First Person Arts: Sharing Stories of Objects Held Dear
First Person Arts is an organization that focuses on memoir and documentary art. Its best known program is its First Person Arts Festival, an annual event that features movie screenings, book readings, discussions and other events on memoir and documentary art.
“Our mission is all about the power of the personal story. Every person has a story. By sharing our stories with each other we connect with other people and learn things about ourselves,” said Dana Dorman, former museum coordinator.
First Person Arts developed a project in which they asked people to write stories based on an ordinary object that they hold dear. The goal was to attract new communities and audiences to First Person Arts programs, particularly by increasing racial and age diversity.
Research Into Action Findings Used By First Person Arts
- People of color are more engaged & growing in population. Arts and culture organizations need to adapt programming and marketing to accommodate changing demographics.
- Personal practice is a gateway to attendance. There is a strong correlation between personal creative practice and higher levels of attendance.
First Person Arts undertook a variety of ways to engage with new audiences. Among them was working with six community organizations to hold “StoryCircles” in which participants brought objects and told stories about them. First Person Arts hoped that people who came and told stories would contribute to a special exhibit during its annual festival, and then attend the festival, bringing their friends and family with them.
Nearly 100 people came to one of the story telling events. Of those, 44 contributed stories to the museum exhibit that was featured throughout the First Person Arts Festival that ran in November and December 2010. Of those stories 16 were full-length stories of 200 words and the rest were one-sentence summaries of stories. The exhibit at the First Person Arts Festival had the feel of a living room with tables and dressers to display the objects, and chairs and couches located throughout to encourage visitors to sit and enjoy the stories.
Among the participants and objects were: (1) a mother and her son’s boxers shorts that he had been wearing when he was arrested for drug possession; (2) a woman and an unfinished sock that her friend had been knitting when she died at age 33; and (3) a young man and the lifetime fishing license of his grandfather who had taught him to fish.
In the story circle she attended, Carla Jones had not brought an object to tell a story about. But as she listened to others talk she found that, out of nervous habit, she reached to spin her wedding ring. Only she was no longer wearing it. Jones then knew what her story would be about. Once she wrote her story, the facilitator at the story circle strongly encouraged her to submit it for the museum exhibit. Without the facilitator’s persistence, Jones said she probably would not have done so.
“I couldn’t say no one asked for my story.” she said. “I saw that this was bigger than my little story. I went from ‘Oh my God, my marriage is over, now I’m going to be divorced,’ to seeing that this was a story that people could connect to and feel empowered by. Maybe someone comes in here [to the exhibit] who signed divorce papers yesterday and this story helps. It made me feel valuable and that my story was worth telling.”
Jones said she went to the First Person Arts Festival for the first time as a result of contributing a story to the museum exhibit. She has since returned several times for events sponsored by First Person Arts.
To read Jones’ story, go here
- Some 75 percent of participants who sustained their involvement in the story telling project visited the First Person Museum.
- About 40 percent of those participants brought friends and family to the Festival.
- First Person Arts increased minority attendance by 36 percent based on audience survey responses.
- More than 2910 people attended the First Person Festival -- surpassing the organization’s goal by more than 400 visitors.
“The goal of increasing audience engagement worked to some extent,” said Vicky Solot, former executive director of First Person Arts. “It brought in a lot of people who would not have been introduced to our events otherwise.”
Engaging a new audience from communities that had not typically participated in First Person Arts events was daunting, staff members said. Staff often had to follow up with participants several times to get them to submit stories and come to the festival, in the midst of planning for the larger festival itself. In their debriefing after the festival, staff said they were not sure whether those participants would become continuing audience members.
While First Person Arts added a new website devoted to this project, it was not well connected to the physical exhibit. The disconnection meant that the website and other activities did not provide an integrated “voice” to the project.
- Seek participants that are prospects for long-term involvement. First Person Arts hoped that the Engage 2020 project would expand and diversify their audience. Yet they did not “prequalify” the participating groups in terms of whether they had a long term potential to stay involved, Solot said.
When seeking to build new audiences, it is important to make sure that the audiences that arts organizations target want to become involved in its organization and then provide them with a clear understanding of a project.
“If people know that they will be involved in something that has an extended life and that their stories may be exhibited and we give them a direction and theme, the stories will be deeper and more nuanced,” Solot said. “We will also attract people who are interested in doing this and we will spend less time drawing them back in, as we did with the Engage 2020 project. We had to do a lot of outreach and maintaining of participants’ interest, mostly because we didn’t set up expectations.”
- Consider going into greater depth with similar story projects. Feedback from participants and audiences was that they wanted longer, more in-depth stories that could more fully describe the experience and historical background or connections of the stories.
- Devote significant resources to website development if an online strategy is part of a project’s goals. Much of the project work focused on gathering stories and creating the exhibit for the First Person Arts festival. But the organization’s website, which could be another powerful vehicle to engage audiences, did not fully connect visitors to the stories, which was a lost opportunity. If a website is part of an audience engagement strategy, it needs its own dedicated effort.
First Person Arts plans to write a grant proposal to fund a version of this project for its festival in 2012. Among the changes might be recording stories on video or telling them through story slams, including one at the First Person Arts annual festival, rather than mounting another museum exhibit. First Person Arts also plans to update the new website and make it more interactive and easier to share stories in multiple forms.
In addition, the organization’s new executive director, Jamie J. Brunson, first came to learn about First Person Arts through her participation in a StoryCircle in the Engage 2020 project.
First Person Arts