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Finding Things Out Only Adds

Since I seem to have started on a philosophical kick this week, how about we consider Richard Feynman’s “Ode To A Flower” commentary in the video below? You can also see it illustrated in an awesome Zen Pencil’s comic.

Like Feynman’s friend, I remember being in my high school science class and thinking that it was robbing life of all its wonder. I would rather be entranced by the fictitious stories that made things seem magical than to learn the dull truth that it was all a result of chemical reactions.

Later, I came to appreciate, as Feynman points out, that science actually gives you the tools to extend your wonder and experience the delight of discovery.

For example, one of the things I have wondered about for 20+ years is whether squirrels in Florida hide nuts for the winter since there is no danger of food scarcity. If they don’t, if you transported a Florida squirrel to Boston, would instincts kick in and lead it to hide nuts or would it be in danger of starving?

It may sound like a silly question, but I keep it tucked away in the back of my mind in case I meet a scientist who can provide the answer. I find it exciting to know that I can discover that answer and receive additional interesting revelations with follow up questions.

Feynman’s short comments illustrate just how valuable the skill of communicating what you do to the uninitiated is. Feynman was great at explaining scientific concepts to people. A lot of scientists aren’t.

By the same measure, a lot of artists and arts organizations aren’t really good at explaining art and the value of the arts either. I wonder how much of that is due to simple lack of practice and how much is due to fear of being accused of selling out or dumbing things down.

I had a recent email exchange with Carter Gillies about this subject. I wondered if the scientific community felt Neil DeGrasse Tyson wasn’t a real scientist because he used his public profile to explain science to the general public. Is he accused of dumbing things down for a general audience? Do people suggest he can’t have time to engage in real scientific work due to all his media appearances?

I assume I don’t need to cite any parallel sentiments in the arts and cultural sphere.

Unfortunately, in these days when people have a high degree of control over the information they receive and are able to more easily ignore and filter out what they don’t want to hear, explaining the value of a subject becomes more difficult even for highly skilled communicators.

Frequently the initial encounter with the revelations and new questions that emerge isn’t easy or comfortable to bear.

Even with the tools to communicate your message to a wide range of people, getting someone like the high school me to accept a less magical view of the world in exchange for one that still had a lot of potential for wonder requires a retail, one-on-one, effort.

While Feynman gave physics lectures to packed lectures halls, the “Ode To A Flower” comment came from a series of one on one discussions he and artist Jirayr Zorthian had about art and physics over the course of eight years.

As an added aside: There is frequently discussion about people needing to see people like themselves on stage. I can’t express the thrill I got when I first heard a New York accent coming out of the mouth of a person acknowledged to be a brilliant scientist. I think it can be easy to underestimate the impact of those types of experiences.

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Spiritual Fulfillment And Cultural Experiences

High Expectations of Cultural Experiences

Last week I wrote about Ken Davenport’s admonition that an arts experience not exceed a person’s expectations by too large a margin.

As a counterpoint to that, I wanted to call attention to a piece from BrainPickings on Geoff Dyer’s writing about expectations and disappointment. Among the disappointments he lists from his own life include going to Boston’s Museum of Fine Art to see a painting by Paul Gauguin only to find it was out on loan. Upon learning this, he dejectedly trudges out of the museum.

The experience of the missing masterpiece, of the thwarted pilgrimage (which is not at all the same as a wasted journey), made me see that the vast questions posed by Gauguin’s painting had to be supplemented with other, more specific ones. Why do we arrive at a museum on the one day of the week — the only day we have free in a given city — when it is shut? On the day after a blockbuster exhibition has finally — after multiple extensions of its initial four-month run — closed?…


Impossible — not even conceivable — that a Muslim, on making the mandatory, once-in-a-lifetime pilgrimage to Mecca, could be disappointed. That is the essential difference between religious and secular pilgrimage: the latter always has the potential to disappoint.

Part of this reminded me about John Falk’s list of five basic identities types that visit museums I have written about in the past (and probably will write about again.)

Specifically, I was reminded about the Experience Seeker type which Antoinette Duplessis describes as “…‘collecting’ experiences. They want to feel like they’ve ‘been there’ and they’ve ‘done that’ – they want to see the destination, building or what’s iconic on display.”

In this particular instance, Dyer sounds as if he is acting within this type. He goes into the MFA to find a particular painting and leaves when it is not available rather than exploring what other experiences he might have.

Cultural Pilgrimages

What really caught my attention was his comparison of a religious pilgrimage to a secular pilgrimage and how the former could never be disappointing.

I have frequently read, listened and contributed to conversations regarding how people often expect some sort of transcendent experience when they attend an arts event. I had always assumed that this was because people who didn’t have much experience with the arts intellectually idealized what the unfamiliar experience would be like and are subsequently concerned if they didn’t understand what was going on or found themselves becoming bored.

This may actually be the process most people go through in regard to the arts. However, Dyer’s comparison of the two pilgrimages made me wonder if people might not be equating an arts experience with a religious experience when they formed expectations in their minds.

Spiritual Aspects of Cultural Pilgrimages

This idea isn’t that far fetched. Communities across the country often organize special trips to America’s theatre Mecca of NYC to see shows. With all the hype about Hamilton, and Wicked and The Lion King being among the more familiar household names, it is not unreasonable that excitement would build to the point of simulating a religious experience and lead to an expectation of a type of spiritual fulfillment.

These expectations aren’t necessarily created by marketing hype. Just seeing videos on YouTube of devotees lining up to buy tickets for Hamilton and lingering outside to sing together even after they can’t get in can shape expectations. If your experience is disappointing and your spirit isn’t buoyed by the show like thousands, if not millions of others, the failure is with you, correct?

Perhaps the least harmless reaction to this is when people feel the need to leap to their feet to give a standing ovation at the end of a performance even if they are kinda confused by what happened. (Or take a selfie in a museum by a piece they don’t quite understand.)

Spiritual Fulfillment Comes From Within

How the heck do you deal with disappointment when expectations are for spiritual fulfillment? This a type of transcendence is impossible to intentionally deliver. It is an entirely internal matter that people experience for themselves. If people can leave Mecca feeling a sense of transcendence despite the constant danger of being crushed to death by the crowds, others can easily overlook a bad cab ride in NYC if they feel they are completing a once in a lifetime activity.

When the expectations are based in intellect and emotion, as with my initial assumption about the process people went through in regard to the arts, it is relatively easy to provide education which shifts expectations and lets people know it is okay to be bored or confused. If you can assure them that with time and exposure, the experience will become accessible, there is potential to move people away from anxiety toward self-empowerment.

Challenge of Providing Spiritual Fulfillment

But what happens if people view the mystery and inscrutability of an arts experience in a manner similar to the way they view the mysteries of their faith? It is not implausible to make this association given how fervently arts people speak about their (a)vocation. In all likelihood they wouldn’t place as great an importance on an artistic/cultural experience as they would the experiences of their religious practice. But they may seek a person or information source that was able to explain/guide them through the experience with clarity and certainty.

Lacking someone to do so, or being told there was no single interpretation and it was up to the viewer to decide, it can be comforting to verify your perceptions against those of others. In this respect, there really isn’t any difference between those who view the lack of clarity as an intellectual, emotional or spiritual mystery. The difference is in the degree of certitude required to make you comfortable.

If people are convinced that a pinnacle experience they had was akin to a religious one, all others will pale in comparison. No other can be considered since the ideal has already been encountered.

The other alternative is worse. When an experience that is anticipated to have the same payoff as a religious pilgrimage is ruined by a bad cab ride from the New York airport, it can equally sour someone on any subsequent suggestions.

Again, I am not saying people really ever equate a cultural experience with a religious experience. I am just intrigued with Dyer’s suggestion that a secular pilgrimage has a hazard for disappointment that a sacred pilgrimage can not possess and what the implications of that concept may have for arts and culture.

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Safe Deposit Insuring Arts Center Future

Well here is a novel idea for funding an arts organization–using the proceeds from leasing space in storage vaults.

The inspiration for building the largest underground storage vault in China was finding a way to fund an art museum.

The idea for the vault came to the company’s founder, Liu Feiguo, while he was lobbying to open an art museum in the Shanghai Tower. He realized that the high revenues from the Baoku Treasury could fund the museum’s daily operations.

Baoku Treasury clients are given a 15-year membership pass to the Shanghai Guanfu Museum and the Baoku Art Center, allowing free access to exhibits and events. Most of the proceeds from deposit box sales are reinvested in the museum.

Baoku China has already announced plans to expand and build community vaults. According to Zhou, “Community vaults are actually cheaper to build than high-end swimming pools.”

It isn’t cheap to rent a deposit box and the security measures sound like they are from a Mission Impossible movie. The least expensive option is $10,300 for 15 years. I assume since clients get a 15 year membership pass to the museum and art center that must be the standard lease length.

This exact idea probably isn’t viable for everyone and everywhere, but shows a little creative thinking may be worthwhile.

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Slightly Exceeding Expectations As An Ideal Outcome

A recent post on Ken Davenport’s The Producer’s Perspective caused me to engage in a bit of internal debate.

Ken says a one of the worst things you can do is greatly exceed audience expectations:

“..But it also means that before they step into the theater, they have no clue what they’re about to see . . . and they aren’t expecting it to be anything to write home to Mama about.

Exceeding an audience’s expectations isn’t a creative problem. It’s a marketing problem. It means that however you are promoting your show, from the title to the blurb to the website, it’s not generating enough excitement with your potential buyer. And, unfortunately, when audience’s expectations are low, that means that most of them won’t make a purchase. People buy tickets to things that they expect to be good great. They are buying entertainment, remember? They want to be entertained. And in 2016, with the cost of tickets as high as they are . . . entertaining an audience isn’t enough. They want to be wowed.”

This is all contrary to the outcome I want.

One of the greatest pleasures I get from my job is when people enjoy a performance they didn’t expect to. There isn’t a lot of financial remuneration in non-profit arts, but hearing people say “Wow” when they leave the performance hall…and having them continue to talk about their experience weeks, months and even years later, is pretty gratifying.

The mission of most non-profit arts organizations is to provide an opportunity for exploration and learning versus the profit making goals of Broadway shows, so you might argue that you aren’t going to want to emphasize the entertainment value of the event.  If you aren’t charging Broadway prices to enter the door, then the burden of expectations is relatively lighter as well.

The problem is, most people, even those who attend your events, don’t know you are a non-profit organization. They aren’t discerning between the entertainment or education value your organization is offering versus those of a profit seeking entity. Chances are, it is all the same to them.

Regardless of whether you think people want to come for the entertainment value or to learn new things, Davenport has a point that if people are arriving not knowing what to expect, then you are probably under- or mis- communicating the event to the wider community.

Note, he is just talking about generating enthusiasm for being there. People may have an entirely wrong concept about the event and have their minds blown and that is okay. If they are tentative about being there in the first place and hoping they have a good time, that is another thing altogether.

The reasons why non-profits aren’t doing a better job at this are myriad. In some cases, it is a matter of bad decision making when it comes to allocating money and personnel to marketing efforts.

There is often a desire, and perhaps a sense of obligation, to invest money in the artistic product rather than advertising and personnel, both of which can be regarded as overhead expense.

As has been noted many times before, donors and funders want to know money is going toward results and impact, delighting people and changing their lives.  Even though marketing isn’t explicitly listed as something most foundations doesn’t fund, there is less support and tolerance for the costs to reach those people and generate interest and excitement in them.

It definitely requires a careful balancing act. Some organizations are good at it, some aren’t and some probably aren’t really making an effort.

It really feels strange to read Davenport brag that his team did such a good job marketing Altar Boyz, seeing the show only slightly exceed audience expectations. But if the audiences truly expressed a high level of satisfaction with the experience and seeing the show only slightly added to that, then it a measure of success if their satisfaction extended hours, if not days prior to, and after the performance.

Is that a feeling your arts organization can lay claim to generating?

Even though the discussion inevitably circles back to issues of time, personnel and money, these questions and ideas are worth regularly revisiting, regardless of your situation. Sometimes just thinking about them provides a little inspiration about a resource or opportunity specific to your community that can be tapped into.

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