Artists Are The Only Asset Found In Every Community

The video of ArtPlace America’s CEO Jamie Bennett’s keynote at an Invest Health convening came across my feed recently.  What I found valuable in his speech was that he laid out an argument for the value of the arts that didn’t pivot to economic statistics.

Around the 6:50 mark he starts to talk about the factors that influence those who move into a community in making the decision to stay: social offerings; openness to new ideas and people; and aesthetics.  He says arts and culture bring all those things and helps people feel rooted in a community.

His definition of art and culture is inline with that expanded definition embraced by everyone from the National Endowment for the Arts and respondents to the recent Culture Track survey. It is the parks and food trucks as well as the opera houses.

He talks about arts and culture as a facilitator of social cohesion citing the observations of drumming circles and informal arts by an anthropologist working at the Field Museum in Chicago.  Bennett said that the anthropologist found that the act of “…art making, doing and experiencing art together, acts as a master identity.”

He goes on to say that this was based on observations of immigrants and first generation Americans living in Chicago who participated in drumming circles. As each performed drumming particular to their own cultural background, the group bonded.   Bennett says this observation is important because it potentially illustrates that arts and culture is a pathway for integrating society that doesn’t involve assimilation–“I don’t have to become more like you to become more closely bonded.”

The a-ha moment for me came around 9:15 when Bennett mentions that artists are the only asset that exists in any community. Not every community has a waterfront to develop, transportation infrastructure or an anchor institution (i.e. higher ed, medical) around which to build industry.  You can count on those who practice and participate in the arts being in your community. With some investment, those people/groups can form the basis around which community cohesion can be cultivated.

He talks about the process of Creative Placemaking as something that has to be particular to each community -“resident centric, locally informed and holistic.” You can’t copy what works somewhere else and expect it to work in your community.

While the local arts community is well-placed to respond to the needs of their community, the challenge to them is to shift their perspective to focus on creating solutions for challenges in their geographic community rather than thinking about responding to their community of donors, subscribers and peer institutions.

As an example, he cites the efforts of Springboard for the Arts in helping to mobilize 600 artists to help mitigate the negative impacts of two years of light rail construction on residents and businesses in St. Paul, MN.

Bennett says the success of this project ran contrary to many of the assumptions and expectations people have. He points out the solution came from artists who already lived in the community. No one was brought in from outside to help save the neighborhood. All the positive associations about arts and culture the project inspired didn’t require the construction of an arts center, nor was it dependent on a physical arts oriented facility or cultural district. The focus was on the human beings involved.

His comment that really intrigued me and I hope is true, is that many of the businesses in the area who benefited from the 150 events the 600 artists created have started diverting promotional money to commissioning work because they saw the events brought in more business than advertising did.

Bennett’s thought process might not immediately satisfy a government official or policy maker that wants the promise of quantifiable results. However, there is something compelling in the argument that the arts and culture community is an already present asset that can be mobilized to effect.  If they are soliciting support employing this rationale it will be incumbent upon many arts and cultural entities to start focusing on addressing the challenges in their region rather than doing more what they have done in the past.


They Predicted The End of Paper Too

Apropos of my post on Monday about physical objects being valued more than digital copies, there was a fairly long piece in The Guardian about how a paperless society hasn’t been achieved yet. The implication being that people perceive a need for physical representations of ideas.

Since the death of various arts disciplines at the hands of technological developments have been predicted for ages now, there are a number of parallels with the arts in the piece.

The central focus of the article is on a paper manufacturers conference in Chicago last March. Since there has been discussion about a need to update pretty much every element and experience at the arts conferences I have attended, I had to wince when I recognized some parallels in the mild criticism of clinging to antiquated approaches at the paper conference.

…the latest issue of the Paper2017 Convention Daily, published in three separate editions for each day of the conference, and printed on obscenely large 16in by 11.75in glossy tabloid that serves as an oversized “screw you” to palm-sized devices. It is printed by O’Brien Publications, which also publishes PaperAge magazine, the newspaper of record for all things pulp and paper since 1884.

I stroll through the CL, drawn to an unmanned National Paper Trade Association table piled high with juicy-looking literature on paper’s many virtues. I take one of each and sit down at a cocktail table to thumb through my haul of brochures announcing paper “myths” and paper “facts”.

While the paper industry may be showing some resistance to the growing use of digital at their conference, they aren’t blind to the changing environment. Use of printing and writing paper has been in decline since 2008. At the same time, with Amazon packing small items in boxes surrounded by paper and placed in bigger boxes, and increasing resistance to plastic waste, there is growing opportunity for other types of paper products.

Mohawk Paper on the other hand, says they are ignoring the consultants and have been growing their business 3%-4% a year just focusing on the core value of manufacturing really great paper.

To make it work, they have been positioning their product in the context of the satisfaction found in a physical product. (my emphasis)

It’s not that Mohawk ignores the digital revolution; rather, they have made a choice to sell the ethos of paper to the digitally fatigued. Melissa Stevens, Mohawk’s senior VP of sales, hands me Mohawk’s Declaration of Craft, an absolutely gorgeous piece of printed material chock-full of new-agey thingness. Its thesis: “In an era of impermanence, an extraordinary movement has emerged. A movement of makers where craftsmanship and permanence matter now more than ever.”

Mohawk’s communication strategy is built around this “maker” movement, which is illustrated with hipsters throwing clay in their basements, forging wrought iron and side-hustling in saxophone design. It’s impossible to tell if this is brilliant marketing or sheer impudence, or both.

I see parallels for the arts and culture sector in this as well. First, is the renewed focus on personal creative expression advocated by groups like Arts Midwest

Even more immediately and literally, I emailed Drew McManus last night observing that since he updated the design of my website to include a print option in the social sharing tool bar, I have been surprised how many people have used it. I added that over on the Arts Hacker website, an entry that hasn’t been printed at least once is the exception rather than the rule.

Even though it may be more convenient to bookmark an article and access it on demand, people are apparently printing them off for themselves or to share with others.

I started to wonder–does the knowledge that an article has been printed out 1-4 times have more value for Drew and the Arts Hacker contributors than some number of times the articles are shared on social media since printing represents that extra investment of time and material?

Speaking for myself, the fact someone did take the time to print my last AH post out is probably worth 5-10 shares. On the other hand, I was really pleased when I saw the Pennsylvania Arts Council shared the post since they are influential. So it this issue really isn’t clearcut, especially since I have no concept of the identity or influence of the others who shared the post.

A Bird In The Hand Is Worth More Than Two In Computer Memory

Roger Tomilson tweeted about Harvard Business Review article that provides some food for thought about how people might experience arts and culture.

I’ll jump right to a quote since the article title, “Customers Won’t Pay as Much for Digital Goods — and Research Explains Why,” pretty much provides the all the introduction you need.

The greater value ascribed to physical than digital goods persisted when we accounted for people’s estimates of production costs and retail prices. It even held for goods with no resale value. Plausible alternative explanations, such as physical goods lasting longer or being more enjoyable to use than digital goods, also failed to explain this difference.

Only a difference in the extent to which people feel a sense of ownership for digital and physical objects explained their preference for the physical format. Indeed, the value gap disappeared for goods participants rented and expected to give back.


Because ownership entails a link between a person and an object, we found the gap in their value increased when that link was easy to form and disappeared when that link was hard to establish. Participants valued a physical copy of The Empire Strikes Back more than a digital copy, for instance, only if they considered the Star Wars series to be films with which they strongly identified. Participants who weren’t Star Wars fans valued physical and digital copies similarly.

To summarize: People value physical objects more than digital ones when the object represents something with which they closely identify, even if it has no monetary value, if they don’t have to give it back.

As much as I would like it to, this doesn’t really address whether people value physical encounters with transitory experiences like attending a performance or visiting a museum versus seeing a recording or a digital copy of a piece of visual art.

Even if I did try to wedge a rationalization in there, we’d still be left with the finding that, regardless of format, people place an equal value on things they don’t feel are relevant to them. Which means, people won’t automatically start to value art if they experience the physical manifestation. (You probably didn’t need research to tell you that.)

What I wondered is whether having something physical to take away from the experience facilitates in creating more value for people. Do well designed, informative playbills/programs/information sheets/gallery maps, etc help to solidify value for people even if they ultimately decide to toss it? Versus nothing or an digital media tour that is only available at the venue.

If so, does the effect increase if a hand-on activity is provided which produces something people can take with them? Is a link forged when someone executes an expression of personal creativity? It may have no value to anyone else but it is simultaneously allowing people to participate in the creative process and generating a physical manifestation connected to the experience.

Does this provide a greater  sense of ownership and investment in the experience?

And if you are nodding affirmatively and thinking “yes” to yourself, here is the next question – Where do selfie pictures fit in?

They are creative expressions but in digital form.  Research has shown people feel selfies and digital recording  enhance the experience…they just can’t accurately remember the content of the experience.  One potential way to mitigate this is to offer background and props for people to use in selfies as a way of saying, “we would prefer you not use your devices during the show, but we want you to remember this experience.”

Thoughts? Opinions? Ideas?

I would be interested to see if the presence of a gift shop/souvenirs increases value for people over places that don’t offer them. How many of you would stock cheesy snowglobes if there was a correlation with increased return visits in a 5 year period?

Your Resolution To Create Connections With Arts And Culture Starts Today! (or maybe tomorrow depending on when you read this)

For over two years now I have been talking about Arts Midwest’s Creating Connection initiative to build public will for arts and culture.

While readers have had an opportunity to review the materials on the website, few have been able to attend the Arts Midwest presentations and ask questions in person.

Well you are in luck! Tomorrow, Tuesday, December 19 @ noon CST Creating Connection program manager Anne Romens will be hosting a webinar to discuss the project and findings. You can register by following that link.

Anne also hosted a webinar on the subject last week. The video of that webinar is available if you don’t have the opportunity to participate on Tuesday. You’ll want to pay attention around the 33 minute mark for the shout out to some work I have been doing.

Even if you don’t think you will become the full throated advocate for the project that I am, at the very least you can come away from the webinar with some tips on how to change your messaging and promotional materials to be more audience and experience focused.

The webinar comes at the right time to allow you to resolve to do a better job in the New Year so check it out.