Monday, May 27, 2013

Want to Engage Me? - then Entertain Me

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

In response to dramatically changing circumstances - from demographics to technology, from revenue streams to artistic needs, from audiences and supporters to internal organization and governance - we are on the cusp of trying to re-imagine how we can survive and thrive.  Everything is on the table.  Nothing seems anymore sacrosanct.  We aren’t exactly sure what path to take, what approaches to embrace - but there is a growing resolution that change is needed.

As we explore ways to become adaptive to what amounts to a very new and different world, we have internalized the thinking that artists, arts administrators, arts organizations - all of us - must learn to be nimble, flexible, able to dart in and out of myriad other sectors with skill and confidence, able to relate to all the other influences in the world (or at least the various “communities” in which we find ourselves.)  Rigidity - in systems, structures and most of all, in approaches to creation and problem solving, is the culprit.  We now talk in earnest about pluralistic curation, cross platform dialogues, the replacement of rigidity in defining boundaries with transparence and flexibility, the end of hierarchies and clearly defined specialties in favor of a new vision of multi-tasking.  In the past, we use to call this becoming lean and mean.

If there is a single overarching governing theme for all of this effort, it seems to be “engagement”. We want to engage artists and have them engage their publics, we want to engage our sponsors, stakeholders, donors, volunteers, staffs, boards and anyone else we interact with.  We want to engage our communities and, of course, our audiences.

We mean many things when we use the umbrella of engagement.  It refers to what some argue is the critical mandate to make connections within our communities - so as to become relevant, so as to reach out and become involved with the disappearing audience, so as to cooperate and collaborate across disciplines and platforms.  It refers to the involvement of audiences as active participants (though participants in what is often undefined).  It refers to somehow relating the transformational possibility of the arts to (not non-believers), but to the unbelievers; the agnostics rather than the atheists.

Engagement as a theory is a very big tent.  Something for everyone and then some.  And therein lies some of its problem - its’ lack of definition; its’ lack of standards and measurement; its’ mass attraction but the difficulty of its application.  Like art itself, I guess you are suppose to know it when you see it.

I must admit I am confused about what we mean when we put forth “engagement” as the dominant approach for all our efforts.  At its’ simplest, the definition is to “hold the attention of” or to “induce to participate.”  Hmm, I would have thought we were doing that all along.  But obviously we mean to do that now on a deeper level, perhaps more systemically - in ways we haven’t yet explored. Who can disagree that being more engaging is a good thing.  The devil, of course, is in the details.  And I have a problem with the ambiguous, indefinite meaning behind the concept.  And, from my reading of widely conflicting viewpoints, I think the sector is unclear on a consensus meaning too.

Take one small thread of the larger “engagement” tapestry - audiences.  The theory which has become the common currency of all our approaches is that we need to better engage our audiences. How?  The answers seem to suggest increased relevance, more direct community involvement, more avenues for direct participation by the audience, employment of the full array of technological opportunities from simple dissemination to social networking and beyond, and pollination of cross sector interests - presumably if not in the art itself, then in everything leading up to the art and coming after.  Noble, lofty pursuits all - but amorphous and non-specific in the particulars.

I wonder if we aren’t getting a little too enamored with engagement, at least on the levels we seem to be embracing it. Please don’t get me wrong, I am one of those who supports the concept, and who wholeheartedly embraces the notion that we must be much more sophisticated in our competency at being “nimble” if we are to survive.  I am not suggesting we abandon the efforts to engage audiences in the value of the arts on the deeper levels of what Bill Ivey termed the “expressive life”; nor that we eschew efforts to engage various communities in concerns specific to them. But I also wonder if we aren’t rushing to don the cloak of engagement as we not so long ago rushed to embrace Richard Florida’s panacea of the creative community, and that in the process we are giving short shift to the simple pleasure of being entertained by the arts.

We talk a lot about the transformational power of the arts.  How even a single arts experience can impact a life and change a person’s thinking, perspective and even behavior.  I have no doubt of this.  I have, as have countless others, experienced that power.  I have been moved by a painting, a musical piece, a dance performance.  And nothing has had more power in changing my life than the written word.  CamusMyth of Sisyphus wherein he deconstructs what he said was one of the two main philosophical questions of life - suicide - had a profound impact on my thinking. And while that treatise was powerful, it paled in comparison with Shakespeare’s Hamlet soliloquy which addressed the same question in all its manifestations in only three hundred words or so.

But those transformational moments are few and far between. Different for everyone, yes.  But for the most part people do not avail themselves of the arts for those moments.  Those moments don’t happen every time one is exposed to the arts. Selling the arts as “good for you” is like telling a six year old to eat their carrots because they are good for you; true as it may be - it is not a persuasive argument.

What I never hear in all the talk about engaging our audience is any mention of our “entertainment” value.  I enjoy going to arts performances.  Some are excellent, some boring.  I go not to be engaged on some deep level, but really to be entertained. Entertainment as a concept is anathema to us.  Being entertaining is low brow, something that appeals to some baser instincts, hardly worth the effort of the arts.  We are above that - more meaningful and important than that.  We are “transformational”. Yet being entertaining ought to be at the centerpiece of engagement efforts, because that’s what people want.  They want a diversion, they want to be amused, they want to escape, they want to enjoy the experience.  If you really want to engage people, you have to entertain them.  We eschew the very idea as unworthy of our efforts.  Our mantra has been that it isn’t the job of the arts to give people what they want.  We give them ‘art’.   But those who defend that position fail to appreciate that ‘art’ - at least art that has resonated with the public - has always been entertaining and enjoyable.

Entertaining doesn’t have to mean mindless, base, insipid  or any other negative thing.  Note that I am not arguing that artists should be guided in their creative efforts by some maxim that they have to be entertaining.  But I am suggesting that if we want to more richly engage audiences, then the entertainment factor cannot be ignored.  Artists can do what they like. Audiences can come or stay away - and, unfortunately, they are increasingly staying away.

Much of the art that has meant something to me over a lifetime - whether an exhibition or a performance or something else has invariably been entertaining - a diversion, fun, enjoyable. Whether or not the artist had any notion of engaging me, my concerns, the community, or whatever - I was entertained by their creativity. I enjoyed myself.  Isn’t that enough?  Must I have had a profound epiphany, a life altering experience in order to be engaged?  Must it all have meaning?  Must the artist have meant to use ‘art’ as a tool to be relevant, to address community concerns?  Must their motivation have been to impact behavior or even just thinking. Isn’t it enough for the artist to simply ‘create’, and if it meant something to some of us - all to the good?  We sell ourselves short by excluding being entertaining as part of the mix.

I go to the movies.  Not as much as some people, but a dozen times a year or more.  Many of the movies are disappointing.  I accept that going in; it’s entertainment.  I go to more movies than arts performances for the simple reason that it is easier - more convenient and cheaper.  I don’t have to get dressed up, I don’t have to drive far, I can go pretty much on the spur of the moment, parking is often free, and the cost of admission (while getting more and more expensive all the time) is still relatively cheap.  I get some of the same benefits of going to an arts performance - the camaraderie of friends at a social outing, the possibility that something may stay with me, and I am engaged in the movie theater.  Is it transformational?  Not very often, but sometimes it is.  Yoda’s remark to a young Luke Skywalker as he mentally levitates Luke’s spaceship out of the muck , when Luke says:  “I can’t believe it” and Yoda replies “Yes, and that is why you fail” was as profound an epiphany to me as was my first viewing of Van Gogh’s The Harvest.  Movies are entertainment, and I think qualify too as ‘art’; indeed, we include film as part of the wider arts.  But as an industry, the movies wouldn’t fare well at all, if the only concern in green lighting a project were that it engaged the audience on deep levels, or that it addressed the concern of specific communities.

How do we make the arts more entertaining?  I don’t know, but it ought to be a goal. (Here's one example:  The Rijksmuseum in Holland had an idea:  "Let's bring the art to the people and then, hopefully, they will come to see more - at the museum. They took one painting of Rembrandt's from 1642, "Guards of the Night" and brought to life the characters in it, placed them in a busy mall and the rest you can see for yourself here .")

We seem to rely too much on the "classics" - be it theater or opera or symphonies or whatever.  Unless you are a Thorton Wilder devotee (or your son or daughter is in a high school performance) how many times can you see Our Town and still be entertained.  I saw the Godfather again for the first time in years, and it was a joy to watch again, but if my local movie cineplex offered it every week I wouldn't be going. Where is the original programming?

We do lots of studies with our audiences.  We survey them, put them in focus groups, query them on why they don’t come more. What we ought to be doing is spending more time with those who are not in our audiences - ever - asking them why they don’t come at all.  My guess is that beyond issues of convenience, time and cost, one of the primary reasons is that their expectation is that they won’t be as entertained as the other options available to them.  This is part of the crux of our challenge. People aren’t going to eat carrots if they don’t like them, even if they are good for you. The Arts are good for you argument is a precarious foundation on which to pin our future, at least as a strategy to expand the audience.  Even if we can keep every audience member we already have (and it appears we aren't) , it simply won’t be enough for the future of our sector.

Another assumption of engagement as related to our audiences seems to be that people want to be more involved, participate more, in the experience.  I’m not sure what that means exactly.  Do people want to have some role in the creation process?  Do they want to have some extra in-theater role as a play or dance piece is presented?  While I believe in the theory that people want to act as their own curator in the process of experiencing art or the arts, and that certainly applies to the employment of new technologies, I don’t know if that means they want something more than having some art presented to them from which to choose.  I go to the theater or a dance performance or a music concert to have artists present their vision to me.  I want it to be entertaining on some level.  More often than not, it is.  I am perfectly satisfied with that role.  I don’t necessarily want an expanded role or relationship.  If it addresses some critical community or societal need, ok. Great.  But it doesn’t have to.  If there is a transformational aspect for me personally, great.  But that is a bonus.  Does that mean I am now an aberration?  Even if people who do not really want a much deeper and higher level of involvement is a declining percentage, the question is whether or not that percentage is still large enough that we ought to take into consideration their preferences.  Engagement means as many different things as there are people.  Do we pick an approach and just go with it to the exclusion of those that aren’t within that cohort?  Risky business that.

In a wonderful Op-Ed piece written by Notre Dame Professor of Philosophy Gary Gutting, puts forth the view that the real purpose of higher education ought to be “engaging students in certain intellectual exercises”.  (Thank you again to Thomas Cott’s blog.  What would I do without his unearthing so many thoughts for me to access).  But college students are a captive audience, and the higher education setting allows for engagement to be somewhat controlled.  Not true for our audience development efforts to attract the people who never come to our offerings.  Even if engagement with communities to embed the arts more in their concerns is a valid approach to audience expansion to those who never come to our events, I think we can’t ignore the value of being entertaining to the success of those efforts.

If we aren’t entertaining - not by our definition or standards, but by the definition and standards of the people who don’t come to see us, then I think we are in deep trouble. WE have to do the adapting, not those we want engaged with us.  We have to give some credence to what engagement means to the people we are trying to engage.  And on many levels, a large portion of those people simply don’t care about how we relate to our communities, whether or not we play a meaningful role in addressing the challenges of social justice, health care or any other purpose we may want them to internalize.  They want to be entertained.

It seems a bit of a conceit to ascribe what is important to people based on our projections of what they should think.  It is virtually impossible to expose people to the power of the arts to give them a sense of the great pleasure of intellectual and aesthetic fulfillment, if you can’t get them to partake in the arts in the first place.  There remains in the public psyche the feeling that the arts are not really all that entertaining.  Not true, but a persistent mindset that stifles all our attempts to truly engage those we most want to reach out to -- those who never come to our performances and exhibitions.  Maybe I am just dense and the value of ‘entertainment’ is inherently woven into the whole concept of engagement - so essential as not to even need identification.  But then why isn’t it more discussed?

I am also concerned that as we grapple with the new realities and altered circumstances beyond our control, and sincerely and genuinely try to move with the changing tide, that we are become too enamored with our own newly created vocabulary and lexicon.  I fear that, except in academic circumstances where it may be entirely appropriate and even necessary -- on the daily playing field, even just with each other -  we are beginning to blur our understanding of what we talking about by our fascination with “big” words to describe “vague” concepts.  Engagement seems to mean very different things to different people.  If it is to be one of our governing principles, we need at least some consensus of what it means.

Cross section this, shared commonalities of whatever, paradigm shifts, curatorial engagement.  Sure, we know what this all means, but it does get confusing and there is a great danger in assuming that what someone else thinks it means is the same thing you think it means.  (I am as guilty of this as anyone.)  And it has the unfortunate consequence of making us appear even more elitist and distant from the ‘common man’ in the street.  Making it all too complex on its surface and too academic (at least in the way the public can access our dialogues - and the public can now access every field's dialogues), and the net result is anything but engaging.  I wish we could talk a little straighter with each other - not dumb it down - but make it all easier for everyone to be on the same page by jettisoning the growing addiction to a vocabulary that, while it sounds elegant and erudite, is really not improving our understanding of just what the hell we mean.  I think of myself as reasonably intelligent, but I am constantly reading reports, studies, opinions, articles and more - and coming away with the sinking feeling that I am not sure, at all, what is being said.  The differences of opinion on 'engagement' - its' meaning, application and even the reasons why it makes sense are all over the map.  I am reminded of the sage advice:  “Keep it simple, stupid!”

Have a great week.

Don’t Quit

Monday, May 20, 2013

Announcing the Dinner-vention Party Guest List

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

The Dinner-vention Party - Jammin' at Djerassi

Last fall I announced the Dinner-vention project - a fantasy made reality Dinner party to gather a dozen of the best and brightest of the up and coming thinkers and leaders in our field to discuss, in depth, a topic of critical importance to our field, and share this group's thinking and (most importantly) specific, new ideas on how to address the challenge embedded in that topic. We invited you to submit the names of possible guests. Click here for that original blog post.

The response was huge.  We got over 350 suggested names from across a wide sector of our field - enough really for twenty dinner parties.  Our advisory committee culled the list down, and we made the final selection of the twelve guests.  Our number one criteria in the selection was people who have gained a reputation for new, innovative and creative thinking in dealing with all the challenges we face, but who haven't yet fully gotten recognition for being the rising stars they are.  We also wanted to make sure we had a fair representation of the diversity in our field - including discipline or interest area, geography, gender and ethnicity.  We believe we have a great table.  The decisions were not easy as we had so many great names from which to pick.

Margot Knight the Executive Director of the Djerassi Resident Artist Program - a world class artist resident facility in the hills overlooking the Pacific Ocean south of San Francisco graciously offered to host the event.  Djerassi is an extraordinary facility, in a stunningly beautiful setting, and we thought it made perfect sense to hold the dinner party at an arts venue rather than a hotel, so we accepted Margot's generous offer.

I am very excited about the group of people that will be at this dinner.   They all have exemplary bona fides, significant accomplishments in their work, meaningful platforms from which they have already garnered substantial influence and recognized critical thinking capacity.

The dinner guests themselves are in the process of determining what one or two topics on which they will focus at the dinner event.  Once that determination has been made, I will share it with you all. Each dinner guest will be drafting a brief outline of some of their preliminary thinking on whatever topic is finally selected, and I will be posting those briefing papers on my blog over the course of the summer.  We intend to have in-depth conversations with, and among, all of the dinner guests so that we productively use the limited discussion time to cogently present new thinking.  As stated in the original blog post, we don't want another rehashing of the points with which everyone is already familiar.  And we don't want another opened ended discussion that fails to suggest solutions or answers to the challenges on our plates.

The Dinner-vention party will be held at Djerassi on Friday, September 6th.  We will video tape the dinner conversation and, after the event, put the video on my blog (probably broken into segments to be posted on my blog over a week or more so as to make it easier to watch) to share with everyone the ideas and thinking of the dinner guests.  My hope is that the guests can put forth some compelling thoughts on the topic and that their thinking will stimulate further discussion and dialogue across the sector.  I hope this inaugural dinner might be the first of many to come over the years.

I want to thank all of those who suggested names.  Part of the original blog post promised that we would hold a random drawing of all those who suggested names for the dinner guests and the winner of that drawing would be invited, as our guest, to attend the dinner and observe the proceedings.  WESTAF has conducted that random drawing, and we will be extending the invitation to that person this week.  I will announce that name as soon as I have their acceptance.

I want to thank Shannon Daut for all of her help in the launch of this project, the members of our advisory group (Ian David Moss, Mitch Menchaca, Richard Evans, Nina Simon, Ron Ragin and Gary Steuer) and Laurel Sherman at WESTAF for her help with all the logistics to date.  And I want to especially thank Anthony Radich at WESTAF for his tireless help and his support for the project, without which it simply would not have been possible.

Here then are the names and thumb-nail bios of the the invited (and confirmed) dinner guests (in alphabetical order):

The Dinner Guest List:

Salvador Acevedo
Salvador Acevedo is an executive, consultant, and researcher who helps link the social capital of organizations with business opportunities for growth. Acevedo is interested in the commonalities that connect people and communities—whether collective experiences, shared perspectives, or points of arrival—and he applies these commonalities to develop strategies that are beyond multicultural and are, instead, truly intercultural. He has worked with numerous educational institutions, corporations, and foundations on projects ranging from consumer intelligence to organizational transformation. Acevedo is a regular speaker at conferences around the country on topics of cultural participation, cultural competence, and demographic and technology trends. He is a recipient of the 2008 Latino Business Leadership Award, presented by the San Francisco Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, the San Francisco Business Times, and Wells Fargo. Acevedo earned a master’s degree in communications from Universidad Iberoamericana in Mexico City and a diploma in marketing from the University of California, Berkeley and is certified by Research in Values and Attitudes, Inc. (RIVA, Inc.) as a qualitative market researcher.

Tamara Alvarado
Tamara Alvarado is the director of community access and engagement for the School of Arts and Culture at the Mexican Heritage Plaza. From 2003 to 2008, Alvarado served as executive director of MACLA/Movimiento de Arte y Cultura Latino Americana in San Jose, California. From 1999­ to 2003, she served as program director for Washington United Youth Center, a partnership between Catholic Charities of Santa Clara County and the city of San Jose. She is a member of the board of trustees of WESTAF and is president of the board of directors for ACE Charter Schools in the Mayfair neighborhood of San Jose. Alvarado is also the co­founder of the Multicultural Arts Leadership Initiative, a leadership-development program for people of color working in arts, culture, and entertainment. A traditional Aztec dancer for the past 13 years, she is a member of Calpulli Tonalehqueh Danza Azteca of San Jose. Originally from Escondido, California, she holds a bachelor’s degree in Spanish literature from Stanford University.

Kimberly Howard
Kimberly Howard was appointed to manage the Oregon Cultural Trust in 2009. Previously, she was managing director of Portland’s Interstate Firehouse Cultural Center and education/outreach director for Artists Repertory Theatre. She has served on the board of Business for Culture and the Arts and currently represents Oregon on WESTAF’s Regional Multicultural Advisory Committee. Howard is an accomplished actress with credits in New York, the Williamstown Theatre Festival, and several Portland theaters. She continues to perform with Portland area theaters, most recently Artists Repertory Theatre, Profile Theatre, Base Roots Theatre, and Literary Arts. Howard holds an MFA in acting from Columbia University and has taught theater at Walla Walla College.

Marc Bamuthi Joseph
Marc Bamuthi Joseph serves as director of performing arts at the Yerba Buena Center in San Francisco, where he is active in the areas of performance, arts education, and artistic curation. In the fall of 2007, Joseph appeared on the cover of Smithsonian Magazine as one of “America’s Top Young Innovators in the Arts and Sciences.” He is the artistic director of the seven-­part HBO documentary Russell Simmons presents Brave New Voices and is an inaugural recipient of the United States Artists Fellowship, which annually recognizes 50 of the country’s “greatest living artists.” He is the 2011 Alpert Award winner in theater, and he was one of 21 artists to be named to the inaugural class of Doris Duke Artists in 2012. Joseph has developed several poetically based works for the stage that have toured across the U.S., Europe, Asia, and Africa. Joseph’s current evening-­length project, red, black & GREEN: a blues, is among the anchors of the Kennedy Center’s 2013-­2014 programming season. He is the founding program director of the non­profit Youth Speaks and is a co­founder of Life is Living, a national series of one-­day festivals designed to activate under­-resourced parks and affirm peaceful urban life through hip hop arts and focused environmental action. After graduating from Morehouse College in 1997, Joseph earned a master's degree in education from San Francisco State University.

Lex Leifheit
Lex Leifheit is the executive director of South of Market Arts, Resources, Technology and Services (SOMArts), a hybrid of a cultural center, arts-service provider, co­working space, and contemporary gallery. Founded in 1979, SOMArts has a history of nurturing small and mid­sized culturally- specific organizations as well as counterculture arts movements, such as the first Burning Man exhibition in 1994. At SOMArts, Leifheit has established programs such as the Commons Curatorial Residency and Feast of Words: A Literary Potluck. She also has served as a member of the steering committee for the development of San Francisco Bay Area Emerging Arts Professionals and was a member of the Emerging Leaders Council of Americans for the Arts from 2007–2009. She previously held positions at the Eugene O'Neill Theater Center, Wesleyan University's Center for the Arts, and the Green Street Arts Center. Leifheit received her master of arts degree in liberal studies from Wesleyan University and attended Drake University, where she received a bachelor’s degree in theater performance.

Clayton Lord
Clayton Lord is the vice president of local arts advancement for Americans for the Arts. In that role, he works to further the goal of making all of the arts accessible by empowering local arts agencies, service organizations, civic minded arts institutions, artists, and patrons to make the arts more relevant to their communities. Previously, Lord worked at Theatre Bay Area, where he created a robust audience-development and research program, including the Bay Area Big List, the Free Night of Theater, and the DataPoint Research program. Lord is a prolific blogger at and has edited and contributed to the work Counting New Beans: Intrinsic Impact and the Value of Art for Theatre Bay Area. His essays and research papers, many of which center on issues of equity, access, and impact around art in America, have been published in Artivate, ArtsBlog, Theatre Bay Area magazine, HowlRound, In Dance, Stage Directions, and other publications. Lord holds a bachelor’s degree in English and psychology from Georgetown University.

Nina Simon
Nina Simon serves as the executive director of the Santa Cruz Museum of Art and History, where she led an institutional turnaround based on grassroots community participation. She teaches in the University of Washington Museology graduate program and is the author of The Participatory Museum (2010) and the popular Museum 2.0 blog. Previously, Simon worked as an independent consultant to over 100 museums and cultural centers around the world. She has been described by Smithsonian Magazine as a “museum visionary” for her audience-­centered approach to design. She began her museum career as an experience-development specialist at the International Spy Museum in Washington, D.C.. Simon holds a degree in electrical engineering from Worchester Polytechnic Institute in Massachusetts.

Devon Smith
Devon Smith is the director of social media and analytics at Threespot, a digital engagement agency in Washington, D.C. that builds online tools and interactive experiences for clients. At Threespot, Smith leads a staff of social media managers and digital analysts who help clients build long-­term, high-­value relationships with their constituents and measure the impact of those connections. Smith has recently led engagements with clients such as the Smithsonian Institution, BBC America, UNICEF, Pew Charitable Trusts, and Planned Parenthood. She has spoken at numerous conferences, covering topics from social fundraising and online personal branding to social media metrics and an industry-­wide social media survey. Smith has worked for the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, World Science Festival, Actors Theatre of Louisville, and arts organizations across the U.S. in marketing, development, and general management roles. She holds an MBA and an MFA, both from Yale University, as well as two bachelor’s degrees from the University of Washington.

Kristin Thomson
Kristin Thomson is a social researcher, musician, and organizer and a consultant for the national nonprofit Future of Music Coalition (FMC), which advocates on behalf of musicians. Thomson co-­directs FMC’s multi­method Artist Revenue Streams research project, which is examining changes in musicians’ sources of income. Thomson joined the Future of Music Coalition in 2000 and served in a number of roles ranging from project management and research to overseeing event programming, including Future of Music Policy Summits from 2002 to 2006. She was also the primary author of Arts Organizations and Digital Technologies, which was released by the Pew Research Center's Internet and American Life Project in 2013. Thomson holds a bachelor’s degree in sociology from Colorado College.

Margy Waller
Margy Waller is an advocate for the creation of community through the arts. She is a Senior Fellow at Topos Partnership, a national strategic communications research organization; founder and current serendipity director of Art on the Streets; and a leader in the transformation of ArtsWave, a non­profit arts-advocacy and support organization. Previously, Waller was visiting fellow at the Brookings Institution with a joint appointment in the Economic Studies and Metropolitan Policy programs. Prior to her work at Brookings, she was senior advisor on domestic policy in the Clinton/­Gore White House. She is also a non-­practicing lawyer and a photographer. Waller is a graduate of Northwestern University and The Ohio State University Moritz College of Law.

Meiyin Wang
Meiyin Wang has served as the associate artistic producer of the Public Theater’s Under The Radar Festival since 2006. The Festival presents new and cutting­-edge theatrical works from the U.S. and around the world. Working alongside festival director Mark Russell, she has produced seven international symposia; overseen the presentation of over 100 productions from over 17 countries; and supported artists such as Nature Theater of Oklahoma, Reggie Watts, Elevator Repair Service, and Young Jean Lee. Wang was the lead curator of ArtsEmerson’s TNT Festival 2012 and was an associate producer of Radar LA 2011. Wang is a recipient of the Theatre Communications Group’s Nathan Cummings Foundation Young Leader of Color award and is part of the TCG network of intergenerational leaders of color. Born and raised in Singapore, Wang served as resident playwright and director with Singapore Repertory Theatre before coming to New York. She has directed at the Singapore Repertory Theater, HERE, Brava, and Joe's Pub. Wang holds a bachelor’s degree in political science and theater studies from Yale and an MFA in directing from Columbia University.

Laura Zabel
Laura Zabel is the executive director of Springboard for the Arts, an artist- ­led economic development agency based in Minnesota. Springboard provides programs that help artists make a living–and a life–and supports programs that help communities tap into the resources that artists provide. Springboard's projects include Community Supported Art, which is based on the community-supported agriculture model and connects artists directly with patrons, and the Artists Access to Healthcare program, which was awarded the 2010 Social Entrepreneur's Cup. Springboard sponsors the Irrigate Project, a national model for how cities can engage artists to help reframe and address major community challenges and that organization also provides entrepreneurship training and other resources to artists and communities. Zabel recently received the Visionary Leader award from the Harvard Club and Minneapolis Council of Nonprofits. She has been one of the Minneapolis Business Journal's “40 Under 40” and Minnesota Monthly’s “Twelve Minnesotans Who Can See the Future.” She serves on advisory boards for the Knight Foundation, Twin Cities LISC, and the University of Kansas. Zabel is a frequent speaker at conferences, including the Aspen Ideas Festival. Zabel has a bachelor’s degree in theatre from the University of Kansas.

I believe this is an absolutely extraordinary guest list.

More to follow.

Have a great week.

Don't Quit.

Sunday, May 12, 2013

Fundraising - Even More To Think About

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

Fundraising.  Yikes.  It’s taking more time, often yielding weaker returns.  The challenges are daunting.

Consider these factors we face:
  • A continuing weakened economy.
  • A decline in the percentage of the total of all philanthropic donations going to arts organizations.
  • Increased competition from other worthy causes for scarce donor dollars.
  • Declining audiences and corresponding revenue.
  • A generation whose philanthropic priorities and preferred means of donating remains unclear.
  • Anemic success in expanding corporate or business support.
  • Stalled earned income from ancillary sources such as merchandising, and a failure to make meaningful inroads into those revenue streams.
  • A culture wherein fundraising is the most territorial of all endeavors by an individual organization, and wherein there often isn’t even consideration of whether or not some collaborative effort might yield greater returns for all the participants.
  • Limited foundation dollars and changing priorities.
And now more troubling news:

A recently released joint report from Compasspoint and the Evelyn and Walter Haas Jr. Foundation entitled UnderDeveloped - a National Study of Challenges Facing Nonprofit Fundraising, describes the challenges as follows:            
“For years now, there has been widespread concern in the nonprofit sector about premature turnover of development directors, lengthy vacancies in the role, and the seemingly thin pool of qualified candidates from which organizations can choose. The development director is commonly labeled a “revolving door” position, and “the hardest to fill and retain” by executives, board members, funders, and capacity builders alike. Moreover, the challenge of assessing development director performance when so many factors influence an organization’s fundraising success can leave executives and board members suspecting—but uncertain—that they could raise more money with someone else in the role. At the same time, development directors frequently lament the lack of consistent attention to fund development from executives, staff, and board members, rendering their job a frustrating set-up.”
The report goes on to note that:
“Development experts have long cautioned that having a skilled development director is not enough. Beyond creating a development director position and hiring someone who is qualified for the job, organizations and their leaders need to build the capacity, the systems, and the culture to support fundraising success.” 
 Further, the report notes that too many organizations do not have:
  • Skilled, trained Executive Directors that are active critical participants in the ongoing fundraising process.
  • Boards that appreciate, and accept their role as fundraisers.
  • A culture of philanthropy that transcends the entire organization.
  • An investment in technology and other resources enabling it to function at a high level in the fundraising arena.
In a separate study: Time, Treasure, Talent:  Priority Confusions on Nonprofit Boards, posted by Colleen Dilenschneider conducted by the private company Impacts, at which she works,  on the role of Boards and Staff in the discharge of fundraising responsibilities comes this key finding, echoed by Executive Directors interviewed in the UnderDeveloped report above:
“Nonprofit board members grossly overestimate the importance of their own time and talent, and believe personal philanthropy to be the least of their responsibilities in the “time, treasure, talent” continuum.”
"Grossly overestimate the importance of their time and talent."  Bottom line: Too often Boards don’t want to be actively involved in, let alone accept responsibility for, raising funds.  In my opinion, all of the other issues attendant to Boards are frankly secondary to the Board’s fiduciary duty to insure the financial health of the organization, and that means they must be part of the development process (not just oversee it).  But too often they aren’t.  THAT is a major problem for the whole sector.

So here is a summary of the state of the fundraising operations in our field:
  • A pervasive attitude that fundraising isn’t really part of the mission of our organizations.  
  • The erroneous belief that all we have to do is hire a good Development Director and that absolves anyone / everyone else in the organization from worrying about raising funds.  Too many organizations never even bother to identify the realistic source(s) of new cash flow and support.  Hiring a Development Director whom you believe is highly experienced and skilled in writing and securing grants from foundations may be useless, if your organization is already near the maximum grant awards it can likely receive (and, yes there usually is a ceiling beyond which it is highly probable that there simply isn’t more foundation money for your organization). If there is more potential in expanding the pool of big donors, then what you ought to be looking for in a Development Director is someone with experience and skills, as well as a successful track record, in developing that source of income.  We don’t think like that.  We think more in general and generic terms of what we look for in a new hire.  Wasteful.
  • We eschew realistic job performance measurements in evaluating Development Directors.  And we make the mistake of thinking that the more we can offer in compensation, the better candidate we will attract.  Irrespective of how much they are paid, an increasingly higher percentage do not meet expectations (which is very likely not entirely their fault as those expectations are unrealistic).
  • A false belief that the pool of talented Development Directors is ample to meet the demand.  Look at the Jobs sites -- endless seeking of Development Directors, too few to meet the demand.
  • The belief that the pool of Development Executives is actually more skilled and talented than in fact, it may be.  Two or three years experience, a degree, and all the enthusiasm in the world, does not make for a successful performance.  
  • High turnover and long term vacancies in the post, and increasingly dissatisfied and frustrated people in those positions.  How can we expect to have happy, satisfied performers in these positions when essentially we say:  “Here Sisyphus - push this rock up to the top of the hill.  No actually, push it over the hill
  • Boards of Directors are unclear on their role as fundraisers and frequently unwilling to accept that role in any event.
We need to look at the whole (and big) picture in order not to come up with band-aid, piecemeal solutions.  We need to question every component in the whole food chain of the fundraising process:
We need to take a new and different approach to Development Directors:
  • How we train them.
  • How we support them.
  • How we recruit and retain them.
  • Defining more precisely where each of our organizations has the greatest potential for adding revenue streams, and hiring to those challenges rather than hiring to some nonexistent generic ideal.
  • What we look for in a candidate. 
  • How we measure their performance. 
  • How we integrate the fundraising function into the whole fabric of the entire organization and into the process of raising funds.
  • How Boards can (finally) accept a fully responsible role in the process.  
We need to look long and hard at:
  • Our historical dependence on both public and foundation support.  Our advocacy efforts have, at  best, kept us alive, and not much more.
  • Whether or not we can reliably count on our past earned income sources as audiences and donor giving declines. 
  • How we manage competition within our sector and what unbridled growth vs.  managed shrinkage of the sheer numbers of our organizations may mean.  We can’t just continue to allocate an inadequate pie to ever more people in line.
  • Whether or not real collaboration in fundraising efforts has a place or is a waste of time.  If we aren’t willing to work in concert to address some of these problems, and everyone is to be essentially on their own, let’s just say so, and stop wasting time living a fantasy that we are in this together.
There are no easy answers to any of this.  But we need to spend more time examining the whole process and facing some hard realities.  And we probably need to re-consider some fundamental changes in the basic assumptions underlying our approaches.

Have a good week.

Don’t Quit.

Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Interview with Arlene Goldbard - Part II

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

The Interview:  Part II

Barry:  You talk about giving “cultural impact (the impact of our actions on a community’s cultural fabric”) standing in planning and policy decisions.” And you talk about something I heard you speak about some time ago - the idea of a Cultural Impact Report (as a companion to the Environmental Impact Report) requirement for building projects. I love that idea. How do we make that a reality?

Arlene:  I love it too. There are so many horror-stories of culturally significant, vital neighborhoods destroyed to make way for things like downtown performing arts centers or stadiums that turn the city center into a ghost-town when they are dark. We sometimes halt construction to save an endangered bird or plant: let’s at least assess the damage our actions may do to cultural fabric. It wouldn’t always be a toggle switch: red-light or green-light a project. Sometimes compromises or remedial actions might emerge from an assessment. And I don’t know that it would be so hard to enact. I could draft the cultural impact assessment instrument right now. I see it working at the local level first in some progressive cities and then, when people see it in action, trickling up.

Barry:  Your chapters on the relationship between art and healing, and the increasing awareness of that relationship, are particularly compelling. You note:
“In an experiment at Yale Medical School, half the students took an introductory art history seminar, and that translated into significant improvement in their diagnostic skills. Nancy Adler, a painter and S. Bronfman Chair in Management at McGill University in Montreal, wrote that this is because learning to see art teaches people to see both the details and the patterns among details....Rather than simply making global assessments based on what they had expected to see, the art-trained medical students more accurately saw the actual condition of the patients. After only one year, the art-trained student doctors’ improvement in their diagnostic skills was more than 25 percent greater than that of their non- art trained colleagues. Based on the success of the experiment at Yale, more than 20 additional medical schools have added art history to their curriculum.”
What specific things would you like to see develop in this arena that would help to move society towards the paradigm shift to the Republic of Stories? The character Lulu in The Wave works in a hospital where she is head of the Storytelling Corps. You describe Lulu’s work as:
“The work of Lulu and her colleagues is conditioned on the understanding that every illness is in some sense unique to the person, and that every person is his or her own best ally in healing. Members of the storyteller corps greet patients upon intake (conditions permitting, of course: bullet wounds seldom allow room for pre-treatment stories). They invest enough time and attention to get to know each person, helping patients mine their own stories for their own best medicine.”
What can we do to get hospitals and the medical profession to do this right now?

Arlene:  As with the example Nancy Adler describes, these things are beginning to happen already. I also talk about Gottfried Schlaug and others’ work with music and healing; or new programs in narrative medicine. This is part of what I mean by perception playing a huge role in paradigm shift. I think the most important thing we can do is to notice that this new arena is already opening up, and to welcome and promote every example, so that forward-thinking people in medical professions feel supported in taking these art-infused methods up and begin to influence their colleagues and institutions. It’s an organic process, this type of change. I don’t think it’s as much about making it happen as allowing, supporting, and encouraging. Right now the most essential step is to notice and spread the word that it is not some distant dream, it is already happening.

Barry:  What small steps do you advise people in the nonprofit arts take to move us towards the paradigm shift you envision - beyond the obvious challenge for each of us to imagine a better world?

Arlene:  I’ve mentioned some of them already: we should stand up and ask questions that pull back the curtain on conventional answers, for instance. Institutional leaders should call out the embedded racial and economic injustice of the current funding system, and call for something better—not just work the system to their own advantage. I’d like to see us challenge politicians who use arts funding as a form of political speech, as a signpost to signal that they are serious about “cutting the frills.” I’d like to see us go back to those officials with lists of all the expensive military and other pork they’ve bought with our taxes, rather than pretending to believe the budget-cutting cover-stories they put out. Many of the small steps that would help amount to a refusal to pretend, to go along to get along. That takes courage, and many people involved in cultural development have been persuaded not to speak truth to power. We have to ask where it’s gotten us.

In The Culture of Possibility, I describe artists as an “indicator species” for social well-being, much as oysters are an indicator species for the health of oceans. I talk about the way artists are seen and treated in Corporation Nation, in contrast to they way they ought to be seen: as stem cells of the body politic, creating the many forms of beauty and meaning needed to support our resilience and create a sustainable future. So I also think it’s essential for arts organization leaders to consider their own treatment of artists in that light. To mention a small point: artists are often asked to contribute their services free to producing, presenting, or advocacy organizations with large budgets, whose own leaders make quite remarkable salaries. What does this say about valuing their work?

Barry:  One area I may disagree with you is in the political arena. You say: “many arts advocates abandoned the importance of free expression, the personal and social need for beauty and meaning, and the social value of cultivating our intrinsic human desire to create, focusing instead on convincing opponents that art is really a clever strategy for raising test scores and tax revenues.” I know that there are many people who believe it is a titanic mistake to frame the value of the arts in economic terms; that doing so ignores and relegates the value of beauty as secondary to art and culture as a commodity, and I do accept your proposition that using economic and other non- intrinsic value of the arts arguments have not succeeded in effecting the paradigm change for which you argue. But it is almost as though you are suggesting that any argument that doesn’t accomplish such a paradigm shift is not only useless, but perhaps patently offensive. You take to task (and are pretty hard on) an American Arts advertising campaign that you feel promotes a single elitist frame of reference for the arts and fails to capture the essence of the value of art when you say:

“In 2008, Americans for The Arts, a national arts advocacy organization, offered a series of public service announcements that promote canonical artists—Brahms, Van Gogh, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Tchaikovsky—as if they were breakfast foods. The one I’ve seen most often, Raisin Brahms,62 is remarkable for its evident lack of awareness. An African American family sits at breakfast. (Since the starring artists are white, any nod in the direction of diversity must come from their admirers.) A white- bearded Johannes Brahms bursts through the wall riding a grand piano while touting his cereal fortified with “increased test scores and creative problem-solving.” Round- eyed and amazed, the two kids sprout their own long, silky, white beards. The tagline? “Feed your kids the arts.” Would you like a side of subtext with that? 
The unconscious character of this encoded snobbery does nothing to soften its effects. People know when they are being condescended to; few choose to volunteer for the experience. Taste is taste, not objective reality or ultimate virtue. " Personal taste is an artifact of social grouping as much as are individual choices: " mostly, people like what their friends like, or what is liked by those they admire or desire, or what places them in the same category as those whose status they covet. Yet the world that calls itself “the arts” has generated endless justifications for the moral and aesthetic superiority of certain preferences. The resulting invidious snobbery attaching to “the arts” goes a long way to explain why people " don’t come out in droves to lobby for arts funding.’ “
-- while at the same time decrying the pathetic amount of funding for the National Endowment of the Arts.

I would argue that the absence, over the past decade or even two, of economic and other arguments for the arts, might very well have resulted, not just in a decline in the NEA’s budget, but maybe no NEA at all. And the result of that reality would have meant countless organizations that provide artists and the public with a real service would not have been able to do so, and that untold numbers of artists would not have been supported. Where is the logic and value in that? Don’t you sometimes have to just survive, to fight another day? Can you respond to that observation.

Arlene:  As much as I might like to think I’d have enough influence to turn the entire tide of advocacy, I’m pretty sure many people will keep on with the old economic-impact arguments even though they haven’t worked, which is one of my main objections to them. When do you have enough information to declare a strategy failed and move on? In real dollars, the NEA is worth considerably less than half its value when Ronald Reagan took office. My observation is that many arts advocates are more comfortable continuing to fail in familiar ways than to try something new. If it feels like victory to have preserved less than half (again, in contrast to the boom in spending on prisons and wars, for instance), then it’s a Pyrrhic victory because it has cost us not only resources, but the moral high ground that comes from telling truth about the power of culture and creativity.

You’re suggesting that if these weak, secondary economic arguments hadn’t been made, arts funding would have been lost. But that presumes better arguments wouldn’t have been made in their stead. The enchantment with soft ideas like the economic multiplier effect makes us look weak and silly: sure, every theater ticket triggers expenditure on transportation or restaurants. But wrestling-matches and football-games trigger more; arts events have no special claim there. When we rely on weak arguments, we invite cuts, and that is what we’ve gotten.

Barry:   Further on the topic of advocacy, you say at one point:
“Advocates for public cultural investment cannot compete successfully in this money-driven political marketplace because they do not possess the vast economic power required. A campaign that consists of repeatedly inundating officials with assertions of art’s economic impact is not going to change that. The few elected officials who can be persuaded to act as forthright advocates will be those from safe, cosmopolitan districts; the rest will not jeopardize their seats by speaking out on an issue they do not see as critical to their support. The one possible path is mobilizing significant numbers to act, radically changing the way we and our fellow citizens see the public interest in art.”
You and I have debated this point before. My contention is that we (the arts) are one of the very few interest groups that is actually capable of achieving that “vast economic power” - by our sheer numbers and by virtue of the fact that we could do benefits for arts lobbying (and if even 10% of all arts performance groups did one such benefit every two years with the proceeds going to lobbying - not advocacy - we could raise millions of dollars). We don’t do that. But we could. And that would allow us to compete with the other special interest groups that have that power. On the other hand, mobilizing a “significant number of citizens to radically change the way we see art” and thus move us towards the paradigm shift seems to me a much more difficult endeavor. If we as a sector can’t even raise the money that we could, how can we possibly move the public to see the value of art? Or do you think engaging in the same tactics others who are successful in getting what they want from government would corrupt us and make us too much like the Corporate Nation that is part of the problem?

Arlene:  I’m not so interested in purity as practicality. Most of the major, successful lobbies are driven by huge economic benefit for their supporters. Oil companies, tank and missile manufacturers, Big Pharma have vast sums of money to invest in persuading votes their way. These efforts are capital-intensive rather than labor-intensive: they aren’t driven by mobilizing popular support, but in effect, by buying candidates. You don’t have legions of citizens showing up in Washington to lobby for drug companies. The cultural sector doesn’t have comparable funds unless you lump in Hollywood, and Hollywood is notoriously indifferent to support for other cultural sectors. In the absence of millions to spend on lobbying, we can’t buy votes. Arts advocates have trouble activating huge numbers of people to support existing arts budgets precisely because of the elitist coloration of the whole discourse about “the arts.” People don’t see themselves in it. They don’t see their own real lives, needs, and interests at stake. To up the impact, that has to change.

Barry:  You describe The Wave - your fictional work that complements The Culture of Possibility as follows:
The Wave is speculative fiction. In 2023, a young journalist, Rebecca Price, writes a series of articles describing an emergent cultural change that has been gathering force over the previous decade (even longer, some of her informants say). She draws on a range of examples unfolding in New York City, where she lives. “The Wave,” her name for the Zeitgeist—the rising spirit of the times—catches on, entering common usage. In 2033, she is asked by an editor to revisit her findings and report again. The text includes notes to her editor, excerpts from the 2023 series, and new material she writes in 2033.
Who can know how the future will unfold? I claim no predictive powers. But I have been careful not to include anything in The Wave that could not be enacted in the next twenty years. My hope is that a glimpse of this possible world will spark other social imaginations, and that readers will be inspired to add to our collective dream of a future worth pursuing, one that can override the dystopian self-discouragement that has become our daily fare.”
I must tell you that I was caught up in the work, and it brought to life some of your concepts in The Culture of Possibility, and for me, anyway, was a plausible description of how we might actually get to the paradigm shift that is the core of that book. Did you conceive of The Wave as always being a companion piece to the first book, or was it an afterthought? One of the catalysts that brought on the “wave” of new thinking about art and culture in the novel was Dr. Feelgood’s flagship store - an emporium nee kind of new spa / therapy almost, wherein people were helped with challenges in their lives by working directly with trained “Virtuosos” who guide them through the process of using various art pathways to deal with issues important to them. I love that. Why isn’t that approach included in the education of our children K-12?

Arlene:  I’m with you, Barry: it should be. Actually, I’d originally thought of the two main sections of The Culture of Possibility as small, freestanding books—three little books in a slipcase, maybe. But I wanted the work to be accessible, and that would have driven the price up. My early readers thought that The Wave should stand alone as a way into the ideas for people who love to learn through stories, so I decided to do it that way. But it was always part of my concept to offer many doorways into this material, precisely because we are different and have many different ways of learning and understanding.

If I were an entrepreneur instead of a writer, I’d have opened a Dr. Feelgood’s store. Someone is going to do it, I bet!

Barry:  One character in the book - Lulu, the roommate of protagonist Rebecca - works in hospitals and has dedicated her professional life to working with hospital patients. You describe her thusly:
“She works at New York’s Bellevue Hospital. After seven years on the job, she’s a senior member of the hospital’s storyteller corps, charged with patient interaction. If someone you care about has been in the hospital the last few years, you know what I’m talking about. The work of Lulu and her colleagues is conditioned on the understanding that every illness is in some sense unique to the person, and that every person is his or her own best ally in healing. Members of the storyteller corps greet patients upon intake (conditions permitting, of course: bullet wounds seldom allow room for pre-treatment stories). They invest enough time and attention to get to know each person, helping patients mine their own stories for their own best medicine.”
In a conversation between Rebecca, Lulu, and Lulu’s boyfriend Jacob, there is this exchange:

“Why should people listen to a stranger who believes he knows everything and they know nothing, who takes no time to listen to their stories, who cares nothing about the reality of their lives? Today, everyone understands that this is the way we learn.”
But we are a long, long way to getting to the point where people understand that this is how we learn. What do you think it will take to get to that point?

Arlene:  I think we’re halfway there. Gandhi said, “A correct diagnosis is half the remedy.” I don’t know anyone who thinks that the way medical care is typically delivered now is optimal. We tend to steel ourselves for the indifferences and insults we’ll encounter in the healthcare system, even when we understand no one intends them, they’re byproducts of a broken system and often just as frustrating to medical professionals as to patients. There’s no solution without building in the time and attention to engage with the whole person: body, emotions, intellect, and spirit.

Because the current healthcare system is so money-driven, I’m guessing that most progress will be made when research results prove that costs are reduced when this kind of fully dimensional attention is paid to those suffering from illness. And that research is starting to emerge. Here too, asking the big questions will help, because so much talk of healthcare reform is about tinkering with complex details—pruning the leaves rather than address the roots. It’s the underlying concept that’s wrong—the paradigm of medical care—so that’s where change must take place, at the root of the problem.

Barry:  Another character in the book, Lisa, the Principal of a school says this:
“When I was in school,” she told me, “these experiential modalities that used creative, artistic skills would be sequestered into one or two classes a week. If I could bring someone from my elementary school through time to Yung Wing today, they wouldn’t be able to tell me what class they were in: we use music and dance to study math, we make digital stories in science class and write poems about history. There are artists in every classroom, and every child has real opportunity to develop any strength he or she possesses. By the time I was in high school, teaching to the tests was the watchword, and most of our classroom hours were spent on rote tasks—quizzes, parroting back what we’d read in a book, drills. Everything was upside down. If someone was strongest as a kinetic learner, too bad. If someone had a great passion to interact with the world through visual images—the kid who filled the margins of his paper with drawings, for instance—that was a discipline problem, not a revelation of that child’s essence and opportunity.”
Where do you think a demand for this kind of change might come from - teachers? parents? administrators? government? or artists?

Arlene:  Parents and teachers seem to be on the frontlines right now. There are stellar examples around the country of “arts integration” programs that seem to be having a huge impact despite reduced circumstances. I love seeing people like Diane Ravitch, who was so enamored with charter schools and testing, wake up and speak out. When they do, more and more people listen. The truth is that every artist, every administrator, is also a public citizen who has some stake in social goods such as education. So we all have roles to play too; we aren’t just sequestered off into pursuing public funding, which can seem like nothing more than lobbying by the beneficiaries for their own rewards. When we do step up in the public arena, practicing democracy, we ought to bring our special gifts of creativity, improvisation, resourcefulness, and innovation to the debate. Conventional politics—the meeting, the petition, the position paper—are so boring. Why don’t we fix that?

Barry:  Central to The Wave (and to the success of the paradigm shift) seems to be moving the primacy of “stories” to the forefront of our various silos - home, family, business and work, education, health care and so forth. Why? How do we make people understand that “stories” are core to that which we value most - individuality, family, community, and freedom?

Arlene:  Stories are kind of the flavor of the year in business right now, interestingly enough. Forward-looking enterprises and commentators keep saying that focusing on metrics doesn’t actually drive success in terms of customers and dollars. They are counseling businesses to tell and listen to stories instead: actually engage with the customer as a whole person; actually join with your colleagues to craft a collective story of your work that encompasses and motivates them; and so on. Not all businesses are on board, of course, but many of the more nimble companies and companies in cutting-edge sectors are actualizing this knowledge.

Ironically, nonprofits and government are always behind when this kind of shift takes place. Their posture is defensive: they feel they have to keep justifying their existence, so they tend to stick with very conservative—that is, old-fashioned—methods. Right now, many are utterly obsessed with the quantification of value (getting more and more heavy-handed and prescriptive in their guidelines and putting people through pointless exercises such as constructing logic models that no one ever looks at again). The tacit assumption is that this will make them look “businesslike,” and that will somehow lead to respect and success. But really, it just makes them look like they are trying to impersonate businesspeople, which has the opposite effect.

But the pro bono publico sectors will catch up. I’m doing a lot of work right now with the Center for Digital Storytelling in Berkeley, the premiere and most innovative organization in storywork employing many arts methods and approaches. When I see what they accomplish by helping people tell and share their stories—foster kids, Asians and Pacific Islanders with HIV, Native Americans preserving cultural heritage, multi-generational groups of activists, people who care about a particular patch of land and the stories it holds—I see that it’s only a matter of time before everyone catches up with the deep truth that how we shape our stories shapes our lives. And we—artists and those who support work in art and culture—we know more about this power and how to achieve it than anyone. So when we do catch up, I am hoping for great things.

Barry:  If you were a critic reviewing these two works, what would your review look like?

Arlene:  Well, I’d hope that like you, I would say this is something new and worth considering whether I agree in every particular or not. Many of your questions to me in this interview were about implementation. If people want to talk about how it can be done, that implies they’d like it to be done. That is good news for me.

Thank you Arlene

Have a great week

Don’t Quit

Sunday, May 5, 2013

Interview with Arlene Goldbard on The Culture of Possibility - Part I

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

Arlene Goldbard is one of the nonprofit arts sector’s most insightful analysts and observers.  An artist, blogger, author, and consultant, she is keenly intelligent and a passionate visionary for what might be.  And, she writes beautifully and persuasively - an elegant wordsmith who intuitively knows how to communicate. For anyone who appreciates writing as both an art and a craft, reading her words is a sublime experience.  While I am more the skeptic and cynic, I know intuitively, from observation and from deep in my heart, that it is not the skeptics and cynics who change the world, but rather those like Arlene who can envision a better world, and ask simply “why not”?  She pushes everyone to think, and to move towards that better world.  While her two new just published (and complementary) books urge a monumental paradigm shift in how we approach life in America, she is a realist and fully understands how hard this will be.

Let me say at the outset that I loved both of these books and I strongly urge everyone who cares not just about the arts and culture, but the future of our country, to buy them and read them, and better yet, give them as gifts to people they know.  Is her vision a little “pie in the sky”.  Yes, probably.  But I urge people to read them with an eye - not to how impossible such a paradigm shift these books embrace might be, but with an openness to how such a change might just be possible.  That said, I, of course, don’t agree with her every contention, and I play a bit of the devil’s advocate in this interview and try to ask some of the questions other skeptics out there might have.

Note: Arlene has made available a 20% discount on either or both of her new books to readers of this blog.  Click here for The Culture of Possibility and here for The Wave - and enter Code:  76KPUKT8 for either.
Here is Arlene's website

The Interview:  Part I  (part II on Wednesday)

Barry:  You’ve just published two new books, The Culture of Possibility: Art, Artists and the Future, which expands on your previously set forth theory that there is something dreadfully wrong with modern society and that we are on the cusp of a major paradigm change which (hopefully) will see art and culture take center stage as the antidote to the corporate fueled consumption mentality that has caused much of the problems. The second book - The Wave - is a novel set in the future that envisions what the world might be like if we succeed in moving art and culture to the forefront of our way of looking at our lives, and how that shift might have come about.

In The Culture of Possibility book, you provide several ways for the reader to distinguish between the old paradigm where “our collective priorities are shaped by a mechanistic worldview that privileges whatever can be numbered, measured and weighed. Within that paradigm macroeconomics, geopolitics and capital are valorized.” This view you label Datastan. The opposite paradigm, which you call the Republic of Stories, is a world in which “our deepest debates, our obsessions, our consolations and our most purely discretionary choices about where to deploy our resources and attention are conveyed through sound, image, and movement in the vocabulary of art. in which every story matters to the common good, in which everyone—and everything—has its story. In The Republic of Stories, nuance, particularity, imagination, and empathy are given their rightful places as capacities that enable essential knowledge about ourselves, the world, and our choices within it.

BTW - I thought each of the chapters of The Culture of Possibility would make a great blog as stand alone commentaries.

Let’s take these two books one at a time. Can you please expand on your thesis as contained in The Culture of Possibility and give my readers a thumbnail sketch of the content of the book and what you hope to accomplish with its publication?

Arlene:  I’m very interested in the concept of “paradigm shift”: when an old idea of the world can no longer say enough to encompass reality, it has to yield to a new idea that transcends the old and subsumes what can usefully be carried forward. The classic notion has a flat earth yielding to the image of a globe when ships sailing over the horizon didn’t drop off the edge. In a way, a paradigm shift is like an optical illusion: the exact same information has two different meanings, depending on how you perceive it.

My goal is to replace the old notion of art and culture as trivial—a ruffle on the social fabric, so to speak—with one that really does encompass their power and centrality as the crucible in which we forge identity, community, shared values, a sustainable future. As I’ve said many times, the way we shape our story shapes our lives. In The Culture of Possibility, I draw on knowledge from many different realms—medicine, commerce, spirituality, education, just to name a few—to illustrate a much larger story about art than the old paradigm recognizes. After a short section defining my terms and purpose, the book opens into two main sections. One offers 28 very short chapters that stand independently and will arm readers with a wide range of powerful arguments for recognizing—and investing in—art’s public purpose. The other is an essay on the culture of “Corporation Nation,” using the way it sees art and artists as an indicator species for social well-being, an ecological analogy that I find compelling.

Paying attention to the way many people read now, I wanted to make the book as user-friendly as possible. Its sections can be read in any order. Many of them are bite-sized. You can put The Culture of Possibility down and pick it up again without feeling that you’re losing the thread.

Barry:  One of the mainstays of your thesis is that Corporate Nation is the antithesis of the Republic of Stories - with the corporate model having sold us all a bill of goods in convincing people that monetization of everything - from relationships and politics to academia, education and even creativity itself - has resulted in obsessive consumption and commoditization, and that embracing art is a possible panacea for all that ails society.

When reading The Culture of Possibility I was struck by the conspicuous absence of any reference to that other dominant influence on the world - namely organized religion. What role does religion (not belief in God, but mankind’s attempt to organize that belief into structures and hierarchies) play as the handmaiden or counterpoint to Corporate Nation? Is there any relationship there, or do you think Big Religion has played no part in getting us into the mess we are in? For example, you cite the fact that America has more people in its prisons than any other country. But nearly half of those incarcerated were convicted of drug or drug related crimes. Indeed, nearly half the growth in the prison population in the past 20 years has been people convicted of drug related crimes. It can be argued that the ‘war on drugs’ (initiated by Nixon) was the result of Puritanical religious forces, and that were drugs decriminalized, the prison population (not to mention the court system) would be dramatically less clogged.

Do you think embracing art as the language of how we deal with the malaise of current life will also allow humanity to deal with the challenges of excess devout devotion to the point of unbridled zealotry of one religion over another? While the artificial construct that is modern religion seemingly exalts art, doesn’t it really quash the creative spirit? Is that not an enormous obstacle to the Republic Of Stories ever having a viable existence? You say:
“I hate to see citizens sitting blithely by while politicians fund the planet’s largest prison system, subsidies for Big Oil, a war industry that beggars imagination, and tax breaks for the wealthiest, then pretend to believe that we can’t afford decent education, healthcare, or the kind of cultural development investment that even the poorest nations typically make. The surrealism of that big lie and the evident ease with which so many people swallow it indicate a cultural crisis of epic proportions. Once again, the antidote is awareness, and awareness is grounded in empathy and imagination, the essence of art,”
How do we expand that awareness (beyond, of course, getting more people to read your book)?

Arlene:  It’s true that I don’t write much about organized religion, but I do write quite a bit about spirituality, especially concepts like The Golden Rule that seem to be part of the DNA of nearly all spiritual systems. For myself, I make a distinction between structures of authority (be they secular or religious) and powerful stories about the meaning of life, many of which are found in sacred texts. I would characterize the obstacle you’re referring to as blind faith, which doesn’t seem like a good idea to me whether it is faith in religion or in an ideology, or any other realm in which obedience substitutes for awareness, questioning, and self-determination.

One of the claims that I make for art is that it can promote deep questioning: art created with that intention asserts more than one way to see things. It cultivates imagination and empathy, which help us to see and feel what others see and feel. In many ways, it actualizes The Golden Rule. Engagement with those types of art really do expand awareness.

But I also advocate calling out the big lies rather than being cowed by authority and censoring ourselves. I think the shift will be enabled when people actually speak their truth forthrightly and freely, influencing others who are then inspired to do the same thing. I was impressed last year when Van Jones (who was kind enough to offer blurbs for both my books) exhorted us not to “adjust to absurdity.” I don’t think we should underestimate the power of maladjustment! Some spiritual practices cultivate that by training us to look without preconception; and some cultivate obedience. To me, the former is what art at its most powerful is all about. And regardless of heritage, I observe that a lot of people who are interest in culture most often worship at the “Church of Art,” where beauty and meaning are what save us.

Barry:  Another challenge that looms on the horizon as I read this book was that our problems with the corporate Datastan mentality and modus operandi is that it is now a global phenomenon. While America and even the larger Western world may arguably be (at least more) ready for the paradigm shift that you envision (though as you concede that may be a stretch for some), can the same be said of the rest of the world, and if the rest of the world isn’t anywhere near yet ready, can our attempt to make a paradigm shift really have any chance of success? Of course any “tipping point” has to have its genesis somewhere, but isn’t a global perspective necessary?

Arlene:  Absolutely. I chose to focus primarily on the U.S. because I know it best and because Corporation Nation is most strongly established here, which gives us much opportunity to call for change. The commercialization of absolutely everything is further along here. Many of its consequences are evident to people in other countries: if you look at the policies and actions of cultural ministries abroad, many have taken steps to avoid a complete cultural takeover by Hollywood. The downside of globalization is becoming increasingly evident. If we draw the line here, others are very likely to respond.

Barry:  I can sense that you will be falsely criticized for being overly optimistic in thinking the day of a change is soon at hand. I say falsely because in your very first mini chapter you state quite clearly that “It’s impossible to say with any certainty that (even ) if a large number of us expanded our vision, reframing our understanding of the public interest in culture,” (that) the epochal changes I (you) describe in the book and in The Wave will unfold.” You make a convincing case that the time may be at hand, but if the social model you call Datastan took “centuries to evolve” (your words). What makes you think it can be overturned and replaced anytime soon?

Arlene:  I’m sure you’re right, Barry. I’m up against a pervasive discouragement that makes people afraid to get their hopes up. That is sad. That kind of self-insulation against disappointment compels people to pre-disappoint themselves: they declare defeat without even playing the game. I tend not to think in terms of “overturning” and “replacing” the old order, because those words suggest a really arduous struggle where you have to dismantle whatever exists before significant change can come about. Just seeing new possibilities can activate a profound shift. In the heyday of the sixties civil rights movement a simple idea, “Black is beautiful,” went viral and encouraged people to question a whole social order based on the opposite proposition.

If we turn the conventional dismissal and trivialization of art and culture upside down, giving them their rightful place at the center of civil society, that can have a comparable impact. If people just stop accepting the orthodoxies of the paradigm I call Datastan—that nothing counts unless it can be counted and human beings ought to model their social arrangements on machines—that will release new energy and creativity for the many small life-choices that aggregate into a new world. In my other new book, The Wave, which shows a possible future if this happens, we still have hospitals, businesses, schools, and so on. But they are shaped by and infused with very different aims and understandings.

Barry:  You suggest there are “growing numbers of people who recognize that the old order is not working for most of us”. But is that number anywhere yet near big enough to presage a titanic attitudinal shift in people’s thinking; to reach the “tipping point”? You suggest a number of “what if” scenarios that might move us to that tipping point, but “what if” the forces against the changes are simply too great to yet overcome? When you say:

“The chief challenge facing those aligned with freedom, justice, and love in a society that denies these things their rightful value is to remember who we are. It is essential to pay attention to what we are consuming, to avoid inadvertently succumbing to tainted grain. That means discarding whatever says we are powerless or inconsequential in favor of whatever reminds us of our capacity for moral grandeur. It means remembering that none of us is immune to the prejudices and reactions that engender cruelty, to the pervasive temptations to place our own kind first, treating others as less than ourselves and using them as objects. It means being able to see the marks on own foreheads—and on others’—even when they are written in ink that seems invisible to so many of our fellow humans. These marks are signposts pointing to necessary change,”

--- how do we expand the circle of those that can do this to move enough people to the tipping point?

Arlene:  An underlying theme in some of your questions is “can it be done?” And of course, who knows? None of us can foretell the future. But I take a lot of comfort in surprising changes I’ve seen in my own lifetime: the fall of Berlin Wall, the end of apartheid, the election of an African American President, the increasing legalization of same-sex marriage, and so on. Some of these things seemed to come out of left field. The smart money said, “Nah, never happen.” And often, the smart money was wrong. I don’t know exactly how many people have to recognize the centrality of art and culture before a tipping-point is reached—I don’t think anyone knows that for certain. But not-knowing is a powerful ally, because it keeps you from falling for the propaganda that says, “Nah, never happen.” If you can’t absolutely know what will happen, why choose the disappointing plot-line for your story? It doesn’t make sense to give up on something you want just because you don’t have a guarantee that you’ll get it. Wanting has power in and of itself. I think we can expand the circle just by reminding people of that.

Barry:  Back to religion for a moment. If religion - which had (and arguably still has) a fair hold and sway over large blocs of people over time - failed in getting the Golden Rule actualized as an operating model (which you argue for), what is different about the arts and embracing the Republic of Stories model that might allow it to succeed? While organized religion certainly touts the Golden Rule as a way to approach life, at the same time, one of its great appeals is that it allows for people to ignore the rule and be forgiven for any and all lapses - great and small. How do we counter that?

Arlene:  I’m not sure The Golden Rule has failed as an operating model. As individuals, I think most of us apply it many times a day: we think about the other’s feelings, we extend ourselves in acts of kindness, we offer hospitality to strangers, and so on. How many artists contribute beauty and meaning to the world without much expectation of reward, out of a kind of grace? If you add up all the terrible stuff that makes the headlines, that bottom line will never equal the countless acts of grace and beauty performed each day. I seldom meet anyone who is purposely cruel or destructive, who doesn’t care who they hurt because they have an escape clause courtesy of organized religion. It’s not The Golden Rule but our institutions that have failed.

Our challenge is to spread The Golden Rule even further, so it permeates institutions. Art at its best cultivates empathy and imagination, which equal compassion. Indeed, it’s the objectification of other people that allows us to treat them as less than ourselves. And much of the work created by visual, performing, literary and other artists is precisely against objectification, telling highly particular stories that offer specific portals to empathy and imagination.

So I recommend, for instance, that money now deployed by public institutions to create and disseminate pamphlets that no one reads, hold public meetings no one attends, or make PSAs no one watches—those funds can be redeployed to employ artists to engage people with agencies’ work in a much deeper, more participatory way. When that happens—for instance, Forum Theater about childhood asthma based on real stories, with real opportunities to envision meaningful remedies—people actually experience the difference between the old order and the new path infused with art, engaging body, emotions, intellect, and spirit. Their experience is much more satisfying. People want to do it again, and that has an impact.

Barry:  In one of your chapters you talk about the power of “frames” and how the arts have failed to frame its issues as effectively as it might. You go on to lament and even share your anger with acceptance of the frame of inevitability that funding for wars means there can be no funding for the arts. But given your apt description of Datastan’s power in making us all believe there is nothing we can do, especially about things like war funding, what reframing might work? As you correctly (in my opinion) acknowledge the fact that even with all the wasteful funding for needless wars, there is still money that might be given to the arts instead of some pet project of politician’s big money supporters, wouldn’t pointing out that reality be a more effective frame than urging the populace to reject defense spending? You argue that the anti-government frame has been successfully exploited by the supporters of Datastan to keep the arts as seen as unworthy of support, and that we ought to use our “stories” frame to first change the cherished belief in anti-government. How would you frame the arts to be embraced by the public given the success of framing it as yet another example of government waste and excess?

Arlene:  In my other book, The Wave, I describe future public campaigns that use digital storytelling and other art forms to reframe public understanding of first education, and then climate change. In the education campaign, parents and teachers revolt against the test-driven corporate-style education policies that treat children like objects instead of recognizing a range of learning styles and methods, and enacting the need to cultivate the whole person. A key point is rejection of children’s education being shaped by people who never taught anything, and whose own children won’t be subjected to the results. It becomes a question of the right to shape one’s own story. This is already happening. The story that education activists are telling resonates strongly with parents, who naturally want school to be enlarging, exciting, and engaging for their kids—and know that “drill and kill” is the opposite, instilling boredom and a dislike of education. You reframe by finding a powerful new story that holds a deeper truth. In the anti-climate change campaign in The Wave, people use the idea of a “Victory Garden,” annexing a history of resilience, self-help, and participation in times of crisis. The songs, stories, and other testimonies of artists play a huge role in carrying the message.

When it comes to arts funding, I think we have to consider that the phrase “the arts” telegraphs a particular type of snobbery and distance. You ask people if they are “into the arts” and most say no, thinking of marble halls and red-velvet curtains, places they don’t feel at home. Then you ask if they take photos, play an instrument, dance, make YouTube videos, and so on, and they say yes, I love that. That gap is huge, and really easy to close with different language that considers how people really do express their creativity. If you do that, and also point out what we’re actually spending our money on—way more than two annual NEA budgets each day, seven days a week, on war, for instance—people begin to see their choices differently.

I don’t advocate abolishing defense spending. Every country needs some kind of defense—both the kind that comes with arms and the kind that comes with making friends in the world. But do we need to starve education, art, healing, and other social goods so that we can be arms merchant to the world, or create the largest prison population on the planet? Is that who we are? The right frames will pose those questions in a way that people can hear.

Barry:  A number of times you come back to three questions you believe we all ought to be asking:

  • Who are we as a people?
  • What do we stand for?
  • How do we want to be remembered?

Given the pressures of daily life and all that human beings must contend with, how do we encourage people to take the time to ask themselves these questions - not just once when they allow themselves a moment of introspection and reflection, but again and again until some answers emerge?

Arlene:  As much as many of us may be shy about playing this role, I think we have to model it. Artists and those who enable work in art and culture have to stand up and ask these core questions in the face of every public action that discredits who we really are. And every time we do, others will hear, be moved to reconsider even if only for a moment, and thus receive a little more encouragement to ask the same questions the next time. I collect aphorisms. Martin Luther King said, “We will have to repent in this generation not merely for the vitriolic words and actions of the bad people, but for the appalling silence of the good people.” James Baldwin said, “The purpose of art is to lay bare the questions that have been hidden by the answers.” To which I can only say, Amen.

Barry:  You talk about the role the arts and culture played in the success of the front line fighters in the Arab Spring as an example of their power. Most experts agree that the jury is still out on whether or not the changes brought about by the Arab Spring are long term or transitory. How do you think art and culture can work to make change permanent and keep the Datastan masters from simply coming back in and filling a void after some initial movement towards change?

Arlene:  The jury is still out on American democracy too. Democracy is a dynamic process, always in a state of becoming, never complete. In this country, I think many of us go to sleep on our democratic responsibilities. I remember years ago meeting an exchange student from South Africa before the end of apartheid. “I’m puzzled,” he said. “In this country, you have all the freedoms we are fighting and dying for, but you don’t use them.” Democracy is vibrant and real when there are many opportunities to exercise the full cultural citizenship I describe in The Culture of Possibility:
"Cultural citizenship demands no papers. In a situation of true cultural citizenship, each of us—regardless of legal status—is able to experience meaningful belonging, participation, and mutual responsibility. In a situation of true cultural citizenship, people learn about each other’s heritages, respect each other’s contributions to community life and public discourse, feel welcome in their own cities and towns. In a situation of true cultural citizenship, it is understood that all of us together craft the story that supports our collective resilience and ability to thrive—or else we fall prey to competing stories of triumphal superiority and bitter scapegoating, and in the end, no one thrives."
Virtually all of the things I listed there can be enacted through creative expression and engagement with art. I think artists have a lot to do in both this country and North Africa to make democracy real. I hope we lead the way.

Barry:  There has been considerable discussion in our field of late as to the issue of equity - in funding and support specifically - raising questions of fairness and racism. You cite A 2011 National Endowment for The Arts (NEA) study reports that:
 “[T]he decline in the rate of childhood arts education among white children is relatively insignificant from 1982 to 2008, just five percent, while the declines in the rate among African American and Hispanic children are quite substantial — 49 percent for African American and 40 percent for Hispanic children. These statistics support the conclusion that almost the entire decline in childhood arts education between the 1982 and 2008 SPPAs was absorbed by African American and Hispanic children.”
Where does the fault lie for this deeply disturbing statistic, and what do we now do about it?

Arlene:  The fault is pretty well distributed, I think: a legacy of racial injustice written into law has left a residue of less-formalized but pervasive racial injustice, and it’s expressed in the unequal distribution of many social goods—health, economic security, safe food and water, and so on, not just education or cultural funding. I don’t see how to address it without acknowledgement and remedial action. I want to see the heads of cultural institutions, education leaders, and cultural policymakers stand up and admit to the inequity encoded in our institutions. I want to see them volunteer to share some of their privilege, and to advocate for a larger increase in funding where it is most needed, even if that means less for themselves.

And if that makes you or any of your readers laugh, I want you to consider the meaning of that laughter, which is that we are so used to prescribing for others conditions that we would not choose for ourselves, it seems absurd to imagine otherwise. I have often advocated The Golden Rule as a one-line public policy: if the children of policymakers and elites had to make do with the same education (or housing, or healthcare) as the children described in that report, who lost their opportunity for arts education, the level would go skyrocketing upward.

Part II on Wednesday.  

Have a great week

Don’t Quit