Sunday, August 11, 2013

The Arts Dinner-vention Guest Briefing Papers - Part I

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

The Arts Dinner-vention: Jammin' at Djerassi

In preparation for the upcoming (September 6th) Dinner-vention, we asked all of the Dinner guests to submit Briefing Papers on their preliminary thinking on the topic below.   Below are half of those papers - and I will post the other half next week.

There are some common threads in the guest's thinking, including:
  • Refocusing on what audiences really want, including asking such questions as:
    • How can we be part of the larger community; making them part of our efforts and joining their efforts.
    • How do we increase the value of the arts to those we want to be more involved?
    • What makes audiences happy?  Why do they really go to arts performances?  What do people 'love' about the arts - and making those the touchstone of our efforts.
    • How do we address equity questions as we engage our communities?
    • How do our four wall venues work against us?
    • How do we embrace sharing within the arts community to address common challenges?
    • How do we embrace and maximize the socialization attraction of the arts?
    • How do we make the arts a "habit"?     
  • Acknowledging that much of the challenge isn't with the art itself, but rather in the delivery systems for promoting access to the art.  (Implicit in that question is how do we monetize alternative delivery systems).
  • Focusing more on rewarding risk.
  • Moving away from exclusive reliance on the economic, and the intrinsic value of the arts arguments, as strategic approaches.
  • Rethinking how we tell the "big story" of the arts, and who might help us to tell that story

These are just a few of the threads, and these papers are only the opening thoughts of the guests (who are talking among themselves this month) about the upcoming discussion.

Framing Question:
Traditional audiences are declining and participation patterns are shifting seismically, which is having a deleterious impact on arts organization's traditional revenue streams. How can we address this pattern on a macro scale? What would a new movement around the arts look like?
Click here for the blog posting on the Topic.  And click here for full bios on each of the Dinner guests.

Here are the guest's briefing papers:

Laura Zabel - Executive Director / Springboard for the Arts

First of all, we probably need to reiterate that there is a difference between the nonprofit arts organizational structure and arts and culture itself. Arts and culture is not in trouble. Some of the delivery systems we have created for arts and culture are. Creating and culture are basic human needs and impulses. Nonprofit organizations, it turns out, are not.

I vacillate between feeling like we need to fix it and feeling a little "meh, let it fall down, something new will (already is?) rise to take it's place" but in the end there's too much good about the current infrastructure to not attempt to retrofit it and make it relevant for a new era. And that's going to take some hard work in ways both practical and attitudinal. I am thrilled and honored to be a part of this conversation with these brilliant people at the Dinner-vention event. I believe there are versions of this conversation happening all over the country with all kinds of smart people and I hope there is a way to connect and learn from other people, particularly those who don't often get invited to convenings like this.

To get things rolling here are some thoughts/suggestions/stories/provocations that the question has triggered for me:

Be optimistic.
The day I received the framing question from Barry I was visiting my family in rural northern Wisconsin. A community that has just enough tourist economy to sustain a seasonal ice cream stand. I went to the very small 4th of July parade and there was a middle school band of about 15 kids with some of the oldest instruments I've ever seen. Playing enthusiastically, playing well, much to the delight of the crowd and their young, charismatic teacher. We can despair about the state of arts education, but here is a young person, who went away to college and then chose to come back home and teach middle school band to 15 kids. Because he loves it, because it's important. Let's celebrate him.

I know what the numbers say, but in my daily life and in my work I have experienced tremendous demand and openness to new ideas and collaboration from people who want to work with and in the traditional arts structure. There are huge opportunities available to the creative sector right now and transformational possibility surrounds us.

Get over our damn selves.
Build a bigger tent. The thing about a movement is that it's not exclusive. I see no possibility for success in this effort without a bigger definition of who is in our movement. I watched So You Think You Can Dance last night with my daughter. I cried twice: once at the beauty of a dancer's passion and skill and once at the story of a dancer and all that she and her family had committed to being able to pursue a life in the arts. Isn't this what we want? Opportunities for people to be transported, moved and pushed? Opportunities to connect to our common humanity? Millions of people are engaging in the arts through reality tv, YouTube, street performers, church choirs, knitting clubs, sidewalk chalk, and flash mobs, we need to invite them to call themselves artists. Better yet, we could politely ask if we might join their movement.

Seriously, tell me this doesn't move you:

Understand we are not alone.
I had a very energizing conversation with a minister last week about the similar challenges that institutions in the faith community are facing: dwindling attendance, increasingly viewed as less relevant or out of touch with the changing communities around them, etc. We are not alone in this. There is a massive cultural shift underway and lots of folks are doing deep, thoughtful and effective work to shift with their communities. How can we share models, see adjacent possibilities and build common cause with the local food, faith, community development, small business people?

Be valuable. Be useful. Be generous. Be curious.
If there is one practical element of this conversation I am most interested in, it's this: How can we actually be more valuable? How can we be less siloed from our communities; less special, more ubiquitous? What are we doing to help other sectors thrive? How can we be one part of what a community needs to be healthy--a critical, necessary part, but no more or less important than any other?

Barry gives two examples of how we might work across sectors: the suggestion from Arlene Goldbard to require cultural impact reports from civic planners and the suggestion to infiltrate our local chambers of commerce. I love the idea of working with planners more effectively, and my organization is already a member of the Chamber of Commerce (and the Metro Consortium of Community Developers and the Independent Business Alliance) but I would flip both Arlene's and Barry's proposals around. What if we were to approach city planners and find out what they could require from us? What if we joined our chamber, not to infiltrate for advocacy purposes, but to understand more about how our community works and see if we could help?

So my proposal is simple: what if we commit to starting every conversation with "how can we help?"

Kimberly Howard - Manager Oregon Cultural Trust

It starts with engagement.    It is about a renewed sense of participation.  A new movement needs to grow from within an individual to appreciate aesthetics, conversation and community through art.  That begins at an early age.  It is then nurtured in school and home.  It flows into the arts organizations supporting artists, connecting these young people with art making that is relevant and inspiring, art that connects to their daily lives while elevating them to another place.

What does that look like in practicality?  It looks like music lessons for every child. It looks like drawing, painting, ceramics, and photography integrated in the school day curriculum, not simply relegated to an after school program for an under-privileged child or a specialty summer camp for a privileged one. It looks like every child having books in the home and an adult to read with, so the child can talk about what they are reading, discovering the simple joy of storytelling.

It means teachers and parents and artists providing everyday moments for play, exploration and discovery.  When we capture the child from the moment they become a person or before – if you believe in gestational influences of light and sound on a developing fetus – then they gain the tools to appreciate, and long for sensory experiences that can only be found in the concert hall, the museum, the theatre, the black box, or the gallery.

I am not saying that art can only happen in traditional spaces and places.  I am saying, however, that the traditions and rituals that gives birth to our art forms -from the Greek theatre to the Wooley Mammoth and beyond, provide the basis for everything that will come. When a theatre company breaks free of the boundaries of the proscenium stage to create a site-specific piece they are responding to a set of rules that were established by the Greek Theatre over 2,000 years ago.  When a dance company choreographs a contemporary piece they are influenced by the traditions of what came before, even as the aesthetic breaks free from the classic European form.

These traditions and rituals are our guide.  In this same way we use subconsciously or consciously use this tradition and ritual to define the traditional audience member: White, affluent, of a certain age.  This is the definition, but is it entirely the truth?   There are affluent Black audiences and Latino audiences, of a certain age, too, yes?  My question: how were they nurtured? Created?  Developed? My answer: the same way that the traditional white audiences were developed.  Affluence.  Exposure.

So, in order to develop the audiences of the new art movement, we need to nurture those audiences from the beginning.   Those future audiences need to become audience members from the beginning, having access to the same traditions and rituals that make up the art experiences, regardless of how traditional or avant-garde – to borrow a early 1970’s phrase – the art or artist.  From this knowledge of form and experience of participation comes appreciation, understanding and the ability to engage with the work, to be in dialogue with the art, which is the essence of what we call the new art movement.

This new movement around art requires that we create a transition period, where we provide these ‘learning’ experiences that feel more like participation and engagement than ‘teachable moments’ for audiences between 18 and 99, by point blank asking them – what are you interested in seeing on the stage, on the wall, on the pedestal, on the Marley floor?  It might mean, for a time, that we shift the paradigm, making work that we are asked to make rather than work that we are inspired to make.  It might mean that while making work that is in dialogue with the audiences we think we need, we open ourselves to the possibility of being inspired in new ways.

The two-pronged solution is to provide daily in-school experiences of literacy, art, music, dance theatre while at the same time engaging new audiences in dialogue - asking them to participate before creation, looking to find inspiration for our future as we transition into a new way of creating, presenting and seeing art in all its forms.

Clayton Lord - Vice-President, Local Arts Advancement / Americans for the Arts

In my mind, the decline of the traditional institutional arts audience base is a direct result of the rise of the idea (self-perpetuated) of the arts as (1) not for everyone and (2) not necessary, simply nice.  That idea emerged from what I would articulate as three progressive and overlapping occurrences over the past 50 or so years, namely:

1.  The creation, by an elitist class (and by arts organizations hungry for their money), of major arts institutions as exclusive places.  This was reinforced not only by price but by the creation of mores and peculiarities that are now part of the artsgoing vocabulary but which were not always—stand up, sit down, clap or don’t, what to wear, when to speak, etc.—and which included some, while excluding others.

2.  The ensuing shift in rhetoric, particularly from the right in the 70’s and 80’s, from art being a societal good to art being an elitist luxury good, and the (interesting oxymoronic) set up of art and artistic expression as against morality and radical.

3.  The subsequent attack, first by politicians and eventually by whole swaths of people who felt disconnected from institutionalized art, on both arts funding and arts education funding, which was made possible by this shift from necessity to luxury and by the corresponding shift from societal good to societal ill—the fruit of which, now, is an entire generation (or more) who have never been inculcated into (institutional) arts loving, and so find their lives full without institutionalized art.

All of this has not been at all helped by a historically reflexive reaction from the art community to its ongoing marginalization—namely a pulling away from art as a driver of community engagement, change, and dialogue and towards art as a means and end in itself.  Add on top of that the long-standing and difficult history of American institutionalized art as primarily (for all of its perceived “radicalism”) a mechanism for reinforcing white (in its more expansive, class- and wealth-based definition) points of view—a problem that is at this point tied up in the very form and presentation of the art, the buildings, the stories that we try and tell, and which contributes to a further marginalization among many of the fastest growing populations in America (populations who have their own incredibly vibrant artistic traditions, and don’t find themselves lacking for not attending institutional artistic performance).

In a nutshell (and forgive an oversimplification—there are absolutely exceptions to this), many artistic institutions have managed to alienate people of color, poor people, conservative people, young people, less educated people.  We should not be surprised that our audiences (and our public value, which I actually think is much more crucial) continue to dwindle.

To address this issue, some suggestions (the beginning of a conversation, surely, not the end):

  • Start from a place of embracing how small a part of an ever-expanding arts universe “institutional art” really is, and then move from there to expand that relevance with a better understanding of why most people don’t particularly care about such art (and with an acknowledgement that they do likely have rich artistic lives on their own terms).
  • Encourage funders to take into account community engagement and impact (and therefore, we must learn how to better measure community engagement and impact) more than they take into account longevity, budget size, or abstract artistic quality, and encourage artistic institutions to re-embrace their core role as non-profits devoted to the public good, not to art itself.
  • Engage in a frank dialogue about which organizations are making movement towards addressing the equity issues that now sit at the core of our public value issues (and who isn’t), while also embracing the fact that change of this magnitude takes time, and that incremental, stable progress is more important than forced, sudden, destabilizing change.  Engaging in that conversation respectfully, aggressively and truthfully, with thick skin and a belief in a common, shared purpose and myriad uncommon, unique missions.
  • Reward risky innovation with funding models that provide cover—with increased length of funding, better training in evaluation during development of the innovation, and a more open and honest national system within the arts field for discussing successes and failures.
  • Better disseminate the incredibly strong research into public value and community engagement through the arts by crafting a clearinghouse of “interpretations” of that research that turn them into bite-sized consumables like executive summaries, infographics, short explanatory cartoons, podcasts, etc—all in an effort to allow more people points of access into the pertinent findings so that they might then translate them into their own work, arguments and practice.

Margy Waller, Senior Fellow, Topos Partnership
The Pursuit of Happiness is a Constitutional Right

By starting with a discussion about creating a movement, we will naturally develop plans that also promote audience expansion, engagement (all kinds), and greater equity and diversity.

Where (and on whom) we focus our energy and resources matters. Creating a movement requires focusing on the broad public -- even those who don’t (and some who won’t ever) go to traditional venues, and many who won’t think of themselves as goers even though they engage in arts activities all the time. Expanding audience, engagement, and equity means focusing on smaller, more targeted groupings.  I’m proposing that we start our discussion at the widest part of the funnel.

Imagine these changes (some huge, some less so):

  • Start thinking about happiness of neighborhood/city/audience as the goal.
  • Encourage and reward innovation and risk 
  • Stop thinking and talking about our art as so terribly precious.
  • Start creating large and/or high profile public experiences designed to change the way people see the arts and make sure that even those who aren’t present learn about these events (it pays to find a good videographer).
  • Accept that people will use smart phones and other digital tools while they are at arts events and find ways to make it work, integrate the mobile for added value - don’t fight it.
  • Stop leading with and highlighting economic impact in the ROI-dollars + cents-way that we’ve all been taught to do because it isn’t working for us.
  • Reconsider the resources we’re putting into developing so much economic impact data (not that we should discard it altogether necessarily, but that we should decide whether all of the resources  -- money and time -- going into it are yielding better results than other research might)
  • Promote measuring community success by how happy people are, utilize the economics of well-being to develop the value of arts for creating places where people are happy because we should be able to compete well on that playing field

We spent a lot of time working on uncovering a strategy for communicating about the arts designed to shift the landscape of public understanding. We did our research with the goal of culture change -- toward the notion that the arts are important enough to all of us to be our shared responsibility, even for those who don’t participate.

We sought to identify the barriers that have made sharing the value of the arts difficult for us and a new way to talk about the arts could yield broad public support. We learned that people already believe the arts change places, making streets and neighborhoods busier and more fun, and connecting people, allowing them to get to know each other better, and strengthening civic bonds.

Get this: We don’t need data to persuade people; we don’t need to have a debate. These are already the reasons they value the arts. The problem is - they don’t tend to think of the arts this way because we don’t usually present or promote the arts as the thing that brings people together and makes places special. Yet.

Unfortunately, for most people — even people who are goers and lovers of the arts — the transcendent experience, the beauty of art, and educational value are not compelling as reasons for PUBLIC support of the arts and arts organizations. The public sees these individual experiences as something we are all personally responsible for obtaining: “It’s fine if you want to do that, but our TAX dollars shouldn’t have to support it.”

Moreover, they are put off by the palaces where the art happens. These are not places they want to be or are comfortable going. So it doesn’t help that when most people think about art, this is where they think it happens

Our goals (movement, audience, sustainability) are inextricably tied together. Importantly, we can’t just talk about the role of arts in creating vibrancy and community. We have to do it too. We have to work hard to show and give people something different from what they imagine the art will be. That shouldn’t be hard -- it’s already happening. But it’s not usually what the media highlights and it’s not even the way we are trained to share the ar

If we fund and highlight what people love about the arts, it can become the way they more naturally think about our category. And it may have the additional outcome of making the art more appealing to today’s non-goers. (You know, like.... marketing materials that feature people having a fun experience, not how famous or old the art is, or dozens of staged musicians in black and white sitting frozen on a stage.)
Our goal in changing the way we present the arts to the public  -- the purpose of sharing the communications strategies in the Ripple Effects research -- is to build broader support for shared funding of the arts. But the answer to “why change?” has to be real impact in our communities: more connected people and places we want to be.

We will never compete well on the playing field of ROI and economic impact in the traditional sense. However, if our measure of success is happiness, the arts have much to contribute - the evidence is already coming in. We can build a movement for things that make us happy. And we can get people to go there too.

Tamara Alvarado - Director of Community Access and Engagement /  School of the Arts and Culture - Mexican Heritage Plaza

I’m thinking about a lot of things these days, as I am sure is everyone else. Here are a few bullet points. Certainly, I am open to your feedback if only one is of interest or none for that matter.

On the topic of leadership development, I’ve been thinking about it intensely for about 7 years. Two colleagues and I conceived of the MALI program for POC, with the idea that we needed to equip ourselves with the tools to lead our communities in a collaborative way while recognizing that communities of color have particular challenges that only we can address.

On the topic of reciprocity and how as a concept and practice it interacts with our practices in communities of color… it’s been two years and change. Ever since I’ve held the responsibility (with a team of course!) of bringing a $32M investment back to life, it has been a foundational philosophical piece to our success. It’s in fact in our Guiding Principles. It is about valuing what everyone brings to the table, not just money but time and experience as well. It has worked really well increasing audiences and creating meaningful partnerships where artists, arts orgs and audiences feel valued.

In terms of the topic of race and privilege and an assortment of connecting issues for my whole life. But recently with the case of Trayvon Martin I think it’s been at the forefront of a lot of people in our sector. I’m not exactly sure what take I would take on this except to say that if anyone in the room thinks we are beyond race, we will definitely need to continue to have conversations. We are not beyond race and we still need to work on finding commonalities versus differences and I know the arts play a significant role in establishing neutral ground where that conversation can be had. Look at the conversation artists had here about race in 1963:

“Darse su lugar” as a concept. In the Spanish speaking latino communities we talk about “dares su lugar”. A direct translation is to “give oneself one’s place.” This is at the root of the creation of the MALI program. It was by POC for POC. What I mean when I talk about it in the arts/entertainment/culture sector, is the consistent surprised reaction I receive as ED of an ethnic specific/multicultural organization when I strongly request that the ED or Business owner also is present on an equal basis. As an example, recently, I was asked by an ED to meet with herself and staff about the potential for partnership. The day came and the ED did not show and sent along staff. I cancelled the meeting and asked for it to happen when the ED was available. I received an email, from a person I consider my colleague, stating that in her 12 years of being an ED she had never been required in this way. This is connected to race and privilege but she would never see it that way. It’s on me I suppose to show my colleague that her privileged background as a white woman allows her to think it’s ok to require my presence but not hers.

Open source: I realize that this is about the tech sector but I feel it applies strongly to what we are trying to accomplish in the arts. Before I was an “Arts Administrator” I was a college grad with limited real world skills. I was and am bilingual, am first generation and knew a thing or two about turning on and moving around a computer. With this set of advanced skills I got a job teaching computer skills in East Palo Alto, CA at Plugged In, one of the first non profits focused on bridging the “Digital Divide”. More importantly, they greatly influenced me by throwing me into these workshops where I was completely in over my head, taking computers unpacking them and installing “Open Source” software while online and learning to do so by people who felt that it was important to put a computer and internet access in everyone’s hands. We were working with Redhat, Linux, etc. Bottom line is that I took on the spirit much more than the tech aspect of the “open source” movement. I saw how they shared technology with each other in order to make everyone’s work more effective. That is something that I talk about now with the access to space and the how to. As an example, do I lose something if I introduce you to a funder or do I gain? You have registration forms, I don’t. I speak, read and write Spanish but you don’t. Should we share? Of course these are simple examples however, it is surprising at times to see how little sharing goes on in our sector. Is there a way to share that goes beyond the occasional trip to a conference that half of us may not have the money to attend? More to this.

Nina Simon - Executive Director / Santa Cruz Museum of Art and History

Imagine this situation:
You go to an arts event, one of a type you rarely or never take part in. Maybe it's a museum exhibition or a play. You have a great time.

What will it take for you to do it again?

I ask this question because I think there's a pretty big gulf between the occasional arts experience and the idea of art and art institutions as part of your life. For me, this gulf rears its head every time I go to a live music concert. Each time I go (about four times a year), I have a fabulous time. But it never makes me want to increase the frequency of my participation. Each time I get a flyer in the mail, I feel like I’m weighing a new opportunity—price, time commitment, who in my social circle will want to participate. It’s exhausting. I opt out.

In other recreational and social choices, I feel no such inertia. I will drop by the beach seeking a pickup game of volleyball without a single worry about opportunity cost. I will go to the farmer’s market every Saturday to buy the perfect baked potato, and I will lobby hard for my friends to share that experience with me. I will blog weekly, even if it’s at the penultimate hour of a million-hour day.

These are my recreational habits: to play sports, to eat, to socialize, to write. I do these things with ease and enthusiasm.

I don’t have the same habitual relationship with art. I realize that I may just be an arts Neanderthal—that there are many people who go to museums every Sunday after brunch, or go out to live music every Friday night. But if we think there’s a problem with audience decline and participation, I think it’s reasonable to ask whether we could be creating or supporting more effective, widespread patterns for engagement.

My work focuses on the specific value of positioning arts institutions as places for active participation and social bridging. But that’s just one particular set of engagement strategies in the context of a given arts experience. I think the most important thing we can do to address big questions of audience participation is to ask not what we should do individually as organizations or with arts programming but how we can create patterns of participation across the field that are self-reinforcing and fuel growth.

I’m talking about making the arts a habit.

When I look at industries that are doing a better job than ours at being “habit-forming,” I see a few commonalities:

  1. Addictive product; repeat exposure. The arts may not give you a caffeine high like coffee or an endorphin rush like going for a run. But we could do a lot more to position arts experiences as complementary, additive, and (hopefully) addictive. To a newcomer, it's not apparent that a museum offers many kinds of programs, or that regular attendance to the theater might provide deeper or multi-faceted experiences over time. What they see is what they get: that day, that event. Lots of motivational literature suggests that it takes multiple sessions in a short timeframe to take on a new habit, whether a new food, fitness regimen, or activity. This is why some yoga studios offer "30 day challenges" in which you get all your classes free if you come every day for 30 days. The idea is that once you've come every day for a month, you'll be sufficiently hooked to continue participating. Cultural institutions need to be similarly overt and unapologetic about the benefits of sustained, repeat involvement. Audiences, especially new ones, aren't going to connect the dots on their own. 
  2. Multi-level marketplaces in which “heavyweight” companies provide secondary advertising for smaller ones. Starbucks made huge advertising investments to convince people that $3 coffee is an essential part of daily life—and now, every tiny coffee shop benefits from that brand story. Every kid who participates in a basketball league sees how her experience is connected to a huge, multi-layered community that ranges from amateur to professional (with the NBA and Nike paying for that story). In the charity sector, race-based fundraisers, like AIDS Ride or Walk for the Cure, float the boats of dinky local walk-a-thons. In contrast, I don’t see a lot of arts organizations working together to tell the bigger story of how arts experiences are connected to each other. If I like a ukulele singalong, will I like a Hawaiian music concert? If I was bowled over by the Met, would I enjoy my local museum or gallery? Probably… but those arts organizations rarely present themselves as part of a connected landscape instead of discontinuous experiences. I would love to see the largest institutions, professional networks, and arts councils move away from advertising their specific activities and instead engage in the kind of “brand story” work that other large businesses do to open up market share and inspire attitudinal shifts about art experiences. 
  3. A focus on shared social experiences.  People like to recreate socially, and many industries (restaurants, bars, theme parks) clearly represent themselves as social venues. One of the easiest ways to hook people on a new experience is to invite them to participate with you. While the social nature of an arts experience may be implied, it is rarely explicit. This is most glaring in the case of museums; the majority of visitors attend in social groups, but many perceive museum-going as a “contemplative solo activity.” We need to promote arts institutions for date night, family night, girl time—and help people see our offerings as part of their social lives.
  4. Intrinsic desire mixed with external positive reinforcement. Arts professionals often focus on the holy grail of intrinsic desire--the theoretical participant who feels, deep inside, that they want to make the arts a regular part of their life. But for most of us, intrinsic desire is not always (nor initially) motivated by the purest intentions. We join knitting groups to meet new people, complete beautiful projects, AND be creative. We go to the gym to get out aggression, attend to our vanity, AND take care of our bodies. The “good” value of the activity may be the reason we tell ourselves we’re doing something—but it’s rarely the only reason.  

So what can we do to make the arts more habit-forming? I hope we can find a way to answer this question collectively as a field—not by arguing over the distinctions in how we choose to support audience engagement, but by coming together around the big stories about how regular, diverse art participation transforms lives and brings communities together. And gets people laid. What could be more addictive than that?

Thank you guests.  Thank you very much.

Next week the remaining Dinner guest briefing papers.

Have a great week.

Don't Quit