Things To Ponder When Endeavoring To Tell Other People’s Stories

There is a lot of conversation about the need for people to see themselves and their interests reflected in arts and cultural experiences if arts and cultural organizations were going to remain relevant.  I saw an article on Arts Professional UK that gave examples of what organizations across the Pond were doing along these lines. Many of the observations about the challenges involved which are just as true in the US as the UK.

Tamsin Curror opens by citing, Glenn Jenkins, who has collaborated on projects with her organization,

“Imagine a scenario where all of the creative choices in your own home, the colour and style of the decor, the music you play and the films you watch were all up to somebody else to decide. This would be pretty disempowering, yet in our neighbourhoods or collective homes this is exactly how it is…”

This is the perception people can have when entities create a work purporting to reflect the experience of a group of people without the involvement and input of those who are/were part of the experience.

As much as we in the arts and cultural sector believe that what we offer contains a degree of universality with which everyone can identify, that may not be the perception in every community.

Project Director, Nancy Barrett, says: “A lot of touring work didn’t ‘speak’ to diverse urban communities and we needed to create something that would resonate with the intended audience.”

As I was reading that I wondered if this has always been the case and the greater arts and cultural community hasn’t recognized it because the focus of work has been so oriented toward a middle-class, Caucasian experience. Or if perhaps the isolating effect of social media has magnified the feeling that no one else shares your experience.

If you are only seeing the best selves of those around you rather than engaging in conversations about the boring, difficult situations they face, and therefore don’t feel you have much in common with your neighbor, it may be doubly difficult to discern shared universal themes in a creative work.

It isn’t saying anything new to observe that the time and energy required to build an authentic relationship with the communities with whom you wish to be involved in telling their stories is pretty prohibitive for most non-profit arts and cultural organizations. Added to that is something I hadn’t fully considered – the disconnect between relationship building and the funding cycle. (my emphasis)

“You need to build good relationships with people on a permanent basis, not just be pulling people in…. because if they think you’re just someone that comes in and then goes… you’re a one trick pony,” said a resident of Mereside Estate in Blackpool.

We’ve learnt that you can’t underestimate the time needed to really listen, facilitate and build mutual trust and respect. Being transparent and open about the process and budgets is also key. There’s got to be a genuine, long-term approach, and this raises questions about responsibility to the communities we work with and how to sustain this work over long periods within shorter-term funding contexts.

So You Are Saying An Intern Isn’t Supposed To Improve Productivity?

I was really excited today when, out of the corner of my eye, I saw the headline, “Diversity organisation celebrates placing 1000th paid intern.” The concept that some entity was able to secure PAID internships for over 1000 people in creative field was amazing to me.

I was a little disappointed upon realizing moments later that the organization was in England, not the US. But it is great that they have been effective at finding internships for low income young people from diverse backgrounds.

Just as in the US, there has been recognition in England that having an internship is beneficial for career development. Unfortunately, only people with the means to support and transport themselves while receiving little to no pay are able to avail themselves of this opportunity.

The organization that has conducted these placements, Creative Access, says that 90% of their participants secure roles at the end of the internship. Since they offer to provide support finding a job when the internship is over, presumably not everyone secures a position with the place at which they interned.

The interns receive at least the equivalent of the National Living Wage of £15,000 a year (US $19,764.45). It helps that all interns in England must be paid the equivalent of the National Living Wage so Creative Access doesn’t need to spend a lot of time insisting their applicants be paid.

Still, it isn’t easy matching and monitoring internships across dozens of organizations. In addition, Creative Access provides training and mandatory monthly masterclasses to their participants to help them prepare for their careers.

If you are thinking about how great this is and wondering why it isn’t happening in the US, part of the difference is that in addition to the payment requirement, there are other rules and regulations in England governing internships that ensure the experience is valuable. Many of them are actually mirrored in US rules governing internships, but appear to be more clearly defined. (see “What Constitutes a Training Role“)

For example, both the US and England say that an intern is being paid to learn, not to provide a service, and therefore can’t replace an employee. The rules in England extend that idea further by prohibiting termination on the basis of poor productivity or income generation. Interns can only be terminated for behavioral issues like tardiness, negative social interactions, etc.  So essentially you couldn’t terminate an intern for taking too long to process a ticket order, rewiring lighting instruments incorrectly or failing to proofread something that went to print.

Actually, while the implication in the FAQ section is that these are the rules governing internship termination, I couldn’t find mention of them in the documents linked to by Creative Access. However, I think structuring an intern’s experience in the context that they can’t be fired for lack of productivity shifts the dynamics of the relationship and avoids viewing them as a replacement for an employee, a situation which is spelled out in US law regarding internships.

Passion Is Work

Seth Godin had an interesting post recently challenging the notion of passion preceding the decision to commit.

“Offer me something I’m passionate about and I’ll show up with all of my energy, effort and care.”

That’s a great way to hide.

Because nothing is good enough to earn your passion before you do it. Perhaps, in concept, it’s worthy, but as soon as you closely examine the details and the pitfalls, it’s easy to decide it’s better to wait for a better offer.

We see this sort of thing manifest in any attempt people make to invest themselves in something new whether it is volunteering or new job tasks; getting audiences engage with new experiences; or people wanting a thunderbolt, love at first sight moment before dating.

Godin suggests turning it around to a place where people seek an opportunity to contribute and then passion grows from doing the work.

Work before passion measures our craft in terms of contribution, not in an idealized model of perfection.

Passion comes from feeling needed, from approaching mastery, from doing work that matters.

While this is almost an appeal to the individual not to discount an opportunity as something you aren’t passionate about, the “don’t knock it until you tried it,” argument doesn’t have a high conversion rate.

In addition to how doing work that matters strongly motivates people to work for non-profits, what immediately popped into my mind was that this might be an argument for the value of providing an participatory experience to audiences.

Just as people think that creativity is a matter of momentary inspiration gifted by an outside source or inherent genius rather than developed over a long process, it is a pretty good bet that people believe their passion is an inherent quality of themselves rather than the end result of effort and attention invested over a long period of time.

That whole bit about doing something you are passionate about and you will never have to work a day in your life evokes a sense of effortlessness. That can certainly be true if that passion is a result of short bursts of exposure/effort every day over 10-20 years. Even if you decide to fervently devote yourself to a rekindled childhood interest, the joy and groundwork laid in years past buoys you even when you are sweating toward proficiency.

It is when we feel that adding anything new is a zero sum game, where something of a current selves must be sacrificed, that we use resonance with our passion as a filter. As Godin suggests, it makes it easy to say no based on an insufficient effort by others to get us excited.

Godin’s post is more a call to the individual to change their perspective than to organizations to offer more opportunities to become involved. However, once people start looking for ways to become involved in work they feel could develop into a passion, arts organizations need to be there with opportunities to offer.

First Rule Of Arts Club–Talk To Everyone About Arts Club

I came across a study conducted in the UK where the researchers found some benefit to new attendees of arts and cultural events having the opportunity to participate in peer-lead audience exchange conversations.

They were pretty particular about excluding someone with (perceived) expertise from the group as including such a person either led to people deferring to the person’s expertise or feeling too intimidated to contribute to the conversation. The researchers drew comparisons with book clubs, but encouraged arts organizations to facilitate the formation of such groups since people rarely organize themselves. (emphasis from original)

Deborah (DX): “It’s really nice to talk about it afterwards. Rather than just sort of taking it all home with you”.

Bridget (IKG/BCMG): “[…] at the contemporary music thing, it was quite nice to sit down at the end and talk with other people about the experience [agreement] because otherwise you sort of wander away with a couple of inane comments, and sort of forget about it. But sitting down with people is an interesting way of reflecting –” [Doris: “It can add to the experience.”]

This deepening of experience through conversation was also evident in the group discussions themselves, as participants wrestled with their own responses to an event and sought insight and reassurance from others in the group. They emphasised that the particular kind of discussion they had enjoyed in the audience exchange was not the same as the conversations with performers sometimes offered by theatre or concert providers, where Doris (IKG) felt she “would feel a bit intimidated about saying something not terribly deep and meaningful – but this doesn’t intimidate”.

Some of the commentary the researchers recorded was very interesting to learn. I was trying to figure out how an arts organization could go about capturing this data without being there. An obvious answer is to record it if that doesn’t impact what people are willing to say. Otherwise, asking someone to take notes. Among the comments the researchers recorded were ones about the marketing materials organizations were putting out.

Even while the new audience members struggled to find a vocabulary to talk about their response to a concert, some felt that the language being used by the arts organisation also failed to capture their experience, with too much of an emphasis on analysis and not enough on the emotional impact of the music:

Bryony (E360A): “For me that description of tonight doesn’t make it sound very exciting – it makes it sound a bit rubbish!” [laughs].

Adam (E360A): “Especially the Martinů one, like that was my favourite one, and it says it ‘exhibits the flute to great effect’ [laughter] but to me it was the violin that was really interesting, and the variations in the music”.

These sort of discussions can be helpful for new attendees because they can validate the reactions they have. Some of the discussions revolved around feelings of guilt about being bored or having one’s mind wander. Someone else in the group piped in defending her “’right to daydream’, expressing the view that if the music encouraged her into personal thoughts and memories, this was in itself a response to the performance and not one for which she should feel apologetic.”

Send this to a friend