Do They Know They Are Hard To Reach?

On the Arts Professional UK website, Imrana Mahmood, discusses her experiences becoming a creative producer in a manner that reminded me of two other speakers/authors I often cite. Mahmood’s experience seemed to be at the crossroads of Jamie Bennett’s TEDx Talk about people not recognizing their capacity to be creative even though they already engage in creative activity and Ronia Holmes’ piece on how disinvested communities aren’t bereft of creative and artistic practice.

Mahmood’s article immediately recalled Holmes to me thanks to the title, “A Seat at The Table.” Holmes had talked about how people in disinvested communities are often offered a small seat at the big table by other organizations  when they actually own the entire table in their own communities. Mahmood’s article starts along much the same lines (my emphasis):

As a British Muslim woman of Pakistani heritage, I grew up with an intrinsic love of the arts, including qawwali, henna, calligraphy and poetry. It was therefore a surprise to be labelled as being part of a hard-to-reach community with low arts engagement, as I struggled to reconcile the reality of my lived experience with an inaccurate perception of my identity.

She was encouraged to apply for funding as an “emerging creative producer,” but says she was initially reluctant “to view myself as an arts professional.” I attribute this to her mention earlier in the piece that

“…a career in arts was not considered to be a proper job. This was despite spending much of my spare time running community arts projects as well as having a keen interest in visual arts and live performance.”

Throughout the rest of the article she mentions experiences which involved perceived tokenism and gatekeeping as well as instances when she felt she and others had license to express themselves on their own terms.   If you take one thing away from this article, it should be her call for organizations to reflect on their own inaccessibility.

Paying lip service to diversity and only conversing with creatives of colour as though we exist as a monolith is hugely problematic. It is time that organisations committed to engaging hard-to-reach communities reflect on the reality of their own inaccessibility.

Along those lines, I have some reluctance in citing Ronia Holmes’ original piece as if it were a monolithic representation of the needs and sentiments of all communities, but I often return to it because it for its perception of all the dynamics motivating arts and cultural organizations.

Gather Your Neighbors For A Castle Raising

I am always up for spreading around awesome ideas that people execute. I wanted to give a shout out to my old collaborators, at the Creative Cult. They have been involved with all sorts of cool stuff since I moved away from my previous job, but recently they did something I knew I needed to call attention to.

They partnered with a group who was showing, Won’t You Be My Neighbor, the documentary film about Fred Rogers of Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood to add a little something to the attendance experience.

In advance of the show, the Creative Cult sent out a call informing people that they would be building a cardboard castle in the spirit of Rogers’ Neighborhood of Make Believe.

And of course, they got people to help them build it and turned it into the primary entry point for entering the screening.  Seeing stuff like this makes me ask, why haven’t I thought of something like that? Don’t tell them—I am definitely gonna steal the idea 😉

The Games That Are Played In Cultural Facilities

Hate the fact that your city will provide millions to fund an arena that only gets used 20 times a year but not arts organizations that each host hundreds of events a year?

Concerned that the availability of home entertainment systems with huge screens and gaming systems are keeping people at home rather than participating in cultural activities?

Well now your fears and concerns are combining to haunt you even more!

According to CityLab a $50 million eSports Arena is being constructed in Philadelphia. There are other eSports facilities around the country, but this will be the first standalone facility.  Just to be clear, I am not sure if the local government has subsidized the construction of this arena. According to the article, it is being built by Comcast Spectror.

Some might see this as an unnecessary shrine to a niche subculture. But for fans of esports (or professional video-game competitions), this was an inevitable next step. An estimated 250 million people watch esports, although most do so from the comfort of their homes. Global revenue is slated to hit $1.1 billion this year, and the industry is growing into a more social, spectator sport.

This article didn’t catch my eye because I perceived eSports arenas as a threat to arts and cultural organizations. Actually, I see some potential in providing a venue for gaming.

I was at a meeting a couple months ago and someone said they had started hosting video game related activities in their facility. They identified people living within a certain radius of their facility who posted game walk-through videos on YouTube and Twitch and set up sessions where local residents could come in and play against them.

They were only charging about $5 a person, but the overhead was low and they also earned money from concessions. They saw getting a new group of people walking into the facility and feeling comfortable as a win. Plus they got an opportunity to get a sense of what the people might be looking for in terms of programming.

I have started talking to staff about trying to set up something in our facility. One of my tech crew is a professional gamer who travels around the country competing. We haven’t lined anything up yet. If anyone else has had success and has some tips, let me know.

People might be horrified that a performing arts space is being desecrated by such base activities as video game tournaments.

I am not actually raising a hypothetical situation here. A director of the state opera house in Kyrgyzstan was fired for allowing a video game tournament in the building.

Many people were aghast at the thought of the competition in that space, but others felt that it was both relevant and fiscally responsible:

Liberal opinion leader Bektour Iskender disagreed in a January 21 Facebook post:

Hello?! A Dota tournament at the Opera and Ballet Theatre is one of the coolest ways of advertising opera and ballet. And its not as if you can just find 180,000 som (the total Beeline paid to rent out the building) lying on the ground.

Note: 180,000 som is about $2,600

That Story Was Old When Gilgamesh’s Grandpa Told It

One arts marketing phrase I have always hated, and thankfully I seldom see it these days, is “…illustrates what it means to be human..” I often dislike the rationale that something tells a universal story as a justification for programming the classic works.   The themes may be the same, but the context in which they are presented determines how easily people can relate to and receive the material.  Sometimes new stories have to be told in order to remain relevant.

There is a pretty fascinating essay in Harpers about storytelling which illustrates how core stories get reframed to suit the needs of different times and cultures. People have been researching the linguistic DNA of stories like Red Riding Hood and have discovered some of them are incredibly old. Variations on a theme split and converge across geography. Other times, the same story persists relatively intact for a very, very long time.  While the context of the stories differs in order to emphasis different cultural values and mores, there is an argument to be made for the commonality among humankind. (my emphasis)

The results provided a new resolution to decades of debate regarding the origins of “Little Red Riding Hood.” An ancient story preserved in oral traditions in rural France, Austria, and northern Italy was the archetype for the classic folktale familiar to most Westerners. On a separate limb of the tree, the story of the goats descended from an Aesopian tale dated to 400 ad. Those two narrative threads merged in Asia, along with other local tales, sometime in the seventeenth century to form “Tiger Grandmother.


Tehrani and Silva discovered that some had existed for far longer than previously known. “Beauty and the Beast” and “Rumpelstiltskin,” for example, were not just a few hundred years old, as some scholars had proposed—they were more than 2,500 years old.

Another folktale, known as “The Smith and the Devil,” was astonishingly ancient. Multiple iterations—which vary greatly but typically involve a blacksmith outwitting a demon—have appeared throughout history across Europe and Asia, from India to Scandinavia, and occasionally in Africa and North America as well. “The Smith and the Devil” became part of Appalachian folklore, and it’s a likely forerunner of the legend of Faust. Tehrani and Silva’s research suggests that not only are these geographically disparate stories directly related—as opposed to evolving independently—­­but their common ancestor emerged around five thousand years ago, during the Bronze Age.

Anthropologist Jamie Tehrani says that when he is reading bedtime stories to his children, it occurs to him that the stories are older than the language he is using to relate them.

For those in the arts and cultural sector that don’t necessarily feel that the work they do is particularly valued in society, there is some anecdotal evidence that points to storytelling being something of core value in society. In 2014 anthropologists working with the nomadic hunter-gatherer Agta of the Philippines conducted a survey.

To their surprise, storytelling topped the list—it was even more prized than hunting skills and medicinal knowledge. When they asked nearly three hundred Agta which of their peers they would most like to live with, skilled storytellers were two times more likely to be selected than those without such talents, regardless of age, sex, and prior friendship. And when they asked the Agta to play resource allocation games, in which they could keep bags of rice or donate them to others, people from camps with talented storytellers were more generous, giving away more rice, and esteemed storytellers were themselves more likely to receive gifts. Most profoundly, Agta with a reputation as good storytellers were more reproductively successful: they had 0.5 more children, on average, than their peers.

“There is an adaptive advantage to storytelling,” says Migliano. “I think this work confirms that storytelling is important to communicate social norms and what is essential for hunter-gatherer survival.”

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