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Is participation overrated in the arts?



Sunday, the Denver Post published an article by arts writer Ray Mark Rinaldi, commenting on the current trend toward participatory artwork. Rinaldi mentions installations activated by swings, or homing pigeons that go home with visitors and eventually fly back to the gallery.

Eiko & Koma

This is quite a departure from art's historically "look, don't touch" conceit, and it's attractive in its novelty and the way it engages the art-reluctant. Plus, that's the way the biz is heading, which has already been discussed and written at length.

In fact, when Ben Cameron, arts administrator and program director for the arts at the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation visited the city, we paraphrased his points this way:

Even though arts participation has skyrocketed, ticket sales and audiences nationwide have tanked. On top of that, technology has enabled us access to anything we want — be it in music, art, entertainment in general — very cheaply. This same on-demand capability has given us an audience-centric cultural landscape that doesn't necessarily jibe well with traditional arts avenues. (Those of us in the newspaper business are well-versed in this shift.)

But instead of fearing this changing world, and resisting adaptation, Cameron encourages arts organizations to look to new ways of performing and engaging audiences. As he put it, "It will require us to put the audience at the center of everything we do."

But like anything else, this too has pitfalls aplenty, Rinaldi says.

The visual arts do need to engage the masses, and not just intellectuals. Swings, pigeons and chalkboards draw in a way a minimalist painting by Barnett Newman or Clyfford Still can't.

But circus tricks let people off the hook from the real work that art fairly demands — and they provide cover for art that's really not interesting in the first place.

Galleries can also be abused, trashed by careless patrons or, if the exhibit calls for audiences to answer questions (like this which Rinaldi mentions) the answers can be, well, banal.

One place where it does work, he says, is right here in town, with Colorado College's I.D.E.A. Space. Last winter's Eiko & Koma: Residue of Nakedness required visitors to bend over and exert themselves just enough to watch a video. That seems to allude to Rinaldi's personal conclusion on the topic, that balance is best, but, you know, we all welcome surprises, too.

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