Doin’ It: Performing Arts

In my last three posts (Doin’ ItDoin’ It: Vocabulary, and Doin’ It: Museums) I have been exploring participatory experiences as being an important element in the work of arts organizations. This week I want to talk about participatory experiences in the performing arts.

Options like pre-performance discussions and post-performance talkbacks have long served as interactive opportunities for event attendees. These are increasingly supplemented by social media information (e.g., background on works performed or live streaming of rehearsals), opportunities for Q&A with artists or staff members (often via Twitter), sharing of ideas and reactions with peers, and posting of “were you there?” pictures after the performance (taking into account, of course, restrictions on photographing the event).

There is also considerable potential for active participation in the performing arts. Some are relatively new ideas. Trained artists who are no longer practicing their art are having opportunities to perform created through programs like the Baltimore Symphony’s Rusty Musicians and Vermont’s Farm to Ballet Project. Other programs provide participatory opportunities for people who have not viewed themselves as performers. Older adults have been drawn into dance through projects like Liz Lerman’s Dancers of the Third Age. People who think they can’t sing are invited into opera in Milan’s Coro degli Stonati (loosely Choir of the Tone Deaf). To be honest that name is both misleading and, by and large, wrong. The work of the group is to get people past their psychological stumbling blocks to singing. Truly tone deaf people are exceedingly rare. Forklift Dance Works invites workers of all kinds–sanitation workers, gondoliers, arborists, Japanese softball players, and electric company employees–to be a part of the creation and performance of dance.

But some of the most promising options may be among the oldest. Community choirs (including symphony choruses), community theater, and community bands and orchestras in many cities predate creation of professional arts institutions. The range of performance these groups represent, from reading opportunities to professional in all but money, is vast. There is, unfortunately, a lamentable and nearly suicidal disdain on the part of some in the arts establishment for the work of such groups. If the need to support participation in the arts is critical to the health of professional arts organizations, condescension toward these ensembles is irresponsible. The world of the arts is an ecosystem in which each part should be as supportive of all others as possible. To do otherwise is foolhardy.

Arts participation is a patently obvious foundation upon which to build broad support for the arts. There are many ways to encourage participation. We need not all undertake all, but most of us should seriously consider moving forward on one or more.



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Doin’ It: Museums

In my last couple of posts, Doin’ It and Doin’ It: Vocabulary, I introduced the idea of participatory experiences as being a potentially critical element in the work of arts organizations as well as some ways to begin thinking about categories of such experiences. In my next two posts I want to focus on examples of both the practice and practitioners of this type of work.

Interactive exhibits and exhibitions are becoming increasingly common in the museum world. From relatively low-tech “response walls” (attendees comments on an exhibit) through a variety of technologically intermediated options–e.g., real-time Twitter-based Q&A, location-based support (like GPS in the museum), interactive video, and virtual reality, the visitor experience is becoming more participatory.

Beyond “simple” interactivity, much work is being done to make community members a vital part of the development and production of what takes place in the museum. There is no greater authority on participatory practice in museums than Nina Simon. Her blog, Museum 2.0, is “the gospel” on the topic; her work as Executive Director of the Santa Cruz Museum of Art & History is one of the primary “poster children” for both community engagement and participation; and, of course, she literally “wrote the book” on participation: The Participatory Museum. I can simply get out of the way and let her speak for herself and point us to some other valuable resources.

Ms. Simon’s commitment to participatory practices is an outgrowth of her dedication to community engagement. In Does the Most Powerful Work Lie Onstage or Behind the Scenes? she says:

The more my organization has become focused on community engagement, the more we’ve balanced being experience producers with being experience co-creators/facilitators. We still produce exhibitions, events, and educational programs for an audience, but that audience is just one of our major constituencies. The partners we work with–to catalyze projects within and beyond our walls–are just as important as our visitors to fulfilling our mission. Relative to other museums, I think we spend less time producing an “onstage” experience and more time collaborating with community organizations behind the scenes to empower them to produce.

Ms. Simon’s museum practices what it preaches. “We invite diverse locals to share their creative and cultural talents with our greater community at the museum. Printmakers leading workshops. Teens advocating for all-gender bathrooms. Volunteers restoring a historic cemetery. Sculptors building giant metal fish with kids.” (Does Community Participation Scale to Destination Institutions?) The museum actively encourages community input on exhibitions and programming and invites feedback on all exhibitions. To be sure, they have guidelines about what they will and will not support in programs suggested by community members. They have gotten good at structuring feedback mechanisms to improve the results.

The number of examples at MAH-SC is almost too big to do justice in pulling out just one. Their pop-up museums feature considerable community input. One of my favorites was a women’s history display from a few years ago: “Celebrate Women’s History Month and International Women’s Day with a Pop Up Museum on Her Story.  Bring an object from or inspired by an important woman in your life and leave it on display in MAH’s atrium.” Community members brought objects and photographs illustrating the contributions of women in the area over time.

Ms. Simon’s blog pointed me to another example, the Portland Art Museum’s Object Stories project, designed to involve area residents. “Launched in 2010, the Object Stories initiative displays personal perspectives and related physical objects on a single theme. The perspectives combine audio and still images into video interviews which are installed on iPads next to their corresponding objects in the gallery.”

This post is not intended to be a thorough review of participatory practice in museums. That is well covered by Ms. Simon. It is simply an attempt to highlight some of the work going on in the museum world for people who might not be aware of it. Here are a few more resources for the curious:

Just A Few Examples & Resources

As Ms. Simon and Mr. Visser make clear, the design of participatory experiences must be well thought out. Haphazard approaches will yield, at best, haphazard results. At worst, they can be institutional and public relations disasters. Nevertheless, the need to get more people involved in the work we do is so great that it is important that we begin to learn how to do this well.



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Doin’ It: Vocabulary

In my last post, Doin’ It, I introduced the idea of participatory experiences as being a potentially critical element in the work of arts organizations.

After almost two generations of declining emphasis on the arts in public schools we face communities largely made up of people who have little or no experience participating in the arts. Where once large percentages of students sang, played in band, acted on stage, painted and made murals, and/or  took private music lessons outside of school, today that is no longer the case. This is certainly not the only obstacle arts organizations face in drawing people in to performances and exhibitions but it certainly makes the task no easier. Today, our industry as a whole is in desperate need of larger percentages of the population “doing” the arts.

Last fall (in ABCD and Community Engagement) I even floated a label–Community Based Artistic Development–for this work. CBAD implies, rightly, that participatory projects can be important to the health of the arts and to arts organizations.

But in order to craft participatory experiences, it helps to have language that guides understanding of the options. So, a vocabulary (or, forgive me, a taxonomy) of participation is helpful. The best-known effort in this regard is in Alan Brown and Jennifer Novak-Leonard’s Getting in on the Act commissioned by the James Irvine foundation. They lay out a continuum of participation that is extremely helpful. However (and you suspected there was a however coming, didn’t you), some of the language of it strikes me as a bit “academic.” Yes, I know. That’s funny coming from someone who spent thirty years as a college professor and used the word “taxonomy” three sentences ago. Nevertheless, here is my translation of the what are essentially their concepts:

  • Spectator
    • Passive Observer
    • Active Observer/Learner
  • Participant
    • Curation [Selection of art]
    • Implementation/Interpretation
    • Creation
      • Co-creator
      • Creator

Passive observer is probably fairly clear, although almost no one is a totally passive observer unless they are catatonic. Active observer/learner suggests the spectator is seeking out information or actively responding to the event in some way. The latter includes, but is not limited to, things like twitter commentary. There are certainly problems with in-the-moment tweeting, but having people actively responding to their experience is a clear sign that they are “into it.” Solutions can include a Twittermission as well as pre- or post-event interaction with artists or arts organization staff members. Pre-event discussions and post-event talkbacks also fall in this category.

Curation is some form of crowd-sourced selection process. (That need not/should not be a simple popularity contest of “the arts’ greatest hits.”) Implementation is participation in the production or presentation of the art under the guidance of an artist. Community choirs or mural projects are examples. Co-creation suggests a partnership between artists and community members in the composition, writing, choreographic, or painting/sculpting/drawing process. This could include selection of materials (physical or conceptual) or input on how to arrange/utilize the elements. And, of course, acting as “creator” is the participants making the choices on their own once they’ve learned some basic principles of construction in an art form.

There are a few differences between my list and the Brown/Novak-Leonard one but those are not really important here. Anyone interested in constructing participatory opportunities in the arts should have the concepts in mind in making choices about what type of project to create.

More next time.



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Doin’ It

After almost two generations of declining emphasis on the arts in public schools we face communities largely made up of people who have little or no experience participating in the arts. Where once large percentages of students sang, played in band, acted on stage, painted and made murals, and/or  took private music lessons outside of school, today that is no longer the case. This is certainly not the only obstacle arts organizations face in drawing people in to performances and exhibitions but it makes the task far more difficult.

People with participatory experience in something are more likely to support those activities even when they are not doing them themselves. Familiarity often breeds understanding and appreciation. The incredible rise in U.S. support of soccer can, I am confident, be directly tied to the long-standing and pervasive presence of children’s soccer leagues in middle and upper class communities. Those children grow up, take their children to weekend games, understand (sort of) the Offside Rule, and are ready to be impressed by the skill of professionals from around the world. This rise of soccer has been meteoric considered in a social systems time-frame. I have witnessed the entire transformation in my own lifetime. When I was in junior high in the Midwest, the gym teacher brought a funny size white ball to class and tried to explain a game where only one player on each team could touch that ball with their hands. (Yes, except for throw ins.) What kind of a game was that?!! (For a good deal more on this, see Barry Hessenius’s blog post on the topic.)

What does all of this have to do with community engagement? At the risk of stating the obvious, arts participation is about as significant a way to build relationships between people and arts organization as I can imagine. And right now there seems to be a demonstrable hunger for such activities. When breweries and wine bars have discovered that opportunities to paint and drink make a good deal of money, it’s time for arts organizations to take notice. Yes, I know we are not talking about sophisticated art making; but we are talking about something that can be a small step toward undoing the damage that the arts’ absence from the public schools has done and significantly increasing our pool of potential supporters.

Not every arts organization needs to become a specialist in presenting participatory arts activities. Some will choose to say it’s inconsistent with their mission, although I will continue to question what the mission is if it does not include connecting more people with art.

I sometimes say no organization needs to feel it must have a planned giving program in place, but if it doesn’t it is missing out on an important opportunity. Similarly, I think any arts organization that does not at least consider adding participatory activities to its offerings is passing on the potential to connect with significant numbers of people. The work is good for the organization and for the participants. And our industry as a whole is in desperate need of larger percentages of the population “doing” the arts.

Over the next few weeks I will be presenting some examples of arts organizations creating opportunities for people to have hands on experiences in the arts. Perhaps they will encourage emulation not of the specific programs but of the idea of creating participatory activities.



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