Did Covid Suddenly Make You More Aware of Sidewalk Space?

The Americans for the Arts blog had an interview with an arts group that was flexing their skills to solve problems in their community. They spoke with Yin Kong, one of the founders of Think Chinatown which started the initiative Assembly for Chinatown to provide outdoor dining for restaurants in New York City’s Chinatown.

While restaurants in other parts of the city were able to find ways to cope with Covid restrictions by setting up dining on sidewalks or in dedicated parking spaces on the street, Chinatown has narrower sidewalks and streets. Regulations frequently changed and violations earned a $1,000 fine. Outdoor dining really hadn’t been part of the business practice among Chinatown restaurants so between physical restrictions, legal hurdles, and custom there was little incentive for the financially ailing restaurants for that neighborhood to pursue outdoor dining options.

Think Chinatown collaborated with A+A+A Studio to write a guide on how to build affordable structures that met Department of Transportation guidelines. Artists worked with business owners to decorate the structures in colorful murals.

We removed the financial risk for these restaurants by covering the construction costs. We selected restaurants where we believed the impact could most be felt. For the most part, the project has helped bring attention to businesses and provide more space.

We are still connected with the restaurants who participate—we do not drop these and leave. We live in the neighborhood and are here to adjust. For some murals, it has been almost a year [since they were created], so we are repainting. We want them to continue to be colorful, delightful work.

The Assembly for Chinatown page mentions the project has helped 13 businesses at nine sites. In some cases, adjacent businesses got wrapped into the effort. In one case, a restaurant, cafe and florist had a structure constructed. In another, a restaurant and neighboring tea importer shared a space.

The interview is short, but it is clear that the perceptual, legal, and logistical hurdles they faced required a lot of time and effort to navigate before the first two pieces of wood were attached together. They provided access where it didn’t exist or seemed difficult to achieve and got people thinking of new possibilities for doing business in their neightborhood.

Headlines Writing Checks That The Body Text Ain’t Really Cashing

Yesterday, economist Tyler Cowen addressed one of the dichotomies being recognized in the arts sector – the conflict between values of equity, fairness, diversity, etc., espoused in the arts world and the transactional nature of arts patronage. Discussions of how the arts are supported and funded are becoming an increasingly prevalent topic of conversation.

Cowen, who is most definitely an avowed supporter, consumer and advocate of the arts takes a bit of an academic analytical approach to the “wokeness” embodied in The Art Newspaper articles on visual art.

To put it bluntly, the art world is torn. In terms of demographics, the art world should lean fairly hard left, at least in the Anglo countries. It is highly educated, cosmopolitan, wealthy, and “aware” of the world. And many of the individuals operating in the art world do lean fairly strongly to the left. Yet the art world itself is based on principles fairly different from Woke and often directly opposed to Woke.

First and foremost, the art world is based on ownership of property. Most (by no means all) of those properties were created by dead white males, or perhaps by living white males.

Art markets typically are ruled by Power Laws and massive inequality, with most works going to zero value and a small percentage of the creators hitting it big…. Indeed, you earn status by showing how discriminating your eye is, which means by dumping on the works that aren’t going anywhere.

Textiles, which are arguably the “most female” genre in terms of their creators, are worth systematically much less in the marketplace…(…The same is true for some kinds of pottery as well….)

Some of the issues he addresses I was aware of but hadn’t thought of in the terms or context he expresses.

Part of the point of his post was illustrate there is a breadth of intellectual discourse about art & culture that doesn’t immediately gravitate toward the extremes of woke or anti-wokeness. Of The Art Newspaper he says, “It tries to incorporate Woke rhetoric into an essentially non-Woke and anti-Woke set of customs and incentives and property rights.”

You will have to read his analysis of how they achieve that balance in various articles he cites. Basically, he says the body of the articles turn out to be less controversial than the headlines suggest.

Some of the commenters to the post suggest that Cowen uses “woke” so frequently in the post because he is intentionally trying to beat all meaning and emotional associations out of the term.

Really Don’t Want To Think Of Post-Covid Marketing As Online Dating

Back in March Harvard Business Review (HBR) had a piece on how marketing will change post-Covid.  It is definitely geared toward commercial business and often oriented toward business to business sales rather than individuals, but there were some interesting observations, some of which have long been points of discussion in non-profit arts.

4. Old truth: Courting customers is just like dating.
New truth: Courting customers is just like online dating.

I mainly include this one because of the imagery this evokes. The article notes that marketing used to be a numbers game. Like dating, you would present yourself broadly in public at parties, bars, and other public places, using your best lines, seeing who might be interested. These days where people make split second decisions before swiping, they say the numbers game is algorithms and not chance and broad exposure. Essentially they say data driven decision making is going to be more valuable than trying to increase the frequency people see your face.

5. Old truth: Customers must sit at the heart of your marketing strategy.
New truth: Customers must sit at the heart of your customer journey.

…We have all called customer service and spoken to a call center rep or chatbot that was not operating with the same information as a retail location — and vice versa.

…Marketing must be viewed in the context of the full end-to-end journey and, where possible, work to connect the dots.

The idea that people would go from being first time attendees to subscribers to donors and perhaps volunteers or board members, across a span of years is a frequent subject discussed in the arts so this concept is not new.

What caught my attention was that they said the answer to making sure everyone in your organization was operating with the same information is not to consolidate all operations and communications through one location. Rather it is ensuring everything is aligned around the customer’s need. This certainly makes sense because you often have different types of customers. There aren’t only ticket buyers, subscribers, donors and groups, you might have operations that include renters, students, and other constituencies. The best point of contact for each of these is different, but it is definitely to your benefit if each area is aware of how the others interact with their specific group.

In other words, as I have said over the years–marketing is everybody’s job. The organization can’t run effectively by taking a siloed view as to what their role and interests are.

8. Old truth: Your brand should stand behind great products.
New truth: Your brand should stand behind great values.

[…]

In fact, key themes from EY research show that while quality, convenience, and price still very much matter to consumer choice, factors like sustainability, trust, ethical sourcing, and social responsibility are increasingly important to how consumers select their products and services. Marketing has an opportunity to educate the broader C-suite (and even the board) on the importance of brand values when it comes to differentiating in a post-pandemic marketplace where brand preferences have been upended.

If you have been working in the arts for any length of time, you know organizations have long espoused values about equity, inclusion and access, but it is no long sufficient to say these things, it is necessary to translate these values into action. The authors of the HBR article recognize that the impetus to change will not necessarily come from the top and it may require advocacy from staff to executives and board members to effect the change that is needed.

Ten Pounds of Arts Funding Doesn’t Yield 20 Pounds of Peace

So like me, you may have been driving home Monday night and heard an interview on NPR conducted by host Mary Louise Kelly with poet Tess Taylor discussing art as civic repair.  Taylor talks about how a plethora of festivals in Belfast have helped people to come together peacefully since the Good Friday Agreement brought about a general cessation of violence in Northern Ireland.  She draws some parallels to political division in the United States.

She tells a story about being assigned to write a travel story about Virginia shortly after the 2016 election. She arrives in Floyd, VA, a mecca of bluegrass and is torn between being upset at the election results and wanting to square dance.

KELLY: You write, (reading) I realized I could either be mad or I could dance, but I can’t do both, so I’m going to dance.

TAYLOR: There might have been so many people right then at that square dance with whom I really had nothing to say about politics. But while we’re doing this dance, we’re actually partaking in a community action that takes place with an old pattern, and people swing around, they have to change partners, nobody can be left out, everybody is called in, and I understood the square dance is a ritual meant to build community and meant also to be sure that people had some relationship with one another so that they were kind of agreeing, perhaps, in a rural, small community to care for each other in some way. But I also felt very amazed by the ability of the dance itself to make me feel more able to work with people around me and to feel as if somehow, in that moment, we had put aside our differences and come together into something bigger.

As the interview closed, it was mentioned that Taylor had written a longer piece on this subject for Harper’s this month so I sought the article out.

There was a great deal of nuance in Taylor’s piece which was careful to say while there were similarities between the friction in the U.S. and Northern Ireland, there were differences that made them, and thus the solutions, distinct.

What I really appreciated was just how much Taylor’s article paralleled my post yesterday about viewing the arts as a prescriptive solution for problems. While Taylor cited research that showed how arts activities can create bonds of friendship, empathy and cooperation, she also noted arts weren’t, and will likely never be, the totality of the solution for Belfast in and of themselves. (my emphasis)

…Artists knew that arts programming was an effective means of weaving people together; they had written many grants justifying projects in these terms, and some were tired of the process. Some expressed concern about instrumentalizing art. “It’s not as if you put in ten pounds of arts funding and get out twenty pounds of peace,” said Glenn Patterson.

…But Durrer is the first to say that investments in reconciliation are naturally hard to quantify: “It’s not as if you can count the number of Protestants and Catholics who sat next to one another in a theater and know anything about how well people are actually reconciling.” My friend Stephen Connolly, a poet, warned me that the festivalization of Belfast can at times feel like a “manufactured peace.” Others felt uneasy about looking to anything in Northern Ireland as a model. Everyone stressed that what had been achieved in the north of Ireland has since frayed and grown tender.

But FitzGibbon, who has collaborated with Boyd on outdoor performances and directed the Belfast Children’s Festival for thirteen years, also emphasized the giddy feeling of making interventions that seemed to result in collective delight.

There is a lot of thoughtful reflection in the Harper’s story and it bears looking at regardless of whether you are considering connecting the arts with social change.

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