Masks Still Matter A lot

Last week Colleen Dilenschneider released recent findings compiled by her colleagues at IMPACTS Experience about audience willingness to return to cultural organizations. By and large, mask wearing still matters a great deal to potential audiences.

She offers the caveat that this data was collected during first quarter of 2021 so attitudes may shift as vaccination rates increase and the weather trends warmer. However, she points out that mask requirements became the top concern in their surveys last July and the number of people identifying that as a concern only increased. In this most recent survey, it averaged 7.9 out of 10 nationally for interactions with any public serving entity, not just cultural organizations. (If you haven’t seen her data before, it is organized regionally in terms of similarity of attitudes which doesn’t always align with geographic proximity.)

Pay particular attention to the last paragraph below:

Most potential visitors lean toward masks being “absolutely essential,” despite variance by region. Nationally (and including states not shown here), those who plan to attend visitor-serving entities say that mandatory masks are essential at a value of 7.9 on a 10.0 scale. On the whole, people who plan to visit any cultural organization in the next three months consider face coverings as essential to their safety.


Not requiring masks makes a meaningful number of people in every region uncomfortable. And here’s the kicker: Research suggests that not requiring masks will have a much greater negative impact on attendance than requiring them for the vast majority of organizations.


Not only that, the top issue contributing to onsite dissatisfaction for cultural organizations is still staff members neglecting to enforce mask mandates and social distancing rules. The safety of visitors is now identified as a primary role for staff members according to guests. It’s in our best interests to take that expectation seriously.

Stop Killing Kittens

Last week Drew McManus encouraged arts marketers to break pre-Covid bad habits by renewed his plea to stop using cliched terms like “beloved.”  If you read his post closely you will notice he has been making the plea since 2014 when he created the hashtag #BanBeloved  (Which has probably be co-opted by those that oppose Toni Morrison’s novel of the same name.)

Drew asserts that every time an arts marketer uses the term “beloved,” a kitten dies.

So, you know if you won’t do it for the sake of your general community, think of the kittens.

Drew has identified a number of other objectionable adjectives, but others have reared their ugly heads and gotten over used in the interim. If you search your heart, you know what they are.

Earlier in April, Trevor O’Donnell made a similar plea about considering the language being used in marketing materials, encouraging people to focus on the audience and the shared experience.

Calling it a side-splitting, roll-in-the-aisles romp may be cute and catchy, and it may ring comfortingly familiar to older arts leaders, but it isn’t true and it’s not effective communication.

New audiences don’t respond to frivolous hyperbole. They want clear, honest, useful information that explains why your products matter to them. If what they’re looking for is a fun, stimulating way to create lasting memories with family, friends or loved ones, your job is to sell social experiences that offer lasting memories; i.e. if that memory is about sharing a funny play, you should probably say something like, “You’ll remember laughing together for a lifetime.”

O’Donnell attributes the use of hyperbole and focus on the organization vs. the audience to older arts administrators who are set in their ways. As I had noted a couple weeks back, there are a heck of a lot of advertisements for jobs at arts and culture organizations out there right now, particularly at the President/CEO/Vice-President level. It will be interesting if we see a significant shift in programming, promotional and operational practices over the next five years as a result of all this.

Is E-sports The Next Big College Degree?

So here is something to keep on your radar and  consider the long term implications – Activision Blizzard, one of the biggest names in video gaming, donated $25 million to the University of Michigan to help them launch an esports team.  If you are not familiar with esports it is basically teams of people competing against each other on some of the marquee video game titles.   The competitors may be sitting down, but reflexes, timing, strategy, leadership and teamwork are significant determinants in success.

It is already fairly widespread and lucrative as hell which means it will inevitably continue to expand. Especially if Covid or other pandemics continues to be prevalent because the teams communicate over headsets and can therefore be easily isolated from each other.

So it is no surprise that universities are beginning to get on board. Not only is it an area of interest for students, some of them are already competing professionally.

Kotick’s enthusiasm to establish esports at Michigan is part of a bigger movement that has legitimized gaming as a path to a college degree and career.

There are nearly 200 colleges and universities nationwide with varsity esports programs and more than $16 million in scholarships is awarded to esports athletes each year.

The growth of collegiate esports allows institutions and their students to tap into a market that is expected to surpass $1.5 billion by 2023, per Esports Ecosystem Report.

Not only do video games present competition for live performance, (Netflix CEO Reed Hastings said video gaming was a bigger source of worry for them than Disney & HBO streaming services), but also a potentially expanding source of employment for creatives.

The small university in southern Ohio at which I worked three years ago had long been recognized as a top 10 video game design program. It taught both programmers and artists and included classes in composing and designing sound/music for video games. There wasn’t an acting for video games class, but it did have a motion capture studio and independent companies in town were working on related technologies.

It is a lot more difficult to design and program for video games than most people imagine. Increasing demands for realism mean serious calculus for the physics and intense execution of detail in the art. As computing capacity and processing improves, it is only going to get worse–or better if you are a highly skilled creative being sought after by gaming companies.

After realizing their professors were right and enjoying playing video games does not translate into being able to create them, many students would change the focus of their majors. But they were still pretty adept and enthusiastic video gamers. And so 3-4 years ago, that small university in rural Ohio started an esports roster alongside their athletics teams.

Now there were other universities that started esports teams a few years ago as well, but the fact that a small university could have an organized a roster of ~50 competing on 6-7 game titles for years while the University of Michigan was operating at a recreational level provides some indication about the shifting dynamics of who is and can participate in esports.

Introspection and Funding Equity in NC

Equity in funding decisions has become a hot topic of late.  Last week on the Americans for the Arts blog, Krista Terrell, Acting President for Arts & Science Council of Charlotte/Mecklenburg (ASC), the local arts agency for that North Carolina city and county, made a post discussing how an internal analysis of funding practices revealed just how lopsided distribution of funds had been in the period of 1991-2020. They found that

“…nine institutions each received more in operating support than all ALAANA (African, Latinx, Asian, Arab, Native American) organizations combined.”

Terrell admits that fighting the inertia of status quo to effect change is going to take a lot of effort. She observed that in 1992 ASC fired the majority of its all-white board drawn from a core group of affluent ZIP codes in an attempt to diversify representation only to have the board gradually revert to an all-white membership again.

Likewise, there is institutional resistance to ASC’s desire to implement more equitable funding practices.

One president of a legacy organization told me, “I’m all for changing inequities as it relates to access,” but when I asked their thoughts about changing inequities related to funding, I was met with a long pause. If ASC wants its funding to go further, I was told, it should invest more in legacy organizations with existing infrastructure instead of grassroots organizations.

This is “the lie” at work. Think about what was said through the lens of equity. Equity is about everyone having the resources they need to move along together.

Another legacy organization wrote a Letter to the Editor. Some asked why I did not include the work they are doing and why they could not have been readers of the report and provide feedback. I was accused of not being inclusive.

This is not happening in a vacuum. Earlier this month, I saw a piece in the Charlotte Observer which reported the city of Charlotte was proposing to revamp the way the arts were funded, creating a different funding agency/board. There are indications across a number of news stories that existing funding methods were no longer sustainable.

It is unclear to me whether any of this is in response to ASC’s self study and therefore an attempt to make the process more inclusive or a reaction against that attempt. While the city is promising more money for the arts, the article says artists in Charlotte are skeptical and demanding greater transparency, equity and accountability in arts funding practices.

Meanwhile, the county of Mecklenburg says they have no intention of getting involved in doing the work they feel the Arts & Science Council is doing so well.

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