California Symphony–They Speak Your Language

I was excited to see Aubrey Bergauer posted a follow up to her original 2016 Orchestra X post regarding how the California Symphony was acting on the feedback it has received about the concert planning and attending experience. I have written about some of Aubrey’s work since then, but I was eager to see a cumulative reflection.

Unfortunately, her post came in the middle of the holiday production crunch so I only got around to reading it this week.

A couple of really interesting things that caught my attention in this latest post. First was the counter-intuitive value in leaving past events posted on the website. I always want to get the clutter of old information off my website so it is easy for potential attendees to find the information they want. While this is probably an important practice generally, for the California Symphony, leaving that information available helped bolster their credibility. She writes,

1) As the season progressed, this list got awkwardly short, especially for an orchestra like the California Symphony that doesn’t perform as frequently as our bigger-budget peers. Participants told us they couldn’t believe we didn’t perform more often, and it looked even worse when only a few concerts were on that list. 2) As they were trying to “get a sense of what we’re about,” as they said, they couldn’t really tell based on only a handful of upcoming shows

Another thing is that they started running digital ads in both English and Spanish. The Spanish ads have a link to a Spanish language landing page.

That pilot test did lead to a measurable increase in Latinx households, and so we decided to put some money behind developing the new site in both languages. Now, when we run ads in Spanish, we can link to landing pages in the same language, another step in making this important segment in our community feel invited and welcome here, as well as give them the information they need to join us.

This was not new information to me because Aubrey has been reporting her success attracting a broader audience segment on Twitter for a few weeks now.

While she didn’t report on the outcomes of the changes, her discussion of how they adjusted some of the website sections to be outwardly focused rather than inwardly focused gave me something to think about. For example, instead of “Education” as a navigation header they are using “Off Stage” with subheaders focused on kids, adults and artists. They also changed “Support Us” to the more outwardly oriented “Your Support.”

A lot of the work they did was in the area of providing background information both in their program book and website. Their program notes are more about the background of the artists and music than the technical details of the music. They have song clips and information drawn from Wikipedia available online for those who want to know more. They changed their writing style to short bullet points rather than paragraphs.

Aubrey provides the rationale behind these changes based both in research and user feedback so it is definitely worth while to read this recent post.

Distilling The Arts Into A Healing Elixir

C4 Atlanta’s tweet of an Arts Professional UK story today made me growl in dissatisfaction.   (I got no beef with C4 Atlanta,that is just a long way of giving them a hat tip for the link)

The reason I growled was the outright instrumental positioning of the arts for medical outcomes. Author Christy Romer talks about the Arts Council of England’s (ACE) review of arts interventions where ACE regrets that arts organizations lack the funds to run randomised controlled trials and is therefore unable to justify the power of the arts to cure every mental and physical ailment under the sun.

Repeating Carter Gilles mantra — just because you have  method that measure something doesn’t mean the results you get have any relevance or relation to what you are measuring.

Yes, the article says,

It says there is a “growing recognition” among researchers that quantitative approaches like these “often fail to capture” the nuances of arts interventions, which become “lost in an overly narrow focus on data and measurements”.

Broadening the focus to include more qualitative and mixed method techniques could make it easier to improve practice and integrate arts interventions more deeply into the healthcare and justice systems, it suggests.

“The outcome that’s the easiest to measure is not necessarily the best thing to measure,” the report notes. “Is a different type of ‘gold standard’ possible?”

While it is good that there is a recognition that quantitative approach is too narrow and that the easiest measure is not the best, the fact is it appears they are still trying to figure out how to use the arts to fix things.

It is important that researchers be able to discover that people with dementia may be helped by singing because it employs important neural pathways. But that isn’t so much a value of art as the fact that singing requires you to use specific facilities in the same way movement helps circulation. Yes, singing a song from their youth helps people with dementia to solidify their memories. But that is more an argument that our lives should be filled with creative experiences as much as possible when we are young.

The same with the use of artistic expression to reduce recidivism among parolees. The article says “but says that because of the many factors involved, the “the challenge of demonstrating that a cultural intervention has had a measurable impact…remains daunting”.  The thing is, if prisoners/parolees aren’t committing crimes after participating in arts related activities, it can be as much the fact they had an opportunity to socialize and were provided the tools to express themselves.

There also may be other factors at work as well as they suggest, but if you think socialization and self expression are important elements in there, that is just more of an argument for people having the opportunity for creative expression when they are young. If you can’t clearly prove that opportunities for creative expression are reducing recidivism in a controlled trial study, are you going to take away their books and sketch pads?

The value of arts is difficult to measure and define in a qualitative way. Creative expression is nuanced and not every mode of expression has relevance for every individual which means the it is impossible to arrive at a uniform application of arts as a cure.

If people stop exhibiting violent tendencies after participating in a play, by all means try to figure out what elements of that experience may have contributed to it and try to provide those elements to others. Just realize you will never discover that 30 minutes of music every day will placate everybody’s anger. And you will never be able to identify every element that contributed to the decrease in anti-social behavior. For some it is the socialization, for others it is the opportunity to express, for others it is the kind word that someone said on the walk home that you never observed.

There is a lot in this story that does well in recognizing that the current methods of measure aren’t capturing all the important nuances in creative interactions. However, by trying to find a new gold standard to measure the value of the arts, it still sounds like they are trying to distill something out of the arts into an easily applied elixir.

The Nutcracker For Chicago

I just saw this article on NextCity about the Joffrey Ballet’s effort to “make a new American Nutcracker” by setting the story in Chicago during the 1893 Colombian Exposition/World’s Fair. (The Joffrey has long had a version of Nutcracker that was set in America in case you were wondering if there was an “old” American Nutcracker.)

The article asks, “Is This the Most Graceful Urban Planning History Lesson Ever?” which is an entertaining concept in itself. But the Joffrey company tries to put an authentic American flavor to the story in this most recent version choreographed by Christopher Wheeldon,

The show then depicts immigrant construction workers at a modest Christmas party — a far cry from the traditional setting of an opulent upper-class home. It revises protagonist Marie (sometimes called Clara) from a rich girl dreaming of exotic sweets to the child of an impoverished single mother, dreaming of a visit to the multicultural exhibits at the upcoming exposition.

Part of the idea is to capture the childlike wonder that the real exposition evoked. “The World’s Fair was a truly magical turning point for this city,” Joffrey Ballet Artistic Director Ashley Wheater explained

PBS created a documentary explaining the concept and process behind creating the Joffrey version last year. They do some amazing things with their re-imagination of the story, including puppets by Basil Twist. Not to mention dancing walnuts–because you know, how can you have a nutcracker and no nuts?  Nearly every production of Nutcracker has been violating the rule of Chekov’s gun.

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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