By Maureen Aylward
This transcript was edited for clarity and length. Watch the full episode: Cape Ann Report: Changing Art Audiences
As producer and host of Cape Ann Report, I identify relevant and important topics to cover and find guests who have the expertise to talk about the issues of concern to our communities. For this show on changing art audiences, my guests were:
Maureen Aylward (Maureen): While we do have a significant traditional art scene on Cape Ann, attracting new art audiences and engaging them is an important conversation and traditional things can be shaken up. Right?
So Jackie, we’re going to start with you. You’ve done a lot of research in this area. You’ve been engaged in the Cape Ann artist community for a long time. Why don’t you give us the big picture about what’s happening and what’s changing with art audiences.
Jacqueline: It was really interesting to review research from various foundations including Americans for the Arts and The National Endowment for the Arts. Apparently everybody’s been struggling. Nationally, there is a tremendous shift in the demographics of our audiences; they are aging out.
The statistics are scary, especially within the big institutions. Depending on who is sponsoring and running the organization, big art institutions actually reflect corporate demographics and biases, especially in the museum world. Additionally, with technology as a root cause, lifestyles have changed in basic ways, such as actual hours and length of the workday, and telecommuting versus actual commuting. Moving away from the traditional 9 to 5 work day seems to be having an impact on all of us.
Here’s a quote from the program director of performing arts at the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation in the San Francisco Bay Area. I feel it reflects the situation in our tiny island microcosm, at least a little. “At a fundamental level, arts organizations are grappling with how to remain relevant in a rapidly evolving society. At the same time, technology has radically transformed when, where, and how people engage in the arts. Arts organizations know they need to adapt but they’re still figuring out the best way to do so. We are seeing a lot of experimentation in the field to try to inspire public engagement with the arts” (Veltman, 2018).
I think our goal is to look at some of the transitions happening on Cape Ann and examine our different perspectives. I came to Cape Ann as a marketer and got involved in the arts through seArts initially and then started the Wearable Art group. For the last five or six years, I’ve been a member of the Cape Ann Artisans.
I’m a marketer first and then an artist and I see the issues that many traditional artists don’t see. Just getting people to see your art, never mind selling it, you have to be accountable. If you really want to sell your art, there can be no excuses. I hold myself accountable, and I expect my peers to be accountable for holding up their end. Things are really shifting, and we’ll try to bring all the different issues into the discussion.
Maureen: Jill and Bob, you are artists and own a gallery in Rockport called iartcolony. What’s your perspective right now of the audience that you’re trying to engage and bring up here? Describe your work as ambassadors, artists, and gallery owners.
Jill Armstrong (Jill): Over 20 years ago, Bob read me a quote from Horace Mann: “Be ashamed to die until you have achieved some victory for humanity.” So I dumped corporate America, and we decided to start on this path as artists. In 2005, Bob and I felt it was hard for young talented artists to break in because they did not have a place to show. It’s hard to break into Newbury Street or to own a gallery in Rockport.
I wanted to stand for independent, idealistic, and slightly irreverent innovation and was going to operate through the internet. Then, by chance, we found our space in Rockport in 2009, and we have exhibition space and have worked with many artists from Boston. We were introduced to the School of the Museum of Fine Arts in 2012, which turned us on to new perspectives. We could see how that community was producing and supporting artists and being successful with art. We wanted to bring that to Cape Ann. So we’ve been bringing Boston artists up here and turning them onto the Cape Ann area.
Maureen: Bob, do you have an example of what you’re doing?
Bob Armstrong (Bob): We’re calling it titles like New Visions and New Visionaries and Repopulate the Rookery to create a sense of community. Our next show is called Commune: to commune, to communicate. We’ve been Cape Anners technically since 1970. People don’t realize that. So we’re not new to the area. We’ve been here a long time, and when we came back, things seemed to be flat. So, we felt we needed to go on the road, to do some outreach, do some proactive shows that would bring urban and contemporary audiences up here to stimulate the scene.
I would say those efforts have worked to a large extent. There are some entities on Cape Ann doing significant work, but we need others doing more to make the scene relevant again. These efforts are of the utmost importance because we don’t want to become a culture of museums and condos. That’s why we work hard at it.
Jill: Right. Exactly. The Rockport Art Association approached us for a brainstorming session. They asked, “How can we bring new audiences up here?” And we said, “Why don’t you put on a show with the School of the Museum of Fine Arts faculty and alums. Put together a show to introduce Rockport to what contemporary art is today.” I think they’ve been afraid of contemporary art. They asked us to do it, so we pulled a show together and tried to have a diverse group, to have art that couldn’t be denied.
Maureen: What is that? A diverse group and the art that can’t be denied? Give me an example of the kind of pieces that you were bringing here to exhibit.
Jill: Photography has not received much acceptance as an art form on Cape Ann. So we brought in two photographers. Their works are completely unlike painting, and it’s undeniably incredible. Matt Gamber is an SMFA alum, a teacher at Holy Cross, and a real innovator. His subject matter revolves around history and science and his work is beautiful and cool.
Nancy Bower, who’s the Dean of the SMFA is a feminist philosopher. We brought her into the Shaman show because we said the Shaman show was for artists who found their creativity from within. And to me she’s completely an artist and she knits. So she made a shaman shawl, a Pi shawl based on 3.14, and she used colors that were healing to her.
Maureen: Because we’re exposed to so much on our phones and through different types of media, it sounds like you’re trying to bring that piece up here. What are some of the other thoughts you have about audiences, introducing them to new forms of art or these new provocative shows that you’re having? We have a piece sitting here on the table. I just want to recognize that. Tell our viewers about what you’re doing with Motif Zero.
Jill: Motif Zero is riffing off an idea of Aldro Hibbard and Anthony Thieme. In 1933, they built a float replica of Motif No. 1, drove it to the Chicago World’s Fair, received a standing ovation from 80,000 people and won first prize. The Cape Ann art community has waxed and waned since then, so we want to recreate the excitement from 1933 with a motif of the 21st century. This is a miniature prototype created by Giana Stewart, a public artist in Boston. The actual Motif Zero, eventually, will be a 20-foot long glowing beacon of hope that we want to drive to Art Basel Miami in 2020.
Maureen: Motif No. 1 is beloved of artists around the world. Those of us who live here seem to have a deep inner connection to this place and there’s something about this iconic fishing shack that makes a difference in people’s lives.
Jill: We also feel that The Motif is the seed of art in America. We did a show in 2015 and invited 18 artists to do their interpretation of Motif No. 1. Most of them just fell in love with it as a composition and ended up producing pieces which were unlike their usual work. Well known local artist, Tom Nicholas, said about Motif No. 1: “The landscape, the building, you can’t find it anywhere in America. In Cornwall, England, yes.” The Motif is an icon. It’s worn and the sea is about to carry it away. We want to give it new life and put it back on the map.
Maureen: So you’re bringing this float idea back to life. And an artist has created a small replica?
Jill: Yes and we are raising money for the 20-foot full size float.
Bob: This small replica has already traveled to Miami and New York City where it was well received. We think that a 20-foot long traveling version could be a spectacular public art event in 2020. And we would encourage Cape Anners to come down when we pull this off. Giana Stewart, the artist, is a magician. She created a spiritual structure, the essence of Motif No. 1, by decontextualizing, deconstructing, and resurrecting it as Motif Zero. We’ve been working with Rockport Exchange and other artists and the community to get behind this new vision. It will take a village to make this float and travel down the eastern seaboard.
Jacqueline: What Jill and Bob are doing is significant. They are melding the best of the old and the new to raise the bar in such a creative way. And they do it thoughtfully without offending what’s here but recognizing that things have to change. There is a kind of intimate collaboration happening everywhere. For instance, three or four arts organizations of different genres identified 10 audience members they had in common and then created a special club for these people. They gave the members special experiences and made them their ambassadors.
Maureen: What is your vision? If you were to rebuild an art scene. What would you like to see?
Bob: We want to cultivate and nurture young and emerging artists as well as established artists of significant talent. We want to bring them to Cape Ann and we want them to stay here, show here, and sell here. Some of this is happening already with our iartcolony residency. We offer tours to any artist or patron who wants to come. We give them an intimate experience of this place. In response, they are reinterpreting Cape Ann and it’s really a gift.
Jill: The New York and Boston artists flock to Cape Ann for inspiration and renewal.
Jacqueline: When artists spread the word about each other they create a buzz around new forms and genres by creating powerful personal stories. This buzz is another layer of engaging the new audience and inspiring buyers of diverse ages and demographics.
Jill: We need to take advantage of the youth because they are the social media gurus.
Maureen: How are you seeing the interaction around art change with technology and social media?
Bob: Here’s one example of using Facebook and Instagram: A collector couple from Cape Ann came to the Propaganda opening at iartcolony and purchased something they had seen on Facebook in Miami. They show up at the opening and said: “We came for this.” That’s a cool thing. It’s amazing what social media technology can do for instantaneous sales. You just don’t even know the impact you’re actually having.
Jacqueline: Instagram seems to be the most powerful tool right now for visual art. But there’s also Spotify for music. Seventy-five percent of newer audiences, Millennials and Gen-Xs and Ys, look at and experience things online first. This means having the freedom to walk into a gallery and museum and take pictures and talk about it and share it.
Maureen: That is not allowed in most places, right?
Jacqueline: Either the artist says, “I don’t want any pictures taken,” or the gallery says you can’t take pictures. Museums are still very much like that. They are not used to letting these spaces be opened up and more accessible. They’re not used to that level of sharing. They are so worried about somebody copying something. And yet studies show that museums that allow filming and other live media access experience significant changes in their audiences just because of one such policy change. There are so many ways to do it. You have to be able to take advantage of these kinds of tools, not just from a pure marketing standpoint, but the social part of social media.
Maureen: It is a game changer. On Instagram you can see a photograph and then want to go to an event. How are you using social media to promote your innovative shows, Bob and Jill?
Jill: Well, I think part of social media is that we post as much as we can. All of the artists that we are connected to are all over social media. So we are constantly sharing what they’re posing. The more pieces that are shared and posted and liked, it generates this energy and it’s amazing how many people you reach. You just don’t realize how vast it is.
Maureen: Cape Ann is filled with a lot of art-related stakeholders. What ways can you recommend to engage the audience of artists, gallery owners, art buyers, and other art lovers?
Bob: I would say, again, supporting the young; bringing that youth culture here because they will ultimately tell their stories and our stories, too. Make them feel part of it and encourage them and then let them show their work.
Jill: I also think that existing artists are afraid of being pushed out, but they’ve done their jobs. This place is a mecca for traditional Cape Ann style art and will remain a mecca. We need to move forward. They need to realize that if they don’t encourage young artists, if they don’t repopulate the rookery, it’s going to die out and they won’t be remembered because no one will be here to tell their stories.
Jacqueline: I am about connecting artists and their audiences and their buyers. I believe that sometimes artists have to get out of Cape Ann to find new patrons. And, they need to be able to tell their stories or they have to work with somebody to tell their stories. The younger buyers are looking to connect with something authentic. They want to connect their values to the values of the art they’re seeing and to the person who’s making it. Maybe things have always been that way, but now even more so.
Bob: We actually have a great, great art scene. We just need massive stimulation to push us into the future. We need to bring everyone together. Collaboration is key here.
Veltman, C. (September 20, 2018). How art organizations are growing the audiences of tomorrow. Retrieved from: https://hewlett.org/how-arts-organizations-are-growing-the-audiences-of-tomorrow/