By Molly Sheridan
Embracing the chaos of community means letting go of the need to plan everything and the fantasy that you can control any given situation. Instead of building up plans and structure, you should be building flexibility and environmental awareness into your campaigns. You need to be hyperaware of your surroundings and be able to tap into opportunities as they arise and that you never could have predicted.–Tara Hunt, The Wuffie Factor
What’s the biggest secret you have?
Often when I speak with reticent artists/arts organizations about their online presence, a lot of their fears make them sound like presidential candidates about to appear on national television: I can’t talk about this, what if that person says that. And I have to wonder: Just what are they doing in there that, if every passerby on Central Ave. knew about it, would be damaging? Seriously, what’s the worst thing we could find out about you (and if it’s that juicy, maybe we should make a side project out of it)? What’s the outcome of professional transparency you most fear? Am I being naive here?
Which leads to another point (and a bit of a personal rant): the culture industry is not the military. There is no real reason to reinvent every website and social networking tool that comes down the pike, but I watch cultural institutions try to do just that over and over again. That may offer more control and precision, but why do we seek these qualities in this area of our work? Are those really our top goals when it comes to building bridges with our communities? Reinvention of the social wheel is expensive and counterproductive because it cuts us off from the larger community–the very thing most of us are combating in the real world. Few organizations are that interesting that a person would only want to play on their exclusive playground. We do not need Audiencer and PatronBook when in many cases the originals will server our purposes quite well if not exactly. The Metropolitan Opera may need a specialized ticketing system, for instance, but most of us probably could be using the simpler services that sell tickets to a lot of different events. A universal access point like this is important because people who may never have thought about coming to hear your symphony have the chance to stumble on the fact that you’re playing Berlioz next week and consider it.
This “let the experts work for you” course of action is also exponentially more cost effective and easier on overworked/inexperienced staff members. You don’t need to hire and coach and monitor a web developer to develop a specialized website that will showcase your activities: Just pick a template offered by WordPress and add the necessary plugins. Let their employees do the R&D sweating every time technology lurches forward again. Your audience will trust you because your materials will always feel up-to-date.
As Hunt outlines in the quote above, the online public square/marketplace requires flexibility and creativity that, as members of the so-called “creative class”, we should be uniquely positioned to excel at. It’s particularly suited to low-budget/no-budget operations with a dream and a message and personally invested staff members (even if that’s just you). If you actually have a few dollars to do what you do and are feeling protective, take a deep breath and peel a few fingers off the rope you cling to every day: You can do this well if you think about it. And as Hunt and Shapiro have extensively illustrated, the rewards are more than worth the risks. You can stay inside your box if you’d like, but that’s arguably an even riskier venture. Like it or not, we can’t stop: We’ve come too far.