Thursday, May 22, 2008

May 22, 2008


Hello everybody.

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

This is kind of a rant I guess, but the topic of the extent to which we, as a field, can and do plan for our future - is, I think, a critically important topic. Stay with me here - read on if you will.

A couple of years ago, we did a HESSENIUS Group live at the Americans for the Arts conference in Madison, Wisconsin focusing on planning for the future - specifically what the arts might do in the face of possible catastrophic occurences - e.g., what would happen to audiences were there to be a highly contagious pandemic outbreak of something like bird flu. Would people stop going to cultural events? for how long? what would be the impact financially? and what could we do to prepare for such a disaster to protect our field - if anything?

Of course we haven't had that disaster scenario come to reality. Planning for disasters is more often than not an academic exercise - thankfully so. And it is kind of fun making wild, unfounded projections about what kind of world the future might bring and how we might be impacted.

But the purpose of the exercise was more basic and fundamental - it was to get our field to begin to think about strategic planning in a larger context; one that would encompass a deeper and broader consideration of our place in the overall world and to, at least, begin to consider what global, national or local trends, events, and the like might have on who we are and what we do.

Strategic planning has long been ingrained into the organizational psyche of the arts. Almost every organization engages in some sort of annual ritual of board retreats and strategic planning. And we engage in strategic planning because it makes sense; it is logical to set forth our goals and objectives and try to figure out how we can get there from where we are and who has to do what and when to make that happen.

When I first started in the arts, it was common for arts organizations to (ala the Russians or Chinese I guess) create five year plans. I, and apparently many others, came to the conclusion that trying to plan five years into the future was an exercise in futility - because it was basically impossible to even conceive of what circumstances might be five years down the road. Planning even for two years out would have to allow for changes in circumstances that simply couldn't be conceived of as of the date of the plan - and flexibility and adaptation should be in every plan. Still, projecting goals and considering the variables that would likely impact the process of reaching those goals was, and remains, a valuble pursuit to help an organization move forward.

The experiment we did in Madison was an attempt to widen the things that might be considered in the process of planning or trying to plan. The problem, of course, is that the big issues - particularly ones that are potentially negative, and which are larger than any single organization is likely to be able to plan for, demand attention from people and resouces that are beyond the scope of the typical arts organization. If one wants to consider what a bird flu pandemic might do to audience attendance at performing arts events or museums, that is simply too big an issue for any one arts organization - it is really more appropriately the province of the NEA, or government, or state agencies or the big foundations, or think tanks.

One point that came out of that Madison experiment is that we don't have a systemic approach or infrastructure that spends time dealing with these large issues. Government, state agencies, the NEA, big foundations - none of them deal with this kind of scenario planning. I suppose it is fair to ask why should we? And I suppose as long as there isn't a bird flu pandemic or some such calamity, spending time considering what to do were there one, isn't necessarily time well spent -- given all the demands on our limited time.

My guess is that the private sector does engage in some of this kind of thinking and planning, and one would hope that government does (though there is increasing evidence that from the defense department to FEMA - the government obviously doesn't do enough of this kind of planning). But such planning takes time, money, commitment and is somewhat of a luxury. It's like expensive earthquake insurance - great if there is a disaster - but expensive and perhaps not affordable in the here and now - and no one likes to think too much about disasters and the like happening.

All of this - the issue of what we consider in the overall organizational dynamic of strategic planning - came to my mind because of the recent spike in fuel costs and specifically American Airlines decision to start charging $15 to check your bag (the first bag, no less). My first reaction was the humor in where this would lead:

"Yes Mr. Jones, that will be $15 to check your bag. By the way would you be wanting a seat belt? Only ten dollars. How about an arm rest - only another $5. Leg room - yes we sell leg room. $2.50 per inch. How many inches would you like? This is a four hour flight - would you like to purchase a card key for the bathroom or just a wet towlette should you need one? Oh, and when we arrive - would you like to exit the plane via the jetway? $10. Or would you prefer to just jump out the exit door?"

And I've seen television reports about angry people saying they think American Airlines is just nuts. "Charging for checking your bag? My gawd." So people will now likely try to take more and more carry on bags - ones that doubtless will NOT fit in the overhead bins or under your seats, and that will cause getting on and off the airplane to take even longer than it already does. And that will cost the airlines time and more money. But what are they to do? Another television report suggests that for every one dollar increase in the price of a barrel of oil, the airlines incur an additional $80 million in fuel costs. And oil goes up one to three or four dollars a day. The airline business isn't such a great business during normal times. How can they afford to stay in business unless they increase income?

They could just raise the fares to meet costs, but that might mean ticket prices would be so high people would just stop flying. And maybe that's where we are headed.

And there's the hub of the issue. Will we get to the point where only the very rich can afford to fly anymore. Will oil costs simply climb to the point where there is no way people can afford it and no choice to the airlines. Planes are expensive. There are no hybrids on the drawing boards to make fuel more efficient enough to keep things going. Fuel is a major variable over which they have little to no control. What to do?

Why is this of any relevance to us and strategic planning? Well, one possible scenario would invovle the future of tourism - which is important to the arts - at least tangentially. We are part of the tourism eco-system. Most major cities and regions depend ever more heavily on tourism for local dollars and economic activity. Tourism means jobs, means local tax money, means hotel and hospitality industry income to the arts - and perhaps even adds to our audience bases. And it's important to a vibrant economy - and a healthy economy is important to us.

So if flying becomes increasingly prohibitive (particulalry when combined with increasingly expensive gas for car travel) how will that impact tourism? And how will that impact us? And with the incresing demand for oil and gas in China and India and around the world, and the reality that oil prices aren't likely to go down, isn't this a very likely scenario (as compared let's say with bird flu pandemics)? A dramatic shift from air travel (and car travel too)on a global basis will have profound impact on a lot of the way we live our lives beyond it's impact on tourism. And some of that other impact may affect us too. So, for example, were global tourism to experience a downturn because of the cost of fuel, we could expect a downturn in the fortunes of the hospitality industry (hotels, resturants etc.), and because that industry has (in Europe and America anyway) long been dependent on cheap immigrant labor, what kind of impact would that have on immigration trends and movements? And would that impact change the patterns of growth? And would that change the issues attendant to the growth of cultural diversity? Everything seems somehow inexorably connected to everything else. The "butterfly effect" -- where a butterfly that flaps its wings in Hawaii changes the weather pattern in Asia.

I don't know the answers to any of these or countless other questions. That's the point. Do we need to
discuss any of this? Do we even have the luxury of discussing these kinds of issues? Should, or rather, CAN we include consideration of these scenarios in our strateigic planning - if not by individual organizations, at least as a field? Even if we did, is it likely we could do anything positive to protect ourselves anyway? And if not, why would we bother? Should anybody bother?

I think what does make sense is that - arts & culture (as a sector) - does need to continually question and debate what should and shouldn't be included in our approach to strategic planning. We should continuously debate and discuss what kinds of things we should consider, and how we might as a field, at least not ignore what other sectors may be addressing.

And these kinds of questions as to what we should be aware of as part of the future world we might face certainly can have practical resonance in areas that are much more real and immediate. So, for example, I am working with the Hewlett Foundation on a second phase of a study we did on the Involvement of Youth in the Arts. This specific phase is designed to try to ascertain what people in a younger cohort actually think might help arts organizations to attract, recruit, retain and expand the involvement of young people to become the next generation of arts leaders. Since the release of the initial study, we have noted an expansion of the awareness that generational succession is now and will be an ever more critical issue for the arts. And that is because of the fact that millions of jobs will be vacant in the next decade and there simply won't be enough people in the pool to fill them all - let alone enough of the best educated, best thinkers, most talented people. There simply won't be enough people to fill all the vacant jobs - period. What will the arts do to at least compete? And what will happen to the ones who can't attract succession leadership? Will they accept less than qualified people to lead them? Will they fold and cease to exist? Will they merge with other organizations? The point is even though there is no time to consider issues like this that won't come to an immediate head right away, we must consider them. We must plan now. Or we are in big, big trouble when the reality begins to hit home. And while bird flu may not happen, a change in tourism patterns might; and retiring baby boomers creating a generational succession challenge for the arts will absolutely come to pass.

We discuss all kinds of policy issues about culture in America, and rightly so. But what else do we need to discuss? There are seemingly broad issues that are academic in scope, but that will soon enough be very practical concerns for us. What should our approach be now? Can we at least begin to think of creating mechanisms that might be able to devote energy to these kinds of challenges on behalf of all of us? Can we begin to consider systemic ways for the field as a whole to address the bigger picture on an ongoing and regular basis? Can government agencies or our national umbrella organizations or the bigger foundations or the university degree programs help in any way?

Maybe a downturn in the ability of the world's population to travel will turn out to be a boon for the arts - people will stay home and the arts will become more important. Maybe then revenues and tax income to the arts will increase. Maybe there will be opportunities in that eventuality that we should think about how we can exploit. And maybe we ought to think about those things now.

Maybe not. Shall we discuss these things?

Have a great holiday weekend.

Don't Quit.