Sunday, October 24, 2010

Reflections on the GIA Conference

Good morning.
“And the beat goes on……………”

Two Quick Links
  • Sir Ken Robinson on Creativity in Education in Brain Pickings
  • I did a radio interview for KHSU in northern California for its Artwaves program.  It will broadcast Tuesday, October 26th at 1:30 pm Pacific time and will stream live at
I enjoyed the GIA Conference in Chicago.  I find those in the arts funder community to be some of the sector's brightest people; insightful, knowledgable, open and curious and generally very on top of the issues.  In both structured and unstructured conversations, there was much food for thought and many observations that I want to write about and comment on.  The problem with good conferences is there are always more people you want to huddle with and with whom you want to have serious conversations than there is the time and opportunities for those conversations to happen.

Alas, travel is fraught with peril and on this trip I caught some stomach or respiratory bug - whether from food poisoning, lousy air circulation or exposure to something - and came home very sick, and only today just beginning to feel alive again.    In the coming weeks, I plan to revisit some of the major issues this conference brought home to me.  Meanwhile, here are the posts I made during the conference on the GIA Conference Blog site. Note:  Having to use a small "netbook" computer to enter my blog posts (a machine with a keyboard of ample size if you happen to be a nine year old with delicate fingers, and which stubbornly required the hotel engineer to connect to the internet), my apologies to the conference attendees for multiple spelling errors neither I nor the machine's pathetic spellchecker software caught.

The Arts Education PreConference - Posted October 18th

Sunday was a glorious day in downtown Chicago. Blue skies, sunshine. What an absolutely spectacular city.

The Arts Ed PreConference centered on one of the more difficult challenges of this area: assessment – of student learning and by implication, teaching models and methodologies. The day was split into two parts with the morning focus on the conceptual and theoretical aspects of Basic Assessment 101 – a quick and concise tutorial on the central elements of assessment by Professor Janmes Pelligrino of the University of Illinois at Chicago, who advised the attendees to:

Be assessment ‘literate’ and focus on how the arts can be part of the dialogue of quality assessment in support of teaching and learning; and To ask: “What is the nature if competence in the arts on learning progressions.”

Basically “assessment” refers to a process of gathering information for purposes of making judgments about the current state of affairs of something. In education, it helps teachers, administrators, parents, the public and students to infer what students know about a subject and how well they know it. That information is useful on the classroom, district, and state / nation levels to assist learning, measure individual achievement and evaluate programs. There are different assessments for different needs and purposes, and those differing approaches must be coordinated, integrated, and synchronized to reach reasonable conclusions.

The quality of assessment data depends on both its reliability (is it consistent and comparable) and it’s validity (is there empirical evidence that it measures what it means to measure). We tend to emphasize its reliability over its validity because of our preference for things we can more easily measure. And often users of valid assessments, use it in invalid ways.

Dr. Pelligrino advised that new federal government cash incentives have sparked ambitious and rigorous attempts to develop new, improved assessment protocols with unified standards, but that implementation of these ideals is likely problematic because of the politics of their adoption at all levels - local, state and in particular the federal level. Irrespective of the arts’ continuing place as the step child to english language skills, and both math and science proficiency- assessment reform – incentivized, but also held hostage by the money on the table, likely has no chance for its redesign to be implemented.

The fact is much of this current effort is reinventing the wheel. In many jurisdictions, the arts have already developed both standards and assessment protocols that are intelligent, sophisticated, well thought out and constructed. What is missing is the measurement of the effect of the arts on those areas that are difficult, if not impossible to measure – the impact on creative – out-of-the-box thinking and critical analysis – and how learning in the arts help learning in other areas. How do you measure what arts experiences have on how you approach problem solving as an abstract concept? How do you apply standard metrics to non-standard assessments?

The arts are unlike math, unlike science. Measuring our impact isn’t so easy. The arts teach thinking that transcends multiple levels of knowledge and competency. As Dennie Palmer Wolf pointed out: the arts involve “imagining the world differently” – while assessment is usually on technical competency. You can assess a musician’s technical skill, but musicians themselves judge each other on much deeper leverls, and Dennie encouraged us to expand what arts education involves to include a wider range of skills enhancement, and to move away from the trap of assessing arts on its promise to improve academic performance – a trap we fall into when making the case for our value. She also cautioned that the emphasis on english / math / science skills made arts assessment an often after thought and that unless local funders invest in assessment, it won’t happen.

Julie Fry of the Hewlett Foundation noted a huge gap for funders when she observed that in San Francisco 67% of their grantees have substantial arts education outreach programs – in school, after school and otherwise and those organizations have neither the resources nor the expertise to “assess” student learning based on their experiences in those specific programs, nor any way to track those students over time to learn the longer term impacts. That is a problem for the organizations and their funders.

But the ultimate challenge for the arts isn’t in creating smart assessment protocols. The real challenge is in their timely and consistent application. The devil remains in the details.

DAY ONE - Posted on October 19th

Rocco’s Speech:

The Chair of the Endowment’s activism to involve the agency on a number of fronts seems to be working.. This morning he recounted successes in getting other federal departments and agencies to include the arts in funding programs and policies including a recent $100 million NOFA (Notice of Funding Availability) from HUD that the arts might apply for part of, and ongoing dialogues and conversations about embedding the arts within programs as far ranging as aging and mental health to transportation, agriculture and commerce. I heard him make the promise of pursuit of making these federal intersections work, and he is delivering on that promise. Impressive.

He also talked about the Our Town program ($5 million earmarked for ‘placemaking’ efforts in 35 communities), and plans to move forward with pursuing joint initiatives with major foundations in the future to complement, extend and leverage private funder efforts and forge symbiotic relationships. Expansion of collaborative and cooperative projects between government and the private funding sector should have begun a long time ago.

National Capitalization Project:

Janet Brown announced and introduced this really bold effort from GIA to address the undercapitalization of arts organizations throughout the field. Some time in the planning stages and involving many funders in the process, the report makes specific recommendations to funders about improving the capitalization of arts organizations. Janet cautioned that release of the report is a beginning of what will likely be a long process that involves changing the way people think and our approaches on a number of fronts long held dear; that the recommendations are not edicts, but suggestions and that it recognizes the diversity of the field.

In further explannation, Clara Miller CEO of the National Finance Fund, clarified that capitalization means the accumulated resources (assets less liabilities) of an organization, but not current income. Adequate capital is what allows for change and growth. But it seems to me that the other side of this coin – the business models that govern operating income – will be an implicit part of this conversation, because you can’t discuss moving towards adequate capitalization for an arts organization without talking about their revenue streams. And if you talk about their income and its’ sources you have to talk about the business model. As I have argued before, that model is broken.

The project’s rcommendations will require funders and grantees alike to change the culture of funding, and to: 1) shed bad habits; 2) promote common principles; and 3) collaborate.

This is precisely the kind of strategic change that the times demand and I applaud its’ launch. As evidenced by the discussions in the breakout sessions involving all conference attendees immediately following the plenary presentation, there will be many questions that will arise, a lot of discussion and no shortage of issues that will have to be addressed. It will require some sea changes in protocols and attitudes on the part of both fubders and grantees, but it seeks to address the fundamental issue of the sector’s long term survivability.

Joi Ito Lunch Keynote:

Mr. Ito – venture capitalist, CEO of Creative Commons, part of the “Next Establishment” according to Vanity Fair, gave a thought provoking keynote with a host (to me anyway) of brain candy tidbits:

 The most successful investment he ever made was in – a web startup created by passionate musicians.

 Pre the internet the cost of creating and sharing information was expensive, now it’s cheap.

 Content that was once the exclusive domain of universities and museums is now widely available.

 Keys to transformation via the web are: equal access; at little to no cost; and simplicity and ease of use – plus the ability to participate without permission.

 The venture capital model of backing many ideas is that the cost of failure is low and thus risk becomes affordable.

 Too much planning can, at times, stifle the innovation.

 In some cases more money from fewer people is a better model than less money from lots if people.

As is always the case at arts conferences, the network time with colleagues is where new ideas get generated, and I have enjoyed the re-connecting, the ensuing exchange of knowledge and the brainstorming over do-able projects. Energy and ideas are in the air – you can sense it.

DAY TWO - Posted on October 20th

The Capitalization Project will have to confront the thorny issue lying underneath the surface: the assumption that to get where the project seeks to go there will have to be, at least some wholesale restructuring of the built (or overbuilt) infrastructure – whether or not that happens consciously or as an indirect consequence. In short, any number of precariously financed organizations with shaky revenue streams will simply have to be left to die off on their own. That isn’t necessarily, however, even a new thread in the discussion of the financial healthof the sector. We’ve been talking for a long time about the extent to which the sector is overbuilt, how supply exceeds demand and how we, during seemingly endless good times when funders were flush, just kept funding the long march of new incarnations of art. To be sure, much, even most, of what came just this century was indeed worth funding, and some of it was brilliant, But sustainable? No. Probably not even if the crash had not come. Arts funding in the second decade of the century will have to be much more strategic and smarter; happen more in concert and leverage identifiable results IF we want to do more than survive.

Unquestionably, the decisions as to funding in the current economic climate are already hard and painful, for funder and grantee alike. Such decisions will be made in consideration of local and indivdual circumstances and criteria; no one size will fit all, and there will be champions for both those that get the help they need to survive or grow and champions too for those that do not. But one thing will remain unalterable: there are insufficient funds to support every organization irrespective of its value, artistic merit, community impact, legacy or favorite son status. IF there is to be any serious attempt to try to address stabilization in the area of capitalization, some very hard choices will have to be made. That’s really nothing new though.

Of course the need to address stablization in the area of capitalization may remain an open question for many – including those that favor gravitating towards the venture capital model that may not prioritize long term capitalization stability as absolutely essential – at least not from the outset. And one of the open questions at this conference centers on to what extent funding might move towards a venture capitalist model – at least as the same may pertain to a specific subset of Millennial generational projects. I suspect that conversations around venture capital (or other) models to re-set the bar for next generational funding will be a very lively topic in 2011.

Personally, my sympathies lie with the same fragile organizations that seem dear to Arlene. And I hope that funding, at the least, strikes a balance between preservation of the traditional and the tried and true – those institutions in which there has been substantial investment and which start the derby towards capitalization ahead of the pack – and those closer to the edge and whose work is, for lots of reasons, just as important and critical to our future. Adequate capitalization, it seems to me doesn’t necessarily imply arrival at some arbitrary plateau, but is a point relative to each organization, and therefore each will strive to get where it needs to get — judged on that criteria, and not according to an absolute. I think the proposal as presented allows for that “fairness” and the result that some of those small and newer organizations doing exceptional work will benefit from this effort.

Alas, of course, not all the art that ought to have the chance to find its’ audience and niche to survive can or will. I lament along with Arlene that the money wasted on needless, mindless wars that do nothing to make us one iota safer and could fund the arts for a thousand years, but remind you all – that war has far better trained and funded lobbyists and advocates than do the arts, and that lamentation by itself isn’t terribly productive. If we want that to change we better pick up the pace and play the game better. The advocacy sessions at this conference were sparsely attended, and the majority of the funding community continues to not just shy away from supporting advocacy efforts, but to run as quickly as is possible from mention of the mere word as though any kind of association with the concept will subject them to arrest, if not actually damn them forever. Please folks, that attitude must change if you want public funding for the arts at the state and local levels to remain part of the revenue stream model. And imagine the extent to which your own funding plans and goals will be negatively impacted and the increased pressures on you were it to disappear or shrink expoentially.

(E)merging Ideas: Thoughts Heard “Round the Table”

I roamed around looking for the ‘right’ conversation to join this morning, and finally settled on the one organized by Matty Sterencock from the Herb Alpert Foundation, and was glad I did for it was a lively and intelligent discussion. First thought out there caught my attention: We should be more interested in developing the “muscle” of innovation. In the context of sustainability, I wondered whether or not we should spend more of our capital facilitating that “muscle” and less on the sustainability of the organization and the shell of its structure? And in that context I wondered if we might better develop the organizational muscle if we invested more in the key people at the organization than the organization itself. As someone pointed out, too little investment in the people often resulted in disruptive personnel turnover that inhibited the follow thru on new ideas and as such was really anti-innovation.

The conversation quickly turned to the question of where the real innovation today is happening – in the private or in the nonprofit sector? And whether or not the nonprofit model allows enough entrepreurialism to remain conducive to innovation?

Joe Smoke from L.A. noted that as a city agency his mission is to “support arts and culture” – not to just support nonprofit arts and culture, and thus his agency now gave grants to “for profit” organizations that otherwise qualified. And that led to a further discussion on the whole idea of allowing “for profits” access to grant support and then back to where real innovation was centered. Enough ideas during this hour for a whole day’s worth of meetings and discussion.

Other random thoughts that caught my attention:

1. The problem with the 501 c 3 model is that it assumes, at the moment of genesis that the life of the organization should be in perpetuity – Ian David Moss

2. Part of the criteria for funding ought to be a “twilight” plan (exit strategy). Joe Smoke

3. I have no idea in what context this was said, but someone recounted an arts administrator who described her job as the “tactical, incremental reversal of previous incorrections”

At an advocacy session I learned that the name of one of the Massachusett’s advocacy groups is Massachusetts for the Arts, Science and Humanities (or MASH). How about Californians for the Arts, Science and Humanities (or CA$H)?

Two other lessons from Advocacy sessions:

1. Figure out early what you have to trade for the support you need – because it won’t come gratis.

2. NEVER use the word “cultural” on any ballot measure – it confuses some, and others (that aren’t even remotely under the same banner you intended) will read it so broadly as to include themselves – at your expense.

3. BTW – Aaron Dworkin’s presentation reminded me that the passionate and talented artist makes the best advocate for his or her art, and we need to figure out how to involve more artists as advocates when making the case for more public support and in particular more arts education support.

DAY THREE - Posted on October 21st

3 to 4 day conferences are strange little experiences. None any more so than gatherings of arts leaders. Thrown together in one space, there is a usual breakdown in these things that roughly approximates this:

A third of the people are relatively new to the field, or at least to this sub-section of the field. First timers have a small network of people they know (though they may know more “of” and “about” some people.) They are excited to be part of something new; their engergy is boundless; they want to quickly forge some bonds and assimiliate into the group. They are eager, curious and inquisitive and want to take in every session. For many others this may be their second or even third conference. They aren’t quite as unfamiliar with the turf; they’ve been – if not around the block – at least across the street as it were – and they know a little about what is going on, who is who and where they want to spend their time. We were all in this category at one time. I am delighted to see these people at these events and love talking with them.

Another third are the middle level management people who have been around a while and are familiar with the field, the issues and most of the players. Some of these people are on the way up; others wonder why they seem stuck where they are. While most are still engaged and avid about figuring out how to deal with the challenges, some have gotten to the point where they are still here in name only and really want to move on. They’re no longer naive, but they’re not jaded either.

The last third are the old hands - the people who have been around awhile, have seen most of this before, and who are the acknowledged senior leadership. They run their organizations and wield, for a variety of reasons, considerable power and clout within whatever the niche universe is. While these people care deeply about the challenges and forging new ways to really deal with those challenges, they, more than the other two groups, know that somehow progress won’t likely happen if we can’t break the gridlock of old ideas and old ways of doing things.

The day of arrivial for any of these conferences is marked by high energy, a definite list of things people want to do: people they want to connect with, sessions they want to attend, and networking they want to happen. New people might be a little overwhelmed; the old hands are just happy to see old friends again.

Conference planners, who often times know better when they are the conference attendees, just can’t really help themselves when they are the planners – and they invariably overfill the days and allow far too little space to share time with colleagues – where they can brainstorm about both the state of the field and new projects (and try as anyone might to discourage the hawking of new ideas in search of sponsors and funding, those kind of ‘pitches’ inevitably transpire – and in earnest at GIA and everywhere else). Crowded schedules make it hard to enjoy the host city (and in this case Chicago is one of the great cities and we were blessed with extraordinarily nice weather). So people do what they always do – they cut out on certain of the breakaway daily sessions and carve out that time for more essential purposes – fun and fishing for new ideas and support. And those pursuits may, arguably, be the best ways to spend your time at these gatherings – the time when ideas are born.

By the time the last day rolls around, people are ready to go home. They’ve spent three days breathing lousy hotel air, too often spending time in windowless rooms, and eating a diet probably completely different than their eating patterns at home. Their best laid plans to hook-up (in the old meaning of that term) with colleagues new and familiar are likely only partially met. The good intentions to cover this or that session, as often as not, twarted, and they have been disappointed that some of the sessions that sounded so great on paper turned out to be disappointing.

Still that is the norm and in no way means the experience of a conference was anything but enormously valuable. Whether a 100 people at a NASAA gathering, 400 at GIA, or 1400 at AFTA – I find these conferences where I can connect with old friends, learn what is going on all across the country, listen to people who know what they are talking about, and seriously consider a range of new ideas and proposals that have a shot to make an impact – I find all of that easily worth the hassle of travel and any exhaustion post event. These events help to reinvigorate us, re-charge our depleted batteries, provide much food for thought and give us encouragement, optimism and most importantly, a sense of community; the feeling that we are not alone, do not operate in a vacuum, and that what we do matters – matters very much.

So what did I learn at this conference?

Well, the buzzwords are all alive and well. Overheard repeatedly during the four days were comments on:

Silos. Everywhere we are talking about silos – good and bad silos. Big silos, little silos. Interconnected silos. Transgenerational silos. I think the word “silo” has become the 21st Century equivalent of “paradigm”.

Placemaking. Anything that now has to do with any specific site is called “placemaking” and the implication with the use of this phase is that the arts will enable and faciliate making a given place better.

Community of Practice: Any three people who are engaged in the same thing (sort of) are a “Community of Practice”. – as opposed to, I guess, three people doing something dissimilar.

 Intersections. I’m as guilty of overusing this one as anyone. Everything is either an intersection or a potential intersection and once two somethings or somebodies have “intersected” – I guess Nirvana can’t be far off.

 And of course “capacity” and “sustainability” remain as strong as ever. You simply cannot talk about the arts, especially the role of the arts in placemaking, and not use capacity and sustainability as evaluative mechanisms to assess how well those two silos intersected any given community of interest.

Oh my, we’ve got to step back and laugh at ourselves once in awhile.

But seriously, here is what I did learn:

 The inclination to move towards ever greater collaboration and cooperation among funders is very strong and most importantly, we are talking about deep and broad collaborations, and not just cooperation on some surface level. Data gathering, analysis and sharing remains at the top of the list of current efforts but we’re moving towards other levels.

 There is increasing consensus that the sector is overbuilt and that whether by market forces or some other mechanism, it will be inevitable that a long overdue correction will end up being made. The revenue model simply cannot support any other outcome, and the supply / demand line will not change merely because we would like it to. Conscious decisions in this arena will be highly subjective, as they have always been. And painful.  This will be a hotly contested and debated subject.

 There is major interest in the funding community centered around issues germane to emerging leaders, workplace accommodation of multiple generations and leadership succession, and I think this will likely be one of 2011′s big issues – including professional development issues.

 GIA itself is coming of age and entering a new period where I suspect there will be much soul searching and re-defining of purpose and mission.

 There is a lot of focus on leveraging limited grant funds to specific purposes – and that new thinking encompasses issues as far ranging as giving fewer but bigger grants, to letting “for profit” arts organizations qualify for the pool of funding, to junking the 501 c 3 model (for who knows what – no one has yet come up with an answer I find compelling, though I think the instinct is correct).

Next year GIA will be in my hometown of San Francisco. I hope I get the chance to do this again and I hope you will all come out to the Bay Area. I promise you will have a great time.

Thanks to Janet, Tommer, Steve and all the organizers and to my fellow bloggers Arlene Goldbard and Andrew Taylor.

Don’t Quit.

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