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Stuff To Ponder: When Not To Tell Your Story

Createquity may be in reruns right now while they reorganize, but they have great timing. Today they featured a post from 2011 which was something of a complement to the post about pricing and story I made yesterday.

Where my post yesterday addressed using a resonant story to get people invested in paying a little more to participate in an arts event, Createquity featured a guest post by Margy Waller suggesting that when it comes to public funding for the arts, the lack of a publicized story might be the best bet.

Members of the public typically have positive feelings toward the arts, some quite strong. But how they think about the arts is shaped by a number of common default patterns that ultimately obscure a sense of shared responsibility in this area.

For example, it is natural and common for people who are not insiders to think of the arts in terms of entertainment. In fact, it’s how we want people to think when we are selling tickets or memberships. But, in this view, entertainment is a “luxury,” and the “market” will determine which arts offerings survive, based on people’s tastes as consumers of entertainment. Consequently, public support for the arts makes little sense, particularly when public funds are scarce.

Perceptions like these lead to conclusions that government funding, for instance, is frivolous or inappropriate. Even charitable giving can be undermined by these default perceptions.

The second paragraph aligns squarely with Seth Godin’s thoughts on pricing that “Some goods are difficult to understand before purchase and use, and most consumers undervalue them and treat them like commodities.” And later “In situations like this, our instinct is to assume that the thing is generic, a commodity, not worth extra.”

Waller suggests that given the perception that public support of the arts is frivolous, by making the fight to restore/increase funding public, arts organizations are choosing a battlefield where they are at a disadvantage.

Politicians can leverage public opinion that the arts are a luxury. When the conflict is covered by the media, it is in the context of a political fight rather than say, a matter of societal value, education and cultural identity.

Because the big fight in the default way of viewing the arts is very losable. And in our efforts, we’re forced to expand a precious resource: the time and energy of staff and key supporters who have to work so hard to convince public officials that they won’t suffer consequences in the next election.

Moreover, every time the fight is public, we’re likely to be reinforcing the dominant ways of thinking about the arts that are getting in our way now. When attacked, we rebut with facts, and the media covers the issue as a political fight with two equal sides – both seen through a lens that sets up the arts as a low priority on the public agenda. And as we know, this can have the effect of making people defensive and hardening existing positions. Of course, it should be no surprise that even officials who are friendly to arts funding are reluctant to be in the middle of that kind of coverage.

Waller suggests a strong, but quiet lobbying campaign, citing the success of just such an effort in Ohio. When you think about it, she has a valid point because quiet lobbying is exactly how plenty of entities who would prefer to avoid public resistance to their plans get things accomplished.

I am sure we can all envision some program that slipped by under our radar and we would prefer not to be associated with those sort of tactics. But the reality is, not every act of governance is preceded by a rancorous public debate. I am sure many arts supporters would be happy not to gird for battle every budget cycle if their goals could be accomplished quietly and efficiently.

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Person Who….

Margy Waller tweeted a link to an article which theorized that using the term “People on Bikes” rather than “cyclists” would help improve road safety by humanizing the bike riders.

I immediately wondered if there was any benefit, internally and externally, to changing the terminology applied to arts patrons. (Instead of, for example, “arts patron.”) The article starts out saying that even for those who ride bikes, the term cyclist evokes the image of a hardcore enthusiast who has uses specialized equipment and clothing like a high end bike and spandex bike shorts.

The arts have the same image problem with people perceiving arts patrons as being hardcore afficinados with a set dress code and specialized knowledge.

Replace the word “biking” with “arts attendance” and “cyclist” with “arts patron” in the next paragraph and you have a sentiment drawn straight from an arts blog or conference. (I don’t know that arts patron is the wrong term to use, I just employ it for want of a clearly alienating term.)

“From an advocacy standpoint, getting rid of the word “cyclist” removes perceptual barriers that prevent people from trying biking in the first place, says Dave Snyder, executive director of the California Bicycle Coalition. “It makes biking accessible to anyone, and diminishes the sense of biking as an activity for a subculture or one that requires an ‘identity’ to engage in. Someone who has a bike in their house somewhere and only occasionally rides it and never would consider themselves a ‘cyclist’ is someone we should definitely reach out to.”

The poster by Bike Pittsburgh featured in the article looks exactly like posters and banners I have seen arts organizations use to show that their employees performed every day functions in the community.

This may seem like silly semantics, but the article argues that the active “people who X” humanizes the entity more than the passive label.

“Try saying “people who drive” instead of “drivers,” or “people who walk” instead of “pedestrians.” Suddenly this passive, faceless term that usually connotes a victim or someone at fault turns into a more active, visual description of an actual human who is choosing to do something. I can identify more with a “person who drives” or a “person who walks” or a “person who uses a wheelchair” or a “person who rides the bus” or a “person on a Segway,” even if I don’t do any of those things, because I understand, even beyond their mode of transit, they’re still people.”

So my first question is, are there terms like patron, community, attendee that tends to make us apply a generic identity on people instead of individualizing them?

Second question is, what term should be used? “Person who attends dance” denies someone’s identity as a person who attends theater, concerts, museums, etc.

“Person who participates in the arts” seemed the best bet to me. It avoids the hardcore stigma of “person who is enthusiastic about the arts” and is more active than “one who enjoys the arts.”

In addition to being unwieldy terminology, I know this sounds like saccharine soaked political correctness. But these things can make a difference. The idea of viewing people as brains rather than butts in the seats I wrote about a couple years ago, for example.

I am actually somewhat more interested in the internal benefits of a language change than shifting attitudes externally, though I would welcome any campaign that could achieve that.

Long ago I worked at a place where the box office kept a list of all the stupid things they were asked on the back of the door. I didn’t think having staff constantly reminded that their customers were dopes was very conducive to good service. Even if they were consciously being as pleasant as they could, that list was eroding their respect unconsciously.

So I wonder what might change if an organization’s staff started referring to customers as “people who love the arts.” Marketing department meetings would talk about adverting goals in terms of attracting 500 lovers of the arts for a show. Curtain speeches could celebrate that a performance is sold out with 1100 people who love the arts.

What are your thoughts? Is there any creative person (person who exercises creativity?) who can think of an elegant, but active descriptor?

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Talk About Your Org Before Someone Else Does

Last week Americans for the Arts held a Private Sector salon on ARTSblog where they discussed where the interests of the arts and business intersected. Much of the discussion was very interesting, but one entry by Margy Waller stuck with me for a few days. Part of it was the timeliness of her subject. She cited the recent controversy at the National Portrait Gallery (NPG) about a video that included ants crawling on a crucifix. She quoted a commenter on the NPR story about the controversy calling art the leisure pursuit of the elite.

It immediately made me wonder if the commenter was aware that admission at the NPG, like most of the Smithsonian museums, is free and that the gallery contains very accessible works of historical significance from portraits of Presidents, First Ladies, Founding Fathers and Cornwallis’ surrender to Washington at the end of the Revolutionary War to Stephen Colbert. I am not sure what more someone needs to feel that museum has something to offer them rather than deciding it is only in the purview of others. Even with the exposure provided by people like Stephen Colbert and millions of people wandering through the NPG for free every year, people are unaware of the experience the museum offers. The museums really only get national attention when there is controversy and at that point, no one is interviewing the person talking about the benefits of the arts or the thousands of other works hanging in the galleries.

This weekend when the Honolulu Symphony decided to ask a judge to allow them to dissolve rather than undergo Chapter 11 reorganization, (a request which as of this writing, the judge has granted), the 140+ comments people made on the initial newspaper article revealed just how uninformed and unaware about the symphony’s operations people were. I am not referring to people making spiteful comments about how elitist classical music is who weren’t making any effort to learn. There were plenty of them. But there were others conducting conversations in which people were learning about the business aspects of the symphony for the first time.

A commenter with the handle 1SWBP wrote:

“Shamonu–mahalo for the explanation. That makes more sense now. I appreciate your taking the time. My empathy now runs much more deeper and the union stuff makes perfect sense. I guess I never realized how ‘large’ our symphony was. I do regret not being able to get out more and enjoy them more often.”

What made Margy Waller’s post most inspiring however was a video of Cincinnati mayor Mark Mallory talking about the economic benefits the arts have brought to his city in his State of the City address last year. It reinforces the idea that you have to talk about what you bring to the table, and talk about it, talk about it some more and then get others to talk about it when people get sick of hearing you. A little depressing though that there are only 113 views so pass it on if you like it.

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