You Have To Know How They Define Community Before You Can Tell Their Story

I don’t know what inspired me to do so, but last week I visited ProPublica’s website and learned that Free Street Theater and ProPublica Illinois were teaming up to offer theater-journalism workshops across the Illinois.

What caught my eye was that they put out a call for invitations to communities in manner reminiscent of the process Marc Folk said The Arts Commission of Toledo employed when soliciting feedback from different n eighborhoods of that city.

In addition to going to Toulon, IL, Free Street and ProPublica Illinois will be visiting Urbana, Carbondale/Jackson County, Rock Island/Quad Cities, and Rockford during May. So if you live in or near any of those places, check it out.

They did a trial run at the end of March in Chicago and have posted some of their reflections already. One of the things they recognized immediately was a need to do a better job of making people aware that they were having these workshops.

In the course of playing various games, they discovered that the terms people use to define their community, including how they defined community, had some bearing on how they composed the narrative about themselves.

We played a game in which we were asked to line up according to how strongly we agreed with various statements, from “We are living in a war zone” to “I love ice cream.” You’d be surprised at how many interpretations there are of what a war zone is, and how many people have strong feelings about ice cream.

In small groups, we talked about a time we each felt misrepresented in a news story, and how that directly affected us and our communities. It led to revealing conversations about how we each defined “community.”

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At the end of the night, we returned to the sticky notes to ask: What do we want the story of our community to be? This is an important question — for us and for this project — that journalists rarely ask. But they should. If journalists don’t know how a community views itself, journalists don’t know what that community has at stake when it is represented or misrepresented.

If we never bother to ask — in real, concrete ways — it can seem like we don’t care. Journalists know how to fact-check names and statistics. But how often do journalists fact-check the underlying narrative of a community?

Since there is an ongoing conversation in the arts about how people want to see themselves and their stories depicted in performances and other forms of creative expression, these reflections by ProPublica reporter Natalie Escobar should pretty much be shared by those identifying with the arts and culture community.

You Are Not Alone In Thinking It Can Be Good To Be Alone

Last month the BBC had a story on their site about the creative benefits of being a loner.

One reason for this is that such people are likely to spend sustained time alone working on their craft. Plus, Feist says, many artists “are trying to make sense of their internal world and a lot of internal personal experiences that they’re trying to give expression to and meaning to through their art.” Solitude allows for the reflection and observation necessary for that creative process.

There is such a high value placed on extroverted behavior in society that introverts can retain a degree of confidence in the value of their approach to life. However, the BBC piece does take the time to distinguish between constructive and destructive introversion behavior. (my emphasis)

Social withdrawal usually is categorised into three types: shyness caused by fear or anxiety; avoidance, from a dislike of socialising; and unsociability, from a preference for solitude.

A paper by Bowker and her colleagues…found that creativity was linked specifically to unsociability. They also found that unsociability had no correlation with aggression (shyness and avoidance did).

…Unsociable people are likely to be “having just enough interaction,” Bowker says. “They have a preference for being alone, but they also don’t mind being with others.”

I partially emphasized that section to distinguish between unsociability and other types of social withdraw. This may be an important distinction given that the URL of the article says “there are benefits to being antisocial” leading me to think the current article title wasn’t the original one. Being unsocial may not necessarily be antisocial.

Another thing from the article to note is the observation that being alone removes distractions resulting in a mode of daydreaming that “helps with focus in the long term but strengthens your sense of both yourself and others. Paradoxically, therefore, periods of solitude actually help when it comes time to socialise once more.”

This suggests the distraction of mobile devices in an otherwise solitary situation may prevent this mode from engaging.

Where To Perform Based On Where They Have Performed

One of the toughest tasks when it comes to programming for a performing arts venue is trying to bring new experiences to the community that audiences will attend in large enough numbers to make the effort worthwhile. Sometimes you think something will be a hit and it doesn’t do well. Other times you discover you the artist you thought would only have niche appeal appeals to a pretty significant sized niche.

The artificial intelligence work of a company called Topos may help take some of the guesswork out of this process in the future.

According to a piece they wrote, they plugged in data about musical artist touring from 2008 to present, looked at the characteristics of the communities where the artists sold well and then created a list of places the artists hadn’t performed, but should consider.

For example, these suggestions for Florida Georgia Line.

They are careful to note that this is a work in progress and their algorithm is pretty narrowly focused, but they are optimistic about the potential.

In this article, we’ve constructed a narrow, highly specific view of place, ignoring myriad factors that shape neighborhoods.

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Yet even this narrow view reveals much about neighborhoods, from their form (the connected downtown neighborhoods surrounding large arenas) to their milieu (the hipster neighborhoods connected to Bushwick).

We believe this approach starts to demonstrate the potential of understanding location as a set of relationships rather than solely as a set of isolated points or regions to which metrics are ascribed. Many applications of Location Intelligence — from opening a new store to planning a trip, launching a political campaign to arranging a tour — are ultimately about relationships: Brand and customer, traveller and a foreign culture, politician and constituent, touring musician and fan. Understanding the manifold ways one place is similar to another provides rich context for expanding these relationships into new territories.

Once the calculations have been further refined and test for larger tours, it may be awhile before the use of tools like these become viable for use by many arts organizations.

While I think most of us would be reluctant to leave all our decisions to a calculation, this work provides the opportunity to understand our communities better.

What I would be most eager to see is if these tools could help bring about the diversity in programming we all say we aspire to. A list of suggested artists backed by some proven data provides the opportunity to transcend what we and our boards think we know will sell in our community.

Of course, using a list in this manner would likely need to be accompanied by a sincere commitment to communication and trust building with a broader range of the community. It would be far too easy to discredit the list of suggestions by changing the programming but promoting and communicating about it in the same old way.

Money May Make The World Go Round, But Education Drives Participation

In a recent “Taking Note”, National Endowment for the Arts’  Director of Research & Analysis,  Sunil Iyengar mentioned that in the coming year the NEA will commission some monographs exploring the role of taste and preferences in arts participation.

He later points out a study conducted in Spain that touches on this very notion.  With the obvious disclaimer that the cultural norms of Spain differ from that of the U.S., I wanted to point out a couple interesting observations the Spanish researchers made.

They categorized study participants as either “absolute” or “recoverable” non-attendees. The absolute non-attendees were those who were “impermeable to cultural policy” and would not attend for any reason whatsoever. Recoverable non-attendees were those who had not attended recently but  shared characteristics with people who did. Among the “recoverable” are people who might have had children and will become increasingly open to participating as their kids got older.

The researchers categorized willingness to attend across cultural events, visits to historic/cultural sites or attend cinema.

In all three cases, education works independently of income, in positively affecting attendance. Even the effect of income on arts participation is shown to be “more significant” for people at the higher versus lower education levels.

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The researchers conclude that as education rises, interest in arts attendance grows dramatically. For example, changing a respondent’s education level from “primary education”-only to “higher education” would cut his or her likelihood of being an “absolute non-attendee” by 50 percentage points—for all three arts activities.

Again acknowledging that Spain and the US are different situations, I was pretty astonished to see a 50% reduction absolute non-attendance closely associated with education level. In the conclusions, the researchers suggest cultural policy should be more closely integrated with education policy with an eye to the way technology changes expectations and mode of content delivery.

What I also found interesting was that income level doesn’t seem to have the same impact on attendance that education does for arts events and cultural site visits. Cinema is more price sensitive.

At the same time, the category of “recoverable non-attendee” (that is, a person who just feasibly might have attended an arts event) remains inflexible when income levels are raised, for both cultural-place visits and live performing arts attendance. The authors thus remark on the “clear polarization” among Spaniards when it comes to either high demand or absolute non-interest in these activities.

The way I read this was that people with high levels of education are more likely to attend regardless of income level. Whereas people of low education level don’t take on the characteristics shared by “recoverable” attendees as their income level rises. The first section I quoted above appears to say people with high levels of education become more likely to attend frequently as income goes up, but people with high levels of education and low income will have a tendency to attend at some point.

I scrutinized the original research report (which is in English) for a plain statement either supporting or refuting my reading of this, but I didn’t find a statement that clarified the matter for me.

What I was ultimately hoping to find was something that showed preference (or lack thereof) shaped by education was a greater barrier to participation than price. This would resonate with recent research results from a number of sources that suggest price isn’t as large a barrier as has been assumed.

A caveat to my caveats: While I continue to assert the differences between Spain and the U.S., the Spanish researchers themselves say their findings match that of U.S. researchers so don’t read my disclaimers as a diminishing the validity of the Spanish research on U.S. behavior.  I am just making it clear that I am not ignoring the distinction.

In the three activities, a very large group of absolute non-attendees is observed that it will be difficult to interest in cultural activities, especially in live performances and sites of cultural interest. This result is very general and similar to that obtained by Ateca Amestoy and Prieto Rodríguez (2013) for the United States.

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