The 24-Year-Old Choreographer Who Puts Branding At The Center Of His Art

Sometimes it seems like the arts retreat further and further into their own arts bubbles. That is – the arts play to particular arts audiences, continually reinforcing those audiences but finding it more and more difficult to reach general audiences. So how to break out beyond dance audiences if you’re a dancer?

Twenty-four-year-old dancer/choreographer Jacob Jonas has an idea, reports the Los Angeles Times. He’s a former skateboarder, and his work borrows from range of traditions and forms. He’s also got a different idea about an artist’s role in art:

Jonas is as much a businessman as he is an artist, and he’s proud to tell you so. He laments the fact that universities teach students how to make art but not what to do with it.

“Artists fail when they aren’t able to make their art a brand,” says the choreographer and dancer, who is lean in an almost feline way, with thick muscles that propel him into lithe motion at the slightest provocation. “We want to be at the intersection of dance and fashion — of dance and advertising. How do we get dance to a wider audience?”

With a wider audience, Jonas reasons, comes the kind of financial support that dance needs to sustain itself and rise to the level of music, television and film when it comes to commercial visibility.

Dance is probably one of the most undervalued art forms in society “in terms of how it’s set up as a profit model,” he says.

Jonas believes that the traditional “pure” art of dance has become disconnected from the larger culture. To reconnect, he has imagined his work as an intersection of other things which are already familiar to the audiences he wants to reach. His vision of “branding” is to sit his work in the paths of those who aren’t already dance audiences and let them define the context.

Are We Losing Our Common Culture?

We’ve just gone through a political season in which parallel universes of political discourse made it obvious how easy it is to create realities that are narrowly tailored to our own beliefs. Is the same happening to culture?

There will never again be a show like “One Day at a Time” or “All in the Family” — shows that derived their power not solely from their content, which might not hold up to today’s more high-minded affairs, but also from their ubiquity. There’s just about nothing as popular today as old sitcoms were; the only bits of shared culture that come close are periodic sporting events, viral videos, memes and occasional paroxysms of political outrage (see Meryl Streep’s Golden Globes speech and the aftermath).

Instead, we’re returning to the cultural era that predated radio and TV, an era in which entertainment was fragmented and bespoke, and satisfying a niche was a greater economic imperative than entertaining the mainstream.

“We’re back to normal, in a way, because before there was broadcasting, there wasn’t much of a shared culture,” said Lance Strate, a professor of communication at Fordham University. “For most of the history of civilization, there was nothing like TV. It was a really odd moment in history to have so many people watching the same thing at the same time.”

Shared cultural experiences define us as a culture. But they also exclude those who don’t connect with the experience. Broadly shared pop culture can also be generic or trivial in its quest to appeal broadly.

So is the rise of niche culture a polarizing phenomenon? Or does it allow for the rich and diverse expression of individuality that enrich our culture and that we should celebrate? How do we talk to each other if our culture increasingly becomes parallel universes and we lose our common vocabulary?

Why Did Broadway Have A Record Year? Diversity?

Alexis Solis makes a point today in The Guardian that the driver behind Broadway’s record year at the box office is its variety of shows appealing to all sorts of audiences.

Certainly even a casual look at current offerings indicates the variety. Someone who would never set foot in Aladdin might be enticed by Dear Evan Hansen. A ticket buyer who wouldn’t go for A Bronx Tale could have a fine night at Jitney. And vice versa. Everyone loves Hamilton. Some people have even enjoyed Paramour. And while the spring lineup is light on original works, there’s still plenty to choose from among the likes of Come from Away and Groundhog Day, The Play That Goes Wrong and The Price, Oslo and Hello, Dolly!

But it’s not just Broadway that’s seeing a boom in ticket sales:

The answer probably relies on both the type of entertainment Broadway has been offering and the new strategies it has found to price and sell its wares.

Theatres have got a lot better at variable pricing to maximize revenue. But success breeds success writes Solis. When a show becomes popular enough that it enters the consciousness of the broader culture, it boosts the whole art:

Though these upward trends were set in motion years before the appearance of Hamilton, that show has helped to return theater to a more prominent place in the cultural conversation. Those who can’t score tickets to that show may still feel they ought to see something in New York (it’s during tourist-heavy holiday weeks that Broadway scores its best numbers) or catch a show when it comes around on tour. And the success of Hamilton may steer producers toward independent, idiosyncratic art with which theater frequently revives and reinvents itself.

It’s not just about ticket revenue. It’s about relevancy of the art form. Transcendent art causes people to look at theatre differently. But these moments are rare. There’s only one Harry Potter. And only one Hamilton? Does Solis’s observation about Broadway’s variety suggest that there may be enough diversity to produce the next transcendent work?

A Story Of Opera And Passion And Personality And The Drive To Create An “Empire”

Producing art is a personal thing. Producing inspired art is a very personal thing. So meet Beth Morrison, who has a passion for contemporary opera and is doing something about it. As in producing it.

Morrison is not your typical moneyed patron. “I didn’t come from money and I didn’t have money and I wanted to live in New York!” she says. She runs her empire from a two-bedroom walk-up apartment in Flatbush, Brooklyn.

One bedroom in the apartment is for sleeping. The other is a workspace for her eight employees. “I’ve always run the business from my home, maybe much to the chagrin of my board,” she says. “For me, the decision is always really clear: I could spend $30 to $40,000 on an office space every year, or I could put that into a commission.”

She’s got the essential impresario gene:

Morrison says she follows her guts and her ears in her work. “I won’t do anything unless I’m mad crazy about the music and the composer and really feeling like they’re contributing something to the field that is different,” she says.

In a way, she’s the antithesis of institutional art. She works on a shoestring, makes things happen in makeshift ways, and relies on her gut for essential artistic judgments. There’s something authentic about her productions in a way that institutional art sometimes lacks.

As an aside – I love the NPR headline about the Morrison profile: “Meet The Producer Who Runs Her Opera Empire From A 2-Bedroom Apartment.” Empire? Seriously? It’s lovely to think that there could actually be something like an opera empire in this day and age.

American Universities Are Investing In New Prestige Arts Buildings. And How About The Programs?

American universities are making big investments in new arts facilities. At least a half-dozen major projects are coming online this year. Why?

Schools now think of the arts less as a peripheral extracurricular activity than as an opportunity for innovative collaboration. At Stanford, for example, medical students examine the Rodin sculptures at the Cantor Arts Center to learn about conditions that afflict the hand. Meanwhile, Rice is due to open the Moody Center for the Arts next month, a $30m exhibition-cum-interdisciplinary laboratory space. “I’ve learned how important visual imagination is to thinking about science and engineering,” says David Leebron, the university’s president.

A few years ago Princeton announced it intended to be an arts destination. USC declares its desire to be known as an arts university. Duke and Stanford and Columbia all have the arts on their minds. Is there really such a demand?

The rising demand is leading schools that have traditionally marginalised the arts to enter a new kind of arms race. Princeton University in New Jersey “was losing students to some of our rival universities because we didn’t have the visibility in the arts that we should”, says Michael Cadden, the chair of the Lewis Center for the Arts, which anchors a 22-acre, $330m arts-and-transportation hub due to open in October. Princeton has 30% to 40% more students studying the arts than it did ten years ago, according to Cadden.

Arts facilities can have a tangible effect on the kind of talent schools attract. In the decade since Duke University in North Carolina opened the Nasher Museum of Art, it has seen a steep climb in arts portfolios submitted by prospective students, from 980 in 2006 to more than 2,800 last year.

The reality of the “arts boom” in universities is perhaps a bit more modest. There’s clearly money available to be raised for new museums and facilities. The buildings are prestigious and good campus eye candy that donors can attach their names to. But is there evidence yet of a similar uptick in the scale of investment in the arts programs?

A Bored Audience Misbehaves, Is Rude. Write Them Off? Or…

How do you know what an audience is really thinking? Polite applause only tells you so much. Lagging ticket sales aren’t precise about cause. Focus groups aren’t reliable. So then there’s this story about millennials’ reaction to an O’Neill play they were attending:

About two scenes into the play, the students began to grumble among themselves. It was clear they felt they didn’t relate to the story. They were bored, and they resented being forced to attend a three-hour play. But instead of leaving the theatre and taking a zero for the assignment, which might have constituted a kind of nonviolent protest, they began speaking and laughing with each other. Some were asked to leave, but those who remained continued to interrupt the performance with chatter and flash selfies, videos, and a laser pointer. One performer was hit in the eye with the beam.

While that audience’s behavior was unacceptable, I wonder whether we might learn something from it. In some ways, the unadulterated responses of those disgruntled, unengaged students may be a gift. As theatremakers and educators, we have an immense responsibility to deal with this demographic in particular, for they are the next generation of audiences who will—or will not—attend shows created by the next generation of theatre artists.

We might see that disrupted O’Neill performance as a call to reexamine the invitation we extend to student audiences—to question our programming choices as well as our motivations for assigning performances to students in the first place. In short, it can be an opportunity to ask ourselves: What do we gain, and what do we lose, when we invite the next generation of theatregoers into our theatres?

But it’s not just student audiences. How are artists to understand the impact of and engagement with their work if audiences aren’t honest in their responses? Even if those responses aren’t polite. Which is not to say that artists should have to accept laser pointers and selfies. But a decision to write off such behavior and such audiences is a choice to define the conditions and context in which our work needs to be seen. Which is fine. As long as we’re clear about what they are.

How To Hack Attention When The Attention Economy Is Where The Power Is

Sometimes a random alignment of stories unexpectedly congeals around a topic. Like today. We found serval stories exploring the idea of how ideas spread. This Lit Hub story discusses the inherent trap of superficiality of translations.

Translators themselves can be said to traffic in words, sounds, images, and more; whether what is trafficked is tangible or intangible, it’s implied that what is bought, sold, and bartered is in any case commodified. When we think about traffic we also inevitably think about congestion, about impediments to smooth circulation—of vehicles, of course, but also, by extension, of ideas and things. While translations do cross borders, broadening our cultural knowledge as they present one language in the terms of another, they can also become an impediment to free communication.

This Smithsonian piece explores the sharing of scientific knowledge. English is the international language of science, but because of it, a lot of ideas don’t get the play they should.

More than half of the non-English papers observed in this study had no English title, abstract or keywords, making them all but invisible to most scientists doing database searches in English. “I think this issue is actually much larger than many people think,” Tatsuya Amano says.

But perhaps the most fascinating story is this by Danah Boyd who talks about thinking about information and power as something to be hacked. Don’t work inside the structures of the traditional information economy, figure out ways to hack the power structures – if the currency is attention, then figure out how to hijack attention and get everyone talking about what you want them to talk about.

Indeed, over the last 15 years, I’ve watched as countless hacker-minded folks have started leveraging a mix of technical and social engineering skills to reconfigure networks of power. Some are in it for the fun. Some see dollar signs. Some have a much more ideological agenda. But above all, what’s fascinating is how many people have learned to play the game. And in some worlds, those skills are coming home to roost in unexpected ways, especially as groups are seeking to mess with information intermediaries in an effort to hack the attention economy.

The Coming Jobs Revolution Will Be Historically Profound. Are Artists Ready For It?

Many experts believe the biggest disruption in our lifetime is about to take place. Automation – robots and artificial intelligence – is  going to eliminate a significant number of current jobs, say experts:

A recent study found 50% of occupations today will be gone by 2020, and a 2013 Oxford study forecasted that 47% of jobs will be automated by 2034. A Ball State study found that only 13% of manufacturing job losses were due to trade, the rest from automation. A McKinsey study suggests 45% of knowledge work activity can be automated.

94% of the new job creation since 2005 is in the gig economy. These aren’t stable jobs with benefits on a career path. And if you are driving for Uber, your employer’s plan is to automate your job. Amazon has 270k employees, but most are soon-to-be-automated ops and fulfillment. Facebook has 15k employees and a $330B market cap, and Snapchat in August had double their market cap per employee to $48M per employee. The economic impact of tech was raising productivity, but productivity and wages have been stagnant in recent years.

This will lead to profound changes in how our economy works and how our culture organizes itself. If most people won’t be able to get jobs in the traditional sense, one of the primary organizing principles of humankind – that our ability to survive, our success in life,  is determined by the need to earn a living, by the jobs we’re able to get – will change.

As tech leader Ross Mayfield suggests in this LinkedIn piece, the automation of jobs could cause a backlash against technology and the people who create it as wealth becomes even more concentrated in the hands of a few. The original Luddites, hs reminds us, were not just people who had opted out of technology, but actively opposed and tried to destroy it.

The post-jobs world will be a transformation on the order of the industrial revolution, he says.

And artists? It’s at times of profound change in our culture that artists have the most to say. They comment on, critique, draw attention to, and interpret how the world changes in such times. So how will artists anticipate what could be one of the most profound changes in human history?

Sure Criticism Tells You Whether to Pay Attention. But Once It Was So Much More…

The death of critic John Berger, who is best known for his four-part BBC series called “Ways of Seeing,” has prompted a number of reflections on what it means to be a critic, what makes a great critic, and whether or not the current age values such criticism. Berger wrote often about being skeptical about perceptions of art and hardened wisdom about what it meant. He suggested a way of looking at art that was fresh and personal and questioned the generic.

Today, criticism is often seen as old-fashioned – why rely on some old fart at a newspaper to tell you what’s what when you can bloody well make up your own mind? We usually have immediate access to the music, films, art and books under discussion, so we can just see for ourselves. This is a reasonable position; why peruse a dozen 150-word album reviews if you’re just looking for something new to listen to? Spotify can do that for you. In a world where culture is merely entertainment, criticism has no function.

It’s tempting to think that criticism has been reduced to a Consumer Reports function that gets straight to the point about whether or not the art in question is worth engaging with or not. But

we have to believe that people – ordinary people, sitting at home at night – are interested in nuanced, complex and even difficult art. Only through that will we find someone like Berger, who might help us learn how to look at it.

Music In The Age Of Discovery (So Why Do Our Choices Seem To Be Narrowing?)

How are you discovering music? Radio used to be the main way music spread. Now it’s YouTube videos, and, increasingly, streaming channels that figure out playlists algorithmically. But the promise of all music anywhere courtesy of the internet hasn’t really worked out. Increasingly our musical worlds are defined in narrower terms and we have to work to get out of them.

The promise of the internet and the opportunity for democratization in music just haven’t gone the way I’d hoped, so these soundtracks and pointed multimedia releases have been welcome. As music discovery becomes more concentrated and consolidated (goodbye, Vine) thanks to Spotify recs and Tidal-only exclusives (my New Year’s resolution: cancel Tidal) and Beats 1 premieres that one feels obligated to indulge for the sake of relevancy, the free-for-all that once was a deep-dive internet search for a weird track has dissipated a bit, in lieu of streaming services handing you what you want on a platter. “Discovery” features feel like an exercise in marketed groupthink, even when they occasionally do yield new music.

Now we more and more live in musical bubbles defined for us by behavioral formulae. It might feel like we’re being adventurous because we’re encountering music new to us. But that “new” is selected to fit familiar characteristics of music and artists we already know.

Perhaps nothing wrong with that. We like what we like and why not have more of it. But as we increasingly live inside our niches while fooling ourselves that we’re still encountering new experiences, our ability to have common culture and shared cultural experiences erodes.