Finding the post-Rationalist audience

Jeremy Eccles meets US cultural facilitator, Jerry Yoshitomi

Jerry Yoshitomi

Jerry Yoshitomi

Jerry Yoshitomi

A lot of international arts consultants spout long words and are masters of the incomprehensible pie-chart thrown up on a screen. But how many can bring their theories down to the practical problems of an independent artist, a small dance centre or a community art gallery? In Jerry Yoshitomi, though, we may well have found a really practical consultant who is also tapped into the ‘public value’ zeitgeist that promises a post-Rationalist era in the arts.

For this American guru, born in Los Angeles to the children of migrants from Japan who’d arrived as long ago as 1910, sees it as his task to “distill all that academic research being published telling us how to engage new audiences, how to ‘broaden and deepen’ their numbers and experience, and turn it into usable chunks. I advise arts people not to read whole books of such advice, but to read the one useful chapter in 10 different books,” he says.

Or you could just go to a Yoshitomi workshop. He gave them in Sydney and Melbourne in September, plus public lectures in both cities and Canberra as part of the Australia Council’s Leading Voices 2005 program, which also brought in Ruud Breteler from The Netherlands to talk about a theatre focused on non-mainstream Dutch populations, and the English duo of Andrew McIntyre and Gerri Morris to discuss audience-building in both the performing arts and museums and galleries.

Not that you’d necessarily have been wooed by the language used by the Australia Council! The brochure advertising Yoshitomi suggested that “Participants will become familiar with a behavioural model of participation and understand consumer and client decision-making processes by exploring the drivers that influence decision-making and methods to reduce the barriers that discourage participation”. Whoopee!

When I taxed the man himself, it came down to the beautifully simple: “The arts are an emotional experience—they need to be taken back from the rationalists and the elites so that people feel free to be moved. At the Krannert Center in Illinois, for instance, we came up with slogan ‘Come as you are, leave different’.”

Yes, Yoshitomi is admitting that the arts have provided a place for an elite to hang out and divide themselves from the masses. “They almost spit on people at classical concerts who clap at the end of a movement because they were excited by what they heard. But that’s how it was done when that music was first played—and orchestras would repeat that movement. Now, at Krannert they have an ‘afterglow’ session at each concert so that people can drink a coffee and share their experiences with others—maybe even strangers. All the research is showing there’s a great deal of the social gathering to art-going. The arts therefore need to create social opportunities outside the theatre, concert hall or gallery.”

And this will require greater flexibility than Jerry Yoshitomi often finds in “the fixed mindset of executive leadership in the arts—especially in big organisations. At the top they think they know it all—senior management is apparently too busy solving problems to gain the new knowledge necessary to do just that. The fact is you can’t solve a problem with the same consciousness that created it. But the big boys mostly sent younger or mid-level managers to my workshops in Australia. They’ll only actually move when someone of a similar ‘world-class status’ makes a change. Small organisations are much more nimble.”

By way of example, Yoshitomi cites the tiny Nanaimo Theatre on Vancouver Island that worked out (with him) the idea of surveying its subscribers for their happiest arts experience of the past year, took photos of a nice demographic range and threw them into its next year’s brochure, all between April and June. “‘People like me are going there and having fun’ is a great message to get across”, explains Yoshitomi; “though we also used lines like ‘My father and I don’t get on, but we share an interest in music…’. Then we talked about organising neighbourhood parties for subscribers in the off-season. That’s creating social connections in a small town.”

And that was an idea picked up by Fiona Burnett, Melbourne workshop participant, jazz artist and Australia Council Music Board member. “I’d never thought of getting the postcode of my CD-buyers before”, she explained. “But what a resource to use to lobby their local festival organisers to book me for a concert. And I’m also working on the idea of listing my favourite I-tunes on my web-site, then getting users to list theirs. It’s certainly not polluting my ‘art’ to know what works, what can develop and maintain my audience. Self-sufficiency is pretty essential for the independent artist in this competitive day and age”.

Burnett is also thinking outside the comfort zone of the jazz clubs where she normally performs. And that sort of flexibility is required, says Yoshitomi—to find the ‘Echo-B’ audience (under 25s), who need less social organising, but do need more time. “Time’s the big barrier these days. A 3-hour concert is a real problem for them—though they’ll happily slip into a gallery for 15 minutes at 9.30pm (if it’s open) prior to a night at a club. So we need to think up patterns like the 20 minute concerts that the New World Symphony in Miami do—every hour from 7pm. Or the Tokyo plan where they play a big Mahler symphony twice, at 6 and 9pm, either before or after dinner. And let’s face it, just one piece that demanding does allow you to really concentrate.”

Craig Donarski, marketing man at the Sydney Opera House Producers’ Unit was an enthusiastic participant in Sydney. He was particularly concerned about the preponderance of women amongst the SOH Studio’s ‘fashionably wired’ audience. “Only 55% of them are female, but 75% of the tickets are bought by them. They’re dragging their blokes along. Now, we’re already keeping shows down to 70 minutes, and we’ve done things like adjusting the starting time on Thursdays which were a disaster until we realised they had to shop as well that night. But I think we may need to play on the ‘Chicks go to the theatre’ line, and set up a speed-dating area in the foyer afterwards where singles can meet and discuss the show. QPAC already markets Admit One—Share the Excitement to Brisbane singles—and that’s right across the range of shows from the Queensland Theatre Company, the Queensland Orchestra and the commercial Merchants of Bollywood.”

Yoshitomi stressed that these single-ticket buyers are different people from subscribers—whose numbers are beginning to crumble according to the Adaptistration website on orchestra management (www.artsjournal.com/adaptistration). Unamplified references to Mahler or Brahms in brochures for the latter need to be replaced by comments like ‘Brahms, the lush Romantic’ or ‘Mahler, the Monty Python of composers’ for the tyros. And Sasha Iwanick of Melbourne’s Comedy Festival, took up the idea that such “cheat sheets would definitely help to break the elitism down. And then there’s so much technology these days—I’m definitely looking to use mobile phone interactivity to take the Comedy Festival to the people effectively.”

But in a sense, these were mere details. It was the post-Rationalist, emotional stuff that came as the greatest surprise to Yoshitomi workshop participants—we’ve all been entwined in the ‘business of the arts’ and ‘arts economy’ lines for so long. “But why not?”, said Iwanick. “We’re moving towards an experience economy, even at the shopping mall.” And Fiona Burnett “really liked the idea of ‘memory objects’—the power of even those bloody mouse-ears from Disneyland to recall an event, an emotion”.

As Bridget Ikin, producer of the 2005 AFI Awards Winner for Best Direction and Best Film, Look Both Ways, commented recently: “We observed how the film affected people emotionally—revealing a craving for films that speak quite deeply to the national psyche about things like anxiety and fear. So we previewed the film heavily to maximise its positive word of mouth quality.”

The final link in the chain is to sell all this new emotional, even intellectual value back to sponsors and government paymasters. “Arts managers need to be more aggressive”, insists Yoshitomi. “There’s a great spirit of innovation here, a preparedness to scour the globe for answers. But they’re reluctant to sell the combination of emotional and entertainment value because of the taint of ‘entertainment.’ But if sponsors can connect their name to a ‘great experience’, they’ll be happy. And if society can gain a better understanding of, say, Islamic culture as a result of an interesting exhibition, then there’s a clear public benefit which any government should buy.”

Leading Voices: Jerry Yoshitomi, From Transaction to Transformation, presented by Australia Council’s Community Partnerships and Market Development Division with fuel4arts; Melbourne, Sydney, Canberra; Sept 6-17

RealTime issue #70 Dec-Jan 2005 pg. 40

© Jeremy Eccles; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

1 December 2005