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Author Archive | Joe Patti

Art of Mathematics (Be Sure To Show Your Work)

A recent building renovation on my campus by the math department offices saw the installation of blackboard walls. The goal was to provides students with a place to study and work on projects as a group.

Math hall


I am not sure if it was part of the original vision, but many of the boards have been used to illustrate the utility and beauty of math.

math answers 002


These are nowhere near the best examples of some of the content that has popped up. Since this hallway is in the administration building, I have had frequent occasion to pass by these boards.

As a person who has been confounded by math, I have been impressed by what an asset they seem to be for demystifying the subject. I have only understood about 1/3 of what has been posted, but the explanations that accompanied that 1/3 were often very entertaining as they facilitated my comprehension. The 2/3 I don’t understand at least gives the impression that it is interesting and enjoyable.

There has been one section that has stuck in my craw a bit…

if it is too hard...


I am not sure if this sentiment was created by any of the math students. Even though this particular hallway goes directly into “math territory” (the other hallway passes the offices of the Dean of Arts and Sciences and Office of University Communications), the general content is less mathematically focused.

This has been up for the last 8-10 weeks now and has remained unchanged while other sections have been erased and altered. One of the reasons it sticks in my craw is that it is immediately visible upon entering the administration building door so it is the first thing I have seen.

When this got posted on Facebook, someone pointed out the irony of this appearing on a wall full of art. And for that reason, it is a little difficult to justify going up and erasing it both as a matter of free speech and art censorship. There have been a number of works that either explicit or figuratively had a message that art sucks/is stupid.

I have nudged the chair of the fine arts department to deploy some students for a little counter-propaganda, but nothing has happened yet.

Perhaps the students are hard at work with their time consuming projects and rehearsals.

It comes as no surprise to anyone that arts disciplines face this bias. No one needed President Obama to make a comment about STEM majors being better for careers than art history, to come to this realization.

Ultimately though, the irritation I feel when I see this sentiment upon entering the administration building disappears when I make a left down the other hall and see the multi-colored attempts to use art to illuminate the mysteries of mathematics.

It really doesn’t matter if people are using these boards to insult the arts because the boards represent an effort to use a multi-disciplinary approach to education that has long been advocated for.

As we learned long ago on the internet, the intent of any effort that allows the for unmoderated contributions is bound to be co-opted at some point.

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All In The Timing

While I was at my state presenters’ conference last week, I was speaking to a colleague at a theater a couple hours away about possibly collaborating on advertising on public radio stations in whose coverage area both our theaters are in. My thinking was that people might be confused by separate ads. They might think, was that on Tuesday here in town and Wednesday 90 miles away or vice versa?

In the course of conversation, she mentioned they hadn’t announced that part of their season and would be waiting until January. (This was something of a relief for me because I hadn’t seen the show on their website and was afraid they backed out.)

She said they decided to break up their season and only announce half at one time in order to generate renewed excitement about the theater’s offerings. Unlike my venue, they don’t have any subscribers from whom they are seeking an ongoing investment. It sounded as if this is the first year they will be trying this as a bid to renew momentum for their programming so I don’t have any sense of how successful the approach is.

I was wondering if any one else had done this sort of thing and if they had any success with it. Are there any tips that you might have for catching attention and getting people excited, especially during the first year or two when people aren’t expecting to hear about a raft of new shows?

I just anticipate I may end up adopting similar tactics one day and there are probably a number of other readers who are ready to give it a try right now.

Many theaters are experimenting with different types of ticketing models from choose your own seasons, themed mini-seasons, punch cards allowing you to see any show in their season as many times as you like up to a limit or fewer times/shows with as many friends as you like.

I haven’t really heard about people playing with the timing of announcing groups of events in order to find an idea spacing. People would quickly become inured if you ANNOUNCED! EVERY! SINGLE! SHOW! WITH! GREAT! FANFARE!

But I am sure there are timing tricks that haven’t been widely explored. I imagine in snowier climes, if you announce a whole new group of offerings in January after the Christmas buzz has worn off and the winter doldrums have set in, your announcement might gain some traction.

Television networks abandoned announcing new seasons of series every Fall decades ago in favor of floating starts throughout the year. Is there a viable way to do something similar for live performances?

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You Can Enter The Museum Without Entering the Museum

I was quickly scanning a story about Harvard University president Drew Faust arguing for the value of university art museums when I was brought up short by a remark made by Director of the Harvard University Art Museums Thomas Lentz in anticipation of the reopening of the museums next month after a long renovation.

During the question and answer session, Lentz responded to a question about what Harvard’s reopened museums will offer by saying that the new museums are designed to be more accessible to students and community members.

“You can enter through one entrance and go out the other without actually entering the museum. The courtyard is going to be a new public gathering space,” he said. “We don’t want it to be a static treasure house.”

What caught me was the phrase about entering without entering the museum. After I went back to re-read the sentence, I realized that he meant you could enter the building complex without actually entering the museum.

I did try to find out more about these plans, but most of the other articles about the design didn’t really talk about how the building would be used by visitors. Harvard Magazine did have a pretty good story about the all around use of the facilities.

The courtyard Thomas Lentz seems to be referring to is this one. Nearly every article I read about this project features this space.

The Harvard Art Museums, during renovation and expansion, showing the Calderwood Courtyard.

I have been having conversations with my staff about making our lobby a more welcome gathering place just to provide a sense of belonging to those who may enter or pass through. One of the advantages we have is that there is a parking lot on one side of the lobby and the rest of campus on the other side.

So yes, you can enter through one entrance and go out the other without actually entering a theater space.

Over the last few months, I have been paying attention to what other arts organizations and businesses who provide public gathering spaces do to make these spaces welcoming. One thing that has become very clear is that no matter how nice the amenities you offer, if people don’t have a reason to enter, it is all for naught.

Its that whole issue about “Field of Dreams” being a movie. If you build it does not guarantee anyone will come.

From the pictures of the Harvard Museums, exterior surroundings I am not sure if there is a reason someone would pass through one door and move toward the other on the way to somewhere and be enticed to linger. Certainly curiosity about the renovations and word of mouth about how interesting the courtyard environment is may be enough to get things started. After activity reaches a critical mass, it can be self-sustaining.

A month ago I wrote about the Taipei Performing Arts Center and what a cool idea the public loop through the building with unprecedented views of backstage activities was. But even as I wrote about it, I wondered if people would really enter the building and avail themselves of the opportunity, even with the entrance extending over the street.

I haven’t been to Taiwan, but if their behavior is even half that of their mainland brethren, there is a pretty good chance the public loop will be packed with people.

For the rest of us though, people are only slightly more likely to flock to our lovely public lounging places than to our formal performances unless they have a reason to do so. Often the biggest factor in that decision is just the physical location and layout.

If it is difficult to park nearby and the location isn’t conducive to foot traffic, people may not wander in during the day or come early to relax prior to a performance. Nor may they linger long afterwards if their drive is long and traffic problematic.

On the other hand, creativity and an eye for opportunity in your particular environment might provide a solution. I had a colleague whose performance space was too small for any sort of pre- and post show gatherings. However, an empty storefront with convenient access to the theater turned out to be great as a coffee lounge situation, provided a sense of greater activity on the street and put a little money in the property owner’s pocket.

It probably goes without saying that while it is a marked improvement to increase the number of people passing through and lingering in your public spaces, you still need to give them a reason to engage with your programming. It doesn’t matter how good the courtyard of the Harvard Museums are, they can still end up being a “static treasure house” if people don’t have any reason to pass through the next threshold.

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Keeping Audience’s Minds At The Event

David Dombrosky was the plenary speaker at the Ohio Arts Presenters Network conference I attended this week.

At one point in his presentation, he used a chart that seemed very familiar and my first impulse was to wonder where he had grabbed it from. As I peered closer, I realized it was from a white paper his company, InstantEncore had put out this summer that I had downloaded but hadn’t made time to read yet.

Attending a conference is an expensive way to catch up on your reading….

Drombrosky talked about the growing prevalence of mobile devices, how they are the primary mode in which people are interacting with websites and how this is changing people’s expectations about their arts experience.

Dombrosky spent a fair amount of time underscoring the importance of responsive web design, a common topic of conversation lately. Drew McManus has been a long time proponent of it in the arts.

Drombrosky’s talk focused on the experiences being offered audiences, before, during and after an event. While he did mention tweet seats in passing, he didn’t really advocate for providing that type of experience.

He spoke about using technology to maintain a long held philosophy about what it should mean to attend an arts event, namely that the audience should be leaving the real world behind for a time. He related the words of one of his university instructors who talked about people disconnecting from the troubles of the world and being funneled into the world being created in the performance hall.

The problem is now that people can reconnect with the troubles of the world too easily at intermission. He suggested thinking about what sort of content that could be offered to keep audiences connected with the event. Among his suggestions were online program notes (which might replace the need to print programs), trivia about the artist, links to videos, places where albums can be purchased/downloaded. Perhaps create a forum or hashtag related to the event where people can discuss their experiences.

The availability of these resources can help keep people engaged while they are at the performance and allow them to continue to be connected to the performance and your organization after the event if they wish to do so.

He mentioned the Austin Symphony Orchestra has an “ask the conductor” program where you can submit a question during the show and the conductor will return a response. (Though in reality it is probably someone standing next to the conductor transcribing his response, of course)

Apparently the Detroit Symphony Orchestra encouraged people to take selfies around the concerts which not only kept people engaged with the event, but changed the symphony board’s perception of the audience demographics.

I haven’t read the white paper InstantEncore produced, but from what Dombrowsky said, more details about these case studies are included in it.

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