I have a hard time doing new, unfamiliar things. I wish that were not the case, but . . . . Traveling in Europe, for instance, I often go to the train station the day before I’m catching a train to see what it’s going to be like. If I don’t I lose sleep imagining how any things could go wrong. I’m not Mr. Spontaneity.
Last December I was in Seattle visiting family and in one day I did two things I’d never done before. I survived, but it took a concentrated act of will to do them. First I took the bus (by myself) to lunch. I’ve made much use of Seattle’s light rail but buses are foreign to me and I obsess over not knowing where to get off. But I had discovered (thanks to my extremely patient son) that Google Maps will give you stop by stop directions. It worked and I felt all adventurous. And I will do it again one day.
Second, I went to a dim sum restaurant. I was vaguely aware of what dim sum was but had no idea what to order. (If I had known that the waiters came to you and asked you to select what you want from the cart I might have freaked out.) Fortunately, I was meeting a veteran who knew the restaurant well. (I was comfortable enough to order tea before he got there.) He took charge of ordering for us. And it was delicious! I will do it again one day.
The point of this, of course, is that for many, many people going to a concert hall or a museum is a foreign, anxiety-producing prospect. To them these venues are mystifying and off-putting. And the experience itself, once there, is daunting if not terrifying. The fear of doing something wrong can be overwhelming.
If we want new communities to take advantage of what we have to offer, we need to develop the capacity to imagine what doing so might be like for them. We need empathy. And since the experiences of the arts can be so unfamiliar the empathy must be extreme. We have to develop the capacity to stand in other people’s shoes and provide detailed explanations (like my Google Maps) or metaphorical handholding (like my friend at the restaurant).
And we can be incredibly bad at this. We are so familiar with the arts (and many of us have spent a lifetime in the arts) that we have forgotten or in some cases never knew what it was like not to know what to expect of arts experiences. Visitor experience design is a skill we should develop. Software developers, for similar reasons, have come up with the concept of user experience design.
For what it’s worth, the same radical empathy is necessary for effective community-focused marketing, but that’s a whole kettle of other fish!
Being serious about community engagement demands caring about issues like this and then acting on them. Like so much else in CE, to be successful we have to ask people about their thoughts and experiences because we can’t imagine our way to answers.
Empathize radically and