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The Most Receptive Arts Audience May Be Behind Bars

Over the last few days you may have read about how the inmates at New York’s Eastern Correctional Facility beat Harvard University’s top ranked debate team.

It caught my attention because that is the prison in which I learned to play chess.



Yeah, I let that hang there a minute, but it is absolutely true that when I was around 9 or 10 years old, an inmate named Fat Cal with three life sentences for murder taught me to play chess. My parents took us to visit prisoners from the time I was 8 until the time I was about 17. Later, my mother ended up teaching in prisons.

To be honest, my siblings and I thought it was pretty boring because there wasn’t a lot for us to do while our parents talked to the inmates. I can’t say the experience made a deep enough impression on us to keep us out of trouble, but it did prepare us for the hassle of current airport security.

I have written about arts in prisons before. In fact, my last post involved the guard union at Eastern Correctional Facility blocking a theater performance at their prison.

After reading the recent articles about how successful the prison debate team was, it occurred to me that prisons are a good venue for arts organizations that seek to make an impact in a receptive community. As the Wall Street Journal article notes, inmates live a life where few distractions are permitted. As a result, they invest a lot of focus in whatever interests them.

In my previous entry, there were people quoted as saying the inmates should be focusing on developing trade and technical skills which will serve them upon their release. However, a Salon piece discussing the success of the inmate’s debate team notes,

In an oddly backhanded way, the success of these programs reveals the importance of the humanities—those “useless” subjects such as literature, philosophy, and history–which educate the whole person instead of training a worker. For some inmates, Sax writes, their situation may compel them “to think about things more intensely than most people. A crisis like going to prison can move people to question everything in their lives.” As for providing a liberal arts education to inmates, he posits the question: “Are we doing it for the prisoners or for society? Both, but helping the prisoners is a more tangible and immediate goal.”

As for the value of this type of education, the Salon article also notes that the in Bard College program which coached and developed the inmate debate team,

Out of 300 men who graduated from Bard’s program, fewer than 2 percent returned to custody within three years; and Hudson Link’s rates are at 3 percent. Without education, 40 percent of prisoners end up incarcerated again.

Similar statistics are also cited in a Daily Kos piece on the story.

What is really interesting to me is that both time and education were cited as key factors in arts participation by the study I cited in Monday’s entry. The researchers in that study hypothesized that highly educated people who were not highly wealthy had higher rates of participation because they had the time to do so, much as the inmates’ success is partially attributed to having the time to devote an undivided focus on their arguments.

As a couple of the articles point out, despite lack of wealth remaining a factor for most inmates upon release, an earned education appears to be diminishing recidivism. Even though there is a lot of debate about the costs and value of higher education, providing a good education appears to contribute to the general good of society.

It isn’t really appropriate to make facile conclusions about the contributions liberal arts can make to criminal reformation, but clearly it can have an important impact. Nor do I want to make statements about education, rather than wealth or a lack thereof, being a key factor in deterring crime. It is pretty clear wealth and class strongly influence whether you will be incarcerated.

Efforts at introducing arts and education to at-risk communities can certainly also assist in preventing people from ending up in prison. Unfortunately, there are myriad environmental factors which may distract people from achieving the necessary focus that is subsequently forced upon them in prison.

For those who long to make an impact in their community and society, it may be worth considering how well working with inmates might help you achieve your goals.

I am sure there is a lesson in all this about how excellence requires more time and focus than we allow ourselves.

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A Plague (Of Phones) On Both Your Houses

Back in July I came across a blog post titled, “When the Audience Phones It In,” which bemoaned all the recent incidents of audience members using phones and other electronic devices at performances employing the recurring phrase, “Why Are You Here?”

Every time I see the post title in my bookmarks, I keep thinking it applies to a different article from the Wall Street Journal about the problem of performers, directors and conductors using cell phones during auditions, rehearsals and backstage during performances.

Given that the phrase “phoning it in” is often used to refer to performers and the phrase “why are you here” could just as easily be applied to people who purport to be passionate and dedicated to what they are doing, that first blog post wouldn’t need many changes in order to address the issues raised in the WSJ article.

It is a little disingenuous to get indignant at audiences without acknowledging the issue exists backstage as well. Just because there isn’t a perfect silence and twilight ambiance of a performance for the errant glow or ringtone to disturb doesn’t mean artists shouldn’t be held to a similar, if not higher standard, as audiences.

The dynamics of a performing ensemble are as important to the success of a performance as establishing a rapport with the audience.

In musical theater, filling downtime on a device instead of watching co-workers rehearse can limit the cohesiveness of an ensemble, said Broadway choreographer Josh Rhodes, most recently of “It Shoulda Been You,” who has banned phones and starts rehearsals with a speech.

“I tell the actors I would rather have to stop them from talking, laughing and bonding, than from texting. I would rather they annoy each other, talk about me behind my back, fix the show in private,” he said. “Anything that links them together is better than checking Facebook during rehearsal.”

Theater director and Shakespeare expert Michael Sexton agrees. “Whenever there is a 10-minute break, everyone retreats to their phone,” he said. “There is this silent room as opposed to gossip and getting to know each other.”

The change can limit professional and social bonds, said Mr. Sexton: “In theater, you are often in rooms with people you don’t really know and the only time the details of peoples’ lives come out is in breaks.”

I hate to be the crotchety old guy muttering “in my day…,” but I think it says something when a director expresses a tolerance for public disturbances, fomenting discord and insubordination if it helps the ensemble bond and keeps them from retreating to their cellphones.

WSJ acknowledges the constructive uses of cellphones and other devices in preparing for a role and helping to promote the show on social media. There is still a certain element to all this that requires one to get one’s own house in order before criticizing others.

Offenses by audience members are highly visible, clearly apparent and violate established social rules so they are easy to deride.

Backstage/rehearsal use is less visible and the rules are more varied and vague. Not to mention there can be power dynamics that inhibit comment when conductors and directors are the primary offenders.

The WSJ article doesn’t even get into the impact of allowing yourself to be distracted during a performance. There are the obvious things like missed cues. Having a fight with a significant other before heading to a performance can have an adverse effect on one’s performance. Having a fight via text/Facetime three minutes before going on stage ratchets things up quite a bit more.

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Arts Participation Tied To Education, Not Wealth

Some encouraging news coming from Pacific Standard in support of the growing trend to focus on participatory arts experiences over simple attendance. According to the results of a new study conducted in England,

“…most forms of arts participation are strongly correlated not with class, but rather with education. To his surprise, he found that in a large sample of the English population, those with higher incomes were actually less likely to be active participants in the arts.”

Let’s get it out of the way right at the beginning and acknowledge that arts participation may be more integral to the English education experience than the U.S. so this finding may not be completely applicable to the U.S.

Still, it is a factor to pay attention to when looking at the demographics of the people you are engaging and trying to engage. The findings are pretty captivating.

In other words, a certain percentage of people go to the opera in order to be seen, to impress their bosses (or in-laws), or because it’s what their friends and neighbors expect them to do. But if you are actually a member of the opera chorus, it’s probably because it feeds your soul.


Reeves found that “arts participation, unlike arts consumption and cultural engagement generally, is not closely associated with either social class or social status.”

Indeed, “those with higher incomes are less likely to be arts participants,” he writes, adding that this finding is unexpected and difficult to interpret. Perhaps, he speculates, those at the top tend to work longer hours, and have less free time to devote to creative pursuits.

However, Reeves found education was “a strong predictor of the likelihood of being an arts participant.” After adjusting for the influence of family background, he found that, compared to people who did not participate in higher education, those who had earned a degree were four to five times more likely to play a musical instrument, or be involved in painting, photography, or dance.

It is intriguing to think, even if just speculation, that the practice of providing art to be consumed may have been heavily influenced by the fact that those with the most money only had time to attend. Those who are highly educated, but not as affluent may have an interest in consuming, yet they have a stronger interest and availability in participation, but may feel convenient opportunities are lacking.

If you are in a community where everyone sings in a choir, but few attend a concert by touring artists, you may be witnessing this dynamic in action.

There has long been a criticism of a one size fits all approach to marketing, programming, development, etc., especially in terms of trying to replicate what another organization is doing. Now one needs to consider if an art for consumption model may be incompatible with their community as well.

Then there is this statement to think about:

In any event, the findings can serve as a rejoinder to those who argue the arts are strictly of interest to the elite—an assertion that implies the rich can fund these organizations themselves rather than asking taxpayers to help do so.

Despite the exciting prospects represented by this statement, what is still going to be a million dollar mystery question for most arts organizations is if you shift to providing a more participatory mode of arts experience, is there enough interest to support the organization?

Even though there is potentially a much wider scope of people to which to appeal, the knowledge really affluent people are most interested in arts consumption may deter change.

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Advisory Board Functionality

I was curious to know how many people out there have advisory boards/committees that are not part of the governing board. If you have one, what has your experience been?

The reason I ask is because when I was at the recent Arts Midwest conference, a speaker advised that organizations not have a separate standing advisory committee for the simple reason that they will expect their advice to be implemented.

His general idea was that the governing board is in charge of the organization. They are (or should be) aware and responsible for all the repercussions of decisions that are made. An advisory board focuses on ideal outcomes but has no responsibility for what is involved in achieving those outcomes.  They are not likely to be aware of how their suggestions will tax the resources of the organization.

Yet, by providing them with an official seeming role that is called upon periodically, you create expectations about the influence the group will wield. Better that you solicit feedback from individuals at performances,  Rotary meetings, board meetings for other organization, at football games, etc.

If there is a need for a formal focus group or brainstorming session, the group should be assembled to apply their expertise to a specific topic (meeting state education standards, reaching under served communities) and then disbanded.

You might still contact any one you consult individually as follow up advice or to establish partnerships, etc.  It would be surprising if you didn’t. Most organizational challenges can’t be solved in a few afternoon meetings or on the buffet line.  There just shouldn’t be a standing group independent of the governing board.

It was also suggested that the temporary focus group be picked by the organization’s administration rather than by the governing board in order to avoid having an agenda or existing conflict within the board transferred to the group.

I know that some organizations use the Advisory Committee concept as a way to bolster their prestige, curry favor and funding by appointing celebrities, government officials and other notables to the committee. My impression is, this is largely a vanity appointment and few of these committees ever meet as a group.

Which is not to say that these individuals can’t offer valuable advice. Many certainly have great insight to offer and valuable connections which can benefit the organization. It’s just that they are probably solicited on an individual basis, much like as has been suggested.

Again, as this is a topic that doesn’t get discussed very often. I am curious to know how people have used this structure and if the groups, as a group, have proven to be an asset.

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