Do You Need To Feel Transcendent Or Sleep Better Right Now?

Ruth Hartt got a bit of a kick from the post I made last week where I termed her use of stock video footage and other clips to create an video marketing piece as a “Franken-Ad.” She tagged me and others about another set of Franken-ads she made more along the lines of print or social media pieces.

She uses these ads to address the pretty much cliched use of terms like “joyful,” “nostalgic,” “rhapsodic,” “timeless,” “refined,” and “sumptuous” to suggest that people will have a transcendent experience.  She associates this with Maslow’s hierarchy of need and raises the point that during current times especially, most people are focused on solving challenges related to health and safety rather than self-actualization.

Recent studies reveal that the benefits of a peak experience don’t end at self transcendence. Science tells us that awe increases pro-social behavior and has an integral part to play in health and happiness. In fact, people who report experiencing awe regularly have remarkably stronger immune systems and better mental health. Why aren’t arts organizations touting these benefits?

“Come for the classical music; stay for the lowered levels of inflammatory cytokines!” We chuckle at this imaginary tagline, but I’m confident that there are swaths of consumers who would be intrigued by this value proposition.

Frequent readers will know that I am not a proponent of arguing the instrumental value of the arts or positioning it as a prescription for ills,  especially since so much of the research on the benefits of the arts have had questionable results. So I am not entirely on board with all the claims her mocked up ads make. However, since it is true that any pro-social behavior contributes to health and happiness, an arts experience is just as valid an option as many others.

Tolerance for uncertainty and inspiring creative risk-taking may not roll off the tongue as easily as sumptuous and transcendent, but after years exposure to those latter terms, any alternative will catch the eye and intrigue people.

I am not really suggesting listing all the terms she uses in her ads, but I do like Hartt’s choice of an image of a woman who looks like she might be poised at the edge of anticipation or anxiety juxtaposed with “Warning this concert may cause: Lowered Stress, …Improved Mood, …Decreased Pain…Increased Alertness.” There is a sense that things could go either way.

I don’t know that I would use those exact terms, but an ad that communicated these general concepts instead of suggesting transcendence presents the experience as more relatable to the viewer.  If you are a new attendee still processing your experience, you might think you did something went wrong if you aren’t experiencing the promised ecstasy.

I also appreciated that one of her ads targeted businesses. While again I would be worried about companies seeing arts experiences as another tool to be used alongside nap lounges and ping pong tables to get the best work product from employees, the general idea that the presence of these experiences makes the community more attractive and liveable for employees is as beneficial as having sincerely motivated employees.

Yes, But When She Said It, It Sounded Brilliant

Vu Le posted this week about a well-observed phenomenon he termed “Outsider Efficiency Bias.”  He defined this as basically having an outsider like a consultant come in and be lauded for making the same observations and recommendations that internal constituencies have.

Because this is a common experience, I figured someone would have already coined a term for it, but I couldn’t find one. Though logical fallacies like appeal to authority, appeal to accomplishment and appeal to novelty all intersect.

He points out this manifests in the hiring and contracting decisions organizations make and beyond just bringing consultants in for a week or two.

•Board members insisting on hiring an external candidate to be the ED instead of promoting a qualified person within the organization
•EDs/CEOs doing the same thing, hiring a staff from outside, often neglecting internal candidates
•Foundations hiring people from academia or the corporate world, who have no experience in nonprofit, to be the CEO
•Organizations hiring consultants from outside the geographic area instead of contracting with local consultants who live and work there
•Organizations hiring local consultants instead of just listening to their staff
•Conferences booking national and international speakers instead of working with local speakers

Le said he experienced this situation with his own board when they suggested bringing in an outsider to advise them about how to write blogs and articles better. If you aren’t aware, Vu Le is in fairly high demand as a speaker and panelist based on the content of his blog posts and use of social media to advocate for equity.

He acknowledges that an outsider perspective is important to the growth of organizations and is not discounting the need, but he lists many ways in which a bias toward outsiders can undermine the short and long term health of an organization.

I would have to copy and paste a significant portion of his post to include everything so I encourage people to read the original and think about how the bias exists in your organizational culture.

Since the Bible talks about a prophet being honored everywhere except in his own town and among his friends and family, this behavior is pretty deep seated but can be avoided with the investment of some thought and attention.

Focus On Product vs Process

On Museum 2.0 Seema Rao asks why museum educators are so undervalued in the context of a question she was asked about the difference between a Sip and Paint session and a class on marbling technique.

She answers by noting that Sip and Paint sessions are focused on the final product while learning an artistic technique is about teaching you the process with the goal of empowering you to make it your own. However, they are intentionally designed to look the same to help learners feel comfortable with the experience.

Sip and Paints are product focused, in a sense. They prove to participants there is a simple set of steps to get something. It’s closer to learning to write a letter. Sure, we all have different handwriting, but we are essentially communicating the same sound. Much of modern and contemporary art, particularly, is often about communicating an “a” by drawing a cow, or rather coming up with new forms of communication. Teaching you to paint a sunflower step by step will not get you closer to appreciating the innovations of Van Gogh, largely because you’re skipping right past being innovative.

Museum educators working with adults, though, know adults yearn structure. Society rewards the structured in school and work. So, they come up with projects that mimic the safety of Sip and Paints, projects though that don’t have one single end-point. They safely allow adults places to not follow the rules or forget there are rules at all.

Rao goes on to mention that museum education departments are typically the most under-resourced area of their institutions, to the point there is often an expectation that they execute their operations with volunteers. This immediately put me in mind of the debate that has arisen about the Art Institute of Chicago “firing” their volunteer docents. I half wondered if she weren’t making an oblique reference to that situation.

The Art Institute was phasing out their docent program with the plan of replacing them with paid educators. The Art Institute had required quite a bit of their docents in terms of engaging in a long probationary period and engaging in research projects. It was acknowledged that these could prove impediments to diversifying the composition of the docent corps. Unfortunately, while paying people for their labor and working to diversify the composition of the education staff were positive steps, there was also a perception that the museum was dismissing 82 of their most avid supporters.

From reading Rao’s post, I think she would appreciate that the Art Institute of Chicago’s docents had invested so much time into educating themselves about the collection, but would be just as happy that the museum was directing financial resources into education rather than depending on the passion of volunteers.

“What’s the solution? One is that educators need to stand up and show their work, show the challenges, and highlight the hard work behind the scenes. “

Looking To Public Art To Revitalize Cities Post-Covid

Somewhat in line with my post yesterday about the growing number of basic guarantee income programs for artists, Artsjournal.com had an interview with the mayor of Toronto, John Tory, about the beginning of a 10 year initiative to create public art. The program had been delayed by the start of Covid and the mayor says that has created an even greater need for public works of art.

This is true for a couple of reasons: first, I think the sense of joy — the look and feel of the city being enlivened by artistic creations of all kinds — became even more important after a desolate period when you’d walk around downtown and it was bleak, I mean it was a wasteland. The second reason, which was valid before but now became 100 times more valid, was that it also allows some of our artists to tell their stories. And beyond the benefits to us of having those stories told and those works displayed, this program will retain the services of 1,500 artists over the course of this year. That’s not unimportant in the context of a group that has been very hard hit. I’m not minimizing the problems other people have had, but artists had a terrible time. Now there’s a need to bring the city back to life and there’s nothing like the arts and culture to do that.

I was interested to see the interviewer, Jonathan Dekel, follow up by asking the mayor how this vision of supporting artists and their importance to the city reconciles with the concerns about gentrification displacing the artists. The mayor made mention of some measures like tax relief for music venues and affordable housing arrangements which recognize that artists’ income is not regular from month to month.

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