Sunday, March 27, 2011

It’s A Small World After All

Good Morning.

“And the beat goes on………………………………….”


I’ve just returned from a two month stay in Asia – travelling to Thailand, Malaysia and southern China this year. I have been exploring Asia for over a dozen years now, and have a fair understanding of the varied and disparate cultures of the vast array of nations that comprise the continent.

Each nation and the people that make up those countries are unique and different from the others. Each has its own culture (and I mean both their arts and cultural heritages and the wider meaning of culture). Each has its own way of looking at everything from education and work, to sex, family and marriage; from politics and economics to religion and the sense of community. Each has its own history, language, and life philosophy. And while each is so different that it is often times hard to compare one to the other despite the similarities, the one thing that stands out to be is how alike we all are.

Cities in Asia are so like cities in America that they are almost interchangeable – and but for the hue of the skin color of those cities’ inhabitants and sometimes the weather, one would be hard pressed to think one was not in the U.S. The cities from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing, from Hong Kong to Bangkok, from Hanoi to Singapore look like New York, Chicago, Dallas, Washington, Los Angeles and Seattle. Prior to my first visit to China, I had a definite impression in my mind as to the architecture I would find, and what the average Chinese might be like, and that impression was all wrong. The car models may be different, but traffic is a problem everywhere; the buildings and the architecture is nearly identical (from the Petronas Towers in Kuala Lumpur to the skyscrapers of Hong Kong). The shops selling the global brand names are exactly the same, the restaurants and the bars and cafes (while featuring local cuisine) are otherwise alike, the transportation systems identical (though as at home some are clearly better than others), the museums, galleries, movie houses all interchangeable across the planet. And everywhere smart phones, wifi, ipads and technology are ubiquitous. The average American has no idea how much China and Asia is like the U.S.

And most importantly so too are the people. I have found that the people everywhere are basically the same – no matter the color of their skin, their history, the nuances of where they grew up, their language, age, or politics. The vast majority of everyone I have ever met, or just observed, shares much more in common with each of us than the differences that separate us. On any given day in any of these places are proud and doting parents – moms dealing with unruly kids or fussy newborns; middle age couples having a spat or walking hand in hand; aging seniors coping with the limitations of bodies grown tired; businessmen scurrying around in a hurry at lunch time; Millennials on the smart phones texting while the ipod ear phones play their favorite music.

What all of these people really want is to just live their lives. Their major issues are personal, not global. Ironically it seems it is only their leadership (whether democratically elected or dictators who came to power by force) is bent on confrontation and interested in war. For most of them anyway.

America’s biggest and most profound export seems to be our version of capitalism and the unholy preoccupation with style, fashion, and acquisition – with shopping as the most important non work activity. From fast food to movies and music, our chief export has been “lifestyle” more than ideas. Everywhere you go the most popular and dominant leisure time activity seems to be shopping, and in every city (not unlike in America), there is an explosion in malls and shopping meccas, all featuring exactly the same brand names of the west. Among the young in Asia, there seems an understandable (they come to this point relatively recently) obsession with the latest fashion trends. It reminds me of the Beatles song lyric: “Got to be good looking cause he’s so hard to see”. I fear that this phenomenon threatens our ability to deal seriously with issues – for the only thing that seems to matter is distinguishing oneself by one’s appearance. Perhaps this is too harsh – for young people may have always turned to style as a way to begin the process of establishing their own identity and growing up.

I first began to travel to SE Asia because I tired of my beloved SF Bay Area drab, cold, rainy and gray winters. I am one of those people who much prefer it to be hot than cold. And that, plus the fact that my dollar goes father over there than it does here, remains a major motivation. But I soon grew fond not only of the people and other cultures, but the very fact of being out of my own culture at least for awhile as a way to make me think differently. It is good, I think, for one to be the outsider every once in awhile.

The problem for us all is that we know so little about each other and we cling to erroneous stereotypical portraits which the lack of familiarity reinforce. We have these preconceived notions of who everyone else is – how they live, what they think, what they value and what they abhor, and so we can objectify them as a whole people, and in the process diminish their humanity and justify reactions and opinions that clearly would not stand up to personal interaction. People in Asia like those in the west laugh, cry, ponder, and bleed.

Somehow the planet must figure out how to get beyond this myopic lack of real understanding. While the world is shrinking on so many levels, we still revel in an almost incomprehensible false sense of who everyone other than ourselves is. And we cling to these misperceptions despite evidence to the contrary. And so in many ways the gulf between us all widens not narrows.

It seems to me that art and artists can play an invaluable role in what must be an urgent attempt to break down this ignorance. Art and artists can help the world to understand that in the last analysis we are simply much more alike than different, and that all the preconceived ideas, stereotypes and bugaboo fears instilled in us for so long are beyond inaccurate, they are a lie. Artists can tell stories – personal, profound, meaningful stories of real lives. Arts and artists can be the bridge we lack.  We need to make that happen, because it isn't, and won't happen of its own accord.

I think we need to ratchet up our international exchange efforts. We need to be more participatory in global efforts for the arts and artists so we can engage in more intersections and interactions. We need to be in more countries, and more often – whether to perform, exchange best practices, or just to observe. We need more connections to the art and artists in these other countries. Thus, as but one example, the recent tragedies in  Japan present opportunities - for us.  We ought to identify what small role we might play to support (and intersect with) the arts in Japan as they rebuild their country.  There will be enormous profits and other less tangible gains to be made for a variety of industries in that rebuilding (the arts may or may not be involved), and for us some opportunities to identify and catalog the arts role in their infrastructure rebuilding and whether or not (and how) they use the power of the arts to re-start what is now - and likely to be more of - an anemic tourism industry, as well as other areas.   Much of Asia is way ahead of us in these efforts. In severely austere times like the present it is difficult to justify expenditures outside our home needs, but it is an investment in the future we call ill afford not to make. We have a role to play and an obligation to meet that cannot wisely be ignored or abrogated.

Check this out: Brain Pickings Seven Must Read Books on Music, Emotion and the Brain.

Have a great week.

Don’t Quit

Sunday, March 20, 2011

If You Lie Often Enough, A Percentgage of the People Will Believe It.

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

Perception Management:
The stop gap measure of mostly meaningless cuts - as Congress once again clumsily tries to at least pretend it is responsibly dealing with the budget - as you all now know, included elimination of the some $40 million in the Department of Education budget ostensibly to support arts education,  What is really outrageous about this isn't its elimination, but that the total America deems appropriate to spend on arts education in the first place is such a paltry twelve to thirteen cents per citizen.  Equally outrageous is our lack of outrage leading up to what was surely the most expected and least surprising move post the election.

How is it, after all this time, that we are still so easily dismissed as unimportant, irrelevant, and meaningless; as unnecessary, a luxury and a frill?  How is it that after all this time this society, while it values celebrity, simply does NOT value artistry or artists?  How is it that after all this time, we who toil in the management of the nonprofit arts organizations remain thought of as people who sit around all day long drinking fancy Starbuck's concoctions while singing "Kumbaya" to each other - in support of lazy people with no real jobs and who want to rub peanut butter on themselves then  either roll around naked on a canvas or dance for awhile and call it "art".   How is it that our "brand" suffers such?  How is it that a MIS-perception of the arts and those who people its organizations dominates the discourse?

There is a specialty within the public relations industry that focuses on what is called "Perception Management".  It's genesis comes from the Pentagon and it is often involved in the manufacture of "truth" to manipulate the public perception of various issues.  Some observers believe the entire WMD "truth" that allowed for the Iraq war was an exercise in Perception Management.  It is also a legitimate and highly specialized sub-sector of public relations.

We need to do some real perception management (not the wholesale invention of "truth" to serve our needs, but the change in public perception away from the notion that we are, at best, an expendable luxury.  Those key opponents who have found it philosophically "convenient" and "expedient" to target us (as much as a proven fund raising device and tool to rally their anti-government troops, as any misguided real belief about our place and value), and who find it so easy to be on the "anti arts bandwagon", are able to do so because they have successfully managed the perception of our value as almost meaningless (whether intentionally by design, or fortuitously accidentally).   They have pigeon holed us as incompetent, unrealistic "dreamers" who aren't involved in "real" business, that art isn't core, and thus it is easy to patronize us as naive, unworthy and expendable (and that last designation is the most dangerous to us).

Somehow we have simply got to figure out a way to address these reckless, persistent mis-truths about us, and somehow we have got to get incensed and outraged that lies about us continue to pass for gospel.  We are far too timid and compliant and that's part of why we are so easily taken advantage of.  Campaigns that tout our value indirectly address the mis-perception - but for the most part don't really counter it.  We need to attack the mis-perception itself - head on.

Have a good week.
Don't Quit

Friday, March 11, 2011

The World is Moving to the Cities

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

Demographic Concentration and the Arts:
According to National Geographic (in a teaser for its year long report on overpopulation) in 1975 there were just three mega-cities (defined as having a population of ten million or more) - New York, Tokyo and Mexico City.  There are currently 21 such metropolises.  By 2050, it is estimated that 70% of all the people on the planet will live in mega-cities.  The move is inexorably in motion.

While that profound demographic shift will have untold implications for life on planet earth, it may actually bode well for the arts.  The arts tend to fare better in urban environments.  For whatever reasons, cities attract artistic talent, nurture environments conducive to creativity, encourage public participation, and foster increased public and private support.  In many cities, while there is a struggle for working artists and competition among arts organizations, the ecosystem for the nonprofit arts seems to thrive.

We continue to employ strategies on a host of fronts (from strategic planning to advocacy) that pretty much ignores sweeping shifts in demographics.  We acknowledge them, but do little to truly incorporate the reality into our actions.  We use cookie cutter approaches in defending ourselves against attacks, and rely on broad based approaches to how we provide art, irrespective of the very different circumstances of diverse geographic locales.  We fail to make important distinctions in considering art's place in rural vs. suburban vs. urban settings - treating them as interchangeable when we ought to be using the available demographic data and future projections to tailor and customize what we do and how we do it.  I know - art is art no matter where it is created or accessed - but how we manage its infrastructure, how we rally support for its creation, and how we encourage that creation is, whether we acknowledge it or not, different for varying segments of the population, and different too based on geography.

One of my principal criticisms of our strategic public policy planning is the glaring lack thereof,  Somebody, somewhere in our sector, should be actively considering how such things as the move to mega cities will affect us - what problems it will create, what opportunities it will present.  And yet there is no national organization, no academic think tank, no real organized effort for any of that kind of thinking - with the notable exception of Bill Ivey and Steven Tepper and a few other stalwarts. There is no dearth of gifted thinkers in our field - from GIA and NASAA and AFTA and TCG and so on and so on, but we simply haven't figured out how to organize their thinking into some kind of collective whole that systematically and comprehensively addresses the big issues over time.   Even now, the demographic differences across America should justify, if not demand, that we take into account trends and shifts as we plan for our future, and those considerations should play a meaningful role in arts funding, audience development, advocacy strategy, and how we position ourselves to future generations across diverse ethnic lines.

The challenge of the future is that it simply refuses to wait until one is ready for it.

Have a good week.
Don't Quit

Sunday, March 6, 2011

Talking to Ourselves

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

There is truth to the old adage that it isn't what you know, but who you know.  Very often in business and even professions, career advancement and even the acquisition of knowledge and skills depends on personal contacts.  It isn't that accomplishment, talent and vision isn't important, it is just a recognition that "people" are the critical element in moving forward on anything.

Emerging leaders in every field are thus counseled to "network" at every opportunity.  Indeed,  networking among peers is touted as the "open sesame" to virtually everything.  Odd then that we do virtually nothing to help our leaders to be more adept and successful at networking (is it not but another skill that can be learned and improved upon; one where the bold and confident among us have an advantage?).  I admit that my reason for going to conferences over the past decade has been principally for the opportunity to see old friends, and to make new contacts - and not so much for the sessions.  The half dozen or so major ideas that became tangible projects for me over the period came about because of conversations with people I met in the field.  Contacts became colleagues, colleagues became friends, and it is axiomatically easier for friends to cut through the nonsense and get things done.

If I had one piece of advice for fledging grant seekers it would be this:  get to personally know the officers at foundations to which you will apply.  Money flows more easily between friends than strangers and that is just a fact of life in business, politics, personal relations and yes,  even in the nonprofit arts.

Actually I think that we in the nonprofit arts do pretty good at networking with each other.  There are ample opportunities for even those just starting out to make and follow up on the contacts.  We are - as is every group of people - somewhat of a tier of cliques, but we are as open as any to those just starting out.  We are all constantly looking to connect with our peers.

The one issue I have with our "networking" is that - again like too many other 'fields' - we tend to "network" only with ourselves, when we should be spending a lot more time networking outside our field with our stakeholders and others whom might help us in various ways - from politicians and unions to the media and business people, from academicians to civic leaders.

We need to promote and encourage not only our emerging leaders, but those of us who have been around awhile, to expand their networking efforts outside our narrow confines.  We need to begin to attend other field's conferences and insinuate ourselves into their networks.  We need to be at the PTA and Chamber of Commerce (and a score of other) meetings and work within those groups' hierarchies.  In short, we need more "friends" in other places.

So my advice to the emerging leader is to broaden your base - join other professionals and other groups as well as networking with those in your chosen field.  In the long run, that will make you a better arts administrator, a more 'professional' manager and you will learn a great deal more about things ultimately important to your career than if you just network with your arts peers.  And in so doing, over time, you will collectively better position our sector for the future.

Have a great week.
Don't Quit.