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.

#19NTC Topics-Oh Yeah Do I Got Ideas For You

Last week Drew McManus did a call out to the non-profit arts community to submit proposals for the Nonprofit Technology Conference in March 2019. (Proposal deadline is August 17)

Last year, I was excited by the topic Drew was presenting – “Everything Tech Providers Wished You Knew About Writing A RFP (plus the stuff they want to keep secret)

So in the spirit of getting more stuff I am interested in learning about proposed, I am gonna give you a list of some of the things I think would make good topics in the hope some of you will submit something.

  • Data Privacy and Security From Perspective of Communities of Color – I have already reached out to one of the people who made a presentation for the Hispanic National Bar Assn in NYC, but anyone with an interest should submit on this topic. Given that non-profits serving communities of color often need to establish a relationship of trust, this seems like an important subject to address.
  • Analyzing The True Cost of Programs – favorite topic of mine. Related idea:
  • Using Evidence/Data to Rebutt the Concept of Overhead Ratio As A Measure Of Effectiveness
  • Shared /Online Procurement Goods/Services
  • Effective RFP Generation – both internal & external processes
  • Using Geofencing To Better Understand Target Communities – can geofencing help you better understand a community based on where they travel around the community?
  • Ethics of Using Geofencing For Marketing  – i.e. I can geofence a local theater and target people based on the idea that they enjoy attending performances or with the intent of stealing the audience.
  • In-Person/Conference Based Professional Development vs. Online/Technology Delivery. Are there some subject areas better suited to one format over the other?
  • Shared services/technology arrangements – in terms of both back office and program delivery
  • Delete the Facebook Account? – Communication strategies when faced with a concerted social media assault
  • Conforming with Google’s new criteria for Adwords Grants – i.e. https://nonprofitquarterly.org/2018/05/07/nonprofits-can-keep-adwords-grants-following-major-changes-restore-lost-accounts/
  • Energy Saving Performance Contracts
  • Use of technology to provide regular cues to keep strategic plan alive and relevant – i.e. using software/apps to periodically to nag/remind you of milestones in time line, provide encouragement, remind you of ideas you had during the planning session
  • Effective Hiring – from job description to orientation/training  this topic is large enough to be multiple sessions can hit on everything from online job boards/job app apps to new state laws requiring salary range and forbidding asking about salary history

There are plenty more ideas where these came from, but I feel like this is a good broad range of subjects. I have already reached out to a few people encouraging to propose based on topics they are well-qualified to address.

If any of this inspires you in any sort of direction, submit a proposal.  If you got questions, let me know. Like Drew, I am on the conference session committee. Honestly, the conference organizers are really good about providing opportunities for people to ask questions at scheduled office hours and open Q&A sessions, and an online proposal prep group in which you can solicit feedback on proposals you are developing. All these resources are listed on the proposal pages.

Broader Conceptions Of Creative Placemaking

Last week I attended the Creative Placemaking Summit for the Appalachian region.  As much as I have read and written about Creative Placemaking, I don’t think I fully understood the what it encompassed until I attended this conference.

Hearing multiple people from various communities talk about the whole process of their projects from the involvement of government officials to securing funding and structuring financing to the sweat equity the arts and cultural invested in renovations, everything coalesced to provide me with a more complete understanding.

The topics of discussion and the level of detail were entirely different from what I have encountered at other arts and cultural conferences.  It reinforced for me that things don’t just happen in a vacuum. You can’t just plant art somewhere and assume economic and creative vitality will be attracted like honeybees if you can just stick it out long enough.

I had written about projects like the Poetry Parking Lot in Lanesboro, MN holding it up as a cool, creative idea. But having John Davis of Lanesboro Arts talk about how that project was driven by a desire to have tourists use that lot and how the renovation of a bridge to provide a pedestrian connection to the downtown was an important element provided a new context. The haiku on the light posts in the parking lot were only one of the incentives to use that parking lot. The others were the improved access afforded by the bridge and the two hour parking limit on downtown streets.

What I came to recognize was summarized by a comment one of the presenters made during the conference – Arts and cultural organizations need to realize creative placemaking can’t really be supported by grants.  Basically, just having artistic activity isn’t going to create economic vibrancy. Someone is going to have to arrange for financing and loans. Even in those cases when it isn’t the arts and cultural organization arranging for the financing directly, they are probably going to have to negotiate and partner with people who are doing so.

In some cases local banks won’t/don’t get into creative placemaking financing because the projects are outside their experience. You may need to cultivate a long term relationship with a regional CDFI (Community Development Financial Institutions).  Where most arts oriented conferences will have discussions about cultivating relationships with granting organizations and funders, this creative placemaking conference spoke more about relationships with CDFIs and community development corporations and foundations.

In some cases, the focus of placemaking efforts was in a much broader context than I am accustomed to hearing. One presenter talked about a project in Jersey City, NJ driven by an alliance of artists and arts groups. Their hope was to renovate a building with a community arts center on the first floor and affordable housing on the second through fifth floors. However, they determined if they had to give up something, it would be the community arts center. The fact that an alliance of arts oriented people felt that affordable housing was more important than a creative space made an impression.

In another session, Ben Fink from Appalshop talked about how they were getting involved with energy projects. He admitted it may seem strange that an organization founded on broadcast media and performance was advancing solar energy projects in coal country. Part of the reason is that high energy costs are threatening the existence of a number of local entities from bakeries to bluegrass festival sponsoring volunteer firehouses. He said the end goal wasn’t the completion of the solar project, it was to use solar energy to power the next projects.

The conference was populated with stories of groups that were renovating old buildings and storefronts and providing a place for the community to give voice to their creativity, but there were also stories like those in NJ and Appalshop that expanded my conception of the role arts and cultural organizations could play in the community.

If you have the opportunity to attend either the national or regional conference summits, it may be worth your time and the added perspective. It was actually less expensive to attend than some other conferences I have been to. (Not sure if that is the case for all the convenings since the cost for past and future conferences are not available on the website.)

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