Sunday, January 31, 2010


Hello everybody.

“And the beat goes on..............................”

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Everywhere across the country, I am seeing more discussions, gatherings and convenings of arts leaders talking about “tools, tactics and strategies” for expanding the public participation in the arts.

ARTS JOURNAL’S FIVE DAY BLOGATHON: Doug McLennan of Arts Journal and Bill Ivey hosted a fascinating online blogathon discussion last week on Ivey’s concept of the “Expressive Life” and how the arts might widen the nature of what arts & culture should encompass in American life. Some very smart people exchanged ideas over five days on changing the dynamic of the discussion – from the labels and frames we use for that discussion to what is at stake in expansion of the dialogue. While the discussion was largely academic and intellectual in tone, and while it predictably (and perhaps intentionally) rambled some, the longer range practical implications are apparent. Generally this type of inquiry is a luxury for the average arts administrator who has little time for anything other than the daily grind of surviving. But it is important. Very important.

Bill Ivey is almost single handedly on a mission to keep consideration of the implications of national arts & culture policy alive and continuing. The problem with reframing the debate about arts & culture is first to get larger portions of both our sector and the wider community to participate in the process, and second to come to consensus conclusions that will lead to action steps. Unfortunately, only a small portion of those that need to participate in the process do so, and we end up talking about it ad infinitum with nothing ever changing. We are talking about a huge, almost societal movement here that might take a generation or more to finally and fully effect. But it has to start somewhere. It is entirely possible that a whole movement can be spurred on by a single person – witness the growth of the “slow food” movement created really by Berkeley chef Alice Waters.

I personally think Bill Ivey is the right person to spearhead progress in our sector for a new movement that embodies all of the diverse considerations he’s already brought to the fore in his book, Arts Inc., and which contemporary discussions have, and are adding to the mix. But he will need some support along the way and somehow he has to figure out how to cede ownership to a widely diverse and geographically spread out group of constituents, supporters and stakeholders who will have to run with the theory and implement the nuts & bolts of it on the run. And we remain a long way from that reality.

I hope he might convene a whole bunch of leaders and thinkers across a diverse swath of our sector, and rather than conduct more large, unwieldy general discussions, I would suggest he might somehow divide some people into smaller groups – charge each one of them with some specific tasks over the next six months (e.g., one group deals with the options and recommendations for changing the lexicon and labels as part of the reframing effort; another group takes on the identification of both the key major issues that would be prime areas to address in the launch of a new movement and the absolutely essential players that might help move such a sea change in thinking and approach forward; still another group devises some options for how we might launch such an effort so that it would have ripple effects and take on a growth of its own and so forth). Then let him convene all those people together in one place and that group spends a couple of days reviewing the findings of the smaller groups, and then coming up with thoughts and concrete recommendations for specific action steps to move forward. Of course, there would be dissenters and detractors from whatever plan might evolve from such an effort, but at least something concrete could come out of it and we would, at least, have a starting point that people could run with. Surely some foundation or funding source would support that effort.

Somehow we have to get a handle on what is an absolutely enormous undertaking and break free of the paralysis of too much thinking and move to action. Of course, there would be dissenters and detractors from whatever plan might evolve from such an effort, but at least something concrete could come out of it and we would, at least, have a starting point that people could run with. Surely some foundation or funding source would support that effort.

THE SF DYNAMIC ADAPTABILITY CONFERENCE: Locally in San Francisco, I attended a gathering last week called Dynamic Adaptability - sponsored by a consortium of groups including the Wallace Foundation, SF Grants for the Arts, the Center for Cultural Innovation, Helicon (the Holly Sidford – Marcy Cady consulting collaborative), the SF Arts Commission, the San Francisco Foundation, and LINC. Some 600 of 750 people who signed up for the free all day event heard a number of presentations designed to stimulate and motivate arts leaders in new ways of thinking about engagement in the arts. I offer just a few, brief personal insights that I took away from this one gathering (admitting and acknowledging that others got more / less /different take aways). Perhaps the most salient take away was, according to Daniel Windham from the Wallace Foundation, that while attendance at mainstream arts events is down, artistic production and engagement is way up. The implications of that simple fact are myriad and pose huge challenges for the sector in virtually every area – from research to marketing to the very ways access to art is framed.

Here are some takeaways from that gathering:

• A presentation on brain research by neuroscientist and author Jonas Leher who talked about the non-rationality of decision making, and argued that emotion plays a role in almost all decision making; that our instincts guide our decisions, that we use ‘meta-cognition’ (the process of the brain adjusting thinking patterns based on what it knows and knows it doesn’t know about how we make determinations) without even knowing it.

Leher related numerous studies that demonstrate that intangibles impact the process of how we decide things, including:

1. Loss Aversion: Human beings are so averse to loss, that we often behave somewhat irrationally in our decisions. Example: if you flip a coin, there is a 50 / 50 chance it will come up heads or tails, but most people will not make a bet on whether the next flip will be one or the other until you give them odds of a payoff of $1.75 to 50 cents. The loss potential is so great that the reward has to be high to justify the risk. Similarly, and illogically, people tend to keep losing stocks and sell ones that are on the rise because they just can’t accept cutting their losses. Losses hurt more than gains benefit.

2. Marshmallow Test: Four year olds were offered a marshmallow, but told if they would wait 15 minutes they could have TWO marshmallows to see how long they were willing to defer their gratification. The kids who were successful in waiting the full 15 minutes used a variety of techniques to refocus their attention elsewhere to avoid the temptation.

3. Word Association: When subjects were given a standard kind of word test that required them to focus on a specific task (i.e., what prefix / suffix word goes with these three words: pine, crab and sauce), those who were the most successful were those who found some way to relax their alpha waves and step away from the intensity of the problem at hand. Thus, the notion that time spent away from a task is wasted time turns out not to be valid. Daydreaming uses more energy than a brain focusing on a specific task as creativity is a more complex activity. But insights are easier to come to when the brain is relaxed and not so focused on solving a specific problem.

The answer to the word game was: apple. PineAPPLE, CrabAPPLE, APPLEsauce.

Alas, while these examples and insights were both entertaining and informative, and certainly food for thought, Leher never really addressed the syllabus question for this presentation: “How can understanding the science behind decision making help us better engage our audiences.”

He did offer one statistic that I found startling (and somewhat frightening): Proctor & Gamble employs more PhDs than any other company in the world and has more Nobel prize winning scientists on staff than MIT and UC Berkeley combined. Now there is a great use of scientific brainpower at work, huh? Do we need more products like Swifter?

Finally, Leher opined that there may be a danger in younger people’s increasing reliance on technology for their exposure to art and that they might be missing the value of the experience of the direct relationship in having a more personal connection.

• Judilee Reed of LINC related some facts from a survey of artists it did last year, few of which were, by their own admission, surprising, though I thought interesting the finding that internet use is highest in exploring museums and writers.

• A study conducted by Wolf Brown and Helicon to be released this spring on Donor Motivation similarly yielded predictable conclusions: Donors supporting artists become engaged via four principal points (in no order): 1) a personal relationship; 2) a passion for the art; 3) an emotional or intellectual connection to the subject matter or issue; and 4) a connection to the culture or community involved in the project. And there are five primary values that motivate arts donors: 1) localism – a focus on community outside existing institutional structures; 2) humanism - valuing social goods; 3) distinction – a focus on world class art; 4) bonding – focus on beliefs that connect people; and 5) progressivism – valuing individualism and cutting edge arts & ideas.

A presentation including working artists Margaret Jenkins and Jamie Cortez raised a couple of interesting observations:

             o Jenkins thought being surrounded by optimistic people was essential in these bad times. She also thought artists should be wary of false decoys – such as the notion that audience size was the right measurement of success. And she thought exposure to the work of an artist’s contemporaries was good for motivation.
             o Cortez opined that ‘mission drift’ – the increasing phenomenon of artists having to spend more and more time away from creativity and more time in focusing on how to pay the overhead was a problem. He also wondered if artists spending more time teaching was perhaps somewhat of a Faustian compromise.

A thoroughly enjoyable panel on new ways to engage audiences and supporters, provided the following insights I found interesting:

               • Artist Phillip Huang, a very charming and engaging young performance artist, did a fascinating experiment pitching a proposed artistic endeavor (Witness to Fitness) a performance of undetermined content on the street side of the plate glass windows in front of Bay Area 24/7 gyms where those exercising looked out towards the sidewalk. To be filmed & put on You Tube. He told the audience he needed $300, and extolled and cajoled those in attendance to contribute in a basket passed around. He invited a volunteer from the audience to propose an alternative performance piece and a young woman offered the Feminist Dressing Room project - a writer’s short story experiment invading the dressing rooms of women’s boutiques. The point was that fundraising need not be overly ambitious, that it should be fun, and that it can be spontaneous. The audience agreed and ponied up, on the spot, some $225 to Huang and $180 to the other alternative – literally tossing money from the balcony.

              • Huang – hardly shy - also offered that in the new economy today’s artist gives away most of its product for free and that you don’t need a lot of money to create. He opined that artists should go narrow and deep – and not broad – because you want an audience desperate for what you offer. He also posited that most web activity is now about finding and expanding your tribe. And finally offered the observation (quoting his friend Kirk Read) that the most dangerous thing in the world is “well meaning, fearful people” – then concluded that 90% of arts administrators fall into that category. I liked him a lot as did, I think, most of the audience.

              • Perry Chen, the founder of – a website that allows people to pitch projects to solicit small, individual donations, described the process of successful small online fundraising. Key is to offer small projects which are more exciting to people, and to offer the potential supporters something (involvement) in return. Successful users of his site tell a story of some kind and invite donors to become part of that story in some way. I think this is a good use of the web and I think he is onto something we can use.

I wondered if any of the content of the day was valuable to those who attended. While much of that which was offered was interesting , entertaining and encouraging – was it practically useful? Why, I wondered, did people attend this gathering in the first place; what did they expect to get out of it, and were their expectations met? , and so during the lunch break I interviewed a dozen or more attendees and asked them those questions. Surprisingly, there was a general consensus, at least among those I talked to (and I spoke with both artists and arts administrators – but tried to question only those people I didn’t know) – that the reason they came was that they felt somewhat isolated in their daily work (artistic or administrative) and that this kind of gathering allowed them to re-connect to the larger whole of our field, providing them the opportunity to feel less isolated. They came not necessarily because they thought they would leave with any real solutions to the problems they faced, but rather for encouragement, for motivation, for camaraderie – for making that elusive connection to those similarly situated to themselves, and for new ideas and new thinking. I thought that rather profound.

As a field we face a plethora of serious and daunting challenges and there appear no easy solutions (or, for that matter, any solutions) to some of those issues. This has created a situation that seems ripe for consideration of some fundamental, big issues and there seems to me to be a growing trend to move that ideal forward. Where it will end, or what, if anything, it will produce that will be lasting remains to be seen, but I think the process is valuable to us, and getting out of our complacency and questioning past assumptions, challenging long held tenets, and be exposed to and thinking in different ways is a good sign. I came away from this conference thinking that we need more artists at our gatherings – and not just the traditional performers.

NEXT WEEK: The long awaited in-depth interview with NEA Chair Rocco Landesman.

Have a great week.

Don’t Quit.