Take A Rare Opportunity To Review Others’ Reflections

Back in August I called attention to a transmedia project in Reading, PA, “This Is Reading,” that playwright Lynn Nottage and a host of others worked on creating to help the community tell stories about itself.

I had initially learned about the project via a post by Margy Waller and must credit her again for tweeting about a follow up conversation that occurred.

With such a push for placemaking and community building projects like “This Is Reading,” having access to the reflections of project participants is of great value to others engaging in similar work.  There are a number of observations and lessons learned that can provide guidance about what worked and what needed to be done better.  It is rare to have this type of material shared publicly so take advantage of the opportunity.

Not only does the newspaper article provide a summary of the report, the report itself is embedded in the webpage and is available for download.

The first thing that caught my eye was that the meetings from which the feedback was collected appeared to be driven by the participants’ desire to continue the momentum started by the project.  The impression I got from the article was that a post-mortem conversation hadn’t been planned, but the project leadership were wise enough to recognize the need to do so.

“The reason we wanted to do this meeting is because this was a more than five-year process,” he said of the installation. “A lot of the volunteers and a lot of the participants expressed interest in what’s next. To me, it was ‘Let’s debrief, let’s talk about it.’ “

The fact of Reading’s decline plays a large part in the content of the project and the subsequent feedback. (Recall the railroad was famous enough to be included in the Monopoly game.) There are multiple times in the report that the investment young people have in the community is called into question. This is in tension with the perception that the nostalgic project content had a greater resonance with older attendees than younger.

The article mentions that the phrase “Reading was…” kept coming up in conversations during the development phase of the project so the title “This Is Reading” was an attempt to emphasize the need to break from a focus on the past and dated thinking.

Given that this exactly mirrors the conversation occurring in the arts (perception youth are not committed, content only relevant to older generation) there are any number of lessons here for the arts and culture community.

Here is the summary listed in the newspaper article:

• Being a person of color in Reading is wrought with stress, tension and discomfort.
• Reading can be a vibrant center of arts and culture if there are significant outreach efforts to invite and welcome; the art is interesting to people of different ethnic, racial or economic backgrounds; and obstacles that prevent or deter participation are eliminated.
• Its self-perception impedes the city’s ability to move forward.
• There is a strong interest and desire in the resurrection of a rail system that would connect our community with nearby communities.
• Long-held community “stories” or narratives can be rewritten by the arts in public spaces.
• There is a desperate need for a shared downtown public performance arts space.
• The city needs a vision that focuses on what Reading is and can be, not what it was.
• Youth and young adults in Reading need to be encouraged, developed and engaged.
• Leadership is needed to champion efforts to build on “This Is Reading,” and the most effective champion would be the city.

About Joe Patti

I have been writing Butts in the Seats (BitS) on topics of arts and cultural administration since 2004 (yikes!). Given the ever evolving concerns facing the sector, I have yet to exhaust the available subject matter. In addition to BitS, I am a founding contributor to the ArtsHacker (artshacker.com) website where I focus on topics related to boards, law, governance, policy and practice.

I am also an evangelist for the effort to Build Public Will For Arts and Culture being helmed by Arts Midwest and the Metropolitan Group. (http://www.creatingconnection.org/about/)

I am currently the Director of the Vern Riffe Center for the Arts at Shawnee State University. Among the things I am proud to claim are having produced an opera in the Hawaiian language and a dance drama about Hawaii's snow goddess Poli'ahu. Though there are many more highlights than there is space here to list.

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