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How To Spread 1,000 Random Acts Of Culture

Flashmobs don’t have to be used for mayhem. One organization is using them to introduce people to amazing art.

Flash mobs–those groups of people that gather in public places and, say, stage a mass dance performance of Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” or ride the subway with no pants on–once were surprising, even delightful. Now they’re commonplace. But what if these pop-up performances were used for a good cause, like making people aware of the cultural organizations in their cities? The Knight Foundation’s Random Acts of Culture program pulled it off 1,000 times over.

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Over the past two years, the foundation has worked with arts organizations in eight U.S. cities (Akron, Ohio; Charlotte, North Carolina; Detroit; Macon, Georgia; Miami; Philadelphia; San Jose, California; and St. Paul, Minnesota) to bring seemingly spontaneous performances to malls, farmer’s markets, office building lobbies, train stations, and elsewhere. “These are interesting ways to connect communities to culture.” says Dennis Scholl, VP of arts at the Knight Foundation and creator of the Random Acts of Culture Program. “As society changes and we get deeper into our digital lives, we tend to move away from the ways we entertained ourselves previously.”

The idea for the program came to Scholl after watching this YouTube clip, featuring a guy behind a counter at a marketplace in Spain singing an operatic aria to a woman selling coffee beans (also in on the performance). Other performers come out of the crowd and begin to sing with them. The crowd grows, and at the end, one of the singers holds up a sign (in Spanish) saying “You thought you didn’t like opera?”

“I thought, what if we could do this on a replicable basis, if we picked number of cities and just saturated them with this concept?” explains Scholl. So he successfully proposed the idea to the Knight Foundation’s board and in the past two years, the Random Acts of Culture program has sent all sorts of performances from 30 different arts organizations, including opera, tango, jazz, flamenco, and modern dance, into the streets. The only requirement: that the performances be a surprise and feature songs that might be familiar to audiences.

The performances have garnered tens of millions of views on YouTube. “We were hoping that people would be interested in the project, but we never expected it to turn into that,” says Scholl.

The show that really turned people onto the program happened at a Macy’s in Philadelphia that happens to be home to the world’s largest pipe organ. The Knight Foundation had asked choral groups from Philadelphia to come at noon on a Saturday for a performance of the Hallelujah Chorus accompanied by the pipe organ. Over 600 performers showed up. “Tears were streaming down people’s faces,” says Scholl. Indeed, it’s hard not to be moved by the chorus, even from afar (see video at the top of the page).

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Now that the Knight Foundation has provided what Scholl calls “the seed capital” for these Random Acts of Culture, virtually all of the arts organizations involved plan to keep them going. “It was a social venture capital investment,” says Scholl.

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About the author

Ariel Schwartz is a Senior Editor at Co.Exist. She has contributed to SF Weekly, Popular Science, Inhabitat, Greenbiz, NBC Bay Area, GOOD Magazine and more

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