Sunday, July 29, 2012


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

Leverage / Engagement and Effectiveness:
The nature of blogging is somewhat akin to critical journalism - the focus and emphasis is too often on criticism and pointing out weaknesses and what might not be working.  There are so many good things and positive, encouraging developments that go unreported and unheralded.

I am a huge fan of the Random Acts of Culture movement.  Not only are these isolated events uplifting theater and art in their own right, but, over time, I am convinced the aggregate effect of what is 'advocacy' and 'storytelling' itself is to engage the public in why art matters and how it makes us feel.  The most popular of these events (which are, of course, not truly random as at least some thought and planning goes into the where, when and how of each randomized act; and indeed some are logistically more demanding) are the large events involving scores of musicians, dancers, and singers - and which seem to spring up spontaneously in some very public arena (from bus stations to town hall squares) and capture the attention and interest of whomever is fortunate to be in the right place at the right time to bear witness to these uplifting art moments in time.  Invariably, the result is to bring smiles to the faces of the onlookers, and genuine - if only momentary - rapture on the part of the "audience".  Also inevitable is that most of these events are videoed (the whole world is now videotaped) and uploaded to You Tube or wherever and make their way around the world so that they are shared exponentially beyond the original audience.

It is that reach via new technologies that leverages each random act and gives them their collective power.  And it is that reach that benefits us enormously as a storytelling / advocacy tool in the continuing task of making the case for our value.  These little acts are very effective, crowds-pleasing tools that help our cause.  The trend is growing.  The Knight Foundation, the James Irvine Foundation and others are pioneering funding for this phenomenon and I salute those efforts.

I also wonder though (and here comes the blogger moment of exception - you knew it was coming, right?) whether or not we are missing out on a real opportunity to more widely and effectively leverage this trend (and, by implication, whether or not we miss out on lots of opportunities because we don't look for greater ways to leverage what we are doing as a protocol which ought to be institutionalized somehow into our thinking).

Here's what I mean in the case of the random acts of culture:
WHAT IF we were to organize a little bit more the 'already in existence' program of funded random acts of culture out there.  WHAT IF one of the larger random acts of culture (those involving lots of people as opposed to the smaller one person acts) was held on the same day, at the same time, in each of fifteen cities -- and we did that for each of 15 days in a row.  Unannounced, but videoed and uploaded to the net. WHAT IF we were to organize a buzz about that.  Without comment on it by any of the perpetrators (is that a bad word to use in this instance?  I like it, makes it sound kind of conspiratorial.)  WHAT IF after the fourth or fifth day of these events happening all over the country, we nudged (in an organized and well thought out way) the media that something was afoot out there that they ought to look it.  And nudging the media might not even be necessary.

I would bet that by the 10th day of these cross country random acts of art and culture, the media would be all over this as a phenomenon that would be irresistible to them; that the coverage would go from local to national like a wildfire.  This is precisely the kind of thing the media loves (other then tragedies and mayhem); that they can't  help themselves but fawn over and lap up.  It presses too many of their buttons for them to ignore.  And then for the last five days of these random acts, the public would be looking for these 'happenings'.  And there lies the payoff.

And so what you ask?  Here's what.  Once the media stampede to cover "what's going on with this random acts thing" began, we would then have a brief national stage to drive home some points to the public - like our value to society, and the need for more arts education, and more public support, and politicians who can make the link between the arts and value to the public.  A chance to command an audience (in newspapers, on television and more) for our message that we don't now have; haven't really had yet.  If we were then ready all across the country, with facts and data, and bullet point sheets about all we bring to the table, and spokespeople to do interviews, and already written op-ed pieces to hand out, and if we were ready to pounce on the opportunity and exploit it to our advantage - we might just make a small dent in all the negativity we now have to battle every day.  Would it forever change the paradigm of our struggle -- of course not.  But would it move us a tiny bit closer to where we want to be.  I think it would.  And that is how battles are won.  A tiny little step forward, followed by another one.  Moreover, it would teach us that we are capable of manufacturing moments that we can seize to our advantage.  Empowering.

The point is this really wouldn't be that hard to put together.  We're talking 225 separate acts of random culture.  A lot, but do-able.  Yes it would take some real organization and coordination to make such a collaborative effort come off - but the random acts themselves are already happening and will likely happen with greater frequency (at least while the idea is still novel and fresh), and they are pretty much already paid for to boot.  All that would be necessary is some man hours to package them in a way that would leverage the power of each one of them as part of a larger (temporary) effort.  And some planning as to how to best capitalize on the anticipated media coverage objective.  I have seen a score of exercises far more complicated carried off successfully by our sector just this year.

One of the things I like about random acts of culture is that they help people to viscerally respond to the power of the arts.  One of our problems is that while the public can appreciate the arguments (economic and otherwise) that we have value, for too many, in their heart of hearts, they just don't "get it".  Not like we "get it".  That has long been a problem for us in making our case and winning converts to our cause.  The random acts, in a small way, address that challenge.  They help people, if just for a moment, to "get it" - and internally register how art makes them feel. That in turn opens them up for change. And that's what we need, because if we can facilitate people actually "getting it" we will have succeeded in "engaging" them in the way I think all the programs, projects, and thinking about engagement envision.

Even if you don't like my thinking on how we might package our Random Acts of Art and Culture to better effect, I strongly urge you to think about how we can better systemically and purposefully leverage the good things we are doing so that they will maximize the benefits they bring to us. Expanded efforts to leverage what is already working for us to greater effect is ultimately a smart and essential business strategy and ought to be on the front burner as part of our business thinking as managers; one that will help us in our efforts to collaborate and cooperate as well.  We ought to be continuously thinking about what can be leveraged and how.

Have a good week.

Don't Quit.

Sunday, July 22, 2012

Time to Question our Decision Making Process

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


  • Congratulations to Betty Plumb and the South Carolina Arts community for successfully overriding the Governor's vetoes that would have eliminated the agency.  Alas, Betty informs me she would not be surprised if they had to do this all over again next year.  
  • New Report:  Set In Stone:  Building America's New Generation of Arts Facilities 1994 - 2008.  The University of Chicago’s Cultural Policy Center, a joint initiative of the Harris School of Public Policy and its affiliated research organization NORC, launched in 2007 a major study of cultural building  in the United States –focusing on a building boom that included museums, performing arts centers, and theaters. The goal of the study was to establish research that would serve as a basic and essential resource for any cultural group in the country engaged in planning construction, renovation, or expansion of their facilities.
Decision Making In the Arts:
The arts have focused a lot of attention on two lofty goals and aspirations: 
First, we embrace the concept of taking risks.  Indeed, we tout that risk taking is at the heart of creativity itself.  
Second, we more recently champion the idea that our organizations need to be leaner and meaner so as to be more competitive and effective.  
How then does our current decision making paradigm operate in light of those objectives?  Does the protocol and process we use to make decisions encompass a reasonable degree of risk taking and is it operationally designed to make us more competitive?  Specifically, are we able to make decisions on a timely basis - quick enough to be nimble and responsive to challenges and opportunities, yet balanced enough to be thorough and reasoned?

I think the system is antiquated, unnecessarily cumbersome, inefficient and needs to be streamlined.  In short I think we need to allow more discretionary decision making at all levels.  I'm not suggesting we allocate unbridled authority all up and down the line without any vetting of decisions or hierarchy input.      Rather I am arguing that we need to empower more of our people to make appropriate spot decisions at the level of authority commensurate with the position for which they were hired in the first place - and that should happen from our largest organizations including funders and government as well as the whole range of arts organizations.

I have heard a long litany of complaints from junior staff members that the decision making process in the typical arts organization is too encumbered and too top heavy; and that mid level management decision making must go through too many layers; that in many cases the decisions themselves are always made at the top despite the fact that such a process is inefficient and fails to utilize (let alone develop) the skills and talents of the staff.    Senior level management, more often than not, think that the decision making process works well for them.  Yet I have heard these same senior leaders decry the slowness and pained process of the grant making decision process.  And the truth is that it is not all about what works for the senior managers.  It doesn't always work that well for staff.

Decisions about allocation of funds are likely to always warrant more time and due diligence, yet the protracted deliberations in the past have belied that we truly support risk taking and seek organizations that are able to move quicker.  Likely the same process is at work in funders as in the typical arts organization - program officers must get approval for virtually all decisions they make - even though I suspect that virtually all of their recommendations are ultimately approved by their senior officers and boards.  Still, like mid-level arts organization managers, most funder program officers have historically not been empowered to act quickly nor have they been accorded much discretionary authority.  Grants are vetted and approved up the ladder.  There is nothing inherently wrong with having to rigorously justify your position and fight for what you want to do - but our managers shouldn't have to have every decision made up the ladder as it were.  That makes for slow organizations.

But for funders anyway, I think things are changing.  As they move more from grant making exclusively to organizations, and more towards expenditure of some funds that seek to impact the fundamentals of the field - infrastructure, leadership, capacity and the like - they are gaining discretionary decision making and are able to respond quicker than they ever have before.  Not all funders of course, but some of the leaders anyway.  That sea change is a slow process, but the door has been opened and will now (thankfully) be difficult to close again.  Will that practice trickle down as it were to the organizations within the field itself remains an open question.  As more arts funders gain increased decision making independence, perhaps they will begin to look for the same grant of authority within the organizations they fund.  It would also be helpful if as a field we could provide some training and resources that would help organizations and senior leadership facilitate more decentralized decision making.  Can we make it more comfortable to delegate more decision making?

I hope so, because I think the one risk that is worth taking is to invest more confidence in our people and their ability to make intelligent, reasonable decisions.  Our people need I(at least some of the time) to be able to green light projects quickly and on their own authority.  What we will need to do to foster that trend is to insure that we provide all our managers with advanced skills training and options to learn more so they will become better decision-makers.  To my thinking, there is no doubt they need to have more authority to make decisions if we - as a field - are going to grapple with all the challenges we face in a timely manner and begin to move from where we are to where we will need to be.  The current system is simply too inefficient and antiquated and it wastes the talent and idea generation potential of our leadership, as well as precious time.

Have a great week.

Don't Quit.

Sunday, July 15, 2012

Interview with the Knight Foundation's Dennis Scholl

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

Dennis Scholl is the Vice President / Arts for the Knight Foundation.  He oversees the foundation's national arts program, including the Knight Arts Challenge and Random Acts of Culture.  He is well known as a collector of contemporary art for over three decades.  Dennis is also the founder of a series of initiatives dedicated to building the contemporary art collections of museums, including the Guggenheim, the Tate Modern and the Miami Art Museum.  He is a three time regional Emmy winner for his work in cultural documentaries.    Dennis is also the co-founder of Betts and Scholl, an award winning wine project.  He is currently a Harvard University Advanced Leadership Fellow, focusing on the role of culture in community engagement.  Previously he was a practicing attorney and CPA.  

BARRY:   The guiding principle of the Knight Foundation is to fund projects that foster the arts, promote more informed communities, and that engage the eight Knight communities in collective cultural experiences.  It seems to me that you have been very creative and out-of-the-box in fashioning projects that seek input from the field and which capture the imagination and interest of those within - and outside of - our field.   I refer specifically to the 1000 Random Acts of Culture, the solicitation of the best ideas from the field in Philadelphia and Miami, and the cross sponsored journalism project unveiled at last year's GIA conference.  What is the philosophy behind taking a more innovative approach to arts philanthropy and do you see what you are doing at Knight to presage what more funders might be doing in the future?

DENNIS:   With Knight’s overall focus on promoting informed and engaged communities, we look for ways to engage communities through the arts, to use culture to inspire people to be their best and their community’s best self. At the heart of that is looking at ways to engage audiences.

We think a lot about where arts audiences might be headed.  Our national demography is changing rapidly, the digital revolution finds us online more and more (the average 14 year old is online 53 hours a week!) and a plethora of choices creates an ever-fragmented audience.  These three challenges keep arts organizations and funders awake at night.

We are always looking for arts grantees who are not only about artistic excellence, but are willing to meet audiences where they are going – not where they used to be.  For example, in the orchestra world, Miami’s New World Symphony has 30 minute drop-in concerts for a modest ticket price and outside simulcasts on their permanent 90’ x 120’ screen, allowing for patrons to be spontaneous.  Both are extremely popular. Charlotte Symphony also just collaborated with internationally renowned visual artist Matthew Weinstein, to create an animated 3D film that is shown while they play Ravel’s Bolero on the stage.

Here’s a picture of the leading lady:   (Image from Matthew Weinstein’s video commission for Ravel’s Bolero. Provided by the artist)

It takes innovation and bravery to keep up with your audience today.

You also mentioned our arts challenges in Miami and Philadelphia, which are community-wide contests that seek the best ideas for the local arts scene. From our work in communities over 60 plus years, we’ve found that often the best answers to problems, and the most innovative ideas, come from within a community. We as a foundation don’t think we have all the answers and all the ideas. We don’t want to be prescriptive. So whether it’s in media innovation or in the arts, we’ve decided to tap the power of the crowd for new ideas. When we ask the community that simple question – “what’s your best idea for the arts?” - people find it empowering.  It engages them more in thinking about their cultural community, and about themselves as a creative person. We did the same when we worked with the NEA on looking for new models for strengthening arts journalism – we posed the question to communities about what they thought was the best way forward.  We’re never disappointed with the responses.

BARRY:   As a follow up to the first question, many foundations have expanded their efforts in working with local communities by partnering with community foundations in localized re-granting programs.  What is your assessment of this trend, where might it be refined and improved and what do your think are the measurable impacts that justify it?

DENNIS:   Knight works with community foundations in the 26 communities where we invest, because we’ve found they are valuable partners who have their finger on the pulse of the community. In the arts, though, our funding is concentrated in just eight of those communities where we actually have resident program directors. Each of them are community leaders themselves and work with us to seek out the most interesting, forward thinking cultural grantees.

We also have a Knight National Art Advisory Committee comprised of Mitchell Kahan – Director and Chief Executive Officer, Akron Art Museum, Scott Provancher – President, Arts & Science Council in Charlotte, Aaron Dworkin – Founder and President, Sphinx Organization in Detroit, Yolanda “Y-O” Latimore, Founder and Artistic Director, Poetic Peace Arts in Macon, Silvia Karman Cubiñá, Executive Director and Chief Curator, Bass Museum of Art in Miami, Gary P. Steuer – Chief Cultural Officer, City of Philadelphia, Laura Zabel – Executive Director, Springboard for the Arts in St. Paul,  Anjee Helstrup-Alvarez – Executive Director, MACLA/Movimiento de Arte y Cultura Latino Americana in San Jose, and Damian Woetzel - Jerome Robbins Foundation "New Essential Works" Program – Director, Vail International Dance Festival – Director.
They are all art innovators, both at a community and national level.

We don’t hesitate to call on them when we are looking at projects where they have geographic or discipline expertise.  The national arts team also spends a lot of time on the ground in each community looking at the cultural ecosystem.  As an example, we have had excellent success in Charlotte working with the Arts and Science Council, on a regranting program.  Our experience has been that designated local arts agencies are the best pipeline for this kind of effort.  They’re used to working with outside funders and have convening power in their communities, along with the ability to identify and drive collaborative opportunities.  The digital revolution allows good ideas to spread rapidly, and arts organizations have been quick to try projects like Community Supported Art, a great project that started in St. Paul based on the farm share/Community Supported Agriculture model. Instead of vegetables, residents buy boxes of locally made art. So far, 25 cities have picked it up.

BARRY:   Many foundations are restricted in their charters to local territorial investment.  Knight focuses on eight principal communities in its arts funding - a fairly representative national sampling.  To what extent do you think in terms of what national impact your localized funding will have across the sector, and / or the replicability of projects to address sector wide issues?

DENNIS:   It is rewarding to see a project take off like Random Acts of Culture, where we took performing artists out of the symphony hall and into shopping malls, airports and farmers markets to do spontaneous surprise performances.  While we launched it in the eight Knight resident cities, it has been replicated thousands of times, not just nationally, but internationally by people who have watched one of our videos and decided to independently produce their own.  We just completed our 935th Random Acts of Culture.  We’ve also received over 10 million views on the web.

Similarly, our efforts to expand St. Paul’s Community Supported Arts (CSA) program into the eight communities and Power2Give (P2G) from Charlotte to Miami has spawned numerous additional sites outside the Knight communities.  We have had a number of other funders look at our localized funding initiatives and launch them in their own communities.  We encourage this and are always available to help accomplish these expansions.  The digital revolution allows good ideas to spread rapidly, and arts organizations have been quick to try projects like CSA and P2G.

BARRY:   In a general sense, what do you think are the most important issues facing the arts philanthropic community, and what is your assessment of how we are addressing those challenges?  What are we doing right, and where are we falling short?  What areas do you think ought to be prioritized in terms of our national foundational goals?  What do you think about the idea (and the feasibility) of creating a national arts funder policy statement to guide arts philanthropy priorities?

DENNIS:  Wow, Barry, big question.  But the one issue that I spend a lot of time on is how to catch up with the arts audience that more and more is defined by individuals seeking to curate their own experience, and move away from traditional presentation models.
Both arts organizations, and we as funders, may have been a bit slow to react to this seismic drift in audiences.

Take a look at Sunil Iyengar’s NEA study, Participation 2.0, for some of the facts that make up this sobering reality.  I do see a grand awakening by arts organizations to these trends, but I believe that we all need to make these audience engagement issues an urgent priority in our programmatic, strategic and funding efforts.

We at Knight, also feel particularly strongly about the digital revolution and what it means to our current and future consumption of culture.  As a foundation founded on quality journalism, we have seen that industry decimated due to being slow to react to this profound change in the industry.  Frankly, I see many parallels to this in the arts field.  Too many arts websites provide the user with only opening hours and location, with no content that enhances the onsite programming, or allows the user to learn about the programming prior to or after attending.  Arts groups need to have an integrated digital and mobile strategy for reaching their audience.  In this day and age, it can’t be an afterthought.

Your question regarding a national arts funder policy statement is an interesting one.  Each arts funder has its own mission, and while a national dialogue among us is always necessary, and the GIA and AFTA in particular do a wonderful job providing a platform for those discussions, we at Knight tend to prefer an entrepreneurial, risk capital approach which hopefully yields successful models that can then be replicated.

That being said, there is one area that I believe we can all agree on and work toward – that is the issue of a sustainability model for arts and culture in America.
(I’ve given a synopsis of a new project in this area in the response to question 5, below)

BARRY:   Along the lines of the above question, what do you think the overall role of foundational arts funding is, or should be?  Do you, for example, have any specific thoughts you might like to share with respect to supporting programs in: arts and aging, arts education, arts and social justice or support for individual artists?  What role do you think the nation's arts foundation funders ought to take with respect to such issues as advocacy and public policy, professional development for our arts administrators and managers, or the issue of equity in funding?

DENNIS:   I’m so glad you asked me to comment on policy issues.  I just finished a semester up in Cambridge as a 2012 Harvard University Advanced Leadership Fellow, continuing to work on community engagement through culture.  One of the most exciting projects I’ve encountered in the national arts policy area is called the Initiative for Sustainable Arts in America (“ISAA”).  It is led by Jim Bildner, out of the Hauser Center for Non Profits in the Harvard Kennedy School of Government.  ISAA is launching this year with the stated goal of creating a grassroots movement to establish a national arts policy.  It also asks communities to take increased responsibility for supporting their cultural assets.  The project will begin by assessing the cultural assets of six communities across America – Boston, Detroit, Los Angeles, Miami, Minneapolis/St. Paul and Philadelphia, along with initiating a community and national dialogue about the misalignment of community appreciation for cultural assets and the limited personal and philanthropic donor pool.  I’m enthusiastic about the prospects for this project.  It’s an idea whose time has come in America.

Stay tuned as Jim and I hope to present this project at the Grantmakers in the Arts National Convention in Miami this coming October.

BARRY:   A growing trend in arts funding is for various disparate parts of our sector's grant makers (public and private) to collaborate and work together.  How is Knight working to foster more joint efforts and partnerships?  How might the full range of arts funders' collaboration be moved forward given the obstacles and barriers?

DENNIS:   For me the most exciting examples of public/private collaboration out there right now have come from the willingness of the National Endowment for the Arts to reach out and work with so many private funders.  ArtPlace is the leading example of that.  ArtPlace was created by NEA Chairman Rocco Landesman, is led by Carol Coletta and housed at the NonProfit Financial Fund.  ArtPlace is a consortium of the dozen largest arts funders in America collaborating with five banks from the private sector and Cabinet-level participants from HUD, HHS, Agriculture, Education, Domestic Policy and others.  The goal of ArtPlace is to encourage creative placemaking by searching for arts-led vibrancy in communities and funding that momentum.

I am fortunate to serve as the founding chair of the executive committee and operating committee of ArtPlace.  Rocco and Carol’s efforts have raised close to $40 million to date and so far, over two rounds, we’ve given out $26.4 million to 83 projects. You can see a list at

The opportunity to work hand in hand with my colleagues at Ford, Rockefeller, Kresge, Irvine and others, along with the bankers and the federal agency has expanded how we all look at integrating the arts into the growth and development of our communities.

BARRY:   Engagement is the current hot topic buzz word in audience development.  What is your take on that dialogue and trend?

DENNIS:   Engagement is the raison d’etre of the arts.  We must continue to try and find ways to reach audiences, especially as they have so many choices.  Today’s audiences want a multi-media experience and want to participate in the artistic experience.

BARRY:   What kinds of research do you think the field needs to pay more attention to and why?

DENNIS:   We’ve made an investment in the Cultural Data Project in St. Paul.  That continues to show promise as being a long term solution to the existing data gap in our field.  The NEA, under Sunil Iyengar’s leadership, remains a thoughtful generator of incredibly useful research, especially in the area of audience participation.  My colleague at Knight Foundation, Mayur Patel, continues to push us to experiment with finding new addressable metrics and to seek new ways to use the data we receive from the crowd sourced ideas contests.  We need data to support our contention as a field that the arts play a significant role in the social and economic vitality of their communities.  As my AFTA colleague Randy Cohen just wrote “Without the data, you’re just another person with an opinion!”

BARRY:   You have both a journalistic / photographic and museum background, and an enviable eclectic resume prior to your joining Knight.  What have you learned so far at your post?  What do you want to talk about the most when you meet other leaders in the field?

DENNIS:   When asked about my “eclectic” resume, I just explain that I have a short attention span!  I think the biggest learning for me since coming to Knight has been that the tools I used as a venture capitalist, looking at funding and operating startups, don’t all apply as a philanthropist funding arts grantees.

People in the arts field are fiercely passionate, and have given up a lot on a personal level to make art and participate in the cultural community.  So my approach to decision making and communication has had to evolve to acknowledge and respect that passion.

I’ve been involved in the arts for decades, but these last three years has been an immersive experience.  It’s like drinking from a fire hose every day.  I feel that coming from outside the field has allowed me to try some things that might be a little out of the box and to make some grants to artists and organizations that are not necessarily traditional arts grantees.  All great arts ideas don’t originate inside the 501c3 structure.  I think that opening the granting process to everyone in a community, in essence crowdsourcing the best ideas has brought many more people under the arts tent in our communities.  We’ve received close to 10,000 ideas for the Knight Arts Challenge in Miami and Philadelphia.  (I know this to be true because I’ve read each and every one of them over the last four years!)  That sense of openness, seeking diverse opinions but still focusing on artistic excellence, is the hallmark of what we try to do at Knight Foundation.

BARRY:   Rocco Landesman has made great strides in putting the arts on the agenda of other federal agencies in cooperative and collaborative partnerships with the NEA.  Do you see any role for arts foundation programs reaching out on both the federal and state levels in this kind of effort?  How might that work?

DENNIS:   I can’t say enough about Rocco and how he has totally changed the game.  Instead of viewing the NEA as a distribution committee, he has put them out there as a convener, collaborator and changemaker.  He has expanded the arts funding pie and aligned the arts with all arms of the federal government.  His senior team, especially Joan Shigekawa and Jamie Bennett, are also true thought leaders in the field.  We recently collaborated with them on the NEA/Knight Community Arts Journalism Challenge where we invited the eight Knight resident communities to give us their new ideas for arts journalism in the digital age.  We received hundreds of responses and announced three new collaborative models for arts journalism in Charlotte, Detroit and Philadelphia which are already underway and producing new reviews, features and news stories.
We are also excited that the NEA will take the program national this year and Knight will continue to support by matching successful community arts journalism ideas that receive NEA funding in the Knight communities.

BARRY:  Thanks, Dennis, for your thoughts.

DENNIS:  Thank you Barry, for allowing me to share some of the ideas the Knight Foundation arts program is funding.

Have a great week.

Don't Quit

Sunday, July 8, 2012

How Long Can This Go On

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

Here We Go Again:
This in on Friday from Betty Plumb of the South Carolina Arts Alliance:
"Governor Haley has issued her vetoes to the state budget eliminating state funding to the Arts Commission: $1,937,598 with Veto #1, and the additional one-time funding of $500,000 for grants in Veto #21, funding that was approved in the balanced budget submitted by the General Assembly in June.
Until the vetoes are resolved, the Governor's veto puts the Arts Commission in limbo with NO authorization to expend ANY funds, including federal monies from the National Endowment for the Arts, therefore leaving the agency unable to operate.  It will take a "super majority" to override the vetoes - 2/3rd of the House and then 2/3rd of the Senate!"
Once again, the arts are Sisyphus pushing the rock mindlessly up the hill.  To be sure, we can take some satisfaction that in most of these battles we survive.  Kansas last year, and its re-emergence this year.  But we do not survive unscathed.  These endless fights take a toll; they impact psyche and momentum, and demand huge efforts of time and energy that ought to be spent doing other things.  Camus says we "Must imagine Sisyphus happy" - but it is getting hard to take much solace out of these victories that kill us a little each time.

If anyone can successfully rally the troops and yet again beat back the forces who simply do not understand the value of the arts, it is Betty Plumb - and I wish her every success in the coming weeks. A 2/3 vote in both chambers will not be easy.  That this fight has to even be fought is a tragedy.

What strikes me yet again, is that despite all the stories we tell, despite all the data and research and the numbers which confirm our economic benefit, despite the evidence of how we build bridges, despite all our case making and our place making, all our phone calls and emails, all our entreaties, despite all our fighting endless battles - this still happens over and over and over again.  It doesn't happen to a lot of other special interest groups (we are a special interest group like it or not), at least not with the same frequency and intensity.  We ought to be asking: why is that?

I have argued repeatedly that we ought to be more political if we want to reverse this trend.  I fully accept that I am virtually alone in this belief - maybe a few others out there might agree, but for the most part the sector wants no part of that strategy.  I still find that odd, and disappointing - especially given the success AFTA has had with their PAC making fights for federal support at least easier and less frequent, but I appreciate that we are not likely to get it together to develop real widespread political power and clout anytime soon.   I wish AFTA would embark on a major effort to create state Political Action Committees across the country.  No one else is positioned to make that happen.  But I understand that that might be a threat to AFTAs PAC in that if money goes to state PACs - less may come to the federal PAC.  It will be worth watching what the Arizona arts PAC - started last year as an outcome of the state Town Hall meeting on the arts - does in the next year or so in that state.  Perhaps a model to watch.

I feel bad for South Carolina.  And in turn, bad for our whole sector.  It reminds me of the Lee Dorsey song: Working in the Coal Mine - the end line of which is the plaintive:
"Lord, how long can this go on...........?"
How long indeed?

Have a great week.

Don't Quit. ("Success is not final; failure is not fatal:  It is the courage to continue that counts.")

Sunday, July 1, 2012

Going Outside the Box - Too Far?

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

Limited Shelf Life?

The funding paradigm for the arts is relatively simple and long standing.  We fund (for a variety of reasons and lofty purposes) organizations within the sector, and to a lesser extent, from time to time over the past five decades, individual artists.  With respect to organizations, we seek to single out those that have artistic excellence, are well run, and that offer access and programs to the communities they serve, which we value .   We also seek to sustain and increase the capacity of those organizations.  We support certain of their programming and (at least recently) try to help them (in part) with the cost of their operations either directly (or indirectly by helping them to be better managers).  We are constantly trying to measure the impact and effectiveness of this funding in the realization of goals and objectives we devise, and we are continually asking ourselves if what we are doing is working, or even does it make sense.  But we are slow to take risks, reluctant to make major course changes, and conservative in how seriously we call into question the underlying assumptions on which the whole construct has been built.

A case in point is how we approach organizational leadership and personnel, and how we think about the underlying organizations which form the foundation of what we do.
Brain Pickings quotes Alvin Toffler:  "The illiterate of the 21st century, will not be those who cannot read and write, but those who cannot learn, unlearn, and relearn."   
And perhaps a corollary might be that the future belongs to those who will risk, innovate, succeed, then fail and re-risk and innovate again.

I wonder whether instead of investing exclusively in long term organizations, we ought to invest more in people and short term teams to accomplish our aims.

The Hewlett Foundation has term limits for all its leadership and programming people (but not administrative support / clerical personnel).  That includes the President of the Foundation and all the program officers.  No exceptions, after eight years you have to move on.  Arguably, such a policy insures that there is a periodic influx of new blood, new thinking, new ideas and obviates against the organization becoming too staid and bogged down in past history or the habit of doing things as they have always been done.

Is this a good idea that ought to be implemented across the whole of the nonprofit arts sector?  Should we limit the tenure of all of our leadership - senior and middle management to some arbitrary maximum term?  Would this result in new ideas, leaner and more productive organizations, fresher perspectives, increased support and better results given an organization's mission statement?  Or would it simply be pushing good people out at the peak of their performance level when they still have much more to contribute?  Is a time limitation counter productive in that it squanders what people learn from experience and being on the job - in a particular place at a particular time?  Or would it insure that an organization would put a premium on relevance and idea generation?

Should we be investing more in people - those leaders we recognize as moving us forward because of their skills, experience, talent, charisma, thinking prowess, leadership - irrespective of their current organizational affiliation, than in the organization they make succeed?  Is such a radical shift away from funding the organization something we ought to consider.

And what of organizations themselves?  Ought there be some sunset date self- imposed after which an arts organization would at least begin to wrap up their existence?  Is there any really good reason an organization ought to exist in perpetuity as a given from the outset?  Isn't it a fact that, as Michael Wolfe argued in a Quora post "failure is the default path for a large company given a long enough timeframe."  Why do we automatically assume that once an organization comes into being (even assuming that support for its launch and initial success is fully warranted), it then ought to forever continue to exist?  And that we ought to forever support that existence?

What if we assumed that virtually every (or at least a sizable portion of the total) new organization would have a wrap date from the get-go?  What if we approached organizational support from a more limited perspective than the current thinking of 'forever'?  What if we funded and supported 'projects', 'progams' or even 'people' rather than organizations.  Specific projects that had a built in sunset provision.  Specific people who have demonstrated current acumen and original and exciting creative thinking - and even those people for only a single, specific project they wished to tackle?  How much easier would it be to measure the impact and link the success of the effort to a desired outcome, then trying to gauge the impact of ongoing organizations and their programs?

Ok, perhaps there ought to be a few exceptions to a general rule of assuming obsolescence from the outset as the inevitable eventual norm - like artist founder driven performance organizations maybe?  Or  museums maybe?  Then again, maybe not.  I'm just asking.

Is part of our blind allegiance to 'forever' organizations our love affair with wanting to impact capacity and sustainability?  Could those two concepts not more easily be managed if we confined them to some particular goal and impact and detached them from the ongoing institution?

What might the field look like if instead of 'forever' institutions hiring people for jobs related as much to the perpetual existence of the organization itself as to its artistic (or related) mission, we organized ourselves by assembling 'teams' of people - small strike forces as it were - that could come to bear on any given challenge or project - for a limited time period, and then were available to join another team for another assignment?  And isn't that precisely what some younger Millennial generation artists are now doing in their efforts to create?  Aren't many of them already embodying the idea of strike force teams assembled for a specific purpose without the baggage and vast infrastructure that is necessary when one starts 'organizations'?  Would that make for more effective and impactful results, than the way we have currently 'organized' the dynamics of our field?

Would that perhaps change dramatically a whole host of other issues with which we grapple - from earlier shared decision making with younger leadership cohorts, and leadership succession, to fundraising, to evaluation and metrics, to professional development to -- well, maybe everything?

Some will argue that if you are going to create a new infrastructure, management team and apparatus to do something from start to finish every time, you are going to waste a lot of time and energy in a needless and costly repetitive cycle of reinventing what is already in existence.  But is that true?  Maybe  what you would be doing is simply dismantling the existing separate infrastructures and mechanisms that are definitionally already needless repetitions of what is not needed in favor of a new system that would be far more efficient in the long run by centralizing and merging certain functions and applying them as needed to a given project - be it a performance, a service or something else.  Which would be ultimately better - a thousand self-contained organizations where all the functions are (inefficiently) under a thousand different roofs, or a system of highly qualified teams to which much of any given project could be outsourced on a case by case basis?  And that is assuming that these teams are organic themselves and constantly evolving.

But what about 'brand' and identity?  What about consistency and constancy?

What about them?  Why do they exist only if the organization is perpetual?  Ask instead, how much more excited the public might be if creativity were really turned on its head?  What is brand if not the perception in the public's mind of value?  Is consistency really the holy grail?  Would it be outrageous to ask a grant applicant: "How long they perceive the organization intends to remain in business?   How long it can rationally argue that it will be viable?"  Are those questions anyone asks of a grant applicant today?  Why not?  Should we not rethink what we ought to ask of applicants; should we not ask them to think, up front, about the need for them to continue forever?

I am, of course, not suggesting we 'kill all the lawyers' as it were and get rid of all the organizations, but rather than we begin to insist that they evolve.  It seems apparent the 'organization' is an essential framework for some (maybe a lot of) artistic endeavors.  Isn't it legitimate to just ask out loud whether or not we ought to continue in perpetuity to support the concept of the 'forever' organization?  Is support loyalty to that construct perhaps myopic, confining and in the long run just maybe not such a great idea?  Is the notion that organizations ought to every so often re-organize the way they exist not legitimate?  Does not the commitment to the concept of the 'forever' organization breed complacency, and aren't our organizations becoming 'soft' in a way; too safe in some ways to continually consider when and how to change to stay at the forefront?  Should we focus only on how we can make any given organization better, or ask instead whether supporting the 'organization' itself is the right approach?  And maybe we ought to identify our best and brightest and support them wherever they happen to be - follow them and not stay with the organization itself?  Shouldn't we begin to question the whole model - if for no other reason than to more accurately pinpoint its flaws and weaknesses so we might deal with them.  We might just need to "unlearn" what we have done for so long, and relearn a new approach; take new risks and innovate again.

Or is such a notion way too radical for it to be seriously considered?  Too full of holes and too conceptual to begin to deal with?  Were I again a major funder, I would want to start thinking more radically - and consider ideas that are way outside the box - at least for the longer term.  Tiptoeing just outside the walls of our box isn't likely to allow us to consider what might lie way beyond those walls - "for the times they are a-changing."  If we say we want to think outside the box, should we not be dong it ourselves?  How far out of the box are we willing to go?  I suggest we consider the proposition that funding individual projects rather than institutional organizations (and the idea of funding specific proven leaders and follow them on their career paths) might be, at least in many cases, a far better approach in determining the best use of funds given our stated objectives (and the challenges attendant to all funding) than continuing to fund all the organizations themselves - just because we always have.  And I think we might want to deal with the proposition (embrace or dismiss it) sooner, rather than later, so that we control the dialogue rather than having it imposed on us.

Doubtless this will appear as heresy to anyone gainfully employed at an ongoing organization, but I am not sure it ought to be viewed that way. Sector wide systemic reorganization takes a long, long time.  The change would be slow.  But, over time it might just be a better way to protect one's job and make it more interesting and challenging and thus satisfying, and it might yield better results in furtherance of original mission statements over that longer term.

Too far outside the box for our comfort level?  Even just as a topic to discuss seriously?

Have a great week.

Don't Quit!