Sunday, September 26, 2010

The General Fund Crisis Is Only Beginning

Good Morning.

And the beat goes on……………………….”

Question: How many people can share the same pie before the share for each is so small it simply isn’t worth the effort to claim your piece?

One of the pieces of the arts organization income pie – along with earned income, corporate / foundation support and individual contributions / donations – is government money (be that money local, state or federal). Some organizations get more than others; some quite a bit; some hardly anything. Everybody knows that the total of all government funding has been shrinking, at least in part because of the down economy (though there are people who would argue that the economic downturn isn’t even the major reason for government cutbacks to arts funding).

Assuming for the moment though that it is the weakened economy that is the principal cause of the precipitous cutbacks at the local and state levels (Federal money, even in the aggregate, is only a large piece of the pie in predominantly small population states). Arts funding comes largely from the "general fund" (and not as the dedicated recipient of special taxes, fees or other revenue sources), and therein lies the biggest problem for us – because while fixed, mandated expenses (from health care, to education, to retirement funds) are soaring, tax and other revenue that feeds the “general fund” is shrinking. Even if the economy were healthier, the rise in fixed costs of government would still continue to climb, leaving ever decreasing discretionary money in the “general funds” – and arts funding usually comes from the discretionary part of the state, county or city budget (discretionary money is whatever is left after the government pays for all those things it is required by law, or contractually, to pay for (overhead, bond interest and the aforesaid mandated items etc).

And because of that growth in obligations and decline in income (all income), legislators and the executive branch of local and state governments are ever more jealously guarding that small pot of discretionary funds left in the general fund – for that pool of money has to pay for everything else that anybody and everybody wants – from infrastructure repair, to new programs for the needy; from higher education to beloved “pork” projects that make the legislator look good to his constituents. And that is the pool of money from which arts funding comes. Of course, it’s easy to cut arts funding as we have no political clout, no lobbyists, no relationships to protect us. And don’t forget we are still largely regarded as a "non-essential" – the proverbial frill and luxury. Put all these realities together and it doesn’t take Nostradamus to see that the local and state government sliver of the funding pie will likely continue to drop.

Take California as the example. Everyone knows we know rank dead last of the 50 states (behind even Guam for goodness sakes) in per capita support. When I was the Director of the CAC, the agency has a $32 million annual grants budget. That was five years ago. That’s $150 million less that has gone to the arts in that time span. This would be less of a devastating blow were the other sources of income rising – but foundation and corporate support, and for many anyway, individual contributions and earned income are also down. Factor in that decline, and it's more like $225 million less over the past five years.  Pretty soon we'll be talking "real" money, huh?  The size of the cuts may differ, but the scenario is playing out more frequently in states and cities across the country.  How many times are we going to be able to rally the troops to defend ourselves against efforts to simply end government funding support for the arts?  Does anyone seriously believe those efforts won't continue and even increase?  Does anyone seriously argue it will never happen?

Several years ago the arts education community in California was successful in getting the Governor to include $105 million for arts education as part of the Department of Education budget. But changes in budget language have now allowed local school districts to use their share of that money for whatever purpose they want – and in these cash strapped times, most of those local districts are using their share for any and everything (from base teacher salaries to equipment) but the arts. You know the rant – and what it has done to our sector. So even where there is seemingly definitive language in budgets that insure the money goes to a particular use, as long as that money originates from the general fund, and there is no language limiting the flow of the money to the designated use, it is not safe.

The government piece of our income pie is likely to take a further beating if, as many economists and others believe, we are now at the beginning of an untenable income / expenses crossroads where expenses will continue to grow unchecked, and income will not come anywhere near keeping pace. Something will obviously have to give – and it will be much simpler for elected officials – not the bravest and future thinking among us – to simply stop funding certain discretionary (general fund) areas - especially the ones who really haven’t the voice to do anything about it. That’s us.

The likely reality will be that “general fund” local and state government funding is going to continue to shrink – in many jurisdictions quite dramatically - and become more problematic across the board.

So what do we do about it?

To the extent we can figure out how to get it done – what we must do is get ourselves out of the discretionary funding pool side and onto the mandated / dedicated funding side. No easy task.  Things like the current attempt in New York City to pass a one percent for the arts bill – where, by law, one percent of the city budget would have to be allocated to the arts. Or California’s failed attempt to get a bill passed and signed authorizing a percentage of the state sales tax on art be allocated back to the CAC. Things like ballot measures that mandate income from certain sources be used to support the arts and arts education. The trick is to at least have statutory language in any measures authorizing and mandating allocation of specific source income to us – so that it is harder for future legislators to re-appropriate the money back to the general fund and then, of course, away from us. Better still are voter approved measures that require voter approval to repeal – or in California’s case voter approved ballot initiatives that are Constitutional amendments (like many states California’s Constitution is a huge tome – not the brief document of the Federal government).  Easier to defend against future attacks to get the voters to repeal, AND easier to defend against court challenges as well.

There are isolated examples across the country where the arts have been successful in these efforts, and though each venue is governed by vastly differing sets of circumstances, we need to learn from what worked and we need to continue to push for dedicated, mandated revenue allocated to us and no one else -- our piece of the hotel tax, or the sin tax on cigarettes or booze, or the general sales tax, or whatever. 

This will, of course, be difficult to achieve - but not necessarily impossible. And there are no really good alternatives - for the government piece of our pie remains yet a critical component of our overall revenue model.

No means of allocation of funds to support the arts or arts education will likely ever be completely safe. As long as we are thought of as a “frill”, people will justify efforts to appropriate our funding. As long as the economy is hurting, we will have to compete against a host of legitimate and worthy needs and causes. But if we don’t recognize the threat to the little bit of general fund money we do still get, and act to protect it, then we need to be prepared for much of it to disappear. That may not impact everyone in our sector, but because government is a principal source for many of us, it will impact us all; if for no other reason than if it disappears, the competition for other sources will increase.

The whole sector should be talking about the future state of general fund income for the arts at the state and local levels with some sense of urgency.

Have a great week.

Don’t Quit

Sunday, September 19, 2010

The Red Carpet Culture

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

Treat Them Like Rock Stars:

A couple of weeks ago was the opening of the S.F. Opera Season. I think it was the Opera. It could have been the Symphony. I don’t remember. Doesn’t matter. What caught my attention was the spread in the newspaper of all the grand dames of the patron set, on parade in their couture gowns and plenty of bling. It dawned on me that for these well heeled Opera goers / supporters, this annul opening extravaganza was their “Red Carpet.” And they were enjoying themselves immensely.

We live in a “Red Carpet” culture today. Years ago, the Oscars and Grammys were merely award shows to celebrate and honor achievements in film and recorded music. Then the Awards Show mentality took over and now there are scores of televised popular entertainment Awards Shows (it almost seems like there isn’t a night that goes by without some Hollywood Awards type show on television), and all of them feature prominently the famed “Red Carpet” whereon the celebrities of the day parade in their finery for the cameras and the adoring fans. The “Red Carpet” has become a fixture of these shows, and in some ways actually more important – both to participants (including it would seem, nominees) and the public - than the substance of the awards themselves. It’s part of the celebrity mentality and the almost obscene need to be seen – where being a celebrity trumps actually doing anything of note that would merit celebrity status (reminds me of the Beatles lyric: “Got to be good looking, cause he’s so hard to see.”) The need for fame and recognition as young and glamorous feeds the ever-growing frenzy.

The Opera’s splash in the newspaper was about the Opening – not the Opera being performed, of course, but the glamour of those attending (the hoi polloi need not apply). Specifically it was about what the women patrons of the Opera were wearing. It was their chance to be on the Red Carpet. Maybe not as exclusive and rarefied as Hollywood’s elite, but it was the same phenomenon. Major urban cultural institutions know full well, that this version of the Red Carpet plays a huge role in garnering support from the wealthy in the first place, and they are smart enough to understand how important this aspect of the whole Opening of a Season is in keeping alive the “tradition” of the patron support system. Men have, and do, serve on this, as well as other cultural institution boards, but this night wasn't about, or for, them. This Opening Night event, and the financial support it represents, was really about their wives and widows - and their chance for the Red Carpet experience.   We should not marginalize the importance of that experience and its direct relationship to why these people are supporters at all.  Many of the women may actually be Opera Lovers – though loving the Opera isn’t necessarily high on the list of why anyone is a big opera booster. (for validation of this idea click here:) It is important to remember that the reason people support cultural institutions doesn't always have to do with the nature of the programming, its artistic vibrancy or the experience of the performance, but rather with tangential benefits as perceived by those people.  Take away Opening Night and the Red Carpet experience of major operas and symphonies around the country and I wonder how enthusiastic some of the current supporters would remain.

I see nothing at all wrong with this. By the smiles on their faces, the women at the Opera opening were having an enormously good time. And why not? They were having fun.  Fun should be part of the mix.  All of us are somewhat slaves to fame and recognition, and many would happily and gladly be part of some Red Carpet culture were we in the position to do so. My interest in this is that the major operas, symphonies and ballets know that according the biggest donors and supporters treatment that makes them feel special, if not superior, is part of smart marketing. Making your supporters and audiences have a jolly good time is key to keeping them happy. And happy customers are likely satisfied customers.

To the degree any arts organization that wants to raise its visibility and increase its donor base can single out their biggest supporters, or all their supporters, and make them feel “special” - the more likely they will be to expand that base. And in fact I think it incumbent on all organizations to figure out some way to treat every single donor – at every level – “special”. Of course, the actual Red Carpet and haut couture gowns on parade approach doesn’t work for but a few major organizations, but that only makes the challenge of figuring out how to accord everyone status more difficult.

And that is the challenge: how can you make everyone who gives you money, who attends your performances or exhibitions feel as though they are “special”? What can you do to single out everyone so that they can bask in their fifteen minutes of fame? Surely, we are creative enough to figure out ways more sophisticated and meaningful than the tired old trick of listing donor names by amount given in our programs – not that such an effort doesn’t work. It does work. People like to be acknowledged -and publicly thanking those who pony up support is appreciated and a simple way to make people feel good. That is the same theory behind the other old trick of according people different levels of rewards for their support – from the Platinum Member all the way down to the Bronze category (or whatever designations one may employ). Ditto limited access Q&A pre or post performance talks with the artist, or dinner with the cast or whatever. 

These things are good. But again, we have to be able to figure out even better ways to make people feel singled out. Yes, I suppose if everyone is special, than no one really is (at least in their own minds). But I don’t think that is really a problem. We just have to figure out different ways to single out different sets of people. We have to think harder, be more generationally on target, and come up with more ideas about how to make people feel they are, if not literally, than at least figuratively on some kind of conceptual “Red Carpet”. The more an organization can do that, the better I think they may fare in keeping those people happy, satisfied customers.

Here is a link to a related article on: The Five Things Every Arts Organization tries to expand their younger audiences THAT DON’T WORK.

Have a great week.

Don’t Quit

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Is arts administration a profession? Or is it just a job? Does it matter?

Good morning.

“And the beat goes on……………………………..”

Note:  There is a gathering to learn more about, and rally in support of,  the California Arts in the Governor's Race campaign (to make the candidates aware of arts issues) -- this coming Wednesday, September 15th from 5:30-7:00pm at SOMArts Cultural Center, 934 Brannan Street San Francisco, CA.  Please attend - this election may be the future of arts support in California for a long time to come and we need the sector to get involved. 

The Profession of Arts Administration?

Perhaps the concept of arts management as a “profession” has been slow to gain traction because we really still don’t consider arts administration as a profession ourselves. We may regard it as a legitimate career, but that is much different than thinking of what we do as a profession. When using the term "professional", more often than not, we think in terms of areas like the medical and legal professions. If we want to be expansive in our thinking, we probably include teachers, engineers, accountants and others. We think of the term “professional” often times as one engaged in pursuit of something for money as opposed to an amateur – such as in professional sports. But it is hardly useful to simply classify anyone paid to do something as a professional and anyone not paid as an amateur. “Professional” has the connotation of having reached a certain level of competence and accomplishment, while amateur implies someone either not serious about the subject area, or one still learning the intricacies of achieving a certain level of skill.

Webster’s definition of profession is: “a calling requiring specialized knowledge and often long and intensive academic preparation”. Wikipedia’s definition is this: “The word professional traditionally means a person who has obtained a degree in a professional field. The term professional is used more generally to denote a white collar working person, or a person who performs commercially in a field typically reserved for hobbyists or amateurs.” Well, I certainly think running a nonprofit arts organization is a calling and does require specialized knowledge, though long and intensive academic preparation is more often than not absent from training for our administrators and managers. I would grant that those university degree (and perhaps even certification) programs in arts administration (business preparation) might qualify, but the fact is that most of our administrators have never completed any such program. Few of the tens of thousands of paid, full time working arts administrators have such a degree. Moreover, while some of those programs certainly offer rigorous, intensive academic preparation, many do not approach such a high bar and rather offer not much more than basic exposure to but a few nuts & bolts areas in which an arts administrator arguably must have competence to be qualified as a “professional”.

Whether or not arts administration is a profession, may largely rest, I think, with how we who are arts administrators perceive what we do ourselves. And our self-perception governs to a large degree what we expect and demand of ourselves as a class of workers.

Perhaps a telling sign is the absence of the exterior signs of our regarding our work as a profession. Where is the mechanism for certification for professional administrators ? Where is the set of minimum standards of training? Where is the mechanism to review competency? Where is the authoritative, credentialed, academically rigorous National Nonprofit Arts Journal? Where are the White Papers on policy issues? Where is the ongoing continuing education of the field – post academic graduation? Where is the relationship between the university academic degree in arts administration programs and the working administrator field? Where are the professional trade associations that require some level of competency for admission?

Does it matter whether we are in fact, or even just consider ourselves to be, a profession? Given the variety of levels and demands of our work, the unattractive pay schedules and benefits compensation packages available to us, and the perpetual, never ending budget constrains under which we operate, is it ever likely we will be able to set a standard of minimal knowledge as entry level qualification to be a “professional “arts administrator? As we have been for a long time, we are arguably lucky to have people not just willing, but passionate, to fill open positions. Our people are often trained “on the job” as they grow into their positions over time. We learn by doing. And while an imperfect system, nonetheless our people are survivors and have done pretty good with what they have.

Enough to be called “professionals”? I don’t think so. We need more.

I think we have finally come to the point where it is now possible to move towards the professionalism of our field. Enrollment at degree in arts administration university programs continues upward -- and more of those trained new leaders are migrating to the nonprofit arts field. While we may still be some ways from establishment of minimal standards of practice and skills levels for our managers, there is, if not in actual fact, at least a lot more discussion of moving towards providing continuing quality training. Emerging leaders are organizing and the concept of minimal competencies is gaining traction.

I think we ought to move, to the extent we practically and reasonably can, and as quickly as we can, towards regarding ourselves as a profession and justifying that self-designation by requiring (increasingly more demanding) minimal standards for training (initial and ongoing) so that we may get better at what we do – as individual administrators and managers, and perhaps even more importantly, as a ‘whole’ field. I think we also need to spend some time and energy developing some of those hallmarks and symbols of a profession – including:

• Some sort of professional association which membership confers recognition of achievement of minimal training and education. That might be a small group to start with, but it can grow exponentially over time, and it can set a benchmark to which we can aspire as a field.

• Increased numbers of university degree in arts management programs and some sort of minimal course regiment for graduation. To the extent the people running these programs can continue to work together to set some sort of common standards for graduation, we will elevate the march towards professionalism within our sector.

• Ongoing mechanisms for career long learning and training opportunities in a wide variety of skills enhancement areas (beyond just the five to ten basic subject areas that now seem to dominate 98% of all so called “professional” development opportunities). We absolutely must institute a wide ranging, comprehensive plan to provide professional development to all arts administrators on a continuing basis. University degree programs have to figure out what their role will be in that (both as individual local institutions and as the collective higher education sector), as do consultants, recently retired senior leaders, and funders. And we must include some sort of online, on-demand teaching.  Professional development cannot remain confined to isolated workshops in fundamentals and hour long sessions at national conferences.  That is NOT professional development. 

• Some sort of professional journal where we can publish independent, academically rigorous, in-depth research and “white papers” on critical issues relative to our sector. A professional association of arts administrators can implement this and a score of other programs and tools that will enhance the professionalism of the field.

To the extent we consider arts administration to be a profession, and band together to install whatever mechanisms will help us to achieve levels of minimal standards of training as well as in the discharge of our responsibilities – we will, I think, accomplish two goals: First, we will become better managers – better trained and prepared – by virtue of our demanding more of ourselves.  That will, in turn, attract better candidates to our ranks and instill a sense that we expect minimum standards of ourselves; and Second, we will raise the level of public respect for what we do by legitimately planting in the public psyche that arts administration is a profession – with the highest standards. That change in public perception will go a long way to garnering public support for all that we do, and all that we need.

This will take time. First we need to raise the bar and agree by consensus on some sort of ongoing minimal standard of continuing learning. Much like what we want for K-12 students in arts education, we too need standards & assessment, curriculum based ongoing training and education by experts, in the full range of subjects and areas that would constitute a true “professional” class level of expertise. That is the ultimate goal. Until we can get there, we need to expand the provision of training to include as comprehensive an offering of courses as we can manage, and make those training opportunities available to all arts administrators across the whole country. And we need to make it a generally accepted proposition that to work in this field, leaders must continually update their skills levels and core competencies – not as some luxury, or elective indulgence, but as an essential, even mandatory indisputable process that we all agree is the minimum level of professionalism we will accept.

Have a great week.
Don’t Quit.


Sunday, September 5, 2010

We Need to Improve our Written Communication Skills

Good Morning.

“And the beat goes on…………………….”

Corrections from last week's blog: 
I inadvertently misspelled Marc Vogl's name and offer my apologies.
Also I listed Justin Laing as Program Director, Arts & Culture, the Heinz Endowments instead of the correct title of Program Officer.  My apologies. 

Mastering the English Language:

What with email, text speak, twitter and the general demise of English language usage, increasingly it seems that basic writing skills continue to suffer. That’s a shame, because effective written communication remains a critical business necessity. I am sometimes appalled at how many people, not just in our field, but across all fields, can’t compose an effective letter, let alone draft proposals that are cogently and persuasively written.

This is another one of those essential skills that can be taught and learned, and yet there is never a focus on improving ourselves in this area as part of any professional development plan.  I have seen lots of courses and workshops on grantwriting, but never any on how to hone basic written skills. 

All too often people don’t even use spellcheck, and send out written works that are embarrassing to even a grammar school student. All of us, of course, are guilty of certain grammatical errors in our writing. The English language is not always the easiest language to properly master, and there are dozens of rules that elude us.

I have always had trouble remembering (or really knowing) when to use “who” and when to use “whom.”

I ran across this list of “24 Things You Might Be Saying Wrong” that is really instructive. It turns out the rule for “who” and “whom” is: “ It all depends. Do you need a subject or an object? A subject (who) is the actor of the sentence: "Who left the roller skates on the sidewalk?" An object (whom) is the acted-upon: "Whom are you calling?" Parents, hit the Mute button when Dora the Explorer shouts, "Who do we ask for help when we don't know which way to go?"

Check out the other 23 rules and see if you too have been making mistakes.

And do what you can to improve your written communication skills. It will make you a better manager.  And it will make you a more qualified and attractive candidate for future jobs. 

Have a great week.

Don’t Quit!