Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Interview with NEA Chief of Staff Jamie Bennett

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

Jamie Bennett is chief of staff and director of public affairs at the National Endowment for the Arts. Previously, he was chief of staff at the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs, at the Agnes Gund Foundation, and to the president of Columbia University. He worked in fund raising at The Museum of Modern Art, the New York Philharmonic, and Columbia College. Before entering the public sector, Jamie served on the boards of the HERE Arts Center, Art 21and No-Pants Theatre Company, and was a founding cochair of Studio in a School's Associates Committee and Merce Cunningham Dance Company's Foot-in-the-Door Committee.

My respect and admiration for Jamie has only grown during his tenure at the Endowment under Rocco Landesman.  I think he is one of our better thinkers, and I think this is one of my better interviews.

Barry:  With Rocco’s announcement to step down from the Chairmanship of the Endowment, can you reflect on the major accomplishments of his (and 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?  What do you see as unfinished business at the agency?

Jamie:  I think that, perhaps, the biggest surprise of Rocco’s tenure was that he didn’t choose to make his major mark at the NEA in the area of theater.  The last NEA chairman was a poet, and he made big programmatic changes for poetry, literature, and Shakespeare (among other things, of course).  When I first heard the news of Rocco’s appointment, I thought – like many of my colleagues – that it was now theater’s turn, that The Big Read would be followed up with The Big Play, or something similar.

Instead, Rocco chose to focus his efforts on things that could lead to systemic changes for the entire arts ecosystem: he began a national conversation around creative placemaking; he worked to make every single federal agency take some responsibility for the arts; and he seriously expanded the NEA’s research efforts.

The fundamental shift with creative placemaking – if I can borrow a metaphor from David Dower’s Center for the Theater Commons – has been a move from scarcity to abundance.  The traditional stance of the not-for-profit arts has been to assume a position of scarcity: we don’t have enough to do what we would like to do, so would you please give us some more.

In creative placemaking, an entirely different trope is substituted: you begin with a shared interest – often a problem formulation – and you talk about what the arts can do to help achieve it.  A common example is a community that begins with a vacant downtown or an abandoned warehouse district along its waterfront.  The arts talk about the foot traffic that they can bring to an area, especially if you cluster arts organizations, since each has a different pattern of foot traffic.  A theater has 1,000 people show up at eight o’clock and leave at eleven o’clock.  A museum might have 1,000 people spread out over the course of an eight-hour day.  A rehearsal studio might have 30 people coming and going every hour over twelve hours.  You put the three different organizations in proximity to one another, and all of a sudden, you have a full day of positive foot traffic on a street – feet that belong to people who need to eat meals, buy newspapers, go shopping, and take public transportation.  You have every mayor’s dream.

And when you talk about the arts in those terms, resources start being invested in the arts.  Not one of those organizations is being taken off mission, but they are highlighting their benefits to the collective good.  People invest in them because they are part of a winning team (the abundance), rather than because they are needy (the scarcity).

This is the framing that Rocco used as he went around to the other federal agencies.  He didn’t go to Housing and Urban Development Secretary Shaun Donovan and say, “give me some of your budget for the arts.”  Rocco, instead, talked with Secretary Donovan about their shared vision of helping to build complete, vibrant, sustainable communities that were welcoming and inclusive to Americans of all backgrounds and income levels.

When Secretary Donovan was working in New York City government, he was a part of projects that would put art spaces as integral parts of affordable housing developments.  People could no longer assume that everyone who was walking into one of these was poor, because some people were going there to see a show in the theater.  He used the arts as part of creating more integrated communities.

At Health and Human Services, Rocco talked about the importance of the arts, especially with early childhood and geriatric populations.  At the Department of Defense, it was the role of the healing arts in helping deal with traumatic brain injuries and post-traumatic stress.  For the Department of Agriculture, it was the work that the arts could do in bringing together who lived in physically disparate places: art as congregation.  It was never a question of knocking on one of these doors to ask for additional resources.  Instead, it was always to ask what we could do together.  And, inevitably, additional resources eventually came into the picture.

Research is, perhaps, the area where there is the most unfinished business.  One of the last projects we unveiled before Rocco left was a publication called “How Art Works.”  This was a map that laid out the path from an act of art creation, to the experience of it, to the impact on individuals and community, and the way that those impacts fed back into the creation of more art.  As the authors of the report were fond of saying, the map was simultaneously too simple and too complex.  But it is, I think, ultimately useful –particularly in organizing the arts research that has been done to date.  Research projects can be hung off each node on the map.  Some nodes will see an embarrassment of riches.  Others will have nary a research report on them.  Fundamentally, this map shows us where the next research investments should take place.  It may well be the wonkiest project we have undertaken, but it may yet prove to be the most useful in terms of advancing the entire field.

One of the most important lessons I learned from Rocco was his focus.  Whenever someone takes up a national perch for the first time, there is the temptation to try to do everything.  Rocco really laid out his vision for a three-legged stool – creative placemaking, federal partnerships, and research – and stayed focused on those.  Sure, other projects happened – our partnership with the Knight Foundation around arts journalism is a great example – but Rocco showed tremendous discipline in maintaining focus.

Barry:  In terms of President Obama identifying Rocco’s replacement, which qualities would you advise the President to bear in mind in making his selection?  Are you planning on staying at the agency for Obama’s second term?  If not, where would you like to land next?

Jamie:  I would be honored to stay for another term, and I am totally open to that opportunity.  But I also leave room for the possibility that the next NEA chairman might not need my particular skill set or might have his or her own team to bring to Washington.

Honestly, I do not have a clue what would be next for me. I have become really interested in work that affects systemic change, and I hope that I can eventually find something that allows me to look at an ecosystem, not just work project-by-project.  David Dower is doing that with his Theater Commons work.  Diane Ragsdale is doing that with her Jumper blog.  I think the Nuyorican Poets CafĂ© is doing that with their social media thinking and teaching.  I am wildly excited to see what comes out of Anita Contini’s work at Bloomberg Philanthropies or Josephine Ramirez’s new arts strategy at the Irvine foundation. I could keep going on, but I think you get the general direction.

Back to the NEA, I hope the new chairman has – to quote Eric Bentley somewhat out of context – both a personality and an ax to grind.  I hope s/he will be a leader who comes to Washington with a goal to achieve and enough zip to get it done.

Barry:  What is your take on the current debate on how Creative Placemaking is evaluated, measured and whether or not the vibrancy indicators are flawed - both as a process and as a model?

Jamie:  I have a lonely, little liberal arts BA and absolutely no training in measurement, statistics, or research methods, so any opinion I offer may be the result of too little formal education.  But that said, I feel that all too often people can get bollixed up in a lot of jargon and fancy flow charts.  For most of us who venture into creative placemaking, we are looking to do something very specific, and it is useful for us to know whether we have succeeded.

Let’s take Shreveport, Louisiana for our example.  The offices of their local arts council burned down, and in a twist worthy of O. Henry, the mayor offered them a former firehouse as their new home.  This firehouse is located in a town square that has the potential to become a vibrant arts district that serves as the gateway that to welcome people into town, as well as a literal and metaphoric town square.

I think a good measurement framework for that project is one that helps them know whether the project has produced an effective home for local arts council, whether people who come to Shreveport think of it as an arts destination, and whether people who wouldn’t otherwise have started congregating in the arts district.  It strikes me that there are lots of ways to begin getting at that.

At the NEA, we think a good first cut would be to look at existing data that can shine some light on changes in quality of life, the strength of the arts ecosystem, community attachment, and the local economy.

Our colleagues over at ArtPlace, would begin by taking a look at “vibrancy,” as defined by positive changes in people, activity, and property value.

Call it vibrancy; call it quality of life (perhaps quality of place might even work better); or simply call it outcomes.  What we really want to know is whether what we hoped would happen has in fact happened.  If existing data sets or out-of-the-box measurement models are useful – even as a shorthand or a first step – why not use them?

The danger only comes from misusing the information or in overreaching in claiming definitive conclusions.  I have not seen any of that.  What I have seen is people who care about this work wanting to know and learn more.  I think it is a really exciting time, and I think that while we are all sorting it out, more is more.

Barry:  Your job has included both the position of Chief of Staff and Director of Communications.  Usually, the COS is a behind the scenes player, while a Communications Officer is out front as the public spokesperson.  How have you reconciled the two?  Often times both positions have as one of their duties, acting as the gatekeeper for the man in charge.  Yet both you and Rocco have been relatively more open than my experience with previous leaders of the agency.  Was that by design and to what extent do you see your job as having been the gatekeeper?

Jamie:  Rocco is fundamentally Midwestern, which means he is open and forthright – some might say to a fault...  He didn’t bring me to Washington because he was looking for a gatekeeper.  He wanted someone who could work with him in building a national movement around creative placemaking.

There is an amazing public affairs team at the NEA who use press releases, agency publications, blogs, social media, audio, and video to tell stories.  My job has been to make sure that the team has all of the information they need to tell our story completely and compellingly, as well as the resources and support they need to succeed.

What has made this such an exciting time to be doing this work is that Rocco never ran away from an interesting conversation.  When he raised the now infamous “#supplydemand” question at Arena Stage, his instruction to me wasn’t to go into gatekeeper mode.  Instead, I was asked to do everything I could to invite as many points of view as possible onto the NEA’s Art Works blog.

In terms of reconciling behind-the-scenes vs. public spokesperson, the one time I did try to step out into the public role (blogging from the World Summit on Arts and Culture in Melbourne, Australia), Ian David Moss gave a nice shout out to the series of posts but introduced it by saying it was written by someone “you’ve (probably) never heard of.”  I loved that – and my mother has never let me forget it.  I think it is safe to say that I have mostly settled on behind-the-scenes.  In fact, Barry, this interview is one of the few other examples I can point to of putting myself out front.

Barry:  You have extraordinary background experience in the Chief of Staff position, and at least from my vantage point you have been more active and involved, both in the decision making process, and in the public face of the agency, than anyone in recent memory at the Endowment.  How would you define the Chief of Staff role?

Jamie:  During my time at the NEA, we have had three chiefs of staff: Katie Marie Zouhary, who returned to law school and was recently featured on 60 Minutes for her work in getting a wrongful conviction overturned; Anita Decker, who now sits in the desk next to the President and serves as his chief aide; and me.  It is fair to say that no two of us defined our role in the same way.  “Chief of staff” isn’t so much a job description, as it is a calling card to say that in certain circumstances we can speak and act on behalf of our agency head.

In my particular case, I have a portfolio that includes all of the agency’s external affairs: public affairs, the office of the National Council on the Arts, White House and Congressional relations, international programs, and strategic partnerships.  My predecessors’ portfolios were different, but each of us served as a member of the senior leadership team and operated as Rocco emissary.

Barry:  What is your judgment as to how we might best deal with the criticism that the arts too often try to equate correlation of data with causation conclusions?

Jamie:  I think we generally have a research and data problem in the arts.  Our data sets are often not as robust, and our research is not always seen as being as rigorous as other sectors.

The NEA’s office of research and analysis is working on both of the areas: they have established research grants to try to build and strengthen the field of arts researchers; they are collecting and publishing data sets to be reexamined (one of the most exciting examples of this is the combined data file for the NEA’s five Surveys of Public Participation in the Arts); and they are aligning with researchers from other sectors (they convened a day-long session at Brookings that looked at the arts, new growth theory, and economic development and have an amazing partnership with a number of Health and Human Services agencies).

Both correlative and causal studies have their place – after all, where there's smoke, there most often is fire – and if we are able to maintain the momentum in our research office, we will have more of both in the world.

Barry:  Your office seems to also be charged with acting as the liaison to both Congress and the White House.  How do you organize that effort?  What, in your opinion, is going right and what areas need work?  What is your judgment of the state of advocacy and lobbying by the arts sector on its own behalf and what needs to be done for the future to make those efforts more effective?

Jamie:  We have an amazing office of White House and Congressional relations, headed up by Mike Griffin, and I believe that we have continued to make extraordinary progress over the past three years in reaching out to members of Congress.

One of the primary means of outreach has been around letting Members of Congress know about NEA grant opportunities and asking them to share that information with their constituents.  Many Members of Congress even invite NEA staff to give grant workshops in their home districts.

We also work to make sure that Members of Congress are all aware of the successful NEA applicants in their districts.  The managing director of a northern Virginia theatre told me of the call she got from Representative Jim Moran congratulating her on their most recent NEA grant.  Members of Congress love being able to connect with their constituents, so we try to give them as many opportunities as possible to do that.

The federal partnerships have also been key: the partnerships with Walter Reed around the healing arts and with the Department of Defense for Blue Star Museums, for instance, mean we have reasons to talk with Members of Congress who serve on the Armed Services committees.

In terms of advocacy, I will go back to your first question.  I think the “abundance” frame is the most useful.  Americans for the Arts figured this out long ago.  They don’t approach elected officials to simply ask for more money for the arts, they talk about the contributions of the arts to local economies.  I have huge respect for Bob Lynch and all of his colleagues.

Barry:  While you are no stranger to government work, what has surprised you about working at the Endowment?

Jamie:  I am constantly surprised by the artistic talent that exists in every office at the NEA.  It is not such a surprise in the discipline offices, but even on the administrative side: the head of our grants and contracts office is an accomplished potter.  A colleague in IT has an amazing background as a jazz musician.  The deputy to our deputy chairman for management and budget is an actor.  I would love to find some ways to showcase and spotlight all of that talent – art works at the NEA, if you will.

Barry:  What are the two or three major issues you see facing the sector over the next five years, and how might we best address those challenges?

Jamie:  I think we have to take a hard look at the investments being made to build audiences.  In my previous job, I spent a good portion of my days working on citywide cultural events calendars.  Never once did I ever use one of those calendars to plan something to do in my personal life.  If someone lives in New York City and hasn’t figured out how to get to the theater, I am not sure that an alphabetized list of a thousand events is going to be the silver bullet to get them to attend a first performance.

Instead, I think we have to look at preference discovery engines.  There are three basic kinds: Amazon’s, based on patterns of behavior (people who bought X also bought Z); Facebook’s, based on personal relationships (I am friends with X; X likes Y; I might like Y); and Pandora’s, based on inherent qualities (song A has X, Y, and Z characteristics, and so does song B).  I think if we could create a cross-disciplinary Pandora, it would revolutionize audience development.  Can you imagine an algorithm that takes a person who listens to jazz music and enjoyed reading The Color Purple and suggests that that person might also enjoy seeing Bill T. Jones’s company dance?  It would be revolutionary.

The other issue I think about a lot is arts education.  My biggest worry is that we don’t know in a systemic way where we need to focus our energies.  If Oprah were to wake up tomorrow and decide she wanted to dedicate her fortune to fixing arts ed in this country, we would not be able to hand her the list of schools that have the least.

We need to know whether every student in this country is receiving the minimum arts education promised by that student’s state education requirements.  The federal Department of Education is investing in statewide data systems, which will be able to eventually answer that question, provided someone is asking it.

Barry:  I really enjoyed your Postcards from your trip with Rocco to Australia.  I found them well written, informative, and highly entertaining.  While your schedule doubtless leaves you precious little time to share your insights on a regular basis, have you ever considered doing a regularly scheduled blog?

Jamie:  I would love to have time to write more, as often writing is my way of working things out and making sense of them.  However, I am not at all convinced that much of it would be of interest for public consumption.  The Australia blogs were wonderful to do because there was such richness happening all around me – to be honest, I felt more like Forest Gump than a blogger.

Barry:  Speaking about your schedule, where do you spend most of your time, and which areas do you wish you had more time for?

Jamie:  I spend the vast majority of my days meeting with NEA colleagues.  Partially as the result of being in so many meetings, I am often the lowest common denominator at the agency and see my charge as making sure my colleagues all know what else is happening.  I love it because it means I am lucky enough to know a little bit about almost everything going on.

I would love some time and space to be able to dive deeply into a single issue, but that is just not part of this job description.

Barry:  What do you think the NEA’s role ought to be in making sure the next generation of leaders have adequate professional development opportunities and training?

Jamie:  The NEA is a funder, not an operator of programs.  So the short answer is that we need to invest in programs that prepare the next generation of leaders.  Every single discipline at the NEA welcomes applications for professional development opportunities under the rubric “services to the field.”

Looking around the country more widely, I am a huge fan of the Taylors (as I have come to think of them): Russell Willis and Andrew.  Russell runs National Arts Strategies, which has a Chief Executive Program, and she also recently co-chaired a program with the Salzburg Global Seminar. Andrew did amazing work in the arts administration program at Madison, and we are now lucky to have him in Washington at American University.

Actually, going back to revisit your previous question, I would love to have the time to work with Russell and Andrew and think about what is missing in the training and professional development arena in this country.

Barry:  In a conversation with Culture Craver’s Julia Levy you talked about what the nonprofit arts might learn from the private sector - particularly the failure of the arts to adapt its models to changing circumstances and to be more accessible to its audience by recognizing that a myopic focusing on an attitude that the arts have to “be good for you” ill serves us, and that continuing to cling to antiquated subscription models, rigid scheduling and fixed locations works against us.  Can you elaborate on your thinking?

Jamie:  That was a neat interview to do because I first met Julia when she was working for the New York City Department of Education.  It was wonderful to re-meet her, reborn as an arts entrepreneur.

I was speaking with some students at Brown University last year, and one of them had read that interview and proceeded to quote me in front of me to the class.  It was the first time I had ever been referred to as “Bennett,” as in “Bennett claims…”

It was surreal, but it did get me to go back and re-read that interview, which I think does a really good job laying out the issues as I see them.

The new insight that came to me from the Brown conversation, however, had to do with arts workers who inhabit multiple subject positions.

I was lucky enough to have been trained at The Museum of Modern Art, which had a total separation of church and state between the curators and the development, marketing, and visitors services staff: the curators decided what went on the walls and in what order, and then everyone else was free to do what they needed to do to get the money necessary to mount the exhibition and get the public in to see it.

To stick with the religious metaphor, what was sacred (the presentation of the art objects) was inviolate.  But everything else was on the table.  People experimented with marketing techniques, social media outreach, hours of operation, etc.

I think this is an ideal situation.  The ballet and the theater should not necessarily change their repertory (assuming they have strong artistic leaders), but everything else should be questioned.

Another real world example is from the Cleveland Symphony, which has begun performing concerts in local bars – they haven’t changed the pieces they perform, just the setting.  And they successfully mounted a Kickstarter campaign to put out a new classical record on vinyl.  I love it.

All of this gets complicated, however, in smaller organization where you have one person making both the artistic and the external affairs decisions.  Then the lines begin to bleed, and you can end up with muddling the sacred.  I don’t know any easy way around this trap, except extreme vigilance and total self-awareness of when one is working in an artistic capacity and when one is working on the administrative side.

Barry:  In that same interview, in discussing the need for the arts to think more in terms of being a single community / sector, you opine that the arts need to more fully explore (and embrace?) affinity algorithms in identifying potential audiences and supporters as a way to actualize cross genre approaches to gaining audiences.   I have long thought that in terms of advocacy we are like children in the sandbox compared to those players who succeed in the political arena, in part because we do not avail ourselves of the state of the art algorithms that allow candidates like President Obama to similarly correctly identify potential supporters, AND how to best approach them.  There are companies out there who would be only too happy to work with us to employ sophisticated tools to identify who might support us on a myriad of levels.  What is your current thinking on this topic and on the wider topic of how the arts might better tear down some of the artificial silos they have created for themselves, and move towards being more of a “community”?

Jamie:  As you can tell from my earlier answer about issues I see in the field, I am still thinking a lot about those affinity algorithms!

But your larger point of our need to pitch a big, inclusive tent is spot on.  In the arts, we often seem deeply invested in defining ourselves by what we are not and in making sure a hierarchy is established.

We had some of this unintentional bias built into the NEA’s Survey of Public Participation in the Arts, and not even in a uniform way.  For instance, we asked individuals if they had read any book in the previous twelve months outside of school or work.  But then we asked those same individuals whether they had seen any movies at an art house or independent film festival.  In other words, Stephen King was in, but Francis Ford Coppola was out.

In another instance, we only surveyed about certain kinds of music: jazz, classical music, opera, and Latin music, I believe.  The Survey showed a decline in people listening to music due, in large part I believe, to the fact that we were only measuring certain ways of listening to certain kinds of music.  On a certain level, music is music is music.  And Thelonious Monk and Carly Rae Jepsen exist as two points on a continuum.

The next iteration of the Survey will come out this year, and I believe you will see real progress toward our being more inclusive.

On another front, one of the last press releases before Rocco’s retirement was about our partnership with the Bureau of Economic Analysis.  This will also be an inclusive project to define and measure – on a macroeconomic level – the arts sector in this country, both commercial and not-for-profit.

I think this will also be a step forward in helping to make that bigger tent.

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?

Jamie:  This was a question that Rocco and I talked about a lot over the past three years.  Not surprisingly, my answer sounds a lot like the one he gave in your interview: the NEA is in the unique position of being able to convene a national conversation across all disciplines and geographies.  There is nothing else we have that is as powerful.

I was trained as a fundraisier, so I would never play down the importance of investment, but having been lucky enough to have been around for some of the national conversations that took place over the past three years, I will always go with the power of ideas over the power of the purse.

Thank you very much Jamie, and I personally hope you stay at the Endowment for a long time - though as long as you remain in the field we can all reap the rewards of your intelligence, passion and dedication.

Have a great week.

Don't Quit