Sunday, August 30, 2015

I Don't Get It

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

Sometimes I look around at what we're NOT doing, especially when compared to other sectors, and I just don't get it.

I've give you some examples:

I.  I was watching the Little League World Series on television over the weekend.  This is 8 to 12 year old kids playing on a big stage like their heroes in the big leagues (though I must admit that on some of the teams some of the players look like they are in their 20's or something).  But it's basically kids living their dream - with all the considerable intensity and passion they can muster.  It has a certain purity to it because it's kids - not professionals, and the prize in winning is the satisfaction of having gone the journey and succeeded.  In many ways it isn't all that different from any number of arts pursuits that kids are involved in.

Apart from what it means to the kids, it is used by the Sports Interests as a tool to encourage kids to play baseball (and thus a future farm system for the sport; and also a tool to develop future fans) and more importantly, it is a public relations tool promoting the value of participating in sports for young people.  Indeed there were commercials and on air commentary to that precise observation.  The whole Little League apparatus is very organized and works very well in support of the proposition that sports are important and valuable.

I don't understand why the arts can't mount some similar efforts deploying kids' involvement in dance, music, theater and the arts as a whole.  Where is the arts version of the Little League World Series?  Where is the arts public relations tool to capture the same public platform touting the value of the arts to kids?  There are just as many kids whose lives are positively impacted by the arts as by Little League baseball; just as many kids passionate about their arts participation as ballplayers are; just as many proud parents and communities; and just as much potential media value in kids' performances on stage as on the ball field.  There ought to be some version of kids and the arts that gets that kind of media attention. But there isn't.

I don't get it.

II.  The movie and music industries discovered some time ago that the public is fascinated by Top Ten Lists.  Indeed, the music industry charts of the best selling singles / albums pioneered the approach.  And the movie industry gets all kinds of free press on an almost weekly basis by releasing the Top Ten Box Office hits (measured by gross ticket sales) which virtually every news station in the country seems to cover in on-air time.  It makes the release of new films more exciting, it gives free publicity to new releases and shows the public what is and isn't really popular. It's another on air tout for the film industry itself, including the idea of going to movies.   Why don't we have something like that? There are all kinds of statistics that we could compile easily enough and release as Top Ten lists -- everything from the Top Ten Attended Museum Exhibits of the Month; the Top Ten Grossing Dance or Symphony performances to the Top Ten Grossing Theater Productions.  Or maybe to garner big numbers, because the public and media like big numbers, the Top Aggregate Monthly Gross for All theater, dance, music, museum etc. attendance in the arts across the country.  The point is simply that we have the means to ramp up the media coverage we get simply by reporting (and packaging that reporting) on the statistics that exist.  Why aren't we doing something like that?

I don't get it.

III.  Speaking of lists, if someone were to compile a list of the Top Five Issues on the Nonprofit Arts field's priority agenda, here are some that would likely be included:  1)  Equity and Diversity; 2)  Community Engagement;  3) Audience expansion development, particularly with younger cohorts; 4) next generation donor cultivation; and 5) recruitment, retention, training and development of the next generation of leaders.

Why then are there so few younger people on arts nonprofit Boards of Directors?  The litany of justifications for the absence of anywhere near a proportional representation of, say Millennials, on our Boards (they lack commitment, they're inexperienced, they can't meet financial minimum obligations, they're unseasoned) are now seen largely as thinly disguised (lame) attempts to keep people off Boards whom current Board members don't want to share the decision making with.  

1)  If we truly want diversity then we have to address ageism - both against older and younger people; 2)  it makes no sense for community engagement efforts to ignore the now largest age group in the country - Millennials; 3)  foregoing the input of the very audience we are trying to attract is just stupid; 4)  ditto our attempts to cultivate future donors; and 5) just how do our future leaders acquire the skills and experience we want them to have if we exclude them from opportunities to develop those skills and gain that experience?  And keeping them off our Boards (or failing to recruit them) sends a negative message about how important they are to our future --- harming our recruitment efforts.  Yet few Boards have more than a token level, at best, of younger Board membership, and there doesn't seem any concerted, sustained efforts to get more younger people on our Boards.

I don't get it.

IV.  We are constantly now talking about how much work there is to do and how understaffed we are in our capacity to do that work and how pressed for time we are.  Indeed, increasingly the Executive Director, across the whole spectrum of arts organizations, spends more and more time as a fund raiser - to the exclusion of other tasks.   If time is an important asset, why then as a sector,  does it still take most of us a thousand words to address some issue or make some point, when a twenty word response would not only suffice, but be far more to the point?  Why, when we seem to love to tweet, can't we extend that discipline of the "only 140 characters" lesson of brevity to our ill served penchant to be so damn long winded about everything.  (Yes, I am assuredly guilty myself).  Why do we waste so much time and feel compelled to drone on and on about everything?

I don't get it.

V.  Where is our anger and outrage at the relentless attempts to marginalize our attempts to secure K-12 arts education across the country.  In what amounts to Grand Theft Arts (the stealing of our kids futures by failure to provide them with the opportunity to hone their creativity - which is a crime of sorts  -- and we ought to hold press conferences indicting local officials as a way to gain media attention) - we continue to accept it as though it is the natural order of things.  Why?  Why aren't we up in arms and marching in the streets to demonstrate how important arts education (or arts funding) really is?  Why don't we mobilize and demonstrate and picket school boards or legislatures?  Why are we so damn polite? So darned contrite and wimpy?  Why aren't we mad as hell?  And why don't we fully understand that marshaling public demand is key to solving a wide range of our problems, and without that demand, most of our efforts are doomed?  If an issue isn't important enough to us to demand a solution, how on earth can we expect it to be important to anyone else?  The fact is that those who "push" for what they want, more often get something, than those that sit idly by on the sidelines and say nothing.  Why we choose the latter approach is beyond me.

I don't get it.

Maybe some of you have the answers.  I don't get it.  I really don't.

Have a great week.

Don't Quit


  1. Jennifer ArmstrongAugust 31, 2015 at 3:03 PM

    in response to V. --- they do protest

  2. Hell yeah Barry!
    I think I have some short answers: gotta keep the gerbil wheel turning.
    I. We DO love to see our kids onstage playing their little hearts out, and the level of some of them is surprisingly high, because we have better teachers, better instruments, and better students. The level is SO high in fact, the professional industry is nervous that audience can't tell the difference, which could suck the oxygen, funding and butts out of the room. Be careful what you wish for.

    II. Short of the question of who exactly gets to pick the Top ten list in classical, there's just no central body to coordinate such a commercial notion. Not to mention the non-profits' resistance to borrowing ANY ideas from the commercial world (see #6 below). Nonesuch or DG might get together. Or perhaps WQXR and WFMT. Perhaps our best bet is a group of entrepreneurs fed up with the classical Grammys.

    III. Excellent slam on the head. But we're still dealing with issues of perceived risk, preservation and perceived authority, in the boardroom, in senior staffing, on stage, even in the audience. One has to be both stubborn and careful to find a way around these glass walls: if we break it, we also lose. When, if ever, are orchestras going to play offense instead of defense?

    My #6 for you is the question, why is no orchestra developing inexpensive, introductory products/services for the masses? The commercial industry does this very often to build customers with freeware, giveaways, low-end products to provide an accessible step. The best we have done in classical music are once-a-year free concerts where you can meet the conductor, and maybe a Classical 101 lecture series at the hall, reinforcing the very academia that turns off the new audience we'd like to see become interested. We need passionate musicians to demonstrate, emote, explain, opine and shake hands in places where people already go to learn about music. We've got to get beyond dumbing down and warm up our presentation skills.

  3. Thing is, Little League is competitive. Big-league sports are competitive. They let communities (cities, schools, nations) focus and exercise their pride. When their teams win, they get glory before the larger world.

    Most arts groups wouldn't consider such a thing. Not only is there the huge expense, but most people in the arts believe that it's a field that is, or ought to be, above such base motivations as defeating another team and chanting "We're Number One!"

    But that seems to be a deep and powerful human impulse. .If it weren't, competitive team sports wouldn't be so popular, and the general public would pay a lot ore attention to individual sports like figure skating and swinning and gymnastics between Olympiads.

  4. Shakespeare and Co. in Lenox has established programs in the schools in a wide area of western MA. When I was up there last week seeing their excellent professional productions I also watched on Local Access TV the middle school age kids from these programs performing Henry V in front of a huge enthusiastic audience of kids their age and older. Every mannered flourish, every convincing insult, burst of authentic passion, surprising reaction from a scene partner, successful conclusion to a scene was greeted with applause, laughter, cheers: this was fandom! The beginning of the kind of life-long love of language that my early (age 5) exposure to Shakespeare-- and to opera and musicals- inspired in me. If only every school system and community could participate, along the lines of El Sistema! Waltham MA has the wonderful Reagle Players, who are in residence at the high school producing first rate amateur/Equity ringer revivals of Golden Age musicals, and training local school kids in the vocal and movement skills needed to carry on the art form. It is now in serious danger of shutting down after decades of excellent work because charitable and government funds are being cut and cut and cut. This is soul-building, citizenship-building; it should be copied all over this country, not dying from neglect in the one bright spot where it has flourished.