My Arms Are Too Short

Lots and lots of great conversation going on over at Artsjournal.com’s A Better Case For The Arts. It is somewhat heartening to see that so many people agree that the attitude arts professionals have about what they do has to change as does the approach to attracting and retaining audiences in this day and age. (The disheartening thing of course is that no one has the answer.)

It is tough to comment on the breadth of the discussion at this point, but since part of it had some significance to the experience of the last couple days I have had, I wanted to cite them. (They are also among the more interesting discussion and commentary) One of the post and accompanying commentary is titled The Public View. The other came under the heading The Enemy?.

The latter was very interesting because it pointed out in the changing political landscape that seems the harbinger of a culture war, people who have not been exposed to the arts may no longer be uninformed with the potential to be an attendee once introduced to it, but instead may be pre-disposed to be hostile to the arts.

A sobering thought, but still, education and exposure is the best solution for a great many of the world’s ills. (Though some will point out there are plenty of people out there ready to spin your education to reinforce what you already believe.) The Public View promotes this idea of education and exposure. Writes Jim Kelly:

I don’t believe the “case for the arts” can be made to the general public. Our duty to the public is not to explain to them why they should enjoy the arts, not to tell them the many ways it will improve them as individuals. Our duty is to involve them in the arts on some level in the belief that they too will experience the benefits of the arts first-hand and will become new advocates for the cause. In other words, we have stop talking about the arts and start doing art.

We have limited public dollars at our disposal, but we’re constantly asked to support another study, plan, reseach project, etc. Instead, my agency made a conscious decision to support art projects that increase audiences exposure to and participation in the arts. Most of us agree that you will never appreciate the intrinsic value of the arts if you’ve never experienced the arts. So let’s dedicate ourselves to increasing people’s exposure to the arts in all their permutations.

There were some great comments to this entry, but the one I liked best came from Jane Deschner:

Yes, you’re exactly right. I find people are often “afraid” of their own creativity and imagination. If they can become engaged in some way (whether by performance in a furniture store, embellished fiberglass animals on the street, musical performance in a hospital lobby) in a quality experience, they may develop an interest and gain the confidence to participate. But it has to have substance, be good. Who said art has to be on in a theater or museum or concert hall?

The bit about people being afraid of their own creativity really rings so true in my experience.

So how does this all connect with the events of my last few days?
Well, I have been trying to set up outreach programs for a performance group coming in during the next few weeks. Problem is, they arrive right in the middle of most of the local school’s Spring Break! Eek!

I did find a couple school who were in session and offered the opportunity to them. A few turned me down, but another couple never returned my multiple calls. The unreturned calls were surprising because these were schools that actually had well funded arts programs and would have been able to pay (and often had for similiar groups) for the program I was bringing in even though I was offering it for free.

Just today, I discovered all of my plans for outreach programs to the at risk schools with few or no arts classes are sort of falling apart. Because I schedule with the state booking consortium, the tight travel and performing itinerary leaves one group with no time to do a lecture/demo outreach and the another with only a Sunday afternoon. A third group wants as much for a one hour lecture/demo as for a performance (about $10,000) so that is pretty much out. Though, hey, if you can get that sorta money, more power to ya!

This is rather distressing since I actually wrote letters of intent at the request of some agents so that a funding group that supports outreach to my type of community would provide money to support their touring. Now granted, this is all a year away, things change and I am looking to do some out of the box thinking to put together a program to make this happen. (Perhaps go to churches that serve this sort of community?)

I am also starting a conversation with local arts groups who haven’t really thought about organizing enough to do joint performances about doing some and perhaps hooking up an outreach on there too.

Though I will probably be able to bring rewarding experience to local populations in the end, it is rather frustrating to be having such a hard time bringing free programs to my community. There is no real financial reward to it. The grant monies it will yield for me are pretty negilible and hardly cover the additional fees I am paying for the outreach (not to mention the extra day of lodging). I would get more work done in the day if I wasn’t trying to make all these arrangements.

But damned if I don’t believe it will actually have a beneficial impact on a fair number of the lives I am trying to serve. I am not quite sure if it will bring audiences in to theatre, gallery and museum doors. But I do think at some point in their lives, the people who see the programs will stop and contemplate truth and beauty in their lives, if only secretly, if only for a few minutes.

More Blogging for Tickets

Slight Sidebar before I start-Check out the Discussion over at Artsjournal.com on making a better case for the arts. An interesting collection of folks you don’t normally see writing there.

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So my entries about Impact Theatre’s offer of free tickets to people who would blog on their shows has gotten some notice.

Elisa over at Worker Bees Blog tried to add a comment to my blog only to find she was denied. Then I found out I too was prevented from commenting despite having the option left open. It was only after removing the banned IP addresses from my blog that I could post. My apologies to those who have tried to comment. (Of course, now I will get a lot of Texas Hold Em poker ads in my comments I am sure.)

Anyhow, Elisa posted her thoughts on the matter on her blog. I can pretty much see her point on most of her comments. The only thing I don’t entirely agree with is her first one — partially because if I understand it correctly, she is paid to blog for other theatres. Granted, she is in the minority of bloggers since most are not paid and most of what she writes is promotional rather than critical reviews/critiques.

The other thing is that I would imagine there are plenty of bloggers out there who are willing to become unpaid shills for something they believed in. Just read a handful of political blogs. Very few of them practice thoughtful reflection about issues and happily repeat what they heard someone else say. (Though there are a great number of those I don’t agree with who do string together very intelligent thoughts) Just as there are patrons who will love your organization no matter what ill-conceived thing you toss together, there are going to be bloggers who will rose color everything you do.

Of course where Elisa is right is that you want someone who doesn’t subscribe to your agenda because their good opinions of you will only count if they are seen as credible and discerning. Then again, just as people gravitate toward critics with whom they agree, bloggers would certainly gain the same following so there is a place for the you-can-do-no-wrongers.

I think the rules the theatre is setting up regarding number of words and readership is simply a good indication of who new technologies are always envisioned in the context of what we know. Like the houses of tomorrow or projections of the future that simply add a futuristic patina to our present lives.

Since we are used to getting press packs from print and broadcast media that celebrate the reach, exposure, market penetration, etc that we will get for our buck, that is how we look to measure success. It is easy to forget that with this new medium, the rules, expectations and measures of success may be changing. It is well known that word of mouth is much more powerful than paid advertising. Therefore, it probably isn’t a matter of how many people read a blog as how many of those who do read a blog link to/cite the entry themselves and are read/cited in turn thereby increase your exposure.

And yeah, good luck trying to quantify that (though I am sure Google will come up with a way.) Of course, if you are doing live performances, the ultimate measure of success is pretty much the same–how many butts are in the seats.

You Can Bring a Blogger to the Show, But You Can’t Make ‘Em Write

Back in the beginning of February among the theatre type blogs I listed in an entry was one to the Impact Theatre web page where they were offering free tickets to people who would see a show and blog for them.

As promised, I sent an email off to them yesterday to see how successful it was for them. I got a letter back from their graphics person, Cheshire Dave, who has given me permission to excerpt the email here. Apparently, as much as people seem to want to regale the blogosphere with the inane details of their lives, no one wants to write about theatre–even with a direct appeal.

Quoth Cheshire:

I am depressed to announce that yours is the very first email I’ve gotten from that link in the six months or so that it’s been up. No joke; no exaggeration. By and large, this initiative has been a spectacular failure. Except for one case, no blogger has taken me up on it, even ones I solicited directly (some of them didn’t even get back to me, and I emailed several times). The sole exception has been SFist (http://www.sfist.com), and that’s a site that I write for (I’m not the one doing the reviews). But the point of SFist is to fill a need for a regional blog, so it’s not like an individual’s blog in that regard. So really, my plan has been totally unsuccessful.

It kills me that I can’t find even one blogger who wants free tickets to theater that he or she would probably really enjoy. With bloggers more or less looked down upon by a great portion of the print establishment and not known about by even more people, it seems to me that what bloggers want is legitimacy. But when offered to them on a silver platter, they can’t be bothered. It’s really disappointing.

I did go to sfist.com and typed “Impact” into the search field to see what sorta stuff was going up. There were some nice articles for their productions with the sort of disclaimers about being involved with Impact Theatre that you would hope people being paid to promote governmental initiatives would make. Its a practice to which all uncredentialed journalist types should aspire. (I try to keep the blog generally apolitical, but sometimes, the opportunity to comment is just there.)

I sent him a couple links to some of my “bloggers as the next reviewers” entries (here, here, and here) in my inquiry email. He noted though that “One thing I didn’t see in your entry about bloggers as reviewers that is a benefit to the arts organization is the opportunity for almost-instant response on the blog.”

I thought I had said that somewhere already, but it certainly bears repeating. As he noted, his theatre gets most of its review driven audiences from the free weekly paper so by the time the review appears, the show is in to its second week. With the daily papers, you are sort of at the whims of the editors. A Sunday or Friday review is great–but god help you if it appears in Monday’s paper as it is the least read of any day.

Since bloggers are typically very quick to report their impressions, finding a good one with a dedicated readership can potentially be worth his/her weight in gold–so a couple free tickets to a show ain’t nothin’ But as I noted a couple days ago, I think blogging still has to have some time to mature as a information media. Once it does, I bet you see individuals with sites like sfist.com that appear well run and probably have a dedicated group of visitors.

Until then though, I encourage everyone to be like Impact and pioneer the way.

Inservice for Teachers

As promised, I am going to tackle the idea of arts groups doing inservice days for teachers. I could have sworn I wrote on this topic before, but a search of the site using different terminology says no.

The idea is pretty simple really. Arts organizations should leverage their expertise and create inservice day programs for teachers. Every so many days a year, teachers usually have days where they have to go to work and the students don’t. Usually there are sessions about how they can sharpen their teaching skills.

One place I worked, in cooperation with the local school districts, helped bring artists and teachers together to teach them new skills and activities for their students. The teachers loved it because instead of trying to learn from handouts, they were engaged in practical activities squishing clay between their fingers and doing other fun stuff.

Usually high school visual art teachers have a degree or a number of classes in their field so they know what they are doing to some extent. High School drama teachers on the other hand tend to be English or History teachers who are drafted into running the drama club so they need a lot of help! (I think this practice diminished the value of the arts in schools because it perpetuates the idea that anyone can fake their way through the creation of art. Of course, the lackluster results just convince people there isn’t much worth to it.)

Anyway, these poor part time drama teachers can always use a quick basic class in lighting design theory, use of a light/sound board, costuming, acting exercises, cheap, but impressive looking set construction techniques, etc.

It is stuff like that I hope to offer teachers under the next phase of the strategic plan. Of course, I will also be looking to have the sessions resonate with the Dept of Ed. Fine Arts Curriculum.

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