Who Gave You Your First Break?

Tweets responding to UK based Arts Emergency’s new campaign were filling my Twitter feed today. I have written about them a couple times before. They are essentially focused on cultivating the next generation of creative workers through training opportunities, scholarships and mentoring.

The organization’s name and raison d’etre is premised on the idea that cuts in funding nationally have created an emergency for the future of the creative economy in the UK.  Their newest push is #BreakTheGlass, as in “In Case of Emergency, Break The Glass.”

What I really admire about their execution of this awareness campaign is that they aren’t focusing on the negative consequences that cause their organization so much concern, instead they have asked people to tag & tweet about the person(s) who “gave you some key advice or encouragement early in your career.”

Today my feed was packed with people calling out those who helped them get jobs in theater, in broadcasting, print media, etc. I usually view Twitter with a chronological order setting and there were so many people talking about those who gave them their first big break, I was scrolling, scrolling, and scrolling only to find I was still viewing tweets that were only 5 hours old.

I don’t want to horn in on Arts Emergency’s initiative, but maybe folks here in the US need to pick up the tune and call out those for whose help we are grateful. October is Arts & Humanities Month which would make it a suitable time. Or if we don’t want to steal attention from Arts Emergency, next month around Thanksgiving would be appropriate as well.

Ultimately, over the long term I think advocacy for arts and culture needs to have positive messaging like this that doesn’t focus on economic impact, test scores and behavioral outcomes as benefits. Talking about mentors and being grateful for opportunities and investment of trust and faith is a good way to emphasize the benefits of arts and culture in cultivating relationships and reinforcing the social fabric without explicitly making those claims.

When You Actually Want Your Sidewalk To Fall To Disrepair

More great stories of artists being part of infrastructure projects, this time from a Next City article that came out last week. I have written about these type of projects before and one of my favorite go-to examples is the Green Line project in St. Paul, MN which employed artists to help mitigate the impact light rail construction on nearby businesses.

This recent Next City piece discusses a similar effort in the small town of Grand Marais, MN that was also seeing the impact of construction:

She began by interviewing village residents about detours in their lives and turned their stories into a playful scavenger hunt of signage that reframed the construction as an exploration of unexpected life shifts. Detour signs sharing personal life stories are now installed throughout the village. With artist collaboration, this infrastructure project became an opportunity to turn road detour signs into messages of community joy.

In the article they talk about artist-in-residence programs in cities, both large and small, and the impact the artists have had on planning and design. However, what really caught my eye was another project in St. Paul, MN – Sidewalk Poetry.

“In St. Paul, Minnesota, artist Marcus Young turned common sidewalks into atlases of community stories by inviting residents to share poems printed in the concrete. City residents are invited annually to submit their poems for consideration to be printed into sidewalks as they are scheduled for replacement across the city by the public works department. Young saw this system-based work as a re-imagining of the city’s annual sidewalk maintenance program in which the city replaces 10 miles of sidewalk a year, a way to enhance a civic system to give it a new sense of relevance and appreciation.”

In the article linked in the quoted section above, they emphasize the fact that only sidewalks slated for replacement are part of the program, “never in new development, ensuring that the poems are able to be found across the entire city.” The project solicited poems in the languages of groups with high representation in St. Paul, including English, Spanish, Hmong, Somali and Dakota.

The project involves an interesting mix of priorities. While some people will request that a poem not appear in front of their home or business, the city is not able to fulfill all the requests they receive to place a poem in a specific place because they strive to balance where the poems are placed and because not every patch of sidewalk requires repair.

Sometimes You’re The Wind, Sometimes You’re The Weathervane

Seth Godin made an interesting post that intersects somewhat with the questions arts organizations are having about putting content on digital platforms. Alas, I don’t know that it provides any of the answers being sought but he makes a crucial point about not confusing distribution capacity with influence and power.

He start with the following statement:

To be powerful, a medium needs two things:
The ability to reach people who take action
The ability for someone in charge to change what those people see and hear and do

Then he provides a number of examples which illustrate that impressive statistics about the extent of reach can be essentially meaningless. This is something to keep in mind when people cite number of impressions for websites, broadcast or print media outlets. But on the other hand, he notes that sometimes the people with control are exerting it haphazardly without any sense of how to focus it effectively:

People in the music business are flummoxed by the number of new acts that are showing up out of nowhere and becoming hits on TikTok. They’re talking about how powerful this company is.

But it’s not. It’s simply reporting on what people are doing, not actively causing it.

The folks with the power are the anonymous engineers, tweaking algorithms without clear awareness of what the impact might be.

The last bit he writes puts me in mind of my ongoing discussion about how the criteria we use to measure the value of something is frequently irrelevant, but people will be convinced of it measure’s importance.

Google and Amazon used to invite authors to come speak, at the author’s expense. The implied promise was that they’re so powerful, access to their people was priceless. But the algorithm writers weren’t in the room. You ended up spending time with people who pretended they had influence, but were more like weatherpeople, not weather makers.

[…]

There are still cultural weather makers, but they might not be the people we think they are.

Certainly that last line applies to those of us who work in the arts and culture industry. Sometimes we are the weather makers and no one gives credit, but sometimes we think we are the weather makers and don’t recognize what is really moving the winds and tides.

Little Bit Of Love For Intangible Benefits In Economic Reporting

Being a big proponent of libraries a radio story by Marketplace on the value of libraries caught my attention. Being an economics focused show, their analysis initially focused on return on investment:

Farrell: Well, there’s this recent study — this one grabbed my attention — [by] three economists [from] Montana State University, Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago and Miami University. And they calculate by some measures a healthy return on investment. So among their findings, library capital investment increases children’s attendance at library events by 18%, children’s checkout of items by 21% and total library visits by 21%. Now, OK, that’s interesting, but increases in library use translate into improved children’s test scores in nearby school districts.

Long time readers know that I am also a proponent of not couching the value of everything in terms of economics and test scores so I was pleased that the reporters followed with a longer discussion of the intangible contributions libraries make to social cohesion:

Brancaccio: So there are interesting, almost hard-to-quantify benefits as well?

Farrell: That’s right. And that’s, you know, really the thing that stands out to me is we’re living through an era where there’s a lack of trust in so many institutions and, you know, the sense that we have connections with each other, I mean, that’s splintering. Well, public libraries are still trustworthy, community institutions and most important, public libraries are open to everyone. It doesn’t matter your age, it doesn’t matter your race, ethnicity, social class and net worth.

[…]

Farrell: And this is why I think the return on investment, particularly as you’ve mentioned, the return on investment on the intangibles, is so important. So a lot more needs to be done to maintain buildings, update bathrooms, increase the number of hours that they’re open, and there’s a wonderful book by sociologist Eric Klinenberg, “Palaces for the People.” And you know, in that book, he persuasively argues that libraries, the people who work there, and the people who visit that they’re essential to our democracy, and to our community. So support your local library.

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