History of Public Libraries & Questions Cultural Orgs Face Regarding Inclusion

Check out this visual storytelling piece on CityLab about the history of libraries in the US.  As arts and cultural organizations struggle with the question of inclusion of under-represented communities in our spaces and on our boards, the efforts people to which people went to gain access to books may provide some insight into the issue. Especially given that the meaning and value of libraries today is no longer directly tied to books. (In fact, 150+ years ago the role of libraries was already expanding beyond a source of books.)

It is generally acknowledged that Ben Franklin started one of the first libraries in the United States, but it was privately funded and by invitation which excluded white women, blacks and poor people.  According to the graphics in the CityLab piece, this just lead those groups to form their own clubs like the Phoenix Society of NY established to, (I love this phrase), “Establish Mental Feasts” and “Establish Circulating Libraries for the Use of People of Color on Very Moderate Pay.”

Women’s Clubs were established along the same lines, and when they excluded Jewish, black and working class women, those groups created their own clubs.

I think I may have mentioned before that I currently work in a historic theater that has the dubious distinction of possessing one of the best preserved Jim Crow balconies in the country.  A few blocks away from us is a theater established by a black business man to serve the black community due to the lack of access in my building. Reading about a parallel history in libraries is pretty relevant to me.

Before Andrew Carnegie started to endow libraries across the country, many of these library projects were already embracing social issues like literacy, anti-lynching, and suffrage. Bookmobiles were bringing books to rural communities.  Even with Carnegie’s funding and the expansion to public access, according to the graphic, it was women’s clubs that helped drive the construction of libraries to the point where having one was a staple of every community.

Even still, there was a lot of exclusion by race:

As I was reading through the CityLab piece, I saw echos of many of the questions arts and cultural organizations need to face regarding their identity.

For example, at one point the stated purpose of many libraries was to promote “desirable middle class values.” While this isn’t as explicitly stated by many arts organizations these days, it is present quite implicitly.

First Rule Of Arts Club–Talk To Everyone About Arts Club

I came across a study conducted in the UK where the researchers found some benefit to new attendees of arts and cultural events having the opportunity to participate in peer-lead audience exchange conversations.

They were pretty particular about excluding someone with (perceived) expertise from the group as including such a person either led to people deferring to the person’s expertise or feeling too intimidated to contribute to the conversation. The researchers drew comparisons with book clubs, but encouraged arts organizations to facilitate the formation of such groups since people rarely organize themselves. (emphasis from original)

Deborah (DX): “It’s really nice to talk about it afterwards. Rather than just sort of taking it all home with you”.

Bridget (IKG/BCMG): “[…] at the contemporary music thing, it was quite nice to sit down at the end and talk with other people about the experience [agreement] because otherwise you sort of wander away with a couple of inane comments, and sort of forget about it. But sitting down with people is an interesting way of reflecting –” [Doris: “It can add to the experience.”]

This deepening of experience through conversation was also evident in the group discussions themselves, as participants wrestled with their own responses to an event and sought insight and reassurance from others in the group. They emphasised that the particular kind of discussion they had enjoyed in the audience exchange was not the same as the conversations with performers sometimes offered by theatre or concert providers, where Doris (IKG) felt she “would feel a bit intimidated about saying something not terribly deep and meaningful – but this doesn’t intimidate”.

Some of the commentary the researchers recorded was very interesting to learn. I was trying to figure out how an arts organization could go about capturing this data without being there. An obvious answer is to record it if that doesn’t impact what people are willing to say. Otherwise, asking someone to take notes. Among the comments the researchers recorded were ones about the marketing materials organizations were putting out.

Even while the new audience members struggled to find a vocabulary to talk about their response to a concert, some felt that the language being used by the arts organisation also failed to capture their experience, with too much of an emphasis on analysis and not enough on the emotional impact of the music:

Bryony (E360A): “For me that description of tonight doesn’t make it sound very exciting – it makes it sound a bit rubbish!” [laughs].

Adam (E360A): “Especially the Martinů one, like that was my favourite one, and it says it ‘exhibits the flute to great effect’ [laughter] but to me it was the violin that was really interesting, and the variations in the music”.

These sort of discussions can be helpful for new attendees because they can validate the reactions they have. Some of the discussions revolved around feelings of guilt about being bored or having one’s mind wander. Someone else in the group piped in defending her “’right to daydream’, expressing the view that if the music encouraged her into personal thoughts and memories, this was in itself a response to the performance and not one for which she should feel apologetic.”

What They Lack In Talent, They Make Up With Social Media Followers

For a long time when people offered advice to those hoping to be actors, they would say something along the lines of, “No matter how talented and good looking you are, there are 10 others just as talented and good looking.” The unspoken subtext was that there were a bunch of others who were even more talented and better looking so the ten of you and tens of others were out of work.

Perhaps we need to add “….and have as many, if not more followers on social media,” to the list of qualifications.   Arts Professional UK relates a number of anecdotes from actors who were disheartened to be asked about their social media handles and follower numbers after they auditioned.

“But the girl that went in after me had 20,000 more followers on Twitter and she got the role. I mean, you can actually just do your homework privately, can’t you? Look it up for yourself, but don’t ask me that after I’ve just given you my best bit of acting,” she added

[…]

Actor Joseph Batchelor said he had recently attended a casting for a fast-food restaurant commercial and added: “Even though the role was just as a walk-on supporting artist, I was still asked for my social media handles, which I thought was ridiculous.”

Similarly, Bethany Fenton said she had auditioned for a non-speaking featured role in a furniture advert, and had been asked for her Instagram handle and number of followers.

“It should be about talent, but I suppose followers are often a sign of social currency and popularity, which businesses like Netflix or furniture companies want,” she said.

I am not going to speculate about whether this sort of thing happens in the U.S. I have been in the room when the decision to feature someone in a theater performance came down to social media following.

I do wonder how prevalent it is across the country and disciplines. I know orchestra auditions are blind and assume information on social media following wouldn’t be available to a committee. But what about chamber ensembles or other musical genres. Does social media following give an edge to less talented people in other auditions? Do dancers get a leg up, pun intended? Do visual artists get chosen for gallery shows because there is a likely to be better attendance at the opening due to a good social media following?

I suspect this is the case to a greater or lesser degree in many cases. Which means social media presence likely has an impact on whether one gets representation. An agent or gallery owner only gets paid if a person is hired or their work sells. If social media numbers translates into greater professional exposure, that may impact whether one gets representation or cultivating a following may be a condition of representation.

Granted, for a lot of people growing a social media following is probably going to be the least difficult and intimidating aspect of managing one’s career. But perceiving yourself to be in an arms race with other artists may lead people to some ill-advised decisions which will grow their following, but diminish their personal brand.

Anyone seeing this creep into calculations?

New Study of Impact of Arts Ed On Social Skills

I frequently urge people to be careful about making statements regarding the benefits of arts on educational outcomes so I am happy when I read about some rigorously conducted studies that present some positive results. Via Dan Pink is a report on a randomized study conducted in Houston with 10548 students at 42 schools. (They actually had far more schools interested in participating than they had room to accommodate which is a positive sign for arts in education.)

 

…the initiative helped students in a few ways: boosting students’ compassion for their classmates, lowering discipline rates, and improving students’ scores on writing tests.

[…]

The positive effects on writing test scores, discipline, and compassion were small to moderate. Students’ disciplinary infraction rates, for instance, fell by 3.6 percentage points. But these results are particularly encouraging because the cost to schools was fairly small — about $15 per student. (This did not include costs borne by the program as whole or by the cultural institutions that donated time.)

As always, pay attention to the specific findings and degree to which the positive benefit was observed. At the same time, remember that there may have been factors external to the school environment that was negatively impacting students’ ability to take tests well, maintain self-discipline and feel compassion.

When the researchers comment on the areas in which the initiative didn’t make significant difference, they made an observation worth considering about the idea that providing arts content and testable content are mutually exclusive.

On other measures, the initiative didn’t make a clear difference. That includes reading and math scores as well as survey questions about school engagement and college aspirations. Still, the survey results were mostly positive, though largely not statistically significant.

“It could have come out negative. It could have been, look, they did this extra stuff where they learned more in these other domains but their math scores went down, so here’s the tradeoff,” said Kisida, one of the researchers. “We don’t see evidence of a tradeoff.”

That’s especially notable because some have feared that pressure to raise test scores has squeezed arts out of the curriculum in many schools (though there’s limited empirical evidence on whether that’s actually happened).

I haven’t read the full study results yet but plan to do so. In the meantime, take a look at either the summary article or the study because there are a number of other observations, including the role arts opportunities play in the social growth of students.

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