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Defining Your Terms

Even though Twitter’s status as a favored and effective mode of communication on social media seems to be in flux, a recent tweet I came across for Mt. Rainer, MD struck me as a smart move.

I thought it wise of them to stake out their hashtags in advance and make an attempt to standardize them so they could more effectively manage and monitor conversations about the city and its events.  Specifying MtRMDlove is especially good if they get a lot of use out of it. Same with letting people know what tag the city was going to use to communicate about #MountRainerDay since it could easily be #MtRainerDay.

Arts organizations may want to establish similar naming conventions for themselves and their events, especially if they sponsor annually recurring events like festivals. Having a consistent hashtag or identifiable phrase or look on social media sites and webpages is a form of branding. Setting this style at the beginning of a season and distributing it to the whole organization helps keep everyone on the same page throughout the year.

Going through the process in advance helps to identify potential areas of confusion. For example, MtRainerDay may be shorter than MountRainerDay, but it has more overlap with the the handles of some Matthew and Michael Trainers out there.  When I was in Hawaii, our social media account names were close to that of a theater in Los Angeles so we had to be very careful about what hashtags and phrases we used.

Going through the process of standardizing terminology in advance can be important even if you have no intention of using social media.

For example, if you are presenting a show with a long title like The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, getting everyone using the same shorthand can help maintain a uniform identity for the public. Are you going to refer to it as “The Curious Incident…” in conversation or “Dog In the Night-time”?

It is going to be inevitable that your box office staff is going to shorten it with customers, even if they use the full title when people call about tickets for that “Night Dog show,” so using the terms interchangeably might make people think they are two different shows.

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We Get All Types In Here

Yesterday I talked about some brainstorming that occurred during a post-museum show opening get together. That party was a lot more constructive for me than I expected because it provided fodder for this post as well.

I happened to fall into the orbit of the museum artistic director as she talked about the five types of people who visit museums. I didn’t know until later that these types are all laid out in the book, Identity and the Museum Visitor Experience.

I haven’t read it yet, but the artistic director had done a fair bit of reading and writing on the subject and what you need to consider when laying out a museum exhibit.

The general traits of these types manifest in all arts audiences so I saw a lot of applicability across disciplines.

Experience Seeker– As she described it, the experience seeker is the type of person who goes into the Louvre, takes a picture of the Mona Lisa, walks out again and tells all their friends they have been to the Louvre.  While we in the arts hate this person for not taking the time to look at anything else, this person can be very enthusiastic when it comes to discussing their experience with their friends which can drive more visitors.

With this in mind, the artistic director said she uses lighting and really visible signage to highlight one or two select pieces in a gallery. If the experience seeker is only going to orient on one thing, she wants to influence what they look at and what information they absorb because they tend to do a pretty good job of retaining the details and relating them to friends.

Performing Arts entities can do the same thing by highlighting some memorable aspect of the experience. For some places it is going to be the performance, but for others it might be some other element related to the experience or the facility itself. People are likely to remember the skulls and swastikas in Albuquerque’s KiMo Theater, the washrooms at the John Michael Kohler Arts Center, or watching Shakespeare under the stars in a replica of the Globe Theater at one of the Shakespeare festivals around the country, even if they forget or were bored by the details of the performance itself.

Facilitator – This is a person who is trying to help others experience the museum.  It could be friends, parents, teachers, etc. Signage is important for these people, but so the ability to procure educational and other support materials that make the experience enjoyable and the works accessible.  Physical layout can be important so that the group can easily transition through an exhibit.

For those arts organizations that don’t offer free admission, pricing can be a factor.

Explorer – This person is probably an arts org’s ideal attendee. They pay close attention and have a methodical approach to the experience. In a museum, they seek out the informational plaques and take some time to consider everything they encounter. Even if the give one piece a cursory glance, they don’t assume the next piece won’t be worthy of their attention.

In performing arts situations, these are the people who make sure they arrive on time and are moving toward the doors when the warning lights blink.  In any situation, they crave information so they will check out the links on your website, read your program/brochure and take it home with them and tend to be interested in educational programs like workshops, lectures, artist talks, etc.

Unlike the experience seeker, they are good candidates to become donors.

Professionals – this group includes dedicated amateurs/hobbyists as well as colleagues from peer organizations. They are looking for an experience and information that deepens their knowledge about the subject matter.  They want to know why an artist was significant to the time they were practicing and what distinctive elements were common to artists from that period.

This is, unfortunately, the audience many press releases and marketing materials are geared to when they include obscure arcana and accolades that only have relevance to this handful of insiders and initiates. If it doesn’t pass the Gal in Starbucks test, save those materials and hand them to these folks.

Even though they are most deeply interested and invested in the content you offer, they only have a low likelihood of becoming a donor. However, they do provide good word of mouth and validation among peer organizations and the general industry.

 Recharger- This is the person who uses interactions with your organization to recharge themselves. In a museum, they may come in and sit in front of the same painting every day for a week. They may be a volunteer who helps out because working in a creative environment helps them get through their 9-5 job.  Understanding how to interact with these people can be a little tricky. A person who is recharged by sitting in the presence of a work of art may want to control their experience whereas a volunteer may want you to guide their engagement a little.

Not charging them admission on their third visit that week or suggesting they may be interested in looking at project you are working on in “Employees Only” area may make you a friend for life.

According to my friend the museum director, rechargers often fly under the radar and remain quietly involved but can have a deep emotional investment with the organization that manifests in things like surprise bequests in people’s wills.

Everyone ends up embodying one of these types at different points in their lives. In a museum you may be an explorer but in a performance venue you engage as a professional. When you bring your nieces and nephews to a show, you operate as a facilitator and realize just how inhospitable some of your policies and practices are to families. At Mt. Rushmore you are an experience seeker and annoy everyone with your attempt to take a selfie that makes it appear you are punching Teddy Roosevelt in the nose.

No space or program can perfectly serve each of these types, but being aware of them allows you to anticipate the different ways you can address the needs of each.

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Art Museum Price Is Right

While socializing post-reception for a show that opened at the local art museum, I got into a conversation with the directors about the type of information you include on the cards/plaques next to each piece.

Things got a little spirited when the executive director suggested that the cost of a piece be listed. His reasoning was that people are interested in knowing this information due to shows like Antique Roadshow.  His thought was that by including this information, you might appeal to an audience that wasn’t currently being reached.

The artistic director was against this idea. She was concerned that if the prices appeared on the cards, people would orient to that information rather than reading about the importance of the artist to a movement, what inspired the piece, notes that draw attention to technique, etc.  For those works that are for sale, she has price booklets available at the entrance of the gallery.

I tended to agree with the artistic director. I pointed out that people might start to equate price with the importance of a work or its intrinsic value. If something cost more, it must be a better quality work or the best exemplar of the movement.

On the other end of the spectrum, I thought it might serve to more deeply entrench the poor impression people had about art. If you are of the opinion that a 5th grader could produce a similar product, what are you going to think when you learn that it is worth $6 million when a piece you like is only worth $20,000?

We also addressed the issue that all pricing is not created equal. Some prices will be what the artist set for them. Others will be market value which may be absurdly inflated thanks to any number of factors.   I have seen shows where the artists are required to put prices on their works and don’t have the option to list it as not for sale so they will assign a price that guarantees no one will buy it.

This debate went on for quite awhile and suddenly we hit upon a bit of inspiration that we thought might serve both sides. It is still in the brainstorming stage and it is really more applicable to an educational program for a school or as a fun alternative in a lecture series rather than answering the question of what to put on the display cards.

The idea is essentially an art museum version of The Price is Right where you call people down to try to guess the cost of a piece of art. However, instead of just having them take random, uninformed guesses, you provide some of the background you would on a display card or in a lecture.

The general concept at this point is that you show a slide of a work and talk about many of the particulars: This work is from X who was an important figure in the Y period. The use of A, B, C techniques was impressive to people at the time. It was purchased by Mr. Jones for his collection and given to his daughter for her wedding. It was purchased by the Philadelphia Museum but has been lent to these museums in England, France and Hungary.

Talking about the provenance of an artwork can be nearly identical to the way the hosts on Antiques Roadshow talk about pieces people bring in for examination.

While the price does get mentioned, the opportunity to note that is what was paid in 1810 or at auction, etc allows it to be put in perspective. While this format doesn’t  allow for the depth and continuity you might get on a lecture about a movement that spanned decades, it can help spur an interest in learning more.

By controlling the release of information, you can get people to focus on elements that might contribute to why it is valued as it is before unveiling the actual price. This can create an environment where a conversation can occur about how unpredictable and illogical market prices can be when few of these elements seem to factor into multi-million dollar auction bids.

As I said, this is still in brainstorming stage and there have been little consideration given to audience, timing, subject matter, appropriateness, logistics and other related questions.  It will be at least 4-5 months before it happens, if they decide to go ahead with it.

If anyone has any feedback, thoughts, ideas, let me know.  I would be especially interested if someone could see a way to do something similar with the performing arts.

I am not sure we could really address price in the context of other factors in as interesting a format.  If you see some other game that might be played to make mysterious aspects of the performing arts more accessible to audiences, I would be interested in hearing your ideas

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Prepare For The Swarm

Since I did a post on ideas that must go earlier this week, I thought it would be a good opportunity to draw attention to a document the Independent Sector put out on Nine Trends Affecting the Charitable Sector.

The document is only 6 pages long so it is a quick read, but the point that caught my attention was #4, “Swarms of individuals connecting with Institutions.”

Individuals will be more strongly aligned with causes and less to the organizations that advance them. As they become increasingly sophisticated at swarming, individuals will often sidestep organizations that are not equipped to partner with them. At home and abroad, swarms will direct their efforts at addressing market and government failures in new ways, with solutions that seek to either fill in the gaps where infrastructure is lacking or provide alternatives to existing services.

…Institutions will need to become agile in a variety of new ways: by listening deeply, responding in real time, providing platforms that enable and accelerate existing swarms, and by leading swarms themselves. In parallel, part of the sophistication that swarms may gain is a far greater ability to draw on institutional capabilities, which could be instrumental for sustaining their impact over time. Associations will face particularly strong pressure as technology makes it easier to connect with peers and access new information and resources with minimal overhead, both at a distance and in person.

As a result, the dominant culture of leadership across society will continue to gradually shift from central control towards broad episodic engagement; being adaptive, facilitative, transparent, and inspirational will be increasingly valued. Particularly in the nonprofit and philanthropic sector, leaders will continue to use formal authority as an essential tool, but many will emerge whose power is drawn from informal influence.

While the Independent Sector document couches their predictions in terms that seem applicable to groups seeking change in social, legislative and public health areas, the same expectations may end up applied to the arts once people begin to realize success in these other arenas and begin to expand their ambitions.

The most obvious manifestation might be if professional-amateurs (Pro-Ams) wanting to share their work in a live interactive setting approach an existing arts institution looking for a venue at which to base their project and find that the organization is unable/unwilling to assist them. In that case, the Pro-Ams may develop an alternative method and bypass established entities.

Even though bloggers like myself often write about the arts field as if it is stuck in a rut and afraid of innovation, I actually feel that as a field we actually have a leg up on other types of organizations in the non-profit sector when it comes to being open to either helping someone realize their vision or partnering with them on a small scale to make it happen.

Maybe not on big stuff requiring major investment, but on things like experimental, site specific works in the local park (or parking garage).

The inflexible element will be one arts entities run into  perennially  – the spirit is willing, but the bank account is weak. The answer may be: “Yes, but next year when we can muster resources,” when the swarm members want to accomplish something with more immediacy.

There is no easy answer to that because you can’t just hold money aside on the off chance that someone is going to pop in with a proposal that matches what you can bring to the table. On the positive side, the swarm may be able to rally the necessary support for this one project.

The Independent Sector mentions the episodic nature of these efforts to mobilize so you wouldn’t be able to count on regular support, but the fact you were flexible enough to participate/partner may generate the informally based influence they talk about at the end there. That may be enough to allow you to solicit support from sources whose radar you had never been on before.

Who knows, maybe a local swarm will “direct their efforts at addressing market and government failures” in the arts.

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