Approaching Arts & Culture Experience With The Wonder Of A Child

The NEA’s Arts Works blog had a post, Five Questions We Have about Visiting Art Museums, which I thought had some pretty good tips for interacting with art. The post was specifically aimed at families attending museums together and offered this bit of insight.

Of course, kids might not see things exactly the same way adults do. What do you do if your little one looks at a portrait of George Washington, for example, and says our first president’s a ballerina? Evans says that’s just fine! “In terms of their experience with the portrait, that’s still very relevant and very accurate. You can ask them what they see that makes them think of a ballerina. Maybe it’s because he’s standing with his feet in a certain position or he has his hand out. That’s still their engagement with it to notice his pose,” she said.

In some cases, this is the type of question anyone might have upon first encountering an unfamiliar mode of expression. People tend to initially process a new experience in the context of something familiar.

But it also might be the case that the simpler interpretation might be more enjoyable. Hat tip to Ceci Dadisman who retweeted this:

I also enjoyed the following advice in answer to the question, “What’s the most important thing I should know about looking at art?

Borrowing an idea from social media, Moss suggested asking yourself (or your kids), “What is the picture, if you could post one thing, that you would want to show of your experience?” She added, “Maybe that will get you thinking, ‘Oh, I need to be thoughtful about what I’m seeing and really zoom in on the object that’s really speaking to me,’ and also really thinking about why.”

Moss also added that she wants museum visitors to, “own the experience. Don’t feel intimidated. Don’t feel like you’re not smart if you don’t like something. Bring your experiences to bear on what you see and have fun and walk away with something new in your mind.”

Again, the suggestion frames the way people can approach the museum experience in a familiar context.

Essentially, the suggestions are giving parents permission to view art through the eyes of their children but pretty much anyone should feel like they have permission to approach art in that manner regardless of whether they have children.

In some ways this reminds me of a piece I wrote a piece on being as patient with yourself as you are with a baby, inspired by Stephen McCraine’s webcomic Be Friend with Failure where he specifically draws a connection between appreciation of great art and the fact you wouldn’t criticize a baby learning to speak in the same way you criticize yourself for not quickly absorbing a new skill.  Everyone needs permission both from themselves and others to acquire skills, perception, etc required for a new experience.

Who Will Play You In The Opera?

I frequently write about how people often don’t feel arts and cultural events are for them is because they aren’t seeing themselves and their stories portrayed. So it was with some interest that I read about Opera Philadelphia’s effort to provide a free high definition broadcast of their 2017 opera, We Shall Not Be Moved,  which uses the 1985 bombing of the MOVE compound by the city of Philadelphia as a starting point.

Opera Philadelphia has a history of providing free opera broadcasts on Independence Mall. They are particularly interested in presenting this broadcast because so many people were unable to see the live performance. I was surprised to learn the public broadcast will cost as much as $160,000. Right now they are running a crowdfunding campaign for the last $25,000.

What I was most interested in learning was the details of the original production which involved music by Daniel Bernard Roumain, libretto by Marc Bamuthi Joseph and the direction and choreography of Bill T. Jones, all luminaries in their respective fields. It is no surprise to me that they would be involved with the project because they each have a history of working with communities to help them tell their stories.

The students from Art Sanctuary had the opportunity to work with these artists as the piece was developed. We Shall Not Be Moved had its world premiere during O17 at the Wilma Theater, then moved on to Harlem’s Apollo Theater and the Opera Forward Festival in Amsterdam. In Amsterdam, it was presented by Dutch National Opera; as noted on the crowdfunding page, the reception there “proved that this timely, Philadelphia-based work could also find relevance with the wider international community.”

Readers may be aware via the Adaptistration blog/Drew McManus that Rob Deemer has been leading an effort to create the Composer Diversity Database in order to make it easier to more broadly program concerts and create music for any sort of artistic projects, including films, video games and of course, operas.

The success We Shall Not Be Moved has had is just another small piece of evidence that there is an audience and interest in projects that don’t appear in or confirm closely to characteristics of the traditional canon.  It bears noting that often these projects aren’t developed and promoted in a traditional manner and that may factor largely into the breadth of their appeal.

Boy, You Are Really Enthusiastic About The World’s Largest Ball Of Lint All Of A Sudden

A couple weeks ago, Holly Mulcahy wrote about eschewing the use of comp tickets in order to create the illusion that a performance was well attended.

As an alternative, she suggests seeking out and recruiting influencers to share their sincere reflections on their experience with the people who follow them on social media or with whom they might associate socially.

One thing I realized was missing from the articles she linked to about leveraging influencers for your brand was clear disclaimers about a quid pro quo relationship with the product or service provider. A lot of those seriously engaged as social media influencers are pretty savvy and disclose that they have received products, etc for free, but still you often hear of some people losing credibility because they failed to disclose this relationship.

I was reminded of a story some years back where a movie studio paid a girl $1,800 to insert a reference to their upcoming movie in her valedictorian speech at graduation. Marketers have gotten a little more sophisticated since then (the movie bombed, by the way.) but the public has likewise started to evince a growing skepticism about the motivations behind why people are promoting things.

If you are trying to recruit people from your community whom you have identified as knowledgeable, enthusiastic and influential, they may not consider the need to event make a passing reference thanking your organization for providing them with free, premium seating, valet parking and drink vouchers to an event. Because you want to make a good impression and facilitate their experience, it is likely that you might offer all this and more.

Not only might there be backlash if people feel the influencer is being plied with benefits in return for a good review, it might damage the influencer’s credibility if their followers aren’t able to access the same experience they assume comes with the published ticket prices.

One of the things you may want to clearly establish with an influencer is the scope and nature of your relationship and what level of disclosure is appropriate.

Can You Sincerely Build Relationships With A Marketing Motivation?

Our friends at Arts Midwest’s Creating Connection project hosted another webinar recently showcasing the work being done by City Lights Theater Company in San Jose and Portland Playhouse.

Some of the ideas for engaging the audience that caught my attention were City Lights Theater’s practice of providing small presents to attendees. The theme of the presents aligns with each show in some way. They also hold parties on stage after the show allowing people to meet and mingle with the actors.

They have been doing these things for a number of years, but have recently tweaked both offerings to get people more actively involved. For one show, the present was origami paper and instructions to fold it into a heart. For another it was magnetic words you could form into poetry on your refrigerator.

For some post-show parties they have had drawing activities for audience members. For the play at which they handed out the poetry magnets, they set up a white board during the after party so the audience could write poetry.

You may recall from a previous webinar I covered, Eugene Symphony used a white board in their lobby to collect feedback from the audience. City Lights does that as well,  using the prompts “How Do You Create?” and “City Lights Makes Me Feel…”

The artistic director, Lisa Mallette, talks about other events and presents they have used to deepen their relationship with audiences and reinforce their organizational values. So it is worth watching the video to borrow/steal their good ideas.

Some of the choices they make seem a little counter intuitive because they value relationship building over overt marketing.

It caught my attention when Mallette pointed out their presents aren’t branded with the organizational logo.

“They know where they got it. They are going to remember where they got it. It doesn’t need to say, you know, ‘$5 off your next ticket.’ So we are shifting our thoughts about why we are doing this and making it not about transactional. That has been important for our growth as well.”

She said they avoid surveying people about their willingness to return/tell a friend during the after parties because they see it as compromising the authenticity of the connection they are trying to forge. The party is about sincere relationships so they want to avoid the appearance of plying people with cookies and wine in exchange for goodwill.

While they might ask willingness to recommend in a survey, she said often their surveys ask how the audience is doing rather than how pleased they are with the theater. For example, they will ask audiences if they are feeling creative or working on projects.

It is probably something of a testament to the connection they are forging that since 2011 one of the audience members has been going home after every performance and has been creating sketches based on how he experienced each show. City Lights is currently displaying his work on the back wall of the theater. Some of his sketches appear in the webinar.

Once she introduced the idea, I have really started thinking about whether transaction driven interactions like measuring marketing effectiveness or collecting data in support of grants might be interfering with or run counter to sincere attempts at community  relationship building.

Which, of course, raises questions about the degree of sincerity being invested in relationship building. If you immediately pivot to the need to measure and report effectiveness if you want to survive, you have your answer.

Sure the two goals may not be mutually exclusive. But I figure if a person asked you what you thought of them and how great, hospitable and well dressed they are as frequently as an arts and cultural organization asks those questions about themselves, you would think they were pretty self centered.  So there is probably a lot of room for improvement in asking people about themselves in a way that doesn’t have an underlying transactional motivation. (What they like to read, watch and listen to so that you can focus your marketing efforts there.)