Arts Extra: 21st-Century Fandom

By Daney Daniel Kepple


Let’s play devil’s advocate. What would it mean if Robert Priddy’s nightmare materialized—after the current generation of patrons is gone, the arts disappeared in America?

In terms of hard numbers, there would be a loss of $166.2 billion in annual economic activity, 5.7 million jobs would disappear and the federal coffers would shrink by $29.6 billion according to the nonprofit group Americans for the Arts. The National Endowment for the Arts maintains that the noneconomic costs would be even higher, for “arts participants are active people who volunteer, exercise and go out to movies, concerts and sporting events at higher rates than nonparticipants.”

How likely is such a calamity to occur? The subject is addressed in detail in Engaging Art, a book compiled by Bill Ivey and Steven J. Tepper of the Curb Center for Art, Enterprise and Public Policy at Vanderbilt and funded by the Wallace Foundation. The book gathers input from a variety of scholars and experts in American culture who hint that the future of the arts in this country may be bright indeed—but markedly different from the current scene.

The bad news is that audiences for traditional arts venues—opera, symphony, ballet, theatre and museums—are static or growing very slowly. As Tepper writes in the book’s conclusion, “for most Americans, especially younger ones, engagement with hallowed master works is simply not the way they experience art and culture. For them, art is connected to everyday life; it is not a treasure to be taken out on special occasions, admired and celebrated. Culture is like modeling clay—something to be kneaded and worked on, rolled across the fingers until it takes the shape and contour of one’s own hand.”

What has changed everything, of course, is the Internet which has created a virtual world for the arts that is dramatically different from the one in which participants are required to show up in person, arrayed in finery. Such changes may be horrifying to the traditionalist, but they present a plethora of opportunities such as:

  • Greater access to niche markets for offbeat artists unable to make the cut via traditional distribution channels
  • More control for individual consumers who can program their own experiences by downloading individual songs or caching concerts
  • Online fan clubs and discussion groups
  • Sharply increased participation in creating art through such media as blogs, amateur filmmaking, self-publishing, etc.
     In fact, according to the authors, technology has created a new cultural hierarchy based not on access to arts venues but on “how and where citizens get information and culture.” 

Does this mean that symphony orchestras, opera companies, art museums and playhouses will soon be distant memories? Not if administrators are media savvy, for they can use the Internet to bolster participation in the arts. In fact, they are already doing so. E-zines and blogs and online fan clubs can build enthusiasm and participation. It’s all a matter of rethinking strategies based on awareness of the tastes of a new and expanding group of potential cultural mavens.

Tepper is both encouraging and challenging in his final analysis.

“Part of the challenge for policymakers who care about arts participation is to encourage more fan-like behavior—more connoisseurship and conversations,” he writes. “Fandom is more than being a season ticket holder: It means becoming an active member of a community in which the enjoyment and pleasure of participating includes sharing opinions, linking up with others and incorporating one’s cultural interests into daily life and conversation.

“Raising the bar of participation—forcing audience members to go beyond mere attendance to become connoisseurs and critics—seems like a daunting challenge in a world where time and attention are scarce. But, somehow, millions and millions of sports fans rise to the occasion every day, finding time to read the sports pages, analyzing and responding to sports blogs, discussing and debating players, coaching strategies, rule changes and controversial calls.

“For these audiences, fandom seems like a natural part of their lives. Cultural vitality requires the same devotion and commitment.”

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