Artists Are The Only Asset Found In Every Community

The video of ArtPlace America’s CEO Jamie Bennett’s keynote at an Invest Health convening came across my feed recently.  What I found valuable in his speech was that he laid out an argument for the value of the arts that didn’t pivot to economic statistics.

Around the 6:50 mark he starts to talk about the factors that influence those who move into a community in making the decision to stay: social offerings; openness to new ideas and people; and aesthetics.  He says arts and culture bring all those things and helps people feel rooted in a community.

His definition of art and culture is inline with that expanded definition embraced by everyone from the National Endowment for the Arts and respondents to the recent Culture Track survey. It is the parks and food trucks as well as the opera houses.

He talks about arts and culture as a facilitator of social cohesion citing the observations of drumming circles and informal arts by an anthropologist working at the Field Museum in Chicago.  Bennett said that the anthropologist found that the act of “…art making, doing and experiencing art together, acts as a master identity.”

He goes on to say that this was based on observations of immigrants and first generation Americans living in Chicago who participated in drumming circles. As each performed drumming particular to their own cultural background, the group bonded.   Bennett says this observation is important because it potentially illustrates that arts and culture is a pathway for integrating society that doesn’t involve assimilation–“I don’t have to become more like you to become more closely bonded.”

The a-ha moment for me came around 9:15 when Bennett mentions that artists are the only asset that exists in any community. Not every community has a waterfront to develop, transportation infrastructure or an anchor institution (i.e. higher ed, medical) around which to build industry.  You can count on those who practice and participate in the arts being in your community. With some investment, those people/groups can form the basis around which community cohesion can be cultivated.

He talks about the process of Creative Placemaking as something that has to be particular to each community -“resident centric, locally informed and holistic.” You can’t copy what works somewhere else and expect it to work in your community.

While the local arts community is well-placed to respond to the needs of their community, the challenge to them is to shift their perspective to focus on creating solutions for challenges in their geographic community rather than thinking about responding to their community of donors, subscribers and peer institutions.

As an example, he cites the efforts of Springboard for the Arts in helping to mobilize 600 artists to help mitigate the negative impacts of two years of light rail construction on residents and businesses in St. Paul, MN.

Bennett says the success of this project ran contrary to many of the assumptions and expectations people have. He points out the solution came from artists who already lived in the community. No one was brought in from outside to help save the neighborhood. All the positive associations about arts and culture the project inspired didn’t require the construction of an arts center, nor was it dependent on a physical arts oriented facility or cultural district. The focus was on the human beings involved.

His comment that really intrigued me and I hope is true, is that many of the businesses in the area who benefited from the 150 events the 600 artists created have started diverting promotional money to commissioning work because they saw the events brought in more business than advertising did.

Bennett’s thought process might not immediately satisfy a government official or policy maker that wants the promise of quantifiable results. However, there is something compelling in the argument that the arts and culture community is an already present asset that can be mobilized to effect.  If they are soliciting support employing this rationale it will be incumbent upon many arts and cultural entities to start focusing on addressing the challenges in their region rather than doing more what they have done in the past.


Live Streaming Broadway Performances, Nigh or Nay?

The “Why Won’t Broadway Livestream/Broadcast” argument has been going on for awhile now but a recent article on Fast Company suggests that time may be drawing near as Netflix’s influence and reach continues to wax.

The article is better written than many that tackle the subject because it acknowledges the objections and resistance to live streaming have a rational basis.

For instance, author Christopher Zara acknowledges there is something lost when a live performance is broadcast.

Theater is special. It’s not meant to be consumed on a screen because it’s fundamentally better than anything you’ll ever see on your computer, or your TV, or even in your local multiplex.


Even at the Tony Awards, which the Broadway League coproduces every year, the season’s best work often doesn’t hold up once it’s televised. “One of our biggest challenges is having the musical numbers on screen come off as great as they do in the theater,” St. Martin says of the awards ceremony.

At the same time, better technology and recording techniques are improving the ability to depict the live experience with greater fidelity.

Zara also mentions the concerns that broadcasts will cannibalize audiences. He cites general concerns of tour producers who fear the road business will diminish. I saw a specific example of this just a week ago where the Chicago Tribune predicted Hamilton would close in Chicago within a year because three performance venues in Wisconsin would be presenting the show.

On the other hand, Zara suggests streaming might help diversify audiences for Broadway shows given that last year ” 77% of ticket buyers were white, and most had an income of over $75,000 a year.”

Another point that often comes up in stories about why more Broadway shows aren’t broadcast is the stubbornness of the unions, all of which want to be paid. The Fast Company positions Broadway League President Charlotte St. Martin against Actors’ Equity Deputy Francis Jue in an obstruction vs. fair pay view of the situation.

Actors are compensated for streaming content via upfront payment and additional profits–a model that dates back to deals used for television. “Additional work requires additional pay,” Jue says. “Our contracts on Broadway are paying us to maintain the show on Broadway, so the additional work of creating new content distributed in a new medium is additional work.”


The League negotiates contracts with 14 different labor unions, and Actors’ Equity is just one of them. Musicians, set designers, choreographers–they all want to get paid, and St. Martin says that can be cost prohibitive for streaming outlets looking to distribute Broadway content. “They’re going to have to make it more affordable,” she says.

I think one key phrase in there is the concept that streaming payment are based on the television model. It is likely that arrangement is no longer relevant or increasingly less so and will change.

Last week in a Huffington Post interview, Anthony Ramos, who originated two roles in Hamilton talked about the lengthy negotiations the cast had to go through to get a share of the earnings.

“On Broadway, we had to negotiate with our producers to share some [earnings]. That was an ongoing process, but everybody came to an agreement,” he told HuffPost. “But we didn’t … the show didn’t financially make any of us rich. It provided for us and helped open doors to create other opportunities that helped us make money. But the show itself didn’t necessarily change my life or most people’s lives in the cast [financially]. The checks we get after that long negotiation for profit share have helped us after.”

Like in any other industry, Ramos believes success in the theater world hinges on an ability to fight for what you feel you deserve.

“People don’t take into consideration that you won’t be in the show forever. You’re doing it eight times a week. You don’t get paid when you get hurt. You have to earn every single dollar,” he said.

When I heard Oskar Eustis speak a couple years ago, I seem to recall he mentioned that providing for the Hamilton actors to share in the earnings right from the development stage was a relatively new thing. I don’t doubt that both Hamilton and live streaming will have great influence on future negotiations and challenge the standard way of doing things.

I will leave you with one of the final paragraphs from Fast Company as an argument about why streaming is probably inevitable:

Consider last season’s Dear Evan Hansen, which took home the Tony for best musical. It became a monster hit with younger audiences not just because of its storyline about an awkward high schooler who becomes a social media sensation, but because teens could discover the music on YouTube, post fan-made videos, and engage with the show in a way that would not have been possible a decade ago.


Pop Up Virtual Museum Tours

You may be aware that Google offers the opportunity to take virtual tours of museums, world heritage sites and other landmarks. This past summer, Wang Yuhao, the CEO of Aha School, set out to provide 100,000 children in China an opportunity to tour 10 different museums around the world.

All Google owned sites are blocked in China so that option wasn’t available to him, but he also wanted to offer the type of experience that went beyond what the Google tours could offer by having their team members provide commentary. They ended up enlisting 150,000 participants by tapping into social media.

Many people were surprised by our business model. How could we offer our product for 19.9 yuan in a world where the average cost of attracting a new customer online exceeds 100 yuan? … We took advantage of WeChat’s built-in relationship networks to offer group deals for our broadcasts. In this way, we could turn one user into 10, 10 into 100, 100 into 1,000, and so on, with our longstanding customers demonstrating an incredible willingness to introduce the product to their friends on social media. By offering our service at such a low price, we were able to maximize sales volume.

Wang and his team’s process was light on planning on heavy on faith, some things didn’t work out for them but their method provided a degree of authenticity for participants.

“Our greatest challenge”, Wang told me, “was uncertainty. When we launched, we had confirmed nothing. No museums were confirmed, no anchors, we hadn’t decided which exhibits would be discussed, nor the script or how we would deliver”.

The project was very much a living one, an educational practice in itself, from idea to execution. While children were guided virtually through each museum, parents simultaneously wrote reams of commentary, which Aha School then used to improve the broadcast for the following day. “My daughter is transfixed and we adults can enjoy it too!” wrote one parent, “We’d like to see more of the museum itself and the beautiful architecture”.


“Our task was to piece together these fragments of information and to allow children to digest them”, said Wang. “The key to our broadcasts was to enthuse children, to make them interested.”

They did so, not by filming after hours in search of the perfect silent shot, but by filming from bustling museums where ordinary people walked through the screen, sometimes even blocking exhibits, giving viewers a sense that they too are there. In one case, the Guggenheim in New York showed such great support that they offered to film after closure and arranged a curator to explain the artworks through a translator.

The practice of revising as you go pretty much embodies the concept of failing fast and revising. While it does increase the possibility people will find the initial product to be of such low quality that they won’t continue with the program, there is an element of nimbleness that allows you to avoid the cost of the planning phase and offer the product inexpensively.

If they had a large number of people who shared the sentiment of the one commenter who noted they enjoyed the experience and were pleased their daughter was transfixed, they probably retained enough people to support the next iteration which is supposed to happen in February.

Read up a little about what they did, maybe your conscious or subconscious mind will absorb it and spit out some inspiration. There are some real short videos about the project available

Math, Science, Theater All Win Today

This video tweeted by Massachusetts Math teacher Kim Spek made me very happy today. h/t to Sarah Carleton

Perfect statement illustrating the intersection of science, math, theater and wonder. Nothing more I can say except follow the link and check out the slo-mo version on her Twitter feed to better see how the transformation works.

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