Who Is Prioritized In Programming Decisions

The Atlantic ran an article about how museums are having to deal with questions about equity and representation in their programming that are posed by both external and internal constituencies.

The content of the article is pretty much applicable to every arts and cultural organization, regardless of discipline because the root of the problem seems to be the process by which programming decisions are made.

The collection departments at museums don’t tend to engage with the educational staff—who help interpret exhibitions by organizing lectures and seminars that can enhance public understanding of a display’s importance—until too late. “When I was first in the art-museum world as an educator, we were presented exhibitions after they had been curated and decided upon,” she said. “And then it was our job to figure out how to teach from those exhibitions. How the content mattered, how relevant it was to our community, all those decisions were made outside my office.”

In that sense, context enters the conversation at the end of the decision-making process. And even when educators are involved, they can sometimes focus too much on scholarship—as with the “White Gold” exhibit—trapping museums in a cycle of overemphasizing academics and underemphasizing analysis in a racial and historical context, leading to misguided exhibitions. “What curatorial processes could benefit from are open-ended questions rather than setting out theses to prove,” Bradley said.

This basic scenario has long existed across arts and cultural disciplines. This is part of what people are referencing when they discuss silos in organizations. A programming decision is made by one group and then another group is tasked with marketing it to some segment of the community. What this does is put those who weren’t involved in the decision making in the position of reverse engineering a rationale for the value of the programming and trying to make it stick. A better alternative would be starting from the question of what will be valued by the community and letting the programming decisions emerge from that.

How one goes about discussing the question of what will be valued differs from place to place and organization to organization. Some of the museums mentioned in The Atlantic article received feedback from community partner organizations, others made an intentional decision to involve people without formal arts training so that the process didn’t get bogged down in academic lingo and context.

I Want Your Advice, But Not Your Feedback

Via Daniel Pink is a Harvard Business Review (HBR) article that suggests asking for advice rather than feedback.  On the surface this may sound like a distinction without a difference, but research has found that asking for advice garners more actionable suggestions than asking for feedback.

Those who were asked to give feedback tended to give vague comments along with general praise, such as, “the applicant seems to meet most of the requirements.” In contrast, those who were asked to provide advice were more critical and actionable in their comments…Specifically, advice-givers suggested 34% more ways to improve the application and 56% more ways to improve in general.

According to Amantha Imber who wrote the HBR piece, an important element of soliciting advice is specificity about what you want to learn.

Ask yourself, “What will really help me get better at [problem]?” For example, instead of asking, “What do you think of my revenue numbers from last quarter?” you could say, “So far, I’ve tried [a] and [b] but I haven’t been able to meet my goal. How would you have gone about doing this?”


If you ask people to think about what could help you in the future, the advice you will receive will be more specific and actionable. For example, you could make the ask specific, such as, “What could I change about my presentation skills to deliver a more powerful presentation next time?” or “Could you give me a few tips to make my slides more appealing?”

I feel I should mention that this approach for getting actionable suggestions is not a completely new idea in the arts world. Liz Lerman’s Critical Response Process which has been employed for about 20-30 years now involves creators asking for reactions about specific elements pretty much as outlined in the HBR article. Except in Lerman’s process there are more specific guidelines about the way respondents phrase their statements in order to keep the process focused.

Wasn’t Looking For Substantive Discussion of Workplace Equity On An Orchestra Podcast, But There It Was

I may owe some apologies to Drew McManus because I would have never expected that a podcast about the classical music industry would provide one of the best discussions about the complexities of workplace equity that I have heard. (And I have heard a lot, even in the last 10 days.)

The most recent episode of Shop Talk features a conversation with Ruby Lopez Harper, Americans for the Arts Senior Director of Local Arts Advancement; and Dr. Brea M. Heidelberg, Associate Professor & the Director of the Entertainment & Arts Management program at Drexel University.

The fact both guests had an established rapport from having previously worked together allowed them to move quickly to a substantive discussion of workplace equity efforts. For the most part, Drew just stood back and let them delve into the subject.

Even before they brought it up, I was already thinking about what the future might hold when workplace equity programs are no longer the hot priority for funders. It occurred to me that the test-focused values of our education system is reflected in many other aspects of our lives. (Likely the education system is also a reflection of broader values.)

Just as knowledge is only valued until a test approves of our apparent mastery, there is a feeling that once you have taken the equity seminar and received the certificate, the problematic elements have been eliminated and you are now an approved good person.

So it would make sense that there might be a similar transactional approach to funding: Once X amount of dollars has been spent on the problem and Y positive outcomes have been reported, (and as we know, every funded program comes off exactly as planned, at least in final reports), then the bulk of the important work as been done and the funder can move on.

It also occurred to me that the mindset of orchestra musicians, though not necessarily the boards and administration that run the organizations, might be among the best suited for work place equity efforts. Musicians know that the attainment of knowledge and ability is not complete when a passing grade is received but rather it is a lifelong pursuit of self-improvement — much as the pursuit of equity.

Kudos to Drew for pulling this off. This is not an easy topic to get honest, quality discourse on. Take a listen.

As Drew writes,

…it’s more frank than candid and I mean that in the best possible way. Even if you don’t think you’re the sort of person who “needs” to hear this, you do. If you’re white, you’ll probably feel uncomfortable, but again, only in the best possible way. Don’t miss the section on #TraumaEntrapment around the 40min mark.

Books Open Doors To New Worlds…And Maybe Some Arts Orgs

If you are pondering how to create new “entries” for participation with your organization for a broader, more diverse audience, survey results summarized in a Hyperallergic article might offer some clues. A survey conducted by American Academy of Arts and Sciences’ Humanities Indicators project found literary events may be a good programming choice, especially given the scale a lot of places operate on due to Covid:

…higher-income Americans are more likely to have visited art museums or attended art events, but they are less likely to attend poetry and literary events. It also found that Latinx and Black Americans are nearly three times as likely to have frequently attended poetry or literature readings and other literary events as white Americans; the youngest adults among Black and Latinx communities (ages 18-29) are more than twice as likely to attend these events as those 45 and older.

The Hyperallergic piece also cites some political and gender divides in relation to the perceived value of art history and appreciation classes in one’s life. I haven’t tracked down the original study yet to see if it has results for other disciplines.


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