Meows & Mini Golf: Audience Pandering?

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Walker Art Center

How are the arts – including the performing arts – remaining relevant for audiences today, while competing with multiple entertainment options? To keep people shelling out money for tickets, are the arts selling out?  Several recent news items inspired this week’s reflection.

Cat Video Festival Cancelled.  The Walker Art Center in Minneapolis announced last month it would not continue its wildly successful Internet Cat Video Festival, which had snowballed (furballed?) into an international phenomenon after its launch in 2012.

In a newspaper article, the Walker’s design director explained, “We think that cat videos will live on without us, and we’re really excited for other people to take up the mantle and program their own festivals.”

Debating the artistic merit of cat videos could fill its own blog. We admire the Walker for first embracing this creative idea and running with it. But it also takes courage to let go – to embrace a different Fresh Step® – rather than running it into the ground. “Paw-ndering” to cat lovers likely played a role in boosting the Walker’s profile and overall arts attendance, which rose 20% since the festival’s first year. But along with cat videos, the Walker might also credit mini golf.

Mini Golf to Master Works? Although it snowed in Minnesota last week, spring weather will be here soon, we hope. [In Georgia, that august golf tournament just concluded.] The Walker launches its fourth mini-golf season May 26, a nine-hole course installed on the museum’s rooftop terraces. In three previous years, the course was at the adjacent outdoor sculpture garden.

Mini golf at museums was cited in The Wall Street Journal last week, in a stimulating essay by arts critic Terry Teachout, titled “Pandering or Populism in the Arts.” He raises this question: Are cultural institutions responding to the wants and needs of their visitors or simply trying to sell tickets?

Teachout cites the Indianapolis Museum of Art’s own mini golf course, opening its inaugural season next month, and questions whether such attractions effectively lead to an audience’s deeper artistic exploration: Do museum mini golfers eventually go just for Van Gogh? The same museum recently conducted an online poll, asking which potential future exhibit topics would most likely attract visitors: forgery, cars, orchids or robotics. If poll results dictated, would there be mashed-up exhibits….Forged cars? Robotic orchids? Who should be driving these decisions?

Artistic Hell or Financial Haven? In his essay’s conclusion, Teachout defines pandering as giving patrons what they want – and nothing else. He believes such an approach is “a well-intentioned road that leads straight to artistic hell.” Along with museums, symphony orchestras and opera companies often face criticism for boosting arts attendance by programming only proven “hit” works while shunning the controversial or avant-garde.

Purists may see the populist approach as “selling out” but cultural institutions need to sell enough tickets to ensure financial viability. Only solvent arts organizations will be around long enough to ever challenge audiences to move beyond comfortable, familiar offerings.

Your Thoughts?  Can arts organizations pander without selling out?

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