All right. A little gripe time here. I have been nursing a sense of dissatisfaction for a couple weeks now but it sort of came to a head when I saw the title of Ceci Dadisman’s recent post, “Unpopular Opinion: It is our job to remove barriers to engagement.” She talks about removing perceptual barriers, but the source of my dissatisfaction is related to physical barriers.
I had submitted a grant this past Spring and recently had an opportunity to listen to the panelists discuss our application over the internet. There were a number of criticisms which I can concede as deficiencies with our application. There were other places where panelists misread what we wrote, but I can understand that given the number of applications they read. (Though I did panic momentarily as I scurried to find the document we submitted.)
What annoyed me was a criticism of our response to a question about a recent program that had an impact on the community. Being new to my position, I had spoke with staff, board members, volunteers and long attending audience members about what events had made an impact. This resulted in some good conversations about the distinction between impactful experiences and popular, well-attended experiences. I wrote our grant response about the performance program that many people had mentioned had an unexpected impact.
Then, because I had the room, I mentioned that something that can’t be discounted was the impact a renovation to the physical spaces of the facility had on the community. I discussed the fact that it is very easy for people to make the decision to stay at home and every element associated with going to a live event from restaurants, to babysitters, to parking must align conveniently for people to make the decision to go out.
I went on to talk about the pre-renovation experience where the line to the women’s restroom in our facility was so long that it extended out the front door and the men’s room often had to be closed to men in order to accommodate women. Still intermission would need to be extended. I spoke about the restroom renovation garnering the most effusive response from people. I explained that as amusing as it might be to think toilets are the most popular part of a renovation, this represented a very real impact on the community perception of the venue and shouldn’t be dismissed especially given most attendance decisions and arrangements are predominantly made by women.
My mention of the impact of the renovations met with some criticism by the panel. What annoyed me most about this was that the panel was comprised of artists or those associated with arts entities drawn from throughout the state. I could understand if panelists drawn from the general public didn’t understand the importance of the physical environment in arts and cultural experiences.
I intentionally wrote about the importance of environment in order to introduce the idea to funders and policymakers. What I hadn’t expected was a dismissal by arts and cultural practitioners.
As Ceci mentions in her article, as insiders, arts and cultural practitioners can be blind to some of the perceptual barriers we erect around and experience. I guess there also needs to be more frequent mention of the influence tangible physical elements play on the experience, just to be aware of these factors even if you can’t exert control over them.
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