Sunday, March 31, 2013

We Are Our Own Gatekeepers - perhaps to our peril.

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

Gatekeepers:  Those whose job it is to keep you and virtually everyone away from any access to their bosses.  They are the people who jealously and tenaciously protect the privacy and guard against intrusions on the time of the titans of industry, the politically powerful, the rich and famous, celebrities and the like. Chiefs of Staff, Executive Assistants, P.R. and Communications specialists, Schedulers - even secretaries.  You want to see the “man” (or “woman”) - you have to go through them, and pretty much their expectation is not to let you anywhere near the corner office.

Corporations have themselves taken the gatekeeper concept to the extreme.  We all have experienced the frustrating attempt to talk to someone on the telephone, only to hear this:  "Your call is important to us.  We are currently experiencing heavier than normal call volumes.  Please stay on the line."  And when, and if, you are finally connected you then hear this:  "We have recently changed our menu of options.  Please listen carefully."  If they were even remotely honest they would tell you this:  "No matter what prompt you select, you have no chance in hell of being connected with a living, breathing human being that can actually help you.  Just hang up now."

Now in our little world, there are very few people in positions that employ human gatekeepers  - if for no other reason than it costs too much.  There are a few in our midst who have gatekeepers - the NEA Chair, perhaps the Executive or Artistic Directors of the very biggest cultural institutions - but even in most of those cases we are talking about a secretary or assistant.   There are always ways to skirt the most tenacious gatekeepers - being of equal status, wealth, power, celebrity or fame may get you access, but the common folk remain outside the gates.  The easiest way past a locked gate is to have a personal relationship with the person behind the gate - that relationship almost always trumps the gatekeeper’s best efforts to keep you at bay - often times much to their chagrin.   In our world, getting past the gatekeepers is far less difficult than in other spheres.

In the arts, of necessity, for the most part we are all of our own gatekeepers, and we invariably figure out ways to guard against unwanted intrusions into our time and space because that time and that space is equally important to us as it is to the big shots.  The longer one is working, the more one figures out how to protect that time and space and guard our gates.  I use to have what I have previously mentioned in this blog - my “Three Fools Rule” - which, simply stated, was that I came to the conclusion that I really didn’t have to talk to more than three “fools” on any given day (defining fools primarily as those who were likely to blatantly waste my time).  I found that I could often get the third fool intrusion out of the way early in the morning.

But whatever the mechanism, we all employ some kinds of ways to guard our own gates.  Productivity and deadlines would suffer immeasurably if we didn’t have ways to manage our time thusly.  So whether you are aware of it or not, as your own gatekeeper you have set up barriers and walls for those who might want to access to you (especially for people with whom you are unfamiliar), to work with you, to pitch you new ideas, to share knowledge, to collaborate and cooperate.  You have figured out how to keep people outside.  And I think in many ways we become as rigid as professional gatekeepers in keeping our gates tightly controlled.

I wonder though if in being too rigid as our own gatekeepers we are not missing out on good ideas, new thinking and ways to actually be better managers, administrators and leaders; opportunities for new projects, collaborations and ways of seeing our world.  I wonder if sometimes opening up the gates rather than keeping them locked down tightly might be the better approach.  I wonder if we might spend a little time thinking about how we close the gates and if, and how, it might be to our advantage to open them up some; to be just a little less zealous in guarding access to ourselves.

When I was in the Music Industry, if you were a player - defined as having current or past success at some level - the gates were pretty much open - though the running joke was that you were only as welcome as your last big hit record (not necessarily yours, but someone you represented in some way).  Still I remember Clive Davis, then head of CBS Records and now legendary figure in the history of the Music Business, pretty much being accessible to anyone of the past or present (or even future) players - his philosophy being that one never knew where the next hit record, talented artist or ‘big trend’ might come from, and so he could ill-afford to keep the gates too tightly shut.  Of course, Clive would invariably be looking over your shoulder at any social gathering at which you might encounter him - looking for someone more important than you to talk to.  Still, he was accessible and his gatekeepers put on notice not to be too vigilant in protecting him.  And that approach was part of the reason he was so successful  His availability insured he was almost always in the bidding for new talent, almost always aware of rising stars and where the business was headed.

Mo Ostin - then Clive’s counterpart at Warner Bros. Records was similarly open and accessible.  He might not return your phone call for a week if he was swamped, but he always returned the call - even if you were not, as in my case, always on the “A” list of players.  My experience with Clive and Mo and many others was that the higher up the person in the industry, the more accessible (at least to take a call) they were.  I have found the same to be true in our business.  Still, I think we are all a little guilty of minding the gates too much sometimes.

Ideas - new ideas and good ideas - come from all kinds of places - not all of which are the most logical or familiar.  If you keep your own gates impenetrable, you very well may miss out on some of the new and good ideas - and it is that flow of ideas that is the lifeblood of everything we do.  The problem in acting as our own gatekeeper is that we develop protective mechanisms and once in place they tend to stay in place for a long, long time with no periodic review by us.  Moreover, many of the mechanisms we use may be so subtle as to even escape notice by ourselves.  Once in place we forget them and become unaware of their very existence.  And the reputation of one whose gates are always locked spreads far and wide and quickly.  That is, I think, a very serious mistake.

In Hollywood, in the movie industry, they came up with the “pitch” meeting as a way to let people through the gates, but still protect their time.  The “pitch” meeting (still not taken with every Tom, Dick and Harry) gave someone (ostensibly in the industry) with an idea for a new movie three or four minutes to make their “pitch”.  If they couldn’t succinctly convince someone who might “green light” their project of its’ worth within four minutes, they failed.  This, of course, led to some comical situations as those making the “pitch” looked for shortcuts to describe their newest idea:  “Imagine Hunger Games set to music with rap artists in an urban setting.”  "Ok, thanks.  Next."

Venture capitalists have taken a page from the movie industry and now regularly hold start up entrepreneur open ‘pitch’ meetings where a range of serious contenders are grilled on all aspects of their  ideas.  I wonder what would happen if a foundation were to do the same thing.  Once or twice a year, hold an open pitch meeting - if not in lieu of, than as an adjunct to, letters of inquiry.  I bet you would get some very good ideas.  Actually, I think Dennis Scholl at the Knight Foundation does that very thing - though through applications rather than in-person pitches.

But however you open the gates, at least wide enough so that the flow of new ideas and thinking isn’t shut out, the one that stands to benefit the most is YOU.

So gatekeepers - take a long look at how your gates are closed, then maybe open up a little and let em in.

Have a great week.

Don’t Quit

Sunday, March 24, 2013

Guest Blogger Steven Tepper on the 3 Million Stories Conference

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

Note:  Steven Tepper invited me to blog on the 3 Million Stories Conference - (click here for a short video of the conference)  I love to blog from arts conferences and would have eagerly accepted his invitation.  Alas I was traveling in Asia at the time.  I invited Steven to share the outcomes of the conference as a guest blogger and here is his report:

On March 7th to 9th, Vanderbilt’s Curb Center for Art, Enterprise and Public Policy in cooperation with SNAAP (the Strategic National Arts Alumni Project) at Indiana University hosted a national conference on the training and careers of America’s arts graduates.   The conference – 3 Million Stories -- was the first of its kind to bring together arts school presidents, deans, faculty and administrators with working artists, academic scholars, and arts leaders from across the disciplines to discuss how we prepare and support artists in a rapidly changing economy.   Details about the conference, including conference presentations and background reports, can be found under the resources tab at:

Perhaps what was most thrilling and unexpected about the meeting of 250 arts leaders was the emergence of a sense of urgency and excitement about the need to think seriously about how arts schools and training institutions (especially at the collegiate level) need to reimagine themselves and respond to changes in how creative work is done and the nature of creative careers.   In short, who will invent the 21st century arts school? What will it look like?   How will it be different?  Answers to these questions depend on solid information and data about how arts school graduates build careers and the role and relevance of their education and training. Fortunately, SNAAP( has collected detailed information from more than 70,000 arts graduates across more than 200 institutions.  We will continue to work with schools to survey alumni and compile information that will inform discussions and decisions about education reform and the future of arts training.

Here are a few key themes and quotes that emerged from the conference.

First, as schools consider their future, they must keep in mind that a critical part of an arts education is providing students with the space for them to develop a strong, “thick,” and confident artistic identity.   This requires schools to provide the space, encouragement, trust, openness and critical feedback to help students forge a strong sense of who they are as a creative individual and citizen. Dean Mary Schmidt Campbell from NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts remarked, “Arts schools must give students the opportunity to have an unmediated relationship with their work –unfettered by the commercial landscape, allowing a connection with their work and their deepest individual self.”

Second, we must recognize the “social life” of the artist. Artists must generate social capital and strong networks.  They must be “in the scene” to facilitate serendipitous encounters that can lead to collaboration, work and project-based employment.   And artists need to be part of supportive communities to flourish.

Third, arts graduates are increasingly facing a contingent, project-based economy.  Many are self-employed and/or start businesses.    Most arts graduates will work in areas – both within the arts and outside of the arts – that are either somewhat or fully unrelated to their specific training.   The top 6 jobs today didn’t exist 10 years ago.  How can we train students for jobs that don’t yet exist?   One speaker noted that we have moved from an “Elf” to a “Fairy” economy – from predictable, organizationally-based, well-defined division of labor to an economy where people are highly mobile, working for whomever needs them, doing whatever job is necessary, and bringing to the table broad and diverse skills.  In such an economy, one speaker noted, “We need to help students cultivate creative resilience and an appetite for ‘delicious ambiguity’.”

A fourth theme has to do with the tensions facing arts schools as they balance  broadening the skill set that graduates need as they enter the workforce while still giving them important structured, disciplinary training.   One speaker noted, “We must solve the ‘teaching paradox’ by creating a structured environment that still leaves room for creativity.”

A fifth theme of the conference explored the critical tools in an artist’s tool kit as he or she works across disciplines, sectors, in communities and outside of the arts.   Some of these skills include:  improvisation, risk taking, play, negotiating collective creativity, hustle, the ability to interrogate assumptions and “inhabit difference,” empathetic listening, expressive agility and story telling, pattern recognition, tolerance for ambiguity, and persistence.  One speaker noted, “If we can be more explicit about the tools artists use, we can more purposefully translate our (artists’) value to others.

Finally, another big theme that emerged is the persistent inequalities that exist in the art world and within arts training institutions for women, students of color, and others from less privileged backgrounds.  Participants discussed the moral imperative of addressing the many significant barriers (financial, cultural, social) facing students from disadvantaged backgrounds. They also spoke of the practical necessity of dealing with inequality as demographic changes in this country will produce a majority non-white population in three decades. One participant remarked, “High schools need to reach down and address issues of readiness. Colleges need to think beyond recruitment. Admission is not the end of the race.”

One big question facing schools is: Are we ready for the barbarians at the gate who will demand that we prove our value?”  In an era of high stakes, increasing pressure for accountability, and escalating costs, how will schools of art communicate their value?

Optimistically, one of the last speakers remarked, “We are in the middle of a Renaissance. Arts programs that jump on the bandwagon today and help shape this new Renaissance will be the ones that thrive….”

Summing up the challenges facing arts schools, one participant remarked, “We will perish if we don’t embrace change.   Our choice is evolution or we will face revolution.”

We have only begun to explore the 3 million stories of arts graduates and how they build lives, enrich our culture, and contribute to our communities. SNAAP will continue to collect and synthesize data and bring people together to discuss big ideas.

Thank you Steven.

Have a great week.

Don't Quit

Monday, March 18, 2013

The Unbearable Whiteness of Being

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

Following an exchange last month among several bloggers, myself included, centering on the issue of diversity, Roberto Bedoya, Executive Director of the Tucson Pima County Arts Council in Arizona, challenged the participants in that exchange (Ian David Moss, Clay Lord, Nina Simon, Doug Borwick, Diane Ragsdale and myself) with this invitation:
“ to share with us some of your good thinking and deep reflection on your understanding of how the White Racial Frame intersects with cultural polices and cultural practices.”  
Whew!  That's a big question.  Questions such as this may easily make some white people uncomfortable (even phrased as gently as Roberto has done), and can be seen by others as accusatorial, and the response is invariably that “I don’t feel guilty.  I am not part of the problem.  I did not create these circumstances.”  True. Liberals (of which I am proudly one) may think of themselves as part of the solution.  And they are. And yet that very attitude is likely part of the problem, because it masks our ability to see the problem dispassionately.  And there is always the issue of what constitutes tokenism.  Talking about race, let alone racism, is treacherous territory, and no matter the authorship - questions arise as to presumption in offering any thoughts, qualification to comment, and motive behind the thinking.  Like the line in the Buffalo Springfield song:  "Nobody's right if everybody's wrong."

The previous thread of the original back and forth blog postings ranged from the philanthropic role in the promotion of diversity, whether or not certain foundation practices were coercive, to the value of insisting that mainstream grantees actively seek diversity expansion.  Roberto's question is, I think, a much larger inquiry than those (important) considerations and sub-topics.  So I make no pretenses about presenting any cogent argument for how we go about addressing any of those issues, nor do I make any attempt to wrestle with the issue of how and what art is valued or what the proper role of the funder is in the whole diversity issue.  Roberto's question is basically how has (does) current systemic racism and its antecedents intersect in the formation and application of cultural policy - or does it?

Though I have thought about this for the past few weeks, read a lot and done some research, and then thought some more, much of my thinking is just a gut reaction - shooting from the hip as it were. My hope is that even a few kernels of truth may lie within.

First, what is the white racial frame?


The White Racial Frame is a construct created by sociologist Joe Feagin and he defines the white racial frame as:
 “an overarching worldview, one that encompasses important racial ideas, terms, images, emotion and interpretation. For centuries now, it has been a basic and foundational frame from which a substantial majority of white Americans – as well as others seeking to conform to white norms – view our highly racialized society. ”
Feagin argues that this white racial frame is deeply embedded into the very foundational fabric of society and is far more pervasive and insidious than mere racial stereotyping and the resultant racist bigotry scholars usually focus on when considering racism in modern society.
“This dominant racial frame is taught in thousands of different ways - at home, in schools, on public playgrounds, in the mass media, in workplace settings, in the courts, and in politicians speeches and corporate decisions.  As a result, in its turn, this dominant racial frame both rationalizes and structures the racial interactions, inequalities, and other racial patterns in most societal settings.”
In his book, Feagin goes on to add:
the white frame “...has been part of a distinctive way of life that dominates all aspects of this society.  For most whites, thus the white racial frame is more than just one significant frame among many; it is one that has routinely defined a way of being, a broad perspective on life, and one that provides the language and interpretations that structure, normalize and make sense out of society.”  
In short, his thesis is that the white frame through which life in America - all aspects of that life - is viewed and lived is that white is good and anything other than white is not as good.  So it is often a preference for things white - which preference is the result of a host of factors ingrained into the psyche of the white race over a long period of time; a subtle, perhaps imperceptible, conditioning of thinking and attitudes - a rejection of things not white.  This conditioning of attitudes has, over time, become embedded and institutionalized into the fabric of everyday life - from business and industry to education and religion; from fashion and the media to the military and politics.  It is no longer necessarily manifested in blatant racism and bigotry, but it still exists.

Second, Roberto’s inquiry asks by inference whether or not one accepts Professor’s Feagin’s thesis:

I have no doubt the Professor is right.  America is a White Anglo Saxon Protestant nation and that reality permeates layer upon layer of how we interact with everything. From the legal system to the advertisements we see on television, there has been a demonstrable preference for white over color.  There are the historical shameful travesties of slavery, internment and other incontrovertible forms of abject racism, prejudice and bigotry including the prohibition against interracial marriage, the “separate but equal” educational system, the prohibition of property ownership in white enclaves (via restrictive mortgage covenants), the “back of the bus” and “separate drinking fountains” tools of separation, and the disenfranchisement attempts of the Jim Crow laws.  No matter that the laws have changed, no matter either that there have, arguably, been monumental strides in at least a segment of the population rejecting the frame of reference - the systemic frame itself continues (witness only last year’s attempts in several states to disenfranchise voters of poverty and color by attempting to impose unnecessary and cumbersome rules of identification - theoretically to avoid voter fraud - but that canard fooled no one).

And yet the most insidious forms of discrimination are the ones that are less obvious, yet every bit as onerous - from employment to promotion, from incarceration statistics to poverty levels; from racial jokes at the water cooler to unsubstantiated belief in, and fear of, the culture of people of color, if not the people themselves.  America remains, despite its better instincts and even progress in its self-judgment - a still racially divided, and still racist, country.

I would add that the frame's WASP character is also straight male dominated and that is another one of its key underpinnings.  Nonwhite, female, gay, or otherwise have been excluded from the towers of power.  I think this frame is largely true of Western society in general. America and Europe together have for several centuries controlled a disproportionate share of the world’s wealth and economic power.  They have controlled business, industry, the media, energy, economic distribution and more importantly perhaps, governmental response to societal needs.  Dating back to the conquest and occupation by the early colonists well into the jingoistic foreign policy of the last century, the West has exported the white frame across the planet.  And at their hands it isn’t hard to reason that anyone not a white male protestant in the mold of how they define worth and value - women, people of color, gays - has been negatively impacted in so many ways as to be uncountable.

The impact of the white racial frame is in evidence in countries across the planet, even outside the West.  Consider this Associated Press article posted just yesterday:
“In Brazil, whites are at the top of the social pyramid, dominating professions of wealth, prestige and power. Dark-skinned people are at the bottom of the heap, left to clean up after others and take care of their children and the elderly.  Nubia de Lima, a 29-year-old black producer for Globo television network, said she experiences racism on a daily basis, in the reactions and comments of strangers who are constantly taking her for a maid, a nanny or a cook, despite her flair for fashion and pricey wardrobe."People aren't used to seeing black people in positions of power," she said. "It doesn't exist. They see you are black and naturally assume that you live in a favela (hillside slum) and you work as a housekeeper."She said upper middle-class black people like her are in a kind of limbo, too affluent and educated to live in favelas but still largely excluded from high-rent white neighborhoods."Here it's a racism of exclusion," de Lima said.”
Indeed the racism of exclusion exists even here at home.

Yet the white racial frame is not the only operable racial frame in the world.  Clearly, there are other operable frames across the planet, as there are different racial frames operating within America. Having travelled and lived in Asia over the past 15 years, I can attest that the Chinese, Japanese, Koreans, Thais and all the other nations have their own racial frame that narrows their lens - and allows them to see themselves as superior in ways both general and specific.  Is the need to be superior to those different from us a baseline human need?  I don’t know. Then too racial frames embody class, education, and other socio-economic considerations.

A principal difference in the white racial frame may be that other racial frames within our society are probably reactionist to the dominant white racial frame.  Yet each feeds off the other.  For every group in the world - others can too easily be categorized as “those people”, with “their agendas” - posing a threat to their own world view, compromised as it may be.  We are all “those people” to some other group, as they are to us.  Is that learned behavior based on “frames” or is that something in the DNA.
“There is a blue one who can't accept
The green one for living with 
A black one, tryin' to be a skinny one 
Different strokes for different folks 
And so on and so on and scooby dooby dooby."  (Sly and the Family Stone, Everyday People)
One of the questions inherent in Roberto’s inquiry is how all those other frames interact with, are influenced by, and in turn exert influence with each other.

In 1992, the Harvard-based political scientist Samuel Huntington suggested that future conflicts would be driven largely by cultural differences. He posited in l993:
“It is my hypothesis that the fundamental source of conflict in the new world order will not be primarily ideological, or primarily economic.  The great divisions among humankind and the dominating source of conflict will be cultural.  Nation states will remain the most powerful actors in world affairs, but the principal conflicts of global politics will occur between nations and groups of different civilizations.   The clash of civilizations will dominate global politics.  The fault lines between civilizations will be the battle lines of the future.”  
He went on to map out a new world order in which the people of the world are divided into nine culturally distinct civilizations (religion seems inexorably bound up in his classification). His argument was that future conflicts would be based around the fault lines at the edges of these civilizations. He published this view in a now famous article called “The Clash of Civilizations?” in Foreign Affairs.  While racial framing isn't part of his formulation per se, it seems inexorably intertwined with his civilizations.  Certainly it is bound up as a source of the frictions.

The white racial frame dominates in large and small ways. Here is small example:  All over Asia, one of the best selling products is whitening cream, for having white skin is thought to be desirable. (In an ironic twist it is almost laughable to see westerners in tropical climes adding bronzer to their skins to appear darker, while natives use whitening cream to appear whiter).  It is white western music and movies, fashion and design, education systems and so much more that has shaped the other frames.  Some of those frames have sought to be more white, others have rejected it as, at best patronizing, and at worst genocidal.

Religion and education have played a primary role in maintaining the frames. Fundamentalist Evangelical Christians, Islamists and the Taliban all have in common that if you reject their interpretation of their scripture, you are a heretic.  In America and the west Christianity is the white man’s religion - even though there are more Christians around the world of color than white people.  We have a black president, and we have a Pope of color too.  And does that “progress” put an end to the lie that racism still exists?  Not likely, for symbolic gestures are rarely anything more than harbingers of what change might come, not emblematic that the change has arrived.

American movies, television, fashion, music, and celebrity are all pretty much all about the white frame - as being the preferred frame.  Both domestically and what we export abroad.  And it is embraced.  In part, I think because it has been around and repeated for so long.  Why are there so few Latino actors and movies and television with Latino themes? Because Latinos will not watch them, or buy the products they advertise?  Or is it because whites will not watch them?

Part of the white frame is obviously about control of the money, but it is also more about control of the decision making processes.  It is about, as Nina Simon pointed out, privilege, but it is also about position.  Whites control the decision making positions, the apparatus and mechanisms that determine the direction of all things.

So in terms of America, I think bias, prejudice and both bigotry and racism (even in the pejorative sense of the term) still exist and are still embedded within every layer in the very structure of the fabric of our society.  Not always obvious, not always blatant - but they remain.

And while I also think that a racial frame is present in virtually all societies, the West and the white frame has been dominant so long, that the impact on other cultures has been striking.  Colonialism coupled with the missionary movement to convert the heathens gave way to the exportation and rapid acceptance of the white culture as portrayed in the media.  

In short, I accept the existence and logical impact of a white racial frame.  Though I do not think it is universally practiced, nor do I think everyone is oblivious to its application.

The White Frame as applied to the cultural community:

At the heart of Roberto’s question is whether and how this white frame impacted and influenced (and continues to impact and influence) our world - the nonprofit cultural universe.

Does a white racial frame impact the cultural field.  Of course, how could it not?  To suggest euro-centric art doesn’t lie at the heart of our ecosystem as a favored component is naive.  Yet to suggest that diverse people of color have no interest in that art is to ignore the great artists across the country and the globe that practice to near perfection the traditions of that art, as well as those audience members who love those art forms.  That said, it is difficult to pinpoint how the obstacles created by that frame to the embrace of true diversity are manifested.  In a thousand ways no doubt, a thousand times every day.  Though I am sure there are echoes of the blatant nature of racism still alive in some individuals in some places within our sector, I have never, ever run across an arts organization that wouldn’t genuinely and dearly love to have a more diverse base - whether as audience, artists or supporters.   And in 15 years in this field, I have never heard anyone, anywhere utter a racial slur, or make any comment that might even remotely be interpreted as bias, prejudice, or worse. Indeed, for the most part our struggling organizations would welcome purple people if it meant an expanded audience.  But that begs the question - which is how has a white racial frame - the systemic, endemic way we think about all things white - prevented (and prevents?) us from moving towards a more diverse base.  And the answer is likely that those manifestations are cloaked and hidden and difficult to identify much less observe.

Do subliminal vestiges of that white racial frame remain within each of us, and thus within the matrix of our decision making process?  Is it so embedded within the very fabric of our histories and that which has shaped our world?  Probably.  Are racism, homophobia, anti-semitism still alive.  Yes.  Does that impact every layer of what we do and how we do it?  Has it, over time, wormed its way into how we make decisions (conscious or unconscious) about what art is, how it ought to be supported, what its role and value is?  Does it constitute a default cultural policy (if not obvious and stated, then at least the framework in which our policies are implemented?).  I think, reluctantly, yes, though I am quick to acknowledge that in some instances it may have led to positive decision making (positive in the sense of promoting real diversity).  But I do not have at my finger tip concrete negative or positive examples.  And research is virtually nonexistent.

Is there also a wider diversity racial frame, born out of reaction to and defense from the white racial frame that acts in much the same way the white racial frame operates; one that is subtly at play that keeps the “other than whites” from being audience members, supporters or participants in the white frame cultural world.  Quite possibly I think.  And frame lines themselves may not always be as clear as we think.  There are rich black people, gay bigots, and likely a thousand other shades of gray.

To argue that the white frame is the cause of the lack of diversity in cultural policy determination is then problematic, yet to suggest it has played no meaningful role would be folly.

Is the dwindling audience for the arts (white arts? all arts?) the product of irrelevant content, inconvenient access, excessive cost, changing technology and changing tastes, and simply far more appealing alternatives in the marketplace?   I don’t know for sure.  And one must consider whether or not technology and the mere passage of time has blurred once definitive lines.  In what ways, if any, do twenty something millennials of color have more in common with their white counterparts than they do with their parents?

The simple answer is that this white frame, this underlying belief that things white are preferable to things of color has doubtless had an effect on our decision making process.  Very likely in ways we haven’t and still don’t fully see or appreciate.  If the white frame accurately portrays the white (dominant) societal preference for things white, then the long legacy of that kind of thinking surely must have played (and continues to play) some role in the development and support for the arts in America too - at least in some overall sense - for audience preference, financial support and even access to creation. I think the white racial frame has impacted and influenced our decision making and how, over decades, the nonprofit arts universe has grown and been shaped.  I think part of this process has been intentional (though not necessarily malevolent), and part of it has been by omission to deal with the ramifications of those actions.

Again I would caution that to link correlation to causation is risky.  I must say that, based on my own experience, I think our field is one of the least prejudicial, biased or racially insensitive (if not racist) microcosms to be found on the larger playing field. I believe the quest for broad diversity in all things in the arts is genuine.  I believe in the integrity and essential decency of our people.  Still it is undeniable that the state of the arts ecosystem nowhere near mirrors the diversity of the country - on any level.

Are things changing, getting better?  Sure, but this kind of change is slow, very slow, and I suspect if you are a member of a group arguably harmed by the white racial frame, the change that has happened is minuscule at best.  It is easy to suggest the victims of a racial frame ought to lighten up a little, have a sense of humor about it all; that political correctness has run amok.  But if you are the victim, you may find that offensive.  I do.

I think most of the change in correcting the most heinous of the negative ramifications of the frame (in the wider sense beyond the arts) has come under the rubric of equity and fairness, for one of the tenets underpinning American society that may have the capacity to confront the white frame is our deep belief in, and commitment to, individualism and fairness - which (at least the lip service) for us is almost a religion. It is that systemic belief that has moved a majority of Americans to now favor same sex marriage.  It is that thread that I think may move our cultural policy away from too much emphasis on the integration of diversity into the white frame and allow for the diversity to flower on its own terms.  I acknowledge it may be an artificial construct, but I am a practical person, and it seems to me to offer the best chance to maximize change.

Arguendo, you can’t legislate morality.  But you may be able to legislate - if not equality - then equity.  Not a solution, but perhaps a step in the right direction, one that over time can have real meaning.  Can you legislate or otherwise impose a neutral frame that will undo the past?  And if you could, how long would that take to take effect?  How is it enforced?

As the demographic composition of the nation and the whole of the Western World is changing, for the first time a real threat to the white frame is perceived and we now bear witness to the desperate attempt by those for whom the white racial frame is core to their identity to cling to the throttles of the old power machine.  In par, the gridlock and deadlock of the American political society is the result of this (hopefully) end stage battle.  One that will likely go on for a long time as even the white majority numbers dwindle and whites become a minority.  Still the white class will cling to the reigns of power, prestige, privilege and position and will, I venture, like the Boers in South Africa not go quietly into the night.  How precisely that works in our field, I am unsure.

In a subsequent post of his on Doug Borwick's "Engaging Matters", Roberto offers his definition of cultural policy:  "I define U.S. cultural policy as a system of arrangement that affects the allocation of resources and the articulation of value."  I think that is very elegantly stated. And therein lies much of the problem - for the subtlety of the white frame's manifestations, and its longevity in application, make it very difficult to identify the points where it is apparent and amenable to fix.  There are no quick fixes.  I have no doubt the frame does intersect in both areas of Roberto's cultural policy definition - affecting the allocation of resources and the (unstated anyway) articulation of value.  The reality of past support allocation suggests that white art is the default policy in American arts, and by extension, is a clear articulation of value.

On the other hand, I generally think in terms of a policy as being slightly more specific - meaning (as Webster's defines the word) an overarching plan; "a definite course of action selected from among guide and determine present and future decisions."  In terms of cultural policy then, to my mind anyway, we really don’t have a clearly articulated cultural policy, no real consensus plan.  What policy exists lies mostly in the legacy and tradition of what came before, and how we support things.  Our priorities are those things on which we spend the most current time, energy and resources; and that is really a patchwork quilt of individual organizational or interest group goals and objectives (most of which change with increasing frequency).  The issue of diversity and any analysis of how a white frame, or racism itself, have intersected with, and had an impact on, this defacto policy has been given short shift in the past.  That alone is probably a condemnation of the “between the lines” policy that does exist.  Perhaps if we made some concerted effort to draft various planks of a national cultural policy - discuss and debate them - then we might be able to more successfully understand the role the white frame has played in the arts environment as it exists today, and take whatever steps we might to counter the negative results of that frame.  Yet clearly a manifesto supporting diversity is, of itself, nothing more than words where action is called for. A policy needs guidelines for that action.  Say what you want, criticize if you will, but at least, for example, the Irvine Foundation's approach is closer to that definition of a cultural policy than the absence of any plan in the wider nonprofit matrix - which absence masks itself as real policy when it is not a policy at all.

Now What?
Which is why I believe that if we want to address the negative consequences of this frame in terms of the health of the arts ecology, then we ought to focus on directly supporting diverse art by diverse people.  Not to the whole exclusion of other pursuits necessarily, and this is just my bias.  But it is all well and good to have as a goal expanding the diversity of the audience for white art, but that is a whole different goal than expanding the diversity of the audiences (and support) for art in general.  There simply isn’t enough research to tell us all we need to know about why more people of color don’t embrace the mainstream euro-central art that lies at the heart of the white frame - let alone why more people of all colors are turning away from the arts (all arts) - or even if such a proposition is accurate (and there is I think substantial evidence that, despite conclusions to the contrary, the arts are alive and well and even growing.  All the arts.)  Or why fewer younger people aren't embracing it either - again a claim which may be simply wrong.  Because maybe they are  - but just in ways that don't fit our classification categories.    I don’t know whether or not it is the content of the art, the racial context, or the themes that do not resonate with the diverse audiences we are talking about.  I don’t know whether the issue is really one of age, or class, or education, or economic status or whatever -  more than race.  I don’t know if its the relevance of the art to the target group.  Maybe it has nothing to do with any of that, and the issue is rather cost and convenience.  But that too begs the question.  The question is what do we do to expand the diversity of the audience, the pool of participants and creators, and the pool of supporters for art.  Any art.  All art.

What then do we do?  How do we at least try to contain the spill over of past conditioning, so that it isn’t an obstacle to equity and fair play?  So that it doesn’t perpetuate division, exclusion, and marginalization?  Isn’t a frame - white or otherwise - a condition that cannot be changed by coercion, cajoling, pleading, or entreating?  Doesn’t it lie deep in the heart and soul - even if unbeknownst to each of us?  If just being uncomfortable in the juxtaposition to other cultures is a byproduct of the frame, how do you change that?  And if you don’t change it, is that uncomfortableness a factor in the perpetuation of the frame in an endless cycle?  Is today’s clash of frames cultural, racial, religious, economic, one of privilege and position, or all of the above?  Is the frame a monster in itself having little now to do with the relationship between individuals, or is it the unspoken core at the very essence of those relationships?

Is awareness the first step, or merely a meaningless sidestepping apology?  If unconscious, is there mea culpa?

So I think we need more research, more dialogue, more introspection.  I think we ought to be spending more time and effort in identifying and supporting diverse art makers and organizations dedicated to their support, rather than trying to get more diverse peoples to become part of the white, euro-centric arts tradition.  Not that expansion of diversity for white art is not a lofty and legitimate goal.  It is.  But getting more people of color, getting younger people, to embrace mainstream white art does very little to really expand the diversity of participation in or access to culturally specific art.  If, for example, you want more Latinos to go to the theater, I think you need to support more Latino actors, directors, playwrights, and companies.  And you need to support Latino audiences’ access to the art those Latino artists make and the organizations that are their nurturing ecosystem. Grow that niche within our whole first.  Expanding the Latino audience for the white euro centric theater only perpetuates that strain as the dominant one.

In the days of my Berkeley youth in the 60's I was much more sure of my conclusions, and it was much easier for me to see injustice and miscarriages; to know what was right, what was wrong, and even how to make it better; so much easier to point the finger.  But now - well now I am older and it's a little harder to be so specific, so sure, so much the firebrand.  Not harder to see things, just harder to put them all into focus.  As Bob Dylan sang in "My Back Pages":
"Good and bad I defined these terms
Quite clear, no doubt somehow
"Ahh, but I was so much older then,
I'm younger than that now."
This issue is far too complex for me to come up with any definitive answers as to how we move forward. And my conclusions may be legitimately suspect.   I wish Roberto had included more diverse people to ask the question of, and perhaps down the line he will -- and that will add to the dialogue.  It would be informative, I think, to have the impressions and thoughts of more people of color on this question.  There is much more I might say, but I am unsure it would add much at this point, and I fear I may be rambling (ok, I'm sure I am rambling) and that I haven’t really answered Roberto’s inquiry.  I am sure the white frame has, and likely continues to have, myriad intersections with how the arts are supported and valued.  It is axiomatically far more difficult to pinpoint where and how, let alone assign responsibility, or to even understand where the harm always happens.   It is difficult to even know which questions are the right questions to ask - let alone where truth may lie.

I hope people will continue to talk about the issue of race, of racism, of equity, and of how to promote real diversity; of gender and identity and position, power and privilege.   There is a large pool of thinkers superior to me out there in our universe - smart people of good will who can help us to see this more clearly.  There are no necessarily easy nor right answers.  This whole discussion ought just to be a beginning as we grapple with it and all its implications. And I suppose, trite as it may sound, that the best place to start is within ourselves.  I know this:  bigotry, intolerance, prejudice, bias, racism and all the other forms of discrimination still exist and still cause irreparable harm.  I am thankful to work in the arts, for I think the arts have been one of the forces to change all that.  We're not perfect.  We need to do better.  We're trying.  We don't have to be perfect, but we do have to try harder.

In terms of just “fairness” it seems to me it is important to address even the possibility of the negativity of the white racial frame by focusing more on supporting diverse cultural art at its source - the artists and the organizations that support their art.

Have a great day.

Don’t Quit

Sunday, March 10, 2013

The Arts' College of Cardinals Equivalent

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

Note:  I have been wresting with my response to the inquiry posed by Roberto Bedoya to several bloggers as to impressions of the white racial frame’s application to the cultural field.  This is no easy task, for the subject could easily be a doctoral dissertation.  I hope to finish my reading and research and clarify my own feelings by next week.

Lessons learned from the Vatican:
In the meantime, here is a lighter entry on Pope Benedict’s surprising resignation from the Papacy that has sent shock waves around the globe, and which, I think, suggests a couple of ideas for us.

Taking the Pope’s rationale for his decision at face value (though no one can really know the politics or backstory of his decision) - I have two reactions to the situation:

First, (the more serious thought) I think resigning from such a lofty position because one thinks he no longer has the skills or energy to faithfully discharge his duties, is, on its face, a selfless act that puts the institution above the personal interests of the individual.    Assuming arguendo this is the case, that might just be a lesson for people in all kinds of positions - including our own nonprofit universe.  I would encourage our own long serving leaders to ask themselves the same question, and consider when it might be - in the interests of their organizations and their own deeply held beliefs about the value of their work - time to step aside.  Letting go of the reigns of power, and moving on is a very difficult decision for people who have given so much of themselves for a mission for a long period of time.  It isn’t easy to know when to make that move, or to even ask the question.  We all naturally want to believe that we continue to have something to offer, more contributions to make, and miles left in our tanks as it were.  But, to honor the work we have done, it is a legitimate question to ask ourselves at some point.  While there is probably a long list of reasons to stay the course, there is also an equally long list of reasons why it might be time to consider passing the baton.

Second, (the not so serious thought.............maybe) As a longtime political junkie I am intrigued and fascinated by - and eagerly look forward to - the whole process of the College of Cardinals who meet beginning tomorrow to select a new Pope to head the church. Locked in the Sistine Chapel, the cardinals begin the process of agreeing on one of their own to lead Catholicism into the future.  A momentous decision to be sure.  Oh to be the proverbial fly on the drape and listen in on those collective and small deliberations.  I have no doubt, the whole process (which probably started with Benedict’s announcement - if not before - and has been going on in private chambers for some time) will be highly political.  Lots of deal making, lots of compromises, power plays, Machiavellian maneuvering, and outright horse trading -- with dialogue back and forth as to the consequences of selecting one person over another. Maybe (probably) even some vote swapping - for good reasons, of course.  I mean no disrespect to suggest this is a highly politically charged atmosphere and that the ultimate decision will be made based on all kinds of considerations - those divine and mundane).  The longer it takes for the white smoke to signal a 2/3 consensus decision for a new Pope, the more politicking will likely have gone on.

Will the largest voting bloc - the Italians - succeed in returning one of their own to the post of Bishop of Rome, or will reformist minded Americans (the second largest bloc) prevail in whomever they throw their weight behind?  Will the new Pope be a pastoral leader with charisma who might appeal to the younger Catholics of the world, or someone who can effectively manage and tame the Curia - the Vatican bureaucrats?  Will the new Pope be a person of color?  Up for grabs is whom a new Pope might appoint to the second most powerful post - the Secretary of State who runs the day to day operations of the Holy See.

The Church understands ritual, and the selection of a new Pope is a textbook dream media event that calls attention to the Church as perhaps no other event might.  A new beginning, it comes at a time the Vatican continues to grapple with scandal and negative publicity.

It is the closest modern equivalent we have of what political junkies like me have long thought would be great fun if one of our own political parties at their national presidential nominating conventions were deadlocked and there were a truly brokered convention wherein deals were made in backrooms among fractious, and likely contentious camps, to agree on a selection. How fun to watch, and arguably just as rational a way to choose a nominee as the current primary process that locks up the nomination for one candidate long before the actual convention takes place.

The Papal selection process is somewhat akin to Supreme Court appointments: you can never be sure of what you are getting. Eisenhower's nomination of former California Governor, Earl Warren, as Chief Justice - thought to be a conservative - resulted in one of the most liberal courts.  Ditto the result of the election of Pope John XXIII; an election that resulted in changes to the Church that older, hardliners were none too pleased with.

So that got me thinking about our next Chair of the NEA, as we wait for the President to put forth a name for Senate confirmation.  Obviously, this particular political appointment is not high on the priority list.  They will get to it when they get to it.  And the name ultimately put forth will likely not be the result of any organized, systemic search or vetting process.  That’s not how it works.  Someone in the administration will ask someone else if they have any ideas and a name will somehow emerge.  It may well be a political process.  Not, however, likely to be transparent in any sense. To be fair, this process has yielded us some very good Chairmen, even if they were not from the field itself.  But perhaps we are squandering a great media opportunity - a chance to call attention to not just the agency but the role of art itself in our society.

So (only partially) tongue in cheek, I suggest we copy the Vatican’s process and form our own College of Cardinals as it were.  A hundred arts leaders from all walks of our field.  Lock them in a room (no, better yet, a museum or residential arts retreat - let's stay on theme here) and let them come up with the name of the new NEA Chair.  One of their own.  Insider political intrigue. Deal making. Great theater.  Great media p.r.  No worries, Mr. President.  I suspect that the final selection would probably be a good one.  (And if you don't like this idea Mr. President, perhaps you could provide the name of a contact within the White House handling this appointment, so that we might at least provide names for your consideration.)

I know, I know - this will never happen.  But if it did, all I would want would be to be an inside observer who could blog on the whole thing.  Handicapping the front runners, and speculating on power plays.  A political junkie blogger dream.

Have a great week.

Don’t Quit

Thursday, March 7, 2013

Research and Data Blogathon - Day #5

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

Comments: If you have received the post via email as a subscriber, and would like to comment, please click on the Barry's Blog button above the Google icon on the top left hand side to be taken to the site.  Then scroll down to the end of the day's blog and click on the 'comment' icon.

Final Day:

Barry:  Question #5:  Aren’t our biggest challenges to:
  • Confront the charge that we are using data and research that correlates art and desirable results as proof in causing those results?  How do we overcome that criticism?
  • Come up with ways to identify and measure the subtle impacts of the arts, so that we can more categorically state that the arts do, indeed, impact and actually improve overall quality of life?  How do we identify the quality of life outcomes that are measurable in the first place?  And how do we measure them?  
Bryce Merrill:  Arts research should not make causal claims when only correlations exist, but I am not sure that obfuscation of causality and correlation is the field’s biggest issue. Historically, the field has indeed struggled with advocating causal claims, such as arts in schools increases math and reading aptitude, without understanding that the majority of these studies have shown only positive correlations. Often times arts advocates summarize and synthesize research findings without fully understanding the results and limitations. A legitimate study correlating community art activity to higher participation in local governance might get publicized with the headline “More Arts Means More Democracy!” The issue for the field is often a translational one: even careful and reliable studies can be carelessly and spuriously used for advocacy. Overcoming a desperation for causality may be the most appropriate way to characterize the challenge that the field faces.

The arts should work diligently to produce work that meets standards of research excellence, whether these standards are from the social or natural sciences or humanities. However, important to note is that the standards for research excellence even in research-heavy fields are highly contentious and ever-evolving as new data, methodologies, and theories emerge. In fact, the limitations of certainty and transparent acknowledgement of uncertainty are hallmarks of good research, identifiable often within the first few paragraphs of peer-reviewed research publications. One of the biggest challenges to the legitimacy of arts research might be, on the other hand, that the field often produces research reports with obscured, oversimplified, or simply absent methodological details. Rewording a report to say that the arts, for example, are only correlated with decreased crime rates will do little to help our goal of credibility if the means of verifying correlation are unavailable.

I suspect many arts advocates who have used questionable research to advance support for the arts could respond to me here that in political arenas methodological rigor means less than having data with the right message at the right time.  Good research that says bad things or the wrong things can be a hindrance to political advocacy. However, I will respond to this potential criticism that the field could use a major rethinking when it comes to using data for advocacy. There are ways to advance our cause by showing a decrease in arts employment or drops in symphony attendance, but doing so might also mean having to rethink our cause.

I do not think our problem is that we cannot prove causality. Proving causality is tremendously difficult in all research sectors, but not impossible. Recall that the cautionary message from the Surgeon General’s Office on cigarette packs used to read “cigarettes may cause cancer,” indicating a strong correlation between smoking and cancer but not causation. It was not finding the direct causal link between cancer and smoking that encouraged a campaign (crusade?) against smoking; it was strong scientific evidence of harm, even if only correlative, and conviction in the public sector for action.

One of our biggest challenges is to rethink the questions that largely drive research in the arts. Most people in the arts understand the reality of why we produce research that answers questions about the economic value of the arts. Even if you do not agree with the merits of asking the questions--to say nothing of the answers--it is hard to ignore their demand, especially as they often originate from guardians of the coffers. However, one problem with this line of inquiry is how the questions are asked. Consider the subtle but critical difference in the following questions about the value of the arts:
  • How do the arts contribute to neighborhood X’s economic growth?
  • Do the arts contribute to neighborhood X’s economic growth?
In the first question, that the arts contribute to economic growth is implied, and now the researcher is only tasked with identifying the contributing mechanisms. In the latter question, the possibility that the arts does not contribute to growth--the null hypothesis being “the arts do not contribute to economic growth--is not ruled out. The arts field tends to ask questions that presume the answer and seek out only the newsworthy details. I am reminded of this problem of arts research when I read about the positive health effects of the arts: surely the arts can be correlated to positive health effects but only under certain circumstances. Spending much of my young life around rock musicians has given me enough anecdotal evidence to speak to the negative health effects of music!

For an excellent example of sophisticated arts research that asks interesting questions and produces intriguing results, I strongly recommend Frederick Wherry’s outstanding sociological study The Philadelphia Barrio. Wherry is able to problematize the common claim that the arts always acts as a gentrifying force, while also providing insights into the complex mechanisms through which a local community uses the arts for revitalization. One of the most important contributions of Wherry’s study is that the value of the arts at any level of analysis--local, regional, national, and so on--must be understood from the perspectives of those impacted by the arts. In other words, we often ask “what is the value of the arts?” but Wherry argues that the question needs reframing. “What is the value of the arts,” Wherry’s study asks, “according to the people who experience, create, and live with it?” Or, to put it differently, Wherry seeks to understand the meaning of value and not just its objective properties.

In the social sciences, qualitative research methods are often employed to study subtlety and complexity. Ethnographic research, in particular,  can provide “thick description” of the activities of groups and reveal deep insights into the nuanced effects of the arts in society. David Grazian’s Blue Chicago is an exemplary art ethnography in this vein. Using multiple methods and data sources, Grazian uses the concept of authenticity to explain socio-cultural transformations in Chicago’s blues music scene. His research reveals, for example, that tourist demand for an authentic blues music experience, one that cannot be accommodated by white blues musicians, impacts the racial composition of blues music performances in different areas of the city. In downtown Chicago, where busloads of tourists are dropped off to experience “authentic” blues, the majority of musicians are African-American; white blues musicians have a better chance of gigging in surrounding neighborhoods, even in those neighborhoods with predominantly African-American residents. Grazian demonstrates how the conflation of music and race in the individually subjective, but culturally-mediated concept of “authentic blues” comes to have significant urban, economic, and cultural consequences.

As Grazian has developed the concept, authenticity is not likely to be incorporated into a causal model to explain the general formation of music scenes in cities. However, Grazian’s theory of authenticity as folk knowledge is helpful to those seeking to understand and advance the place of the arts in society. Rural towns, for example, seeking revitalization through arts tourism often strive to provide an “authentic” rural arts experience. The lesson from Grazian, however, problematizes this attempt. What does it mean to have an authentic rural experience in the American West, for example?  Can people from Mobile, Alabama, Cheyenne, Wyoming, and Los Angeles, California all have similarly authentic experiences in rural Idaho? How will a visitor to an art center in southern Utah know that they are experiencing authentic art, aside from having the assurances of local tour guides? On whose authority will authentic art be established and what art (or artists)might be left out or misrepresented in the process? Often times, good research, especially the type that probes the complexities of human action and challenges even basic truths, does a better job at creating more questions than answers.

I suspect that many in the arts field hold out great hope for advances in medical research technology to speed up our pursuit of the truth about the subtle nature of the arts in society. Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI) technology is already being used by researchers to unlock some of the mysteries of the relationship of art to the brain. As discussed previously, advances in computer science are likely to also produce ground-breaking results from research using “big data” on the arts. However, as Grazian and countless others have shown, arts researchers are already equipped with the methodological tools, concepts, and theories to advance our understanding of the role that art plays in society. It is my hope that our advancement relies as much on the field’s deep intellectual curiosity and commitment to the arts as it does on new data gadgets and techniques.

Margaret Wyszomirski:  The challenge of conceptualizing and assessing the intangible impacts and value of the arts has been long-standing.  However advances in numerous other fields have developed concepts that can help us in this effort. For example,understanding how certain arts activities generate social capital and how that social capital is then used or leveraged to promote social and community change is much more possible that it was even a decade ago.  And when I say “understand”, I mean laying out an explanation and a logic of how it happens not simply being able to identify it when it happens.  David Throsby has offered a diverse set of value propositions about the arts particularly how to characterize their cultural value but I don’t really see that reflected here.  Similarly, it seems as though the NEA report does everything possible to avoid the topic of the creative and cultural industries—a concept that has attracted worldwide attention—both in terms of research and in terms of policy activity.  Part of this attention focuses on the practice of arts-based entrepreneurship.  Yet there is no attention to this—there seems to be a presumption that artists do not and cannot make a living through the arts as if the NEA wants artist research to demonstrate that public support for individual artists through fellowships needs to be restored and that research that offers alternatives to that assumption are to be omitted out of hand.  Yet if one hypothesizes that the era of the “patron state” is waning, then perhaps other ways of fostering creativity and the economic conditions of artists might need to be explored – and we  can find that they are—altho not always under the name of arts based entrepreneurship.

Arts research in the UK also offers some tantalizing questions by looking at the interaction of multiple variables.  For example, their research that indicates that individuals tend to recognize and gravitate toward intrinsic value when surveyed about their own preferences and opportunities for their families, but these same people then tend to switch to an instrumental value standard when the issue of public funding for the arts in thrown into the equation.  In other words, are attitudes about the public value of the arts really about the arts or about how people feel about the role of government??

Randy Cohen:  Making the Arts Unavoidable in Our Communities
It is perfectly appropriate to try to answer questions about how the arts address social, educational, and economic development issues—as long as those investigations are done with scientific rigor and presented factually. At its best, arts research is as solid as that found in education, health, technology, and other sectors.  This is not quick, easy, or inexpensive work, but providing a better understanding of how the arts affect a community—and what the public reaps from its investment—is important work.

I believe the area to aggressively pursue next is less about ‘place’ and more about ‘person’.  If the last research epoch was about ramping-up product, let’s make the next one about building audience demand.

Past NEA studies have demonstrated the socialization aspect of the arts—that arts participation begets more arts participation. Whether this is caused by an amazing performance that leaves you seeing the world differently, or losing one’s sense of place and time while personally creating art, or an accumulation of many smaller meaningful experiences, is unclear.  There is little doubt, however, that somewhere on that continuum a “transformative” experience takes place that makes you hungry for more.

This is not a new concept (see Duke and Wallace Foundation efforts), but thanks to larger and more dynamic data sets, we can begin the conversation anew.
We know from the National Arts Index that the share of the population attending art museums and live performing arts events declined significantly between 2003 and 2010—even as we saw growth in the number of nonprofit arts organizations (and the percentage of them filing 990s with a deficit).
Yet, we also saw upswings in personal creation, electronic arts participation, and college arts degrees conferred.  We read reports of 275,000 choirs with 32 million singers, 21 million quilters, and growth in the number of dance schools.
Taken together, this tells me that the public is not walking away from the arts, but they are walking away from some traditional models of delivery.  And many of them are not coming back.

In the last half year I have had the privilege of visiting more than 50 cities.  What I saw is how people are choosing to experience the arts . . . the Public Library’s rotating art exhibits . . . bedside arts carts in the hospital . . . opera simulcasts in the movie theaters and on the big screen at the baseball stadium . . .  on the streets where the traffic signal boxes are artist-wrapped and manhole covers are artist designed . . . performances at faith-based organizations . . . at the workplace with employee art shows and Corporate Battle of the Bands competitions . . . live concerts in the airport . . . public art tours across town using my iPhone.

The art finds the people as much as the people find the art. What I love about these is that they are arts-centric, popular with the community, and most are low-budget.  Every city seemed to have something innovative—and all were thirsty to hear what my previous destinations are up to.  

Let’s make the arts unavoidable in our communities—in our schools, libraries, hospitals, public art in the built environment—and if the socialization theory holds, participants in these arts experiences will want more arts experiences, putting a virtuous cycle in motion.  We could be on our way to a more artful society.

Sunil Iyengar:  a. I wouldn't say it's our "biggest challenge," but yes, there are routine conflations of causal and correlational evidence in the arts. In recent years, though, I've been pleasantly surprised how often I've heard non-researchers ask about the distinction--when presented with a research finding--or to denigrate the failure of an article or report to make the distinction clearer. I've said it previously, but to gain currency and credibility with other fields of research, it seems desirable that arts funders consider pooling together to support the third-party design and implementation of a large, multi-site, randomized controlled trial (RCT) comparing the effects of an arts intervention alongside those of other programs or therapies. Concurrently, we need more theoretical groundwork to identify a "mechanism of action" whereby the arts produces any outcomes we might want to investigate. All of this takes time, money, patience, and even courage--the courage to encounter results we may not especially welcome.  I'll add that even if we can't achieve randomization in such studies, we can invest in more clearly defined control groups, and examine the potential of other study designs (e.g., natural or quasi-experiments) or research methods (e.g., daily diaries) to get us closer than we are today.

b. I'll just raise two areas ripe for further exploration. They are bound by a central question: what's the unique value proposition of engaging with the arts? One path is offered by the field of subjective well-being research (lately preferred over "happiness research" by such august bodies as the National Academy of Sciences, the UK's Office for National Statistics, and the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development). The research questions and methods used by the economists, sociologists, and psychologists who toil in this field are highly compatible, in my view, with inquiries about the arts. Princeton economist Alan Krueger, now Chairman of the President's Council of Economic Advisers, has done research using national data on Americans' daily time-use patterns, showing, incidentally, how people rated their time listening to music as among their best-spent time, in terms of interest and enjoyment. As researchers, we need comparison studies to understand how much value (in this case, self-reported) the arts can bring us relative to other kinds of activity. The same principle applies to another fertile area of arts research: cost-benefit analyses (CBA), particularly with respect to arts interventions or treatments in a clinical care setting. CBA is inescapable when making policy decisions about investing in quality of life.

Elizabeth Currid Halkett:  a.  There is the endless causation versus correlation debate but this tension is not simply within arts research but rather social science more generally. I think as we get closer to more precise data and specifically time series data we may be able to tease out the actual effect of art on other variables (e.g. neighborhood development, social capital, community). For example if we see concentrations of the arts (galleries, artists’ residences) in 1960 can we see the effect in 1990? Is cultural capital predictive of economic or social capital in future decades? In the meantime, while we haven’t teased this relationship out, I think one of the powerful aspects of art is that society and human civilization has always been drawn to art for art’s sake and that’s a compelling and important reason to care about the arts regardless of statistics and data.

b.  Come up with ways to identify and measure the subtle impacts of the arts, so that we can more categorically state that the arts do, indeed, impact and actually improve overall quality of life?  How do we identify the quality of life outcomes that are measurable in the first place?  And how do we measure them?   Along this line, there has been considerable discussion as of late as to what evaluative markers we ought to use in measuring the impact of various arts programs (e.g., the discussion of the NEA’s Vitality Indicators in assessing Placemaking projects).  What are your thoughts on this issue?

I agree – we do need to figure out the actual and precise impact of the arts. Where and how is art most effective? In drawing educated populations? In neighborhood regeneration? In attracting other amenities? Again, I think that the means of teasing out the link between quality of life (one of the NEA’s central charges in their new report) and the arts is to attain precise longitudinal data that allows us to see how the presence of art in year one impacts other development and quality of life indicators down the line.  If we can “prove” the linkage and delineate its impacts we will make great strides in making the arts a critical part of public policy and the national dialogue around economic prosperity.

Thank you to all the panel participants in this exercise.  I am deeply grateful for their taking time out of their schedules to help further the understanding and discussion of this critically important topic.  And thank you all for following along.

Of course, as I said at the outset, more questions remain.  For example:
  1. Expanding on today's question, there has been considerable discussion as of late as to what evaluative markers we ought to use in measuring the impact of various arts programs (e.g., the discussion of the NEA’s Vitality Indicators in assessing Placemaking projects);  which markers have flaws and which are favored.  
  2. To what end should research focus on the artist and artistic creation as opposed to arts presentation, organization, and management?  And what are the issues within that dynamic?
  3. When arts organizations conduct research into a specific area (audience development / participation for example) is there a danger in rushing to interpret the data to conform to a theory of how we can improve our lot?  Are we sometimes guilty of trying to make the facts fit the theory?  What are the legitimate criticisms regarding the limitations of this kind of approach?
  4. Where we have credible and substantive data and research which does make the case for the value and impact of the arts, has that research and data been persuasive in moving decision makers to our position(s)?  If not, why not?  If there is a failure of the data to be persuasive, does the fault lie in the data or in our ability to convincingly use it?
  5. Should we pursue research into the public’s attitudinal response to the arts and their self-perception as to the role the arts play in such intangible concepts as “well-being” and “happiness”?  Despite the highly subjective nature of such concepts themselves, is not the contribution of the arts to how people “feel” at the heart of our real value?  Can it be quantified and measured?  Even if it cannot, does that negate its importance?
  6. What kinds of research ought we undertake in terms of better understanding how to equitably distribute our resources across the diverse parts of our whole?  What research might yield valuable information as to how we handle the issue of diversity?
I am sure there are scores of other questions we need to consider as we move forward in the refinement of our research and data collection efforts.

Have a good day.

Don't Quit

Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Research and Data Blogathon - Day #4

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

Comments: If you have received the post via email as a subscriber, and would like to comment, please click on the Barry's Blog button above the Google icon on the top left hand side to be taken to the site.  Then scroll down to the end of the day's blog and click on the 'comment' icon.

Another resource on Big Data forwarded by Sandra Gibson.

Barry:  Question #4:  The NEA recently released How Art Works: The National Endowment for the Arts’ Five-Year Research Agenda with a System Map and Measurement Model. Please respond to this report considering the following:
       a)  What is excluded from the agenda?
       b)  What are the strengths and limitations of the agenda?
       c)  How will the agenda and the mapping system be helpful to the field?

Elizabeth Currid-Halkett:  Honestly I think it’s a extraordinarily ambitious and comprehensive project and document and it offers myriad different perspectives, approaches and arguments for the importance of the arts as both a social and economic engine, considering community, economy and quality of life.

That the NEA is taking such a serious and direct approach towards creating a gestalt for how art works and its wider implications speaks volumes for how far we have come in arts research.  Also, the NEA’s focus on the arts through this lens will send a strong signal to other research and policy bodies that this is an important topic.

Margaret Wyszomirski:  As an attempt to construct a system map this is a useful effort to spur discussion.  However since the primary purpose of the map seems to be to guide NEA research and to explain how prior agency research fits this proposed map, it is too narrowly focused if we are addressing the question of “what do we know about how the arts ecology works”.  The NEA is not the only—or even the primary-- source of research on this topic and for most of its history, it has conducted or sponsored little research on topics that did not have advocacy utility (this includes the participation research, the economic impact work.  It could be immensely helpful to the field if a set of literature reviews were conducted and circulated that not only reviewed individual components of this map but also discussed hoe we know what from what fields because perspective matters in uncovering basic assumptions.  In addition there are considerable gaps in how the report deals with arts infrastructure variables.  As someone who has done considerable academic work on a number of infrastructure variables, especially public policy and associations and professional networks, I know there is much that has been done that has not been noted in this report.  Finally, it seems to concentrate on the patterns and uses the variables identified to tell how where and when art is produced and consumed and by whom rather than explaining why those patterns occur and why certain variables produced the patterns that we can find.

Bryce Merrill:  I will begin with my concerns, but I will preface those remarks by saying that I find How Art Works (hereafter, “the report”) to be an important contribution to the field and a promising indicator of good things to come. Immediately, two strengths of the report stand out: 1) the expressed goal of the report to encourage arts research that is “theory-driven and pro-active” rather than “descriptive and reactive,” and 2) a vision of the arts as a “complete system” (5). The inextricable relationship of theory to research--whether theory drives research or is tested by it--is well established in serious research fields, but the arts field is not regularly reliant on theory building or testing. As well, the “systems” approach goes a long way toward undoing the analytical and organizational segmentation of art: the field has come to believe that the natural organization of art is by instrumental function, genre or style, organizational structure or sustainability model. These and many other ways of classifying the arts are abstractions and obscure the empirical connectedness of the arts. The systems map points to these connections and asks researchers to tell us more, not less, about them. Overall, the report is really good work from Sunil and his team.

I have two primary concerns about the Agenda.  The first reservation is substantive. I do not agree with the necessity or relevance of the inclusion of the “system component” labeled the “human impulse to create and express.” In the report, this primary system component is defined as “the basic drive for virtually all humans across all time to express themselves at some point, to make a creative mark” (12). The report is asking the reader to take it on face value that there is such an impulse--of all of the claims footnoted or substantiated by extant literature, this is not one of them. Or the report requires readers to humor the authors while they pay lip service to a popular sentiment regarding the innateness of creativity. I have no intention of stirring the debate of whether a human impulse to create exists, because I will likely come out on the unpopular side. However, the report could have a least included a perfunctory reference to Oliver Sacks’ Musicophilia to lend a little bit of legitimate support. A more radical approach would have been to cite Karl Marx, whose theory of the innate human drive to create would have provided good intellectual, if bad political cover. Instead, reference to the creative impulse sits on the surface of the report like an homage or a preemptive strike. “Yes, creativity (but maybe not art) is a part of the human soul,” the report seems to say, “but let’s move past that and onto the serious business of research.” Come to think of it, maybe I completely agree with how the report handled this!

My second criticisms regards the process for creating the report. I have no doubt in the impossibility of including everyone who should have consulted in the creation of this report, but I am concerned that some very important perspectives are missing here. I recognize that Sunil invites “scholars, arts practitioners, and policy-makers” to engage with report and provide feedback, but I question the impact of post hoc reaction over formative contribution. I would also reject any claim that a literature review, no matter how substantial, constitutes consultation from academics in the field. I perceive the NEA to be pushing for a more academic approach to research, as evidenced by their recent co-convening with the Brookings Institute and Art Works grant awards for research. The report even argues that “some of the most compelling research [on the arts] has originated in non-arts specialities” (6). Yet there are some obvious academic players in the arts and related fields missing from the list of influential participants. Instead, myriad arts organizations are heavily represented among the participants. I see no participants among this group that do not belong at the proverbial table, but many who do belong I do not see listed. The answer to my concern is likely hidden in the diplomatic, bureaucratic, and logistical details of this report’s creation, but such an oversight bedevils an otherwise exemplary effort. I do hope that whatever feedback the agency has received from the public will be either integrated into future modifications of the report or responded to publicly.

One direct benefit of the field, if it is to be realized, is the report’s emphasis on the complex ways that the arts benefit individuals and societies. Beyond economic impact, the report theorizes individual and communal level health effects, psychological, and “quality of life” impacts, and even the admittedly difficult to categorize “capacity to innovate and express ideas.” This theory of diverse impacts should remind policy makers and arts advocates that the arts has more than one horn to toot and, more importantly, more than money to ask for in return for all that we do.

If the system map presented in the report is a theory of how art works, then it is a theory that needs to be tested. Given the complexity of the map, this testing will take a long time, much longer than the five-year expiration date of the NEA’s research agenda. Undoubtedly, the results of these tests of the system map will also require revisions; theory and research always exists in an ongoing reflexive relationship. The true value of this project will not be known for some time; in the meantime, we should take it as a sign of good things to come. Also worth watching is how the NEA funds research that does or does not follow the system map. I’ve temporarily shelved my project on the social construction of the human spirit until I see how all of this is going to shake out.

Randy Cohen:  During the release event for the How Art Works 5-Year Agenda, American University’s Andrew Taylor reminded us of George Box’s quote: “All models are wrong, but some are useful.”  The arts system is a complex one.  As someone who has worked in the sector for decades, I find it multifaceted and not always intuitive.  Imagine what it must look like to those outside the arts who are used to measuring success by number of potholes filled, on-time flight departures, or widget sales.  The NEA systems map provides an excellent starting place to share the arts system’s complexity with people whose understanding stops at a reflection on the last exhibit they attended.  The NEA has been very effective in connecting with non-arts government agencies (e.g., HHS, NSF, or Transportation).  Having an OMB-approved research blueprint is a useful calling card as the agency continues to build those relationships.

The success of this effort will be measured over time.  If How Art Works is treated as a “living document”—one that is regularly revisited, used to provoke discourse, and added to over time—it will provide not just a research agenda, but a better understanding of the arts system.  That takes us one step closer to understanding how to make the arts thrive.  I would expect the map to change over time because the industry changes over time. As I listened to the presentation, I wondered what the systems map, with its stocks and flows, would have looked like 17,000 years ago when they were painting caves in Lascaux.  Would it have any complexity or share similarities?

. . .  I can imagine the ‘Human Impulse to Create and Express’ box would capture the moment that first bull was drawn . . . There were painters—probably many given the 2,000 images—and presumably torch-carrying admirers, so the ‘Arts Creation and Participation’ circle still belongs . . . Was there an apprenticeship program to facilitate branching out to new caves? There is your ‘Education & Training’ box (we can save the arts-integration-into-caveman-learning  vs.  arts-for-arts-sake debate till later) . . . Someone was in charge of pigment collection and fire-tending to keep the rocky canvas well lit, so the ‘Arts Infrastructure’ box stays . . . Safe to say that funding and patronage came later, but did those early societies risk their best artists on the most dangerous hunts? (“arts saves lives” even back then—content for the ‘Benefit of Art to Individuals’ box) . . . With all those artists and images, new jobs were spawned—among the first was undoubtedly The Art Critic.

I was surprised at how well the systems map helped me imagine even a caveman’s arts system.  Is there anything missing in the NEA report?  Sure. I would like to see more about money (who pays for the arts and where is it on the map?), international connections, and aesthetics.  Will the system be interpreted differently based on cultural differences?  Reflecting on George Box’s quote, certainly the model is not yet “right,” but I expect that these and others questions will be addressed as the document evolves, thus making this useful.

Sunil Iyengar:
a)  What is excluded from the agenda?

The system map at the the heart of the How Art Works document shows (on. p. 37) how the NEA's current, planned, and ongoing research projects track with various components (or "nodes") of the arts ecology that we think worth studying. Looking at the map, you'll notice that some nodes are left entirely bare. For example, we currently do not have a research project planned that would attempt to figure out how arts engagement can result in "new forms of self-expression" and new "outlets for creative expression"--both of which are tagged as secondary outcomes of arts participation. Nor do we have near-term plans to study "the human impulse to create and express," which operates outside the system, being its first cause, according to our map. Still, one can imagine using the resources of cultural anthropology (e.g., oral narratives and observational studies), coupled with neuroscience and psychology, to dymystify the concept.

b)  What are the strengths and limitations of the agenda?

Since I'm not in a position (yet) to comment on the strengths and weaknesses of our ongoing five-year agenda, I'll answer this question in terms of the system map itself. I'd say its strengths are precisely its weaknesses. From the How Art Works document: "The system map helps put long-standing controversies and disputes into a context that allows multiple perspectives to exist. It provides what Keats called 'negative capability' -- the ability to imagine the system without having to resolve apparently contradictory aspects." This noncommittal stance freed us to pursue the intellectual exercise of mapping the core components of the arts, its inputs, and outcomes. But to make the map meaningful in a real-world context, we need to assign definite values to the nodes and, as it were, run some simulations. Then we'll know whether the components and their relationships have been justly defined and situated.

c)  How will the agenda and the mapping system be helpful to the field?

Taking up my last answer, I"ll note that the real-world "simulations" to which I refer would need to occur repeatedly, in many different types of communities, involving many different types of art. Only then would we emerge with a single validated construct of the arts in American life. As I write this, however, you probably can infer that for all my talk about "the real world," what I'm describing is almost wholly ideal, as hermetic as a lab experiment. Which is why the best way the system map can "be helpful to the field" is by giving others a straw-man to relate to their own constructs of art, and where they see themselves within it. We'll have succeeded if the map can help to dispel confusion about which common variables go into making an arts ecosystem, and which definitional issues we need to resolve before we arrive at standard measures for those variables. And we'll have done more than succeed if the map enters the lexicon of arts managers, funders, and cultural policy-makers, as an illustration of their roles and levers within the system.

The final question tomorrow deals with the challenges to our research and data collection.

Thank you all.

Have a great day.

Don't Quit