Sometimes You’re The Wind, Sometimes You’re The Weathervane

Seth Godin made an interesting post that intersects somewhat with the questions arts organizations are having about putting content on digital platforms. Alas, I don’t know that it provides any of the answers being sought but he makes a crucial point about not confusing distribution capacity with influence and power.

He start with the following statement:

To be powerful, a medium needs two things:
The ability to reach people who take action
The ability for someone in charge to change what those people see and hear and do

Then he provides a number of examples which illustrate that impressive statistics about the extent of reach can be essentially meaningless. This is something to keep in mind when people cite number of impressions for websites, broadcast or print media outlets. But on the other hand, he notes that sometimes the people with control are exerting it haphazardly without any sense of how to focus it effectively:

People in the music business are flummoxed by the number of new acts that are showing up out of nowhere and becoming hits on TikTok. They’re talking about how powerful this company is.

But it’s not. It’s simply reporting on what people are doing, not actively causing it.

The folks with the power are the anonymous engineers, tweaking algorithms without clear awareness of what the impact might be.

The last bit he writes puts me in mind of my ongoing discussion about how the criteria we use to measure the value of something is frequently irrelevant, but people will be convinced of it measure’s importance.

Google and Amazon used to invite authors to come speak, at the author’s expense. The implied promise was that they’re so powerful, access to their people was priceless. But the algorithm writers weren’t in the room. You ended up spending time with people who pretended they had influence, but were more like weatherpeople, not weather makers.


There are still cultural weather makers, but they might not be the people we think they are.

Certainly that last line applies to those of us who work in the arts and culture industry. Sometimes we are the weather makers and no one gives credit, but sometimes we think we are the weather makers and don’t recognize what is really moving the winds and tides.

Info You Can Use: Database of Performing Arts Venue Vax Policies

Drew McManus has started a database of the different policies performing arts venues around the country have enacted.  He started it last Friday and announced the 100th entry this morning. If you follow the links, you can see both the database and a form with which you can provide information about your venue or venues in your community.

I immediately passed it around to members of my consortium as soon as I saw it last Friday. Probably the biggest value it has is providing guidance and a bit of moral support for performing arts organizations around the country so that if they are getting push back from boards and higher ups, they can point to other entities around the country and in their region who are taking certain steps.

For the venue I run, most of the self-sponsored shows on our schedule are happening in the Spring so we were just starting to formulate the beginnings of a policy when groups renting from us over the next three months contacted us to tell us what measures they would like to take. In one case we were surprised by how rigorous one group’s standards were because were concerned their audience was the type to vocally push back. It turned out their policies were heavily driven by the insistence of the artists who were scheduled to perform.

It has been a week since they made an announcement about their policies and it doesn’t appear they have had more than a couple people requesting refunds. It has shown us that everyone’s input has something to contribute to policy creation and not to make broad assumptions about how audiences will react.

Take a look at the database and add your information as you can.


Resource: Performing Arts Org Vax Policy Database

Oh Jellyfish, Where Is Thy Sting?

Hat tip to Georgia Council for the Arts which posted a link to the Smithsonian article, Why Science Needs Art.  The article focuses largely on marine life, but the basic gist is that there is so much about science the general public doesn’t understand or have the equipment to experience that artistic execution is necessary to translate that into comprehensible terms.

One of the first examples given discusses how a student from the Maryland Institute College of Art working at the Smithsonian museum kept getting questions about how jellyfish sting.

She always got the same question from visitors, “how do jellyfish stings work?” She had the scientific answer for them but found it difficult to explain the microscopic stinging cells that fire like harpoons out of jelly tentacles without a clear visual.

That’s when a lightbulb went off in Payne’s mind. She could show visitors how jellyfish sting using art. Payne immediately got to work in the sculpture shop at her school, excited to bring the microscopic stinging cells into full view.

Payne built a 3D model of one of the stinging cells that line jelly tentacles—called a nematocyst—that visitors could touch and interact with. The model showed visitors a jelly’s stinging power and helped Payne explain how to take care of a jellyfish sting.

Later, a marine scientist discusses how she took up photography in order to capture animals in the natural habitat because they looked entirely different there than preserved in a museum.  And the merged scientific and artistic perspective have benefits toward greater application:

Her discoveries apply to fields beyond science, like technology. Right now, Osborn’s team is looking at how a spineless, free-swimming bristle worm called a Tomopteris moves to help the tech industry make better, lighter and more maneuverable robots.

But studying these and other midwater creatures takes a highly trained eye for discerning shapes. “I do illustrations, sketch and photograph the animal to understand its structure,” Osborn explained.

This ability to pay careful attention to patterns, shapes and spatial relationships helps scientists properly observe and discover—key pillars of the scientific process. It also helps them create clear visuals of the collected data. Graphs, figures and scientific illustrations are all more powerful when they have a touch of artistry.

Is Economic Impact Declining As Most Important Measure of Value?

As I go about arguing against using measures like economic impact and test scores for valuing the arts, I occasionally get push back from people who note that for better or for worse dollars and test score are quantifiable and compelling and therefore are what will matter most to policy makers, funders, and individual donors.

The thing is, we know that a lot of people value things that aren’t so easily measured but are deemed to be important. Scott Walters recently posted a reaction to a CNN story about the impact working from home has been having:

If your browser is blocking the image, it reads: “This obsession with “the economy” distorts the issue. Is working from home good for human beings? Is it good for the environment? Instead, we focus on latte consumption. Come on, @CNN, THINK ”

We know from research conducted by projects like Creating Connection that people view participation in arts events has having positive associations with interpersonal relationships, physical and mental health, social good, self-improvement along with other benefits.

With so much in the news about people rethinking their relationship with work and its place in their lives and stories of athletes asserting boundaries about the activities in which they are willing to participate, this is a time when people are recognizing that customary process and values may no longer be relevant. Or perhaps it is better said that people are questioning whether they continue subsuming their existing values of health and well-being to economic opportunity and test scores.

In this there is an opportunity to work on reframing the terms in which the arts are valued so that they resonate in empathy with the introspection and questioning about values and norms which is occurring.

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