Tonight We Have Paired The Seared Scallops With Wine And An Aria

Back in May, American Theatre had an article about audience building efforts Opera Theatre St. Louis (OTSL) undertook with funding from the Wallace Foundation.  In my experience, there is always something to learn from these projects funded by the Wallace Foundation, especially since the case study reports tend to be honest about what things didn’t go well. So it is worth the time to read this short article.

One of OTSL’s efforts that drew my attention was their Opera Tastings project where they would pair tastings of food and wine with short opera performances. What I really appreciated about their effort here was that they took the program a fair distance from their home rather than concentrating on the St. Louis city limits. (my emphasis)

Hosted in a local restaurant or venue, the evening pairs 11 samples of food or drink with 11 operatic excerpts. The evenings have taken place all over St. Louis: in predominantly Black neighborhoods, in Chinatown, in Southern Illinois, or as far away as Columbia and Fayetteville, Mo. (120 miles and 145 miles, respectively).

“If the intent is to draw people in who surround you, then most of our organizations are finding that they have to be more present in the community,” says Ramos. “It’s how you build relevance. It’s how you show the work.”

[…]

Newcomers, in other words, discover what type of opera they enjoy, instead of being told why they should enjoy opera. More than three-quarters of Opera Tasting attendees are new-to-file (i.e., first time patrons), and every attendee gets $10 in “opera bucks” to redeem for a ticket to an upcoming show.

As I mentioned before, an aspect of these programs I have valued is the fact they were open about what went wrong. This type of reflection is a core part of Wallace Foundation’s ethic of “continuous learning” according to the article.

There was enough of an upside, despite the cost, to make the Opera Tastings worth retaining and refining. (my emphasis)

A lot of those opera bucks get redeemed: Right now an average of 42 percent of Opera Tastings attendees go on to buy tickets. What’s more, audience members who come to OTSL through Opera Tastings tend to buy more expensive tickets and become donors at a faster rate than expected.

One caveat: The tastings are costly to produce, costing $7,100 per tasting in 2018. And the true cost of audience recruitment may be obscured by the subsidies covered by opera bucks as well as discounted ticket prices

“It’s an expensive way to acquire new audience members,” admits Timothy O’Leary, general director of Opera Theatre from 2008 to 2018. And the majority of people who attend, 58 percent, never buy a ticket. The challenge now is to see how the tastings might be sustainable without Wallace support.

The article also talks about other programs like their Young Friends program which they estimate has a $16,000-$17,000 impact and their Opera Kids Camp for children to attend while their parents are at the opera. Take a look to learn more.

Wherein I Compare Creative Placemaking To Spaghetti Sauce

I don’t remember how I came across it, but a few weeks ago I bookmarked an interview Michael Rohd, a faculty member at Arizona State University, conducted with Roberto Bedoya, City of Oakland’s Cultural Affairs Manager; Jamie Bennett, Executive Director of ArtPlace America; and Dr. Maria Rosario Jackson, a professor at Arizona State University.

They were discussing the process of creative placemaking and how it should be applied in the future in order to acknowledge and honor the needs and concerns of the communities impacted by creative placemaking efforts.

The prologue to the interview mentions the term creative placemaking has been criticized for:

1) suggesting that the people and cultures rooted in a place had not already made it; 2) initially lacking a clear statement of values regarding who was meant to benefit from the community development of which the arts and culture were a part.

In response, people have started using the term creative placekeeping instead. I have heard this come up at a number of conferences I have attended. However, Bedoya notes that while there are legitimate concerns about gentrification and displacement– or replacement, especially in the eyes of communities of color, there is a need to be cautious with the term placekeeping as well.

The trap around place-keeping is sentimentality — “I want the old days” — and it’s not thoughtful. What are we trying to keep, and how, so it stays fresh and new? I think the future of creative placemaking is people not as intensely problematizing it, but trying to figure out the actions associated with placemaking or keeping, to create agency and a notion of civic commitment.

I found this idea of examining how to bring freshness to the elements we are trying to “keep” very intriguing. If you fear the loss of front stoops/porches in your neighborhood, what it is that will be lost? Is it the safe place for kids to play away from the streets? It is the socialization found in waving to neighbors as they pass or inviting them to mount the steps to chat? Is there a way to maintain that somewhere or someway else?

Though as I continued to play my example out in my head, I would think it would almost be preferable that porches and stoops replace a central gathering place that is being repurposed than to lose the stoops and send everyone to gather in a central place.

Another section I that caught my attention was Bennett’s comments about the scope of vision needed for implementing placemaking/placekeeping plans so that it encompasses all potential benefits and consequences. (my emphasis)

How do you figure out if your actions contributed toward healthy, equitable, and sustainable communities? Professor Andrew Taylor at American University reminded me that the first rule of systems thinking is that there is no such thing as side effects, there are only effects. If you are experiencing something as a side effect, it means you haven’t drawn the boundaries of your system widely enough. Many people say, “I’m making an economic development play, and there is an unfortunate side effect that people are displaced or replaced,” to borrow from Roberto. We need to draw the boundaries of our system wide enough that we understand that those are not unrelated or accidental, but part of one system.

At first I thought about how difficult it is to anticipate all the effects a plan might have. But as I considered longer, I realized if you are paying attention to what is happening in other communities that are implementing similar efforts, it isn’t difficult to become aware of the potential positive and negative impacts. Using the term “side effect” in these instances seems like an attempt to minimize the importance of these problems. Acknowledging it as an effect of a plan is to take responsibility for the problems it may cause.

If someone tells you one of the side effects of eating spaghetti sauce is a 80% chance you will have a sleepless night of heartburn, that really isn’t a small issue to you. If that is something you face, you consume the marinara sauce fully aware that any difficulty sleeping is a consequence of your decision and no one else. Likewise, if you are serving spaghetti and offer no other options, you should be aware that it is possible your choice will cause discomfort for some guests.

Museum 2.0 Gets Writer/Convenor 2.0

Hey all – You may or may not know that some months back Nina Simon, writer of Museum 2.0 blog, announced she was leaving her position at Santa Cruz Museum of Art and History (MAH) to devote herself more exclusively to OF/BY/FOR ALL which strives to “make community organizations.”

What does this mean? It means that if you want to be FOR your whole community, you have to be representative OF them and co-created BY them. If people don’t see themselves as part of your work, they won’t see your work as an essential part of their lives.

Putting up a “welcome” sign is not enough. To involve people in meaningful, sustainable ways, you can’t just make programs FOR them. You have to involve them in their creation. And that means becoming OF and BY them too.

Nina recently made her final post on Museum 2.0 saying she was handing the blog over to Seema Rao. Rao had actually done a few guest posts back in July. By quirk of the feed I use to read blogs, I caught her first few posts and, not realizing it wasn’t Nina, wondered how the heck Nina had had the time to visit all these museums she was talking about AND run MAH AND be hitting the speaking circuit so much.

Since I was already intrigued by what Rao was writing under a mistaken identity, needless to say I think the blog is being left in good hands. I look forward to seeing what she posts.

In her final post, Nina reflects on her 13 years of blogging and how conflicted she was with her sense of obligation to the blog and readers. Then how she came to accept the trade-offs of going to a more infrequent, but perhaps more satisfying publishing schedule.

I can relate with her feelings on the subject having had many of the same thoughts myself throughout the years. Like her, I have often regarded blogging as a way to “think out loud” and organize my thoughts on different subjects. When I go back through the archives, I can certainly see how both my personal philosophy and the collective mind of the arts and cultural industry have evolved over the last decades.

I write this post as a tribute to the difficult and thoughtful work Nina has done over the years, providing leadership for many of us in the arts community as she is likely to increasingly do in the future. I am also writing to encourage people to pay attention to Museum 2.0 as a blog because Nina’s choice to transition it to a new writer is really a manifestation of the philosophy and intent she has long espoused:

Nina writes:

1. Museum 2.0 is about participation, but I never fully succeeded in making it participatory. Because I’d built the blog originally to do my own writing and learning, I rarely invited guest writers. I never experimented here with models for collective writing. … I wished Museum 2.0 could break free of me and become more dialogic, led by a strong writer AND online convenor. I believe Seema Rao is this person and I hope you’ll join me in reading and participating as Museum 2.0 grows. There will be new experiments and approaches – alongside the archive of what we’ve built thus far.

And You Thought Developing A New Performance Piece Was Hard

Watching the latest webinar on the Creating Connection initiative from ArtsMidwest, I am pleased to see the progress that is being made. The Michigan Council for Arts and Cultural Affairs has embraced it and has made it a central part of their efforts, organizing seminars and training sessions throughout the state.

I don’t mean to gloss over and skip quickly past the work that is going on in Michigan, but the second organization featured in the webinar, Mixed Blood Theater had some challenges rolling out a project that echoed my post yesterday.

Mixed Blood’s neighborhood in Minneapolis has a large Somali population. Like the Oakland Museum of California I spoke about yesterday, Mixed Blood has ambitious goals of improving the well-being of their community. They created an initiative they named Project 154 with a aim of:

“bridg[ing] cultural gaps between residents, health providers, promote preventative care, increase trust of health providers and promote personal narrative to boost personal confidence and increase community self-advocacy, using theatre as a core tool to achieve this.”

They had initially hoped to record 154 stories of residents discussing their health. They quickly realized that they didn’t have the degree of trust from the community required to achieve that.

They decided to move to story circles where they provided food, tea and a financial incentive to participants. While they had more people interested in participating than was practical if they wanted to limit the circle size, they ran into some cultural barriers. Women wouldn’t speak with men present, especially in regard to their health; younger people wouldn’t speak in the presence of elders; and interactions were somewhat burdened by the need for translation.

The next attempt at hosting story circles, they had the assistance of a Somali speaker recently hired as a project coordinator. He helped them better understand the cultural nuances of the neighborhood residents. These story circles were lead by a member of the community who had knowledge of the health care system. The circles were separated by gender and age. The groups were smaller and the conversations were more extensive. This allowed Mixed Blood to develop better relationships and trust with participants.

It was at this point they were able to move to the stage of recording the stories of community members. Their goal is 20 instead of 154. Mixed Blood shared these videos with healthcare providers to help them better understand the concerns and perceptions residents had about health care.

As you can see, there was a lot of work involved getting to the point where people would be willing to participate in a video recording. Ten of the 20 have been shot and Mixed Blood has only just recently had women agree to being recorded. All this is part of an ongoing effort much broader than I have described here.

Much as the Oakland Museum did in the article I referenced yesterday, Mixed Blood has identified a problem in the community and how they can contribute to solving it.

In some respects, what they have tried to accomplish has taken a similar amount of time and effort as developing a new performance piece from scratch, workshopping and revising it. The difference is that many of those participating in the many stages of development are generally invested in cooperating toward the same goal. Mixed Blood had to overcome a number of barriers to get to where they are today.

Webinar below. Michigan Council starts at about 8:45 mark, Mixed Blood Theatre around 30:30 mark.

 

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