Amateurs Making Art in Growing Numbers

Talent is not required to perform at the once-a-month Sunday art salon Kathie de Nobriga hosts in her garage. The city councilwoman from Pine Lake, Ga., recently invited a woman who said she "thought she might be" a poet—and showed up to read passages from her high-school journals. Though de Nobriga invites a few ringers to perform each month, the emphasis is on enthusiasm, not expertise. On any given Sunday, she might get an audience of 25. "We have a conversation about art that you don't get when it's left in the hands of professionals," she says.

The same do-it-yourself groundswell can be felt across the Atlantic at London's Southbank Centre. In September 2008 English singer Billy Bragg performed at something called the Big Busk. After posting the chords of the songs he would play on the Internet, he invited all comers to bring their guitars. Some 3,000 did, strumming while a crew behind Bragg hoisted signs showing which chord to play. Now Southbank is hosting a nine-month Leonard Bernstein festival, which will culminate in a gala presentation of Bernstein's Mass next May 11 by 500 mostly amateur performers.

The global recession hasn't crippled the entertainment industry, as some feared, but it has hastened its embrace of the do-it-yourself movement. From neighborhood theater troupes to bookstore readings, amateur performers are taking their place onstage. It's less a new development than a return to an old way of life. "The whole idea of the professional artist belongs to the 20th century," says Shan Maclennan, Southbank's creative director of learning and participation. "Before that, amateurs were everywhere." When the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic was founded in 1840, she says, half its members had day jobs. "In professionalizing art, [spontaneity and fun] have been lost. What we're doing feels like the way forward."

The economic crisis has certainly played a part. "It spurred people to start thinking about the things that give life meaning," says Robin Simpson, head of the U.K.'s Voluntary Arts Network (and an amateur French-horn player in the Northampton Symphony Orchestra). In tight times, amateur entertainment is also more affordable—to watch and to perform. But Simpson noticed attitudes shifting even before the world economy went south. "The false divide between professionals and amateurs was already breaking down," he says.

Technology has allowed frustrated amateurs to bypass those arbiters of professionalism: galleries, record labels, publishing houses, and movie studios. Valentina Trevina had mothballed her dream of becoming a painter years ago. Then, in 2006, she saw a singing-cat video on YouTube and figured her artwork couldn't be any dumber. Trevina now posts an installment of Val's Art Diary on YouTube every week, in which she schmoozes and paints. To date, the site has had 20 million views, and Trevina can support herself selling paintings for an average of $1,200 apiece. "I always had a dream, but until now it was a bad dream," says Trevina. "Who knew?"

Weekend novelists can also take heart.In 2006 a new outfit called On Demand Books (ODB) began placing its Espresso Book Machines in bookstores and libraries. The machines can print, bind, and trim a 300-page book in less than four minutes. Designed for retrieving hard-to-find or out-of-print books, they've turned out to be equally useful for printing potboilers written on the sly. "I didn't plan for this, but it's become an important source of content for us," says cofounder Dane Neller.

How good can any of this stuff be? That's missing the point, says Robert Lynch, president of the nonprofit arts promoter Americans for the Arts: "The word 'amateur' comes from the Latin root for love." Where the arts are concerned, love is definitely in the air.