You Can Tap Into The Arts, But No One Will Think It Does Any Good

In the wake of Kobe Bryant’s death, Dance Magazine related a short anecdote about Bryant taking tap dance lessons to help prevent additional injury to his ankles.

That summer, he researched ways to make his ankles stronger, and landed on tap dancing. “I worked on it all of that summer and benefited for the rest of my career,” he wrote.

Though Bryant continued to suffer from ankle injuries, tap helped him learn to keep his ankles loose and active, which helped prevent injuries elsewhere.


…Though he stopped dancing after that summer, he says that “for a year there I could tell my feet to do this and they would actually do that.”

Over the last couple weeks I have been thinking about why my initial reaction to this story was that it provides a good example of the value of the arts when I often warn about citing the prescriptive benefits of the arts. Let’s face it, it doesn’t get much more prescriptive than the idea that dance helped Bryant mitigate additional injury.

Ultimately, I realized that as a superb athlete, this was an example of how dance was supplementing his existing capabilities. Often when we hear about arts benefiting test scores, economy, social interactions, etc., there is an implication that the arts are improving things to an acceptable level. That there is some flaw to fix– a kid’s test scores need to be better; the foot traffic in stores & restaurants is tepid; people are having overly aggressive interactions.

With Kobe Bryant though, he is at the top of his field as an athlete and the tap lessons are something he used to provide a benefit his already demanding training regimen didn’t afford. While suffering a problematic injury is just as negative as poor test scores, low economic activity or negative social interactions, I can’t imagine anyone considered Kobe deficient and needed the arts to fix him. Tap was an available option he found suitable to his needs.

The difference between a supplemental activity and a prescriptive one is a bit subtle. In truth, at its base, the supplement is just as prescriptive. The context in which it is presented makes a significant difference. In Kobe’s case, there are no promises of outcome measures that have to be backed by qualitative data. The celebrity association aside, the value of tap dancing and the arts in general aren’t evaluated in terms of his scoring record.

Sure, saying ‘it worked for me” lacks the empirical evidence that people may want to justify funding. (It shouldn’t be used anyway.) Regardless of whether you have empirical data or not, if Shaq and Kobe both took tap together, the benefits each realize will vary based on dozens of variables in their physical, mental and emotional attributes.

For example, Kobe was open to exploring the way people in other disciplines achieve success and employed an approach Shaq probably wouldn’t have. He credits a conversation with composer John Williams for shifting his perception on leadership:

This conversation was held after the Lakers lost to the Boston Celtics in the 2008 NBA Finals. Bryant said the talk helped him become a better leader and that he took some of Williams’ ideas into training camp for the next season. “I felt like there were a lot of similarities between what [Williams] does and what I have to do on the basketball court,” Bryant said. “And some of the things he said to me were fascinating.”

On the other hand, it is assumed that great achievement in one area occurs in a vacuum with no contributions from any other pursuits. You can tell people Einstein as well as myriad other highly accomplished scientists played musical instruments and no one credits any benefit to the music–even if Einstein credits his accomplishments to playing violin.  So even though Kobe said he attributes tap dance for improving his agility and reducing injuries, few people will likely perceive tap as having anything to contribute to basketball.

Because really, no one would consider basketball and tap have any relationship with each other.


The Socio-Economic-Ethnically Diverse Audience You Seek Is At The Library

There was an article on the Arts Professional site urging care in the Arts Council of England’s initiative to increase investment in libraries over the next decade. The author of the piece, Hassan Vawda, expresses concerns that attempts to revitalize libraries using arts may unintentionally damage all the beneficial elements of the library environment.

Statistics from DCMS’s Taking Part survey shows libraries are the only space used proportionally more by Black, Asian and ethnic minority (BAME) audiences than those who identify as White. In contrast, arts organisations and museums are used disproportionately by White audiences – despite more than a decade of language, policy and schemes aiming to support diversity.


People often have far more input into the way libraries are used as public spaces than they do with arts and cultural spaces – for all their outreach. At its best, the library is an intergenerational resource that adapts and moulds around the communities it finds itself in.


Outside the professional arts sector, libraries have engendered a trust that has eluded many traditional arts venues – and this must not be lost. The arts can definitely support the development of libraries, and amplify the case for reinvestment. But libraries must not succumb to the fate of the many art and culture-led spaces that have inadvertently become dominated by the middle classes.

As far as I know, there isn’t a similar effort in the U.S. to make libraries into trendy arts hubs. In fact, as Drew McManus pointed out today, the The Institute of Museum and Library Services is up for dissolution right along with the NEA, NEH and PBS.

However,  pretty much all the observations Vawda makes about libraries in England are true for libraries in the U.S. Even if Black, Asian and ethnic minorities don’t use libraries in greater proportion than those who identify as White in the US, I feel pretty secure in saying libraries are visited by a much more ethnically and socio-economically diverse group than most arts entities.

Reading this article it struck me that there is  potential to “get it right,” as it were. As Vawda mentions, arts organizations have a long history of outreach efforts that have had middling results.

The opportunity exists then in  putting a lot of effort into studying very closely the environment libraries provide, both in general and as specifically appropriate to their neighborhoods/communities and implementing radical changes to transform existing arts organizations.

Or, perhaps more pragmatically, arts organizations can bring their resources to libraries and be guided by them about how those resources are deployed.

I say this is the more pragmatic option because in all likelihood, in choosing it, an arts organization is acknowledging the great difficulty established arts organization would have implementing the sort of internal radical change required to cultivate the level of trust engendered by libraries. Even this would be a difficult decision for many since there is no guarantee that a close partnership with the library will ever increase the level of direct participation with the arts organization.

If the organization has the internal will to implement former option of providing an experience with the same sense of openness and user agency provided by a library, partnering with the library would already be part of the plan or the organization would already be hitting satisfying benchmarks and see no pressing need to partner.

Though with as imaginative as people are and as different the dynamics of every community, it is distinctly within the realm of possibility that some few arts organization wouldn’t have to radically change their business model and philosophy.

Pretty much either option requires a recognition that if the people you are dedicated to serving won’t come to you, you need to move toward them and meet them where they are.

Reading Rebranding As “You Aren’t Wanted”

Last month you may have read a number of news stories about the Methodist church in Minnesota with declining attendance that decided to kick out all their old members so they could attract younger members. Except that wasn’t exactly what the church was doing. They just wanted to close the one church for about 18 months in order to do some renovations and rebrand it and were asking members to attend a sister church in the meantime.

The goal definitely was to attract a younger congregation and the new pastor would be about 30 years younger than the current pastor. It sounds like the renovations had the goal of creating spaces in which younger people felt comfortable worshiping.

Shifting all this to the context of arts organizations, there is an eternal conversation about attracting new, younger audiences. However, research shows, arts organizations are actually pretty good at attracting new audiences, but not too good at retaining them so they return with some consistency.

This story about closing and rebranding made me wonder if there is any value in doing so if it makes your organization look more welcoming to a broader range of the community. We know that one of the biggest barriers to participation for people who aren’t already doing so is not seeing themselves and their stories being depicted.

If you were going to pursue closing and rebranding in a similar manner, it would have to encompass more than just freshening up the physical plant with a renovation.  The type of programs the organization offered would need to be revised. Likely the way in which they were delivered might need to be changed. Staff would either need to be retrained and/or new staff hired to deliver on the promises the organization was making.

Is there a good chance that all of this might scare your existing audience away in the same way it is turning off the current congregation of the church? Yep, good chance of that.

In the past I cited a couple of Nina Simon’s talks about providing relevance to the people whom you hope to serve. While she talks about creating metaphorical new doors for people to enter, if you are doing a renovation, you might create physical ones. She notes that it may be difficult for long time supporters to understand that not everything that is being done now is for them, even if nothing has been subtracted to provide experiences for others.

As I wrote:

A new initiative may displace one of regular events. Instead of 10 things designed for you, you only get nine. For a lot of people even 1/10 of a change can result in them feeling the organization is no longer relevant to them. This may especially be true in the case of subscription holders. That one bad grape in ten ruins the value of the whole package.

In this situation it can be a little tricky to say, that’s okay you don’t need to come to that show, we have other discount configurations that may suit your needs. Not only might your delivery of that message be flawed and sound offensive, but even with perfect delivery, the patron may only hear “that’s okay you don’t need to come.”

Even if the new initiatives are additions and don’t displace any of the current offerings, patrons, donors, board members can still feel the organization is no longer the one they value, despite having lost nothing.

Reading the different stories about the church in Minnesota, I got the sense that the current congregants were hearing “that’s okay, you don’t need to come,” in the planned renewal of their church. While that may turn you off of considering making changes for fear of losing what you already have, consider that what you are already doing may be telling a lot more people who have never walked in your door or come once or twice, “that’s okay, you don’t need to come.”

Escapism Over Escape

Historically, theater fires have been among some of the worst in terms of loss of life and property damage. Improvements in firefighting equipment and building design and construction have fortunately made most of those tragic tales infrequent, relative to the situation in the late 19th and early 20th century. An article on New York City theatre fires in Lapham’s Quarterly during this time period illustrates what significantly increased the hazard and opportunity for loss of life were gross misrepresentations of the safety of theaters coupled with a lack of effort to improve the conditions.

To combat the growing reputation of theaters as death traps, New York City impresarios began to advertise their venues by stressing just how safe they were—without changing the actual structures. In 1901 the top of the Broadway Theater’s playbills, above the production information, read “Safest theater in the world—34 exits.” That same year, the Knickerbocker’s playbills stated that it was “Absolutely Fireproof.” By 1904 the Majestic was billing itself as “New York’s finest—the world’s safest theater—positively fireproof—42 exits,” and by 1906 the Colonial was claiming it was “absolutely fireproof—this theater has the lowest insurance rate issued to any theater in the world.”

…According to Gerhard’s report, as of 1899 New York’s Fifth Avenue Theater could hold 1,400 people but be emptied in 2.5 minutes, while the Abbey Theater could hold 1,450 people and be emptied in 1.5 minutes. The enormous Madison Square Garden, which could hold 17,000 people, apparently required only 4.5 minutes for complete evacuation.

These hypothetically efficient evacuations were impossible to execute, however. Theaters and movie theaters often were illegally packed to standing-room-only capacity, with additional bodies blocking potential routes of egress. Furthermore, Gerhard found that the doors were locked in many of the buildings, and many of the exits first wound through basements or alleyways. Some exits even led to wooden staircases. Families and young children were frequently given permission to be seated in the highest galleries, which made their top-priority exits more difficult.

What is interesting is reading about how much the theater owners and managers resisted safety procedures fearing the optics of making people aware of fire exits would make people consider other diversions. A good number of the bad choices were preserved in the name of maintaining the escapist environment of the theater.

Among the reforms that had been suggested were having firemen walk out on stage at the start of the evening holding placards directing people’s attention to the nearest exits. It was pretty much exactly what flight attendants do on a plane today. When it was brought up in a meeting of theater managers, there was a great deal of push back out of fear of panicking audience members or souring the experience by suggesting the theater was unsafe. According to the article, actors would see a fire but would continue performing in order to maintain the facade they had constructed. In at least one case, opening a door caused a cross draft sending the fire the actors were observing flaring into the seating area.

It is something to think about as live performances try to compete with digital forms of entertainment. What lengths are people willing to go in order to provide the immersive experience they believe is required. What corners will be cut? I have already seen hints of this where occasionally contracts request/require no pre-show announcements or stipulate they occur so early only half the audience sees them. I don’t imagine any of this would expose current audiences to the dangers looming silently over 19th & early 20th century audiences, but the lessons of those times bear consideration.

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