Sunday, April 20, 2014

Blueprint for Professional Development in the Arts

Good morning.
"And the beat goes on……………….."

Dinner-vention Note:  The deadline for submitting nominees for Dinner-Vention 2 is May 15th.  If you have in mind names of the best and brightest of the upcoming generation of arts leaders - please take a moment and email those suggestions to me.  Remember this isn't so much about 'emerging' leaders, but rather leaders who have established themselves, but have not yet become the most powerful or influential.

Professional Development in the Arts Challenge:

I have long been concerned that as a sector, the nonprofit arts field isn’t adequately providing the professional skills training that we need.  The private sector has long recognized that skills training isn’t a luxury, it is a necessity -- if for no other reason than the rules of business are constantly changing and those who don’t provide the opportunities for increasing management knowledge are doomed to failure.  We’re doing better, by far, than we were a decade ago, but it seems clear to me that too few of our people have the ongoing access to the training they need.  As a field, our approach to the challenge of adequate, meaningful, ongoing professional development is piecemeal, not comprehensive.

Critical to any business of any size is the skill set of management.  Honing the business and leadership skills of senior leadership as well as that of the rank and file staff, and keeping abreast of new trends, developments, ideas and strategies in professional development training, is essential in running a successful business enterprise and competing effectively in the marketplace. Arts organizations are small businesses.

It is incumbent on our field to address the training and knowledge needs of our current and future leaders.  And yet, while we talk a lot more lately about meeting that challenge, our whole approach to providing the opportunities and access to learn how to become better, more productive, more efficient, more intelligent and savvy managers has some serious systemic problems that continue to negatively impact our progress is this area.  And those problems hamper bosses, supervisors, department heads, middle level people, the rank and file and even the trainees and interns.  While some of our people have regular access to the training they need in a way that makes sense to them, most really do not.

There are six principal avenues of professional development options in the nonprofit arts sector:

  1. University and professional programs in arts and business administration - degree programs, certificate programs, and isolated offerings.
  2. Independent consultants and coaches.
  3. Workshops, seminars, webinars, podcasts and other classes - offered by service provider organizations, management centers and others.
  4. Mentoring - from within organizations and from outside sources.  
  5. Independent self study including books, articles, case studies, online offerings and the like.
  6. Peer to peer education and learning - including offerings and networking opportunities at conferences and conventions.

These options are available either as in-person experiences or online via the internet.

In the aggregate of the above offerings there is a rich plethora of professional development opportunities available to all levels of arts administrators.  The level of sophistication of those offerings is increasing, and the opportunities are becoming more frequent and more available.  But not yet enough, and not for everyone.

And there are problems with what is available.  Not enough of our people are regularly afforded opportunities to improve their skills levels.  Not enough of our people are taking advantage of the opportunities out there.

The challenges to accessing these opportunities are chiefly:

  • Financial Affordability - In many cases there is a problem of prohibitive costs.  For most providers of the offerings (in-person or online), providing skills training is an income generating activity and they both expect, and need, to make money.  Thus, for example, University programs and independent coaches may be excellent, but simply not affordable for a lot of people - especially those who are already working.  But the real crux of the problem is a widespread lack of a line item allocation for professional development of all levels of the organization’s staff in most organizational budgets.  And even when money is allocated, it is often not enough to provide for all the training that is necessary, nor for all the people who would benefit from it.  
  • Access - There are far more in-person workshops and professional development offerings in the urban areas than in the suburban and rural areas, and thus it is more difficult for those not in the bigger cities to access in-person types of training options.  Locations can be inconvenient for some to travel to, and a one hour workshop or class may take an entire day if you factor in travel time -- and that kind of time is often unavailable to middle and lower level staff.  Then there is the inconvenience to those who might want to avail themselves of an offering in terms of scheduling (month, day, time of day etc.).  The bias towards urban offerings works against those outside those locales.  Even the online offerings are too often not "on-demand", but rather at times or dates not necessarily convenient or workable for the end user.
  • Identifying What is Available / Where and When - While there is a wide variety of offerings (both physical, in-person kinds of workshops etc., and the even larger offerings online), trying to find out what is available, where and when is increasingly difficult. There is too much out there.  I'm in the business of trying to keep abreast of what is going on in the field.  I get dozens of newsletters, alerts and the like every week, and I can't keep track of what is being offered. I can only imagine that the typical arts administrator who is not as much in the loop as I am must face an impossibly daunting task to know what is being offered.  There is no central clearinghouse of all that is offered; nowhere to access an aggregation of all that is available.  Individuals are basically on their own in identifying development opportunities that might be right for them.  Tracking down those options may often take so much time, that it defeats the incentive to even try.  Thus while there has been a dramatic growth in online offerings, including the MOCCs (Massive Open Online Courses - e.g. Udacity and others), with major universities across the globe offering literally thousands of courses - many of which would be useful and relevant to arts administrators, and while huge numbers of those courses are offered for free -it would take literally scores of hours to find the ones appropriate and right for you.  We need not only a central clearing house of arts related online skills training options, but we need to curate those offerings so that individual arts administrators can easily and quickly find what is out there that is tailored to their needs.  (And in an ideal situation, there would be a version of YELP so that those who have taken an in-person or online offering could review the same and share what was good and what was lacking.)  
  • Senior Management Bias - For far too long, the best of the skills training opportunities (including attendance at conferences and conventions where the sessions and networking opportunities constitute a form of professional development in and of themselves) have not been available to staff below the senior level.  The reason for that unfortunate reality has been the cost - of an in-person training event, a coach or of sending lots of people to these meetings and convenings.
  • Ignorance of what would be beneficial and how.  Part of the process of increasing one’s knowledge and skills level is in understanding where one needs help.  We do not have tools nor a process in place designed to help our people understand what kinds of training would be most helpful and beneficial to them at any given point in time.  That should be one of the skills taught to supervisory managers, so they could help those reporting to them gain the skills they need by being able to convey to their people what knowledge acquisition might help them perform better.
  • Limitation of Offerings.  The vast majority of offerings center on a relatively small number of management topics.  Assuming one could identify and avail themselves of the offerings, there are endless courses, webinars, presentations, symposiums, workshops, classes, books, articles etc. on fundraising, marketing, Board management,  audience development, strategic planning and even technology--  plus a few other major management areas.  But those offerings are only a foundation on which superior arts management skill sets are developed.  There are scores of other areas which our people ought to have the opportunities to learn and hone their skills so as to improve and nurture other valuable skill sets -- everything from the simplicity of how to read a financial statement (and I would venture to say half the Board members of every organization in the whole nonprofit universe, and a goodly number of the staff, do NOT really know how to read financial statements), to the more complex skills our leaders need - including the mundane (time management, how to run effective meetings, how to listen, budget planning, understanding data and research, how to conduct effective interviews) ---  to the sophisticated (how to enhance one’s charisma and leadership posture, how to recognize trends, to how to motivate people,  how to be an arts entrepreneur, how to run an innovative and adaptive organization, how to be a nimble leader, and so on and so on).  The point is that training in the arts 'basics' simply isn’t enough any more.  The need and demand for much deeper knowledge is there, and largely remains unmet.  My own bias is that we need offerings on policy formulation as much as anything else.  Nowhere can you find much help on that topic.

The most dynamic and effective leaders at all levels, understand and appreciate that there is a whole panoply of skills that are needed on a daily basis to run healthy, vibrant organizations - and that learning all there is to learn is an ongoing (and really never-ending) process.  The more opportunities everyone in an organization has to continually improve their personal and professional skills levels, the better chance that organization has in meeting the daunting, complex problems we face.  And, as management  today is a 'team' effort, the team is only as strong as its weakest link. ALL our people need access to ongoing professional development training opportunities.  It is essential not only to effective organizations, but to our recruiting and retention efforts as well.  Moreover, what you learn one year may well be outdated the following year.

The most promising tool we (and all businesses really) have probably lies in the online offerings as a way to complement the in-person offerings (which, for a variety of reasons, may not be available to everyone).

But we must address the issues of cost, access (convenience of access and scheduling), ease in identifying what we need and then finding the opportunities to address that need, and breadth of content (we’ve got to offer a much larger range of knowledge learning) -- or we will continue to have a hodgepodge of in-person and online offerings (excellent though some of them may be) which are underutilized by our people.

We have made inroads into our online offerings, and the potential is there to greatly expand what is available to our people.

Sources of potential online offerings include:

  1. Universities - both arts and business administration degree programs for a fee and general relevant university offerings at no cost.  
  2. Nonprofit (both arts specific and otherwise) class offerings - seminars, workshops, webinars, podcasts, lectures, presentations etc. -- offered by our own organizations, by nonprofit umbrella groups, by university programs and others.
  3. Independent coaches and consultants - from our field and beyond (Some of whom already create available online content.  The potential is huge for more from those coaches and consultants - and from the growing pool of experienced, recently retired arts administrators - who haven’t yet created online content professional development).
  4. Authors of books, periodicals, articles, speeches et. al.
  5. Peer networks / independent mentoring / coaching.
  6. Newly created offerings specifically designed to be online.

Our own sector’s online offerings are already increasing dramatically.  We need to manage that growth so that:

1.  The finances make sense to both those creating and offering the content, and those to whom that content is aimed.  Bottom line:  Those offering the skills training need to make money, and we need to incentivize all of those who might create valuable content to do so. Those availing themselves of those offerings need the cost to them to be affordable.

RECOMMENDATION:  Two things need to happen:  First, we have to build a culture in our sector that recognizes and embraces the idea that continuing skills training and opportunities to gain more knowledge is critical to our survival and must be available to everyone at all levels of their careers - throughout their careers.  Second, that attitude needs to manifest itself in every organization (irrespective of its size, age, focus etc.) having an annual line item in its budget that amply provides for professional development opportunities for everyone in the organization - board, staff and sometimes even for volunteers and interns.  Note:  I'm not being unrealistic; I do not envision a Utopia wherein anyone can have a professional development option at will - irrespective of the cost.  But I am talking about making a meaningful, ongoing investment in training the organization's people so that they can do their jobs at a high level.  That may require funders to recognize that the provision of professional development opportunities is a sector wide challenge and key to their grantees succeeding in realizing the overarching goals of the funders. Funders must work towards moving organizations to think in terms of professional development as an essential expenditure - like rent and salaries. Some subsidy may be necessary.  The danger in not spending the money for the sector is a situation where the very richest organizations expand their skills training opportunities while the ‘have-nots’ don’t - which will create an inequity that we will all ultimately pay the price for.

2.  What we offer needs to be much broader in terms of content and focus than what is currently available.  We have to have a much richer, deeper level of content as part of our overall professional development paradigm.  We need our skills training to at least follow (if not equal) the private sector model.  We are currently in the midst of the beginning of a major transition from one generation of arts leaders to others.  The number of organizations that have experienced a change in senior leadership in the past two years has been eye-opening. The turnover in middle level management continues to churn.  The wholesale transition isn’t something on the horizon - we are right smack in the center of it.  We need to figure out a way not to lose all of the knowledge of those that are leaving.  Offering training in the basics isn't enough.  We have to go deeper.

RECOMMENDATION:  We need to mount a major effort to expand offerings that go well beyond the basics of arts administration.  Those offerings need to focus on leadership qualities as well as nuts and bolts management issues.  And we need to include the new century skills that are embedded in the new economies and marketplaces - both technological and people oriented.  We need to figure out how those who are leaving the field can share their experience and knowledge with those moving into the front ranks of our organizations.  

3.  We need to figure out some way so that all the online offerings - ours and from other fields and areas - can be somewhat centralized so if you are looking for a specific kind of training you can find out what is available in a one stop process.  That entails identifying and aggregating on an ongoing basis all the content out there that might be relevant to our people.  That will take time and money.  Moreover, we need to make sure that all that our field already offers online is made available “on demand” - not just on predetermined dates and predetermined times.  The on demand element is absolutely essential.  This almost certainly will necessitate widespread cooperation and collaboration among lots of entities, and moreover, probably will need a consortium of funders to launch such an effort.  It will take a major investment, but it promises to yield invaluable benefits to our field over a long period of time.  I would argue that the cost of not doing this is far greater over time than the cost now of launching such a clearing house.

RECOMMENDATION:  We need to launch a one-stop clearing house of all the relevant skills training opportunities that are relevant to the field of arts administration (whether from our own or other sectors, whether online or in-person, whether workshops or classes, mentoring opportunities, or coaching, articles and books or peer networking.)  Everything available under one roof.  All our online offerings need to be "on-demand", and as much of our in-person opportunities that would lend themselves to putting online should be put online as a matter of course, and they should all be "on-demand".  The launch of this kind of website portal would need to be a collaborative effort of major service provider organizations and funders - both public and private.  I think, ultimately, such an effort could become financially self-sufficient by charging a very modest fee from everyone who lists their offerings, and from everyone who actually signs up and takes one of those offerings.  The people who are creating the content would have the incentive of increased income over a long term, and the people who are looking for offerings would have the incentive of saving huge amounts of time as well as supporting an arts sector initiative - for very, very little additional cost.  If you had a single site for professional development opportunities that tens of thousands of arts administrators accessed when they were looking for a specific course, workshop etc. - then those offering training courses, workshops etc. could afford to charge less because their volume would increase.

4.  Finally, we have to pay more attention to identifying what kinds of skills each of us needs at any given point in time.  The problem with our past professional development efforts is that we assumed everyone needed to the same skills.  That isn’t true.  Yes, a generalist’s knowledge and overview of the whole is valuable, but we are also increasingly specialists and we don’t all need the same training.  We have to figure out a process - usable by almost all of us - to identify what we don’t know that we need to know, as a first step in figuring out how to provide the training. By engaging in this kind of effort we may be able to develop a consensus as to the minimal kinds of skills we need to pursue.

RECOMMENDATION:  We need to fund the design, testing and roll-out of tools that will help arts administrators of all levels identify what skills they lack, and what skills will help them be better managers and advance their careers.  Once developed, those tools need to be widely available to everyone at no cost.

The bottom line is that we are not simply in the business of the arts.  We are also in the business of being good managers.  Skills training and professional development has moved into the new century. I fear the arts field is still approaching the whole challenge with a 20th century mind-set.  I would hope our funders, national service provider organizations, the NEA, state and city arts agencies and literally everyone in the field will make professional development a major priority for the next decade so that we can point with pride that our managers and our leaders are among the best trained, most knowledgable and skilled in any sector.  Much of what is needed to do that is already in existence.  We need to cooperate and collaborate to make sure we organize our offerings so that  every arts administrator makes learning the business of arts administration an ongoing reality - and we need to make it as easy as possible for each of them to do that.  That will cost us some time and money. Real money.  But it will be money well spent.   Or we can ignore the demand, refuse to spend anything, deal with the problem with a band-aid approach,  and very likely be also rans in the competitive marketplace for all those audiences, and support, we so desire.  Yes, we will very likely continue to increase our skills enhancement offerings, and very likely offer better and better opportunities for knowledge enhancement, but without making those offerings easy to find, access and afford we are missing the boat.  It isn't good enough that some of our managers are well trained.  It is time to organize the business of professional development for arts administrators.

Have a great week.

Don’t Quit.

Sunday, April 13, 2014

Announcing Dinner-vention 2 - 2014 Edition

Good morning.
"And the beat goes on…………………"

Announcing Dinner-Vention 2

Readers of this blog are familiar with a project launched last year we called the Arts Dinner-vention - a play on the old idea of: If you could invite anybody, who would you invite to a fantasy dinner party --coupled (tongue in cheek) with the notion of an “intervention‘ - in this case to spotlight new ideas to some old challenges.

The idea was to gather some of the best younger minds from our field at a dinner party; people who had already gained some renown and reputation for their thinking but whose careers were long from peaking, and to give them a platform to share some of their ideas by disseminating the conversation from the dinner to as wide a field as possible.  We wanted to promote new ideas, introduce some of our future leadership to those who might not be familiar with them, and we wanted to encourage our guests to bond and keep in touch with each other.

We opened up the selection process to the field, narrowed the selection to twelve guests, created a master list of potential topics for the guests to choose from, sought preparatory position papers from the guests, and tried to share all of that via this blog with the wider field. Last year’s Dinner-vention was held at Djerassi Artist Residence in California in October and a video of the event was posted on this site after the fact.  The project garnered a lot of attention in the field and we think we succeeded in introducing some new thinkers (and thinking) to a wider audience, as well as to each other (and on their own initiative, there is a reunion of sorts of last year’s class apparently happening at the Americans for the Arts Conference upcoming in June in Nashville).

You can read the post announcing the project last year here; the announcement of the Dinner topic here; the guest list announcement here; the briefing papers here and here; and finally the video segments Part I here, Part II here, Part III here, Part IV here, Part V here, Part VI here, and Part VII here.

We had such fun and success with the project, that we’d like to announce Dinner-vention II - the 2014 edition - and we again need your help.

We’ve asked the dinner guests at last year’s event to nominate people as guests for this  year’s event.  Having been members of the initial dinner class, their experience in having participated in the project will help us form a base list of possible invitees for this year’s dinner.

But we’d like your help as well, and we invite you to nominate up to eight new thinkers from our field that you think would make for a provocative, insightful and memorable dinner party discussion on an issue relevant to the arts field.  

As last year, we want inventive, creative, serious thinkers who have something to say and will contribute to an engaging, in-depth conversation on issues facing the sector -- and (hopefully) put forth specific ideas to move us forward in addressing those issues.  We want people with opinions, who are not reticent to share bold viewpoints:  provocateurs and visionaries, policy wonks and skeptics, from all corners of our field, from various disciplines and diversities, from urban and rural perspectives, and from disparate geographical points -- people who will make for an engaging evening.  And we want people whose reputations and influence is growing in the field, so we are not looking for long time, well established leaders - not those who have been around and have made their reputations,  but rather those still who are still on the rise, still making their marks.  Fresh faces and new thinking.  So please don't submit names of the established arts leadership.  This dinner isn't about them.  It's about the new class of arts leadership.

Having already done one Dinner-vention, we’ve learned from that experience how to manage the project.  This year we are making a few simple changes:

  • First, rather than twelve dinner guests, we’re going to keep the guest list to eight invitees.  We think a smaller group will allow more of an exchange of ideas and more time for each guest to make important points.  We hope the resulting conversation is even more engaging to you as an ultimate viewer.  
  • Second, rather than video tape the dinner, edit it and then air the segments, we’re going to try to stream this year’s event live.  That will necessitate less direction at the actual event and we hope it flows more like a live dinner event - warts and miscues notwithstanding.  It will also necessitate a somewhat shorter presentation.
  • Third, as was the case last year, we will present a list of possible topics for the dinner guests themselves to choose from and their consensus choice will be the featured topic for the evening.  But we will need your help here too and at a later date I will invite you to suggest topics to present to the selected guests for this year’s dinner.
  • Finally, last year’s guests thought the preparatory work (in exchanging position papers and in limited opportunities to exchange ideas via telephone conference calls) was valuable, and suggested more would be of benefit.  So this year we will try to expand the ways the invited guests can intersect before the dinner itself - including some intersections with last year’s guests.

I will report back to you all via the blog once the guests are selected, the topics chosen, this year’s site selected - and we'd like to move the event to a different location each year for diversity's sake (suggestions welcomed), and the date of the dinner.

You can submit your list of (up to) eight dinner party guests to me by replying to this blog email -   Nominate anyone you would like, including yourself.  You must include - for each name on the list - the person’s job title and organizational affiliation.

It would be very helpful if you could also give us a contact phone number and / or email -- and, if you can, in just a few words, why you included that person on your fantasy dinner party guest list.  The deadline for submissions is:   May 15, 2014

I would greatly appreciate it if you would pass this on (and publicize it) to people within your sphere.  The more names submitted for possible guests to the Arts Dinner-vention, the better.

Thank you all for your help again.

Have a great week.

Don’t Quit.

Sunday, April 6, 2014

The Arts Spin Doctors?

Good morning.
"And the beat goes on…………………."

I have been a political junkie most of my adult life.  I've worked on campaigns, followed party positions and candidate thinking (in both camps), read everything I could find about elections and issues and was generally obsessed with American politics and the machinery that makes it run -- including a fascination with, and dedication to, watching the Sunday morning new shows - Meet the Press, Face the Nation and the like.  I watched them all - religiously. Until about two years ago, when I simply couldn't stand it anymore.

Long ago, the Spin Doctors took over all public comment on politics.  They started "spinning" after the debates - making sure the view that their candidate 'won', that their people had the right position - was the focal point of media coverage -  clinging to the belief that if they simply repeated, over and over again, their own sanctimonious and self-serving pronouncements, they had done their job.  Gone was any attempt to discuss issues or engage in any real truthful analysis or observation.  Soon, even the pretense of independent thought was but a joke, and nobody with even a modicum of intelligence was fooled by this charade.  Gone too was any attempt by the media to actually seek out divergent viewpoints and dig deep into the issues - let alone ask probing questions.  And nowhere was that more apparent than on the Sunday morning "news" (and I use that term loosely) shows as they trotted out the same talking head spokespeople - time after time after time - all of whom continuously "spun" their answers - no matter what the question - to parrot their, and their party's, position.  Some had their own agendas which they relentlessly pushed - again never really answering any questions - just "spinning" to the point of absurdity.  One would have thought they would have made themselves dizzy.  The best of these politicians perfected their "spins" to the point where they could provide the same answer - totally devoid of really saying anything at all - to any possible question that could be asked.  Evasion is the watchword.  Tap dancing around the truth the real objective.  Their job is to deliver talking points favoring their side.

The nadir of this sad state of affairs is, of course, the chutzpah of Bill O'Reilly on Fox News having the audacity to call his show the "No Spin Zone".  Cleaver marketing on his part and doubtless huge numbers of his followers truly believe such a ludicrous claim.  Mr. O'Reilly is one of the 'deans' of the college of spin doctors.  "No spin" by the news media's on air invited guests?  Don't hold your breath.

Apparently I am not the only one for whom this bastardization of journalism has crossed the line.  I ran across an article on the Huffington Post entitled:  "America Is Well On Its Way to Tuning Out the Sunday Shows" in which the author, Jason Linkins, points out the declining ratings numbers of the Sunday shows.  He quotes Paul Waldman who wrote an article on the topic for the Plum Line, urging these shows to:  "First, ban all party chairs, White House communication staff, party "strategists," and anyone else whose primary objective is to spin from ever, ever, ever appearing on the show. Ever.  So how about, as a first rule, the people you bring on should 1) know as much as possible about the things you’re going to discuss, and 2) have little if any interest in spinning?

Not so easy, suggests Mr. Linkns:
"This sounds pretty good in theory, but there's a reason those sorts of people don't get booked. Knowledgeable, substantive people tend to want to use their time on camera to explain complexities. They speak in paragraphs, not sentences. They tend to be capable of real argument. They don't necessarily come to the set governed by Beltway politesse. So, from the perspective of Sunday show producers, they're all loose cannons. What the producers of these shows are looking for are polite, concise talking heads who know where their light is, can hit their mark, and offer answers brief enough so that there's plenty of time to pass the ball to whoever else happens to be in the room. Sunday hosts don't know what to do with long, complicated explanations, and they aren't listening to them anyway."
Of course, everybody 'spins' today - not just politicians, but business leaders, celebrities, consultants, experts and, very likely, even we in the nonprofit arts.  We have entered the era (probably some time ago) where making your case (whatever your case may be) necessitates that you 'spin' the facts to best support the action you wish to engender.  We do that when we represent our field and when we represent our organization. We very likely even do that as individuals - in both our personal and professional capacities. That's not unusual.  But it just may be killing us - as a country, as a society, as responsible organizations and as effective leaders.  We are addicted to 'spinning' everything - all the time.

Spinning in some senses has become synonymous with obfuscation of the truth.  Not really 'lies' of course, just positioning one version of the truth.  You don't think that YOU are a 'spin doctor'?  Take a long look at your last grant application and tell me honestly if you weren't spinning things so that your project, program, performance or proposal didn't look as attractive as it could, even to the point of stretching the truth a bit, or leaving out certain known facts.  And what about your relationship with your major donors and patrons and supporters - or even your stakeholder collaborators and partners? Do you not 'spin' to them?  And it goes beyond just spinning in pursuit of money  - we do it all the time at our conferences where every panel (call them what you will - they are largely the same year in and year out at whatever conference you happen to be at) has pretty much the same people (shades of the Sunday shows?) and they pretty much spin their presentations to favor their party line (personal, organizational or whatever).  And often times (too often frankly), the heralded and lauded Keynote Speakers, are the most blatant spinners.  Not all mind you, but far too many (especially those with celebrity cachet and fame from fields other than our own who are really merely "professional" speakers on tour).  They give the same 'stump' speech (for a pretty penny) and change a few words here in there to make it seem tailored to the audience of the moment.  I suppose many people are inspired by some of these people, but to me, it's just boring and - in a way - insulting.  It doesn't take a rocket scientist to know a spin doctor when you hear one.

It's entirely possible that the norm today is to be a spin doctor virtually all the time.  At your next internal office meeting, watch for them and then tell me they don't exist in your organization.  And, by the way, we are all getting better and better at 'spinning'.  Practice makes perfect I guess.  We can spin with the best of them.  Now there may be nothing inherently wrong with that - then again maybe there is something fundamentally wrong with it.   Are we in the arts as guilty as the rest of them in terms of 'spinning' things and being wedded to that idea.  And is that ok, because everybody does it and it's even expected - right?  Where's the harm?  Is a little bit of spinning ok?  Where is the line?  What are the consequences?

I can't exactly pinpoint how I think this is harmful, but I have the gut feeling that it is.  And that it is getting dangerously close to becoming a systemic problem.  To the same extent that the American public is less and less fooled by the political spin doctors plying their craft - and even arguably getting fed up and angry about it, spinning in general increasingly runs the risk of alienating the spun audience - whatever audience you may pinpoint.  While some spinning may be acceptable, that line is getting blurred.  We in the arts run that same risk with our various publics.  And while transparency has become a desirable outcome in our, as well as countless other fields, transparency may have little to do with truthfulness and a willingness to take a long, cold hard look at realities as a way to come up with different approaches and strategies to deal with challenges.  Perhaps even "transparency" can be spun.

As a tool, spinning may yield desirable short term outcomes, but as a process (whether political on a societal level, or organizational on an industry level) it doesn't seem to have done much to get us (as a country or a field) anywhere near where we say we want to be.  All spinning has done - in my humble opinion - is to codify as reality the old Buffalo Springfield song lyric line:  "Singing songs and carrying signs.  Mostly say, hooray for our side".  Well "Hooray for our sideis a really weak position.  And it most certainly has little, if anything, to do with trying to understand a situation and coming up with ways to address a challenge. Sadly, 'Hooray for our side' is increasingly all that we have.

I think that somehow this all has to do with risk taking.   Somehow, dealing forthrightly with things has become something to avoid.  It's simply too risky to face questions about challenges and issues directly.  It's safer to spin our answers to hard questions; avoidance is preferable to all the nasty loose ends coming 'clean' entails.  As arts administrators we champion risk taking as one of the fundamental benefits that arts and artists bring to the world. Yet, do we as arts champions take risks ourselves?  Do we risk drilling down to the truth of things rather than spinning?  Do we dare?

I ran across another interesting article (this one in The Atlantic) called the Overprotected Kid. The theme being: "A preoccupation with safety has stripped childhood of independence, risk taking, and discovery—without making it safer", and laments that in our zeal to protect our children we have robbed them of the learning experience, and the later in life value, that risk brings.  The risk of playing is the focus of the article - on playgrounds, in fields, around the house -- anywhere.  We have become a society where as the author quotes:  "In all my years as a parent, I’ve mostly met children who take it for granted that they are always being watched."  That is, I think, a profound observation with multiple implications.  It is as though we have excised all risk out of childhood.  Little wonder than that we are producing adults who are risk averse; who prefer to 'spin' things rather than risk contrary opinions and harsh judgments, let alone holding up realities to the light of truth.  Someone is always watching, right?

In any event, if you are interested in politics - as a process for solving societal problems - I would stay away from the Sunday news shows.  The spin doctors are in complete control, and they have no interest, nor intention, in addressing your intellectual curiosity or your desire for real probing of serious issues.  They seek to avoid the 'truth' at all costs.  And their media hosts seem delighted with that reality - all their attempts to "spin" their shows as 'probing inquiry' notwithstanding.  Somewhere along the line, we have exalted these people; being a 'spin doctor' has become a badge of pride, something to aspire to.  Let's hope we don't become more like them.  We ought to be better.

Have a great week.

Don't Quit

Sunday, March 30, 2014

Interview with Judi Jennings

Good morning.
"And the beat goes on………………"

Bio:  Judi Jennings is the Executive Director of the Kentucky Foundation for Women (KFW), a private, independent philanthropy supporting feminist art for social change. Formed in 1985, KFW provides grants and retreat space to feminist social change artists developing new skills and to feminist artists and allies directly engaging with communities to advance justice and equality in Kentucky.

Jennings earned a Ph.D. in British History from the University of Kentucky and continues to research and write on abolitionism and radicalism in the eighteenth-century. She also served as the founding director of the University of Louisville Women’s Center and worked at Appalshop, Inc., a nonprofit multidisciplinary arts and education center in the heart of Appalachia that inspires and supports communities’ to solve their own problems in just and equitable ways.

Here is the interview:

Barry:  The modern feminist movement had its antecedents in the early 20th Century suffrage struggle.  In the 1960’s and 70’s Betty Friedan, Gloria Steinem, Bella Abzug and others helped redefine the movement to embrace a host of issues of importance to women’s equality.  How would you define or characterize ‘feminism’ today?  What are the key areas that are most in need of attention?  What successes and what failures?

Judi:  As a recovering academic, I greatly appreciate your references to these s-heroes of the modern women’s movement. Feminist writer Sallie Bingham, who established the Kentucky Foundation for Women, is a personal friend of Gloria Steinem. So the foundation has a direct connection and deep debt of gratitude to women leaders of the 1960s and 70s.

As a social justice historian, I will add that today’s women’s movement goes back much further than the suffragists. Christine de Pizan’s Book of the City of Ladies appeared in 1405, and de Pizan is an early example of a single working mother. Fast forwarding to the 20th century, it is also important to remember women leaders who worked for racial and economic justice. For example, Ella Baker  and Mary Harris (Mother) Jones are big in my pantheon of feminist s-heroes.

For me, feminism today is an essential component of global efforts to further social justice for all people. My definition of feminism includes female, male and transgender folks working to advance political, economic, cultural and social equality, as well as those focusing on gender equality. I believe that women’s rights and human rights are one and the same. Feminist successes include leading and participating in the ever-growing national and international movements for social justice and making gender justice an essential component of global human rights.  Feminist failure is that we have not yet built the unity necessary to achieve justice and equality for all, even in the US.

Barry:  The mission of the Kentucky Foundation for Women is to “promote positive social change by supporting varied feminist expression in the arts.”   What specifically are the needs of ‘feminist artists’ and are those needs different from the needs of artists in general?  What are the key challenges to women arts administrators?

Judi:  The needs of feminist artists are the same as the needs of all artists, and the needs of all artists are the same as the needs of all humans. Human needs and rights include: safety, respect, a living wage, affordable housing, and the right to cultural expression.

Because of structural inequalities, women in general, and women of color and poor women especially, have less access to resources and opportunities to fulfill their basic human needs. KFW focuses on women and girls in Kentucky to address the systemic inequality here. We focus on feminist expression in the arts because it is a powerful force to reveal inequalities and inspire change.

Women arts administrators face the same challenges as all women, such as unequal pay and racial discrimination. The fact that there are lots of women arts administrators can mask the fact that having more women working for unequal wages may not represent progress. There is also racial inequality in the field of arts administration. So the biggest challenge is advancing equity for all arts administrators because that is the best way to make sure women arts administrators are being treated equally.

Barry:  Obviously, not all women artists define their art as linked to social change.  Why have you focused your energy on that sub-set of artists?

Judi:  Sallie Bingham’s vision for the Kentucky Foundation for Women focused on feminist artists working to advance positive social change. The power of art for social change is not always well understood, but I can see it plainly on the local level and in other places like Kentucky that have a rich culture but a poor economy. Kentucky’s culture has been stereotyped and denigrated to excuse the economic exploitation of our people, but culture and community are still strong here. Feminist artists are drawing on Kentucky culture as a pathway to transformative social change. For example, Mitzi Sinnot’s one-woman play Snapshot, explores themes of race, gender and the impact of the Vietnam War on her and her Appalachian family.

Barry:  The NEA essentially got out of the business of direct support for artists back during the culture wars of the 1990’s. They still haven’t moved in that direction.  What would you like to see the agency do to support artists in general and feminist artists for social change in particular?

Judi:  I would like to see the NEA put in staff time and financial resources to make a national case for the power of arts and culture to advance the public good and to demonstrate the important roles artists play in creating a better quality of life for everyone. The NEA could develop and articulate a theory of change about why support for artists is good for the nation. The NEA could help expand the definition of artists to include culture bearers and community-based artmaking and commit to ensuring equal access to artists everywhere of every background, including feminist social change artists. The NEA could demonstrate its belief in the value of art by reinstating funding for individual artists, either directly or through intermediaries.

Barry:  The issues of equity and racism have gotten substantial play in the past few years with increased funder interest in addressing the inequities.  You’ve written about that issue and argued that “rural” artists and arts organizations are part of the inequity of funding and support too.  What are the specific challenges facing feminist artists of color, and particularly in the rural communities and how do you think those challenges might be best addressed?

Judi:  When you look at structural inequalities of all kinds, including access to philanthropic resources, you can see layers of inequities at play, including, gender, race and geography. Holly Sidford’s report for the National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy shook up the field and startled some by documenting that 2% of arts organizations receive over half of the sector’s total revenue and primarily serve predominantly white and upper income audiences.

Inequities based on geography may be harder to see, depending on where you live, but structural poverty plagues rural areas worldwide.  Rural poverty is often invisible in the US because rural people still do not have equal access to digital communication tools. The Center for Rural Strategies, based in Kentucky, works to build a stronger voice on behalf of rural communities through the innovative use of media and communications. Art of the Rural, a national collaborative organization, is working to articulate the shared realities of rural and urban areas and strengthen the emerging rural art and culture movement.

KFW recently partnered with Art of the Rural to map more than 40 feminist artists in rural areas and small towns in Kentucky working for positive social change.

The Grassroots Women’s Project, for example, is digitally publishing
The Notebook: A Progressive Journal About Women and Girls with Rural and Small Town Roots .   Stories From Da Dirt is a cultural education program based in rural western Kentucky that is bringing to light stories of African American resistance to slavery and female freedom seekers.

The stories of rural women of color are seldom heard in the mainstream media because of the overlapping structural inequalities of race and place. Having access to communication tools to tell your own story is a powerful part of social change. Creating new platforms for a wider array of people’s stories is an essential step in addressing inequalities and creating new pathways for advancing social justice.

Barry:  While Presidents Clinton, Bush, and Obama have paid lip service to support for the arts, the arts remain, as Bill Ivey observed in farewell remarks after leaving the NEA, “the province of the East Wing” (the First Lady’s domain as opposed to the West Wing where policy is made) - the inference being that the “arts” are (only) women’s work (in the most pejorative sense).  Do you think a female President of the United States would really change that reality?  How do we deal with marginalization of the arts?

Judi:  A female President of the US could definitely change current realities.  Look at
Annise Parker, the Mayor of Houston, for example. She recently announced an exciting new cultural plan with substantial funding for the arts.

She is a woman who obviously understands the power of arts and culture. I believe this kind of consciousness is a better determinant in lifting up art and culture than the President’s gender, however. I also believe that transformative change requires local participation as well as a strong national leader.

Arts policy blogger Arlene Goldbard is a leading voice for creative ways to address the marginalization of the arts. I love how she is working with Adam Horowitz to develop the idea of a US Department of Arts and Culture!

I agree with Ken Wilson of the Christensen Fund that a too narrow definition of the arts is a major contributor to marginalization, Wilson argues that,  “One of the challenges is that art tends to be defined as creativity professionalized and separated from daily life. It is important to study the cultural dimension to arts funding which includes how people live with creativity and traditions in their daily life.

Barry:  What would you like to see your fellow philanthropic foundation colleagues do to be more supportive of artists in general, and feminist artists in particular?

Judi:  I would like to see my colleagues take more time to understand how arts and culture philanthropy itself may be perpetuating systemic inequalities that can have negative impacts on people of color and poor people. Inequalities in arts and cultural funding are often attributed to standards of “quality,” but I believe it is really more about power than aesthetics. The Peoples Institute for Survival and Beyond  compares structural inequalities to a big foot kicking communities in the backside. PISB challenges philanthropists to conduct our own power analysis to see how arts and cultural programs we fund may be part of that big foot. I believe the most important thing we can do as funders is to analyze our own practices and assumptions to be sure we are providing equitable access to all communities.

Barry:  How do you nurture innovation and risk taking by your grantees?

Judi:  KFW funds mostly individual artists in a state where many people still know each other personally. KFW tells the feminist artists we fund that we believe in them and the power of their work to create change. The artists tell us all the time that this affirmation is as important as the money we give. We believe in the power of small grants, so artists can try out new ideas and take chances. We do not require a work sample for our retreat program, so artists can experiment with new forms and ideas. In the grant program, we accept their definition of risk and innovation in their own context instead of imposing some artificial standard.  Last year, for example, Afrilachian (African American and Appalachian) writer Bianca Spriggs and photographer Angel Clark presented a courageous performance piece and installation honoring 13 women and girls who were lynched in Kentucky in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

Barry:  Assess the current level of collaboration and cooperation by and between funders to address the needs of women artists, and what might be done to promote more collaboration and cooperation in address their needs?

Judi:  I believe that grant seekers are connecting the dots between funders more quickly than philanthropies are at this point. A local elected official in Louisville, for example, commissioned an artist in her neighborhood, Ramona Dallum Lindsey, to transform an abandoned apartment building into a symbol of the rebirth of their distressed community.  By doing this work, the artist learned about KFW and subsequently applied for and received a grant for her studio work.

Some national foundations are beginning to be more intentional about reaching out to artists in states like Kentucky. The Joan Mitchell Foundation in New York, for example, identifies nominators across the US to submit names for their Painters and Sculptors Grant Program.  In 2013, talented painter and KFW grantee Gaela Erwin received one of their $25,000 grants.

KFW staff works with independent peer panels to make recommendations about funding decisions to our Board of Directors. We often ask foundations who share our mission, like the Leeway Foundation to recommend artists to participate on our review panels. It takes time, energy and respect for artists and cultural workers in a wide variety of locations and contexts to make collaboration work, but these are encouraging signs of what can be done.

Barry:  Are you satisfied with the level of focus on feminist artists in the burgeoning field of art and social change, and what more needs to be done to insure that women artists are fully seated at the table where art and social change is discussed?

Judi:  Thanks for asking this question because it is an important one, but I would like to widen it to include all practitioners having access to that table. I believe that it is crucially important for artists and cultural workers from all backgrounds to be included in discussions about funding, especially when the subject is social change. However, some funders are not comfortable with those who may be or become grantseekers as part of their discussions. The newly formed Art, Culture and Social Justice Network that I am part of welcomes practitioners as well as funders in their discussions. The Steering Committee includes strong women artists, such as Tufara Waller Muhammad, a cultural organizer for the Highlander Center. The best way to make sure feminist artists are at the table is to work for equal access for all.

Barry:  What role ought feminist artists who are committed to social change play in the overall ‘placemaking’ efforts of the arts?  Are feminist artists seated at those tables?

Judi:  Feminist artists in Kentucky are doing the hard work of placemaking in their communities every day with very little funding or recognition from mainstream power brokers. For example, Arwen Donahue is creating an on-going online journal, which also includes sketches, about her life on a family farm in a small rural community. She is also doing a series of oral history interviews exploring the work of Kentucky’s agrarian writers. Her work is not only placemaking in her home community, but also about making the power of rural art and cultural more visible nationally and globally.

Roberto Bedoya, Executive Director of the Tucson Pima Arts Council, has made great contributions to the field with his thoughtful analysis of placemaking.  An important theme in Beodya’s work is placemaking and the politics of belonging. Kentucky writer bell hooks also writes about belonging: a culture of place, and the theme is explored in Arwen Donohue’s journal. In my experience, much of the current national placemaking efforts are funder-driven and disconnected from many artists and cultural workers at the community level. These funder-led initiatives have their own economic systems and leadership that too often do not often intersect or support the work that feminist social change artists are doing in their communities.

Barry:  Who are the leaders of the movement to support women artists and are they carrying forth that banner effectively?

Judi:  First and foremost, I salute Martha Richards of WomenArts who truly has worked tirelessly in the fields of arts and women’s philanthropy locally and nationally to hold up the importance of supporting women artists. For example, she is the brain behind the idea of SWAN Day (Support Women Artists Now), a day devoted to locally organized celebrations of women’s culture and creativity. There have been more than 1,000 events in 23 countries since Martha invented SWAN Day seven years ago.

Philanthropic siloes have created largely separate fields for funding the arts and funding women.  As far as I know the Kentucky Foundation for Women and our sister fund, the Leeway Foundation led by Denise Brown, are the only two philanthropic organizations in the US entirely focused on funding women and the arts (WomenArts is not yet a grantmaking organization).

Denise Brown and I are both active in the Art, Culture and Social Justice Network. As you have given me the opportunity to say throughout this interview, I believe the most effective way to advance equitable funding for women artists is to work for equitable funding for all artists.

Barry:  What are the qualities of leadership that we need more of in our field?  What makes for an effective leader?

Judi:  I had the honor of co-editing a book about the most effective leader I know, Helen Matthews Lewis: Living Social Justice in Appalachia.  Helen took part in the YWCA’s desegregation efforts in Georgia in the 1940s; earned a Ph.D in sociology and spoke out against the environmental devastation of Appalachia in the 50’s and 60s; inspired the development of Appalachian studies in the 70s; and worked at the Appalshop arts and education center and the Highlander Research and Education Center in the 80s and 90s. Although now retired, Helen still writes and speaks out for social justice, for example, calling for a moral economy for Appalachia 

Helen sets high standards for effective leadership in all fields and enacts the qualities I think we need more of in our own.  Here are a few: humility; faith in the power of all people to make their lives better given equal opportunities; a strong moral compass; sense of humor; focus on achieving social change rather than recognition. Plus she is a great cook, likes to travel and loves to dance. What more can I say?

Barry:  You’ve talked before about “scale” as being principally governed by local factors and that it ought to be considered and judged on those local considerations.  But in a wider sense, how do we move support for individual artists (all artists) to a much larger support base?  Is such widespread support merely an aggregation of localized efforts, or is it something bigger and more complex?

Judi:  Great question! My theory of social change is that lasting transformational change must begin at the local level and cannot happen top down. I wrote a book on a small committee of men who wanted to abolish the British slave trade in 1784, when very few people agreed. Four of them lived to see Parliament vote to end the trade in 1807

Transformational change from the bottom up is not just about aggregating localized efforts, although that is a very important step. A bigger part of the equation is about building, connecting and transforming at every level of engagement. Margaret Mead, perhaps most famously, never doubted that a small group of thoughtful committed citizens could change the world. To quote Ken Wilson again, the Christensen Fund operates globally but understands that  “you don’t get transformational results without engaging at the community level.” The Seventh Generation Fund operates globally by connecting indigenous people around the world working for local change.

Regional social justice organizations like AppalshopAlternate ROOTS, and the Highlander Research and Education Center play major roles in building transformational connections throughout the South and other parts of the nation and world. The process of connecting localities involves identifying shared structural inequities and finding synergies. For example, demonstrating how building a for-profit prison in Appalachia affected Hawaiian women who were housed there.

Arts and Democracy is a decentralized network that works nationally to build the growing movement linking arts and culture, participatory democracy and social justice. Through their network-building approach, they are connecting community-based creative practice with policymaking and systemic change.

Barry:  What successes (yours or those of others) gives you optimism that there is meaningful understanding and support for the value of artists and the arts in America?

Judi:  I am very optimistic about meaningful change through arts and culture in our country. Here are three great examples:

The Detroit-based Allied Media Projects.  AMP cultivates media strategies for a more just, creative and collaborative world. And they also work in a way that honors community-based and intergenerational work.

MicroFest USA presented by the Network of Ensemble Theatres, a series of four local explorations of the similarities and differences in place-based artmaking advancing social justice in Detroit, Appalachia, New Orleans and Hawaii.

Junebug Theatre’s 50th anniversary of The Free Southern Theatre, designed by John O’Neal, Doris Derby and Gilbert Moses as a cultural and educational extension of the Civil Rights movement in the US South.  Who knew that Roscoe Orman, who plays Gordon on Sesame Street, was one of the courageous actors in the early days of the theatre?

Barry:  Conversely, what worries you most about the continued marginalization of the value of the arts by the American public?

Judi:  I am most worried about the corporatization of more and more aspects of American life. Fueled by consumerism and out and out greed, corporatization seeps forward into government services, higher education, health care and even the nonprofit sector. I am proud to say community-based arts and culture is a major site of resistance to these pernicious corporatizing processes.

Barry:  There are programs out there that are trying to nurture and support young women in their pursuit of an artistic career. The League of American Orchestras newly announced initiative to increase early career women composers through a series of orchestral readings and commissions - in cooperation with Ear Shot and funded by the Virginia B. Toulmin Foundation Program for Commissioning Women in the Performing Arts being but one specific example.  What other notable projects would you cite as focusing on young women artists, and what is being done to try to provide mentorship of those younger women by the more established women artists in the field?

Judi:  Hurray for the Viriginia B. Toulmin Foundation! That is an exciting new program!
Most of the mentoring programs for women artists that I know about are field-based rather than funder-based. This is another good reason why it is important for funders to interact with the field. A few strong discipline-based programs that I know about are:  Women Make Movies,  the International Center for Women Playwrights , and the Institute for the Study of Women & Gender in the Arts and Media at Columbia College in Chicago.

Anticipating your next question to some extent, I would like to put in a plug for youth-based programs like The Kentucky Center Governor’s Schools for the Arts.  Although this program is not focused on girls only, I see many young feminists finding their voices, deepening their artistry and embracing their identities as artists and cultural workers through the opportunity to interact with peers who appreciate their talents.
The Appalachian Media Institute at Appalshop provides young people in the coalfields with opportunities to tell the stories that matter to them. The Institute focuses on how young people can be engaged in their communities and advance positive social change through place-based mediamaking.

Barry:  Do feminist artists of social change have a role in arts education and what is that role?

Judi:  Yes, definitely. Many artists and cultural bearers who receive grants from KFW’s Art Meets Activism program are doing arts education both inside and outside schools. By this time, you probably won’t be surprised to hear that I believe this kind of intergenerational arts interaction is most powerful at the community level. Here are a few examples:

A teacher started an after-school writing program for middle school girls, who write about and discuss such important issues as bullying, anger management, relationships and compassion.

In an Appalachian area of Kentucky, two feminists are conducting monthly Artisan Women Retreats, community gatherings focused on learning more about the craft traditions, like quiltmaking and gourd art, that have long defined the region but are in danger of disappearing with the current generation of elders.

In far western Kentucky, a classically trained teacher at a regional university is bringing together young dancers of all levels of physical ability from rural schools and communities to create public performances that build bridges through dance

Barry:  Assess the current situation in research and data collection as the same relates to women artists and feminist artists.  What kinds of information and data do we need more of, and what advice do you have for the arts research community?

Judi:  There is a huge dearth of demographic information, including race and gender, relating to arts and cultural funding in this country. Moreover, individuals, small organizations and fiscal agents are not included in large-scale data collection. The arts research community could work with local funders and state arts agencies to collect a wider spectrum of information relating to all artists and to grantmaking with awards of less than $10,000. National arts and cultural policymaking efforts are incomplete without this information. How can we even have a meaningful national conversation about equity and appropriate levels of scale without this information?

Barry:  In the earliest days of the modern feminist movement, a percentage of men, (and women too) were put off and threatened by the rhetoric.  One might argue that we’ve come a long way, but it is still a white male dominated society so one might also argue that the progress has been slow and marginal.  What is your take on how far we have come and how far we have to go?

Judi:  Yes, I know feminist rhetoric has sometimes been off putting. Many women of my generation, including me, learned that the hard way. In the 1970s, some of us hurt and alienated our middle class friends who gave up their careers to stay home with their children only to feel devalued by the women’s movement. A hard lesson learned.

But mainly I think feminism is scary now because just saying the word is a call for structural social change, and change is scary. Recognizing feminism means being willing to give up the race, class and gender privilege you may currently enjoy. So it is way easier for bigots like Rush Limbaugh to make fun of feminists than it is to really look at the inequalities that feminists are pointing to. I really believe the backlash to feminism now is a testament to the growth of the national movement for equality for all.

I acknowledge, too, that feminists don’t always make the case for across the board equality for all (especially including underprivileged white men). So some people see us as a special interest group rather than a social justice ally. So we social justice feminists just need to keep on being more explicit that we stand for equality for all people.

Barry:  Who inspires you and why?

Judi:  Helen Matthews Lewis (see above)

Grace Lee Boggs is 98 and still speaking out for justice and equality. A philosopher and civil rights activist, her book The Next American Revolution is a must read for those who believe in the power of art and culture for social change.

Nikky Finney’s acceptance speech for the 2011 National Book Award for Poetry. Nikky lived and worked in Kentucky for many years before returning home to South Carolina last year. She embodies in her life and every day actions the powerful words she spoke to the nation.

Afrilachian writer and KFW community member Frank X Walker winning the 2014 NAACP Image Award for Poetry for his new book Turn Me Loose: The Unghosting of Medgar Evers.  Frank is the current Poet Laureate of Kentucky and writes powerful poetry memorializing local and national African American heritage.

The 2014 Girls IdeaFestival happening in Louisville this spring. The Louisville Girls Leadership program is made up of high school students from across our community who work together on creative solutions to the challenges faced by young women here. One of the girls recently wrote an op-ed for our newspaper explaining why she is a feminist.

Thank you Judi.

Have a great week.

Don't Quit

Sunday, March 23, 2014

What Came First: The Chicken or the Egg; The Question or the Answer

Good morning.
"And the beat goes on……………………"

I have a morning routine.  I suspect virtually everyone does.   Some people stretch first, or brush their teeth or shower.  Others like me, make their coffee.  Then over a cup I peruse my emails.  Delete the spam, respond to some.  Some people go to their online news site of choice first to catch up with the world, check the traffic or the weather; others go to their Facebook page, still others to their own websites.  Going online has become part of the morning routine all across the globe.

I wonder if the patterns of early morning online activity differ from place to place, or among cohort groups like one generation as compared to another?  Do women approach morning online activity differently than do men?  Do people in the East have different patterns than those in the West?  Do those in rural communities have different morning online priorities from their urban brethren?  Whatever the approach, whatever our morning routine consists of, we very likely develop a pattern that changes little over time.  We get into a habit, and habits allow us to manage our time and organize our lives.  These habits simplify things for us.

I think we very likely get into routines based on habit and patterns in our thinking too.  And once set, it isn't always so easy to change.

The older I get the more it seems to me that too much time is spent on diving into the challenges we face and moving boldly forward in trying to arrive at solutions to problems and answers to questions.  Human beings seem to abhor vacuums; they seem to deplore hanging questions without answers, challenging problems without solutions.  Such vagaries and uncertainties assault our sense of control and leave us feeling powerless or incomplete.  If we have something unresolved, we want to identify it and get it resolved as quickly as we can.

I have come to believe that one of the keys to success is not necessarily knowing the answers to the questions that we face, but rather what questions to ask in the first place.  Or those important follow up questions that too often seem to go by the wayside.  I think we too often approach problems and challenges with a habitually formed mindset that may be counter productive.  Plagued by a kind of sense of urgency in having to solve a problem or meet a challenge, our first instinct is to trot out not only the solutions our minds are predisposed to embrace (based on prior thinking and experience), but to cling to well established (in our minds) processes for arriving at solutions and answers, when what might yield better results would be to focus on asking more questions about a given challenge.  I think too often our rush to solve a problem, leads us down the wrong road with the result of often pursuing the wrong solution.

Take the typical meeting.  When the topic of some challenge or problem comes up, those assembled typically already have preconceived notions and ideas about both the nature of the challenge and possible solutions.  Rarely does the meeting focus on asking more questions first.  Brainstorming is inherently about arriving at solutions, and too often that process doesn't focus on somehow asking more of the right questions first.  It doesn't seem to matter whether or not we fully understand the complexities of the problem itself, we need only to know it is a problem.

I suspect asking the 'right' questions is a skill that, like other skills, needs to be honed over time.  It needs to be prioritized and valued.  I'm not sure, but I think it is a skill that can, to at least some extent, be taught.  Asking the right questions before settling on the solution would, I think, save time and result in a more informed solution that had a better chance of succeeding.  Forsaking the process of fully vetting all the possible questions that loom behind some challenges, often leads us to approaches based on the limited experience of our own silos and the prejudices and biased thought processes that come from a reliance on habitual thinking patterns.

So how do we shift the emphasis from solutions to questions - at least at the outset of the process of trying to grapple with the challenges we face?

I think one of the critical variables is to listen better.  Too often we are so enamored with our own preconceived ideas of what to do that we don't truly consider where that thinking may be flawed.  It seems axiomatically more difficult to frame the right questions if you are wedded to what a given solution might be - even before we fully appreciate the nature of the challenge.

I read an article recently about a restaurant in Brooklyn called 'EAT'  that has a "no talking" policy a couple of nights a week.  People order their menu choices, and from that point forward nobody says anything.  The idea seems to be to focus on the food and the atmosphere and enjoy the experience without the interruption of everyday conversation and the cacophony of sound that detracts from the meal experience itself.  This is a hard idea for me to get my head into.  I go out to eat at restaurants with friends or colleagues precisely because I want the enjoyment of convivial conversation.  Despite the reality that the conversation is more often than not mundane and centers on simply catching up with each other's lives or talking on superficial levels about current happenings locally or globally, it is the interchange with other people that complements the meal.  And every once in awhile the conversation is even substantive and yields new thoughts and thinking.  How can you listen better if there is no dialogue at all?  I am sure this is probably just a trendy gimmick of the moment; an indulgence sure to pass.  (Too bad the obligation of silence that governs most arts venues is not also a momentary 'trend', rather than the sacrosanct condition of entrance that it has become, but that is a whole other subject.)

Yet the idea intrigues me - if for no other reason than it is something out of the ordinary.   I imagine transferring that idea to our attempts to deal with our problems.  What if, for example, you had a meeting wherein a power point presentation focused on a challenge and tried to highlight the various component parts of that challenge - setting forth what was known about the problem and what it was doing to the things you value - but no one said anything.  What if you then reconvened the meeting attendees a day later and then focused on simply asking questions about the problem, with no one talking about any possible solutions?  I wonder if that might be an interesting experiment that might later yield some new thinking on how to approach the problem.  I wonder if the shift from what one has to say, to not saying anything at all, would alter the processes of how we think about things.

What if you had a conference session that took that approach?  A problem and all its various attributes is presented in pictures and on screen words, but no one says anything.  Then the same people reconvene the next day and try to figure out what questions need to be asked before discussing ideas to address the problem.  Would Day #2 end up a more productive session?  Does it make any sense to experiment with ways to break with patterns of thinking as a precursor to arriving at smart questions that ought to be asked before any attempt to settle on possible solutions to problems?

I worry sometimes that we in the arts are engaging too much in a "nation building" approach to the challenges we face.  Rather than question who we are, what we do and why, we embrace strategies that seek to change the external environment, focusing the solution on the world outside of ourselves.  We try to apply and impose our own critical judgments and conclusions on the outside world and mold that external reality to what we envision as the ideal.  I am not a fan of foreign policy nation building efforts and believe that from Vietnam to Iraq to Afghanistan our attempts to mold other cultures into our vision of democracy hasn't worked out as we might have hoped, and has, arguably, caused greater problems for us in the long term.   I wonder if we in the arts are sometimes guilty of trying to do the same thing - to mold an external marketplace and public reality into something it is inherently unwilling, or incapable of doing (at least on fundamental levels).  I wonder if we are asking the wrong questions in adoption of this kind of approach.

We seem to cling to the Field of Dreams "If you build it, they will come" mentality, and that approach hasn't come anywhere near yielding a reality which we had hoped for.  I wonder if we had spent more time asking more questions if we would have ended up with a different approach.  (More on this topic in a future blog………………)

Have a great week.  Ask more questions.

Don't Quit

Sunday, March 16, 2014

2014 Symposium on Creativity and Innovation in Public Education - Impressions from the Attendees

Good morning.
"And the beat goes on………………"

I couldn't attend last week's Westaf / CAC / Frank Gehry sponsored Symposium on Creativity and Innovation (in Public Education) due to traveling, so I asked several people if they would share their base impressions - not necessarily a line by line recap of what was said, but rather their strongest take-aways from the event.

Here first is Symposium Director Bryce Merrill's (WESTAF) introductory note:

The 2014 WESTAF symposium was streamed live and will soon be available as a video archive; we will also publish the proceedings online. I would encourage everyone interested in the topic to peruse the symposium readings, watch and rewatch the presentations, and contact the participants to have longer, deeper conversations about creativity and innovation in public education.

One concept presented at the symposium that provides a fitting framework for reflecting on organizing this event is James Haywood Rolling Jr.’s “swarm intelligence.” Rolling Jr. presented a view of creativity as a swirling, collective, and sometimes chaotic process--think of creativity as murmuration of starlings. To encourage creativity is to foster collaboration and interaction, not individualization and isolation. Applied to educational instruction, Rolling Jr. argues that a swarming classroom is a creative classroom.

The 2014 symposium was certainly organized by a swarm, with WESTAF, the California Arts Council, and Frank Gehry Partners (represented by Malissa Shriver) actively and sometimes chaotically collaborating to make the event a success. WESTAF alone has been organizing these symposia for more than 15 years, and we have a reliable system for doing so. Collaborating on this symposium challenged our typical way of doing things, but with favorable results. For example, the CAC and Gehry Partners wanted to make this typically closed event, where scholars engage with each other instead of outside audiences, a public one. The CAC arranged to have the event streamed (with thanks to Charter Communications) and Gehry Partners accommodated as many people in their studio as possible. While the live streaming was not picture-perfect, and the fifty in-house observers could have used more leg room, we were ultimately able to include a much broader audience for the presentations. And, as my welcome letter to the symposium reminded observers, WESTAF symposia are meant to open academic-level conversations to a broad field of practitioners and advocates, without sacrificing the sophistication of the content. With the help of the swarm, I believe we succeeded in fulfilling our mission and creating a new, more public space for the symposium!

Another novel arrangement at this symposium was the addition of a workshop on the third day that connected the symposium participants directly to a specific arts research and policy project. CREATE CA is a statewide initiative to advance arts and creative education in California led by the California Department of Education, California Arts Council, California Alliance for Arts Education, and the California County Superintendents Educational Services Association. Symposium participants--broadly speaking, all experts on creativity--were invited to review the project, including its unique partnership structure (based on organizational principles of Collective Impact) and substantive objectives (embedding arts in common core, ballot measures to increase funding for arts and creative education, and so on). CREATE planning partners were then invited to engage with the participants in a facilitated dialogue about how the scholarship of creativity might inform the CREATE initiative. Themes from the previous day’s symposium were reiterated in the conversation, including the importance of recognizing the creative potential of all students and the academic notion that concepts like “creativity” are defined and redefined in multiple, often contested ways, depending on the disciplinary orientation of the researcher. This latter point is important for practitioners who often bemoan a lack of concept standardization--when trying to advance a policy to support creativity, it is helpful to know what it is! These exchanges--and many more!--between the symposium scholars and CREATE CA organizers were helpful for understanding the applied value of excellent scholarship.

WESTAF also encouraged the symposium presenters and CREATE CA organizers to view the symposium as the beginning of a lasting relationship. Many of the presenters expressed admiration and enthusiasm for the CREATE initiative, and offered to help shape its future in whatever ways possible. Certainly one workshop could not afford the amount of time and attention needed to thoroughly and thoughtfully advise on the development of this project, one that is complex and has several moving political, empirical, and ideological parts. However, for WESTAF, the point of the workshop and symposium was to ignite a dialogue with individuals (academics, policy makers, practitioners) that can make important contributions when included in the process.

I should also note that there we many individuals that would have been excellent contributors to the symposium but could not participate for scheduling reasons. The organizing partners of the symposium have a list of additional experts and thought-leaders to consult on CREATE CA beyond the outstanding group that attended the symposium.

Many of WESTAF’s values as an organization were on display at this symposium. We are fundamentally committed to using established and excellent scholarship to advance the arts field. We believe that when it comes to arts research, accuracy should never be compromised for the sake of advocacy. WESTAF also supports the progressive innovation of state arts agencies. Partnering with the CAC on this symposium supported the CAC’s efforts to become a thought-leader in the arts in California. Advancing the field through public-private partnerships is a core strategy advocated by WESTAF, and collaborating with Gehry Partners on this event further demonstrated the efficacy of this approach. Finally, WESTAF strives to keep up with--or stay ahead of--the times, taking risks and challenging status quos to better support the arts. This symposium intended to infuse arts education conversations with cutting edge research and programming on creativity and innovation. To that end, this was not an arts education conference; it was one that creatively looked to the future of arts in education through the lens of creativity and innovation.

Here are three attendee reports:

Dalouge Smith - President and CEO San Diego Youth Symphony and Conservatory

All people are creative.

This assumption underpinned much of the discussion at WESTAF’s “Creativity and Innovation in Public Education” symposium in Los Angeles earlier this month. Two of the nation’s most prolific and creative artists, Frank Gehry and Herbie Hancock said it. Academics and practitioners in the room said it. Even The Bible says it.

The first chapter in the book of Genisis describes Gods actions over and over as those of a creator. Before the chapter ends it states, “So God created mankind in his own image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.” The only image we have of God at this point is the image of a creator. If mankind is created in God’s image then all mankind must also be creators.

I accept this statement that all people are creative like I accept geometry theorems. In case you’re geometry is rusty: a theorem is a general proposition not self-evident but proved by a chain of reasoning or a truth established by means of accepted truths.

Theorems provide us with two choices. We can spend time attempting to prove them or we can apply them to new problems. I found much of the discussion at the Symposium focused on measuring and proving creativity. Several references to the application of creativity were mentioned but it wasn’t until late in the day that Joel Slayton directly posed the question, “To what end is creativity applied?”

Upon further reflection, I started to realize that what struck me most about the day’s dialogue were the factors identified as most associated with creative behavior, not the descriptions or measurements of creative behavior and thinking. I heard three key factors that contribute to people having robust and mature creative processes surface repeatedly: motivation/passion/agency, skills/aptitudes, and breadth of experience and knowledge.

Self agency and intrinsic motivation were separately mentioned by Professors Mark Runco and James Catterall. Additionally, Julie Fry of the Hewlett Foundation described this as “belief in one’s own creativity empowers us with agency.” Professor Robert Bilder referenced the drive and emotion necessary to persist despite struggles. With self agency, anxiety over risk is mitigated while passion continues to drive action.

Accumulating skills, aptitudes, and knowledge provides individuals with tools to apply and adapt as they are confronted with challenges and opportunities. James Catterall named this “Means” in his presentation. Gerald Richards described how his organization 826 National imparts writing skills that participating children can then manipulate toward creative ends. Similarly, Lorne Buchman emphasized the level of aesthetic and technical skill students entering Art Center College of Design must demonstrate through their portfolio to simply achieve admission. Once admitted, they continue acquiring skills and practice application of their skills to “form focused problem solving.”

In addition to the vertical achievement of specialized skills, developing a breadth of experience and knowledge from other disciplines will extend the range of creative output a person can achieve. This was most explicitly highlighted by Professor Robert Root-Bernstein’s presentation on the polymath nature of Nobel and MacArther Award winners. Particularly in the sciences, these award winners have experience and training in many more subjects, including the arts, at much higher percentage rates than non-winners in their same filed. The data he and his research partner (and wife) Michelle offer may be the most compelling we have for promoting STEAM education instead of STEM.

One factor that didn’t include evidence to suggest its importance to exercising creativity but must not be ignored is empathy. Lorne Bachman highlighted this late in the day when he added that Art Center College of Design expects its students to study the humanities and human experience so they are practiced at exercising empathy even as they problem solve.

Days after the WESTAF symposium, Yo Yo Ma answered questions at Harvard’s Kennedy School and affirmed the key points I took away from the Symposium. He spoke of how easy playing the cello was for him even as a child and this motivated him to solve technical problems on his own. He spoke of learning the importance of moving past technique to discovering his own sound on the instrument. He advised the students in attendance to lift their heads out of the specific specialty they were pursing so they could see and participate in the wider world around them.  Finally, he described how his sensitivity to different cultural experiences and points of view was developed through his study of anthropology while an undergraduate even as he continued to study music. (

Bill O’Brien of the NEA pointed out at the symposium that “Trying to isolate the impact of arts education without reference to the larger system is to miss the point of its integrated presence.” I believe the same is true of creativity. I encourage us to stop wondering if we are successfully teaching creativity. Creativity needn’t be taught.

All people are creative.

Children need to be given the tools and experiences necessary for practicing creativity. This means ensuring every child discovers what motivates them, has opportunities to develop their skills to the highest degree possible in this motivating activity, is stretched to learn skills and have experiences in a variety of additional subjects, and has exposure to the breadth of human experience so they develop the empathy necessary to apply their creativity to the benefit of society and the world.

Making this happen requires us all to reach new heights with our own of creativity!

Cora Mirikitani - President and CEO - Center for Cultural Innovation-

I was pleased to attend the full-day WESTAF cultural policy symposium on “Creativity and Innovation in Public Education” on March 4, 2014 at the Frank Gehry Partners, LLC studio in Los Angeles.  This was the 15th such symposium convened by WESTAF, designed to bring scholars and practitioners together to offer critical thinking and exchange on intractable issues in the arts.  The format of the day was organized around 14 key presenters – primarily scholars – sharing knowledge and perspectives about research and policy work needed to advance creativity and innovation in public education.  Roughly 60 observers (including me) also crowded into the room to hear the proceedings first-hand along with a substantial virtual audience beaming in via a live streaming webcast, courtesy of the California Arts Council and Charter Communications.

With so many arts people in the audience it was interesting to hear the discussion framed under the banner of “creativity” and not the “arts,” per se, as there are many in our field who still think of these as synonymous (they aren’t).  With a topic so large, the conversation was often dense but always rich, offering up many nuggets of information and interesting takeaways.  Here are just a few:
There isn’t full agreement on the definition of creativity but a critical mass of scientific and research-based evidence is emerging demonstrating creativity as a key factor in good educational outcomes.
Developing educational policies and practices promoting creativity is hard, because individual creativity often goes against the norm, threatens power and lives at the edge of chaos – a disruptive state that is unwelcomed by most educational and political institutions.

Universal systems for evaluating and measuring the impact of creativity in education are not in place, hindering policy development and necessary advocacy efforts with parents, boards of education and legislators.

At the same time, there is on-the-ground evidence that artists and the arts are successfully creating innovative products, community engagement and social outcomes – often accelerated by innovative collaborations between the arts, science and technology.

There is admittedly a huge amount of information to digest in order to fully wrap your brain around this discussion.  Happily, WESTAF plans to publish the proceedings from this symposium, as they have in the past, and I was informed by Anthony Radich that presentations captured from the live streaming broadcast may be posted on the WESTAF website as well.  Did we solve any problems at the symposium?  Not really.  But to paraphrase one participant, because communication among the scholars and stakeholders in this issue has been a problem, convenings like this play an important role in moving the dialogue forward.

Joe Landon - Executive Director, California Alliance for Arts Education

1500 accountants can¹t be wrong.

In his prepared remarks, Steven Tepper from Vanderbilt University, referenced a study which asked 3000 accountants whether they considered their work to be "creative". 1500 responded that they did.

In her prepared remarks, Julie Fry, from the Hewlett Foundation, described growing up in a small town in Wisconsin, where a solid dose of arts education was part of the staple every child received in school. That exposure influenced the direction of her life, leading to her work as a program office focused on arts and arts education. But she wondered aloud about her fellow students, who shared the same educational experience and went on to work in the local factory for the rest of their lives.

I couldn¹t help but connect the two narratives to the work we do advocating for access to arts education for every child. Our conviction is that exposure to the arts better prepares every person to live a more
fulfilling life, in which they experience their role as "participant" in the direction of their journey, not simply the victim of external circumstance.

To recognize one¹s relationship to creativity requires exposure to creative opportunities. Out of those opportunities one discovers what it¹s like to make decisions, based entirely on one¹s personal judgment. Those judgments can lead to deeper connections including moments of inspiration.

Or, they can simply mean that one is connected to one¹s aesthetic judgment in a way that determines why a particular song or pair of pants 'works for you' and another doesn't. I know of no better way to expose a student to that inner journey than through arts education. And that is why we advocate that arts education must be a component of the education that EVERY child receives.

My heart goes out to those other 1500 accountants.

Finally, Joe also forwarded me a poem written by Francisca Sanchez (compiled from quotes of what people said at the event):

"let's build a city
in honor of frank gehry, herbie hancock, and malissa shriver

let's build a city that sings community a biography of creativity
where genius flowers in the hands and minds and hearts of our geography
where imagination like an exquisite bird of paradise rises wild
with beauty and daring choreography at every intersection of our words

let's build a city that embraces grace and fearless artistry
where young people congregate to declare war on uninspired fate
where they break the rules with unrelenting joy and curiosity
and construct elegant answers to questions of their own divine design

let's build a city that once and for all discards denial and duplicity
where chain link will never be the unexamined aesthetic of choice
where radical connectivity conquers fear and hate with cool disregard
and silenced generations regain their participatory voice

let's build a city past stability to the far edge of chaos
where we can see anew under the ecstasy of undiscovered stars
where we will master the logic of what might be and then
know once more what it is to be fully human again

let's build a city that is not bound by any known architecture
where freedom provokes clarity and a measure of collective adventure
where, like with jazz, we improvise and find our way past insoluble
while our unbridled exploration shapes the multiple dimensions of our play

let's build a city where intrepid dreamers celebrate creativity¹s
a place where we are illuminated by our own burning brilliance
where days make room for the double swirls of life¹s dialectics
that like fierce eagles glide by on curled breaths of lifting air

let's build a city of juxtaposed possibilities and inspired invention
where our art is that we know from making and make to know
where without warning ideas spark spontaneous combustion
and the collage of our deconstructed lives re-members our humanity

yes, let's build a city where justice can come home again"

francisca sánchez
© 2014

Thank you Bryce, Dalouge, Cora, Joe and Francisca.

Have a great week.

Don't Quit