I’ll Settle For Arts Education Helping People Recognize Their Creative Capacity

I am in the process of moving so I am shifting in to “throwback” mode for a week or so.

I thought I would look back at a post I made about one of Ian David Moss’ contributions of a blog salon.

In his contribution Moss wrote took the view that arts education put children on the track to careers that the socioeconomic environment couldn’t support. (my emphasis)

Much of the literature that advocates arts education as a strategy for cultivating demand for the arts assumes that students who have invested thousands of hours of their lives in perfecting a craft during their formative years will happily set all of that aside as soon as they turn 18 and 21, become productive members of society with skills that they somehow picked up while practicing piano for four hours a day, and donate all of their expendable income to their local arts organizations. Really? Don’t you think that some of them might be a little bitter about having to leave their dream behind? Don’t you think some of them might continue on and spend their parents’ life savings on three graduate degrees in a quixotic quest for fame and glory that never materializes? Is this the best use of our collective human capital?

In my post at the time, I disagreed with the view writing,

Or rather, I don’t think operating on the assumption that not everyone will become an arts practitioner completely nefarious. No one expects every kid who participates in Little League, Pop Warner Football and various soccer leagues will go on to become a professional athlete after all the time they have invested in practicing. Though certainly a situation where a college athlete isn’t expected to devote themselves to their studies is not something to be emulated.

In a comment on my post, Scott Walters wrote,

Your analogy to Little League sports is a good one. Sure, some of the participants dream of being professional football players, but most simply enjoy playing and the experiences they have with friends. For some reason, artists don’t recognize that this is the case for the arts as well. There are other reasons to do it than going pro — reasons that are just as fulfilling (I’d venture to say, in the current arts climate, oftentimes MORE fulfilling)… what an arts education promotes is a rich life that includes the possibility of creative expression as an end in itself, not a means to an end. This was the message of the “Gifts of the Muse” report, for instance: the INTRINSIC value of the arts. Lets not get lost in arts education as existing solely for the creation of professional artists or the creation of paying audience members. There is a more active and vibrant alternative to those roads.

In the intervening years, as I have begun to really think about the intrinsic value of art vs. the instrumental value, I have grown to appreciate Scott’s comments all the more.  Reading this old post, I feel like this might have been a formative moment when I started thinking about arts education and making people aware of their capacity for creativity.

However, there is a lot of validity in Moss’ argument that universities and conservatories are taking the money of a lot of people with mediocre ability and preparing them for a traditional career path in the arts. This problem has been recognized for quite awhile now.

But also note my intentional use of “traditional career path” because there are an ever broadening array of ways in which creative abilities can be applied. Training programs aren’t doing the best job of preparing students to pursue those options.

More Thoughts About Culture Vouchers

In the last few months, I wrote about how the EU was offering free Euro-rail passes to 18 year olds this summer to encourage them to broaden their horizons. Two years ago I wrote about the Italian government giving €500 culture vouchers to 18 year olds.

Just this week I read a CityLab piece about another voucher program that people who are at least 18 years old can participate in –voting and political campaigns.

Based on the success Seattle has seen with their Democracy Dollars program other cities like Albuquerque, NM and Austin, TX are looking into handing out campaign finance vouchers as a way to get a broader segment of the community involved with the political system.

…eligible residents vouchers totaling $100 to donate to the local candidate of their choice. Candidates who opted in to the program had to agree to strict guidelines on how to spend the money they received. The idea behind the pilot was that giving the equivalent of money to constituents who don’t usually have the resources to support their candidates—pensioners and the homeless, for example—would spur greater political participation.

These stories got me thinking that having a similar voucher program that people could use to donate to their favorite arts organization might inspire a broader range of the community to become involved with arts organizations. It may even help bring funding to organizations that have been marginalized or don’t have the resources to apply for formal grants.

According to the CityLab article, studies conducted on Seattle’s program did see participation by a more economically diverse segment of the community. However,”…voucher use was greater for older, white, and middle- and high-income voters.”

Surveys have shown similar results during free admission days for museums. Rather than attracting people who don’t normally visit the museum, most free admission days are patronized by those who are already visiting the museum.

The fact that voucher use was greatest by older, white, middle/high-income voters doesn’t mean that there isn’t potential to involve a broader range of people. It just may take more time and effort to help people feel empowered to participate.

“Yet low-income voters who did participate said they appreciated the opportunity: “It feels like I’m more a part of the system,” one voucher user told the Seattle Times in 2017. “People like me can contribute in ways that we never have before.”

While I express optimism that vouchers would help spread funding around to arts and cultural groups that don’t normally receive it, I imagine some government entities might require groups to officially register as approved recipients. This type of requirement potentially poses the same barrier to organizations as needing a grant writer.

It obviously doesn’t need to be that way. The Italian government’s voucher scheme was intended to be used for a wide range of things like buying books, taking classes and admission to events.

Though admittedly since they distributed the funds via an app, being able to accept the voucher funds may have required registration and paperwork. On the other hand, just as cell phones and tablets have lowered the barrier to being able to accept credit cards through a simple swipe, the same app that displays a voucher’s QR code could also be employed to scan codes and accept payment. All of which is probably less work than writing a grant.

Our Market Is Everybody (Just Some More Than Others)

Broadway Producer Ken Davenport is singing my song. I know you know this tune, but based on my experience, it bears reiterating.

He talks about how he often gets pitched ideas for new Broadway shows.

One of my stock questions to anyone pitching me anything is, “Who do you think the audience is for your piece?”

This question not only helps me determine whether the Pitcher and I are on the same page, but it also gives me some insight into the business acumen of the person who wants me to get involved in their project.

The red flag answer to this filtering question of mine?

“This show is for everyone!”

While I appreciate the bullish answer, the fact is . . . no show is for everyone. And the more you try to make it for everyone, the more you water it down and make sure that it’s for no one.

[…]

…Your first marketing exercise when you embark on producing a show or building a career is as follows.

  1. Identify exactly who your audience is.
  2. Find that audience and exploit them and only them.

If your audience spreads to “everyone” from there then great, but it’s much easier to market to a niche than it is to the world.

I am sure pretty much everyone has run into a similar pitch or had staff/board members make a statement about a show being for everyone. What is often frustrating is that many people who say this own or work for businesses which are pretty clear on who their customer base is and isn’t.

Even funeral homes which about 98% of us will likely end up patronizing on behalf of deceased loved ones likely each have a demographics to which they appeal more than others.

Davenport’s advice to have a focus that moves from the specific to the general is a pretty good guideline when it comes to marketing decisions.

I suspect people feel that they are conceding a flaw in the product if they admit it isn’t for everyone. Saying a certain group will REALLY like it and everyone else will probably like it to might provide the psychological out needed to identify those it is realistically for.

Create, Re-Create, Recreate

I was reading a piece in CityLab about Repair Cafes which strike me as a good complement to MakerSpaces and creative activities that arts and cultural entities may host.   The concept was started in Amsterdam by Martine Postma who was disturbed by how much repairable equipment was sitting at the curb on trash day.  She sells start up kits that allow you to use the Repair Cafe logo and puts you in touch with the other Repair Cafe’s around the world.

But beyond reducing what is sent to the landfill, personal empowerment plays a large role in the Repair Cafe concept:

What she’s discovered was that it wasn’t that people liked throwing away old stuff. “Often when they don’t know how to repair something, they replace it, but they keep the old one in the cupboard—out of guilt,” she said. “Then at a certain moment, the cupboard is full and you decide this has been lying around [long enough].”

[…]

For the time being, communities are doing what they can to encourage people to fix things. Libraries like the one in Howard County, for example, have started renting out tools and creating “makerspaces” where members learn to both repair and create. Elsewhere, cities have hosted MakerLabs, FabLabs—short for fabrication lab—and Innovation Labs for both adults and children. Bike shops and nonprofits alike have fished scrapped vehicles from the landfill to repair and donate to the underserved community.

The social and personalized elements of the Repair Cafes, makerspaces, etc may be part of the value and appeal. After all, you can watch a YouTube how-to video to fix something that breaks. If you don’t have confidence in your ability to effect the repairs, having someone available to teach you the skills to do so in the process of fixing your stuff might motivate you to act. This despite the fact it is more trouble to haul your broken equipment somewhere versus tossing it in the trash.

It is also easier to toss stuff away rather than hauling it to Goodwill or the Salvation Army, but people donate goods to non-profits all the time because they know it is better not to let things go to waste.

Just as recognizing your capacity to be creative is empowering,  learning to fix items can instill a degree of pride and self-satisfaction which is why I feel it is such a close companion effort to creative activities.

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