“Love You, But I Would Love You More If Only…” In Public-Private Partnerships

This past week I have been dipping my toe in and out of the livestream for the ArtPlace America Summit. One of the plenary sessions I went back to listen to more fully was a discussion ArtPlace CEO Jamie Bennett held with Kresge Foundation CEO Rip Rapson and Detroit Future City Executive Director Anika Goss-Foster about public/private partnerships.

The title of the session was “You’re not the Boss of Me: What Happened to the Public in Public-Private Partnerships?” and the most fascinating parts dealt exactly the issue of who the boss is in public-private partnerships.

Around the 12:15 point, Rapson talks about how one of the previous mayors of Detroit had approached him at the Kresge Foundation asking if they would fund a long range master planning process to revitalize Detroit. The team Kresge put together was so successful in generating participation and investment from the community that the city administration started to feel that their prerogatives were being challenged and their competency was being questioned. The city government began resisting the efforts of the Detroit Future City team Kresge put together to work with them.

Kresge decided to shutdown the process for a year and pull it out of the mayor’s office. However, they had built up so much momentum getting the community involved over two years, the community wouldn’t allow them to dial things back. Kresge restructured things toward a community ownership model and finished the master plan.

Around the same time, a new administration took charge of Detroit city government and they embraced the externally generated plan. But then the same dynamic developed where the city government came to resent the involvement of outsiders. According to Rapson, they did recognize the talent of the Detroit Future City team, but they wanted to absorb the organization into the city planning department and have them work under the city’s terms.

Rapson says that in the current national environment, the lines between public and private are much more porous than in the past. At one time a philanthropic entity wouldn’t get involved with this type of work. At one time the view was that private sector work was tainted and the public sector was far too messy and political.

Today he says, when faced with a problem there is more of a negotiation of who does what the best. Who is best equipped with the expertise, capacity and resources to address an issue. For instance, only the city government is empowered to set zoning laws, levy taxes, etc.

What intrigued me was Rapson’s implication that Detroit Future City’s work was influencing how the Detroit city government viewed and executed community outreach, shifting it from an authoritarian approach to a more collaborative one. Though there is still work to be done.

I wondered if this might presage a new trend in the way cities might operate. Jamie Bennett asked if the ideal wasn’t supposed to be that citizens already had the opportunity to participate in planning through their vote and approaching their government representatives.

Rapson responded acknowledging that in this particular case, the Detroit Future City team had helped to create a constructive process and environment. But he also makes note that it had been an anti-democratic (his term) philanthropic institution which had been responsible for making sure the community voice was at the table.

My read between the lines on this was marginally cautionary. It is working in Detroit thanks to a number of conditions that have come into alignment, but it perhaps shouldn’t be seen as a broad panacea applicable to every city.

It sounds like Detroit Future City is doing a great job involving community input in their advocacy. Goss-Foster said people will come up to her in the streets and supermarkets to point out that the group with which they identify isn’t included in the plan. She said she often concedes they are right and invites them down to her office to talk about getting them included.


From its bankruptcy workout to its approach to transit to the security cameras in its downtown, Detroit, MI has been shaped with the philanthropic and priate sectors in roles more traditionally played by government. And it is not alone: American communities are increasingly relying on public-private partnerships. Many of them are created in response to opportunities that arise out of market forces with very few communities first having an explicit conversation about how residents and their interests are democratically represented in those conversations.Presenters: Rip Rapson, Anika Goss-Foster, and Jamie Bennett

Posted by ArtPlaceAmerica on Tuesday, May 22, 2018

Pop Up Box Office Are As Much About Listening As Selling

Hat tip to Artsjournal.com linking to an Arts Professional article all performing arts professionals should read.

Hull Truck Theatre in Hull, England started regular pop-up box office hours in local retail chain locations to help address barriers to participation people had.

(By the way, the barriers were exactly those identified in the US studies like Culture Track – “time, cost, lack of awareness of what’s on, childcare and a sense of it being ‘not for me’”)

Magda Moses, who is the Community Projects Coordinator at Hull Truck Theatre Company started out with a trial visit to one of the stores and had conversations about their past, present and future experiences with theatre, following the theme of an upcoming production of A Christmas Carol.

Members of our box office team then joined us, enabling customers to buy tickets from an ipad.

We now run these pop-up box office and community engagement sessions in four Heron Foods stores once a month, and having other staff in attendance has helped the project become more embedded across the theatre.

One of the things we’ve learnt is to visit on regular days and times so that we can promote our visits in advance and people expect us and get to know our staff.

Since some of the responses they have received have dealt with being intimidated by the theatre building, an opportunity to interact with box office staff provides a point of contact that likely would have never occurred had they not gone out in the community.

In addition to the oft mentioned concerns about how to dress and act at a performance, a number of people identified being concerned that the experience would not live up to the expense of tickets. When the theatre produced a show about local woman advocating for fishing industry reform in the 1960s, Hull Truck Theatre offered “pay what you can” tickets exclusively through pop up box offices at Heron Foods.

Moses writes, “…we received positive feedback that people were thrilled to be able to afford to see a play that was directly relevant to their community.”

It sounds like the feedback they got from these efforts might be better than any paper survey and they have gained some insight into their audience segments. Yes, it is probably more expensive and labor intensive than more conventional approaches, but I am sure there are some intangible benefits that can’t be easily quantified in an ROI analysis.

Every time we visit Heron Food stores we ask about what sorts of events they like to come to, which informs out future programming.

We’ve identified differences in audiences across the city. Shoppers on Orchard Park are likely to bring the whole family, so they want affordable shows that everyone will enjoy. Hessle Road shoppers are likely to be older and are interested in local history and Hull stories. This information helps us make sure our marketing is relevant to each area.

Our pop-up box office sessions are about much more than selling tickets. They’re also about building relationships, trust and familiarity in order to spark the idea that someone can go to the theatre.

The sessions are an important part of the Community Dialogues project and the theatre’s wider commitment to welcome new audiences. So once we get to know someone, we can direct them towards tours, coffee mornings, family events, access performances or workshops, depending on their interests.

Cultural Revival Starts At Home

I just rediscovered a CityLab story I bookmarked last September discussing how a woman’s effort to revitalize culture and creativity in York, PA started in her apartment.

Bored with the city’s limited cultural offerings, Dwyer and her roommates decided to create their own homegrown events—a series of monthly arts shows in her living room…

The shows were modest affairs. “We would put art on the walls, move the furniture out of our living room. We made sure everyone’s bedroom was clean,” she says. “It was like a meltdown every month preparing for it.”

Soon, the shows started to draw hundreds of people through an evening. That attracted the attention of Dwyer’s landlord, Josh Hankey.

While some landlords might see large impromptu gatherings as something to stop, Hankey saw a business opportunity. “I knew that art could create an attraction,” he says. “I knew it could change the perception of a neighborhood, and I was going to help them whatever way I could.”

This was somewhat timely for me. I had attended a session hosted by my buddies, the Creative Cult where they asked everyone to write down what assets they might bring to revitalizing the creative environment in town. I wrote “my front lawn.”

I was partially inspired by the PorchRockr festival and Porchfests going on around the country. In many places people host music concerts on their front porches and attendees wander through the neighborhood taking it all in.

I am not sure my neighborhood is the best for a concert series, but I was intrigued by the idea of hosting a conversation or speakers series in the shade of my lawn.

The directors of my local art museum are already doing something along these lines. They live in a building across the street from the museum and invite everyone who attends an opening at the museum to walk across the street for an “after party.” This usually happens around 3 pm on a weekend so it is pretty accessible to all. Between passing through their studio spaces on the first floor and the ever growing and changing collection of art in the living space on the second floor, there is a lot for people to see and talk about.

Over the last few years that I have attended the “after party” events, the demographics of those at the party have really diversified in terms of an increase in first-timers and those who wouldn’t be considered museum insiders.

If you are finding people balk when you throw open the doors to your organization and invite them in, maybe the answer can be found in throwing open the doors to your home.

Politicians know the power of retail politics where they meet people one on one at small gatherings. Living room meetings are the hallmark of politicking in New Hampshire.

A similar approach may be useful to breaking down barriers for some people in a community.

Museum Hackers Target The “Not For Someone Like Me”

In the last week I have seen mention of Museum Hack, in both Bloomberg (h/t Artsjournal.com) and Washington Post (h/t Nina Simon). The company does customized tours of museums from a particular frame of reference.

For example, their Badass Bitches Tour,

…shares stories of female artists, muses and subjects. (Versions of the tour are also offered at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, M.H. de Young Memorial Museum in San Francisco, National Gallery of Art in the District and the Getty Center in Los Angeles.) Over the course of two hours, we hear about witches and their love of psychedelics; we view works dedicated to the African goddess Oshun, who has inspired the art of Beyoncé; we peer into the dollhouse-like miniature rooms conceived by artist Narcissa Niblack Thorne; and we chew on the fact that works by women, historically, are largely underrepresented in art museums.


…a tour tailored to “finance bros,” for example, will immediately take them to the most expensive object in the museum, with a blunt discussion of its worth—an entry point to engage the newbie audience.

For Harry Potter fans, there is “The Completely Unofficial and Definitely Unlicensed Boy Wizard Tour”

Their core mission is to “go after people who think museums aren’t for them.”

This was a top response in the recent Culture Track survey among people who don’t participate/attend/visit arts and culture organizations. It is also a goal of Arts Midwest’s Creating Connection initiative. Not to mention Nina Simon’s whole raison d’etre.

According to the news stories, Museum Hack is increasingly being hired by cultural organizations to train their docents to present the content in a more accessible manner in terms of language, context and delivery.

My first thought was that there might be a lot of push back from cultural institutions who felt like this was dumbing down the experience what they have to offer.  (Though the fact Museum Hack brought $200,000 in revenue to the Metropolitan Museum of Art last year is something to be dismissed.)

The thing is, people who regularly visit museums already have different motivations for doing so that may not align with the assumptions or goals of the institution. I have written about John Falk’s Identity and the Museum Experience before. What is described as the motivations of the a Experience Seeker pretty much aligns with the tour designed for “finance bros.”

While the experience provided at a cultural institution can often delight, you can’t control what type of experience people expect to have.  Falk’s identity scheme acknowledges that the same person might not return to the same museum with the same agenda. They may be acting as a facilitator for others during one trip and simple seek to recharge the next time around.

From what I have read their focus seems to really be more about storytelling and forming an engaging narrative about what is found in the museum rather than trying to exploit pop culture trends.

I have often seen titles for university courses that invoke pop culture associations that don’t always follow through and deliver on the promise of an engaging course.  There is probably less to complain about in terms of misrepresentation in a two hour museum tour than a 14 week university course.

One thing I was curious about that I didn’t see mentioned in either of the two articles was how many people who have never entered a museum have used their service versus how many regular museum attendees are signing up for the change of perspective.

I can believe that someone who never entered a museum might pay $59 for a tour that resonated with their interests. It would be good to know how often that happens because it could further refute the argument for free admission days.

Research already shows that free admission days are largely attended by those already in the habit of going to museums. Indications that people are willing to pay for an appealing experience might go some distance to bolstering museum finances.