Building Connections May Not Require Improving Connectivity

A few years back I became interested in research that showed that Black, Latinx, and Hispanic people who lived near public parks don’t necessarily feel comfortable using them so a CityLab story on that topic caught my eye. The story itself discusses how mayors of cities around the country are still trying to figure out how to make public spaces more welcoming to everyone, especially as people are gravitating toward parks as places to assemble during the pandemic.

There is a lot of history that factors into the discomfort and wariness people feel in relation to parks and many cities aren’t doing the best job of it. Despite multiple police related shootings of Black men in the past few years, apparently Minneapolis is among the best cities in terms of trying to bring equity to their public park system.

“Beginning in 2011, the city’s park and recreation board started working on what she and her colleagues say is the nation’s first comprehensive racial equity plan for parks, to be reviewed and updated every year. It came up with seven criteria to ensure that park funding would be allocated to areas that needed it most — including the racial make-up of surrounding neighborhoods, the general and youth population of an area, and the condition and lifespan of the parks themselves.

“It’s not just about investment and capital planning; it’s about procurement, and youth and community engagement,” Lusk said. “It’s about staffing diversity — if they are representative of their communities — and the siting of community gardens in areas they haven’t been historically.”

When I followed links to previous stories and studies that have been done, there was one story that reinforced the need to do thorough, inclusive surveying if your goal is to be welcoming to everyone. What a study in Houston found was that Whites, Blacks and Latinos had different priorities for parks.

“…the majority of respondents replied that they wanted their neighborhoods and parks linked to biking and walking paths. The problem with that survey is that about two-thirds of the respondents were white with household incomes over $75,000…

To correct this misrepresentation, a group of researchers from Rice University, conducted another survey, … This one was targeted at African-American and Latino neighborhoods … Lo and behold, the priorities differed from those of the initial survey. As the researchers write in the report about the surveys, “More Inclusive Parks Planning: Park Quality and Preferences for Park Access and Amenities”:

‘Neighborhood connectivity to parks was not a salient issue among park users in these neighborhoods, although this had been a primary finding from the 2014 Master Plan Survey and a favored option of 31 percent of respondents in our closed-ended question. Instead, they envisioned a diverse set of new or improved amenities—most prominently, restrooms and water fountains, and an array of recreational infrastructure—in better maintained and safer parks.’

In fact, connectivity was ranked last among priorities for black and Latino Houstonians. What do they want for their parks? Not only clean, functioning public bathrooms, but also better lighting to make parks safer at night and better playground equipment that’s not prone to breaking down.

I call attention to this because many arts organizations have become more determined to be more welcoming to a wider range of their community, but may be making the wrong assumptions about what everyone feels they need.

One of the first things I paid attention to when I started my current job going on three years ago was where bus stops were located relative to my venue and how late they ran, assuming that more people would consider participating in events if public transportation was available. I know it is a big factor in my community when it comes to getting to work, but perhaps it isn’t among the top impediments for everyone when it comes to attending a performance. (It may be easier to coordinate car pooling with family/friends to a single event than getting to work every day, for instance.)

Being viewed as welcoming to more people is likely to require putting in the time to collect data and build relationships with the people who can provide an accurate picture of what is most important.

Looks Like Streaming Is Here To Stay A Bit Longer

I saw on FastCompany that Live Nation is wiring some of their venues for livestreaming and wondered what, if any impact it may have on the way performing arts venues operate in the future.

This is potentially a brilliant business move, because not only will livestreaming repeatedly capture superfans who would happily spend an evening and $120-$600 on tickets, but it will increase access for fans whose towns and budgets do not align with tours. Perhaps more critically, it will reach the many (many) semi-fans who would not tromp through crowds to see Pink, but would totally pay $15-40 to project her onto their living room wall.

Here are some of the things this got me thinking-

Pretty much at every community in which I have worked, people will complain there is too much they want to participate going on at the same time and they wish organizations would coordinate their calendars. (Of course there is often an overlap with the people who say there is nothing to do in the community.) Am I going to be in a position where I not only have to worry about what is going on in immediate area, but also a big event 300 miles away that people who live in a 10 mile radius of my venue are staying home to see?

There is plenty of precedent for this in relation to college sports. I have frequently been advised not to program during home football games of universities 200 miles away, during NCAA finals and similar events. Now granted, I don’t have empirical evidence this is a factor since it is difficult to survey people who chose not to come, but these events are frequently cited as a reason for low attendance.

Another concern is that performers may see less of a need to tour so extensively if they feel live streaming is extending their reach to people who live in the spaces between major markets, but won’t travel that far to see the show. Touring isn’t cheap or easy so it isn’t inconceivable that performers will skip places that may have gone in the past, especially if any sort of formal or informal social distancing conventions persist in the coming years. That decision will rob many communities of the economic impact of those tours.

The negative impact of casinos showrooms on performing arts venues has been widely acknowledged due to their ability to pay performers extremely well and require non-compete clauses over a broad geographic radius. I am not sure that Live Nation venues would require similarly large radii given the appeal of livestream broadcasts are not geographically bound, but performers feeling satisfied they are reaching who they need to reach via livestream may inadvertently have the same effect.

Now granted, this last hypothesis while possible, may not manifest. If there is enough perceived demand in smaller markets, touring groups are likely to make more money with a live performance than they would from streaming it 200 miles away. In fact, the streaming may increase the interest in seeing the liveshow.

As with so many things, its the unanticipated impacts of trends for which one needs to remain alert. Even if you don’t see your operation as being on the same scale as those of Live Nation’s, the ripples may impact you just the same. I can see plenty of positive potential as well as other performers move to fill in the gaps and find themselves thriving.

Jigglers Were About Spending Time Together, But It Sold Alot of Jell-O

Economist Tyler Cowen had a rather extensive conversation with poet and former NEA Chair, Dana Gioia, on a plethora of topics. The one that most quickly grabbed me was right out of the gate when Cowen asks Gioia about his success at marketing Jell-O. He said it took him 2.5 years to conceptualize and then sell General Foods on Jell-o Jigglers which ended up reversing a 25 year downward trend and doubling sales overnight.

Gioia says that while General Foods was the best food company around in the 1950s, by the 1980s they were foundering because they didn’t know how to re-imagine their products. If you grew up in the 70s and 80s, you may remember that there were all these recipes that involved using Jell-O in intricate ways. (My family had one of their cookbooks and actually made a few.)

Gioia’s approach was to greatly simplify the use to re-imagine the product and make it relevant to consumers.

…rather than creating an elaborate recipe, which was what we were trying to sell people for 40 years, simply a way that you could add water with your kids, put it in the refrigerator and have it ready as a finger food in one hour.

…it was the way of using three times as much Jell-O for an occasion in which people would never use Jell-O, which is to make your own gummy bears. It became a mom-kid activity. We sold every box of Jell-O in the United States for several months.

When I read that, it made me think in the 1980s Gioia was basically doing what we in the arts have only just started to do recently –focus on how our product creates connection with family and friends.

Gioia also talks about how he brought a poet’s humanities based creativity to solve problems for a disciplined, data-driven corporation:

I was a poet, but I needed a job, so, I went to business school, I got an MBA, and I ended up in marketing at General Foods which is a highly analytic company with a very military organization. It was absolutely fantastic at managing existing businesses with a maximum of efficiency. What they were not good at was, in a sense, reconceptualizing a business that was in trouble, because they would simply try to do more or less of what they had done before.

…but with each promotion at General Foods, actually the particular skills I had, which was in a sense of — I’m very good at reconceptualizing things, taking a solution that people have had, breaking it apart, and creating a new solution. I essentially brought creativity that was completely in command of the numbers, if you can understand. That’s a very fairly rare combination, and I was able to transform several businesses there.

Definitely lessons in there for the arts and culture sector as they try to reconstitute and reinvent themselves in the coming years. Cowen and Gioia go on to talk about poetry, religion, opera (“What is opera except the suffering of people with high voices.”) among other things throughout the interview.

There Are A Lot Of Arts Jobs Being Advertised. Let’s Pay Attention To Who Is Getting Hired

Drew McManus tweeted today that he was two resumes submissions away from being able to launch the candidate resume feature on the Arts Admin Jobs site. So if you are looking for a job, or looking to hire, check the site out.

I am going to take this opportunity to raise a question that has been bouncing around my head for a number of months now– what is the state of employment in arts administration?

There has been a lot of conversation about the willingness of audiences to return to arts and cultural venues and events, but where do things stand with staff and creatives?

I am asking because I have been seeing a TON of employment listings just on a passive basis for every level of administration at organizations of various sizes. When I started to actively look at job sites to see where things stood, I was pretty flabbergasted to see how many screens I had to advance through just to review all the openings listed in the previous seven day period and so there were so many more listings after that.

Executive level positions seem to be over represented and there are surprising number at large institutions. It may be that once those jobs are filled there will be a surge in listings for lower level positions.

I am really curious to know what has happened to cause this. Yes, there is an increased sense of optimism which would lead organizations to staff up again, but why aren’t they hiring back laid off staff?

Have those furloughed staff chosen not to return/left the industry? Is there an attempt to take this opportunity to diversify the composition of staff and replace people to contributed to toxic work environments?

Have people on the executive level chosen to retire at this point? Is the financial outlook for the organization such that executive level staff don’t feel they are suited to revitalize it or operate under the constraints that will exist moving forward?

One thing that has become clear over the last year is that companies of all types need to examine how expectations have shifted. If people are used to running organizations that are imbued with a certain sense of grandeur and that is no longer possible financially or prudent if the organization wishes present itself as relevant in the community, these leaders may decide it is best to step aside in favor of another.

I would really love it if folks could share any insight they have about openings in their own organization or local community.

I also think that we should collectively pay attention to who is being hired into these positions.  Take a look at the job boards that serve your particular discipline and make note of the open positions and then in 6-9 months visit the websites of those places or seek out news stories to see who was hired and what ambitions the organization hoped they would achieve.

Send this to a friend