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