Is Art Dishwasher Safe?

After long correspondence (both in years and text length), I finally had an opportunity to meet with Carter Gillies over Thanksgiving weekend.  On at least one occasion I dubbed Carter “potter-philosopher,” because he has studied and practiced both disciplines.

Carter has been a big proponent of measuring the value of the arts on their own terms rather than their instrumental value to stimulate economies, raise test scores, cure cancer and bring world peace.

We spoke and debated for many hours on these ideas. However, the really challenging conversation was the one I had with myself days later. It is a conversation that millions have had and never concluded satisfactorily.

Before I left Carter’s house, he took me back to his studio and told me to pick out whatever I wanted. I grabbed a bowl that caught my eye and Carter discussed why he liked the glaze he applied to it, pointing out the subtle golden flecks that dotted different places.

A few days later he wrote me thanking me for visiting and hoping I enjoyed eating out of the bowl.

I was mortified. How could I eat out of that bowl? It was a piece of art that represented the culmination of our relationship to this point. I had it prominently displayed on a table in front of my sofa.

But then when I thought about it, I have two mugs given to me by one of the directors of the art museum back where I previously lived in Ohio. I drink out of those all the time. In fact, I am drinking out of one of them right now, totally unplanned. To leave them in the cupboard and not use them would be a small betrayal of my relationship with her, implying they were not good enough to eat out of.

I have endowed both the bowl and mugs with value derived from my relationship with the makers. My conclusions about what the appropriate treatment of each are completely opposite and pretty illogical.

I am not even sure the question here is “what is art?”

Does mundane and common use diminish an object’s identity as art while preserving it in an untouched and stationary state except to dust it impart greater identity as an object d’art?

The makers are both in my mind and heart when I see and use these objects which is part of the value for me. Does sentimentality contribute or detract to the objective value of these items?

These are questions that can be addressed forever. But this also illustrates why it is so much easier to talk about the value of art in terms of instrumentality. Instrumental measures are things people can grasp on to much easier.

The big problem, however, as Carter points out is that we never really try to introduce the conversation with policy makers about why we value the arts.  It can be really easy to talk in a passionate way about why you value the bowl on your coffee table and the mugs in your cupboard as well as the stuff hanging on your walls.

Yes, there is no facile way to empirically say the bowl is more valuable than the mug. There is a whole lot of complicated factors that contribute to record breaking auctions at Sotheby’s .

People value art and creativity in their lives for reasons that have nothing to do with what they can sell it for or enhancing their test scores.

The first step is opening your mouth to mention that the true value of a creative expression is divorced of these measures and potentially even divorced from another person’s perception of that creative expression.

Bringing Porches Back Front And Center

While I was at the Arts Midwest conference in November, Joanna Taft, Executive Director of the Harrison Center for the Arts, spoke about the “porching” culture that had developed in Indianapolis and spread across Indiana.

A short time later, she wrote a piece on the subject for Shelterforce. I have written a fair bit about cities that utilize people’s front porches and yards as impromptu stages for music festivals so I am pretty down with the idea of porches and stoops as community gathering places.

Taft focuses on an active return to traditional uses of porches– just sitting outside and chatting with neighbors and passersby.

I will be honest when I first heard about this, I wondered if people were trying to turn hanging out on the porch into a thing by verbing a noun. According to Taft, the practice is outside the experience of so many people that she and her collaborators created step by step guides and videos to help people get organized.

What I did appreciate was that Taft and the Harrison Center recognized that porching on a weekly basis might end up excluding some neighbors for various reasons and made efforts to find solutions.

…it became evident as we monitored social media posts and attended neighborhood association meetings that many longtime residents were being left behind. The neighbors participating in #PorchPartyIndy were sorted by their financial ability and energy level to host a porch party. We wanted to make our porching initiative more inclusive.

…we realized the time had come to not only encourage residents to host their own parties, but for the Harrison Center to intervene and host porch parties for some of our neighbors.


Before the party, we organized a group of Harrison Center interns to visit the homes of residents we had met through neighborhood association meetings. At those meetings, we noticed that some of these neighbors expressed strong opinions and concern for their community and this convinced us that they had powerful stories to tell. We queried them about their favorite foods and colors to ensure we catered to their porching style.

For instance, we discovered that a neighbor named Miss Terri loves purple, so we arrived with a table for her front yard covered with a purple tablecloth, and served purple carrots, purple chips, and grapes. Miss Jimmie turned 101 and was tired of the same old cake, so we put candles in her favorite dessert, a pecan pie.

Unexamined Initiatives Are Not Worth Implementing

It is no news flash to even casual readers of the blog that I am involved with Arts Midwest’s Creating Connection program to build public will for arts and culture. Last week, they ran a webinar just to present the basic research and program. In recent months they have been featuring two case studies where people talk about how their organizations are putting the research and messaging into practice. This session was aimed at giving people more complete information about the program.

As much as I have been a fan boy cheer leading the program, what I really appreciated about the webinar last week was the number and type of questions people were asking of the presenters.

It was an indication of just how serious people were thinking about implementing the research that webinar attendees were questioning the research methodology. I think people in arts and culture field are wise to scrutinize whether a new approach to doing business is a popular fad soon to fade or has some rigorous thought behind it. They have little enough time and resources as it is and don’t want to waste it on initiatives lacking substance.

What I really appreciated was when one person, identified as Zi Li, asked about case studies on failed programs because they were interested to learn why those program failed.  My friend Carter Gillies often mentions the problem of survivorship bias  where you only study the successful cases rather than gaining insight from those that failed.

The music on the Awesome 80s radio station is always going to be better than the music today because you are comparing the cream that rose to the top and endured the last 30 years to all the music being performed today, both good and bad.

If you are new to the concept of Creating Connection or just want a refresher, take a look at the video from the webinar which includes all the questions and comments made that day.

Creating More Great Connections Before Breakfast Than Most People Make All Day

A couple years ago I was serving on a grant panel which made me aware of an arts and culture organization that was running “breakfast raves,” for lack of a better word.

They were getting people together on Friday mornings around 5 am to have a dance party and breakfast before they ran off to work. I thought it was a great idea, especially for getting people who didn’t identify as night owls engaged and meeting new people in the community. Not only that, it was another way for performing arts organizations to use space that was usually only occupied at night. I thought it would make for a great study to see if people who attended morning raves were more productive and creative when they went to work that day.

In the past week I came across a story in CityLab about Daybreaker, a company that is doing much the same thing in cities around the world.  The writer, Sarah Holder, attended a session in Washington DC that involved yoga and then a silent dance party (because they meet outdoors and can’t blare music in early morning hours.) Looking at the Daybreaker website, this is pretty typical – work out, followed by a dance party, followed by breakfast.  Apparently they will also have performances.

They reach a pretty wide range of people:

….target cohort as “adventurous” people who “share the common interest of waking up at 6 a.m. to dance.” Most attendees are between 25 and 45 years old; a fact sheet provided by the Daybreaker team says the demographic breakdown is 68 percent women, 32 percent men, and “100 percent human.” Forty-seven percent are single.

The Daybreaker people also see themselves as an important conduit for building connection:

And they, like a surprising percentage of the crowd, were middle-aged: Kia was 42.

That’s significant, because, if loneliness is a nationwide epidemic, it’s particularly pronounced among older people, says Agrawal, based on observations she made on her book tour. Almost a third of Americans over 45 are socially isolated, according to AARP. “Many people in their 60s and 70s came to my book event to share their feeling of loneliness,” Agrawal said. “And how—to quote their words—invisible they feel.”

Of course, the sense of loneliness is shared across all generations so gatherings like these are great for everyone. Given that people in their 40s, 50s, 60s grew up on rock and other high energy music, there may be an unmet potential in programming morning dance parties aimed toward those demographics. I am thinking, in part, about the ubiquitous “dancing grannies” in China who are up at the crack of dawn participating in the activity for both exercise and socialization. (And often drawing the ire of younger people upset that their elders are blaring music at 5 am.)

When I first saw this story, I was interested in the concept as a way for arts and cultural organizations to diversify their offerings and help remove perceptual barriers about what it means to enter a creative space. However, one part of the article emphasized the fine line between sincere and insincere motivations for creating community when revenue is involved.

Note the bad association the word “community” has gotten.

But finding zen by paying to party with strangers on the roof of my office building (conveniently, I also work in the Watergate) seemed a little painful and inauthentic. Agrawal says she understands. “The word community has been kind of bastardized already,” she told me. “It’s just another word for ‘users’ by marketers.”

But with Daybreaker, she’s tried to cut through the bullshit. The “belonging” the brand creates isn’t a commodity, she says, nor is it a coincidence.

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