Waiting For A Nice Chat

I came across an article about English towns that are installing  “chat benches” with signs saying, “The ‘Happy to Chat’ Bench: Sit Here If You Don’t Mind Someone Stopping To Say Hello.”

If this sounds vaguely familiar, you may recall that four years ago, I posted about a bus company in Brazil that reserved seats on buses and provided conversation prompts for people who wanted to meet someone new.

I actually used that as an inspiration for a program at my last venue to match up individuals wanting to see show who didn’t have anyone with whom to attend. ArtsMidwest picked up on it and apparently are still talking about as part of their Creating Connections program because people keep telling me they heard about the idea at one of their seminars.

Birch Coffee in NYC had a policy of not turning on the Wifi until 5 pm and providing conversation prompts at their tables. (A look at their website and social media presence couldn’t confirm if they still hold to this).  Their goal was to create a greater sense of community than was possible with people constantly looking at their screens.

The intent of the bench project in England is combat loneliness among senior citizens, though they encourage everyone to have a seat.

Burnham-On-Sea police community support officer Tracey Grobbeler told Burnham-On-Sea.com, “Simply stopping to say ‘hello’ to someone at the Chat Bench could make a huge difference to the vulnerable people in our communities and help to make life a little better for them.”

The initiative was launched to coincide with United Nations World Elder Abuse Awareness Day. According to a recent poll, more than a third of seniors reported feeling a lack of companionship at least some of the time, while 27 percent said they feel isolated some of the time or more often. While the project was conceived with the elderly population in mind, the Burnham-On-Sea police department encourages residents of all ages to use the chat benches.

Something I wonder about all these projects is whether the initial intention is fully realized. Clearly you can’t just set up a bench somewhere and expect conversations to happen organically. A framework was set up for each of these efforts. At the same time, as the saying goes, you can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make it drink. People may not behave in a way that conforms to your ideals.

Just as with my search of Birch Coffee’s web and social media presence sites (as well as some media reports) didn’t have any mention of the no-Wifi policy, I haven’t really been able to discover whether the Brazilian bus company had success getting people to strike up conversations or if the seats were monopolized by the same people who refuse to cede their seats to the elderly on public transport worldwide.

I would be interested to know if anyone has come across projects with similar intentions and had a sense of their success. My hope is that if things diverged from the original intent, the results were even better than the creators envisioned. It would be great to know how any sort of successful outcome emerged or if important insight was derived from disappointing results.

In an attempt to become regarded as more of a community asset, I am sure a lot of arts organizations would be pleased to learn about moderate successes. Everything doesn’t have to be about racking up huge numbers for grant reports.

If there was a case where an arts organization said, “well we invested a little bit of time and money for six months up front and now there is a consistent presence of 10-15 people hanging out, chatting all day in our lobby or sidewalk where no one had been before,” there is a low level, but consistent good-will benefit accruing for the organization.

Isn’t Everyone Creating A Museum In Their Basement?

There was an article in Forbes last month about the glut of empty museums in China. While many museums in the United States have larger collections than they can possibly display, storing the majority in basement vaults, museums in China have the opposite problem in that there is more museum space than objects to display.

Part of the problem, according to Forbes is rooted in the way commercial property development is handled,

According to Johnson, what has fueled China’s museum building boom has been a strategy where a local government will grant a developer a prime parcel of commercial construction land on the contingency that they also build and operate a museum (or an opera house, library, etc). In this way, a city can obtain their iconic public buildings while having someone else pick up the tab.

…After receiving accolades for building a world-class landmark, the developers often find themselves in more unfamiliar territory: actually running a museum.

“That isn’t to say that they can’t hire someone to be the curator to develop content, but at the end they don’t really care,” Johnson proclaimed. “They’re building it because they want to build the tower on the site adjacent to it to make their money.”

It light of this, it was somewhat ironic that on my recent trip to China, I found myself touring an extensive display depicting the Ancient Tea-Horse Road and elements of the Naxi ethnic minority in the basement of a family owned hotel in Lijiang. The owner and her father had created a 120 meter long diorama showing each stage of the journey in the tea-horse trade. (Though they currently only have room to display 80 meters.)

The floor of the basement are reverse frosted plexiglass with pictographs of the Dongba script once used by the Naxi along with the corresponding Chinese hanzi and English translation. The owner described how she, her husband and a friend created each panel.

The owner and her father spent a great deal of time and money both personally and hiring scholars and artists to assist in creating the diorama and floor displays. Clearly a labor of love and a testament to their pride in regional history and Naxi culture. But it is only accessible to guests of the hotel who are personally accompanied by the owner.

My sister and I just happened to choose the hotel from those that were available and then noticed the reviews mentioned that there was an amazing display in the basement.

I didn’t really press the owner to learn why her family continues to invest so much effort in a project so few people will ever see. Judging from the superior service and hospitality ethic she exhibited during our stay, it may just be rooted in the idea that pursuit of excellence brings it own rewards independent of external recognition.


A Harvest of Performers

My summer vacation this year took me back to China. Unfortunately, I didn’t get to meet with China arts administrators on this trip, though I did try to secure some introductions and arrangements.

One arts related thing that struck me this time was the Impressions: Lijiang performance I attended. The show is directed by Zhang Yimou (Raise The Red Lantern, Hero, 2008 Olympics Opening and Closing Ceremonies) and was the second of seven shows he and his collaborators created for scenic places around China.  The show in Lijiang is performed in full daylight in a 2000 seat open amphitheater on Jade Dragon Snow Mountain near Lijiang.

There are about 500 performers and 100 horses in the show. As you will see from some of the pictures below, some of the performance happens in the aisles and the horses gallop around the entire rim of the amphitheater.

The interesting thing about this production is that all the performers have been cast from the local farmers, representing about 10 different ethnic minorities that live in the region, (including the Muoso, one of the few matrilineal societies in the world). So the cast is telling the story of their people who have lived there for generations. Historically, the people of Lijiang and Yunnan province in which the city is located have participated in the Ancient Horse-Tea Road trading route, thus the significant presence of horses in the show.

As far as I have been able to tell from what I can find in promotional content about the other six “Impressions” productions, it appears this show may be the only one that is performed by “amateurs.” I put the term in quotes because that is how many information sources about the show refer to them.

However, because everyone kept mentioning they were farmers, I asked if the show needed to be scaled back or cancelled during harvest and planting time to allow the performers to return home to help their families.  I was told performing was their full time job now and was assured they were making better money than if they were still living on the farm. As best I can tell the amateur term is likely a translation of the idea the performers haven’t received formal training rather than a reference to lack of skill or salary.

I wondered if the casting of farmers was intentional in order to help stimulate the economy by increasing the income of residents or was a practical matter due to the difficulty of finding 500+ trained performers in southwestern China, (though they likely didn’t need to be trained to handle and ride horses), or a combination of both. Given the way things operate in China, all the shows in the Impressions series were likely instigated by, and receive significant support from, the government. As much as I would love to use this as an example of government support for minority cultures, it wasn’t all that long ago that official policy was to suppress the cultural practices of these same ethnic minorities.

As you may have surmised from my pictures, it was raining the day we saw the show so the spectacular majesty of Jade Dragon Snow Mountain in the background is not apparent. Check out the video below which was taken during better weather.

There Are No Small Theaters, Just Theaters Who Think They Are Small

I wrote last week about how small nuances that alter our perception of a situation can make a big difference.  Back in 2009 I wrote another post along the same lines featuring a TED talk by Rory Sutherland.

At the time I felt the following bit Sutherland imparted was worth consideration for arts organizations. I wrote,

….at the end of his talk where he cites a quote “Poetry is when you make new things familiar and familiar things new.” Though in the case of the arts and current attendance trends, the familiar may be an entirely new experience.

He says it isn’t a bad definition of what advertising people’s job is: “To help people appreciate what is unfamiliar. But also to gain a greater appreciation and place a far higher value on those things that are already existing.”

Now that I have gone back and watched the video again, along with two other similar TED Talks he gave, I have a slightly different perspective. If you have been reading my blog recently, you may have seen my post about the importance of the physical environment surrounding an arts experience.

The challenge for a lot of arts organizations is that they may be operating out of older buildings that don’t have the newest technology and amenities. In his talks, Sutherland emphasizes that it is often more important to fix the perception rather than the problem.

He mentions that people were more satisfied with their experience in subways when digital displays of the next train’s arrival time were installed. It didn’t make the trains arrive any faster, but it removed the sense of uncertainty about how long one might have to wait.

In the UK, Sutherland says, the post office had a 98% rate of delivering first class mail by the next day and nearly destroyed themselves trying to improve that rate. The worst part is, when asked people guessed the next day delivery success rate averaged at about 50%-60%. Sutherland says it would have been cheaper and more effective to just tell people that the rate was 98%–especially if framed in reference to Germany.

“…tell people that more first-class mail arrives the next day in the UK than in Germany, because generally, in Britain, if you want to make us happy about something, just tell us we do it better than the Germans.”

In other example, he show the elevator buttons in the Lydmar hotel in Stockholm which allows you to choose your elevator music. He suggests that an expensive renovation of your hotel room won’t distinguish it enough from any other room in a high-end hotel in your eyes, but the novelty of those buttons will make a lasting impression for a fraction of the cost.

Amusing distractions won’t make up for the fact that your restroom facilities are too small to accommodate the your entire audience during intermission. However, if they are sufficient, the most effective response to complaints about the wait is likely to be less expensive than a renovation to enlarge the restrooms.  The primary concern for the audience member isn’t whether they will be able to use the restroom, it is whether they will be able to use the restroom and perhaps get a drink before intermission ends.

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