In recent grant applications I’ve been asked a series of questions that feel new to me. They come as a related pair: Who is your intended audience?, and How do you intend to reach them?
My first reaction to these questions was bafflement. I understood the second half well enough. “How do you intend to reach them?,” meaning: “How will you be your own marketer and publicist?” I even understand the reason behind it. There’s not enough money to go around. Presenting venues and Foundations have seen their support slashed, and they can’t offer their previous recourses without an assurance that there will be some kind of tangible return. But I’m confused about why. If we understand supporting the arts to be a charitable act, then why is there an expectation for any “return” on the investment? If supporting the arts is a business, then the practice seems to be cutting corners and pushing more and more work onto the artists themselves. But how does that make good business sense if I’m a terrible marketer? (Which I am. Some artists are good at doing both; I’m not one of them.) The conflation of these roles feels to me not only unfair, but inefficient, and very likely detrimental to the “success” of the show.
But the first question – Who is your intended audience? – was so immediately alien to me that I balked. My first thought was that there was something in the “Professional In The Performing Arts Manual” that I had missed. I thought this because, despite 15 years of experience in the field, and two degrees in performance, including one exclusive and profoundly expensive “terminal” MFA, my Imposter Syndrome is still my strongest identity. Every time I apply to something – job, residency, or grant – I expect to receive a bemused dismissal informing me that this award is for grown-ups, but I might be tall enough next year.
“Great,” my Imposter Syndrome huffed, “there really IS a secret code to being a supported artist in this country and I somehow didn’t get the memo! Everyone else applying to this grant knows who their “target audience” is, and they are currently typing up the magic words secretly requested by the gatekeepers.” I spent some time brainstorming on who I should put down. People who like experimental contemporary puppetry? Adolescents who read historical YA fiction? My neighbors?
But something was making me uncomfortable about this whole line of thinking and I couldn’t place it. Not at first.
Who was it that opened the door for me? Alice Neel? Chekov? Ralph Lemon? Who was I thinking of that reminded me that art is, by definition, personal? I see that for myself in the art around me. My heroes make art for themselves, responding to some internal dialog between inspiration and action. I cannot compare myself to my heroes in terms of talent, impact, or scope. But doesn’t the artistic process work the same way for all of us? Who were they making art “for?” And who, in their view, isn’t invited?
Something clicked, and I finally saw it. There are only two answers to the question “who is your intended audience?” They are opposite and absolute, and mutually true. If I am an artist then my art is 100% for ME. AND it is 100% for EVERYONE.
The only answer I have to give to support a choice I make in my art is: because I felt like it. You might not like it. But that’s not a requirement of artmaking. You might have made a different choice. Please do! I won’t stand in your way.
Simultaneously, the art I make is for everyone. There is no person I would turn away at the box office. There is no audience I would forbid from experiencing something I make. Why would I do that? And why, for goddsake, would a granting organization encourage me to do that? If I have an intended audience, I must have an unintended one – at best accidental, and at worst unwanted. For some artists, that might be true. They may only want people who look like them to see their work; or people who’ve had their same experiences; or people who look nothing like them and have opposite experiences. BUT I DOUBT IT.
Art targeting a particular audience to solicit a particular outcome already has a name: Advertising. Grants already asks applicants to conform to an increasingly narrow filter of requirements (place of residence, location of artwork, social and artistic “values,” tax status, organizational size and artistic scope, etc.), frequently with labor-intensive strings attached via workshops, talk-backs, or “outreach.” If the granting organization wants me to make art that reflects their values, and expects me to provide professional services to contextualize that art, then I am not an artist, I am an employee.
If I’m speaking for you, to an audience you have pre-selected via my application, then it’s a day job. And I already have a few of those. They have always been my most reliable funding source. I work my tail off in order to fund the art I make. It’s physically and spiritually exhausting. It makes endless discouraging fodder for my Imposter Syndrome’s monologue. But it’s on my own terms. When I make a show, it’s because I want to; really because I have to. I make it with what I have, in my own little corner, and I can’t always tell you what it’s about. I certainly can’t tell you why. But I’m thrilled you are here. Maybe you will tell me what it means to you? I made it for you, after all. And for me. But everyone – everyone – is invited.