The Unseen, But Palpable, Value In An Arts Organization

This month has been a reminder to me that people have all sorts of motivations for engaging with your performing arts organization–and often those motivations don’t have a lot to do with your primary purpose.

This month, a local magazine has featured a piece focused on the ghost stories associated with the historic theater at which I work.

As we were locking up Friday night following a double feature of the silent films, Nosferatu and the The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, there was a haunted places tour group standing outside talking about the ghosts that haunt the theater.

And on Wednesday, when we are handing out candy as part of the downtown trick or treating program, we will have people on hand ready to relate stories about the ghosts in our building.

Granted this isn’t too far off our core activity of storytelling as I imply, particularly in terms of making cultural history vivid and vital for people. In this case, it is literally about bringing vitality to ghosts.

I am learning that those ghost stories are part of what makes this place special for people. I am told even when the focus turns to another holiday in a few weeks, kids in the cast of Nutcracker always like to hear the ghost stories too. (Though we make sure to wait until the end of the Nutcracker run in case kids get nervous about entering the building.)

As I often mention, the value of an arts experience isn’t solely derived from the experience you are intentionally offering. Over the years, people create value spending time with others, discovering new things, being delighted by what they encounter—which is sometimes an inexplicable encounter with a disembodied entity.

Talking About Impact of Casinos Now Might Mean You Don’t Have To Lose Even If The House Always Wins

Four years ago I wrote about a coalition of performing arts organizations in upstate NY that was fighting to mitigate the impact of having new casino projects compete with them for performing arts talent.

As I had written, what often happens is that a casino is in a position of offer a lot more money to artists thanks to their revenues from gambling and hospitality. So an artist you could contract for $25,000 for a single performance can now get $40,000 a night for a week at a nearby casino.

Even if the artist might be willing to accept a lower fee at your venue, exclusivity clauses in their contract may prohibit them from performing in a 50-75 miles radius 90 days prior and 60 days after their casino engagement.

When I wrote that post four years ago, a commenter asked that I keep up on the efforts of the performing arts organizations, Coalition for Fair Game and update readers. I have been thinking I needed to circle back to the story and write another post.

The topic got brought to the top of my attention today at a meeting of Georgia performing arts presenters where a group that has been lobbying legislators on this issue gave a report on their efforts.

One of the things I did not realize is that many states are requiring that casinos earn a certain portion of their income from non-gambling sources like entertainment and hospitality. To some degree then, casinos are being forced to move into competition with non-profit performing arts organizations.

The guy reporting on the lobbying efforts said until they started talking with lawmakers about the repercussions of this requirement, it never occurred to the government officials that these requirements would have a negative impact on arts organizations locally and statewide.

So if your state is starting to look to legalize gambling or increase the presence of large casino complexes, it may behoove you to start conversations with lawmakers about the implications of these decisions.

As the discussion of the problem and lobbying efforts was occurring, I did a quick online search to learn more about what might have happened in upstate NY over the last few years. It just so happens, a newspaper wrote a pretty detailed story on the subject last month.

According to the Poughkeepsie Journal, the Coalition for Fair Game has received $500,000/year to help offset the impact of the casinos’ entertainment operations.

“If there wasn’t an agreement and this ongoing, open dialogue, we’d be constantly broadsided,” said Silva, who runs the Bardavon, presents shows at UPAC and Hutton Brickyards in Kingston and is currently president of the theater coalition. “We could be negotiating in good faith for an act and make an offer and get bumped because the casino gave $10,000 more.”

[…]

The money is designed to offset any negative economic impact that the casino’s headlining entertainment could have on the Bardavon and Bethel Woods. Resorts World Catskills allocates the funding to the theater coalition, which emerged in 2013 and includes venues from Albany to Elmira.

Similar deals are in place elsewhere in the state and can be found in Massachusetts.

In addition to the cash, this deal gives the Bardavon and Bethel Woods a say in the size, scope and number of entertainment offerings at Resorts World Catskills. The agreement and the casino licenses last 10 years and the payment from the casinos to the coalition is not affected by any fluctuations in gambling revenue.

Armed with the knowledge that the arrangement in upstate NY was working, I asked the speakers if they were aware of this arrangement and if they contemplated creating a similar situation if legislation went forward to authorize construction of proposed casinos.

They were aware of the arrangement in NY, but said while it was by far the best arrangement of its kind in the country, it is still an imperfect situation and that they would endeavor to carve out a better environment for the state.

Seems like something to continue to keep an eye on.

Jawnty Approach To Museum Tours

A few months back, I wrote about a new approach, inspired by the National Forestry Service, the Barnes Foundation in Philadelphia, PA was adapting to combat poor impressions visitors might have upon arrival.

About two weeks ago,  I saw a story about their Barnes Jawn(t)s program where they hand over the tours to unconventional guides.  People can choose to take a tour with seven different guides who will provide their own perspectives on the Barnes’ collection.

(It appears technically, there may be 9 guides. According to the article, the first tour was conducted by “Madhusmita Bora, a classical Indian dancer, and Ashley Vogel, a staff member with the Bicycle Coalition of Greater Philadelphia.”)

The jawn(t) program is described as:

Join us for evening tours full of make-believe as we play fast and loose with everything you thought you knew about the Barnes. In Philadelphia, jawn is a catch-all word for anything. A Barnes Jawn(t) is an anything-goes tour of the collection with a fascinating Philly personality as your guide. These off-the-cuff, sure-to-run-off-the-rails tours are led by a diverse array of community leaders, artists, and comic-book nerds—all experts in their fields. No two tours will be the same. After taking a Jawn(t), you’ll never look at the Barnes the same way again!

My read on the project is that they are, in part, trying to combat the idea that visiting the Barnes Foundation “isn’t for people like me” by having people with whom you might better identify lead the evening tours.

You may recall a few months back I wrote about Museum Hack which conducts themed tours in various museums around the country, also billing themselves as an unconventional approach.  The Barnes approach seems to be in the same vein, but much more focused on the perspective of the individual guide.

I was wondering if the fact these tours start an hour after closing time was intentionally chosen so attendees’ potentially first visit to the institution would involve a more intimate group rather than interacting with the large number of daily visitors–or just a matter of convenience to accommodate people getting off of work.

Actually, I just noticed all the tours are on Tuesday when the Barnes is closed making me additionally wonder if some portion of experience is being customized and prepared for the tours earlier in the day. (Given the stipulations Albert Barnes made about how the art was to be displayed, I would suspect nothing about the galleries themselves is changed.)

Contributing to the impression that there might be some special customization going on is that they list a local group as the organizer:

Based in Philadelphia, Obvious Agency is an interactive design collaboration between Joseph Ahmed, Arianna Gass, and Daniel Park. The agency works with cultural institutions to explore new ways to engage audiences through custom games and interactive performances. The group also produces the artistic work of its members, including Go to Sleep, a real-life adventure game about insomnia. Commissions include the Diamond Eye Conspiracy through Drexel and Temple Universities.

I was interested to see this partnership/collaboration with an outside group as an indication of possibilities for other arts and cultural organizations.

Varied Advice & Insights On Creative Placemaking, Economic Impact

As a follow up to yesterday’s post on the Creative Placemaking conference I attended, I wanted to share some general thoughts and ideas I had picked up.

Regardless of whether the setting is urban, suburban or rural, there are a number of communities experiencing really difficult times. A number of panelists discussed the need to address the community trauma before you ever talk about economic stimulus. You can’t just walk in and position something as a solution to the problems in the community until those problems are aired and people have a sense that they can move forward from there. Otherwise the issues will likely continue to fester and undermine the foundation of what you are trying to accomplish.

When it comes to investment and grant making in rural communities, it probably won’t come as a surprise to anyone that one of the factors contributing to the low level of investment is geographic remoteness. David Stocks of the Educational Foundation of America (which ironically is not involved in education) talked about how program officers will need to invest a lot more effort into bringing support to rural communities.

They might need to take a plane to a regional airport and then drive 2-3 hours before they reach a community. There is also the issue of trying to identify what organizations would make good anchor partners for the work they do.  There is a need for both funders and community organizations to work at expanding their relationship networks to increase the chances that their orbits will intersect.

Marie Mascherin who works for New Jersey Community Capital, characterized her organization primarily as a lender. She talked about how lenders viewed placemaking activities which was a perspective you rarely get. All the same, she warned those in attendance that her organization was atypical in that they got a lot more involved with the community and projects they were working on than most similar lending organizations.

John Davis who was involved with bringing vitality to both New York Mills, MN and Lanesboro, MN passed on a piece of advice he had received from a college professor – don’t make excuses, even about money, for not finding a creative solution. Basically, don’t let lack of money (or other things)  become default excuses about why things can’t be accomplished. In a rural setting where resources are scarce, you pretty much have to try harder to find creative solutions.

(Honestly, “work even harder and don’t make excuses,” wasn’t something I wanted to hear, but wasn’t exactly news.)

Davis also talked about an argument he made to a local government that was balking at renovating a building. He noted it would cost them $35,000 to demolish the building or they could invest $35,000 into renovating the building and have a more valuable property they could sell later if his project failed.

His project didn’t fail, but that concept dovetailed in an interesting way with a comment Ben Fink of Appalshop made about a prison project being proposed near Whitesburg, KY. He said that the $300,000,000 prison was being sold to the community as, at best, creating 300 new jobs. He noted that was $1,000,000 a job–compare that to how much benefit $1 investment in arts and culture has for a community.

It occurred to me that is something to look into and leverage proactively with governments and decision makers. Rather than waiting until it comes time to ask for funding to be renewed, when a discussion comes up about providing tax breaks or subsidies for companies, it might be useful to mention that $1 invested in creative placemaking/arts/culture/education in the community is more efficient.

While I am on the subject of economic activity, in one session I bluntly asked Jeremy Liu of PolicyLink about the veracity of economic impact claims being made by organizations and communities. He said if they are using analytic tools like those offered by Implan, the numbers are dependable.

In the past I have mentioned my concern with arts and culture organizations arguing for funding or policy changes citing the benefits of art and music on learning and test scores when such benefits are only weakly supported or have been debunked.

What has worried me is that decision and policy makers will learn about the lack of evidence for these claims and perhaps actively wield it against the arts community. By the same token, I have often wondered at the rigor behind claims of economic impact of creative activity in communities and feared what might result if they are debunked.¥

A few other tidbits people offered-

Don’t become hyperfocused on placemaking. Don’t value place or a project over the community. Even if you are in a group, no project is completed in isolation.

If you recall in the very beginning of my post yesterday I mentioned that I gained an appreciation and broader perspective on the different roles that contributed to a placemaking project from governments to funding/loan group to community members to the people executing the work, placemaking is a function of many entities working together.

I feel like I am citing him a lot in these last two posts, but I appreciated Ben Fink’s insights about establishing relationships with people in the community. He said the first real shared connection you will make with someone is rarely associated with the project you are trying to accomplish. As an example, your aim may be to solicit participation in a building renovation for a maker space but the initial basis of your relationship is a shared interest in 19th century steam engines.

He said that building community support and participation happened in the same way friendships develop. It is heavily dependent on the dynamics at the formation of the project. If participation is by invitation only, one person ends up being in charge. If you form a clique of interested parties, it becomes insular. But if the project begins with the intention of leaving the door open, interested people will start to gravitate toward the project as they see work happening.

¥- None of this compromises my assertion that while arts and cultural activity may generate economic activity, steady employment, positive social outcomes and quality of life, the none of this is a measure of the value of arts and culture.

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