How they did it: Reaching new audiences with art

Originally published on the Knight Foundation blog, April 6, 2016.

Above: Osama Esid and Mizna, STILL / LIFE / SYRIA, Northern Spark 2015, presented by Northern Lights.mn and Mizna, Photo: Ian Plant.

An established and supportive community of arts patrons is one of the finest things a city can have, but if the art is only reaching those who know where to look for it, then it’s not living up to its potential. Fortunately, many Knight-funded projects take an eye toward reaching out to new audiences and bringing works of art to people who might not otherwise have the opportunity to experience them. These groups employ a range of strategies – from doing multi-disciplinary mash-ups like combining shadow puppetry and poetry, to adding modern-day twists to the classics.

Focusing on high-quality art as the draw

For Moheb Soliman, program director of the Saint Paul-based Arab-American arts program Mizna, reaching out to new audiences starts with establishing one basic fact: “We’re here! Arab-Americans have been right here making Midwestern lives like so many diverse others, and Mizna’s been here too, supporting both established and emerging artists delving into that experience.”

Along with spotlighting underseen writers, filmmakers and visual artists, Mizna seeks to promote the idea of Arab culture as a diverse cross-section of humanity. To do that, Mizna brings the artists into everyday spaces, like parks and coffee shops. They also bring in artists who can speak to their own day-to-day experiences and put a recognizable face on the artwork.

“We’ve become confident that if we can produce excellent and challenging literature, film, and other interdisciplinary work presenting Arab and Arab-American artists, then we can find partners and venues and audiences that want to engage with that,” said Soliman.

At the same time, Mizna builds a loyal base among Arab-Americans who find it powerful, and rare to see authentic Arab representations in the arts.

“In Mizna’s programming, we’re always striving to present a wide array of contemporary experiences, voices, and forms of expression, and letting that accumulate into a complex picture of Arab American life. We hope people leave our events seeing new idiosyncrasies, tensions, and depths, and to really see the human dimension in that,” Soliman said.

Mixing old and new to draw people to opera

Sometimes the hurdle to attracting new audiences is the art form itself. For instance, there are plenty of seasoned art lovers out there who believe they just plain don’t like opera. Detroit’s Opera Modo tackles that and several other preconceived notions with operatic productions that pull from both the classical and the modern. This February, for instance, Modo presented a gender-fluid adaptation of “Carmen” filtered through themes from the hit show “Orange is the New Black.”

Executive Director Danielle Wright, who describes Modo as “the gateway drug to opera,” said this was a conscious effort to attract both traditional and nontraditional audiences. “I wanted the opera lovers of the past to be excited by a new telling of this incredible story, and for newcomers to be excited as well. We are looking to make ‘classic’ operas relevant to today’s generation.” With little budget for promotion, Modo relied on social media and increased public interest in transgender issues to attract new viewers. According to Wright, it was a successful strategy. “More than half of our audience either hadn’t ever been to an opera or didn’t like an opera until ‘Carmen,’ so I feel like we did what we needed to do!”

Finding audiences where they already are

While Marc Levine didn’t experience quite as radical a conversion rate, his Saint Paul Classical Music Crawl, which featured performances by dozens of classical artists in galleries, coffee shops and public spaces throughout downtown Saint Paul, also did its share of proselytizing to fill seats for classical music.

Levine’s event took place alongside the popular Saint Paul Art Crawl, which meant a thousands-strong crowd of art hounds, although not necessarily classical music buffs. Levine estimates that the majority of his event’s attendees came out specifically to see some music, but a significant number came for the art and stayed for the classics. “There were 112 sets, so you’d have to have a lot of people to make them all well-attended, and many of them were full. That tells me that even if people came out for the Art Crawl they then found out about this and started going to it.”

Even if folks came into the Crawl with a preexisting taste for classical, Levine believes the event was able to expand their horizons. “We featured virtually every group that performs professional classical music in Saint Paul during the year, so people were introduced to a lot of groups they weren’t familiar with. That was a big part of what the project was about, to show people that there is in fact a classical music scene. People might have favorites, and those groups are good, but they’re not the only ones.”

Blending art forms to change perspectives

Poetry is another discipline that many laypeople assume they dislike, possibly because they haven’t been exposed to poems that speak to them. The O, Miami poetry project aims to combat that preconception with an impressive goal: “for every single person in Miami-Dade County to encounter a poem during the month of April.” According to Founder and Director P. Scott Cunningham, the message is getting through. “People tell us in person at events and also on surveys that the festival has changed their perception of the genre.”

That happens most often, Cunningham said, after an event like last year’s Manual Cinema show, which combined the poetry of Federico Garcia Lorca set to shadow poetry and live music in a courtyard of the up-and-coming Miami neighborhood Little River. “The audience is encountering poetry in a way they’ve never seen before,” Cunningham said.

Photo by Marika Lynch.

Spanning an area as physically and culturally broad as Miami requires a lot of adaptability. O, Miami approaches that challenge with a lot of poetry-in-public-places projects incorporating a broad range of art forms like dance, cooking, fashion and even hair styling.

“We want people to find the poems in places they already frequent,” said Cunningham. “This month, for instance, when people come to the Jackson Memorial Pharmacy (the second largest pharmacy, in terms of volume, in the country), we’ll have a table of ‘poetry prescriptions.’ Patients will get their regular prescriptions and then they’ll also get a pill bottle with a poem inside.”

Finding poems in everyday interactions fits in with the group’s notion of poetry as an inherently accessible art form.

“The beauty of poetry is that anyone can participate in it. Whoever you are, if you’re reading this, you have every single tool to make a poem that the Poet Laureate of the United States, Juan Felipe Herrera, has.”

This post is part of a series of profiles on how Knight Arts Challenge winners took their projects from idea to fruition.

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