Tuesday, December 13, 2005

December 13, 2005

HESSENIUS Group Year End Wrap-Up

Hi everybody.

"And the beat goes on..................."

I asked some of the group members to share their thoughts on this year and next. I asked them this:

ISSUE ONE: What happened last year -- what one (or two) major events, trends, etc. -- do you think had particular (significant) impact on the arts field this year (for example -- the merger of Business & the Arts Council with Americans for the Arts, or the publication / debate over the Rand Study, or the continuation of depressed arts funding). Or it might be something that happened within the whole of our culture, society, political arena etc. that had -- or continues to have -- impact on the arts field - e.g., the economy, Katrina or the impact on donor giving), and

What do you think will be the biggest challenge / opportunity for the arts for 2006? What do you suggest would be the best move the arts could make to improve their lot in 2006?

Top on my list, Barry, for 2005 is the economy, how the war in Iraq and this year's rash of natural disasters affected it and, in turn, how the state of the economy has impacted the solvency of arts organizations. Costs to keep the doors open, lights on and pay staff livable wages outpaced most organizations' budget projections. For-profits passed on unanticipated increased operating costs to the consumer. Arts organizations have been reluctant to increase the price of participation for fear of driving away audiences or, worse, fueling perceptions of elitism. Given unprecedented compelling need for disaster relief, sustaining contributed income levels, never mind increasing them, has become an all-consuming activity. In my work in communities across the country, both small and large organizations with a broad, diverse loyal following (and the contributor base to match) are holding their own. Organizations and artistic genres with narrow audience appeal are being far more serious about audience development. And I'm seeing the realization among arts organizations whose existence has depended on the largesse of a few big funders that diversification of their support base is probably a good idea.

The biggest challenge/opportunity for the arts in 2006 and beyond is increasing arts relevance to the public. Endless excellent research and studies have been conducted on arts participation. Somehow, someway, we need to better translate for our field the volumes of participation research. That, plus adequate resources and assistance to help them apply it.

Biggest Impact in 2005

The publication of Gifts of the Muse http://www.rand.org/publications/MG/MG218/ and Creating Public Value Through State Arts Agencies http://www.artsmw.org/start/CreatingPublicValue.pdf, marked the completion of a series of tools that can fundamentally improve our capacities to increase participation in the arts as well as reveal the personal benefits and the public value of that participation. These publications joined A New Framework for Participation in the Arts http://www.rand.org/publications/MR/MR1323/, The Values Study, Rediscovering the Meaning and Value of Arts Participation http://www.ctarts.org/pdfs/CT_Values_Study_Report.pdf, Engage Now (disclosure: written by Jerry Yoshitomi) http://www.artsmarketing.org/marketingresources/files/JYNotes-Apr022003.pdf, and many other resources that build participation, personal benefits and public value.

This work was initiated primarily by the arts program at the Wallace Foundation, first led by Holly Sidford and then by Michael Moore. Through a carefully orchestrated program of research, direct grants, convenings and communities of practice, significant advancements have been made in thirteen state arts agencies and in arts organizations throughout the country. Leadership in recent years was also provided by David Fraher and Emily Maltz at Arts Midwest and Kelly Barsdate at the National Assembly of State Arts Agencies.

Results have included increases in:

State funding for participating SAA's
Broadened, Deepened and more Diversified Participation
Ticket Sales and Earned Income
Communications with Ticket Buyers and Donors
Evidence of Personal Benefits and Public Value

Biggest Challenge/Opportunity for the Arts in 2006 will be making more of a transition from old ways of doing things to new ways of doing things. It will be about learning and putting into practice more of the new tools. Those that do will see increasing success. Those that don't will see a widening gap between aspirations and accomplishments, as well as between expenses and revenues.
I'm pleased to respond to any questions the readers might have. They can email me at meaningmatters@aol.com.

1. Significant event in 2005 - the death of Susan Sontag - revealing the lack of meaningful thinking & writing about art, culture & ideas in her absence.
2. Challenge in 2006 - the increasing pressure on necessary dissent, finding the will to offset the multiple guises censorship comes dressed in these days - market, institutional, political, philanthropic, etc.
That will be a challenge.

Two trends of significance in 2005 involved the political devolution of America's cultural "hardware," and the rapid evolution social networking software on the web. The two may seem like separate trends, but they carry a common thread.

On the hardware side, America's built cultural infrastructure got more massive and more contentious in 2005, with controversy over several arts facility mega-projects. The Miami-Dade Performing Arts Center continued its trials with massive construction cost overruns and political bickering. The Kimmel Center for the Performing Arts discovered higher operating costs and lower-than-expected revenues, along with continuing acoustical problems...filing suit against their architect for the lackluster sound quality of the hall. The Overture Center for the Arts in Madison had a public spat with the mayor over a proposal to refinance the facility just prior to its completion.

And the proposed multi-venue arts development in Richmond, Virginia, exploded into a political free-for-all when the committee behind it couldn't meet a fundraising deadline.

Meanwhile, Dallas broke ground on a new $275 million performing arts center, and Kansas City took steps toward its proposed $326 million complex.

The massive multi-venue arts center has been an icon of civic pride and boosterism for over 30 years...drawing inspiration and original concept from New York's Lincoln Center. Wealth and under-served arts markets sparked the trend, and a string of public arguments for professional arts facilities helped fuel the flame (economic impact, healthy cities, creative class, civic engagement, and on and on).

But the public challenges of these developments in 2005 suggest that a tide is turning. With the growth of wealth slowing or even dipping in the past years, with more saturated culture and entertainment markets, and with fiscal troubles in local and state governments, the multi-venue arts center is becoming a bit of an albatross. Managers and consultants are quietly suggesting that the economic model driving these facilities isn't working anymore (touring Broadway isn't the cash cow it used to be). Local arts groups and resident companies are seeing local philanthropic dollars and ticket sales sucked into the higher-cost infrastructure, and away from their programming budgets.

On the software side, other areas of society and business are moving in the opposite direction from large, central, professional-grade infrastructure. Social networking software -- like the Flickr photo sharing site, weblogs, Google maps and groups, and even podcasting -- are pushing production and content development out to the edges.

Passive audiences are now active producers of creative content on- line, and curators of their public self and personal entertainment mix.

As the arts have become more professional, they have also tended to become more detached from the daily creative lives of their communities. The big, boxy, multi-venue arts center will need to reinvent itself...perhaps not in 2006, but in the decade to come.

Problem is, we continue to build these facilities according to the old model of how they work. It will be difficult to reshape the granite and glass to a different focus.

The biggest challenge, suggested above, is to stop and take stock of the role of professional arts infrastructure in a participatory society. Audiences don't just want to sit and listen anymore, if they ever did. Sitting and listening are still powerful forms of participation, but only as part of a spectrum of creative experiences and expressions. That spectrum also includes participatory practice (a much less charged term than ''amateur'' arts), lifelong learning, curatorship of identity and self, creative expression through living (cooking, fashion, personal appearance), and ambient arts experience.
The wise arts organization will be finding ways to foster and support the creative lives of their communities, not just selling them content.

*The on-going war in Iraq and the soaring Federal debt;
*The impact of national and international disasters on individual and corporate giving;
*The "branding" and "ownership" by conservatives of the term "moral values" and a sense of growing intolerance;

Representing my colleagues in the State Arts Action Network, Allen Hoffman suggests that philanthropic trends will have major implications down the road as public funds continue to dry up. Developing individual investors in the non profit arts sector is critical and how that might be developed should be of primary interest. A secondary issue would be a discussion of the Rand Report with participants that are both pro and con. He'd like to see that report taken apart as an in-depth discussion.

For question #2: What I hear from the local arts council field as issues of concern are:
*Leadership Succession - the "graying" of the arts administrative field;
*The challenge of building participation in the arts -- in the broadest of definitions;

After I sent off my Hessenius Group contribution, an associate sent me news of a radical restructuring at the Weidner Center for the Performing Arts in Green Bay, Wisconsin. They're basically discontinuing the venue as a professional performing arts center, and returning it to a university function hall. Among the driving factors:

The financial picture changed even more drastically than expected due to a decline in quality new Broadway product, changes in funding models and increased local competition for the discretionary entertainment dollar.

I was hoping not be so immediately reinforced in my gloomy outlook on large performing arts centers.

I think the Americans for the Arts Action Fund - an ARTS PAC - while still embryonic, is an encouraging sign that someday the arts might take back their own future by organizing and becoming a political force. As a sleeping giant, our field might wield tremendous clout if we were to accept lobbying as part of our jobs and were to make the financial commitment to becoming an effective, competitive "interest group" (which is what we are in the political arena).

I think moving along - city by city, state by state and nationally - the effort to become poltiical players is the challenge for the future.

Well, Barry, you kind of gave me a hand-off in that first question that I can't resist grabbing!

It would perhaps be self-interested to say the merger of Arts & Business Council and Americans for the Arts was the most significant event of the year, but it certainly was the most significant in MY year, or even my decade. But let me instead highlight what I think this merger represents, and what it might mean for 2006 and beyond.

The merger was driven by heightened interest in the challenge of generating more private sector support for the arts. It was also driven by the challenge of achieving some greater scale and clout in the pursuit of that challenge. I think the issue of private sector cultural support and earned income was a theme of 2005, and will be with us for some time to come.

This does not mean that public sector advocacy has become less important “ far from it. We still must have a rigorous and effective effort at the national, state and local level. But increasingly we must realize that 90% of the average arts organizations revenue stream comes from private contributed and earned sources. Many newer arts organizations are highly entrepreneurial, sometimes generating almost all their income from earned sources, and sometimes even structuring themselves as for-profit organizations, transforming the model of what an arts organization is. Several of the artist-practitioners we are working with in our Creativity Connection program, for example, are structured as for-profit or sole-proprietorship entities rather than nonprofits. They are using the arts to inspire and educate a segment of the public (corporate employees), are employing artists, and are stimulating appreciation of the arts in potential arts attenders/participants. Does this mean they are not part of our community, or do we embrace them? And, of course, the traditional model of nonprofit arts group has not gone away if anything, their numbers and financial needs continue to grow. Are the resources available in our country to meet their growing needs, even with the best advocacy efforts possible? Are mergers like this one part of the solution, as we seek greater efficiencies in pursuit of our mission and goals?

Much has also been made this year of generational shifts in a variety of different ways. There is the issue of the aging Baby Boomer generation, leading to heightened interest in cultivating this populations segment as audience members, board members and donors; their leisure time will increase as they begin to retire and arts organizations must figure out how to capture their interest, or other causes will, and we will lose out. At the other end of the spectrum, we have a new segment of the population who have considerable wealth at much younger ages than in previous eras. These new philanthropists behave in a totally different way. They see the arts as represented by the major institutions, which they see as stodgy, belonging to their parents or even grandparents, and not having an impact on the community or needing their money. How do we change their attitudes, getting them to value our great cultural assets, recognize they need support too, yet also convey the message that the arts are also about changing lives, building community, and bringing people together values that resonate with this generation?

I believe 2006 will bring further dialogue on some of these tough issues: 1) making our case better to the private sector, and related to that the issue of how to develop better messages that resonate with the broadest population; 2) striving for more clout and more efficiencies in our operations, even if it means radical change; 3) rigorously examining the nonprofit arts model, along the lines of the recent paper by Bill Ivey, and figuring out how to embrace new models, including for-profit arts and informal arts, without undermining the case that needs to be made for the continuing support of our great nonprofit cultural assets. I think in 2006 we will see more mergers, maybe a few more major nonprofit arts bankruptcies or dissolutions, but also perhaps some high profile announcements of extraordinary cultural projects that break the mold and demonstrate new ways of operating and funding.

Happy Holidays to all!

Others in the HESSENIUS Group may add their own thoughts this week, and everyone is invited to chime in and enter their own comments.

The Hessenius Group will begin 2006 on Tuesday, February 14th.

I would like to thank all the members of the Group for their participation in this experiment this year. As an ongoing enterprise, I hope it will only get better as we can refine it. I would also like to thank the many readers who were kind enough to email me with encouragement, good wishes and sage advice. I hope too that more readers will share their perspectives and thoughts -- my whole purpose is to generate a real dialogue about the bigger issues the arts face. I welcome your comments and suggestions.

I wish all of us Peace on Earth - and I hope next year sees the arts prosper and thrive.

Thank you.

And remember: Don't Quit!