Sunday, September 25, 2011

Arts Day

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

Arts Day Shout Out!

Arts Day in California is the first Friday every October  (October 7th this year).  It was created because Arts &  Humanities Month is too large to get a real handle on and to sell effectively to the media and public.  A single day is easier to package conceptually and there are parallels like Earth Day.  I think this is the 10th anniversary of Arts Day in California and over that decade hundreds of organizations have celebrated Arts Day and used the platform to make the case for the value of the arts to their constituents, local decision makers, the media and the public in scores of different ways - from special performances, open houses and events, to planting stories in programs, newsletters, blogs and local newspapers; from involving artists to involving schools and teachers and kids.  There have been poster design contests, tee shirts and other merchandising, rallies, online stuff and more.  As a platform it is a convenient, usable device to call attention to both needs and wants of the field and individual organizations.  Moreover, albeit slowly, over time it begins to sink into the collective public consciousness - and in so doing Arts likewise almost subliminally registers in the public psyche as something of value to the community.

I do wish it would grow faster though.  Of course, it takes time to firmly plant a day of celebration, recognition, and acknowledgement of something in the mind of the public.  Earth Day is 40 years old and had a much bigger launch.

So I wonder what we need at this juncture to jump start Arts Day as more of a media event so that it can expand in the public mind much as Earth Day has done over the past four decades?  Taking a lesson from the Earth Day success, I think there are three things we need to figure out how to do over the next three or four years so as to make Arts Day something much more meaningful. 

Earth Day actually started in San Francisco but quickly went national, then international.   And so the first thing that might help spread Arts Day is to make it a national celebration -- the kickoff as it were to the national Arts & Humanities Month of October.  We need the Endowment or AFTA or someone to get behind that concept and find someone in Congress to introduce legislation making the first Friday of October national Arts Day (best if you had a bipartisan co-authorship for such legislation to which you could work to get many members to join in support).  This kind of legislation is very common,costs nothing at all and is one thing fairly easy to get through Congress.  Long term we can then, like Earth Day, move within the UN to make it a global event - and that might actually be easier than to get it designated a national celebration.  The world (and the U.N. in particular) seems very pro arts and culture.

Second, we need some real media attention, so we need a press conference announcing the introduction of the legislation proclaiming Arts Day (or on the first such date), and to get the media to cover it we need to have a stage full of celebrities, sports figures, prominent civic and business leaders etc. Real media NAMES.  That ought not to be that difficult -- we could just tap into the current television line up of arts shows - from dance to music and anyway, we have plenty of name supporters that we could call on for something like this.  Yes, it would take some organization and calling in of some favors, but it is do-able.

Third, we need a massive participatory effort by the whole of the arts community for the first national Arts Day - with thousands of open houses across the country, special performances, newspaper editorials, poster contests and any and everything else we can think of to call attention to the designation.  And, taking a page from the early Earth Day supporters we might hold some of that 60's stalwart - Teach Ins -  to inform and educate the public as to the loss to the nation in not supporting the arts.  We just need to make a splash and given that there are tens of thousands of arts organizations and millions of people involved (not counting hundreds of thousands of artists) we can certainly do this.

Finally, also stealing from Earth Day, we need to involve the younger generation of Millennials and K-12 school children.  Somehow we have got to involve them - as a generation - in taking up support for the arts as a worthwhile cause.  There are a million plus arts majors in colleges, and probably twice that number of kids who are involved in the arts on some level in their communities and at their schools.  We need to tap into that sitting group.

And what good would a national or global designated Arts Day do for us?  As alluded to above, for one thing it will provide a platform for each arts organization and every community to tout their value to that community and to current and potential supporters.  It will give us a platform to make the case to politicians for support.  It will increase awareness that we are here and that we have value.  It will publicize and inform local constituents as to all that is available in their local communities.  It will expand our opportunities for getting more stakeholder support.  It will ratchet up opportunities for media coverage.  It will shine a spotlight on the contributions of arts education.  And it will help to galvanize us as a field - to think more like a community of mutual interest and so spark more collaboration and cooperation among us.  And it doesn't really cost that much to do.

Meanwhile, I hope everyone in California celebrates this year's Arts Day as vocally and prominently as possible.  Use the platform to contact local media, inform your own constituents of what you do, write a letter to your locally elected officials, reach out to local schools, add some notation to your website (wouldn't it be nice to see what Google would do to their masthead for a national Arts Day?), solicit some new donations, and push the celebration to the public. 

Ten years from now Arts Day could be like Earth Day and actually mean something to the public, and to us.

Have a good week.

Don't Quit.

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Innovation Incubation

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

Where are the new big ideas?

I read an article last week about some innovation conference going on in Silicon Valley, and two of the founders of PayPal were lamenting that innovation in the Valley was dead - or at the very least - getting harder to find. They were critical of the trend towards venture capital dollars moving towards novelty applications (from angry birds to I surmise even angrier cows or whatever is popular at the moment) for mobile phones, pads and other devices in the growing hustle to score a quick buck. They wondered where the real innovation and the really big ideas that change things will be coming from if the trend continues.

That made me wonder where are the big ideas for the arts and culture sector going to come from. And that made me ask when was the last time we actually came up with any really big, new idea that was even a moderate game changer -- at least apart from the purely artistic side of things. I’m not sure precisely what I would say qualifies as big, or new or as a game changer. I might argue that simple things like the concept of Open Studios or the idea of Operas broadcasting live to local movie theaters are big ideas, perhaps new, and maybe even small game changers. I don’t think we’re talking merely “best practices” here - for those aren’t really innovative, new ideas. Rather they are more likely improvements on the better mousetrap as it were.

We have grant programs that specifically seek to incubate new projects and good ideas of value to artists and the artist’s community, but where is the grant program or the conscious attempt to incubate good ideas of value to the business of the nonprofit arts sector? Where is the attempt to drive innovation in our sphere? Why don’t we have some means to support think tanks and the like the purpose of which is innovation in our approaches to how we function? If I look at some ideas that I think are good ideas and are having some impact on the way we do things - ideas like the Kickstarter and similar platforms - while I like those ideas - they didn’t actually originate with us, but came from outside our sector.

I’m guessing there are a lot more innovative ideas emerging out there than I am aware of. But I am constantly looking for them, and if I’m not aware of them, I suspect many other people aren’t either.

I’m not sure I can argue, like the PayPal founders in the article I read that innovation in the administration side of the nonprofit arts sector is dead, because I’m not sure I can argue it was ever alive. I think most of the management ideas we employ that work and were at some point new and novel - again originated from outside of our sphere. Ditto models we have co-opted for use in everything from fundraising to advocacy, communications to program development. 

There is certainly no shortage of challenges that we face. So why don’t we come up with bold, new ideas to address those challenges? If we are the very backbone of the creative sector, why aren’t we more creative. Or if that is an unfair characterization, why aren’t we, at least, bolder in our support for innovation on our part?  To answer that question, I suppose we need to understand much more about the creative process and the phenomenon of innovation than we do (or probably anybody does).

This week Brain Pickings (my favorite newsletter site about all things creative), featured "five timeless insights on fear and the creative process".  More than one featured work noted that: "the myth of the genius and the muse perseveres in how we think about great artists. And yet most art, statistically speaking, is made by non-geniuses but people with passion and dedication who face daily challenges and doubts, both practical and psychological, in making their art."  If indeed creativity is more (or as much) about perspiration than inspiration, we ought to be able to figure out how to design and nurture ecosystems that encourage ideas and innovation - starting with ourselves.  Moreover, I think that fact (again if indeed it is true), might be enormously helpful to us if the public (and the business community in particular) understood that reality - for it would help to demystify creativity as all about genius.  Creativity and innovation are very likely about process.  And how that process actually works, what principles govern it's genesis are subjects ripe for discussion with stakeholders, decision makers and especially the media and the general public.  The more we can get people across all sectors to think about creativity and innovation and to begin an ongoing dialogue about it all - the better for us on multiple levels. 

If we are going to champion creativity and innovation as the outcome of what we do; if we are going to base our arguments for support on our role in fostering and enabling those twin processes; if we are going to claim that creativity and innovation are within our domain -- we need to soon learn a whole lot more about it from a practical perspective - and we really do need to work on being more creative and innovative ourselves.  As the more we learn about it, the more we can share that knowledge.  To learn about the process will help us to achieve a more informed public.  To come up with new, big ideas would only be a bonus.

Have a good week.  Goodbye summer, hello fall.

Don’t Quit.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

When to be the host, when to be the guest?

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

Sitting at the tables where decisions that affect us are made

I have been spending much of the summer working with the people in Arizona as they continue on an extraordinary journey to try to build a real foundation for statewide collaboration and unifying the arts and culture sector to leverage its strengths and potential.  I hope to continue to follow their efforts, and report back at some point next year on their progress in community building on a very large and ambitious scale.  I think what they are doing may well constitute a replicable model with lessons learned and best practices that other states might follow  to finally build a coalition collaborative effort that can both protect us and move us forward.

One of the issues that Arizona will have to grapple with – much as the rest of the national sector continues to face as well – has to do with our outreach to stakeholders and other sectors whose support we need and with whom we absolutely must establish relationships, intersections, common ground and goals of mutual benefit.  These are the special interest groups,  spheres of influence and the people who populate those other worlds with whom we need to work closely  – because consciously or not, directly or indirectly, they make decisions or have influence on decision making that directly impacts us.   We need to sit at their tables or have them sit at ours.  We need to influence them, and have them understand why we are important to them.   For too long they have made decisions about us without any input from us.

And therein is the question about strategy that we need to spend more time addressing.  Because whether we try to get invited to their tables or invite them to ours is a critical strategic decision and it deserves some serious thinking.

There are times and places where it will be easier for us to try to get invited to sit at other tables than it will be to get those people to accept our invitation to sit at our tables.  Conversely, there will be other situations where invitations to sit at their tables will never be forthcoming, and we will need to figure out how to get them to be part of our deliberations.  In either situation, we will be tasked with convincing these other people that we ought to be part of their deliberations and that they need to be part of ours.   This is largely a strategic question that will depend on a lot of different variables depending on the particulars of any given situation – but as a strategic decision we need to spend more time considering when it is in our own best interests to try to get that invitation, and when it will serve us better to extend that invitation.

Whichever strategy we decide on in any given case may very well determine whether or not we are successful in being part of the decision making process of some other sector that directly and profoundly impacts us. Certainly it will bear upon the timing of our moving forward, because if we pick the wrong strategy, it will take us longer to get where we want – which is to have all of us – and them – at the same table – whomever the “them” is in any given situation.  And we really don’t have the luxury of wasting more precious time as we continue to try to both survive and thrive in ever tougher circumstances.

So I hope this is a topic that we might spend some time thinking about and discussing among ourselves so we can best figure out when it is best to be the hosts and when it is best to try to be the invited guest – and how we might go about each of those tactics in different situations.

Have a great week.

Don’t Quit.

Sunday, September 4, 2011

Conflict and Collaboration

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

We talk a lot in the arts about collaboration; about working together for mutual gains; about being smart and leveraging the strength of our numbers; about unified fronts and high tides that raise all the boats.

There is no shortage of articles, chapters, lists and books about collaboration – including the elements necessary for its success.  Experts talk about the need for potential collaborators to be flexible in their approaches and open to different ways to get to the same goals.  They urge everyone to get to the point where they are willing to disagree but still cleave to the goal of partnership and working in concert.  They talk about really listening to your co-collaborators and earnestly trying to be empathetic  and sympathetic to everyone’s positions and concerns.  They admonish us to make sure there is communication and transparency.  They talk about the need to develop joint decision making protocols that address everyone’s needs.  They offer advice about defining everyone’s role as clearly as they can so there are no misconceptions or confusion.  They talk about devising – up front – ways to resolve disputes and handle conflicts when they inevitably arise.  They emphasize respect and courtesy and common sense and going the extra distance to give the benefit of the doubt.   They talk about shared passion and trying hard to find the intersections of shared philosophy.  And they insist on the drafting of clear, mutually acceptable agendas about desired outcomes and objectives. They talk about humor and humanity and the need to focus on the end game and big picture.  They talk about compromise.  They talk about creating and nurturing supportive ecosystems.  They emphasize community. 

And invariably they talk about trust.  About letting go of territoriality, and past transgressions; about forgiving and forgetting real and imagined slights, and somehow ignoring all the water under the bridge.

Sounds easy enough, right? 

We know what has to be done then.  Like the Nike ads: “Just do it” – right? 

Why then is it so hard in so many situations to make collaboration work?  Why can’t we just “do it”? Which of those elements above that the experts say are essential to successful collaboration are (sometimes anyway) just too hard to get to?  What has to happen for people to let go of their reasons for consciously or unconsciously failing to give real collaboration a chance?   Where do you lay the blame when collaboration simply fails?  Is it sometimes that institutions and organizations are just too competitive to cooperate; is it because they are just too steeped in doing what they do one way / their way?  Is a long legacy of conflict between interests sometimes just insurmountable?  Or is it that sometimes the individuals involved simply cannot get over past transgressions?  Are some collaborations doomed because of the histories of personality clashes?  Is the culture of conflict between groups and people sometimes just too ingrained to be ignored – despite the upfront lip service paid to commitment to the idea of working closely together? 

Or is all of that just excuses and nonsense, and is it actually as simple as putting all that baggage aside and making the commitment to make it happen?  We’re adults after all.  Why would we allow childish behavior to derail our success or limit our viable options?  Is it then, in the final analysis, all about an act of will? Talk is cheap.  How do you make that work?   If it is human nature that when there is simply too much history among some people, too much water under the bridge that the restoration of the trust needed to make the collaboration work – simply cannot be there - what do you do in that situation?   When an elephant is in the room, you can’t always just pretend it isn’t there.  When historical conflict remains alive, you can’t always just wish it away.  When principals are at opposite ends to each other, you can’t always assume they will be able to move off their positions.  And you ignore it at the peril of what you are trying to collaborate on.

What do you do when there are historical conflicts between organizations and people wherein very likely both sides have legitimate complaints, reservations and difficulty working with the other --but when a working coalition and collaboration is clearly called for and in the best interests of all the parties?  And is that phenomenon far more common that we recognize?  And do we not too easily gloss over it?

Rather than rushing to embrace the strategies that the experts say are essential for positive collaboration, should one of the first steps in forming a collaboration, be to look for the hidden (or not so hidden) conflicts and walls and recognize and accept that those obstacles are simply not going to go away, and that they must be dealt with before you can move to install the elements that will foster and nurture real collaboration?

How do you deal with that?   How do you engage those who are perhaps on opposite sides of a table to be forthright and frank in identifying those tensions that might keep the collaboration from working?  How do you promote the honest dialogue that might be necessary to get beyond whatever it is that might compromise the work of, and reason for creating the collaboration in the first place?  How do you position opposites to accept that tensions are more often than not two way streets?  Who brokers those intersections?  Who mediates?  And who decides and at what point, whether a harmonious peace can exist?  How do you dissect agendas without undue criticism?  How do you avoid accusations and finger pointing?  How do you keep acrimony at bay?  How, in short, can we recognize early on the signs that a potential collaboration may not work, and what can we then do to address that challenge?

Collaboration can be enormously valuable, and as often as not, is critical in succeeding in some stated goal that impacts a larger group or interest.  Sometimes it works naturally and easily. Other times it can be fraught with difficulties and barriers and fail.  The more we know about the particulars of any given attempt, can see the challenges clearly, and are willing to take risks to get to the point where everyone is truly on the same page, the better we might be able to make the concept of collaboration work for us. 

I think we know what makes a collaboration work, but I doubt we really know nearly enough about the dynamics of what makes collaboration fail, particularly in our sector, and what might be done about that. 

Have a great week.

Don’t Quit.