We Will Accompany Them On The Beaches, On The Playgrounds, In The Parks And At The Opera!

After I posted last week about how English towns installation of chat benches aligned with other stories I had covered about organizations trying to create personal connections between strangers, one of my neighbors, Regina Sweeney messaged me on LinkedIn about a study about buddy benches conducted in elementary schools. (I think this is the first time I have had someone I see on a fairly regular basis read my blog and send me a link.)

A number of schools use buddy benches to help kids make connections. If you are lonely at recess, you sit there and other kids are supposed to come over and invite you to play. There hadn’t been a lot of research done on the effectiveness of these benches so a group set out to conduct one at a school in Utah.

They found that introducing the benches reduced the number of solitary students. As part of the study, they removed the benches for a couple weeks and then returned them to the playground. When they were removed, the number of solitary students started to return to the baseline number observed before the benches were introduced. When the benches were reintroduced, the number of solitary students decreased.

While you can’t necessarily make assumptions about adults from the observation of a small group of elementary school kids, this result seemed to point to the usefulness of some sort of mechanism to facilitate connecting people. Providing people with a way to signal their willingness and desire to connect was useful.

There were kids that abused the benches. Some kids would sit on the bench and then rebuff all overtures to play. Teachers observed that kids who were normally very social seemed to sit on the bench to call attention to themselves. There were also those who made fun of those sitting on the bench.

Many students thought the benches were a good idea, but for other people.

“It appears that while students liked the idea of a buddy bench at their school, many may have thought of it as an intervention to help other students and not necessarily themselves.”

Kids in the upper grades (4th-6th) thought it was only useful for kids in the lower grades. Some students felt that they were introduced too late in the school year after cliques had been formed.

I imagine these general perceptions about the utility of benches might be more deeply entrenched in adults. Though I would also say adults might be more apt to resolve to participate in one role or the other if they knew the goal was to reverse a trend toward social isolation.

One take away from the study that I think is applicable for people of any age is the necessity to consistently make people aware of the program. Every teacher prepared their students for the introduction of the buddy benches and the benches were placed outside 100% of the time during the intervention stage. However, the principal reported only encouraging their use in morning announcements 80% of the time and the teachers monitoring the playground were often too preoccupied with other playground activities to seek out solitary students to encourage them to use the benches.

Those conducting the study felt these situations kept the project from being as successful as it might have been.

I would think the necessity of repeatedly communicating the availability of chatting/buddy programs would even be greater for arts organizations given that the attendees change for every event and they aren’t being exposed the availability of these initiatives everyday the way kids at school are.

I had written about the buddy seating program I had created at my previous theater which paired people in the audience chamber. As I read this study, I wondered if it might be good to have “meet someone new” seating in a public place like the lobby as well. People probably aren’t going to arrive alone at an event seeking a companion, but people new to the experience might welcome the opportunity to chat with those who are equally clueless about what to do or with someone who can offer some advice. Having a bench or row of chairs specifically to that purpose might be useful.

While this seems obvious in retrospect, it only occurred to me as I was re-reading the study and saw a line about the buddy benches being useful as”…a reinforcement by giving students a place to gather should they feel intimidated when seeking out play activities on their own.” This resonated with my recollection of a post Holly Mulcahy made yesterday about people who ruin the concert experience for newbies by enforcing a behavioral orthodoxy.

It wouldn’t eliminate the glares at clapping in the wrong place, but a buddy bench would give people a place to ask “Sooooo…I what’s the deal with not clapping at the end of some songs, but jumping to your feet at the end of other songs?”

If you are involved with education and want to bring buddy benches to your school, you need to read the study because I didn’t touch upon even 10% of what was involved and what they felt needed more rigorous study.

Data You Need To Believe Over Your Gut

I so frequently tell my readers that Collen Dilenschneider has made an awesome post on her blog that it makes it difficult to convey the increased urgency to read one of her pieces when she has made an even awesomer post.

Despite this impediment, believe me when I say she recently made a post that is even more awesome than her usually awesome posts. Last week she wrote about how research results often contradict our gut feelings about a situation, despite being true. She confesses that as much as she deals with data every day, there are some instances where she asks the experts to revisit it just to be sure.

She goes on to list five data points that even she and her co-workers really wanted to believe were untrue.

Let me just say, I have seen some of this data before but part of what makes her post so great is this “contradicts our gut” framework she employs. As much as I read and write about arts administration, there are a fair number of instances where I raise mental walls against information I come across. It is useful to be constantly reminded that we need to take a deep breath and open our minds.

1) Local audiences have negatively skewed perceptions of the organizations in their area 

IMPACTS tracked 118 visitor-serving organizations and found that on average, people living within 25 miles of the organization indicate value-for-cost perceptions that are 14% less than those of regional visitors living between 25 and 101-150 miles away. In other words, locals believe their experience is less worthy of the admission cost they paid compared to the perceptions of those living further away. Interestingly, locals paid 20% less for admission, on average, than non-local visitors thanks to local discounts and promotions! They are also much less satisfied with their experiences than non-local visitors.

Even if this is influenced by a sense of sunk cost where long distance visitors arrive with a firmer conviction than local residents they will enjoy an experience given that they have already invested so much more time and money in planning and execution, it is important to recognize this dynamic is operating for different visitor segments.

2) An average visitor attends a cultural organization type only once every 27 months – and the average member returns to take advantage of free admission only once per year.

The average person who visits an art museum will not visit another for 28 months, on average. The average person who visits a history museum will not visit another for 32 months, on average. In total, the average visitation cycle for organization types that we monitor is 27 months. Here’s more on that data and what it means.


Subscription-based organizations such as theaters and symphonies: You’ve got it a bit better. Your members visit twice each year, on average.

I had actually written about this idea around 8 years ago. In the research presented at that time, it wasn’t that people felt they had enough of the organization and were going to wait a few years to go again, it was that people were so emotionally connected with the organization, they would swear they had just been there within the last year when it had been about two or more years.

Don’t immediately delete people from your mailing list if they don’t buy tickets to return, give it 3-5 years before you decide they are disengaged. (This assumes annual/semi-annual mailings vs. more frequent ones.)

3) Millennials are not “aging into” caring about arts and culture

Oooh, pay attention to this one!

This isn’t surprising to me and we have so much on this we’re getting into a “ridiculous” data volume category here, but this shocks other folks, so it’s making this list!

Millennials are not “aging into” caring about arts and culture as a natural function of getting older. Millennials also are not “aging into” other things some entities are banking on, like the belief that dolphins should be kept in captivity.


Millennials are a very important group for cultural organizations to engage. The take-away of these findings is critical: “Let’s just wait for people to think we’re important” is a failing engagement strategy.

Here is another point to be particularly mindful of–

4) On average, attendance goes back to baseline 5 years after a major expansion (but operation costs tend to be increased forever).

In a nutshell, attendance decreases in the years prior to a major building project as folks defer their visits until after the expansion opens. When an expansion opens, attendance certainly increases – 19.6% compared to the ten years prior! But that increase gradually decreases until attendance levels retreat to the baseline of the ten years prior after only 5 years. And the increased building space also means more staff members, more programming, more electricity, and more ongoing maintenance.


If you’re fundraising for or undertaking a major building expansion, make sure that you are clear on your goals and objectives – and that your expectations for long-term attendance and ongoing maintenance are grounded in reality.

And finally… (note the distinction she makes between mobile web and mobile apps)

5) Mobile applications do not significantly increase visitor satisfaction

Interestingly, people who use social media onsite in a way that relates to their visit report 7% greater visitor satisfaction scores than people who do not use social media in relation to their visit. Mobile web users experience a 6% bump in satisfaction. Even though all three of these methods (mobile applications, social media, and mobile web) take place on a mobile phone during a cultural organization visit, social media and the web significantly contribute to the visitor experience. Mobile applications do not reliably do this. One explanation for this may be that social media and mobile web “meet audiences where they are” and are examples of onsite technology facilitating the experience. Mobile applications, on the other hand, can be examples of technological intervention in which a visitor must interrupt the experience to figure out how to engage with the technology, or download it in the first place.

As much as I have quoted here, it is only about 1/3 of the data and rationale she presents in her post so check it out in order to get a more complete picture of things.

I Don’t Know, The DMV Line Is Usually At Least Novella

I saw a really cool story via Americans for the Arts in May about a partnership between the Maryland Department of Motor Vehicles and the Prince George’s County Memorial Library System. They worked together to place kiosks that delivered short stories in a motor vehicles branch. People standing on line to conduct business can select, print out and read one of the short stories.  The library sees this as an opportunity to serve their community outside of their branches.

The stories are printed on demand and scroll out of the kiosk somewhat like a register receipt.

The story kiosk has a library of more than 8,500 short stories, varying in length. Stories are free, and readers can choose between selections for kids or content for all ages. Short Edition has also made the machine earth-friendly with eco-friendly paper that is FSC- and BPA-free.

I took a look at the website of the French company that makes the kiosks. Even though they talk about the printers being useful for business where people have to wait for service, I noticed some of the accompany pictures depict the stories being read at leisure in uncrowded cafes.

This made me wonder if there might be a use for the technology to deliver supplementary material at performances or perhaps only the parts of the playbill you are interested in. If you don’t care about the bios but want the program notes, you might choose to only print those and save on paper. Granted, this may not please those who paid to have their logos placed in the program, but perhaps they can be included on the print out on an ongoing basis.

Being able to see what types of material people are printing on demand might provide the organization with a better sense of what information to provide people in promotional materials to help them make the decision to attend. Likewise, it could be used to shape the programming and attendance experience to reflect these interests/needs.

Ripples Moving Fish In Other Ponds

When I caught the name, “Penis Monologues” out of the corner of my eye, I felt a moment of trepidation that some men’s rights group was mounting a show as an aggressive counter to the Vagina Monologues. However, it turned out that the show is actually an attempt to combat the culture of “dominant male temperament” in China, a  term which is somewhat analogous to the English term, “toxic masculinity.” The show was created by a noted sexologist in China, Fang Gang.  (It should be noted that the title in Chinese doesn’t use the word “penis.” The articles doesn’t indicate what the actual title is.)

It was interesting to read how other cultures are experiencing the global conversations about gender roles. (China has had its own spate of #MeToo stories.) Many male participants in Fang’s project really had to overcome their reticence. Given that a number had never performed before, and unlike the generally empowering tone of the Vagina Monologues, the show dealt with some pretty negative subject matter, their reluctance is understandable.

But the play’s subject matter hasn’t made it easy for Tao to find willing actors. Most men she approached declined after reading monologue titles like “Penis Size,” “Domestic Abuser,” and “Erectile Dysfunction.” “They are afraid of being mocked or judged by the public,” she tells Sixth Tone.

When 42-year-old business owner Yu Lei read the play for the first time, he was shocked that it so boldly addressed taboo subjects. But after attending one of Fang’s sex-ed public lectures and seeing members of the audience calmly taking notes, he decided to join the troupe, despite never having acted before.

Tao assigned Yu to the play’s first monologue, “Date Rape,” which tells the story of a male college student forcing his girlfriend to have sex with him in a hotel room. Yu was so nervous about performing that he told his wife he was taking part in a charity event organized by White Ribbon, the advocacy organization launched by Fang in 2013 to end violence perpetrated by men against women. But he needn’t have worried: His performance wins thunderous applause from the 90 or so people in the audience, though Yu later confesses to Sixth Tone that he slightly regrets doing it. “I’m afraid people might think it was my own story,” he says.

According to article, in addition to challenging audiences to question the societal norms that men need to be dominant in their careers and relationships with women, the show also addresses some pretty ingrained binary definitions of gender.

That pain is familiar to Ye Chuyang, a queer actor portraying their own experiences in the monologue “Gender Queer.” “I don’t agree with binary gender divisions, because it limits people’s possibilities,” Ye tells Sixth Tone. “Most people think men are supposed to be macho, decisive, and strong. They don’t appreciate feminine or delicate men. Though my parents appreciate the sensitive and gentle side of me, they prefer me to be strong and tough just like other boys.”

Ye thinks the play is a chance to both educate people about sexual diversity and help more men understand the experiences of women. “If men could break the rules and speak out, women would feel encouraged and less lonely in this battle,” he says.

In addition to illustrating the power of arts and culture to facilitate conversations on difficult topics, for me this story represents the degree to which the world is becoming metaphorically smaller. We may be frustrated by lack of progress in our own local spheres, but the motion of a movement can create ripples that begins to bring resonant changes in other parts of the world.

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