Saturday, December 24, 2011

Resolved

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

New Year's Resolutions:

Time once again to trot out the same resolutions we make every year:  get to the gym; exercise more, eat healthy; get organized; spend more time doing what we like; be a better person.  Lofty and admirable aspirations all.  Good luck.

On an ambitious but not unrealistic thread, here are some modest suggestions for New Year's resolutions the arts community as a whole early ought to make - directed principally at the funders and national arts organizations that have the capacity, resources and platforms to actually do something about these issues:

1.  Cultural Equity:  Address finally the disparity in the allocation of funding that gives short shift to the smaller, newer and multicultural organizations.  And with due respect to those of good will that recognize the challenge and want to address it - it really isn't about desired outcomes or long range objectives.  Equity is about fairness; it's about equality in application.  The simple fact is that the current systemic mechanisms we use to allocate funding simply aren't 'fair.'  They favor one class of organizations over all the rest and no amount of rationalization can justify the inherent 'inequity' in the reality.   Make it fair.

2.  Research:  We need a national consensus policy to guide our research efforts into the decade.  As good as our research is, and as capable as our researchers are - it is basically piecemeal.  We need an over-arching policy as to what we need to know, on what timeline and to what purpose.  And we need at least some modicum of cooperation so we can pursue research in some linear pattern.  Somebody please convene a national summit to deal with our currently all over the map research efforts.  At least create ways  researchers (can and will) talk to each other on some regular basis.

3.  Political Action Committees:  Every state arts advocacy organization should establish a state Political Action Committee this year.  This isn't rocket science.  It's all perfectly legal and easy to do - including, contrary to the naysayers - raising funds to support the effort (and it takes far, far less to be effective than you think).  The net result will be dramatically increased political clout,  a much needed sense of empowerment and belief that we can indeed control our own destinies, and a huge push in the momentum towards collaboration.  It will also likely to lead to better results for us.

4.  Economies of Scale:  Again somebody please look at the issue of how we can reduce our operating costs by cooperative ventures from a national perspective.  From accounting and payroll services, to marketing, to such mundane things as printing expenses - we are all paying more than we should because we do not leverage our numbers to cut costs and get discounts.  It is simply too hard for arts organizations on a local level to put together cooperatives that will accomplish these kinds of savings.  There has to be some help from at least the state level, and better on the federal level, that will create the framework so organizations can plug into it and easily enjoy the advantages of large scale buying power.  For example: There is no reason the arts sector shouldn't own it's own printing plants - strategically located around the country - that would produce all our stationery, brochures, fundraising flyers, posters, advertisements etc.  That would allow all of us access to high quality artwork and finished product at highly competitive prices and on an as good as (and maybe better) delivery schedule.  With off the shelf software and internet advances, and drop shipping widely available - there is no reason to continue to pay local high prices for quality printing.  We should start our own printing business.

5.  Local Arts Agency Funding Diversity:  We desperately need to convene our best minds to brainstorm ideas as to how we can diversify the funding streams of local and state arts agencies.  A new funding model for government funding is needed very soon if this branch of our funding infrastructure is to survive.  I don't know what the answer is, or even if there is one - but let's make it a national priority to find out.

6.  Shift in Arts Education Demands:  At the risk of offending some of those who have for so long fought the good fight to get curriculum based, sequential arts education - with universal standards and assessment - taught by qualified / certified teachers - for all students K-12 - we need to adjust our thinking to be more realistic.  The simple and unalterable fact is that the cost of one visual arts, one music, one dance and one drama teacher in every school is so enormous as to be prohibitively expensive.  It just cannot happen across all jurisdictions.  Let's resolve to identify smaller, reachable annual objectives that move us along the continuum, even if it's just steps in the right direction.

7.  Mentoring:  Here's one last resolution that would make an enormous difference, and though it would take a serious time commitment - it is within our power.  Each seasoned arts leader who has been in the field for more than ten years - resolve to find someone to mentor who has been in the field less than five years - and at least offer to do it for at least six months.  Maybe some national organization or funder would facilitate the creation of a website that would broker those looking for mentors with those willing to volunteer.

So please all you foundation people and you national organization leaders - think about resolving to address one or more of the above issues.

Happy New Year.  Let's hope it's a good one, the misinterpreters of the Mayan calendar notwithstanding.

Don't Quit.
Barry

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Dealing with the Data

Good morning.
"And the beat goes on..................."
     
Some research that raises questions for our strategies:
According to the Pew Research Center, households headed by older adults have made dramatic gains in economic well-being relative to those headed by younger adults over the last 25 years.

"The typical household headed by adults over 65 had 47 times as much net wealth as one headed by adults under 35 -- $170,494 versus $3,662 (all figures expressed in 2010 dollars). Back in 1984, this ratio had been less lopsided, at ten-to-one. In absolute terms, the oldest households in 1984 had a median net wealth $108,936 higher than that of the youngest households. In 2009, the gap had widened to $166,832.
The median net worth of older and younger households moved in opposite directions between 1984 and 2009. Older households gained 42% in median net worth while net worth for younger households fell by 68%. These age-based divergences widened substantially with the housing market collapse of 2006, the Great Recession of 2007-2009 and the ensuing jobless recovery. But this gap began appearing decades earlier, suggesting that it is linked to long-term demographic and social changes as much as it is to recent economic stagnation.
Housing has been the main driver of the household wealth gap. Compared with their counterparts in 1984, rising home equity has been the linchpin of the higher wealth of older households in 2009. Declining home equity has had the opposite effect on younger households."

This raises several questions:  
1) In terms of financial support, are older Americans then the best likely prime target for the foreseeable future?  Is the same true for audience development or are the two apples and oranges?
2) Though I don't think we can automatically conclude that younger cohorts will not be generous in their giving patterns nor that we should not cultivate them for both the short and long term, given their economic situation, how do we adjust our strategies?  
3) Is pricing (more than other considerations) more of an issue for younger households as they struggle economically ?  (and thus do we need to ramp up our thinking in terms of alternate delivery systems for our products)? 

In short, what precisely are the priorities of each generation in terms of our offerings?  Do we have sufficient data on different generational concerns - including different geographical and demographic differences with same set generational cohorts?  And does our marketing take these variables into consideration?

II.  This also from Pew - research on the precipitous decline in marriage:
"In 1960, 72% of all adults ages 18 and older were married; today just 51% are. If current trends continue, the share of adults who are currently married will drop to below half within a few years. Other adult living arrangements-including cohabitation, single-person households and single parenthood-have all grown more prevalent in recent decades.
The Pew Research analysis also finds that the number of new marriages in the U.S. declined by 5% between 2009 and 2010, a sharp one-year drop that may or may not be related to the sour economy."

While we continue the inquiry into the motivation of why our audiences do or do not attend our events (including the intangibles of depth and breadth of experience etc.), are we ignoring the more basic issue of knowing more about who are audience really is?  Do we assume (perhaps erroneously) the most of the seats at our performances are occupied by "couples"? Is our marketing premised on that assumption?  What percentage of our audiences are singles - alone or in groups?  Is there any difference, quantifiable or otherwise, between the attendance / spending patterns of married couples v. co-habitators or other living arrangement couples or singles (recognizing that younger singles act socially in packs)?  Does our marketing take any of this into consideration?  Does the trend towards accessing art via technology reflect the growing singles market - as perhaps it is less appealing for singles to attend performances by themselves (and it would be interesting to know how attendance at movies relates to this issue)? Is the philanthropic giving of couples (irrespective of how defined) and singles vastly different?  

I suppose the problem with research is there is too much to study, too many variables to take into consideration, and (especially because our resources are limited) that it is very difficult to fit all the pieces into a coherent whole, but the base of all the research we do must ultimately start with building on our knowledge base of precisely who are audiences are, and the data that most directly impacts how we might expand that group.  Are the current audiences who we think they are?  

Shifts in marriage and generational income are but two of probably scores of markers that may impact the success of our strategies.  Within each of just those two threads, there are doubtless questions of differences in patterns based on ethnicity, geography, education level, gender and more.  What don't we know?

Wishing you all the happiest of holidays.

Don't Quit.
Barry

Sunday, December 11, 2011

More on the Cultural Equity Discussion

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

Funding disproportionately in favor of Euro-Centric, Major Organizations?
The debate on cultural equity - or more appropriately - cultural inequity - ramped up this week with a GIA Blogathon on the issue (with a stellar group of contributors - but whom I feel often skirted the essence of the issue - i.e., the fact of inequality of support), and Arlene Goldbard's continuing series.

At the heart of the discussion is the legacy of both government and philanthropic support for Euro-centric, big budget cultural institutions at the expense of the array of multicultural and newer generational smaller organizations.  See Fusing Arts Culture and Social Change - High Impact Strategies for Philanthropy authored by Holly Sidfor - the excellent report that was the genesis of the current discussion..  To no one's surprise the statistics bear out that proportionately most funding goes to the larger, well established cultural institutions across the country - the operas, museums, symphonies, ballet and theater companies.

To be sure, there has been significant progress over the past two decades in moving more towards, if not true cultural equity - then at least something a little more balanced.  Many would decry it's been far too little and too slow and I would be hard pressed to disagree.  And because politics is about bloc constituency appeasement, there has arguably been more progress in equitable governmental funding support because it is more (though surely not truly) transparent, and because ultimately equity means votes.  I suspect the arts would have fared even better in achieving real equitable governmental support were we more organized politically and more willing to demand that result.  Private philanthropic support too can claim credit for inventive and impactful programs moving towards more  balance, but it cannot be denied that foundational decision making is hardly transparent, nor that the end result is clearly more often inequitable than equitable.

But the answer to the question:  "Is diversity funding a core value to the arts philanthropic community" - despite some soul searching and some notable attempts, the sorry answer born out by the reality is: "No it is not." At best we are paying lip service to what is a lofty and politically correct aspiration, but which is really - thus far - not a great deal more.  The money - the real money - flows where it has always flowed - to the biggest Euro centric arts organizations - especially money from the foundation world.  By any standard or criteria it isn't going to the vast - and huge - multicultural, experimental, newer arts organizations.  Self-serving patting ourselves on the back for our accomplishments in moving towards real cultural equity would seem premature.

Arlene posits three principal areas of causation for the ongoing continuation of that legacy: entrenched privilegeencoded prejudice; and risk aversion.  In essence, all three are intertwined in what was once called "the good old boy network" - or to use more contemporary parlance - a form of tribalism.  It isn't helpful to characterize this in any pejorative sense as evil or conspiratorial - rather it is really just the natural tendency to support one's "own" - the familiar, that with which one grew up.  And that legacy of how things are done favors what it has always favor - the larger Euro-centric cultural institutions.  The bottom line is this: we are not likely to change private decision-making as the same governs equity considerations until we change the culture of leadership currently (still) existent in the Board rooms where the decisions about who gets how much are made.  


This is a Board of Directors issue.  I believe virtually all the capable and qualified foundation arts program officers know fully well that they manage programs are that are not really equitable (with some obvious exceptions here and there), and that these people know how to, and would very much like to, move towards that more equitable  balance, but ultimately the final decisions rest not with them, but with Board members.  And the direct network crossover by and between those Board members with those very major cultural organizations that disproportionately benefit the most is the one thing that is very transparent.  It is still "who you know".  


Given that the composition of these Boards is not likely to convert to a truly demographic representation of the populace or the field in any overnight epiphany, how then do we move to address cultural inequity in as meaningful and rapid a way as possible?  


First, I think we must acknowledge and accept the reality of how public and philanthropic dollars are meted out, by whom, and on what basis.  Let's call a spade a spade.  We have a problem here Houston.  Given that reality, we can continue to move forward (albeit painfully slowly) by a relentless pushing from both inside the agencies and foundations, and by exerting outside pressure, to adopt more protocols and programs that move towards equity.  The moral imperative of Spike Lee's reminder long ago to entreat decision makers to "do the right thing" is not altogether an ineffective strategy.

Similarly we can ratchet up the cry for diversity in the Boardrooms and not just token representation either. Here a public spotlight may be out best weapon - shined ceaselessly on the organizations, their procedures and track records and most of all on the individual human Board members.  Times have changed and Board members - no matter how high up in the pantheon of the elite - are nonetheless sensitive to public opinion and want to avoid even the appearance of favoritism or inequity.  So let's point that out to them so they can address the issue.

But all of that is a kind of political approach to what is really a systemic challenge to change the cultural "mindset" of philanthropic funding allocation itself, and THAT will be harder to change and take longer than we will want -- for the current mindset is endemic to the whole modern era philanthropic apparatus that has had time to become entrenched and codified.  Sometimes you can achieve great results by insistently demanding change happen, but too often that change is merely symbolic and confined to the surface.  No, I don't think pressure on Boards in and of itself is the ultimate solution - though it is an arrow in our quiver.

So we have to continue to develop other mechanisms that address the systemic nature of the mindset, and that approach is more arduous and difficult.

I came across the site for Grantmakers for Effective Organization (thanks to Diem Jones for the link) and two recent reports on their site caught my eye as potentially effective mechanisms for moving the philanthropic mindset closer to one that is amenable to advancing cultural equity (though slowly folks).

The first has to do with making 'empathy' a core driver of grant making activity.  The report offers five suggestions for more effective grant making:



1. Make it about others, not about you.
High-empathy grantmakers look at their organizations’ grantmaking strategies, policies, processes and re- quirements through the eyes of grantees and others, and they ask questions about whether their organization is doing the right thing by its grantees and applicants for support.
High-empathy grantmakers also have an intuitive understanding of how important it is for others to feel own- ership of their work and priorities. As a result, they are conscious of ensuring that they remain behind the scenes, and that nonprofits and community members are out front in shaping and taking credit for their work.
2. Get out of the office.
Nothing beats a face-to-face visit to the very places where a grantmaker’s stakeholders live their lives and do their work. This allows grantmakers to develop and deepen relationships and to see the world through the eyes of the people who are the focus of their work.
Getting out of the office doesn’t mean simply engaging in exploratory site visits, however. Often, it means working hand in hand with others in the community — recognizing that your mandate does not begin and end at the front doors of your offices. Other ways for grantmakers to “get out there” include volunteering and serving on nonprofit boards, in local government and in civic organizations.
3. Bring the outside in.
High-empathy foundations actively try to remove the barriers that can contribute to their isolation and ano- nymity in their communities. One way they start is by bringing into the organization the kind of people it serves — including nonprofit executive directors and staff, as well as representatives of the communities that are the focus of its grantmaking.
Beyond hiring “customers,” high-empathy foundations also take other steps to ensure that they are bringing the outside in. These include adding nonprofit and community representatives to the board; adding comment pages and other interactive elements to the foundation website; inviting grantees to share stories with the staff and board in formal and informal settings; and even populating the walls of the office with stories, photos and artwork that reflect what’s happening in the community and among the people they serve.
4. Invest in what it takes.
In many ways, the shift to high-empathy grantmaking can happen through relatively simple steps that foun- dations and their people can take to connect in more authentic ways with others. At the same time, however, grantmakers should recognize that creating widespread empathy in their organizations may require stepped-up investments in operations. Some grantmakers, for example, have decided to add staff as a way to foster strong- er connections with grantees.

Beyond staffing, grantmakers also might find they have to invest in new processes, new systems and new strat- egies to nurture deeper connections between their people and the communities they serve. One caveat as grantmakers consider what they can do to forge deeper relationships with grantees and others: Always be con- scious of your impact on the capacity of grantees to stay focused on their work. Stronger connections and openness to listening and hearing grantee concerns are almost always welcome; interfering in grantees’ day-to- day operations is not.
5. Lead from the top.
One of the most essential characteristics of high-empathy organizations is a leadership team that walks the talk and demonstrates high-empathy behaviors in its everyday work.
To change the culture and overarching strategies of the organization, leaders must embrace widespread empathy as the pathway to better results for the organization and its stakeholders. That means getting everybody to focus on what’s really going to make a difference for the people and the organizations that are central to the mission of the organization.
Leaders also should review what the foundation does (and how it can do more) to promote work practices that encourage and sustain empathy, from deep listening and reflection to looking at the world through the eyes of grantees and others. 


The second report dealt with Catalyzing Networks for Social Change.  As the introduction stated: "Philanthropists are at a new crossroads of increasing fragmentation and interdependence. On the one hand, we’re living in a world where perspectives, practices and action are increasingly fragmented as people and organizations become more specialized in their interests and siloed in their actions. On the other hand, we’re living in a world that is becoming more and more interdependent as ideas, money, things and people move across boundaries of all kinds. Simply stated, philanthropists are operating in a rapidly changing, networked world where the pathways to effecting social change are far from straightforward.  There is a growing imperative for funders to combine longstanding instincts toward independent initiative and action with an emerging network mindset and toolkit that helps them see their work as part of larger, more diverse and more powerful efforts."  


Here is a quick overview of the traditional v. network approach to funding:


Traditional and network approaches to grantmaker Challenges


Challenge
Traditional approach


network approach
Build community assets
Administer social services
Weave social ties
Develop better designs and decisions
Gather input from people you know
Access new and diverse perspectives
Spread what works
Disseminate white papers
Openly build and share knowledge
Mobilize action
Organize tightly coordinated campaigns
Create infrastructure for widespread engagement
Overcome fragmentation
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Bring players and programs under a single umbrella
Coordinate resources and action



I was particularly caught by the section on working with a network mindset and how that might be an approach we can use as a step in altering the culture of arts philanthropic decision making.  The report describes that premise:  "Working with a network mindset means operating with an awareness of the webs of relationships you are embedded in.  It also means cultivating these relationships to achieve the impact you care about.   Working with a network mindset also means finding where the conversations are happening and taking part in them — exercising leadership through active participation.  Of course, working transparently and sharing leadership isn’t always easy. Basic grantmaking structures and mechanics, such as siloed program areas and static application requirements, inhibit working this way. In addition, there are many open questions about how working with a network mindset will mesh with current ways of doing business."


Implementing either or both these approaches (or others that may be developed that promise the same improvements) will not be easy, will take time and effort, and may not even net us the full result we seek.  But we need to take a holistic approach to dealing with the challenge.  Our whole future of relevance is likely at stake.  


Opening up the cultural philanthropic decision making so as to facilitate movement towards equity will require opening up to more and newer community relationships and involvement, and to greater transparency in the whole decision making process.  That won't be any easy conversion for most entrenched Boards that are use to going it their own way, nor will imposing empathy, but step by step by step we can apply pressure and instigate and embed new approaches that favor more openness and THAT needs to be part of the approach.


Have a good week.


Don't Quit
Barry

Sunday, December 4, 2011

We've Got Offers to Re-Locate to Another City

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

Making the Arts as Essential to a City as Sports Teams Are:
This ArtPlace grant came to my attention courtesy of Createquity:  Here's what the ArtPlace website says:  "An internationally acclaimed modern dance company, the Trey McIntyre Project has taken Boise, Idaho, as its home base and has won extraordinary popular support from the city. Through a new project, the company will limit its touring to remain in Boise, where it will engage the community to make dance and dancers ever present. The aim is to generate local identity and pride equivalent to that fostered by the university football team. By working with everyone from restaurants and bars to hospitals and schools, the project will shape how this mid-sized city sees itself and presents itself as a creative beacon".


I like this for two reasons:  First, in awarding money to an arts organization to limit its touring to local venues the grant recognizes the critical importance of the arts (and specific arts organizations) to a city.  It even specifies that the dance company is equivalent to the local university football team.  I have long thought that major city ballets, symphonies, operas, museums and theater companies are as essential to the life of a city as its major league football, basketball and baseball teams, and that we ought to more often make the comparison.  I've even entertained the fantasy that, like some major league sports franchise owners do, those organizations ought to threaten from time to time to re-locate to some city that would be more responsive to its needs.  I would love the specter of non-supportive cities scrambling to figure out how to keep a major cultural institution that was being courted to move elsewhere.


I also think whole disciplines and even the arts sector is invaluable to a city.  Take dance in San Francisco - over 200 companies that help make the city a mecca for talent, for dreams and all the energy of all those people involved (not to mention that they are economic consumers).   Organization of all those players is necessary to leverage that potential power.   


Of course that is just a fantasy and would be very difficult, if not impossible, to pull off a threat to re-locate (though it would be interesting to see some test case somewhere).  Can you imagine if the Guggenheim or the Getty threatened to move?  


The second reason I like this story is that the Trey McIntyre Project is so smart and savvy to position itself to be able to successfully secure this kind of support.  And it did so from the decision as to where to locate in the first place.  The fact is that the company is indeed  "internationally acclaimed" and very likely would have been welcomed in hundreds of cities, but it consciously chose Boise and it would seem part of that decision was likely grounded in what they could come to mean locally, and what that kind of support would mean to their future - including the freedom to be creative.  


Not every dance company can mean to a city what, say, Alvin Ailey means to New York.  But it should be the goal of every arts organization to consciously do whatever it reasonably can to mean as much as it can to the city in which it resides.  Every organization needs to think strategically to position itself as so tied to local pride and identity that losing it to some other place would be absolutely unacceptable.  


And frankly I think we ought to play the "we're considering offers to move" card every once in awhile.


Kudos to the Trey McIntyre Project, Arts Place and the city of Boise.


NOTES:  

  • A belated congratulations to Shannon Daut on her appointment as the new Executive Director of the Alaska State Council on the Arts and best wishes to my friend Charlotte Fox on wherever she next lands.


  • The San Francisco Arts Commission mess.  I am following very closely the continuing saga of the SF Arts Commission Cultural Equity Grants Program - what was purportedly a scandal, but is becoming more of a mishandled bureaucratic SNAFU.  An important meeting for Monday, December 5th.  Whatever happens this one potentially has all the hallmarks of a real soap opera drama.  See Arlene Goldbard's blog.

  
Have a good week.


Don't Quit.
Barry

Sunday, November 27, 2011

A Great Appointment, However....

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

Jerry Brown Appoints Rosalind Wyman to the California Arts Council:
Growing up in L.A. in the fifties and sixties, Rosalind Wyman was a major fixture in local politics.  The youngest person ever elected to the L.A. City Council.  Fiery, and a bit of the maverick she, along with JFK, are the two figures that turned me onto to politics.  I was a big fan.

Governor Brown recently appointed her to the CAC and by any account she is an excellent appointment.  She remained (and doubtless still remains) active in Democratic politics.  She is savvy, experienced and knows how to get things done.  Moreover, she has for some time been involved in the arts - from the NEA to the Los Angeles Arts Commission to the Los Angeles Music Center.  Now an octogenarian, my guess is that she hasn't slowed down a bit.  I would think she will provide seasoned leadership to the efforts to someday restore public funding for the arts in California.

I confess to being a fan of Jerry Brown's - from his first stint as Governor to his Presidential bid.  I like him, voted for him, campaigned for him, supported him.  I think he's done an outstanding job as Governor this time around facing almost insurmountable challenges of putting California back in the forefront of the states.  He created the CAC during his initial gubernatorial term, and I honestly believe that if he can move the state's economy back to even close to what it was under Gray Davis that he will find a way to restore meaningful public support to the arts.  So I congratulate him for appointing Rosalind Wyman and to her on the appointment.

However - and there's always a however.

For all intents and purposes, the California Arts Council is really the Los Angeles Arts Council.  There are no representatives from San Diego or the Inland Empire, none from the central valley nor the far north.  No one from San Jose, San Francisco or Sacramento.  And only one from outside the greater Los Angeles area.

Moreover, in what is arguably the most diverse place on the planet - with virtually every culture on earth amply represented within its borders, California is the very definition of diversity.  Yet there are no Asian / Pacific Islanders, no Latinos, no one under the age of 30 on the arts council.  There may be someone from the LGBT community (I have no way of knowing), but certainly no public leader of that group.  Of the eleven authorized seats, Rosalind Wyman's appointment fills the tenth seat.  One remains.

Meaning no disrespect to those who sit on the council (all of whom I believe take their charge seriously and seek to do whatever they can to support the arts in California) it is, nonetheless unfortunate and somewhat embarrassing that the council isn't more representative of the state's geography and diversity.  We need the perspective and ideas of a more widely reflective sampling of who we are.  One would hope it might again be more reflective of California's sub-populations in the future.

Still, Rosalind Wyman is, all things considered, an excellent and valuable appointment.

Have a great week.

Don't Quit.
Barry

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

HAPPY THANKSGIVING

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

Still a lot on our plates:
Declining audiences, shifting philanthropic trends, government cuts, downsizing - a lot going wrong, but yet there is much to be thankful for.

I am thankful for the insightful intelligence of fellow bloggers; thankful for the Herculean and ceaseless efforts of the advocates across the country; thankful for the efforts of the foundation community and their leadership to keep it all alive; thankful for the policy wonks who ask the hard questions and the researchers who toil with the data to help us all.  I am thankful for artists and believers -- but most of all I am thankful for you -- the average arts administrator who labors unheralded day after day against formidable challenges, often times long into the evenings and weekends with precious little acknowledgment.  I am grateful for your dedication, for your passion, for your sacrifice and for your  caring so much about what you do.

I am thankful for the boomers who have stayed the course for decades, refusing to give up, and for the Xers and Millennials who choose to commit to the arts instead of something very likely more lucrative.  I am thankful that each of you gets up each morning and joins the battle anew even though I am sure there are days when it seems too much, days when you want to quit, days when you ask yourself "Why?", days when the onslaught of bad news may seen like an avalanche.

There are moments of joy and wonder in what we do; thrilling performances and awe inspiring exhibitions.  And there are the human moments of impact seen on the faces of everyone from seniors to children.  I am thankful to bear witness to that spark. There are victories and successes too, even if some seem pyrrhic.  The arts will always win out for creativity is central to humanity.  But you make it real, you help make it happen.  You are the keepers of the proverbial flame.

For it is all of you - often working isolated in big and small organizations all across the country in urban cities, in the suburbs and in rural towns - that keep alive the promise of what the arts do for all of us - for the kids and for our communities.  It is you who are the backbone of arts provision in this country.  It is you who believe what we do is important - that it means something.  And, let me assure you it DOES mean something - in means a great deal.

So because you probably don't hear it that often, let me shout it:  THANK YOU, THANK YOU VERY MUCH. Thank you for your strength, for your character and integrity and thank you most of all for not quitting.  You are a remarkable class of people.

Happy Thanksgiving.

Don't Quit.
Barry

Sunday, November 20, 2011

What IS more important - the Chicken or the Egg?

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

Diane Ragsdale raises the issue of living wages for artists in American theatre companies top-heavy with administration, noting that the only salaried actors are likely to be ones that do double duty as administrators.

While confining her entry to theatre, the issue is much larger.  Have we grown the arts administration infrastructure to the point where its' survival (and not the survival of art and artists) has become the prime directive?  Is the sustainability of the nonprofit arts industry now the driving force in all we do and the insatiable beast that has eaten (or at least threatens) the very lamb it was created to protect? Is art and are artists now the second class citizen(s) we espouse as our client and clients, but is that really now just semantical spinning of the true purpose of growing the industry we have spawned?  I know I am biting the hand that feeds me here, but we ought to ask ourselves questions like this once in awhile for our thriving depends on occasional self-assessment.

We talk from time to time about the arts being overbuilt with too many organizations, but is the problem more accurately not too many organizations, but that the model of each of those organizations naturally seeks to expand its capacity exponentially.  The question looms whether by design or default, has that expansion come at the expense of the art and artists?  Have, as one of Diane's commenters opined, we 'the nonprofit arts administrator class' become the corporate agro business and the artists the migrant workers that toil in the fields for subsistence wages.  And more germane, has that 'system' precluded the artists from having any meaningful input into the direction art takes?

To be fair, the half century old model of nonprofit arts provision in America sought not only to nurture and support art and artists, but also to expand public access to that art.  Nonprofits are accorded privileged tax status precisely because they benefit the public, and early on public "access" to art was institutionalized as a benefit equal to the art itself.   Moreover, the fine arts have for centuries depended, in part, on patronage - with which comes infrastructure and 'management'.

But have we overemphasized "access" (and justified in the process the machine we created to promote access) at the expense of artist survivability - let alone growth?  And is the current trend towards emphasis of the 'experience' of the public access over the 'excellence' of the content being experienced disturbing, or a welcome, positive - even egalitarian - development, one arguably pro-art at its' core?

Even were we to conclude that the 'infrastructure' has grown too large so that it now subverts its' original lofty purpose of supporting art and artists (and one can, I think, make a convincing argument to the contrary), what's to be done about it?  Is our sector not as much a victim to the institutional politics of the budgetary process wherein once a program (or organization) is funded, it tends to take on a life of its' own seeking as its principal objective its' own continual existence?  Are we arts administrators very likely to undertake some kind of transformation, the ultimate result of which is our own undoing - even were it to benefit the art and artists we are bound to serve?  Are we not a kind of bureaucracy now - one that demands to be constantly fed, even if one that honestly believes it best serves its art and artist client base by insuring that it is first at the dinner table?

Is one of the consequences of this reality, that artists (particularly younger artists) no longer see our version of the arts as offering much to them - either as artists or consumers- and how do we deal with that?

I don't know, but I think the question of whether or not things have gotten out of hand, and whether or not the growth of management has subverted that which is was created to manage is a legitimate one.  Ideally funding would be sufficient to support the apparatus created to facilitate art and nurture artists, and enable those artists to earn a living wage and create art, but the truth is that such a level of funding does not now (nor perhaps did it ever) exist.  And at least in the long term, consideration of how artists can make a living from their art and the relationship of that to the growth of our structure is relevant.


Have a good week.
Don't Quit.
Barry

Monday, November 7, 2011

Surrender, Not Control

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

Wherein Lies Creativity?:
I found this quote by Artist/Writer Julia Cameron in This Week magazine:
"The creative process is a process of surrender, not control".

And that got me thinking that observation might be relevant to why we (as a sector or profession) seem to have so much trouble being truly creative in our responses to the ever daunting challenges that face us - why we never venture too far out of the box.  I think we are too often enamored with our past thinking, with holding onto ideas and concepts, approaches and strategies, based on assumptions that are largely born out of a need to control the situation.  Our thinking is often grounded on certain precepts and theories we have developed with which we are - to put it bluntly - in love.  We simply cannot give up notions we have long held dear and in which we have invested time, energy and even money.  And yet I think Julia Cameron is onto something of use to us.

A case in point that I have previously, and often, ranted about, is the antiquated, and absolutely false theory that all we need to do to impact public policy to our favor is to better make the case for our value - economically, educationally and for its' intrinsic worth.  For a long time, and to a large degree still, a huge section of our field fervently believe that if we can just make a better case (with data, facts, and homespun stories about the people positively impacted by the arts) that it is inevitable that decision makers (once they are aware of the realities) will find a way to support us.  Were that only true, we would be the recipients of huge amounts of funding from the local to the federal level.  Look around.  Anybody see that reality?  We must, I think, surrender our addiction to that falsity. That is simply NOT how politics works.  Public policy formulation and impact, as often as not, has nothing to do with the merits of one side of the issue or another - rather it has to do with how the political process works - which is, like it or not, fueled by money, influence and power plays.  Convincing arguments are necessary adjuncts to the process of exercising influence, but without political power they produce few results.  I think we may need to surrender our loyalty to old ways of thinking.  I think we may need to stop trying to control a game over which we have no control and play the game by its own rules.  Advocates win far fewer of the battles than do the lobbyists.  You want more money from cites, counties, states and the feds?  More friendly legislation for artists?  Form PACS, elect candidates, give money and call in "favors" owed.  THAT is how the system works.  We continue in many quarters to play an outdated hand - one we actually dealt ourselves,

Then too consider our addiction to semantics;  how for two decades or more we have steadfastly and stubbornly clung to the notion that the most effective way to help our community is to advance "capacity building" and "sustainability".  On its face, an almost unassailable theory - but it now seems clearer to many that perhaps we were as enamored with the "words" as much as the lofty aspirations they symbolized.  We need to surrender our penchant for words that encapsulate our aspirations, and be at least a little wary of the notion that any given current dogma is the final solution.  Thus, for example, in the area of Audience Development in the recent past we fixated on the "depth" and "breadth" of the audience participant's experience. Sure sounded good.  But for all the positive aspects of the theories and the research behind those hypotheses, fewer people sat in the seats in our halls in the last five years, not more.  Now I am not suggesting that the levels of audience experience or the ways in which audiences "engage" with art, artists and artistic organizations isn't relevant to our efforts to expand those audiences, but I am suggesting that we need to "surrender" how we embrace each new approach, theory and methodology we create as the "holy grail".  It just may be that the reasons more people don't fill our empty seats have to do with cost, convenience, time and a product that must compete with ever more and better alternatives to what we offer.

I know some people will be offended by my questioning of long held tenets of our thinking,  but honestly folks if everything we were doing was working that well, we would be in a Hell of a lot better position than we are.  We need - desperately need - to be more creative in facing the challenges that haunt us.  And I think Julia Cameron's advice is good advice - to be more creative we may just have to figure out how to surrender some of our deeply entrenched ways of thinking about things and allow for new thinking.

Have a good week.

Don't Quit.
Barry

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Shout Outs

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

Shout Outs:

  • I love this.  Challenge between Bob Booker (Arizona Commission on the Arts) and Craig Watson (California Arts Council) to see which state can get 10,000 people to "like" their home web pages first.  Now joined by Washington D.C. Commission on Arts and Humanities.  So far all three are neck and neck with each at about 5,500 'likes'.   Any other 'players' out there?

  • Research:  Wolf Brown's latest research on participation in the arts, commissioned by the James Irvine Foundation as part of the planning for its new philanthropic strategy.

  • Research:  Helicon Collaborative's  latest research - on philantropic giving - Entitled: Fusing Arts, Culture and Social Change.

  • Fractured's Atlas' 2.0 version of its popular Performing Arts Spaces locator project.  Also in the Bay Area, Los Angeles and Philadelphia.

  • Finally, BAVC (Bay Area Video Coalition) introducting a spate of 2 hour "Get Going" classes to prepare arts organizations in the San Francisco region up to effectively use video in their work. 
Have a good week.

Don't Quit.
Barry

    Sunday, October 16, 2011

    Steven Jobs Legacy

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

    Considering what Steven Jobs may have left us:
    Steven Jobs certainly left a mark on the world and fundamentally impacted the lives of virtually everyone. While he wasn’t a generous philanthropic supporter of the arts, or much else (in fact his reputation was decidedly that of the Scrooge as far as doing anything for nonprofits), nonetheless his legacy of the critical importance of creativity for business, of design in the packaging of products, of art in marketing, and of championing the aesthetic experience of end users did as much, if not more, over the past two decades to spur support for creativity in all aspects of our lives as anything else I can think of.

    I ran across this on Yahoo -- Camile Gallo’s take in Entrepreneur on Jobs’ principles that “drove his success”. As Gallo says: “Over the years, I've become a student of sorts of Jobs' career and life. Here's my take on the rules and values underpinning his success. Any of us can adopt them to unleash our "inner Steve Jobs."

    I have no idea if Jobs himself would embrace Gallo’s conclusions as ‘his’ operating principles, but they do seem to reflect his actions.

    Here is Gallo’s list with my comments in italics as to how I think it applies to our field:

    1. Do what you love. Jobs once said, "People with passion can change the world for the better."
    This is the most universal advice handed down over the past half century. It is really so basic, that it hardly need be included in any list of life principles anymore. It is clearly at the heart of the artistic spirit and my guess is that it is the governing principle for most people who work in the arts sector. It is clearly one of the things that attracts people to work in the field and to become artists in the first place.

    2. Put a dent in the universe. Jobs believed in the power of vision. He once asked then-Pepsi President, John Sculley, "Do you want to spend your life selling sugar water or do you want to change the world?"
    While I think this one too is universal, I think perhaps many of us get so caught up in the daily grind that sometimes we forget that this was our motivation when we started. Sometimes I think perhaps we confuse concepts like ‘sustainability’ for belief in transformation. The arts can put a dent in the universe, and we need to consciously think about that.

    3. Make connections. Jobs once said creativity is connecting things. He meant that people with a broad set of life experiences can often see things that others miss. Don't live in a bubble. Connect ideas from different fields.
    I like this one very much, and think it worthy of some discussion within our ranks, particularly as we go about the ‘business’ of the arts. I think we are underachievers in making connections.

    4. Say no to 1,000 things. Jobs was as proud of what Apple chose not to do as he was of what Apple did. When he returned in Apple in 1997, he took a company with 350 products and reduced them to 10 products in a two-year period. Why? So he could put the "A-Team" on each product. What are you saying "no" to?
    I am virtually certain this is one we have failed yet to master, or even fully comprehend as to its value and application. I think we identify it when we talk about focus, but we would do well in the arts to say “no” more often - to ourselves as well as those we interface with.

    5. Create insanely different experiences. Jobs also sought innovation in the customer-service experience. When he first came up with the concept for the Apple Stores, he said they would be different because instead of just moving boxes, the stores would enrich lives. Everything about the experience you have when you walk into an Apple store is intended to enrich your life and to create an emotional connection between you and the Apple brand. What are you doing to enrich the lives of your customers?
    Jobs and Apple seemed to love the word “insanely” as descriptive of one of the goals of the organization. I think what he meant in using the word, was that ideas need to not just be out of the box, they need to be way, way out of the box. They need to reach to be different; not just to be fun and cool, but to be on the very edge of fun and cool. We would do well to set our sights higher and to shoot for the moon as it were on a regular basis as our standard operating premise.

    6. Master the message. You can have the greatest idea in the world, but if you can't communicate your ideas, it doesn't matter. Jobs was the world's greatest corporate storyteller. Instead of simply delivering a presentation like most people do, he informed, he educated, he inspired and he entertained, all in one presentation.
    I am aware there was a kind of ‘cult’ around Jobs and he had a messianic presence at Apple launch events, but I’m not sure he was that exalted a “storyteller”. I do think though that he was exceptionally perceptive and gifted at understanding what the message was – and that he knew instinctively that, at least in part, self-perception of his customers was the message. And beyond that, that how his products made people feel was as important a message as their utilitarian use.

    7. Sell dreams, not products. Jobs captured our imagination because he really understood his customer. He knew that tablets would not capture our imaginations if they were too complicated. The result? One button on the front of an iPad. It's so simple, a 2-year-old can use it. Your customers don't care about your product. They care about themselves, their hopes, their ambitions. Jobs taught us that if you help your customers reach their dreams, you'll win them over.
    I think Jobs understood that he needed to play to people’s dreams, and that if he could help them feel as though his products helped enable them to perceive their own desired images that they would want them. I think we are moving towards that same realization in that the arts play to people’s self images and to what makes them ‘feel’ good.

    To Gallo's above principles, I might add three more that it seems to me Jobs embodied:

    8. Packaging and design are as important as the content. Jobs seemed to understand the value and importance of design in the appeal of the base product. It has to do with the customer’s “experience” of using an Apple product, and how that customer feels in the process of that experience. I think this applies to the arts in the obvious way that look and feel have always been integral to an artistic experience. I think it may also apply to how we package and market the ultimate art as our product. The ‘experience’ of engaging art is probably as critical as the art itself, and likely an integral part thereof. And I think we have a lot to figure out in this area. 

    9. Excellence is the only acceptable standard. Jobs and Apple seemed to adhere to this maxim. Every product had to be the penultimate version of technology at a given time. Part of that standard of excellence was, of course, defined in the experience of the end user with the product. As we in the arts begin to grapple with the ultimate experience of the individual in relationship to art, we are embarking on a journey to define “excellence” as a concept beyond content, and applicable as well to interaction with content. That is a complex and ambitious undertaking, but one I think not only essential for us at this time, but one which may pay handsome dividends as we progress.

    10. Don’t Quit. Finally I think Jobs embodied the notion of never giving up. Throughout his whole career from Apple to Next to Pixar and back to Apple he found other ways to continuously move forward. That is a trait I have always admired in our sector. People in the arts are nothing if not adaptable, flexible and able to roll with the punches. Simply put, we are pretty damn good at not quitting.

    Barry

    Wednesday, October 12, 2011

    GIA Wrap Up

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

    GIA - Day 3:
    The final day at any arts convention is usually a little anti-climatic.  People are checking out in the morning, some off for early flights; others are staying over to see friends or play tourist -- there are good byes and promises to be better at staying in touch; vague expressions of follow up on mutual projects -- some conceived this week after food and drink; and last look arounds to see if you can find long lost friends who are listed on the participant list, but who inexplicably you have not crossed paths with in three days.  There are, of course, scheduled sessions and the obligatory final plenary or meal.

    BTW - congratulations to new GIA Board members elect:
    • Maurine Knighton - Nathan Cummings Foundation
    • Felicia Shaw - San Diego Foundation
    • Laura Zimmerman - McKnight Foundation 

    I went to a session supposedly on one of my pet interests -- Building a Larger Table:  Cross-Sector Collaborations in the Arts - organized by two capable and unquestionably bright stars in the arts firmament, but alas for whatever reasons - this session didn't deliver.  From the title I assumed the gist of the presentation would try to center on how you can build that larger table and include case examples of what works and what doesn't in making cross-sector collaborations happen.  I had hoped that there might be a cogent, organized presentation of some basics for successful cross-sector collaborations, or at least a set up that would have encouraged some deeper discussion that would drill down to some of the obstacles encountered, and the means for overcoming those obstacles in attempting to make this kind of thing work.  In conversations during the break with other people who sat in on this session, there seemed consensus that it just didn't work. 

    There were some pearls of wisdom but you had to reach to find them, as the presentation tended to wander and ramble and seemed to lack focus.  One of the lessons that was mentioned - ironically then - was that "focus" is an essential element in forming successful, workable collaborations. 

    Two other quips caught my attention:
    1.  I'm not sure what this was used for, but I love it as a title for an effort:  "Building a Base Before the Next Crisis."; and
    2.  Everybody involved in the effort to establish a collaboration has to believe that it is a cause worth fighting for.  That is a lesson that can be, and I suspect, often is overlooked.

    I think collaboration is such an important issue for funders that I hope GIA continues to include it as subject worthy of devoting time, energy and session time at conferences. 


    I dropped in on the tail end of Richard Kessler's session:  The Challenge of Change:  Public Policy Advocacy for Arts in Education, and I just want to mention Richard's spot on part plea / part admonition to GIA members to fund those who are trying to work in the policy arena to change public policies to embrace arts education and the other priorities that we share in advancing our sector.  He cautioned that if funders don't fund that kind of activity -  the advocacy in the trenches and the work to make public policy reflect both the value of the arts, and the needs of those engaged in nurturing and facilitating that value - then it will not happen.  And that for us to advance arts education it must start with our involvement in fashioning public policy.  We cannot and will not move arts education anywhere near where we want it to be, if we do not engage in changing public policy.  He also asked funders to ask themselves what their role - collectively as part of GIA - which is the trade association of the arts funder world - should be. 

    Janet Brown was in the session, and as much as anyone in the field, she understands exactly what Richard was saying.  She knows the essentiality of being involved in public policy formulation and she knows from practical experience how it works, and why collective 'concerted' action is necessary to compete with other sectors that have their own agendas and demands that vie for public policy decision makers to address.  One challenge for GIA will be to determine for itself how far it wants to leverage the power of its collective voice in this area.  My sense in talking to people over the past three days - from the far corners of the arts funding world - is that an increasing consensus in support of working more together in collaboration is becoming apparent, and that while individual funders are trying to find solid ground on which to stand within their own worlds, they are paying more attention to being part of this larger world together.  There are some very, very smart people involved here, and as Richard Kessler reminded them: they are the only ones in the room who really do not directly benefit from taking a stand in the policy arena -- other than moving things forward.  I hope GIA members can overcome the hurdles of convincing their own boards that support for policy formulation makes sense, and that GIA - as the trade association for arts funders - can play a logical role in leveraging the combined strength of its members. 

    My take-away from this conference is that the arts funder's legacy of acting pretty much alone is no longer thought to be the preferred way to approach goals, and certainly not  a viable way to deal with the "velocity of change" that was the theme of the gathering.   I think the potential of this sleeping giant may in the not too distant future surprise even themselves.

    On a personal note (and another reason I like these gatherings) --  I was able to corral several people whom I have wanted to interview for the blog, and now have those commitments (some good stuff coming up in the future).    So I enjoyed myself this week.   Had some very good conversations, saw old friends (Olive Mosier I looked and looked for you and I am so sorry I didn't get a chance to spend some time with you), I laughed, learned some things, and came away optimistic.  And but for some rain on Monday, the city shined (I was right, wasn't I Daniel Windham?)

    Safe journeys home to all those who came to our city.  Thanks GIA. 

    Don't Quit.
    Barry