Tuesday, March 23, 2010


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


Many arts administration gurus and pundits have chided arts administrators for not listening to their supporters and audiences enough as background to the conclusions they reach, and the formulations on their planning, marketing, fundraising and other tasks. Managers in our field are advised to spend more time talking to their various constituents so as to have more information on which to base decisions, and to keep open lines of communication to improve the involvement and sense of ownership and buy-in by the organization’s critical “public”. Studies and surveys consistently show that our key supporters and audiences often only hear from us when we want something – most often, money, and many resent that.

Last week NEA Chairman Rocco Landesman came to California for a week of meetings as he continued his tour of the arts in America. Every NEA Chair does this. In part it’s a mutual dog and pony show – the NEA introduces its new leader and local arts organizations scramble to try to inform the new Chair of the state of arts in their territories. The California visit, arranged principally by the James Irvine Foundation’s President Jim Canales (one of the more involved and committed to the arts Foundation CEO’s in the country) had stops in San Diego, Los Angeles, San Francisco and Oakland. I think this exercise is a good thing for several reasons: 1) the NEA Chair is the titular head and leader of the nonprofit arts in the country. It is valuable for him to be exposed first hand to the arts across the country – and while the arts share much, there are clear and subtle differences in arts provision in different states and cities. It’s good for the Chair to learn the nuances of different regions. It gives him a better (deeper, richer) perspective as to what role and value the NEA has in different areas, and that perspective allows him to be a more effective lobbyist and planner so as to address the needs of the sector; 2) it’s important for the titular head to be seen out in the provinces and for the arts across the country to take his measure and to offer their support or register their concerns; 3) it helps to cement the relationship of local arts with the national organization.

Travel today is not much fun. Airports and hotels are more of a chore than anything else. There are a few people who love being on the road, but many of us do not. So I applaud Rocco’s willingness to go on “tour” as it were. I went to one session while he was here in the San Francisco Bay area – the one on Arts Education. Composed of a very good panel of those involved in the arts ed area, the presentations were informative and content heavy. Though I had virtually no face time with the Chairman on this visit, my sense is that he genuinely came to listen and learn. It was clear to me that he wants to understand the issues and was perfectly comfortable in acknowledging what he doesn’t know (a refreshing stance in anyone today, and particularly appreciated in government officials). I personally believe that the more he interacts and intersects with the various sub-groups within our sector, the more he will be effective in playing the role of our national leader – and we need him to play that role.
And therein he sets(as have virtually every one of the past NEA Chairs) , I think, an example to be followed by all of us. We too need to spend some of our admittedly very scarce available time – even though it may be a chore to do so – getting out there into our small universes and listen and learn from our constituent groups – supporters and donors, audiences and volunteers, local elected officials and the media – about how they perceive us, and what they want and need from us to be more committed to, and effective on behalf of, our needs and wants. It would be very valuable I think for all Executive Directors of our organizations to mount their own “tour” of some sort to gather together their clients and constituents to hear what they think. It’s really not that hard to do. I think those leaders would learn a lot by just listening. And in the process, I think they would also forge deeper and better relationships with all those people on whom they depend. It is very likely those people would be pleased to have their advice and opinions solicited if for no other reason than this particular “ask” wouldn’t be for money. 

Thanks to all of those who worked on Rocco's visit to California. Hopefully, more of this kind of thing might be taped and rebroadcast, or in some other way made available to a much wider audience of local arts organizations. More people in our sector need to share in this kind of thing.

Have a great week.

Don’t Quit!