Artists want to connect with tourists. But tourists also want to connect with artists. Currently tourists crawl through the exhibits of a great museum as much because it is an obligation as it is a pleasure. But if they encounter Mongolian chanters, Andean flute players, local performance artists or local street artists in the open space in front of the museum, they will stop, listen and look with real pleasure. That will be the memory they take home and the reason they return. If you are a local government, you can pour hundreds of millions of dollars into your museums; or, for free, you can create an environment such that Mongolian chanters, Andean flute players, local performance artists, local street artists and other creative and performing artists appear, interact with tourists, and help them create memories.

Tourists are already primed to respond to the artists they encounter but first and foremost they want a safe, sanctioned experience. Only a very small percentage of travelers are genuinely adventurous and virtually no traveler wants to court actual danger. Visitors want safe experiences, experiences that they know or feel are sanctioned by someone they can trust, whether that someone is a government official, a tourism professional, a hotel concierge, or an art gallery director. A tourist would probably not even consider attending a street performance happening in an edgy Manhattan or Berlin neighborhood, even if he found the description of the event intriguing, unless someone he trusted vouched for the performance and the neighborhood.

Visitors will almost always opt for safety first. So someone must sanction the experience and that’s where local government, local businesses, and the tourism industry can step in. If a tourist reads about the event in a publication he picks up at the tourist office, he will be more likely to attend it. If he sees a flyer for it at each of the galleries he visits along gallery row, flyers not dropped on the floor by the door but presented in such a way that it is clear that the galleries are standing behind the event, he will be more likely to go.

If he hears about it at the travel office back home—if it is one of those things he is told that he “must do” when he gets to Manhattan or Berlin—he will be more likely to go. If it is announced on the scroll in the lobby of the hotel where he is staying, he will be more likely to go. The more that these small, intimate, street corner-sized events are publicized and sanctioned by the various players in the tourism industry, the more likely it is that visitors will feel comfortable trying them out.

And they will try them out. Tourists want life and they are hungry to be awakened. They want what is not available to them locally: that marriage of culture and place that manifests as a Berlin hotel where every room is a surreal installation, that conversation about horse sculptures with a Santa Fe gallery owner, the lilt of French in a Montreal café frequented by writers. The great museum may be the main draw but the atmosphere on the street is what they really crave—it is ultimately why a city merits its “creative” designation and it is what tourists actually want from their cultural vacation.

Visitors enjoy “small” experiences at least as much as they enjoy the “large” cultural experiences of museums and monuments. Human things appeal to human beings. These human things are called “authentic experiences” in the cultural tourism and creative tourism literature. A tourist may not even know that he is hungering for a small human experience from his visit to your city and he may suppose that he is coming for the shopping, the museums, and the restaurants. But in fact what he wants is to have his heart stirred for a moment.

If he is landlocked at home, he wants to feel the breeze off the ocean hit his face. If his town is pitch-dark by nine in the evening, he wants to see city lights and human beings still reveling at midnight. He will treasure these experiences; and he will return to your city again and again simply because he holds a fondness for the “small” things he encountered there, including his encounters with local artists.

Tourists likewise crave street life. There is a vast difference between bustling downtown streets filled with life and an overrun tourist attraction clogged with tour buses. In the raging debate about how much tourism is good for a place, it is important to make a distinction between adding life to the streets and adding visitors to the main tourist attractions. Residents may well balk if they experience their everyday life overwhelmed by tourists who are visiting local attractions. But they love and embrace street life and are happy to share that street life with visitors. Residents love and need their street fairs, their open-air markets, their band concerts, and their people-watching exactly as much as visitors do; and with respect to this bustling street life, residents do not mind that visitors share the wealth.

There is a great lesson to be learned from the failure of the urban redevelopment movement of several decades ago. It is the lesson that human beings need human life around them and want their environment to be built and lived on a human scale. We should remember that great pioneer Jane Jacobs, whose book The Death and Life of Great American Cities made a brilliant case against inhuman urban development and who spent her life advocating for the humanization of cities. With fierce eloquence, she announced back in the ‘60s that the ideas promoted by urban planners to save cities were destroying those cities and that urban planners, out of ignorance, an obsession with theory, partisan politics, or ties to corporate money were doing their constituents a disservice by not looking at and honoring what actually worked in cities.

She noted for instance a fact that should have been obvious to anyone: people like to look at one another. When you get right down to it, people who are attracted to visiting cities are attracted primarily because they get a par excellence opportunity to people-watch. Denizens of cities are themselves made happy by well-used parks, rather than empty ones, by bustling common areas, rather than deserted ones, and by people coming and going on their own two feet, rather than driving by in cars belching exhaust fumes. Jane wrote: “The activity generated by people on errands, or people aiming for food or drink, is itself an attraction to still other people. This last point, that the sight of people attracts still other people, is something that city planners and city architectural designers seem to find incomprehensible. They operate on the premise that city people seek the sight of emptiness, obvious order and quiet. Nothing could be less true. People’s love of watching activity and other people is constantly evident in cities everywhere.”

Street life is crucial to the vitality of a place and artists can add to the street life of their cities—and, in turn, to the culture of their cities—by taking their creative efforts public, by engaging visitors and residents in small-scale, street corner-sized activities and events, and by imagining the street as an extension of their studio. Street fairs and bandstand concerts are wonderful and valuable, but such events do not need to represent the sum total of public culture. Where people go—along the boulevards, into restaurants, waiting in hotel lobbies, gathering in train stations, standing in line at a great museum, strolling in parks—that’s where artists should also be.

We should conceptualize the tourist not only as he is but also as he might become if he were presented with the right opportunities. As he is, he seems to want only shallow, simple, distracting experiences—nothing authentic, please. Those who cater to him often see as their goal, as described in an article called “The Fakelore of Hawaii,” to “mystify the mundane, amplify the exotic, minimize the misery, rationalize the disquietude, and romanticize the strange.” They believe that they ought to provide as safe and cocooned an experience as possible. This may be one truth; but side-by-side with this truth is the contradictory truth that what tourists find most memorable are the human sights and sounds of the places they visit: the aroma of freshly baked bread, the lilt of a spontaneous song—the human things, including their interactions with artists.

Exercise 1: Make the argument in your own words as to why tourists might well want what artists have to offer.

Exercise 2: How might you meet this need, the need that tourists have for small, human-sized, street-based experiences?


Share This