Sunday, May 3, 2009

May 03, 2009

SWINE FLU AND THE BIGGER ISSUE OF THE CAPACITY OF THE ARTS TO THINK AND ACT COLLECTIVELY


Hello everybody.

“And the beat goes on.......”

DODGING A BULLET WITH THE SWINE FLU, BUT WHAT ABOUT NEXT TIME?:

From the news accounts it would seem that the current flu pandemic isn’t likely to pose the level of threat originally feared. While it remains to be seen how it will fully play itself out, it seems this flu isn’t the “doomsday” everyone fears may one day confront the world. I think the response by governments across the globe was pretty much the right response. Better to be cautious. Mexico, of course, took the biggest economic hit as a result of their attempts to contain the virus by discouraging (and preventing) people from assembling. Seeing what happened in Mexico makes it relatively easy to speculate as to what would happen to our little arts sector if some potential pandemic had had its genesis here in our country, in one of our metropolitan areas. Imagine the epicenter of the beginning of this pandemic scare having been New York or Los Angeles. And imagine it a more dangerous flu and so the fear lasted not one month, but three or four or more. If Mexico’s actions were the reasonable first response, then the closing of museums and galleries, the shutting down of virtually all performing arts venues (and movies, then restaurants and more) would happen here. Even if there weren’t a current economic recession and wider crisis, such action would be economically devastating to our sector. And perhaps the next potential pandemic will start here. It probably isn’t a question of IF, but WHEN. What would we do? What could we do? Clearly, the arts sector is highly vulnerable.

WORST CASE SCENARIO PLANNING – or CONTINUED LACK THEREOF:

Back in 2005, when the SARS (Bird Flu) pandemic scare was playing itself out in Asia, I blogged about the arts & culture sector doing some kind of scenario planning for the eventuality of some kind of natural (or man made) disaster. At the Madison Wisconsin Americans for the Arts conference that year, we did a “Hessenius Group” live session that touched on the issue of our sector’s contingency planning for unlikely scenarios (or more accurately, the lack of any such planning). I argued then that we ought to at least consider the implications of the impacts of everything from pandemics to economic collapse to earthquakes and hurricanes, and, at least, convene some of our best thinkers to discuss what those impacts might be and what might we do to minimize the negative fallout in the unlikely eventuality that any one of those scenarios became reality.

I echo that clarion call again. Now maybe there isn’t anything that can be done in the face of such disasters. I don’t know. But I still think we ought to try to get some kind of handle on what might happen, and consider whether anything could be done or not. If nothing else, we might increase awareness of the problems and challenges we might face, and at least begin to catalogue where our most pressing needs would be in such circumstances, craft some kind of unifying action that might address those needs (or at least get individual organizations to think in those terms), and expand awareness of our plight with the public. In all probability, scenario planning for us would have as its goal, not saving every organization, but saving the sector itself. The exercise itself would be, I think, of value.

If we had done that kind of planning, would it have made any difference given the current economic crisis and its impact on our sector? Could we have come up with any plan that might have helped those countless arts organizations that are now struggling? Or would it have just been a waste of time (a resource that seems in perpetual short supply for us)? I have no idea. I don’t think we can know until we do it. I suppose the easiest suggestion in the face of future catastrophes, would be to start some emergency fund to deal with those future needs, but how on earth would we possibly fund such a contingency pool? In all probability the small amount of money we could raise would be ineffective in the face of whatever need it was designed to address. Ok, I know that. But I still believe that it is prudent to at least discuss what kinds of events (that now seem ever more likely to happen and far less the isolated, unlikely random occurrences) might have significant negative impacts on our field, what those impacts are likely to be, whether or not there is anything we can do up front to prepare for those scenarios, and, even if not, then what the aftermath would likely look like as our sector is changed. I still think, for example, that we ought to be collecting data now during the current economic crisis which can be used to analyze what the sector was and what it will look like in two years when the economy rebounds, because I think there are lessons to be learned from what we are going through now, and those lessons can empower us to seize opportunities that may arise in the future – a future changed because of what is going on. But there is a much bigger issue at stake in talking about scenario planning – and that is that we have no mechanism in place to even have such a discussion.

The real issue is how can we function as a “sector” when such action might be called for as necessary or advisable.

THE BIGGER ISSUE – CAN THE ARTS SECTOR EVER BEHAVE LIKE A “SECTOR”?:

The arts & culture sector’s capacity to behave like a sector is something we rarely face head on. We have no ongoing entity or structure or apparatus that allows us to discuss any of the myriad of issues we might want to discuss as a sector. We haven’t even really yet advanced to the point where we think of ourselves as a cohesive sector, capable of concerted, organized action on specific common challenges. We still lack the will, the skills and the means to think and act as a unified field, despite our constant references to ourselves as some monolithic arts & culture sector. We have too few of the tools in place yet that allow us to work and position ourselves as a field. Even though we pretend we are a “sector”, for the most part we are scores of separate interest areas and tens of thousands of individual organizations only loosely linked because of geography, discipline, budget size, lofty mission statement or other variable. We very infrequently work as anything even resembling a cohesive, organized, unified whole with common purposes and goals. We squander the potential clout and power we might have based on our numbers and our community value because we don’t act in concert. And when we do, it is usually reactive to some imminent crisis. There is no long range strategic planning for sector wide action on any level. We don’t even have the tools yet to move ourselves in that direction. We are still at the “talking about” it stage. That lack of identity and ability to mobilize ourselves has had profound costs to all of us over the decades, and is likely to be even more costly to us in the future. Yet here we remain.

I, and many others, have been beating the drum for a long time for increased cooperation and collaboration for the arts -- as a field -- to act in unity on broad issues that impact us all – from advocacy to research and data collection, from internal to external collaboration itself, from marketing to audience development. I don’t mean to suggest there is no cooperation and collaboration, no effort going on -- only that most of those efforts have little to do with arts & culture as a “sector”; most collaborative efforts are by and between individual arts organizations and sometimes with other sectors. The few sector wide efforts (Americans for the Arts Action PAC comes to mind as an example), are still somewhat embryonic and are not yet based on any widespread local foundation. Indeed, that’s how we think – basically narrowly within small spheres, and not “globally” as an actual sector (or industry). We are forever divided by discipline, territory, size, and several other markers. Theater groups rarely talk to symphony people, dance companies don’t interface or intersect with museums. Suburban groups have little interaction with their urban counterparts. Large budget organizations don’t interact with smaller arts groups. We remain separated by diversity, and age and other categories. We all champion arts education as common ground, but even there our agendas are different and the specter of “territoriality” raises its ugly head. Occasionally we rally to advocate on behalf of the NEA or something, but usually such efforts are “reactive” not “proactive”. We talk a lot about “the arts” and our value to society. But we rarely act like “the arts” – a cohesive, unified force that thinks in terms of what is best for the whole of arts & culture. Even when we look like we are acting in concert – say for pushing government for more money - in reality we aren’t doing so because we have some consensus on what would be good for the whole field, but rather are hoping we will directly benefit as individual organizations. I am not saying there is anything wrong or even unusual in our acting from the selfish motive of what is good for us as separate organizations, but rather that there are ways and times that if we thought and acted more on what would really be good for the whole arts & culture sector, we would, in fact, be pushing our own agendas, and would likely be directly moving towards addressing our own needs more than we are by continuing to be governed by a vivisectionist legacy.

But how on earth do we get there? How do we overcome all the obstacles to working in concert, to thinking in terms of the whole of the arts, to defining what an arts & culture sector is, and isn’t – and to developing the tools and the means to act collectively in smart, meaningful ways?

THE DENVER NATIONAL PERFORMING ARTS CONVENTION REPORT:

I call your attention to the just released Report authored by Elisabeth Long Lingo, Andrew Taylor, and Caroline Lee on the outcomes of the 2008 National Performing Arts ConventionAssessing the Field’s Capacity for Collective Action. You can access the full report via Andrew Taylor’s blog – click here: http://www.artsjournal.com/artfulmanager/main/our-capacity-for-collective-ac.php

This was a quite remarkable conference and is, I think, a landmark and very important report. It deals specifically with the capacity of the performing arts sector to think and operate “collectively” by examining what performing arts organizations already share, and the elements of building community and capacity to act in concert. Finally, it considers the “opportunity structure” for acting like a unified field. I can’t possibly do justice here to all that is contained in this report (and I urge you all to read the section in which the caucus participants at the Denver NPAC make specific recommendations. Great food for thought, and enough topics for a whole summit meeting of our best and brightest).

The report deals with “building community” by breaking that challenge down into four sub-parts:

• Defining the community by exploring what constitutes its boundaries and membership.
• Examining how cooperation and collaboration is valued
• Defining what are the shared interests, values and mission
• Articulating the common problems and opportunities for acting together.

The Denver Convention didn’t really focus on how the whole of the arts field (not just the performing arts section) might work to push a common agenda on a national basis. As the report concluded: “While building community is essential for defining common interests and connections, building institutional resources and capacity enables a community to take positive action together. The Denver convention was designed primarily to build community and define the common set of opportunities and issues for first action."

To move from building a sense of community to full "sector" awareness and identity, we would need to develop "institutional" (or systemic) resources which we do not currently have.

The report considers that process:

"The process of building institutional resource capacity involves four factors:

Accessing and mobilizing community members and allies (the report noted that “a majority (77%) of respondents thought challenges facing the arts could best be addressed at the local level”) which may ultimately help the effort for the arts to develop a “sector” mentality, image and approach by providing a foundation on which to build.

Acquiring, deploying and sharing resources (the report noted that “indicators suggest a systematic issue around knowledge dissemination in the field. Arts leaders either lack time or incentive to discover and use existing knowledge resources, or effective knowledge dissemination mechanisms do not exist to get this information out”). Clearly, if a significant percentage of us aren’t familiar with the (limited) tools that are available to us to act collectively, we have a long way to go.

Creating effective decision-making and implementation processes for action plans (the report noted the oft cited reasons for our failure to act together to achieve mutually beneficial results by noting: “when describing the greatest challenges to taking action together, respondents cite follow-through and maintaining momentum, coordination of efforts (who would do what), preoccupation with day-to-day organizational demands, and the different needs/interests of the many disciplines. The old familiar problem of not enough time to do what needs to be done continues to vex virtually everything we try to do. When will we learn how to stop doing things we only think are crucial, so we can actually have the time to do some of the things that are, in fact, crucial? And while these practical considerations logically explain our failure to move closer to a unified field, it doesn’t explain our failure to “think” of ourselves as part of the same, larger “tribe”.

Ensuring sustainable leadership (here the report noted that “it was striking how little conversation focused on the discovery and development of future leaders, and the skills and abilities they might require.”) And this might be at the heart of our problem to engage each other in a common mission to use our collective strength and act in a concerted manner, at least to some limited extent – to wit: nobody has the time, inclination or resources to craft, let alone implement, strategies to move us in that direction. It will take leadership – skilled, experienced, trained, respected leaders from within our field whose sole job is to move us to optimizing our position as a unified, collective field. Not only haven’t we identified (let alone recruited) any of those leaders, but we have no platform from which they might act even if we did identify them. Ultimately, fashioning the myriad segments of the wider arts & culture community into more of a cohesive, collective, is going to have to be some people’s full time job. We will never get there if it continues to be a volunteer effort. We need visionary leadership, and we need to provide that leadership with the support and tools (budget) to move us in the right direction. At some point the work must move from the discussion stage to the action stage. And to do that, we need to fund people to help us organize the effort.

The report suggests that given the overarching reality that people in our sector (as in most others) tend to think and act locally, one approach to building more of a sense of community as a precondition to building more of a capacity for us to act as a unified sector (at least in some ways, some of the time) is to build on that local (or even regional) core base and train and empower more people to act together as a field on that local level. I think this is largely the right approach. We need to build a foundational base on which we can develop an ever widening awareness of collective thought and action. Yet, I think we have to acknowledge that there may not just be one road to success. In some instances, a national campaign or agenda can be the catalyst from which the local effort can eventually be spawned. Thus, I think it may have taken years, if not forever, to build local Political Action Committees on behalf of the arts to develop our collective political and lobbying clout. Americans for the Arts has had great success in a relatively short period of time in establishing a national PAC. Of course, it predominantly deals with national issues, but one hopes that it can be the basis (soon) to now develop state PACs under its umbrella, and that eventually can lead to local city PACs. It’s not impossible to build from the top down, but it probably makes more sense in trying to develop consciousness as a sector to build from the bottom up.

SOMEDAY A TRUE ARTS & CULTURE SECTOR?:

The task of moving any sector towards thinking as a sector, and then manifesting that collective sense of community and unity into specific actions that benefit it – both as a whole and for its individual component members – is a daunting one, and arts & culture has a long, long way to go. We have made progress and conventions like NPAC and this report are terribly valuable. Alas, the problem is that our efforts so far remain random, ad hoc and infrequent. We as yet fail to have any sustained, comprehensive approach to addressing the challenge of thinking and acting like a sector (at least when it is in all of our interests to do so). We really do ourselves a disservice if we simply allow dealing with this issue to remain on our “to do” list for an indeterminate amount of time without ever moving specifically and methodically to deal with it. And I think the only way to give these isolated efforts some structure and legs as it were is for those few in power who can pull some of this together to take leadership initiative. Thus it is the NEA, or Americans for the Arts in concert with some of the other national service organizations, or one or more major arts funding foundations (or even the GIA on their behalf) – or all of these groups together who ought to make the forging of a true arts & culture sector a priority. These groups ought to figure out a way to convene representatives of us all to consider the ways we might think of ourselves as a sector and then act on that thinking – whether it is worst case scenario planning or the identification of leaders that might devote 100% of their time to dealing with this challenge, (and then figuring out how to support those leaders in dealing with the challenge), or some other area of mutual concern. We are much more likely to develop into a formidable “sector” that can deal with common problems and challenges and do things for our common good if we actually push for this kind of development rather than simply leave it to chance to happen on its own. Yes, it will take a long time to reach any level where we really have a national consciousness to who we are as a sector, and the built up foundation on which we can achieve common goals based on the power of that consciousness – but we have to start somewhere, at some point – and I hope the NPAC momentum doesn’t die on the vine and four years from now we talk about it again having done nothing in the interim.

Follow up link on last week’s blog about Young Professional Arts Administrators and their efforts to deal with the challenges facing them to having a career in the field. Click here (thanks Andrew Taylor): http://philanthropy.com/news/updates/8006/conference-notebook-young-people-urged-not-to-give-up-on-nonprofit-careers

Have a great week.

Don’t Quit.
Barry

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