Monday, October 7, 2013

GIA Conference - Day #2 Breakout Sessions

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

The first full day of the GIA Conference began with thumbnail presentations by young artists - all of whom were engaging and inspiring.  I find it often difficult to write about an artist’s presentation.  I am not a critic and don’t have a critic’s toolbox to review artistic merit or even a simple presentation.  And as a observer, I find my relationship to an artist is personal and defies easy explanation or classification.  Then too mere words often are inadequate to convey an in-person experience.  

I went to several breakout sessions today:

First up - Building Demand for the Arts - Ben Cameron and Alan Brown presenting a long, multi year program and study designed to promote the intersection of artists and organizations to think together about how to build demand.

Ben summarized our past approaches:  We have gone from Audience Development strategies (principally “butts in the seats” thinking) which have dominated our approach for decades, to Audience Participation thinking, to now Audience Engagement approaches.  All along we have embraced the core of what the Wallace Foundation started: how to “broaden, deepen and diversify” our audiences.

And now we are moving to consideration of the phenomenon of “demand” itself.  How do we define demand? (It is, it was suggested, more than simply “butts in the seats”).  Demand is manifested in various ways.   How do we quantify it?  What are it’s various relationships to “supply”?

Brown and Cameron suggested the concept has multiple potential frameworks ripe for consideration of ways to expand demand for the arts.  One example is in the realm of “settings” - so that presenting the arts in different settings (away from the four walls of the traditional arts venue, and more where the audiences might be) is but one rich opportunity for changing and building demand.  Another is in pursuing definable communities.  Another is in consideration of the role of algorithms play in Preference Discovery techniques (i.e., when you choose one song on Pandora Radio, the site suggests other songs you might like).  There are untold questions to explore when we talk about audiences from the demand perspective - from the role of “free programming” to new ways to use the exiting over supply to address demand.

I asked whether the project included looking at where the existing demand is not intersecting with the existing supply (e.g., a younger cohorts interest in dance, but via virtual presentations and not via the traditional arts four wall venues), but am not sure that fit the framework of the project.

Ben Cameron and Alan Brown are two very smart men, with substantial experience in audiences.  So if they argue to me that there are valuable lessons to be learned and benefits to be gained from this project, I support their conclusions.  As Ben suggested, this project is less about robust post facto evaluation, and more about creating a community dialogue - particularly between artists and organizations together.  I fully agree we still don’t have enough background, data, information and ways to make the informed decisions that will get us to a better place.

But Alan also acknowledged that we have spent years and literally tens of millions of dollars trying to address the question of audiences for the arts.  And, those efforts have largely not yielded ways to stem the tide of the audience decline over the past decades plus.  Alan opined that the decentralized nature of the arts field has led to frustration in this area because there has been so little uptake of the lessons learned.  I hope another project -- to come at the issue from yet a different perspective -- will give us expanded insights and new avenues to pursue that will allow us to finally address our audience challenges, but I think it not unreasonable to wonder how this will turn out substantially different from all the other approaches we have taken - approaches that have not yielded the desired result.

The issue is about “butts in seats” - however one may wish to define what that means (and it certainly may mean more than the literal “butts in seats”).    We haven’t yet come up with the answer to stem the decline.

 The second breakout session I went to was the Intersection of Creativity, Health and Aging.

This from an AP story that I read last week:
“The world is aging so fast that most countries are not prepared to support their swelling numbers of elderly people, according to a global study being issued Tuesday by the United Nations and an elder rights group.
The report ranks the social and economic well-being of elders in 91 countries, with Sweden coming out on top and Afghanistan at the bottom. It reflects what advocates for the old have been warning, with increasing urgency, for years: Nations are simply not working quickly enough to cope with a population graying faster than ever before. By the year 2050, for the first time in history, seniors older than 60 will outnumber children younger than 15.”
I have long thought that the relationship between the arts and healing and aging is potentially a goldmine for us.  The problem of aging and the attendant health care issues is going to be a major priority across the planet, and governments everywhere will be looking for help in addressing the problems of their aging populations.  The arts are one of the answers to any number of those problems.  We can form new alliances with governments and be part of the response to this challenge.  In the process, we can improve those relationships and our chances for across the board support.

This session provided clear and convincing evidence based on case studies of how the arts can help with Alzheimer’s to Parkinson’s Disease; how storytelling and dance can help senior’s long term conditions; how the arts can de-medicalize those conditions and help aging populations better their situations and improve their life styles.   And I think we have barely scratched the surface of the value of the arts in addressing these issues.   Every local arts community ought to get involved in this area..

 The last session I went to today was a sharing of some of the progress GIA has made in its effort to move the nation’s arts organizations to embrace adequate Capitalization as a cornerstone of their operations.

Here’s what the data they have amassed in a score of workshops shows:

The field is largely undercapitalized.  Too many arts organizations have little to no working capital, inadequate facilities reserves, and virtually no available risk / change capital.  And too many other organizations are incorrectly capitalized.  They are trapped by poorly conceived endowments, over invested in buildings, and ill prepared to manage unplanned growth.  All of which is straining their capacity to make ends meet.

They also found that size matters.  Smaller organizations have less cash flow, but greater flexibility.  Larger organizations attract most of the money, but are less flexible.

Past funder behavior has played a roll in this situation.  Funders inadvertently created funding approaches that punished surpluses, were inadequate to cover costs, and were often too restrictive.  And funders priorities shaped organizational behaviors.

They also found that often grantees spent money on operations despite the money being allocated for other purposes, and that grantees were often not completely honest with their grantors.  And if that is true, and I have no doubt to an extent it is, then that, in my opinion is a major issue.  If grantees aren’t able to be honest with their grantors how can there be any kind of real working relationship.

Evidence from three funders approaching the challenge, suggests funders are adopting a variety of approaches to help arts organizations get to the point of moving towards adequate capitalization: workshops, trainings, grants et. al.  The question that looms is that if adequate capitalization is a core value and objective (because inadequate capitalization limits the viability of the organizations, and in the aggregate threatens the health of a local arts ecosystem), then at what point does the funder say to an organization: “if you can’t achieve adequate capitalization, or at least implement a viable plan to that end, then you are no longer eligible for continued funding”?  That question remains unanswered at this point, but needs to be answered soon.

More tomorrow.

Don’t Quit.