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Arts leader Ben Cameron: ‘Stop being an arts supporter and start being an arts activist’ (text of entire Arts Fund luncheon speech)

In a time of rapid change for artists, arts presenters and arts patrons, Ben Cameron touched on many of-the-moment issues during his keynote address to the Atlanta Metropolitan Arts Fund luncheon on Dec. 6.

Cameron draws on deep experience: Since 2006, he has been Program Director for the Arts at the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation in New York, supervising a $13 million grants program focusing on organizations and artists in the theater, contemporary dance, jazz and presenting fields. Before that, he served for eight years as the Executive Director of Theatre Communications Group, the national service organization for the American nonprofit professional theater.

As a service to the 500 Atlanta arts leaders who attended Cameron’s well- received talk — and to readers interested in the arts — the AJC here reprints the entire text of his address:

Your presence here assures me that at some level you are already art supporters. And as art supporters you probably understand the value arguments we frequently use in public circles. Our economic power, for example: that in cities the size of Atlanta we typically leverage $3 billion in economic activity and employ 45,000 full-time jobs, 80 percent of which are outside the arts sector proper. Our employment of construction workers, accountants, bartenders, hotel managers, the people who sell us the fabric where we buy the fabric for costumes, the piano tuners who tune the instruments, the printers who print the programs. You know that if the arts are imperiled, the entire local small business community will feel the shock as well.

You probably already understand our role in education, promoting as we do discipline, teamwork, higher test scores, dramatically higher rates of graduation, greater self-confidence, greater self-esteem and our special power in providing non-violent alternatives for students seeking self-expression fulfillment. And you probably understand our value in promoting healthy inclusive societies, a value documented by a UCLA study that a kid who has been in a play is 42 percent less likely to tolerate racist behavior than a kid who has never been in a play. And you probably remember after Columbine, those kids after that shooting said, you know, the one place on this campus where we came together, the one place where we found community, the one place where the cliques lost their divisive power, was the performing arts center on campus.

And so like us in the arts you can stand up and say to anybody, if you care about local economic vitality for Atlanta you must care about the arts. If you care about the education achievement of your children you must care about the arts. If you care about a diverse, inclusive society, you must care about the arts.

That said, it would be disingenuous of me to stand before you and suggest this is an easy time. Indeed, government giving budgets are down, foundation giving budgets are down, corporate giving has entered a kind of free fall. And with rising competition from education and environment and social services and more, the share of the charitable dollar to the arts is diminishing. But at least for a few minutes I’d like to suggest to you the biggest crisis we face in the arts is not economic at all.

In 2006, the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation, where I work, convened more than 700 artists, managers and administrators in 22 meetings in 14 cities to say, essentially: What are the most pressing issues you face? Two years before the economic downturn, we heard about audience erosion in every field – decline of subscription sales, declines in single-ticket sales, rising churn, audience turnover, with as much as 75 percent of our audience on any given evening being there for one event of the year and not coming back. Two years before the economic downturn, we heard audiences were overscheduled and exhausted. Forty-two percent of men and 55 percent of women said, “I am too tired to do the things I want to do.” The No. 1 answer to how to you look forward to a free evening was not going to the museum or going to a play going to a movie or having dinner with friends. The No. 1 answer was, “I want a good night’s sleep.”

After decades of growth, our audiences are dwindling. And our rising expenses, driven in many cases by cost of lumber and paper and rising fixed costs of facility insurance and health care and more, in tandem with declines in funding, mean escalating ticket prices that threaten to place the arts outside of so many in our community we want to reach and serve. Two years before the economic downturn, we heard about the triply disorienting impact of technology. We heard about technology as competition, as shaper of customer expectations, as redefiner of cultural economics. We live in a time where I hope you know by the time she graduates from college, a college senior will have spent 20,000 hours online and an additional 10,000 hours playing video games. Where our internet leisure time consumption has more than doubled in the last three years alone, and where video games now outsell movie and music recordings combined and are reviewed in the arts and culture section of the New York Times. Thanks to the Internet we can get jeans tailor-made to our own bodies at 3 in the morning; they’re delivered to our doorsteps. Expectations of personalization, customization and convenience that the live arts — which have set curtains, set hours, set venues, attended inconvenience of travel, parking and like — simply cannot reach. And what’s it going to mean in the future when we say that symphony, opera or ballet ticket is $50, $75 or $100, when our audience is used to downloading culture on demand, 24/7, for 99 cents a song or for free?

These are huge issues. But we are not alone. We are engaged in this country in a fundamental recalibration of culture and communications. It is shaking the newspaper industry, it is shaking the book industry, it is shaking higher education with the emergence of online universities. In a taste of what may be yet to come, it has left recorded music distribution – remember Tower Records? – in disarray. Surely we know the words when Adrienne Rich, the poet, said we are out in a country that has no language, no laws, whatever we do is pure invention, the maps they gave us are out of date by years. And aren’t you glad you invited me here to brighten your day?

You know, sometimes frames are useful to me. Three years ago, I was at a conference in New York, and somebody raised their hand and said, you know, what would we do differently if we thought the moment we are in is equivalent to the religious reformation of the 15th century? What if we are in the arts reformation? I thought, boy, that’s a great question. If you know your history, you know the religious reformation was made possible by technological reinvention. The printing press meant suddenly everyone could have a Bible. If you nailed something on a door in Germany, it could be produced en masse and be all over the Continent in days. And we are in the midst of a technological revolution and redistribution of knowledge.

The religious reformation decimated and destroyed all business models. As Russell Willis Taylor has said more than once, the religious reformation was a great time to be a land buyer and a rotten time to be a monastery. And on some level we need to ask ourselves if the symphony orchestra model, for example, might not indeed be the monastery of today. But even more profoundly, the religious reformation at its very heart questioned the necessity of intermediation in a divine experience. Why do I need a priest to intercede for me with God? A question that’s finding direct parallel in the question we hear in many places: Why do I need a professional artist to have a creative experience? Indeed, while arts attendance is plummeting, arts participation – people writing their own poetry, singing in choirs, making their own movies – show me a 14-year-old not hard at work on her second, third or fourth movie – arts participation is exploding at an exponential rate.

This moment of reformation is not a threat. It’s an invitation. It’s an invitation for us to think more expansively beyond where art sessions have been. Yes, we have been obsessed with the performance or the exhibit. Yes, we have been obsessed with contextualizing that or introducing audiences to that or talk-backs or more. But forward-thinking organizations are asking new questions. How do we engage audience in co-creation, or the selection of the work to be presented? A question that is at the heart of ‘Demand it!’ where anybody can say we demand to see Bruce Springsteen and he will be brought to Atlanta. A question that’s the center of the Denver Museum of Art’s First Persons Museum, where anyone can post an image online that’s meaningful to him or her, leading to a profound discussion about visual arts in that community in a new way. Forward-thinking organizations are thinking about co-creation – how do I engage these arts participants in the creation of the work itself? Questions that are at the center of the Baltimore Symphony “Rusty Musicians” Program where formally trained yet now avocational musicians – people who are now lawyers or doctors or whatever – play the Mahler alongside the symphony musicians at select concerts, a format that not only is engaging entirely new audiences but that, much to their own surprise, has reanimated and re-inspired the professional musicians who initially resisted it, but who are deeply inspired by the dedication, the passion and commitment the avocational citizens bring. Forward-thinking organizations are surrendering their space to flash mobs and raves and turning it over for festival formats to vibrant communities of participants, knowing sometimes that a lightly facilitated touch produces the best allegiances and most remarkable results of all.

This spectrum, of course, isn’t for everyone. What forward-thinking organizations are doing or trying to ask are how do I find and ofter value within this broader array of activity. Indeed, every organization is asking itself: What if our job for the future is no longer just to produce work to be enjoyed, but to hold responsibility for social orchestration in which the performance is a piece but only a piece of what we’re called to do? What if the future is to provide not only products to be consumed, but experiences that will be springboard to our audiences’ own creativity? What would we do differently if we thought of ourselves less as arts institutions and thought of ourselves as platforms designed to aggregate creative energies?

Now for those of you in the arts, let me just say, this is hard, hard work. I don’t want to promise you any other. It demands leadership and planning, experimentation and patience. And God knows we are going to fail as often as we succeed because we are learning as we go. It will require us to place the audience at the center of our mission – not the periphery, at the center. As the great Lisa Adler of Horizon Theatre said years ago, as she was the first to say it I ever heard, ‘There is a profound difference between a mission statement of to produce the great plays, and a mission statement of to connect audiences to great plays.’ A difference that if taken seriously will change every program, every structure, every dollar spent, every hire made. This will provoke anxiety. If you’re not anxious, you’re not really thinking about change. Indeed, let me just say the resistance is going to be highest among your existing artists, your existing board and your existing staff. That’s not out of recalcitrance. That’s because they have given you their lives because what you have done to date has such profound meaning to their lives. Nobody will be closer to the past than they will be. Rather than dismissing them, how do we focus them on the value we’re trying to instill rather than the delivery mechanism to date — a reframing of value that is at the core of leadership for the future? And at this time of constrained resources, it will not begin with what will we do next? It will begin with, what will we stop doing to give ourselves the time and the energy and the money to pursue this urgent work that lies ahead? For those of you who exist in the business world or live outside the arts, let me just say clearly, our ability to prosper and do this rests entirely on your shoulders. And this is the time to stop being an arts supporter and start being an arts activist.

That may sound amorphous, so let me be really clear. When the arts are caught in controversy — those of you know my history know I was at the NEA during the Mapplethorpe and Serrano (controversies) – so this is from personal experience. In moments of controversy over public funding, the voice of the arts professional is perceived as too self-interested to be heard. It is the bank president, it is the real estate agent, it is the stay-at-home mom, whose voices can be heard when the artist’s voice cannot be, arts activists lobby, they go to city hall, they write letters to the editor. Arts activists leverage their sphere of influence.

As the former head of charitable giving for Target stores, which I was for several years, I can tell you firsthand it was very easy to look across the table to the arts people and say, boy, you know, we’re out of money, I’m really sorry. When the arts professionals had brought a board member with them on the funding call, not only did that make a powerful statement to be about how important the group must be for the board member to give up his time, but, where the board member knew my CEO, the money was magically found.

Arts activists take a kid to every performance or exhibit unless there’s a content reason not to. We know that anyone who has a meaningful relationship to the arts when pressed will typically cite an experience before the age of 18. If we don’t have you by the age of 18, the probability we’ll get you is miniscule. Even better, they take a kid and kid’s friend, because it is not only parental example, it is peer reinforcement that instills life allegiance to the arts forever. Arts activists give their time. They serve on boards, they offer their best counsel, they give generously and increase their gifts every year, and they urge other people to do the same.

In the future, give or get is not good enough. It is, give and get, and for every single person this room. And whereas I know that’s threatening, and soliciting funding is not anybody’s favorite thing to do, my perspective on this was changed irrevocably when I did a thing called the AIDS ride in Atlanta in the ‘90s, when every summer I would ride by bicycle from Minneapolis to Chicago, to raise money for HIV and AIDS (research), a 500-mile ride. There were two givens about that ride: You had to be 18, for liability purposes; (and) you had to raise $2,500. If you raised $2,499, you stayed home. You had to raise $2,500. Every person on the ride did it. And my second year, I was pedaling along in Wisconsin beside an 18-year-old who was struggling to keep up. And I looked down, and this kid’s wheels were a blur of yellow. And I said, “What is that?” And he said, “Well, you know, they’re Post-It notes.” And I said, “What gives?” And he said,” I really wanted to do this ride. I’d never raised a dime in my life. What did I know? And then I got this idea that if you gave me $150, which I thought all of my friends could do, I would make you a ‘spokes-person.’ And each Post-It note is the name of a different donor. I’m taking my donors on the ride with me” – which I found powerful – “and when I get to Chicago, I’m taking apart the wheels and mailing every donor their own spoke.”

That kid raised $17,000. And if a kid who has never raised a dime in his life can raise $17,000 for something he cares about, there is no limit to what a properly motivated and creative group of arts activists can accomplish.

I hope that your arts activism has been inspired by the transformative power of the arts, that you have climbed a set of stairs in a museum and seen an explosion of color and your life has been changed, or you’ve watched a dancer vault from the wings and your life has been changed, or you’ve been seated in a dark room and the lights have come up and you’ve seen a musician play or an actor speak and your life has been changed.

But more powerfully, this activism must spring from your love for Atlanta, because however important the arts have been, they will be more important going forward. Economically, look at the burgeoning growth of creative industries, all of which have been informed by design and arts ad infinitum, but in any industry, as we move toward consensual models of leadership, emotional intelligence, the ability to motivate, to instill commitment, integrity, collaboration, will be key to leaders, and those are the very things we take very time we take the stage or teach a child.

The arts will be more important educationally. Math- and science-emphasis education, however important, is not enough for the integrated left-right brain thinking the future demands. As Mike Huckabee, of all people, has said, math and science education without the arts is like making a database without a server. The arts will be more important as we move to a pluralistic, diverse society. As Francois Matarasso has observed, the arts enabled people with non-majority lives to represent themselves to the majority, to be the subjects of their own experience rather than the objects of characterizations by others.

Especially in this time, whatever side of the aisle you sat on for the last election, we agree this was the vituperative, divisive election any of us can remember. Especially in a time when media encourages a kind of humiliation ethic through reality TV, and even train station announcements to report suspicious behavior require us to look at our fellow human beings with hostility and fear and suspicion, the arts, whatever we do, invite us to come together with people not like ourselves and look at our fellow human beings with generosity and curiosity. God knows, if we have ever needed that capacity in human history, we need it now.

It is on that note that I salute you all not only as arts activists but social activists, pledged as you are through your support of the arts to a world characterized by tolerance, inclusion, compassion and hope. I’d like to promise the hand of the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation is outstretched to you both now and for years to come, and I’d like to thank you for your kindness and your patience in listening to me this afternoon.

Thank you, and Godspeed.

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