Pittsburgh Emerging Arts Leaders Network

Connecting emerging arts managers with skill-building and leadership development resources.

Musings on Traditions in the Arts

The Nutcracker at Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre, my place of employment.  A Musical Christmas Carol at the Pittsburgh CLO.  The Chief at the Pittsburgh Public Theatre.  The Holiday Pops at the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra. Holiday Unwrapped at Attack Theatre. Whether we who work in the arts like it or not, as with everything else that comes with the holiday season, performing arts organizations in particular seem to have their own traditions that they celebrate. Traditions in the arts allow us to celebrate our artistic past in the contemporary present, but at what expense and to what end? Or, if looked at from a positive perspective, why are these holiday traditions important to keep (if some may feel otherwise)?

Thomas Cott from “You’ve Cott Mail” sent out in his daily wrap up from December 6 five separate pieces all tackling this issue. A tension seemed to exist in these articles regarding the necessity of appreciating these traditions and the desire to find a new tradition or at the very least something refreshing.  But won’t that new tradition ultimately become the same staid tradition that so many seem to simultaneously enjoy and despise? And since when did something or someone ever set out to become a “tradition?” I’m not really sure we have the power to control that. But traditions—as they should be—provide a backbone, a stabilizing force, in the seas of change that non-profits constantly find themselves in.

Let us not forget, too, the ever important factor that money plays in this whole game as well. With such “valued” traditions comes with a certain responsibility of organizations to uphold, maintain, and build upon this perceived cultural value—whether or not it advances the art form. And let’s be honest—as a few of the articles from You’ve Cott Mail pointed out—these holiday traditions help keep the doors open.

Certainly, these traditions are for many their first introduction to a particular art form, something that entices them back to another production or event. Perhaps we need to think of these traditions as “gateway drugs.” Or if nothing else a sugar high that the consumer will hopefully remember a few days from now.

But then there are the traditions internal to our art forms. Whether it’s the obligatory “break a leg” in theatre or “merde” in dance before a performance, small thank you gifts that actors leave one another in theatre, the shuffling of the feet for applause that occurs in symphonies, or the flowers that are given to the principal ballerina’s at the end of every performance, there are traditions that even those of us who might balk at the “traditional holiday performances” still participate in. Superstitious? Perhaps. Obligation? That might be part of it. Or is it that we feel a responsibility to others in our professions to partake in these traditions, whether or not we find value in them, because they have become meaningful to the art form and reinforce our artistic communities?

And then what to do with those things coined as new “traditions”—Midnight Radio at Bricolage Production Company, for instance (and yes—someone from the organization mentioned a review describing Midnight Radio as ‘a fun fall theater tradition’)? Is something so edgy and artistically innovative as Midnight Radio diminished or enhanced by thinking about it as a “tradition?” Innovative and traditional are two adjectives I would not immediately put together, and yet there they are.

Readers, what are your musings about traditions in the arts during this whirlwind holiday season? And what other holiday art traditions am I  missing that are also important (especially among visual, literary, and media arts–help me out!)?

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