The Value of the Amateur

A recent report by the Wallace Foundation got me thinking in a very different way about “the Amateur” – or one who practices an art form, but not professionally. The report is actually a summary of a conference in Philadelphia in 2009 attended by representatives from the six cities who received Wallace Excellence Awards (a link to the report can be found via Hill Strategies’ Arts Research Monitor here). What caught my attention wasn’t that it talked about the need for arts organizations to grow their audiences as well as the need for courageous programming in these hard times, it was rather how and where this report suggested some of those new audiences can be found: in people who already have an affinity with and knowledge of various art forms – the amateurs.

There is a sidebar in the report that explains this very eloquently, so I won’t summarize it here, but what I will say is that it made me realize that our greatest supporters in hard times may be those who are actively engaged in the practice of various art forms at an amateur level: those who sing in choirs or opera choruses, who act in community theatre, who danced when they were children, who took art class in high school or who paint in their spare time. All of these people recognize the skill and quality of professional art because they know what goes into that quality and how much it took to get an artwork to that level.

A personal example goes back to an art gallery show (I cannot remember the gallery) featuring various forms of landmines and the destruction they caused. If I remember correctly, there was information and photo images of the harm done by landmines, but the examples of the landmines themselves were all knitted. In various display cases sat life sized, brightly coloured, knitted landmines. The reason I remember the exhibit was because it juxtaposed a craft that we view as comforting against the terror and strife landmines represent. That was the point of the show, I think. I appreciated the work, but at the time I recognized it only as an innovative way to convey the message. I had no idea of the skill involved in its creation.

Now, however, because I am a devoted knitter (although not at all a fibre artist – more a “fibre fan”, if you will), I remember the exhibit primarily because I appreciate the skill it would have taken to create these knitted objects in the first place. Now I appreciate the exhibit in more than one way, and in turn would go to see other, similar exhibits. In fact, now, because I am a knitter, I appreciate fibre arts and the entire skill and patience of craft artists much more than I ever did. This is how I am engaged in that art form and the reason that I will willingly go – and pay money – to see the work of those who take this art to a higher level of creativity and skill.

Amateurs and those who practice the arts in their communities in their time outside of their regular work can be our best and most outspoken advocates. Who better to explain to others who see the Arts as a “frill” the value those same art forms bring to their lives and the lives of others? Who better to explain how much skill and training it takes to get to that level? There is a symbiotic relationship here that we who are involved in professional arts organizations have yet to fully explore. Many of us understand the value of the Arts in education and in our communities as pathways to better understanding of various aspects of our lives, but have we really looked at ways to engage them as potential audience members? I, for one, haven’t really thought about it that way, but would love to hear from others who have.

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