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Don’t Blame Arcane Terminology and Practice

Andrew Taylor touches upon a little of what I was thinking about this weekend in his post today. He quotes a recent piece by Marian Godfrey where she talks about how the language used by arts managers and grant makers is alienating and soul sucking.

…like any professional jargon, it puts up barriers and makes people who are unfamiliar with our dialect feel like outsiders, including the very people we are trying to support — artists and engaged people in our communities. I believe we need more humane language to describe ourselves and our visions: words and meanings that are shared by artists, administrators, and the public.

I had been thinking about the specialized language and terminologies used in the arts this weekend. I believe Godfrey was referring to the institutional and general language used to discuss the benefits of the arts as a whole, (I read the whole piece as Andrew Taylor enjoined his readers to do), whereas I was thinking about the terms specific to each arts discipline. As such, I don’t know that I can say I directly disagree with what Godfrey says.

The conclusion I came to this weekend is that while there is quite a bit of vocabulary one must learn in order to comfortably participate in a conversation about a discipline, I don’t think the need to learn a complex set of terms really comprises a significant impediment to becoming an participant or spectator. I think it is just a convenient excuse.

There are plenty of instances where people willingly engage in the time consuming process of learning special terminology. Take MMORPGs like W.O.W. where people will be exposed to terms like: tank, buff/debuff, AoE, aggro, autoloot, cooldown, PvE, PvP, grinding, griefing, among thousands of others. Players are expected to master the terminology, understand the role their character fills and how to use their abilities alongside others to achieve a goal.

Thousands of people happily undertake this challenge every day.

You might argue that people playing online games gain a sense of personal accomplishment that motivates them. But watching sports is often just as passive an activity as watching a performance, (okay, granted you can’t jump up and yell at a ballerina the moment the spirit moves you like you can with an athlete), and requires learning all sorts of arcane rules specific to each game. Often the rules are a little different for each level of play.

People learn these rules and terms because they want to. If they don’t know them, they can seek help from friends or go online to look up the information.

To illustrate this, I intentionally didn’t link to any resource with the gaming terms. Did you look them up or think about looking them up if you didn’t know what they were?

Sometimes this information is collated by the company/team/organization providing the activity. Often these days, people sharing a common interest join together to contribute information to a wiki which exists independently of the organization or activity it covers.

So when people express trepidation about learning the vocabulary and rituals of the performing and visual arts, I think the question really should be why this is so? My impulse is to respond that it is because there are not enough people they are acquainted with either personally or virtually providing a message that it is worth the trouble to learn about it.

I also don’t think there are enough informational resources out there to make it easy for people to learn if they so desire. I just did a Google search for the term “first position” because I can never remember the feet placement for the different positions. I couldn’t find it until I searched for the term “second position.” (Though I did discover A LOT of dance schools are named First Position.)

This is not to say that there aren’t many wikis and specialized dictionaries online which cover arts terminology. American Ballet Theatre has a pretty good dictionary of dance terms. It is just a coincidence that first position doesn’t appear there.

You would have to know to look there though because everyone’s go to source, Wikipedia, only has about 24 terms on it and there isn’t a good dance wiki that I could find. Information sources on theatre terminology are only slightly better.

As much as people say television shows like Glee, Smash and Bunheads don’t reflect reality, they do serve to disseminate the message that singing, theatre and dance are things people should be interested in learning more about.

Like I said, the idea that there isn’t enough of a visible trend and readily available information was something of a primary impression I had. I’d be happy to hear other theories.

While I think some of the terminology and practices might need a change, I do feel fairly strongly that people’s reticence to learn more about arts disciplines can’t be laid primarily at the feet of specialized vocabulary and unfamiliar practices.

People take the necessity of doing this in stride if they are motivated to learn something. Simplifying the language and altering the practices isn’t going to result in a sudden deluge of attendees because the initial motivating impulse will be absent.

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An Idea Eight Years In The Making (And Hopefully Not Nine)

Thursday is the 8th anniversary of this blog. I made my first post on February 23, 2004. I wouldn’t normally call attention to an oddly numbered anniversary (though 8 is considered auspicious in China), however an idea I mentioned in my second post may come to fruition. Actually, the bulk of the idea was expressed in a letter to Artful Manager Andrew Taylor which ended up printed on the Artsjournal site.

In that letter I suggested that arts organizations emulate the overtly proselytizing comic book Chick Tracts. While I am generally offended by the tracts, I appreciate their use of illustrations to catch interest and their portability which lend themselves to easy distribution by handing them off to friends or leaving them in public places. I had suggested using the same format, albeit with a less heavy handed approach, to distribute information about the arts.

That idea has been percolating in my mind as I waited for the opportunity to put it into action. That opportunity seems to have presented itself.

If you recall on Monday I mentioned how I haven taken advantage of the enthusiasm my assistant theatre managers have brought to the job to implement some of my ideas. Well this is one of them.

The current assistant theatre manager had an idea to assemble a Student Media Art Collective (SMAC – her idea) to help us promote the performances at the theatre. Our intention is to have discussions about promotion, techniques and art in general. In time we hope to bring in some guest speakers to talk to the group about various topics. I have pretty much left it up to her to organize and run. I just approve the purchase of pizza, distribution of comp tickets and show up at the meetings.

I have to say, I have been pretty impressed with the way she has run it. Even though we want these people’s help promoting the theatre, she hasn’t really mentioned that at all. What she has basically done is created a place for people to meet, eat pizza and talk about their ideas. Today she had us drawing things on file cards and post-it notes.

We have only had two meetings. Between the first one two weeks ago and the one we had today, two of the people have already started collaborating on a project together. They aren’t ready to talk about it yet. From what I have glimpsed of the proposal the one guy wrote, it seems to be some sort of fictional speculation about the origins of chess as a game.

I like the energy that is developing so far. We have provided a forum for these students who are predominantly visual artists that hasn’t been available before. I think it has been good that we have let the participants talk about their ideas rather than pressing our agenda. It has helped people feel comfortable and share their goals with the group.

I had discussed my idea to emulate the Chick Tracts with the assistant theatre manager about a week ago and while I wanted to mention today, I decided to follow her lead in regard to whether we asked them to do something for the theatre. Near the end of the meeting, she invited me to share the basic concept with the group and a number of them really liked it. During the mingling at the end of the meeting, a few approached me with the ideas they had. I was surprised that many of them were interested in producing a hard copy format rather than a digital manifestation as I had suggested. Apparently having something physical to hold is valued a bit more than I had guessed.

I will follow up by sending out some links to some websites that might provide as basis of inspiration for my Arts Tracts. Then I will step back and see what happens in the next two weeks before we meet again. Hopefully something will have been produced by this time next year.

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Arts Presenters 2012 Edition

I have been attending the Association of Performing Arts Presenters (APAP) conference this past weekend. I am sure I will have more to say on the subject in future entries, but I wanted to post a few reflections and impressions while they were fresh.

First, I wanted to give some congratulations and props to Mario Garcia Durham, the new President and CEO of APAP on this, his first conference with the organization. I had met Mario a handful of times before in his capacity as the Director of Artistic Communities and Presenting at the National Endowment for the Arts. I was always set at ease by his open and welcoming manner when I had consultation sessions with him.

I took it as a good sign that he invited the Emerging Leadership Institute participants and alumni (of which I am one) up to his suite to discuss what we felt was the future for the field. We didn’t have a lot of time with him, but it was a promising sign. I also thought it was a promising sign that he got a standing ovation at the start of the conference from the membership. (And even more promising that he decides to discard a long speech he had prepared at another gathering!)

For this conference, I decided to break out my laptop and do a little live tweeting from different sessions. I had a great time doing it and could really see the utility of the activity for the conference, and somewhat by extension, for Tweet Seat programs that have been emerging at various arts events. I will say though that I really felt that I ended up missing many aspects of the sessions I was attending. Not only in terms of not entirely absorbing points people were making, but also some of the nuances of what they were saying. Even though my brain and multi-tasking abilities may not be on par with those of the younger generation, I can’t help but think they would indeed suffer from the same situation.

I was also surprised given the size of the attendance that more people weren’t tweeting from the various discussions going on, at least not on the official hashtag, #APAPNYC. Didnt see much on the counter-conference hashtag #APAPSMEAR, either. Many people used the hashtags to promote their showcases, but didn’t really seem to overdo it.

I was a little disappointed that there weren’t more people tweeting from the sessions because there were often a number I wanted to attend running concurrently and with a few exceptions, no one was reporting what was transpiring in those rooms.

On the other hand, there were a fair number of people following along. I appreciate all those who signed up to follow my twitter feed. Between those who started following me and those who were tweeting themselves, I found a number of new interesting people to follow in turn.

One interesting thing I noticed was a change in the underlying theme of the discussions at the conference. In the past it has often been about declining attendance and funding. This year it seems to be more focused on social and cultural trends, perhaps thanks to the Occupy Wall Street movements. People were talking about loss of identity, disenfranchisement, fragmentation and polarization of society.

Questions were raised about what role arts organizations would have in addressing this and place in the community rather than how to get more people through the doors. One of the major speakers at a few of the sessions was John Fetterman, the mayor of Braddock, PA who has attracted a lot of national attention for his efforts to revitalize his town and reverse the decline by the use of art and community efforts. As part of one effort, they took the bricks from a demolished garage to make a communal bread oven.

I will try to post more on the conference in the weeks ahead as I am able to digest the experience.

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Tax Status, Cause and Effect

With tax status and business model discussion being all the rage today, I wanted to point back to a place 7 years ago when the conversation was just starting. Back then I expounded upon a post made by Andrew Taylor regarding associating virtue with tax status.

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