Sunday, July 6, 2008

July 06, 2008


Hello everyone.

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

Before I forget, I want to hype an Advocacy Workshop I'm facilitating locally in Marin County on Wednesday, July 23rd from 9:30 am to 12:30 pm. Hosted by the Marin Center for Volunteer and Nonprofit Leadership. I hope a lot of arts administrators from Napa, Sonoma, and Marin will show up. It would be cool to have the start of a North Bay Arts Advocacy Alliance. Click here for registration information:

I meant to write a recap of my impressions and conversations at the AFTA conference in Philly two weeks ago, but you know how that goes --you play catch-up when you get back, new stuff happens and the alluring charms of procrastination win more than one day.

It was, I think, one of the best of the AFTA conventions in some time. First, it was their largest gathering ever - 1400+ people. Second it was organized superbly; with some very good sessions and some excellent speakers. Congratulations in particular to Peggy Amersterdam from the Greater Philadelphia Cultural Alliance and her staff, and to Bob Lynch and Mara Walker and the AFTA staff for keeping things running so effortlessly smoothly.

The part I usually enjoy the most, is the chance to see old friends and colleagues that I haven't seen for awhile, catch up, exchange ideas and get energized again. I have rarely come away from one of these gatherings without some new idea or project to throw myself into, and this one was no exception. More on all that in the future.

I would like to share two things I carried away from this conference. And BTW, if you would like to read more about the conference, they asked a number of people to blog about their experiences (what a good idea)and you can access those blogs by clicking here:

The National Arts Policy Roundtable is a project of Americans for the Arts and Robert Redford's The Sundance Preserve. It is an annual meeting of an 'A' List group of people from various sectors - arts, business, government, civic, academia etc. etc. to talk in relatively general terms about very big issues. This year's focus was on creativity and business - specifically "The role of the arts in building the 21st century American workforce." The Roundtable made a number of generalized recommendations on conducting research, facilitating a dialogue, developing a vocabulary, increasing awareness and fostering more alliances.

Whereas once our sector's focus was on the general economic impact of our sector, and creativity as an economic engine, two decades plus of successfully making the case for our economic value, has allowed a shift now to creativity's impact on business, innovation, job preparedness and other factors critical to America's competitiveness in the global marketplace. This is still an economic argument, but it is targeted towards our value to business and industry.

Most certainly for all of the dozen years I have been involved in the arts & culture field, the idea of having a more solid, meaningful relationship with the business community has been high on our wish list. We've talked for a long time about a partnership with business. Of course what we really meant, was that we wanted business to support us more -- more vocally to the media and elected officials, and with more money. Perhaps it was all too apparent to corporations and companies that we were much clearer on what we wanted from them, then what we offered in return. Progress on this front has been painfully slow and one of the reasons is that we didn't clarify what we brought to the table.

But now we have begun to focus on what we have to offer. As usual with us, the first stage of our getting serious about pushing realtionships we know will be of value to our missions, is to codify the advantages invovlement in the arts means to those we are making our case to. So with government officials (and the media and wider public too), our economic arguments were that the more the arts grow the better it is for local, state and national economies. We pump money into the system, create jobs, add to tax coffers, support key industries blah blah blah.

And now we are arguing that invovlement in the arts is good for business people with bottom lines. Employees trained in arts make better workers; workers that produce more ideas, deal better with problems, work better as team players, are more comfortable with risk taking, and generally have more of the skills companies are looking for. We need more research, more concrete ideas, more specificity on our value to industry, more conversation and dialogue with business about what they need and want -- and how we can respond to those needs and desires.

We have noted (correctly I think) that businesses are beginning to wake up to the idea that creativity -- creative thinking and idea generation - are good for their companies. And so we want to capitalize on that opening and move the arts agenda along by zeroing in on what the arts do to help foster, nourish and support creativity in the business sector. Like our claims about our economic value, we will have to explain not only what we do that works, but "how" the arts accomplish the objectives important to business, and why it works.

But while this is all exciting stuff and unquestionably we have made progress over the past decade, nonetheless things have been moving pretty darn slow on this track. There have been untold numbers of initiatives and forays into this area in the past decade - some very small, initiated by a single organization or even person, some larger but still local, some on state levels, and some national, and we are still some ways away from any benchmark success to which we can point. It's hard to remember that things take a long time to accomplish some times. This is one of them.

The session on the National Arts Policy Roundtable - led by Marian Godfrey of the Pew Foundation, with input by AFTA's Gary Steuer and others, released some key findings germane to this topic by The Conference Board which is a business & industry 501 (c) (3) nonprofit mechanism that "creates and disseminates knowledge about management and the marketplace to help businesses strengthen their performance(s)" (their definition). They are highly influential and respected within corporate America.

The Conference Board surveyed educators and business executives to sample each group's thoughts about arts education and its value to business. (click here for a copy of that report:

Not surprising, the executives favor creativity. The see it as valuable, impactful, crucial. But that's a lot like waving the flag and championing motherhood. Who's against creativity? There's been enough made of cretivity in the last five years (kudos to our team for being party responsible for that), enough written about it or enough said about it in the media, that every CEO is going to be "for" creativity. That's a long way from them and us being on the same page.

See, we are still at square one with all of this. Even though we have spent thousands of hours talking about how to develop, solidify, expand and promote a relationship with business that benefits the arts, and even though we have actually made progress in the overall scheme, we are still really early in making it happen -- somewhere akin perhaps to where we were 15 years ago in making the economic argument.

One result of the survey by the Conference Board was most telling. When CEOs and School Superintendents were asked to rank which skill best demonstrates creativity - the school superintendents choose "problem solving" (and we in the arts have long pushed problem solving as a skill we can teach and impart). But the CEOs choose "problem identification" or "articulation", and that is something altogether different. The CEO's ranked problem identification #1, the superintendents ranked it #9. And the CEOs ranked problem solving #8, while the superintendents ranked it #1. At this workshop there was some discussion of how companies believe that once a problem is identified, then resolving it in their favor is more of a technical exercise. Creativity is in the identification process and you know, from their point of view, that makes a lot of sense, because the sooner a company can identify problems, the quicker it can address them and the less potential downside there will be.

Business is still not all about taking risks, it's about minimizing them. It's not that they fail to realize risk taking is part of the competitive process, it's that to survive they must have the capacity to minimize the costs of the risk process.

VOCABULARY - "so Tonto, Kemosabe means best buds, right?"
When we talk about creativity, we mean "the arts" and how it fosters and promotes creativity. When business talks about creativity, they are primarily talking about "innovation" and "entrepreneurism." When GE changed their slogan to: "Imagination at work" - they don't necessarily mean what we in the arts take that to mean. Yes they definitely mean the generation of new ideas, for that is the lifeblood of any business enterprise, but they also mean advanced thinking in the execution of those ideas. In the process of moving ideas to reality, that process must be managed effectively and efficiently - and that management needs to be creative too. The point is that our community and the business community are yet to agree on the basic vocabulary for creativity. We mean different things when we use terms like creativity, innovation, value etc. We must now make as our next priority arriving at a consensus with business and industry on what we mean when we talk to each other, and to define what values we are looking to expand. Both them and us, not just us. Otherwise we aren't going to get anywhere.

Two things need to happen next. First we need to begin to approach our interaction with business and industry not just from the point of them ultimately supporting us, but also from the point of what can we specifically do for them. And second, the best way to begin to figure out what we can do for them, is to first agree on our vocabulary. In short, we have to demonstrate to them that we understand what they want when they talk about the value of creativity, and we can talk with them about how the arts can help them get it. Now in the long run we can hopefully expand what they think of as creativity and our role in its creation, sustainability, application, function and the like, but first we need them to understand that we understand what they are talking about ---- because we aren't yet there folks. I think it's time to move from the smart and strategic recommendations that we've come up with over the last few years, to specific, albeit small, action steps.

One of the most interesting and entertaining of the featured speakers was Andrew Zolli - a mid-thirties, well regarded and highly networked, self-described "futurist" whose keynote presentation was witty, chock full of "who knew" data, and provocative intimations as to what it all might mean.

I am a big fan of futurists - I find the very exercise of looking at data and today's realities and trying to hypothesize as to what all the current reality might morph into down the line to be fascinating. As Mr. Zolli freely admitted - more often than not we all get it wrong. All futurists love demographic, and especially population data, and Mr. Zolli was no exception. Here's a few facts: By 2050 there will be 9.2 billion people on the planet. We're looking at a steady 40 to 50% growth rate -- in Africa the rate is 120%, only in Russia and Europe is the rate on the way down. For the first time in history, we are on the cusp of being truly urban - more people living in cities across the planet than in rural or suburban areas. There is also a fundamental shift from the western to eastern worlds. So for example, London is currently one of the top Twenty Cities by popultion in the world. By 2020 it won't even be on the top 20 list. And by 2020, the number three biggest city in the world will be Lagos Nigeria. By 2025 there will be far fewer people on the planet who are in the middle of their lives, and far more either older or younger.

What good is all this information to us? Well, here's one example: as older people may need to stay on the job longer to maintain their own longer life spans, that fact may mean we will be looking towards boomers who would otherwise be retired to fill some of the nonprofit arts leadership posts that will go unfilled because there aren't enough people in the younger cohort available to fill all the jobs that will need people. Ironically, maybe the solution to some generational succession challenges will be the older generation. If older women - who outlive their husbands - begin to increasingly move in with their daughters or daughters in law, that may change the nuclear family dynamics. How does that affect us?

America is headed towards a national no majority ethnic group. Whites may be the largest group, but they will not have a majority (no group will)by 2050. What will this mean to the arts provision of "content" in the future?

For the first time ever in America women outnumber men in college. Can the glass ceiling last much longer? Does this impact financial support for the arts in future?

We are seeing the rise of social networks, because it seems the smaller the community, the better and more meaningful the communication. Networks become the water cooler of the future. Too big and there goes any meaningful converstion around the water cooler. Haven't the arts been doing that for awhile? How can we do it better will be one of the primary challenges we face in the future of audience development.

Zolli suggested that we are in the midst of a change in public attitudes on some fundamental levels. For example, America is moving towards re-evaluation of brands based on citizenship criteria. There is a growth in people's evaluation of the cultural implications of a company's actions as a core of its brand. Thus a favorable brand identity is based increasingly in part on social, environmental and other stewardship questions. Won't that be good for the arts in making arguments to the business community that involvement with us will be good for them on multiple levels? (see early discussion on business and the arts above).

I suppose the most significant shift is that we have begun to make major shifts in almost everything. Faster than we can manage, our lives our changing. In just the past six months, the price of a barrel of oil has fundamentally changed the world. And where will it all lead? Who knows? If America were at war with Iran over something like nuclear capability, some experts predict that it is not inconceivable that oil could temporarily rise to $300 to $400 a barrel! Then what would happen around the world?

Then again, other experts insist the oil crisis is largely the result of speculation and manipulation (that the demand in China isn't yet as large as some would have us believe, that American demand is already down, etc.) Where the truth is in all of this is elusive.

We are looking at food shortages and riots in some places already. There are other actions, seemingly small on their face, that might have equally monumental impacts. Most of these large issues do not impact us in the short term - not individual organizations -- then again do they?

Is the oil crisis good or bad for the arts. I've suggested on many occassions that I wish we had think tanks to deal with these big issues on behalf of the arts field as a whole. These issues are simply too big for any one organization or region to deal with in any meaningful way. Perhaps we need a National Arts Policy Roundtable with a full time staff that didn't meet just once a year to talk in broad terms about a single issue, but one that worked day to day to see the implications, problems, obstacles, and opportunities for our sector in large trends and developments. Isn't that exactly what other industries do - both in the private sector and even in some quarters of the nonprofit world?

The report from the Arts Action Fund - the PAC arm of AFTA was encouraging. For the first time in a Presidential primary contest, several of the candidates adopted pro arts positions - from Obama to Huckabee - Hillary Clinton, Governor Richardson and others acknowledged the value of arts & culture and committed to support. There is actually an Obama Arts Policy Committee. The McCain camp is apparently also interested in developing their own arts & culture policy position and hopefully both parties will include support for our sector in the campaign platforms at their conventions. Candidates from both parties - at all levels - are beginning to include support for the arts, and recognition of the value to our society that arts & culture offer, as part of their campaigns. To insure this isn't just rhetoric, we need to be active players in this election year. If you care about arts funding and government support, you need to consider how you can best impact the system.

This election year presents extraordinary opportunites for the arts to make significant advances in establishing itself with widespread, broad based congressional support. Someday perhaps every state will form their own PAC and we can at long last harvest the massive potential of our field to wield real political power. Not until we have that power will we ever be safe from funding cuts. Think about it please.

I would like to thank Nina Ozlu (and Jay Dick)for inviting me to sit on the convention session on advocacy.

It was a very good conference.



Have a great week everybody.

Don't Quit