Dumb, Invalid, Retarded, Slow, Brain- Damaged, Psycho, Crazy, Insane, Wacko, Nuts, Handicapped, Physically Challenged, “Special,” Deformed, Cripple, Gimp, Spastic, Spaz, Wheelchair-bound, Lame…
Please CLICK HERE for an excellent overview of respectful disability language.
The words we use matter.
Vocabulary doesn’t just express our beliefs. It shapes our understanding. Just as our imaginations are propelled by the rich concepts conveyed by a single word, so too is our capacity for advancement constrained by vocabulary that reinforces outmoded and hurtful beliefs.
(Just ask Paula Deen.)
I ask you: What commonly-used words or phrases constrain the forward-thinking of leaders of arts & cultural organizations?
I call out these few, and invite you to leave a reply (BELOW) to add to the list.
You serve an audience but an audience is not something you own. I’ve written on this before: The Myth of “Our Audience“.
Nonprofit organizations (and especially our auditors) go to great lengths to distinguish between marketing & development, earned revenue & contributed revenue, ticket sales & donations. However, our words fail to differentiate between the obvious difference in motivations and expectations of people who (per the dictionary.com definition) are either:
- a person who is a customer, client, or paying guest especially a regular one, of a store, hotel, or the like, and
- a person who supports with money, gifts, efforts or endorsement an artist, writer, museum cause, charity, institution, special event of the like: a patron of the arts.
For what it’s worth, I prefer to call a ticket buyer or visitor a “guest” rather than a patron, as that word more more directly addresses the nature of relationship that must be nurtured.
Environmental sustainability is its own virtuous buzzword, but what does that word mean to arts & cultural organizations? Too much talk of “sustainable business models” suggests that “sustainability” is an organization’s highest virtue. But that’s an absolutely incorrect assertion. Let’s be clear: sustainability should describe the MINIMUM of what a healthy organization should achieve. (If you were working out at the gym, you might recognize an equivalent meaning in the term “core strength.”) Sustainability is the solid foundation from which a healthy organization operates, but it’s far from the culmination of all that is possible or desirable. Here’s a suggestion: subtly substitute the words “vibrant” or “vital” the next time someone utters “sustainable” – and see if the conversation doesn’t immediately proceed in a more uplifting and productive direction.
Perhaps it wasn’t originally intended this way, but the term “audience outreach” seems to connote an antiquated and patronizing relationship in which an arts organization is “up there” – and outreach referred to efforts to go “down to the people” in an effort to “bring them up” to an enlightened level. Time to retire the word. It’s just ill-fitting terminology for the nature of contemporary relationships between people and their arts & cultural experiences.
The phenomenal success of the GOT MILK? campaign, launched in 1993, fueled numerous other “awareness” campaigns, including several for arts & cultural participation. To be clear, I am not opposed to collaborative advertising campaigns, but “audience development” deserves a definition greater than “awareness campaign.”
At the moment, I favor the term “Audience Building” as a substitute for both “outreach” and “audience development” because it has the opportunity to be presented as a whole-organization priority rather than as a task delegated to the marketing department. Even so, it’s an imperfect solution. The phrase positions arts & cultural administrators as the agents of “construction” and audiences as variously-sized and multi-colored building blocks that exist for us to stack as we see fit. I’m still searching for a word that reflects the idea that arts & cultural organizations serve, respond & adapt to the evolving interests and expectations of the people who comprise its community.
Let’s think on that further, too.
# # #