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There Isn’t A Template For That

I was really grateful for Aaron Overton’s very first post on ArtsHacker last week.  Aaron is a programmer with a lot of experience in website development for performing arts organizations. (Disclosure: He did some work on the ticketing integration for my day job website.)

In his ArtsHacker post, he talks about how much work goes into making it easy to keep an arts organization website updated and looking good. I had a conversation about that very subject the day before his post appeared. Had I know his piece was coming out, I would have delayed my meeting a day and used the post to bolster my argument.

Because performing arts organizations have an ever changing cycle of events, it can take a lot of work to keep your website current, attractive and put the most relevant information in front of site visitors’ eyes.   Publishing platforms like WordPress make creation and maintenance of websites much easier than it was even 5 years ago, but there is still A LOT of coding that has to occur to make the process of adding and removing content quick, painless and in many cases, automatic.

The back end of my day job’s website has a nice set of orderly field that I can plug event information and images in to and everything appears in its proper place on the website.  About a year ago, I noticed a less than ideal placement of some information and asked my web guy if he could fix it. I was sitting next to him when he made the fix and even though it was easy to accomplish, I got enough of a look under the hood to realize how much work went into making things so simple.

At the time I even remarked that all those ads for build your own website in minutes services like Wix and Squarespace probably made people underestimate how much work went into making websites work well.  Certainly, those sites provide a great service to people and businesses to help them get up and going. But there may come a time in your personal/professional/organizational development where they won’t be enough.

And I made a similar comment in the meeting I had last week.

If you take a look at the first example in Aaron’s post, he mentions desired features that are likely common to many performing arts organizations:

…display headshots of the cast for an event. The set of headshots might have color-tinted photos with the actor’s name displayed on the bottom and some sort of rollover effect that slides in from the bottom when the user hovers or taps.

The client needs to have a pool of actors and be able to build “teams” that can be attached to events. The headshot photos may have many purposes, so they won’t necessarily have a uniform size or aspect ratio.

But to make that happen, he had to consider the following factors:

  • Provide a way for a site manager to create team member profiles with a large headshot photo.
  • Provide a team builder to group team members into ordered lists and note their roles on that team.
  • Create a way to easily place that team on a page for display, along with a few options to allow for different usages.
  • Crop the provided headshots to the right size and aspect ratio.
  • Style the output to account for converting the photos to tinted grayscale.
  • Accommodate different screen sizes and devices so that the final output looks good whether on a desktop or a mobile device.

These are only some of the tasks. During development, many other tasks have revealed themselves as necessary, most of which may have little to do with the final display seen by the site visitor but are necessary to making sure the feature not only works, but is efficient and doesn’t slow down the user experience.

The purpose of Aaron’s post isn’t to tell people to be prepared to pay a lot for a good website. He provides a number of tips about how to approach the design process and conversations you should have with your programmer early on so that you don’t end up paying too much.

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Yes, You Do Understand Art

Last night I gained some additional assurances that everyone has the capacity to comprehend art at a basic level when they encounter it.

Some recent university grads started a “creative cult” here in town. Every month they have some sort of activity at a different place. The specific activity is never announced in advance, only the basic theme. The first one was the “Induction Ceremony,” the second was “World Building” and last night was “The Definition of Art.” These are quick, fun group activities that run about an hour and attract 40-50 people each time.

Last night attendees were split into three groups, each which assembled near a table full of found objects. We were given a prompt and told not to reveal it to any of the other teams. We were told to brainstorm for 5-10 minutes and write and sketch what that meant to us on large sheets of butcher paper. Then we were set loose to construct something representing our prompt using the objects on the table.

Every table had different supplies. Among the things are on our table were card board, a watering can, a golf club, magazines, Christmas ornaments, bubble wrap, drone bumpers, string, birthday decorations, scissors, tape and glue.

After the assembling period was done, we were given another sheet and told to rotate counter clockwise to the other team tables at set intervals to discuss and write down what we thought their piece represented.

When that phase was done, the teams that didn’t create a piece talked about what they thought it was all about.

Let me just say, given the materials on hand and time available for construction by committee, there wasn’t much opportunity to create realistic depictions of the prompts.  In fact, at one point, we were told that all the materials we were provided needed to appear on our table in context of our piece which probably further muddied the waters.

Not only did the guesses for each piece have commonalities, but some of the options suggested either hit the target exactly or were close enough that game show judges would have accepted the answer.

Not every individual’s initial guess was correct, but as a group walking around and discussing each piece, a reasonable sense of the concept behind it emerged.  Looking at the pieces through the lens of the “wrong” answers often made them more interesting than the correct ones.

The guys who organized the event were really pleased because they weren’t sure that people would be able to accurately discern the source prompts when they created the activity.  I was excited by their excitement over achieving their goal.

Part of their goal was exactly as I suggested earlier — to show people that they had the capacity to comprehend some basic things about an abstract representation.

I would say they also wanted to show people they had the capacity to communicate concepts via abstract representations except the underlying goal of the whole creative cult effort is about empowering people in regard to their creativity.

While obviously not as good as having been there, here is a little bit of video taken of the pieces after the event. I was going to see if readers could guess what the prompts were, but the guys put them in the description.  In order of appearance, Batman, the Lincoln Memorial and Wendy’s 4×4 (we guessed Wendy’s)

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Supporting Coverage Of The Cultural Organizations You Support

Yesterday on ye olde Twitter feed came a story about how two Buffalo, NY area arts & culture funders were helping to establish an arts and culture desk at a local public radio station.

I don’t recall who distributed the link but what drew me to it was the question in the post about whether this might be a new mode of funding for arts coverage.

In case you missed it, both the New York Times and Wall Street Journal announced last year that they were constricting their arts and culture coverage, joining other news and media sources that had made the same decision in the past.

A press release about establishing the news desk says the intent is to cover groups, disciplines and topics that often get overlooked:

…Arts Services Initiative of Western New York Executive Director Tod A. Kniazuk said. “The establishment of this desk means that culturals of all sizes and disciplines, and artists in all mediums and stages of their careers, will have a greater opportunity to get the message out about their work and its impact.”

…explained Stanton H. Hudson, Jr., Executive Director of the TR Site…And, through a dedicated arts and culture news desk at WBFO, artists and cultural organizations will be provided enhanced opportunities for listeners to experience their work, which often address historical and contemporary social, religious, political, and cultural issues and provide a framework for exploring challenging and difficult subjects.”

A column on the Artvoice paper site applauded the decision, citing the importance of coverage for small cultural groups and how they sustained Buffalo through the tough times

This can be a particular threat to the smaller, edgier, scrappier, low budget venues, tucked into warehouse or storefront spaces, hidden in basements or abandoned social halls. These venues depend upon coverage in mainstream media to attract new audiences.

In Buffalo, where small venues have arguably sustained the city through its hard times and fueled its burgeoning renaissance, it is dangerous to neglect or abandon this aspect of a diverse and lively arts scene.

To get back to the question that lead me to the article, is this a sign of things to come? Will community foundations need to support some sort of system of coverage for the arts and cultural organizations in their community?

Will arts and cultural organizations kick in funding to support such coverage? If so, it might be best funneled through an arts council in order to avoid accusations of favoritism to those who paid the most or the emergence of a pay for review system that caused a controversy in Los Angeles.

While I do wonder if reviews are really as important as word of mouth/social media any more, and it might vary by community, I do think general coverage of news, activity and trends can be important for the cultural health of a community. Reviews and stories about specific events only provide a snapshot of an instance. Conversations about long term initiatives, trends and developments can be particularly of value because they communicate overarching information that can be missed when we are so focused on what is immediately in front of us.

I am not saying subsidized coverage of culture shouldn’t call attention to particular groups and events. Just that it is often easier for an organization to catch and engage momentary attention than it is to communicate the arc of progress or illuminate the entire cultural ecology of a community. That is where the real value of coverage by a media organization can lie.

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Arts Aren’t Great Because Great Men Say They Are

Since the news started going around last week that the Trump administration was looking to de-fund the NEA, NEH and PBS, there have been a ton of memes circulating quoting Winston Churchill refusing to defund the arts during the Second World War saying, “…then what are we fighting for?”

Except, as I wrote four years ago, that story is completely apocryphal. He never said that. He said some things close to that and the precursor of the Arts Council of England was formed in 1940 ““to show publicly and unmistakably that the Government cares about the cultural life of the country. This country is supposed to be fighting for civilisation.”

Yes, it may be a little pedantic to call out the error, but given that fake news is a topic of frequent discussion these days, I think accuracy may be the best policy.

As I was re-reading that post of four years ago, I noticed that included a story about how Lincoln insisted on completing the dome of the Capitol during the Civil War so that people could see the government would continue. And how Roosevelt cited that story when he was dedicating the National Gallery. And how Kennedy cited both Lincoln and Roosevelt when asking for public support of the arts saying they,

“‘understood that the life of the arts, far from being an interruption, a distraction, in the life of the nation, is very close to the center of a nation’s purpose- and is a test of the quality of a nation’s civilization.”

I was left hoping that the Lincoln story was true because it was the foundation of rationales made by subsequent presidents.

But the real question is, are the arts only great because important people have said they are? Do the arts become less worthwhile if we can’t find important people to vindicate their value? If Lin-Manuel Miranda decides next week it is all about fly fishing, will arts, culture and creative expression be abandoned in droves? (More likely than not hordes of people would track Miranda down to a stream in Montana and serenade him.)

Famous people can be the focus or public face for will and effort, but they are not the will. Often that famous face is not required. What famous people did all the marches of this past weekend coalesce around?

Creative expression doesn’t need a famous face behind it to matter. It doesn’t need a million people to march before it matters. Though those numbers certainly make a cause compelling and something you ignore at your own peril.

I don’t look at the folder of supportive comments I collect for grant reports and think wistfully it would be great to have a quote from a famous person instead of these 50 comments from nobodies.

I am pretty cynical about this perennial threat of defunding arts and culture. I see it akin to an older kid holding a toy over a toilet bowl and threatening to drop it in. Whether they ultimately drop it in or not, the kid seems to revel in the reaction the threat elicits.

I don’t think an argument accompanying a picture of Winston Churchill is any more compelling to decision makers than a picture of any one of us saying the same thing so we might as well get in the practice of standing behind our own sentiments.

In terms of getting people to act to support the arts, I suspect for a large percentage of people on your social media feed, your picture and statement of support is going to be a lot more compelling than Winston Churchill’s.

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