TEDxYYC

Ben Cameron: The true power of the performing arts

Filmed:

Arts administrator and live-theater fan Ben Cameron looks at the state of the live arts -- asking: How can the magic of live theater, live music, live dance compete with the always-on Internet? In his talk, he offers a bold look forward. (Filmed at TEDxYYC.)

- Arts administrator
Ben Cameron runs the arts granting program at the Doris Duke Foundation, focusing on live theater, dance and jazz. Full bio

I am a cultural omnivore,
00:15
one whose daily commute
00:17
is made possible by attachment to an iPod --
00:19
an iPod that contains Wagner and Mozart,
00:22
pop diva Christina Aguilera,
00:24
country singer Josh Turner,
00:26
gangsta rap artist Kirk Franklin,
00:28
concerti, symphonies and more and more.
00:30
I'm a voracious reader,
00:32
a reader who deals with Ian McEwan down to Stephanie Meyer.
00:34
I have read the "Twilight" tetralogy.
00:37
And one who lives for my home theater,
00:40
a home theater where I devour DVDs, video-on-demand
00:43
and a lot of television.
00:45
For me, "Law and Order: SVU,"
00:47
Tine Fey and "30 Rock"
00:49
and "Judge Judy" -- "The people are real, the cases are real,
00:51
the rulings are final."
00:54
Now, I'm convinced a lot of you
00:56
probably share my passions,
00:58
especially my passion for Judge Judy,
01:00
and you'd fight anybody
01:02
who attempted to take her away from us,
01:04
but I'm a little less convinced that you share the central passion of my life,
01:06
a passion for the live professional performing arts,
01:09
performing arts that represent the orchestral repertoire, yes,
01:12
but jazz as well, modern dance, opera,
01:15
theater and more and more and more.
01:18
You know, frankly
01:20
it's a sector that many of us who work in the field worry
01:22
is being endangered and possibly dismantled
01:24
by technology.
01:26
While we initially heralded the Internet
01:28
as the fantastic new marketing device
01:30
that was going to solve all our problems,
01:32
we now realize that the Internet is, if anything,
01:34
too effective in that regard.
01:36
Depending on who you read, an arts organization
01:38
or an artist, who tries to attract the attention
01:41
of a potential single ticket buyer,
01:43
now competes with between
01:45
three and 5,000
01:47
different marketing messages
01:49
a typical citizen sees every single day.
01:51
We now know in fact
01:54
that technology is our biggest competitor for leisure time.
01:56
Five years ago,
01:58
Gen-X'ers spent 20.7 hours online and TV,
02:00
the majority on TV.
02:03
Gen-Y'ers spent even more --
02:05
23.8 hours, the majority online.
02:07
And now, a typical
02:09
university entering student
02:11
arrives at college
02:13
already having spent
02:15
20,000 hours online
02:17
and an additional 10,000 hours
02:19
playing video games --
02:21
a stark reminder that we operate
02:23
in a cultural context
02:25
where video games now outsell
02:27
music and movie recordings combined.
02:29
Moreover, we're afraid that technology
02:33
has altered our very assumptions of cultural consumption.
02:35
Thanks to the Internet,
02:38
we believe we can get anything we want whenever we want it,
02:40
delivered to our own doorstep.
02:43
We can shop at three in the morning or eight at night,
02:45
ordering jeans tailor-made for our unique body-types.
02:47
Expectations of personalization
02:50
and customization
02:52
that the live performing arts --
02:54
which have set curtain times, set venues,
02:56
attendant inconveniences of travel, parking and the like --
02:59
simply cannot meet.
03:02
And we're all acutely aware:
03:04
what's it going to mean in the future
03:06
when we ask someone to pay a hundred dollars
03:08
for a symphony, opera or ballet ticket,
03:10
when that cultural consumer is used to downloading on the internet
03:13
24 hours a day
03:16
for 99 cents a song or for free?
03:18
These are enormous questions
03:22
for those of us who work in this terrain.
03:24
But as particular as they feel to us,
03:26
we know we're not alone.
03:28
All of us are engaged
03:30
in a seismic, fundamental
03:32
realignment of culture and communications,
03:34
a realignment that is shaking and decimating
03:36
the newspaper industry, the magazine industry,
03:38
the book and publishing industry and more.
03:41
Saddled in the performing arts as we are, by antiquated union agreements
03:45
that inhibit and often prohibit
03:48
mechanical reproduction and streaming,
03:51
locked into large facilities
03:53
that were designed to ossify
03:55
the ideal relationship
03:57
between artist and audience
03:59
most appropriate to the 19th century
04:01
and locked into a business model dependent on high ticket revenues,
04:03
where we charge exorbitant prices.
04:06
Many of us shudder in the wake of the collapse of Tower Records
04:09
and ask ourselves, "Are we next?"
04:12
Everyone I talk to in performing arts
04:16
resonates to the words of Adrienne Rich,
04:18
who, in "Dreams of a Common Language," wrote,
04:21
"We are out in a country that has
04:23
no language, no laws.
04:25
Whatever we do together is pure invention.
04:27
The maps they gave us
04:29
are out of date by years."
04:31
And for those of you who love the arts,
04:35
aren't you glad you invited me here to brighten your day?
04:37
(Laughter)
04:40
(Applause)
04:42
Now, rather than saying that we're on the brink of our own annihilation,
04:44
I prefer to believe that we are engaged in a fundamental reformation,
04:47
a reformation like the religious Reformation
04:50
of the 16th century.
04:53
The arts reformation, like the religious Reformation,
04:55
is spurred in part by technology,
04:58
with indeed, the printing press really leading the charge
05:00
on the religious Reformation.
05:02
Both reformations were predicated on fractious discussion,
05:04
internal self-doubt
05:07
and massive realignment of antiquated business models.
05:09
And at heart, both reformations, I think
05:12
were asking the questions:
05:14
who's entitled to practice?
05:16
How are they entitled to practice?
05:18
And indeed, do we need anyone
05:20
to intermediate for us
05:22
in order to have an experience with a spiritual divine?
05:24
Chris Anderson, someone I trust you all know,
05:29
editor-in-chief of Wired magazine and author of "The Long Tail,"
05:32
really was the first -- for me -- to nail a lot of this.
05:34
He wrote a long time ago, you know,
05:37
thanks to the invention of the Internet,
05:39
web technology,
05:41
mini-cams and more,
05:43
the means of artistic production
05:45
have been democratized
05:47
for the first time in all of human history.
05:49
In the 1930s, if any of you wanted to make a movie,
05:52
you had to work for Warner Brothers or RKO
05:54
because who could afford a movie set
05:57
and lighting equipment and editing equipment
05:59
and scoring and more?
06:01
And now who in this room doesn't know a 14 year-old
06:03
hard at work on her second, third, or fourth movie?
06:06
(Laughter)
06:08
Similarly, the means of artistic distribution
06:10
have been democratized for the first time in human history.
06:13
Again, in the '30s, Warner Brothers, RKO did that for you.
06:16
Now, go to YouTube, Facebook;
06:19
you have worldwide distribution
06:21
without leaving the privacy of your own bedroom.
06:23
This double impact is occasioning
06:27
a massive redefinition of the cultural market,
06:29
a time when anyone is a potential author.
06:32
Frankly, what we're seeing now in this environment
06:36
is a massive time,
06:38
when the entire world is changing
06:40
as we move from a time when audience numbers are plummeting.
06:42
But the number of arts participants,
06:45
people who write poetry, who sing songs,
06:47
who perform in church choirs,
06:50
is exploding beyond our wildest imaginations.
06:52
This group, others have called the "pro ams,"
06:55
amateur artists doing work at a professional level.
06:58
You see them on YouTube, in dance competitions,
07:00
film festivals and more.
07:02
They are radically expanding
07:04
our notions of the potential of an aesthetic vocabulary,
07:06
while they are challenging and undermining
07:09
the cultural autonomy of our traditional institutions.
07:12
Ultimately, we now live in a world
07:15
defined not by consumption,
07:17
but by participation.
07:19
But I want to be clear,
07:22
just as the religious Reformation did not spell the end
07:24
to the formal Church or to the priesthood;
07:26
I believe that our artistic institutions
07:29
will continue to have importance.
07:31
They currently are the best opportunities
07:33
for artists to have lives of economic dignity --
07:35
not opulence -- of dignity.
07:37
And they are the places where artists
07:40
who deserve and want to work at a certain scale of resources
07:42
will find a home.
07:44
But to view them as synonymous
07:46
with the entirety of the arts community
07:48
is, by far, too short-sighted.
07:50
And indeed, while we've tended to polarize
07:53
the amateur from the professional,
07:55
the single most exciting development
07:57
in the last five to 10 years
07:59
has been the rise
08:01
of the professional hybrid artist,
08:03
the professional artist
08:05
who works, not primarily in the concert hall or on the stage;
08:07
but most frequently around
08:09
women's rights, or human rights,
08:11
or on global warming issues or AIDS relief for more --
08:13
not out of economic necessity,
08:16
but out of a deep, organic conviction
08:18
that the work that she or he, is called to do
08:20
cannot be accomplished in the traditional
08:23
hermetic arts environment.
08:25
Today's dance world is not defined solely
08:27
by the Royal Winnipeg Ballet or the National Ballet of Canada,
08:30
but by Liz Lerman's Dance Exchange --
08:33
a multi-generational, professional dance company,
08:36
whose dancers range in age from 18 to 82,
08:39
and who work with genomic scientists
08:42
to embody the DNA strand
08:44
and with nuclear physicists at CERN.
08:46
Today's professional theater community
08:49
is defined, not only the Shaw and Stratford Festivals,
08:51
but by the Cornerstone Theater of Los Angeles --
08:54
a collective of artists that after 9/11,
08:57
brought together 10 different religious communities --
09:00
the Bahia, the Catholic,
09:03
the Muslim, the Jewish,
09:05
even the Native American
09:07
and the gay and lesbian communities of faith,
09:09
helping them create their own individual plays
09:11
and one massive play,
09:14
where they explored the differences in their faith
09:16
and found commonality
09:18
as an important first step
09:20
toward cross-community healing.
09:22
Today's performers, like Rhodessa Jones,
09:25
work in women's prisons,
09:27
helping women prisoners articulate the pain of incarceration,
09:29
while today's playwrights and directors work with youth gangs
09:32
to find alternate channels to violence
09:34
and more and more and more.
09:37
And indeed, I think, rather than being annihilated,
09:40
the performing arts are posed on the brink of a time
09:43
when we will be more important
09:45
than we have ever been.
09:47
You know, we've said for a long time,
09:49
we are critical to the health of the economic communities in your town.
09:51
And absolutely --
09:54
I hope you know that every dollar spent on a performing arts ticket in a community
09:56
generates five to seven additional dollars for the local economy,
09:59
dollars spent in restaurants or on parking,
10:02
at the fabric stores where we buy fabric for costumes,
10:04
the piano tuner who tunes the instruments and more.
10:07
But the arts are going to be more important to economies
10:10
as we go forward,
10:12
especially in industries we can't even imagine yet,
10:14
just as they have been central to the iPod
10:17
and the computer game industries,
10:19
which few, if any of us
10:21
come have foreseen 10 to 15 years ago.
10:23
Business leadership will depend more and more
10:26
on emotional intelligence,
10:28
the ability to listen deeply,
10:30
to have empathy,
10:32
to articulate change, to motivate others --
10:34
the very capacities
10:36
that the arts cultivate with every encounter.
10:38
Especially now,
10:41
as we all must confront
10:43
the fallacy of a market-only orientation,
10:45
uninformed by social conscience;
10:48
we must seize and celebrate the power of the arts
10:50
to shape our individual and national characters,
10:53
and especially characters of the young people,
10:56
who all too often, are subjected to bombardment of sensation,
10:59
rather than digested experience.
11:02
Ultimately, especially now in this world,
11:05
where we live in a context
11:08
of regressive and onerous immigration laws,
11:10
in reality TV that thrives on humiliation,
11:13
and in a context of analysis,
11:16
where the thing we hear most repeatedly,
11:18
day-in, day-out in the United States,
11:20
in every train station, every bus station, every plane station is,
11:23
"Ladies and gentlemen,
11:25
please report any suspicious behavior
11:27
or suspicious individuals
11:29
to the authorities nearest you,"
11:31
when all of these ways we are encouraged
11:33
to view our fellow human being with hostility
11:35
and fear and contempt and suspicion.
11:37
The arts, whatever they do, whenever they call us together,
11:41
invite us to look at our fellow human being
11:44
with generosity and curiosity.
11:46
God knows, if we ever needed
11:50
that capacity in human history,
11:52
we need it now.
11:54
You know, we're bound together,
12:00
not, I think by technology, entertainment and design,
12:02
but by common cause.
12:05
We work to promote healthy vibrant societies,
12:07
to ameliorate human suffering,
12:10
to promote a more thoughtful,
12:13
substantive, empathic world order.
12:15
I salute all of you as activists in that quest
12:19
and urge you to embrace and hold dear the arts in your work,
12:22
whatever your purpose may be.
12:25
I promise you the hand of the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation
12:28
is stretched out in friendship for now and years to come.
12:31
And I thank you for your kindness and your patience in listening to me this afternoon.
12:34
Thank you, and godspeed.
12:36

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About the Speaker:

Ben Cameron - Arts administrator
Ben Cameron runs the arts granting program at the Doris Duke Foundation, focusing on live theater, dance and jazz.

Why you should listen

Ben Cameron is the Program Director, Arts, at the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation in New York, where he supervises a $13 million grants program aimed at the theatre, contemporary dance, jazz and presenting fields. Grants happen in three main areas: commissioning and distribution of new works; building strong arts organizations; and supporting national arts organizations.

During 13 seasons, Cameron has been a panelist on the opera quiz during the Live from the Metropolitan radio broadcasts from New York. He has also served as a member of the Tony Awards Nominating Committee.

More profile about the speaker
Ben Cameron | Speaker | TED.com