NEA Re-Opening Guide – You’re Not Alone

The National Endowment for the Arts has released their “Art of Reopening” guide. Looking through it, it doesn’t substantially differ from other re-opening guides about which I have written. In fact, it actually references many of them as additional resources that are available.

However, if you are just now getting to a place where you can start to think about reopening now that vaccine distribution has started, the NEA guide can be a good place to start your plans.

The bulk of the guide is a list of best practices supported by case study interviews conducted with arts organizations of various disciplines around the country. I am not going to quote extensively from the guide because I feel like I have written some of these topics to death by now. I did want to highlight the fact that the first lesson listed is to strengthen ties with your immediate community. While I have written that to death, I don’t feel anything is lost by repeating it until it people can’t remember a time it wasn’t a core tenet of their practice.

Another lesson learned I wanted to emphasize is:

The unexpected will continue to happen. Be transparent when it does. Adapting quickly to new circumstances and information, and communicating those lessons promptly and effectively to artists/staff, board members, donors, and the public will attract greater confidence in your endeavor.

One thing in the NEA guide you won’t find in any other guide is a survey of National Service Organizations (i.e. American Alliance of Museums, Association of Performing Arts Professionals, Association of Writers & Writing Programs, Dance/USA, Film Festival Alliance, League of American Orchestras, National Association of Latino Arts and Cultures, OPERA America, etc) about how their members were coping with the pandemic and what they were seeing.

You’ll find this in Appendix A. It can be worth reading to know you are not alone in the troubles you are facing.

For example:

NSOs also reported these key difficulties for members in reengaging with audiences or visitors:

◽Navigating local or state government reopening protocols (e.g., limitations on gatherings)
◽Securing union permissions
◽Audiences/visitors not following safety guidelines
◽Creating one-way flow in buildings not designed to accommodate routing
◽Cost of retrofitting and preparing safe venues for audiences
◽Accessibility issues that can result from reserved/advance ticketing policies

Maybe They Could Increase Residency By Offering A Pastry Of The Month Subscripton?

A little bit of amplification of my local community today. Next City ran an article on the Mill Hill artist village that is developing in one of Macon’s original neighborhoods, Ft. Hawkins. The project is a partnership between Macon-Bibb Urban Development Authority, Macon Arts Alliance and the Historic Macon Foundation which has developed renovated houses once used by mill workers into artist housing.

They also turned the auditorium building that once served the mill community into an activity space which includes a large industrial kitchen which is being used by a baking collective, but is also available for hourly rental on a more casual basis.

The industrial kitchen was installed as a result of interviews done with the local community when the project had barely been conceived. People had mentioned their mode of creative expression was related to food and that they were running businesses out of their home kitchens.

When the project first began, the people behind what would become Mill Hill worked with the local Roving Listeners group. They went door to door in 2015 for six months, getting stories from people. This included talking with people at Davis Homes, a 184-unit public housing development down the street from Mill Hill.

“We weren’t even talking about a forthcoming project,” Olive says. “It’s pretty common for development projects to go in and say, ‘We’re going to do this planning effort. We’re going to have community meetings. We’re going to do this.’ And it’s all sort of framed around ‘because we’re going to do this project in the future.’ And really, with the Roving Listeners phase, it wasn’t through any lens. It was just knocking on people’s doors.”

They recorded people’s stories and compiled some of them along with photos in a book called “Heard on the East Side,” distributing it to residents. They also referred back to those conversations when creating the Mill Hill master plan, which was completed in 2018.

Currently, there isn’t a lot of occupancy in the artist village. Of the seven houses that have been restored, only one has been purchased by a private individual. One the Arts Alliance owns for use by its artist-in-residence. As those interviewed for the article indicated, there hasn’t been a lot of marketing done to make people aware of the spaces. As a result, they haven’t reached a critical mass of interest.

I will confess to possibly contributing to that. When I was looking to buy a house around this time last year, I was seriously considering some of those houses but the fact listings indicated they had been on the market for over a year raised concerns about how easy it would be to resell a house if I decided to move.

However, one of the great benefits those houses have is that they are located right next to a pedestrian and maintenance gate into the Ocmulgee Mounds National Historical Park. It is basically a private entrance into an historic site with miles of walking & biking trails which also hooks up to an expanding community trail.  I used that entrance a number of times when I was living in Macon’s downtown. Even when the historical park is closed, you can pick up the community trail about 1/4 mile away.

I should also mention that the houses are pretty nice with a lot of open space making them well suited for studio use.

While the houses might not be occupied, the former auditorium space gets used a lot for events, classes and meetings of all sorts. The kitchen the bakers used is HUGE and well-equipped. The best events are those which show off the talents of those bakers.

So overall the project definitely has potential for great growth and is something worth watching.

Economists Don’t Like Economic Impact Studies?

Michael Rushton is singing my song. Today he posted a critique of using economic impact as a measure of the value of the arts. It is “quick and dirty” as he says, so it won’t take much time to read the whole thing.

I have made many similar posts before, but what I appreciated about his post was that he points out not only are arts and culture not so special that something else can’t be substituted in its place, but the economic impact data is not useful for making policy decisions. I had noted the substitution problem 13 years ago, but the issue of usefulness of the data for policy making hadn’t gelled for me before today. (Rushton’s emphasis)

And so, to consider an arts example, suppose a mayor says “we should spend money building a new performing arts center. Construction costs would be $3 million, and the total economic impact of the construction would be $7.5 million”. An economist would say: “you could do a lot with $3 million: you could repair infrastructure, you could expand after school programs, you could lower taxes by $3 million and leave it to individuals to have more money to spend. Any of those options would also have ‘economic impact’. So ‘economic impact’ doesn’t justify spending on the performing arts center. What would justify a new PAC would be if the public benefits from using it exceeded the costs of building it and running it, i.e. a proper cost-benefit analysis. Building a PAC is a cost, it is not the benefit.”

Economists don’t like “Economic Impact” studies – they know that the conception of them is wrong, and they lead to bad reasoning.

[…]

…I’ve studied this subject for twenty-five years, and have never seen evidence that economic studies have informed decisions on public spending on the arts.

Second, the numbers don’t give any policy guidance. Suppose I were to tell you that the annual economic impact of the nonprofit arts sector in Bloomington is $73 million. If you were on city council, what would that tell you? That arts support should be increased? Or decreased? That this is a very big number? Or about what one would expect? That we should increase spending on arts program X but decrease it on arts program Y? I have never seen a policy decision where the economic impact number made a difference. (To see this, imagine that I told you “I’m sorry, I made a typing mistake, it’s not $73 million, it is $63 million”. How would that correction affect any arts policy decision?).

Verdi At Bat

Maybe we should be keeping an eye on Tulsa Opera. Back in August I wrote about a film that was screened in my venue about Tulsa Opera’s casting a transgender person as Don Giovanni. A couple weeks ago, I saw link to an interview with Tulsa Opera Artistic Director Tobias Picker about a production of Rigoletto they staged in October on a baseball field so that they could have socially distanced performances.

The Tulsa Drillers minor league team offered the use of their field to the opera. Looking at the pictures attached to a review of the production, it looks like the opera embraced the opportunity fully. Performers strode out on to the field wielding baseball bats, toting beers and wearing jerseys proclaiming their membership in “The Dukes” baseball team.  The conductor wore a Maestro jersey.

The English translation appeared on the screen of the jumbotron and apparently the program consisted of “packs of trading cards that included photos of the cast, along with their operatic “stats” (character descriptions and past roles).” The Tulsa Driller’s announcer served as narrator.

I found a couple short Facebook videos of the production so you could see it in action, but there are also quite a few photos attached to the review.

It looks like Tulsa Opera only had one performance, but they managed to get an audience of 1800 people. (There are indications they had some preview performances so attendees at those performances might be part of their total production attendance.) The show was cut to a 90 minute performance and was followed by a fireworks display.

You have to applaud their creativity and efforts to find a way to mount a socially distanced production. I haven’t come across any definitive numbers indicating whether they attracted people who don’t normally attend opera.  I have to wonder if they found it rewarding enough to try something similar in the future.

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