- On Building Communities, Not Audiences
“Bums in seats.” It’s a phrase that can be heard echoing through the corridors of theatre organizations and university programs alike. In a late-capitalist, consumer economy, filling seats and getting audiences are often driving imperatives that profoundly shape curatorial choices and theatrical seasons (as well as university course offerings). “Bums in seats” has become the metric by which market-driven “impact” is measured and the survival of stakeholders determined. Doug Borwick’s Building Communities, Not Audiences: The Future of the Arts in the United States is a tactical response to what has become, by necessity, an unfortunate preoccupation among those who are in the “business” of making arts practice, education, and training sustainable within a neoliberal hegemony.1 While the book’s focus and case studies are centred in the United States, Borwick’s arguments would certainly resonate with Canada’s regional, repertory, non-profit, and “fringe” theatre and performance companies. To test and extend its relevance to our immediate contexts, we profile four Canadian theatre companies in this Views and Reviews whose mandates and practices turn on a desire to create local “communities” rather than merely audiences.
“Communities.” Borwick’s book is riddled with the “‘c’ word,” as Ric Knowles has referred to it: “community arts,” “community-based arts,” “community-focused arts,” “community engagement.” While the case studies in Borwick’s book anchor these terms in illustrative examples drawn from specific institutions in specific localities, the terminology itself raises questions: What, exactly, do we mean by “community”? Who is the “community” in community-engaged, -based, -focused art? The pervasive and strategic invocations of “community” have contaminated the term, if not evacuated it of meaning altogether. As Knowles argues, the “‘c’ word (community) … has become so compromised through its use in rhetorically shoring up the neoliberal inclusionist/exclusionist agenda that it’s only good for grant applications and websites” (4). Its semantic hollowness gives it a certain (dangerous?) pliability, which is why we often find it servicing, as Alan Filewod points out, “the instrumental language used by the conservative right” (qtd. in Knowles 4).
Building Communities, Not Audiences is essential—if provocative—reading for arts institutions and non-profit arts organizations witnessing diminishing donations, subscriptions, and box office returns. Borwick reflects, albeit briefly, on the rise of consumer capitalism and the ways in which this has shifted social organization and, in turn, arts audiences and funding. These historical lessons are useful in order to make sense of the current economic realities arts organizations face. Borwick argues that the “proliferation of non-profit arts organizations has far outpaced the expansion of the multi-millionaire pool” of potential donors, leaving non-profits to operate under the persistent pressure of finding ways to expand their donor base (24). Creating art with and not for the community is, for Borwick, the most effective way to create a network of stakeholders invested in its creation and practice (33).
The sanguine reader will close Borwick’s book inspired by the power of community-engaged work to foster civil society and emboldened by Borwick’s call to encourage funding support not through “tricks of language or more persuasive arguments” but through an “obvious and undeniable record of the ways in which “arts organizations’ community engagement” has led “directly to healthier, happier, more equitable, and prosperous places to live” (27). But the cynical reader might linger on the ways in which the argument comes full circle: while community-engaged arts are about “building communities, not audiences,” they are also the means by which we ultimately secure more audiences, more “bums in seats,” and more donors. Consider the sum of Borwick’s equations: “The math for the future of individual giving is that one million dollars can come from a single gift or from 40,000 gifts of $25. And a shift to the 40,000 gifts model will require organizations to be deeply engaged in their communities” (24). Borwick encourages arts organizations to harness “relationship capital” and create “political capital” (27), phrases that point to the [End Page 62] ways in which Borwick’s arguments are haunted, despite his best intentions, by an instrumental logic that seeks justifications for...