Category Archives: Value of Presenting

Building community together: Northern Exposure arts conference

The Wells Hotel

The Wells Hotel

I spent Thanksgiving in the Cariboo town of Wells, BC (population 259) at the Northern Exposure conference.

Here are my reflections on what we did, how we did it and what it enabled; in so doing I hope to draw the curtain back a little on effective design thinking-inspired meetings that help people move to the next level – whatever that is for them.

Putting the team together

Island Mountain Arts‘ ambitious conference attracted about 75 festival organizers, arts organization staff and volunteers and musicians from BC’s northern and southern interior, the Sunshine Coast, Vancouver Island, Haida Gwaii, and the Yukon.

Island Mountain Arts (IMA – named after a local mountain, called Island) has been operating its renowned Summer School of Art since 1977 and over the years has expanded with a Public Art Gallery and Gift Shop, an International Harp School, the Toni Onley Artists’ Project and the award winning ArtsWells Festival of All Things Art.

Julie Fowler, Executive Director of IMA, invited me to facilitate this conference, based on my previous work with SPARC – Supporting Performing Arts in Rural Communities and the Yukon Arts Presenters Summit. And she recruited co-presenters and panelists from across B.C. to ensure a wide range of perspectives.

A common purpose: creating community

Speaking with Julie, we quickly established a common purpose: to build up a better networked rural festival and arts community.

My approach as facilitator and presenter was focused on creating spaces for participants to get to know each other, share knowledge and know-how, and encourage collaborative learning and action planning. Julie and her wonderful team took care of conference logistics, meals and showcases  – 16 in total – at the local Sunset Theatre and the Wells Hotel. She arranged two sessions tailored for musicians.

The conference also had its share of great food by chef Sharon and the kitchen crew and a fine assortment of beverages at showcase and reception venues. Being in a small place, the conference moved as a whole from breakfast at the Wells Hotel to the Wells Community Hall for conference sessions, back up the street for lunch and showcases and then back for more learning. We shared dinner and conversations and then went off to the Sunset Theatre for showcases. A late evening snack invariably appeared at the Pub to maintain the stamina of musicians and participants alike.

I feel that having participants move together in this way, sharing meals and conversations in ever changing configurations, made for closer connections and more meaningful, relevant learning.

Pre-conference professional development

Participants discuss marketing

Participants during the audience development session.

The pre-conference professional development day on audience development was attended by most of the conference participants. I delivered a well-honed workshop; modified as usual to suit the rural context. This session was highly interactive, with lots of conversation by all participants and practical learning. This was followed by a full slate of 15-minute 1-on-1 sessions with me. The nine participants brought a wide range of marketing and organizational questions to these intensive conversations.

At the same time, Emma Jarrett, a performance coach, conducted a fantastic hands-on workshop for musicians and anyone else interested in honing their presentation skills.

Creating an open learning environment

I borrowed a networking exercise from the Yukon Arts Presenters Summit (Let’s Get Connected) which in turn the Yukon organizers had modified from SPARC. The four topics were:
•    who you are and what you do
•    your hopes and dreams
•    what you’re seeking
•    what you have to offer

Networking

During the Let’s Get Connected process, participants had four 10-minute segments for reflection and conversation at tables of 6 each. A quick way to meet 20+ participants in an hour.

All participants had their picture taken at registration. They recorded the information on their print outs and then discussed it with their group. Every 10 minutes a room full of participants stood up and found a new table of six to move to the next topic. It’s an amazing free-flowing choreography.

With the sheets we created a Living Wall that served as a reminder of the breadth and depth of knowledge and experience each and every participant brought to this conference.

It was a powerful beginning that I feel set the tone for a true working conference: Participants heard their own voices from the start; felt valued as experienced organizers; and they became collaborators in co-creating our conference.

After a short coffee jaunt up to the hotel, I gave a well-received keynote on Co-creating a Culture of Place, in which I made the case, as I have at other conferences, for Vibrant communities fueled by the arts and its community-engaged partnerships. Much of the data in that keynote comes from The Value of Presenting study. This study continues to deepen the conversations about arts presenters and their role and impact in their communities.

After lunch, I had the pleasure of working with Janet Rogers – a Mohawk/Tuscarora writer and broadcaster from the Six Nations in southern Ontario, who was born in Vancouver and has been living on the traditional lands of the Coast Salish people (Victoria, BC) since 1994 –  to share information and lead a conversation on Cultural Tourism.  I provided context and laid out a cultural tourism landscape. Janet led a conversation on how to access indigenous artists for festivals and events, and encouraged making the necessary contacts early in the event planning process. She proposed that in so doing we could move from the acknowledgement of traditional lands into meaningful inclusion and full participation by indigenous and non-indigenous artists. After all, Aboriginal tourism is seen as a key aspect of expanding Canada’s and BC’s cultural tourism potential.

I felt this was an important and open conversation about an area many of us want to get right but also feel some insecurity about. These protocols are new to most event organizers. What excites me is that meaningful change can happen through our individual decisions and actions, by getting to know each other and speaking openly and respectfully to each other. We don’t have to wait until everything is figured out in the big picture.

Living Wall

A small selection of our Living Wall.

Concurrently, Music BC presented a session for musicians on all of the sources of revenue available to them for their work.

I moved the programmed afternoon networking round tables outside to a walking conversation – thankfully the rain held off and the winds had died down.

Sharing stories and action planning

On the last day of the conference we were in Barkerville.

The morning featured five inspiring stories presented by Julie Fowler, ArtsWells Festival/Island Mountain Arts; Carla Stephenson, Tiny Lights Festival; Karen Jeffery, Sunset Theatre; Deb Beaton Smith, Rifflandia; and Miriam Schilling, Xatśūll Heritage Village, Soda Creek.

The panelists – participants conversation drew the curtain back a little on how to build success, how to sustain arts in small communities and the kind of perseverance, experimentation and serendipity it takes. Everyone was eager to share their experiences and it felt like the perfect transition to move toward action planning.

But first I led a practical workshop on integrated online marketing with Fraser Hayes‘ able assistance. Fraser is the station manager of CFUR Radio in Prince George; a community radio station that has built a substantial integrated online footprint to complement its broadcasts. More insights and specific action items tumbled forth and then we were ready for lunch, a walk about this amazing restored gold rush town and the final two showcases.

The conference concluded with action planning.  First I asked everyone to write down key take-aways from the conference, their next action steps and desired short and long-term results. The process requires participants to write the information out twice: one copy to take home and the second copy to be shared with participants. In this way we hope to facilitate network building. (I borrowed this format in condensed form from the Yukon Arts Presenters Summit which was facilitated by Jerry Yoshitomi.) Writing this down twice gives more time to reflect and form greater commitment to taking actions. This exercise moved seamlessly into a robust conversation around participant-identified topics. We collapsed about 10 (!) suggested topics into three broad areas: programming, operations and youth. Participants quickly gravitated toward their topic and a number of specific ideas for collaborations and resource sharing were brought forward.

Finally, in closing, we ended as we began: with participants having the last word through sharing highlights from their own action plans.

It seemed everyone felt confident that this conference was not merely the culmination of a long-standing dream, but that it would be the catalyst to move forward with closer ties between participants and their organizations from all over rural BC.

While the conference concluded officially, conversations continued into the night as some participants stayed for Thanksgiving dinner and more pub time.

More than a week after leaving Wells, these days continue to reverberate in me. I am grateful for the new connections, the new friends I made and for being part of this special community of festival and arts organizers.

What’s the matter with numbers?

With thanks to CAPACOA for commissioning my response to the Culture Shock debate entitled  “Hard Facts VS. Proverbial Truths: The Impact of Arts & Culture on Canadian Citizens & Communities” held on November 20, 2014 at the Community Knowledge Exchange Summit.  Moderated by Canada Council for the Arts CEO Simon Brault you can watch the archived livestream here

Billed as #CultureShock, Alain Dubuc, a journalist and economist, and Shawn van Sluys, who heads up a philanthropic foundation that works to make the arts more central to our lives, debated whether “For arts and culture to be fully valued by society, their impact must be demonstrated with hard facts” or whether proverbial truth are sufficient.

The case for telling the stories of transformation and understanding through art was made eloquently. Yet, I was more struck by the economist’s assertion that hard facts are “the best way” rather than “the only way” to ensure we fully value arts and culture.

This debate brought to my mind Daniel Kahneman’s observation in Thinking, Fast and Slow  that humans  have a propensity to believe that “what you see is all there is.”  He cautions us that we can easily miss important parts of a situation because there may be more going on than meets the eye.

And that reminded me of the old adage that what we count is what matters.  By inference that suggests that we actually count what truly matters, and that those things left uncounted do not matter.  In the arts much of what gets counted are ticket sales or attendance as a percentage of capacity. Until recently, little attention has been paid to collecting the stories, let alone data points, of impact and benefits of the arts. In my view, just because some things are (relatively) easy to measure, like attendance or GDP or employment figures, that does not mean that they tell the whole story – or the most important parts of the story. Conversely, just because some things are harder to measure that doesn’t necessarily make them any less important or, for that matter, immeasurable.

Indeed, I think we gain the deepest insights through a purposeful combination of numbers and stories. For numbers are not meaningful by themselves. Numbers require context and an understanding of the intrinsic dynamics at play. In my work as a researcher and strategist, my task is not merely to produce tables and analysis, but to interpret findings and create meaning. It is this highly creative process of meaning creation and collaboration with all the decision-makers that can lead to new insight. And in creating meaning we bring the numbers to life through examples: the stories.

Some in the arts do not wish to speak the language of numbers which they equate with the language of business. From my experience working with corporations I know that yes, numbers are important, but many invest heavily in innovation and creativity in order to solve significant problems and improve quality of life through new products and services. The divide is not so great. Rather, we may well be just lacking translators or mediators; people who are proficient in both languages and who can help us understand each other better.

Watch the debate. 

Igniting a SPARC in Haliburton

I was invited to speak at the SPARC Symposium in Haliburton, Ontario this spring. The organizers had a clear vision for this symposium: to bring people working in all parts of the rural arts eco-system together to explore opportunities and challenges, collaborate across communities and open new doors for exchange, resource sharing and a new kind of network focused on meeting the needs of broad rural arts communities.

With that I sought to create an opening keynote that would help establish the conversation using stories and, yes, conversation. My key messages revolved around the ideas of “where there is a will, there is a way”, and a vision of “building vibrant communities fueled by the performing arts and its community-engaged partnerships” and my proposal to consider “public engagement through the arts” where arts are a means to an ends, rather than the end in itself. I told some stories based on my recent work with a focus on small, rural and remote places across Canada to give substance to these ideas through examples. I shared some data from The Value of Presenting study that shows just how much arts presenting organizations in rural and remote communities are leading the way in community-engaged practices.

The conversation and contributions by participants throughout the talk helped set the stage for a fully engaged, working symposium. I loved the energy, the thinking, the sparks that were flying over these four days in Haliburton.

I was also thrilled to see representatives of several regional presenting networks that I have been working with over the last few years at SPARC; there is much space for collaboration, strengthening connections and learning.

SPARC organizers have turned this and all the other amazing working sessions into a unique interactive online magazine. (Sticks and Stones Productions) You can also access my keynote directly on Vimeo. (The other keynotes and videos from the conference are also available there or through the online magazine.)

Finally, my presentation slides are posted on the CAPACOA site for download .

Over the summer SPARC has turned its attention to developing a follow-up conference this fall with the aim to constitute a rural arts network. If you are interested in these ideas, check out their web presence (web, Facebook, Twitter) and get on the e-news list.

Arts Marketing … or Orchestras are not for everyone

I came upon this discussion of the state of orchestral music in response to Ivan Katz’ analysis  of the Chapter 11 bankruptcy proceedings entered by the Philadelphia Orchestra Association early in 2011.

I am entirely unfamiliar with the specifics of these proceedings. In particular the forum posts by a Thomas Alan Broido prompted today’s post referencing something I wrote about: “Imagine: creating a brand new genre of live music making today!

I implicitly suggested that the product/service – “live orchestral music” – would be targeted at a particular segment of the population. Taking a segmentation approach in the first place implies that ticketed (paid) orchestral music is not for everyone. That is not to say that classical music or orchestral music is not for everyone; putting a price tag on it, however, diminishes audience and market potential.

I continue to collect compelling evidence of the intrinsic values and benefits of arts and cultural participation. When the belief in these values and benefits are transferred directly to the ticketed performing arts things become murky. The unshakable importance of the arts as a public good is challenged when box office revenues must be achieved which restricts access which means the public good takes a lesser role, one balanced with revenue imperatives.

To peel back the onion on this conversation could yield new ways of thinking about the performing arts and about orchestras specifically. Thinking about what an orchestra or a theatre offers its paying customers and how to market that vigorously is qualitatively different from what an orchestra would consider if the public good, the health and well-being of the community, was of foremost concern.

On recent travels on Canada’s east coast, I have been discussing his very thing, and I realize that we pay for many pubic good, hydro, food, snow clearing – without them becoming a lesser public good. In the arts, it creates a bona fides marketing scenario, that other areas experience in different ways and in some areas less so. Snow clearing happens through taxation. Hydro development, too, even where there is competition for delivery and such. Food is super competitive, but the staples much less so. Arts, professional arts, actually need to be excellent at break-through marketing and attention getting engagement to command a serious ticket buying commitment. And I know it can be done. (See Cirque du Soleil).

I have been talking about some case studies in the arts demonstrating integrated marketing strategies. Amazing how language I used corporately in the 1990s is so top of mind now in the 2010s. Perhaps it’s just my way of integrated thinking. 🙂

This is a link to the Atlantic Presenters Association newsletter discussing my East Coast presentations and workshops, in early March. So happy to see this amazing feedback. I got to connect with 110 Atlantic arts organizations in one trip. Just amazing.
http://us1.campaign-archive1.com/?u=98ddd3c7538d70d3aa9945907&id=041f96aa01&e=3ce7dd33bd

We can do so much, when we combine the best from all disciplines that help us connect art and audiences. Including full-on Marketing.

Public engagement through the arts

I have enjoyed seeing how Canada Council for the Arts has joined the conversation about public engagement in the arts.

The latest addition is this report Dialogues: Public Engagement in the Arts (link to PDF)

Reading it, I noticed that much of my own work in recent years has become entwined in this national conversation:

  • As lead investigator and author of the Value of Presenting study, commissioned by CAPACOA on behalf of Canada’s presenting networks.
  • As part of the research team for the Canada Council’s ground-breaking Dance Mapping Study’s Yes I Dance survey.
  • As workshop leader and presenter at the Creative City Summit and CAPACOA conferences which were cited.
  • And references to the Value of Presenting study were part of the discussions at several cited events including Culture Days Congress, Wasan Island meeting initiated by the J.W. McConnell Family Foundation, and the Power of the Arts National Forum, co-hosted by the Michaëlle Jean Foundation and Carleton University’s Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences.

I have been enjoying collaborating with CAPACOA to continue to bring to life this research and champion the lessons learned and apply them on the ground.

I believe now is a good time for the performing arts sector as a whole and individual arts organization to think about whether they are seeking “public engagement in the arts” or public engagement through the arts”.

The Council’s working definition of public engagement in the arts is “Actively engaging more people in the artistic life of society notably through attendance, observation, curation, active participation, co-creation, learning, cultural mediation and creative self-expression.”

Public Engagement through the Arts

Public engagement through the arts aims at something somewhat different — and more. It alludes to some of the community and societal benefits we are continuing to realize and are beginning to understand better.

  • We are learning that attending performing arts improves health outcomes – there is plenty of evidence that participating in the arts via art therapy or choir practice, for instance, has proven health benefits; that attendance by itself does, too, I learned through looking at a much broader range of health sciences research cited in our report.
  • We  can see that there are strong correlations between civic engagement, like volunteering, and attending performances and festivals, thanks to Hill Strategies‘ reports.
  • Canadians believe social cohesion, pride in community, understanding each other within and across cultures and backgrounds all accrue as a benefit of attending live performing arts events, of bringing the community together, and bringing energy and vitality into communities.
  • My work on a needs assessment and feasibility study (PDF) for the formation of Sistema Canada as a national network for Sistema programs that can galvanize and grow a movement across the country allowed me to learn about how these programs are designed to help children and youth realize their full potential through ensemble-based, intensive music learning. These children are not becoming musicians, even though some might well, as much as they are becoming citizens.

The question I am pondering is this: what does it look like to design programming, curate arts experiences, behave in communities, contribute to solving community problems, create engagement in, with or through the arts, in order to engender some of these broader benefits? Can performing arts organizations design to obtain or increase these benefits in some way?

Certainly, I see opportunities for both approaches (the in and the through) to create lasting and important benefits. I do not believe one is more desirable than the other necessarily.

A lived experience

As someone who attends a lot of shows – for fun, not work – I wonder what, if anything, would change if the underlying purpose shifted toward my whole community more often.

There are examples of such effects already. One that amazed me was Northern Scene last April organized by the National Arts Centre. Ottawa has never felt more vibrant and exciting to me than when 250+ Northern artists, spanning the full range of cultures, heritages and backgrounds, were in the city. Attending shows and meeting people has left me with an indelible sense of the North I just have not had before. It left me knowing more, a knowing that is in the bones more than the head, about the country I inhabit and the awesome and endless variety of people and experiences. I have attended other Scenes featuring other Canadian regions before, but the Northern Scene felt to me like a cultural meeting of minds and hearts beyond anything I could have anticipated. It made me want to go North and see and learn.

In short, I was highly engaged through the arts with the North. And, perhaps not surprising, I am going to spend time this year in both Nunavut (for work) and Yukon (for pleasure). I will see. I will  learn. I will experience. I will be. And that, I am truly excited about.