The demand side of culture

Font Size
A. R. Samson

Fence Sitter

The demand side of culture

Humanities as a field of academic pursuit or lifelong obsession has been relegated to a quaint addiction, like restoring antique cars or collecting stamps. Interest in culture, if too ardently expressed, is seen merely as an affectation.

In a conversation over dinner with slight acquaintances and newly met (but celebrated) strangers, culture, and its neglect in this part of the world, can sometimes crop up. The take on the subject is usually its lack of attention given (we don’t have a ministry of culture) and the almost envious state of nurturing and embrace in other countries. Coming to the defense of the motherland by taking the opposite view of culture’s rise here and the growing feasibility of expensive tickets to culture, both pop and middle brow, as well as the rise of art auctions seems a hopeless task.

The pronouncement of the self-appointed moderator of table conversations is a statement that no one can argue with — only wealthy countries and socialist ones (think Bolshoi ballet) can actively promote culture, which is subsidized by the state or large corporations to make ticket prices affordable for the middle-income audience, if not the masses. This temporary ceasefire of verbal friction brings the conversation back to how best to promote culture.

The celebrity’s seatmate declares (he is the most senior person in the table) that sports gets disproportionate time and attention in the curriculum that used to rest on three former mandates “education, culture, and sports.” Aren’t the tycoons too besotted with sports at the expense of the arts? Here, the conversation stalls and turns on the sorbet — yes, it is refreshing.

We bring up the matter of audience development, which is the demand side of culture. Of course, nobody at the table picks that up. The conversational train keeps heading towards the comparative advantage of culture in richer economies, even the nearby ones that require no visas to visit. Of course, they add, the talents, including conductors, are all imported to serve the local audience. So imported supply meets local demand for culture.

Maybe, in culture too, such as theater, music, and visual arts, the economists should have a say. Aren’t art and culture products too that need to be marketed? Perhaps, the supply side of culture where the talents such as the ones at our table, two siblings in the world of music and theater, has been getting an unfair advantage. The talent shows on TV and audition sessions from foreign theater groups feed the supply of outstanding artists. The singers, performers, and actors overwhelm the demand for them. Many talents then find their home abroad and bewail the lack of a local audience to sustain them. Ironically, it is when they harvest international acclaim are they finally appreciated by their own country and given the audience they lacked before.

Peter Drucker, our favorite management philosopher, stated that the purpose of business (and culture, perhaps) is to “create a customer.” The demand side of culture needs to be attended to. Not only should audiences be willing to travel to the venue to watch a play or ballet or orchestral performances, they should be willing to pay for it.

Developing an appetite for culture (maybe slightly less voracious than that for food and sex) needs to start early in the individual. When I look back at my own education and the nurturing of my love for the humanities, I realize that all those “must go” events where a reaction paper is required like the school plays (Julius Caesar, Macbeth, Hamlet) contributed to a lifelong affection (or affectation) for the arts. The muscle memory residing in the heart longs for those long-ago habits of sitting in a darkened theater to be moved and jangled out of my mental ruts.

These cultural forays were not exclusively devoted to performances, they extended to a love of books, ease in discussing ideas, and buying art. The development of an audience for art and culture is a kind of ecosystem. It is a self-sustaining sphere that gives talent its proper due, even in terms of material rewards. In a cultured society, cultural work is a sustainable occupation.

Audience development starts with an individual who is moved by art and culture. If there are foodies who love to explore and discover new cuisine, there must be also the “culturati,” a discerning audience that applauds and supports the arts. And there’s work to do for both groups.


A. R. Samson is Chairman and CEO, TOUCH xda.