Perception Is More Powerful Than Money

Today was the big day for our community’s On The Table discussion. If you aren’t familiar with the nationwide program, it is a day different groups in a community host discussions on any topic they feel needs to be addressed–including just leaving things open for whatever comes up. In our community, there were hundreds of tables hosting thousands of people doing everything from having breakfast with the mayor to discussing urban revitalization, homelessness, law enforcement, entrepreneurship, preserving oral history–you name it.

I hosted two separate sessions about Arts Midwest’s Creating Connection initiative. I will probably reflect on that in a future post.  Perhaps the most valuable bit of insight for arts and cultural organizations didn’t emerge from a conversation in my venue, nor do I believe the slated topic of conversation was about the arts.

My marketing director was having a conversation with a woman who is an artist and currently works for a foundation which funds arts initiatives. This woman admitted that she regularly attends performances at a local theater and always see the big sign encouraging her to subscribe. However, she has never subscribed because she perceives that as something old people do. She also admitted she kicks herself later for paying full price when she could be getting a good discount by subscribing.

While this is only a single anecdotal case — notice that she would rather pay full price in order to avoid being associated with her perception of a subscriber. Perception was a much greater motivator than price. That is something to think about when price is cited as the primary impediment to participation.

When she was attending a discussion at my On The Table event, this same woman talked about her previous job working for an organization that had a gallery of work by local artists. Before she started working there, she had never entered the gallery due to concerns about whether she would be allowed to enter and if she was dressed properly.

Looking at the same gallery through the windows from the street, I would describe it as having a welcoming homey quality, but that isn’t what she saw.

Her candid conversations just reinforced for me the research findings that point to just how strong an influence one’s sense of belonging has in whether people participate in an experience or not. It is the invitation to participate, how the invitation is framed, who extends it and what the experience is that matters much more than the sticker price.

Another thing that came to light was just how difficult it is to communicate the existence of opportunities that align with people’s interests. One of our ticket clerks is a law student. Above our lobby are six floors of county offices housing everything from the district attorney, county court officials, and state/local/federal law enforcement.  A number of those offices were hosting On The Table discussions about law enforcement, courts, and sentencing as a resource for the general community.

Not only did the law student not know conversations with people with whom she would be interested in speaking were occurring, she wasn’t aware that the entire On The Table program existed. Other staff felt like we couldn’t escape information about it on social media, television, radio, posters, etc., especially in the last month. Our clerk had no concept such a program existed in the world.

Part of the blame for this falls on our shoulders. Prior to today, we apparently never told one of our most trusted employees in our most public facing office that the events would be occurring across the lobby from where she sat in case anyone asked questions.

Though by the same token, she apparently doesn’t look at the event listings on our Facebook page and website with any frequency to familiarize herself with videos and other content associated with upcoming events. But even that just illustrates how difficult it is to get information in front of people and register with their attention.

Ripples Moving Fish In Other Ponds

When I caught the name, “Penis Monologues” out of the corner of my eye, I felt a moment of trepidation that some men’s rights group was mounting a show as an aggressive counter to the Vagina Monologues. However, it turned out that the show is actually an attempt to combat the culture of “dominant male temperament” in China, a  term which is somewhat analogous to the English term, “toxic masculinity.” The show was created by a noted sexologist in China, Fang Gang.  (It should be noted that the title in Chinese doesn’t use the word “penis.” The articles doesn’t indicate what the actual title is.)

It was interesting to read how other cultures are experiencing the global conversations about gender roles. (China has had its own spate of #MeToo stories.) Many male participants in Fang’s project really had to overcome their reticence. Given that a number had never performed before, and unlike the generally empowering tone of the Vagina Monologues, the show dealt with some pretty negative subject matter, their reluctance is understandable.

But the play’s subject matter hasn’t made it easy for Tao to find willing actors. Most men she approached declined after reading monologue titles like “Penis Size,” “Domestic Abuser,” and “Erectile Dysfunction.” “They are afraid of being mocked or judged by the public,” she tells Sixth Tone.

When 42-year-old business owner Yu Lei read the play for the first time, he was shocked that it so boldly addressed taboo subjects. But after attending one of Fang’s sex-ed public lectures and seeing members of the audience calmly taking notes, he decided to join the troupe, despite never having acted before.

Tao assigned Yu to the play’s first monologue, “Date Rape,” which tells the story of a male college student forcing his girlfriend to have sex with him in a hotel room. Yu was so nervous about performing that he told his wife he was taking part in a charity event organized by White Ribbon, the advocacy organization launched by Fang in 2013 to end violence perpetrated by men against women. But he needn’t have worried: His performance wins thunderous applause from the 90 or so people in the audience, though Yu later confesses to Sixth Tone that he slightly regrets doing it. “I’m afraid people might think it was my own story,” he says.

According to article, in addition to challenging audiences to question the societal norms that men need to be dominant in their careers and relationships with women, the show also addresses some pretty ingrained binary definitions of gender.

That pain is familiar to Ye Chuyang, a queer actor portraying their own experiences in the monologue “Gender Queer.” “I don’t agree with binary gender divisions, because it limits people’s possibilities,” Ye tells Sixth Tone. “Most people think men are supposed to be macho, decisive, and strong. They don’t appreciate feminine or delicate men. Though my parents appreciate the sensitive and gentle side of me, they prefer me to be strong and tough just like other boys.”

Ye thinks the play is a chance to both educate people about sexual diversity and help more men understand the experiences of women. “If men could break the rules and speak out, women would feel encouraged and less lonely in this battle,” he says.

In addition to illustrating the power of arts and culture to facilitate conversations on difficult topics, for me this story represents the degree to which the world is becoming metaphorically smaller. We may be frustrated by lack of progress in our own local spheres, but the motion of a movement can create ripples that begins to bring resonant changes in other parts of the world.

Does Gazing Out From The Belly Of A God Provide New Perspective?

There was an interesting video on Shanghaiist in the last week about a hotel whose architect designed three giant deities for the facade to combat rumors that the building was constructed on a cemetery.

The three deities, Fu (福), Lu (禄), and Shou (寿), represent the three attributes of a good life, “prosperity,” “status,” and “longevity,” respectively. They were added to the design of the 40-meter-tall building by a local architect to compensate for rumors that the structure was being built on top of an old cemetery.

I will let you take a look at the video first. (Let me just say I present this mostly as a diversion and basis of idle musing rather than subject for serious analysis.)


One of the first thoughts I had was, if this was in the US, would this be considered some form of artwashing? For example, if someone had used positive imagery on a hotel constructed on a toxic waste site or some other dubious association as a way to assuage fears.

I am not trying to conflate toxic waste with human remains. Personally, I would have no problem staying in this hotel. I have worked in enough theaters that were purported to be haunted or built on sanctified land that this doesn’t bother me. The placement of the hotel and anticipated repercussions appears it has a much stronger social and cultural significance in China than it might in the US.

I just found myself musing about cultural differences. Would something along these lines this be viewed with skepticism in the US while in China it might be viewed as an appropriate gesture given the history of the plot of land.

I also wondered why a hotel might choose to go to the expense of the extra construction. Presumably people coming from out of town wouldn’t be aware of the rumors. Though if it is the sort of place that gains more business from people visiting local residents or conducting business with government or local companies rather than tourism, they might depend more strongly on word of mouth.

I was amused by the comment made by one of the residents that the building unexpectedly became a distinctive feature of the community. I was thinking to myself, how could three 120 foot high deities NOT become a distinctive feature of the community? If nothing else, you could navigate the streets in relation to where it was on the horizon.

Perhaps people did initially see the statues as a cynical use of spectacle to make money but ended up finding that it created a unique sense of place in the neighborhood.

Thinking about all this made me start to wonder how efforts at creative placemaking might appear from the outside through the lens of other cultures. Does it appear like we are trying to manufacture a sense of community where one doesn’t exist organically? (I get the image of some foreign visitor paraphrasing Regina George “stop trying to make community happen, it isn’t not going to happen.”)

Is Creative Placemaking The Poor Man’s Gentrification?

Part of last week I was attending the Creative Placemaking Leadership Summit for the South and Appalachian region.

I am sorry to say that one of the biggest impressions I came away with is that poverty is the rule rather than the exception in this country. Perhaps it shouldn’t have come as a surprise to me. I grew up in a rural town and spent a good part of my youth consuming government cheese, rice and powdered milk. I worked in an Appalachian community that was notorious for pill mills and opioid addiction nearly 20 years ago before it was considered so much a crisis that organizations started refusing donations from pharmaceutical companies.

But these all seemed to be generally isolated instances compared to the whole of the country. More and more I am not so sure.

I spent three days last week listening to the majority of the presenters talk about the great projects they have enacted in communities where the median income for a household of four hovers between $19,000 and $32,000 a year.

One of the questions in the first session I attended was about whether placemaking was happening predominantly in rural and impoverished communities. At the time I was thinking about all the urban gentrification that has been going on so I didn’t think that was the case, but by the time I got to the end of conference, I started to wonder if anyone was using creative placemaking as a tool in affluent urban communities. More and more it seemed like Creative Placemaking is something people turn to in order to improve economically depressed communities.

I began to suspect the effort to improve in big cities it is just termed development. If there is any creative element that emerges, it is in compliance with percent for art requirements forcing projects to add artistic elements.

Most of the presenters and attendees seemed to be from small communities. There were some people from Miami and Alameda County, CA at the conference but they talked about how their projects were improving lives in impoverished neighborhoods and creating more positive relationships with the police.  No one was talking about projects on the scale of New York City’s Highline or Hudson Yards

I will confess that this is a large chunk of cynicism talking right now. So much of what is accomplished in smaller communities is definitely due to governments, developers and community advocates entering in conversations to find innovative solutions that improve the status of the entire community. Maybe bigger cities aren’t attending these conferences because they don’t feel the need to participate since they already have developers salivating to build something. As a result, I am hearing the stories of communities with fewer resources.

At the same time I listen to people talk about all small projects they bootstrapped into being viewed as a vast improvement because it added a small walking trail and pole barn pavilion. The fact that this trail is touted as something people can use to spend time with their families after a 10 day of work almost has undertones of those commercials telling us we can improve the lives of people overseas “for pennies a day.” Except that it isn’t overseas. It is kinda dispiriting.

I don’t have to tell those of you in the arts community that even when a project clearly has improved conditions, it isn’t necessarily valued. Germaine Jenkins talked about the farm she and her colleagues at Fresh Future Farm created in North Charleston, SC, transforming an empty lot into a garden with a store that charges people on a sliding scale according to their need. Her lease is up in September with no indication of whether it will be renewed.

There was a time when people were criticizing the superficial understanding of Richard Florida’s observations of the relationship between Creative Class and vibrant communities. There was a sense that you just needed to attract creative people to place and they would take care of the rest. I feel like Creative Placemaking reflects a more sophisticated understanding that a complex mix of factors from public policy, community dynamics, business and cultural resources, etc need to be in place and requires constant attention and balancing.

Yet I am starting to wonder if people see the success of creative placemaking efforts elsewhere and perceive it to be the panacea for the problems that plague their communities.

Yet, perhaps this is what is needed at this juncture– the example of success elsewhere as a model of what should be done locally. Last week Notre Dame cathedral burned down and people apparently recognized that there was a spate of recent church burning in the US that had not received the attention and support that the cathedral did and started donating toward the restoration of those US churches. The people who are undertaking these project understand that there is a lot of hard work and consensus building required. Maybe the examples of others will bring a positive result in the long run.

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