Thursday, December 20, 2012

Exit Interview with Rocco Landesman

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

A Christmas present to the field - a candid, in-depth exit interview with outgoing NEA Chair, Rocco Landesman

Barry:  Can you reflect on the major accomplishments of your tenure and assess the impact (current and future) on the field of the Our Town, Creative Placemaking, deepening relationships with other federal agencies, and expanded research initiatives?

Rocco:  It sounds like you pretty much have the list!

The one thing I might add is our increasing work with the military community, through Blue Star Museums ( and the NEA/Walter Reed Healing Arts partnership (

Blue Star Museums is a partnership among Blue Star Families, the NEA, the Department of Defense and more than 1,500 museums across America to offer free admission to active duty military personnel and their families every summer.  It has been amazing to watch this program grow from some 600 museums when we launched.  It has even inspired TCG to launch a Blue Star Theaters program with their membership.

Last year, we brought the Operation Homecoming program (started by my predecessor Dana Gioia) to the National Intrepid Center of Excellence at the Walter Reed National Military Medical Center.  The writing program now take place in a clinical setting as part of a formal medical protocol to help heal service members.  We have been working on launching a clinical research project, and have also been expanding the footprint of what we are doing by also bringing a neurological music therapist on staff for them.

I never would have guessed that one of my closest colleagues from my time as NEA Chairman would be the rear admiral in charge of a hospital, but Mike Stocks has been simply amazing in allowing this work to happen.

But back to your list, the creative placemaking work has -- I am beginning to believe -- really been launched as a national movement: from what Connecticut has done with their state arts funding, to what William Penn and Kresge have done with their arts portfolios, to Rutgers offering a certificate program in creative placemaking.

This all started with our work with the Mayors' Institute on City Design.  We had been working to help mayors conceive of themselves as their cities' chief urban designers for a quarter of a century.  And we decided to make some funding available to help realize creative placemaking projects in their towns (  This, of course, was the precursor to the Our Town initiative.

This past summer, we NEA announced our second year of "Our Town" funding, which included 80 grants totaling $4.995 million.  (

All of this work inspired the foundation community to come together in the creation of ArtPlace  (  Eleven foundations and six major financial institutions came together as a consortium to invest in projects that support the arts to help increase community vibrancy.   ArtPlace invited seven federal agencies to serve as advisors and offer lessons from those agencies’ own place‐based funding efforts.

We were perfectly positioned to convene those agencies, since we worked for the past three years to closely partner with other larger federal agencies where the arts have not traditionally been a focus.  In a series of firsts: the Department of Housing and Urban Development included the arts as a priority within a $100 million grant program focused on regional planning; the Department of Education included the arts as an invitational priority in its Promise Neighborhood funding; the Department of Agriculture will partner with the NEA on the Citizens’ Institute on Rural Design; and the NEA has a formal role with the President’s Domestic Policy Council on both the Rural Council and the Urban Affairs Working Group.

Then there is the research.  I could highlight a lot of the work, but for me, two things really stand out.  The first is our work with the Department of Health and Human Services.  Over a year ago, we announced a new task force of 13 federal agencies and departments to encourage more and better research on how the arts help people reach their full potential at all stages of life ( The task force grew out of The Arts and Human Development (, a white paper that stemmed from the first-ever convening between the NEA and the HHS, which I co-convened with HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius.

Just this fall, we worked with the Bureau of Economic Analysis to announce that, for the first time, arts and culture will be measured on a macroeconomic level with their contribution to GDP explicitly calculated.  BEA is developing an Arts and Cultural Production Satellite Account (  I honestly believe that this account will begin a new era for national arts research efforts.

Barry:  In terms of President Obama identifying your replacement, which qualities would you advise the President to bear in mind in making his selection?

Rocco:  This may sound like I am ducking the question, but I honestly believe that the single most important quality is being a genuinely nice person.  In the arts and in Washington, DC, so much happens when people want to work with you.  It is all well and good to have collaboration mandated or legislated, but it works best when people ask for it themselves.

Going back to research for an analogy, one of the best things about our director of research Sunil Iyengar is his irresistible likeability.  It is vital that he has research chops, too, of course.  But when I look at the doors he has been able to open with Census, the HHS agencies, the BEA, it all started from personal and warm relationships.

Barry:  What do you think is the agency’s greater strength - the bully pulpit and the power to convene, or its grantmaking budget, and why?

Rocco:  I have gone on record repeatedly as saying that I believe our real power is in the bully pulpit.  People get exercised whenever I say that because they worry that people will use it as an excuse to take away our grants budget.  Sure, all of the dollars we invest across the country play a role in keeping the arts ecosystem strong.  But I think we make a bigger difference with the conversations we are able to start.  There may be nothing I have been prouder of than starting the "supply/demand" conversation that kicked off at Arena Stage here in DC (  Whether you think that we might be able to increase demand, or you think it is time to talk about a possible oversupply of arts organizations, or you think something else entirely, we were able to start a national conversation that caused organizations to look at themselves, look at the ecosystems they inhabit, and examine their own abilities to fulfill their missions.

If I was staying on at the NEA, the next conversation I would want to start is around arts education.  I believe we are almost at a national tipping point, where we can finally turn the corner in ensuring that every child receives a high quality arts education.  In addition to hoping that the next NEA chair is a good person, I also hope he or she has a strong point of view about arts education.

Barry:  From all your travels and meetings with arts leaders across the country, what do you think are the major issues facing the sector, and how might we best address them in the future?

Rocco:  One of the things that I found a little dismaying in this job is that for most people in this country, "cultural policy" is a synonym for "give us more money and get out of our way."  Far too often, the conversation stops there.  But there are big issues that need addressing.

Let me take one in my own field.  When I was at Arena Stage for what turned into the "supply / demand" conversation, I had actually come to talk about something I consider to be an even bigger issue in the theatre: homogenization.

Too many artistic directors in this country define success as a combination of three things: attendance (or, “butts in seats,” as we producers say), income, and national attention.

The easiest way to achieve those three elements is for theaters to reorient themselves toward Broadway.  If a theater is producing a show that has been on or is headed to Broadway, they can count on robust ticket sales, some sort of commercial subsidy for producing the show, and perhaps a review in The New York Times.

But what is the result of defining success that way?  Too many resident theaters across this country whose seasons are interchangeable.  The plays that are being presented bear no relationship to their locality.

Yes, there are notable exceptions to this: Trinity Rep in Providence, Rhode Island defines success locally and is one of the few true heirs to the resident theater movement in this country.  The actors in residence at Trinity Rep do not want to make it to Broadway – in fact, many of them worked to get out of Broadway, in order to get to Trinity Rep.  The Trinity actors with whom I have spoken are interested in being artists, but they are also interested in being citizens of a place and being part of a community.

This brings us back to the creative placemaking reframing: we need artists to invest in the places where they live; and in return, we need those places to invest in their artists.

I also worry a lot about the future of arts criticism in this country.  I was trained as a critic at Yale by Bob Brustein, and I have very strong feelings about the importance of this sector.

We took a look at the landscape, and we realized there are basically 5 kinds of arts writing: purely factual (the theater is located at 123 Main Street); casual (facebook posts and tweets about how much someone loved (or hated) a dance performance); journalism (digging into a museum's antiquities acquisition policy); criticism (people trained and versed in the history of the art form, putting a piece into context); and academic (journal articles and dissertations).

We also realized that three of these are flourishing: factual and casual thanks to the growth of the internet and social media; and academic -- just look at the proliferation of arts degrees that the Strategic National Arts Alumni Project (SNAAP) reports.

But the amount of print and broadcast space devoted to arts journalism and criticism is disappearing.  We knew what the problem was, but we had no clue about the solution, so we partnered with the Knight Foundation on a Community Arts Journalism Challenge ( to see if we could crowd source some solutions.  The projects are still ongoing, but we were heartened enough by the early results, that we have now baked arts journalism and criticism into the NEA's core grantmaking.

Barry:  What surprised you most about heading the Endowment and working in Washington D.C.?  What’s the one big lesson you take away from this experience?

Rocco:  I was amazed at how much we were able to get done and how quickly.  I have to admit that I arrived with the same prejudice shared by many coming into public service from the private sector, and I thought I would be wading into a bureaucratic morass.  However, It wasn't even six months before my colleagues got sick of me exclaiming, "This would have taken years in the private sector!"  I was amazed at the power and leverage that comes with being part of a federal agency.

Barry:   If you had it to do all over again, what would you do differently, and why?

Rocco:  My mantra has always been: "Often wrong; never in doubt."  I honestly would not change a thing.

Barry:  What do you see as unfinished business at the agency?  What areas do you wish the Endowment had been able to be more active in?

Rocco:  As I said earlier, I do think that arts education is next up in the queue.  We commissioned a study from James Catterall (, who used four longitudinal databases to look at the correlations between arts education and achievement for low socioeconomic status youth.  Low SES students who received high amounts of arts education outperformed the overall school population on grade point average, high school graduation rates, and enrollment in professionally oriented majors.  As far as I am concerned, that alone should be enough to convince every school leader to bake arts education into every school day.  Low SES kids never outperform their peers, and yet here we have consistent numbers to show it is possible.

The next arts education research project that I would love to see happen is a randomized control experiment that would get past correlation and get on to causality.  We need to find a population of students who are not receiving any arts education, and randomly assign half of them to receive some.  I think we could easily partner with a national arts ed organization that was going into a new town.  If they had the resources to work with 5 schools, we would ask them to let us select a cohort of 10 schools and then randomly assign the 5 schools with which they would work.  It would take no additional resources for the organization, and they would be the case study for what I believe would be the most nationally significant arts ed study possibly ever.  We could similarly partner with a school district or funder.  We have this as part of the arts ed and research offices' five-year plans.  And if anyone is interested in working with us, please let my colleagues at the NEA know.

Barry:  You’ve said you look forward to spending more time in Miami, but I can’t imagine you are yet ready to hang it all up.  Do you plan a return to Broadway, and what ways do you hope you can continue to be involved in the nonprofit arts?

Rocco:  I honestly have no interest in returning to Broadway. I hope this doesn't sound like I'm too full of myself, but I have had the opportunity to produce my favorite musical of all time (Big River), the most important American play of the twentieth century (Angels in America), and the most successful show in Broadway's history (The Producers).  I sort of feel that I have done everything I can do in that arena, and it is time for another generation to take over.

My wife Debby and I love the New World Symphony.  I think what Lin Arison and Michael Tilson Thomas have done with the symphony, the building, and creating audiences is just awesome.  We look forward to being involved there.  As audience members.

Barry:  If you could only offer one piece of parting advice to arts administrators across the country, what would that be?

Rocco:  Don't stay too long at the party.  Department of Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood and I were talking about my intent to retire, and Ray actually used a theatre metaphor.  He said, "Rocco, you always want to leave the stage while they are still applauding."

Knowing when to leave also has the added benefit of making room for a new generation of leadership.  There are some remarkable young administrators that I have met across this country, and I would love to see what they will do when they take over.

Barry:  If you had a ten million dollar war chest to spend (in your sole and absolute discretion) to address one specific challenge in the arts, where would you spend that money and why?

Rocco:  I believe that subsidy exists to free arts organizations from the exigencies of the box office.  I would want to use the money to allow artistic directors to make decisions about a season's repertory with zero input from their managing directors or boards.

There are so many more questions that come to mind, but I so appreciate your taking the time to respond to these.

Thank you Rocco, and thank you for your leadership, dedication and tireless energy over the past three plus years in your Chairmanship and service to the arts.  I know I speak for countless of those in our sector in wishing you all the very best in whatever you do in the future, and our hope that you continue to be actively involved in the arts for a long time to come.

Merry Christmas to all.

Don't Quit.

Monday, December 17, 2012

The Further Erosion of American Innocence

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

The last line in William Golding’s Lord of the Flies is:
“And Ralph wept for the end of innocence and the darkness of man’s heart”.

In the face of the senseless carnage at the Sandy Hook Elementary school this past weekend,  America again shed tears in the continuing erosion of its innocence, and the recognition of the darkness in the heart of one seriously disturbed young man.

The horrific, unfathomable act left the world shocked and stunned.  No words are adequate to capture the profound numbness of the aftermath.  That it was aimed at the most innocent among us - six and seven year olds - babies really - now robbed of their lives before they really started, is just so devastating that we don’t know how to react.  We  desperately want to make some sense of it.

Looking at the pictures of the perpetrator, he seems not much more than a child himself.  What motive could he have had to do something so evil?  What so tortured his soul and twisted his mind that he could have so callously hurt babies?  We desperately want to make some sense out of so senseless an act and the nation waits to hear some plausible answer as to “Why”?  But endless analysis of who he was and relentless speculation as to why he did what he did will bring us no answers, no comfort, no way to understand.  There is no sense to be made out of so senseless an act.

It was random - predictable only in the sense that these things happen - more often now than in the past perhaps.  Of course, senseless violence and the misery it causes happens all over the world.  This one hit home - it happened in our back yard.  With seven billion people on the planet it may be a miracle that it doesn’t happen more often.  Then, maybe it will.

We will talk about pathologies and the growing incidence of untreated mental illnesses, and we will debate and promote gun control and security, but the lack of a rational societal response to mental illness and easy access to guns on the street will remain unchanged.

This horrible event will doubtless diminish the joy of the holidays. Even as kids gleefully open their presents on Christmas morning and squeal with delight, it will be hard not to reflect on the suffering in New Town.  Parents will hug their children a little tighter, worry a little more. Little kids may wonder if they are safe.  It is hard to get something like this out of one’s mind; hard to compartmentalize it; hard to deal with it.  

Life will go on.  It always does.  The nation will return to the daily grind.  We will recover.  But it will not be so easy for those in that town.  The depth of the sorrow of those who lost a child or loved one is deeper than one can fathom.  Those poor people - and especially the mothers and fathers who lost the precious life of a child -  will never again be the same.  How could they be?  Some may find the strength somehow to move past it, but their lives will be forever broken, decimated, empty and devoid of the joy their children had brought to them.  They have only begun to pay the price that will be extracted from them, and in part that is what is so painful for the country - how to help them, when we know deep in our hearts there is no way we can provide more than empathy, comfort and shared grief.  And in the end, no matter how heartfelt, no matter how massive that outpouring of sympathy, it will not be enough to ever make the lives of parents who must cope with this loss whole again, as at least part of them died when their baby died.  These are wounds that never completely heal.  They run so deep that the suffering cannot even cling to anger as a way to cope.  How very cruel.

In the short run, the outpouring of support may help them to keep busy and not think too much about their loss, though the rituals of the season most assuredly will be hard reminders of what their lives were. But that diversion will ebb, and they will be left inconsolable with their pain.  Those who have a deep, abiding faith may find some comfort and solace there.  I cannot imagine that any soul in the universe is more disconsolate, more profoundly saddened than the deity we call God.

We in the arts - whether directly as artists or those who support them in some way - have the great and good gift of dealing with beauty, with joy and hope - even in the face of despair; with redemption, salvation and the wellspring of epiphany.  We do this in a world that is sometimes unimaginably ugly.   What can we now do?  Nothing more than to keep doing what we do; to continue to be part of what makes life good, what makes it worthwhile, what gives hope and joy and brings smiles to faces.

My heart joins the millions of hearts that hope those parents can somehow again smile and know joy in their lives - even if now forever abbreviated and brief.  I cannot imagine their grief will ever go away entirely.  My heart aches for them.

Like Ralph, I weep for the further end to innocence and the hard, cold reality of the darkness of some men’s hearts.  And I hope that somehow we are not again soon so terrifyingly reminded of that darkness.

I take comfort in the goodness of mankind manifested in the response to this tragedy - the outpouring of  genuine love and concern -  a small corner, I know, but that is all that we have.

Hug your children and each other.

Don’t Quit.

Monday, December 10, 2012

The Marginalization of Cross Silo Thinking

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

That’s Not Your Area of Expertise - Mind Your Own Business:
I ran across a response on the Quora website to the question: “Programmers: What do you think when you hear "I just need a tech co-founder?"  wherein the responder lamented that the IT contributor to startups is often seen as a mere perfunctory in the process; not an integral part of the whole.  Too often, said the responder, the attitude of the start up originator is the equivalent of someone saying: ‘I have the idea, all I need is the technical guy to make it reality’  (“The nontechnical founders need to develop a deep respect for the development process & how non-trivial it is.”)

Everyone, everywhere is today relegated to some silo.  We value expertise, but we isolate one expertise from the process of creating something itself.  Each area of expertise is isolated from the whole of the process.  When I graduated college, the joke was that a degree in political science and a dollar would get you a cup of coffee.  So I went to law school and graduation conferred on me a marketable ‘expertise’.  (The truth of the matter is that what we lawyers know that you don't know lies largely in that we have developed layer upon layer of confusing nomenclature that only we can decipher - at $250 an hour.)  But lawyers, like IT people today, are dispensable functionaries - they are part of the larger enterprise, but expected to do what they do, and not offer ideas about what someone else does.  And while all of the individual and separate contributions of a myriad of players in any enterprise are essential in some way - the system of expertise and siloing potentially foregoes innovation and creativity, because each of us is expected to limit our contribution to our own area of expertise.  Is that smart?

In the nonprofit arts world we have built similar silos.  I, and others, have talked about the danger of relegating younger leaders to isolation by putting them into the “emerging” classification - a label that unintentionally works to marginalize their skills, talents and contributions by questioning their experience level.  In an uptake on that issue, Charles Jensen comments in a blog post on that danger.

We do that across the board.  Marketing people are separated from those who work in the Development area and they are usually not expected, nor invited, to offer ideas outside their sphere. IT people are expected to limit their contribution to the tech side. Finance people are separate from production and program administrators and they too are expected to confine their thinking to their own area.  And God forbid any of those on the administration side would ever dare to have a thought about the creative aspect of an organization’s art or performance.  The artistic people would be aghast were an administrator to offer an idea on set design, or costuming, or staging, or curation.  Artists often find the very thought to be threatening - an invasion of their creativity prerogative.

The message is clear - stay in your niche.  Be a good soldier - don’t try to overstep your bounds.  Do your thing, but only your thing.  Keep your ideas on other's people's areas to yourself.

I am reminded of the quote:  “If you want to have a good idea, you need to have lots of ideas”.  Most creativity is choosing between ideas and approaches.  Why then isn’t having more ideas better?  Why then do we not have some means to allow for the cross-pollination of ideas from all quarters?  There is, of course, a time consideration.  You can’t realistically make every decision by committee, nor can you probably reasonably expect that people outside of one sphere will fully understand or appreciate all the factors (let alone the nuances) involved in a new idea in another area.  But arguably that very handicap might allow for new kinds of thinking that would not come from those who suffer the limitation of understanding too well their own sphere.

What is the impact on a thriving, and truly creative open enterprise of this kind of discriminatory isolation?  How many good ideas are lost because we are all experts at one thing and access to offering ideas in other areas is nonexistent - discouraged if not outright prohibited?

With increasing movement of people from one job area to another, more eclectic resumes denoting broader experience gained, and the sheer incalculable amount of knowledge out there - why do we foreclose input by siloing our people into pigeonholes?

There must be some way we can have more open organizations without being paralyzed by too much input; some way where cross fertilization of thinking across silos of expertise would yield better thinking.  Such a challenge involves two formidable obstacles:  1) coming up with the internal mechanism itself which would allow people to think outside their areas and productively (not disruptively) contribute; and 2) and more difficult - a change in our culture and way of thinking about what we do and the territoriality of protecting and defending our expertise so that we might be more open to that kind of different approach.

The current systemic way we limit our consideration of our own people’s potential creativity seems to me anyway to be confining and perhaps costly, if not outright demeaning and insulting.

Have a good week, and try to stay sane as the holiday chaos gains momentum.

Don’t Quit.

Saturday, December 1, 2012

Better to Give Than Receive?

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

Christmas giving and Future Getting:
The Christmas ethic is that it is better to give than to receive.  We have, for a long time, counted on that altruistic inclination to help us raise money.  That said, while there is a kind of spiritual satisfaction in giving, in truth, most of us like to receive too.

We are in the end of the year fundraising frenzy where everybody in every field is making a pitch for donations to support their worthy causes.  Email inboxes and mailboxes are jammed with appeals.  We in the arts compete with a wide swatch of worthy causes in this highly competitive arena.

There is no shortage of advice (or theories) as to how to maximize these campaigns, and increase the bottom line.  But what works for one, may not work for another.  What works at one point in time, may not work at another.  We need more reliable data and analysis on which to base our conclusions and then actions.  And we need to investigate new and untried strategies if we are to stay ahead of the game.

I wonder if perhaps a reverse sort of appeal might work.  Instead of asking for support - especially from that contingent of supporters who have given a little, and from whom we seek to get more - what if we were to give those people a present without asking for anything in return?  What if we were to identify those who are past marginal supporters (those we really want to convert to bigger supporters) and said simply that we want to thank them for being involved with us, and really want them to be more involved with our organizations, and so we are pleased to give them a present during the holidays - perhaps a voucher for two tickets to a future performance or exhibition of their choice.  No strings attached - except that we hope they will come to want to be more familiar with us.

In terms of being gift givers, we really do it all the time, when we break down giving into certain (Platinum, Gold, Silver, Bronze et. al) levels, each with something given in return for support at the given level.  And the most successful Kickstarter and other crowd funding appeals always offer a quid quo pro return for the help.

The idea of offering a gift for a donation as a thank-you has been around for a long time.  The theory is that people will be grateful and thus more likely to give more.  Some studies suggest the opposite is true:  that “the prospect of receiving a gift activated a feeling of selfishness which, in turn, reduced altruism and hence cut the average donation.”  But rather than advertising the thank-you gift in advance, would giving something (seemingly) for nothing be an effective fundraising tool or mere folly?

There is the added benefit, when giving a gift with the organizational logo on it (coffee mugs, calendars, desktop items etc.), of working the brand.  When I was in the music industry, this kind of merchandising worked well.  A coffee mug with an Aerosmith logo on it, would sit on a radio programmer’s desk all year - a visible message to all who saw it - and lots of people saw it.

Is it possible that an approach of giving a gift with no immediate simultaneous “pitch” attached to it - followed up after they redeem their voucher - with a specific thank you and then a plea for support - might yield new returns that would otherwise not have materialized?  The question, of course, is would the cost of such generosity justify the potential that it would result in a net gain?  The other question is:  would we be squandering the peak period of giving by following such a course?

And here’s an idea along the logo gift lines:  How about ordering piggy banks (you can get them customized with your logo in different sizes pretty cheap online), and sending those to your supporters and asking them to keep it on their desks and add their spare change over the course of the year (and encourage others to do the same) and send the proceeds to you the following year (or in six months or whenever).  A year long reminder to keep your organization in mind (or even an "annual" ongoing fundraising tool?); an easy way for people to help you; and a branding device too!  If you could get a local artist to use the piggy bank as a canvas (remember the public painted Cows in Chicago, or the Hearts in SF?), you could suggest your supporters send you the money and keep the collectible piggy bank art as a gift.  Maybe if it worked, you could add a new collectible art piggy bank every year.

This idea is more in line with the “freemiums” strategy - e.g., the appeal letter includes something like personal address labels, note pads or holiday cards - which theoretically obligates the donor to give because you have sent them something; a hybrid freemium and pitch.   Some studies indicate that freemiums bring in new donors, though those are small donors and they are difficult to turn into consistent donors.  What if that theory were taken to the next step - a gift without the “ask” included, or the ask comes later?

While it may be risky (and at this point not timely) to mount some huge experiment along these lines, perhaps it might be worth a small pilot to test the hypothesis that increasingly asking for support has a better chance of success if  we are on the giving as well as the receiving end.    The piggy bank idea, or some variation thereof) could go out anytime really.

There are lots of questions about whether or not quid pro quo gift giving works, and lots of evidence to suggest it does - and perhaps doesn’t.  The evidence on freemiums is mixed.  Not much evidence on whether a no-strings-attached gift giving strategy might work.  More data would be helpful on all theories, particularly about “our” donors when compared with other nonprofit donors.  How different are the behaviors of various donor constituent groups?  And what affect, if any, does geography, education, ethnicity, income-level, gender, age or any other classification have on that behavior?  For our sector as compared with other sectors?

I don’t know.  We need to know.  This is yet another area of research that we ought to be undertaking.

And we need to consider and either embrace or reject a range of strategies (based ideally on more data and reliable conclusions based thereon) to compete in the current marketplace.  The tried and true rules of fundraising are doubtless changing.

Have a great week, and may your holiday fundraising exceed your expectations.

Don’t Quit

Sunday, November 25, 2012

Naming Rocco's Successor

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

Let me add my name to the chorus of praise for Rocco’s leadership over the term of his three plus year tenure as Chair of the NEA.  Once he got the lay of the land, he effectively used his bully pulpit to champion the arts, and he launched several major initiatives that ought to have a positive impact on the future of the sector - including meaningful expansion of the Endowment’s relationship with other federal agencies, a long overdue stepped up research agenda and strategy, and the Our Town and Creative Placemaking projects.

I hope to post interviews with both Chairman Landesman and Chief of Staff Jamie Bennett before the year is out.

Now the question looms who should replace Rocco as the new Chair of the NEA?  Joan Shigekawa, Senior Deputy Director, will helm the agency until a new appointment is made.  I doubt this appointment is high on the President’s agenda, and I also doubt (though I certainly may be wrong) that they already have someone in mind.

I think it might be advisable for us to do two things:  First, openly discuss the kinds of qualities and skills that we - as a field - think any new nominee for the post should have, and Second, suggest at least a short list of names for the President to consider.  My own hope is that the next Chair of the Endowment might be someone from within our own ranks - someone with nonprofit arts experience and familiarity.

Here are some questions we might openly begin to discuss concerning a new Chairman:

  • What are the qualities an NEA Chair needs to be successful in the next four years?
  • What would a person rooted in private foundation experience bring to the NEA Chair position?
  • What would a person rooted in public policy experience bring to the NEA Chair position?
  • What would a person rooted in nonprofit arts organization experience bring to the NEA Chair position?
  • What would a person rooted in private sector business experience bring to the NEA Chair position?
  • What would a working artist bring to the NEA Chair position?
  • What would a person who is a celebrity  bring to the NEA Chair position?
  • What would a former elected official bring to the NEA Chair position?
  • Which of the former NEA Chairs have been successful and why?
  • What should be retained from the Rocco Landesman Chairmanship and what should be jettisoned?

Perhaps we might form a small select Blue Ribbon Committee to formally suggest a small list of vetted names to President Obama.  I think this might be an opportunity to establish a small precedent wherein the arts field itself is at least tangentially involved in the section process to name its most visible and important leader, and so I hope the field will insert itself into these deliberations, and come up with a list of names the President might consider.

Here then is my list of just a few of the possible candidates (by no means a definitive list, and I am sure you out there can come up with scores of other names we ought to toss around - AND I invite you to add to this list via your comments to this posting.)   I realize some names on the list would seem to be outliers, and perhaps they are, but in many respects virtually all the previous appointments to the Chairmanship have been outside the field.  Maybe this would be a good time to go inside the box.  And, in any event, I hope it sparks some debate out there as to what we ought to be looking for in the final selection.

BTW this list reflects my own personal thinking and my biases and limitations and in no way implies WESTAF’s sanctioning of these names or any endorsement on their part.

An Open letter to President Obama:

Dear Mr. President:

Congratulations on your re-election.  In recognition of, and grateful appreciation for,  your past, and continuing support for art and culture in America, the nonprofit arts community was highly supportive of your campaign, and thrilled at your victory.

As you begin the process of selecting Chairman Landesman’s successor, we respectfully suggest that you look within the nonprofit arts field to fill the post.  There are scores of qualified people who would do an outstanding job in that position, and would bring credit to your Administration, and the time has come to name one of our own.

Here are just a few suggestions for your consideration:

Bob Lynch - nobody has more experience, a better wider perspective, or a more intimate knowledge of the issues and the players.  Would be a fitting crowning achievement in an amazing career.

Janet Brown - has both experience with the philanthropic community and local arts agencies as well as a solid background in advocacy and legislative relationships.

Anthony Radich - brings a strong organizational / entrepreneurial perspective and complete familiarity with the Endowment’s state agency and regional partners.

Laura Zucker - knows all the issues and what is involved in trying to address those issues,  and more importantly how to get things done.  Doubtful anyone would be more effective.

Steven Tepper - would bring strong policy credentials to what is a policy centric agency, and would help elevate the national dialogue.

Adam Huttler - an innovator’s voice - his of the next generation of arts leaders and his appointment would signal a new era at the agency.

Dennis Scholl - a risk taker, with a commitment to quality, he worked closely with Rocco and he would add another dimension to the post.

Richard Kessler - would articulately champion Arts Education better than anyone.

Joan Shigekawa - why not simply name Joan the permanent Chair?

Aaron Dworkin - an artist with strong organizational skills, and with a national platform and reputation for his commitment to diversity.

Cora Mirikitani - former head of the Irvine Foundation arts program, and current head of the Center for Creative Innovation she is one of our best thinkers and fully understands the needs of artists in America.

Ben Cameron - certainly no one would use the bully pulpit better than he.

Alan Brown - would bring an academic and researcher’s perspective to the post.

Maria Lopez de Leon - a passionate and articulate voice for America’s fastest growing constituency and a proven bridge builder.

Colleen Jennings Roggensack - would articulate the Presenter’s point of view and build bridges to at least a faction of the private sector.

Thank you for your consideration.

Oh, and if you just can't find anyone to serve in the post, call me.  I'll do it.

Have a great week.

Don’t Quit.

Sunday, November 18, 2012

Thankful for the Little Things

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

Reminder:  Last Chance. The lists of names for possible inclusion in the Arts Dinner-vention dinner party are due tomorrow November 20th. Email to me at  I know you have some names to suggest.  Thanks.  

Thankful for the things that make me happy:
It's that time of year again (already!).  Thanksgiving week is upon us, and in just a couple of weeks the country virtually shuts down until after the first week in January.

So in that annual rite where we think about what we are thankful for, I made a list of the things that invariably bring a smile to my face; that actually make me happy --  thinking these are some of the things I am really thankful for.  While I admit that when I was younger, more materialistic pursuits were on my mind, now it turns out the things that please me  are all small things; things that cost nothing at all.  I had about forty things on the list and I have culled them down to ten.

1.  When driving along, I love seeing the expression on dog's faces when they are walking with their masters.  The way they look up at them - eyes wide, mouth open, smiling.  Dogs are always "engaged".  There is just something extraordinarily satisfying about dogs.

2.  Sunday mornings in the fall:  Me on the couch, lox and bagels, the New York Times, a football game on television, a fire in the fireplace, rain at the window.  It doesn't get any better than that.

3.  Butterflies and hummingbirds.  I can't help but smile when I see either or both.  Magical.

4.  I love seeing old couples holding hands as they stroll together.  Watching them from behind as they amble slowly, so many memories shared.  How wonderful.

5.  I can't help but smile every time I hear little kids giggling.  It just tickles me so much.  Their laughter is so genuine and infectious.  Would the world would listen more to that music.

6.  Whenever I hear of some random act of kindness by human beings towards another, it makes me feel good - hopeful and glad.  A gentle reminder that the force for good, for generosity, is so much stronger than the forces that pit us against each other.

7.  Dancers.  I love dancers.  Poetry set to motion to music.  Wow.

8.  Blue skies and big, puffy white clouds bring a smile to my face and always make me grateful  I am alive.  Sunrises are like that too - beginnings.  And in the Spring when the daffodils first bloom - life is again renewed.  Sweet.

9.  I get a smug feeling of satisfaction crawling into clean, crisp sheets on a summer's eve.  And a good night's sleep is up there too.

10.  The tens of thousands of you out there who work in the arts and who never quit.  That makes me happy in a way I cannot even put into words.  It always makes me proud that I work among you.

And, of course, chocolate, great wine, Magnum ice cream bars, bear claws, Elizabeth George novels, pecan pie and did I mention chocolate?

Wishing you all a very Happy Thanksgiving with friends, family and loved ones.

Don't Quit.

Sunday, November 11, 2012

The Wheels on the Bus Go Round and Round

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

Note:  The lists of names for possible inclusion in the Arts Dinner-vention dinner party are due November 20th. We've gotten lots of suggestions so far.  Why not include yours this week.  Email to me at  Thanks.  

Election note:  Whew.  Like everyone else, I am greatly relieved that we do not have to mount some Herculean efforts to save the NEA. Nothing is ever a done deal, so hopefully all of you out there will reach out to newly elected or re-elected members of Congress, State Houses and local City Councils and Boards of Supervisors, and begin the process of lobbying them for support for the arts at all levels.  There is still the Fiscal Cliff looming, but it is inconceivable to me that it won't be somehow resolved.  (Of course, it was inconceivable to me that we would have allowed our national credit rating to have been compromised - but it happened).  Still, this is a different Congress and the public has little patience now for more partisanship). 

The Arts and the Convenience of Attending Events:
I live just north of San Francisco, about 40 minutes from the city. Like many major metropolitan areas, traffic in the Bay Area is a problem - and not just during peak commute hours.  It is a growing hassle to go to the city for any purpose - the traffic is exhausting and parking is a hassle; there is the cost of gasoline, bridge tolls and parking.  The Golden Gate ferry system is an alternative - but the last one returns from the city before 11:00 pm.  If you live in the East Bay, there is BART - the Bay Area Rapid Transit system - as an alternative.   The point is that, for me (and for many others I suspect), the inconvenience of getting to an event frequently trumps going at all.

If I want to go to a movie, pretty much anything that is playing is within a 15 minute drive -- easy parking, no cost, and the movie itself is relatively inexpensive.

We spend a lot of time and energy exploring the ways the arts might better, and more meaningfully, engage our audiences as well as ways we might be more relevant to, and involved in, our communities. But I think we spend perhaps too little time considering the mundane, pedestrian issue of convenience for our patrons - particularly those with more limited incomes and time (and that is increasingly the whole of the middle class).  This is probably an issue that breaks down on income as well as generationally (i.e., the cost factor is a factor for those still struggling on a budget to make ends meet, and those skewing older find "convenience" a more important variable than younger people).  Then too, convenience is likely tempered by where you live as well.  The hassle of attending an arts event is likely exponentially greater in the larger, more populace dense, urban areas of the country (at least for those outside the city center area or wherever the arts venue is located) - less so in smaller cities and rural / suburban areas.

So it is not a one-size-fits-all issue.  But it IS an issue. Underestimating the impact of "convenience" overall is, I think, a grave error.  A lot of people who might attend our events, do not - because of the cost and the inconvenience.  It has nothing to do with the quality of the offering - nor with being or not being engaged.

I go to two or three San Francisco Giants baseball games on average each season.  I have the option of taking a specially scheduled Ferry to the ballpark (it's on the water).  This is an especially attractive option as the Ferry Terminal is only 15 minutes from my house and parking is ample and free.  The cost of the RT ticket is considerably less than driving - no gasoline, no parking fees - and the ferry docks right at the ballpark.  But most importantly - there is far less hassle.  Moreover, the experience of riding in with a boat load of other fans is enjoyable.    Those in the East Bay who take Bart have a similar experience.

There are times I wish there were a similar option to attend an arts event.  I wish there were an Arts Bus that I, and fellow arts attendees, could take that would be relative inexpensive - let me out right at the venue and pick me up afterwards.  It would make the whole idea of going so much more attractive.  And so I wonder if such an idea is workable.

Doubtless an Arts Bus would be an expensive proposition for any one arts organization to underwrite (especially as such an enterprise would likely take time early on to catch on with people, and thus would need to be subsidized).  But at least on weekends, several performing arts organizations might share the management workload and cost.  The bus could simply make the rounds of a half dozen venues much like airport bus drop-offs do at various hotels.   It might be interesting to ride in and back with people going to a different event that I might be attending on any given night - and impromptu conversations might peak my interest in other offerings.  You could even have a docent on the ride in talk about the various events on the stops, thus making the whole experience more attractive and more involving.  People going to one event, might think about another event for the future.  It would also I would think help raise awareness of various arts offerings in the area, and help with the branding of participating organizations.

And if such an idea were do-able, over time it ought to be a break even situation.    It might (and I say might - because there are a lot of unknown variables)  attract new people to our venues, or at least serve well those who want to attend our events.  And we might target such a service at the sector of the population that simply is not part of our audience.

This may just be a silly idea; impractical and impossible to mount. Maybe there is a much better approach to addressing the "convenience of travel challenge".   I am a person more inclined than the average arts attendee, and I would love such an option.  It would make me attend more events.  We really ought to think more about how getting to and from our events is part of our audience development challenge and directly, and substantially, impacts our attendance figures. There might be some kind of pilot project we could mount that would help in this area.  Just thinking out loud.

Have a great week.

Don't Quit

Sunday, November 4, 2012

And You Were On My Mind

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

The Devastation of Sandy:
My heart goes out to all those on the East Coast who are trying to cope with the devastation of last week's fury of Mother Nature. Having been in the Thailand Tsunami, I know personally the awesome power of weather, and especially water, to destroy property and disrupt lives.  While the early aftermath is centered on survival, the longer term challenge is as much emotional.  It is still too soon to know precisely the impact on our sector, but even for those not directly in the path of the storm, the impact of the disruption of normal functioning is bound to cause havoc on performance schedules, fundraising and more.

I am heartened to see that we do have resources available to our own people, and that there is meaningful activity in trying to assess the impact and respond to the challenges.  The California Arts Council website provides links to coverage of the impact of the storm.

What we really need is some kind of war chest available to help our people when these kinds of natural disasters hit - and if you believe the commentators, the frequency of natural climatic disasters is very likely to increase;  funds that could be used specifically to support hard hit arts organizations and individual artists.  While national appeals to donate to the Red Cross and other agencies have seen an outpouring of American generosity, it would be even more beneficial if we had a fund of our own.  I doubt we are likely able to mount Telethons or other such tools to create such a fund, but were there the will, we might someday be able to develop our own mechanisms to fund such as war chest.

We could, for example, organize an effort by performing arts organizations / museums to, say, donate some small percentage (10%?) of a single performance (or day's box office) to such an effort - complemented by an appeal to all of us for individual donations.   All we would really need logistically would be for AFTA, Fractured Atlas, the NEA or some body to administer the account, and then generate enough commitment across the country to do it.  Each participating organizations could determine for itself when to do it, and then forward their contribution to the organizing agency.  If we had significant participation, it would likely generate substantial funds.  Perhaps, we might even do this once a year.

Of course, it is a lot to ask of already struggling organizations, but a one time, small contribution would not necessarily be unreasonably taxing.  Maybe I am just a dreamer and this is not something our own people would support.  Consideration of such a move raises the question of whether or not we are a community, or more precisely whether or not we think of ourselves as a community.   Are we willing to act on behalf of our own, especially if that constitutes sacrifice few can honestly afford?  I have no idea the answer to that kind of question, and maybe we don't want confirmation that we do not think of ourselves as a "community" wherein we all share some sense of responsibility for the rest of us.  I think, though, that were there the right kind of appeal, it might work.

I suppose some would argue it isn't really necessary - that the Red Cross and other agencies best address the needs in situations like this.  I wonder though if, long after the media interest in the slow process of recovery has waned, whether or not the unique needs of our people will be met by those efforts.   I personally believe that the very exercise of trying to take care of our own has its own intrinsic value in building a sense of "we-are-in-this-together", and I think acting as a community benefits the whole of us far beyond helping those of us who are facing trying times.

In any event, I hope and pray all the people affected by this storm - including especially our people - quickly recover and get back to some sense of normality.  It will take time.  While those of us in other parts of the country are grateful we are not the ones hit this time, this kind of catastrophe ultimately negatively impacts us all.

Follow up on the election:
This comparison of the Presidential Candidates arts platforms, - from Americans for the Arts.

Congratulations to Victoria Hamilton - first for San Diego's success in recent efforts to secure a "Penny for the Arts" plan that would more than double the percentage allotment of the TOT earmarked for the arts, increasing the funding from $7.3 million in 2012 to nearly $18 million in 2017.  That is a fitting 'farewell' accomplishment for one of the sector's major leaders as she announces her retirement after 24 years as the only executive director of the City of San Diego Commission for Arts and Culture.  I have had the great pleasure of working with Victoria over my entire tenure in the field, and she is in a league with the very "best and brightest".  Well done, Victoria.  And thank you.   Thank you very much.

Have a great week.  Vote.

Don't Quit

Sunday, October 28, 2012

The Election and the Future of the NEA

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

What is the Future of the NEA post election?
The election has everyone on a high anxiety level.  No matter which one is your guy, you wonder: will he win, how will the swing states go?  Is Hurricane / Tropical Storm Sandy a game changer in terms of voter turnout?  Will Latinos and young people turn out?  Will women support the GOP?  It’s a cliffhanger and the country is on edge - waiting, nervously.

This has certainly been one of the hardest elections to figure out in a long time - in terms of where candidates stand, and what specifically they advocate.   Increasingly, candidates for all offices make conflicting promises to various segments of their potential voter universe.  At the higher levels, it is virtually impossible to deliver on all the promises made.  Yet increasingly too, core bases want to hold the feet of their successful candidates to the fire.  They want promises made to be promises kept.  Doesn’t always work out that way.  Some promises get kept because others cannot be.  Politics is a strange occupation.

I have been talking to scores of arts leaders around the country over the past three weeks - about the level of the threat this year to the arts and specifically to the NEA, and what kinds of strategies we ought to adopt in response to the final outcome.  There is real concern out there in our sector.  The future of the NEA is the elephant in the room, and I am surprised I haven't seen more public talk about the threat - including more blogs on what we should do.  While some people simply cannot imagine the elimination of the Endowment as a possibility, and like Ostriches hiding their heads in the sand, refuse to even accept the possibility, some see Armageddon on the horizon.  Others aren’t so sure.   Almost everyone believes elimination of the Endowment would be a disaster, and huge cuts would have drastic consequences for us.  There are lots of behind the scenes strategies being considered, but in order for any to work, there will need to be a massive showing by our community that elimination of, or even drastic cuts to, the NEA is not just ill considered and damaging policy, but that it is UNACCEPTABLE.

In this election it is hard to know exactly where Romney stands on the arts.  (Obama is seemingly supportive, but he cut the NEA budget last year with no apparent outcry to do so from any quarter.  So while he is nominally a friend - as is, theoretically, the Democratic party - one should not be shocked that in times of difficult decisions  - often times our supporters end up fair-weather friends, who - regrettably, but without more than hand-wringing - are prepared to throw us under the bus.  At the least, it may be unreasonable (and unwise) to expect they will draw any lines in the sand in our defense.)  I hope I am wrong.

Romney says he likes some of what the NEA does.  And given his background and the underlying cultural ethos of the Mormon Church, I believe he does at least have some appreciation for the value of the arts.  That however seems clearly not enough for him to draw any line of his own in our defense.  Where does he stand - exactly?  Hard to say.  Initially (in a USA Op Ed piece back in 2011) he talked about cutting the agency’s budget substantially:
“Enact deep reductions in the subsidies for the National Endowment for the Arts, the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and the Legal Services Corporation.”
Then, as the  campaign got going, he upped the ante as it were and called for the elimination of funding to the Endowment in an interview in Fortune Magazine as reported by the Huffington Post and others, and ala a Sam Brownback and others in his party, and harkening back to Reagan’s position in 1980, Romney pointed to the private sector as the preferable source of arts funding.
“... there are programs I would eliminate. Obamacare being one of them but also various subsidy programs -- the Amtrak subsidy, the PBS subsidy, the subsidy for the National Endowment for the Arts, the National Endowment for the Humanities. Some of these things, like those endowment efforts and PBS I very much appreciate and like what they do in many cases, but I just think they have to strand on their own rather than receiving money borrowed from other countries, as our government does on their behalf.”   
On his current website, he seems to have backtracked slightly to now favor (again) a “reduction’ in the NEA subsidy”.
The Federal Government Should Stop Doing Things The American People Can’t Afford, For Instance:
Reduce Subsidies For The National Endowments For The Arts And Humanities, The Corporation For Public Broadcasting, And The Legal Services Corporation — Savings: $600 Million. NEA, NEH, and CPB provide grants to supplement other sources of funding. LSC funds services mostly duplicative of those already offered by states, localities, bar associations and private organizations.”
BTW - That’s not quite accurate.  NEA grants leverage local funding, not supplement it.  There’s a difference.  'But for' the NEA grants there might not be certain other local supplemental funding.  It is the NEA required match in some instances, and the imprimatur of worth and excellence in others, that helps its grantees leverage local funding.

The budgets of these four agencies are roughly as follows:

NEA / NEH - approximately $145 million each x 2 = $290 million
PBS - approximately $325 million
LSC - approximately $425 million

That’s a total of $1.040 billion.  If you want to save $600 million, you need to cut each budget by about 60%.

It really isn’t accidental that these agencies are all included in this example of what to cut.  All are identified (correctly or incorrectly) with the liberal left and all are criticized by the right as promoting in some way a leftist agenda and with siding with forces that are opposed to conservative values.  While many may disagree with such a characterization, from a political standpoint it isn’t totally unreasonable.   Clearly, over time,  the arts have become a symbol for the core conservatives.  Because of his public pronouncements aimed at appeasing this segment of his base, and because, if elected President, he will not be able to make good on all his promises to that base (no President can make good on all his promises to various interest groups), cuts to, or elimination of, the arts may be a “bone” he has to throw to that core.  Romney has boxed himself (and us) into a corner, from which it will be more difficult to move away from.

Is one of these agencies a bigger target than the others?  I don't know.

Because candidates now seem to promise everything to everybody, it is hard to actually know who stands for what.  I think the only prudent thing any interest group can do is to assume a worst case scenario and plan for it in terms of its strategy to protect its interests.

There will be forces in the conservative movement, and possibly in the new Congress (especially if the GOP wins the Senate and / or more Tea Party members get elected) that will argue with the new President that he should eliminate these agencies -- not just reduce their budgets.  For many ideologues on that end of the spectrum, these agencies are symbolic of a government spending program that has expanded into clearly improper areas in which government has no business.  For a few this ideology is so sacrosanct that even the demonstrable result of the loss of jobs (ostensibly the antithesis of the Romney / Ryan promise and the whole underpinning of their road to the White House) notwithstanding, cannot move them from their position.  What will the new President’s response to that kind of pressure be?  Again, hard to know for sure.

In the worst case scenario, elimination of the agency would have a catastrophic negative impact for the sector.  A 3 to 1 loss of the size of the agency’s budget  (to factor in lost leveraged local funds) - for a total of near a half billion dollars - would doubtless mean the potential closure of a dozen state arts agencies, half the regionals, and hundreds of programs of local arts organizations, some of which organizations themselves might not survive so easily.  Hundreds if not a thousand plus jobs lost, and potential significant negative consequences to local facilities operations, tourism and hospitality businesses, and after or out-of-school arts programs.  Those are the obvious and immediate impacts.

There would be other consequences.  Such a catastrophe would put extreme pressure on local foundation funding to try to minimize or reduce the negative consequences of the Endowment’s elimination, and that pressure would call for private funding to make ever harder decisions about what would survive and what would not.  Increased territoriality and self interest could wreck havoc on decades long efforts to reduce competitiveness and build a sense of community within the arts sector - which sense helps foster cooperation and collaboration.  Younger arts administrators would find even  fewer job openings and means to advance their careers within the field.  The increased pressure and stress would affect us all as we struggle for survival.  Artists would find fewer opportunities in communities across the nation.   America would have the distinction of being one of the few western nations on the planet that did not have some official cultural support agency.

A logical argument that may be persuasive with the public and the media, but not necessarily politicians for whom logic is often just a nuisance, is that elimination of the entire NEA budget is but a grain of sand in the Sahara desert of debt; that the NEA leverages multiple times its cost; that it creates jobs and generates significant economic activity resulting in increased tax revenue at all levels.   Moreover, the NEA’s paltry allocation is less than a whole host of other government expenditures that are questionable on any level - including the $445 million going (last year no less) indirectly to Liberty University (the evangelical institution started by Jerry Falwell) in the form of Pell grants, or the $175 million  spent in 2010 by the Department of Veterans Affairs to maintain  hundreds of buildings it doesn’t even occupy.  And the war in Afghanistan was costing us some $300 million PER DAY - Twice the annual NEA Budget.

Assuming arguendo the damage was limited to an across the board 60% reduction of the Endowment's budget, (a 60% cut in the NEA would exceed even the cut made by Reagan by in 1981), that opens up several questions:

  • Would that cut be made across the board to the agency’s budget - of which 40% goes to the states on a per capita basis, with the remainder allocated to the Endowment for its grants programs and operations - or would there be a clamor for more of the money to stay as local allocation?  Remember that anything less than elimination of the agency by zeroing out its funding may be unacceptable to a core base of Romney’s conservative / Tea-Party constituency, and so the argument that this is money that goes back to each state and ultimately district may be more appealing to legislators than a blanket across the board cut to that revenue stream.  
  • How much of the cut would come from the Endowment’s staffing operations?
  • If money earmarked for state agencies was reduced, would some state legislatures which had provided state support to match the Federal money (required under the NEA rules and enabling legislation), lessen or eliminate their contribution - at least to the extent it was no longer required to meet the diminished Federal allocation match?
  • How much local funding would dry up because of leverage lost due to reduced Federal agency grant awards being smaller - or non existent?  
  • Would things like research disappear in favor of continuing granting programs, or would the reverse be true?  
Jobs would still be lost.  Programs would still be cut - which ones would remain to be seen.  The NEA itself would need to operate on more of a skeleton crew.

What we do know is that Romney, like virtually all Presidential candidates of the last quarter century, has made promises to factions within his party that he simply cannot keep.  Too many variables are not within his control, and too many promises were impossible to meet even before they were made.  Comes with the territory no matter who occupies the White House.  So the question is where on the spectrum of what to give up (by way of apology and symbolism from a new President to his constituents) do the arts fall?  I don’t know the answer to that question, but my gut tells me we are vulnerable.

What can we do?  The more “cover” or face saving means that we can provide anyone (including a new President, Administration or potentially supportive members of Congress), the easier it will be for them to support some position that benefits us.  The best defense is to be on the offense.  The best kind of “cover” is demonstrable voter demand for our position.  If enough voters in a given district, or state, or across the country demand something, politicians will virtually always meet that demand.  But it has to be a large number, and the demand must be vocal.  So the best thing we can do is generate evidence of that kind of voter support.  We can do that by a massive contacting of the White House and Congress, and by public support (via meetings, rallies, demonstrations and flash mobs that generate media coverage).

These kinds of things:

  1. Identify and engage Personal contacts with Romney, his key appointees, transition staff, first lady.
  2. Identify and engage Personal contacts with legislators in the new Congress, especially key committee chairs.
  3. Develop and deploy a Massive letter writing, phone call, email barrage of Congress and the White House.  Massive means tens (and maybe hundreds) of thousands of such letters and phone calls, not just hundreds.  
  4. Raise and donate money to the Arts Action Fund & others to hire real lobbyists.  Immediately.
  5. Schedule local town halls, public rallies, flash mobs and the like. Generate media coverage of local outrage.
  6. Schedule meetings with newspaper editorial boards asap.  Get op eds aimed as much at Congress as White House.
  7. Stakeholder mobilization - PTA, Teachers, Chambers of Commerce, Tourism industry
  8. Exploit the nationalistic pride appeal - does America really want to be gthe only western power not to support a cultural agency.
Normally, the prudent protocol with a new incoming Administration, is to amass your data and stories to make your case, and present that case to key members of the transition team as the same begins to act.  But as the new President must present his budget for the next fiscal year (October 2013 to October 2014) by the first Monday in February, and because (depending on the composition of the new Congress) there may be a lot of pressure to eliminate the Endowment altogether, we ought to begin to act to try to influence whether or not there are any funds in that budget for the Endowment at all when that budget is presented to Congress.

We need to think this week on how to begin to mobilize the entire field beginning at 12:01 am on November 7th --- to contact each member of the new Congress, plus the White House with the insistent and consistent message to FULLY FUND THE NEA.  We do not want a budget submitted to Congress that has no provision for any funding to the NEA in it.  That will make getting funds axiomatically more difficult.  We ought to do all the things and more listed earlier to try to make our case, and while we need to be respectful and courteous at all times, we need to be firm in our position that cuts to - let alone elimination of - the Endowment is simply UNACCEPTABLE.  That is the message to firmly carry to every member of Congress and to the White House.  Such cuts or elimination will costs jobs.  Local jobs. Lots of middle class jobs.  And it will harm local communities and economies, and kids. (And while I very much appreciate the argument centering around the intrinsic value of the arts on myriad levels, that is not going to be a persuasive argument in this kind of fight.)  This will not be a time to be too timid in what we want.

It's true that we have more time to ultimately fight our fight.  The Budget Process (which, BTW, is the real chief business of Congress - not passing new laws) takes a long time and is very complex and plodding. But while the process takes time, many of the initial "early on" decisions all but determine the final outcome - which can often end up mere symbolic process itself.   So the smart thing to do is to begin now.  We cannot afford to be complacent.  We simply aren’t powerful enough to weather the storms that will come.

Note on the December 31 Fiscal Cliff Armageddon Scenario:  If the old (current) Congress fails to pass legislation this year regarding continuation of some or all of the Bush tax cuts, then we will have an automatic return to the Clinton era tax levels as of December 31st - which will means significant across the board tax increases, plus huge spending cuts to defense and to other spending programs will automatically be triggered.  No one wants that to happen, but there is no guarantee Congress will, in fact, work together to find a consensus solution.  If they fail, the NEA along with almost all other agencies and programs may be the bystander victims.  If that happens, it will be very hard to find anyone to support us for we will be small potatoes in the overall scheme of things - basically irrelevant to the challenges on the table.   Not likely, but a lot of disasters are not likely.

I hope all this turns out to not  be the case - a waste of our time.  I hope that a re-elected Obama Administration will continue to support the NEA (and not cut us more); and / or that a new Romney Administration will reconsider and likewise support the NEA.  But I know this:  we cannot afford, as a sector, to fail to act to protect ourselves as best we can, and that means all of you out there need to start now to think about how you might address whatever scenario plays itself out.  I guarantee you other interest groups will be doing just that.   Were the unthinkable to happen and the Endowment were to be eliminated, it would take a long, long time to re-establish.  Maybe as long as a generation.  If my leveraged half billion dollar impact is anywhere near correct, multiply that by twenty years and think about what that loss of funds might mean to the sector over two decades.  Whether or not you are a current NEA grantee or direct beneficiary, a strong, healthy Endowment is valuable to the health of the arts ecosystem in America.  It is important to, and benefits, all of us, no matter what we do.  And if it is eliminated or suffers drastic cuts, do not think it will have no impact on you and what your organization does.  It will.  And you will feel it.  The time to think about all this is right now.  You should have some idea what you are going to do at 12:01 am on November 7th.

So Please Do This no matter who wins next week:  (sorry to be repetitive)

  • Identify arts supporters in your sphere who may have a personal contact with a new (or current)  White House, and with the newly or re-elected Congress.  Ask them to make those connections by December 1, 2012 to lobby for NEA support.
  • Begin  to put in place mechanisms that will rally your local people to write letters, send emails, and make phone calls; 
  • Encourage all the arts in your area to set meetings with elected officials now; 
  • Begin plans to stage meetings, town halls, rallies and flashmobs that will register with locally elected officials and the media;  
  • Begin to talk to stakeholders in the community that will carry OUR message forward - the PTA, Chambers of Commerce, Teacher groups, Restaurant Associations and Tourism groups. Ask them to help and figure out a way to follow up with them, because if you don’t follow up - they likely will not act as you want them to; and finally,
  • Raise money to fund some kind of lobbying effort in D.C.   Work with your local, state, regional, national and AFTA advocacy organizations.  
Alas we don’t have an iconic Big Bird or adorable Tickle Me Elmo to rally around. All we have in the final analysis is ourselves.  But do not underestimate how powerful we can be.  IF, and it’s a BIG IF, we act soon and massively.  Perhaps on a grander scale than we have ever had to mount before.  Think of it as the biggest collective performance of our lifetimes.  The audience awaits.

Please pass this on so that more people will at least think of the issues.  Thank you.

Have a good week.

Don’t Quit

Sunday, October 21, 2012

Interview with Scott Provancher

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

Reminder:  If you haven't yet sent in your list of possible invitees to the Dinner-vention Dinner Party, please take some time to do that this week.  Thank you.  

Scott Provancher is the President of the Arts and Science Council of Charlotte, North Carolina - one of the nation's oldest and foremost arts councils.


Barry:   While many, if not most, of the nation’s LAAs and arts organizations are struggling in the current economic environment to raise funds and maintain financial stability, you seem to have bucked the trend and had enormous success having raised $20 million to complete an $83 million endowment campaign for the Levine Center for the Arts and more than $14 million in annual support for Charlotte’s cultural community.  To what do you attribute that success, and what advice can you give to others?

Scott:  Despite challenging economic times and a diminished pool of resources, the Arts & Science Council has continued to articulate a bold vision for the important role arts and culture plays in Charlotte’s future success.  Focusing on the inspirational big picture was the key to successfully completing the Levine Center for Arts.  We put all of our might into convincing the right people that completing a $300 Million cultural facility post 2008 was priority number one for Charlotte.  What effect would a failed project of this magnitude have on the willingness of the city to take on the next big idea?  If we haven’t focused on the value of this project to Charlotte as a whole, we would have never gotten the kind of investment we needed to successfully finish this campaign.

Creativity also plays an important role in our success.  If we hadn’t found a way to rename the Center (it was called the Wells Fargo Cultural Campus until Wells Fargo donated the naming rights so that it could be renamed the Levine Center for the Arts) then I would be writing about how one of the most visionary ideas in Charlotte’s history ended up a bust.  Likewise, innovations like the development of the power2give giving site and the formation of a restricted fund for Arts Education have helped us continue to grow our investment in the cultural community year after year.

Barry:   Under your stewardship, you have developed power2give, a Kickstarter type platform, geared specifically to the arts sector, which appears to have been measurably successful and which, I believe, other agencies have adopted.  Can you give a thumbnail description of how it works, how you license it to others and your assessment of its success and impact since its launch?  You predicted it would “change forever the way you do business”?  In reflection, has it?

Scott:  We developed power2give as a tool to diversify the way we connect donors to cultural projects in the community.  Since its launch in 2011, power2give has had a huge impact on the way we think about the execution of our mission.  Up until recently, as a united arts fund, we fixated on the idea of only raising unrestricted dollars that we could then re-grant in the community.  Instead of saying, what are all the ways we can inspire donors to invest in the things that are core to our mission—like cultural projects in the community.  Power2give has allowed us to put this theory to practice.

Last year ASC gave out $350,000 in project grants.  With the launch of power2give, we have now funded an additional $500,000 worth of cultural projects by showcasing them on power2give and working with the cultural organizations to market them to new donors.  That’s a 143% increase in project support in one year (46% of the donors are new to the organizations and 70% are new to ASC!).  This small success has given us the fortitude to question other “pink elephants” in the room that may be stopping us from delivering more to the cultural community.

Barry:   What is the current political climate for support of the arts in North Carolina in general, and Charlotte in particular?  Is there any remaining legacy of the fights Michael Marsicano  (former head of your agency - now President of the Foundation for the Carolinas) had to lead a decade ago?  What are the principal challenges facing your agency today, and in which areas would you hope to make progress?

Scott:  The climate for public support of the arts in Charlotte is relatively positive, due in part to the important role the arts recently played in the success of the Democratic National Convention.  The community leaders (public and private) also have a long track record of supporting the Arts and Science Council (ASC) as a unique public/private partnership.  In Charlotte, we do not have a city or county department of cultural affairs.  Rather, ASC has serves as an outsourced department to the city and county and receives funds to do so.

ASC is currently focusing on how the cultural sector can partner with the City and the County to help them achieve their community goals. For example, instead of just asking for more unrestricted money for the arts, we are working to develop innovative new programs with different departments of the City and County—asking questions like, could ASC lead a Arts in the Parks program in the same way we run the public art program? Can ASC help to address neighborhood redevelop issues with cultural place-making initiatives?  Stay tuned for more developments on this front.

Barry:   What kinds of new research, and in what areas, do you think would be helpful to the field?

Scott:  I actually wish we would not only fund research, but start funding scalable ideas and programs that are already producing results at the local level that would benefit many communities.  Companies have R&D departments with a clear mandate to develop products that are then scaled and sold.  The cultural sector has lots of research but no R&D department. Therefore, very few great ideas ever get scaled at a national level.  If the arts sector is going to grow its impact and influence in our communities, this is a conversation that must involve both funders and cultural organizations.

Barry:   Do you think your agency’s current efforts at professional development and provision of training to arts administrators is meeting the demand, or is there still work to do in this area?  If you see more work necessary, what do you think needs to be done to make sure all our people have access to the training that will help them do their jobs?

Scott:  There are many examples of great programs at the local level, but we are all working in a vacuum and not replicating our successes across markets.  I would love to see several local arts agencies and a group of funders collaborate on a “Rosetta Stone” like platform for teaching basic skills to the cultural workforce (administrators, educators and artists).  If Rosetta Stone can figure out how to teach a very challenging skill like a foreign language via an online platform, we should be able to develop innovative ways to teach the skills needed in the cultural sector AND make it available and affordable to a broad audience.

Barry:   Do you consider the networking opportunities for you as a local arts agency to interact with other LAAs - locally and across the country - to be adequate?  Are the benefits to be gained by building more intersections (for exchanges of information, best practices, advocacy strategies et. al.,) being fully realized, and how might those be expanded to strengthen the field?

Scott:  I appreciate the work that Americans for the Arts (AFTA) does to gather LAAs together both at the conferences and in smaller groups.  The one downside of this being one of the only formal vehicles for collaboration is that the meetings are often spent on updates and broad topics and only involve the CEOs or senior leaders.  One of the ideas on my hot list is to work with either AFTA and/or a group of LAAs to have a summit once or twice a year that is focused on one topic with each organization bringing 3-4 staff members.  For example, a summit on the use of technology to grow audiences or donors would be excellent.

Barry:   If you could identify one single problem that seems to commonly stymie and frustrate arts organizations (grantees for example) and keep them from making forward progress, what would that be?

Scott:  Time to think strategically.  Running an arts organization is like street fighting.   Our cultural leaders today only have time to decide whether to bring a gun or a knife to the fight.  They don’t have time to step back and ask, why are we fighting in the first place?  I remember that when I was Executive Director of the Louisville Orchestra I became so frustrated that I knew strategically what needed to be done, but only had time to make calls for the next $25,000 to make payroll on Friday.

If we don’t find a way to allow our most brilliant cultural leaders to be problem solvers and innovators, we will be leading our sector right over the cliff.  This is something I have thought a lot about…what about a think-tank that would pay organizations to borrow their leader for a period of time to help develop strategic solutions to their organization’s most pressing issues?  The funding would pay both for the leader’s salary and for an interim leader during the sabbatical.

Barry:   Public art is a huge positive in some areas, and in others it is a minefield of potential problems.  Which is it in Charlotte and why?

Scott:  Both.

Barry:   What do you think is the single most pressing issue in the nonprofit arts that is NOT getting enough attention?

Scott:  Leadership.  I am concerned that the pipeline of leaders in the cultural sector is not equipped for the challenges that face our industry.  There was a period of time in the history of Arts in America where the core missions of the institutions where not in question.  The western European art forms where the desired showcase of a “world-class” city and cities were investing mightily to have the biggest and the best.  When that is the paradigm, the type of leader one needs is a passionate sales person for the existing vision and a maintainer of the business model that supports it.  Today, everything is being questioned, how are these euro-centric organizations meeting the needs of ALL of the diverse population in their communities, how do the arts compete in a digital word, what happens when the sibling of your major patron gives their parent’s fortune to the underdeveloped world vs. naming a new wing at the art museum?  Today we need leaders that have unprecedented adaptability, creatively and perseverance.  We need entrepreneurs with a thick skin, passion for innovation and vision for how the arts will continue to play an important role in America.  Is that what is listed in the job descriptions for the top jobs in our industry?

Barry:  Thanks Scott.

Bonus:  For all those who read the blog to the end, here's some eye candy of spectacular photographs illustrative of just how beautiful and evocative the art form can be.

Have a great week.

Don't Quit.

Sunday, October 14, 2012

Bill Ivey's new book: Handmaking America

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


A while back, Arlene Goldbard noted what we all already know - something is dreadfully wrong in America.  It goes beyond the economic crisis, beyond the gridlock in Congress and the problems of a crumbling infrastructure, deteriorating education system, suspect Supreme Court decisions, and a world constantly at war; beyond even the growing disparity in wealth and the concentration of too much in the hands of too few or the deepening divide over fundamental beliefs and civil rights. Something is wrong with us as a people.  We don’t just disagree, we are at each other’s throats. It isn’t just factions, it is an intractable dividing line between entrenched camps.  And the civil discourse that has disappeared is the result of monumental distrust and even hatred of each other.  We have somehow made each other the enemy.  We are skidding away from being a nation wherein the nation itself is more important than the well being of any one interest.

Only fifty years ago, Americans - and especially young Americans - admired and respected the Kennedys for their intelligence, commitment to education, patriotism and deep abiding passion about public service.  They added to that a sense of style and glamour - but that was a bonus.  The Kennedys have been replaced by the Kardashians.  I am sure these young women are nice people.  Certainly their business acumen is admirable.  And they have style as well.  But they are idolized because they are rich and famous - famous for being celebrities - not for some stellar achievement.  The Beatles noted the trend back in the 60s in the song Come Together -- in describing the forces that drive people to seek identity and self worth in things other than those that nourish the mind and the spirit:  “Got to be good looking cause he’s so hard to see.”   Gone from what we admire is public service, gone too are the needs of the country being more important than the needs of certain segments.  Fame trumps accomplishment; fashion trumps thought; and, of course, wealth trumps the need to give a damn about anyone else.  If John and Paul wondered in Eleanor Rigby:  “All the lonely people, where do they all come from?", the answer lies in part because we no longer have values which unite us.

In a sense we seem adrift.  We don’t know exactly where we are going, where we want to go, or how to get there.

Bill Ivey, in his new book Handmaking America (Counterpoint Press, Berkeley), starts from precisely that point.  He takes on how we have , in so short a time, moved from being a nation that worked together - despite profound differences - to be a nation, to warring factions.  In a cogent, intelligent, extended essay, Bill passionately and convincingly lays out at least some of the reasons we have strayed so far from the track.  And he offers a prescription of what needs to be done to address the challenges.  It isn’t intended to be a step-by-step blueprint for solving the problems.  It IS a vision about how to move forward to re-establish values for America -- values that can bring us a sense of worth and satisfaction, that can unite us, that can help us to repurpose life in the 21st Century to the benefit of all of us.

I admit to sharing most of Bill’s biases and prejudices, and so I find myself in agreement with virtually everything he says.  I can only give you a sense of the panorama Bill surveys in this work;  a work that does not center on the value of the arts to our future per se, though he makes a strong “stealth” kind of underlying argument for that very value.  The themes of this work are bigger.  I had a good conversation with him this morning and he expanded on some of his thoughts in this book.

Bill carefully outlines the forces that have led us to define American exceptionalism as not much more than wealth and power; how teamwork has been trumped by assembly line work and individualist thinking; how we progressives (liberals) have allowed the opposition to convince the American people that government is “bad” and business and corporations are our savior; how money and lobbying has allowed corporate America to redefine government as in its service and not the other way around.

He laments the success of the conservatives in driving home their simple message that:  “We will keep you safe, we will keep government off your back; we will keep Washington out of your wallet - with the implied commitments to defense, deregulation and low takes,” and the failure of the left to counter that vision with its own.

He breaks down his analysis into three basic parts:

I.  Work
Bill explores the causes and effects of assembly line work having replaced the job satisfaction of workers who once felt a sense of pride in their crafts and how that has led to a 24/7 work ethic that is profoundly unsatisfying. He decries the lack of personal time in our lives and the role of too much technology imprisoning us rather than freeing us. His prescription is that we “recover the satisfaction of artisanship by stepping to the side, building the kind of meaning found in craftwork outside the office, classroom or factory,” while arguing for the benefits of a four day work week to give us back some of the time we have lost.

He posits that education has become too much the handmaiden of business and that its purpose shouldn’t focus exclusively on preparing students for jobs (at least not all office jobs), but that “we must achieve a subtle, realistic balance between education for craftwork and education for citizenship.”  Sure to be attacked, if not vilified, as a heretic, he  has the courage to discuss how education has been for some time ‘wrong footed‘ in its dedication to math and science to the exclusion of other pursuits, and to question whether or not technology is all that big a boon to the quality of our lives.  (He correctly  notes that none of us are the clients of the major online social networking or search sites - rather we are the product itself.  Data on us is what they are after - to sell to companies and others who want that information - making even the semblance of privacy something that is now long gone).   If nothing else he is willing to take on the sacred cows where others fear to tread.

II.  Government
Here he observes the impact of the wholesale movement of the media away from the old understanding of the term "responsible journalism", replaced with "Hooray for Our Side" pundits.   Amplified by the drone of television and advertisting, and the negative influence of relying on decision making by “polls” and the niche opining by bloggers and spin doctors, the net result is to simply solidify already entrenched positions.  He quite deftly identifies the impact of the initiative movement in sabotaging the very foundation of representative government - arguing that we simply no longer trust those we elect to act in our stead.  But the biggest failure of the political "left" has been not to effectively counter the assertion that there is too much government, and that government itself is a bad thing - extraordinary evidence to the contrary.

III.  Consumption
Bill shows how business and advertising have accelerated the commoditization of everything - not the least of which are our very values.  He discusses the toxic effect of “envy” as the driving force behind our race for things as a means to define our worth - as individuals and as a nation.  In many respects, the heart of the matter lies in our addiction to endless spending and consuming, exacerbated by the financial system’s extolling of relentless debt assumption.  As Bill explains:   “Consumerism honors spending and buying as the surest indicators of achievement and happiness.  Comoditization and advertising encourage this comingling of spending and quality of life.”  In the age of the Kardashians, we have become obsessed with acquiring things - an obsession in part created, and continuously facilitated and nurtured by, corporate America and especially the finance industry.

He concludes with thoughts on responsibility and happiness: Responsibility of the education system to nurture our children to be informed citizens; the responsibility of parents to teach them that happiness does not lie exclusively in consumption; the responsibility of government to prevent the excesses of business; the responsibility of citizenship to understand that in the end we are all in this together.

I like this book very much.  I think everyone should read it.  For a serious work of analysis, it is written in a very easy style.  Though of an extended essay length, it is a slow read because there are so many ideas within that you want to frequently stop and savor the thinking.

Of course, the devil is always in the details, and with neither politicians nor the media even remotely interested in drilling down this far into examining what is going on, one wonders how we will ever get our citizens to slow down, to re-examine those things that are pulling us apart and weakening the fabric of our society - let alone give up addictions long in the making.  This book is really about vision - or rather a response to our lack of having any sense of where we are going and how we might get there.   One hopes it will be a springboard for a wider, serious national discussion; but it will be enough if it is read and discussed.  This is the kind of thinking I would personally like to see come from our candidates or at least the independent thinkers.   Alas, it is very likely too risky for any of them to adopt.  The media?  Not the so-called “mainstream media” - their mantra is as Don Henley of the Eagles noted twenty-five years ago:  “Get the widow on the set.”

At the end the challenge is clear, and Bill says it more eloquently than could I:
“Two obstacles stand between America today and the promise of a revitalized democracy.  First, can we envision the constellation of values that will define a high quality of life in a post consumerist society?  Second, absent out and out financial collapse, can Americans recover the resolve and commitment to self-sacrifice necessary to define and animate a progressive democracy that serves all?”  
I don’t know if we can do that, nor how we go about it. I do know that if we do not do that, if we continue down this road, we will arrive at a place not to our liking, one from which escape will be very difficult indeed.  What is worse is that our children will be right there with us - brought along, if not against their will, certainly without their consent.

I think in the final analysis we need probably to start at the beginning.  As Leo Tolstoy observed a long time ago:     “Everyone thinks of changing the world, but no one thinks of changing himself.”  

Congratulations to Bill.  I think this is a very worthy effort.

 I urge you all to read it.  There is much here to think about.

Have a great week.

Don’t Quit