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Tell Stories For Thanksgiving

When you are eating Thanksgiving dinner with your family and you get asked when you are going to get a real job, or something to that effect, instead of trying to justify yourself with logical arguments and statistics from studies on the value of the arts, simply try telling stories that illustrate why you love what you do.

Maybe it isn’t even related to your discipline and maybe the one incident you talk about isn’t significant enough to convince people your life devoid of career prospects is worthwhile.  The one thing arts people do well, but need to learn to do better outside of their preferred circumstances, is tell stories.

Just to give some examples.

-In the last 12 months, we have had some great shows and offered great experiences at our performing arts center. Among the highlights were a great stage combat workshop that seamlessly involved 25ish people from 10 year olds to college sophomores.

-Last March there was a terrible snow storm that forced us to cancel a performance. Fortunately, the group was willing to perform the next day. While they were waiting, they wandered around town. The owner of the coffee shop still tells me how charming they were.

-The three year old grandson of one of our patrons has to walk by the performing arts center a couple times a week on his way to and from daycare and still asks if he can go inside and see the Tuvan throat singers that performed here over a month ago.

-A couple weeks ago I went to the local museum to listen to an artist demonstrate how she created the effect on her work using encaustic. It was a lot of fun, especially when she started to debate the relative merits of hair dryers, heat guns and embossing tools as part of the fusing method. Afterward many of us went to a local rib place and had dinner.

I kept these examples brief and left out many of the compelling details in the interest of holding a reader’s attention. As a subject of conversation the last story about the encaustic workshop might be the best simply because I am not a visual artist and know as little with about the discipline as those with whom I am having dinner. There is less danger of using language or focusing on minutiae relevant only to insiders. (Though you probably had to be there to understand the heat gun v. hair dryer v. embossing tool conversation.)

I think relatives around a dining table can relate to stories about: artists skilled enough to involve participants of all ages; artists who are committed to seeing a performance happen and have positive interactions with community members; strange, unfamiliar singing styles from other countries that even excite little kids; visual artists who are accessible in the explanation of their work and as potential dining partners.

Even if you don’t do the best job telling your stories and your relatives don’t quite get it, you can simply say you are thankful that you have been able to provide opportunities where people learned interesting things and enjoyed themselves. If they are interested, you would be able to involve them in the future.

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This Post Did Not Emerge Fully Formed Like Athena From My Skull

A topic I frequently like to write about is the misconception that artistic inspiration is the result of a lightning bolt moment rather than the product of long term effort.

In the past, the examples I have given have focused on how creative people subscribe to this notion. However, Howard Sherman retweeted an article today that pointed out how society at large reinforces this belief.

In the article Rebecca Atkinson-Lord draws attention to the language used when describing playwright Katherine Soper’s winning the Bruntwood Prize for Playwrighting. Like many people in the arts, Soper has a second job she works in order to provide financial support for her writing efforts. Many media outlets described her as a “shop assistant,” “perfume seller,” and “first time writer.” (She is a trained playwright and this isn’t her first effort.)

Atkinson-Lord writes,

By perpetuating this myth of the ‘Big Break’, our media culture teaches those outside the arts world that to be a successful artist is easy, that there’s no need to aim for excellence, no need to push yourself harder, to educate yourself and develop key skills to be the very best you can be. It makes the arts look easy. And easy is cheap.

In turn that undermines the case for proper funding of the arts – if anyone can make excellent art, then there’s no need to pay artists competitively or fund its development. Presenting Katherine as (just) a shop assistant also conceals the stark reality that most theatre makers have to do ‘money jobs’ to survive while disguising the systemic flaws in how the arts are funded and theatre makers are employed.

She goes on to note that the headlines also make subtle class assumptions about a shop assistant’s capability to create award winning art work and certainly that is another factor at play here.

According to the article, Soper mentioned on social media that included her second job in her bio as a way to emphasize that artists are balancing multiple roles. It appears that got turned around a bit on her.

While media channels really need to be more responsible about researching and honestly reporting on a creative person’s existence and career before their big break, it isn’t likely to happen. The romance of the humble origins in a garage is just too compelling a story, even if it isn’t true.

birth athena

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Thankfully, We Don’t Have To Settle

Over on ArtsHacker, the contributors talk about what they are thankful for as arts managers.  Often the spoken or unspoken source of gratitude is the fact that we still have jobs and that people continue to be interested enough in what we do to support our work.

There was a post on by Dennis Perkins, a guy who, until recently, worked for a video store in Portland, ME. Yes, apparently there are still some around, though fewer every day.  The store lasted as long as it had thanks to the exceptionally knowledgeable, curatorial and customer service practices of the owner and staff.

Perkins offers some sobering insights that may be instructive for the future of  performing and visual arts organizations.

1) Video stores are about investment
The enemy of video stores was convenience. The victim of convenience is conscious choice.


If you’re actually in a video store, the stakes are different. You’re engaged. You’re on a mission to find a movie — the right movie. You had to get out of bed, get dressed, and go to a store. You had to think about what you want, why this movie looks good and not that one, perhaps even seeking guidance or advice….Before the film even starts playing, you’ve begun a relationship with it. You’re curious. Whether you’ve chosen well or poorly, you’ve made a choice, and you’re in it for the duration.

With online streaming, we don’t decide — we settle. And when we aren’t grabbed immediately, we move on. That means folks are less likely to engage with a film on a deep level; worse, it means people stop taking chances on challenging films

Similarly, attending an event is an investment and involves a relationship that the attendee has begun to develop. This isn’t news. There has long been a conversation about eliminating barriers to making that choice since it can also involve arranging for a babysitter, eating a meal and finding parking.

In some respects, the “settling” behavior represents a deepening manifestation of having 500 channels and finding nothing on,  because it continues to normalize having low expectations.  (And settling is pretty common, Mashable satirized it.) This situation is worse because it couples low expectations with the perception there is no alternative.

When it was just 500 cable channels, you had the option of going to a video store and getting recommendations. As Perkins notes, an algorithm suggesting new options can’t replace a human. Even if it isn’t just factoring in your “settling” choices and tosses in unexpected options to push you in new directions, an algorithm doesn’t exert the influence/peer pressure of another human being. It doesn’t care if you choose to settle.

Turns out, those snarky, smug video and record store clerks who looked down on your choices provided a valuable service.

Perhaps most disheartening about Perkins’ piece is his assertion that excellent customer service, high customer loyalty and efforts to reach people via social media won’t save you.

Videoport had loyal customers, customers who didn’t abandon us, even at the end. Sensing the air of growing unease at the thinning lines at the store made some regulars come in even more, sometimes dragging friends along and extolling our virtues. There was an elderly couple who loved my recommendations so much I’m genuinely worried they’re just staring at a blank screen right now. But video stores — like bookstores, record stores, and arthouse theaters—have died as the lure of online convenience overcomes even the most stalwart patrons


I started a weekly blog/newsletter for the store. I intended it to be a place for customers and staff to continue the ongoing movie conversation through movie reviews, debates, and think pieces about the store and movies in general. In theory it was, apart from being a chance for me to exercise my brain and writing skills, a way to bind customers to the store by giving them a sense of ownership in the place. In practice, as the customers drifted away, it became more like a running, increasingly desperate 10-year argument as to why our video store deserved to exist, written by me.

Now my intention isn’t to be a downer as we move into the holiday season. One of the significant differences between performing and visual arts organizations and video stores is that the former has the ability to change the way customers experience their product where video stores can’t.

Watching a DVD is always going to be the same experience, but seeing a performance can happen in a performance hall, a coffee house, a park,  a shopping center, an airport, etc. It can involve a high level of interaction or barely any at all. After the central activity is over, you can meet the creators/performers if you haven’t already and the opportunity to hang out at a bar exists if the parties are willing.

A DVD or streamed program does have the benefit of being experienced on one’s own schedule and can be stopped and started according to the vagaries of life. An arts event has the potential of becoming one of those vagaries of life you hit pause to participate in.

The conversation about making an arts experience more participatory rather than passive has been going on for awhile now. As we start to move into the new year and planning the next season, it might help to start thinking about our ability to provide a participatory experience as the competitive advantage we possess rather than focusing on all the ways a live experience doesn’t allow for the flexibility of recorded content.

In that sense, Perkins’ piece isn’t necessarily a sobering warning about the future of the visual and performing arts, it is a caution against offering an experience that isn’t discernibly different from watching a movie.


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When A Top Tier Performing Position Isn’t The Goal of Your Education

Last month I pondered if there was any worth in giving up a little time in the conservatory/university training of arts students in favor of providing instruction/experiences in career management. Instead of graduating and then seeking out instruction in accounting, contracting and self promotion, etc., they would have a base in those skills but may need to seek out “finishing” training in their discipline.

The benefit to this is that given their lengthy training within their discipline, they would have the tools to identify and assess the value of educational opportunities and resources. Whereas, they might not have ability to assess the value of instruction in accounting, contracts, marketing services, etc if their conservatory training didn’t include it.

The other benefit is that once graduates are out in the world and can better understand where their interests lay, they can complete their education in a way that is appropriate to those pursuits and market demand.

About a week after that post, you may have seen an article in Cosmo that was getting a lot of circulation throughout the arts social media community. The story was about Lisa Mara, who had a strong affinity for dance,  hadn’t pursued formal university/conservatory training, but still felt a need for dance as part of her life and ended up starting two dance companies for like-minded individuals.

Her story is something of an intersection between the idea I state above and emergence of the professional-amateur.  Lisa Mara never wanted to be a professional dancer.

I danced about five hours a week and still did all of my studies. I still knew that I did not want to be a professional dancer. I wanted to pursue a career in something that I thought would have a better trajectory of business and job security. Being a dancer, you need to have an awareness of “Are you good enough?” And I don’t think I was good enough. The dancers who pursue dance as a full-time career should be the top 10 percent. Otherwise, you’re going to just get the door slammed in your face at auditions time after time.

Yet she loved dancing enough that she got a spot as a back up dancer for Brittany Spears, she auditioned as a dancer for the Washington Wizards and Boston Celtics basketball teams. Even though she never became a dancer for either team, she eventually utilized the business management experiences she picked up in the other jobs she held to plan and incorporate her first dance company in Boston.

I wanted to create a dance company for young professionals who were just like me. The target audience I was reaching was high-caliber dancers who wanted to continue dancing and choreographing into their adult lives. Many of our dancers have full-time jobs. Many of our dancers are dance teachers, but this is their opportunity to dance for themselves.

The success of that company spurred the creation of a second company with the same philosophy in NYC.

I don’t think there is anything in her story that implies the dancers in her schools could replace those who have focused their training on dance as a career.  I do think it is a good illustration that deferring some training in an artistic discipline doesn’t automatically make you unemployable.

Granted, just as not everyone will be cast on Broadway, secure a position in a top tier symphony or ballet company, not everyone is going to be able to create the opportunities for themselves at Lisa Mara has.

Opportunities do exist outside of the conventional career paths. If Lisa Mara’s experience is any indication, there may be a large unmet need of adult enthusiasts looking for a creative outlet.

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