Social Experience is Important Everywhere

I was listening to the CEO of the county YMCA finishing his comments about the athletic portion of the Kroc Center project I am advising the Salvation Army on when I started to notice some familiar themes so I began jotting down notes.

He was talking about how working out was becoming an increasingly social experience for people. Plenty of condos are being built these days featuring exercise rooms as selling points but no one is using them. As a result, the rooms are eventually being turned to other uses and the condos are asking the YMCA and other athletic clubs if they want the equipment.

This trend has also impacted the way the YMCA (and apparently other athletic facilities) are approaching developing memberships. There are now spaces called starter rooms where people can work out under specific direction with a small group of others with whom they share some connection (gender, age, ethnicity, weight).

These rooms and others like it (i.e. aerobics studios) no longer have mirrors in them. There used to be a focus on monitoring ones form and thus the mirrors. Many people didn’t want to see how bad they looked in the mirror so out the went. There has also been a shift in focus from fitness to well-being.

Once people have been working out for awhile and refined their physique and technique, they move out under their own motivation into the familiar bigger room with the mirrors where they can monitor their form and progress.

Another thing he mentioned was that the YMCA was partnering with the Boys and Girls Clubs to offer programs to get entire families participating. The Y sees its strength as getting adults involved and of course Boys and Girls Club gets the kids.

So in terms of the arts–we already know that attendance is very socially based and that the lack of people in the larger audience with whom one feels they have a connection can cause individuals to feel less inclined to attend.

There have been a lot of discussions about strategies for attracting members of different groups be it age, race or income level to the arts. The parallel of the YMCA’s new exercisers would be people who didn’t attend the arts very much but were interested in doing so. Perhaps to engage this segment of the population what is needed is an opportunity to participate in a structured arts experience in a small group environment.

The type of people the group is comprised will depend on the community. In some places and age cohorts, income and profession differences may prove more of a barrier to bonding with other group members than race or gender. I frankly don’t have any ideas at this point about what the arts experience should look like other than being structured to provide a safe environment in which to become informed and comfortable with attending an event. The eventual goal, of course, is to have people move to the “big room” with confidence.

I am betting there are organizations out there with programs that have proved to remove attendance anxiety that might be adapted for smaller groups. I imagine that any organization trying to build a similar program from scratch would find it took a long time and great investment of resources to simply let the target groups know an experience tailor made for them existed. It is generally known where one goes to exercise, but who knows where one goes to gain confidence in the arts? Perhaps a humorous ad in the spirit of the 98 lbs weakling losing his girl on the beach is the way to go.

One thing to note so you don’t get too discouraged. People are motivated to start exercising for many reasons and the three month mark is a time when many people disappear from the gyms. If you do get some sort of regular arts experience program together, the reality is that some of your regulars may lose their motivation or decided they achieved at least part of what they set out to and drift away, too.

I wonder if a change in focus akin to the fitness to well-being shift is needed. For lack of a better idea, perhaps the transition should be away from the arts as a source of entertainment and culture to well-being of the whole person as well. This could prove a little tricky since the exercise folks encourage people to abandon sedentary activities like watching TV for walking. The performing arts will be encouraging people to abandon one sedentary activity for another.

Pitched correctly, the idea of the arts as part of the well-being of the whole person could be more productive for the arts community. For one thing, if the concept was generally subscribed to it wouldn’t be so hard to justify why governments should fund the arts over human services like AIDS hospices. Both are important to the well-being of a person. In fact, government funding has made it easier for me to give free tickets to AIDS and drug treatment programs.

Disseminating the idea that it is good for people to spend 2 hours a week (just 30 minutes every other day!) in an arts activity, be it attending or creating, taps into the equivalent message people are getting about exercise. Well Being = Regular Exercise + Regular Arts.

The whole concept actually strengthens a message that is already out there, namely that arts exposure makes babies smarter, helps kids in math and socialization, etc. True, the whole Mozart while pregnant leading to higher IQ has been debunked, but the impulse is there to be tapped into. It is just as important to show those who are intimidated by the idea of Mozart that there are plenty of opportunities to access the arts in ways they are comfortable.

And just as families should exercise together, they should experience arts together. The family is the most basic social group. It isn’t a fluke that so many of the advertisements about getting fit, (I guess it’s increasing your wellness now), employ the image of family members motivating each other.

Creating this type of environment relies on effort from everyone and benefits no specific organization since the point will be to encourage people to take pottery classes, knit, paint, dance, antique, attend performances, sing, attend gallery walks, see art films, engage in graphic design, create videos to post on YouTube…

Oh no, we get back to encouraging the very things that distract people from the arts right now!!! I think part of why the exercise industry has moved away from fitness in favor of well-being is because it is tough to tell people exactly how they should be exercising so they seek victory in just getting them to do something. Likewise, the arts world may have to be satisfied with getting people to expand the scope of the something they do just a little bit.

About Joe Patti

I have been writing Butts in the Seats (BitS) on topics of arts and cultural administration since 2004 (yikes!). Given the ever evolving concerns facing the sector, I have yet to exhaust the available subject matter. In addition to BitS, I am a founding contributor to the ArtsHacker ( website where I focus on topics related to boards, law, governance, policy and practice.

I am also an evangelist for the effort to Build Public Will For Arts and Culture being helmed by Arts Midwest and the Metropolitan Group. (

My most recent role was as Executive Director of the Grand Opera House in Macon, GA.

Among the things I am most proud are having produced an opera in the Hawaiian language and a dance drama about Hawaii's snow goddess Poli'ahu while working as a Theater Manager in Hawaii. Though there are many more highlights than there is space here to list.


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