Huffpost Arts
Lauren Warnecke Headshot

What Can Small Arts Organizations Learn From Robin Thicke?

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There are two flavors of art. There are the little guys and the big guys. There is the haute couture of theater, music, and dance, the avant garde, the struggling arts organization, and there is the massive pop media empire. The budget for an event like last Monday's Jingle Ball easily (really easily) exceeds the annual operating budget of some of the greatest arts organizations in the world. We go about our separate ways. We don't compete. In general, we don't even really communicate with each other.

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I'm not exactly sure of the series of events that lead to me standing near the red carpet Instagraming Icona Pop at the 2013 103.5FM Jingle Ball, and you might think I'm making this up, but I actually learned some stuff. Sure, I could pretend I'm and entertainment and pop culture writer and comment on Avril Lavigne's hairdo, but who am I kidding? I was out of my element. When asked if I wanted to conduct interviews, I declined. "Oh, no, that's not necessary, but thanks!" I said. (Read: "Holy crap! What would I ask Robin Thicke? Um, So, Robin, what do you think about audience engagement? What's the true meaning behind your art?")

Yeah, no thanks.

Here's the thing: It's possible to cross the aisle, to talk to pop culture, and perhaps even learn from it. I took away many things from the Jingle Ball: ringing ears, a blown mind, and these powerful lessons:

  • Quality and success are unrelated. It doesn't really matter whether the art is good or bad, and what does good really mean, anyway? Just because something is catchy doesn't mean it can't also be elevated, and elevated art can be lucrative if it's marketed the right way. "Success" in the arts is all about the approach, not the content. I mean, look at Bjork. That stuff is really weird, and she makes millions in record sales.
  • It's okay to share the work. The Jingle Ball staff is easily made up a hundred people (if not more) between the artists, PR, roadies, sponsors, etc. Many of the small-scale dance shows I saw this fall consisted of an artistic director, dancers, and a stage manager. I know that collaboration is hard, and costs money, but production management and a publicist are an investment small companies won't regret. Robin Thicke spends his time being Robin Thicke, not writing press releases, picking out his suit, and scheduling his airfare. Imagine how awesome you could be at doing what you do if you let others do the stuff you don't do. Everyone I encountered at the Jingle Ball was professional, friendly, and efficient, and working for the best interest of the star. Neat.
  • Being on the road is hard. As glamorous as it must seem to be a pop star, money and fame are not a barometer for success or happiness. Living "the dream" is a lonely existence, and not just for the artists. The Jingle Ball-ers are on the road day after day, seeing their loved ones a few days a year, and relying on screaming fans and evening-length friendships for social interaction. So maybe there is something to be learned on both sides of the aisle.
  • Audience members like to drink beer and tweet. It's weird: I have a hard time paying more than $25 to see a dance performance, and yet crowds came in droves to the Jingle Ball, paying upwards of $125 to drink beer, go in and out of the arena for salted mega-sized pretzels, and scream at the top of their lungs. Occasionally, fans looked away from their phones to watch the thing they'd paid for. I don't know that we in the small arts community should start hiring beer handlers and selling pretzels and nachos, but it sure gave me something to think about with respect to what an audience wants out of their experience at a show.

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When it comes down to it, I don't know that Miami City Ballet and Flo Rida are meant to get along, but it sure is fun to imagine a world that embraces the good from these very different worlds. When it comes down to it, the Jingle Ball was four hours (four!) of pretty phenomenal entertainment. The quality of the live performances, the mind-blowing speed of the changeovers between bands, and even the screaming, pretzel-eating tweens next to me pretty much assured that I'm going to be Jingle Balling for years to come.

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Photo credit: Photos of Robin Thicke and Flo Rida at 2013 103.5 KISS FM Jingle Ball by Julie E. Ballard, used with permission.