Follow My Curious Example

Fast Company had a quick piece on the habits of curious people. I didn’t get past the second sentence, “Answers are more valued than inquisitive thought, and curiosity is trained out of us,” before I started wondering how arts organizations could engender more curiosity in potential program participants.

Moving from the statement that “curiosity is trained out of us”, it is easy to immediately blame the problem of declining audiences on the education system for valuing correct answers over inquiry and exploration. In a sense though that is just a reflection of society as a whole where having the wrong opinion on social or political issues can see you pilloried in your community or on social media.

Add to that the rising cost of attending performances and it becomes a little easier to understand why people may be averse to new experiences without some assurances that they will enjoy themselves and not be challenged too much.

One of the lines from the article that follows about “…the average teacher, who peppers kids with 291 questions a day and waits an average of one second for a reply,” reminded me of my teacher education classes where we were counseled not to be afraid of the silence between asking a question and getting an answer.

I have often mentioned that there are no special techniques or theater games that will make someone more creative. The techniques and games are useless in themselves, it is the act of taking the time apart to engage in “non-productive” activities that has value.

That time might be spent playing games, sitting quietly or contemplating how the segments of your sidewalk were formed to leave space for a tree. The leaves, bark or texture of concrete might give you insight into how to design a new type of fabric—or result in nothing at all (at least today).

But people see value in acquiring these skills for their workplace. How do you inspire people to want to become more curious? As they say, you can’t make a person change, they have to want it for themselves.

I am not sure there is a clear way of doing so other than modeling the practice for others.

Ironically, it may best be accomplished by replacing silence with silence.

Yeah, that is a little glib, but what I mean is replace the absence of an opportunity to ask questions and explore with the silence that follows asking a question.

Some of the best Q&A sessions I have experienced with an artist are when they ask: what did you think; what questions do you have; what did this make you feel? And then they waited, unafraid of the silence that might follow. Generally what happens is that after a few tentative questions, people decide it is okay to raise their hands and you end the session with unanswered questions.

But the artist or facilitator or tour guide has to be skilled at handling these interactions. A way of modeling curious behavior is to use some of the suggestions in the FastCompany piece – asking audience members/participants questions about what they think, how they felt, why they had a reaction, and encouraging them to turn those questions back on the facilitators. When the facilitators answer that they don’t know and lead the participants to hypothesize, they serve as a good example of curious behavior.

You may be thinking, we do Q&As and tours of our facility all the time, it isn’t really helping matters.

A couple questions for you though–how well do you promote these opportunities? As much as you promote your shows?

I’m sure like me, you have had people come up and say, I have lived here all my life and this is the first time I have been in this amazing building. Or this is the first time I have been in a performing arts center/museum, etc in my life.

Now with all the advertising and marketing of shows you do, you know you have been unsuccessful at getting a lot of people in your community in your doors.

Just think then, if you aren’t pushing the Q&As, lectures, tours, workshops, classes, as hard as you do your central activities, there are probably people who regularly attend your events who probably aren’t aware these activities are available.

Just last year I had someone who attended a Q&A who was amazed by the very concept of being able to have a Q&A with performers. Not with those particular performers, with the fact that the opportunity even existed. I took it for granted people knew arts organizations did this sort of thing from time to time when the chance presented itself, but that was a mistaken assumption.

As I sit here writing this post, I thought about the board meeting we are having on stage in two weeks. My guess is that 3/4 of the board members probably haven’t been backstage even after years of service on the board and I should probably have staff on hand to help give tours and stimulate their curiosity.

In some respects, encouraging people to be curious can be as easy as letting them into the less public areas of your building and allowing them to touch an old piece of scenery you walk by everyday to get to the microwave.

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 (artshacker.com) 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. (http://www.creatingconnection.org/about/)

I am currently the 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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