More Playing In The Streets

Yesterday BikeWalk Macon sponsored an Open Streets event in town.  Open Streets is a program that started about 30 years ago in Columbia. It closes streets down and turns it over the use of the community. (There is also a Play Street program I wrote about that started in London that appears to have a similar aim.) If you have been reading this blog for any length of time, you know this is the type of thing I am definitely into checking out.

Fortunately for me, one of the streets they chose to shutdown was right in front of my building so I didn’t have to go far.  There were a lot of activities set up along the streets that were closed down – corn hole games, yoga classes, line dancing, skateboard obstacles, sidewalk chalk, etc.

As you might imagine, one of the biggest activities enabled by shutting down the streets was bike riding. I wasn’t sure but it appeared the local bike repair shop or someone might have brought down loaner bikes for people who didn’t have one because there was a big collection around their tent.

As I rode around, I was amazed by just how large a swath of street they ended up closing down. There was a significant section of a major northeast-southwest road that was shut down. Just when I thought I was reaching the limit, I realized I was only approaching a soft closure where cars were allowed to cross through an intersection.

Having such a long distance without vehicular traffic  was a great opportunity to get some exercise, but I almost felt like too much was closed down. As many activities and tent as there were, it couldn’t fill all the available space. As the only one ranging that far out, I felt somewhat guilty blocks upon blocks of street were being shut down for my own use.

After I got tired of riding around, I grabbed a chair from my apartment and just sat and watched people move by. The formality of creating an occasion to use a space seemed to provide an opportunity for people to get out an meet their neighbors in ways that wandering or riding your bikes downtown on a Sunday afternoon wouldn’t normally afford.

The organizers might have worked out something with the local transit company to help people who lived outside the area come downtown to play because I saw people loading their bikes on a city bus that didn’t seem to be immediately departing on a set route.

One thing I was most interested in checking out was the inclusion of Pokemon GO augmented reality in the Open Streets experience. The Knight Foundation has formed a relationship with Pokemon Go developer Niantic and partnered on a fellowship program. (Disclosure: My organization receives funding from both The Knight Foundation and Community Foundation of Central Georgia, both of which provided funding for the Open Streets event.)

After listening to what they were telling people waiting on line at the tent and speaking with the Macon fellow for 7-8 minutes about what they were trying to achieve, I was a little disappointed because it just seemed like they had set up an enhanced Pokemon GO experience where there would be more Pokemon to hunt than usual. I thought they might be doing some more along the lines of the projects in the Knight Prototype Fund where they would experimenting with new ways to use augmented reality.

But then I saw this tweet this morning that said they were using augmented reality as part of a scavenger hunt to help people become more aware of historic locations and public art.

This is the sort of application of the technology I had envisioned might be happening. I don’t know if there was some sort of miscommunication between myself and the fellow where he assumed I knew the scavenger hunt was highlighting history and art and I assumed it was about finding the Pokemon on the posters they were handing out. Had I known it was the former, I would have accepted his offer to join the hunt so I could investigate the experience.

I may have the opportunity to speak with the local Knight Foundation officer in a week or so and hope to ask her for some clarification about what people were being lead to do.

If you are interested in bringing the Open Streets program to your community, you can learn more about it on the project website where they have toolkits to help you get started.

Feeling Sliced and Stretched Trying To Meet Evaluative Measures? There Is Good Reason

Last week I linked to the unabridged version of Carter Gillies’ article for the Arts Professional (UK). The shorter print version has since appeared on their site.

In his response in the comments section of the Arts Professional article, Carter employs some evocative imagery to support his contention that just because you can measure something doesn’t mean the metric tells you anything of value.

If you have been having a difficult time wrapping your head around the arguments I have been laying out about how arts and creativity are valued, Carter’s illustration of the idea might help toward better understanding.

There is an ancient Greek Myth that shows the dangers of confusing our measures with something subject to measurement. In it Procrustes guarantees that the visitors to his inn would fit their beds perfectly…. But Procrustes turns the situation on its head and instead measures the fit by how well the people are measured *by* the bed. In other words, the people are stretched out if they are too small or chopped down if they are too long. Gruesome!

…Do we strap the arts into a framework that satisfies specifically non-artistic values, force a conformity that exists only in conformity obsessed minds? Do we sacrifice all that art can be merely to satisfy a diminished version that is neat and tidy, but itself merely a butchered example of what art does and what it should aim for?

If Arts Council England wants to impose a quality metric for the arts, they have a bureaucratic right to do so. Unfortunately. What they do not have is a right to speak for what things count as quality in the arts, or by extension what the arts themselves are or should be. If they want to take on the role of Procrustes let them be honest about it. But don’t let them tell you that what they are imposing is really what counts as the arts…

Now before you start mumbling indignantly as you recognize how government funders, foundations, etc are applying irrelevant measures in an attempt to define the value of art, recall that we all ultimately end up creating personal definitions and measures of what is and is not worthwhile art. It is just that most of us don’t wield the money and influence that broadly shapes policy and practice for other arts and cultural organizations

Are Church Planting Techniques Suited To The Arts?

I was recently listening to an episode of This American Life on church planting and found it a little strange to be listening to people use venture capitalist terminology to describe efforts to build new worship communities as “target the unchurched.”

Reporter Eric Mennel mentions attending a conference where the conversation is

“…about “kingdom return on investment.” Or “evangelistic networking” is one I’ve read, or “corporate renewal dynamics.”

“Launch” is a big word that they use in both worlds. They talk about “launch Sundays” and “launch budgets” in church planting. And the framing of what they’re doing is in business terms, right?

As I continued to listen, they started to mention that these efforts were heavily bankrolled by established churches,

So a lot of the startup capital comes from the biggest denominations. The Southern Baptists– they spend tens of millions of dollars a year on church planting. But a lot of church plants actually get their funding directly from megachurches– established churches that have thousands of members.

That got me thinking that you don’t see many large arts organizations doing something similar where they provide seed funding to enable more nimble arts organizations to go out to target the un-artsed.”

It wasn’t long ago that Nina Simon made a similar point about church planting and the arts on her blog.

Perhaps I should have known there would be parallels with the arts because This American Life titled the episode, “If You Build It, Will They Come?” evoking the “Field of Dreams” mentality we have been urged to abandon.

However, what I really found fascinating was the parallels between the problems one church planter had with diversifying the demographics of church planting and those of arts organizations trying to do the same thing with their program participants.

This American Life (TAL) spoke to Watson Jones III who became really excited by the church planting model, but noticed that pretty much everyone at this church planting conferences was Caucasian. The TAL reporters confirmed that most church planting happens in gentrifying or affluent urban neighborhoods or suburbs.

Jones felt things were wide open for planting churches in urban neighborhoods for people of color.  As I referenced before,  there is some surprising infrastructure for church planters. Jones got training in budgeting, fundraising, creating a business plan and mission statement for his church, plus an 18 month residency at a church plant site. He ended up landing about $100,000/year funding for three years to support his planting efforts.

They ended up doing a lot of things arts organizations do when trying to attract new audiences– handing out flyers and candy on the streets trying to get people to attend gatherings at homes, coffee houses and other non-traditional venues.

While the non-traditional worship services at funky, cool locations are pretty much the core identity of the church planting process that helps attract new members, it had the opposite effect for communities of color.

Watson Jones

….And one lady told me– she said, you guys are a cult. You call me when you get a church. Especially, I think, among black people, the more out of the box or avant garde you are, the less likely you are to be trusted.

Theologically, we say all day long, the church is the people of God. The people in your city, in your neighborhood, does not understand church apart from a building, a preacher, a choir or a praise team, and something that looks like a church service, period.


AJ Smith

Yeah. I mean, we were going to be the people who were out there on the streets, pastors who were very much present with the people. And that’s how we’ll grow the church. That didn’t work.

As I am listening to all this, I can’t but help think about how this is literally out of Nina Simon’s TEDx Talk on the Art of Relevance.

I mean look at this still. If you can’t see the stenciled sign on the bottom of the slide she is showing, it says “House of Worship In A Den of Sin.”

Nina uses this picture to discuss how some people will see this as a welcoming  place and others will see it as scary.

These guys trying to plant a church are running into a similar situation where the lack of a formal building and familiar experience was an impediment to people’s willingness to commit to this fledgling church. (Unfortunately, even when they did get a physical place in which to hold services, they had problems attracting a consistent group.)

This podcast provides many things to think about regarding the efforts of arts organizations to diversify the groups they serve. The foremost of which may be whether the design and execution of impromptu experiences in non-traditional spaces reflect affluent Caucasian ideals about what outreach efforts to those underserved by the arts looks like and subsequently serve to largely appeal to a similar demographic.

You Couldn’t Tie People To Railroad Tracks Because It Was Copyrighted

Copyright may seem like a pretty dry subject, but the court cases that lead to the development of the law and theory surrounding copyright law can be pretty interesting. HowlRound posted the transcript of  Michael Lueger’s podcast discussion with Dr. Derek Miller about some of the early copyright cases that applied to theater and music performance.

One of the interesting cases they discuss is competing expressions of the iconic melodrama train track scene where someone escapes just as the train arrives. Apparently playwright Augustin Daly was the first to write such a scene and playwright Dion Boucicault copied the idea. The courts ruled in favor of Daly saying that even though every other element of Boucicault’s play was different, the common action was key to the drama and thus was protected.

(By the way, according to Atlas Obscura, contrary to the trope, Daly’s play, and even many silent films, had a man on the tracks and the leading lady rescuing him.)

Interestingly, when the guy producing Boucicault’s play tried to reach an early settlement by licensing the train effect from Daly’s show, “The court actually says, no, no, no. The effect is not something you can copyright, … You can’t own the effect, but you can own the action.”

This general concept holds to today where you can copyright the expression of the idea, but not the name or the idea itself. You can, of course, trademark names and patent effects, but those are different types of protections than copyright.

Another fascinating situation happened when Thomas Hamblin’s Bowery Theatre was doing poorly but Charles Thorne’s Chatham Theatre around the corner was doing great. Thorne was getting ready to do a play by Joseph S. Jones so Hamblin goes to Jones and makes a deal to open Jones’ play on the same night in an attempt to put Thorne out of business. They were planning to have Jones sue Thorne “for violating your [Jones’] rights to produce the play.”

However, the courts say since Jones was working for a Mr. Pelby when he wrote the play, Pelby had the right to sell the performance rights to Thorne.

But what came next is really interesting:

I’ve got a lot of evidence here from the New York Herald, which goes all in for Thorne, and they argue that by trying to shut down Thorne’s production, Jones and Hamblin of the Bowery Theatre are limiting the audience’s ability to compare the artistic products at the Chatham and the Bowery. It’s sort of a free trade argument that they’re making.

In other words, according to Thorne and to the Herald … Thorne actually writes an editorial that appears in the Herald … if the productions are allowed to compete with each other, both theatres are going to do even better artistic work than they would otherwise. They say Hamblin is trying to shut down artistic competition and to give you a bad product, but we’re in favor of a good product and letting Thorne do the play. Legally, actually, the case is sort of a weird, unimportant footnote, in terms of the legal precedent it establishes, but it helped in studying this case to teach me how theatrical copyright battles get both parties thinking about the relationship between a work’s artistic value and its monetary value.

It is interesting to me that they get into this argument that having competing versions of the same production going on around the corner from each other is providing people with a choice and opportunity to decide which is the better production.

Nowadays, when you try to license performance rights you can run into all sorts of restrictions because a 2000 seat venue 200 miles from you planning to do the same production 12 months after you mount your production in a 200 seat theater.

While that is kind of extreme, I think the basic idea that people are willing to pay a lower price for a discount version of the same product and cannibalize your potential audience is a real concern.

Even in 1841 when Thorne and Hamblin were butting heads, if people wanted to see a show a significant number would probably accept lower production quality for 25 cents at the Bowery versus paying $1 at the Chatham.

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