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Phhsst! You Think You Are As Good As Me?

Often when the concept of Professional-Amateurs or the capability of everyone to be creative comes up, there is a feeling of resistance that rises up among arts professionals. The study on creating public will for arts and culture that I have been citing this week addresses that a little.

Finally, our research found A POTENTIAL FOR PUSH-BACK FROM EXISTING CONSTITUENCIES for arts and culture (e.g., some arts leaders, working artists, arts educators, and arts and culture enthusiasts). Here, some respondents expressed concern that a focus on creative expression represents a dumbing down of the conversation about the value of arts and culture. Some artists, for example, chafe at the notion that “amateurs” and “hobbyists” might be lumped into the same category as those who have dedicated years of study, practice, and exploration to their art.

…Rather, the question of framing the subject is not either “creative expression” or “arts and culture,” but both/and. To those ends, our research suggests that framing the discussion in terms of creative expression is an entry point through which more people are receptive, increasing and diversifying the audience for whom the conversation has relevance.

Getting more people engaging in a conversation about arts and culture is a good thing. One of the benefits to people becoming more interested and invested in their hobby or area of interest is that the more they learn, the more they realize what they don’t know.

The only problem is that people are often satisfied with what they already know and don’t seek to learn more. As involved in the arts as I am, when I saw the “I Could Do That” video I included in a post last week, I had new respect for Piet Mondrian’s Tableau I. I wasn’t aware how difficult it is to execute using oil paint.

While I have never been dismissive of the work, I could have gone my whole life unaware of the technical skills necessary to create it.

But it can be valuable to remember that the arts aren’t the only arena in which people underestimate the degree of skill required.

Every year millions of kids around the world play baseball. It is a game that is easy for amateurs to participate in. Everyone understands, however, that only a select few have the skill to hit a baseball traveling in excess of 90 MPH…except for thousands of fans jeering at the ineptitude of the losing team.

Sports are still better served by having leagues of people of various ages, abilities and degrees of organization participating rather than athletes feeling threatened by the idea that people are being encouraged to think they have athletic ability.

It bears noting that participation in sports is waning both among those interested in playing and audiences. There may be a growing opportunity to engage people in creative expression as an alternative pursuit…or this may be a sign of a decreasing trend in participation in all types of activities.

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Authenticity In All Your Diverse Dealings

Yesterday when discussing the Arts Midwest study that is the basis for the effort to build public will for arts and culture, I briefly referenced the finding that promoting authenticity of experience is better than citing cultural diversity.

According to the study:

However, the word “diversity” can be problematic in describing the benefit or outcome of experiencing the creative expression of other people and cultures. Some resist the notion that our communities are becoming more diverse, and others are concerned with the “tokenism” associated with diversity that satisfies itself with quotas or counting or the most rudimentary of contact while failing to connect authentically with other people or cultures.

A similar sentiment to the tokenism concern was expressed in a different, earlier Arts Midwest conference session on Engaging Diverse Communities, facilitated by Kaisha Johnson, Meera Dugal and Robin Hickman.

One of the first points raised in the session is that the focus of engaging diverse communities has been on how the arts/cultural organization can benefit from the inclusion. This can make the effort feel disingenuous and leave people feeling marginalized. Few organizations can say why engaging diverse audiences is meaningful beyond seeking to expand sources of revenue.

The first step then is to articulate why it is important and what the organization’s concept of diversity is given that the term can encompass cultural, ethnic, social, sexual and other affinity groupings.

In terms of identifying and engaging groups, if one didn’t already have a sense of where to start, the panel’s advice was to seek groups online and via social media. The panel suggested engaging people as fans of a particular group or genre first rather than as a potential seat filler.

Discovering why people are passionate about a genre or group can 1- provide an initial basis for making a personal connection and 2 – can provide insight into what fans value about that person (i.e. it isn’t just about good music, but the political message or perhaps the group’s dedication to other social and environmental causes.)

An convenient source for establishing connections may be your organization’s staff. The panel cautioned that you should allow people to self identify their connections rather than deciding what they are. (i.e. You are a Chinese, bisexual, Millennial so you know all about…)

Once you have established relationships with individuals from an affinity group, the panel advocated for involving them in the curatorial process. These individuals can also help you understand the cultural dynamics and context of performances as well as avoid any potential pitfalls.

Meera Dugal used the example of a Moroccan group she scheduled at Lincoln Center during Ramadan. Thanks to the advice of her contacts, she moved the concert to a time after sundown and had certain types of foods available for participants.

While I had heard suggestions along these general lines before, one idea that never occurred to me but seemed like a no-brainer in retrospect was to commit to using vendors from target communities. While it sounded like the panel was suggesting this in relation to just specific events, it seems constructive to engage in continual commerce with businesses run by members of the community with which you wish improve your relationship.

If the people you want aren’t paying you to enter your doors, pay them to enter your doors instead by ordering flowers, catering, dry cleaning, construction materials, etc.

We often think that the only way to reach people is through whatever our primary product is. You know, the old idea that once they see what we do, they will fall in love with it.

But every transaction provides an opportunity to have a conversation about what our organizations do— “We are using your stuff for X, you ought to come and see.”

Not to mention, it reinforces the sincerity of any other expressed desire to include the group in your activities. (a.k.a. putting your money where your mouth is).

Since the study I wrote about yesterday seems to indicate older, white men appear to be the least likely to be engaged in arts/creative expression, using commerce to cultivate relationships with other groups may be a prudent course toward sustainability.

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Arts and Culture Bad, Creativity Good

Last week I attended the Arts Midwest conference in Kansas City, MO. From what I saw of the city, it can still lay claim to the appellation, “Paris of the Prairie.” The Helzberg Hall at the Kauffman Center left most attendees amazed and a little green with envy.

I ended up staying at the gorgeous Hotel Phillips which I was excited to learn has its own artist in residence.

Building Public Will For Arts and Culture

The conference session that unexpectedly grabbed my attention was Arts Midwest President David Fraher’s session on Building Public Will for Arts and Culture where he presented the results of the research findings on the subject.

If nothing else, the session reconfirmed the value of attending live performance over recorded because Fraher provided a good deal of insight and nuance that doesn’t come through when reading the report.

Essentially, building public will for arts and culture involves something of a reversal of the current focus in favor of grassroots efforts. As an example of what is envisioned being needed, Fraher and the report cite the way smoking bans emerged.

The Surgeon General never changed the advertising message that smoking and second hand smoke was bad for you, it was a grassroots desire not to have one’s health impacted by second hand smoke that brought about the change in laws. From the research results report:

For years, those seeking to reduce the incidence of smoking found themselves stymied. Facts and data about the harmful effects of smoking had motivated some to quit, but had failed to create fundamental change in social norms, systems, and policies. The facts were compelling, but they were overpowered by opponents who framed the issue in the context of individual freedom (i.e., “I have the right to smoke if I want to; I’m not hurting anybody.”).

Even the growing body of evidence around second-hand smoke had difficulty finding fertile ground until advocates realized they could reframe the same core argument to their own advantage (i.e., “I have the right to be protected from exposure to smoke.”). Co-opting the individual freedom value—backed by facts and data—allowed the sustainable changes in policies and systems that we experience today.

Fraher noted that currently, the arts and culture community generally put their effort into effecting one time change vis-a-vis staving off government policy decisions rather than long term, enduring change.

When you want to effect immediate change, you put 80% effort into advertising and 20% into grassroots. To effect long lasting change, it is reversed. 80% effort goes toward grassroots effort and 20% effort into advertising. Engaging in the latter course they are advocating will therefore require a shift of mindset and priorities in the arts and culture community.

One of the central precepts in this effort is a focus on community values. This means asking what do the arts have that align with community values rather than focusing on what the arts value and looking at what the community has that aligns with them.

Arts and Culture Are Poison

Among the findings that caused the biggest reaction in the conference session was that the term “arts and culture” is poison and turns people off, keeping them from entering the conversation. The perception is Art is something someone else does. Something to be watched passively that is inaccessible and intimidating. The search found that “creative expression” has a more positive association that opens the door to a conversation that eventually ends up at a discussion of art.

While they don’t suggest scrubbing every mention of art and culture from your conversations and literature, they do say it may be some years before the terminology trends back to a positive association.

People feel that creativity is part of who they are. They may not call themselves creative, but once they start to talk about what they do, they will admit they engage in creative expression. Even if people don’t feel they are creative, they apparently have an easier time envisioning themselves capable of creative expression than envisioning themselves creating art. (Again, the idea that art is something other people do.)

Another term that turned people off was “diversity.” It is better to promote an event as providing an authentic experience rather than providing/promoting cultural diversity.

Personal Health, Not the Economy

When talking about the benefits of an experience, mentioning that the arts improve the economy, make kids smarter and brings safety to communities are arguments that work with policy makers in government and foundations, but don’t really have resonance with individuals.

Generally people believe creativity makes them less stressed, happier, healthier and more connected with family and friends. (One thing Fraher emphasized was that family was family of choice rather than biological immediate family.) It probably comes as no surprise that despite the appearance of hyperconnectivity, research has found that there is currently a crisis of loneliness, perhaps the greatest in history. So promoting arts and culture in the context of health, relaxation and connectivity is more effective messaging.

The study cites the NEA’s finding that not having someone to attend with is a significant barrier to attendance. Fraher commented that they weren’t suggesting arts organizations start a dating service, but since I and others are experimenting with something along those lines, I would suggest not dismissing the idea too soon.

Survey and focus group respondents also had a strong, positive reaction to the idea that creativity helped one connect with oneself, but would back way from their initial enthusiasm out of apparent embarrassment that it made them sound self-centered. (Most frequently among parents with young children.) Appropriate subtlety and restraint may make this another effective approach to take.

Not Everyone Who Values The Experience Is Attending

As the effort to build public will for arts and culture moves forward, the key audiences it will focus on are women, young people and people of color. The study found strong interest among all these groups. Fraher joked that he felt bad for women because according to the study, men didn’t like to do anything. Men would respond that they valued spending time with their family, but when asked what they did with their family, they indicated Nothing in every category.

Fraher commented that there was a disconnect between the groups that say attendance is important and the groups that are currently actually attending. For example, there were a large number of responses in the under 40 category that said attendance at art performances, festivals, etc, were important to them but obviously the demographics found in arts venues track older. The lack of connection is due to familiar barriers of time, money, no one to attend with, etc.

One Message, But Not One Ad, To Rule Them All

The plan for the National Engagement phase for building public will is to develop a more unified message and create tool kits for groups to use. The expectation is that it will take at least 8-10 years before any type of measurable results begin to emerge.

Fraher mentioned a desire to be agile and share the messaging that works in one community with other communities. In what I felt was an indication that they understood what the research was telling them, he re-emphasized the focus on the grassroots nature of the effort saying that there wouldn’t be single national ad buys disseminating whatever the effective messaging might be.

While there was a lot in David Fraher’s presentation that doesn’t appear in the research results report, there are some interesting observations in the report that didn’t come out in the hour he had to talk about it. I am trying to decide whether I am going to do a second post on those parts of the report or not.

But don’t wait for me to decide, give it a look.

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Get Back In There And Be Creative

If you have been reading my blog for any span of time, you will know that I have a particular interest in stories that show, to paraphrase Edison, Creativity is 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration.

Recently, Pacific Standard had an article where researchers found that persistence is an important factor in achieving a creative break through.

“Researchers report that people consistently underestimate how many creative ideas they can come up with if they continue to work on a problem, rather than giving up in the wake of mediocre initial results.”

The article references two similar experiments where people were asked to brain storm ideas, had a break and were asked to brain storm more ideas. During the break, the participants were asked how many ideas they would come up with in the second brainstorming session. In both cases, the participants underestimated how many ideas they would come up with.

The most interesting thing was that in one case, the participants were all professional sketch comedy performers at a sketch comedy festival.

Remember, this is the sort of thing these people do for a living. And yet they, too, significantly underestimated the number of ideas they would come up with on their second attempt. “This speaks to the robustness of persistence undervaluation,” the researchers write, “and demonstrates that it is not limited to novices in novel domains.”

In a study that didn’t involve the sketch performers, outside evaluators rated the ideas that came from the post-break session as “significantly more original” than those that came from the first session.

Apparently the reason why people underestimate how creative they will be is due to a sense of doubt generated by their initial attempt. Perhaps one of the most important elements in obtaining creative success is a supportive, but firm friend who tells you to get your butt back in there and try again.

Creative thought is a trial-and-error process that generally produces a series of failed associations before a creative solution emerges,” the researchers note. It’s often difficult to know when you’re nearing a breakthrough; that “Aha!” moment may occur immediately following a period of deep frustration.


…As Thomas Edison said: “Our greatest weakness lies in giving up. The most certain way to succeed is always to try just one more time.”

Again we come back to the need to allow for failures in the process of pursuing creativity.

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