Sunday, December 27, 2009

December 27, 2009



Hello everyone.

“And the beat goes on............”

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I usually end the year with a blog inviting a cross section of national arts leaders to focus on what they believe are the mega issues and trends that did, and will, impact the sector in the past and coming year.

As we move to the final year of the first decade of this century, I thought it might be interesting and instructive to look back at the past five years of these predictions and see how our intrepid observers and pundits did. (You can read all the predictions and observations by clicking on the December blog for each prior year under the Archives section on the right hand side).

Not surprisingly, there are several key core challenges facing our sector that repeatedly and consistently wind up on any list – be it of our challenges, priorities, or core issues – including:
  • audience development
  • expanded and changing public participation in the arts
  • funding and revenue generation
  • advocacy
  • arts education
Several other issues are now, and have been throughout the second half of this decade, also on our lists – including:
  • the transition to embracing new technologies,
  • leadership succession issues, incorporating the management of the different generations in our workplace,
  • the (arguably) outdated nonprofit organization model,
  • shifting emphasis to community based arts models
Looking back on 2004, the 2005 year panel recognized that revenue was an issue, and that there might be economic problems ahead, but that insight was based primarily on the fear that the costs of the Iraq war would ultimately negatively impact the arts by relegating them as a low priority for national public funding. We didn’t take the collapse as a harbinger of any greater economic collapse. Generally prognosticators were optimistic and confident new research and tools had put the sector right on the cusp of meaningful audience development progress and a fundamental change in the dynamics of how we would increase our audiences - an optimism that was not borne out by subsequent reality. Observers that year did note that advancing technologies were responsible for moving “passive audiences to (become) more active producers of the arts” and saw that trend as being significant. The panel also early on identified generational issues as being important in the future.

In 2006, even though there were the beginnings of the tectonic economic shift that we would see by decade’s end, we still didn’t see the collapse coming – nobody did. Panelists did correctly identify the early declines in demand for the arts and the corresponding increase in the ways the public could access the arts. We didn’t however, yet note the precipitous decline in audiences for performing arts events that was happening even while our optimism remained high. And we were still optimistic in 2006 – thinking less in terms of survival and more about the grander issues of expanding participation, advancing arts education and increasing appreciation for our value.

Participants did question the level of our marketing expertise and savvy and hinted at our lack of sophistication to compete in the private sector arena for the scarce time and dollars of a changing public. Panelists also begin to think in terms of the implications and possible impacts of changing technology and, in particular, of social networking online realities. While this panel re-echoed the importance of generational succession as a challenge facing the sector, we still did not yet fully appreciate that the issue was bigger than succession, and really involved the management of four different generations working side by side in the workplace.

In 2007, there continued optimism that we would be successful in making the case for the value of the arts to public (and private) decision makers. The importance of advocacy was recognized, yet despite the growing success of real political power as demonstrated by the Americans for the Arts PAC: The Arts Action Fund -- we continued to think advocacy was principally about making the case for our value and less about political clout. A tenet we stubbornly cling to still.

We had no real understanding of the fundamental changes in the global economic situation that was invisibly happening all around us. Nor did we see back then the extent to which our audiences were already shrinking. While we accurately saw that there had begun a shift in both the creation of, and the access to, art from the nonprofit arts organization ecosystem to outside that sphere, we didn’t yet have any handle on how to respond to the changing creation and consumption model that was underway. At the end of 2007, we did began to recognize that the way artists related to the nonprofit arts organization ecosystem had begun to change and that we were increasingly dispensable to a growing number of artists – especially younger ones.

At the end of 2008, we, like the rest of the world, were finally fully aware of the impact of the economic collapse. We knew firsthand the devastation the meltdown had wrought (and that would likely continue in our sector for the near term future). However, we weren’t terribly accurate in our thinking as to what our sector response would be to the new challenges. We thought there would likely be more mergers, consolidations and collaborative responses to the new economic reality. That largely has not happened. We did accurately predict the cutbacks in budgets and the downsizing of our organizations, and even that there would be a significant number of organizations to close their doors.

On the technology front, we were overly optimistic that we would embrace new technologies – to improve our marketing, catch up with shifting audiences and get a handle on expanding participation options. That has largely not happened. The one area we accurately predicted as a viable option to dealing with the new challenges was in a re-focus of our efforts to the local community level. We saw that as viable and we were right.

Last year’s election and the Obama Campaign model generated considerable excitement and optimism in the sector that real “change” was in the air, and certainly systemic, dynamic change seemed, if not inevitable, then, at least, possible. Early hope that we might somehow replicate the online success of aggregating huge numbers of small and individual supporters has fallen by the wayside as somehow we seemed content to wait for it to just happen of its own accord. It did not. If there was a window of opportunity to tap into that feeling across America, it was a very small window and we neither had the know how to even begin to capitalize on it, nor were we in any position to do so in terms of people or infrastructure. While we celebrated the inclusion of the arts in the stimulus package and believed that under Obama our fortunes would now change, campaign enthusiasm is axiomatically very difficult to sustain in the electorate post an election, and much of that energy has dissipated under the weight of the continuing economic plight, the seemingly never ending American foreign involvements and the threat of those that want to harm us, and, perhaps most of all, the now more pronounced than ever partisan divide that increasingly makes cooperation and working together virtually impossible. Again, the reality of our sector was survival mode and nobody was charged or empowered with the formal pursuit of any of these larger enterprises. The Administration, it seemed, has larger and more pressing matters on its plate.

So over the past five years we have accurately identified some of the larger societal changes, shifts, and trends that have impacted our sector. Faced with truly draconian alternatives in this new dessert, we expressed confidence that this was the time to really “think-out- of-the-box” and for us to get creative in our responses to ever greater challenges, but the wearisome task of day-to-day survival seems to have been so time consuming and daunting that our responses have really been relatively pedestrian and traditional and not particularly creative and ground breaking. We are busy trying to hold-on and our ideas on how to do that have not been game changers. We haven’t been able to craft a grand plan for arts and culture in America for the future as some on my panel would have hoped; indeed we haven’t really done more than talk about grand planning. Progress on moving arts education forward (in terms of universally available K-12, sequential & curriculum based, teaching) long recognized as critical to future audience development, and indeed to public support for the arts, continues to stall. Alas, as seems to have become the norm, while we early on recognize the potential importance of changing trends, we are slow to respond to those insights in concrete ways with specific strategies, and therein, lies, I think, one of our major problems: The track record of our ability to respond to that which challenges us – either offensively or defensively – in a specific, strategic way simply isn't very good. We are arguably too slow to respond to threats or opportunities; we don't have any mechanisms in place to react quickly and decisively - at least not on a sector wide basis, and we continue to pay the price for that reality.

While we have recognized for some time that there is a divide and disconnect between making and consuming art in the new technologically empowered private (or amateur) sector as compared to our nonprofit arts organization ecosystem, we have yet to get any kind of handle around how we can deal with that challenge and it continues to loom ominously out there like some dark star. At the same time, we now have verifiable studies that confirm that our audiences continue to shrink, yet our reseach hasn't provided us with real clues how to stem that downward spiral in the short term. And while we know our traditional funding and revenue streams – from philanthropic and public sources, earned income, audiences, and from individual donors -- are all undergoing sea changes, we still don’t yet know where all this is going or where we will end up, and we have only band-aid solutions so far. If the bleeding gets really worse, many of us may be in big trouble.

So, we had it right some of the time, and wrong some of the time.

Here is my take on some of the challenges facing us for the coming decade:

1. Audiences will continue to decline at least short term, though in the overall scheme of things they may actually increase if you factor in all the new ways the public can access art. The challenge for us is twofold: 1) how to maximize the exposure of all art to the widest audiences, and, 2) how to generate meaningful operational income revenue from audiences – however they may be categorized. Research that does not address these two objectives directly should give way to research that does - at least while audiences continue to decline.

2. Both public and private funding (apart from individual donors) will continue to fall short of the demand for it, and the sector needs to develop a general “policy” for the priority of the allocation of institutional funds. What is it we want to accomplish on the grand scale in both the short and long term? We also need an effort across all discipline and geographic lines to evaluate all existing revenue streams and develop real world strategies for all types and classifications of arts organizations and individual artists to be financially stable over time. We need the proverbial new model. Without a plan and some options, most organizations will flounder and struggle to keep afloat.

3. We need to move to specific training for the management of the generational divide within our workplaces and to make work in our sector more attractive by expanding the delegation of authority as we transition from one generation to the other. This is very important, but it isn’t rocket science; we have the answers. We don’t need to talk anymore, we need to act to make sure everyone fully understands the issues and is then trained to deal with them effectively.

4. We need to continue to identify and recognize the changing ways artists expand how they create art, and how their audiences consume that which is created. If we serve art then we must serve artists – and we must serve them, at least in part, on their terms in their worlds. Our survival as arts organizations likely depends on it.

5. We must finally recognize that advocacy is more than just making the case for our value, and that political clout is essential to influence decision making that impacts us. It is time to understand that without political power, decisions are more often than not likely to go against us – and that includes funding decisions and decisions about arts education in the schools.

6. I suspect there will be more research and data to refute some of our claims of the past decade – from the direct value of arts education to the impacts of Richard Florida’s “creative class”, and that this new research dispelling some of our arguments will force us to be more rigorous in the future in developing evidentiary support for what we claim. We will need, I think, to re-evaluate our positions and do better at how we defend ourselves against those who would question our arguments.

7. If we don’t figure out how to seriously organize the whole of our sector to massively mobilize (AND succeed in co-opting other sectors to join our effort) in support of K-12, sequential, standards & curriculum based classroom arts education, I think the movement will likely stall for the whole of the next decade. Despite official designations to the contrary, nowhere is art thought to be a core subject. We have to make it a core subject – legally as well as within people's consciousness – and in that order if we wish to succeed. This is a losing game without substantial political clout - which we do not have. Arts education that is not mandated will forever be subject to outside parental and community support to survive. At the core of the belief that the arts are just a frill is that arts education is not on a par in importance with math and science. This is more than an issue of educating the public. It’s highly political.

8. If we continue to drag our heels in facing the challenge of mastering new technologies and how those technologies impact the way art is created, distributed, accessed and marketed, we are likely to face a whole new (and far more profound and complex) round of even greater technological advancement. If we have no success on which to build, exploiting and managing whatever is coming next will be that much more difficult for us. We need an immediate national grand strategic plan to move forward in this arena, and part of that plan must include a huge provision for expertise and training to empower our communities and organizations to move forward.

9. Arts organizations will face ever greater competition -- within our sector and between our sector and the private arena. We need to dramatically improve our professional development and training programs so that our leaders - at all levels - can compete as effective managers. Basic, ad hoc, sporadic, occasional options simply will not cut it in the next decade. What we need is a veritable Marshall Plan for professional development – to address everything from recruitment of talent to basic and advanced skills preparation IF we are to have any chance to successfully compete (as business people) with far better trained private sector leadership. We remain inadequately trained as professionals, and we still have little provision for mechanisms to learn from our own past experiences and former leadership. Working in the arts remains much like the movie “Groundhog Day”.

10. Presenters will be faced with increasingly difficult perimeters in which they can turn enough of a profit to survive. Management of ‘bricks & mortar’ venues will increasingly be tested as viable when in competition with virtual options (especially with the Millennial generation). Presenters will need substantially more financial, research and marketing support if performance arts events are to remain a public option. And they will likely have to figure out new ways to take art to their audiences.

The biggest challenge of all, in my opinion, is will we find the means to tackle the big issues as a sector? Will we be able to fund real efforts to deal with these issues beyond just talking about them? At this point we have virtually no legacy of funding sector wide efforts to address sector wide issues. We fund arts organizations - locally - and principally for their programs and overhead. We do not fund sector wide efforts to deal with major issues. The only real exceptions have been convenings and research.

We face the following:
  • The continual decline of our audiences
  • The continuing decrease in our public and private funding revenues
  • The continuing migration of younger generational management talent to other sectors
  • The stagnation of arts education as a perceived luxury within curriculum priorities
  • The increase of political decision making against our needs and interests 
  • Falling increasingly behind in adapting to and exploiting technology
  • Fewer performances and exhibitions
Big challenges, but I absolutely believe we have the skills sets, talent, and knowledge storehouse to successfully deal with each of these issues.

But will we? If funders are not willing to put up the necessary funds to address these issues – including paying for the talent – from within and from without our field – to lead these efforts, all will likely fail. None of what needs to be done can be a volunteer effort or left to individual organizations – none really have the time, resources, skills or talent to do that. And none of the problems we face will solve themselves. It will not happen by magic. I would hope we would at least fund convenings that will deal with the question of how we might address these challenges. Not just more talk, but a concerted effort to arrive at an implementable action plan.

Wishing you all a Happy New Year, and that 2010 smiles on all of you.

Don’t Quit.