If Mitchell of Modern Family dances in a flash mob, they must already be passé, right?

associations membership experience

Hells no! I’m still a sucker for a really good flash mob, especially the artsy ones, and I know I’m not alone. This food court performance of the Hallelujah Chorus still makes my eyes water. You want more?

Why are flash mobs so powerful? My latest theory is they bring us into the right now — this present moment. The present, strangely enough, isn’t a place we always hang out, unless we’re advanced yogis. We’re more likely reworking the past or speculating about the future. We live in the present when we’re in the ‘zone’ or caught up in the ‘flow’, for example, while writing a blog post, chopping vegetables, painting, climbing a rock wall or experiencing a great work of art.

Flash mobs take us by surprise and let us share exuberance together. Is it some communal Dionysian urge? Who knows, but it’s joyful. We’re knocked out of our routine, thrown a bit off balance. “Wait, what the heck is going on here? Who are these people? Why are they doing that?” And then, “Wow, this is pretty awesome.” You’d have to be a lost soul or curmudgeon to not smile a bit inside when you see a flash mob happening around you.

Even the Knight Foundation, usually focused on promoting journalism, can’t resist the allure of the flash mob. They’re sponsoring Random Acts of Culture in the communities where the Knight Brothers owned newspapers. They “strongly believe in the potential of the arts to engage residents, and bring a community together. Hearing Handel, or seeing the tango in an unexpected place provides a deeply felt reminder of how the classics can enrich our lives.” It’s part of their effort to encourage folks to regularly enjoy a concert, visit a gallery or see a dance performance by giving them a taste of that goodness.

If you read my blog regularly, you know that I’m going to somehow bring this discussion back around to associations. What possibly could be the connection? Well, there is the fun flash mob we did last year (some of us without any rehearsing, ahem) on the trade show floor at the Annual Meeting of the American Society of Association Executives. But that’s not where I’m going.

Here’s my question. Maybe the Knight Foundation is on the right track, and flash mobs expose folks to great art and get them thinking that they might actually like the symphony, ballet or opera. They give them a taste of what that experience is like. It’s all about the experience!!

Compare an arts experience to a typical association membership experience:

  • a one-way mailbox relationship
  • a semi-productive committee meeting
  • an educational session or conference that provided a few handouts but nothing permanently imprinted in the attendee’s brain
  • an endless trade show floor of needy vendors

Count me out; I’ll be at the opera.

Can a mix of face-to-face and online community participation make the association experience better by offering more opportunities for sharing and learning, conversations and relationship building? Can a more innovative approach to education make that experience better? Do your members depart from an association experience, whether it’s online or in real life, with a glow on their faces and, even better, in their brains?

Yes, we need to focus on the value or ROI that members get with their association membership. But perhaps we should also focus on their experience – that’s an intangible benefit that we shouldn’t overlook.

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Innovation starts with self-critique (which is why it’s so rare), says Peter Linett. Go against your type, don’t put on “an exhibition that feels like an art museum designed it” or “a concert format that feels like a symphony orchestra designed it.” His litmus test for innovation: “I ask myself whether it feels like it was designed by that kind of institution, within its traditions, values, and personality — its comfort zone.What does a conference or work meeting look like that doesn’t feel like an association designed it?

Kivi Leroux Miller reminds us that we are not our target audience. Before communicating with that audience, do all you can to put yourself in their shoes – research, listen and seek advice of those who are like that audience. Just because you’re in charge, doesn’t mean you get it.

It kills me when an organization doesn’t get the fact that helping their staff connect to their members, prospects or customers is the smart thing to do. Janet McNichol writes about making association business cards social media-friendly but her advice works for any organization.

Lindsey A. Zahn has a very informative post on the Palate Press site about website scraping, copyright, fair use and wine bloggers. I’m seeing more and more sites that scrape content without permission and then get higher page ranking and increased advertising revenue. Bottom-feeders! As one commenter puts it, “it just pisses me off that our hard work and content is contributing to someone else’s bottom line.”

Please, don’t hire a social media director,” says Dion Algeri. He’s right. Too often organizations start their journey into social media by hiring someone to do social media. Instead hire someone to collect, curate, repurpose and create content. Hire a chief content officer. Ok, you don’t have to call it that, but focus on content as a tool to create conversation and connections.

In December I wrote about the Smithsonian’s censorship of a video in a National Portrait Gallery exhibition. In case you were wondering if anything was done about that ignorant decision, ArtInfo tells us, well, yes and no.

If your appetite for resources on nonprofits and social media is not sated, Beth Kanter shares a bunch from the Zoetica Salon, including posts on editorial calendars, strategy tune-ups, benchmarking and more.

I’m riveted to the news from Egypt. We (they, it’s all the same now, isn’t it?) are either on the cusp of something amazingly positive for that country, although the obstacles are formidable, or we are in for a huge disappointment if the military regime holds onto power. They are so intertwined into the political and economic infrastructure, it’s hard to imagine them ceding power at all. I created a Twitter list of  29, at last count, Egyptian activists and journalists worth following. Respect.

egyptian twitter list

Image by Nick Bygon

Joe Pulizzi at Junta42 shares a great idea for many organizations that’s also a natural fit for associations, and more imperative than ever since many have been losing traction in this area — Starting a News Service for Your Industry. Chief Content Officer? What a cool job that would be!

Social media can be a catalyst for positive organizational change. In this fascinating interview with Arthur L. Hue, author of Social Media at Work: How Networking Tools Propel Organizational Performance, at Thomas Clifford’s blog, we learn how using social media can foster staff engagement and motivation. Hue also believes it will be the key to recruiting and retaining Millennials.

Maggie McGary at Mizz Information is one of my favorite bloggers because she cuts through the bull, asks tough questions and gives solid advice. Her recent guest post on Socialfish is an example of what I mean — Five Reasons Why Facebook Will Never Replace Your Website.

An interesting article by Neal Gabler, Everyone’s a Critic Now, is another in a recent flurry of writing about the state of criticism, including a blog post from me. Gabler writes about the strange critical consensus on 2010’s Top Ten lists and the battles between high and popular culture. Be sure to spend some time reading the responses from critics. The whole argument about cultural elitism has really struck a nerve with me lately. I love being part of the “age of cultural populism” that Gabler describes, but I really detest the way some populists disdain the tastes of others, and vice versa.

Thanks to Adam Haslett’s recent article, The Art of Good Writing, I’ve added yet another book to my wish list — How to Write a Sentence: And How to Read One. Haslett’s article itself is a treat for literature and word lovers.

My Greensboro pal, Danielle Hatfield at Experience Farm, shared a good post with her Twitter friends by Kathryn Williams, Working from Home: A Survivor’s Guide. Kathryn obviously knows the benefits and downfalls of a home office. Yes, I’m in yoga clothes right now but that’s because I plan to roll out the mat soon. Really.

If you’re an art lover who doesn’t have a big travel budget, you’ll love the Google Art Project. You can browse through 17 major art museums, including the Met, Frick, MoMA, Tate Britain, Rijksmuseum, Uffizi, Hermitage, Reina Sofia and Alte Nationalgalerie. Wow, studying art history is nothing like it used to be!

content social media criticism writing art

Glad she's safe! ~ flickr photo by Paul Mannix

Norman Rockwell took me on a trip through American political and cultural history earlier this week. The North Carolina Museum of Art exhibit, American Chronicles: The Art of Norman Rockwell, includes 47 years of his covers for The Saturday Evening Post plus dozens of other paintings.

I first got a deep look at Rockwell almost ten years ago when the Corcoran Gallery of Art presented Norman Rockwell: Pictures for the American People. Until then I thought Rockwell was an early version of Thomas Kinkade, not deserving of art world respect, but since I happened to be at the Corcoran I thought I’d take a quick spin through the exhibition. Cue the comeuppance. I was introduced to a man with great talent and insight who in one painting portrayed the private moments of the girl next door and in the next the televised moments of one thrust onto the world stage.

As I browsed through his Evening Post covers I wondered, who is his counterpart today? Whose work attracts a comparable audience? Whose work touches on politics, current events, pop culture and common experiences? We have personalities like Andy Rooney, Jon Stewart and Jay Leno. Are they modern day Rockwells? I don’t think so. Who would you nominate?

Norman Rockwell Art Collection Trust

I laughed when I saw Deadline (Artist Facing Blank Canvas) . Here’s a guy who had a creative block and used that as a subject for his next cover. Brilliant! What writer or blogger can’t relate to a looming deadline and blank document?

Rockwell’s art has always been pooh-poohed as lightweight. While he was selling his illustrations to magazines and advertisers, the art world was fawning over Pollock, de Kooning and Warhol. Some of Rockwell’s work was sentimental and sicky sweet, but it captured a common vision of America, a Jimmy Stewart version, an idyllic childhood that everyone remembered, imagined or wished they had. Rockwell had his own fun with the sneering art critics and connoisseurs of his day. Look how the lady in the painting flirts with the critic and how the three Dutch merchants in the adjacent painting react.

Norman Rockwell Museum Collection

Say what you will, the man had skills and depth. He butted up against the prevailing standards for portraying a white bread world. He didn’t just paint happy scenes of Americana but also grappled with the dark side of our country’s past: a young rich white boy in a dining car trying to figure out how to tip the grandfatherly black waiter; a black girl walking into her newly desegregated school surrounded by the legs of her accompanying federal marshals; and the red blood stains on a bleached white shirt of a murdered civil rights worker in Mississippi.

Art provides many types of experiences to viewers. Sometimes the sensory experience is enough. But usually art stirs up other emotions and thoughts and that’s when the experience gets interesting. Like my last visit to a Rockwell exhibition, this one was an unexpected delight. I got more of a sense for the man and he surprised me. I also got a stroll through 20th century America. The exhibit whetted my appetite to learn more. I guess once a history major, always a history geek. I have a new imaginary book for my fantasy library: a catalog of all of Rockwell’s Evening Post and Look magazine covers, one piece per page and each accompanied by an essay that puts it in historical and cultural context. That would be the ultimate American chronicle for a rainy day like today.

“Technology killed criticism,” says Morgan Meis in On the State of Criticism 2011. Everyone’s a critic now, writing reviews on Amazon and blogs, and ranting or raving on Twitter. Netflix, Pandora and Amazon make personalized recommendations based on algorithms, decreasing our reliance on professional critics.

Meis sees this loss of authority for critics as an opportunity for them to share their experience and love of art, rather than merely judge it.

“The death of the critic-as-authority is the birth of another kind of criticism . . . the kind that doesn’t rely on authority and judgment, Romantic criticism.”

Romantic criticism “does not stand outside the work of art, but stands alongside, maybe even inside, the work of art, participating in the work in order to further express and tease out what the artist already put there.” The critic’s role is to help us experience art. Meis calls this generous criticism. “It wants to make experience bigger, it wants to make each work of art as rich as it can possibly be.”

Imagine the critic’s relief. Instead of reading a book or viewing an artwork and knowing your opinion is one that could make or break its success in the marketplace, you’re now free to share your experience, put the work in context and enlighten your readers.

Meis’ romantic generous critic reminded me of Arthur Danto, longtime art critic for The Nation and philosophy professor at Columbia University. When I was a volunteer at the National Gallery one of our educators suggested I read Encounters and Reflections: Art in the Historical Present; later I read Beyond the Brillo Box: The Visual Arts in Post-Historical Perspective – books I foolishly purged when I moved across country.

Danto’s writing and NGA lectures were enthralling and thought-provoking. He showed me new ways to see, think about and experience art. While drafting this post I wondered if I remembered him correctly, but was reassured after reading this from Denis Dutton, founder of Arts & Letters Daily — a site I can lose hours in:

“That Danto is a critic who knows art and its history, and that he is a skilled philosopher go almost without saying, but this alone cannot account for the attractiveness of these essays. There is an element here which, curious to remark, many contemporary critics either lack or won’t betray: Danto adores art. This means that when he likes something, he can carry his reader away with the enthusiasm, as he does with Warhol or with something so simple as a Raphael drawing of a head and hand. Moreover, his tastes are broad, and celebrate as much the present instant in art as its historical past.”

blogging criticism critics bloggers influence love passion

flickr photo by Global_X

Danto is a romantic and generous critic. What about bloggers? Are we romantic and generous bloggers? Do we pass judgment on our subjects or do we share our experience and love of them, and try to make them richer? The latter doesn’t mean we’re Polyannas oozing positivity; we mete out tough love too.

Many of us in the association blogosphere might be accused of being too critical or judgmental about associations. Yes, we criticize, but it’s to try to push the conversation further, to make associations a richer experience. We’re thinking out loud together. We wouldn’t blog about associations, leadership and community if we weren’t fascinated by those subjects. As a writer I may be on the outside, no longer working in an association, but I still consider myself part of the community because, well, I love it.

I can only dream of being a thinker and writer like Danto, a wannabe art historian’s dream. But I can continue to share my love and knowledge with others. I admit, I’d love to spark “hmm, fascinating” in a reader’s brain every now and then. But I’m not here to be an authority or pass judgment. I’m here for the love of it all — conversation, wild ideas, community, expression, writing. I’m sharing my experience, love and passions in my own way.

Adam Kirsch, senior editor at The New Republic, defines a critic as “one who says something true about life and the world. The critic’s will is not to power, but to self-understanding, self-expression, truth.” A critic’s writing shows “a mind working out its own questions.” That sounds like many bloggers I know and the blogger I aspire to be.

One of the many things I love about the Christmas season is how it brings out the generous side of people. In a timely post Bob Bessette shares some ways we can blog for good. He definitely got me thinking about how I might use my writing skills to help out a local charity. Another way to help out good causes is to sign up to be a micro-volunteer with the Sparked network where you can “turn your spare time into social good.” Once you sign up, select causes and identify your skills, Sparked will send you email alerts when an organization needs your help.

The week between Christmas and New Year’s Day is the ideal time to reflect and reset. I’ve written at SmartBlog Insights about setting time aside at work to reboot. Carol-Anne Moutinho shares several ways to help your nonprofit staff unleash their creative energy. Her ideas can work for any organization at any time, so don’t skip this one.

volunteering blogging Dan Flavin staff creativity

untitled (to you, Heiner, with admiration and affection) by Dan Flavin at the National Gallery of Art, photo by EB Morse

Here’s a fascinating case about the perennial question — what is art. A British art gallery importing disassembled artwork by Dan Flavin and Bill Viola for an exhibit was taxed by customs at the standard 20% rate, instead of the 5% artwork rate. Customs classified Flavin’s work as “lighting fittings” rather than art, and the European Commission later agreed. As the post notes, this shows how “modern” art can still bewilder some people, just like in 1926 when Brancusi’s Bird in Space was classified as “Kitchen Utensils and Hospital Supplies.”

I haven’t suggested a Twitter follow in this series yet. I get a lot of good reading suggestions from Justin Levy’s @jlevymedia account. This isn’t his personal account, but a feed of posts he finds worth sharing, a mix of social media content and posts that appeal to freelancers and other creative types.

Jeff Cobb at Mission to Learn saves the day with his list of ten last minute gifts for lifelong learners. As a self-identified lifelong learner myself, I can vouch for the accuracy of this list. I’m reading a book by Natalie Angier, The Canon: A Whirligig Tour of the Beautiful Basics of Science, and she recommends buying a dissecting, or stereo, microscope (that would fall under #4, Experiment, on Jeff’s list). They’re not cheap, but maybe you can find one at a yard sale, that’s where I’m looking. She says it’s “a modest price to pay for revelation, revolution, and — let’s push this envelope out of the box while we’re at it — personal salvation.” Wow. Check out Jeff’s list for your own personal salvation.

I thought it was rather generous of Santa’s agency to publish his brand guidelines for all to see. Lots to learn here about that jolly old fellow. Yet I must warn you that Santa spelled backward, atnas, is not Lithuanian for chimney, as far as I can tell. Yes, I’m just gullible enough to check things like that. However, I’m sure the rest is all true. Merry Christmas!

staff creativity blogging volunteering santa branding dan flavin

flickr photo by LadyDragonflyCC