When You Actually Want Your Sidewalk To Fall To Disrepair

More great stories of artists being part of infrastructure projects, this time from a Next City article that came out last week. I have written about these type of projects before and one of my favorite go-to examples is the Green Line project in St. Paul, MN which employed artists to help mitigate the impact light rail construction on nearby businesses.

This recent Next City piece discusses a similar effort in the small town of Grand Marais, MN that was also seeing the impact of construction:

She began by interviewing village residents about detours in their lives and turned their stories into a playful scavenger hunt of signage that reframed the construction as an exploration of unexpected life shifts. Detour signs sharing personal life stories are now installed throughout the village. With artist collaboration, this infrastructure project became an opportunity to turn road detour signs into messages of community joy.

In the article they talk about artist-in-residence programs in cities, both large and small, and the impact the artists have had on planning and design. However, what really caught my eye was another project in St. Paul, MN – Sidewalk Poetry.

“In St. Paul, Minnesota, artist Marcus Young turned common sidewalks into atlases of community stories by inviting residents to share poems printed in the concrete. City residents are invited annually to submit their poems for consideration to be printed into sidewalks as they are scheduled for replacement across the city by the public works department. Young saw this system-based work as a re-imagining of the city’s annual sidewalk maintenance program in which the city replaces 10 miles of sidewalk a year, a way to enhance a civic system to give it a new sense of relevance and appreciation.”

In the article linked in the quoted section above, they emphasize the fact that only sidewalks slated for replacement are part of the program, “never in new development, ensuring that the poems are able to be found across the entire city.” The project solicited poems in the languages of groups with high representation in St. Paul, including English, Spanish, Hmong, Somali and Dakota.

The project involves an interesting mix of priorities. While some people will request that a poem not appear in front of their home or business, the city is not able to fulfill all the requests they receive to place a poem in a specific place because they strive to balance where the poems are placed and because not every patch of sidewalk requires repair.

Gentrification Is For More Than Just City Neighborhoods

Shelterforce posted a video and article about how the term gentrification manifests in different ways and thus doesn’t always conform to the same definition in every community, leading to the term being applied very broadly.  While this may not seem like a topic for a blog focused on arts management concerns, my organization recently received a grant to create a work addressing aspects of gentrification.

Shelterforce identifies four broad conditions people apply the term gentrification to and note that while over time all four may manifest in a community, only one may ever exist in the community.

In summary the conditions are: 1- housing costs rise, displacing residents who can’t afford rents and taxes. 2- Housing costs rise, residents aren’t displaced, but the character of the neighborhood changes over time. 3- Communities of color experience a “cultural displacement” where relevant businesses and places are lost or political displacement where power dynamics shift as wealthier, and perhaps whiter, groups flow into the neighborhood. 4- Communities who have experienced disinvestment are subject to new investment focused on attracting new businesses/residents rather than bolstering development for the benefit of current residents.

Until the last week or so I always associated gentrification with cities. In my mind it was something that occurred when there was focus placed on revitalizing neighborhoods either because artists, (perhaps displaced from somewhere else), had taken up residence in abandoned buildings leading to the area becoming the center of activity and with it a desire for an infrastructure supporting service, safety and quality of life. Or because a revitalization effort in one area created a ripple effect creating a demand for better quality of life infrastructure.

However, my mother has been recently talking to me about the changes that occurred in the local school district of the rural, update New York county in which I grew up. Both my parents started out as school teachers. My mother in particular would talk about how the disrespect and discipline problems she experienced substitute teaching in the 1980s convinced her she couldn’t return to teaching when we kids were old enough to take care of ourselves.

I always chalked it up to permissive parents and a shift toward the perception of the student as a customer of the education system. It is only recently that my mother talked about how people from NYC had moved up to our county because the school district was so highly regarded, but then started to push back against the culture that under-girded the excellence and close-knit cooperation that made the schools so attractive.

All this was invisible to me growing up. And the district was still very much rural at the time. My house was surrounded by fields of diary cows and fodder and the school buses picked up kids at their farms–as well as the housing developments speckling the hills here and there.

It is only in the last week or so that I realized that rural places can experience some of what is described as gentrification. I can also attest that not all aspects of gentrification appear together. When I went back to see the old house about five years ago, there were dozens of new houses awkwardly placed in the middle of fields, bare acres on all sides with only a few recently planted trees around them as foliage. (Other parts of the county have seen so much development, the exit off the NYS Thruway was unrecognizable from my visit even a few years earlier.)

However, despite all these new house in the area the same general stores, same pizza place, and same gas stations that were there as when I grew up.  It amazed me that there hadn’t been enough pressure to see new businesses pop up to cater to the community. Unless there is “I got mine” mindset to keep the community from being attractive to other potential arrivals. There was one enterprising farmer started growing hops and opened a microbrewery.  Many of the beer names have a Pacific Northwest theme so I wonder where their core clientele is located.

Maybe It’s Not The Performance That Should Be Streamed

Covid forced a lot of conversations about the value of streaming content from performing arts venues and visual arts galleries.  As we emerge into more optimistic times, some groups are already planning to make streaming part of their programming mix while others are happy for the opportunity to jettison the practice.

I was reading an article in FastCompany today which discussed how video games were driving tourism to places like Ireland and Italy based on fictional depictions of the terrain, buildings and other features of those places. And the games were doing it with the encouragement and cooperation of the official tourism organizations of those places.

That called to mind the fact that movies like Star Wars and Lord of the Rings have inspired people to travel to places in Ireland and New Zealand which served as settings in those movies. Organized tours of Game of Thrones locations will take you across multiple countries.

Then there is also the issue of the quest to visit Instagrammable places by thousands threatening the natural surroundings.

This made me reflect upon the idea that it isn’t the realistic depiction of a location, but rather the idealized or creative concept overlaid on the reality which is drawing people. Yes, that is sort of central to the description of television, movies and video games and that isn’t what live arts experiences are all about.

I will admit this isn’t a fully formed idea, but it occurred to me that maybe a focus on the performance experience isn’t the way to do. I can tell you from experience that trying to stream a live event without much of the equipment used in television and movie making present yields a disappointing product.  Not to mention, even if you remember the buffering issues YouTube frequently had, they have largely ironed those out. As a result, people expect the same smooth delivery experience from an image being delivered as it is being created as they receive from a video available in its entirety before you think to ask for it.

So instead of the performances which can’t meet the quality of movie and television production without a lot of money or removing the elements that make live experiences distinct from recorded experiences, are there other things that can be centered in live streamed content to encourage people to become engaged? Is there something about the exterior of the building? The surrounding town? The buzz and bustle of the audience in the lobby or in the neighborhood prior to a show? Does that activity orient around a unique feature of the lobby?

Basically, if someone wandered in accidentally, would they have a sense they were missing out on something great and can you stream that?

Likewise, is there some element of the experience that will fire the imagination even if it is overlaid with CGI  for a movie or rendered in a video game? Is there a way to make these things come to pass? While you don’t want to misrepresent what you are all about and have people feel you oversold or did a bait and switch, people are clearly interested in viewing the reality behind the fiction.

The term “Internet famous” is used to imply a certain niche appeal, but sometimes that is enough.

Every location and organization is going to be different in terms of what is available to be leveraged. As I mentioned, this is definitely throw it on the wall to see what sticks type of suggestion. I toss it out in the hopes of shifting thinking away from the idea that the live performance is the central thing that draws people to conceptualizing what else may be perceived as valuable.

This is highly unlikely to generate long lasting engagement and shouldn’t be viewed as a way to build future audiences and donor bases. (Unless there is a connection with an existing affinity group like Lord of the Rings fans.) Knowing there will be guaranteed churn, you don’t want to sink a ton of resources into this unless you discover it results in increased local/regional resonance that leads to return visits. But emerging from Covid, a surge of buzz and activity around you might be what is needed to jump start things again.

A Grant Proposal Isn’t An Investment Pitch

Last week Vu Le made a tweet that revealed a very troubling picture of corporations misunderstanding how non-profits operate and work that they do. This seems to be the “non-profits should be run like a business” taken to the extreme.

The goal of Morgan Stanley’s Children’s Mental Health grant program is to:

“…specifically addresses the lack of both private and public investment in children’s mental health and of effective ways to connect innovative ideas with capital.

The resulting systemic funding gap has only increased with the deepening crisis in children’s mental health due to COVID-19 and ongoing social injustice issues.”

That sounds like it is a mix of a venture capital opportunity and a grant program. They do specifically say they applicants can receive up to $100,000 in grants, but as Vu Le notes, they also have to spend six weeks working on their pitches:

Early October: Finalists announced; six-week program commences, during which finalists learn from industry experts, enhance their proposals and develop their pitches.

Which makes it sound like applicants will be judged on the slickness of presentation rather than on quality of their solutions.

I do think a lot of organizations suffer from not having access to a skilled grant writer and can benefit from help and coaching, but that isn’t a problem it takes six weeks to solve.

While the program acknowledges there is a “systemic funding gap,” since there is no guarantee of funding, the only groups that can afford to invest time in generating innovative approaches to mental health services and have staff attend six weeks of pitch coaching are those who are already well-resourced enough to absorb that cost. Those at the other end of the funding gap will have had to make a heroic superheroic effort and leap of faith just to submit to the first round.

I will say that despite all the focus on new, innovative ideas, I didn’t see anything that disqualified existing programs as Vu Le’s post suggests. There is a question about whether the program is a new pilot or an existing program, but immediately follows asking how it is innovative and transformative. Pretty much every other description of the ideas they are looking for indicates a bias toward brand new rather than under recognized and underfunded.

I could hold forth at length about all the problematic dynamics operating here, but want avoid having casual readers tune out and move on. A lot of the language from the commercial sector has been creeping into non-profits and this grant program is really replete with it. The fact there is so much money at stake is sure to influence the vocabulary used by non-profit organizations going forward.

A few months back I had tweeted about my discomfort with the use of “deliverables” in the non-profit because so much of the work done does not result in discrete commodities. I think it is even less appropriate to be applying that concept and attendant time lines to addressing mental health.

 

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