Earlier today I attended what was originally billed as a debate but was changed to a "Town Hall" at a studio in downtown Toronto. It will be televised at 8pm on Thursday, October 2nd on Bravo. It turned out to be a thoughtful examination of the major issues at stake in the current arts discussion. I liked that the nominal question the panel was trying to address "does art matter" was quickly thrown out by saying "yes, it does" and we were able to move onto deeper discussions.
I went with Catherine from Play Anon and multi-disciplinarian Kristine Maitland. Sitting next to me was the lovely Alex Dallas and in front of her producer extraordinaire, Naomi Campbell. The rest of the front row were three wonderful ladies who I have seen around but never got the chance to get the names of. We were the only ones sitting on one set of risers and I dubbed us the womens' power section. We were also the section of heavy sarcasm and honestly, we had the most fun of anyone between taping. However, they sat us behind part of the panel so we knew we weren't the chosen ones who'd get to ask questions, which of course led to us snarking some more. They should have taped us, we had high entertainment value.
Of course, after the panel chatted for a bit (a good panel actually) and they threw the floor open to questions, the first person was an actor and he made a statement rather than a question, although his statement was pertinent. But the rest of the questioners were an actual cross-section: Sara Diamond, a pioneer in the area of collaboration between artist and scientists and new media; an 25-year veteran international promoter, a film festival head, and the guy who ran the PromArt program out of Foreign Affairs.
But the most excitement ran through the room when a sharp-dressed young man said, "My name is James Bradshaw and I write for the Globe and Mail." Everyone who has been part of this recognized his name immediately as the writer of the article that, as Catherine put it, "legitimized us". He was also the only reporter to do comprehensive coverage of the ACTRA press conference last week, and has been the only reporter to get Stephen Harper to actually talk about the arts. Immediately Catherine and I turned to each other and said, "I have to meet him" and knew we weren't the only ones. It was fascinating to see him when the taping was over and all these people coming up to him - he had no idea what a hero he's become in the community over his work on this issue.
He also managed to surprise me by mentioning that he was sent a link to this blog. It's pretty amazing to me what the last few weeks has brought. I've met over this wonder of the internet people in other areas of the industry I never would have crossed paths with.
I was approached by a journalism student from Carleton to talk about PromArt and what was supposed to be a brief informational interview turned into an in-depth discussion. Now she's planning to use me as one of her main sources. I started that interview saying how odd it is that I've been defending these programs that this company didn't even qualify for. After going on about theatre in Australia, New Zealand and Canada, the current state of international touring, and going on a million digressions, I ended the interview by saying that I wanted to be saying at the end of all of this (whenever that is, it's certainly long after the election) that I did all I could. And I'm now seeing that I'm making a difference. It's reassuring.
The town hall was disappointing in that we had all these amazing people in the room but no real opportunity to talk with each other. At least we're beginning to come to a consensus that we need to reach out and fix our PR problem, which is definitely a lot faster than I expected a couple of weeks ago.
Yesterday I was at a friend's party and I was in the room with a actor/playwright, a visual artist, an arts board member, a teacher and a couple of audience members and we had our own little salon about this issue. The visual artist came up with a great idea when the conversation turned to the question of establishing arts within the larger societal context. He suggested we build a true community cultural complex - an art gallery, a theatre, and an arena. I was relieved I wasn't the only one who had thought about the arts/sports connection.
We also talked about looking at changing the funding structure and agreed that one of the biggest challenges is that most marketing for the arts sucks. There's reasons for this, due both the small budgets we actually have for marketing and the trouble we have in keeping good marketers because we can only pay them a fraction of what the corporate sector can offer them. Marketing in theatre has been a pet project of the blogfather, Ian Mackenzie, over at Theatre is Territory, and Simon over at The Next Stage has been doing a great series on the art of business.
There's some great info out there but we're still in the infant stages of working it effectively. It's hard because the people who could benefit the most from this have the time factor - working a job to pay the rent, then trying to fit in the remaining time all the elements involved in artistic creation, some time for themselves to keep sane, and you're not left with much time to properly leverage these tools. So finding some way to be able to better market what we do, thus being able to create more revenue I think needs to be part of this larger discussion.
Earlier today I was at Word on the Street and stopped by the Toronto Star tent where there was a session with Geoff Pevere (book critic), Peter Howell (film critic), and the ever controversial Richard Ouzounian talking about what they do and I was reminded of the power that Ouzounian has to control the success of a show. If he raves about it, the sales get a huge jump. If he dislikes it, the show stalls. And all that boils down to one person's opinion and that is not something that can be predicted or show up as a line item in a budget. And I know the power of the critics is a whole other discussion but I feel it's something that has to be addressed at some point. It plays into audience education, when we get that far.
There's so much more I want to say but it's really, really late. And to think a year ago I was struggling to come up with content!
So in summation (short posts are really not my strong suit) I'm getting my wish of having the discussions of both how we can rethink the funding models to be more effective, a discussion that's been born out of necessity of trying to relate to the group of people who have a huge problem with their tax money going to the arts; and the realization of the extent of the PR problem and a commitment towards remedying it. All in all, a good week's work.