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Your venue is not a backdrop, it's a character
The built environment carries lots of baggage into any social experience. It's useful for arts managers to unpack it.
The dress of a woman of Lhassa,
In its place,
Is an invisible element of that place
Wallace Stevens, from “Anecdote of Men by the Thousand”
Architectural scholar Bill Hillier described “the most significant single fact about the built environment” as this (Hillier 1996):
[the built environment] is not simply a background to social behavior – it is itself a social behavior. Prior to being experienced by subjects, it is already imbued with patterns which reflect its origin in the behaviors through which it is created.
In other words, buildings aren’t inert. They are alive with the assumptions, conventions, relationships, and impulses that made them. Buildings tell their occupants who belongs in them, what choices they have, what roles they play, and how they should relate to each other and the space itself.
Consider, for example, a courthouse. Its exterior defines and describes what “justice” looked and felt like to those who built it (or at least what they aspired for it to be). Its courtrooms enshrine the relationships between judge, jury, prosecutor, accused, and observers. The room tells you your role and your relative power based on where you’re sitting.
The same is true for any building and any room within it, to some degree. The built environment sets social assumption and cultural convention into stone and steel.
Why does this matter to arts managers? Because so much of the artistic expression and experience we support takes place in physical spaces. If we only consider the occupants, we’ll be missing an essential variable of our success.
So, as you wander the venues that hold your work, consider what social relationships they favor or finesse, how they welcome or exclude visitors from various walks of life, what or whom they elevate as important and what or whom they downplay or ignore, and how they encourage or disrupt the flows you hope for in the experiences you offer.
As gathering maven Priya Parker put it in a recent interview: “Rooms come with scripts… Your place is a character. Choose it well.”
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From the ArtsManaged Field Guide
Function of the Week: Spaces & Systems
Spaces & Systems involves selecting, securing, stewarding, and harnessing the built environment and technological infrastructure.
Framework of the Week: Affordances
Psychologist J.J. Gibson coined the term affordances to describe a complementary relationship between an animal and its environment.
Hillier, Bill. Space Is the Machine: A Configurational Theory of Architecture. Cambridge ; New York, NY, USA: Cambridge University Press, 1996.
Wilkinson, Alissa. “Looking for a Sense of Belonging? Start with Being a Good Guest.” Vox (blog), September 28, 2022. https://www.vox.com/even-better/23374918/community-priya-parker-gathering-guesting.
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