Even Art Works Undergo High Stakes Testing

In a literal case of one person’s trash is another’s treasure, New York Times had a piece about museums grading the works in their collection to decide what to liquidate.  It has long been acknowledged that museums often only display a small fraction of their collections. As they continue to acquire more pieces, the likelihood that some pieces may ever be displayed decreases. At the same time, the need for temperature controlled storage space increases.

The NY Times piece has an interview with the director of the Indianapolis Museum of Art at Newfields, Charles L. Venable, who halted plans for a $14 million expansion of storage. Instead, he had the museum staff grade 54,000 pieces in their collection from A to D. Those pieces receiving D grades will be sold or given to other institutions.

The NY Times article has an interactive quiz where you can try to guess which pieces received an A and which received D. The whole process forces one to revisit the unenviable questions of “what is art” and worse, “what is good art?”

The criteria used by the museum was “A being a masterpiece,” … “and D being maybe onetime in the distant past this was a valuable object for us but we probably shouldn’t hang on to that.”

The whole process of deaccessioning is so cumbersome, it is almost easier to retain and store. In addition to the issues mentioned by the NY Times below, recently there has been a lot of concern about art finding its way into private collections where it can be even less accessible than before. (Even when not displayed in a museum gallery, scholars are able to study works.)

Deaccessioning, the formal term for disposing of an art object, is a careful, cumbersome process, requiring several levels of curatorial, administrative and board approval. Museum directors who try to clean out their basements often confront restrictive donor agreements and industry guidelines that treat collections as public trusts.

The article details some of the exacting requirements made by donors which have intentionally and unintentionally firmly cemented the presence of certain works at different institutions. Some works will never be placed in storage other than the time it takes to effect repairs and restoration thanks to donor stipulations.

There are also some instances where museums accepted nearly everything that was offered during their early years in an attempt to build the collection. Many times, not only did the institution lack the means to care for the works, the quality of the work was rather inferior. As time went on, the institutions had to determine how best to divesting themselves of works they probably shouldn’t have accepted in the first place.

If nothing else, take the interactive quiz to get a sense of how works are judged and graded.

Public Restrooms As A Metaphor For Accessible Cultural Experiences

Four years ago, I wrote about how the government of India, in an attempt to end public defecation by 2019, was building over 1 million toilet facilities in households around the country. However, due to a general belief that it was healthier to defecate outdoors, most people receiving government constructed toilets were using them for storage or living spaces instead. India started sending out inspectors to ensure the toilets were being used for their intended purpose and encouraged people to report on their neighbors.

I used this situation as a metaphor for expecting people to participate in arts events just because they were being held or a facility existed. The benefits of the arts may seem just as self-evident to arts people as the benefits of a robust sanitation infrastructure, but social inertia can be difficult to overcome, even with mandatory education campaigns (i.e. arts in schools).

This idea has made “toilets in India” a short hand metaphor friend of the blog, Carter Gillies and I use when we discuss the ways in which the value of the arts are perceived and measured.

Because that article from 2015 is never far from my mind, I was interested to read about a private effort in Pune, India to transform old buses into public restrooms for women. In addition to public restrooms often being poorly maintained and/or unavailable, women in India are averse to using public restrooms due to the possibility of being assaulted when using them after dark and stigmas associated with menstruation and pregnancy.

The people behind the project confirm that it took months to reverse the common perception and convince people that public restrooms could be safe and sanitary. The mobile restrooms are definitely on the higher end of any portable toilet set up you would find in the US. They have video screens with personal health information, a cafe outside and an alarm button to alert a full-time attendant if you feel unsafe.

The project creators discovered there was a much larger unmet need than they expected.

“Our aim initially was to build toilets for mostly lower or middle-income groups, but the gap between the demand and the supply must be so huge that women from all classes are using them,” Sadalkar noted.

I still believe, as I did in 2015, that it isn’t enough to provide opportunities and space for arts and culture, assuming the benefits will be self-evident and people will change their behavior in accordance with that realization.

Now that I have become more involved with Arts Midwest’s Creating Connection effort to build public will for arts and culture, I can appreciate the need for a consistent, long term approach to shifting perceptions and attitudes such as the efforts of those behind the portable restrooms. Those involved with the portable restrooms couldn’t just talk about the benefits of a clean, well stocked place, they had to understand and address the perceptual and physical barriers that their demographics faced.

Art As A Lubricant For Better Business Practices

Americans for the Arts had a post on their blog last week that hit a lot of the right buttons for me. Steve Sanner and his partners have the Jiffy Lube franchise for Indiana. He writes about how placing murals on their buildings and becoming involved with other mural projects has benefited and redefined their business approach.

He says from 1985-2015, he and his partners basically approached their marketing from the assumption that the advice of husbands, fathers and boyfriends were what motivated women to visit Jiffy Lube locations. Therefore most of their marketing was aligned toward men even though women comprised 50% of their customers.

In 2015, we made a conscious decision begin speaking directly to women about the virtues of Jiffy Lube. We wanted women to know they could trust us to handle their maintenance needs and that they wouldn’t be subjected to chauvinistic or condescending mechanics.

A chance encounter with an arts group put them on the road to placing murals on some of the 48 Jiffy Lube shops they own. The first three murals were designed as paint by numbers stencils so that community members could participate in their creation. A mural calling attention to mental illness involved flying a graphic novelist out from Seattle to hold panel discussions and resulted in a fundraising effort that benefited the National Alliance on Mental Illness.

The first three murals attracted the attention of the Arts Council of Indianapolis with whom they partnered on six murals in 2018 with another six planned for 2019.

Sanner says from a purely business perspective, this has been a smart move for them:

Vehicles are going longer between oil changes and many only need one or two oil changes per year. This makes it easy to forget about your neighborhood Jiffy Lube. In addition, sign ordinances have become stricter, making it hard to identify our locations easily. By painting these murals, we are giving people an organic reason to talk about and pay attention to our stores.

If you have been reading my blog for any length of time, you know what he said next was the part I love the most (my emphasis):

Internally, we have been surprised at how many artists we have working for us. Our employees are now showing off their own talents through sketches, vehicle graphics, and tattoo designs. We are planning museum tours and art classes designed to help our people further develop their artistic skills, understanding that this will help drive creativity in our own business. Employee retention is a huge issue for many businesses these days, and we are no exception. People want to be proud of who they work with and they care more than ever about the mission and purpose of their employer.

A Good Community Is An Asset To An Arts Organization

I frequently urge people not to focus on the value of the arts in terms of economic impact on the community. Not only do the arts bring other forms of value to the community, but what is frequently un(der)mentioned is that the community provides reciprocal value to the arts organization.

We had the tour of a Broadway show come through a couple weeks ago. I was speaking with a local store owner who I know is a big fan of Broadway musicals and had attended the show. He mentioned that a number of cast members had come into his store and he had been thrilled to engage in some pretty lengthy conversations with them.

In fact, on the return visit of one person, the shop owner almost inadvertently revealed the purchase of a Valentine’s Day gift in front of the customer’s wife who was accompanying him at the time. The shop owner reveled in the experience of quickly changing what he was saying mid-sentence and sharing a knowing look with the husband.

The shop owner had mentioned local attractions, including a national monument, which the visitors were excited to learn about.

Based on this anecdote, I figured there must have been numerous other interactions with individuals and businesses throughout town and posted a general thank you on social media to everyone in the community who had shown the cast and crew kindness and hospitality during their visit. I mentioned the shop owner had directed some people to the national monument and tagged both the shop and the monument. At the very least, I thought it was good PR to employ outwardly focused messaging.

I didn’t necessarily think that the cast members had visited the monument.  They apparently did and identified themselves (or were recognized) because the folks at the national monument replied about how nice the cast and crew members were and their interest in information about the monument. The shop owner also posted his delight upon learning they had taken him up on his suggestion.

I have had similar experiences in other places I have worked. Local residents have been thrilled to have conversations in passing on the streets and coffee shops. I have had visiting artists express how friendly and helpful local residents were to them without knowing who they were.

One of my most favorite stories is from when a flamenco group and the guest services manager of a hotel struck up such a strong friendship, the guest services manager went to visit them in Spain a few months later. I never had any problems with getting performers early check in for years after that so it was a big win for everyone.

Bottom line though. As much as great events can bolster the reputation and appeal of your organization in the community, a good community can bolster the reputation and appeal of your organization among performers. A pleasant neighborhood with a wide choice of shops and restaurants isn’t just an asset to promote to attendees who want to grab something to eat before the show, visiting performers value those amenities as much, if not more.

Don’t think word and personnel don’t circulated among artists. I was trying to describe our wardrobe facilities and green room to a company we had never worked with before in an email and one of the guys responded that he had been here before and sent pictures he had on file of our wardrobe facilities and green room.

Every little thing counts.

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