I Don’t Know, The DMV Line Is Usually At Least Novella

I saw a really cool story via Americans for the Arts in May about a partnership between the Maryland Department of Motor Vehicles and the Prince George’s County Memorial Library System. They worked together to place kiosks that delivered short stories in a motor vehicles branch. People standing on line to conduct business can select, print out and read one of the short stories.  The library sees this as an opportunity to serve their community outside of their branches.

The stories are printed on demand and scroll out of the kiosk somewhat like a register receipt.

The story kiosk has a library of more than 8,500 short stories, varying in length. Stories are free, and readers can choose between selections for kids or content for all ages. Short Edition has also made the machine earth-friendly with eco-friendly paper that is FSC- and BPA-free.

I took a look at the website of the French company that makes the kiosks. Even though they talk about the printers being useful for business where people have to wait for service, I noticed some of the accompany pictures depict the stories being read at leisure in uncrowded cafes.

This made me wonder if there might be a use for the technology to deliver supplementary material at performances or perhaps only the parts of the playbill you are interested in. If you don’t care about the bios but want the program notes, you might choose to only print those and save on paper. Granted, this may not please those who paid to have their logos placed in the program, but perhaps they can be included on the print out on an ongoing basis.

Being able to see what types of material people are printing on demand might provide the organization with a better sense of what information to provide people in promotional materials to help them make the decision to attend. Likewise, it could be used to shape the programming and attendance experience to reflect these interests/needs.

It’s Still Not Ann Margaret

I am going on vacation for a couple weeks so the blog will be featuring some interesting posts from the archives.

Back in 2009 I wrote a lengthy article about a Mad Men episode where the ad agency reproduced the opening of Ann Margaret singing Bye, Bye Birdie, in order to sell Pepsi’s new Patio diet soda. Even though it was exactly what they asked for, the client felt there was something wrong. When they leave, one of the ad men points out what was wrong was that it wasn’t Ann Margaret singing the song.

One of the points I made at the time was that people often try to copy or adopt something that has emerged as wildly successful in the assumption that they will be able to cash in on that popularity. The problem is that they don’t comprehend the nuanced elements that made the original so successful.

What made this old post more timely is that last week, there was a similar illustration of the “its not Ann Margaret” effect. The recent release of a video game based on the Avengers: Endgame movie was widely panned because few of the characters in the video resembled the actors who had portrayed the heroes in movies over the last decade or so.

A somewhat different perspective on anticipating and managing expectations.

Many have pointed out that the console versions of their favourite characters do not resemble the Marvel Cinematic Universe superheroes. Custom playable identities have instead been created, meaning Robert Downey Jr’s Tony Stark, Chris Evans’ Captain America and more are nowhere to be seen.

“Wow, the new Avengers game looks… really bad,” wrote one fan on Twitter. Another said: “They can’t even use the Avenger’s theme song? Like WTF.”

I Probably Don’t Really Know What My Audience Values Even Though I Am In The Lobby Before, After, And At Intermission

I bookmarked a guest post on Museum 2.0 a month ago. Now I feel guilty for not circling back to it sooner. Nina Simon invited Martin Brandt Djupdræt, a manager at Danish museum,  to write about how his organization has all the decision makers interact with visitors as part of their audience research effort.

Their approach is super simple, though a little time consuming. A member of management approaches a random visitor and asks if they can follow the visitor around to observe where they go in the museum and what they interact with. Three weeks later they give the visitor a call and ask:

• why they chose this museum,
• what they noticed especially during the visit,
• whether they interacted with anyone, and
• whether they had talked to anyone about the museum after the visit, and what about

Every decision maker in the organization seems to be required to participate, from management to curators. Djupdræt says the goal is to get managers up and away from their desks interacting with people with whom they wouldn’t normally come in contact.

As you might imagine, what the managers and curators were sure people valued about the museum wasn’t quite accurate. Even those with more direct contact with visitors were surprised by what they learned.

The curators were surprised by how important other parts of the museum besides the historical content were for the visitor. The F&B manager and the head of HR were surprised by how many objects and stories the visitors were absorbed in. This has also given us insights into the work of our colleagues and made us appreciate their work to a larger extent. Now we all have useful and inspiring stories about visitors’ choices and the impact the museum had on them.

Another observation was the importance of food and drink. In our trackings we could see how much time the visitors spent on the museum’s eating places and the great social importance these breaks had. Something we learned about food through the interviews was that the guests consider the food at the museum as part of the museum’s storytelling. This insight has encouraged us to focus on food and food history as a priority topic at the museum, and a colleague is going to work particularly with that subject.


Visitors have always been a focus for the management, but the research have personalized our audience and they are discussed differently now. As the head of finance described it: “I normally look at whether a task is well done, financially possible and efficient, but now I also consider more seriously how a visitor would feel and react to the changes we plan.”

I especially wanted to include that last section as a reminder that measuring success by efficiency and expense doesn’t necessarily equate to providing a fulfilling experience.

One thing Djupdræt didn’t cover that I was curious about was why they waited three weeks to follow up. I didn’t know if that was a social practice in Denmark where it was rude to immediately survey people about their experience or if it was calculated to see how much of the visitor experience still made an impression three week later.

The whole article is a reminder not to depend entirely on surveys as an evaluation tool. Yes, it is an important practice to have people in the back office interacting directly in a focused manner with the people the organization serves, but there is also the shift of perspective this practice brings. You would assume a food and beverage manager would have fairly extensive interactions with visitors and would be paying close attention to trends.  That person at the Djupdræt’s museum still found themselves surprised by some of the insights they gained.

Take It From The Folks Who Have Done It 7000 Times –Short And To The Point

A piece from Artsy regarding what they had learned writing 7000 bios for visual artists came across my radar a few weeks ago and I quickly tagged it as something I to which wanted to circle back. Now that I have done so, I realize it was written about 3 years ago.

The basic observations they make about artists’ bios are worth the attention of anyone in any arts discipline to when it comes to writing promotional copy for websites, brochures, etc.

They found that the sweet spot is between 80 and 140 words with the ideal being 120.  Any more than 150 and people’s attention starts to waver. While they have observed this in relation to gallery labels, it is probably all the more true for websites. They go further to say that a tightly written 80 word bio is better than a 120 word one with repetitive or filler content.

Some of the points to consider when writing an artist’s bio are specific to visual arts but are relatively simple to transfer to any arts discipline. As I mentioned earlier, these rules are just as applicable to describing a performance involving 40 people as it is for one person.

As with most things, the most important element is a strong opening:

The bio should open with a first line that encapsulates, as far as possible, what is most significant about the artist and his or her work, rather than opening with biographical tidbits, such as where the artist went to school, grew up, etc. For example: John Chamberlain is best known for his twisting sculptures made from scrap metal and banged up, discarded automobile parts and other industrial detritus.

Though in the case of promoting a performance or other event, I would start with a sense of why people will enjoy themselves rather than any sort of biographical information. Even if they know the show, no one is going to get excited about seeing Phantom of the Opera if it opens with “Written by the man who revolutionized the musical theatre form with shows like Jesus Christ Superstar, Cats, Evita, Starlight Express….”

Among the mistakes they say are the biggest people make when writing bios are some familiar faces: hyperbole, laundry list of accomplishments and “artspeak”:

It can be tempting to sing your artists’ praises. We’ve noticed, however, that readers do not respond positively to unsubstantiated claims about an artist’s import (e.g. “Artist X is considered one of the most important artists of the post-war period,” or, “Artist Y is widely regarded for her beautiful work”). Most readers will see right through trumped-up language …The best way to maximize the power of a good bio is to try to educate, not “hard-sell,” your reader. Numerous studies have shown that the hard sell doesn’t work, especially for younger audiences (read: tech-savvy collectors), who respond most positively to simple and authentic messages.


Impressive as these may be, these laundry lists are tedious to read in prose format. They also take up precious real estate, which you could otherwise devote to a real discussion of your artist’s practice.

There are certainly instances where it makes sense to include one particularly outstanding prize or exhibition, for example, an artist’s inclusion in the Venice Biennale. In this case, try to find a way to naturally include mention of the distinction in the normal flow of the text.


Instead of trying to impress other curators, academics, and galleries, focus on your audience of new collectors who may be completely unfamiliar with your artists. Readers want to glean information from your writing, and the best way to do that is to use simple language. A good rule of thumb is to impart one idea per sentence.

Obviously that last point should be applied to new attendees rather than new collectors. I would doubly apply the caution about artspeak to the injunction about laundry lists. As insiders, there are a lot of prizes, associations, and accomplishments we might deem particularly outstanding that means nothing to a newer attendee.

Trevor O’Donnell often invokes the “person in Starbucks test” where you recite your promotional copy conversationally to someone in a Starbucks. (or any other random casual encounter.) If they look back at your uncomfortably, he says your text needs a rewrite. Before you even get to that point, you might want to ask a person in Starbucks if a particular accolade means anything to them and leave it out of the description if they look at you cross-eyed or clearly as pretending it sounds familiar.

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