I have just returned from AAMD’s Mid-Winter Meeting in Mexico City. It was a whirlwind four days, with visits to 15 museums and a packed schedule of programming. At the meeting, two of our speakers, Darren Walker, President of the Ford Foundation, and Arthur Cohen of LaPlaca Cohen addressed a variety of topics during their keynotes, but one of the common threads that has stuck with me for days was diversity and change. In both presentations, they touched on a reality facing the arts community: both the need to embrace change, and the fact that by doing so some folks inside and outside your institutions are not going to be happy. There will be aspects of the current construct of participation in the arts that will need to be given up.
My son is ten and he has been bitten by the ballet bug. He takes rigorous classes three days a week, wants to see the ballet, talk about the dancers, and watch the steps. As a family we completely indulge this obsession. Last weekend we went to a matinee of Serenade, Agon and Symphony in C at the New York City Ballet. He could hardly contain his excitement. Looking down on the stage, he asked me a series of questions: “Is that Sara Mearns?” “Is that Ashley Bouder?” “Is that Andrew Veyette?” The questions came fast and furious, but in quiet and respectful whispers. “Mom, do you know how hard it is to do a double tour?”
During the fourth movement of Symphony in C, a man sitting in the row ahead of us and about five seats down turned around and told my son to “shut up.” Living in New York I am well aware of the decorum required of children in public spaces, especially in art institutions, but I could not help but be shocked. When the performance was over I approached the man and I said, “I am quite sorry, but he knows some of the dancers in the company and was very excited to see them.” The man and his companions responded with a loud “I don’t care! He should not be talking, this is not your living room!”
It was then it all came together for me. Part of the problem is intolerance: some people – both those in charge, and those who participate as audience members – don’t want institutions to change. They don’t want selfies in museums, they don’t want whispering at the ballet, they don’t want children involved. My question is this: where is the next generation of cultural participants going to come from – where are the lovers of ballet born – if this is how we respond to children? And just as critically: how did we get to the point of assuming these standards of behavior anyway?
Paul DiMaggio, a Princeton University sociology professor who studies non-profit institutions, noted that “in the 19th century, pretty much anything was considered acceptable, people would hoot and holler in the theatre, talk in their boxes at the opera...It was not until the late 19th century that the conductors, with help from the patrons who paid for the opera or the orchestra, took it upon themselves to demand certain behavior from the audience.”
In his research, DiMaggio has also argued that late 19th-century American arts patrons earned social cachet through “elite” institutions, new entities formed to replace the populist culture of the palm court orchestra or the cabinet of curiosities with the high art of the symphony or the museum and its authenticated objects. These were places where decorous behavior and fancy dress were expected, and unwritten rules – you don’t clap between movements during classical music – were enforced through social shaming or being told to “shut up.”
At our Mexico City meeting, both Darren Walker and Arthur Cohen challenged us to think about the nature of the “relationship” our museums yearn for with our audiences. And we need to ask ourselves: how are we embracing or resisting the evolution of these audiences and their interests? Will we have the courage to stand up and embrace the unknown?
Will it ever be okay to whisper to your mom at the ballet? I hope so.