Sunday, January 12, 2014

Interview with Devon Smith

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

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

Here is the interview:

Barry:  I read an article a month or two ago that claimed that the millennial generation, contrary to what older generations have been led to believe, really doesn’t understand technology and the various applications of the internet very well either.  In fact, the article suggested very few people in any cohort could actually answer this question:  “Without reference to Wikipedia, can you tell me what the difference is between The Internet, The World Wide Web, a web-browser and a search engine?”.  Assuming that’s true, it would seem that the leadership in the arts may actually be even further behind the curve in its basic understanding of what we are even talking about when we discuss how we might better use technology to deliver the arts.  What kind of basic understanding should everyone in our field have so we can talk intelligently about tech opportunities, and how do we provide that basic IT education to our managers?

Devon:  As your example suggests, definitional vocabulary should play a key role in minimum qualifications for everyone in our field. In order to have productive conversations about the role of technology in the arts, we all have to share an understanding about what concepts like responsive design, 3D computing, search rankings, internet of things, and APIs are, even if we don’t need to understand how to design, build, or even run said technology. However, the article’s demand that I don’t reference Wikipedia betrays a non-Millennial approach to knowledge and management. I don’t think I need to know the difference between the Internet and the web before our conversation begins, as long as I have a phone in my pocket that I can quickly consult using my trusty Wikipedia app to bring myself up to speed. Though in fact, I’m likely to start at Wikipedia to grab the definition of the two, browse Quora to see if anyone has already asked and answered what the key differences are between the two, and if I can’t find a satisfactory result, ask the #lazyweb of Twitter what they know.

I don’t think there is any singular way to provide basic IT education to all of our arts managers. BFA and graduate programs that train arts leaders could provide better digital training. Arts-focused national conferences and local professional development events could offer more forward-looking digital workshops. Boards could demand higher digital expectations of arts leaders and arts organizations, and leave it to them to figure out if a Kindle book, or a Khan academy class is the better fit.

One specific opportunity is for more arts leaders to attend digital conferences and events outside of the arts, such as the Nonprofit Technology Conference, XOXO Fest, or General Assembly.

Barry:  You questioned in your pre Dinner-Vention thoughts entry the lack of any Arts Think Tanks.  I have previously written on the same subject.  Still there aren’t any.  While Think Tanks usually involve established policy wonks with academic experience, is there any reason why a whole new younger cohort of arts leaders might not start their own Think Tank?  It might be refreshing and productive to be exposed to the kind of thinking that might arise from a very different version of the form.  What do you think?

Devon:  There are some interesting models for public policy-based think tanks to take inspiration from. Third Way aspires to be the Brookings Institution of the 21st century, with a focus on team-based research rather than siloed experts. PolicyMic uses gaming mechanics to encourage smart crowd participation in the creation of both media and policy. Some see TED’s Fellowship program and Google’s Solve for X as modern takes on the think tank institution.

While a few arts-based examples come to mind, none have become permanent institutions. Createquity considers itself at least part virtual think tank. The Collective Arts Think Tank lasted about two year before petering out. The Yale Drama School’s Theatre Management Knowledge Base is not so far off from a University-supported think tank. The Cultural Research Network seems to be the beginnings of a collaborative venture of researchers. The revered Brookings Institution actually has an Arts and Culture Initiative. Someone from the FutureSymphony in Baltimore commented in that pre Dinner-Vention blog post about their role as music-based think tank. And as I mentioned in a follow up comment, there’s a major university in New York currently raising money to open an arts think tank.

To my mind, an arts think tank would (1) bring brilliant individuals into close collaboration (whether physically or digitally), (2) pay them to author deep research on complex arts issues urgent to the field, (3) disseminate their work freely and widely to the field at large, (4) use the institution’s brand to provide the researchers access and authority with policy makers and funders, (5) incentivize the authors to get those policy makers, funders, and institutions to actually implement proposed solutions, (6) measure their impact, and (7) feed the learnings back into the pool of research opportunities within the institution and throughout the field.

Unfortunately, I don’t think a younger cohort of arts leaders would command enough authority for policy makers or funders to listen to them, nor does anyone seem to have spare cash laying around to pay for this long term research, and I’m uncertain that collecting what few highly talented/technical arts researchers we have into one institution would actually be good for the field, rather than leaving them embedded in their current environs.

Barry:  You’ve made it pretty clear that you want to see some mechanism that would, at the very least, determine a cut off date for funding of arts organizations that continue to function at the margins of productivity, efficiency and relevance.  How would you go about establishing a protocol for making that determination and then enforcing that cut off?  Who should make the decision?  What are the criteria for the decision?

Devon:  Three different stakeholders hold the purse strings on arts organizations’ ability to exist, in order of their ability to influence outcomes: the government; institutional funders; and individual donors/ticket buyers.

Through the IRS, the government could exert more pressure on arts organizations. Current 501c3 exemption requirements include being 1) organized for exempt purposes (charitable, religious, educational, scientific, literary, public safety testing, fostering national or international amateur sports competition, and preventing cruelty to children or animals), 2) earning that are not distributed to individuals, and 3) not attempting to influence legislation. So they have a handful of choices: 1) add a fourth criteria to keep in good standing as a 501c3 related to impact and establish a regulatory agency like the SEC to monitor, 2) outright charge nonprofits for contributing to an inefficient industry that harms the public good, as they do with carbon taxes, 3) require more in-depth impact-oriented questions to the standard 990 form to increase the transparency of failing organizations.

Institutional funders (foundations, local governments, and CSR arms) also have a wide variety of potential coordinated approaches: 1) simply decide to stop financing nonprofits that don’t prove their value according to some (admittedly hard to establish) field-wide evaluative criteria; 2) structure rounds of funding to disincentivize nonprofits from taking too much “outside” donations, for too long, a la venture financing; 3) provide preferential treatment for those organizations that can prove value.

There are few enough institutional funders that they could in theory band together for higher impact (oligopoly-like), and they should be well-trained to recognize non-performers relatively easily. Individual donors/ticket buyers are too diverse, too many, and too unfamiliar with nonprofit impact that I believe they would need 1) an independent rating system (perhaps Charity Navigator-like), plus 2) a field-wide movement to encourage usage of the rating system among individual donors/ticket buyers.

Criteria for proving community impact would probably look something like the B Corporation Performance Requirements, adapted for the arts.

Barry:  You asked why aren’t there any 3D printers in use in our theater, opera, dance and other companies to “print” costumes and props?  Let me ask you why you think we aren’t yet invested in exploring this technology? (at least to “print” stage ‘sets’ to help in their design and build?).

Devon:  We don’t really know how 3D printers are going to transform the world. If we can print guns at home, how will gun regulations fare? If we can print human organs, will we ever again need to harvest donor organs? If we can print custom sized shoes, will shoe sizes still exist, let alone shoe stores.

So I don’t know how 3D printing might impact the arts. Props seems particularly appealing to print because they would be easily customized, cheaper, more durable, and could be made biodegradable, and thus easily disposable. Modern costumes would likely be a novelty to print, though I could see historically accurate costumes getting drastically cheaper with a 3D printer. There are 3D printers meant for buildings, which could easily be adapted for set pieces and sprung floors. Back in 2005, the Oregon Shakespeare Festival was already using 3D modeling technology to at least design sets.

But the only way we’re going to figure out what’s lasting impact and what’s a stunt gag is to experiment. There are schools using crowd funding to buy MakerBots. Which by the way, cost less than $3,000. So I’m sure there are Brooklyn-based arts organizations and maker spaces who are already using MakerBots (also located in Brooklyn). I’d love to hear more from them about what they’re finding useful or inspirational.

Why haven’t more arts organizations or universities invested $3,000 and some learning time on MakerBots? I’d guess it’s a lack of awareness that it exists, and a lack of exposure from the media back to the field about successful case studies. A quick search revealed a MakerBot hackathon at the Met, an #ArtsTech event at Eyebeam, BoingBoing has a MakerBot artist-in-residence, and individual artists have already begun showing MakerBot-created artifacts.

Barry:  You suggest arts organizations might employ a “user experience designer”.  What is the job description of such a position, and how might that person function within an arts organization?  What benefits might there be from creating such a staff position?

Devon:  Smashing Magazine says that User Experience is how a person feels when interfacing with a system, and that UX Designers study and evaluate how users feel about a system, looking at ease of use, perception of the value of the system, utility, and efficiency in performing tasks, and goes on to include a long list of tools and techniques. Nielsen Norman says that the first requirement for an exemplary user experience is to meet the exact needs of the customer, without fuss or bother; next comes simplicity and elegance that produce products that are a joy to own, a joy to use. At Threespot, we believe UX Designers define who the users are, what they need, and how best to deliver on that need, while advocating for the user at every step of the design and build process. In my own work at Threespot, I’ve also seen them function as translators: helping developers understand what the designer intended for a given interaction, or explaining to internal stakeholders why end users’ needs are more important than their own. Many UX Designers are trained in Human-Computer Interaction, at graduate programs like IU. Some practical implications of UX are teased out in 52 Weeks of UX.

Allie Houseworth has already started to draw the parallels between UX and the arts. To add to her thoughtful post, I’d postulate that a UX Designer for the arts would be trained in Human-Art Interaction, and would need to maintain a cross-department position between any area of the organization that touches the “user.” Their job remains to be the advocate for the user, in every decision the organization makes. From curtain times, to what goes on the stage; how the website is designed, to how the venue’s chairs are designed; how to put users at ease in the analog space, how to increase the utility and value of the performance to the user.

One particularly tricky aspect of UX Design is understanding there is no single user to optimize the experience for, there is no “typical” user, and it’s harder than you might imagine just to untangle who the users are, and what it is they actually want. I think the largest benefit of a UX Designer in an arts organization is someone who could ask some of these questions, and be empowered to make substantive changes to the experience to benefit the user, who is most often an audience member, but also includes donors, board members, staff members, partner organizations, the press, the community, etc.

Barry:  You also suggested that we need more “Digital Curator meets Community Manager”.  Explain.

Devon:  This is a trend I’m seeing more of in other nonprofit arenas, where social media managers no longer come from a background of purely communications, but they have a deep understanding of the actual subject matter, are encouraged to immerse themselves in the entire organization, and can proactively start and facilitate conversations in the digital community. For a performing arts organization, that would mean a social media manager who regularly attends rehearsals, hangs out backstage, is invited to a wide variety of staff and board meetings, can speak with ease to major gifts donors and foundation program officers, spends time in the lobby with patrons, and works with guest artists even before they’ve arrived in town. It would lead to Twitter Q&As that are just as meaningful as the post-peformance talk back, Pinterest Boards as artistically interesting as costume sketches, and perhaps even live streamed board meetings so the community at large truly has transparency into the public organization. The Digital Curator role means that the social media manager also has the artistic backing of the organization, and has the capacity to articulate the artistic vision of the organization online, just as well as the more traditional guest or resident artists do on stage.

For arts service organizations or foundations, this role would fulfill more facilitator functions. An example with Dinner-Vention would be to aggregate a list of the Twitter handles of all the participants prior to the event, elicits conversations with them in the appropriate social media channels, inspires, coordinates, and perhaps even edits the participants’ blog posts across home and guest blogs, bringing to the attention of participants the community’s response to those posts. They would likely manage a Twitter hashtag during the event, and have the responsibility to bring the community’s voice into the conversation.

In short, a Digital Curator meets Community Manager is charged with ensuring the digital experience is at least comparable to the analog experience, allowing the strengths of each to shine through.

Barry:  Finally, what are the qualities that would make someone a good candidate for Entrepreneurial and / or Hacker Officer in an arts organization?  How do we get more arts organizations to understand the value of such a position?

Devon:  Geeks in Residence are funded by the Australian government to “equip arts organisations with the skills, information and connections needed to be competitive in the digital era.” Sync manages a similar program in the UK for five cultural hosts. Chicago Public Library hosted a trio of Geeks from the Obama campaign’s digital team for three months, available to “museums, universities, environmental groups, trade associations, non-profit hospitals and any other advocacy group that relies on community support.” Meanwhile, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation has an Entrepreneur in Residence meant to catalyze new thinking and identify opportunities, so does the San Francisco city government, and the city of Portland, nonprofit Ashoka sends its Entrepreneurs to be in residence at universities around the world, and the world itself now has an Entrepreneur in Residence, through the U.N. Foundation. The Atlantic’s EIR is a temporary-to-permanent role meant to “drive strategic initiatives for existing and new digital products.” Now even technology companies have Hackers in Residence, from LinkedIn, SparkFun (inspired by the artist/engineer in residence at arts org Eyebeam), from the incubator 500 Startups to the startup Betaworks, which has 6! There’s even such a thing as a Hacker (Musician) in Residence.

Clearly there are models out there to learn from. While we have guest artist exchange programs (including the awesome Alaska-oriented program funded by Rasmuson), what I haven’t seen yet is an exchange of a “Hacker in Residence” for an “Artist in Residence.” I’d like to see an arts organization send an artist to Tumblr or Kickstarter in exchange for one of their developers, for example.

The qualities that would make someone a good candidate for an EIR or GIR/HIR are inherent to being an entrepreneur or a hacker. They know how to get shit done, even when there’s no funding available, no time, and too many reasons not to. They have the skills to leapfrog the complex solution and instead build simple, fast. They’re good at unearthing opportunities where everyone else sees chaos or blank space. They are a connector of ideas, and a connector of people.

I think most arts organizations would jump at the chance for such a position to be in residence, but there’s a current lack of funding, and possibly a lack of enough digital foundation at most arts organizations for a HIR to make a meaningful impact, or simply be interested in the opportunity. So I think the bigger question is how to make hackers understand the value of such a position.

Barry:  How can we better track and understand the audience experience during any given performance?  What kinds of information and data might be gained from monitoring an audience during a performance, how do you do that, and how might that data help arts organizations?

Devon:  Our smart phones passively gather all sorts of information already, from our exact location through our wifi signals to out our heart rate. Maybe it could record and analyze our laughter? Fitness bands can track our sleep patterns,  and how often we’re fidgeting. Even simple post-performance audience surveys can help us understand the (self-reported) experience they just had, especially if they’re optimized for mobile.

The truth about big data is we often don’t know what to do with it, until we’ve got a lot of it (see, the many museums on GitHub). So it’s hard for me to predict how we’d actually use that information. It’s an interesting potential feedback loop for how engaged or not an audience is in a particular performance. Whether artists would be willing to substantively change the performance based on that data is another matter entirely. It's another possibility to construct a more accurate Netflix-like rating system of ticket purchase satisfaction across multiple theatres/performances, so we could better *predict* what performances really move our communities, similar to CultureCraver.

The best tracking data would probably come from a Google Glass participant. Every audience member could become their own streaming video service during any live performance. What if audience members start charging their viewers for the cost of the performance they sit through?  Right now we can see if someone's taking a photo of the stage because they have to whip out their phone, but with a blink of the eye, Glass takes a photo. Will Google Glass ever become so prevalent that actors wear them on stage, and live stream their POV to folks at home, or in the audience? Talk about the best seats in the house.

But I’m probably more intrigued by the arts equivalent of a fitness tracker. Something I can wear all the time, that tracks my day-to-day engagement with the arts, whether in formal occasions like going to the theatre, or informal occasions like passing by a busker in the subway, or a graffiti mural on the street. Aggregated across millions of people, I think we’d get a much different picture about how the “average American” participates in the arts economy, and experiences art in their daily life. The individual wearing the device gets subtle prompts throughout the day to pay attention to the art that surrounds them, encourages them to seek out more art, and enables them to compete against friends to maximize their arts exposure. Meanwhile the field gets the data, a more engaged constituency, and a visible demonstration of arts advocates in those nifty little wrist bands.

Barry:  If museums, theaters, opera and dance companies are not part of the WIRED generation’s thinking on culture, how do we change that?

Devon:  I think the question's actually backwards. How do we, as museum, theatre, opera, and dance people, welcome this new generation of artists (who are musicians, board game creators, cartoonists, graphic novelists, tv/film cast/crews, video game designers, athletes, and comedians) into the arts and culture economy/community, for the benefit of all? And we have begun to: the NEA will fund video game creations, modern dancers welcome rock musicians to perform alongside them on stage, theatre artists have long maintained fluid careers between theatre, tv, and film, I now see more of them transitioning into Twitter comedians. In fact, I'm guessing it's a rare artist that considers themselves wed to just one discipline.

And yet, most arts organizations are "just" a museum, "just" a theatre, "just" a dance company. This seems to present a problem from a ticketing/revenue generation perspective (if our communities get their artistic satisfaction and exposure from well-crafted video games, they "need" our services less), as well as from a recruitment perspective (if our artists and administrators are fulfilled by their jobs as graphic novelists and musicians, fewer millennials will choose to work in professions/disciplines they no longer consider at the forefront of defining cultural relevance).

Clearly, we all have a lot to learn from each other. So one road to change is creating opportunities for artists and administrators to mix across these new(er) disciplines--in formal, permanent positions within arts institutions, or in informal, temporary spaces like conferences and single performances. But in order to do so, I think we as a community of "traditional" arts will need to make a much larger effort to participate in, and value, digital arts, literary arts, cinemagraphic arts, and so on. To not hold up a performance of Hamlet as inherently more artistic than a run through BioShock Infinite.

Barry:  Do Reddit and Buzz Feed have any real practical application for marketing of the arts?

Devon:  For some organizations, some of the time, sure.

Reddit is composed of some of the 40 million most prolific and engaged internet consumers/producers, across an incredibly wide range of interests. Ask Me Anything's have proven successful across actors, politicians, astronauts, and economists. When these people authentically participate with Redditors, they market not only themselves, but their parent brands/organizations. Who's to say that artistic directors, choreographers, composers, and sound engineers wouldn't also be popular. But Reddit is a community at heart, or more specifically, a platform where you can build a community, and Redditors don't like being "marketed" to. So a staff member of a theatre could earn the right to be a mod on the subreddit for their city, and then work with the community to actively contribute links and insights related to culture's impact on the city. Woolly Mammoth could coordinate an AMA with a Supreme Court scholar to help promote their upcoming performance on the subject. A choreographer in need, with a good angle, might be able to raise money or track down an interesting venue sponsor. But just submitting a link to your latest press release is more likely to get you banned than upvoted. At which point you might decide to check out CulturalDigital, an arts-specific version of Reddit.

Two routes to BuzzFeed Fame (TM) come to mind: native advertising, and syndicated content. Neither of which I've seen arts orgs do well, or really at all. Native advertising is going to be expensive, but would probably be an invaluable learning experience for arts orgs to understand how content actually spreads through the web, and how to write for a web audience. In this arrangement, a company pays BuzzFeed to help them write articles for BuzzFeed which incorporates their content/message into the articles themselves. Nearly all of BuzzFeeds advertising units now seem to be native ads, rather than "old school" display ads. It is the antithesis of the wall that used to exist between editorial and advertising, and now even the venerable New York Times is doing it. The other is to syndicate "buzz-worthy" content to BuzzFeed, a la Quora, who's top Q&A articles now appear on the site. All this said, Upworthy is probably going to be a better target audience for arts marketing than BuzzFeed.

Unfortunately, most arts organizations' marketing departments are too strapped for cash, time, and staff to look up beyond Facebook and press releases to pursue novel arrangements with these potentially lucrative and transformative sites.

Barry:  Many Millennial generation people in the arts decry the unwillingness of the arts to engage in some of the forward (and risky) projects that Google and others in the high tech industry consider almost essential.  But isn’t that a bit unfair given the almost limitless ‘deep pockets’ of the Googles, and the comparative threadbare financial wherewithal of the arts and arts funders?  If you were going to re-allocate some of the public and private funding towards those kinds of projects, from where would you take the money, and in what would you invest?

Devon:  I would focus on private funding (which has a higher vested interest in seeing long term ROI) over public funding, invest in artists who are solving clear and significant community problems, and in organizations who are figuring out new ways to radically reduce headcount. Here’s why.

I'm in the middle of reading In the Plex at the moment, about the founding of Google, and interestingly they pursued a long shot strategy even in the earliest days when they had no VC funding, and AdWords had not yet made them billions. I think this bent towards innovative R&D, and problem-solving based experimentation, is embedded in the DNA of start ups, in a way that just isn't true of arts organizations. I'm not at all convinced that money is the problem here. It's mindset. Plenty of cash strapped start ups take big risks, understanding that there is a potential for a big payout that make the initial investment worth it. The idea of "hacking" itself is built on the assumption that you have very little to work with, but you're going to muster together something useful with whatever resources you can scrounge up, in a short amount of time, to get the job done in a new/better/faster/more efficient way.

But let's pretend for a moment that Google itself put a one-time $10 billion infusion of cash into the arts ecosystem, and I got to tell them where to put it. Distribution seems to be the missing link to scale, and scale is the only way to achieve demonstrative returns on a $10 billion investment. Basic economics: (price times volume) minus (cost times volume) (minus fixed costs) equals profit. That profit can either be re-invested in the company's work, distributed to the community (via cheaper tickets) or distributed to the employees (via higher salaries).

We know that we want price to stay relatively low, but not so low that people undervalue the experience. So innovation that convinces audiences to pay higher prices is wasted. Moving on.

We know we want to drive costs down, by reducing inefficiencies, duplicative work, work that's not informed by sound data, and time spent on activities that don't impact the quality of the final product/performance. Let's say we have a $10 million in operating costs theatre. $4M goes to admin salaries, $2M to artist salaries, $2M to pay for all the stuff on/related to performances on stage, $1M to fund and operate the building, $1M to marketing and fundraising. So innovation that would reduce the number of people needed to operate a theatre on the administrative or artistic side (since we already know that high salaries are not the major culprit) would move the needle the most, and should be our first area of concern. Then we'd focus on reducing the cost/amount of stuff on stage, since those can rarely be used again. Then on increasing the effectiveness of marketing and fundraising expenses, likely based on better predictive data models. Every hundred thousand dollars you can reduce marketing or fundraising expenses, raises your profit margin by 1%. Useful, but not game changing.

Our last expense category is the fixed cost of the building. Innovation that allowed us not to need buildings is interesting, but basically just gets us back to a question of distribution. It's not the cost of the building that hurts our operating profit the most, it's how "locked in" the building is to a community of people that can walk/ride/drive to it.

And so we're left focusing on innovation efforts on the volume part of the equation. Which could mean filling more empty seats (via marketing, or changes in our offering), adding more seats to existing buildings (if we thought limited seats were a constraining factor, which is unlikely), offering more opportunities to fill seats through quicker turnover or expanded operating hours (if we thought current purchasers were choosing not to attend based on the day/time, which is probably true on the margins but not overall), or thinking beyond seats entirely to new methods for how audiences might consume this theatrical performance. Focusing on this area of the equation seems tempting, but it assumes we're facing a matching problem--that there exist audiences out there willing to pay for our content, who simply don't have access to it currently. I'm not convinced that's true. And even if it were, it would create entirely new competitors that would likely destroy any gains. If every theatre in the world could distribute their content to every person in the world, you're no longer competing simply against the dance company down the street on a given night, but with every dance company, ever, everywhere.

But missing from that economics equation is the product. I think most of our innovation investment dollars need to be going towards new products/experiences, that more people are willing to pay for. Products/experiences that respond to our local communities' (and those around the world) needs. Products/experiences that solve a problem for our audiences, that open up a new opportunity for them.

Barry:  If there aren’t any arts or arts organizations who even own a pair of Google Glass, is that not partly the fault of Google?  Why wouldn’t Google include the arts in its initial test of its experiment?  How do we get the tech companies to see the arts as natural potential partners in their initiatives?

Devon:  It turns out that there are a few artists/arts organizations in the first batch of 10,000 Glass participants. A staffer at the Met has a pair, an independent filmmaker has a pair, another Glass artist made an appearance at Art Basel earlier this year, a DJ and artist-in-residence at USC has experimented with collaborative music making via Glass, and a new exhibit just premiered at Lincoln Center that uses Glass to embed hidden imagery and video into a sculpture. Google itself asked for "bold, creative people" to apply to the Explorer's program, and from everything I've read worked pretty hard to ensure Glass Explorers represented a wide swatch of disciplines from athletes to surgeons. Now Google is inviting all 10,000 Explorers to welcome 3 more of their friends into the 2.0 beta, hopefully expanding artistic representation even further.

But it's true that arts has not been a primary field of focus for Glass. Thus far, Google has seen news media, education and medical fields as some of the more interesting (quasi) nonprofit arenas for Glass experimentation. Because remember, Glass is still about opening up more opportunities for search, and information retrieval. And Google continues to show an interest in "information for good," the idea that information  in and of itself has the power to change the world for the better. Google, nor any other tech company, has any obligation towards the arts. Unless we start showing an interest in using information for good, as a mutually beneficial partner.

We can get the tech companies to see the arts as natural partners in their initiatives when we can make a compelling case about how they benefit from a partnership with us more than any other nonprofit or for-profit field. I'd want to see what kind of new data/information is generated when actors start wearing Glass during rehearsal, audiences start wearing Glass during performance, curators start wearing Glass as they wander through their own, or others, venues, fundraisers start wearing Glass during galas, ushers wearing Glass in the lobby, lighting designers wearing Glass during tech, executive directors wearing Glass during board meetings.

Barry:  What do YOU think are the major problems we’re facing in the arts?

Devon:  In no particular order, the top 10:
  1. Audiences don't find our art relevant, valuable, or interesting enough to attend frequently. 
  2. There are too many arts organizations doing the same thing, and providing no unique value to the industry at large. 
  3. Early career artists are paid too much; late career artists are paid too little. Early career administrators are paid too little; late career administrators are paid too much. 
  4. We pay too much for our buildings, of which there are too many, and of which our audiences care less about than our board members. 
  5. We don't have structured data, which prevents insights from being made across organizations, and across communities. 
  6. Subsidizing arts organizations made sense when no "amateur" could afford to produce and distribute art widely. Digital technology has changed the economics, and it's no longer a foregone conclusion that the arts (not arts organizations) need public funding to thrive. 
  7. There aren't (good) enough mechanisms to share developments and experiments widely throughout the industry via blogs, conferences, journals, or frequent job turnover. Too many people have commented that this discussion isn't new, that such and such company is already doing this, and yet that information rarely travels beyond a local community, and certainly isn't changing the entire industry. 
  8. Unions have too much control, and too little positive influence. 
  9. We have no equivalent of the Millenium Development Goals--no big picture concept about what success looks like in the arts community. 
  10. We talk a lot, but there doesn’t seem to be urgency to move to action. Even now, in what seem to many to be an industry in fairly dire straights, there is no movement towards a “bailout” or even OWS-style protests. 

Barry:  The arts talk a lot about technology providing differing ways to access art, but other than a few very primitive attempts (e.g., The Met doing live theater simulcasts around the country), we have taken very few steps in experimenting with employing technology in the delivery of the arts.  What are some baby steps the arts might consider taking in expanding the ways it delivers its product to a changing public?

Devon:  On the Boards.TV, Better Left Unsaid, and Mike Daisey's All the Hours in the Day are all great examples of experimentation in digital distribution. In each case, they're time shifting the performance (from live to recorded), or making the audience active participants in the production (rather than passive viewers), or opening up the possibility for viewing beyond the standard 8pm curtain time, and turning an event into a "once in a lifetime" experience.

Is there a role for "Netflix of the Theatre"? I don't know, but it's a business model I'd like to see tested. A small step arts organizations could take is recording more (higher-quality) video, and posting it online for free to see if it acquires an audience.

Is there a role for "Hack the Dance" in the same model of "Hack the Museum" or ImprovEverywhere? I don't know, but it's an engagement model I'd like to see tested. A small step arts organizations could take is to engage their communities in real, meaningful dialogue, about what it is they want out of a given performance.

Is there a role for the "e-surance of the opera," which can be accessed online, whenever/wherever you want it, and for cheaper than all the other alternatives? I don't know, but it's an arts model I'd like to see tested. A small step arts organizations could take is to livestream talk-backs and other pre/post performance activities, and to test these activities at all hours of the day rather than strictly tied to a given curtain time.

Barry:  If you ran the NEA, what would you do to change things?

Devon:  I hear the position’s open. In no particular order:
  • Larger grants to fewer organizations.
  • Broaden definition of "arts" to include more of those WIRED culture categories, and promote the NEA heavily to those fields. 
  • More funding to early stage ventures who are taking big risks with the potential to change the entire industry. 
  • Bring more panelists in from outside the arts fields to review applications.
  • Given the press about how Kickstarter provides more funding to the arts than the NEA, partner with Kickstarter to advocate for more public and private funding. 
  • Roll back the talking point about funding artists--the NIH directly funds scientists, even those who undertake controversial research, there's no reason the NEA shouldn't be able to fund individual artists. 
  • Require and track more (meaningful) quantitative success metrics for grants and grantees.

Barry:  How might arts advocates better use technology to move decision makers to their causes?

Devon:  Show social proof that arts advocates are everywhere, vocal, and engaged in the political process. Policymakers care about people in their districts. We can use technology to organize constituents, to make our numbers more visible, to contact policymakers, and test various messages until we find one that resonates with advocates and decision makers alike.

For inspiration, I'd look to social/digital campaigns like,

Barry:  If entrepreneurial skills are important for arts administrators, can you explain what those skills are?

Devon:  Don't get me wrong, many artists and arts administrators are already adept entrepreneurs. In fact, perhaps even too entrepreneurial. If there were fewer small start up arts organizations, it would probably be better for the arts economy. Many small technology start ups actually aid the larger technology ecosystem, because their innovations get consumed, subsumed, and outright acquired by companies who have scale. Not so in the arts.

But generally speaking, some of the high-impact social entrepreneurship skills I think are important are:
  1. Reach for impossibly large goals, and plan for actually getting there.
  2. Beg, borrow, and steal ruthlessly until you acquire the resources you need.
  3. Consider every possible competitor, and then out-compete them for users.
  4. Use a single performance metric to measure progress, and adapt everything you do to maximizing that outcome.
  5. Articulate passionately how your product/service is going to revolutionize user's experience, and make the world a demonstrably better place.

Barry:  What are the important intersections between arts education and social media?

Devon:  MOOCs, educational analytics, and flipped classrooms have taken the educational field by storm. None are particularly social media specific, but social media (media that helps us be social through digital interactions) certainly plays a role.

If MOOC's are about giving scarce resources away for free (typically access to some star professor), having the opportunity to scale an experience once thought necessary to have in-person (classroom learning), and using the wisdom of the crowd (to ask/answer questions, and adapt material to their own needs), it seems like there could be huge opportunity for arts education. But it's going to come at a cost that not everyone likes. Instead of tens of thousands of arts educators who are on average good at teaching drama, music, painting, etc to 30 students at a time, instead you get a single stellar piano teacher that can service tens of thousands of students each.

If educational analytics are about measuring outcomes rather than inputs, uncovering trends in student performance to understand what aspects of teaching work best, adapting a student's individualized learning plan based on what they've actually mastered, and providing more transparency to stakeholders, from parents to principals, it seems like there could be a huge opportunity for arts education. But it's going to come at a cost that not everyone likes. When we can get definitive proof about how beneficial arts education is, or is not, relative to other subject areas, the arts field could (could) be in for a rude awakening. We espouse the value of creativity in the work force, but it's not clear that teaching arts (or at least teaching arts in the way that we do now in most school systems) is the best way to achieve a creative outlook on work/life.

If flipped classrooms are about focusing a limited resource on highest-value transactions (teacher:student time), expecting students and teachers alike to transform their expectations about how, and where, they spend their time (moving homework to the school-day, and "learning" to the home), and commoditizing what teachers formerly believed their job to be (from experts in a subject area, to expert facilitators), I think arts education is probably right on track.

Here, the idea of a flipped arts experience is more interesting to me. The idea of a flipped classroom asks you to erase your notions about what a teacher is "supposed" to do, what a "classroom" is for, and instead say: the purpose of teaching and classrooms is for students to master a subject area, or a way of thinking--how does that happen best, and forget all of the other "rules." If we forget about what a stage is "supposed" to be used for, and instead focus on intended outcomes of that experience, what would we change about the relationship of arts in user's lives?

Barry:  If you had one million dollars to spend on something that would be a potential game changer for the arts field, what would that be?

Devon:  I don't think a million dollars would be a game changer for the arts field. If that were true, I think we could actually lobby the NEA, the Knight Foundation, the city of San Francisco, or Mark Zuckerburg. It's a little like saying if we could spend another million dollars on AIDS research, what could we accomplish? The truth is very little...perhaps the early stages of a new testing protocol.

I think big ideas, big changes, need big money. I currently work with nonprofits and foundations whose communications budgets are larger than the nation's largest arts organizations' entire operating budgets. They measure reach in millions of users, and impact on a global scale, after sometimes decades worth of research.

That said, I already told you what I'd do with $10 billion dollars back in question 11. When I was in grad school, Ben Cameron taught a class which asked my classmates to create the operating plan for a foundation that would spend a million dollars a year for ten years, versus another that would spend a single ten million dollar investment (essentially as a limited life foundation, like Atlantic Philanthropies). But even that is too small. Six Kickstarter projects have successfully raised more than a million dollars in the categories of film, music, comics, or photography. None in art, theatre, publishing or dance.

So if I needed a million dollars, the first place I'd turn to was Kickstarter. If I had a million dollars, and wanted to invest in the arts field, I'd probably run a pitch contest to discover the best million dollar idea. In-person, five minutes to demo a working prototype of your idea, open to any creative discipline, and ask for a stake in the company and seat on the board in exchange for the investment. Because there's no way a single person's idea for what's a game changer would be better than what an entire crowd could dream up.

Barry:  How do we go about mobilizing the millions of people in the country who support the arts, but have little to no involvement in manifesting that support in any specific ways?

Devon:  Effective mobilization remains grassroots plus digital. Political campaigns have state-by-state operations, and county offices, for a reason. Use digital to know who you’re talking to, and what messages resonate with them, but shaking hands and kissing babies is still what makes a convert actually go to the polls. Political campaigns also have big money PACs, buckets of advertising dollars, ten-point plans, and 18-month gear ups for a single day.

Mobilizing the crowd is going to take a Piss Christ-like crisis, or a get-out-the-vote level of staffing to make happen. And so far, we’ve either let the moment pass us, or have been unwilling to dedicate the required resources.

Thank you Devon.

Have a great week everybody as you start out the New Year.

Don't Quit.