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Online Content, MLI at the Walker

by Jesse Leaneagh

Since I started at the Walker Art Center, my role has changed several times. I began as an intern for the performing arts department in 2009, and then received a fellowship in 2010 that enabled me to take on many different responsibilities, specifically the Walker’s participation in the Mid Atlantic Arts Foundation’s Jazz.NEXT audience engagement initiative and the Dance USA Engaging Dance Audiences (EDA) grant.

With Jazz.NEXT I was able to focus on outreach towards new and younger audiences for the Walker’s jazz programming. The Walker supported the experiments I tried with Jazz.NEXT, such as free music preview cards, which gave a link to a downloadable song for each of the artists featured during the season, and free Walker “jazz radio” that people could listen to outside on low-frequency radios during the summer. Most rewarding was working with visiting artists, to connect them to local teens for residency meetings and workshops. Trumpeter Dave Douglas led a two-day workshop with advanced teen jazz players in town, and it was incredible to see such a perfect pairing, with the kids getting so much out of it (many of them avid Douglas fans) and Douglas showcasing his talents as an expert jazz educator.

With Dance USA’s Engaging Dance Audiences grant, I was able to lead — alongside the Walker’s Assistant Performing Arts Curator Michèle Steinwald — the inaugural year of SpeakEasy, a post-show discussion that’s like a book club, but for dance (or theater and now music). Each SpeakEasy was seeded with a Walker visual arts tour guide and a local choreographer (for dance shows), but the performing artist was not allowed to join in! This made for discussions that were candid and sometimes quite extensive, where audience members could express how they felt about the show without worrying about insulting the artist, and we all learned a better vocabulary for talking about performance. This post-show discussion format was developed in part by Max Wirsing—previous house manager for the McGuire Theater, who’s now moved on to his own arts practice—and is a fabulously effective way for audiences to engage after a show.

SpeakEasy wasn’t the only engagement method we focused on with the EDA grant. In fact, I co-wrote a manual on methods of audience engagement for dance that was designed for mid-sized arts presenters (and can be downloaded here or from Dance USA’s website). And here’s where the National Performance Network’s Mentorship and Leadership Initiative (NPN MLI) begins to play a role. Thanks to the NPN MLI, I was able to travel to the Dance USA conference last July in Chicago and present on the Walker’s EDA grant, all neatly summarized by the manual we made. It was an invaluable opportunity to network with peers; the first extensive opportunity I’d ever had. I had traveled to New York for Jazz.NEXT meetings but those were short and sweet. NPN MLI enabled me to attend two conferences where I made professional connections that just would not have been possible otherwise.

During the NPN MLI period, my role at Walker shifted to focusing on mostly online vlogging and blogging for the performing arts department. I had been creating online content ever since I started in 2009, but NPN enabled me to focus on honing my skills, to determine what’s the best way to connect with patrons online. In a nutshell, I would have to say that guerrilla videos/vlogging (short pocket camera videos that are a minute or less) seem to connect best with audience members and have more success than blogs in bringing those audience members to shows (at least from what I’ve heard from Walker audiences). During my NPN MLI grant, a huge shift happened online with the Walker website redesign in December 2011. The institution’s new goal is for walkerart.org to be a content provider for the art world nationally, rather than just a tombstone page of our exhibition and program information. I was able to develop a feature story for the main landing page that was more extensive than any content I’d done before: an interview with artist Young Jean Lee on the advent of the world premiere of her new work (Untitled Feminist Show) at Walker. It was the most-read story for walkerart.org in January 2012.

One of my MLI goals was to “develop share-able strategies surrounding the creation of online content through dialogue at national arts conferences and with peer organizations.” Something I came to learn through peer dialogue in Chicago and Tampa (location of the 2011 NPN Annual Meeting) was that every organization has different needs from social media, with strategies that reflect that. I definitely brainstormed with peers: talking with staff at the Museum for Contemporary Arts Chicago about why departmental blogging works at Walker, or hearing from the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts in San Francisco on how they keep their Facebook page so fresh and funny. But every organization leverages social media differently, and part of the beauty of social media is in that diversity.

The best part about receiving the MLI grant was hands-down attending the NPN Annual Meeting in Tampa. It probably makes sense that my perspective on the performing arts field has been molded most greatly by my time at the Walker, so it was exciting to catch a vision for what is happening with performing arts organizations across the country and also internationally. I have always been curious about other performing arts organizations, but all week I felt I was writing down the names of organizations I had never heard of, meeting extraordinary people and enjoying the community and camaraderie that exists at NPN.

I am most excited by the idea of performing arts as a social experience that can transform lives, which I saw vividly on display at the NPN Annual Meeting in Tampa. No matter where I go, I will be able to bring my skills developing online content, but I can’t wait to continue to get to know the amazing community of dynamic people working in performing arts organizations nationally. I will always be grateful to NPN for opening up that world to me.

To read more of Jesse’s interview with Young Jean Lee, click here to link to the Walker Art Center website.
To read about Max Wirsing’s MLI experience at the Walker, read the March 2010 project profile by clicking here.

The Mentorship & Leadership Initiative is made possible by the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation, MetLife Foundation, American Express Foundation, and the National Endowment for the Arts.

April 2012

 




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