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.