public, are like two lines that are parallel to each other, or even worse, departing from each other. There is not a natural chance for them to “intersect." This is why we need professional people with Arts Administration expertise, to try their best to shorten the distance between the arts and public. This explanation sounds a bit too absolute and pessimistic, but it does resonate with my reflections derived from previous practices.
Understanding the general public is an interesting practice for me. Before officially transitioning my career to the arts, I spent eight years working in the manufacturing business and interacting extensively with co-workers and customers from China, US, Japan, Sweden, Israel, and others. I was also surrounded by people who live in the metropolis’ of Beijing and Shanghai, and who spend more than half of their lifetime working in crowded office cells for banking, technology, and other mainstream industries. To me, this spectrum of people represents the “general public”. A week ago, the Bolz Center hosted a seminar with Michael Orlove from the NEA, and I shared my previous experience of promoting arts within general public and how “disinterest” towards arts became the biggest enemy. Michael made a very insightful comment on this issue: “the permanent cut of governmental funding on education in the US in the late 70’s basically paralyzed any momentum for young people to be exposed to the arts. Now it is only those parents who can afford the costs to take their kids to see different arts, but before the funding cut, almost everyone had access to everything…” Meanwhile in China, the effective arts education resource may never exist. When most kids grew up without arts, the gap between public and arts was formed.
Artists, on the other hand, are a group of people who are different from public. To my personal experience, arts is a kind of world view that once someone gets into, he or she can hardly get out. In other words, when a person becomes artistic, he or she probably cannot go back to not being artistic. The good thing is that it allows artistic people to truly enjoy arts and stick with it, but the drawback is that this enlarges the personality gap between artists and general public who are barely artistic. Especially for those professional artists who received intensive arts education since a young age, they may never experience the world view of a non-arts person.
It is not an easy job to shorten the distance between the arts and general public. Arts administrators either come from arts backgrounds, or come from non-arts backgrounds, which means they are always challenged by how to understand the other segment of the population. Most of the time, there is the issue of “we don’t know what we don’t know”. To understand and identify the differences and gaps is merely the first step to address the issue. Is there any shortcut to solve this problem? I don’t have a definite answer yet, but I think having a strong will to be empathetic towards all people can ultimately make our work better.