Considering The Essence Of Being Mainstream Or Culturally Specific

Earlier this month Ian David Moss wrote a piece challenging the arts and culture community to evaluate the language and mindset in which we frame artistic and cultural expression and practice.

He make a case that:

Separating our concepts of “mainstream” and “white” could allow us to treat European art forms as just one of many types of cultural expression within a mix of organizations and communities, instead of privileging them as the historical default.

Starting this post off with that may raise a sense of defensiveness in readers and a reluctance to continue reading which is probably why Moss doesn’t bring it up until the last quarter of his post. Nonetheless it is an issue that is becoming increasingly relevant.

Moss says there is something to consider in response by Justin Laing, a former senior program officer at Heinz Endowments, to a post last year about cultural equity,

Moss provides further context noting:

…The logic on researchers’ part is that “culturally-specific” organizations explicitly target a specific demographic population, whereas “mainstream” organizations target everyone.


But many cultural equity advocates see orchestral music as unabashedly and irredeemably white: it originated in Europe, the vast majority of composers presented (even by Latin American and Asian orchestras) are European or European-descended, and most of the people who enjoy it are of European origin. To them, when we talk about culturally-specific organizations, that includes symphony orchestras–and ballets, and operas, and encyclopedic art museums. And it’s not at all obvious to them why certain culturally-specific organizations should continue to receive such a disproportionate share of public and philanthropic support compared to other culturally-specific organizations.

Moss acknowledges there are arguments to be made for the universal appeal of these forms, citing Venezuela’s pride in El Sistema and the fact that many arts organizations have been successful at attracting attendance from Black and Latin communities.

This week Artsjournal linked to a Dance Magazine piece talking about how Philadelphia was a hub for black ballerinas from the 1930s-1950s. (Article has video interviews with some of the women that trained as dancers during the period.) There is a sense of hope that there is a trend in this general direction again.

He points out that while there is crossover appeal, it is also clear that opera, ballet, symphony, et. al are by no means the most popular art forms in the U.S. and are perhaps more appropriately labeled as culturally specific rather than mainstream if they are indeed not serving everyone.

This is where the concept of divorcing “white” from “mainstream” comes in. (Moss’ emphasis)

Were the field to adopt this new understanding, an unavoidable question would face every organization celebrating European cultural heritage in the midst of a substantial nonwhite population: is our foremost loyalty to our art form or our local community? In answering, boards and executives would need to realize that true commitment to the latter could mean dramatic changes, changes that would make their organizations unrecognizable to the individuals who founded them. Yet reaffirming a primary commitment to an art form with clear ethnic roots–which, I want to emphasize here, is an equally valid choice under this paradigm–would be a signal to the world that the organization’s diversity and inclusion efforts can only reach so far. And yes, that may make it untenable to go after large sums of money from foundations and government agencies on the premise of being a local “anchor institution.”

So much of this paragraph reminded me of a post I wrote last year citing a similar piece on the topic written by Ronia Holmes where she writes,

All that being said—I don’t think arts organizations are bad entities filled with bad people doing bad things…They really do believe in diversity, equity, and inclusion, and really do want to offer meaningful, authentic moments of connection.

The problem is that most organizations are not built to do that, and are constantly struggling with it because of expectations that they should be something they are not. Every year, organizations jump through hoops to secure restricted grants that necessitate yet another outreach program or diversity week or community partnership, hoping that if they impress the funders enough they will be given money that can be used for what the organization actually has a mission to do.

If real, authentic, genuine community building isn’t central to your mission, if it isn’t your raison d’être, then you shouldn’t be doing it. Because chances are that not only are you doing it badly, you’re doing it at the expense of your real mission. The mission of most arts organizations—the real mission—is simple: to present an art form. And that’s ok. We need organizations that prioritize preservation, development, and presentation of an art form, and I for one don’t think any organization should be penalized for it.

Both Holmes and Moss are acknowledging the existence of the same dynamics. I can’t imagine they are the only ones thinking along these lines which suggests that perhaps there is both potential and need to have additional conversation and thought in this direction.

It may be uncomfortable to discuss and acknowledge much of what is involved and needs to change, but the general framework of this paradigm is a fair and generally constructive way forward.

(I would suggest, however, that being completely forthright and declaring your mission is to preserve and perpetuate European cultural heritage is not going to be constructive on oh so many ways.)

Does Cultural Track Data Challenge Assumptions About Your Community?

As I promised in my last post, I took a deeper look at the Culture Track reporting over the weekend.  More specifically, I took at a look at both the Top Line deck and Supporting Data documents which are available for download. I didn’t review the raw data.

The Supporting Data document is presented with visual graphs which makes it easy to interpret. Though I also hungered for some analytical commentary from the Culture Track folks about what the greater implications might be.

A few observations from Supporting Data in the hopes of making the opportunity to dig in irresistible for readers.

First of all, the charts seem to belie the idea that Millennials are  abandoning cultural experiences. Except for watching TV (which includes streaming) they lead in every category. This is only one of three pages.


Now you may be saying, sure but participation once a year isn’t a high hurdle.

However, that generation also leads in frequency per month too.


If you remember what I quoted and wrote last week about the perceptions of those who were high frequency attenders, this has some important implications.

People who attend three or more cultural experiences per month are 94% more likely to cite “it doesn’t change” as a barrier to more frequent cultural participation compared those who attend one or fewer cultural experiences per month.

Given that what people define as a cultural experience is pretty broad, the chances that your average attendee is participating in three or more experiences a month is pretty good. Being 94% more likely to feel lack of change is a barrier to participation is pretty significant.

While you shouldn’t take all this information at face value without digging in and questioning the basis of the findings, the fact the data depicted may contradict your assumptions can be enough to get conversations started reevaluating long held beliefs.

The study authors slice and dice the data through a number of different lenses which make for interesting viewing. Most every question is presented in terms of generation, race/ethnicity, community size, education level, marital status and parental status.

So for example, the following information about where people get advertised and non-advertised information about cultural activities is presented in these contexts. (There is also a chart for offline information sources which I haven’t included)


Perhaps of most interest to different arts and cultural organizations, they break down motivators and barriers for participation for 12 different disciplines/cultural activities.

Below is a sample for art museums. There is also a chart with barriers for non-participants for each area.



NOTICE: The Response I Give May Only Reflect My Current Preferences

You may have already heard that the CultureTrack report was released yesterday. Compiled and released every three years by LaPlaca Cohen, the report helps track the ways in which attitudes toward culture are shifting.

I haven’t read the full report yet. Just looking at the summary on the animated and interactive site they set up for the report, I knew this would probably be something I returned to a couple times. So for your homework, review the site and we will talk about it more on Monday.

….Unless I get distracted by something else.

What first alerted me to the release of the study was an advance piece on Artsy titled “37% of Art Museum Visitors Don’t View Them as Culture,” which did its job in getting me to read more.

Sure enough the article notes that,

“For many respondents, going to the park or eating at a food truck counts as a cultural experience, while attending a museum does not.”

This wasn’t far off from some of the responses my organization got last winter during our listening tour where people listed going to the speedway as a favorite cultural experience.

Another interesting finding highlighted in the article was largest motivation to engage in cultural activities was to have fun.

Cultural activities continue to be a source of leisure and relaxation for many. The survey found that 81% of audiences are motivated to attend a cultural activity because they want to have fun. A desire to feel less stressed was tied in third place, along with “experiencing new things,” with 76% citing both as reasons for participation. 71% cited learning something new as a reason to participate in culture.

This doesn’t mean that levity must replace education at museums, noted Harnick, but rather that the two cannot be divorced from one another. Culture offers the opportunity to connect with other people and take a pause from daily life—today’s audiences are full of anxiety and looking for a chance to relax, a conclusion that gels with other findings that show high levels of anxiety among the general population.

I spoke to someone today who suggested the current political environment in the country might be contributing to that sense of anxiety.

In terms of barriers to participation, feeling that the experience wasn’t “for someone like me” topped the list.

I can’t really cover all the findings I found interesting, but here are a few to consider.

In terms of loyalty, people rated trustworthiness, consistent quality and customer service as the top three factors. Pricing and discounts were fifth and sixth. Social media and advertising were 10th and 11th with 15% and 13% of responses, respectively. So pricing and advertising aren’t big factors in building loyalty.

Since there is a discussion about whether people want to experience culture as a passive observer or an active participant, I was interested to read that 28% of people wanted their experience to be active and 24% wanted their experience to be calm. But as with everything, there was a bit of nuance illuminated by the data. (their emphasis)

Cultural audiences—like everyone—are multidimensional, and they have different needs and wants at different times, or even simultaneously. In fact, 15% of cultural consumers who chose “calm” as one of their top-three descriptors of an ideal cultural activity also chose “active,” while 24% of those who chose “reflective” also chose “social.”

In the same section, was another valuable insight about the desire for new experiences by active culture consumers (Their emphasis).

People who attend three or more cultural experiences per month are 94% more likely to cite “it doesn’t change” as a barrier to more frequent cultural participation compared those who attend one or fewer cultural experiences per month.

Given that what people define as a cultural experience is pretty broad, the chances that your average attendee is participating in three or more experiences a month is pretty good. Being 94% more likely to feel lack of change is a barrier to participation is pretty significant. I hope there is something in the report that provides more detail about what types of experiences people are participating in and what they feel isn’t changing. Is it the programming? The overall experience?

The section on the role of digital technology in a cultural experience was also quite interesting. People responded that they felt digital enhanced their experience, provided deeper understanding and allowed them to share their experience with friends.

However, the lack of opportunity to use digital made people feel they were able to focus and become more invested in the experience, made the experience feel more authentic and less complicated.

There is a lot more to learn from the detailed study. Or perhaps it is better to say, there is a lot more I hope to learn from the detailed study.

Perhaps the takeaway is, people are more nuanced than the feedback they are giving you at the moment. Whether it is an audience survey, a comment made on social media, or to the box office a statement should be view as “this is how I feel right now, but in other times and situations, my preferences may contradict what I just said.”

Take A Rare Opportunity To Review Others’ Reflections

Back in August I called attention to a transmedia project in Reading, PA, “This Is Reading,” that playwright Lynn Nottage and a host of others worked on creating to help the community tell stories about itself.

I had initially learned about the project via a post by Margy Waller and must credit her again for tweeting about a follow up conversation that occurred.

With such a push for placemaking and community building projects like “This Is Reading,” having access to the reflections of project participants is of great value to others engaging in similar work.  There are a number of observations and lessons learned that can provide guidance about what worked and what needed to be done better.  It is rare to have this type of material shared publicly so take advantage of the opportunity.

Not only does the newspaper article provide a summary of the report, the report itself is embedded in the webpage and is available for download.

The first thing that caught my eye was that the meetings from which the feedback was collected appeared to be driven by the participants’ desire to continue the momentum started by the project.  The impression I got from the article was that a post-mortem conversation hadn’t been planned, but the project leadership were wise enough to recognize the need to do so.

“The reason we wanted to do this meeting is because this was a more than five-year process,” he said of the installation. “A lot of the volunteers and a lot of the participants expressed interest in what’s next. To me, it was ‘Let’s debrief, let’s talk about it.’ “

The fact of Reading’s decline plays a large part in the content of the project and the subsequent feedback. (Recall the railroad was famous enough to be included in the Monopoly game.) There are multiple times in the report that the investment young people have in the community is called into question. This is in tension with the perception that the nostalgic project content had a greater resonance with older attendees than younger.

The article mentions that the phrase “Reading was…” kept coming up in conversations during the development phase of the project so the title “This Is Reading” was an attempt to emphasize the need to break from a focus on the past and dated thinking.

Given that this exactly mirrors the conversation occurring in the arts (perception youth are not committed, content only relevant to older generation) there are any number of lessons here for the arts and culture community.

Here is the summary listed in the newspaper article:

• Being a person of color in Reading is wrought with stress, tension and discomfort.
• Reading can be a vibrant center of arts and culture if there are significant outreach efforts to invite and welcome; the art is interesting to people of different ethnic, racial or economic backgrounds; and obstacles that prevent or deter participation are eliminated.
• Its self-perception impedes the city’s ability to move forward.
• There is a strong interest and desire in the resurrection of a rail system that would connect our community with nearby communities.
• Long-held community “stories” or narratives can be rewritten by the arts in public spaces.
• There is a desperate need for a shared downtown public performance arts space.
• The city needs a vision that focuses on what Reading is and can be, not what it was.
• Youth and young adults in Reading need to be encouraged, developed and engaged.
• Leadership is needed to champion efforts to build on “This Is Reading,” and the most effective champion would be the city.