Back from Chicago, where I had a wonderful time meeting Dance/USA members from around the country and hearing Vanderbilt sociology professor Steven Tepper discuss his forthcoming book (co-edited with Bill Ivey) ?Engaging Art: The Next Great Transformation of America?s Social Life? at Friday morning?s opening session. From the synopsis provided, the book seems to synthesize a great deal of research as well as an astute understanding of trends from blogging, online communities, and the ease of producing art due to cheaply available technologies (think Mac?s ?Garage Band?) to propose that art in America is entering a new ?folk art? period of ?amateur art makers? who are happy to pursue their music or writing or dancing or painting in their free time and no longer see art-making as such a rarified professional realm. The message Tepper offered for choreographers and presenters was that audiences today don?t want to simply enter the theater and consume art like a product; they want to engage with it, have the curtain drawn back on the process of creating it, be in relationship with it. He talked about the popularity of shows like ?Dancing with the Stars? and ?So You Think You Can Dance? (and took an interesting impromptu poll?about half of the choreographers and presenters detested ?Dancing with the Stars? and about half liked it) as reflecting this new ethos that anyone can be an artist. And he offered a lesson: The old model for presenters and dance companies, Tepper said, was offering audiences value; instead they should be offering the chance to create meaning.
I haven?t read the book yet, and so can?t offer much response to its theories, but I was especially struck by Tepper?s yoking of three obvious trends: the rise of the amateur, the audiences? desire to be in relationship or dialogue rather than spoken to from on high, and the desire to have the ?curtain drawn back? and be behind the scenes. I wondered what they meant for me as a dance writer.
The panel I served on, just after Tepper?s, was practically oriented, so I didn?t theorize much. Instead, as the representative blogger speaking on ?Connecting with Audiences via the Press, the Web, and In-Person,? I pointed out some of my favorite dance blogs (culled from the list of 70 and growing on Doug Fox?s Great Dance): The Winger, Apollinaire Scherr, Ann Murphy, for starters. I talked about the ease and cheapness of blogging, the way it allowed me to sustain a dance writing presence back when the Chronicle wasn?t using me much, and the way it?s allowed me to be in direct dialogue with my readers, even though I haven?t exploited this fully for some time. And I exhorted choreographers and companies to try launching their own blogs.
Meanwhile, the Boston Herald?s Theodore Bale gave nuts and bolts tips on getting your dance company covered in the newspaper (that old chestnut, have strong photographs), and our moderator Suzanne Carbonneau talked about offering program notes and pre-performance talks, etc. Doug McLennan, founder of the indispensable arts news aggregating site Arts Journal, laid out the new media landscape for the crowd: newspapers are suffering because they haven?t figured out how to monetize the web, and we?re in an awkward phase of not knowing what model will replace them.
I hope the panel was useful. But I kept thinking of all that Tepper had said during the earlier panel. And I wondered if, despite all my evangelizing, the migration of dance writing from newspapers and onto the web weren?t so bad for dance and dance writing at all, but only for me personally. After all, the unpaid writing found at the online DanceView Times is as informed and insightful or often far moreso than what can be found printed in the dailies, even if it speaks directly to a dance audience rather than a broader public. Do dance reviews in newspapers ever draw general readers to dance anyway, or is that a na?ve fantasy? Perhaps it is simply more efficient to let dance lovers find what they want to read directly online, and write directly for them.
Perhaps I mostly bemoan the leeching of arts coverage from print publications because I happen to want to make a living at it, and happen to cherish an ideal of writing for the widest audience possible.
But with many competent and even dazzlingly talented dance writers willing to write for free, is the dance world any worse off?
And, a forecast: Perhaps the writers who will make it through this new media/old media shakeout are the ones who take full advantage of blogging and the web to relentlessly self-promote, to build their audiences directly instead of relying on print publications as portals, to cultivate their personal ?brand? as a writer. Perhaps the writers who make it are the ones who figure out how to convert their web presence, via advertising or some other channel, to income.
I don?t think I?m enterprising enough for this new landscape.
INCIDENTALLY: Doug?s Arts Journal is hosting a group blog conversation about the new book ?Engaging Art,? in anticipation of the Nashville conference ?Every City, Music City,? here.