A Lot Of People Got A Seat At The Table

Yesterday I got to do something I have been dreaming of doing for a long time.

Now keep in mind, as an arts and cultural policy nut, my dreams tend to be a little different than everyone else’s.

Yesterday I participated in On The Table Macon, a project whose goal was to get people out talking about how to change their community.

The reason I had been dreaming about being able to participate in this was a long time was because I have been enamored with the basic concept since it was executed as 500 Plates in Akron, OH and the Longest Table in Tallahassee, FL.

When I saw there was going to be a similar effort in Macon, I signed up to participate on my second day on the job here.

(Just a little disclaimer, the major funders of the local On The Table, the Knight Foundation and Community Foundation of Central Georgia, fund my organization.)

Instead of a discussion occurring in a single place at a set time, there were dozens of discussions occurring across the community with the first ones starting at 7:00 am and the last one beginning at 8:00 pm. The topics covered everything imaginable, including some which were specifically intended as forums with government officials.  People agreed to act as hosts in parks, private homes, business offices, libraries, churches and community centers. In total, there were over 1500 seats available around the community.

While the general concept emerged from the idea that community bonds are forged over meals, the organizers were empathic that “It’s not about the food.”  I imagine this was in part to prevent those who volunteered as hosts from feeling obligated to provide a gourmet experience for dozens of people. Also so that participants weren’t focused on attending the sessions with the best food choices versus the most engaging topics.

Other than wanting to be part of the basic experience, my motivation for participating was to get a sense of the community to which I had recently moved. The first session I attended was at the public library where the topic was “Preserving Ethnic History.”

Readers of this blog know that I often talk about people desiring to see their stories depicted by arts and cultural organizations. Since I helped Hawaiian artists tell their stories through performance, I wanted to learn if similar opportunities for partnerships might exist in this community.

As much as I was interested in the topic, I as concerned that the subject might have too much niche appeal to attract many participants. I need not have worried as the table quickly filled and needed to accommodate some chairs at the corners.  The conversation that emerged was very interesting as the group had to tease out the differences between culture, ethnicity and identity before we could really define what it was exactly that was important to preserve.

A comment made by a woman who has taught manners and etiquette all her life cut across all subjects and seemed particularly applicable to arts and culture practice. She said her mother always emphasized that she and her siblings were to always consider themselves as sharing something rather than giving because both parties gained from sharing whereas one party always lost something in giving.

The second session I attended didn’t have an announced topic and instead employed some of the prompts provided by the On The Table organizers.

The third session was lead by a group that is trying to educate people about the state budget and how it is allocated. That conversation was focused largely on where the priorities of the society should be rather than talking specifically about the state budget. Those materials were available as hand outs to review at home.

Below is the prompt card from the session yesterday. If you were interested in doing something similar, you might check out the Chicago Community Trust On The Table website. I had read somewhere that they started the effort which has been replicated elsewhere. Certainly, you might want to search out the websites of the different communities that have hosted these events. Every community is different so some iterations may match your community better than Chicago’s.

I also wanted to point to the 500 Plates and Block Party in A Box toolkits which are among many useful tool kits for change being hosted on Springboard for the Arts’ Creative Exchange site.



Literally Prescriptive Arts

I have been extremely busy preparing for the sponsor reception capping off a $3 million facility renovation at my day job.  (It really well tonight, thankfully)

I wanted to briefly call attention to an article Michael Rushton cited about the literal prescriptive use of the arts. What caught my eye was the following sentence:

Doctors will each be able to assign up to 50 museum prescriptions over the course of the pilot project.

Rushton quotes an article in the Montreal Gazette that conflates benefits observed formal arts therapy programs with self directed museum visits.

Rushton goes on to point out the problems inherent in making this comparison:

My problem with these sorts of stories, though, is not just the hyperbole. It’s about what it says about “art”. The story has not one single mention of any work of art these doctors’ patients might encounter at the MMFA (save for a photo indicating there is a Calder retrospective currently on exhibition). The actual works have no importance, it’s just “art”, or, as they say, whatever. The museum is a place with hallways and rooms that have framed pieces of canvas with paint on them hung from the walls.

And we can see why this is the approach, for what if we did pay attention to what art? What happens if researchers discover (as we know they ultimately will) that impressionist works increase the viewers’ levels of cortisol and serotonin more than do works of post-expressionism? That landscapes generate more hormone secretion than abstract works? Will doctors then start to advise the museum on its curatorial policies? Will the arts council?


…A part of the hidden, evil genius of “economic impact” studies was to embed the claim right from the start that the actual art itself doesn’t matter at all, so long as money is spent on it. But I don’t see how advocacy on health benefits, or empathy, or entrepreneurial creativity, would be able to get away with that.

Are Church Planting Techniques Suited To The Arts?

I was recently listening to an episode of This American Life on church planting and found it a little strange to be listening to people use venture capitalist terminology to describe efforts to build new worship communities as “target the unchurched.”

Reporter Eric Mennel mentions attending a conference where the conversation is

“…about “kingdom return on investment.” Or “evangelistic networking” is one I’ve read, or “corporate renewal dynamics.”

“Launch” is a big word that they use in both worlds. They talk about “launch Sundays” and “launch budgets” in church planting. And the framing of what they’re doing is in business terms, right?

As I continued to listen, they started to mention that these efforts were heavily bankrolled by established churches,

So a lot of the startup capital comes from the biggest denominations. The Southern Baptists– they spend tens of millions of dollars a year on church planting. But a lot of church plants actually get their funding directly from megachurches– established churches that have thousands of members.

That got me thinking that you don’t see many large arts organizations doing something similar where they provide seed funding to enable more nimble arts organizations to go out to target the un-artsed.”

It wasn’t long ago that Nina Simon made a similar point about church planting and the arts on her blog.

Perhaps I should have known there would be parallels with the arts because This American Life titled the episode, “If You Build It, Will They Come?” evoking the “Field of Dreams” mentality we have been urged to abandon.

However, what I really found fascinating was the parallels between the problems one church planter had with diversifying the demographics of church planting and those of arts organizations trying to do the same thing with their program participants.

This American Life (TAL) spoke to Watson Jones III who became really excited by the church planting model, but noticed that pretty much everyone at this church planting conferences was Caucasian. The TAL reporters confirmed that most church planting happens in gentrifying or affluent urban neighborhoods or suburbs.

Jones felt things were wide open for planting churches in urban neighborhoods for people of color.  As I referenced before,  there is some surprising infrastructure for church planters. Jones got training in budgeting, fundraising, creating a business plan and mission statement for his church, plus an 18 month residency at a church plant site. He ended up landing about $100,000/year funding for three years to support his planting efforts.

They ended up doing a lot of things arts organizations do when trying to attract new audiences– handing out flyers and candy on the streets trying to get people to attend gatherings at homes, coffee houses and other non-traditional venues.

While the non-traditional worship services at funky, cool locations are pretty much the core identity of the church planting process that helps attract new members, it had the opposite effect for communities of color.

Watson Jones

….And one lady told me– she said, you guys are a cult. You call me when you get a church. Especially, I think, among black people, the more out of the box or avant garde you are, the less likely you are to be trusted.

Theologically, we say all day long, the church is the people of God. The people in your city, in your neighborhood, does not understand church apart from a building, a preacher, a choir or a praise team, and something that looks like a church service, period.


AJ Smith

Yeah. I mean, we were going to be the people who were out there on the streets, pastors who were very much present with the people. And that’s how we’ll grow the church. That didn’t work.

As I am listening to all this, I can’t but help think about how this is literally out of Nina Simon’s TEDx Talk on the Art of Relevance.

I mean look at this still. If you can’t see the stenciled sign on the bottom of the slide she is showing, it says “House of Worship In A Den of Sin.”

Nina uses this picture to discuss how some people will see this as a welcoming  place and others will see it as scary.

These guys trying to plant a church are running into a similar situation where the lack of a formal building and familiar experience was an impediment to people’s willingness to commit to this fledgling church. (Unfortunately, even when they did get a physical place in which to hold services, they had problems attracting a consistent group.)

This podcast provides many things to think about regarding the efforts of arts organizations to diversify the groups they serve. The foremost of which may be whether the design and execution of impromptu experiences in non-traditional spaces reflect affluent Caucasian ideals about what outreach efforts to those underserved by the arts looks like and subsequently serve to largely appeal to a similar demographic.

You Couldn’t Tie People To Railroad Tracks Because It Was Copyrighted

Copyright may seem like a pretty dry subject, but the court cases that lead to the development of the law and theory surrounding copyright law can be pretty interesting. HowlRound posted the transcript of  Michael Lueger’s podcast discussion with Dr. Derek Miller about some of the early copyright cases that applied to theater and music performance.

One of the interesting cases they discuss is competing expressions of the iconic melodrama train track scene where someone escapes just as the train arrives. Apparently playwright Augustin Daly was the first to write such a scene and playwright Dion Boucicault copied the idea. The courts ruled in favor of Daly saying that even though every other element of Boucicault’s play was different, the common action was key to the drama and thus was protected.

(By the way, according to Atlas Obscura, contrary to the trope, Daly’s play, and even many silent films, had a man on the tracks and the leading lady rescuing him.)

Interestingly, when the guy producing Boucicault’s play tried to reach an early settlement by licensing the train effect from Daly’s show, “The court actually says, no, no, no. The effect is not something you can copyright, … You can’t own the effect, but you can own the action.”

This general concept holds to today where you can copyright the expression of the idea, but not the name or the idea itself. You can, of course, trademark names and patent effects, but those are different types of protections than copyright.

Another fascinating situation happened when Thomas Hamblin’s Bowery Theatre was doing poorly but Charles Thorne’s Chatham Theatre around the corner was doing great. Thorne was getting ready to do a play by Joseph S. Jones so Hamblin goes to Jones and makes a deal to open Jones’ play on the same night in an attempt to put Thorne out of business. They were planning to have Jones sue Thorne “for violating your [Jones’] rights to produce the play.”

However, the courts say since Jones was working for a Mr. Pelby when he wrote the play, Pelby had the right to sell the performance rights to Thorne.

But what came next is really interesting:

I’ve got a lot of evidence here from the New York Herald, which goes all in for Thorne, and they argue that by trying to shut down Thorne’s production, Jones and Hamblin of the Bowery Theatre are limiting the audience’s ability to compare the artistic products at the Chatham and the Bowery. It’s sort of a free trade argument that they’re making.

In other words, according to Thorne and to the Herald … Thorne actually writes an editorial that appears in the Herald … if the productions are allowed to compete with each other, both theatres are going to do even better artistic work than they would otherwise. They say Hamblin is trying to shut down artistic competition and to give you a bad product, but we’re in favor of a good product and letting Thorne do the play. Legally, actually, the case is sort of a weird, unimportant footnote, in terms of the legal precedent it establishes, but it helped in studying this case to teach me how theatrical copyright battles get both parties thinking about the relationship between a work’s artistic value and its monetary value.

It is interesting to me that they get into this argument that having competing versions of the same production going on around the corner from each other is providing people with a choice and opportunity to decide which is the better production.

Nowadays, when you try to license performance rights you can run into all sorts of restrictions because a 2000 seat venue 200 miles from you planning to do the same production 12 months after you mount your production in a 200 seat theater.

While that is kind of extreme, I think the basic idea that people are willing to pay a lower price for a discount version of the same product and cannibalize your potential audience is a real concern.

Even in 1841 when Thorne and Hamblin were butting heads, if people wanted to see a show a significant number would probably accept lower production quality for 25 cents at the Bowery versus paying $1 at the Chatham.

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