Arts marketers and party hosts face a similar dilemma: How do you make a special occasion feel truly special, without intimidating people?
Everyone wants moments, artifacts, that are special, above and apart from the normal humdrum of life. All week we drink water from a glass; on Shabbat we drink wine from a goblet. It’s human nature, it’s what parties and art and religion are for. All cultures have special events.
And then, for some reason, in the US in the 21st century, we have that basic human need but we hate it. We worry. What if I don’t know how to eat the special food? What if I don’t know the steps to the special dance? What if I don’t have enough money for the special clothes? What if I don’t even know what the special clothes should be? Performance anxiety around special events is natural–all the world’s a stage, but during a wedding or fancy dinner party the spotlights get turned up all the way. That natural performance anxiety is intensified, here and now, by all the usual culprits: increasing diversity, which means a breakdown of commonly held social customs; increasing inequality and economic doldrums that make people insecure about their social status; the unflattering contrast between one’s performance in meatspace and the carefully filtered and curated image one can project on social media; and probably ever so many more reasons.
We need special events, we love special events, but we hate them because they make us feel afraid of failure, and failure in 21st century America is not an option.
Do you see the position this puts hosts, and arts marketers into?
Parties are special events. Art is a special event. How do you get guests and clients to join you on that elevated plane?
I was walking around Newbury Street with a friend one day and wanted to stop in one of my favorite art galleries. My friend–whose scientific and literary accomplishments are so impressive she can admit to virtually any other ignorance with no shame–said that she had never been in an art gallery, and was therefore vaguely intimidated to go into this one. I told her it was just like a museum except you get treated like a potential customer instead of a potential vandal–and that if you see something you truly love you could actually buy it–which convinced her to join me.
This wasn’t some underserved urban youth, you understand, this is a woman with a PhD who grew up on the Upper West Side. The fact that she’d never been in an art gallery isn’t a problem. The fact that she felt put off by the idea of entering one really, really is.
Some gallery owners have found a fascinating way around the special-is-scary dilemma–art trucks:
[M]obile owners say they are trying to avoid the confines — and politics — of the gallery system; to help people think about art in different ways; or to reach more communities, especially those with young and old people who tend not to visit art districts. That was what motivated Berge Zobian of Providence, R.I., to create his truck in 2012, equipped with 44 linear feet of exhibition space, a stereo system, security cameras, projection monitors and even a bar for making coffee. On one occasion he took 40 paintings to a church, one priced at $35,000.
Look at this picture, also from the NYT article.
You want to go in there. Of course you do. How could you not? It looks like a doorway to Narnia. It looks like a gypsy caravan. It looks magical.
Is that it? How do we make things magical? How do we bust people out of their self-consciousness about etiquette and appearance and get them to focus on the magic of the moment?
I like the art trucks, I like them very much. I like the gothic-themed party I threw a few winters ago, when people were asked to wear “Formal dress … from any era, in any state of repair.” One way of keeping things special-but-not-scary would be introducing this kind of ironic distance. Yes, we’re dressing up, but we’re playing dress-up. Everyone knows those aren’t your real clothes. Art trucks are inherently ironic–it’s art! In a truck!
But irony can’t be the entire answer. It’s reactive–the art trucks wouldn’t be ironic if we didn’t have knowledge and expectations about art galleries to upend. A razor-slashed prom gown and ratted hair (I looked amazing at my Midwinter Macabre!) needs a vision of formal dress to contrast itself to. And irony always holds something back, which ultimately is antithetical to creating a truly special occasion. You can’t always play dress-up. Sometimes you need to actually dress up.
Information helps. I subscribe to Central Square Theater, and before shows, you get an email reminder with information about parking and restaurants. The theater lobby and restrooms are papered with signs telling the audience the show’s running time per act and how long the intermission is. This weekend I attended a wedding at which a large board with the day’s schedule of events painted on it was propped up where everyone could see. These things are helpful, and beyond that, they set a tone. In addition to the facts the convey, such signs say, “There is relevant information about this event that you may not have known when you walked in. That is perfectly understandable. Feel free to ask if you need more help.”
Irony and information–two ways you can make an event special without being scary. But those aren’t full solutions to the dilemma, just the tools I happen to have in my kit. What’s in yours?