Thursday, February 19, 2015

When the Reviewer Unconsciously Mirrors the Art...and Misses the Point

We went to see Rasheeda Speaking because I love The New Group. The company has never failed me. 

Seeing The New Group production of Hurlyburly in 2005 (with the banging-good cast of Bobby Cannavale, Josh Hamilton, Ethan Hawke, Catherine Kellner, Parker Posey, Wallace Shawn, and Halley Wegryn Gross) in 2005 remains one of the most memorable theatre experiences of my lifetime. 

Getting a last minute ticket to the completely-sold-out show by standing at the doorway and asking people to sell me one of theirs actually worked. And I am pretty sure I bought my ticket—at face value—from, and sat with, Ellen Barkin.

So, when we decided to travel to NY in Feb, I checked to see what The New Group had going.The casting and director and synopsis for Rasheeda Speaking looked promising. 

Cynthia Nixon directs this tense workplace thriller by Joel Drake Johnson, examining the realities of so-called “post-racial” America. Dianne Wiest and Tonya Pinkins star as co-workers who are driven apart by the machinations of their boss. A chilling power struggle ensues that spins wildly out of control. Rasheeda Speaking is an incisive and shocking dark comedy that keeps you in its claustrophobic grip until its final moment. Also featuring Patricia Conolly and Darren Goldstein.

We were headed to NYC while the show was still in previews, so we had no reviews to consider.

No matter. A completely gripping 100 minutes left me in tears and audience members on their feet.

The play made me ache with pain for most of the characters. (The icky subtly-racist doctor...not so much.)

This felt like a pretty genuine tale of subtle racism, unconscious racism, tentative friendship (or friendliness anyway) between races gone awry, and even blatant racism—albeit perhaps with some dementia.

Seeing the show caused me to consider again my own experiences, through a new lens. There's lots of privileged behavior and attitudes in my gentrifying neighborhood these days. And a lot of anger too. So we spend hours every month talking about how to have a conversation about issues that I'd long considered beyond talk. (Mostly because people won't talk about it, not because we don't need to do so.)

This seemed a perfect play to encourage even those of us who believe we are mostly beyond all that (and wish everyone else would just catch up) to remember that we are all racists. That it's impossible really not to be so.

The experience is not going to appeal to everyone, for sure. But this was an audience of people who came—on purpose—to see a play about racism in the workplace. Many would reject the idea as too hard, not fun, old hat even. For those of us who are open to considering how very vigilant we have to be about our own privilege and anger, it's an elegant starting point for a real conversation about race.

I've never wished more for a talkback session at the end of a play. The New Group is hosting several, just not on the day we were there. I wanted so much to hear what other members of the diverse audience thought of it. Did the black audience members react at all as I did? Was it as real for them? What did the actors feel about their character and her actions? 

I told my friends in NY to buy tickets before word got out about this terrific show, before the reviews.


It was a shock then to read the NYTimes review of Rasheeda Speaking a few days later. 

Charles Isherwood likes the acting, and the dialogue. But he thinks that it's just not very real. And that perhaps the playwright is trying too hard to be provocative about race. 

He writes this:
But the characters’ behavior is often so erratic, and occasionally incredible, that you begin to suspect the playwright is more interested in stirring troubling thoughts about racism than in truthfully exploring a complicated subject.  
And this: 
During a later visit, Jaclyn apologizes to Rose for her unwelcoming behavior. Rose accepts the apology and offers a preposterous response. “My son thinks it’s in your culture to act the way you did,” she says. “Something about your way to get revenge for slavery.” While it is conceivable that an older Chicagoan might have such thoughts (or a son who does), we can conclude from Rose’s voicing them only that she’s a nitwit, and, yes, a racist.
And this: 
The fine acting cannot always paper over the implausibility. 
And finally this:
There is certainly something provocative in Mr. Johnson’s desire to infuse a social-issue play with the dynamics of a psychological thriller, as he attempts here, but with a subject as sensitive as the issue of race in America, a more probing and less sensational approach is not just advisable, but necessary.
This review shocked me. Isherwood is a white man. I don't know him. But his review certainly reads like that of someone who saw the show through privileged lenses. It reminded me of hearing white, well-off neighbors say that they don't judge anyone by race, and don't expect to be judged that way by others. Easy for you to say.

There are currently 22 comments on the review. Roughly half of the commenters seem to have had a reaction similar to mine, and most of these are now voted up as readers picks.

There's this:
See, this is the problem when the roster of theatre critics is so overwhelming white. Someone writes something like this: "Rose accepts the apology and offers a preposterous response. “My son thinks it’s in your culture to act the way you did,” she says. “Something about your way to get revenge for slavery.” If Charles Isherwood were black, he wouldn't feel that that response was preposterous. I've heard it several days in my life. He is utterly unqualified to make a preemptive determination that white people don't say preposterous things, like ...your way to get revenge for slavery.
Walk in my shoes, Charles. Walk in my shoes.
 Godfrey Simmons

And this:

Mr. Isherwood should listen to my 73 year old friend describe taking the Metro North to CT with her daughter to spend last Christmas Eve with her son and his family. Only two empty seats, both commandeered by women, one white, one Asian, for their packages. Both refused to clear off the seats for my African American friends until a conductor came along and ordered them to do so. 
The seeming banality of racism experienced every day. Ms. Pinkins said in a recent NYT interview that she experiences it every day of her life. Her partner, a white former cop, doesn't believe her. Or at least he didn't: he should see this remarkable play, acted beautifully.
It is the stuff of psychological thrillers, Mr. Isherwood, as real life can be if we're paying attention. 

And finally, satisfyingly, this:  
While Mr. Isherwood saw the play, I'm not sure he sees the world. Or, rather, he sees a white man's world. I saw the play recently. Immediately after, I overheard a group of black women in the lobby talking passionately about how accurately the playwright captures the experience of black women in professional situations. And Mr. Isherwood's surprise at a woman of Ms. Saunders age making the statement she did about slavery demonstrates a white man's blindness to the real experiences of black people in America. Mr. Isherwood's review unwittingly proves the point, importance and truth of Mr. Johnson's play.
William Hight 

In the end, I'm left with disturbing questions. If reviewers of engaging art about race can't see or hear the point, if they see a play about honest racial tension and misunderstanding and privilege and anger as somehow exaggerated and implausible....then what? Should this play be reviewed by a person of color? (For the record, I am not that.)

I'd like to see this play produced all over the country.

It's engaging and thriller-like, and disturbing and thought-provoking. I mean: it's memorable. It makes you love theatre. It makes you want to talk with strangers in the audience. It stays with you. It's painful, but it still makes you feel happy because it's so good.

And it's about something we all need to consider. I'd like for this play to start new conversations in communities. Could a so-so, even dismissive, Times review prevent that from happening? 

This post is my small way of putting a pebble on the other side of the scale. Writing about race, or even about any play in this way, is a big departure for me. But Rasheeda Speaking at The New Group moved me to do it.

Images from Rasheeda Speaking: Tonya Pinkins and Dianne Wiest | Photos: Monique Carboni | Via NYPost and NYMagazine

Tuesday, December 30, 2014

What I Loved in 2014

This is a post in images and video of some of my most memorable experiences of 2014. I've limited this post to things that happened in Cincinnati (or nearby), which means I'm skipping some amazing stuff in other places. And of course, I don't get to everything—there's terrific stuff I don't see... 'cause out of town, or can't be two places at once, etc. Plus it's highly likely I've forgotten a few.

In no particular order....these are some memorable moments from 2014. 

Music Now

I wrote a whole blog post about this's another event putting Cincinnati on the map with artists and music lovers. Another example of leading edge work from the Cincinnati Symphony team. Get your tix now for 2015.

Love Signs

These hand-painted signs appeared all around Over-the-Rhine on Valentine's Day. We hear that the School for Creative and Perfomring Arts made it happen.

Memory Quilt for Contemporary Arts Center 75 by Pam Kravetz and Friends

Plus the PamTV series that accompanied the quilt reveal. Accessible and hilarious Intro to Art.

Bockfest Parade

Cincinnati's diverse and eclectic creativity shown off in a parade that everyone is welcome to join through a matchless neighborhood of 19th century architecture. What's better than a silly parade to celebrate spring, beer, and Over-the-Rhine? Well, maybe a crazy 4th of July parade in Northside...but I didn't get to go this year.

Photo: Travis Estell

Rosemary Waller's *Favorite Violinists* Lecture 

Her measure? "Goosebump Moments"


The whole event was tremendous - from the ArtHub in Washington Park with real people FotoGrams featured 24 hours a day, to the temporary galleries around Over-the-Rhine, and the Civil War photography talk at Memorial Hall. This event is putting feet on the street, making photography in museums and galleries very accessible, and spreading the reputation of our city worldwide.

High Art-Diner en Couleur en Plein Air with Nearby
...Pam Kravetz and Friends on top of the Weston Art Gallery on Walnut

A surprise people-powered installation in which we were invited to show up in head-to-toe color to create a temporary work of art for people viewing our installation from the Carew Tower Observation Deck. We also surprised the guests staying at 21C who took photos and danced with us through their room windows. They probably thought this was part of the hotel's art offerings. To access the rooftop, we had to do some climbing, but we brought a picnic for sustenance. The highlight of my arts experiences in 2014. More of this please!

Photo: Suzanne Waller

Sean Mullaney - Beautiful Deception FotoFocus at Clifton Cultural Art Center 

Hauntingly joyous.

Followed immediately by another event I am not allowed to describe or discuss, but this is it.

Justin West and Sam Ferris Morris - Radiate

These brilliant young people made it simple and irresistible for anyone to experience making music, the magic of creating together.  And Radiate travels around the city. NEW.


#PastedPig Art Markers for the Flying Pig Marathon with Pam Kravetz and friends

Thirteen artists created Flying Pig artwork which we wheat-pasted all along the route for runners and visitors. This was way more work than we expected—and super joyous fun.

Cincinnati Fringe Festival

My first year with a full frontal pass—which just means I can go to everything in the Festival, so day after day of theatre-plus. This is another event that puts Cincinnati on the map with artists and theatre-types all over the world, and introduced many to Over-the-Rhine long before it became the craziness it is today. 2014 was Eric Vosmeier's last year as producer, so here's hoping the quality and artist-focused nature of the event stays the same in 2015 and beyond.

Art of Food - The Carnegie 

Yet another Pam Kravetz production - and one that NO ONE SHOULD MISS. Opening night is always over-the-top with Pam and her friends in costume creating a visual spectacle—a wonderland, indeed.


Parking Day on Main Street

In which people and art take over parking spots. So much more fun than looking at cars.

Pones on Fountain Square - Serendipitous Dancing

Pones Inc often provides memorable moments—but this was standout. In the midst of an interactive performance on Fountain Square, the Pones dancers were joined by these guys. What happened next....was extremely *happy*.


Kitchen Brigade Performance Art

How else do you move the kitchen items across the street? Impossible to produce without playful friends.

Magnolia Street Serendipitous Chalk Art

What do YOU do with your leftover chalk?

PlayCincy's Light Brute at NearBy's Lightgeist


...Over-the-Rhine, Northside, and Walnut Hills—a feature of Cincy Summer Streets, Cincinnati Food Truck Festival, and Second Sunday on Main. Crosswalk art that's community-inspired and painted in a day.

Second Sunday on Main 

Every year there is more art and artists and interactive art and music at this neighborhood festival— it just gets better and better.

Yeti Streetart

Spotting and collecting Yeti streetart is a game for some of his fans. I'm one of 'em.

Cincinnati Preservation Collective's Pop-Up at The Tailor Shop

The Opening of Dick Waller's Art Place


Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Aesthetic Warfare and Fantasia 2089

Walt Disney started work on what became the film Fantasia in the late 1930s - about 75 years ago. Seeing parts of it performed with live orchestra, the Cincinnati Pops - ‘our own’, as Conductor John Morris Russell likes to say - was a revelation.

Listening to the live music, while watching excerpts from the animated film released in 1940, it was impossible not to be wowed by Disney’s audacity and inventiveness with what he described as an “experiment.”

Now, I can’t stop wondering: What will seem as game-changing, exceptional, innovative, and entrepreneurial in the field of arts engagement 75 years from now?

A little research reveals that Disney was doing a bunch of new things with this film, but importantly he was seeking to build audience - to bridge the gap between audiences who had been coming to see his animated Mickey Mouse shorts with those who knew classical music and regularly went to hear
orchestras play live.
..."Fantasia" wasn't intended to appeal to the "highbrow" audience. Disney was a man of limited education and unsophisticated tastes: He hoped "Fantasia" would bridge the gap between the large, general audiences that had flocked to "Snow White" and the limited world of fine music. In one story meeting, he said, "This film is going to open this kind of music to a lot of people like myself who've walked out on this kind of stuff."
"He became excited about classical music and felt that putting his animation to it would make it appeal to an audience that wasn't into this kind of music," says [animator Ollie] Johnston. "And I think it did. It certainly opened up classical music to a lot of the young guys at the studio.

In the program for the world-premiere of the film, Disney wrote:
“In a profession that has been an unending voyage of discovery in the realms of color, sound, and motion, Fantasia represents our most exciting adventure. At last we have found a way to use in our medium the great music of all times and the flood of new ideas which it inspires.”
But, reviews were mixed. This sort of critique, revived in the LA Times article, sounds familiar to anyone who has tried to push the envelope on a traditional fine art form: '". . . To have the Pastoral Symphony interrupted by applause for sugar-sweet centaurettes is painful," said Franz Hoellering in The Nation.’
In Fantasia the paintings on the canvas of Walt Disney's and his staff's imagination did not help but most of the time disturbed my appreciation of the music they tried to make me "see." One of two reasons, or both of them, may be chiefly responsible: either these imaginations did not live up to Bach and Beethoven and Schubert, or the whole idea of adding pictures to music composed to be appreciated best with the eyes closed is fundamentally wrong.

Still, there was plenty of love for the film in the overnight reviews too.

The New York Times film review by Bosley Crowther is marveling, while anticipating the storm to follow.
For the vital report this morning is that Mr. Disney and his troop of little men, together with Leopold Stokowski and the Philadelphia Orchestra and a corps of sound engineers, have fashioned with music and colors and animated figures on a screen a creation so thoroughly delightful and exciting in its novelty that one's senses are captivated by it, one's imagination is deliciously inspired. In the same fresh, light-hearted spirit which has marked all their previous cartoons Mr. Disney and the boys have gone aromping in somewhat more esoteric fields; they have taken eight symphonic numbers which are generally reserved for the concert halls, let Mr. Stokowski's band record them on multiple sound tracks, and have then given them visual accompaniments of vast and spellbinding range. In brief, they have merged high-toned music with Disney's fantastic imagery. 
What the music experts and the art critics will think of it we don't know. Olin Downes is making the official observation for his department in an adjoining column. Probably there will be much controversy, and maybe some long hair will be pulled. Artistic innovations never breed content. But for this corner's money—and, we reckon, for the money of any one who takes it in the blithe and wondrous spirit in which it is offered—"Fantasia" is enchanting entertainment. This is one time, we warrant, you won't want to listen to music with your eyes shut.
At the risk of being utterly obvious and just a bit stodgy, perhaps, let us begin by noting that motion-picture history was made at the Broadway Theatre last night with the spectacular world première of Walt Disney's long-awaited "Fantasia." Let us agree, as did almost every one present on the occasion, that the sly and whimsical papa of Mickey Mouse, Snow White, Pinocchio and a host of other cartoon darlings has this time come forth with something which really dumps conventional formulas overboard and boldly reveals the scope of films for imaginative excursion. Let us temperately admit that "Fantasia" is simply terrific—as terrific as anything that has ever happened on a screen. And then let's get on from there.

And there was an insider’s debate, it seems, with the unhappiness mostly on the side of music team purists, while the dance and film crowds cheered Disney and his experiment.

Like this....John Martin, dance critic for the New York Times, writing about the “aesthetic warfare set in motion by Disney’s Fantasia” noted that Disney does not treat the music as “sacrosanct. Disney’s art is that of the cartoonist and in it there is no such thing as homage for sacred cows.”

All hail the experimenters with no credentials in the “fine arts” who create "aesthetic warfare" - wow, I love that.

On the fiftieth anniversary of the film, the LA Times noted: ‘mass audiences have been introduced to the pleasures of classical music through "Fantasia," but they were the children and grandchildren of the viewers Disney hoped to reach in 1940. By the time the film found its audience, it was too late for the man who had conceived it.’

In 2014, the film’s impact is undeniable. The concert filled our enormous Music Hall with people of all ages, as noted by conductor John Morris Russell (JMR) when he asked the “young people” to cheer and welcomed them.

At the Cincinnati Pops, JMR told us that the film
  • introduced stereo sound to filmgoers
  • pushed animation features forward
  • featured music by the Philadelphia Orchestra, conducted by Stokowski, who had been music director of the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra until 1912
Disney went all out on this film - creating new technology to make the audience feel as if the orchestra was live, hiring 1000 artists and technicians to move the needle on animation, bringing in ballet dancers so artists could study their movement, insisting on special equipment in theatres, and presenting a limited release that required people to reserve seats for the movies.

Disney’s investment in getting the sound right was unprecedented and included seven weeks of recording the orchestra in their Philadelphia home, the Academy of Music because of it’s extraordinary acoustics. Imagine that - investing in seven weeks of recording with an orchestra of over 100 players!
In the recording sessions, thirty-three microphones were placed around the orchestra that captured the music onto eight optical sound recording machines placed in the hall's basement. Each one represented an audio channel that focused on a different section of instruments: cellos and basses, violins, brass, violas, and woodwinds and tympani. The seventh channel was a combination of the first six while the eighth provided an overall sound of the orchestra at a distance. A ninth was later added to provide a click track function for the animators to time their drawings to the music. In the forty-two days of recording 483,000 feet of film was used.
And he insisted on the creation of new technology from RCA to "create the illusion that the actual symphony orchestra is playing in the theater", new equipment from Hewlett-Packard, and development of the panning technique with a “pan-pot” to create the sense that sound was moving across speakers. In the end, 20 percent of the cost of the film was in getting the sound the way he wanted it. Fantasound - precursor to surround sound - was born with Fantasia.

So now consider....what are we doing today to reach new audiences for classical music (and all the arts) that will be worthy of marveling over in 2089?

Sidenote, if you’ve ever had the joy of hearing music in The Emery Theatre of Cincinnati, you know how extraordinary the sound is there. Stokowski - while conductor of the CSO -  insisted that the developers pursue a space and sound like the Carnegie Hall in NYC, which is why the Emery is one the most extraordinary halls in the nation. (And why we have to save it soon - and the CSO should treat us to a series there every year, IMO.)

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

And Then What Happens? Measuring Arts Impact

"However beautiful the strategy, you should occasionally look at the results." - attributed to Winston Churchill

If we want broad support for the arts, we have to be able to answer the question everyone asks, or wants to ask - even if they don’t realize it: “And then what happens?”

Art as entertainment means selling tickets and memberships, or getting funding from donors who care a whole lot about your kind of art.

But, if we want everyone else to care about the music, museums, murals, performers, dance, theatre, and so on -- then we have to make it relevant to them, whether or not they are (or think they are) goers.

And that’s especially true if we want art to be considered a public good - worthy of revenue forgone (a tax credit or deduction) or taxation and fees dedicated to the arts.

How do we do that?

Our research finds that most people believe the arts create surprising ripple effects of benefits: creating vibrant places we all want to live, visit, work, and invest - places where people meet and get to know one another, in ways that other events can’t connect them.

And it turns out that people can see that if the neighborhoods in their community benefit in this way - it’s good for everyone who lives there, even people who don’t go to the arts themselves.

We need to start talking about the arts in ways that bring these benefits to life. Because while people believe the arts create these benefits, it’s not their natural way (their first way) of thinking about the arts. If we want these benefits to be front of mind, we have to frame our communication about the arts to make it so.

And it’s important that it really IS so.

Most of us who work in the arts, if we can get past the ‘art for art’s sake’ view of our world, already believe that the arts create vibrant places and bring people together. We see it happen all the time. Right? But, many personal experiences do not equal fundable data.

Now, how do we measure these social impacts of the arts?

In the past few weeks, I’ve had three experiences with social impacts of free arts events and observed a fourth that seems especially relevant.

Stories of Route 66 -- ID LIVE! Festival

Co-created painted chairs offered as prizes at ID LIVE!

In mid-July, I went to Albuquerque to provide some hands-on-help and observe a special festival event presented by a large collaborative arts initiative, Stories of Route 66.

Stories of Route 66 is located in a very diverse neighborhood of ABQ, the International District. It's had other -- more negative -- names (i.e., The War Zone), and Stories of Route 66 is designed to create change through the arts, to shift the way people view the neighborhood. The ID LIVE! festival celebrated some initiatives of the various partners with three days of events:

  • unveiling of corner gardens with permanent and temporary arts installations like sidewalk painting, transforming corners that are usually empty lots,
  • pop-up parties in empty lots and on closed streets, including one with a pop-up party toolkit in a truck created by the University of New Mexico students, and
  • performance arts and film created by a diverse group of residents who met for six months, making art together every week.

All of these events came together on a very limited budget and with the commitment of a strong group of organizers and volunteers. It was quite an impressive effort by a relatively small group of people who put in a lot of time. Still, this made dedicating energy and human resources to measuring outcomes challenging. (This is familiar, right?)

Pop Up Street Party

We wanted to know whether the special weekend of arts installations in various locations throughout the neighborhood would have any impact on how the residents and visitors perceive the neighborhood and their willingness or capacity to invest in a longer-term, future effort to create permanent art installations.

The team had already decided to use a passport to encourage people to come to the festival and to provide a sort of guide featuring some of the many events. This was especially important because the area is very large and there were great distances between event sites.

The team also planned to use the passport to gather information from attendees - providing  a way to contact them in the future for efforts to place art permanently, and to gauge any changes in perception about the neighborhood.

ID LIVE! Passport

Volunteers distributed some passports as invitational doorknockers in the neighborhood. At each of the passport activities volunteers were asked to offer passports, punch them for the current activity, and encourage people to attend other events.
As an incentive, passports could be turned in at the end of the festival and prizes would be randomly awarded to passport holders who attended at least three events. And if they completed an additional, short survey at that time - passport holders would be eligible for a grand prize of $100 cash.

We spent some time debating how many punches a passport holder had to have to be eligible for a prize. Since we really wanted the data (feedback about perceptions and contact information), we probably set the bar too high by requiring three hole punches.

Stamp Station at the Pop Up Street Party

It was an especially hot weekend and there’s very little shade in the neighborhood, so only the most committed people went to more than one event. The organizers created a terrific map, but it still required time and effort for people to visit more than one location, since no one could see the site of another event from any one location.

Chalk Art Created by Community

In the end, we got limited feedback. Since we didn’t have observers at every site, it’s hard to know exactly what the barriers to returning the passport might have been. The events were understaffed for focusing on the passport and it was no one’s top priority to be sure that attendees got a passport or understood how it could be used. And as noted above, the bar was very high for our goal of gathering information. Finally, passports were a sort of souvenir and some attendees seemed to really like them, objecting to the hole punches which obliterated the images related to the events. Perhaps they didn't return the passports because they wanted to save them. (That would be a good indicator - if we had a way to measure it!)
This experience gives us good information for, and more interest in, a follow-up evaluation design.

Museum Camp

Museum Campers on the steps of the MAH

Immediately after ID LIVE! in ABQ, I traveled to California for Museum Camp -- produced by the Santa Cruz Museum of Art and History with Fractured Atlas (aka the incomparable Nina Simon and Ian David Moss). The following description of the planned event is cribbed and edited from the museum website.

The 2014 Museum Camp at the Santa Cruz Museum of Art and History theme was social impact assessment. The goal was to develop creative ways to evaluate work designed to build and transform our communities. It brought together teams of diverse people from across many disciplines in shared learning and doing around research and social impact. The focus was on social impact in communities, and the organizers encouraged teams to look at complex outcomes–like safety, cohesion, compassion, and identity–that are not commonly covered in our standard evaluative practices.

Participants were assigned to teams of four (by the event organizers to ensure team diversity) and we selected social outcomes of interest that the organizers suggested we would like to measure. Each team had about 48 hours to determine an outcome of interest, identify an indicator of that outcome, develop a creative evaluation tool to measure it, perform the measurement, and analyze the results.

There were 100 creative people from diverse arts, social justice, and community development organizations who wanted to experiment and push their practice through an active, collaborative professional development experience. Registration was based on a competitive application process.

Every team was assigned a location or event to conduct their research. The whole camp played a white-elephant style game for the assignments. My team ended up with a Friday Night Free Beach concert. We struggled mightily to come up with a research question that we could all be passionate about, that also fit the location.

Our location was described this way: “Boardwalk - free Friday night concerts at 6:30 and 8:30, featuring heavy metal band Y&T” and we were told that it would fit well with a hypothesis about “live performance, free events, belonging”. A little research revealed that Y&T is a hair band that had some hits in the eighties.

Team Hair Band (High Five for Santa Cruz)

Nick Stillman-Arts Council of New Orleans
Alice Briggs-Ceredigion Museum
Diana Kapsner-Santa Cruz MAH
We were interested in whether a free concert increases a feeling of affinity, pride, or belonging to a place - and in particular, whether people who happen-upon the concert feel identity more strongly than people who come with intention. Does serendipitous art have a special social impact?

Our method for assessing was to invite people with a questioning “high five for Santa Cruz?” and we developed indicators to suggest people who came with intention, happened-upon the concert, or were completely unaware of the concert.

High Five for Santa Cruz?
We were tripped up by the private boardwalk security who didn’t want us on the boardwalk. So, dressed in our huge sandwich boards and divided into two teams of two people each, we took up spots on the beach in the midst of the concert footprint and on the other side of the arcade where visitors could not see or hear the concert.

We quickly realized that the spot on the beach was almost exclusively populated by people coming with intention. (There were WAY more people wearing Y&T t-shirts than we anticipated!)

And we realized two other things:

  • People LOVE the free concert series and they were REALLY happy to be there.
  • There’s a social expectation related to “high-fiving” ~ nearly everyone responded to our prompt to high five for Santa Cruz.

So we made an adjustment about a half hour into the experiment and started noting enthusiastic high fives as a separate category of response.

And for the last half hour, the beach team scouted the edges of the beach seating area for people who might happen upon the concert, since those descending the steps from the boardwalk were nearly all coming with intention.
Searching for Serendipity
Our findings? Looking at the numbers, our hypothesis was proven by the results. But the number of happen-upon responses was so small it’s hard to rely on the results. And we determined that it was difficult to pull apart the reasons participants would respond positively to our request to high-five for Santa Cruz.

Anecdotally, we noted the numerous people who verbally expressed a deep love for Santa Cruz and a feeling of pride in and identity with the city. Even non-residents and former residents took time (without prompting) to explain their connection to the place and their love for this long-standing concert series.

Museum Camp made me want to play ~~ that is, experiment ~~ much more with measuring social impact of the arts. Just get out there and try stuff.


My third experience is not quantitative at all. We weren't trying to measure the impact of the art at this event.

The morning after my late night return to Cincinnati (from ID-Live and Museum Camp), my non-profit arts group, Art on the Streets, produced its third ArtWalk  - a co-created mural in a crosswalk.

For ArtWalks, we seek community input as inspiration for artists who create the designs -- and then we chalk the crosswalk design and invite the public to paint the street.

The ArtWalk at Orchard and Main was painted at a community festival called Second Sunday on Main. Most people who painted found the art-making serendipitously.

Painting the Orchard Street ArtWalk

One father, watching his two children paint, said to them, “Do you know how lucky you are? Cincinnati is so amazing! You are so lucky to grow up here.”

As I told him, this is exactly the impact we hope to discover from art in public places. We dream, we fundraise, we create - we present the art or we make it together. And then what happens?

We’ll just have to keep trying to figure out how to measure our success.



LumenoCity photo by cincinnatirefined
The fourth event is one I observed purely through the lens of social media. LumenoCity happened in my home town of Cincinnati, but I was at Museum Camp at the time. It's a free illuminated concert, produced and performed by the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra in an outdoor venue with the light show playing on our iconic and historic Music Hall.

The first year of LumenoCity in 2013 proved wildly popular and generated world-wide recognition for an engagement event produced by a classical music organization when 35,000 people attended two nights of concerts. The event transformed the neighborhood and brought thousands of people into an area many hadn't visited in decades, a place still full of empty and abandoned buildings, still considered dangerous by many area residents. Just after the 2013 event, there was a sort of LumenoCity effect, with real estate prospectors trolling the area with clipboards.
photo via
In 2014, the producers decided to ticket the event - even though admission was still free. They explained that this was being done for safety reasons; they had concerns the previous year when so many people crowded into a small area. 

There were some major hiccups with the ticketing, and the media stories (across all channels) tended to reinforce existing default perceptions of the symphony as elitist. Many people who wanted to attend could not get tickets inside the gated public park venue, while the symphony season ticket holders and donors were given access to tickets in advance.

Nevertheless, on the weekend of the event the social media reaction in my stream (again, on multiple channels) was extremely interesting. 

 Many of the posts expressed love for and pride in Cincinnati, suggesting that, despite the difficult ticketing issues - and possible negative impact on perception of the arts for some people, those who attended, or saw photos and videos, were left with a new and strong sense of pride and affinity for place.

Now, if we could just figure out how to measure WHETHER THIS HAPPENED!

See what I mean? A simple search for #lumenocity Cincinnati produces this, and more.