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Be Present


“We will still create, write, perform, sing, dance, and anything else we can, because that’s what we do. We will react and generate, we will reinvent and challenge, and we will fight, because we can, and not just for ourselves but for others, too.”

~ Hrag Vartanian

This election showed a severe and dramatic divide in the United States, one that has been recognized and attempted to be bridged, but was largely underestimated until now. The result of not only the presidential election but also congressional will have major effects on the arts community in many ways, from direct government funding to tax-deductions for donors to administrative battles threatening budgets and operations. These battles we have fought in the past and will continue to do so moving forward. Let us not forget the greater battle: the fight to understand the other.

We have an opportunity and a duty now to create the dialogue, to get people talking to each other and listening to different perspectives.

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Throughout history there is evidence of artistic activity being directly affected by political atmospheres, from dramatic stifling during the world wars due to severe political climates to the intellectual growth we experienced during the culture wars not so long ago. Ultimately, we as artists exist to tell stories, to create dialogue, to listen, to understand, and to connect with one another. When all other languages fail, art can still be understood by those who don’t understand each other.

We have an opportunity and a duty now to create the dialogue, to get people talking to each other and listening to different perspectives. We need to be present. Without the art community and its natural platform to build connections, our communities will fall back on fighting, dissension and hatred, and art will become secondary and stifled. This is the time to get people in the door who have never been before. We cannot afford to ignore those in our communities who have ignored us. We need their support to grow and flourish as organizations, as individuals, and continue to produce great art.

When we think about marketing and audience development in the arts, it is often from the perspective of meeting budgets and creating accessibility for those who have less. Ultimately, we need to sell tickets in order to survive. But we also think about where our audiences are going, who they are and what they think about. This is the time to create a clear understanding of those who support us and rally their loyalty to keep our programs robust, but more importantly to understand the segment that is not in the door yet and how to get them there. This is our challenge, but this is our moment.

We need to invest in audience development that extends a hand to those who have never experienced what we have to offer in a way that is relatable, accepting and fulfilling. To use our art to bring people together is a noble cause, not one of evangelism, but one of service. We serve our communities by listening, by tolerating, by understanding. The election has revealed a massive divide—and it has identified our largest segment yet to be cultivated. Data show that nearly 50% of both major political parties say they are genuinely terrified of their opposition. By increasing marketing efforts and audience entrance points that break down barriers of artistic elitism, we can provide a place for those to turn and in return, grow our artistic community.

This is an opportunity for us to remind our audiences of what we do and why we are so important. This moment is crucial to making sure that each of our constituents knows that they are valued and part of a whole support system that keeps great art alive. We now need to understand the audiences we have not yet reached in order to continue our growth. We cannot ignore the populations we deem unresponsive because of a label we did not give them. It is our duty to intentionally reach out to those in our communities who don’t understand what we do or the art we produce and listen to them, talk to them, create dialogue with them and ultimately—win them.

This is not a catastrophe. There is no decisively unresponsive people group birthed from the results of this democratic cycle. This is a list of people who have raised their hands when asked for an opinion. Let’s seize the moment and get them to raise their hands to us asking the questions.

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About the Author:

Our guest author is Mary Speta, Manager of Annual Fund and Special Events, at the Boston Youth Symphony Orchestra.

Mary tells us, "I wrote the piece because I genuinely believe that moments of conflict are moments of opportunity for artists. I've been a musician for a while and the most amazing artistic experiences I've been a part of were birthed from difficult circumstances—leading to great communal growth. Through my work as a musician and development officer, I have seen the difference it makes when a community can appreciate others' perspectives. I've worked in communities with deep seeded divisions in the past and watched people come together through art. I wanted to encourage others at the organizational level to engage with their neighbors through their artistic endeavors during a time when many communities are experiencing deep divisions and applaud those who do this so well."

Mary is currently pursuing a Masters in Arts Administration at Boston University.