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Author Archive | Joe Patti

The Arts Are For Swingers

Do you ever sit in your office, thinking wistfully of the days when you were a kid and you would run around the playground, playing games and swinging on the swings?

Do you think your audience is thinking the same thing?

Well apparently some folks at Boston’s Convention Center were thinking along those lines because they built a temporary playground for adults on one of their lawns.

The playground is temporary because the convention center plans to expand on to that land in about 18 months. However, it is being used as something of a proof of concept testing ground.

The BCEC, Sasaki and Utile figured, why not test out some concepts for what should be the permanent park, further south on D Street towards residential South Boston?

The playground contains a “set of 20 lighted oval swings, bocce, ping pong, beanbag toss, Adirondack chairs, a sound stage, and open-air bar” and has become wildly popular.

Like the community ovens I wrote about a week or so ago, this is another idea for the type of thing that can be done to increase community engagement.

Now, according to one of the commenters on the article, the playground in Boston cost around $1.1 million which seems a little expensive for a project with an 18 month life span. Though maybe the equipment will migrate to the permanent park.

Many cities are seeing quick pop-up parks appearing on their streets.

The Delaware River Waterfront Corporation in Philadelphia set up an amazing looking pop up park for the summer. It was slated to close September 1 but got extended an entire month due to popular demand.

Brooklyn’s Prospect Park has a pop-up Audubon program aimed at kids. Huntsville, AL will have activities popping up along their streets this month.

If you look at the pictures associated with each of the projects, you will see that they run the gamut from ambitiously expensive to simple and versatile.

Pop up events like this can be used to inspire community action as well as a tool for direct engagement. While reading about pop-ups, I learned that a community in Dallas dressed up a street with benches, trees and pop up shops for a day to provide evidence for its potential. (If you are looking to use this for community improvement, check out Better Block.)

One of the commenters on the Boston Convention Center park story shared this video of a fun installation on the streets of Montreal where people generated music as they played on the swings.

Montreal’s 21 Swings (21 Balançoires) from STREETFILMS on Vimeo.

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Transform Into…SUPER THEATER!!!!!!!

Andrew Taylor tweeted today that he would be speaking about theater spaces this week in Taipei and linked to a video of the Taipei Performing Arts Center.

At first I thought Andrew was going to be speaking there, but then realized the building hasn’t been completed yet.

Watching the video, I was interested to see that the design by Rem Koolhaas addresses many recent discussion points about how building design can either engage or alienate audiences. Starting at around 1:35 the video talks about how the street runs right into the building. Even more intriguing is the inclusion of a “Public Loop” which allows the general public to pass through and apparently peek in on the different performance and production work spaces around the building.

I imagine they would have to have some well trained staff present to prevent flash photography of a performance while allowing passersby to view what was transpiring. But more importantly than that, it seems to allow the public an opportunity to see what transpires backstage in the scene shop, costume shop and perhaps even in the fly system of a theater.

The public loop doesn’t seem to be comprised entirely of darkened hallways that visitors shuffle through. There appear to be open spaces where visitors can sit and relax for a time.

One element that came as a bit of a surprise was their “Super Theater” configuration mentioned around 4:30. It allows them to take down the walls between two of the spaces to create a massive warehouse like space. They cite the fact that B.A. Zimmerman’s Die Soldaten requires a 100 meter stage. (Yes, that is right, approximately the length of a football field.)

It may seem like a lot of construction expense to accommodate a niche use until you recall that productions like Sleep No More, The Donkey Show and their ilk use large open spaces like this.

The building exterior is rather strange looking and has its detractors. My immediate concern was if the difficulty and cost of transforming the building might make such a transformation more of an aspiration than a reality.

As I wrote this post, I recalled another transforming theater, the Dee and Charles Wyly Theatre at the AT&T Performing Arts Center. It turns out that facility was also designed by Rem Koolhaas so his company has some experience with this process. As you can see in this video, it takes 11 stagehands six hours to transform that the Wyly Theatre. I imagine Taipei might require more people and closer to a day, but that probably isn’t an impediment.

I wrote about the design of the Wyly a few years back. As you can see in the video where Joshua Prince-Ramus explains the design, that building also highly flexible and has many engaging elements to it. It allows people to enter or exit through its very walls, or perhaps even sit outside and watch a performance (or rehearsal) inside.

In the context of all this, I am curious to learn what Andrew Taylor talks about in Taipei this week. Not to mention how successful the Taipei Performing Arts Center is at engaging their formal and informal audiences.

Artist conception of rival theater companies competing for market share

Artist conception of rival theater companies competing for market share

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Community Now, Arts Education Later

I listened in on an National Endowment for the Arts webinar today that was billed as addressing arts education. But the reality was, the speaker, Richard Harwood of the Harwood Institute seemed to feel arts education shouldn’t be a primary concern in most communities. From what I understood, he felt that the arts had much more immediate assets they could provide to communities and arts education was a focus for a later stage.

The NEA will post a more complete version of the webinar in a couple weeks. However, if you are interested in learning more immediately, there is a captioning transcript available of the session. I was monitoring it while I took notes of my own to help me keep up. Be warned that there are some omissions and mistakes.

As a result, I will mostly be paraphrasing here unless I am confident that what I am quoting is reasonably accurate.

Harwood echoed part of the current conversation about making arts relevant in a community, namely that the focus has to be on the shared aspirations of the community and not on those of an individual organization or group of organizations.

He mentioned how he would often hear comments from people wondering why a program that worked for a community down the road didn’t work for their own. The reason is that you can’t borrow something from another community that is not aligned with the shared aspirations of your own.

“Communities that move forward the fastest are ones who align around shared aspirations, not simply coordination of programs…”

As he has traveled the country, Harwood said the number one issue he hears people mention isn’t foreclosure of homes, inability to pay college tuition or that they have lost their jobs. The top concern was that we need to restore our belief that we can come together to get things done.

Harwood strongly urged listeners

“…to think about what it is that enables us to create the belief we can come together to get things done. I think there are ways to change our efforts so we embody that belief. We need to pay attention to the narrative of our communities. I don’t need to tell you how important this is.”

Among the narratives that have to be worked against are the idea “we tried that 30 years ago, why would we try it again?” or “I am waiting for the next mayor to get elected.” He said that Americans have retreated from public life because “They didn’t see their reality reflected in public discourse. Belief starts with a notion something you care about that I care about matters.”

This was really the first time I heard someone talk about the challenge facing arts and arts education in the context of a societal malaise. Looking at it in this context, the cultural wars of that 80s that have seen a recent resurgence aren’t so much about people hating arts and culture. It is that arts and culture is being used as a whipping boy for something much larger.

In a sense, I think we all know that, but until Harwood spent close to 30 minutes talking about the problem without really mentioning the arts at all, I didn’t recognize that the tensions really aren’t about the arts at all. It is about a lack of trust and belief in one another. The way he talks about it, arts and culture have bigger contributions to make than providing music lessons and an enjoyable Friday date night. The arts can be instrumental in mending society.

He says every community has a multiplicity of competing narratives. The question isn’t how to resolve the competing narratives, but rather to illuminate them. Explore how we understand the narratives. What do the arts bring to them and what do arts bring to how people express these narratives.

He uses an example of Youngstown, OH where his company was brought in after the public schools were taken over by the state. As they engaged adults around education they heard that the adults were afraid of the kids. They crossed the street when they saw the young people. When they looked into the eyes of the children, they didn’t see the essential qualities needed to succeed. All they saw were troublemakers who would end up behind bars. They didn’t see them as the future of the community.

When they talked to the kids, they basically agreed that this was how the adults saw them. It is at this point that Harwood explicitly says that if we are really concerned about kids and arts education, the kids need to be engaged around who they want to be and how they see adults in their lives.

You might ask about arts education, but Harwood says he would never start with the arts. It is the job of the arts community to figure out how the arts can fit into what they want to become so they can reach their potential, become creative, innovative and express themselves.

Basically, you don’t try to figure out how to get them to fit into the arts.

When it comes to involving children and the arts, Harwood feel that what the arts offer that few others don’t is the power to convene. They have the power to bring people together in these conversations.

He says, (and I hope I am getting this correct because the transcript is a little spotty), he “thinks the arts, unlike a lot of other things, is not fundamentally about policy disputes. It is about creating something.” Due to this, he feels the whole focal point begins to shift because the fact art is about expression can help create norms for kids. Including the norm of what does it mean to create something.

He notes, arts deal with the whole child. So much else only deals with one piece so addressing the whole child can be a huge calling card for arts in education.

Obviously, a lot of interesting things to think about. As I suggest, putting arts education as part of a later step after other divisions have been healed shifted my perspective. I realized that culture wars conflict about the arts is really a symptom of something much bigger.

As narcissistic as many arts professionals may be, I think we can survive knowing it ain’t all about us in this case.

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You Got Questions, We Got Answers

Last Wednesday was Ask A Curator Day in which over 700 international museums participated, answering questions about their collections and museums in general.

The effort reminded me of an article I saw on The Guardian’s website last summer suggesting arts and cultural organizations use Reddit as a way to talk about their organization.

I will admit that other than viewing a few AMAs (Ask Me Anything) by notable folks over the course of a year, I don’t visit Reedit too much.

Which is not to say it wouldn’t be valuable for me to do so or be something more suitable to your circumstances than mine.

If you visit the Theatre reddit, you will see there are all sorts of messages from audition questions, advertisements, obituaries and a couple people mentioning Howard Sherman’s article about the high school teacher who got fired over Spamalot.

There are a number of related sub-reddits associated with theatre that provide discussions with a more specific focus.

One of the features the Guardian article really focuses on is the Ask Me Anything section where people make themselves available to have others ask questions of them. Right now at the top of the list is a Holocaust Survivor, a nun who help women victimized by the Lord’s Resistance Army and the actor Simon Pegg.

There are also EMTs from Pennsylvania, professional mountain bikers and an American kid playing football in England listed so the topics don’t have to be weighty or the participants famous in order to participate.

Reddit AMAs provide a better forum for Q&As than Twitter because there is more room and you don’t have responses scrolling up your screen as you and the participants type and the discussions can occur over time. You can provide a link to your AMA so that people know where to find you and they can view a record of the conversation when it is over if they are unable to participate during the scheduled period.

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