"Audiences Want to Participate," Ben Cameron Tells Capacity Crowd

Ben Cameron: "In order to navigate this world, we must be open to thinking in new ways." 

Ben Cameron: "In order to navigate this world, we must be open to thinking in new ways." 

As feedback rolls in for our recent annual conference, REVOLUTION 2017, virtually everyone agrees that keynote speaker Ben Cameron inspired and entertained.  

The Minnesota-based arts administrator, whose motivational talks about the power of arts have made him an international star, may not have much luck making his state the “southernmost Canadian province,” as he wished for at start of his talk, but his enthusiasm and knowledge of the Canadian art scene were impressive and enhanced the themes of his talk. 

Cameron believes that audiences today have transformed. That's because technology has allowed our audiences to make their own art — at numbers that are “exploding at an exponential rate,” he says.

“Even while we often bemoan the lack of public interest in the arts, we live in a time in which demand for the arts is at an all time high. I rarely hear a conversation on the subways because my fellow passengers are absorbed in novels on their Kindles, listening to music on their iPods, watching films on their iPads. I can’t step onto the platform without encountering singers offering the gamut from rap to opera, or walk more than a half a dozen blocks without encountering young men beating overturned plastic tubs and break dancing.“

Cameron says that now that we’re all artists, we as an audience “are eager to co-curate and co-create work.” 

Cameron provided a number of examples of ways forward-thinking arts organizations involve audiences in the production of work. Classical Theatre of Harlem mounted five staged readings and asked the audience to choose which should be brought to full production. He referred to symphonies that poll their audiences about music they'd like to be performed, ballet companies that ask audiences whether they would prefer to see Giselle or Swan Lake.

Another important characteristic about audiences, Cameron noted, is that “overwhelmingly, their number one value attached to the arts lies in its social bonding power.” 

Cameron described a theatre marketing study, which monitored response to two different posters. One featured images of the stars involved in the production (including Bernadette Peters). The other poster featured images showing audiences cheering, parents hugging children as they looked at a stage, a couple holding hands as they watched an actor on the stage. While the first poster resonated with people who already went to theatre, it was the second poster that appealed to those previously disinterested in theatre — the social images leading them to ask, “Where can I find that?"

“Emphasizing product has appeal to those who already love us; emphasizing social experience may open the possibilities to those who have never crossed our thresholds.”

Cameron implored his capacity crowd of BC arts administrators and creators to look at change as an opportunity, “to be open to thinking in new ways, discarding old language which, however useful, may constrain us as we imagine the future. Can we think less about stability and more about nimbleness?” 

“What if we thought of our work, not as products to be consumed but as experiences designed to be springboards for our audience’s imagination?" Cameron asked. "What would we do differently if we thought of ourselves, not as ‘arts organizations,’ but as platforms designed to aggregate creative and communal energy?” 

Our conference survey invited additional comments on Cameron's talk. Among such exclamations as "brilliant" and "fantastic," one attendee wrote that the keynote set the tone for the whole conference.  

And that's precisely why we named it REVOLUTION: Engaging Human Creativity.

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