Taking Arts & Culture’s Measure

I have been cautioning the non-profit arts community about citing the economic value of the arts for over a decade now. The first time was in 2007. I wrote about it a few times in the interim, but I didn’t really start to devote time and space to the idea until the last 2-3 years.

However, if you don’t put stock in my arguments, perhaps you will find statements by celebrities with English accents to be compelling. Check out the following videos from an Arts Emergency Service convening at the Oxford Literary Festival where author Philip Pullman (His Dark Materials series) makes the same point cited in just about every piece I discussed in previous posts:

“Keep clear of economic justifications for the arts. If you do that, if you try that, you hand a weapon to the other side because they can always find ways of proving that you are wrong about it, you’ve got the figures wrong. You invite them to measure everything in terms of economic gain. My advice would be to ignore economic arguments altogether.”

Noted graphic novelist Alan Moore chimed in about “…the ridiculousness of, sort of, having to have impact. To appoint words like that to the arts, its criminal, its ridiculous.”

Pullman makes another statement that aligns with the assertions by Carter Gillies I often cite that just because something can be measured, doesn’t mean the measurement is relevant. (Diane Ragsdale also wrote a piece along these lines.)

“The government, you see, asks us to do something and then gives us the wrong tools to do it. [unintelligible] says, ‘Look I want you to measure this piece of wood. And here’s a tool for you.’ And gives you a grindstone. And one thing you can say is, ‘Why do you want to measure this wood anyway? This is firewood, I’ll burn it to keep myself warm.’ Questions arise from that. What is the right tool for measuring the arts and do we need to measure them anyway? What are we measuring them for?”

There is another video on the Arts Emergency page where the panel, which includes Arts Emergency co-founder, Josie Long, discuss the false dichotomy between art and science that is worth checking out.

As I was looking back at all the posts I made on this subject, I found the following tweet I had linked to many years ago.  It struck me that if you can’t entirely control the language your advocates use, request they make this one small change in terminology can help start to shift the “economic benefit” mindset. (Though perhaps not something to use in the context of immigration discussions.)

Uncaging The Ticket Office Staff

Ken Davenport made a post last month about the way the New York City subway system is shifting their practice. Since more subway riders are able to pay for rides with their credit cards and even have refillable Metro cards sent to their homes, there is less need for the booth attendants.

But, NYC has been slow to adopt any changes unlike other cities around the country.

Starting to sound familiar? Labor intensive? Slow to change? Tickets that can be received at home, or from a “machine.”

However, the booth attendants aren’t necessarily losing their jobs.

In the subway case, they are talking about allowing station agents to help passengers off the train, providing service to the riders looking as they stand on the tracks, etc. They are talking about getting them out of the glass box and interacting directly with our consumers.

Why? Because riders polled LIKE having the station agents. And I bet our ticket buyers LIKE having our box office attendees as well.

As we become more and more cashless, and as we become more print-at-home, maybe an idea is to allow our box office personnel to become even more of an integral part of our promotion and advertising team (they are the few folks that actually talk to our customers). Maybe we just get them out from behind those glass walls that, frankly, are so antithetical to any sales process (ever been to an Apple store? It’s no coincidence that their salespeople walk the stores, conducting transactions from a phone that fits in their pocket).

Davenport draws the line between the station attendant and the ticket office staff which has always been regarded as the first point of contact 95% of people have with an arts and cultural organization.

About two years ago I made a similar post about using technology to unmoor the ticket office from a permanent physical location in a lobby. (Check it out, there were some good comments.) Davenport takes the next step astutely noting that the function of physically transferring tickets to someone is becoming less necessary whereas personal contact with visitors is just as, if not more, important.

Personally, knowing the subway station attendant would be getting out of those booths makes me relieved on their behalf. Ever since I was a kid (this is back to when “Y” tokens were used) those booths made me feel anxious because the attendants looked like they were imprisoned in the claustrophobic cubes while everyone else was free to travel about.

Since it has been pretty apparent in a number of places I have worked that the ticket office was the last space an architect designed, this is probably an experience shared by a lot of ticketing staff.

Getting the staff out among the visitors may bring a constructive psychological and perceptual change to the whole relationship.

Creativity From The Land Of Ice and Snow

Via Marginal Revolution comes a study about the high levels of creativity in Iceland  where:

….1 in 10 adults in the country have published a book, why playing in a band is considered a rite of passage, and why nearly everyone knows how to knit and sew…

“You have many people who don’t realize just how creative they are. I haven’t met a single family there that doesn’t have someone in a creative occupation such as the arts, innovative and technological sciences, writing, and new forms of creativity that technology has made possible like gaming and virtual reality,” Kerr says.

Icelanders credit their culture and education system and resist the more common explanation that the environment shapes them. That said, Barbara Kerr who was conducting the study cited,

The long, dark hours of winter lead residents to spend long periods of time indoors working together and the long summer days with little darkness lead to little sleep and uninterrupted periods of creation.

“I think of that as a perfect formula for creativity,” Kerr says. “Artists often have long periods of productivity followed by down phases of collaborative critique, editing, and reflection.”

I found this idea of a creative cycle somewhat intriguing. I am curious to know if Icelanders complain of creative blocks less frequently than other cultures due to this semi-forced period of inactivity. More specifically, do the cycle of the seasons make lack of productivity more personally and socially acceptable so people don’t feel pressured to produce.

The article also mentions that schools are focused around a process of hands-on problem solving and imaginative play rather than testing. There is a greater tolerance of behavior that deviates from the norm among children, at least as compared to the United States where children might be pressed to conform to a greater degree.

The article also notes that there are a lot of opportunities for creative expression in Iceland’s cities.

Reykjavik, the major city, abounds with makerspaces where creative people can work together, coffee shops, art galleries, and musical venues. And Icelandic cities have a good deal of public art, including people employed by the government as muralists, and many who have won government funding to support their art.

Not to diminish what is going on in Iceland, I am pleased to hear about the creative vitality of the country, I wonder how much of these findings are projected expectations. Basically, haven’t the people of Iceland found a system that works for the people of Iceland?

If we did a similar study in the United States, would there be claims of greater creativity in warmer climes like Florida and Los Angeles thanks to Disney, Hollywood and Silicon Valley. Or would we find greater creativity in the northern areas thanks to activity in Seattle, Portland and Broadway or the cultural traditions of Minnesota and Vermont?

If we looked at Germany we could probably generate similar claims for various reasons. Different countries have their own dynamics borne of their history, geography, etc that manifest in interesting ways, strong by some measures and deficient in others.

Don’t get me wrong, the story about Iceland’s situation makes me a little envious. Maybe there is something intrinsically inspiring about Iceland. Led Zeppelin apparently wrote “Immigrant Song” after visiting the country.

There are absolutely elements of Iceland culture and society I think we need to strive for.  There are just a lot of conclusions and statements made in the story that appear to lack sufficient support of data and careful observation to draw and any lines between cause and effect. I can’t write a post about responsibly reading and interpreting research and then engage in blind adoration two weeks later.

Again, that said, even if it is an idealized representation of Icelandic creative life, it is an ideal we probably all want to strive toward. (Creativity as a cultural value and practice, not necessarily the long dark nights.) Absent Iceland, we would probably be talking about an Icelandic situation as a goal.


But Will A Framed Canvas Fit Through The Book Return Slot?

Thanks to a partnership between the Akron Art Museum and the Akron-Summit County Public Library, not only can you get a book to place on the nightstand beside your bed, you can also get a painting to hang over your bed.

According to a recent article, the museum is creating the Akron Art Library in the Akron-Summit County Public Library Main Library. Patrons can view the art and then use their library card to borrow a work for four weeks and renew it up to five times if no one else places a request for it.

“We want to show we can trust the public with works of art,” said Art Museum Director of Education Alison Caplan. “We want people to have that moment of ‘are you sure we can take this out?'”

Even so, the fine for not returning a borrowed piece is $500 and late fees run 50 cents per day, she said.

All the art available to borrow — paintings, drawings, photos and other two-dimensional work — is created by professional Northeast Ohio artists, many of whom have been featured at the museum.

“We tried to highlight artists that came from Akron and the region and have gone on to do great things,” Caplan said. “It’s a really good mix.”

If this sounds somewhat familiar to you, it might be because four years ago I wrote about how Oberlin College has been lending out priceless works by Dali, Picasso, Chagall, etc to their students since the 1940s.

Oberlin says they haven’t had anything damaged or stolen in all that time so the risk of allowing people to take art works home with them might not be as great as you might imagine. The museum’s focus on circulating works by regional artists can help cultivate an awareness and appreciation that there are well regarded creative people perusing produce at the supermarket and laughing too loudly behind them in the movie theater.

Not to mention the Art Library program reinforces the idea that your home is an appropriate place for art that appears in a museum and that access to such work is within your reach.

I wonder if they have/will start a children’s section so kids can follow the example of their parents and check out something to hang on their walls as well.

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