Sunday, November 24, 2013

Exit Interview with Olga Garay-English

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

Olga Garay-English Bio
Olga Garay-English is the Executive Director of the City of Los Angeles Department of Cultural Affairs (DCA), a position she assumed on August 1, 2007. Reporting directly to the Mayor of Los Angeles and managing a $40 million budget in FY12/13, the Executive Director is DCA’s chief artistic and administrative officer. Since her appointment with the City, DCA has been awarded $21 million in funding support from private and public entities.

Prior to joining the City, Olga was an independent producer and performing arts consultant who worked with organizations such as the Lincoln Center Festival, the National Performance Network, and El Museo del Barrio. As Founding Program Director for the Arts for the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation (1998 - 2005), Olga was responsible for the planning, design, management, and evaluation of the Arts Program, one of the largest national arts funders in the United States. A total of $145 million was awarded to arts organizations during Olga’s seven-year tenure.

The LA Weekly Theater Awards of 2013 made Ms. Garay-English the Queen of Angels for Special Achievement in theater and for being Ms. Garay-English was named a Chevalier dans l’Ordre des Arts et Lettres from the French Ministry of Culture and Communications in 2012 for her significant contributions to the arts. In 2011, Los Angeles Magazine named Olga one of ten “Game Changers,” women who make an impact in LA every day. She received a “Bessie,” the New York Dance and Performance Award, and was named the Cuban Artists’ Fund Distinguished Honoree in 2006. She also received the 2003 “Fan Taylor Distinguished Service Award” for exemplary service to the field of professional presenting from the Association of Performing Arts Presenters. Olga was born in Santa Clara, Cuba, and came to the United States in 1961. She is bilingual in English and Spanish.

Note:  This interview was conducted prior to the announcement that Olga is leaving her post at the Los Angeles Department of Cultural Affairs and I asked Olga to comment.

Barry:  The recent change in administration at the Los Angeles City Mayor's Office has resulted in your departure from your politically appointed post. What are your priorities prior to your exit in January, and what are your future plans?

Olga:  My priority is to solidify the many projects, initiatives and grants that are currently active under my leadership by either maintaining a project based involvement myself, re-assigning primary responsibility to another DCA senior staff member, or bringing the project to a close.

For example, as Senior Advisor on Local and International Arts Programs for Councilmember Tom LaBonge, I will continue to work on the year-long celebration of Los Angeles and Bordeaux's 50th Anniversary as Sister Cities, which will take place throughout 2014 with over a dozen cultural exchanges between the two cultural capitals.

I will also continue to work on the Creative Economy Convergence initiative, as Senior Advisor to Otis College of Arts and Design President, Samuel Hoi.  Otis' annual Report on the Creative Economy of the Los Angeles Region, in collaboration with the California Arts Council, will now have a state-wide scope. I think this will be a welcome and intriguing expansion that will better inform us how local and state-wide entities can work together to solidify California's role in the world's creative economy.

As of this writing, DCA has secured more than $23 M for its programs during my six year tenure (vs. the $21 M I reported since we can now count funds we secured for RADAR LA Festival of International Theater and a few other corporate grants).

Also, we have decided not to move forward with the Fellowship program we were to launch in partnership with the British Council and the LA County Arts Commission.  My staff felt that without my stewardship on getting the program off the ground and without any assurance that future funding would be available once a successor is named, it was not viable to launch a new initiative.

In addition, though it would be premature to name them, other projects locally, nationally and internationally are already bubbling up, and I am keeping open to other possibilities.

I want to ensure that I leave DCA as secure and focused as possible by consolidating existing partnerships and ensuring funders that the Department will follow through on its diverse commitments.  My hope is to leave the Agency in a more robust position and ready to meet future challenges.  And I think the arts community of Los Angeles will demand that DCA continue on this upward trend.  A great city deserves a great local arts agency.  We must, as commmitted Angelenos, ensure that our government continue to invest in the cultural community.

Here is the Interview:

Barry:  Under your leadership the Los Angeles Department of Cultural Affairs has raised over $21 million in additional public / private support.  How did you do that?

Olga:  Our success, I believe, is due to the partnerships DCA/LA has established, within the City family as well as with outside organizations, that have made sense in addressing various challenges / opportunities in our community. For example, one of the issues that is perennially identified as being problematic for the City is the lack of affordable housing for artists; addressing this is crucial to maintaining LA’s place as a cultural capital. Working together with The Actors Fund and Artspace, two of the country's leading developers of affordable housing for artists, as well as the California Institute for the Arts (CalArts), which wants to expand its footprint Downtown, in addition to City Departments such as Planning and Housing, and Council District 14 Downtown, we have successfully raised nearly $700,000 in grants for Planning and Pre-development work related to the creation of the Downtown Cultural Quarter (DCQ) Creative Enterprise Zone. The DCQ will be anchored by the Downtown Arts Center (DAC) mixed-use affordable housing project, the CalArts campus and other for-profit creative businesses and non-profit arts and educational endeavors. This includes an accelerator / incubator being planned by Otis College of Art and Design as well as student housing being planned by SCI-Arc, one of the country's leading architecture schools. In all, this robust group of collaborators is planning to revolutionize the way artists and other creatives interact with our Downtown core.

Barry:  There has been a marked shift in increased arts funding to cities and decreased funding to states, and City and County agencies seem to be doing remarkably well in terms of funding - at least as compared to the states (which haven’t yet recovered from the cuts of the 2008 economic crisis).   Do you think those trends are now permanent or merely reflective of the current times?  Does that mean that more of the power and influence is shifting to the city and county agencies that once was with the state agencies?

Olga:  As former House Speaker Tip O'Neill said, "All politics is local." The fact that most states still rely on General Fund appropriations to support their State Arts Councils is particularly troubling in fiscally difficult periods. Local Arts Agencies, such as the City of Los Angeles Department of Cultural Affairs, often receive specific, formula-driven appropriations from Tourist Tax Revenues and Percent for Public Art Programs. As such, when the economy upswings, as is the general trend right now, there is an automatic increase in our revenues due to more robust business and leisure travel expenditures as well as more public and private real estate developments.  Keeping to political observations, this one attributed to JFK, I strongly believe that "a rising tide lifts all boats." So figuring out how to best secure the economic health of our state arts agencies will better secure the viability of the local arts agency field.

Unlike metro areas like Philadelphia and Northern California, Los Angeles doesn’t have a base of large foundations supportive of the arts.  How have you applied your prior experience in running the Duke Foundation Arts Program, your familiarity with foundational philanthropy and your network of contacts to account for that in Los Angeles?

It is difficult to say why certain areas of the country have a better developed philanthropic sector than others. But the country is a patchwork, with some areas (particularly older more established cities like Philadelphia and San Francisco as you point out) having an impressive philanthropic ecosystem while others have a more anemic sector). But that is reality, so it is more effective to work with the resources available in your sphere in the most creative way possible. Being able to identify a challenge or opportunity in your community that may be of interest to a national funder and then putting together a partnership team that will enable you to address it significantly is always attractive to a funder. Being able to articulate your vision and why it makes sense for your community is a must. I always visualize how a peer review panel will respond to the project I am trying to get funded. After all, their job is to whittle down the applicant pool and find the few projects that they think have the most chance of succeeding. My job is to make the vision so compelling that panelists will feel confident in awarding grant dollars. Also, I believe in engaging the grants staff at the philanthropies you are approaching. It enables me to better hone in on what the funder is trying to accomplish and typically leads to a more targeted ask. Lastly, I always call to get panel comments after the funding decisions are announced - whether DCA was recommended for funding or not. The insights you get from that exchange are invaluable in refining the ask the next time.

 Los Angeles is both a city and a county, and has separate public arts agencies for each.  While the geographic territories are distinct, there is a lot of cross over and spill over at least in terms of the mobility of the area’s residents.  To what extent, and how, do you cooperate and collaborate with the Los Angeles County Commission on the Arts?  Do you and Laura Zucker partner on anything specific, and how has that relationship worked out?

Laura has a very strong grasp on the local and national arts environments and keen insights as to how address the needs of the arts community in proactive ways. The Los Angeles County Arts Commission (CAC) serves as a convener of other municipal arts agencies. Through CAC’s leadership, LA arts funders, executive directors, program officers, and other staff meet approximately every month to share information, address field wide concerns, and learn from each other.

DCA and CAC have worked together on a number of specific projects. For example, we are now working with the CAC and the British Council to launch a program for emerging arts leaders who have participated in the CAC’s Arts Internship Program and have been working in the arts field from three to seven years. Through a competitive, peer reviewed process, six former interns will be chosen to travel to the UK where British Council colleagues will offer a series of experiences that will provide participants with an in-depth understanding of a range of issues in arts management and leadership practice, as addressed by fellow practitioners in the United Kingdom. The program will consist of visits to leading UK arts organizations, seminars with British cultural leaders and arts professionals, and opportunities to see high quality performances and exhibitions. This represents a high level opportunity for our best emerging arts managers to engage expand their networks and universe. DCA could not have accomplished such an enterprise on its own and is excited about the partnership with both CAC and the British Council.

Barry:  What do you see as the major obstacles in providing more direct services to artists in Los Angeles, and how are you addressing those challenges?  How can we better serve working artists?

Olga:  A number of studies have posited Los Angeles as a major arts capital. Relevant to this question in Ann Markusen’s 2010 report for the Center for Cultural Innovation (CCI) that hails Los Angeles as “America’s Artists Super City.”  Professor Markusen observes that, “successful artistic livelihoods, studies show, require lifelong learning, validation, access to financial and physical resources (including space to work and equipment), health insurance, business skills, and networks that help expand markets or land jobs (Jackson, 2003). In Los Angeles, these are especially pivotal and yet underinvested in.”

The sheer number of artists that make Los Angeles home makes serving them a very challenging proposition… especially in difficult funding climates. In addition to providing direct funding support to individual artists through our respected COLA Individual Fellowship Program, which turns 20 next year, we provide artists in residence support in all 15 Council Districts and, in a program I started upon arriving here, through our Cultural Exchange International Program, which provides international residency opportunities of a minimum of two weeks and a maximum of three months to chosen applicants. Further, we work collaboratively with arts service and advocacy organizations such as Arts for LA, the Center for Cultural Innovation, the Dance Resource Center, the LA Stage Alliance and others, funding them to better serve individual artists through a variety of proactive programs. Yet it is still not enough and we constantly strive to be more intelligent and more creative in our quest to serve individual artists.

Barry:  Los Angeles has one of the more sophisticated, active and successful local advocacy arms of any metro area in the country.  How do you and the DCA work within that framework?  What hasn’t the Arts For LA structure yet been able to accomplish that is high on your priority list?

Olga:  I am a big fan of Arts for LA. Executive Director Danielle Brazell and her team have done amazing and strategic work in promoting the arts and arts education for our diverse community.  I routinely credit Arts for LA as saving DCA during the darkest period of the City’s fiscal crisis.  Arts for LA galvanized the arts community, which came out in droves, in support of DCA’s work.  And smartly, now that the worst is hopefully over, Arts for LA continues to engage the City family positively by having annual “LA Arts Days” in City Hall that bring together elected officials, their Arts Deputies, and our City’s arts advocates to better inform each other on their goals, aspirations and realities, and to celebrate the important work being undertaken in Los Angeles by artists and creatives.

Arts for LA’s primary challenge in accomplishing its goals, and by extension DCA’s goals, I believe, are primarily a resource issue. By any measure, it is a small (some would call it lean and mean) operation that needs more stability. But DCA’s ability to substantially help could undermine Arts for LA’s efficacy as an arts advocate during tough times. It is better for us to fund its educational and professional development activities rather than to muddy the waters by supporting its advocacy efforts. One of the primary goals Arts for LA wants to accomplish for DCA is to have the City significantly increase grants funding. It is an uphill battle but one best accomplished by having Arts for LA truly independent as an advocacy organization and not perceived as an arm of DCA. By the way, naming Danielle Brazell to WESTAF’s (really Barry’s) list of the Fifty Most Powerful and Influential People in the Nonprofit Arts was spot on.

Barry:  As the head of one of the major arts agencies in the country, and as a Latina woman what is your position on the increasingly accepted proposition that too much funding (public and private) has, for too long, gone to the very largest (and largely Euro-centric) arts organizations, and too little has gone to multicultural, emerging, smaller and more vanguard arts enterprises?  How do you think a more equitable allocation of our scarce resources might be accomplished?

Olga:  This has been an ongoing battle (or debate depending on where you sit) that has been taking place for dozens of years. This axiom is especially true during fiscally challenging times when organizations of color and alternative arts organizations more often fail than do mainstream arts organizations. It is not a level playing field by any means. And just as funders are complicit in helping create this ecosystem, they must be just as complicit in turning the situation around.

For example, when I was hired to be the founding Program Director for the Arts at the Doris Duke Charitable foundation (DDCF), I was told that grants had to be of a significant size (typically, grants were $500,000 to $3 million), this meant that the majority of organizations of color and avant-garde arts organizations would not qualify for Duke support since their annual operating budgets would not adequately support receiving a grant of that size. I knew, however, that those were the very types of organizations that Miss Duke supported while she was alive.  I therefore convinced DDCF leaders to support vital organizations such as the National Performance Network and the National Dance Project (of the New England Foundation for the Arts), which could justifiably receive multi-million dollar awards and then re-grant them in smaller chunks to deserving small to mid-size organizations including artist run ensembles.  Further, we sought out organizations of color such as the Caribbean Cultural Center and 651 ARTS in New York City and contemporary arts presenters around the country, such as the Portland Institute of Contemporary Art and jazz-specific organizations, such as the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival and Foundation, to receive multi-year matching endowments that were restricted to artistic endeavors. These endowments were never meant as a stabilization strategy, since Miss Duke’s will was about supporting individual artists, but to provide reliable revenue streams for grantees to commission new work, support community based residencies, and other research and development efforts that directly benefit individual artists.

Barry:  At the Duke Foundation, and in Los Angeles, you have a long history of active involvement in supporting arts performances and touring and presenting in general.  Why do you think audiences continue to shrink and where do you see paths to address that decline?  What is at the root cause of the decline?  What has to change?

Olga:  There are many theories on why there has been a steep decline of audiences at our performing arts institutions. I think it is an unfortunate convergence of many factors. Lack of arts instruction in our schools, lack of public transportation options, increased competition for decreased free time, costly ticket prices, and the list goes on. Yet sometimes I attend a performance and see how a community comes together and the excitement that is generated by witnessing a live performance. That gives me hope. We need to capture people’s imaginations in more engaging ways and make them feel welcomed and appreciated at our venues, but without numbing down the work.

Sometimes you see all of these factors come together and it is a joy. The LA Phil, for example, has managed to capture this spirit and is now taking their zest for classical music to LA’s disparate neighborhoods through their Youth Orchestra LA Program. It is inviting young people throughout the city to learn to play and love music. As their website explains, “through Gustavo Dudamel’s Youth Orchestra LA (YOLA) program – inspired by Venezuela’s revolutionary El Sistema – the LA Phil and its community partners provide free instruments, intensive music training, and academic support to students from underserved neighborhoods, enabling every child to contribute using their full potential.” It is a model to be emulated by others in the field interested in building tomorrow’s audiences.

Barry:  Do you think the arts infrastructure is overbuilt - i.e., too many arts organizations given the demand and the available support?  What is the solution?

Olga:  No. I think it is the lack of support available that needs to be addressed. I do a lot of work with institutions and colleagues in other developed countries. These countries acknowledge the role the arts and culture play in developing a national character as well as a sense of self. I think we need to, as a country, become more attuned to how the arts and culture define us as a people and to make this work a national priority instead of an afterthought.

Barry:  What’s the last big programmatic risk you took that didn’t work out well for you, and do you have any regrets?

Olga:  As in most communities, Los Angeles’ arts organizations tend to cluster in specific areas of the city instead of having representation throughout the City’s significant footprint. Areas such as the San Fernando Valley and South LA are underserved by DCA and have scant arts nonprofits we can work with and provide support to. To address this imbalance, I proposed establishing an “arts ombudsman” in those areas. The problem is that I included this in a proposed budget which, due to the City’s recent awareness that it was facing a $500 million deficit (in FY 2008/09) was doomed to failure. My regret was not getting more buy-in from the elected officials representing those communities. Because I was pretty new on the job and did not have the relationships I do now at City Hall, it was a premature idea since I did not have the votes. Of course I regret that tactical error, but now that the economy is on the mend, we may try to revive that concept.

Barry:  As of this writing, the NEA continues without a named successor to Rocco Landesman as Chairman?  If the White House called you tomorrow and said the President wants you for that job - walk me through the first three things you would do after your Senate confirmation.

Olga:  Kiss my husband, Dr. Kerry English (we have only been married two years so we are still on our honeymoon), who is a huge supporter of the arts; convene the NEA staff, which has been on a roller coaster since the culture wars of the early 90’s, and celebrate their dedication to the field; and begin one-on-one meetings with elected officials to continue getting individual buy-in for the work of the agency.

Barry:  A large portion of your budget is TOT income and allocated to public art programs.  Would some of those funds be better spent in other kinds of support for artists and arts organizations, or is the current strategy in place the right one for LA and for the times?  If so, why?

Olga:  Just to be clear, DCA is supported by three primary revenue streams from the City of Los Angeles. The Transient Occupancy Tax (TOT) provides 1% of the 14% TOT collected by City of Los Angeles hotels. The 1% allotted by ordinance to DCA, which typically ranges from $9 million to $12 million. These funds support our annual grants program; our 25+ arts centers, theaters, and historic properties; City-wide programs managed by DCA such as Music LA and various festivals; and all our full time and part time salaries and fringe and overhead expenses.  Additionally, DCA uses 1% of the Arts Development Fees (ADF) from private developers for our Public Art programs as well as 1% of public development fees, which are also used for Public Art programs.  So in effect, the TOT funds used by DCA, through its grants programs as well as instructors fees at its arts centers, directly support artists and arts institutions (Public Arts Commissions, which are significant in our annual budget, also provide 10% to 20% of all project funds to the lead artist(s), making these Public Arts dollars an important support system as well). The goal is to shift more of the TOT dollars to our grants program and away from staffing and overhead costs. As the economy improves and TOT revenues increase, we are hoping to devote said increases more and more to our grantmaking activities.

Barry:  You talked about the Broadway Arts Center project in a blog for AFTA last year.  Where is the project currently at?  How do you think it will ultimately impact the arts in LA?  Will the impact be limited to downtown, or will it have a larger impact across a bigger geographical territory?

Olga:  We are now calling it the Downtown Arts Center (DAC) since the site selection process being led by our primary partners, Artspace and The Actors Fund, has led us to realize that finding a lot the size needed on Broadway, where most properties are owned by individuals, is going to be quite challenging financially – especially now that the economy is improving. As such, we have decided that we need to expand our search to encompass all of Downtown LA. We have been meeting with government officials, for-profit developers and non-profit community development corporations trying to find the site and the financing structure that fits the needs of the DAC and our other major project: expanding the Downtown footprint of CalArts. These two efforts will be the anchors for the larger Downtown Cultural Quarter Creative Enterprise Project being designed by Pritzker Prize winning architect Thom Mayne and his firm, Morphosis Architects.  Their charge is to create a roadmap, including zoning and code recommendations to the City, which will result in more creative for profit companies and arts and education concerns moving to a more welcoming Downtown. I believe that a strong, vital and alive Downtown core will have an impact across the greater Los Angeles area and result in outcomes we cannot even imagine currently.

But to more directly address the second part of your question, DCA just was awarded another NEA Our Town grant that will directly impact outlying areas though it will be piloted in the Downtown adjacent Arts District. Our Town funds will support the Artists’ Affordable Housing Partnership (AAHP), a program to provide immediate affordable artists’ housing and create a replicable strategy for use in other communities in LA and beyond.

Though they have been around for many years, 80/20 developments, where 80% of rental units are market rate and 20% are designated affordable, have traditionally not been accessible to the arts community, due to lack of familiarity with the program.

In 2008, HR 3221 clarified Low Income Home Tax Credit regulations to specifically allow a preference for "those involved in artistic or literary activities.” Many developers of affordable housing, as well as the arts community, however, are largely unaware of this provision, and its benefits have not been fully realized; deliberate brokering needs to occur between affordable housing developers and the arts community. The AAHP will develop resource materials to increase developers’ awareness of the artists’ provision (HR 3221) as well as educate artists on how to accurately complete the needed financial qualification documents and other application materials. A website will be maintained to promote affordable housing opportunities to artists and the broader creative community. DCA plans to use the materials, protocols, and curricula developed in other City of LA regions, such as Hollywood and the San Fernando Valley, both of which have 80/20 projects coming on-line in the next several years. there is interest from cultural affairs departments in Pasadena and Santa Monica, two neighboring separately incorporated cities, to replicate the program.

Barry:  Management skills, entrepreneurial skills, listening skills, fundraising skills, people skills, visionary skills - all of these and more help arts administrators successfully navigate ever more difficult pathways in running arts organizations.  Which of these or other skills do you think are the most important, and why?

Olga:  They should all meld together, but it is rare for an individual to possess all of these skills. In my case, developing entrepreneurial skills, along with fundraising skills, but based on constant interaction (listening) to the field, has been key. These are crucial underpinnings to not only developing a vision but being able to articulate it to partners and funders and other key allies so that the vision can be turned into reality. These are important elements when you are looking for true leaders.

Barry:  Having now been both a foundation and a public agency funder - what advice do you have for your former foundation program officer colleagues?  What would you tell foundation program officers that they need to think more about?

Olga:  When I became the Program Director for the Arts at DDCF in early 1997, I set out to develop a program that I would have liked to have in place while I was working in the field as Director of Cultural Affairs for Miami Dade Community College. Right before I left Miami, I was coming to the end of a multi-year grant from the Ford Foundation titled “Internationalizing New Works in the Performing Arts.” I was able to work with Ford to establish a modest endowment for the Cultural Affairs Department. This allowed us to start each fiscal year with approximately $60,000 in our account to match grants, initiate projects, or simply as much needed cash flow. It was such a relief not to have to start each year with a blank slate, as was the custom at the College. That stuck with me as I segued into being a Program Director at a major US foundation. Coupled with Miss Duke’s instructions to support artists with the creation and public performance of their work, but bound by the Foundation’s decision to make large grants, I came up with the idea to help the country’s most excellent performing arts presenting institutions, which are extremely under-endowed compared to museums and symphonies, to establish or grow their endowments. But we restricted the way the interest earned could be deployed so that it would be used directly on artists, as Miss Duke had stipulated in her will. So the lesson is to keep constantly in contact with the field so that the programs created by foundations deal with the real issues grantees must constantly tackle; that is my recommendation.

Barry:  To what extent do you think arts organizations are too often isolated in their own silos and miss opportunities to work together for some greater good?

Olga:  This is a quandary faced by all types of organizations (universities, city government, the tourism industry) and not just arts organizations. In an overworked and under-resourced environment, it is easy to become siloed since we are forced to do more with less and in order to do so have to become like heat seeking missiles, (i.e., totally focused on what we need to accomplish).  However, it is extremely important – especially when times are difficult – to force ourselves to look around and invite other people to the table. Through combined efforts and diverse knowledge bases, one can tackle much more complex issues with a greater degree of success.

Barry:  Jeff Bezos from Amazon walks into your office and says you can have a million dollars to launch your best arts entrepreneurial idea.  What is it?

Olga:  This is an idea that we wanted to pitch to the Bloomberg Mayors’ Challenge Program last year.  However, the City chose another department (cities could only present one proposal to the Bloomberg program). Our basic idea is as follows, “to establish LA’s Broadway Cultural Quarter Creative Enterprise Zone, transforming Downtown into a thriving 24/7 hub, marrying adaptive reuse and cultural overlay ordinances.”

We figured that a major adaptive reuse initiative had been successfully deployed in downtown Los Angeles in the late 1990s turning historic buildings into residences and hotels (and resulting in investments of more than $6 billion over the last 15 years, according to the national trust for historic preservation). Yet the strategy has never been utilized to help Downtown building owners invest in turning unused upper floor space into attractive studio and other work spaces to specifically attract and nurture creative businesses. DCA proposed to couple an adaptive re-use ordinance with a Cultural Overlay Ordinance, two successful urban revitalization strategies, using proven methods in innovative and more impactful ways, thus making it cost-effective and attractive for landlords to invest in their unused spaces to make them more inviting for creative businesses and arts and education nonprofits, which in turn would lead to a revitalized urban core. We are still trying to effectuate this plan even without specific outside funding. However, having $1 million from Bloomberg or Bezos, for that matter, would make it happen much more expeditiously.

Barry:  Looking back to when you were just starting in the arts, what is the one thing you wish someone had told you?

Olga:  Though people extol the value of being connected to community, it is often necessary, in order to increase one’s effectiveness, to move from the place where you are grounded to take advantage of a work opportunity that will allow you to have more impact.  It took me a long time to learn that, but being named Program Director for the Arts of DDCF, though it meant leaving Miami, my home, allowed me to envision and implement programs on a macro scale that would never have been possible had I stayed in Miami.  Being given that national platform eventually put me in line to become the Executive Director of the City of Los Angeles Department of Cultural Affairs. So getting out of your comfort zone, is sometimes the best way to challenge yourself to become more effective.

Barry:  Is too much emphasis still being placed on the arts using the economic benefit argument in advocating for support?  Conversely, is too much emphasis placed on the “intrinsic value” of the arts argument?

Olga:  In my mind they are both critical aspects of our field and, depending on who your audience is, it is important to articulate both arguments equally skillfully.

Barry:  How do you motivate your staff and the organizations your agency supports?

Olga:  The senior staff at DCA has, almost to a person, been with the Department for ten or more years. They are experienced Arts Managers in their own right and so treating them as such is important to me, and I think is appreciated by them. It has been a difficult few years for the Department, given the economic challenges faced by the City, which thankfully are now being righted. Layoffs and early retirements have had a major impact on the way DCA conducts business. Obviously, this has been a stressful time for all. But ultimately, I am a driven person and spend a great deal of time on the job and then thinking about the job. I expect my colleagues to do the same, and they have rallied to the occasion.

In terms of the organizations DCA supports, I am constantly present at diverse programs and functions throughout this vast City. And being present is half the battle. This means many nights and weekends spent attending events. But our colleagues appreciate that DCA is in the  house, and I think that it comes back in spades. When the future of the Department was at risk and over 6,000 Angelenos wrote, sent emails, and made phone calls, then packed City Hall to demand that DCA be a part of our City services, it was clear that the work of the department was prized by our constituents and that was a clear indication that art matters.

Thank you Olga.

Wishing everyone a Happy Thanksgiving with family and friends.

Don't Quit.

Sunday, November 17, 2013

Organizational Heavy Gravity Days

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

Life itself is a cycle.  You're born, you grow up from infancy to adolescence to middle age to old age, and you die.  Organizational theorists have posited that organizations too have natural cycles - and unavoidable stages of development from inception to maturity, to cessation of existence.

There are numerous models describing the stages.  In the private sector, "the Adizes model (named after Dr. Ichak Adizes) suggests organizations start in the courtship stage. In it, founders are dreaming up what they want to do.  Entrepreneurship is the dominant mental model resulting in the eventual founding of the company.

The infant stage follows, with an emphasis on production and time pressures dominating everyone’s attention.

Infancy is followed by the go-go stage. Organizations that have reached this stage have figured out how to deliver value into the social systems they serve and are rewarded with supportive customers. Rapid expansion, personalized leadership, some planning, and fast decision making are the hallmarks of organizations in this stage. The go-go years bring financial growth and expansion.

Adolescence is the next stage. It is in this stage that planning and coordination become important.  Administrative activities increase at the expense of both entrepreneurial endeavors and production. The mental models of stability and conservatism surface and start to dominate the way the organization conducts its business. Formalized rules and policies emerge.

The prime stage is next in the organizational lifecycle. In this stage the emphasis is on efficiency. Organizational boundaries are erected and the company starts to lose touch with its environment. Goals and aspirations remain stable but the desire to grow and change starts to disappear. Stability and predictability become the prevailing mental models.

The final stage is maturity. It is in this stage where organizations become paternalistic seeking a comfortable organizational climate. There is a low emphasis on production.  Relationships are formal and little innovation takes place."

Speakman Management Consulting provides a nonprofit six stage framework (Adapted from: The 5 Life Stages of Nonprofits, Judith Sharken Simon, 2002 and The Conservation Company, 1997), which includes the following developmental stages (and which parallels pretty much the above model):
  • "Grassroots invention
  • Start-up incubation
  • Adolescent growing
  • Mature sustainability
  • Stagnation and renewal
  • Decline and shut-down"
In both models the problems come late in the game for those that succeeded in establishing themselves in their marketplaces - where the organization "loses sight of its market, focuses on program development primarily geared to fund-raising, has insufficient cash reserves, clings to rigidity in management, and becomes more reactive than proactive." Continued existence becomes the goal.  Eventually, the negatives become insurmountable and the organization is simply no longer viable.

Sound familiar?

It should, because it accurately describes an increasingly common condition with our field; a condition now so prevalent that it has become a front burner issue for all our disciplines and sub-sectors.  Some argue that our financial problems are the cause of the other symptoms of older organizational age, and that these problems are really part of another cycle:  the ups and down of the economy. But, first, while the economy may have ups and downs, and periodic winners and losers, to think of it as always moving between feast or famine may ignore the reality that the "new normal" may be that we are not ever going to return to an economic model that for decades was the bedrock of arts organization's existence; and second, some arts organizations survive the economic downturns, while others do not.

The challenge for our organizations is to recognize the stage at which they have arrived.  Knowing and accepting that an organization is in the late stages of its development is the first step in moving towards renewal; towards a renaissance of ideas and relevance within the marketplace.

What keeps us from pursuit of such a path?  Denial?  Fear that the changes necessary are antithetical to the original mission?  Poor management and leadership?  Bad decision making?  Complacency?  Those and more.

One of the problems is I think, another set of cycles to which we are prisoner - the energy rhythms which often, despite our best intentions, paralyze us.

When I was just out of college, during the 'hippie" times, when all things were about individual growth and self-awareness, one of the buzz ideas we latched onto was managing our "biorhythms" - defined by Wikipedia as:
"According to believers in biorhythms, a person's life is influenced by rhythmic biological cycles that affect one's ability in various domains, such as mental, physical and emotional activity. These cycles begin at birth and oscillate in a steady (sine wave) fashion throughout life; thus, by modeling them mathematically, a person's level of ability in each of these domains can be predicted from day to day."
You could even buy a little plastic biorhythm device that you could set to your birthday and by moving the little dials see where your mental, physical and emotional rhythms would be best aligned for the optimum positive energy - thus allowing you to predict when times were auspicious for certain endeavors.  Of course, though the idea of being able to accurately predict when you were in the "zone" as it were, was terribly seductive, the whole notion has been thoroughly debunked.  Yet there remains the unassailable reality for each of us that there are times when we have a lot of energy and seem to easily get things done and moving, and times when we don't - and that many times that reality is apart from such factors as lack of sleep or illness or anything over which we have control.

I go to the gym four times a week and have for decades.  Sometimes I think I am going to have a great workout, and I end up lagging through the whole routine.  Other times, i just want to do the minimum and get out of there, but end up having a really great workout.  I personally chalk it up to heavy and light gravity days (hey, that's as good a theory as biorhythms).  The point is that there seems to be some cycle of when things go well and when they do not; when we get things done and even create some magic, and when we just can't focus no matter how hard we try - even if that cycle's origins, genesis and operation remains a mystery.

The same seems true in our work.  We have days that, despite our best intentions, or even threatening deadlines, we just don't seem to be able to produce; days when a systemic ennui engulfs us and keeps us from any kind of productivity, let alone the spark of real creativity.  Writers call it "writer's block".

The natural and commonplace response to those "days" is to either beat your head against the wall and work though it, or to put whatever it is off until tomorrow.
tomorrow (noun) - a mystical land where 99% of all human motivation, productivity and achievement is stored.
When we plow ahead because we think we must (that it is an unacceptable weakness not to be able to move forward), we are, as often as not, left with the inescapable reality that such an approach just doesn't work.  The gravity is too heavy that day (or week or whatever).  Putting things off until tomorrow is sometimes the only option.  And while sometimes that is the best (and most logical) approach, and other times an impossible solution, it is almost always the default option if it is available.

I think perhaps organizations too have periods within each stage of their development for which there are "heavy" gravity days (weeks, months), when their "biorhythms" are not in sync; periods when despite their best intentions they just can't move forward.   In that reality, both the default option to plow ahead, and the default option of postponement often has the same result:  things don't get better, often they get worse.  Those periods seem more pronounced as the organization moves to maturity, stagnation and old age.

In the early days of an organization, energy and ideas abound.  Complacency is non-existent.  Nothing pulls the free flow of ideas downward.  But those days don't last.  They give way to bad habits resulting in the organization getting stuck.  And for many organizations, the paralysis of ennui keeps them stuck.

What to do?  How to fight gravity?  I have no idea, other than a good starting point might be recognition of the situation as "reality", and then assessing the viable options.  By recognizing and observing those periods when we seem irrevocably stuck and unable to move forward, both as individuals and as organizations, perhaps we can glean some lessons as to why it happens and how to move beyond it.  Sometimes the "gravity" is so heavy, there is nothing one can do except wait until tomorrow.  As Scarlett O'Hara said in Gone With The Wind:  "Tomorrow is another day."  The problem is that at some point, you run out of tomorrows.

Have a great week.

Don't Quit.

Sunday, November 10, 2013

Interview with Ken Foster

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

Bio:  Kenneth J. Foster is Associate Professor and Director of the new graduate Arts Leadership Program at the Thornton School of Music, University of Southern California.  He was previously the Executive Director, at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts from 2003 - 2013.  Foster has served as a board member for such prominent arts organizations as the Association of Performing Arts Presenters, Dance USA, and Chamber Music America, among others. Prior to joining YBCA, he served as Executive Director of UA presents at the University of Arizona. Prior to directing UA presents, Foster served as Professor and Director at the Center for Performing Arts at Pennsylvania State University, as Managing Director at the Kirkland Fine Arts Center in Illinois, and as Executive Director at the multidisciplinary Town Hall Arts Center in Colorado. In 2007, Foster received the prestigious Fan Taylor Award for Distinguished Service from the Association of Performing Arts Presenters. The award honors individuals whose outstanding service, creative thinking, and leadership have had a significant impact on the profession of presenting. His first book, Performing Arts Presenting: From Theory to Practice, was published in 2006.

Here is the interview:

Barry:  You have a substantial resume in both the presenting field and in facilities management.  What do you think are the three major challenges in each of those arenas?  And how can we best address those challenges?

Ken:  I consider myself both blessed and cursed that every position I have had, included managing a facility as part of the job. It’s great to have your own space, even though in every single case I have had to share it with others, which is probably challenge number one. There is always more demand for the space than time available, especially for “prime” spots, and when you are in the decision-making position, you wind up making lots of enemies because you can’t give everyone what they want. You can never win; someone is always unhappy; often it’s yourself. The other two major challenges facing facility management are the expectation that somehow the building represent something more important than the art that occurs within it. “The edifice complex.” Even arts professionals sometimes think that getting or having a building means the art is magically better or the audiences instantly larger. Not true. It’s just a means to an end and is too often seen as an end in itself. The other challenge for facilities is an environmental one – the resources it consumes to build and operate, even in “green” buildings are staggering. Only someone who has had the opportunity as I have to run (and pay the bills for) everything from a 250 seat to a 2500 seat hall knows that they consume staggering amounts of energy. How sustainable is this? One more challenge – we are in an age of fragmentation and the idea of coming to a designated spot at a predesignated time for a time based arts experience is becoming increasingly uninteresting to audiences. I worry about what will happen when these gigantic behemoths of arts facilities built to revitalize a downtown area go dark for good.

As for the presenting field, our challenges are no different than all of the arts. First, it is a field (STILL!!) dominated by white men “at the top” making serious artistic decisions for a population that looks less and less like them every day. It’s well past time for us to make a serious effort to completely deconstruct this paradigm and I don’t just mean more affirmative action and mentoring programs. I mean a wholesale rethinking of arts organizations, how they are run and by whom, who governs them and how they are funded. Tweaking the current system only ossifies a methodology whose time is rapidly coming to an end. It’s a culture shift that has to happen if the arts as we know them are to remain relevant in the years ahead.

I am actually encouraged at small signs of progress I see in the second big challenge facing the presenting field, which is working to embed the arts into the life of the community. Many leaders have seen the light here and realize that the transactional nature of art’s relationship to audiences has to shift to one that is more experiential in nature – that art is not a product, it’s life. Without it we simply can’t live. It can occur in many forms and formats but it is the most human part of us and we’ve pretty much reduced it to a commodity to be bought and sold. One of my very few regrets at leaving YBCA is to step away from the program we had just launched to address this issue with an innovative “in community” program throughout the Bay Area. I’m delighted to see Deborah and the staff carrying this on with enthusiasm. Wish I could be there with them to watch it grow and develop.

The third challenge for presenting is very much related to the above. If art is no longer a commodity to be bought and sold then the whole presenting paradigm (managers, presenters, tours, negotiated fees, etc.) collapses in on itself. Personally I think that’s a good thing but it will be a cataclysmic shift and so far we haven’t quite figured out how to keep art in front of people and enable artists to create and perform without this infrastructure. But there are folks out there experimenting and I predict a sea change over the next decade.

Barry:  Having now just left Yerba Buena Center for the Arts after a ten-year stint, what are the major lessons you take away from that tenure?

Ken:  I have to start by saying I absolutely loved my time at YBCA and loved my time in SF and would not have traded it for anything. It was the most challenging job of my career and also the most rewarding and hands down my favorite. That said, it was a killer job. So…

Know when it’s time to leave and leave without looking back and without worrying too much about what will happen to your “legacy.” Your legacy was the time you were there; a new leader will create his or her own legacy, not extend yours. Detach with love.

Leadership requires courage and tenacity, especially at a highly contested space like YBCA. Have a vision, hold on to it and pursue it with everything you have, even as you are surrounded by SO MANY people telling you how wrong you are and how right they are. You have the job, not them. Be strong.
Relationships matter most. They are your lifeline, personally and professionally. Build the good ones; cut off the unhealthy ones quickly and cleanly; nurture and care for those you love and whose love for the organization is what sustains it, them and you through the tough times. YBCA has a great staff of highly dedicated, passionate people, which made it both a fantastic and demanding place to work. Tempers flare, feelings get hurt, people care, maybe care too much. In the end, building and sustaining those relationships – board, staff, audiences, community is the core of your job. But it takes attention and tenacity to keep at it.

Barry:  One of the hallmarks of your tenure at YBCA was your commitment to ‘innovation’ in programming.  What is the role of a presenting / facility organization in terms of nurturing innovative programming, and how does one best do that?

Ken:  If you don’t innovate you die. It is literally that simple, especially now. Everything we thought we knew about how the arts work has pretty much been damaged almost to the point of destruction. I continue to be SHOCKED, that in a field dedicated to creativity and the creative spirit is dominated by so many people fearful of change and sad to say that includes a lot of artists who keep doing the same thing over and over and expect you to love them for it. I loved that we brought so much new thinking, new aesthetics and new ideas to SF through the YBCA programming and I don’t care two cents whether the critics – official or self-appointed – liked what we presented or not. I am so proud of the art and artists we advanced and the fresh ideas we brought to this community. Our job as a contemporary arts center has been and must be to always push the boundaries, no matter what, and as an “institution” we have should have the resources to both promote innovation and withstand the inevitable failures and missteps without feeling like failures ourselves. It goes back to what I said about presenting – courage and tenacity.

Barry:  What don’t funders fully understand about the needs of arts presenters?

Ken:  My experience with funders – especially the program officers - is that they actually do understand what presenters need, but that too often their own internal politics and cultures get in the way. I know most people disagree with me, but I’m generally not a big fan of Foundation support for general operating support because it doesn’t always encourage innovative behavior, which our field desperately needs just now. So I’m in favor of Foundations who provide funding for new ideas and new projects and I’m impatient with presenters who complain about this. What are we about if not new ideas? It’s just that it’s often too little and has unrealistic expectations attached to it, especially around reporting and quantitative analysis of something (like audience development or the creation of new work) that really can’t be adequately assessed in a short time frame. So we play this little game with each other of “proving” results and that often results in way more paperwork than any of us need or want. If I were a funder I’d say, tell me what your vision is, tell me how you plan to make some progress toward it and tell me how I can help. And then I will.

Barry: How do you best keep a facility / presenting organization involved in, and engaged with, the local community.

Ken:  For years I have said, and believed, that the arts center should be like the local library. It’s there in your neighborhood; it’s open a lot so you can come whenever, there’s stuff there that gest checked out every day and there’s stuff there that gets checked out once every decade and we need both of them. The arts center ought to be the completely democratic repository of our cultural heritage – past, present and for a contemporary arts center especially – the future. We’re not just warehousing the past we are creating new knowledge. There should be easy, unfettered, largely free access at all times of the day and night. There should be food and drink and Wi-Fi and homeless people sleeping on the benches and teenagers looking at porn on the computers. When the day comes that the arts center comes down off of its pedestal and really connects with the community we will find that art has become the center of the community. Gustavo Dudamel of the Los Angeles Philharmonic says that art is a fundamental right for human beings and I agree absolutely. If we start from that premise, we’ll find all kinds of ways to embed the arts in the community rather than wasting time trying to figure out how to “market” the arts and “do outreach” to the community. Can we stop that already??

Barry:  In your mind, what are the fundamental qualities of an effective leader?

Ken:  Well I’ve already mentioned courage and tenacity a few times and they are right up there at the top of the list. Vision. People pooh pooh that these days as being “soft” but that’s usually because they are uncomfortable with things like feelings, passion and emotion, which are central to the arts experience. By vision I don’t mean goals I mean a comprehensive, inspirational, expansive vision of the world in which your organization thrives. Leaders have to be savvy. The world is complicated, people are more complicated and there’s no straight line to anything. Figure out how to navigate around obstacles. Know when to retreat to live to fight another day. People are your lifeblood so you better be compassionate, caring and tough when you need to be. Couple compassion with very high expectations – higher than the persons themselves believe they can achieve. Expect more from them and for them. Laugh a lot because it’s a serious business but if you take it too seriously you’ll wreck things for yourself, the folks and the organization. Be a good public speaker and really good writer. There is SO much writing in leading an arts organization. Get good at it.

Barry:  Presenters really have three basic constituent client groups to serve:  the public in their local communities, the artists being presented, and the stakeholders in the organization itself.  How do you balance those sometimes-competing groups and needs?

Ken:  If you have the larger vision of the organization in mind at all times then in the long run, you will never fail any of these constituencies. In the short term, someone is always unhappy and as a leader you have to understand and accept that. But people will respect you and your vision if they see that you are committed to it and that you pursue it not just with passion, but also with integrity. It really is a compliment if someone says, I disagree with you but I respect where you are coming from. Getting everyone to understand and buy into the vision is the toughest part, but it also appeals to peoples’ higher natures. Work on that.

Barry:  If you were asked to advise the NEA on how to better serve the performance arts community, what advice would you give them?

Ken:  Provide funding to artists to create. Fuck Congressmen if they don’t like it. The resources for artists to create work are practically nonexistent. You want a robust arts community? Fund artists. We fund scientists and researchers to explore ideas. Do the same with artists.

Barry:  What have you learned over your whole career that were you to go back to the beginning would cause you to make different decisions at different points?

Ken:  My first job (at a small community based arts center) was both wonderful and a nightmare, mostly because I didn’t understand finances. It taught me to be really cognizant of the finances. But a lot of my jobs were of the “if I knew then what I know now I would never have taken this position” variety and yet I don’t regret taking them. Had I been more thoughtful I wouldn’t have gone after them and would have missed some amazing experiences, not all of which were good by the way. I wish I had taken more risks earlier in my career. I think sometimes I think people will ”get better” over time and give them too much slack when I should have encouraged them to move on sooner.

Barry:  Funders are grappling with conflicting thoughts on whether to provide large grants to a few organizations, vs. smaller grants to many more organizations.  Where do you stand on that question?

Ken:  Larger grants to more organizations. Seriously! This is a trumped up “conflict” that arises because Foundations stick closely to their “5% payout” as if that is a law. It’s a minimum folks, not a maximum! Want to make something happen? Give larger grants to more organizations.

That said, too many arts organizations, especially in the Bay Area, believe that simply because they exist they deserve Foundation support when in fact, they are producing some pretty mediocre work. Foundations should support the organizations that look like they are going to make the strongest impact and support them often and with significant sums of money.

Barry:  Your successor Deborah Cullinan, in an interview I did with her last month, suggested that there needs to be an increased role for people to participate in the curatorial structure of a presenting organization.   First, what do you think is the curatorial role of a presenting organization, and second, how can that role be opened up to more of those the presenting organization serves?

Ken:  First let me say how absolutely delighted I am that the Board hired Deborah. She’s one of a very few close colleague/friends that I have in the Bay area and will make a mark during her tenure at YBCA that I know will be significant. I couldn’t be happier.

Re: public curating –well this is not an all or nothing. Remember my library metaphor? I like best sellers, I love Hollywood movies and I cry at sentimental songs. These “public curated” events (i.e. give ‘em what they want) are an important part of our culture.

But I also know from experience that “people know what they like and like what they know” and if they don’t ever get to see something outside their comfort zone they won’t grow, they won’t develop and they won’t develop the joy of an ever increasing, deep engagement with art. So curators have the responsibility to seek that stuff out and bring it in and say hey, I know you don’t know about this and you don’t think you’ll like it but if you give it a chance, you might be surprised. People LIKE to be surprised – not always and not at a prohibitive cost – but they do have a curiosity about the world. All of our lives have been shaped by teachers, mentors and others who introduced us to stuff we had no idea existed and had no idea would make us happy. That’s what curators do. It’s not a matter of “taste” – it’s a matter of the curator’s extensive, deep knowledge and her/his dedication to searching out and finding the best, the most interesting, the most provocative – and sharing it with our community. We’d be lost without them.

Barry:  Facilities like YBCA have only so many dates available for the organizations in their community that covet those dates.  How do you balance that local demand with the value of presenting established artists from beyond the local community (as a service to the local public)?

Ken:  You gotta love SF. The little known fact is that more than 70% of the time in the two theaters at YBCA in any given year has been devoted to local artists and there were still dates available and I don’t mean Christmas Day. But everyone wants the second week in October and gets PISSED if they can’t have it. And if they are prevented by a touring company from Africa or New Zealand then they say, well YBCA doesn’t care about local artists. That’s the biggest fiction out there. It made me crazy for a while and then I just accepted that people were never going to be happy. It’s in the mission and it’s in the actual programming that YBCA is a site for local artists and national and international artists. For SF to be a vibrant arts community it needs both. And it’s not like we were presenting musicals or circuses or comedians in order to just make money. We are talking about serious artists from around the world who have something to say to and for our community and by the way no one else in the Bay Area would present them so we did. And I think we made the right choice every time.

Barry:  Both UCLA and Golden Gate University had Arts Administration degree programs.  Both are gone now.  However, Claremont College now has such a program, and you are joining the faculty at USC and chairing a graduate Arts Leadership program.  Can you please describe that program and what you hope for it in the future.  How will you grow this new program?

Ken:  When USC recruited me to head this program I was very clear that I was interested in Arts Leadership and not Arts Administration. There’s big difference. I’ll admit to being old school and believing that arts administration is learned on the job more and in the classroom less. I started my career as a high school teacher and I feel the same way about education. I learned how to teach by teaching, not by the case studies in my education textbook.

My belief, and what I told USC and what resonated with them, is that we are in a fundamentally changed world and that in fact, teaching “arts administration” as it is generally taught these days, teaches you yesterday’s skills for tomorrow’s world. I’m not interested in that. Instead, I want to work with folks who realize this and have the courage to take some risks and develop the kind of new thinking and new ideas that will save the arts from oblivion. I have some degree of wisdom and experience from 30+ years of LEADING arts organizations that I want to share. But I also want to work with students who want to try new ideas, explore options, create new organizational models, figure out new ways to fund the arts, figure out how to use the creative process to make the arts vital and viable in ways I have never experienced.

I’m not at all interested in “best practices” or creating a “safe space” - two phrases I detest. Best practices are from yesterday and safe spaces are all about fear of the unknown. I want to work with folks who want to innovate, take risks and be unsafe in their practices because that’s where the juice is. We have a fantastic entrepreneurial moment just now and I want to do everything I can to support and aid those folks who see that and want to jump into the fray. That’s what this program is all about.

The program launched this fall with a one-year graduate certificate and a two-year Master in Public Administration that we offer in collaboration with the Public Policy School at USC. I’m developing other programs in collaboration with the USC Schools of music, theater, visual arts and dance that will offer an MA with an emphasis in the area of your choice. Because we are in Los Angeles, we draw from the amazing artists in that city who are remarkably generous and share my vision of a richly diverse arts world.

Barry:  On the general topic of providing professional development opportunities for our managers in the field, what do you see as the major challenges and how are University programs such as the one you will head at USC in a position to be part of addressing those challenges - apart from the service they provide to students enrolled in their institution?

Ken:  In addition to the academic departments, we are working on developing collaborations with national service organizations to address this issue. I’m well on the way to creating a partnership with APAP and there are a couple of others in the works as well that I can’t really talk about yet. The challenge here, as you rightly point out, is that we are dealing with people who are working professionals who can’t always drop out for a couple of year to earn a degree. But at the same time, I don’t want to create a lame program that is thin with content because we want to make it cheap, fast and easy. There’s already too much of that in the arts world. That’s what I like about being at USC – we/they are committed to rigor and demanding excellence but within a framework that makes it possible for working professionals to take on the challenge. I had three different experiences in my life – through NYU, through Berkeley and through Stanford that were critical – life changing I would say - to my professional development as an arts leader and they all had rigorous content in a format that made it possible for me to attend and learn without quitting my job. That’s what we are working on.

Barry:  And while University programs across the country are providing excellent training and education in arts administration for a new generation of leaders, there is a whole cohort of entry and middle level managers already working within the field who (because of cost, time and other factors) have little to no opportunity to increase their skills levels.  How does the field address this unmet need for easily accessible, low cost, convenient professional development opportunities for middle and entry level mangers already in their jobs?

Ken:  See above.

Barry:  Isn’t part of the problem for the arts field providing better professional development opportunities that almost no arts organizations have a line item in their budgets for such training and education?  And with those that do have such provision, more often than not, it is, in practice, reserved for the more senior leadership?  How do we get more organizations to budget for professional development, and include junior managers?

Ken:  That’s a good question and symptomatic of something I see all the time at nonprofit organizations which is the focus on the immediate and the tactical and almost a disdain for the long term (“how can I think about training staff when we barely have the money to keep the doors open?”) Strategic thinking demands a much larger perspective than that. We can easily get caught up in the day-to-day activities of “putting on the show” and lose sight of the longer vision. For arts leaders, that’s disaster; we have to have the long view because no one else does.

That said, even at YBCA this was usually dealt with as “we need money to send people to workshops and conferences” rather than as part of a systematic plan to strengthen the organization by investing in the people. Working at a nonprofit arts organization ought to be an ongoing process of professional development – not a class that we take every now and again on how to be a good supervisor. Leaders need to integrate staff development into the daily work of the organization. Mentorship. Cross-departmental training. Executives spending some time on the floor. Reading groups. Shared arts experiences outside our organization. When I was at Penn State we took a “field trip” to Pittsburgh so the staff could meet colleagues in other arts organizations. It doesn’t take that much time and money but it does require commitment and a certain amount of creativity on the part of the leader.

Barry:  What one big problem facing the nonprofit arts field worries you most about our future?

Ken:  Oddly enough, I worry most about whether we will be able to exercise the creativity necessary to remake the field in the face of so many enormous and important environmental shifts (changing demographics, outdated business models, environmentalism, new technologies, etc.) If we don’t, or can’t, then we risk becoming just a niche product available to, and the province of, a diminishing elite class. That would be a tragedy. I come from a working class background in which attending performances or art museums was not part of my experience. My life has been so vastly enriched by the chance to participate in the arts. How can we deny this to others like I was?

Barry:  In your address to the APAP Conference in 2010 from your paper “Thriving in an Uncertain World:  Arts Presenting and the New Realities”, you advised presenters to embrace “resilience thinking” making our organizations able to better absorb the shock of changing times and “recalibrate and continue existing and moving, without substantially changing the underlying purpose of the organization.”   You opined that rather than cutting back and “streamlining operations” in response to diminishing resources, we needed to move away from certain business values and embrace our own arts values more as part of our organizational values: including, risk taking, chaos, less smoothly functioning, but better able to absorb the inevitable blows of the times without damaging the core of the organization.  How do you feel the field has done in adapting to that kind of approach, and what do you think of that position today?

Ken:  First, I am even more convinced than ever that this is the way to go and increasingly view the economic collapse of 2009 as simply the ringing of a bell that needed to be rung for a long time. The economic collapse gave us the impetus and the rationale to make change but it didn’t create that need. That need was created by many other trends that have been happening over the last decade or so, most importantly demographic shifts and the technological innovation that is remaking the fundamental rules of the world.

I believe in the environmental model of resilience thinking because it springs from the “natural world” and therefore is organically generated and understood – it’s not some crazy idea I thought up one day while ruminating about the state of the world. It coheres with what is actually happening. I also think it provides a metaphor for action and activity that resonates with art and artists and is not alien to the creative process but quite the opposite. One day I hope to write a paper that centers the artistic process as a methodology for operating a business, not vice versa. I think that day is not far off.

As for how we are doing, I’d say we’re partially but not completely there which is the source of my answer to the question you raised above about my one big worry. Many organizations are still in denial about what’s happening around us. Too many are trying to do old ways better rather than finding the new way of operating. It drives me crazy when I, still today, hear people say that they just need a better strategic plan, a better board that will actually fundraise for them, a rich person to give them money, etc. We’ve heard these comments for years and simply made no progress. Stop tweaking and start changing people!

That said, many organizations are out there making these kinds of changes. Deborah has certainly been in the forefront of this with her work at Intersection and 5M, which is why I think she’s such a great choice to lead YBCA into the next phase of its life. She’s got the creativity and the courage to make it happen. I think George Steel at NYC Opera could have made this happen – he has a very contemporary and I think correct vision for an alternative opera company in New York – but unfortunately he was too little too late and the forces for yesteryear around that organization too strong. Everyone was pining for an era when the money kept flowing and “the people’s opera” racked up annual deficits of incredible amounts. Steel balanced the budget for two years for the first time in many years. Yet he’s getting the blame for he demise of NYC Opera. It’s a shame.

I will say, throughout my career, I have ALWAYS looked to the organizations operating on the margins to learn about how to be resilient, adaptive and thrive in an essentially hostile world. When I was in Pennsylvania I worked with many rural organizations that figured out how to make art happen in their communities because they had to and they wanted to. Contemporary dance companies that I have worked with in Africa – Congo, Mozambique, Kenya, Nigeria and others - have thrived with working conditions and resources that we can’t even imagine because they were so committed to the work. They just figured out how to make it happen. Every story is different but the one common thread is that they had to or they would die, and sometimes that was literally true. That kind of passion for making art puts us to shame with our whining about how tough it is.

Barry:  In the same paper you talked about presenters (and really all arts organizations) becoming more resilient to the constantly changing environment by considering five possible prescripts for survival (an expansion of some of the themes in your book: Performing Arts Presenting: From Theory to Practice).  Those prescriptions include:

  • Behave like an Artist not like a Business.
  • Privilege Experimentation
  • Embrace and Engage Diversity
  • Strategize (basically to vet new ideas and move them quickly to implementation)
  • Focus on Relationships

Though you qualify this advice as possibly limited to a point in time, it seems to me very good advice today.  How do you see your thinking back then as applied to today’s reality?

Ken:  I think I pretty much answered this above. You’re right – when I wrote this I was responding to a moment in time when we were all searching for explanations and solutions and the simple logic of this approach was, for me, a port in a storm. While the storm may have receded a bit, things are still pretty challenging and as a methodology, it works. And by the way, I followed my own advice and applied these ideas to how I ran YBCA, much to the chagrin of some of my staff who were desperately looking for stability in the form of a rock like organization. Those who were comfortable with a degree of instability loved it. And I must say, my Board completely and totally got it. We had/have a fair number of entrepreneurs on the Board and this is not at all foreign to them. They worked with me to rewrite the vision and mission; they agreed to throw out the strategic plan and focus on four strategic priorities; they supported us when we maximized our relationship with Apple, when we launched not just one but two house raffles. They were along for the ride and they loved it. That made a huge difference.

And just to end the story, I left YBCA with a $10-12 million budget and a cash reserve of over $2 million. When I started ten years ago we had a $6 million budget, no cash reserves and I faced an immediate $100k deficit that had to be handled in my first six months. So in every way –artistically, managerially, financially and philosophically – I am proud of what we accomplished at YBCA under my leadership.

I just returned from giving a talk to arts leaders in Toronto on this very topic and, as happens whenever I give this talk, the ideas resonate with leaders in the field. So I think I’m on to something. I’m hoping to further develop my thinking about this in the next several months and ultimately write a second book about it.

Barry:  Who, outside the arts field, inspires you, and why?

Ken:  This will sound like a cliché I know but I think I admire Barack Obama more than anyone for his incredible leadership. Not that I agree with everything he’s done, god knows, and I am one of those who often wished he would fight back louder and harder against his enemies. But the hatred of Obama is personal and its racist and it comes from people who see the world of their own privilege diminishing under his leadership and who will  stop at nothing to retain their wealth and power. It’s actually quite frightening to see the intensity of the hatred directed at him. And it is personal.

He is paying an enormous personal price to do for our country what someone had to do – be the first. As the first black president he was doomed to being on the receiving end of anything and everything that racist America can throw at him and it’s astonishing to me to see how many people have taken the chance to try to take him down. It’s staggering. Yet he takes it, keeps his eyes on the prize, keeps pushing forward to the vision that he knows he will not realize during his time in office and maybe not even in his lifetime, but he stays focused and keeps going. Would that we all had his courage, tenacity, humanity and vision for a just world.

Thank you Ken.

Have a great week.

Don't Quit