Sunday, October 31, 2010

An Interview with Adam Huttler, Ex. Director of Fractured Atlas

Good morning.

“And the beat goes on………………………………”

Note:  The following interview with Adam Huttler, Executive Director of Fractured Atlas, is, I think, one of the better interviews I've done - thanks to two factors:  1) Adam is smart and insightful, and represents, I think, some of the best of the new thinking in the field;  and 2) he is refreshingly frank and doesn't parse his responses to the same extent a lot of us in the field do.  One of his attractive qualities seems to me that he is willing to take stands on issues and unabashedly defend his positions. 

The Interview:

BARRY: Your organization has grown very quickly. You’ve been quoted as saying that part of the reason for that explosive growth is that you were willing, early on, to provide services in areas others were not. Do you think others are now entering the areas of health care, providing fiscal sponsorship services, and some of the other things you do? And how does, or will, that affect how you expand your business operations?

ADAM: If your view of the competitive landscape is sufficiently broad and holistic, then you’ll never find yourself wholly without competition. Our programs face different levels and kinds of competition from different sources. For example, Fractured Atlas is the only arts service organization with a major liability insurance program, but there are commercial insurance brokers that consider us a serious threat and are competing aggressively for business from the arts community. Arguably the biggest competitor to our fiscal sponsorship program is the IRS itself, since the agency provides an alternate strategy (i.e. obtaining independent 501(c)(3) status) for soliciting grants and tax-deductible contributions.

That said, I’m deeply committed to the idea that we shouldn’t do anything unless we can do it in a way that provides substantially different or greater value to the field than existing alternatives. I’m not interested in “me too” programs. Hopefully that means we’re sufficiently self-aware and unsentimental to recognize when it’s time to close up shop because a program is no longer relevant.

BARRY: Whereas a great many of the national arts service provider organizations are still being led (and often largely staffed) by boomers or senior Generation Xers, Fractured Atlas seems to have a decidedly younger infrastructure. That seems to be one of the things that is attractive about Fractured Atlas to all generations. Is that by design?

ADAM: It’s true that the Fractured Atlas staff is ridiculously un-diverse with respect to age. It isn’t by design, but it’s clearly not a coincidence either. Our organizational culture is irreverent, technophilic, aggressive, and perhaps a bit cocky. That attracts a certain personality type that, while not limited to youngsters, does seem to skew that way.

BARRY: I note that there seems to be somewhat of a divide between the generations in fundamental thinking about any number of issues. For example, at the recent GIA conference, I found a concentration of reservation and suspicion about the National Capitalization Project in the younger attendees. Do you see wide generational shifts in thinking about the major issues facing the arts – and if you do, can you highlight some of those that seem particularly pronounced to you?

ADAM: Generalizations are always dangerous, but yes, I think there are some big differences in the way my generation and the baby boomers contextualize their work. The gap only gets wider when you start talking about the Millennials, etc. The biggest source of tension may be around how we define ourselves and the extent to which we operate in self-imposed silos. Andrew Taylor has described younger arts leaders as “tax status agnostic”, referring to their ability to fluidly move between the non-profit and commercial realms. I agree with that assessment, and would add that they also tend to be discipline agnostic, at least relative to their forebears. These kinds of foundational questions inevitably shape our dialogue about field-wide challenges.

BARRY: You’ve been on the record as critical of nonprofit organizations for failing to act like businesses, and for using the excuse (at least in part) of “mission trumps business considerations” for that failure. Can you elaborate on what you mean, and do you think that failure is, at its heart, an attitudinal problem that pervades the nonprofit universe psyche and culture, or is it a practical problem that nonprofit arts leaders by and large have too little training or access to training?

ADAM: Some non-profit leaders use mission as an excuse for inaction, inefficiency, or incompetence. In a capitalist society, non-profit organizations exist to provide goods or services that are considered valuable but that can’t survive without subsidy due to some kind of market failure. The word “mission” is ultimately a kind of shorthand for those inherently unprofitable objectives.

Of course, just because some activity meets the IRS criteria for charitability doesn’t mean it must be 100% subsidized by philanthropic support. On the contrary, non-profit organizations have a moral responsibility to be thoughtful and focused about how those subsidies are applied. There is a limited supply of charitable dollars out there, and to allocate them to activities that could be self-financing with a little creativity is wasteful and represents a lost opportunity.

Beyond that, there are important strategic reasons to emphasize earned revenue. Wherever possible, I want to align Fractured Atlas’s operations so that the folks paying for our services are the same ones benefitting from them. There’s no better way to test whether you’re providing real value to your constituents than to ask them to open their wallets. Artists and arts organizations rarely have disposable income, so they’re not going to spend their money on something unless it provides clear and compelling benefits to their work. If a program of ours is misguided or ineffective, we get immediate, painful feedback to that effect.

Mission-fulfillment and revenue-generation are both more effective when they’re aligned with each other. I appreciate that this isn’t always possible in practice, but it’s always a useful guiding principle. As non-profit leaders, we have a responsibility to be thoughtful and intentional about how we approach this stuff.

BARRY: Where do you think arts organizations can share business functions so as to cut costs and enjoy the efficiencies and economy of size, and where is that likely to result in artistic paralysis?

ADAM: Running an organization requires a mix of commodity and specialized resources. Commodity resources are one-size-fits-all and therefore mostly interchangeable. Email servers, bookkeepers, and office supplies all fall under this category. Specialized resources are things like artistic directors and custom software. They’re specific to the organization and much harder to swap or replace.

As an industry, we can realize economies of scale and other benefits by pooling commodity resources wherever it’s practical to do so. This can take a lot of different forms. Most of Fractured Atlas’s services are commodities, and we’re able to share the acquisition and maintenance costs across 14,000+ members. A more intimate model might involve several small dance companies sharing office space and administrative staff.

Occasionally you’ll see arts organizations try to share specialized resources, which in my view is almost always a mistake. If those same small dance companies try to share a development director, they’ll run into irreconcilable conflicts of interest, without actually seeing any scaling benefits.

BARRY: Why do you think there is so little attempt to share the functions that might so easily be aggregated and provide an economy of scale – e.g., bookkeeping / accounting / payroll / office space etc.?

ADAM: I think there’s a lot of interest in it, but there aren’t a lot of service providers. It’s tough to run a successful business when none of your customers have any money.

BARRY: Your core client base seems to lean more towards individual artists or entrepreneurs. Is the organizational membership rising as fast? Are you actively seeking a balanced mix with arts organizations? Most of your membership is New York centered and the rest is principally in larger urban states. Do you have a strategy for expansion into more rural areas at some point, or is the growth simply left to chance?

ADAM: The dividing line between individual artists and arts organizations is more fluid than it used to be. Fractured Atlas tries to be flexible enough to accommodate the various ways in which artists actually work. Many of our fiscally sponsored projects, for example, are one-time collaborations with a finite lifespan. As far as what kind of members we’re seeking… Right now it’s almost totally driven by word of mouth, so it’s a bit organic and random.

The urban vs. rural question is trickier. We need to do a better job of serving artists outside major metropolitan areas. That’s unlikely to happen anytime soon, though, unless we make a specific attempt to reach out to them. I’m open to suggestions on how that might work.

BARRY: You have launched what is still an embryonic Online Course offering – principally for artists. Do you see expanding that at some point to also offer courses for arts administrators working within organizations? To what degree do you see training or professional development as a bigger part of Fractured Atlas’ offered services in the future?

ADAM: Fractured U. – our online course offering – is still a work-in-progress. We launched it a while back with a specific business model in mind that hasn’t yet panned out. We made a six-figure investment in researching best practices in online pedagogy and designing a software application to support them. The software itself is a great foundation for a web-based learning platform. The trick right now is getting the content. Fractured Atlas can’t be the sole or even primary producer of online courses. We’re talking to a number of service organizations and other groups with professional development programs about how they can reach a bigger audience by distributing their material online at Fractured U. I’m not precious about the branding, so we’re open to white-labeled mini-portals or anything else that makes sense.

BARRY: What about research. What kinds of research do you see Fractured Atlas getting involved with and to what purpose?

ADAM: Our research strategy is closely tied up with our technology strategy. We’ve been working on a new software system for cultural mapping and analysis called Archipelago. The rough idea is that a variety of web-based applications each serve a different community of users in specific ways (e.g., one application might provide a searchable database of rentable rehearsal studios, while another aggregates event listings on a central calendar). As a natural side-effect of their use, the applications collectively generate a ton of useful data that can be aggregated into a shared backend repository. The information is anonymized as appropriate, but then it can be sliced and diced in a million different ways. We see utility for academic researchers, institutional funders, policymakers, and others who are interested in a 30,000 foot view of the cultural landscape.

I’m very interested in a research tactic that might be called “organic data collection”. There’s some real data entry fatigue in the field right now. Every day we’re being told about new surveys or places where we have to record and update information about our organizations. It’s impossible to manage it all, and the data itself quickly becomes stale. The irony is that we’re creating gobs of good data all the time as a natural byproduct of our daily business operations. The challenge is to capture that information, aggregate it (anonymously where necessary), and distribute it in ways that make it useful. Done right, I believe we can end up with more data, of a higher quality, and with a much shorter time lag than currently exists, while actually reducing the data entry burden on the field.

There’s also a network effect here. When data from lots of different sources are connected, each individual data set becomes more valuable because of the ways in which it can be cross-referenced and mashed up with all the others. We can start to explore more complex metrics for tracking the health of artistic ecosystems holistically. This all lays the groundwork for the kinds of robust analytical resources that other fields, like education, transportation, and health care, have enjoyed for decades.

BARRY: Research and data collection / analysis is the one place where disparate sub-sections of the arts field (from funders to discipline based organizations) have come together for real collaboration. Do you think this continuing emphasis on that one area of cooperation is inhibiting working together in other areas, or do you think this emphasis is a transitional phase that will ultimately facilitate and broker more (and deeper) collaborative efforts in other areas in the future?

ADAM: Authentic collaboration is very hard. All of the challenges we normally face within our own organizations around communication, timelines, resource management, or goal-setting are exponentially more difficult when the work stretches across organizational boundaries. The good news is that you get better with practice. You also become smarter about identifying future opportunities for collaboration. So my instinct is that some of these wonky research-centric efforts are just a first step. Hopefully we all have the intestinal fortitude to stick with it, in which case we’re setting the stage for even more productive collaborations in other areas in the future.

BARRY: How else do you see Fractured Atlas helping artists and arts organizations better run their businesses in the future? What plans are on your drawing board? Where would you like to take the organization in the next two years?

Do you see an expanded role for Fractured Atlas in the technology area beyond simply providing consulting services to individuals or individual organizations – something that might impact the whole sector – and what might that be?

ADAM: Historically, Fractured Atlas has used technology as a tool for delivering fundamentally low-tech services. By integrating our back office systems and making all of our services accessible from our website, we’ve been able to serve a huge community of artists and organizations with a relatively modest staff and budget.

Going forward, I expect that technology will increasingly be something we provide as an end in itself. We’ve got two big projects in the cooker. One is the Archipelago cultural mapping software that I mentioned. The other is ATHENA, our open source software platform for the cultural sector. In the first quarter of 2011 we’re planning to launch the first versions of ATHENA Tix – an event ticketing system – and ATHENA People – a donor/patron-management tool. Down the road we’re looking at ATHENA components for everything from social media management to non-profit accounting. All of these tools will be available for free as open source downloads. We will also provide cloud-hosted, “software-as-a-service” versions for organizations without the capacity or interest to manage their own complex IT infrastructures.

BARRY: On your website you claim: “We can also help institutional funders, policymakers, and others refine their 30,000 foot view of the field.” How do you do that?

ADAM: This mostly comes back to Archipelago and the benefits I mentioned earlier. Over time, we believe these tools can provide unprecedented breadth and genuine nuance in our collective understanding of the cultural sector.

BARRY: Do you find the funding and policymaking sectors open to outside help in refining their rarefied view of the field, or do you find them still insular, preferring to heed their own counsel exclusively?

ADAM: Can I plead the fifth on this one? In all honestly most of the folks I talk to from those worlds are eager for more, better data that can inform their decisions. I don’t expect them to substitute my judgment for their own, however. Their conclusions are always going to be informed primarily by their own experience, insights, and biases. But I’m a big believer in the power of information. It’s hard to hold on to your insular perspective when data that undermines it is staring you in the face.

BARRY: Your business model claims to be based on earned income, though you do allow that new program development and expansion of existing program scope is dependent on outside (government / foundation) funding. Is that model replicable for a performance arts organization with ever increasing fixed artistic and production costs coupled with dwindling audiences?

ADAM: Yes, I believe this philosophy can be adopted by almost anyone with a little creativity. The first step is to clearly distinguish between start-up/ramp-up costs and ongoing operating costs. For a performing arts company, this could be conceptualized as the difference between the resources required to develop a new work vs. the costs of running the show. I know it’s hard to survive on ticket sales, especially if you want to appeal to young and/or diverse audiences, but I refuse to believe it’s impossible. The arts community is starting to get a lot more sophisticated about its approach to marketing and audience development. We’re not yet in the same universe as Proctor and Gamble, but we’re making progress.

I’m going to get into trouble here, but my personal belief is that the tension between aesthetic integrity and popular appeal is overblown. All too often this ostensibly irreconcilable conflict serves as a convenient excuse for vapid artistic pretension, incompetent marketing, or both. Shakespeare was the most popular playwright of his day, and he sold a lot of tickets.

BARRY: Is the current revenue stream model of the typical nonprofit arts organization – consisting of earned income, government support, foundation and corporate support, and individual donations – still viable?

ADAM: It can be, sure. Diversification is really important. Having a mix of revenue sources – different products or services, different types of customers, etc. – makes you more resilient in the face of change or crisis.

BARRY: In considering advocacy as part of your organization’s portfolio, you say: “Policymakers shouldn't be curators, hand picking artists and organizations to support based on perceived aesthetic merit. Instead, it's the government's responsibility to ensure a healthy infrastructure in which creativity and culture can thrive.” Does that mean you oppose the NEA and state and local arts agency model that allocates grants based on peer panel review of artistic (and other) merit? Where, ideally and specifically, do you think government money can best be allocated to ensure that “healthy infrastructure”?

ADAM: I’m not opposed to public funding for individual artists or organizations, but I don’t see it as the primary role for government to play. The NEA’s budget is $160M or so and it’s a brutal fight every year just to prevent Congress from making cuts. It’s easy for ignorant opponents of arts funding to cherry pick controversial artists who’ve received funding and use them as wedges in the culture wars. This is a grim slog of a fight, and even when we “win” the rewards are pretty skimpy.

Meanwhile, policymakers – on both a local and national level – have countless other levers for impacting cultural vitality. Zoning laws can determine whether urban cultural enclaves remain dynamic hubs of creativity or gentrify into sterile swaths of Starbucks and bank branches. Immigration rules can facilitate or inhibit international cultural exchange. Even if you’re only interested in funding, then consider that the NEA represents less than 1/20,000th of total federal spending. We need to take a more holistic view in which the arts play a role in projects funded by the Department of Housing and Urban Development, the Department of Transportation, or the Department of Homeland Security.

BARRY: The calculation of the total amount of money spent (or available to be spent) by the federal government has always been skewed by the arts sector so as to characterize it on the lowest possible end. If you add the Humanities, Smithsonian, and Museums to the NEA, plus all the other funding that might conceivably be counted as arts support from other departments and agencies (Transportation to HUD et. al) -- not to mention factoring in state and local support – and the total is considerably higher. Moreover, the “potential” for substantially larger pools of support is arguably there IF we had more political clout. And don’t we need to be more politically savvy and organized if we are to be able to pull some of those other “levers” you are talking about?

ADAM: You haven’t even mentioned the biggest public subsidy by far, which comes indirectly through the tax code. The federal government forgoes something like $5B/year in tax revenues to incentivize private philanthropic support of the arts. But yes, we’re in agreement; it’s not all about the NEA.

You’re also correct that we’re politically impotent as a field right now. Fixing that is not going to be easy, but getting organized and nurturing young leaders who are savvy about this stuff is a place to start.

BARRY: You also state (on advocacy) that: “Rattling our tin cup for more government funding is no longer enough.” Yet you haven’t formed a sister 501 (c) (4) organization, nor started a PAC or other mechanisms that would allow you to take a more aggressive role in moving arts advocacy from rattling that tin cup to joining the ranks of other special interests, both public and private, in developing and using real political clout – based on candidate support. Why is that? Is a more active political agenda in Fractured Atlas’ future?

ADAM: For me, the tin cup metaphor is less about flexing our collective muscle and more about adopting a broader frame for thinking about the arts and public policy. Having said that, there are a lot of ways we can approach policy questions from a position of strength rather than neediness. The arts have a lot to contribute to society, and we ought to start acting like it.

As far as 501(c)(4)s and PACs go… Remember that there’s no prohibition against 501(c)(3) organizations engaging in lobbying activities. We can’t directly support or oppose specific candidates, but we’re legally allowed to do a lot more than many of us realize. Fractured Atlas is already pretty aggressive on this front, and I see us only being more active in the future. We’ve explored 501(c)(4) and PAC options and we may go that route at some point, but there’s no concrete need at the moment.

BARRY: Actually, we can legally and directly support or oppose candidates, and contribute money to them as well - we simply have to create the right mechanisms to do so (just like any other special interest group) – from 501 (c) (4)’s to PACs and beyond. Some have argued (me included) that the nonprofit arts sector (by taking advantage of its ability to do performance benefits to fund its political activities) ought to be one of the most powerful special interest groups on the playing field – with real political clout that might not only help us to obtain more funding, but pass diverse legislation on all the levels as you suggest – from tax laws to zoning regulations. Yet we do not. I continue to be somewhat dismayed that we don’t move towards that direction. Why do you think we continue to cling to the (false) notion that we aren’t permitted to give money directly to candidates we support or oppose, and why aren’t we interested in developing real political clout?

ADAM: I suspect this is just about semantics, but my point was that 501(c)(3) organizations themselves are not allowed to support or oppose candidates. Yes, if you establish a sister organization with a different tax status, your options widen considerably. Even then, however, the laws are very strict about coordination between the two companies. I think some folks are simply intimidated by the legal complexities of something they see as outside their core mission.

I can tell you that I’ve personally made a few attempts at political fundraising, mainly drawing on colleagues who I’ve met in the field, and it’s not easy. Not only do we not have a lot of disposable cash lying around, but I’ve also encountered ethical resistance based on the idea of an implied quid pro quo. That said, clearly there are some people who get it, who are politically pragmatic, and who have the resources or connections to make something happen. To anyone reading this blog who sees him/herself in that description and wants to start a PAC: give me a call.

Thank you very much Adam.

Have a great week.

Don’t Quit!

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.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Thoughts on the GIA Conference

Good morning.

“And the beat goes on…………………….”

Funders in Flux:

I’m off to the Grantmakers in the Arts Conference in Chicago. Funders -- government, corporate and foundation -- from all over the country, gathering to make some sense of the times in which we find ourselves. I will be blogging from the conference and posting entries Monday – Wednesday of next week.
“Funders” is a broad category that we conveniently use to denote any and all of those entities that offer grants to arts organizations, and there is a tendency to lump them all together into one monolithic whole, with the implication that they are all similarly structured, that their protocols and processes are interchangeable, that their priorities are always aligned, and that their thinking is more alike than dissimilar. Such conclusions are, of course, fraught with peril, for funders are as diverse and different as are arts organizations themselves. They come from vastly different perspectives and legacies, have wholly different starting points based on widely divergent sets of assumptions, are governed by very disparate sets of rules, have the full range of priorities in what they hope to accomplish in the allocation of their funds based on their board guidelines and histories, must address the significantly varied circumstances of local situations and politics, and look at the role of funding in totally different ways. In short, sometimes the truth is that the only thing they have in common is the label “funder”.

It is no wonder then that it has been historically difficult for “funders” to find common ground and ways to collaborate and cooperate in achieving their stated, and unstated, goals and objectives. Couple that reality with changing economic circumstances that are challenging funding in local venues in new and ever more difficult ways, and the discovery of even small threads that can bring individual and independent funders to the same tables – just to share experiences, data, results, and thinking – let alone finding ways to facilitate acting in concert to maximize their individual impact – remains problematic at best, and often times discouraging even in the attempt.

I think we are still at the earliest edges of the evolution of real arts funder cooperation and collaboration. I personally see this as a historical four stage process (though this is rather general):

The First Stage period ran from the 1960’s up to the end of the 1980’s, when most foundations, corporations and national or municipal arts agencies operated in, at best, a quasi-vacuum and based their allocation decisions virtually exclusively on local considerations and in line with their (at the time more narrow) board directives. While leadership in the funding community began to talk to each other, exchange experiential, anecdotal stories of what they were doing and why – there wasn’t much real attempt to collaborate nor were the intersections substantial enough to generate sustained and in-depth dialogue. Most funding decisions were made with local issues in mind.  True, the Ford Foundation initiative, and the launch of the NEA and the outgrowth of both state and local arts agencies, helped to forge an environment in which grew at least the “sense” of a national nonprofit arts sector. As more foundations, with larger portfolios, turned their attention to the nonprofit arts, and as more national arts organizations and umbrella service providers for different sub-sections of that growing field were launched and grew, the identification of common needs of the sector as a whole likewise grew, and, as a result, more “funders” began to talk to each other – but that whole period was still principally characterized by isolated and individual efforts at the local level; any burgeoning dialogue was secondary.

The Second Stage began in earnest in the early 1990’s. The first half of this period was marked by more opportunities for funders to meet, network and discuss among themselves common ground. This period was also marked by the first real wholesale movement of the leadership of the funders within and across their own universe. Leadership talent that began at the community level moved up to fill vacancies and new positions in the larger portfolio foundations and corporate arts programs and government agency arts leaders moved into some of those same private funder positions. Arts people at all the varied classifications of arts organizations began to move from one part of the country to another, and one job to another, as the nonprofit arts sector itself began serious growth. This facilitated and nurtured closer ties between program officers and more opportunities for both formal and informal dialogue and conversations emerged. The funding community began to develop direct and indirect means to organize themselves and to loosely codify what they were doing and how they were going about doing it. It was during this period that we began to see a recognizable and definable funding community, and the major tangible outgrowth coming out of this period, was the adoption as a common assumption throughout the funding field that everyone was involved, to one degree or another, in the promotion of two important and lasting concepts: “sustainability” and “capacity building”. It was the development and buy-in to those two concepts – which became the holy grail and the governing principles of foundation funding – that created the first formal structure for cooperation and even collaboration. Corporate funding had other objectives, including marketing and good will tie-ins and promotion. While government funding included equity in artistic excellence, operational support, and certain programmatic considerations, it too embraced sustainability and capacity building as overarching objectives.

The second half of this phase began later in the 90’s and has emerged dramatically in the past decade -- and is, I think, largely characterized by the stepped up and real sharing of research, information, data, thought processes and best practices and a narrowing in on more specific challenges – ranging from audience development to arts education K-12. While Funders began to consider widely disparate approaches to address major needs and challenges in the field, and to share the end results of those attempts, most of these attempts were solitary by each funder.  I believe we are at the tail end of this phase – and yes there has been some joint ventures and shared projects among some funders, but the sharing during this period has been marked principally by collaborative data gathering and analysis projects. This has been a begining period of sharing / collaboration more than the formation of actual working partnerships and longer term alliances.

I think then we are at the dawn of the Third Stage of this evolution – a first steps movement towards actual cooperation and the shared joint venture of the design, launch and implementation of specific projects aimed at specific challenges within the field – from generational succession and the development of emerging leadership, to the earliest signs of addressing the need for increased training for administrators; from national (rather than local or regional) conversations on the reinvention and redesign of broken models, to how to integrate advocacy as a strategic policy tool for all the players in the field. To be sure, we are at the embryonic beginnings of this phase, and multiple partner joint ventures are still more in the minds of visionaries than on any actual drawing board but I believe the signs of change are there.

The last phase will come I don’t know when. But I can see a future where funders work in concert on a scope and at deeper levels than we can probably envision today; when there will be developed means and ways to aggregate and leverage the enormous clout and strength of the whole (or at least substantial parts) of the funder field which will cooperate and collaborate in direct ways.

I have no doubt that funders will always operate somewhat independently and have as their principal charges localized objectives and goals. Government, foundation and corporate funders will always have different sets of assumptions and presumptions; there will always be certain constraints of territoriality and differing opinions, as well as the prescribed perimeters of legacy and enabling legislation or creation. But I think that working directly in concert for specific actions steps – on small, isolated projects to begin with, but ultimately broad national and perhaps someday, even international efforts as our world changes, is much more likely to become the norm in the future.

I hope so anyway.  Whereas Arlene is looking for the independence in thinking of the individual funder, and resistence to the herd mentality, I am looking for the cooperation that will allow for working closely together to take advantage of both the economy of scale and the power of the many; for the promise of the larger picture and away from too much provincialism and piecemeal approaches to systemic problems.
And there seems to me clear and convincing evidence that most, if not all, of the arts funders are working diligently to come up with intersections with each other that will allow them to leverage the strength of their numbers and cooperate in ways heretofore thought virtually impossible – even if in yet undefined, and certainly yet unstructured, ways. That effort continues to gain momentum as the ranks of the arts funder program officers continues to transition to new people. GIA itself has grown exponentially in the last few years, both in terms of its membership and its ambitions, and as an umbrella organization is, like much of the rest of the sector, exploring new dimensions to its purpose.

Much of the talk this week will doubtless center on policy formulation, on research, data collection and studies, on reframing priorities and reinventing approaches designed to achieve whatever deliverables become the flavor of the month, on new nomenclature that will allow us to communicate and share more effectively, on the daunting challenges in specific areas, and even on building out and serving the still dominant themes of sustainability and capacity – but in the final analysis the real discussion, even if sometimes unspoken, will be about money – how much do they have to give, who will get it and why, what can be done with it to meet the big challenges, how can they measure the impact they project it will have, how do they interact with grantees and the public, and whether or not it will truly make any difference.  And the subtext of much of that discussion will be a continuing search to define ways to work together.  In a way the funders are like teenagers at the dance - they want to mingle, but still aren't exactly sure yet how to make it work.  The thought of the interaction is intoxicating.

To be sure, there is less money than there was even just a few years ago; priorities have changed; thinking as to the impact of allocation is in flux; and there are new demands on both grantor and grantee that reflect a far different world than previously known. And the reality is that when money is scarce, those that have it to give are in ever greater precarious situations as they try diligently to make the most of what they have, and leverage it to have meaningful impact – not, of course, without criticism from many quarters.

It is these threads of commonality, cooperation and collaboration on new levels that I will be looking at this week to see where the funding community might break new ground in methods to have the deepest impact on the health and vibrancy of the sector for the future,  and in how funders may find new ways to work in concert with each other in a more systemic approach to support for the field.

Don’t Quit.

Sunday, October 10, 2010


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

Interview with Margo Lion and George Stevens, Jr.

Note:  This interview was conducted live in Washington D.C. back in late June, and thus it may be somewhat dated.  Though offered, unfortunately neither Margo nor George's schedules permitted them to review and update their responses.  Still I think there are some very interesting observations by the co-chairs of the President's Committee.  Having previously worked with the committee during the Clinton presidency, I know first hand how much of a bully pulpit and platform this committee has to make major contributions to the continuing dialogue both within our field, and between our sector and other sectors, and I look forward to seeing what the Committee under Obama does in the next 24 months and how it will use its considerable influence to the benefit of all of us.

BARRY: What are your plans for the Committee? What do you want to accomplish in the next three years?

GEORGE STEVENS, Jr.: Well, you know I’d like to take it from a kind of a “why we’re here” perspective, that this President’s Committee has the opportunity to function and relate to different agencies, to the private sector. It has a very small staff, but it has a very impressive membership. And one of the, sort of conditions and requests that Margo and I made when we agreed to do this was, that for the first time prominent artists would be members of the committee. And, we have, you know, some of the most active and thoughtful members, including Yo-Yo Ma, Damien Woetzel, Tom Mayne, Forrest Whitaker, George Wolfe, Sarah Jessica Parker.

And we consider that an asset in both getting the work done and giving it the kind of visibility that is valuable. And so really that’s where we start; that’s how we see ourselves as an organization and within that framework we can carry on projects that the President’s Committee has been doing in the past and initiate some new projects.

BARRY: Is there anything that you can share with us in terms of specific new projects that you have on the drawing board?

MARGO LION: Well I think that we’re interested in the notion of the Artist’s Corps (along the lines of the Peace Corps); developing that concept, but doing the research that is necessary first, to analyze the need and the manner in which we can meet those needs to have more artists working, particularly in schools. We begin with a two pronged project. One is to give work to artists, which is very necessary. And the second is to try and replenish and refill, in many cases, those spots for teaching the arts in schools that have been lost. And we hope this project would give artists a chance to add the experience of teaching and ultimately they might decide to stay in (the field of education). We’re in the discovery phase of that right now, but this is something that I think is very important to us. And the economy certainly could use it in two ways, both in providing jobs and also I think the idea that this is the creative economy century for America, and we need to make sure that young people and students coming out to the workforce can think critically, can think out of the box, can be innovative in their approach to their employment. The arts are very critical to developing those skills.

BARRY: Is there a timeline on how you see it developing over the next eighteen months?

MARGO: Well we’re going to do the research first. And then once we get the research we would then I think, ultimately try to fold this into the Our Town Project at the NEA.

BARRY: One of the things that Rocco Landesman has said is one of his priorities for the NEA is a concerted effort to try to involve more government agencies in support for the arts. Do you see a role for the Committee in trying to expand those relationships with other federal agencies?

MARGO: I think we definitely see that, in our Executive Director, Rachel Gosselin – who is very effective in talking with people, you know in the government, in the agencies, in the White House. And you know it’s valuable to have the presence of this committee, in the person of Rachel, reminding people of the value of the arts, the utility of the arts within the government.

And of course I mean education, state, transportation, any of those areas that we can approach - we want to do that. George referenced Yo-Yo Ma and Damien’s project which was the Silk Road Project, they took the Silk Road notion and they worked a project in New York City school’s using that paradigm, and that really is arts as integrated into learning and this would be arts as integrated into life.

BARRY: In the four traditional areas the Committee has dealt with before – including Preservation, Arts Education, International Affairs, and Special Initiatives – is there any particular project that you see the Committee prioritizing in the short term?

GEORGE: Well as I said I think our first goal right now is to do the research for Artist’s Corps, which is a goal in itself just doing the research. I think the Coming Up Tall Awards is obviously a legacy program that we want to keep going and that we’d like to investigate maybe doing some expansion with, but we’re not sure how that’s going to play out. The 20/20 Film Festival we’re looking at carefully to see if there’s a way of expanding that in anyway. And then I would say, working hand and glove with the NEA, the NEH, in their initiatives, most especially the Our Town initiative.

And then there’s a project to respond to the situation in Haiti., Margo will be going to Haiti. We’re working with the Smithsonian and with the Broadway League which provided funding to do a kind of little crash program on helping the Haitians preserve their wonderful art, which is of course endangered by the results of the earthquake.  (Note:  I believe Margo has travelled to Haiti since the interview was conducted).

MARGO: The Smithsonian reached out to Rachel. I’m on the Executive Board of the Broadway League; I knew that Broadway shows had raised a lot of money for relief, and they were taking their time where to donate that money and it just came very quick, I got a call, I was in a meeting, I put them together, Rachel was able to negotiate the donation and we’re all going down there. The League was able to contribute almost $300,000, and we’re all so grateful because it really got the project kick started and we’re just delighted. It’s obviously not the entire amount that is needed but it is substantial.

And that’s kind of an example of what the President’s Committee is well positioned to do -- I think more effectively than large government agencies. As a specific problem that needs to be addressed arises, we’re in a position to move quickly to do it.

We had the first committee dinner the night before the National Medal of the Arts event, and it was a very special evening; everybody had a great time and it highlighted the kind of special energy, exuberance and dynamic importance of the arts and humanities. Tony Kushner was the keynote speaker, and it was really exciting and people came up to us afterwards and said: “ Boy this is like nothing we’ve seen here.” We want people not to think of us as a ‘decoration’, not to think of the arts as a decoration. The arts are essential.

BARRY: At different times in its existence the President’s Committee has had a different profile. Under the last administration it was relatively low key, at least as far as the nonprofit arts sector itself could determine. It seems that so far the Committee under the Obama Administration seeks to have a higher profile. The Committee has an enormous bully pulpit, and a stellar public and private membership that might be leveraged. How do you think that power package can best be leveraged to the advantage of the nonprofit arts sector and individual working artists?

GEORGE: Well I think why we have a certain kind of position of value is that President Obama as a candidate was the first candidate in my knowledge to have an Arts Policy Committee, as part of the campaign. And it started in May of 07. So throughout that year and a half the arts were part of the campaign, and Margo and I chaired that. We again, met wonderful people.

So we came to this, in this administration, not kind of out of the blue but out of continuity, and with the kind of understanding that the President was going to take an interest in the arts and in the knowledge that Mrs. Obama – Michelle -- had an interest. So we feel empowered by that. We know that, you know within reason, our initiatives are going to be respected, and you know it’s also interesting that we’re able to help the White House, both advise them and help them with some of their arts related programs of which they’re doing quite a number, which I think is a good thing.

BARRY: Is the First Lady very active with the Committee? Do you have a chance on any semi-regular basis to exchange ideas with her about what your hopes for the Committee are?

GEORGE: We had an event with her, and she has a great appreciation for the arts and I also know that her particular focus is on access for those who are underserved. And she tells a great story about how she grew up quite close to a lot of cultural institutions in Chicago and she was aware of that, but many of her friends had no knowledge of that and certainly, you know did not feel, if they did have some knowledge may not have felt welcomed in those situations, which is I think of great interest to us, but it’s wonderful to have, to have two people in the White House who really appreciate the arts and humanities.

And perhaps the most important act of his role of the young administration, he and Michelle came to see my play at the Kennedy Center last week.

But that was, I mean unsolicited, just on a Friday night, that the pool, the White House press pool were told they were going out to dinner and they made a U-turn and came to the Kennedy Center and without a lot of foreplay and just became part of the audience.

BARRY: Do you see any role for the Committee to broker potential partnerships for the nonprofit arts with certain private sector interests like the Entertainment and High Tech industries?

GEORGE: Well I think we’re probably doing that but in different ways. I mean certainly we’re working with the private sector and with government, whether the idea of convening a group of people in Hollywood is something we would choose to do, so far it hasn’t been. I’m not sure that’s the particular avenue we would go, but we have a significant involvement and support from the Hollywood community.

BARRY: The President is the first President to our knowledge to have appointed someone on his White House staff to serve in the role as liaison to the arts when he named Kal Penn Modi to that position. Mr. Modi is now returning to the private sector. Do you see any expanded role for the Committee until the President names a replacement for Mr. Modi?

GEORGE: I think there’s a very good working relationship with the arts at the White House and I don’t think it’s dependent on one person. Arthur Schlesinger really spoke to and for the arts community for President Kennedy, while Leonard Garment was a very significant voice for President Nixon. Both were senior White House people. So there are different ways to skin the cat.

MARGO: I think one of the President’s most important initiatives is appointing, in each instance, absolutely first rate people as chairs of the two endowments, Rocco Landesman and Jim Leach. I think they both bring a really special quality. And I think it reflects the President’s interest. He is one of the few authors to serve as the President; as president he’s a creative person.

BARRY: Is there someone in the Administration on the level of a Schlesinger or Garment who is particularly passionate about the Arts and who has the President’s ear?

MARGO: Well, Rahm Emanuel (now ex Chief of Staff) is a ballet dancer right?

BARRY: In the past the President’s Committee frequently met in different locations around the country. Often times the meetings were not widely advertised and not as many leaders from the nonprofit sector attended as might have. Do you have any plans to rotate the location of the Committee’s meetings, and how often do you plan to meet?

MARGO: Well, you know we’ve just begun; it’s not even a year yet. So our first two meetings were held in Washington DC – one because of the swearing in of the members and the other because of the National Medal of the Arts. And because we wanted to be able to piggyback the swearing in also with meeting with some of the government officials the second one was here as well. We had had a meeting in New York, a subcommittee meeting. We would like very much for some of the subcommittee meetings to happen in some other places. And to tell you the truth we don’t have the schedule yet. I know one of the things that we’re talking about, the possibility is having one in Miami in the winter. But we’re just putting this together at this point.

BARRY: I note that there are a half dozen or more government department agency heads who are on the Committee as ex-officio members. Did they attend your first two meetings?

GEORGE: They sent representatives and the heads of the Endowments were there.
Representatives from the Department of Education came; Arnie Duncan couldn’t be there. IMLS was there. And somebody from the Domestic Council was there, a couple people actually.

BARRY: Given your experience in producing the Kennedy Center Honors and many of the American Film Institute Tribute television shows, does the idea of making a television program of the National Medal of the Arts event have any interest to you?

GEORGE: I would think it might be something that would make a lot of sense on C-Span, you know but to involve a network or create an entertainment show out of it, I think might even sort of distort the simplicity and integrity of it.

BARRY: The President’s Committee does both the National Medal of Arts and the Coming Up Taller awards. What do you think of the idea of the Committee bestowing some kind of recognition to single out some of those leaders in the nonprofit arts field that have made a contribution to the country with their work?

GEORGE: I think we have to pick our spots. I mean we’re a presidential committee with four employees. And the National Medal in the Arts does each year single out philanthropists and people who do that kind of work. So I think we would be kind of stretching ourselves to set up a parallel program to compete with that.

But who knows?

BARRY: Many of the leaders in the nonprofit arts field have suggested that we need a Minister of Culture, a Cabinet level post, to unify all of the various ways the arts & culture are manifested in countless agencies across the federal government, and which would help in the formation of cultural policy in this county. Do you see any role for the President’s Committee in helping to facilitate the development of a national arts, cultural and creative policy?

GEORGE: I’m not a fan of the Minister of Culture idea.
Having been in government early in my career working for Ed Murrow running the motion picture division at USIA under President Kennedy and being affiliated with government during my years running the American Film Institute and later with my connections at the Kennedy Center Honors and with this work, and the idea that somewhere we should be speaking with a single voice about culture is not an idea that makes me comfortable.

I think we have a vigorous national endowment, two endowments and the practicality of saying that this should become a cabinet position with a Minister of Culture being the voice of culture in the United States, I think when you think it through it, it sounds good but I don’t think it serves the purpose of a diverse and vibrant cultural life in the country.

MARGO: I think that’s a perfect answer of course. And I understand what you’re trying to say because you, you, I think, if I understand you correctly, you would like the arts to be accepted as a member having a seat at the table, but I think George’s concerns probably vitiate that, and I think they’re very important concerns because now you have a dynamic going on, you have a conversation going on in the various endowments and departments and I think that’s really valuable. I do think having energetic and visionary people in the chairs, the Chairman of National Endowment for the Humanities, and the Endowment for the Arts, and also the IMLS, that’s very important and we would hope that our committee would also be vigorous and you know participate in that discussion. But I think George has said it perfectly, we want to make sure that we keep having a conversation rather than a single authoritative point of view.

MARGO: I think now we have such dynamic leadership in the Endowments. I know Rocco’s had conversations with a lot of cabinet members and people in the White House and I’m sure Jim Leach is doing the same, and you know to the extent that we can enhance that opportunity we want to do that, and I know Rachel is doing that and has had a seat at various conversations.

The arts have to educate the public as to what the arts really represent, which is creative thinking, which is imagination, stimulating the imagination, encouraging the imagination. And so maybe we have to think about how we talk about it.

BARRY: Thank you very much.

Have a great week.

Next week I will be blogging daily (Monday through Wednesday) from the GIA (Grantmakers in the Arts) Conference in Chicago.

Don't Quit

Sunday, October 3, 2010

Mark Zuckerberg and The Social Network

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

Implications for Us, and for Everybody Else
I saw The Social Network, or the Mark Zuckerberg story, last night -  the movie about the creation and rise of Facebook.  It's a very good movie, with another excellent script from Aaron Sorkin, arguably the best of the screenwriters in today's cinema. 

I'm sure many people will find Zuckerberg an unsympathetic person - a privileged, nerdy computer genius with lousy social skills (borderline Asberger's) who basically screwed his friends and others, and he's arguably painted as such. I think such a conclusion is a little unfair for any number of reasons including the fact of how young he was when he thought up Facebook. And if the movie is at all accurate, it seems clear to me Facebook is his creation and really nobody else’s.  He has an entrepreneur's will and single mindedness, and the requiste (though hardly admirable) business killer instinct.

What is impressive (to me) about Zuckerberg (from a variety of admittedly limited sources – he is press shy) is not his computer genius skills, which he obviously laid legitimate claim to, but his intuitive observation about what was important and why it was important to the success of something like a Facebook. Perhaps the initial idea wasn't even his, but the final product was, and so was the strategy to make it successful - and frankly were it not for his insights as to how to make it successful, I can easily see that it may not have gottn off the ground.  Early on he understood the role two important elements - exclusivity and sex - play in the launch of new technological media delivery systems (and everything that we mean by technology today from the computer to the internet to Facebook to Twitter are basically delivery systems for sharing and accessing stuff – for communicating with each other). He made sure early on that he maximized his chances of acceptance of something very simple, but ultimately a radical departure in communication, by making it exclusive to exactly the right target niche of taste makers and trend setters within the small universe he was operating at the time – Harvard University and ultimately colleges everywhere.    Exclusivity has long been the handmaiden of "cool" - and "cool" is essential to expanding any new idea, concept or thing - especially to a younger cohort. That original exclusivity ultimately made it easier to sell to other Ivy League student bodies, and then to the wider American University system. He knew that to spread, to be accepted, it had to be cool.

He also knew that with a younger audience, nothing is more important than sex or the hunt for sex. Something the advertising and entertainment industries have known for a long time. And with the launch of the Harvard Facebook he knew that making it easier for students to identify and approach those they found attractive was key to making it work. 

What also impresses me about Zuckerberg is that he stuck to what he knew was necessary for the launch and the build, focusing more on that than short term money. Is he guilty of not being the best friend anyone could have? Yes. Arguably, he didn’t really have any friends. Is he guilty of being a bit or a jerk, or as described in the movie on at least two occasions as an “asshole” – probably for sure. Who really isn’t on some level?  But what he created and where it might lead are now far more important considerations than his people skills.

Another thing I believe from what I have read is that he also early on recognized the long term implications and importance of amassing data and information. The first incarnation of Facebook allowed him an unprecedented storehouse of personal data on almost the entire Harvard Student Body – and he got access to that information because the Harvard Facebook clients literally gave it to him. He never really exploited this little gold mine, and the data mining / aggregation is a card he has yet to play fully on the current Facebook, which now has 500 million users – more than google. If Facebook gets to one billion users or some15 percent of the planet’s population over the age of five – that will be the single largest delivery system of information and communication that has ever existed. And the data then available will boggle the mind, and can be used in all sorts of ways - for good, for profit, for evil.  If Zuckerberg’s intuition is right, Facebook will become the tool people on the planet use to shop, to inform each other, and and make decisions -- about everything from what to buy and when, what to do for fun, to health decisions, to financial decisions to even political choices – and they will do that by expanding word of mouth from one Facebook page to another – all at the speed of light.

I have no doubt Facebook and Mark Zuckerberg will be at the center of the firestorm that is surely coming over privacy, data use - or misuse, how people communicate in the future and a host of other very high priority societal issues to emerge over the next two decades or so. He is now a "force" in the world, and you can't say that about many people.  I think there is a good chance his naivety and still youthful perspectives, his intuition and savvy, coupled with his very strong will and virtual obsession with seeing how far this whole concept will play out, will continue to make Facebook more than just a social, intellectual, conceptual, practical, experiment, but rather even more of a phenomenon that is going to have very serious implications for the whole world, and most certainly for our little part of that world in everything from how art is created, shared, accessed, presented, funded, marketed, distributed, sold, reviewed, archived, and regarded.  I am certainly no expert on social networking or any of the other new technologies for communication, nor on the vanguard in information delivery systems, or the implications of any of that to us or to the world, but I am smart enought to know that we would be wise to consider the implications of Facebook and the social networking phenomenon - and beyond just the surface levels of how it might help us in audience development or some such area.  It has the potential to be a game changer for everything - in ways we probably don't yet have a firm grasp on.

It’s a good movie. See it.  Frankly, I am not one who resents, hates or otherwise wants to vilify Mark Zuckerberg. I find him and what he is doing fascinating, even if I remain one of the holdouts to being on Facebook. And for those that just want to hate him, don’t worry. He is likely to become one of the richest and most powerful people to have ever lived, and that is always accompanied by a very high price to pay. I doubt sincerely that anyone ever in that line has escaped a certain degree of loneliness and profound lack of joy.  As Don Henley penned in The Sad Cafe: "I don't know why fortune smiles on some, and let's the rest go free."  Mark Zuckerberg will likely never be free of fortune's "outrageous slings and arrows", so don't be so hard on him.

Have a great week.

Don’t Quit