Monday, May 28, 2012

Ideas. We need some good ones.

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

The 8th annual Aspen Institute Ideas Festival - a two week presentation of an impressive array of experts and thinkers begins in late June.  Trying to generate new ideas seems to me to always be a good thing. As someone once said:  "The way to have a good idea, is to have lots of ideas."  The Arts are a constant fixture of the Aspen program and this year the track's theme is "Arts & Culture - Art Matters" - described on the Institute's website as:
Artists and experts consider how the arts make an essential different - not just in the lives of individuals but for society at large, from education, economics, and diplomacy to our national conscience and legacy.
Included in the program are presentations on:
  • What Theater matters in the digital age  - with NEA Chair Rocco Landesman, actor / playwright Anaa Deavere Smith, director / producer Gregory Mosher and Public Theater's Oskar Eustis debating the question.
  • How should we be using arts education to help create the successful schools we need? - a discussion with education guru Howard Gardner and Aspen  Institute Arts Program Director Damian Woetzel; and
  • Can culture revitalize our country - Making Cities Sing - with the Knight Foundation's Dennis Scholl, the Ford Foundation's Darrren Walker and again, NEA Chair Rocco Landesman.    
The ideas central to these offerings are not really new ideas - not to us anyway.  Each of these postulations are themes we have carefully developed over time and which we continue to pitch as evidence as to the value of arts and culture.  While these may not be new ideas to us, the core of our thinking may indeed be unfamiliar to other leaders in other sectors, and so what is important about this event is that the arts are part of the package of a prominent American think tank's efforts to stimulate widespread societal discourse.  Far too often we are not part of these kinds of efforts.  So when we are, it is important to note.

Alas, one would hope that national dialogue and thought would be the result of these kinds of events - leading to, if not new thinking and new ideas, at least new awareness, but, of course, that is nominally Pollyanna optimism not born out by reality.  At a time when print journalism struggles simply to survive the onslaught of online media coverage, real penetrating and probing reporting is all  but impossible to find.  Almost all of what passes for "news" - let alone real investigative reporting and in-depth analysis of issues from a broad perspective - focuses on the most cursory and basest coverage of actual issues (?).  Broadcast journalism in particular prefers the easy out of parading the same so-called experts (really partisans of one political side or the other of any given issue whose principal task is obfuscation and spin) and unashamedly tries to pass that "opinion" off as fact and analysis.  And even that feeble attempt at "news" virtually never digs deep enough to cover things as "esoteric' as art and culture.  Talking heads have replaced thinking journalists. There still exists some remnant of journalism in the print media (in isolated cases), but cost and competition have forced the dismantling of once vaulted news gathering organizations and coverage of issues long ago gave way to sensationalism and gore.  So, unfortunately all the Aspen Institute and TED think tanks that do pay attention to what we do usually fail to stimulate any meaningful public discussion that would benefit the country - and one would hope produce tangible benefits for us.

Yet there is still tremendous value to us in being part of these efforts and for our best thinkers to be represented at these tables - because these kinds of events help to shape policy and influence those in academia, government, business, education and elsewhere who make policy decisions -- and so this is good news.

I would love to go and cover this kind of event, but it is obviously slanted towards a crowd with deeper pockets than yours truly (a one week registration fee is something like $2700 - yikes).

But what caught my attention about this event in the first place, and what I would really like to see is for us - the nonprofit arts sector - to convene our own Ideas Festival with the best and the brightest of our own thinkers (and perhaps those from outside our field) to consider new, big ideas (ones we haven't yet developed or refined) that would address the major issues we face.  We need to concentrate more on idea generation.  A two or three day event that would call forth bold, risky new thinking as to how we could develop policies about our future -- funding, arts education, audiences, creativity, technology, equity of access, and so on.  Not just panels and talk, but people who would come up with specific recommendations for concrete action.  An event where people rolled up their sleeves and did some work.   Where is our TED, our Aspen Institute, our think tank?  Where is our focus on new ideas.

Have a good short week.

Don't Quit

Sunday, May 20, 2012

A Cautionary Observation

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

Accepting That We Don't Always Have the Answers:
We live in an age where information and knowledge is king.  We seek solutions and answers.  We demand results, not equivocation.  We have the means to seek out what knowledge is out there, where the answers lie.  And we fervently believe the answers are out there.  We pursue that search for those answers with fervor.  We can barely abide not knowing something.  Yet, the plain and simple truth is that - as often as not - when faced with complex issues and challenges, the honest answer is "I don't know."  

That's hard for us.  We live in a world where shades of gray are of increasingly little value.  We want  blacks and whites.  We want definitive answers.  We want for there to be consensus that one of the theories out there (and there are theories aplenty to explain everything) is the right one.  We want explanations and reasons for things being the way they are. Not lots of divergent, sometimes even conflicting explanations, but one cohesive, universal theory.  We worship data and research, and surely those findings guide us down the proper road when we must make decisions one way or the other.  We hire experts and consultants to give us the answers we don't know.  Surely, they know.  Yet the best of those experts will say:  "I don't know."

Somehow it is not only difficult, but now seemingly sacrilegious, or every heretical, to admit that we don't know the answer to some question, some posited problem.  Why is that?

Why is it unacceptable for us to admit that much of what we do in response to challenges, much of what we throw at those challenges that goes under the guise of our informed response is nothing but conjecture; that we really are guessing that what we are doing is the right approach; that in fact there may not be any right answer?  The arts presumedly teach us that taking risks is the right answer; that the process of discovery may be as important to the end result as the result itself, and that the reward of something truly unique, mystical, magical, beautiful, inspiring is problematic.  Why then is it so difficult to transfer that same logic to the process of dealing with the challenges we face on more mundane levels?  Why are we so afraid to fail that we insist on knowing the answer to something that may, in fact, not have a right answer any more than a musical composition or dance has a right direction?

In our own small sphere of the nonprofit arts, we have goals and objectives that we wish to accomplish, and we devise methodologies and constructs to measure and evaluate whether or not what we are doing is moving us towards those goals and objectives. We create sophisticated models to explain these processes.  I have no problem with that enterprise.  But I question the assumption that we can always reduce all of this to some definitive, black and white,  conclusion that is infallible and unassailable.  I fear that in all of this - (and by all of this, I mean our research, our data gathering techniques, our measurement methodologies, our models of evaluation, our ways of looking at what we do and why) we are now either too afraid, or too insular, to say:  "I don't know."

And the reality, irrespective of what fictions we maintain, what lies we tell ourselves, is that very often we do not really know what we are talking about.  We are guessing. The truth is that we simply don't know the answers we pretend to know.   There is a danger in our pundits believing too much in the correctness of their own postulations.  Opinion served up as fact, doesn't make it so.  Opinion qualified as opinion is, on the other hand, healthy and beneficial.  Let's remember the difference.

I'm a consultant.  I don't claim to be the best or smartest of my brethren.  But those more qualified than I have taught me that a good consultant, is willing to say to the client, if the circumstances warrant, "I don't know the answer".  I believe then to be a good consultant one needs to be collaborative in the search for solutions rather than hold oneself out to be omniscient.  I think the same needs to be true of the field as a whole, and so I believe we are better served as a sector by keeping in mind that frequently we just don't know the answer.  That's not to say we shouldn't try all kinds of approaches, posit all kinds of theories, and both question and defend those rigorously, but  that we ought to do so in an atmosphere that recognizes that a lot of our posturing might be wrong - and with an admission that we sometimes deceive ourselves. And I don't think we do that enough. I am not arguing that we need to embrace ungrounded intuition.  Indeed, we need to seek persuasive grounds on which to base our decisions, but I fear that we are getting closer to the point where we are intractable in defending our theories as gospel; that we are less willing to admit doubt, less willing to accept the proposition that we don't know; and I am afraid that we are moving intractably towards definitive positions, towards defending our positions as unassailable in explaining how and why things are as they are.  And an unwillingness to appreciate the fallibility of our thinking is dangerous.

I would argue that more movement (whether or a macro or micro level) in the direction we want to move things might result if we more frequently simply said:  "I have no idea.  Let's go from there."

Of course, this is just opinion - a theory, and it may be worthless.

Have a great week.

Don't Quit

Sunday, May 6, 2012

Demand for More Arts Organizations is Internally - not Externally - Driven

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

Supply and Demand:
In the latest issue of the GIA Reader, Adrian Ellis provides an excellent summary of the Supply and Demand issue for the arts.

Quoting the latest Americans for the Arts National Arts Index, this overarching statistic is a sobering comment on the debate:
"......between 2003 and 2009, a new nonprofit arts organization was created every three hours in the US."
Arguably that growth happened at a time of economic prosperity when some of the current problems occasioned by that growth were of less concern.  But I'm not convinced that the growth is not going to continue despite the economic downturn.  And if that trend does continue we will add an additional 2,920 arts organizations to the fold this year, and over a five year period, nearly another 15,000 arts organizations.  Is this a good thing, or a negative?

With support (audience participation, philanthropic giving, public support and earned income) down in the past five years, the net result has to be that an increasingly smaller pie is being divided by an increasingly larger number of organizations.  There seems little debate that the "demand" is not leading the growth in the supply.  So why is this happening? Clearly the nonprofit arts are not truly market driven.  Where then is the demand coming from?  I think we are hung up by discussing supply and demand in the usual market driven sense - demand from the public or private sector for the arts.

I suggest the demand to create new arts organizations is coming from us; from inside the arts sector.  Some of it is logically new people not currently involved in the nonprofit arts infrastructure wanting to provide art; much more is very likely existing people in the arts who, for whatever reason, do not find what they are looking for within our existing organizations and want thus to start their own organizations.  Their motivation isn't some logical market analysis of the chances of success and cannot be analyzed or discussed in such a context.  It isn't necessarily rational - driven rather by ego and passion, and perhaps frustration as well.  Some of this trend is off the grid - meaning it is not really part of the status quo arts infrastructure as we know it - higher tech entries; migration from "professional" to "amateur" or whatever.   Much of it is likely supported by the very sources (arts agencies - from the Endowment to local city agencies - and foundations, plus all those that facilitate the growth by providing such services as fiscal sponsorships) that decry the overbuilt result in the infrastructure.  Because the funding pie is finite, allocation to one organization literally comes at the expense of another.

What does the growth - and support of that growth, even if indirectly or reluctantly, do to the sacrosanct goals of capacity building and sustainability?   If you fund the XYZ Theater group on Main Street, and at some point some of the talent of that company decides it wants to form a new organizations (assuming, arguendo, legitimate reasons - at least from the new founder's perspective - for so doing), do you then also fund that new ABC Theater Company located just down on Main Street?  Does that new company take some of the donor support with it?  What if neither company has its own stage facility, but both rent from a municipal facility - crowded scheduling increasingly then narrows to the breaking point.  For example, there are two hundred plus dance companies in San Francisco.  Many want to have space at Yerba Buena Center's auditorium facility - which is one of the few in the city conducive to dance - yet the facility cannot possibly accommodate the demand for even the established companies, let alone all the new ones.  Does unbridled growth make capacity building and sustainability a futile exercise?

Yet there is no logical reason to simply continue to support the status quo and ignore newer entries.  To do so would stifle new creativity.  And so the growth continues.

The question though is why do so many (of our) people apparently feel the need to start new organizations rather than find a platform for what they want to do within the existing infrastructure?  What are the needs that are not being met that gives rise to this kind of unbridled growth - given that the public demand is, at best, constant?  We don't seem to have any reliable hard data that would give us some handle on the motivations of all of those that feel compelled to go outside what exists and start a new structure to do what it is they want to do.  So we don't have any real discussions about whether or not there are factors at play that we might be able to impact so as to give those seemingly dissatisfied or unhappy with the existent structures available to them more opportunity to stay within the infrastructure as an alternative to going outside of it with yet another new enterprise.  It would be enormously valuable to have some reliable data as to the reasoning behind this trend.

I wonder if we might be able to address some of the major issues that are at the heart of the dissatisfaction?  First, of course, we need to figure out how to identify what those major issues are.  The simple explanation is the understandable and common yearning in many leaders to have their own "shop" as it were.  Arts people are entrepreneurial and many want to do it their "way". But I think that factors behind that yearning may be broken into several broad categories:
     1.  Decision making:  I suspect that many of those that decide they want to start their own organization, do so because they have come to the conclusion that existing options simply don't allow them enough (or any?) role in the decision making process - either because of the legacy of the structural system in which they find themselves wherein things are done a certain way because they have always been done that way, or because they feel marginalized or ignored.  This situation may be particularly acute in artist / founder driven organizations, and those where the board is insular and protective of the legacy of the organization within the community.  Some of those that want to start a new organization may rebel against the hierarchy of leadership; others may feel that the philosophical differences between them and the senior leadership and / or board are too great; still others see limited career advancement opportunities resulting from their being excluded from the decision making process and so they opt to strike out on their own.
     2.  Artistic Differences:  Certainly, many new organizations are born out of the frustration of artistic differences wherein there is no room for any shared vision for the future.
     3.  Geographic:  Logically, a portion of the newly formed organizations are created to fill a void in certain geographical venues, or because the entrepreneur relocates.
     4.  Generational:  As alluded to above, a percentage of new organizations are created because there seems little to no room for upcoming generations to transfer into senior leadership positions.

The problems for the sector is that this growth in the number of organizations is not on any parallel track with a rise in funding available over the sector.  Smaller pie, more people who want a piece.  And each new organization, for the most part, duplicates certain overhead costs ranging from personnel to accounting, to marketing, to rent to advertising.  More jobs perhaps, but not necessarily better pay or more career advancement routes.  More competition, and perhaps more confusion in the public mindset.  I suspect this works in a backhanded way to the benefit of the more established  cultural organizations with a more recognizable brand in the marketplace.  Yet, many of the major cultural institutions have felt the pain of a diluted support base in the past five years.

So what, if anything, might we do to provide mechanisms within the existing infrastructure that would address the needs that feed the demand for the creation of so many new organizations.  Might we create umbrella organizations that might house a wide swatch of these new enterprises - providing the structure allowing for the independence and freedom to create and provide art, yet which might cut down on the duplication of many of the overhead costs?  Is the Fractured Atlas model of fiscal sponsorship already doing this?  Is there anything we can do to address this demand and neutralize any of the negatives that result from it?  Are there other negatives to this increased demand beyond the dilution of funding, audience support, competitive marketing, public confusion?

And on the other side, is the growth in new organizations really a positive trend despite the complications it seems to be causing?  Do we really want to consciously try to inhibit the desire to create new structures, particularly if, in so doing, we are stifling creativity and putting up artificial barriers to the recruitment of new talent to our field?  While we don't operate in any true market sense, do we not have our own funding market mechanism (clumsy though it may be) which will, ultimately, weed out the organizations that are not viable?  Which approach will result in the most healthy and vibrant arts ecosystem and ecology?

I think we have to move to understand what drives this trend (demand) of our own people to create new organizations (the supply) and whether or not there is anything we can do to stem that growth without creating more problems than we would solve.
Have a good week.  I'm taking off next week.  Traveling.  An early Happy Mother's Day to all.

Don't Quit.