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.


Carter Gillies shared the unabridged version of a piece he wrote for the Arts Professional UK on his website this weekend.  As Carter is wont to do, he examined statements about quantifying and measuring the value of the arts made by Simon Mellor, the deputy chief executive for arts and culture at Arts Council England.

I was particularly drawn to Carter’s second entry where he addresses this statement by Mellor (my emphasis):

“At its heart, the Quality Metrics system is about enabling arts and cultural organisations to enter a structured conversation with audience members and peers about the quality of the work they are presenting. It allows them to capture valuable data that they can use to understand how their intentions for the work are aligning with the experiences of their audiences and peers and, hopefully, to use that information to plan future programmes and improve the quality of their work. It will also enable those organisations to provide more evidence to current and future funders about the quality of their work.

Let me first state that I don’t believe these metrics will really have any ability to measure the quality of the work done by the arts organisations. If you have read any of my previous posts on the matter you probably knew that already.

I was taken by the idea expressed in the bolded sentence above. One of the biggest challenges facing arts organizations in the last few years is the recognition that what they are doing might not align with the interests of the community. In surveys like Culture Track, people say they aren’t attending arts events because they don’t see themselves or their stories depicted on the stages, walls, and spaces. They don’t preceive what is happening in arts spaces to be relevant to them.  Nina Simon wrote a whole book about making experiences relevant for people.

So if the Arts Council of England could actually deliver some real insight into how to make the experience more relevant for people, that would be a pretty valuable service.

However, as Carter points out later in that second entry, there are many examples of artists whose work was initially rejected before being lauded. Some died before others began to recognize the value in the work they missed before. We see this sort of thing happen all the time in our lives. Movies and shows that did poorly both critically and economically suddenly become cult classics.

The Rocky Horror Picture Show became immensely popular after it initially flopped. But it is also a good example of something whose value exploded after people were able to participate and take ownership of the experience.

Even if it is an accurate reflection of how people are receiving something, the research is only going to be valuable to a point.

The problem, however, with creating a metric is that often that metric becomes fetishized as the measure of value rather than one element among many that can help us understand how an art work and the experience surrounding it is received.

As Carter notes, quoting Oscar Wilde, even when we talk about a metric someone else is using, the meaning of that metric may not be shared by both parties. Thus the #NotMyMetric title of this post.

(my emphasis)

There is a reason bean counting number crunchers have so much authority in the arts, and mainly it is for the good. The arts are a business and need to function as such. But it is also important to not let that world view overreach itself. We need to be careful in not putting the cart before the horse. In many ways the arts are the exact opposite of what the counters are, and see, and value.

The ever impish and ironical Oscar Wilde understood this predicament:

“When Bankers get together for dinner, they discuss Art. When Artists get together for dinner, they discuss Money.”

There is a mutual interest, in other words, but neither does it mean a banker thinks of art as an artist does, values it for the same things in the same way, and equally true of artists’ attitude towards money, but especially that this does not mean they should be left in charge of one another’s concerns. A ‘dinner table’ acquaintance is insufficient for the real work that needs to be done.

Asking Audiences How They Perceive Our Motives

I went to the Arts Midwest conference last week and I am still sorting out all the notes and brochures, etc that I picked up.

There were a couple general bits of observations I wanted to share.

Blake Potthoff, Executive Director of the Fairmont Opera House in Fairmont, MN gave me permission to share something he said in one of the professional development sessions.  He opened his comments by expressing a problem totally opposite of the one the rest of us face–he wanted advice attracting older generation audiences to his shows, specifically those from Generation X. Apparently he isn’t having problems attracting millennials.

Later, he mentioned that one of the ways they evaluate how their shows were being received was by convening an advisory group every other month and asking them whether they felt a show in the season had been programmed for impact or for dollars.

In other words, once people have seen the show, the organization asks their advisory group if they felt the inclusion of the show in the season had been purely motivated by money or if they felt the show had been meant to have some impact on their lives.

What didn’t come up in the professional development discussion was the fact that the arts org can often lose more money on what people perceive to be a cash cow than on a lightly attended event.

Potthoff said these discussions have really impacted how the organization plans their season and experiences.

The approach was pretty intriguing for me. This isn’t a question we generally ask our audiences.

Usually, the rule is not to ask a question if you don’t intend to act on the answer. In this case, I am not sure what my response would be to the answers I would get.

If my goal is to have an impact on people’s lives, does it matter if people think a show has a commercial motivation and turn out in sufficient numbers to support it? If people answer that a show was impactful, but too few people show up to make it financially viable –well this situation is what we generally assume. Things that aren’t popular are still worth doing for the impact.

If people feel a show was both motivated by commercial success and feel the show was highly impactful for them, that might provide some direction, especially if I felt the show was mostly feel good fluff without much value. I just have to put my snobbery aside a little and explore what contributed to  people feeling this way.

Then there is the final option where none of our expectations are met – what we intend to be impactful is viewed as commercial and what is intended to be a money maker is viewed as impactful. Some answers may lead you to place where you resent your audience for being out of tune with your intent.

In some respects, this may be a question that you ask not knowing exactly what you will do with the answer–except that you resolve to be open minded and not reflexively decide the answers are irrelevant.

Because you probably also need to ask, does your community care whether something is meant to be a money maker or impactful? Do they have negative associations with their concept of what the intent to make money entails?

When they perceive something was intended to be impactful, do they feel that it has improved their lives or that they viewed it like vegetables–they know they are supposed to consume it for its cultural value, but they really prefer something else.

Even beyond the question of profit vs. impact, it may be enlightening to generally ask people what they perceive our organizational motivations to be.

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