Live From Our Fire Escape

Today Drew McManus had a post on Adaptistration titled “In the Age Of COVID, Necessity Is The Mother Of Invention.” This was pretty timely because I had my own tale of adapting to the times to tell.

This weekend at my venue, we hosted our first live event since March -an outdoor cabaret performance on our fire escape. (Not so much an invention, I suppose since the first thing people did when the pandemic started was sing from their apartment windows and fire escapes.)

As you can see from the pictures below, we have a pretty substantial fire escape with multiple levels that can be used for performance. Since this was our first time out and we didn’t want to expose more of our equipment to the summer heat and possible rain than necessary, we limited our activities to one level.

The audience sat in our parking lot. As you can see, we prepped the parking lot by chalking out seating pods. The seating was general admission and we undersold what we imagined our capacity to be in order to provide both our audience and ourselves with the flexibility to see how things developed.

We determined the size and number of pods to create by analyzing the ticket purchasing patterns. We drew out two person, four person, six person and in one case 10 person, pods based on how people purchased their tickets. The pods were spaced to allow six feet between groups of unrelated people. Then we allowed enough room on the perimeter for people who felt the need for greater distancing to set up as they wanted.

Our aim was to observe how many people chose the pods versus the open areas in order to get a sense of what our actual capacity for the space might be while ensuring good sightlines. We capped the event at 175 people, but now figure we can get up to about 250 and still ensure appropriate spacing and flexibility in seating location.

Our local mask ordinance requires that if you are anywhere outside your home within six feet of a person with whom you do not live, you must wear a mask. The example given is if you are waiting at a crosswalk alone, you don’t have to wear a mask, but if someone arrives to wait with you, you need to be wearing one.

Since people were coming with picnic set-ups or could grab food from partner restaurants and didn’t have to wear a mask while eating, our policy was you could only sit with people in your household and could remove your mask while seated in your pod with them. Since moving to and from that space requires becoming closer to others, you needed to wear a mask as you moved about everywhere else. By and large everyone heeded the rule and those that didn’t we firmly prodded to comply.

One bit of fortunate timing was about three weeks ago the local government expanded permission to have open containers on downtown streets from First Friday only to every night between 4 pm-10 pm to allow bar patrons to use sidewalk tables restaurants and the downtown association had deployed. This allowed us to serve alcohol out of our own bar which helped improve the financial situation of the event.

Overall, it was regarded as a success and we are planning to run at least one more before it gets too cool this Fall. Stay tuned.

Culture Track Report Says The Same People Won’t Be Returning

You may have seen the news today that the results of the Culture Track Covid-19 report were publicly released today. While some of the data about audience willingness to return to arts and culture organizations is a little dated due to the survey being conducted at the end of April through May 19, the majority of the findings can be very valuable to arts and cultural organizations.

They had only expected about 50,000 people to participate but had over 124,000 respondents to the survey. Participants ranged from knitting groups and walking clubs to organizations you might typically associate with arts and culture activities. Back on June 17, Advisory Board for the Arts hosted a webinar where staff from Slover Linnet and LaPlaca Cohen gave an early preview of the results to organizations that had participated in the study. If you want a deeper view of the results, you can watch the webinar.

The infographic layout of the report that came out today does a good job presenting the data, but there is one thing I don’t think they made clear enough which may cause people to question the results. Especially since the methodology is explained in a separate document rather than included as an appendix to the Key Finding report.

Since so many of the respondents were people on the mailing lists of arts and culture organizations around the country, you would correctly assume that it might skew the data. The Culture Track folks worked with another organization to distribute the survey a representative sample of the US population. The results you see in the key findings report are weighted to be representative of the US population.

The webinar presents both the core subscriber/ticket buyer response percentages and weighted percentages.  While the core supporters are much more likely to say the arts are important and worthy of preservation than the general population, they also more likely to expect organizations to implement strict health and safety protocols upon re-opening.

A couple of the bigger takeaways for me:

• People said they were feeling lonely, bored and disconnected and one of the things they missed most was sharing experiences with family and friends. In the webinar, the presenters suggested if there were a way for arts organizations to digitally allow people to share experiences, it would potentially serve a large need.

• Something to keep in mind is that people may want a much more interactive experience in the future. 81% of respondents said they were doing something creative while quarantined. Cooking, singing, handcrafting (knitting, painting, pottery, woodwork, etc), photography and writing were among the top responses.

• Many people were engaging in digital cultural experiences in the 30 days prior to taking the survey. In the webinar, the speakers noted that the demographics of people participating digitally was more diverse in terms of education, gender, race/ethnicity than those attending in person. They suggested that digital content might be a way to attract more diverse groups to in person experiences over the long term. (Obviously online content needs to align with an in-person experience–including how welcome one feels.)  There are also some who appreciated digital content as a solution to concerns about affordability, transportation and schedule.

• Unfortunately few people reported paying for digital content. In the webinar, they said 2% of people reported they paid for digital content, but in the Key Findings report that came out today, it says 13% have paid for content. It made me wonder if they received additional or corrected data since June 17. Most of the other numbers I was using to cross reference the webinar and Key Findings report remained the same.

• In general, what people crave the most upon an anticipated return to in-person experiences is ability to enjoy oneself/de-stress in the company of family and friends.

Obviously, a lot of nuance and detail not included here so take a look at the report and/or webinar. Overall the the title of this post reflects the reality of the next normal. Those that physically engage in-person won’t be the same as before in both the literal sense demographically and metaphoric “no one can enter the same river twice” sense. The faces may be familiar, but they will have different expectations.

 

 

When The Docent Is Just As Storied As The Artifact

Back in November 2018, I wrote about how the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology was hiring refugees from Middle Eastern countries to act as docents for galleries of that region. Last week, NPR ran a story on the program which has expanded to include docents from Africa and Mexico & Central American to guide people through those collections .

The program has proven popular with visitors and peer institutions,

Attendance at the Penn Museum has shot up since the Global Guides’ first tours in 2018. A third of its visitors today attend specifically to take a tour with a Global Guide, according to the institution’s internal research, and the program has attracted attention throughout the museum world. Nearly a dozen other museums have asked about developing similar programs, and there’s already one in place at the Pitt Rivers Museum at the University of Oxford in England.

Something that struck me as valuable to any arts & cultural organization, whether it is a museum or not, was the training these docent received:

The guides received traditional training in archaeology and ancient history. Plus, the museum hired professional storytellers to help the Global Guides lace in personal tales about their lives.

In the quest to make what we do feel more relevant to people in our communities, storytelling is an increasingly valuable skill. I have come to recognize in recent years that while we all have stories which have a powerful resonance for ourselves and others, not everyone is particularly skilled in telling stories. Making storytellers part of staff, volunteer and particularly board training can have some productive results.

Related to that, reading about the museum hiring professional storytellers reminded me of a post I did in 2011 about how the North Carolina Arts Council used folklorists to survey the residents of a county in which they wanted to set up an arts council.

This apparently yielded better results than having a surveying firm canvas the county because the folklorists were able to identify and access niche communities that might normally be missed–especially among those who don’t consider themselves to be artists. So on the flip side, people who are adept at collecting stories may be valuable to surveying efforts.

Folklorists, as it happens, are some of the best trained interviewers out there. They also have a particular advantage when it comes to arts research: folklorists are trained to seek out and recognize creativity in all forms, especially that which comes from people who don’t consider themselves “artists.”

 

 

P.S. Once again, I have missed my blog’s birthday. It was 16 years old yesterday. At least this time I remembered before Drew McManus wished it a Happy Birthday first. Not that this assuaged the blog’s resentment at having its birthday forgotten once again. You know how it is with teenagers

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.

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