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Community Now, Arts Education Later

I listened in on an National Endowment for the Arts webinar today that was billed as addressing arts education. But the reality was, the speaker, Richard Harwood of the Harwood Institute seemed to feel arts education shouldn’t be a primary concern in most communities. From what I understood, he felt that the arts had much more immediate assets they could provide to communities and arts education was a focus for a later stage.

The NEA will post a more complete version of the webinar in a couple weeks. However, if you are interested in learning more immediately, there is a captioning transcript available of the session. I was monitoring it while I took notes of my own to help me keep up. Be warned that there are some omissions and mistakes. [NB the audio is now available online]

As a result, I will mostly be paraphrasing here unless I am confident that what I am quoting is reasonably accurate.

Harwood echoed part of the current conversation about making arts relevant in a community, namely that the focus has to be on the shared aspirations of the community and not on those of an individual organization or group of organizations.

He mentioned how he would often hear comments from people wondering why a program that worked for a community down the road didn’t work for their own. The reason is that you can’t borrow something from another community that is not aligned with the shared aspirations of your own.

“Communities that move forward the fastest are ones who align around shared aspirations, not simply coordination of programs…”

As he has traveled the country, Harwood said the number one issue he hears people mention isn’t foreclosure of homes, inability to pay college tuition or that they have lost their jobs. The top concern was that we need to restore our belief that we can come together to get things done.

Harwood strongly urged listeners

“…to think about what it is that enables us to create the belief we can come together to get things done. I think there are ways to change our efforts so we embody that belief. We need to pay attention to the narrative of our communities. I don’t need to tell you how important this is.”

Among the narratives that have to be worked against are the idea “we tried that 30 years ago, why would we try it again?” or “I am waiting for the next mayor to get elected.” He said that Americans have retreated from public life because “They didn’t see their reality reflected in public discourse. Belief starts with a notion something you care about that I care about matters.”

This was really the first time I heard someone talk about the challenge facing arts and arts education in the context of a societal malaise. Looking at it in this context, the cultural wars of that 80s that have seen a recent resurgence aren’t so much about people hating arts and culture. It is that arts and culture is being used as a whipping boy for something much larger.

In a sense, I think we all know that, but until Harwood spent close to 30 minutes talking about the problem without really mentioning the arts at all, I didn’t recognize that the tensions really aren’t about the arts at all. It is about a lack of trust and belief in one another. The way he talks about it, arts and culture have bigger contributions to make than providing music lessons and an enjoyable Friday date night. The arts can be instrumental in mending society.

He says every community has a multiplicity of competing narratives. The question isn’t how to resolve the competing narratives, but rather to illuminate them. Explore how we understand the narratives. What do the arts bring to them and what do arts bring to how people express these narratives.

He uses an example of Youngstown, OH where his company was brought in after the public schools were taken over by the state. As they engaged adults around education they heard that the adults were afraid of the kids. They crossed the street when they saw the young people. When they looked into the eyes of the children, they didn’t see the essential qualities needed to succeed. All they saw were troublemakers who would end up behind bars. They didn’t see them as the future of the community.

When they talked to the kids, they basically agreed that this was how the adults saw them. It is at this point that Harwood explicitly says that if we are really concerned about kids and arts education, the kids need to be engaged around who they want to be and how they see adults in their lives.

You might ask about arts education, but Harwood says he would never start with the arts. It is the job of the arts community to figure out how the arts can fit into what they want to become so they can reach their potential, become creative, innovative and express themselves.

Basically, you don’t try to figure out how to get them to fit into the arts.

When it comes to involving children and the arts, Harwood feel that what the arts offer that few others don’t is the power to convene. They have the power to bring people together in these conversations.

He says, (and I hope I am getting this correct because the transcript is a little spotty), he “thinks the arts, unlike a lot of other things, is not fundamentally about policy disputes. It is about creating something.” Due to this, he feels the whole focal point begins to shift because the fact art is about expression can help create norms for kids. Including the norm of what does it mean to create something.

He notes, arts deal with the whole child. So much else only deals with one piece so addressing the whole child can be a huge calling card for arts in education.

Obviously, a lot of interesting things to think about. As I suggest, putting arts education as part of a later step after other divisions have been healed shifted my perspective. I realized that culture wars conflict about the arts is really a symptom of something much bigger.

As narcissistic as many arts professionals may be, I think we can survive knowing it ain’t all about us in this case.

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In Which I Have A Belated Realization

The lovely people at my state arts foundation sent me some information about National Endowment programs today that I thought I would share. The first is that there will be a webinar for the Challenge America FastTrack program on April 18. If you are thinking of applying and have questions, sign up!

The second thing I got was a PDF of the Our Town application guidelines webinar. I was interested to see that the program encompassed more than I originally assumed. The focus is on Creative Placemaking which means they are looking to improve quality of life, encourage creativity, support artists and engender a sense of community.

I had assumed they would support arts in public places, creation of arts districts and cultural facilities. I know some projects have included artist housing. I was pleased to learn that they would also support creative entrepreneurship, the development of creative hubs, design of public places and wayfinding systems. I hadn’t realized they were interested in cultivating an entire infrastructure. I guess it shouldn’t surprise me given the NEA is a partner in ArtPlace. There seems to be a desire to re-purpose existing spaces rather than new construction.

As you might imagine, they won’t support anything that doesn’t have arts and culture–and their practitioners–as central elements. At the same time, they also require local government at the city or county level as a partner to the non-profit. A government entity can only submit one proposal, which they define as:

“Eligible local government partners include counties, parishes, cities, towns, villages, federally recognized tribal governments, local arts agencies, local education agencies (school districts), or local government-run community college.”

Soooo….. as I got to finishing this entry, I realized that the deadline for this grant was March 1. I suspect the folks at my state arts organization didn’t realize this either when they sent the information out with a “please share” request. The Our Town link from the NEA home page isn’t working so it wasn’t immediately apparent the deadline had passed. I did find the application information page through other means.

If nothing else, it is a good resource for planning for the next cycle. (Which they indicate there will be.) This year the application window was December 1 to March 1. Unless you already had something in the works with your local government, it would have been a real crunch to get an application together. Let’s face it, few people are really going to be working on a grant application during the Christmas holidays.

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Big Data May Be En Vogue, Little Data Still Has Plenty To Offer

Apropos of my post yesterday about using big data to customize information to the interests of individuals in your community, I happened to come across an interview with Jamie Bennett who is chief of staff at the National Endowment for the Arts. (Or maybe it wasn’t coincidence and Big Data Big Brother conspired to bring it to my attention based on yesterday’s post!!!)

The interview is on a website without permalinks to its content so you may have to scroll down to February 27, 2012 or search for Jamie Bennett to find it.

One thing I realized upon reading Bennett’s interview is that I may not have been clear it is already possible to offer sophisticated interactions with patrons without access to Big Data. I had forgotten that Nicholas Hynter has the membership staff at the National Theatre in London email patrons and suggest that based on what the theatre has observed about them, the patron may want to skip the next show. Obviously, you need to have the staffing and resources to do this sort of thing, but it is certainly within reach.

Another emerging option is sites like Culture Craver, the site upon which Bennett’s interview appears. Only available in NYC at the moment and still in beta stages, Culture Craver, aims to do for arts and culture what Pandora does for music and suggest events that you might like based on comparing your history and stated preferences with those of others with similar tastes.

While the interview would naturally be oriented toward the types of situations in which services like Culture Craver might be useful, I have to admit to being surprised by an anecdote Bennett related about how self-segregating audiences can be. He mentioned that RoseLee Goldberg who runs the visual and performance art oriented Performa festival often features the same artists who appear at the theatre oriented Under the Radar festival.

(text broken into two blocks for reading ease)

She was asked to speak at the Public Theater about some of the artists that she had presented who were also Public Theater folks, and she did a poll of the audience, and said, “Who here is a visual arts person?” And there was nobody. And if you asked that same question about those artists at a Performa audience, it would be all visual arts people and there wouldn’t be any theater people. They’re consuming the same thing, and yet the audiences don’t cross-pollinate….

I’ve begun asking myself, “Why have we drawn that circle? Does it have meaning? Is there something that the arts all have in common with each other? Is painting part of the same cohort as theater? Is dance the same cohort as music?” I believe it is. I’m still working it out in my mind — to have a well-spoken philosophical rationale for this, but I believe it is something. I think creating a real community within that, and not saying, I’m a contemporary dance company and I have nothing to do with classical dance, let alone a museum, I think harms us, and if we saw ourselves as a larger community and worked together that way, I think we’d all benefit tremendously from it. So, figuring out a way to conceive of ourselves as a sector and operate as a sector and realize that more is more. If somebody comes to see something at another theater, that’s ultimately good for my theater, because it’s creating a new audience, it’s building an audience, it’s building an informed community.

Bennett doesn’t lay all the blame on audiences for not being more adventurous. Arts organizations are responsible for propagating these distinctions and communicating them to patrons in various ways. With all the surveys I have read about arts attendance, I don’t recall any findings that definitively observed a significant degree of inter-and intra-disciplinary self-segregation among arts organizations, but it doesn’t mean it isn’t happening or at least that audiences aren’t moving in this direction.

If it is the case, then services like Culture Craver, perhaps in the form of smart phone apps, might become increasingly valuable for arts organizations. Something that says, “hey you trusted us for 25 theatre performances, trust us when we say you’re likely to enjoy this dance piece” can help diversify audiences if they aren’t.

I am just thinking back to the post I did early last month about how members of Gen Y trust the online opinions of total strangers over that of family and friends when I wonder if this isn’t an area to which we should pay close attention.

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Stuff To Ponder: What About Engaging Arts Organizations?

Taking up where I left off yesterday, one of the last things I mentioned was that arts people might have an easier time shifting their perceptions to be more inclusive of what constitutes artistic practice and works of art than the general public might.

The thing is, while arts people may be more able to make the shift in thinking, they may not think it is necessary unless the necessity of doing so is pointed out to them. There is a lot of effort being made on a national, regional and local level to communicate the benefits of the arts to the general public but there isn’t a complementary effort to let the arts community know what their role is.

You can help in that effort by passing on or retweeting this post! ;)

But really, I recently realized the effort to get the general public to invest in the arts is a little one sided. Americans for the Arts will run ads telling people there are things they can do give their kids more arts experiences but most of the burden is on the parents to go online to the Americans for the Arts site and seek out arts organizations in their community. There may be an assumption that whatever arts organizations are doing to generate public awareness of themselves will be enough.

While Americans for the Arts had some requirements if you wanted to partner in their last kids and the arts campaign, what perhaps they should have also done is gone to the arts organizations and said, listen, we are going to run a slew of ads in your area encouraging people to take their kids to performances and museums and sign them up for classes. We are going to tell them to look for this little smiley guy logo. You can benefit by putting this logo on your website, in your ads and on the side of your building like the Safe Place logo they have on fire stations so people can easily identify organizations that offer these services.

The NEA starting a long term campaign communicating a “its all art and you should be reaching out” message to arts organizations through various channels would help to get arts organizations on the same page with them. That way the arts groups can start providing a public message complementary to the NEA’s and begin to shift themselves and the community to a more inclusive mindset.

Heck, what might actually be effective is a national campaign like the one Dominos recently ran that acknowledges people’s complaints about arts experiences. It could simultaneously address public sentiment and let arts organizations know they have a responsibility in the relationship as well.

Of course, lacking the unified will of a corporation, the campaign can’t make concrete promises of improvement across the arts sector. And honestly, unless it was incredibly well-designed and coordinated, it could alienate the general public, arts organizations or both.

But it would also be the first time that these issues were acknowledged and addressed nationally. Those of us who regularly read blogs and attend conferences are likely well aware of the need for change. But many arts people, including board members, aren’t participating in these conversations and may not be as aware of the shifting realities. This would put the topic front and center.

There isn’t just a need to do a better job of communicating our message to our local community, we need to apply the same techniques to communicating among ourselves. Which may in turn increase the number of organizations effectively communicating with their local communities.

There are already a few communication channels being used to rally arts organizations and their supporters to contact their legislators prior to crucial votes. Those are a good starting point to mobilize arts organizations but the message needs to come from different sources: blogs, television, radio, YouTube video, tweets, Facebook. In other words, the same channels we are urged to use to engage our communities can be used to engage arts organizations.

Whatever the message is needs to be light and encouraging rather than declarative and directive. Just like our audiences, arts organizations should be hearing more from their national, state and local leadership than OHMYGOD! THEYAREALLAGAINSTUS YOUMUSTMOBILIZENOW!

There should be Van Goghurt commercials made to encourage arts organizations to do better and point out resources organizational leaders can consult.

The nonprofit arts world in the U.S. is so decentralized it is hard to effectively communicate with most of the organizations. If the government provided higher levels of funding, more organizations might have closer relationships with central funders and it would be easier to provide training and information in best practices. For many it is not worth the effort required to apply, so they remain unidentified and out of touch with service organizations.

Instead of providing a few arts organizations with the funds to improve community participation, maybe foundations/funders should focus on establishing stronger channels of communication and relationships between service organizations/arts councils and arts groups, as well as between the arts groups themselves. Once that is achieved, instead of many individual organizations trying to re-invent the wheel alone, they may become better aware of the practices of those around them which will hopefully translate over time into a community engaged with the arts rather than with specific arts organizations.

As it is now, the best engagement practices developed by the exemplar organizations being funded will only be disseminated to a few hundred people attending a conference or reading a report. Better engagement and communication between arts groups and the arts councils/organizations that serve them could multiply the impact.

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