Trees Come With Unexpected Baggage

In my post yesterday I referenced the difficulty non-profit arts organizations have with conducting outreach activities that have relevance to communities. I and others have also frequently written about the problems with the way arts organizations approach relations with underserved communities, especially communities of color.

The honest truth is, a lot of non-profit organizations find the work they are doing has poor resonance with the communities they hope to serve. I was reading a piece on CityLab today about an organization that is trying to plant trees in Detroit. You would think this is a pretty non-controversial endeavor, but many neighborhoods in Detroit had a narrative of distrust in which trees figured prominently.

But as I read the article, I felt like so many phrases and terminology were exactly the same ones that crop up in discussions about how arts organizations need to frame their approach and relationships with underserved communities.

For example,

Elliot Payne, described experiences where green groups “presumed to know what’s best” for communities of color without including them in the decision-making and planning processes.

“I think a lot of the times it stems from the approach of oh we just go out and offer tree plantings or engaging in an outdoor activity, and if we just reach out to them they will come,” Payne told Taylor.

Cut out the references to tree planting and outdoor activity and it immediately sounds like a conversation at an arts conference without even needing to insert arts terminology.

Then there was this passage:

However, from reading excerpts of Carmichael’s interviews with TGD staff members, it’s clear some of the tree planters thought they were doing these communities an environmental-justice solid. After all, who would turn down a free tree on their property, given all of the health and economic benefits that service affords? Perhaps these people just don’t get it. As one staff member told Carmichael in the study:

You’re dealing with a generation that has not been used to having trees, the people who remember the elms are getting older and older. Now we’ve got generations of people that have grown up without trees on their street, they don’t even know what they’re missing.

How many times have you been part of a conversation where those advocating for the value of the arts talk exactly along these lines? – People don’t understand the value of the arts and the benefits they afford. The younger generation isn’t used to attending/participating in arts experiences. They have grown up without arts educational classes or opportunities to attend performances, they don’t even know what they’re missing.

What was really interesting to read was how residents of neighborhoods and the city were operating from two different narratives about trees. A researcher was surprised to learn that nearly a quarter of the 7500 residents the tree planting organization approached rejected the trees. When the researcher spoke to residents, they told her about how the city cut down the elm trees that used to line the streets after the 1967 race rebellion so that it was easier for police to conduct helicopter surveillance. The city, on the other hand, said they cut down the trees and sprayed them with DDT from helicopters in order to stem the spread of Dutch Elm disease which threatened during that time.

It was this conflicting narrative that motivated residents to reject the trees. They were already well aware of the benefits of trees in providing shade, improving home values, filtering air pollution, etc., it was just that they didn’t trust the motivations of the city.

This made me wonder if people were more aware of the benefits of the arts than we believe and there are narratives that inform a sense of distrust. Ideas about what the arts are and who they are for may comprise a large part of that narrative.

There was also a far more practical consideration fueling the rejection. People felt someone else was deciding what should be planted and where without having any conversations with the people who would have to live with the trees —and rake the leaves and branches that fell. The city doesn’t have the resources to trim the trees or remove dead ones that threaten the fall so the residents would bear the consequences.

What I could really empathize with was that The Greening of Detroit, the organization planting the trees, probably felt like they were doing a lot to have conversations and involve the community in a discussion about the tree planting.  In retrospect, there were missteps in their approach and they didn’t dedicate enough staff resources to outreach. However, they held community meetings and placed door hangers, both of which discussed their plans and their commitment to maintain the trees for three years following the planting.

Unfortunately, none of these things made the right connection with the residents but I could see a lot of arts organizations in similar circumstances feeling that making the investment to take those steps was doing a good job by residents.

It seems like the really, really retail, one-on-one interactions that were part of the researcher’s follow up was what was needed to make residents satisfied they were being heard.

One Detroit resident whom Carmichael interviewed for her study told her: “You know what, I really appreciate you today because that shows that someone is listening and someone is trying to find out what’s really going on in our thoughts, the way we feel, and I just appreciate you guys. And maybe next time they can do a survey and ask us, if they would like to have us have the trees.”

What’s It Say When Washington Post Critic Say Arts Need To Work Harder At Relevance?

Washington Post music critic Anne Midgette wrote a piece this week about the difficulties classical music outreach efforts face. (h/t Artsjournal)

My first reaction was one of mild intrigue since I don’t think I have ever seen a critic from a major newspaper address these difficulties which arts bloggers have been discussing for years. I took it as a sign of the way things were shifting that there was such a public acknowledgement.

Midgette was watching National Symphony Orchestra (NSO) music director Gianandrea Noseda participating in an NSO outreach to a high school. She noted that as good a communicator as Noseda is, there are some factors conspiring against his efforts.

Noseda himself, an Italian who lives largely in hotels, can’t be expected to gauge the context in which these kids live. He assumes they’ve seen “Mozart in the Jungle,” because he’s heard it’s a TV show; he assumes they’ve watched the Golden Globe Awards. A-plus for the effort to establish cultural relevancy, but as well-meaning and informative as his comments are, he isn’t telling these students why they should care about the roster of unfamiliar European male composers being thrown at them.

She cites the example from 2007 when violinist Joshua Bell played in the Washington, DC metro and no one stopped. (Long time readers may recall I was not impressed with that stunt)

Midgette goes on to say,

In the wake of that controversial performance, one busker said something that stuck with me: Musicians who regularly play on the street, from violinists to singers to trash-can drummers, learn how to connect with passersby in such a way that this doesn’t happen. Classical musicians aren’t usually trained to establish this kind of rapport, and even a born communicator like Noseda can’t do it single-handedly.

Toward the end of the article, she makes the following observation,

Outreach risks taking on a missionary, self-satisfied glow, getting caught up in the innate value of sharing such great music with those who have not been privileged to have been exposed to it. Lurking within this well-meaning construct is the toxic view of music as a kind of largesse: the idea that this music is better than the music you already like. The school concert, with all the best intentions, to some degree demonstrated that if classical music is offered in its own bubble, without context, it has little chance of really connecting with new audiences — though, as some observed before the school show, if even one student leaves with new ideas in her head, the attempt will have been worth it.

I have long supported the notion that arts training programs should include courses and opportunities for artists to develop that rapport. At my last job I started a visual arts fair whose primary motivation was to give students and community artists the experience of speaking to the general public about their art in a relatively low stakes environment.

The classroom environment is pretty safe and everyone around you speaks with the same vocabulary. That can get in the way of relating to audiences when it comes to performing professionally. Students don’t necessarily need to be forced to busk on a street corner five hours a week for a semester, though that might be effective. With a little effort, creativity and a commitment to helping students pick up relational skills they need in their careers, they could be better prepared.

Let’s also acknowledge this isn’t a problem borne solely by artists. Arts organizations in general are struggling to find the language and rapport to position themselves as relevant to audiences.

CRM Software Isn’t Strategy

Arts Professional UK had a great piece on developing a customer relationship management strategy (CRM). It is chock full of great resources including case studies, guides on how to choose a ticketing system and analyzing the costs of a ticketing system. It got me thinking about approaching Drew McManus about employing his web expertise to write something similar in the context of U.S. arts organizations for the ArtsHacker site.

A lot of the materials from that site appear to absolutely be useful for U.S. non-profits so take a look.

The thing that really caught my eye though was that customer relationship management (CRM) was first coined in 1995 and a lot of arts organizations are just starting to think along these lines nearly 25 years later.

Although technology is really what makes it possible to cross reference and analyze information in an effective amount of time, the heart of CRM is an organization wide investment in using the information to inform interactions with customers.

In other words, it doesn’t matter how sophisticated and informative the analysis produced by a CRM system if staff isn’t using it in decision making and conversations with customers.

As Helen Dunnett writes in the Arts Professional UK piece,

A key factor for success is embracing CRM as a strategic function that is led from the top and not seen as purely a marketing function. Being clear about the end-game and the cultural change that will be needed is important in ensuring the technology is used effectively. CRM isn’t a quick fix: the process requires a fundamental change to the way strategies are planned, budgeted, communicated and monitored. CRM has to become a way of life.

Sure, that is all well and good to say, but cost is pretty much the big factor and this sort of data processing capacity doesn’t come cheap, right?

Yep, you are right and this is how to approach that question according to Dunnett,

Cost is often highest in the minds of many arts organisations when considering an appropriate CRM/ticketing system, but there quite simply isn’t an inexpensive system that will offer the necessary functionality.

Do your research across several system suppliers and work out the cost of ownership over a three-to-five-year period. This is the best time period to test comparative cost-effectiveness,…

This becomes especially important when looking at systems that charge on the basis of a commission on the value of sales. 2 to 3% can sound like a low percentage but you need to be clear about what constitutes a sale

California Symphony–They Speak Your Language

I was excited to see Aubrey Bergauer posted a follow up to her original 2016 Orchestra X post regarding how the California Symphony was acting on the feedback it has received about the concert planning and attending experience. I have written about some of Aubrey’s work since then, but I was eager to see a cumulative reflection.

Unfortunately, her post came in the middle of the holiday production crunch so I only got around to reading it this week.

A couple of really interesting things that caught my attention in this latest post. First was the counter-intuitive value in leaving past events posted on the website. I always want to get the clutter of old information off my website so it is easy for potential attendees to find the information they want. While this is probably an important practice generally, for the California Symphony, leaving that information available helped bolster their credibility. She writes,

1) As the season progressed, this list got awkwardly short, especially for an orchestra like the California Symphony that doesn’t perform as frequently as our bigger-budget peers. Participants told us they couldn’t believe we didn’t perform more often, and it looked even worse when only a few concerts were on that list. 2) As they were trying to “get a sense of what we’re about,” as they said, they couldn’t really tell based on only a handful of upcoming shows

Another thing is that they started running digital ads in both English and Spanish. The Spanish ads have a link to a Spanish language landing page.

That pilot test did lead to a measurable increase in Latinx households, and so we decided to put some money behind developing the new site in both languages. Now, when we run ads in Spanish, we can link to landing pages in the same language, another step in making this important segment in our community feel invited and welcome here, as well as give them the information they need to join us.

This was not new information to me because Aubrey has been reporting her success attracting a broader audience segment on Twitter for a few weeks now.

While she didn’t report on the outcomes of the changes, her discussion of how they adjusted some of the website sections to be outwardly focused rather than inwardly focused gave me something to think about. For example, instead of “Education” as a navigation header they are using “Off Stage” with subheaders focused on kids, adults and artists. They also changed “Support Us” to the more outwardly oriented “Your Support.”

A lot of the work they did was in the area of providing background information both in their program book and website. Their program notes are more about the background of the artists and music than the technical details of the music. They have song clips and information drawn from Wikipedia available online for those who want to know more. They changed their writing style to short bullet points rather than paragraphs.

Aubrey provides the rationale behind these changes based both in research and user feedback so it is definitely worth while to read this recent post.

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