'Culture Track '17' Finds American Definition of Culture Changing

Jordan Riefe

A new study shows the distinction between fine art and pop art becoming blurred, as Benjamin Millepied and other city arts leaders discuss the implications for museums and creators.

It was bound to happen in the pop culture capitol of the world; a vanishing distinction between high- and lowbrow art. In their new Culture Track '17 study, New York City marketing and design firm LaPlaca Cohen found that the difference between opry and opera has become blurred among American audiences. With so many TV shows and movie options available to the average consumer, theater, opera, dance and the philharmonic have become choices on a menu that might include Star Wars: The Last Jedi or the latest episode of Game of Thrones.

In recent years, curators have increasingly turned to Hollywood for must-see exhibitions, including a 2011 show on Tim Burton's drawings and paintings alongside props from his movies. A year later, LACMA had a display of costumes, props and storyboards from the movies of Stanley Kubrick, and 2016's blockbuster exhibit At Home With Monsters featured memorabilia from Guillermo del Toro's Bleak House collection. 

"If this traditional notion of culture is changing, why do we even continue using the word?" LaPlaca Cohen CEO Arthur Cohen asked during a Dec. 11 gathering of museum administrators at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County. "This is something we grappled with until we realized the very people who were pushing at this definition were in fact actively proposing a new idea of what culture is."

That study found that more than a third of art museum-goers did not think art museums were a cultural experience, and over half of theatergoers felt the same. Audiences were more likely to consider a street fair or exotic food and drink a cultural experience than opera or ballet. Eighty-one percent of respondents said they attend cultural events for fun, while "interest in content" and "experiencing new things" ranked second and third.

Although accessibility has commonly been considered the greatest inhibitor to attendance, among those who abstain 34 percent say such events are "not for someone like me." And diverse audiences are eighty-two percent more likely to stay home if content doesn't reflect people from all backgrounds.

"Unless people can understand and see themselves as being A) invited, and B) included in the experience of your organization, they won’t come inside," Cohen said. "Unless they see it welcoming people from a range of backgrounds, they don’t think you’ll be genuine in your effort to invite them in."

A panel discussion followed the presentation including KCET chief creative officer Juan Devis, Hammer Museum senior curator Anne Ellegood, artist Charles Gaines, L.A. Dance Project artistic director Benjamin Millepied and PST: LA/LA digital marketer Lucy Redoglia. Moderating the talk was Los Angeles Times arts and culture editor Laurie Ochoa.

"I think PST: LA/LA is a great example of embracing Latin American and Latino audiences with their own community-represented artworks," Redoglia said of the ongoing exhibit encompassing some 70 SoCal art institutions. "This was something that we planned before the election. But since the election happened it took on this other meaning as well, such as, 'Why build a wall? Why do we have to worry about all these cultural differences when we can be an inclusive community and show the contributions of artists?'"

More valuable (and cheaper) than advertising, social media has become a primary marketing tool for cultural institutions. Unfortunately, among millennials and Gen-Xers it has replaced subscribing as a way to show support. And while social media phenomena like Yayoi Kusama's Infinity Mirrors, currently at The Broad, and Random International’s Rain Room, at LACMA from 2015 to 2017, prove overwhelmingly popular, critics have noted a tendency for institutions, and in some cases artists, to curate and design with Instagram in mind.

"It's great to see social media taking such a larger role in decision making," Redoglia said, brushing off the concerns. "It’s really fascinating to see this snowball moment social media can have on these cultural experiences and bringing people in based on word of mouth, where it’s not the institution telling them to visit, it’s their peers."

The study surveyed roughly 4,000 culturally engaged people across the United States on issues of diversity and changing media, as well as culture’s impact, patterns of consumption and a shifting philanthropic landscape.

"It’s always changing," says KCET’s Devis. "And when you think you have figured something out of how to engage, then it’s over and something new comes up. So I think we need to be flexible enough to experiment with those things. Sometimes we get too ingrained in old habits."

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