Didn’t Happen As Envisioned, But It Came Out Much Better

I have often viewed my professional career as having moments where I build on general ideas and concepts from earlier positions, but adapted to suit the local community. I am always wary of being the guy who constantly says “well, when I was at X, we did…” And in this particular case, it was actually our marketing director who had an idea and took leadership of a project that closely resembled work I had done before.

In my previous position, readers may remember I had started a semi-annual visual arts fair sited in the lobby of the performing arts center I ran.  Not knowing that, our marketing director proposed something along the lines of a fringe festival model with visual arts merchants and activities sited in the lobby of our historic theatre and performances/exhibitions sited in locations around the space, including the box seats, dressing rooms, balcony stairs, green room and main stage area.

The first attempt at mounting this event happened this weekend and it turned out to be successful in ways we hadn’t envisioned.  We imagined people would bring their kids to see the art works on sales and participate in the hands on activities. While the kids were busy, the parents would stick their heads in on the TED Talk-esque sessions happening in the main room. There would be other times that people would wander the space seeing the installations and then the performance elements would start late afternoon and go into the evening.

It turned out that very few people applied to do the TED Talk type program, but instead we had so many show up who had never been to the venue before or hadn’t been in 30 years, that we ended up running a constant cycle of tours of the facility. We had held open houses in the past with the specific intent of letting people see the mysterious backstage areas and didnt have much interest, but it turn out this festival idea drew people in and left us in a position to give the tours. Now we are thinking of scrapping a lengthy TED Talk program in the future, both for lack of apparent interest but also because it would interfere with our ability to give tours.

The installations by visual artists exhibited a great use of our space and now that more people have seen how the spaces were used, we expect to receive more applications with a broader use of the particular architecture of the building in the future. Likewise, many performing artists “understood the assignment,” as it were and came up with a creative use of the space.

One of the performances pieces ended up becoming an impromptu exhibit.  On Saturday, an artist and her collaborator staged a comedic dating game were participants had to rotate between activities set up in the box seats of the theater. Some of the assignments were things like drawing a portrait of the relative that always ruins Thanksgiving. Another was to write down the worst pick up lines or insults a prospective suitor has used. Since the collection of responses was so amusing, we left everything up on Sunday as the “Graveyard of Bad Dates.” Throughout the day people stopped to read what had been written, make their own contributions, or participate in the activities. There was an 1000 piece puzzle that got closer to completion by end of day Sunday. The most amusing experience was watching people who were unfamiliar with record players discovering that the music would start wherever you dropped the needle.

One of the most gratifying outcomes, (though we shouldn’t have been surprised since we intentionally designed for it), was the diversity of artists represented. We had set up a blind jury system where we recruited visual and performing artists to both advise us on the design and execution of our overall project and to serve as a jury on the works submitted. We excised identifiable information from the applications before sending it to them to score. This was definitely a much more time and labor intensive process than an internal review would have been, but we were pleased with the results. More than half the participating creators, both performers and visual, were black and one was neurodivergent.

While we might have ended up in the same place using internal staff to choose artists, we are more confident in the outcome since we took steps to reduce the opportunity for bias. Additionally, since we were doing so many tours engaging in conversations with visitors we were able to learn that many of those who had never been in the space before/within the last 20 years, came from diverse racial, geographic and economic backgrounds.

The advice of the external jury was instrumental in shaping our application process and policies. For instance, we discarded the idea of table fees and used an honor system based percentage of sales so that artists that didn’t sell anything weren’t out the additional expense of a table fee.

Like my previous experience running an arts fair in the lobby of a performing arts center, newer artists got to see how more experienced artists operated in order to capture sales by carrying items with different price points and displaying their work to the greatest benefit. There were artists who only sold 2-3 pieces who said that was the most they had ever sold at this type of event. Others who came in from out of the area was pleased to be able to network and share tips with more locally based artists.

There was one artist who gave a painting lesson to a girl on Saturday. On Sunday the girl showed up for a second lesson and then the mother showed up and said their home needed three pieces by her daughter so she needed to take another lesson.

One of the artists was so excited and invested in the concept of the fringe festival style event, he ended up being our primary tour guide for the weekend. He is interested in learning more stories about the building, who performed there and what ghosts haunt it.

As I often write, it is generally difficult to import an idea from one community to another and have the same success. I suspect we may even have a different experience if we do the same event next year. There is a lot of groundwork we (90% credit going to the marketing director and her energy, I was more perspiration than inspiration on this project) that occurred over the last two years I haven’t mentioned that contributed to the perception of this event as successful. Even if we only retain 5% of the goodwill we generated, the event probably made the most progress in our pursuit of shifting perceptions about who our organization is for of any in the past year.

Who Gave You Your First Break?

Tweets responding to UK based Arts Emergency’s new campaign were filling my Twitter feed today. I have written about them a couple times before. They are essentially focused on cultivating the next generation of creative workers through training opportunities, scholarships and mentoring.

The organization’s name and raison d’etre is premised on the idea that cuts in funding nationally have created an emergency for the future of the creative economy in the UK.  Their newest push is #BreakTheGlass, as in “In Case of Emergency, Break The Glass.”

What I really admire about their execution of this awareness campaign is that they aren’t focusing on the negative consequences that cause their organization so much concern, instead they have asked people to tag & tweet about the person(s) who “gave you some key advice or encouragement early in your career.”

Today my feed was packed with people calling out those who helped them get jobs in theater, in broadcasting, print media, etc. I usually view Twitter with a chronological order setting and there were so many people talking about those who gave them their first big break, I was scrolling, scrolling, and scrolling only to find I was still viewing tweets that were only 5 hours old.

I don’t want to horn in on Arts Emergency’s initiative, but maybe folks here in the US need to pick up the tune and call out those for whose help we are grateful. October is Arts & Humanities Month which would make it a suitable time. Or if we don’t want to steal attention from Arts Emergency, next month around Thanksgiving would be appropriate as well.

Ultimately, over the long term I think advocacy for arts and culture needs to have positive messaging like this that doesn’t focus on economic impact, test scores and behavioral outcomes as benefits. Talking about mentors and being grateful for opportunities and investment of trust and faith is a good way to emphasize the benefits of arts and culture in cultivating relationships and reinforcing the social fabric without explicitly making those claims.

Composer Was A Rock Star Of Their Day? Rock Stars Aren’t Even The Rock Stars Of Today

I often read about classical music composers being the rock star of their day, but don’t often get a lot of detail about what that meant. I just happened upon an article in Lapham’s Quarterly about Franz Liszt which pretty much shows that fans haven’t changed much since the 19th century when people collected his discarded cigar butts, silk gloves and broken piano strings.

Before a concert Liszt mingled with the audience, charming them with his witty remarks. He had a semicircle of chairs placed around the piano on stage so that illustrious guests could sit near him and converse with him between pieces…He brought his silk gloves on stage and threw them down to be fought over by audience members. Women were said to carry his discarded cigar butts in their cleavages. When he broke piano strings, as he often did in his performances, people collected the broken strings and had them made into bracelets. There was even a phase where Liszt invited listeners to write a question for him (on any topic) on a slip of paper and put it into a hat, from which questions would be drawn out for the great man to answer from the stage.

The article says Liszt was the first to organize a program where he was the headlining soloist versus a night which included performances by different people. And some contemporaries regarded his early work as “sheer racket” so there are numerous parallels with rock music and stardom.

Though, as I am sure many before me have pointed out, while there are claims about composers being the rock stars of their day, audiences today aren’t permitted to have the same relationship with the composer as the audiences of their day.

One of the most obvious counters to claims that 200 year old music should be viewed as relevant today because it was the pop music of 200 years ago is that music styles falls out of favor over time. I mean heck, saying someone was the rock star of their day itself is arguably a dated reference since rock isn’t really a mainstream music genre anymore.

So if an appeal is made to potential audiences to view a composers music as the equivalent of current pop music because the composer was the celebrity of their day, people should at least be given the opportunity to freely react and interact as they would to a pop idol.

I have mentioned this basic idea before in a post about a Utah Symphony Orchestra’s (USO) advertising campaign where they had musicians made up as members of the band KISS and had a tagline about their musicians being rock stars. I was concerned people would be disappointed by the difference in energy between a KISS concert and a USO concert, not because orchestra music isn’t as hard driving as rock, the same audience members can equally experience a frisson listening to both, but because they wouldn’t be able to express their appreciation as frehley. (homophonic pun intended obviously)


Maybe The Cult Rules Aren’t As Important As We Thought

Seema Rao at Museum 2.0 shared notes from a session she conducted at the Museum Computer Network conference last week titled “Are Museums A Cult?”

The answer, as I am sure you have anticipated, is that they definitely can be for the same reasons theaters, operas, ballets, orchestras, etc can be. As you read her notes, you can see how easy it is to substitute your own discipline in.

I got to museum bc I loved art. I loved the ideas around art and I loved sharing those ideas. I figured everyone here was the same—excited to share. Then, I got into museum work. I found that people were only excited with sharing if they could control every aspect of learning. Sharing with parameters is not true sharing.

It was disheartening. I realized the field often preferences things to people. Given the capitalistic matrix we live in, I shouldn’t have been surprised. But I was. I was also saddened.

And I wasn’t alone in my disillusionment. Everyone I knew was wondering if they were in a field that was problematic. We went into this field for good. And we were wondering, if somehow, our idealism blinded us. If we were on the side of the good.


As a field, we’re in a crisis. Why? Because of the system. It’s trained us, not unlike a cult, to question only enough to keep the system going. It requires sacrifice from most people, and certainly doesn’t sacrifice for Us.

The system sucks. The system gives a few people great tax breaks by giving a few more people the chance to do scholarship. It’s a system reinforcing scarcity. And like all hierarchical systems, it needs a whole lot of other people to get less, and have less say.

This is a conversation that has been ongoing for some time now. While it can feel dispiriting to feel you are working in an industry that is so slow to change, there are organizations and programs that are working toward a more productive relationship with audiences.

A week ago, a new orchestra entity had their first performance in my venue attracting an audience of 900 people. The philosophy of the programming is essentially “not your grandparents’ orchestra” in an attempt to attract new audiences. Based on attendance demographics and surveys, it has started on the road to achieving those goals. Some responses said they didn’t care for the program mix and there were a comments about educating attendees in proper applause etiquette, but those were much fewer than you might imagine.

There were far more notes about people not wearing their masks in the audience chamber–that might have been more a reflection of cocktail consumption since we didn’t experience any resistance to mask wearing at the door.

Strange as it may seem to say in the middle of a pandemic, it is actually encouraging to learn that the programming may factor less into the decision not to attend than lack of social distancing and mask wearing. I would rather be stricter with masks than about when you can respond to hearing something that moves you.

If the people who are showing up in numbers at the fringes of a pandemic threat aren’t reacting negatively to a change in programming philosophy, the resulting word of mouth may literally enable an organization to change the narrative about themselves.

Can the cult persevere if the cult practices don’t seem that important any more?

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