How the Arts lost the Soccer Mums

| November 26, 2014

Throughout the world legions of women define themselves as “soccer mums”. These are aspirational parents who devote time, money and energy to giving their kids a quality of life through extra curricular, after school activities, especially sport. Note: not any sport. Soccer became the drug of choice because it was a team game in which boys and girls could participate; it was high on dexterity and speed; it was non-contact and thus low on injury; and, above all, it had its heroes worldwide, irrespective of colour or creed. This was sport “lite”.

It didn’t have to be sport to attract the young. Some take dance classes (mostly girls) or join a band (mostly boys). Nor did it have to be soccer. What happened? That code went out and sold itself to the mums. Now it has a base of knowledge, enthusiasm and a pass-on rate in the community second to none. Male and female can discuss equally and enjoy. Above all, it has acquired a potent source of future audience as well as of players. That is a shift to make the market goggle.

Soccer gurus knew that if you want to change the world you have to change the kids and mums are their gatekeepers.

Given their profile, these women were as natural a fit for the arts as for sport: a group activity that was fun, physical, social, safe, well-supervised and needn’t cost a lot. So why did the arts miss the chance to change a generation? Perhaps they were looking the wrong way?

For too long the arts have been obsessed with getting into schools, influencing curriculum, even becoming curriculum and otherwise inserting themselves into an already over-crowded teaching day. Witness when the 110 brightest arts minds gathered in Canberra some years back for Kevin Rudd’s thinkfest. What did they come up with as the great big new idea? By 2020 no Australian school should be without a resident artist. Wow!!

For too long the arts have been obsessed with getting into schools, influencing curriculum, even becoming curriculum.

Yet in decades of bussing school kids out and bussing artists in (worthy though these may be) they have neglected the world of after-school. Ballet should have given them a clue. Squillions of little girls are turned into life-long fans at the suburban ballet school. They form friendships, learn skills, keep fit, follow their “stars” and, above all, become knowledgeable enough to turn into to discerning audiences and all of that they pass to their daughters. And what is the single most economically successful arts company in Australia? The Australian Ballet.

Like soccer, ballet gurus knew that if you want to change the world you have to change the kids and, I repeat, mums are their gatekeepers.

Not every child aspires to be the Sugarplum Fairy and, unlike soccer, ballet ain’t cheap at any level. But the results are evident. Almost alone in the live performing arts, ballet has a rust proof public. If you been to a National Australia Bank ATM recently, maybe you’ve wondered why you’re looking at a message about ballet while doing your multiple choice cash withdrawal? I doubt that NAB thinks ballet, as such, is good for business, but I bet they believe that all those ballet mums are.

Perhaps, you’ll concede, that one can achieve this with little middle class girls in tutus; but what about the rest? Sure, there are youth orchestras here and there but music lessons, not to say instruments, are expensive. There is, too, a sprinkling of youth theatre companies. But soccer now has mass appeal. Can any area of the arts match that?

We might pause here to make a ritual note of the much touted, largely misunderstood and even more frequently misapplied Venezuelan El Sistema. Beyond doubt, in that troubled and poor nation, they’ve created a frenzy of participation in youth orchestras from community level to international excellence that is rightly the envy of the world. And it has changed lives, offered a team experience, taught skills, built future audiences and created role models. We’ll pass over the many apparatchiks flourishing in the developed world who have latched onto this worthy idea and applied it willy nilly to the notional ‘western suburbs’ of wherever.

For Virginia, this is not like teaching the peasant to fish, and there is no evidence as far as I know that lifting a child out of disadvantage with a fiddle is of itself more socially beneficial than with a soccer ball. So the jury is out on public value but not perhaps on public appeal.

So far so good, but doesn’t such a scheme cost a lot of money? Where does that come from? Commercial patronage and government. Why those? Because it has mass appeal. Why does sport get sponsorship? Because it too has mass appeal. But also because there is close up, observable, community benefit. The football star running a clinic with the group of kids on Saturday morning is as potent a picture for the sponsor’s website as the crowd of 30,000 at the stadium that afternoon. It’s in the suburban club that the community’s heart resides. And in general the arts are not there.

There’s been a growing tendency for arts people to promote a ‘them and us’ mentality towards government investment in sport. Funding of the Australian Institute of Sport is often cited, along with the naive idea that high earning alumni should pay back some of the costs of their training. (Do they imply that high earning artists might do the same?) Apart from the fact that appropriations for arts and culture by all three tiers of government far outweigh total public expenditure on sport, this is a small-minded attitude of envy that demonstrates yet again how much less generous the arts often are than sport in its world view. When did we last see an Australian arts “star” do a community workshop?

The fact is that sportspeople are successful in this domain because they work at it. Alongside that relatively small number of professional and often well-paid sportspeople there are literally hundreds of thousands engaged for little or no remuneration in a plethora of codes across the nation from little athletics to synchronized swimming. It is a basis of enthusiasm and support that the arts have done virtually nothing to emulate or encourage other than in amateur theatre, orchestras or choirs; and they are, if anything, a dying breed.

For an ‘industry’ that is supposed to be in the business of communication we have done a poor job of explaining our needs and aspirations to our fellow Australians. That is not to say that individual companies and artists have not done well. However, my hunch is that even with doping and other scandals and not infrequent bad behaviour, sport still radiates a positive and engaging face to the nation. The arts, by contrast, propagate an image of begging and complaint without seeming to offer much in return.

It’s a different football code but interesting that an artist, albeit one with a vested interest, could make the point:

A strong South Sydney Club means not just more football players or sportspeople but more doctors, lawyers and artists will rise from our fan base of kids as they grow because they have been given the true example that hard work and belief does in fact have its rewards. Russell Crowe, SMH Oct 4-5 p. 1

There needs to be a shift in the mentality of the arts community. Part of that must be to cease extravagant claims that can neither be proven nor justified. If, as is often argued, there is a public benefit in the arts, what exactly is it? Social? Economic? Humanitarian? Either this can be demonstrated or it cannot. Arts advocates have long advanced an equally vague ‘spiritual’ benefit, i.e. that somehow the presence of the arts in society makes people better. For that there is not a skerrick of evidence even if we could agree on what constitutes ‘better’ and knew what aspect of the arts had that effect on people. Indeed, there are throughout history some rather disturbing instances to the contrary.

Advocates of the arts in education claim, as though it were gospel, that arts in the curriculum have a beneficial effect on overall school performance and intellectual development. The evidence for this is marginal at best and only holds good if you ignore that other disciplines might do this as well. I note that recently in the US at least, this rhetoric has softened to claims that “arts kids” [sic] have better school attendance records. I can at least accept that that modest outcome is measurable even if the case for cause and effect is moot.

Some willingness on the part of artists and arts workers to demonstrate that they give to rather than take from society might win some hearts.

Recently, the eminent British theatre and opera director, Jonathan Miller (who is also a distinguished medical scientist), observed on the BBC’s Hard Talk that the highest claim he would make for the arts was that they might make the observer think about something in a way that he or she had not before. He was quick to acknowledge that the same could be said of science. It seemed like a good and reasonable position.

I can live with and might even argue for the notion that the arts (along with languages, maths and science) can offer human beings insights into the world and their condition with in it and perhaps think more profoundly about those things. But I find it hard to be enthusiastic about the notion that anyone who declares him or herself to be an artist acquires a kind of angelic capacity to improve the world.

By contrast, some willingness on the part of artists and arts workers to demonstrate that they give to rather than take from society might win some hearts and, wonder of wonders, maybe even get those soccer mums on board.

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