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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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