Go Deeper

Denver’s 2020 Arts Plan–another plan designed for people too lazy to read

Posted March 21st, 2014

The city of Denver recently released a seven-year cultural plan called Denver 2020. May this help booster the city as an arts destination, and the incorporation of arts into city and community life in general, and if realized, help serve as a model to other cities. (God forbid America look to those European cities–or Montreal–for healthy models of  art as integral to city life.)

But . . . whether good or bad, why is the plan, the  full, published plan, given a design and editorial treatment that is for people who are too lazy to read? It’s colorful! It has graphs! It uses the word “strategy” incorrectly, all the time! It allows no opportunity for thought! It is essentially a giant, overly designed brochure that avoids intelligent text like the plague. What’s funny is that there is also a brochure. Why is the plan doing what the brochure does? 

I have seen numerous, well-intentioned, arts planning guides by cultural groups over the past 10 years that were so proud of how “not boring” their published plan looked, how it didn’t turn people off with too much text, how colorful it was, how clearly it showed objectives through colorful circles and arrows, and bullet point lists! But after the initial splash, nobody uses these plans, they are all trash. Because they have no depth within in them, because they do not share enough information, analysis, and raw research, they cannot be used as a resource. Talking points for foundations, arts organizations, and government supporters to use for a few months–that is not a resource, that is not a plan.

A plan cannot be presented as an advertisement. (The brochure, yes.) The first few pages of a plan can have the executive summary hoohah to satisfy that need for talking points. But the plan must be exhaustive, it must make its research available, it must be citable in a credible and authoritative and fact-checkable way, and it also must be written to be read.

If you are creating a serious plan to guide an entire city for seven years, you need something else than loud, oversized titles, aphorisms posing as fact, and lists of vaguely actionable items: you need substance and good information. It is the equivalent to George Bush thinking the democracy will magically spread throughout the Middle East by invading Iraq. That is not a plan! It is especially unfortunate because often there is a lot of valuable research and work that has gone into making these documents (as well as–sometimes–some quasi-scientific and questionable statistical methods)–it is okay if some of that research and its implications will bore some people. The challenge is then not how do you avoid putting too much of those annoying words in there, but how do write with clarity, how do you organize information so that other organizations can use your plan as a true resource, and perhaps even implement part(s) of it (which is the goal, right?)?

In publishing, that pesky industry that gets people to read things, those who shape periodicals and books and journals are the editors and writers, those who have a commitment to the material, the research, the work. And those designing those publications use typography that is made for reading. That is why serious work has value, because those in charge of making it are serious about its content.

Yes, it is good that Denver, or any major American city, is making any kind of public push for the arts, and it publicly declaring value in the arts as integral to the health of a city. But it would be nice for these “plans” to start containing a bit more substance.  Making a city into a cultural and artistic hub takes serious work. We should not be afraid to create serious documents to help support the effort.

–Leo Krass

(And why 2020? Why not 2016? Get to work now!)