Sunday, December 26, 2010

Kicking the Can Down the Road

Good Morning

“And the beat goes on……………………………..”

Oh What A Time It Was………….

I use to do a year end wrap-up blog with a bunch of people across the sector offering their ideas as to what challenges might face the arts in the coming year. Last year I tried to do a re-cap of what had been said over the previous five years. I think we got to the point with this exercise of simply repeating the same prognostications every year. It seemed very little changed. The same problems continued to perplex us; we didn’t seem to arrive at any new ideas for solutions; we lamented the same shortcomings from our past; in short, we seemed stuck -- with things getting better in some ways and worse in others – but for the most part, while the world seems to be undergoing huge titanic changes, we seem to stay the same.

So this end of the year blog looks at the global sea changes of the past decade that have altered the world around us, and rants about why our sector seems to have changed so little. I’d like to know if people agree with me or not. (you can click on the logo above and go to the site and enter a comment at the end if the blog).

The first decade of the new millennium was anything but boring. It’s hard to imagine that ten years ago the biggest global fear was Y2K.

So much has changed in so little time. Consider that ten years ago none of the following even existed:

• Google
• You Tube
• Facebook
• Twitter
• I Pods, I Phones, I Pads and I Tunes
• Tivo
• WiFi
• Bluetooth
• Digital Cameras
• X Boxes, Playstation, Wii
• Al Quaeda
• Wikipedia
• Netflix
• Reality tv
• Hybrid cars

Profound shifts and events (all since 2000) changed global life:
• 911
• Iraq and Afghanistan wars
• The election of the first African American President
• The dotcom crash
• The housing crisis and the global economic collapse including the banking / finance industry
• The rise of China, India and now Brazil as new economic superpowers
• The re-emergence of politically important Russia
• North Korea and Pakistan as nuclear powers
• Unusual climatic changes and events – from the Tusnami to Katrina to the Haiti earthquake
• Huge demographic changes and the rise of minority immigrant populations in America (Latinos count for half the US population growth since 2000).
• Political partisanship as the new normal.

On the near term horizon:
• Universal broadband access
• Universal voice and visual communication on all devices
• GlobaL transformation from the internet to social nets as the principal means of organizing communication – including business applications of social networking.
• A reordering of global economic positions.

And that, of course, is only part of the story.

The whole world became wired and interconnected. The principal changes attributable to technology were in communications. Our access to information and our ability to find people similarly interested in what we were interested in presaged the arrival of new ways of organizing how we related to, and interacted with, those in our lives – from family and friends to colleagues and cohorts and even to people searching for those like us whom we didn’t even know. The future will be in transformations of our relationships and a movement away from the internet per se and towards more social networking.

The pace of technology made each version of each new (and dazzling) product and advance virtually obsolete on its release – with significant consequences -- newspapers died; television is on the wane. Napster came and went. Even the ubiquitous email – at least with Millennials – is on the way out.

American education took a huge hit in comparison with other nations. The rich are getting richer, the poor are getting poorer – and there are more of both – though many more of the latter. Fundamentalism is on the rebound and we are mired in a new struggle for the superiority of one religious belief over another. A modern Crusades looms on the horizon. War continues to hold a dear place in the human heart – or at least the hearts of governments and their leaders. The ecosystem of the entire planet is more fragile and while more people across borders are aware of the threat to our habitat as a species, and while there are “green” efforts everywhere to try to halt some inexorable march towards doom, nations can’t agree on any real cooperative measures and economic growth trumps a clean environment in the developing nations (Global emissions up 29% since 2000). The world is a lot less safe than it once was and because of that ongoing threat we easily accept that we virtually have to disrobe to travel – at least on airplanes.

And perhaps the most significant benchmark of them all -- in just the past decade we added about one billion more people to the planet. 7 billion total now. Most of those alive today are under the age of 25. When the class of 2010 reaches middle age around 2030, the world’s ten most populous cities will not include any of those currently in the top ten. One of every six people on the planet will live in India. On every level it is a much different world than it was just ten years ago. And unquestionably the changes to come will be even more profound.

There is so much that is going wrong, so much that we have to fix – yet the human spirit is resilient and generations remain optimistic and hopeful, if often times oblivious and ignorant. There is arguably greater awareness than ever of the essentiality of creativity to solving our problems and addressing our issues, and most certainly greater access to tools of creation and access to finished product. Indeed, technology has enabled the human artistic spirit in ways heretofore undreamt, and everywhere there is growth in communities of shared interests. And the need for us, for what we do, for the arts, for creativity will only, I think, continue to grow exponentially. While technology brings us enormous benefits and any number of new, fun, cool ways, to do things, it also brings problems. Facebook is not the same as face time and never will be. Television didn’t destroy radio, online options didn’t destroy movies. There is nothing on the horizon or even in the imagination that can destroy the value or attraction of art – whether making it or seeing it.

With all of this change – so varied, so deep, so pervasive, so all-encompassing - one would think that there would be corresponding depth and breadth of change within the nonprofit arts sector as well. Yet when I look back on the past ten years, I really can’t see that the nonprofit arts have changed all that much. Oh yes, we use the technology everyone else uses and that has changed the way we communicate and even create, but we have actually been slow to embrace and employ new technologies to our purposes. In large measure, we haven’t even kept pace and maintained connections to the large and growing segment of younger people across the globe who are engaging in our mainstay – creativity - in new ways, on their terms, and outside of our framework, with the result that we are increasingly thought by some irrelevant and increasingly disconnected from the future. While there were incredible advances in technology, and the promise of even more profound and dramatic advances in medicine and science for this next decade, there was nothing even close to comparable in terms of breaking new ground in the way we approached our work, or addressed our issues. Companies that have had the biggest success in the past decade are those we associate as leaders in innovation and imagination – Apple, Google, Facebook and so on. Where is our innovation and imagination in dealing with our issues – in our emerging as a big success?

"Kicking the can down the road" is a universally understood metaphor that has come to mean not dealing with the problem but putting a band-aid on it, knowing we will have to deal with something maybe even worse in the future – and perhaps not by choice and even in spite of our best attempts to do otherwise, I think that is what we have been doing for some time.

We continue to grapple with the same issues, the same challenges that existed back in the 90’s and even before. And astoundingly we continue to use the same approaches and apply the same strategies that we have been using for a long, long time in response to those challenges. We haven’t come up with anything remarkably new or cutting edge; we haven’t taken the changes and molded them to our needs, nor applied them to our concerns to any great extent. Where are the profound shifts in what we in the nonprofit arts in America do? We’re still trying to figure out a revenue stream model that is consistent and sustainable over time and we seem as far from finding that model as we have ever been. We’re still trying to figure out how to be competitive for audiences and supporters. We still lack political clout and have done virtually nothing to develop real political power. We haven’t yet come up with any strategy to offer real professional development and ongoing training to our leaders and managers. We are still trying to convince the powers that be that the arts – as a core subject – are essential to K-12 education and worth spending money on to include. We’re still trying to convince the politicians and the public that the arts are not some frill, some luxury, some irrelevancy. We’re still trying to figure out how we can relate to and integrate systemic technological advances into our infrastructure and strategies for helping to facilitate both creation and access. We’re still trying to find ways to include all generations in our decision making process; how to flow with new currencies of thinking; how to remain fluid in an increasingly liquid world. Our models and ways of doing things remain unchanged. The world changed, but tell me please dear readers, how have we – as a sector – really changed in the past ten years.

Do not misunderstand me. I am not criticizing just to criticize. I am stumped. Truly. I believe we do good work. On any number of levels and fronts we continue to launch complex initiatives designed to address those issues that vex us. I know there are smart people in our field and that we are making incremental progress on any number of fronts and that our failure to make quantum leaps isn’t due to a lack of trying. We enable an extraordinary amount of human creation, of the making and sharing of art – some mediocre, some extraordinary. We champion and defend an endeavor that is quite possibly one of two or three human enterprises that is absolutely essential to our making it as a species. Yet, the problems we face continue to mount and we don’t seem capable of arriving at long term, systemic change solutions. Whether it is we cannot tell our story effectively enough to have it embraced or we are simply incapable in thinking far enough out of the box to arrive at solutions, or we just aren’t very organized, I do not know. Again, I am not ignoring the substantial body of evidence that is reported weekly about places and points where we are doing well, defying the odds, thriving and even growing. I am not minimizing either our successes or the myriad intelligent attempts we are making to change things for the better. But somehow I feel we should have had some kind of breakthrough in a decade that was characterized everywhere by major breakthroughs. I keep harking back to the thought that we should have had at least one advance in how we do what we do that would have qualified as a ‘game changer’.

And why that is, I can’t help but wonder. We are as gifted and smart and astute as thinkers of any sector I can possibly imagine. We are passionate and caring and intent on moving things forward. We are not theoretically risk averse, nor overly timid. Why then have we changed so little when the external world seems to have changed so much? Is this an unfair question? If our role in the future of creativity, in nurturing and facilitating art, in assuring access across all strata depends on us dealing with some of the issues we know we face - in new and novel ways – ways that will actually make a difference - why then haven‘t we? Are we simply slow starters, or do the problems we face simply defy easy solutions – or any solution?

Take arts education as a case in point. What we want is easy enough to put into words: we want sequential, curriculum based arts education, with standards and assessments, offered by qualified and trained teachers to every K-12 student in every school – integrated where possible into the whole of the learning experience. But if you compute the costs of putting even one music, drama and art teacher into every school in America – even if part time, and even if you pay them below the market wage – the total dollar amount is so high as to be prohibitive at the outset – at least in today’s economic reality. And it is that economic reality that – in far too many instances – keeps our budgets on life support and compromises our sustainability and growth. If arts education remains outside the education of our children for another whole generation, what will that mean to the future? Not even to the future of creativity per se, but just to the future of our nonprofit arts world?

We seem just like the rest of America in either misreading the sands of time or consciously ignoring that reality. Like the rest of America there is the unspoken assumption that at some point anyway the economy will recover and return to “normal” and that when that happens we at least won’t be in the same precarious position we find ourselves right now. But honestly, there is the very real possibility that the Emperor is never again going to get dressed; that the time when America had the lion’s share of the world’s economic pie, and the lifestyle and options that went with that abnormally huge piece of the pie, is a bygone time that will not return. There is the real possibility now that the allocation of the world’s pie has shifted and that China and India and Brazil and other nations are now going to have a bigger slice and thus we will have a correspondingly smaller slice. And the march to that reality will not stop, will not change again. The West certainly won’t starve thank you very much, but neither will we again feast with abandon and at will. And what will that mean for us? The jobless rate will stay high, everyone and every entity will have to rethink lifestyles and choices, and we will someday have to deal with runaway spending we simply cannot sustain. At some point other countries may simply not finance our being the world’s policeman, even if they wanted us to continue in the role (and why not, so long as “they” don’t have to do it). And we will adapt. Even if that adaptation comes late, begrudgingly and painfully – we will adapt. I just wonder what it will mean for our nonprofit arts world and why we can’t figure out now how we might do that better and easier if and when the time comes?

If that is even close to right, then all those arts administrators and arts organizations waiting patiently for things to get back to normal, for the economy to “recover”, for us to again be dining high on the hog – all of them are going to be very disappointed. If that’s what we are collectively betting on, with all our eggs in THAT basket, what can we expect if, and arguably when, it doesn’t happen?

How that new reality will play out in the coming decade in America and what changes it will demand in our sector, I have no idea. But the challenges we face aren’t likely, in my opinion, to get easier, and the pressure for us to be more creative in addressing them will only increase  -- as a sector.  It seems irresponsible to me that there is no national effort, or even convening, to consider how we should - as a sector - proceed on all the fronts we face. 

And therein lies the real challenge we face. I don’t see how we can allow another decade to pass and remain in the exact same place we are right now in terms of our responses. Clearly neither all the challenges we face, nor the solutions that elude us, are exclusively about money. But money is one of the big factors at play in so many of the challenges we do face. Because of government and private sector cuts, there was $250 million less spent on the arts just in California alone over the past seven years – a quarter of a billion dollars. As I argued earlier this year, the models we use are largely broken. And we continue to try to fix them – each organization, each city, each state, all by ourselves. I fear that the big model – nonprofit arts itself – is now in danger; that it cannot survive / thrive as currently constituted (at least at the same size) and that we haven’t yet figured out how to change it so that it will survive / thrive.  If that is what we let happen, then I think whatever the future of what we now know as the nonprofit arts world will be dictated by people and forces over which we will have no control whatsoever. And the result will be – who knows? What kind of result is that?

I said this a couple of years ago, and now I think it’s even more critical: we need a Marshall Plan (if not to save the nonprofit arts in America, then to insure its stability and growth) and we need it soon. It just makes little sense to continue to address the issues piecemeal – yet that is exactly what we are doing.

Then again maybe I am just an alarmist. I did warn you that this was a ‘rant’. One thing is certain – the coming decade will bring more dramatic change than we are likely capable of imagining. And we are the ones who deal with imagination.

Happy New Year to everyone.
Sé4A 2012

Don’t Quit.