Saturday, April 30, 2011

Blogging from Tucson on the Arizona Statewide Town Hall

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

The Arizona Town Hall:

The crisis of funding for state arts agencies continues as legislatures work their way through their budget processes. While some states remain relatively unscathed with painful, but not draconian, cuts - many more have already seen yet another truly substantial blow to their budgets. Several, including Kansas, Washington and South Carolina are not yet free of the threat of elimination. Just this week I have gotten nearly a score of email alerts from Betty Plumb in South Carolina – a good friend and the savvy and experienced leader of one of the most active and dedicated of the state arts advocacy groups – urging her constituents to rally to the defense of the South Carolina state agency to beat back attempts by the Governor there to zero out the agency’s funding.

Arizona has already suffered huge cuts in the past three years, including the legislature’s zeroing out of the Arizona ArtShare Endowment - the state agency’s once proud $20 million dollar model flagship funding source.

As in many states across the country, Arizonans are assiduously trying to make the case for the value of the arts to Arizona’s economy, education and civic life and fighting the uphill battle to get the decision makers to understand the incalculable benefits the arts bring to the state. Every year, an independent nonprofit convenes a statewide Town Hall meeting in Arizona. This year’s will be the 98th such gathering, and this one focuses on Capitalizing on Arizona’s Arts & Culture assets. The arts have previously been a smaller thread of one or two other Town Halls, but this is the first time it has ever centered entirely on the arts. It comes at a propitious time: the State of Arizona Budget - enacted last week - includes a $0 state fund appropriation to the Arizona Commission on the Arts. In addition to the elimination of the state appropriation to the Arts Commission ($665,000), the budget includes a re-capture of roughly 8% of the income the Commission receives from the Arizona ArtsTrust Fund, which is comprised of Corporation Commission filing fees ($15 per application goes to ArtsTrust). This roughly equates to a loss of $115,000. (The ArtsTrust Fund is  not to be confused with the Arts Share Endowment referred to above, which was previously zeroed out).

Bob Booker, Executive Director of the Arizona Arts Commission invited me to attend the Town Hall as an observer and to blog daily on what happens there – the deliberations, the debates and the final outcomes. The purpose of my blogging is twofold: First, to try to capture some of the essence of the discussions and considerations germane to the obstacles and barriers to the provision of art to Arizona’s citizenry - as put forth to the panels - so that those in the wider arts community all across Arizona might have a virtual seat at the table and be able to follow the proceedings; and Second, to allow a national audience to share in the process of those deliberations - as to what Arizona is going through, what is important and relevant there, what challenges it faces, and what conclusions they reach – in the belief that what transpires there may very likely have relevancy and bearing on what is going on throughout the nation. There are other such discussions taking place in other states as well.

The Arizona annual Town Hall gathers leaders from across the state – and this one includes over 150 participants – not only from the arts, but from municipal government, academia, business, the media and including both artists and students . Alas, the participant list includes not a single state legislator or anyone from the Governor’s office. Still the Town Hall has a long and rich history in the state, and carries some cachet that, frankly, the arts community may not have on its own.

The three plus day event breaks down into five panels, all of which consider the same fundamental questions as to what the arts mean to Arizona, what they need, and how support might best be realized – in four half day sessions. Sessions will zero in on:

1. What is unique to the Arizona arts sector, and how the state capitalizes on its diversity, as well as the role of the private sector, government, stakeholders and individual communities in interacting with and nurturing the arts ecosystem and infrastructure.

2. Where the arts intersect with the economy, education, health and the quality of life - and the extent the public understands those intersections.

3. The funding paradigm for the arts and the roles of business, philanthropy, and government - and how funding is used and maximized to generate value.

Specific recommendations from each panel for each of the above areas will be arrived at by consensus after exhaustive discussion and debate. On the final day, the entire group reconvenes and reconciles the recommendations of the five panels and arrives at a final set of recommendations.

Each participant has been provided extensive background materials on all aspects of arts and culture from experts throughout the state – including comprehensive histories of funding, arts education, past legislative actions, Arizona’s place relative to the national situation, libraries, parks, multicultural constituencies, the humanities, rural communities and the relationship of arts &  culture to the economy, jobs, tourism, and civic life. Also included is the Arizona Commission on the Arts recently completed Strategic Plan, and the exhaustive process the commission engaged in the preparation of that plan.

NEA Chair Rocco Landesman, and Senior Director of Cultural Initiatives at the Pew Foundation, Marion Godfrey, will both address the assemblage in plenary sessions. I hope to be able to briefly interview both and solicit their thinking on the situation in Arizona as emblematic of states across the country and of their ideas, thoughts and opinions as to how every state can better position itself and better make the case to decision makers as to why an investment in the arts is essential to a core strategy to leverage creativity to its advantage over the next ten to fifty years. I want to find out what they think the role of the NEA and the foundation community might be in helping state arts fields to stem the current tide of what is really an anti-arts ‘roll back of funding’ mind set. If we want to remain globally competitive over the next fifty years, America desperately needs a national strategy to insure that it continues to be in the vanguard of fostering and nurturing creativity, ideas, and innovation, and it needs a comprehensive policy and strategic plan that will guide decision makers understanding of the role the arts play in that effort. We simply cannot any longer afford to let other nations gain a monopoly on thinking about creativity’s role in the future.

The business sector recognizes the value and importance of innovation to their health and well-being, including their bottom line. Yet the link between creativity and innovation is not yet so firmly established. Moreover, the link between the arts and creativity and thus innovation is one step further removed from accepted dogma. It can be argued that government decision makers, grappling with crippling deficits, similarly are not yet convinced of the link between the arts as an investment and the return on that investment to the state. This Town Hall and events like it across the country is, I think, an earnest attempt to codify the arguments that make the case for the value of arts and culture as far in excess of the investment, to demonstrate the myopia of a failure to make that investment in lost jobs, revenue, tourism, civic pride and the preparedness of the next generation for the global marketplace, and to make specific recommendations as to how states can best capitalize on their creative assets and not squander the assets that have taken a long time to build.

I hope over the course of the next three or four days – Monday through Wednesday and a follow up thereafter – to accurately report as much of the proceedings of Arizona’s Town Hall as I possibly can; to give those who might wish to follow along some sense of what is going on here on a daily review basis; and to share some observations and conclusions as I observe a stellar group of people who will be trying very hard to put all the various issues in context and make smart, well thought out suggestions for the benefit of Arizona’s future.

I welcome comments during the process and hope people not only in Arizona but across the country will take note of what is going on in Tucson this week. You can leave a comment by scrolling to the end of this or subsequent blogs and click on the ‘Comment’ line at the end.

The Arizona Town Hall blog series is brought to you by the Arizona Commission on the Arts and the Western States Arts Federation.

Have a great week.

Don’t Quit.

Sunday, April 24, 2011

Would you have time to read this if you weren't in a meeting?

Good morning.
"And the beat goes on....................................."


Some time ago, after watching a lot of those Nature / Animal shows that focus on the continental migrations in Africa, I came to the conclusion that the poor Wildebeest’s whole purpose in life was to just run up and down the length of Africa year after year while a bunch of other species picked them off one by one for lunch or dinner. I suspected that if you asked a Wildebeest what he did, that is what he would tell you his job was.

It occurred to me the other day that in the modern world the whole purpose of human beings engaged in some kind of business (and doesn’t matter what) is to have meetings. That’s what we do. It’s like going to meetings, calling meetings, having or taking meetings - is our real job. We meet – in big groups, small groups, one on one, on the phone, in person, at conferences, in the hall – virtually most of every day is spent “meeting”. If we’re not in a meeting, we’re preparing for a meeting. Even a phone call is a ‘meeting’. And the higher up on the leadership ladder, the more meetings you have. I’m not exactly sure why – maybe it’s to make sure everybody is on the same page, and that whoever out there is actually doing some work, is, well, doing it. We meet every day, often all day. We meet about anything, and everything. It’s a wonder any work at all ever gets done – with everyone always in a meeting. I’m in a meeting right now. No one else is here, but I’m meeting with myself.

How often every day do you hear this: “So and so can’t come to the phone, s/he is in a meeting.” “Would you like to schedule a meeting to discuss that?” “Why don’t we have a meeting and talk about that.” “ When is the meeting?” “The meeting was cancelled? Are you sure?” “OK, get him and her and we’ll meet.” “Can you meet tomorrow? Later in the week then. Next month?” “I can’t talk right now, I’ve got a meeting in five minutes.”

Are all these meetings really necessary? Are they really productive? Do they really all accomplish some purpose? How much time is wasted on needless and unnecessary meetings?

Neither cats or dogs, nor packs of wolves, prides of lions, herds of elephants or any other species seem to have meetings. Or if they do, they only last a couple of minutes. Then again, maybe if the dumb Wildebeests met more often, they could come up with a plan.

What if - all meetings were banned the second and fourth week of every month? Would the world end? Would all productivity cease? Would the wheels of our organizations grind to a halt? Could the typical meeting be replaced by a few inter-office memos or emails – or is that just replacing one sort of meeting with another? If you made a chart of all the meetings you called or went to over the next month, how many do you think you would say (after the fact) were really necessary, or productive, or frankly, worth your time? If everybody is in the meeting, who is doing the work? Are some of our meetings just because we are insecure about what the hell is going on, about what we are doing – and so we have to have meetings to reassure ourselves everything is under control? Maybe we don’t trust each other, or ourselves.

Has technology changed meeting etiquette?  Is it ok now to text or tweet while you are in a meeting?  Google lets their people do that I think.  Are you suppose to turn off your cell phone, or is that really a good way to get out of a meeting? 

I just think maybe we have gotten to the point where we waste a lot of precious time – unnecessarily – in meetings. Time that could be spent doing something really productive – like afternoon napping maybe. Then again perhaps I am just wrong. I’ll tell you what, let’s schedule a meeting and get everybody there and we can discuss it. I’ve got to go right now though – I’ve got a meeting – some representatives from the Wildebeest group are coming in to talk.

Have a great week.

Don’t Quit.

Sunday, April 17, 2011

When Government Funding for the Arts Stops

Good morning
"And the beat goes on............................"

What If:
Once again, efforts to cut funding to the NEA, and attempts to eliminate a number of state arts agencies across the country have been beaten back by the concerted effort of many in the arts community - (or sort of, anyway - at least we reduced the size of the cuts).  Still, this is good news.  It demonstrates that we do have some power when we choose to use it, that we do have a good product and arguments as to why we are a good investment, and that we do have some support with decision makers.

Of course, one could also argue that these partial "victories" are really just smaller defeats than initially threatened.  What the recent efforts for the NEA, and those in Kansas and South Carolina, and doubtless other venues did was simply to lessen the amount of the cuts being imposed and / or defeat the effort to eliminate an agency entirely.   It's like someone threatened to tear off both your arms, and you convinced them to just tear off one of them.  A victory? -- yes, actually that is a victory - but you won't likely continue to survive with that kind of victory as the norm. 

This is a cycle - it happens whenever the economy burps.  We're preoccupied with our work, when all of a sudden they threaten huge cuts to our funding, and we go ballistic and rally the troops, and usually end up not preventing the cuts from happening, but reducing the size of the original proposed cuts.  And then we go back to what we were doing.  Death by a thousand cuts (no pun intended).  While we breathe a little easier and congratulate ourselves, we need to stop and think about the future of all of this. 

What if someday all government funding is cut off?  Or at least all federal and say 60% of all state funding is cut off? 

The question arises:  If we had built a more solid political base - including substantial (and well financed) lobbying efforts and campaign relationships with elected officials across the board, would that have made any difference.  In normal times, I would argue it would have.  But these are hardly "normal" times (if any such times actually exist at all), and so I think it entirely possible that even if we had substantial political clout, it may not have made a huge difference.  The deteriorating plight of the American economy has changed everything. 

While the current economic downturn has generated not unpredictable responses in the public - including wide spread support for more belt tightening - there are signs that this time things are a little different.  What happened in the last two years is arguably not a normal cycle for the economy.  This recession was at the precipice of a global meltdown depression; the housing / banking crisis that precipitated the mess is hardly fixed; the shift from American dominance of the world economy is unquestionably now irreversible; and we continue to spend and borrow far, far beyond our means - and right now in order to get the economy back on track (though not necessarily back to our dominance) we have to spend and borrow.  We may have reduced the cuts this time, but thinking we can always succeed would be a fool's conclusion.  

The economic expert community is somewhat at odds over whether or not the national deficit is the principal problem we face [with most arguing that jobs and stimulus of the economy are the most important priorities (both in fact and with the public) and that the dealing with the debt is more of a longer term issue].  But as the case with many other issues, the public "perception" is what counts, and there is movement towards the belief that the debt has to be tamed beginning right now, and, of course, the preferred way to deal with that is to cut spending rather than raise taxes.  Almost every rational thinker has concluded that to deal with the debt, we will have to do both - cut spending and increase income (raise taxes).  Of course, cutting spending turns out to be much harder than it sounds, and raising taxes sits well with almost no one.  And there's the stalemate.

I suppose what protects us (and everyone else who gets funding) is the failure of the system - the gridlock, stalemate and dogmatic partisanship of politics today, that makes any kind of action, other than symbolic little gestures, impossible, and so funding cuts remain painful, but not deadly.  But what if we actually get to the point where a majority feels that we have no choice (because, at some point, we in fact don't have a choice).  What if we finally come to the point where real action is unavoidable, and, though I admit this seems far fetched today, our elected leaders actually act responsibly.  The longer they wait, the harder the decisions will be (and I suppose in politics that's precisely why the can gets kicked down the road all the time). 

The problem with making cuts is that certain entitlements are sacred cows - Medicare and Social Security chief among them, and so cuts to those programs can only be made, at best, over a period of time (at least a decade, maybe longer).  And several other programs rank high on everyone's list - education, Medicaid, and even defense spending (another part of our mindset problems).  That doesn't leave a lot of other places to cut.  So if we get to the point where there is consensus that we really have no choice anymore, it is entirely possible - at that point - that we will be talking about extreme cuts and / or (at least temporary - but who knows how long temporary will be) elimination of funding for the arts all together - even if we raise taxes too.  That may be true on the federal level, all the way down to local cities and counties.  Not across the board of course, but maybe something close to a majority of all such government agency spending.  And is that possible, and how far away is such a situation?  Who knows?  I can't envision a credible argument that such a scenario cannot happen.

So what would the arts look like if there were no government spending?  No NEA, no state support in a score of states or more, no city or county support in hundreds of jurisdictions across the country.  A likely event?  I doubt it.  Not for awhile for sure.   But is it possible? Absolutely (there is a growing segment on the right who would like to see those cuts and eliminations on philosophical grounds, irrespective of economic necessity).  I have long thought, and argued, that government support - at some level - is critically essential to the survival of the nonprofit arts infrastructure in America.  And with other of the five income streams (earned income, individual donations, corporate and foundation philanthropy) all somewhat compromised, elimination of even some of the vast network of government support would have, I think, devastating consequences.  A case in point is the NEA 40% share that goes to the states, and which, in a number of more rural states, constitutes the lion's share of their entire budget.  The ends of the arts?  Of course not.  But the end of nonprofit arts - as we know it - well, that's more difficult to answer.

I think the field needs to consider the possibility that in the not too far distant future, circumstances may dictate that government support for the arts will no longer be available.  Period. And once gone, it will be axiomatically harder to re-establish. 

What do we do?  I'm not sure.  Think about advocacy on different levels, question the revenue model that is dependent in part on government funding, consider how we better position the arts with the public.  Think about alternatives and how that would or wouldn't work. All of it?  Considering the possibility and implications is a start.

So amid the sigh of relief that we won some "victories" of late, we need to recognize that this problem not only isn't going away, there is the very real chance that it will get a whole lot worse for us, and soon, and so we need to ask ourselves what do (can) we do now to stave off the worst case scenario.  We could wait and do what we've been doing - but that hasn't been working so well, and kind of fits the definition of insanity (doing the same failed thing over and over again, expecting different results).  I would hope as we discuss and debate policy issues, and talk about capacity and sustainability, and questions of supply and demand, and ideas to support the arts as essential to creativity, and creativity as linked to innovation and to community  - and all the other big ticket issues, that we would bear in mind that elimination of government funding for a large percentage of the entire arts infrastructure in the not too distant future isn't that far fetched a possibility - especially if we continue to struggle with the health of the American economy (and that seems almost a given). Maybe not likely, but certainly not impossible.   All I am suggesting is that it is better to think about it now, than after it's a fait accompli.

Have a good week.

Don't Quit

Sunday, April 10, 2011


Good morning.
"And the beat goes on...................................."

Random Stuff of Interest:
People send me links to interesting sites, and I spend a fair amount of time surfing and looking for sites, research, articles etc. germane to the nonprofit arts field.  Often times, this stuff piles up in my favorites box and though I mean to pass it on quickly - but somehow............. - well you know how that goes. 

So here are some things I've found in the past few months that may be of interest to you:
  • From the LA Times (back in November) a story that while philanthropy declined in 2009, it remained constant for the arts - at least for the really wealthy donors.  Very likely, the contributions of the well heeled went to the large cultural institutions - the operas, and symphonies and big museums.  It would be interesting to verify that fact and also know if at the other end of the spectrum, less wealthy people gave to mid sized, smaller or ethnic specific organizations.
  • Another article on philanthropy which caught my eye, this piece, cross posted on the Stanford Social Innovation Review blog, offers 14 insights on what will shape philanthropy in the coming decade.  Some very interesting thoughts here. 
  • Yet more on philanthropy, here's some research from the James Irvine Foundation site - Advance the on donor motivation.
  • With increasing talk in the last few months on the Slow Food Movement and its parallels to the arts, here's a piece from Drew McManus (from his Adaptistration blog on the orchestra business) commenting on Diane Ragsdale's blog on the Slow Food Movement as a model for the arts (maybe?)
  • Here's Amelia Northrup commenting from the National Arts Marketing Project site on the Top Technology trends that will impact arts marketing in 2011.
  • More on marketing, this piece from David Dombrosky on the Technology in the Arts website about SF Playhouse's use of Twitter.
  • And here's some data from the Pew Research Center on the social side of the net.
  • Here's an article from the Harvard Business Review advising the business community that if they want to hire innovative thinkers, they should hire from the Humanities  (hey what about the arts you guys?)
  • Finally, there's a little humor and a little truth in this piece on 10 Signs It's Time to Quit Your Job.
Have a good week.

Don't Quit.

Sunday, April 3, 2011

Exodus of longtime leaders. What is the real cause?

Good morning.

“And the beat goes on………………………”

Burned Out or Pushed Out?

In the last eighteen months a number of personal friends have left leadership posts in our field that they have held for a long time. There is nothing necessarily unusual about this kind of attrition in leadership succession – it is a natural part of the rhythms of change.

Isn’t it?

It is, I think, provided that the underlying reason these people are leaving is retirement or moving on to other ventures long postponed but never completely forgotten. But a surprising portion of those friends who have left longtime positions lately, after exploring with them the “why” of the change and the timing, turn out to be leaving for negative reasons, contentious reasons – specifically having reached an untenable and negative relationship with their board. Most of the examples I have seen (and I wish there were some research on this specific issue, but there appears to be none) share a common thread in that the bad relationship between the hired Executive Director and the Board is not a long standing problem but a more recent development with a newer Board.

The problems from the Executive Director’s perspective seem to fall into three broad categories: 1) The current board is uninformed and unrealistic and seems not bothered by that fact. This leads to arguments and confrontations on everything from basic mission and organizational policy formulation to minute aspects of governance, fundraising, program development and implementation and more; 2) The current board has no sense of the history of the organization, no appreciation of the nuances of the growth or the cycle of growth and decline of the organization, resulting again in a failure to be supportive of the ED’s experiential based strategies; and 3) The current board has the mindset that it’s job goes beyond monitoring and protecting the fiduciary integrity of the organization, and that many of the day to day decisions are part of its prerogative resulting in varying degrees of micro-management.

From the Board’s point of view: 1) The ED increasingly thinks of the organization as his / her fiefdom and is increasingly disinclined to want to share any decision making authority; and 2) The ED makes little attempt to even mask his/her contempt for the Board and the well intended and conscientious work it is trying to do on behalf of the organization.  Both feel unappreciated, misunderstood and the need to assert their authority.

The ED is impatient with what s/he considers a clueless, meddling and not very helpful Board, and the Board is impatient with the ED as arrogant and uncooperative. The relationship is increasingly dysfunctional. The increased pressures of financial problems and everything now being so much of a challenge for both ED and Board increases the tension, often to the breaking point. I have come to believe this is one of the unspoken secrets in our sector at the moment, and the breakdown in many of these relationships is good for neither side, and simply devastating to the organization itself – whether the dysfunctional relationship comes to a head or bubbles under the surface.

There are certainly many organizations where the relationship between the Executive Director and the staff and the Board is excellent. Many boards follow the Carver model of essentially leaving the Executive Director to make his or her decisions and regard their role to intervene only if the Executive Director needs to be replaced. Alas, from the past 15 years talking and listening to Executive Directors / Presidents of all kinds and sizes of arts organizations, I believe the underlying contentiousness between boards and senior leadership is much more the norm than the exception. This is nothing really new. I have heard these stories of frustration for some time. For the most part I think the conflict is minor and not much of a real problem - though wherever it exists there is the potential for it to grow and fester.  The problem at hand is there seems to be a lowering of the threshold of the breaking point, and that development may indeed be something new for us.

From what I have observed and been told by a number of those Executive Directors who have recently left long term leadership positions (and who were not doing so to retire), the reason they moved on was that the relationship with their Board was no longer, in their minds, tenable; no longer workable; no longer salvageable. They just didn’t want to make the effort anymore. Part burnout, yes. But something more too I think.

There are, of course, two sides to these stories. I don’t know if the reason Executive Directors and Boards come to such an impasse is because the Board is unreasonable, untutored, and simply clueless as to their function and role, or because the Executive Director has grown into an unyielding and uncompromising kind of tyrant. As usual, the truth probably lies somewhere in between.  Clearly though, there is a disconnect – most obvious when it reaches the point of confrontation, but also undeniably present beneath the surface in a lot of organizations where the “tipping point” has not yet been reached.

Not surprisingly, most organizations that recognize an impasse try diligently to either pretend it isn’t as big a problem as it portends to be, or cover it up in the mistaken belief that nothing is to be gained by airing “dirty laundry”. That latter course perpetrates somewhat of a fraud on candidates to replace the outgoing Executive Director, if the impasse results in such a change -- as little to no mention of the real reason for the outgoing ED is ever provided to the new candidates (or likely any of the search firms that may be engaged to find a new leader). Often times the staff is unaware of the degree of friction and not every Board member is always aware of the conflict either (and cliques among a Board is a whole other topic).

The degree to which this unspoken reality of tension between boards and leaders is widespread and prevalent, I do not know. As I said, I wish we had a better sense of the extent that this is a problem (if it is). I think we need to do a systemic assessment to try to ascertain both the nature, and the scope and depth of this as a problem and try to get a handle on its practical ramifications.  There is certainly ample anecdotal evidence that something is amiss here, and I have certainly personally detected varying degrees of Board / ED tension during a score or more Board Retreats over the past three years. 

As to what can be done about addressing it as an issue – the obvious response is to provide: 1) more training to boards and prospective board members about their role, duties, obligations etc, and 2) more support to Executive Directors who feel (rightly or wrongly) to be beleaguered and perceive themselves victims – including making interventions and brokered negotiations and arbitration options more available and seen as more acceptable and smart alternatives. First we have to identify the problem, then get people to acknowledge and accept the reality as it actually exists; second, we have to develop ways that address the issues of each of the factions to their mutual satisfaction.

It seems to me that this is a much bigger problem than anyone is acknowledging, and that we have ignored it for some time, preferring to believe everything was all working just fine; that it has enormous consequences for both the individuals involved (Executive Director and Board members alike), to the organizations impacted by it being real for them, and to the sector as a whole; and finally that while there may be any number of ways we can address the issue, there will likely be no easy or quick fix – but talking about it will be a start.  We can pretend it isn't real, but I suspect it is.

Have a great week.

Don’t Quit