Door To Seat As Important As The Quality Of The Event

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.


From The Why Hasn’t This Been Standard Practice For Decades File

I recently wrote a piece for ArtsHacker about the emerging role of intimacy direction for productions on stage and screen.  When I first read about intimacy direction a few years ago, it was at a time when there were revelations about people exploiting their position or opportunities without the full consent of others.  The role of intimacy director seemed to be about ensuring a level of protection and security.

However, the more I have read about the role, the more I realized it is really addressing a long neglected part of the creative process. In every instance when performers are exerting themselves in close quarters with each other, whether it is dance or stage combat, movements are rehearsed and scrutinized in detail until it is right. Then someone is assigned to make sure everyone warms-up and rehearses those motions prior to every performance.

When it comes to intimate moments, performers are often told to go off and figure it out themselves or given vague direction. This lack of proper attention can result in a very awkward moment or an all too authentic moment, both of which jar the audience out of the established reality.

The customary practices surrounding dance and fight choreography may be tedious and boring, but they have a goal of providing audiences with a consistent quality experience while ensuring no one gets hurt in the process. In this context intimacy direction is about addressing a long standing lack of attention that has risked these objectives.

When you think about it, you can almost credit the problem as an extension the oft observed phenomenon where people are unfazed by scenes of massive death and destruction but recoil at hints of nudity or intimacy. Perhaps people have been more comfortable micromanaging fights, but prefer to distance themselves from intimacy.

While intimacy directors are increasingly becoming part of the production process, demand far outstrips supply so if you are interested in getting trained, check out Intimacy Directors International to find out more.

Also check out the ArtsHacker post for additional links, videos and examples.

Preparing For A Kiss Like An Eviscerating Slash – As Boringly As Possible

Do They Know They Are Hard To Reach?

On the Arts Professional UK website, Imrana Mahmood, discusses her experiences becoming a creative producer in a manner that reminded me of two other speakers/authors I often cite. Mahmood’s experience seemed to be at the crossroads of Jamie Bennett’s TEDx Talk about people not recognizing their capacity to be creative even though they already engage in creative activity and Ronia Holmes’ piece on how disinvested communities aren’t bereft of creative and artistic practice.

Mahmood’s article immediately recalled Holmes to me thanks to the title, “A Seat at The Table.” Holmes had talked about how people in disinvested communities are often offered a small seat at the big table by other organizations  when they actually own the entire table in their own communities. Mahmood’s article starts along much the same lines (my emphasis):

As a British Muslim woman of Pakistani heritage, I grew up with an intrinsic love of the arts, including qawwali, henna, calligraphy and poetry. It was therefore a surprise to be labelled as being part of a hard-to-reach community with low arts engagement, as I struggled to reconcile the reality of my lived experience with an inaccurate perception of my identity.

She was encouraged to apply for funding as an “emerging creative producer,” but says she was initially reluctant “to view myself as an arts professional.” I attribute this to her mention earlier in the piece that

“…a career in arts was not considered to be a proper job. This was despite spending much of my spare time running community arts projects as well as having a keen interest in visual arts and live performance.”

Throughout the rest of the article she mentions experiences which involved perceived tokenism and gatekeeping as well as instances when she felt she and others had license to express themselves on their own terms.   If you take one thing away from this article, it should be her call for organizations to reflect on their own inaccessibility.

Paying lip service to diversity and only conversing with creatives of colour as though we exist as a monolith is hugely problematic. It is time that organisations committed to engaging hard-to-reach communities reflect on the reality of their own inaccessibility.

Along those lines, I have some reluctance in citing Ronia Holmes’ original piece as if it were a monolithic representation of the needs and sentiments of all communities, but I often return to it because it for its perception of all the dynamics motivating arts and cultural organizations.

Enacting Your Solution Or Your Funder’s Solution?

Often when we talk about arts and cultural organizations applying for grant funding, there is mention of how organizations might try to recast what they are doing in a context that makes it appear that their work aligns with that of a funding organization. There might also be a mention of an organization creating a new program in order to qualify for funding with an eye to doing the least possible in order to use that funding for their core operations.

When there is discussion about how foundation agendas are shaping what type of work get done, it is often in the context of the contortions non-profits will go through to secure the funding or how they need to piece support together based on narrow criteria of what an organization will or won’t fund.

While we all agree this situation is bad for non-profits because it diverts resources from the organizations core activity, less discussed is whether funder agenda is shifting the core activity of organizations in an nonconstructive manner.

Non Profit Quarterly had a story about the research Megan Ming Francis conducted on the relationship of the NAACP and one of their first major funders, Garland Fund.  Based on records of the interactions between the two organizations, the NAACP reluctantly ended up shifting away from their efforts to get state and federal entities to address lynching and mob violence to align with the Garland Fund’s education and unionization agenda because Garland was one of the few groups willing to fund them.

From a Vox piece on Francis’ research,

Garland’s organization also started out with a firm commitment to not “attempt by promise or by the setting forth of conditions or by any other means to control the policy of any group or individual entrusted with this money or a part of this money.” That, though, eventually changed, according to Francis.

The Garland Fund was most interested in education and organized labor, two areas it saw as the most important foundations for improving society. Over time, according to Francis, it discouraged the NAACP’s work on racial violence in favor of a focus on black education, and effected a swing in priorities that still guides the NAACP today (though the fund stopped operations in 1941).


Francis points to evidence that black leaders at the time didn’t think of desegregation as the pivotal success that we see it as today. Other researchers have emphasized that the fight for Brown was somewhat out of step with what black communities prioritized at the time.

Francis refers to this shift in priorities as “movement capture.” In the podcast interview that accompanies the NPQ article, it seems little has changed in the grant application process. Francis paraphrases an NAACP member writing to a member of the Garland Fund, “I have no pride of authorship. I basically just regurgitated what you wanted me to write.”

If you work in an arts and cultural organization, you may not think that some of the programming you are doing is counter to your interest. After all, if schools aren’t offering arts programming, your organization needs to pick up the slack by going into schools or adjusting operations to allow for school group visits and matinees. Children are the future of the arts, right? But might it not be more in the interest of museums to be open later in the day to better accommodate visitations at night when people got off of work?

I don’t know that museum operating hours are really dictated by a perceived need to be available for visitation by school groups. Megan Ming Francis suggests that the influence of funders have in shaping standard practice is underestimated.

She worries that funders often assume they have a better picture of the problem when they might not — and she thinks funders underestimate the costs to the movement of grassroots organizations aligning themselves with the funding zeitgeist.

I hadn’t set out to draw the connection when I started this post, but I realized the question of whether your organization would be focused on school outreach if educating wasn’t such a priority among funders is related to an frequent topic of this blog of late: Would your operations and activities look different if you didn’t have to justify your value in terms of economic impact and test scores?

If this line of thought intrigues you, check out the NPQ article and listen to the accompanying podcast interview with Megan Ming Francis where she discusses movement capture and wonders how funding may change the goals of groups like Black Lives Matter.

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