Sunday, October 28, 2012

The Election and the Future of the NEA

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

What is the Future of the NEA post election?
The election has everyone on a high anxiety level.  No matter which one is your guy, you wonder: will he win, how will the swing states go?  Is Hurricane / Tropical Storm Sandy a game changer in terms of voter turnout?  Will Latinos and young people turn out?  Will women support the GOP?  It’s a cliffhanger and the country is on edge - waiting, nervously.

This has certainly been one of the hardest elections to figure out in a long time - in terms of where candidates stand, and what specifically they advocate.   Increasingly, candidates for all offices make conflicting promises to various segments of their potential voter universe.  At the higher levels, it is virtually impossible to deliver on all the promises made.  Yet increasingly too, core bases want to hold the feet of their successful candidates to the fire.  They want promises made to be promises kept.  Doesn’t always work out that way.  Some promises get kept because others cannot be.  Politics is a strange occupation.

I have been talking to scores of arts leaders around the country over the past three weeks - about the level of the threat this year to the arts and specifically to the NEA, and what kinds of strategies we ought to adopt in response to the final outcome.  There is real concern out there in our sector.  The future of the NEA is the elephant in the room, and I am surprised I haven't seen more public talk about the threat - including more blogs on what we should do.  While some people simply cannot imagine the elimination of the Endowment as a possibility, and like Ostriches hiding their heads in the sand, refuse to even accept the possibility, some see Armageddon on the horizon.  Others aren’t so sure.   Almost everyone believes elimination of the Endowment would be a disaster, and huge cuts would have drastic consequences for us.  There are lots of behind the scenes strategies being considered, but in order for any to work, there will need to be a massive showing by our community that elimination of, or even drastic cuts to, the NEA is not just ill considered and damaging policy, but that it is UNACCEPTABLE.

In this election it is hard to know exactly where Romney stands on the arts.  (Obama is seemingly supportive, but he cut the NEA budget last year with no apparent outcry to do so from any quarter.  So while he is nominally a friend - as is, theoretically, the Democratic party - one should not be shocked that in times of difficult decisions  - often times our supporters end up fair-weather friends, who - regrettably, but without more than hand-wringing - are prepared to throw us under the bus.  At the least, it may be unreasonable (and unwise) to expect they will draw any lines in the sand in our defense.)  I hope I am wrong.

Romney says he likes some of what the NEA does.  And given his background and the underlying cultural ethos of the Mormon Church, I believe he does at least have some appreciation for the value of the arts.  That however seems clearly not enough for him to draw any line of his own in our defense.  Where does he stand - exactly?  Hard to say.  Initially (in a USA Op Ed piece back in 2011) he talked about cutting the agency’s budget substantially:
“Enact deep reductions in the subsidies for the National Endowment for the Arts, the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and the Legal Services Corporation.”
Then, as the  campaign got going, he upped the ante as it were and called for the elimination of funding to the Endowment in an interview in Fortune Magazine as reported by the Huffington Post and others, and ala a Sam Brownback and others in his party, and harkening back to Reagan’s position in 1980, Romney pointed to the private sector as the preferable source of arts funding.
“... 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 strand on their own rather than receiving money borrowed from other countries, as our government does on their behalf.”   
On his current website, he seems to have backtracked slightly to now favor (again) a “reduction’ in the NEA subsidy”.
The Federal Government Should Stop Doing Things The American People Can’t Afford, For Instance:
Reduce Subsidies For The National Endowments For The Arts And Humanities, The Corporation For Public Broadcasting, And The Legal Services Corporation — Savings: $600 Million. NEA, NEH, and CPB provide grants to supplement other sources of funding. LSC funds services mostly duplicative of those already offered by states, localities, bar associations and private organizations.”
BTW - That’s not quite accurate.  NEA grants leverage local funding, not supplement it.  There’s a difference.  'But for' the NEA grants there might not be certain other local supplemental funding.  It is the NEA required match in some instances, and the imprimatur of worth and excellence in others, that helps its grantees leverage local funding.

The budgets of these four agencies are roughly as follows:

NEA / NEH - approximately $145 million each x 2 = $290 million
PBS - approximately $325 million
LSC - approximately $425 million

That’s a total of $1.040 billion.  If you want to save $600 million, you need to cut each budget by about 60%.

It really isn’t accidental that these agencies are all included in this example of what to cut.  All are identified (correctly or incorrectly) with the liberal left and all are criticized by the right as promoting in some way a leftist agenda and with siding with forces that are opposed to conservative values.  While many may disagree with such a characterization, from a political standpoint it isn’t totally unreasonable.   Clearly, over time,  the arts have become a symbol for the core conservatives.  Because of his public pronouncements aimed at appeasing this segment of his base, and because, if elected President, he will not be able to make good on all his promises to that base (no President can make good on all his promises to various interest groups), cuts to, or elimination of, the arts may be a “bone” he has to throw to that core.  Romney has boxed himself (and us) into a corner, from which it will be more difficult to move away from.

Is one of these agencies a bigger target than the others?  I don't know.

Because candidates now seem to promise everything to everybody, it is hard to actually know who stands for what.  I think the only prudent thing any interest group can do is to assume a worst case scenario and plan for it in terms of its strategy to protect its interests.

There will be forces in the conservative movement, and possibly in the new Congress (especially if the GOP wins the Senate and / or more Tea Party members get elected) that will argue with the new President that he should eliminate these agencies -- not just reduce their budgets.  For many ideologues on that end of the spectrum, these agencies are symbolic of a government spending program that has expanded into clearly improper areas in which government has no business.  For a few this ideology is so sacrosanct that even the demonstrable result of the loss of jobs (ostensibly the antithesis of the Romney / Ryan promise and the whole underpinning of their road to the White House) notwithstanding, cannot move them from their position.  What will the new President’s response to that kind of pressure be?  Again, hard to know for sure.

In the worst case scenario, elimination of the agency would have a catastrophic negative impact for the sector.  A 3 to 1 loss of the size of the agency’s budget  (to factor in lost leveraged local funds) - for a total of near a half billion dollars - would doubtless mean the potential closure of a dozen state arts agencies, half the regionals, and hundreds of programs of local arts organizations, some of which organizations themselves might not survive so easily.  Hundreds if not a thousand plus jobs lost, and potential significant negative consequences to local facilities operations, tourism and hospitality businesses, and after or out-of-school arts programs.  Those are the obvious and immediate impacts.

There would be other consequences.  Such a catastrophe would put extreme pressure on local foundation funding to try to minimize or reduce the negative consequences of the Endowment’s elimination, and that pressure would call for private funding to make ever harder decisions about what would survive and what would not.  Increased territoriality and self interest could wreck havoc on decades long efforts to reduce competitiveness and build a sense of community within the arts sector - which sense helps foster cooperation and collaboration.  Younger arts administrators would find even  fewer job openings and means to advance their careers within the field.  The increased pressure and stress would affect us all as we struggle for survival.  Artists would find fewer opportunities in communities across the nation.   America would have the distinction of being one of the few western nations on the planet that did not have some official cultural support agency.

A logical argument that may be persuasive with the public and the media, but not necessarily politicians for whom logic is often just a nuisance, is that elimination of the entire NEA budget is but a grain of sand in the Sahara desert of debt; that the NEA leverages multiple times its cost; that it creates jobs and generates significant economic activity resulting in increased tax revenue at all levels.   Moreover, the NEA’s paltry allocation is less than a whole host of other government expenditures that are questionable on any level - including the $445 million going (last year no less) indirectly to Liberty University (the evangelical institution started by Jerry Falwell) in the form of Pell grants, or the $175 million  spent in 2010 by the Department of Veterans Affairs to maintain  hundreds of buildings it doesn’t even occupy.  And the war in Afghanistan was costing us some $300 million PER DAY - Twice the annual NEA Budget.

Assuming arguendo the damage was limited to an across the board 60% reduction of the Endowment's budget, (a 60% cut in the NEA would exceed even the cut made by Reagan by in 1981), that opens up several questions:

  • Would that cut be made across the board to the agency’s budget - of which 40% goes to the states on a per capita basis, with the remainder allocated to the Endowment for its grants programs and operations - or would there be a clamor for more of the money to stay as local allocation?  Remember that anything less than elimination of the agency by zeroing out its funding may be unacceptable to a core base of Romney’s conservative / Tea-Party constituency, and so the argument that this is money that goes back to each state and ultimately district may be more appealing to legislators than a blanket across the board cut to that revenue stream.  
  • How much of the cut would come from the Endowment’s staffing operations?
  • If money earmarked for state agencies was reduced, would some state legislatures which had provided state support to match the Federal money (required under the NEA rules and enabling legislation), lessen or eliminate their contribution - at least to the extent it was no longer required to meet the diminished Federal allocation match?
  • How much local funding would dry up because of leverage lost due to reduced Federal agency grant awards being smaller - or non existent?  
  • Would things like research disappear in favor of continuing granting programs, or would the reverse be true?  
Jobs would still be lost.  Programs would still be cut - which ones would remain to be seen.  The NEA itself would need to operate on more of a skeleton crew.

What we do know is that Romney, like virtually all Presidential candidates of the last quarter century, has made promises to factions within his party that he simply cannot keep.  Too many variables are not within his control, and too many promises were impossible to meet even before they were made.  Comes with the territory no matter who occupies the White House.  So the question is where on the spectrum of what to give up (by way of apology and symbolism from a new President to his constituents) do the arts fall?  I don’t know the answer to that question, but my gut tells me we are vulnerable.

What can we do?  The more “cover” or face saving means that we can provide anyone (including a new President, Administration or potentially supportive members of Congress), the easier it will be for them to support some position that benefits us.  The best defense is to be on the offense.  The best kind of “cover” is demonstrable voter demand for our position.  If enough voters in a given district, or state, or across the country demand something, politicians will virtually always meet that demand.  But it has to be a large number, and the demand must be vocal.  So the best thing we can do is generate evidence of that kind of voter support.  We can do that by a massive contacting of the White House and Congress, and by public support (via meetings, rallies, demonstrations and flash mobs that generate media coverage).

These kinds of things:

  1. Identify and engage Personal contacts with Romney, his key appointees, transition staff, first lady.
  2. Identify and engage Personal contacts with legislators in the new Congress, especially key committee chairs.
  3. Develop and deploy a Massive letter writing, phone call, email barrage of Congress and the White House.  Massive means tens (and maybe hundreds) of thousands of such letters and phone calls, not just hundreds.  
  4. Raise and donate money to the Arts Action Fund & others to hire real lobbyists.  Immediately.
  5. Schedule local town halls, public rallies, flash mobs and the like. Generate media coverage of local outrage.
  6. Schedule meetings with newspaper editorial boards asap.  Get op eds aimed as much at Congress as White House.
  7. Stakeholder mobilization - PTA, Teachers, Chambers of Commerce, Tourism industry
  8. Exploit the nationalistic pride appeal - does America really want to be gthe only western power not to support a cultural agency.
Normally, the prudent protocol with a new incoming Administration, is to amass your data and stories to make your case, and present that case to key members of the transition team as the same begins to act.  But as the new President must present his budget for the next fiscal year (October 2013 to October 2014) by the first Monday in February, and because (depending on the composition of the new Congress) there may be a lot of pressure to eliminate the Endowment altogether, we ought to begin to act to try to influence whether or not there are any funds in that budget for the Endowment at all when that budget is presented to Congress.

We need to think this week on how to begin to mobilize the entire field beginning at 12:01 am on November 7th --- to contact each member of the new Congress, plus the White House with the insistent and consistent message to FULLY FUND THE NEA.  We do not want a budget submitted to Congress that has no provision for any funding to the NEA in it.  That will make getting funds axiomatically more difficult.  We ought to do all the things and more listed earlier to try to make our case, and while we need to be respectful and courteous at all times, we need to be firm in our position that cuts to - let alone elimination of - the Endowment is simply UNACCEPTABLE.  That is the message to firmly carry to every member of Congress and to the White House.  Such cuts or elimination will costs jobs.  Local jobs. Lots of middle class jobs.  And it will harm local communities and economies, and kids. (And while I very much appreciate the argument centering around the intrinsic value of the arts on myriad levels, that is not going to be a persuasive argument in this kind of fight.)  This will not be a time to be too timid in what we want.

It's true that we have more time to ultimately fight our fight.  The Budget Process (which, BTW, is the real chief business of Congress - not passing new laws) takes a long time and is very complex and plodding. But while the process takes time, many of the initial "early on" decisions all but determine the final outcome - which can often end up mere symbolic process itself.   So the smart thing to do is to begin now.  We cannot afford to be complacent.  We simply aren’t powerful enough to weather the storms that will come.

Note on the December 31 Fiscal Cliff Armageddon Scenario:  If the old (current) Congress fails to pass legislation this year regarding continuation of some or all of the Bush tax cuts, then we will have an automatic return to the Clinton era tax levels as of December 31st - which will means significant across the board tax increases, plus huge spending cuts to defense and to other spending programs will automatically be triggered.  No one wants that to happen, but there is no guarantee Congress will, in fact, work together to find a consensus solution.  If they fail, the NEA along with almost all other agencies and programs may be the bystander victims.  If that happens, it will be very hard to find anyone to support us for we will be small potatoes in the overall scheme of things - basically irrelevant to the challenges on the table.   Not likely, but a lot of disasters are not likely.

I hope all this turns out to not  be the case - a waste of our time.  I hope that a re-elected Obama Administration will continue to support the NEA (and not cut us more); and / or that a new Romney Administration will reconsider and likewise support the NEA.  But I know this:  we cannot afford, as a sector, to fail to act to protect ourselves as best we can, and that means all of you out there need to start now to think about how you might address whatever scenario plays itself out.  I guarantee you other interest groups will be doing just that.   Were the unthinkable to happen and the Endowment were to be eliminated, it would take a long, long time to re-establish.  Maybe as long as a generation.  If my leveraged half billion dollar impact is anywhere near correct, multiply that by twenty years and think about what that loss of funds might mean to the sector over two decades.  Whether or not you are a current NEA grantee or direct beneficiary, a strong, healthy Endowment is valuable to the health of the arts ecosystem in America.  It is important to, and benefits, all of us, no matter what we do.  And if it is eliminated or suffers drastic cuts, do not think it will have no impact on you and what your organization does.  It will.  And you will feel it.  The time to think about all this is right now.  You should have some idea what you are going to do at 12:01 am on November 7th.

So Please Do This no matter who wins next week:  (sorry to be repetitive)

  • Identify arts supporters in your sphere who may have a personal contact with a new (or current)  White House, and with the newly or re-elected Congress.  Ask them to make those connections by December 1, 2012 to lobby for NEA support.
  • Begin  to put in place mechanisms that will rally your local people to write letters, send emails, and make phone calls; 
  • Encourage all the arts in your area to set meetings with elected officials now; 
  • Begin plans to stage meetings, town halls, rallies and flashmobs that will register with locally elected officials and the media;  
  • Begin to talk to stakeholders in the community that will carry OUR message forward - the PTA, Chambers of Commerce, Teacher groups, Restaurant Associations and Tourism groups. Ask them to help and figure out a way to follow up with them, because if you don’t follow up - they likely will not act as you want them to; and finally,
  • Raise money to fund some kind of lobbying effort in D.C.   Work with your local, state, regional, national and AFTA advocacy organizations.  
Alas we don’t have an iconic Big Bird or adorable Tickle Me Elmo to rally around. All we have in the final analysis is ourselves.  But do not underestimate how powerful we can be.  IF, and it’s a BIG IF, we act soon and massively.  Perhaps on a grander scale than we have ever had to mount before.  Think of it as the biggest collective performance of our lifetimes.  The audience awaits.

Please pass this on so that more people will at least think of the issues.  Thank you.

Have a good week.

Don’t Quit

Sunday, October 21, 2012

Interview with Scott Provancher

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

Reminder:  If you haven't yet sent in your list of possible invitees to the Dinner-vention Dinner Party, please take some time to do that this week.  Thank you.  

Scott Provancher is the President of the Arts and Science Council of Charlotte, North Carolina - one of the nation's oldest and foremost arts councils.


Barry:   While many, if not most, of the nation’s LAAs and arts organizations are struggling in the current economic environment to raise funds and maintain financial stability, you seem to have bucked the trend and had enormous success having raised $20 million to complete an $83 million endowment campaign for the Levine Center for the Arts and more than $14 million in annual support for Charlotte’s cultural community.  To what do you attribute that success, and what advice can you give to others?

Scott:  Despite challenging economic times and a diminished pool of resources, the Arts & Science Council has continued to articulate a bold vision for the important role arts and culture plays in Charlotte’s future success.  Focusing on the inspirational big picture was the key to successfully completing the Levine Center for Arts.  We put all of our might into convincing the right people that completing a $300 Million cultural facility post 2008 was priority number one for Charlotte.  What effect would a failed project of this magnitude have on the willingness of the city to take on the next big idea?  If we haven’t focused on the value of this project to Charlotte as a whole, we would have never gotten the kind of investment we needed to successfully finish this campaign.

Creativity also plays an important role in our success.  If we hadn’t found a way to rename the Center (it was called the Wells Fargo Cultural Campus until Wells Fargo donated the naming rights so that it could be renamed the Levine Center for the Arts) then I would be writing about how one of the most visionary ideas in Charlotte’s history ended up a bust.  Likewise, innovations like the development of the power2give giving site and the formation of a restricted fund for Arts Education have helped us continue to grow our investment in the cultural community year after year.

Barry:   Under your stewardship, you have developed power2give, a Kickstarter type platform, geared specifically to the arts sector, which appears to have been measurably successful and which, I believe, other agencies have adopted.  Can you give a thumbnail description of how it works, how you license it to others and your assessment of its success and impact since its launch?  You predicted it would “change forever the way you do business”?  In reflection, has it?

Scott:  We developed power2give as a tool to diversify the way we connect donors to cultural projects in the community.  Since its launch in 2011, power2give has had a huge impact on the way we think about the execution of our mission.  Up until recently, as a united arts fund, we fixated on the idea of only raising unrestricted dollars that we could then re-grant in the community.  Instead of saying, what are all the ways we can inspire donors to invest in the things that are core to our mission—like cultural projects in the community.  Power2give has allowed us to put this theory to practice.

Last year ASC gave out $350,000 in project grants.  With the launch of power2give, we have now funded an additional $500,000 worth of cultural projects by showcasing them on power2give and working with the cultural organizations to market them to new donors.  That’s a 143% increase in project support in one year (46% of the donors are new to the organizations and 70% are new to ASC!).  This small success has given us the fortitude to question other “pink elephants” in the room that may be stopping us from delivering more to the cultural community.

Barry:   What is the current political climate for support of the arts in North Carolina in general, and Charlotte in particular?  Is there any remaining legacy of the fights Michael Marsicano  (former head of your agency - now President of the Foundation for the Carolinas) had to lead a decade ago?  What are the principal challenges facing your agency today, and in which areas would you hope to make progress?

Scott:  The climate for public support of the arts in Charlotte is relatively positive, due in part to the important role the arts recently played in the success of the Democratic National Convention.  The community leaders (public and private) also have a long track record of supporting the Arts and Science Council (ASC) as a unique public/private partnership.  In Charlotte, we do not have a city or county department of cultural affairs.  Rather, ASC has serves as an outsourced department to the city and county and receives funds to do so.

ASC is currently focusing on how the cultural sector can partner with the City and the County to help them achieve their community goals. For example, instead of just asking for more unrestricted money for the arts, we are working to develop innovative new programs with different departments of the City and County—asking questions like, could ASC lead a Arts in the Parks program in the same way we run the public art program? Can ASC help to address neighborhood redevelop issues with cultural place-making initiatives?  Stay tuned for more developments on this front.

Barry:   What kinds of new research, and in what areas, do you think would be helpful to the field?

Scott:  I actually wish we would not only fund research, but start funding scalable ideas and programs that are already producing results at the local level that would benefit many communities.  Companies have R&D departments with a clear mandate to develop products that are then scaled and sold.  The cultural sector has lots of research but no R&D department. Therefore, very few great ideas ever get scaled at a national level.  If the arts sector is going to grow its impact and influence in our communities, this is a conversation that must involve both funders and cultural organizations.

Barry:   Do you think your agency’s current efforts at professional development and provision of training to arts administrators is meeting the demand, or is there still work to do in this area?  If you see more work necessary, what do you think needs to be done to make sure all our people have access to the training that will help them do their jobs?

Scott:  There are many examples of great programs at the local level, but we are all working in a vacuum and not replicating our successes across markets.  I would love to see several local arts agencies and a group of funders collaborate on a “Rosetta Stone” like platform for teaching basic skills to the cultural workforce (administrators, educators and artists).  If Rosetta Stone can figure out how to teach a very challenging skill like a foreign language via an online platform, we should be able to develop innovative ways to teach the skills needed in the cultural sector AND make it available and affordable to a broad audience.

Barry:   Do you consider the networking opportunities for you as a local arts agency to interact with other LAAs - locally and across the country - to be adequate?  Are the benefits to be gained by building more intersections (for exchanges of information, best practices, advocacy strategies et. al.,) being fully realized, and how might those be expanded to strengthen the field?

Scott:  I appreciate the work that Americans for the Arts (AFTA) does to gather LAAs together both at the conferences and in smaller groups.  The one downside of this being one of the only formal vehicles for collaboration is that the meetings are often spent on updates and broad topics and only involve the CEOs or senior leaders.  One of the ideas on my hot list is to work with either AFTA and/or a group of LAAs to have a summit once or twice a year that is focused on one topic with each organization bringing 3-4 staff members.  For example, a summit on the use of technology to grow audiences or donors would be excellent.

Barry:   If you could identify one single problem that seems to commonly stymie and frustrate arts organizations (grantees for example) and keep them from making forward progress, what would that be?

Scott:  Time to think strategically.  Running an arts organization is like street fighting.   Our cultural leaders today only have time to decide whether to bring a gun or a knife to the fight.  They don’t have time to step back and ask, why are we fighting in the first place?  I remember that when I was Executive Director of the Louisville Orchestra I became so frustrated that I knew strategically what needed to be done, but only had time to make calls for the next $25,000 to make payroll on Friday.

If we don’t find a way to allow our most brilliant cultural leaders to be problem solvers and innovators, we will be leading our sector right over the cliff.  This is something I have thought a lot about…what about a think-tank that would pay organizations to borrow their leader for a period of time to help develop strategic solutions to their organization’s most pressing issues?  The funding would pay both for the leader’s salary and for an interim leader during the sabbatical.

Barry:   Public art is a huge positive in some areas, and in others it is a minefield of potential problems.  Which is it in Charlotte and why?

Scott:  Both.

Barry:   What do you think is the single most pressing issue in the nonprofit arts that is NOT getting enough attention?

Scott:  Leadership.  I am concerned that the pipeline of leaders in the cultural sector is not equipped for the challenges that face our industry.  There was a period of time in the history of Arts in America where the core missions of the institutions where not in question.  The western European art forms where the desired showcase of a “world-class” city and cities were investing mightily to have the biggest and the best.  When that is the paradigm, the type of leader one needs is a passionate sales person for the existing vision and a maintainer of the business model that supports it.  Today, everything is being questioned, how are these euro-centric organizations meeting the needs of ALL of the diverse population in their communities, how do the arts compete in a digital word, what happens when the sibling of your major patron gives their parent’s fortune to the underdeveloped world vs. naming a new wing at the art museum?  Today we need leaders that have unprecedented adaptability, creatively and perseverance.  We need entrepreneurs with a thick skin, passion for innovation and vision for how the arts will continue to play an important role in America.  Is that what is listed in the job descriptions for the top jobs in our industry?

Barry:  Thanks Scott.

Bonus:  For all those who read the blog to the end, here's some eye candy of spectacular photographs illustrative of just how beautiful and evocative the art form can be.

Have a great week.

Don't Quit.

Sunday, October 14, 2012

Bill Ivey's new book: Handmaking America

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


A while back, Arlene Goldbard noted what we all already know - something is dreadfully wrong in America.  It goes beyond the economic crisis, beyond the gridlock in Congress and the problems of a crumbling infrastructure, deteriorating education system, suspect Supreme Court decisions, and a world constantly at war; beyond even the growing disparity in wealth and the concentration of too much in the hands of too few or the deepening divide over fundamental beliefs and civil rights. Something is wrong with us as a people.  We don’t just disagree, we are at each other’s throats. It isn’t just factions, it is an intractable dividing line between entrenched camps.  And the civil discourse that has disappeared is the result of monumental distrust and even hatred of each other.  We have somehow made each other the enemy.  We are skidding away from being a nation wherein the nation itself is more important than the well being of any one interest.

Only fifty years ago, Americans - and especially young Americans - admired and respected the Kennedys for their intelligence, commitment to education, patriotism and deep abiding passion about public service.  They added to that a sense of style and glamour - but that was a bonus.  The Kennedys have been replaced by the Kardashians.  I am sure these young women are nice people.  Certainly their business acumen is admirable.  And they have style as well.  But they are idolized because they are rich and famous - famous for being celebrities - not for some stellar achievement.  The Beatles noted the trend back in the 60s in the song Come Together -- in describing the forces that drive people to seek identity and self worth in things other than those that nourish the mind and the spirit:  “Got to be good looking cause he’s so hard to see.”   Gone from what we admire is public service, gone too are the needs of the country being more important than the needs of certain segments.  Fame trumps accomplishment; fashion trumps thought; and, of course, wealth trumps the need to give a damn about anyone else.  If John and Paul wondered in Eleanor Rigby:  “All the lonely people, where do they all come from?", the answer lies in part because we no longer have values which unite us.

In a sense we seem adrift.  We don’t know exactly where we are going, where we want to go, or how to get there.

Bill Ivey, in his new book Handmaking America (Counterpoint Press, Berkeley), starts from precisely that point.  He takes on how we have , in so short a time, moved from being a nation that worked together - despite profound differences - to be a nation, to warring factions.  In a cogent, intelligent, extended essay, Bill passionately and convincingly lays out at least some of the reasons we have strayed so far from the track.  And he offers a prescription of what needs to be done to address the challenges.  It isn’t intended to be a step-by-step blueprint for solving the problems.  It IS a vision about how to move forward to re-establish values for America -- values that can bring us a sense of worth and satisfaction, that can unite us, that can help us to repurpose life in the 21st Century to the benefit of all of us.

I admit to sharing most of Bill’s biases and prejudices, and so I find myself in agreement with virtually everything he says.  I can only give you a sense of the panorama Bill surveys in this work;  a work that does not center on the value of the arts to our future per se, though he makes a strong “stealth” kind of underlying argument for that very value.  The themes of this work are bigger.  I had a good conversation with him this morning and he expanded on some of his thoughts in this book.

Bill carefully outlines the forces that have led us to define American exceptionalism as not much more than wealth and power; how teamwork has been trumped by assembly line work and individualist thinking; how we progressives (liberals) have allowed the opposition to convince the American people that government is “bad” and business and corporations are our savior; how money and lobbying has allowed corporate America to redefine government as in its service and not the other way around.

He laments the success of the conservatives in driving home their simple message that:  “We will keep you safe, we will keep government off your back; we will keep Washington out of your wallet - with the implied commitments to defense, deregulation and low takes,” and the failure of the left to counter that vision with its own.

He breaks down his analysis into three basic parts:

I.  Work
Bill explores the causes and effects of assembly line work having replaced the job satisfaction of workers who once felt a sense of pride in their crafts and how that has led to a 24/7 work ethic that is profoundly unsatisfying. He decries the lack of personal time in our lives and the role of too much technology imprisoning us rather than freeing us. His prescription is that we “recover the satisfaction of artisanship by stepping to the side, building the kind of meaning found in craftwork outside the office, classroom or factory,” while arguing for the benefits of a four day work week to give us back some of the time we have lost.

He posits that education has become too much the handmaiden of business and that its purpose shouldn’t focus exclusively on preparing students for jobs (at least not all office jobs), but that “we must achieve a subtle, realistic balance between education for craftwork and education for citizenship.”  Sure to be attacked, if not vilified, as a heretic, he  has the courage to discuss how education has been for some time ‘wrong footed‘ in its dedication to math and science to the exclusion of other pursuits, and to question whether or not technology is all that big a boon to the quality of our lives.  (He correctly  notes that none of us are the clients of the major online social networking or search sites - rather we are the product itself.  Data on us is what they are after - to sell to companies and others who want that information - making even the semblance of privacy something that is now long gone).   If nothing else he is willing to take on the sacred cows where others fear to tread.

II.  Government
Here he observes the impact of the wholesale movement of the media away from the old understanding of the term "responsible journalism", replaced with "Hooray for Our Side" pundits.   Amplified by the drone of television and advertisting, and the negative influence of relying on decision making by “polls” and the niche opining by bloggers and spin doctors, the net result is to simply solidify already entrenched positions.  He quite deftly identifies the impact of the initiative movement in sabotaging the very foundation of representative government - arguing that we simply no longer trust those we elect to act in our stead.  But the biggest failure of the political "left" has been not to effectively counter the assertion that there is too much government, and that government itself is a bad thing - extraordinary evidence to the contrary.

III.  Consumption
Bill shows how business and advertising have accelerated the commoditization of everything - not the least of which are our very values.  He discusses the toxic effect of “envy” as the driving force behind our race for things as a means to define our worth - as individuals and as a nation.  In many respects, the heart of the matter lies in our addiction to endless spending and consuming, exacerbated by the financial system’s extolling of relentless debt assumption.  As Bill explains:   “Consumerism honors spending and buying as the surest indicators of achievement and happiness.  Comoditization and advertising encourage this comingling of spending and quality of life.”  In the age of the Kardashians, we have become obsessed with acquiring things - an obsession in part created, and continuously facilitated and nurtured by, corporate America and especially the finance industry.

He concludes with thoughts on responsibility and happiness: Responsibility of the education system to nurture our children to be informed citizens; the responsibility of parents to teach them that happiness does not lie exclusively in consumption; the responsibility of government to prevent the excesses of business; the responsibility of citizenship to understand that in the end we are all in this together.

I like this book very much.  I think everyone should read it.  For a serious work of analysis, it is written in a very easy style.  Though of an extended essay length, it is a slow read because there are so many ideas within that you want to frequently stop and savor the thinking.

Of course, the devil is always in the details, and with neither politicians nor the media even remotely interested in drilling down this far into examining what is going on, one wonders how we will ever get our citizens to slow down, to re-examine those things that are pulling us apart and weakening the fabric of our society - let alone give up addictions long in the making.  This book is really about vision - or rather a response to our lack of having any sense of where we are going and how we might get there.   One hopes it will be a springboard for a wider, serious national discussion; but it will be enough if it is read and discussed.  This is the kind of thinking I would personally like to see come from our candidates or at least the independent thinkers.   Alas, it is very likely too risky for any of them to adopt.  The media?  Not the so-called “mainstream media” - their mantra is as Don Henley of the Eagles noted twenty-five years ago:  “Get the widow on the set.”

At the end the challenge is clear, and Bill says it more eloquently than could I:
“Two obstacles stand between America today and the promise of a revitalized democracy.  First, can we envision the constellation of values that will define a high quality of life in a post consumerist society?  Second, absent out and out financial collapse, can Americans recover the resolve and commitment to self-sacrifice necessary to define and animate a progressive democracy that serves all?”  
I don’t know if we can do that, nor how we go about it. I do know that if we do not do that, if we continue down this road, we will arrive at a place not to our liking, one from which escape will be very difficult indeed.  What is worse is that our children will be right there with us - brought along, if not against their will, certainly without their consent.

I think in the final analysis we need probably to start at the beginning.  As Leo Tolstoy observed a long time ago:     “Everyone thinks of changing the world, but no one thinks of changing himself.”  

Congratulations to Bill.  I think this is a very worthy effort.

 I urge you all to read it.  There is much here to think about.

Have a great week.

Don’t Quit

Sunday, October 7, 2012

GIA to Meet in Miami / Mini Interview with Regina Smith

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

The nation's arts funders meet next week.  This has become one of the most important and certainly most interesting of all the national gatherings in the nonprofit arts.

GIA's Chair - Regina Smith (Senior Program Officer - Arts and Culture - The Kresge Foundation) graciously took some time out from an undoubtedly hectic schedule to answer a few questions for me on the eve of the conference.  I am hopeful she might answer a few more after the conference is over.  That mini-interview is below.

In every field, it's of importance when the people with the money gather.  Where once GIA was a smaller, more insular organization of the older guard private funders, both public and private arts funders are now integrated into GIA.  The organization has gone through somewhat of a metamorphosis over the past few years, and is now more involved in a wider range of issues, at least somewhat more open and transparent, and more involved in collaboration and reaching out in new directions.  While somewhat conservative, it continues to change.

I had the pleasure to be at the last two conferences, and I found that the session offerings were really a cut above the typical national arts conference fare, and this year appears likewise designed to tick off every issue on anybody's list.  There are sessions on the three big fields the arts touch on outside our own borders as it were:  arts education, arts and creativity (and business) and arts and health care and healing.

There are sessions on research, data collection, and evaluative techniques; sessions on the arts and social justice, immigrants, diversity, communities and global exchanges; sessions on capitalization, leadership, facilities and even on arts and climate change.  This is not your Father's GIA.

But despite an undeniable comprehensive inclusion of almost all the topics conceivable, the thing I will miss most about not being at this conference this year, is the casual, but serious conversations that go on between the sessions - over coffee in the morning, in the lobby or over dinner at night.  Making those conversations possible and more likely is the fact that this isn't a mega sized conference of a thousand people or more.  Several hundred makes it much more manageable and intimate.  These are honestly some of the smartest people in our field.  They have experience and knowledge.  They value thought and are increasingly less risk averse.  And while they cannot solve all the challenges facing our field, nonetheless, it is they who are charged with trying to do just that.  For they control the money (well actually, their Boards control the money, but they are our link and they are the ones who must argue on our behalf).  So I would like to be a fly on the drape as it were next week, as private conversations invariably turn to the underlying issues, the trends in the field, the unasked and as yet unanswered questions that lie just beneath the surface.

What are those issues, trends and questions?  Here are some thoughts:

1.  What will happen to public funding for the arts in the next ten years?  Will the November election mark a turning point in Federal funding?  What do we do in that case?  What will it mean?  And if the economic recovery takes another five years or longer to be fully realized, (assuming a 'full' recovery is even possible), what will be the trend in budget cutbacks at the state and local level?  Can private funders realize their foundation's / organization's goals if public funding is not part of the mix?

2.  Will we ever succeed in reintroducing the arts into our schools on a national basis so that ALL kids have access?  Is there any alternative to arts in the schools to provide some kind of meaningful arts training (not just exposure) to kids in America (while we continue to fight to have the arts a truly core subject in all the schools)?  Realistically, how many more generations will that take?

3.  What happens next to the arts and creativity discussion?  Have we effectively dealt with the criticism that we use our data and research that correlates the arts with desirable outcomes as proof that it causes those results?

4.  Should we be doing more to fund artists and provide services to artists?  Are we too focused on the arts organizational infrastructure rather than on artists and artistic creation?  Is the mission to support "access" to quality art, or the creation of that quality art in the first place?  Is it both, and if so, how do we strike the best balance?

5.  How is the inevitable generational leadership transition in the field coming along?  Are we doing enough to make sure that transition works and to make sure we will have the best trained and prepared new leadership that we possibly can have?

6.  Is there any definitive indication that fewer philanthropic dollars will be earmarked for the arts in the future, and if there is, what can we really do to change that?  If it is true, what will it mean?

7.  Are there any mega trends in the private arts funder Board rooms that will likely have a profound impact on the arts in ten years?

8.  Arts and Health / Healing and Arts and Social Justice are clearly both gaining traction as themes in arts funding.  What's next for each?

9.  What, if anything, IS new on the pull between funding newer, smaller, multicultural arts endeavors vs. funding established, larger euro-centric arts organizations?

10.  Finally, it is in these small conversations that one gets a sense of how we are doing; how we see ourselves and the challenges we face.  I wonder, not being there, what the "mood" is this year.  What are people thinking about?  What is making them optimistic?  What is worrying them?

Undoubtedly there will be debates and wide ranging viewpoints.  I am sure some of those conversations will plant the seeds of ideas that will germinate and might just end up being the genesis for new initiatives in the future.

Here is the mini (four question) interview with Regina Smith:

BARRY:  What motivated the Kresge's recent commitment to Creative Placemaking?

REGINA:   The Kresge Foundation partners with nonprofit organizations nationwide to improve the quality of life and create access and opportunity for underserved communities.

Since 2009, the goal of Kresge’s national Arts and Culture Program has been to contribute to creation of healthy, vibrant places. To achieve that goal, we developed a portfolio of three integrated and mutually reinforcing initiatives (Institutional Capitalization, Artist’s Skills and Resources and Arts and Community Building). By 2011, we recognized an imbalance in the implementation of the portfolio; it was siloed and neither integrated nor mutually reinforcing. It also became apparent that to achieve our goal of healthy, vibrant places we required a unified strategy.

Creative Placemaking is the integration of arts and culture into comprehensive community improvement efforts. We view it as a natural evolution that unifies the three initiatives of our previous work. It is also the most succinct demonstration of the Team’s alignment with the Kresge Foundation’s aspiration.  

BARRY:   What role do you think the nation’s arts funding foundation programs will play in shaping the future of the sector in the face of diminishing government funding support?

REGINA:  This is an interesting, and extremely loaded, question. It implies that the funding levels of the nation’s arts funding foundations have remained level, and the declines have been exclusively in government funding. That hasn’t been the case. The contraction of resources in the philanthropic community has resulted in program revisions and a re-examination of priorities.

Neither the public nor private sector can, in isolation, support the arts sector. As a result, I think the opportunities are rich for a shared vision amongst public and private arts funders at the local level on how to effectively support the cultural sector.

BARRY:   How has GIA, the organization, changed in the past three years?

REGINA:  Like every affinity group, Grantmakers in the Arts (GIA) strives to deliver quality programs and services to its members. The range of arts funders and supporters has grown over the years, which has been great for the field. For a membership association, however, it was challenging to remain true to the mission as an affinity group of arts funders, and yet be inclusive of the expanding universe of organizations that support the arts field.

I would characterize GIA three years ago as trying to be all things to all people. In an attempt to overcome the criticism of being an exclusive club of large arts foundations, GIA overcompensated and honestly lost a bit of its focus. It happens. It’s a challenge for any organization, but for a national affinity group with a small staff and modest budget it was challenging.

Over the past three years, GIA has sharpened its focus. It’s very much a work in progress, but internally and externally GIA has a greater sense of clarity on who we serve and how we can best deliver on our mission.

BARRY:   Under yours and Janet Brown’s leadership, GIA has launched new initiatives in several areas including capitalization, arts education, and equity.  That is a broad and deep agenda - what benchmarks in those areas are you looking for as hallmarks of meaningful progress?

REGINA:   One of GIAs core competencies is its ability to convene; bringing diverse groups of arts funders together for thought-provoking dialogue around issues facing arts funders, our communities and the arts sector. Another core competency is the dissemination of critical thinking that might encourage our members to examine their practices.

I mentioned the sharpened approach to our work earlier. Without a supportive and engaged membership, GIA doesn’t exist. The initiatives you mentioned emerged directly from the GIA membership. The GIA staff, under Janet’s leadership, worked with a committee representative of the membership to design each initiative, which has sparked dialogue and debate among members and potential members alike.

The GIA membership is very diverse. It includes public and private arts funders. As a result, there are no expectations that every issue or topic will be applicable to every member. Although our members and potential members operate within different organizational structures, GIAs primary goal is to strengthen the “community of practice” amongst arts funders. This crystalized approach provides a marker for how we work as a staff and board, and how GIA serves its members.

I mentioned earlier that we’re a work in progress. Each of the initiatives you mentioned is new within the last two years. All serve as pilots for how GIA can engage its membership beyond the once a year annual conference and the quarterly newsletter The Reader. We’ve used an iterative process of testing and learning versus chasing a specific benchmark.

Thank you for this opportunity to chat about Kresge and GIA.

BARRY:  Thank you Regina.

Have a good week.  And GIA delegates - Have a great conference next week.

Don't Quit

Monday, October 1, 2012

Oops. Small error on the WHAT I HAVE LEARNED entry

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

Dear Readers:

When I organized the What I Have Learned blog on Sunday, I thought I had it all done, and then somehow the computer decided, in its infinite wisdom, not to save what I had finished.  Obviously, my fault, not the computer's (though on some days I seriously entertain the notion that the thing secretly has it in for me).  So it took another couple of hours, but I did it again.  And, naturally, in my haste to post it, I inadvertently did not notice that Marian Godfrey's entry wasn't fully separated from Olive Mosier's entry, nor was Marian's name in boldface as it should have been.  I have corrected it on the site.    My apologies to Marian and Olive.

Anyway, here is Marian's entry again:

Marian 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.

Don't Quit