Sunday, September 30, 2012


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

Quick Note on the Dinner-vention Project:  Thank you for all the positive feedback and support for the idea.  We have already begun to receive a lot of suggested names for dinner guests.  Please send in yours before the November 20th deadline.   Given WESTAF's substantial experience in convening planning, logistics and technical recording, I am grateful for their Sponsorship of this project.  Otherwise I would likely have to cook, crowd 8 or more people around a table designed for 6, try to put up a dozen people in the (only) guest bedroom, and record the event on my iPad.  Fortunately they have resources I lack, so we can do this right.  

I have been thinking lately about what I have learned over the past 15 years that I have been involved in the nonprofit arts field; about the lessons driven home by experience and time, and how little I really knew, or understood, when I first started in this fascinating, yet relentlessly challenging, arena.  I have been wondering what are the basic lessons that I have learned that, were someone to ask, I might pass on (particularly to those coming up behind me).  What might I say that would be helpful to the next generation of leaders (or to anyone really - and that might save them time and heartache)?  Could I synthesize it into a couple of pieces of advice?  Would it make any sense?

And that got me to thinking about how much more others across the field have probably learned over their long tenures working in our sector than I have.

So I thought I would do a blog on that. - The WHAT I HAVE LEARNED blog.   I invited 24 colleagues to share the most important lessons they have learned; to pass on some of the knowledge that they might wish someone had shared with them when they were still coming up through the ranks.

Specifically, I asked:

What have you learned that you can pass on to the future leaders of our field.  What one or two big pieces of advice can you give based on your experience that you think would most help our future leaders in their career development and in doing their jobs well?  

There was near universal enthusiasm for this effort, and almost everyone I invited responded.  I think the responses are insightful, smart and heartfelt.  There are some common themes, some really sweet  observations and lots and lots of good will. I am impressed with all of them, and very proud to work in a field with these people.   If this is well received, I think I will do it again next year, as I have at least five times more people on my list to ask than I was able to get to.

Here then are the responses to What I Have Learned:

Randy Cohen - Vice President of Research and Policy, Americans for the Arts
1.      One person can start a movement.  In tough economic times, no pushback from the arts community is low-hanging fruit for budget cutters. Pack your city council chambers with supporters and incorporate our secret weapon—arts, music, and poetry.  It will be a public hearing nobody will forget.

2.      Great leaders are great advocates—for their industry and for themselves.  Advocacy can be boiled down to three questions: What’s the message?  Who gets the message?  Who delivers the message?

3.      Inspired audiences will take action.  Be a great speaker. Data alone won’t cut it . . . add a story to bring the message alive.  Practice, be yourself, use humor, and go easy on the PowerPoint text.

4.      You can do a bounty of good if you are willing to share leadership and credit.  Everyone wants to be on the team that is doing the right thing.

5.      Change is a constant condition.  When faced with multiple choices, lean towards the one you fear most—that is usually where the greatest treasure is buried. Be brave!

6.      We are in the people business.  Help others get what they need, and others will help you get what you need.  Don’t forget what Mom told you—say please and thank you, be on time.

7.      Learning never ends.  Fuel your brain with industry knowledge with the vigor of a squirrel gathering nuts for winter.

8.      There is much to be grateful for.  Start the day writing a couple short thank you notes.  Go old school…pen, paper, stamped envelope.

9.      When on the road, drink lots of water, don’t eat too many cookies, and carry your presentation materials with you.

10.     Folks love Top 10 lists.

Michael Alexander, Executive Director, Grand Performances
“When the sea rises, all ships rise with it.”  Devote part of your work time and your personal life to the causes that will benefit our field and our world.  Your professional life and your personal life will benefit in the process.  My most important role models in the arts each practiced this providing leadership by devoting time and resources to our field.  I hope I can make a fraction of the impact that they made.

To be interesting, be interested.”   Former CAC member Fred Sands said he told that to all his employees.  I think it is worthwhile for all of us to listen more and talk less.  And listen everywhere.  Our audiences have remarkable wisdom – even the children.  Ask good questions.  Remember too that different communities have different ways of addressing challenges.

"Don’t sacrifice the good while waiting for the perfect."  Don’t let analysis paralysis stop forward motion.  Recognize that there are many right answers.
You cannot be leader unless you challenge people to do something.”  I heard that line in the animated film “Chicago 10” when one of the activists told a colleague why he was not a leader.

“Quick, cheap and good – pick two.”  Mid-size non-profits don’t have the luxury of deep pockets enabling them to throw money at problems.  And mid-size non-profits don’t want to settle for anything less than good.  So that means we need to give ourselves adequate time to plan, prepare, recruit, manage and assess the many projects we undertake.

John R. Killacky - Executive Director of Flynn Center for the Performing Arts.
Pony Precepts
Right now I'm learning from a 400-pound animal with the brain of a three-year old child, as I train a Shetland pony to pull a cart. Ponies, like horses, are prey animals whose first instinct is to fight or flee, so this can be a daunting and humbling task. Anything new is suspect; a first encounter with the unfamiliar unsettling.

My CEO/Executive Director-self has no gravitas here. At the barn, I am a beginner. I'm always learning: from teenagers to one friend in her 80s who rides her 24-year old gelding every day.  We never discuss one’s day job; all conversation is through and about our animals.  Here I am Raindrop’s dad.

Being a novice at mid-life is rejuvenating. I love grappling with new skills that take a long time to master. Failures are almost as important as successes here. Laughter at failure and learning from mistakes propel improvement. My competitive self is satisfied with a training session well done; thrilled that Raindrop and I have done our best for that day.

In working with my pony, I must first understand the world through her eyes, her smells, her experiences, her fears, and her relationships. Equine logic is quite different from human thinking. I also try to see the world as my pony does. Human vision is focused straight ahead; horses see at 350 degrees, encompassing peripheral vision. I practice this perspective and vast horizons of fields, mountains, and clouds feathering the sky unfold.

Recently, my Shetland pony Raindrop and I went off-site to a driving clinic. Jeff Morse, who led the two-day event, encouraged us to "create the horse you want, rather than fix the horse you have." He had me drive with my eyes closed to feel the connection of my hands on the reins to the bit in her mouth. It was transformative.

Training can get mighty complicated, with up to six horses and riders simultaneously in the indoor arena during the after-school and post-work rush hours. This necessitates an interrelated choreography of awareness, patience, and generosity by equines and humans alike. We lunge, jump, trot, and walk our animals in spiraling circles and figure eights. Loose but firm hands on the reins, the animals go where your eyes go. We dance together.

My favorite time at the barn is late at night, with no one else around. I love being in the stall with Raindrop as she and her stable-mates settle down for the evening. The sounds and smells of two-dozen safe, warm, and protected equines are divine. Just being there, in sublime stillness, through her quiet eyes, I am part of the herd. It’s at these moments that I experience Rasa, a Sanskrit term indicating a profound state of empathic bliss.

Pony precepts have taught me a lot of things, some of which apply to human interactions. Beginner’s mind, meeting colleagues on their terms, starting where they are, interconnectivity, embracing the peripheral world, dancing with others, and sublime stillness all seems like good ideas to bring back into the office each morning, after I finish mucking her stall, of course!

Claire Peeps - Executive Director, Durfee Foundation
For the past 15 years, Durfee has asked its fellowship applicants two principal questions—Why do you do what you do? and What have you learned along the way.

On the occasion of Durfee’s 50th, we published a short chapbook with excerpts of their answers.  I wrote in the intro:

“We ask leaders, ‘Why do you do what you do?’ What they do is usually quite easy to understand.  Why they do it is often less immediately apparent, and their answers, so often, are disarming.

We ask them ‘What have you learned along the way?’ Their answers sing a whole chorus of melodies. It is people, at the end of the day, who make change.  Yes, it takes money and strategy, buildings, infrastructure, and political will. But it is leaders who take up a cause and stoke an ember into a blaze.  We are committed to those who tend the flame.”

So what I have learned from this work?

I’ve learned that people are our most valuable resource and that it is in our collective best interest that they be nurtured and sustained.  This is true for leaders who must take care of the staff who work for them, and it is true of emerging leaders who must remember to take care of themselves.

I’ve learned that solutions are often where we least expect them, so it’s important to go outside of our usual stomping grounds on a regular basis.

I’ve learned that it’s important to listen.

I’ve learned that everything is inter-related – that education is in fact a housing issue, that housing is a transportation issue, that transportation is a green economy issue, that green economy is a jobs creation issue, and so on….and that the arts are woven into all of them.

I’ve learned that hospitality and good food are essential to candid conversations.

I’ve learned that laughter is a bridge across difficult terrain.

In the words of one of our fellows, Lisa Watson, director of the Downtown Women’s Center, “I’ve realized that putting all your life’s energy into work is highly overrated and incredibly unhealthy/unsustainable. An important part of being a successful leader is taking time outside of work to ground yourself, prioritize your overall well-being and lead by example – that time to recover is necessary to inspire progress, productivity, and passion as we tackle profound social issues and ultimately seek to build a fulfilling career for ourselves and those around us.”

And lastly, I’ve learned that kindness goes a long way.  In the words of Plato, “Be kind, because everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle.”

Robert Booker - Executive Director, Arizona Commission on the Arts
Know that your work life and personal life will blend at times, and find a way to manage that mix in a healthy way. Develop a positive balance between your personal principles/goals and your professional responsibilities/challenges. Remember that all work worth doing is not worth doing well. Celebrate your successes and those of others every moment you can. Have fun every day and when you can’t find joy in your work…find another job.

Always accept new responsibilities in your current position. Don’t expect an immediate reward for expanding your work load or pitching in to cover a position. In the end, you will be more knowledgeable about your organization and will be recognized as a leader and team player. The rewards will come later in your career with your organization, others and the field.

Remember to give credit to your teammates when they have worked on a project or supported your action with their skills and send handwritten notes to folks that help you everyday along the road, Help others reach their goals when you can. Never speak ill about people you work with.

Learn the history of the non-profit and for-profit arts industry. Be familiar with the successes and the challenges our field has faced over the years. Learn from the work your colleagues are doing in other communities and countries. Serve the people you see outside your window. Treat money as if it were time and time as if it were money…you can always make more money, but time is fleeting. Try to give back as much as you get as you work in this field. Always tell the truth.  Take responsibility for your actions and don’t fear failure.

Bruce Davis - Consultant
1) Don't be afraid to politely and confidentially ask advice and counsel from people who are more experienced than you are.  I was an Executive Director @ 33, and this approach worked for me, especially with funders who were once in my shoes and "elder" leaders who were willing to share;

2) Politics. The dreaded but inevitable word. Rarely will you see this word in an executive director's job description. Shame on us!  An executive director's job is to master the art of politics in all its realms--internal, external, financial, community and media. While you dream of being an executive director, ask yourself, do you really have the stuff and experience? What real political battles have you won or lost?
How much are you willing to give to your community with or without a paycheck?

Arni Fishbaugh, Executive Director, Montana Arts Council
1.      A trusted #2 is essential in getting through nightmares involving politics, personnel, budgets and boards. (Note: our board is heavenly at this time, but we’ve had moments in the past…)
2.      As organizational leaders on the staff or on the board, we will never make progress nor build our budgets if we don’t commit a serious amount of time to make sure that one-on-one relationships are built with our political leaders and other “authorizers.” Successful advocacy, just like fund-raising,  is all about relationship-building done one-on-one.
3.      Most legislators and members of the public want to know about one thing about government funding:  return on investment.  These ROIs must be in things that are compelling to them, not necessarily what we believe is compelling.
4.      A “team of three” approach is best when talking to potential major funders, whether they are legislators or donors.  Take a person with the facts, a person with the relationship, and a person with the story to the meeting. (Thanks to the California Arts Council for this idea.)
5.      Listen and hear those opinions that make you wince.  If they make you wince there may be some truth to them.
6.      It is essential that artists feel valued and heard.
7.      The strongest boards of directors of non-profit organizations are diverse in not only its members’ backgrounds, gender and race, but in political ideologies as well.
     Closing with that favorite topic of personnel:  people who create black holes in your life will probably always suck the life out of you.  The problem never just goes away if it’s ignored.  Deal with it now or it only gets worse.

Cora Mirikitani, President and CEO, Center for Cultural Innovation
It’s Not About the Money
One of the biggest lessons that I’ve learned in a 30-year career spanning work as a funder, as an arts presenter and service provider, and now in the hybrid space between the two has to do, perhaps not surprisingly, with money.  That’s because as a funder, you think a lot about how to give it away strategically, transparently and effectively.  And as an arts administrator in a nonprofit organization, you obviously think a lot about how to raise more of it.  And more recently, at the Center for Cultural Innovation, I’ve been exploring more innovative ways to do both.

So considering the vast amounts of time that I’ve devoted to both the grant-giving and grant-getting sides of our business, it may come as a surprise that one of my biggest arts career ‘ah-has’ is this: It’s not about the money!

Sure, money will always have a place in the transactional dimensions of our work, but when I really think about my most memorable arts experiences, what has been most personally gratifying and my best professional work, I think about these things instead:
  • It’s about the power of people and relationships. I love that there are so many committed, passionate, diverse people who work in the arts and that I’ve had the joy of working with so many of them, some for many years and others who are just getting started in the field.
  • It’s about remembering why we love the arts. There’s a lot to be said for things like economic impact, educational attainment and organizational sustainability, but for me, it has always been the ‘Truth and Beauty’ part of the arts that has swept me off my feet.
  • It’s about the work of artists. Hey, where do we think the work comes from anyway?  Artists are my heroes.
  • Sometimes it’s just about hanging in there. Working in the nonprofit arts is full of challenges and sometimes victory comes from just being the last man (or woman) standing.  People in the arts are pretty stubborn, and that’s a good thing. In this regard, the coda from Barry’s blog says it all: “Don’t Quit!”

Steven J. Tepper - Associate Director, Curb Center for Art, Enterprise and Public Policy / Associate Professor in the Department of Sociology, Vanderbilt University.
Passionless Leadership? How to think like a public leader and not like an evangelist

Thank you Barry for asking a simple but profoundly important question. What have I learned from my 18 years of working and studying cultural policy and cultural management?

When I look at arts research and arts advocacy I see private interests masquerading as public interests.   Let me explain. Most of us entered the arts field because we were personally inspired by an arts experience, and we are passionate about classical music, literature, theater, dance, or the visual arts.  With evangelical zeal, we have embarked on careers to promote these art forms and to help others see the light.   We have been convinced that excellence requires stepping outside of the commercial realm and protecting our beloved art forms from the vagaries and the banality of the marketplace.  So, we find ourselves defending particular types of art that get produced and presented by particular types of organizations (nonprofits).

But there is a difference between an evangelist and a public leader in the arts.  The former is an ideologue – a faithful fan that does not question the value of the thing they love.  We need evangelists in the arts.  I am inspired by the army of people working in the arts who want to share with others their love for classical music or painting or dance. This is a truly humanistic impulse.   But a public leader in the arts must approach the world more pragmatically and seek to define the public interest apart from one’s own private interests or passions.  A public leader identifies a collective problem or benefit and then works creatively to solve the problem or advance the public good.

In other words, if we want to lead in the arts, we must try to be agnostic about the specific form and content of our programming.    What experiences do we want audiences to have?  What does cultural vitality mean for a city or community?  How can we advance artistic careers?  How can we guarantee that every child has the opportunity to express his or her own creativity?   When I seek answers to these questions, I don’t begin with an assumption that orchestral music performed on stage in a symphony hall will necessarily produce deep cultural engagement.  Or that taking drawing lessons or learning to play the piano is the best way to help children express their creativity.  I don’t assume that advancing artistic careers means increasing the number of opportunities for artists to present or perform their work in nonprofit cultural venues.   I don’t assume that cultural vitality requires that a community has a local dance company, an orchestra, a museum, and a professional theater troupe.  In some contexts, investing in classical music or traditional theater might be exactly what a community needs. In other cases, it might be the wrong solution, crowding out investments we might make instead in festivals, film, popular music, comics and graphic novels and the everyday practice of arts, not just the nonprofit arena.

My point is that the public interest gets served when we seek to advance cultural vitality by any and all possible means.  Good leaders bring a broad tool kit to their work. They get beyond special interest advocacy. They question their own assumptions.  And, importantly, they realize that if they are to be public leaders and not evangelists, they must be willing to subordinate their own personal passions to the policies and practices that advance a shared notion of cultural vitality.

For example, let’s say my goal is to help children develop a meaningful and deep creative practice.  I should not care whether that practice involves painting, playing traditional instruments, creating dance beats on a computer, designing a video game, making a film, doing origami, sewing costumes, or writing poetry.   I do care that the engagement is creative, requires craft and involves personal reflection.   If I don’t limit myself to the art forms I love, I have many more alternatives for reaching my goal.

In addition to my work in the arts, I am also a sociologist who teaches in a university setting. Were I in a leadership position to improve undergraduate education, I certainly would not limit myself to advocating for more sociology classes. In fact, perhaps we teach enough sociology… maybe what we really need is more foreign language instruction.   Likewise, if our collective goal was to build tolerance and respect for group norms, teaching and reading more sociology might be one tool. But surely there are other ways that have nothing to do with the discipline of sociology that might better achieve this goal.

We need evangelists.   We need people who want to share their faith.  But we also need strong cultural leaders who will look beyond their own interests and passions and work on behalf of the public rather than on behalf of a particular art form.

Frances Phillips - Program Director, Arts and the Creative Work Fund, Walter and Elise Haas Fund
I was taught that items on a list ought to be written so they are parallel with one another, but my lessons occurred to me in constellations of ideas.

A Rude Awakening
When I directed a nonprofit organization, we fought on behalf of emerging artists, freedom of expression, and challenging work. When I came to a foundation, at one year into my job I was shocked to recognize that foundation leaders were struggling with the need to articulate and fight on behalf of the value of any art, of any artists. In spite of many thoughtful, eloquent people putting their minds to this effort, the need has not changed.

About Policy
A challenge in supporting policy change is that achieving meaningful results can take many years. This is a problem for organizations trying to report on results of their policy work from year-to-year and to foundation staff members trying to report to trustees about measurable outcomes achieved. The frustration can lead the nonprofit to pursue easier, near term results. Hence, we may distract ourselves from work toward the most meaningful goals.

When exciting policy change has taken place, often it has been achieved because the arts have not fought for it alone but have aligned our interests with others.

Fear inspires bad policy and bad legislation.

Arts Education
In a time of scarcity, some fight for stand-alone art and music classes and some for integrating the arts into the teaching of other subjects. Both can be valuable. I challenge those working on arts integration to make certain that the arts teaching and learning is as rigorous as the learning in the other subject with which it is being integrated.

Artists are trained to manage ambiguity and to be self-critical. These are invaluable life and leadership skills that often are under-valued.

Artist Support
Modest grants have the greatest effect if they are spent directly on supporting artists.

Helping artists expand their networks greatly enhances the value of a financial award.

Communication with Grantseekers
The nature of a grant seeker’s communication with me at our first interaction is indicative of how all communications will continue. Those who call with haphazard questions and ignore guidelines also will ignore final report questions. Those who are clear about who they are and what they want to accomplish and have taken time to understand the Haas Fund will be a pleasure to work with.

I most admire organization leaders who are honest and forthcoming when things go wrong.

Good grant proposals vary widely, but many bad grant proposals have the same weakness: the narrative and the budget don’t tell the same story.

In London, arts organizations are unafraid to say that their remit is to achieve “highest artistic quality.” The belief we share in the United States that we need to make a cogent argument for the value of the arts makes us timid about announcing that intention.

Philip Horn - Executive Director, Pennsylvania Council on the Arts
Mentors and coaches. You can always use them. It is useful to make a formal ask to someone to be your mentor.

At some point you should be a mentor or a coach. Keep on the lookout for someone you can help along. Give those people opportunities.

Asking for help is not a sign of weakness it is a sign of wisdom.. Being asked to help is the highest compliment.

Don’t try to impress people with your intelligence; impress them with you inquisitiveness. It is almost always appropriate to ask when you don’t know something.

If you stop being nervous, push yourself into an unfamiliar place.

Spend as much time as you can outside your office and outside your comfort zone. You’ll grow that way.

Don’t be an impediment to your staff. If they need something from you, get it for them as quickly as you can and they should do the same.

Who can afford to be wrong? Sometimes it makes sense to take responsibility for something that isn’t your fault.

What does it look like from the other person’s window?

One of my favorite books to read and re-read is Reframing Organizations. It takes the different approaches to organizational behavior and presents them in four frames; Structural, Symbolic, Human Resource and Political. I like to think of them as lenses. One of these lenses is more likely to give you clarity than another. Trying to solve one kind of problem one a different kind of approach can be problematic if not disastrous. I like this because it reminds me that one of my chief responsibilities is to always be asking, “What is really going on here?”

 One of my favorite articles is from the Harvard Business Review. “Why Transformation Efforts Fail.” Too bad it is cast in such a negative context but the lessons are invaluable.

Leadership is more of a responsibility than it is a privilege. Leadership is situational. If you want to be a leader, start leading.

Finally, we approve of someone in power by saying, “he gets it” or more likely “she gets it” and wonder why more people don’t “get” us. But what is it that we don’t get about people who don’t “get it?” And isn’t it more important for us to understand what it is that we don’t “get” so we know how to move forward?

The arts are strange and forbidding to many but anyone can understand our work this way: We help people in our communities build and sustain programs that are important to them. We don’t create these programs; our fellow citizens do. Clearly these things are important to enough to them to make the considerable effort every year to sustain their favorite theatre or dance company or gallery or museum or poetry series. And there are a lot of those folks out there who do this to whom we are too weakly connected.

If these programs are important to them shouldn’t they be worthy of public investment? I think most politicians or “authorizers” (I hate that expression – sounds like part of a 12-step program) can appreciate that much more quickly than anything we like to say about the arts. We provide endorsement and encouragement and some measure of financial support for the good work of our fellow citizens in making their communities more rich, vibrant, lively, economically viable, diverse and interesting.

It is often better to just take “the arts” out of the conversation to begin the conversation.

Justin Laing - Program Officer, Arts and Culture, The Heinz Endowments
If I were to offer a lesson I have learned in my time in the arts it would be the importance of "arts mining".  By this I mean finding distinctive qualities of an art form or issue that will allow it to resonate with a new and maybe unlikely set of participants.  Not coincidentally, this interest reflects a sensibility that comes from my prior art practice:  Capoeira, an art form that defies categorization ("obrigado" to Mistre Nego Gato).  Whether it was Capoeira's attraction to lovers of acrobatic performance and Afro-Brazilian culture, it ability to amplify the mission of an African Centered school, or its value as a form of exercise in a fitness center, this kind of flexibility allowed Nego Gato Inc. to have a broad base of support and most importantly, to invest in the art form being the best it could possibly be in Pittsburgh, PA.

Today, I do my best to employ this practice in my job as a foundation program officer.  When successful it allows me to highlight the unique capacities of skilled teaching artists in out-of-school time programs, the ways quality arts practice can meet the singular challenges of African American men and boys or the role an empowering arts pedagogy can play in positive community transformation.  My hope is that this interest in mining has facilitated fruitful relationships with colleagues within and outside of my foundation and that it has supported quality arts practice of varied forms.

Betty Plumb, Executive Director, South Carolina Arts Alliances
Be bold.  If your cause is not worth putting yourself on the line, find one that is.

Don't let others define you, your issues or your efforts. When they do, take it as a compliment because they see you as a threat; then set them straight.

Never forget that we live in a democracy.  Don’t let others define for you the proper role of government. The proper role of government is what the people think it should be.  It’s your responsibility to help people understand that.

Know what’s at stake, including the issues, the political climate and the players who can make change happen.

Never forget that meaningful change must benefit everyone, even those whose lack of enlightenment causes them to disregard interests other than their own.

Don’t demonize those who oppose your cause.  Issues and players change. Today’s opponent could be your next most valuable ally.

If you lose the battle, don’t despair. The war is never ending; your day will come.

No matter what the stakes, no matter how passionately you believe in something, never do anything you would be ashamed to have your mother – or your child – learn about.

Brad Erickson - Executive Director, Theatre Bay Area
Two thoughts:
One:  Stay connected to your passion.  What made you want a career in the arts in the first place?  Are you an artist yourself?  Was it an unbelievably moving performance you saw as a kid?  A teacher or parent or mentor who showed you a new way of looking at the world through the arts?  What does it take for you to be personally on fire for the arts?  Write a play?  Act?  Sing?  Paint?  Teach?  Produce?  Inspire?  Make sure, no matter what your arts day job may be, that you make time, plenty of time, to do that.

Two:  Take care of yourself.  In my first executive director job, my board chair told me to make sure I was taking care of myself.  Taking care of me was taking of the organization.  What is that for you?  Do it.

Ben Cameron - Program Director, Arts, Doris Duke Charitable Foundation
What you want to do with your life is far less important than why you want to do it, what your core values are, what you wish your life to stand for.  Jobs will come and go; professions will come and go.  Values endure.

In reaching that clarity, declarations of “I believe” can be seductive.  “How I live”—a rigorous self-appraisal and analysis of those experiences that have been truly, deeply nourishing—reveals one’s values in startling ways.  The best situations are those in which one’s values and the values of the organization where one works are in harmony—and a life worth living occurs when “I believe” and “How I live” are in alignment.

Physical exhaustion? Get some sleep.  Burnout?  You’ve disconnected from your core values.  Make a change.

And do everything in your power to meet and work with Ronnie Brooks.

Three Short Stories by Tommer Peterson, deputy director, Grantmakers in the Arts
1. Culture
The culture of an organization, or a group, or an artistic company is more powerful and a more critical component of its life and work than any mission statement, by-laws, charter or statement.  The culture of a group is an aggregate expression of the shared values of the participants, rarely recognized or explicitly addressed, but always present and informing every aspect of the work. It is often unspoken, but shared and recognized by all. In some ways it is akin to personality…intangible and not easily measured or defined. It is less what the group or organization does, than it is the way things are done. The culture of a group deserves close attention.

2. Food Stamps
Decades ago there were two major Federal Food Stamp Offices in Seattle. One was largely successful with well-served clients, staff happy, and services provided. The other was plagued by constituent complaints, personnel difficulties, employee turnover, and uneven service. To make a long story short, a study was conducted. In the end it boiled down to the fact that one director described her job as “getting food assistance to those in need as easily as possible.” The other described her job as “keeping people from getting food stamps who really don't deserve them.”

3. Two Versions
A number of blind men came to an elephant, and someone told them that it was an elephant. The blind men asked, ‘What is the elephant like?’ and they began to touch its body. One of them said: 'It is like a pillar.' This blind man had only touched its leg. Another man said, ‘The elephant is like a husking basket.’ This person had only touched its ears. Similarly, he who touched its trunk or its belly talked of it differently.

In the same way, a person who seeks understanding in only a particular way is limited to that which can be known in that way, and misses the complete picture.


A number of blind elephants were discussing what men were like. 
After arguing among themselves, they decided to find one and determine what 
it was like by direct experience.
 The first blind elephant felt the man and declared, “Men are flat.”
 After all the rest of the blind elephants felt the man, they all agreed.

Robert Lynch - President and CEO, Americans for the Arts
At some point in their lives about a third of the population by accident or design have an encounter with the arts , a moment through music or theater or film or dance that changes how they see the world.  If those people go on to become philanthropists or legislators or just good participatory citizens, they need little more argument to support or embrace the arts.  They get it. My unscientific observation tells me this. Experience has shown me that the other two thirds of the population that didn't have this epiphany often need some persuasion, need practical arguments, need more arts education, need advocacy to get there.

I have learned that one plus one does equal three; collaboration works. There is indeed big efficiency, strengthened action, and real clout as payoff. But to get to that payoff is far more difficult than it sounds, which is why so many people give up.  And in a sector like the arts where individual vision and creative doggedness are so valued, it can be even more difficult to bring us all together. Nonetheless, when that collaboration and determination can be harnessed as a united team, the effect is unbeatable.

I have learned that today's support base for the arts is very mercurial (much like yesterday's support base) and all too often influenced by the  slogan of the moment, sometimes at the expense of the long-term vision of the artists and arts organizations. As that support model inches more and more toward earned income as sixty percent or more of revenue, marketing skills become critical. Learn how to sell stuff.

I have learned that against all odds, predictions, calls for limiting numbers, challenged support bases, negative headlines, predictions of audience attrition, this non-profit arts sector keeps growing. Organizational growth keeps defying the odds. Individuals keep gathering together ideas and resources and each other, forming groups armed with an idea or two and a lot of hope and taking their shot. What wonderful, hope filled, entrepreneurial, and very American spirit.

Olive Mosier - Director, Arts and Culture, William Penn Foundation
I have learned just how much of a turning point the 2008 Independent Sector conference was in shaping my thinking as a funder. Clara Miller, who at the time was CEO of the Nonprofit Finance Fund, said that the country was at a change point and too many nonprofits were trying to simply hold on and come out on the other side rather than reinventing themselves. I learned that, not only did this apply to the cultural nonprofits with which we as funders were working, but it applied to us funders even more. And it’s not over yet. We need to continue to be responsive, flexible, and cognizant of the ever-changing environment that is challenging the cultural sector. We need to allow for the testing of new ideas, recognizing that they won’t always succeed. We need to support the redesigning of business models, recognizing that this, too, often requires some trial and error. And we need to ensure that cultural engagement opportunities are available not only downtown but throughout our cities.

As a regional funder, we at the William Penn Foundation probably have a greater luxury in trying to work this way. To this end, the leadership of the Foundation is taking the needs of the local cultural sector out of the arts and culture funding silo by creating new, cross-sector funding programs that advance creative placemaking in Philadelphia neighborhoods, transform outdated business models, support new solutions, and find new ways of strengthening the field and engaging the public in the arts. We are pursuing an approach that allows for cross-sector learning by both the organizations and the Foundation, which I am also learning is a necessary aspect to all of us succeeding.

Marion Godfrey - Cultural Advisor to the Berkshire Taconic Community Foundation.
The most important lesson I have learned in 33 years as an arts administrator and grant maker is to ask for help.  The worst mistakes I have made resulted from pride and embarrassment that kept me from asking for help to fix or improve something; the very worst mistake got me fired from a good consulting job when a problem turned into a disaster because I didn’t ask for help.  The best programs I designed as a grant maker were all, every one, developed based on extensive advice and information from the people I was hoping to support; the most successful benefited from advice and tough critique from my executive and my board.  When I didn’t listen to them, the programs weren’t so good.

It is especially important to cultivate your ability to hear people (not just listen politely) when you are on the up side of the power equation, as grant makers often are.  I have learned how easy it is, from the safety and security of my perch, to be incurious, and to gloss over the urgency of mission, communicated in telling detail, being offered up by someone on the other side of the table.  People who are not empowered are hyper-vigilant, and command a far more richly concrete understanding of their situation and their objectives than those of us who listen by choice rather than necessity.  So if you want to do well, and to do good, honor your constituencies by making your listening a necessity.

Ramona Baker - Consultant
1.Stay flexible
It’s always advantageous to have a clear and strategic plan of action, but change happens. Funding can disappear overnight, leaders can come and go quickly, and unexpected opportunities can suddenly appear. If you think of your plans as guides rather than steel walls you stand a better chance of not only surviving but also being able to take advantage of new possibilities. Try not to let your need for control get in your way (I’m still a work-in-progress on that one myself). Remaining flexible will allow you and your organization to keep your footing whether the path suddenly goes up or down. Staying agile and being willing to let your plans change will allow you to respond, adjust, and alter as needed. People and organizations that lock their knees and fight change usually stumble and fall, but I’ve found that organizations that acknowledge the inevitability of change and the importance of flexibility have a much better chance of staying strong and moving forward.

2.Include all voices
It’s tempting to surround yourself with people who are like you. It’s human nature to want to work with staff and board members who share your artistic, political, social, and economic points of view. Reaching agreement with a homogeneous group is easier because you already understand each other. Bringing dissimilar voices into the mix is more challenging but ultimately diverse opinions from different people and backgrounds will make your organization and your leadership much stronger. Including all voices takes more time but being inclusive opens you to a vast array of new ideas, new possibilities, new leadership opportunities, and art that you hadn’t previously considered.  I’ve learned that it is easier to accept differences if you first respect those differences.  No one group of people has all the keys to fabulous ideas.

Anne Katz - Executive Director - Arts Wisconsin
I’ve learned about humans and human nature.   I’ve learned about myself, what matters to me, my strengths and weaknesses (boy, have I learned about my weaknesses), and what I am capable of.  I’ve learned about politics, relationships, inspiration, dedication, global forces that affect peoples’ lives, the intricacies of community engagement, trust.  I’m learning lessons every day.  The reason I still enjoy the job, and what keeps me in this field, is the passion, the challenge, the volatility, the feeling that if I keep exploring, I’ll get it right, someday.  In addition, what keeps me in this job and so dedicated to the work are the people and their capacity for greatness.
To elaborate – here are bullet points about what I’ve learned:
  • There is astonishing creativity, overt and unseen, in the most unlikely places - well, unlikely to some, but obvious to me in my work in every corner of the state.
  • People are dedicated to their families, friends and community.
  • People will put superhuman effort into a cause they believe in.
  • Humans will stick to their habits and mindsets and work against their own best interests.
  • They will also open up their minds, learn new things, seek new directions, at every turn.
  • Patience is a virtue, maybe THE virtue needed in this work and in life.  Real change happens slowly, much too slowly.   And I am so impatient by nature.
  • Patience’s partner is persistence.  It’s ok to understand that real change happens slowly, but the only way things change is if you keep pushing them to change.  My daily mantra is Winston Churchill’s quote:  “Never, never, never, never give up.”
  • Having a sense of humor in the face of absurdity goes a long, long way.
  • Volatility and uncertainty are part of the job.  On every level, we can try to control people and situations, as much as possible, but in many ways, we can’t control anything.
  • Personalities and politics are the forces that shape a project, an organization and communities.
  • The more I am involved in the arts, the more I know that I don’t understand anything about art.  I appreciate it, greatly, but understanding…that’s a whole different thing.

Dalouge Smith - President and CEO, San Diego Youth Symphony
Artists stretch and strive. It is inherent in supporting artists that arts organizations, the people running them, and the people working for them regularly extend themselves beyond reason or health. I discovered early that I didn’t always have a choice regarding when and how far I’d have to push myself during moments of production and creation. However, I also discovered that if I didn’t take control of the times when such effort wasn’t required and simply tried to keep up the same pace at all times no one else would guide me to slow down.

Letting art be all encompassing of your identity is often viewed as the route to the heights of achievement. I’ve seen and heard too often of relationships and families that don’t survive the artistic life because the art becomes so dominant. This is probably comfortable for some. I had the good fortune of realizing what was most important to me and what was secondary before reaching such a crisis. Ultimately, choosing to care for myself and having a relationship with my family was what I chose as primary. Even still, I’ve been able to achieve nationally recognized work for my arts nonprofit but within the boundaries I set, not to the dictates or expectations of others at my own expense. I’ve learned that I have to take care of myself and hope others will learn the same.

Barry:  And finally here is some of what I have learned (and I say some, because one thing I have learned is that learning is a never ending process.  But the process helps keep you involved and engaged, relevant and interested and your mind active.  Good return for the investment.

Like many other fields, in our sector, who you know is as important as what you know.  That's not to say that we echo a 'good old boy" network and do not value experience, intelligence and knowledge.  We do.  But it does recognize that much of success has always been built on personal relationships.  So network as much as you can.  Build relationships - ones that will last over time.  And keep them.  Ours is also a very generous field, and people are not just open, but quick, to respond to pleas for help.  Ask when you need help, guidance, tutoring, mentoring or whatever.  You will not very often get turned down.

Remember though, that to have friends, you have to be a friend.  Relationships are take and give.

You can learn a lot more by listening than talking.

There will always be people who will tell you why something won't work; people who will tell you why your idea should be forgotten.  Listen to legitimate criticism, but don't let the naysayers keep you from moving ahead with your ideas and dreams.  The whole world has been continuously changed by one person at a time, a single person who saw something that needed to be done, and then did it.  Stick to your guns, believe in yourself, and follow your dreams.  Never let them go, never wait for a more opportune time. The time is always now.  Believe in yourself.  Your job is to figure out how to get the NO people out of your way.  Remember that reward often entails risk.  And try hard never to step on someone else's dreams.

Most accomplishments are realized by working with other people.  Very few things get done all by yourself.  Share the credit.  Don't worry too much that people will know your contributions to something.  You can afford to be generous.  And being generous as a mantra will get you farther than being recognized.

Always do your best to produce exemplary work of which you can be proud.

Fluidity will be the byword of the next decade.

When you get to a position of leadership, there is one axiom to remember -- hire the absolute smartest people you can find (smarter than you) and then do your very best to get the hell out of their way and let them do their thing.  At the very top of the heap, a leader is two things:  a visionary and a cheerleader.

Do not always be too impatient with people, but be very impatient with incompetence. Champion people who report to you in public, criticize only in private.

Like Ringo said in Yellow Submarine in reference to the Nowhere Man:  "The first time I met that Nowhere Man, I knew he was somebody".   For all of you out there, there are lots of people who know you are somebody too.

So when times are tough, and things aren't going so well.  When you are discouraged and life is seemingly relentlessly against you.   Don't quit.  Just don't, ok?  Stay in there and fight -- for your own sense of integrity and worth.  Like the wise people know:  Dance like no one's watching; Love like you've never been hurt; Sing like you're part of the choir, and somehow let that little kid inside of you back out before it's too late.

If you would like, please feel free to share what you have learned by entering a comment.

Thank you very much to all the participants.  You are all the best.

Have a GREAT week.

Don't Quit.

Sunday, September 23, 2012

The ARTS Dinner-Vention Project

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

Dear Readers: PLEASE READ THIS OPEN INVITATION AND RESPOND - It should be fun.  Thank You.

Regular followers of this blog know that late every August I publish a list of the Most Powerful and Influential Leaders in the Nonprofit Arts.  Most people understand that the list isn’t meritocracy based; it isn’t based on specific achievement or accomplishment per se; it doesn't purport to necessarily identify the “best and brightest”, rather it merely identifies who has power and influence.

There has been some past comment that unfortunately the list excludes a whole cohort of serious thinkers - a group of younger (not necessarily chronologically younger) leaders omitted because their careers have not been long enough for them to develop the requisite power and influence the Most Powerful list embodies, and that there ought to be some mechanism that gives this cohort of leaders a voice and some recognition.  They are, after all, our future.

So to try to address that concern, I've come up with a companion project to the annual Most Powerful and Influential list.  I call it the Arts Dinner-vention Party project (thank you Shannon Daut).  It isn’t a list or a ranking.  It IS a platform to give those who do not yet have power and influence a chance to intervene into the national conversation on the big issues and to give them a voice and recognition.

Here’s how it will work.  It’s like the fantasy game that starts with the question: If you could invite anybody in the world to a dinner party, who would you invite?  The difference here is that we will actually hold the dinner party, and share it widely with the field (And you can’t actually invite anybody in the world.  It has to be arts sector people in the U.S.)

Readers of this blog are invited to submit a list of eight to twelve people that they think would represent the unheralded group of arts sector leaders (see specific criteria guideline suggestions below) and would - as guests at a dinner party - provide for a memorable and meaningfully engaging conversation on critically important arts issues; people with new ideas, who can argue convincingly for those ideas.

We call it the Arts Dinner-vention because - tongue-in-cheek - it’s like an intervention to a field that might have gotten addicted to old ways of doing things and old patterns of thinking about challenges and solutions; a field that arguably talks about getting out-of-the-box, but sometimes seems stuck within those walls.

Once the period for proposing names for the Arts Dinner-vention guest list closes (November 20, 2012), a small advisory committee consisting of:

  • Ian David Moss - Author of Createquity / Research Director, Fractured Atlas
  • Nina Simon - Executive Director, Santa Cruz Museum of Art & History
  • Richard Evans - President, Emc Arts
  • Shannon Daut - Executive Director, Alaska State Council on the Arts
  • Gary Steuer - Chief Cultural Officer, City of Philadelphia
  • Mitch Menchaca - Director, Local Arts Advancement, Americans for the Arts
  • Ron Ragin - Program Officer, Performing Arts Program, Hewlett Foundation

will then vet all the suggested names received, and come up with a final list of twelve people.  Once we have a date that will work for at least eight of those nominated dinner guests, we will schedule the dinner - probably in the Spring of 2013, location to be determined.

The entire dinner discussion will be videotaped and then edited, and the final tape will be as widely disseminated (via web access, podcast, you tube etc.) across the field as possible - perhaps divided into two presentations depending on how lively and lengthly the dinner conversation goes.

The topics will be selected from a master list of suggested topics, and those on the final guest list will determine which one or two they want to be the centerpiece of the evening’s discussion.  I am open to suggestions from the field for the master list of topics, and encourage you to include any ideas you have with your list of dinner guest nominees.

Once the topics are determined, each selected dinner guest will be asked to write a succinct (and hopefully compelling) argument for whatever position they wish to stake out on the topic - embodying some specific, concrete idea they want to implement - which briefing papers will be posted on my blog site prior to the dinner.

Rather than just another ‘discussion’ of the topics, where smart people wax eloquently about the issues, and analyze what is wrong without trying to figure out how to address the problems, the charge for those at this dinner will be to present specific, concrete ”new” ideas for addressing whatever challenges are embodied in the dinner topics.  Thus the framework for the dinner conversation will be real ‘idea generation’ and not just another talk fest where the participants dissect, analyze and ponder challenges, but come to no conclusions about what specifically to do.

My primary purpose for this project is twofold:
First, to identify and recognize some of the unheralded leadership of the field who have bold, inspired, cutting-edge ideas and new thinking to put forth, and to give them a platform from which to voice those ideas; and
Second, to engage the national field in serious discussion geared towards generating specific concrete proposals and strategies for solving existing challenges.

I hope this might spur further discussion across the country, and even that other people will hold their own local dinner parties to discuss the issues, examine new ideas, and to share the results of those conversations.  Should the project prove successful, we are contemplating initiating discussions with funders to support such local / regionally based dinner parties as part of a more comprehensive attempt to jumpstart and nurture serious new idea generation and a national conversation around those ideas.  One thought would be to hold one of these dinner parties every year, and perhaps tie it in with a national arts organization and have the actual dinner party at their national conference (perhaps with a live audience) - but at least with a companion session - something like “Dessert With the Arts Dinner-vention Party Guests” or “Breakfast With the Arts Dinner-vention Party Guests” as a way to allow for some follow up questions and a means to continue and expand the discussion.

So...........who would you invite if you were hosting such a dinner party?  Who would be on your ‘fantasy’ list?  We want inventive, creative, serious thinkers who have something to say and will contribute to an engaging, in-depth conversation on one or two major issues facing the sector -- and put forth specific ideas to move us forward. We aren’t  looking for the people you usually think of as exemplified by the Most Powerful and Influential list.  We want those who are to a large degree still unheralded, but who are highly regarded as the future of the field; people without the same voice as those who have been in the field long enough to develop power and influence, but who have something to say and ought to be heard.

Hopefully, you would give a little thought to where these people came from, their backgrounds and areas of expertise, how they might complement each other, and all of that (so that there would be great diversity at the table, and that the conversation would be lively and provocative.)  The primary candidates any good dinner party host seeks are people with ideas - dynamic thinkers and communicators with new ways of thinking about the challenges we face.

In short, this would be a dinner party of people you would like to hear from because you think they would have something to say; people you would invite to your fantasy dinner party.   It's a chance to identify a group of people that might differ from the Most Powerful list, and acknowledge and recognize all those folks and give them a platform.

As a way to help you think in terms of who you might want to invite, we suggest that people who fit any of the following categories would likely make for a memorable dinner party, and hope you might include as many people who would fit one or more of these categories as you can (though you are free to nominate any 8 to 12 people you like on your guest list):

The Connector*  - the person who links us to the world; those with huge networks of contacts and who span different spheres and sectors; the bridge builder with multiple perspectives.
The Maven* - the person who accumulates knowledge; the one who is the information broker and wants to share their new information.  The constant thinker.
The Salesperson* - the charismatic person with powerful negotiation skills who plays the role of the persuader.
*the first three categories are Malcolm Gladwell’s the Tipping Point categories.

Here are some others:
The Provocateur - the person who provokes and pushes towards new solutions and acceptance of upending the status quo.
The Power Broker - the person who can move other people and organizations to act based on knowledge, insider position and the ability to identify and implement what kinds of influence are necessary to effect change.
The Visionary - the one with the long range big picture in mind; the person who sees the future - what it will be and what it might be; a realistic dreamer.
The Organizer / Ring Leader - the person who provides on the ground leadership to get things done. The take charge leader with experience under his / her belt.
The Cynic / Skeptic - the person who plays Devil’s Advocate and asks the hard questions and keeps in check unbridled enthusiasm based more on passion than reality.
The Risk Taker - the person who argues for bold moves and action now.
The Master of Bureaucracy and Detail - the person in the trenches who actually makes things happen; the one who knows how to get things done and wade through all the detail.  The one who works with the Organizer.
The Policy Wonk / Geek - the theoretician; the student and strategist who revels in overarching implications.
The Practitioner / Artist - the centerpiece of why we all do what we do.
The Technology Guru - the tech nerd who understands and revels in all the latest technological advances and who understands their long range implications and how they might be applied to the field.

Those who might fit these descriptions can come from any area of the arts - from government agencies to foundation funders; from advocates to bloggers; from arts education people to discipline based organizations (e.g., dance, theater, museums, music, film et. al); from national service organizations to local groups; from consultants to policy wonks to researchers; from established organizations to avant garde recently launched enterprises; from senior managers to newbies; from administrators to artists.  Age, background, experience, geography et. al  are not necessarily the criteria to keep in mind.

➡As an incentive for you to think about this and help us, everyone who submits a list of candidates for consideration for the final guest list  - will be entered into a random drawing and one person will be chosen to attend the actual dinner party - all expenses paid.

You can submit your list of eight to twelve dinner party guests to me at   Nominate anyone you would like, including yourself, or even those individuals on our advisory vetting committee (though committee members so nominated would not comment, nor vote, on their own nominations).  Please include - for each name on the list - the person’s job title, organizational affiliation, contact phone and email (if available), and if you can, in just a few words, why you included that person (and, if applicable, what category they might fit).  The deadline for submissions is:   November 20, 2012.

I would greatly appreciate it if you would pass this on (and publicize it) to people within your sphere.  The more names submitted for possible guests to the Arts Dinner-vention, the better.

Thank you for your consideration.

Have a good week.

Don’t Quit

Sunday, September 16, 2012

Leveling the Playing Field

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

There has been much discussion this year about equity - particularly in funding support for arts organizations and in access to services.  It is no secret that a disproportionately larger percentage share of funding has for a long time gone to the larger, bigger budget, major cultural organizations across the country.  That those organizations are predominantly euro-centric has raised questions of diversity and fundamental fairness. While shifting demographics continue to accelerate the change in population dynamics and portend for the future changes in where the centers of decision making will lie, and while that landscape will predictably change in time, as 2013 approaches, the playing field continues to favor the older guard pretty much across the board.  Despite all our attempts to deal with it, inequity still exists.

Some of that advantage is attributable to a long and vaulted history of the more favored organizations producing excellent product.  Having done it longer, they are more experienced and have learned over time how to not only achieve excellence in programming, but function as more efficient and effective managers and administrators. Some of it is due to their audiences themselves in a better position to both be an audience and to support the arts organizations that cater to them.   Larger budgets, of course, allow for staffing and attention being paid to details that the smaller, poorer arts organizations can only dream of with envy.  Most of what we classify as major cultural institutions - symphonies, operas, museums, theatre groups, ballet companies - all got bigger because they did things right.  Having worked hard to achieve it, they deserve their success, and that success has benefited the arts on the local and national stages.  But we need to remember that they were able to do things right because they got the lion's share of the available support.

A price was paid for that, for the smaller, newer and the multicultural arts organizations rarely got treated the same.  And their audiences and their supporters were not as able to nurture their existence.

The current tough economic climate hits all our organizations.  It is harder for all to steer a course through the economic minefields, to successfully raise funds and reach financial stability, and to address the daunting challenges of changing audiences and philanthropic giving.

Is this an issue that ought to be further addressed?  Haven't we dealt with it already, and for some time? While I know of no research or data that confirms, let alone measures the extent, that a segment of the arts has suffered because of the playing field favoring some over others, it seems clear to me that, on its face, the anecdotal evidence that there has been, and continues to be, an inequity, is overwhelming and universal.   It is difficult to imagine a convincing argument to the contrary.

For the future, the demographics will eventually favor those multicultural groups once given the short end of the stick.  But for now, the questions arise as to what we should do: (1) should we not try to (finally) do something (more) that will level the playing field, so that those arts organizations in the corners of the field that have for a long time been outside looking in, are, to the extent that is possible, given a chance to grow, expand and thrive on at least a more favorable basis then they have in the past (on a "competitive" level)?; and (2) how can we best create that more level playing field for them, while at the same time not abandoning that which has existed for a long time, nor somehow adopting a reverse unleveling of the playing field by merely favoring a new cohort?

What are we talking about when we reference an unequal playing field?  Here’s a small example:  major organizations have budgets that allow them to provide for at least some professional development / skills training for their managers (senior to middle, and in some cases entry level.  Not that they all avail themselves of the option, but most could if they so desired).  Most smaller, younger, organizations, including many of the multicultural organizations, simply do not have the funds in their budgets to allow them to similarly provide that support to their staffs.  While there are foundation and government programs that recognize the need and offer some specific subsidies, they are not universal, and while some benefit, many others do not (and though I do not know for sure, I suspect much of the funding of many of those programs goes to the bigger cultural organizations anyway). Moreover, more funding means you can hire more experienced people.  Staffs with training options, and better salaries are better positioned to effectively and successfully manage their organizations.  So the rich seem to, if not get richer, stay rich anyway. That is just one tiny example of how the playing field has not been level.

Are we talking about some kind of “affirmative action” or something else?  Is there anything inherently unfair or wrong to try at this point to make up for past inequities by redirecting some of our energies, focus and funds in a campaign directly designed to increase the opportunities for all the arts organizations to survive - focusing specifically on those that have toiled without?  That was, I think, the underlying assumption and justification for a lot of multicultural specific programs we have launched over the past three or four decades.  When I was at the California Arts Council we had several programs that addressed multicultural needs.  I didn’t start those programs; they existed before I got there.  They were well received and succeeded in some ways to level the field in California.  When I first lobbied the legislature for more money, I got an additional two million dollars, with the caveat that the money would be used to address the needs of the state’s various multicultural communities.  Such programs do exist all over the country.  Many have been at the least somewhat successful over time in leveling the playing field.  Yet, when the dollars started to dry up, many of these programs were the ones that went by the wayside.  And while these were, and are still, exemplary programs - they were never universal, and even now the playing field still remains unequal.  The work was started, but not finished.  That is the challenge.

Obviously there are insufficient funds to provide all things to all organizations.  Reality dictates that there is always some degree of inequality.  Some organizations will get more, some less.  Some may deserve more, others less.  The issue isn’t absolute equality for everyone.  The issue is whether there is equity in the access of all to the pie.  Does the system favor one group over others in its provision to them of benefits that makes it easier for them to succeed?  Whether intentionally, or unintentionally - it doesn't matter.   If the playing field isn’t level, then the danger is the existence of unequal, and unfair advantages for some, that are not available to others.  Without that access, you remain a ‘have-not’.

It isn't just a matter of a new program, nor good intentions.  There are systemic obstacles to leveling the playing field for the ‘have-nots’ - protocols and procedures, rules and regulations, habits and legacies, policies and customs that perpetuate the inequities.   Here are four examples: (i)  protocols and rules that ban organizations with less than two, three, or four years existence from applying for grants (ostensibly and arguably to insure that a grantee will be fiscally responsible and have the capacity to meet its stated intent - but with the net effect that it is axiomatically more difficult to launch new efforts by new organizations within specific communities); (ii) in some instances, lack of a ban of having foundation or government board members also sitting on the boards of major cultural institution grantees (and even where that conflict of interest is resolved by the Board member abstaining from voting, or the ban is in place, the camaraderie of the “good old boy” network insures that everyone’s pet project is taken care of - that is simply how it works), and even where there is no such potential conflict of interest, more of the decision makers come from, or have deep ties to and relationships with, the groups that get most of the benefits;  (iii) inadequate access to limited facilities by the legacy of a historical priority system;  (iv) rules that prohibit grants to organizations more frequently than one every X number of years or back to back grants (again on its face, seemingly designed to actually level the playing field, but the application does the opposite because the amount of the grants going to the “haves” is disproportionately larger than to the “have nots” and so the ban impacts the big guys less).   All of that worked - though subtlety - (and continues in many cases to work) to keep the field from being level.  It isn’t consciously conspiratorial, but it is now built into the fabric of how we do things.  We need to look at it all carefully and fix what is broken.

Blame is not the issue.  Nor is the past.  Justification, rationalization, complaints and grievances - none of that really matters.  The issue is where do we go from here.  And please note that I am not suggesting that in all instances the inequity is so large as to be unconscionable, rather just that the inequities do exist, are pervasive, and need to be addressed.

If you want to talk about doing something about inequity - at least in this one sphere, I  think what is needed is some major, overarching commitment of all the sector’s funders - government and private - and the rest of us -  to work towards a level playing field - however that might ultimately be defined, and however it might be best manifested at a local level.  We need, in my opinion, a LINC type decade long program, a PEW DATA level project (but on an even bigger scale) that will have as its stated objective to make sure that the “have nots”  in our sector at least have more access to moving to become “haves”.  A leveling of the playing field at least in access to the tools and assets that will allow all organizations equal opportunity to be viable arts providers and makers.   Obviously, that kind of effort will take different forms and different directions across different communities.  No cookie cutter approach will likely be possible or even desirable.

And yes, as alluded to above, there are already scores of programs already in existence that seek to do just that.  And many other programs like GIA’s Capitalization project or even the NEA's Creative Placemaking efforts - the net effect of which would be to help level the playing field by coming at it from a different direction - are part of the larger solution.  But too much of our approach to dealing with an unequal playing field is like a crazy quilt of unrelated fabric; the effort is disjointed, and haphazard.  The intent gets lost in the translation.  The effort is backdoor or as a beneficial and positive side effect.  The problem never seems to really go away.

But to give more to some, doesn’t that mean taking away more from others?  I suppose it does, but it is all a matter of degree, and for so long we have been doing just that in favor of some at the expense of others.  Accepting that some will get more, others will get less, that it is impossible to be precisely and always fair and equitable, nevertheless, the time has come to try harder to level that out.

I think we need a program that speaks to all that with a single voice on a mega level; one that embodies a commitment of, and to, the field.  I think we need a JFK type “We will land a man on the moon and return him safely within a decade” type commitment - an unequivocal, four-square marshaling of our forces (by the whole of us) to try harder to do one simple thing - whatever it takes to level the playing field  so that the former have-nots can stay in the race with the haves.  And staying in the race is the challenge for many now.

After awhile rhetoric wears thin no matter how eloquent, no matter how impassioned, no matter how true - and people need more than plans, more than promises, more than good intentions - more even than hope - they need something tangible. We need a system in place for the whole of us, not the few.

We need to say out loud that we will level the field.  And then we need to do that.

Have a great week.

Don’t Quit

Sunday, September 9, 2012

The Future of LAAs and the Subsidy Model of Arts Support

Good morning.
“And the beat goes on............................”

New feature:  What Are You Reading?:  Reading something you think is really interesting and would be of interest to others in our field?  Book, article, paper, study - whatever.  Share it with me so I can pass it on.  I recently came across a new Journal of Entrepreneurship in the Arts called ARTIVATE published by Arizona State University.  Check it out.

For decades the Local Arts Agency (LAA) has been the backbone of the national network of arts provision in America.  From just 40 agencies a half century ago, the number grew to over 5,000.  Most of these organizations are nonprofits (2/3), the remainder municipal agencies (1/3) of local government.  While their activities and programs differ from place to place, their missions to provide support and services to local communities for the most part, do not.  Most act as ‘hub’ clearinghouses and central points in those cities and towns, and provide connections, intersections and bridges within the sector and between the arts communities and stakeholders as far ranging as the PTA to local businesses.  Many, if not most, are granting or re-granting agencies that provide direct support to arts organizations and / or artists (According to Americans for the Arts, two-thirds of LAAs have grant programs.)  Most have programs that seek to support arts education in the schools, and a variety of ways to help arts organization managers and administrators - ranging from professional development and training, to internships, to convening, to communications.  Many are directly involved in heritage programs, some manage local facilities.  Many grew quite large, others remain rural, small and grassroots in approach.

What virtually all have in common (with much of the rest of our field)  is that their operational budgets are subsidized - either by local, state or the federal government, or some public revenue stream (a dedicated tax or a percentage of a local hotel tax as an example), or by private foundations and / or corporations.  Very little LAA income can be characterized as “earned” income, very little is in the form of individual donations.  The LAA is the penultimate embodiment of the subsidy model for the arts, but the arts as a whole are a subsidized industry.

The granting or re-granting programs at the core of the services provided by LAAs  range the gamut from operational and program support, to arts education, to underserved populations, to multicultural support, to marketing, to innovative and experimental incubator programs of various types, to professional development, to direct services benefiting artists.  Grants not only go to arts organizations, but schools, hospitals, community groups and more.  Indeed, more out of the box thinking originated in LAA grant programs than almost any other quarter of our sector.    These grant programs helped to make LAAs relevant and important locally, and that in turn helped them to leverage the power of the aggregate of local arts organizations to benefit the community.

In the latest issue of the New Yorker, in an article describing the maturing relationship between Bill Clinton and Barack Obama, Clinton is quoted as saying at one point that “it takes ten years to recover from a financial crisis that is rooted in a housing collapse."  Ten years -- and we are now in the fourth year of that decade.  Assuming arguendo there is truth to that assertion, and that the current lingering global crisis is even more acute than past downturns,  it isn’t unreasonable to assume that all the pressures that are on LAAs today - tight, penny pinching government budgets, increased demands of arguably higher priority spending (from health care, to infrastructure repairs, to education, to public safety), non-competitive advocacy and lobbying mechanisms where compared to other special interest groups, private philanthropic re-direction of funds and priorities, increased attacks by conservative groups - will all only get more intense.  Already, we see that kind of pressure resulting in the closure or significant downsizing of LAAs across the country - particularly in smaller, less affluent jurisdictions.  And even in larger, wealthier venues, staff, services and granting budgets have been frequently, measurably cut back .

The question must be asked:  How long will the ‘subsidy’ model of financial stability - at least for LAAs - remain viable?  And if someday in the not too distant future, because there simply isn’t the money available anymore from any level of government, or because other priorities have claimed greater private funding prioritization (even within arts funding), LAAs are no longer in the granting or re-granting business, what might they morph into so as to still have value, relevance to the local arts communities, and impact on those communities?  If the local government entity or a major foundation were to slash support, the LAA may not only be out of the grant making business, it may be out of business altogether.

How could LAAs remain supportive to local arts organizations and efforts in their local communities?  If not money, what could they provide that would keep them relevant and valuable?  What would a re-invented LAA look like, and do they already exist?

Having spent the majority of my nonprofit arts professional career closely involved in the sub-universe of LAAs, I think there are a number of critically important, and continuously relevant roles that LAAs can play in our future (and I am sure many already do some or all of the following):

 First, LAAs are “hubs” - and the role of a locally central point, out from which bridges to all parts of the community can fan, is of critical importance to all manner of needs - from professional networking, to brokering potential collaborations, to communications, to leveraging knowledge, to incubating new ideas, to being the liaison to stakeholders.  Without the LAA all of these kinds of things will need to be housed somewhere, or it will be axiomatically that much more difficult for any of these needs to be met at all.  Perhaps, the new LAA will focus more on its role as a hub and all that might imply.

 Second, LAAs have traditionally played at least a connective role in local advocacy efforts - from organization, to volunteer recruitment and management,  from training to communicating what is happening outside the sector that impacts us.  Even without a grants program, this is an area where a stepped up effort will, potentially, be enormously valuable in the survival of the whole local scene.  I can see the next generation LAA being much more active, and ultimately more powerful, in this arena.

 Third, While, not offering money directly, LAAs can continue to be helpful to local organizations in identifying where funds might be, in applying for those funds, in exploring new options (from technological innovations like Kickstarter to whatever else comes down the innovation pike), in training for fundraising and in exploring as yet untapped new sources.

Fourth,  I can see stepped up efforts by LAAs to be new centers in the effort to better train our administrators and provide professional development opportunities and options, as both coordinator and aggregator to organizing talent within the field to serve the field.

 Fifth, I can see LAAs increasing their role in making the case for local arts, including managing the media and selling the importance of the local industry to business and other communities of interest.

 Sixth, there is a role for the LAA to be more of a center of research - at least in the sense of identifying where current research is and connecting the local field to that research.  LAAs can take on the role of conducting local surveys, holding focus groups, and networking to local universities in more professional enterprises.

 Seventh, LAAs can continue to play a role in supporting emerging leaders, providing internship programs and giving voice to the next cohort of leadership.  Similarly they can continue to act as a lobby for diversity.

 Eight, LAAs are the logical entity to convene a wide variety of local gatherings that will help address local issues - both within the arts community and outside of it.

 Ninth, LAAs can expand their role in championing local artists and nurture local efforts to address artist's issues by giving a voice to that community.  From Open Studios programs to professional development there are countless specific programs LAAs can be a part of.

 Tenth, perhaps the real strength, and the greatest (as yet probably still unrealized) potential of the LAAs is in their acting in concert with each other.  They are themselves a network that can communicate with, unify, galvanize and marshall the entire arts field in ways no other element within our sector can.  The LAAs are one of the greatest "branch office" systems in America in any field.  Imagine, 5000 branch offices!  More than almost any company in America but for fast food and operations like Starbucks or 7-11.  Way more than any retail outlet, way more than Apple, probably more than Fed Ex, way more than most banks even.  We really ought to be tapping more into the potential of that asset than we have been doing in the past.  Back when Americans for the Arts was still NALAA, there was, I think, a greater sense of the locals as a community.

Of course, while this presupposes that LAAs might no longer be in the granting business, all of the above envision that there is still some income flowing into the LAAs and that the subsidy model (for LAAs) is not yet completely dead.  All the above can be done on far smaller budgets than the LAA universe has enjoyed in the past, but I sincerely doubt that it can all be done by volunteers; and it will cost something.  It is theoretically one model of re-invention for LAAs.

But we ought to also consider the possibility that the subsidy model for the arts in general may at some point no longer be viable.  If Romney, for example were elected, and made good on his public pronouncement* that he would zero out funding for the NEA, that might signal a wholesale attack on any (and every) kind of public arts funding, and while I doubt that would come to pass - dire economic straights would likely make it an attractive position to many - if for no other reason than as a symbol of a growing conservative viewpoint.  So it is also perhaps legitimate to ask what happens if the subsidy funding is no longer available at all? What happens if there is no more government subsidy - none? What happens (for LAAs anyway) if philanthropic support virtually dries up?   In which case, one critical question will be who will take on and provide all those services (and others) that LAAs already do, and might take on?  Nobody?  Then what?
*Note:  Here is Governor's Romney's position on the NEA as reported August 6 in Fortune magazine:
"So first there are programs I would eliminate. Obamacare being one of them but also various subsidy programs -- the Amtrak subsidy, the PBS subsidy, the subsidy for the National Endowment for the Arts, the National Endowment for the Humanities. Some of these things, like those endowment efforts and PBS I very much appreciate and like what they do in many cases, but I just think they have to stand on their own rather than receiving money borrowed from other countries, as our government does on their behalf."    
My fear here is that the Governor, in singling out, now on more than one occasion, the NEA for elimination (not cuts), is that he is backing himself into a corner and that it will be (if he is elected) more difficult for him to later come off this position, and that will make our job of lobbying effectively as to why such elimination is not in the best interests of the nation that much more problematic.  
I urge foundations across the sector to consider carefully the critical importance of the continued existence of LAAs to the communities they fund, and to the stated aims and objectives of their own arts programs.  Whatever areas your foundation is involved in, whatever aspirations you have for the arts in your community, whatever programs you seek to support and hope will succeed, the LAA is potentially your greatest partner.  And if your LAA disappears, I can almost guarantee that your programs will suffer.

The really bigger question is whether or not the subsidy model for the whole nonprofit arts in general might ever be so threatened that it collapses?  A time where there is no longer any government money in any meaningful amount at any level; no longer enough private sector foundation and / or corporation money to matter?  Is it possible that someday the arts will need to be funded almost entirely by individual philanthropic efforts coupled with earned income?   What would that look like if subsidy support largely disappeared?  Can we do anything to anticipate and prepare for that partial eventuality, no matter how remote?  Is it something we ought to look at?  In scenario planning, one considers ALL the possibilities, and this one seems less remote to me than some other possibilities  ---  NOT because of the political motivation behind it, but because of the economic reality.  There is ample evidence to suggest that America's share of the world global wealth pie will continue to decline on a per capita basis, as other nation's shares increase.  Even if the pie continues to get bigger, our percentage is unlikely to again support all that our once disproportionately larger share allowed.  Even harder choices loom on our horizon.  And the arts will increasingly be seen as one of those choices.  Eventually, it is possible the powers that be, or the public itself, forced between all the hard choices, will have no choice but to choose something other than us.  So we ought to be talking about the possibility of that kind of (partial) funding stream collapse, and more importantly how we can first prevent that, and absent that, then how we can adapt.

Have a good week.

Don’t Quit

Sunday, September 2, 2012

Interview with Shannon Daut

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

Shannon Daut is the former Deputy Director of WESTAF and the current Executive Director of the Alaska State Council on the Arts

Here is the interview:
BARRY:  What is your vision for the agency? What are the three things you would like to accomplish in your new post in the next 12 months, and how are you planning to go about realizing those objectives?  Why did you pick the three goals you did?

SHANNON:  Alaska is a unique state, with an incredibly rich cultural history. I am continually amazed by the breadth and sophistication of artistic projects that are happening here. Alaska is also a young state, with an arts infrastructure that is still developing, which I see as a great opportunity for smart, contemporary growth. My vision for the Alaska State Council on the Arts is to be an agent for innovation and effective growth of the sector. I want to stretch our agency beyond just the traditional role of grantmaking (which is important, don’t get me wrong!) and serve as a connector for artists and arts organizations throughout the state so that they can be even more effective in serving their communities and the citizens of Alaska. I also see our agency as having a vital role in helping to grow the state economically, while helping to address and ameliorate some of the social issues we face.

In my first twelve months, I am working to 1) strengthen the arts and community networks across the state; 2) lay the groundwork for an Alaska Cultural Trust; and 3) streamline our grants processes.

Strengthening Networks
In many ways, I see Alaska as analogous to the WESTAF-region in which I worked for over 12 years. Both have tremendously vast and diverse geographic areas to cover--including large swaths of rural areas; also, both have limited resources that must be maximized. Because we can’t be on the ground throughout the state, we rely on strong networks to be able to effectively serve Alaska citizens. I quickly learned that, while the state is geographically enormous, the population base is small and everyone seems to know everyone--especially in the arts. The degrees of separation are tiny. However, during our statewide arts conference in January I learned that a group of filmmakers who were on a panel together had never before met, either “virtually” or in person. This surprised me and made me realize the importance of bringing various groups of artists and arts organizations together to share their work, projects and ideas. ASCA can play a vital role in developing these networks so that our arts community is better connected.

Alaska Cultural Trust
For the past few years, ASCA has engaged with a group of leaders throughout the state to work on developing a cultural trust in Alaska. During this past legislative session, we were able to secure funds to research the feasibility and potential approaches for establishing a Cultural Trust for the state. We envision that the Alaska Cultural Trust can be used to spark a new citizen-wide movement around the arts and culture. One of the primary approaches we are considering is developing a broad coalition of arts and non-arts entities in partnership to address social needs and issues in the state. For example, Alaska has a suicide rate of twice the national average, and the epidemic tends to hit rural villages the hardest. The arts can be a powerful tool to help communities heal from these tragedies, as well as assist in suicide prevention efforts.

Streamlining Grants
At ASCA we have a small staff of six, and we manage 12 grant programs. Our staff time is so precious that we will be re-envisioning our grant programs and streamlining the processes involved in administering the grants.  Giving grants is an important part of our work; however, the administration of grants does not need to absorb the lion’s share of staff time. My goal is to minimize the amount of time it takes to administer our funding programs in order to free up staff to focus their energy more on developing the infrastructure of the arts sector in Alaska, by providing technical assistance, professional development opportunities and non-grant programs that can have a high impact for our constituencies.

BARRY;  As the Deputy Director of WESTAF you've been intimately involved in providing services and counsel to the Executive Directors of the state arts agencies in the west.  Knowing the issues as you do, what do you think will be your biggest challenge in leading an SAA?

SHANNON:  Having worked so closely with SAAs during my time at WESTAF, I had a very good sense of what I was getting into! Yet still, the sheer level and scope of bureaucracy is daunting. I could easily get sucked into the “weeds” and never get around to enacting my strategic vision for the arts in Alaska. So, that is a constant challenge--to keep focused on the vision while learning to navigate the red tape (and then to master it).

The other challenge, always, is that we don’t have the funds to match our big ideas. One of the surprises I encountered was that in state government the budget is capped in terms of what you can bring in--apart from the state appropriation. Coming from WESTAF, where I helped develop a variety of earned income streams, this is a bit stifling. However, we are working to increase the cap so that we can utilize earned income to expand our programs and strengthen the arts infrastructure throughout the state.

BARRY:  Alaska is unique because of its low population base and vast geographic expanses. What challenges and opportunities do you see for unifying a statewide force to bring the entire nonprofit arts sector together and develop a greater “sense of community”.  How might you address that situation?

SHANNON:  Alaska is a really really big small town. And, as I mentioned earlier, everyone seems to know each other--yet I have heard time and time again from arts leaders that they yearn to learn more about what their peers in other Alaskan communities are doing, their successes, their challenges. So we will be enacting a network approach to help connect these communities of artists and arts administrators together. We launched our Facebook page about a month ago (like us at:!) and are trying out some Facebook groups to give different cohorts the opportunity to dialogue with each other. We’ll also be implementing things like webinars, teleconferences, video meetings and the like. I’m a big proponent of technology, but it can never replace the value of in-person convenings. ASCA has hosted an arts conference every three years, and we’re moving that to every two years and will hopefully be supplementing that convening with annual opportunities for people to come together and connect with each other. And lastly, ASCA can expand its role as a connector of people and projects that are happening across the state--by helping people connect with others who are working on complementary projects or goals, we can help strengthen the arts across the state.

BARRY:  You mentioned the Alaska Cultural Trust. How do you plan to advance that effort, and what is your vision for an Alaska Cultural Trust?

SHANNON:  As I mentioned, we have received funds that will help propel this project forward. I envision the Alaska Cultural Trust as a mechanism to expand the constituency of arts supporters. We are lucky in Alaska that so many citizens and elected officials understand the value of the arts--but I want to develop the Cultural Trust in such a way that it engages people outside of our “camp” to recognize the value that the arts brings to their lives. Recently I struck up a conversation at the Anchorage airport with a gentleman who asked what brought me to Alaska; upon my response that it was to lead the Alaska State Council on the Arts, his immediate--and emphatic--reaction was “the arts are for sissies!” I love these random conversations, because it gives a glimpse into what the average citizen thinks about the arts. So, I asked some follow up questions and, came to find out he had played in the band at his high school and he thought it was important for his children to also learn to play musical instruments. This exchange reinforced for me that the arts are important in people’s lives, but we need to adapt our messaging.

My vision for the Alaska Cultural Trust is to utilize the arts to advance and strengthen Alaska’s communities--be it through suicide prevention, economic development, workforce development, STEAM education, foodways and agriculture, “buy local” initiatives, circumpolar issues, Alaska Native language preservation or any other of the myriad of ways that the arts can help solve our most pressing problems.

BARRY:  There have been considerable resources, time, energy and commitment in the field to the emerging leaders movement in the arts--something I know you have been very involved with.  How specifically will you as the new ASCA Director support and expand those efforts? What do you see as the pressing needs for leadership development in the state?

SHANNON:  We have a unique situation in Alaska, as paid jobs in the arts are not proliferate and there are some real challenges for emerging leaders to have the opportunity to develop an arts career while staying within their community--most importantly if they are outside of an urban area. A lot of our arts organizations are volunteer- and board-run, which presents a challenge for younger people who are looking for paid employment in the arts--at a livable wage, no less. So, one factor in any leadership development program that we enact will be helping arts organizations establish business plans so that they can work towards having paid employees. At the same time, Alaska--like much of the country--has benefited from community leaders who have worked much of their lives to establish and build arts organizations in their communities. Many of these leaders are now considering retirement, so we need to ensure that there is a pipeline of arts professionals who are ready and equipped to take on the proverbial mantle and continue the work.

This issue is not specific to Alaska, nor is it specific to the arts. But there are a number of efforts underway here to provide leadership development opportunities for emerging leaders. ASCA is partnering with the Institute of the North, which has an existing leadership program, to host an arts leaders conversation later this fall. This will be the first of our efforts to establish a leadership development program at ASCA.

BARRY:  If I had asked you six months ago what you thought were the three major issues (other than funding) facing state arts agencies across the country, and asked you the same question now - would there be any differences in your response?  What makes you optimistic about the future of state arts agencies, and what concerns you the most?

SHANNON:  My thoughts on the major issues that SAAs face is not very different from what it was six months ago. To me, the biggest factor is relevance. How are SAAs relevant to the citizens of their state? Also, how are SAAs relevant to the artists and arts organizations they serve and fund? These are two very different questions, both of which I think are crucially important to the future of SAAs.

In terms of relevance to citizens, I believe we need to do a better job of highlighting the ways in which we serve communities--requiring our logos on program brochures doesn’t seem to be doing it. I don’t know the silver-bullet answer, but I believe it requires more than a marketing push. I think a lot of citizens, of all political persuasions, feel that the “Arts” are elitist and that public investments in the arts are not worthwhile--and this, to me, says that we are not doing enough to illustrate the value of those public investments. We’ve made some big strides in recent years on this front, but I think there is more to be done to broaden our coalitions.

In terms of relevance to artists and arts organizations, I think we are relevant but not to the scale that we were during the “boom” years for arts funding. At a recent ASCA council meeting we talked about re-envisioning the way in which we give out grants. A council member mentioned that, in the 80s (which was a HUGE boom in funding for the arts in Alaska, due to the Pipeline) the council was having discussions about whether or not it was responsible for ASCA to be providing over 50% of the organization’s operating budget in operating support grants to organizations. Today, we are in a very different world; our average percentage (to grantee’s operating budget) of operating support funding is around 1-2%. With diminished grant dollars, how are we remaining relevant to the arts organizations that we serve?

I am optimistic about ASCA’s future. In Alaska we have an innovative spirit, coupled with an incredibly strong “can do” attitude. Our arts organizations are not entrenched and ossified, so we are nimble and open to new ways of doing business. ASCA will provide the tools to organizations as they navigate these waters of change and innovation.

BARRY:  In your new position as the head of the Alaska State Council on the Arts, what specific services would you like to see provided by WESTAF, the NEA and NASAA?  Do you perceive any needs that are currently unmet by the services provided by those organizations?

SHANNON:  Understandably I’m a bit biased, but I think WESTAF does a singular job providing extremely valuable services to its SAAs, and public arts agencies across the country. WESTAF has a high bar of expectations and consistently looks toward advancement, not the status quo. NASAA has done tremendous work, most recently on the advocacy/policy front of the 40% of NEA funds that go to states, which I think is a crucial element for showing that public dollars are going into all the nooks and crannies of our country. When people think NEA arts funding, they often talk about “high art” and why can’t high art sustain itself? The appropriation to the states ensures that these public dollars are hitting the ground where the impact of arts programming has significant effects in communities. The NEA funds we receive are crucial to the state allocation that we receive, and I admire their efforts to broaden the coalition of agencies that they work with (USDA, HUD, etc.), as well as their work to advance the conversation around creative placemaking and its importance to communities.

However, as a young-ish person now leading an SAA, I think that the NEA and NASAA could be doing more in the area of leadership development. I worry about the future of the public-sector arts in this country and strongly believe that we need to be cultivating the new leaders to take the helm when so many terrific stalwarts of the sector retire. I also think that the NEA and NASAA need to be focusing on the ways in which SAAs--and arts organizations in general--can adapt to radically changing governmental structures and audience participation patterns. How can we as a field be more proactive in our environments? We are the creative sector, after all, so how can we encourage more creative problem-solving around the issues that our field faces?

BARRY:  Historically the relationship between the state arts agency and the state advocacy group, and to some extent the relationship between the state arts agency and the state arts educational coalition, have been (at best) arms-length, and (at worst) strained and dysfunctional.  What do you think are the keys to making those relationships more harmonious and collaborative?

SHANNON:  Alaska does not yet have a state arts advocacy group, though we do encourage our grantees to educate their elected officials about the value of the arts to their constituencies. We enjoy a terrific working relationship with our Alaska Arts Education Consortium--and partner with them on a variety of activities to strengthen arts education across the state. I think the key to making those relationships work effectively is to coalesce around a shared vision that is strategic and compelling. To ensure that both entities are in alignment with the big “WHY” of what they are doing. So often, advocacy revolves around the dollars--we advocate for SAAs because we receive grant dollars from them, and we want to receive more! Yet this can restrict SAAs from trying out new ways of serving artists, arts organizations, communities or citizens--ways that might help their constituencies create new revenue streams or develop new approaches that would lead to greater success. A shared vision around something larger than grant appropriations--a bigger, bolder vision--is critical to establishing a successful SAA/advocacy relationship.

BARRY:  With Alaska's vast geography and rural nature, what challenges do you foresee in the audience development area?  Do you subscribe to the current "engagement" thinking and how might that theory be applied in Alaska?

SHANNON:  I follow the new trends in community engagement closely. In fact, I teach an online graduate-level course in new models of arts programming and participation. Alaska has some unique challenges with regard to audience development--first and foremost that there is a very limited population to serve. Perseverance Theatre, based in Juneau, did some great work to mitigate this issue. They saw that the bulk of their costs went toward developing and producing the work, so they looked for ways to maximize their investment, which resulted in them bringing part of their season to Anchorage, in partnership with the Performing Arts Center and Anchorage Concert Association. This allowed them to reach new audiences while extending the investment they made in the production of the performances that had previously only shown in Juneau. This creative approach has proven wildly successful, and they have also held community conversations around the state to see how they might broaden their service statewide. So, there are a lot of possibilities for how to use the geographic challenges to our advantage!

In terms of how engagement theories might be applied to Alaska, we have a plethora of professional and amateur artists. I was just in Homer, and the Mayor brought up a community-wide ukulele concert that they started--a perfect example of how new models of engagement are activating communities and encouraging citizens to lead expressive lives. Because communities are so close-knit here, we have a lot of potential to develop new ways of engaging citizens in the arts.


Have a good week.

Don't Quit.