The Road To Creative Enlightenment Is Paved With Cardboard

I have written before about the visual arts fair I started about two years ago to provide an opportunity for students and artists in the community to sell their work and get experiencing talking about it with people who don’t share their vocabulary.

Two weeks ago we had the fifth iteration of the event and we think it was easily the best one we have had thus far. We have experimented with the time and date a little bit. It appears that Spring is more popular than Fall in terms of artists having the time and material to participate.

We had so many applicants, that we decided to expand into a new area of the building. Previously, we had been concerns that if one or two people were placed into the overflow area that was slightly apart from the main area, they would feel slighted. Having reached a certain critical mass, we had the numbers to better populate that area. Additionally, a recent re-lamping project provided much better illumination.

A year ago we started placing art works in area businesses prior to the art fair event. We posting pictures daily on social media so people could find the artworks and at the very least generate good will for the business.  This year we saw an increase in participation by both artists and businesses. In one case, I ended up placing a work in a business on the other side of the county 45 minutes away.

Based on this alone, I would feel like we were making progress toward a goal of helping people recognize their capacity to be creative in line with the effort to build public will for arts and culture with which I am involved.

However…once again I partnered with my frequent collaborators, The Creative Cult who designed a “creative journey” visitors to the arts fair could embark upon. The journey took people along the fringes of the art fair and across three floors of the building in an attempt to find the guru who would provide the answer to creativity.

Here is a map of the odyssey

Participants were placed in the role of subjects of a tyrant who suppressed creativity. In order to escape, each party had to construct an item from a pile of supplies that would help them escape the walls of their prison. People made everything from drills to ray guns to bombs.

The next station was a field of strange flowers. When people touched the flower, they were overcome with the image of a monster. They had to draw the monster which was preventing them from being creative that day (which could be anything from lack of confidence to obligations) and a weapon with which they would slay the monster.

Next they ascended to a chasm guarded by a troll who asked riddles. The bridge was made of broken planks–but the only safe path was to step in the empty spaces rather than on the actual planks.

On the other side, they met “Steve” a guy playing video games and surrounded by half finished drawings. He never completes anything due to lack of confidence and commitment. There is always a last touch that needs to be added. There is a puzzle that needs to be solved to open the door at the top of the next level where they meet the guru face to face.

As to what the guru tells our intrepid questors, well that is for them to know.

Among the benefits I saw in this whole endeavor was that attendees were offered an alternative hands on creative activity in which they could participate at the visual art fair. If you were feeling uncertain about how to react to what you saw on display on the artists’ tables or how to interact with the creators, you could always run over and check out the crazy guys leading people around the building.

Days later when I had a little follow up conversation with one of the Creative Cult members, he remarked on how freeing the act of roleplaying was. A particularly shy member of their collaborative had fearless jumped in with both feet because he equated the whole activity as playing a Dungeons and Dragons character rather than himself leading a group of strangers.

As someone in the performing arts, this benefit of roleplay has long been apparent to me, but for people who identify themselves primary as visual artists, this was something of a revelation for them.

As they got excited about the prospect of adding roleplay to their toolbox, I started to consider how the resurgent popularity of games like Dungeons and Dragons might be employed to the benefit of arts and culture organizations.

The Creative Cult guys made a recap video of the experience that can be viewed on Facebook. I am having some problems getting it to embed successfully.


Discover the secret of creativity.Vern Riffe After Dark 5….VICTORIOUS FULL RECAP!!!!

Posted by Creative Cult Lives – cmar on Friday, April 20, 2018


There is a conspiracy to keep your creativity in a box Photo credit: Carla Bentley

Respect The Authority of The Resource

Hat tip to Nina Simon for calling attention to a post about how the Barnes Foundation is working toward changing their user experience. Even though the Barnes Foundation art collection was moved from a residential area to Philadelphia, efforts were made to replicate the close quarters environment of the original house. This complicates matters because it is easier for more people to access a place whose interior space hasn’t increased.

(There have been decades long conflicts related to Albert Barnes’  detailed instructions about the way the collection is displayed which informed the design of the new space.)

Shelley Bernstein, Deputy Director of Audience Engagement and Chief Experience Officer for the Barnes Foundation wrote about the poor impression people received before they even entered the door.

We had a no photo, no sketching, no bags, no coats, and “stay behind the line” policies. All of these things were well intentioned and all were in place in the name of collection safety — a very important thing — but, still, it was a lot of “no” to those we were trying to welcome. And we were trying to tell visitors about all these “nos” before they would enter the collection.


You can see this surface in online reviews, “… had to be told the exact etiquette before entering which makes it feel like they treat their visitors as if none of them has ever set foot in any other major museums/collections before(???)”

Bernstein set about trying to change how all these rules were communicated as well as exploring which policies could be changed. While she originally intended to scrap the no-photography policy, she realized with half the rooms only having 100 square feet that people could occupy, allowing free rein on photograph wasn’t going to work. So they piloted different policies over the course of a year to see which worked best in their environment.

Perhaps most importantly, they created staff training materials for interacting with visitors based on a process known as Authority of the Resource (ART), that the National Park Service uses in their training. This approach makes citing the rules the last step rather than the first. Even better, Bernstein has shared those materials, which includes signage and the National Park Service discussion of the approach, for others to reference.

Authority of the Resource (ART) shifts the focus away from the concept of enforcement power and toward the requirements to preserve the resource. There are obviously going to be people who don’t give a damn and want to do what they desire, but it does shift the initial interaction away from “because I said so and I am the authority figure.”

From the Park Service’s article.

“…the visitor ends up thinking about laws, regulations, badges and the ranger’s presence rather than focusing on the natural authority inherent in the requirements of a healthy ecosystem.


“…the AR technique goes one step further and asks the ranger/manager to subtly de-emphasize the regulation and transfer part of the expectation back to the visitor by interpreting nature’s requirement.”

Here the the Barnes Foundation training pamphlet. Clicking on either image will take you Bernstein’s Dropbox copy of the document.

Are They Taking A Picture Of Your Powerpoint Because They Like It Or Because They Can’t Read It?

In his reflections on attending the 2018 Nonprofit Technology Conference, Drew McManus noted how many presenters at the conference packed too much text on to Powerpoint slides. He observes the text was so dense and the font size so small on some slides he had to take a picture with his phone so he could magnify it to legibility.

I immediately knew I needed to pull out a post Seth Godin made earlier this month on that very subject. In discussing how to most effectively use a Powerpoint presentation, rule one was not to read the slide content aloud and rule four was to see rule one.

Additionally, he wrote:

2. But even better, remember that slides are free. You can have as many as you like. That means that instead of three bullet points (with two sentences each) on a slide, you can make 6 slides. Or more. The energy you create by advancing from slide to slide will seduce most of the people in your audience to read along to keep up. Slides that people read are worth five times more than slides that you read to them.

3. Better still, don’t use words. Or, at the most, one or two keywords, in huge type. The rest of the slide is a picture, which I’m told is worth 1,000 words. That way, the image burns itself into one part of the brain while your narrative is received by the other part. The keyword gives you an anchor, and now you’re hitting in three places, not just one.

5. Many organizations use decks as a fancy sort of memo, a leave-behind that provides proof that you actually said what you said. “Can you send me the deck?” A smart presenter will have two decks. One deck has plenty of text, but then those pages are hidden when the presentation is performed live.

I think people in the arts can really appreciate these points because they understand the value of pacing and using images to convey your message. There may be some reticence to do so for fear of breaking some rules of business decorum. Godin is basically giving people permission to flex those skills.

Just remember that too much flash and spectacle can detract and distract from your core message.

I love rule five. I had never considered having an enhanced version of a slide deck that you could send to those who requested it until I read this post. If you read my post last Wednesday, you know this is exactly what Drew did when he made the version of the presentation Ceci and he delivered available with all the background notes.

I was a little tickled to see that Godin’s post in early April about paring down the content of Powerpoint presentations was itself a pared down version of a post he made 11 years ago. That post in turn, was pulled from an ebook he wrote four years earlier. A little practicing what one preaches!

That is also the secret to delivering good presentations–practice and revisions. Practice and revise multiple times before the first presentation and then continue to do so every time you revisit the content.

As with so many things, there is a tendency to believe an effective speaker possesses an inborn talent and genius for a turn of phrase. One of the benefits of having so much video and audio content available online is that when you watch or listen to a favorite speaker, you have many opportunities to note how they continue to weave familiar content in and out of their addresses and evaluate how they are improving over time (or getting a little stale).

You Have To Know How They Define Community Before You Can Tell Their Story

I don’t know what inspired me to do so, but last week I visited ProPublica’s website and learned that Free Street Theater and ProPublica Illinois were teaming up to offer theater-journalism workshops across the Illinois.

What caught my eye was that they put out a call for invitations to communities in manner reminiscent of the process Marc Folk said The Arts Commission of Toledo employed when soliciting feedback from different n eighborhoods of that city.

In addition to going to Toulon, IL, Free Street and ProPublica Illinois will be visiting Urbana, Carbondale/Jackson County, Rock Island/Quad Cities, and Rockford during May. So if you live in or near any of those places, check it out.

They did a trial run at the end of March in Chicago and have posted some of their reflections already. One of the things they recognized immediately was a need to do a better job of making people aware that they were having these workshops.

In the course of playing various games, they discovered that the terms people use to define their community, including how they defined community, had some bearing on how they composed the narrative about themselves.

We played a game in which we were asked to line up according to how strongly we agreed with various statements, from “We are living in a war zone” to “I love ice cream.” You’d be surprised at how many interpretations there are of what a war zone is, and how many people have strong feelings about ice cream.

In small groups, we talked about a time we each felt misrepresented in a news story, and how that directly affected us and our communities. It led to revealing conversations about how we each defined “community.”


At the end of the night, we returned to the sticky notes to ask: What do we want the story of our community to be? This is an important question — for us and for this project — that journalists rarely ask. But they should. If journalists don’t know how a community views itself, journalists don’t know what that community has at stake when it is represented or misrepresented.

If we never bother to ask — in real, concrete ways — it can seem like we don’t care. Journalists know how to fact-check names and statistics. But how often do journalists fact-check the underlying narrative of a community?

Since there is an ongoing conversation in the arts about how people want to see themselves and their stories depicted in performances and other forms of creative expression, these reflections by ProPublica reporter Natalie Escobar should pretty much be shared by those identifying with the arts and culture community.