NEA Re-Opening Guide – You’re Not Alone

The National Endowment for the Arts has released their “Art of Reopening” guide. Looking through it, it doesn’t substantially differ from other re-opening guides about which I have written. In fact, it actually references many of them as additional resources that are available.

However, if you are just now getting to a place where you can start to think about reopening now that vaccine distribution has started, the NEA guide can be a good place to start your plans.

The bulk of the guide is a list of best practices supported by case study interviews conducted with arts organizations of various disciplines around the country. I am not going to quote extensively from the guide because I feel like I have written some of these topics to death by now. I did want to highlight the fact that the first lesson listed is to strengthen ties with your immediate community. While I have written that to death, I don’t feel anything is lost by repeating it until it people can’t remember a time it wasn’t a core tenet of their practice.

Another lesson learned I wanted to emphasize is:

The unexpected will continue to happen. Be transparent when it does. Adapting quickly to new circumstances and information, and communicating those lessons promptly and effectively to artists/staff, board members, donors, and the public will attract greater confidence in your endeavor.

One thing in the NEA guide you won’t find in any other guide is a survey of National Service Organizations (i.e. American Alliance of Museums, Association of Performing Arts Professionals, Association of Writers & Writing Programs, Dance/USA, Film Festival Alliance, League of American Orchestras, National Association of Latino Arts and Cultures, OPERA America, etc) about how their members were coping with the pandemic and what they were seeing.

You’ll find this in Appendix A. It can be worth reading to know you are not alone in the troubles you are facing.

For example:

NSOs also reported these key difficulties for members in reengaging with audiences or visitors:

◽Navigating local or state government reopening protocols (e.g., limitations on gatherings)
◽Securing union permissions
◽Audiences/visitors not following safety guidelines
◽Creating one-way flow in buildings not designed to accommodate routing
◽Cost of retrofitting and preparing safe venues for audiences
◽Accessibility issues that can result from reserved/advance ticketing policies

Bizarre Case of The New World Symphony

Friend o’ the blog, Rainer Glaap shared a video link to a session lead by Elliott Bruce Hedman, Head Design Researcher at, mPath an organization that researches how consumers engage emotionally with products. mPath uses skin conductivity sensors to measure the emotions people are experiencing during certain situations. The talk was hosted by Github for a technology oriented audience so Hedman characterized the examples he was going to use in his presentation as “bizarre case studies.”

So of course the first one was the New World Symphony (NWS).

The “bizarre” appellation aside the case studies were interesting (the others dealt with selling large shop vacuums and teaching math and reading to kids.) I have queued up the video below to start at the ~3:45 mark where he shows the results for the New World Symphony. (If you want to know about how skin conductivity sensors work, start from the beginning of the video.)

Hedman says he was hired by NWS to reverse the trend of classical music concerts  losing about 30% of their audiences annually. In one example he gave, he placed the sensors on veteran concert goers and novices. The emotional engagement of the veteran was very active through out Stravinsky’s “Firebird.” The novice’s engagement at the same concert was virtually flat through the entire piece and only peaks significantly at the applause.

Hedman makes the point that this doesn’t mean it is impossible for new audiences to become emotionally engaged, it just indicates people react to different things. He shows shows the graph of another first timer’s concert experience, this time for the whole concert.  This is particularly fun to look at because it shows where the attendee was bored by the person talking from the stage. However, when the music ends and the host starts talking, the engagement jumps before tapering off because something has changed about the experience.

This person was seeing Romeo & Juliet (I am guessing Tchaikovsky for reasons which will become apparent.) They had a much more varied experience than the person seeing The Firebird, especially during the quietest part and the main theme, the latter of which is familiar from basically every romantic moment in movies and commercials.

Hedman said he advised NWS to only program works that were about a minute long to prevent people’s attention from waning and music that was familiar rather than esoteric works that only experts would appreciate.

Yes, the concept of a short classical work, much less one people recognize does raise a chuckle. It wasn’t clear to me whether he meant this for concerts specifically for people who are new to classical music or as a regular feature. (It is probably the latter since he suggests more Red Hot Chili Peppers and less Beethoven.) If anyone knows how New World Symphony implemented his suggestions, which I imagine were more involved than depicted in the video, I would be interested to learn more.

At first it struck me as problematic to play things with which people are familiar if you are also trying to diversify your programming to include compositions by women and persons of color.  But it also occurred to me that what he suggests brings up the possibility of facilitating those choices by getting up during a concert and saying “Before we move on, next month we are performing The Rose of Senora. Here is a three minute excerpt that illustrates why this new work excites us. It will be that much better when Holly Mulcahy is here as a soloist.” The idea that everyone in the room is learning something new at the same time might help diminish the sense for new attendees that you need to be an initiate to enjoy the experience.

There were a number of insights Hedman shared at the end of the video which are worth noting if you are trying to improve the emotional experience of audiences, stakeholders, participants, etc:

-You won’t design the right experience the first time out. Hedman says his first attempts in most of his projects were wrong and he is still refining his program to help kids feel excited about reading.

-Businesses are obsessed with happiness, but confidence, attention and understanding, and play is what sells a product.  This is something to note – research has shown that people are often satisfied in an experience with a company even if they didn’t get their desired outcome. If they have lodged a complaint but didn’t get a refund/replacement, having felt heard and acknowledged still contributes to a constructive relationship with them. (This is me drawing a connection, not him.)

-Measuring emotion adds the much needed human element to your data. Hedman says the most important thing he wants people to take away is trying to collect emotional data from their customers. He said depending on website stats is insufficient and the emotional data adds depth to your understanding. While he obviously has a service he is selling to people, it is worth remembering that emotion is strongly intertwined in what we do and thus integral to our interactions with audiences and participants.

What The Hell…Oh Wait That Is A Pre-Covid Picture

I have a post on ArtsHacker today encouraging people to really think about what message their promotional photos are sending as we hopefully will start to move out of Covid restrictions.

ArtsHacker-in-chief Drew McManus praised me for thinking of such a timely topic to write on and I responded that it was largely inspired by a true story.

At my day job we have been able to mount some smaller scale events like movie screenings, storytelling sessions and outdoor concerts using our fire escape as a stage. Even with all the measures we have taken to ensure social distancing, people have a hard time conceiving of themselves seeing indoor events. We had the manager and mascot of our local baseball team introduce a screening of A League of Their Own this summer. When they told a co-worker where they were going, she was interested in attending until she found out the screening was indoors. At the same time, she was willing to go to a restaurant where she would be sitting a lot closer to other people and have worse air circulation.

As a result, my staff and I have been putting time and effort into taking pictures of people attending performances spaced apart at an appropriate distance. We have pictures of parents helping their kids pump hand sanitizer and everyone wearing masks. These pictures pepper our web page and appear at seemingly random intervals on our social media pages. All calculated to present an accurate, reassuring image of an experience at our venue.

It wasn’t long ago that we noticed social media posts by another arts organization promoting an upcoming concert. The image they used depicted a packed indoor concert which I am 90% certain was a stock photo rather than from one of their shows. Later they emblazoned “Sold Out!” across the same image which reinforced the idea that there were shows going on locally where people were crushed together.

The truth is, the show they were doing was at an outdoor amphitheater which employs solid social distancing guidelines. While it was sold out because of social distancing guidelines, attendance didn’t reach the fire code capacity of the space. The post-event pictures reflected this with masked people seated in a grassy area a respectable distance from one another.

While pictures of people spread out across the frame isn’t as sexy as a mass of people with open mouthed expressions of delight, it is a lot more reassuring for audiences during these cautious times. Right now a lot of people are seeking that measure of confidence over a mass communal experience.

Just think about how many times in the last 9 months you have reflexively felt uncomfortable with how blase people in a video or picture were being about masks and social distancing only to realize the performance or gathering depicted was from 18 months ago.

A year ago how I promoted my event didn’t really impact the way people perceived your event. Now the question is much less about which of many activities you want to choose and more about IF you feel comfortable making a choice to participate in a public activity at all. As a result, how other organizations present an experience has a much greater influence on the lens through which people perceive your event.

Work On Those Re-Opening Venue Images

Who Is Prioritized In Programming Decisions

The Atlantic ran an article about how museums are having to deal with questions about equity and representation in their programming that are posed by both external and internal constituencies.

The content of the article is pretty much applicable to every arts and cultural organization, regardless of discipline because the root of the problem seems to be the process by which programming decisions are made.

The collection departments at museums don’t tend to engage with the educational staff—who help interpret exhibitions by organizing lectures and seminars that can enhance public understanding of a display’s importance—until too late. “When I was first in the art-museum world as an educator, we were presented exhibitions after they had been curated and decided upon,” she said. “And then it was our job to figure out how to teach from those exhibitions. How the content mattered, how relevant it was to our community, all those decisions were made outside my office.”

In that sense, context enters the conversation at the end of the decision-making process. And even when educators are involved, they can sometimes focus too much on scholarship—as with the “White Gold” exhibit—trapping museums in a cycle of overemphasizing academics and underemphasizing analysis in a racial and historical context, leading to misguided exhibitions. “What curatorial processes could benefit from are open-ended questions rather than setting out theses to prove,” Bradley said.

This basic scenario has long existed across arts and cultural disciplines. This is part of what people are referencing when they discuss silos in organizations. A programming decision is made by one group and then another group is tasked with marketing it to some segment of the community. What this does is put those who weren’t involved in the decision making in the position of reverse engineering a rationale for the value of the programming and trying to make it stick. A better alternative would be starting from the question of what will be valued by the community and letting the programming decisions emerge from that.

How one goes about discussing the question of what will be valued differs from place to place and organization to organization. Some of the museums mentioned in The Atlantic article received feedback from community partner organizations, others made an intentional decision to involve people without formal arts training so that the process didn’t get bogged down in academic lingo and context.

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