Sunday, February 16, 2014

The Arizona 'Art Tank' Experiment

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

Last year the Arizona state legislature added a one time supplement of one million dollars to the Arizona Commission on the Arts' budget.  Agency Executive Director, Bob Booker, reached out - not only to those within the arts community in Arizona, but to a dozen or so other people whom he knew around the country - for their thinking on how the agency could best allocate these funds to support the arts in his state.  He wanted to both nurture and support the existing arts ecosystem and the organizations that comprise his constituent base, but to also think out of the box to support new thinking and new approaches.

Bob asked me if I had any thoughts, and in one of our telephone conversations, I suggested he might consider some form of the ABC television show - Shark Tank - wherein start up entrepreneurs had five minutes or so to pitch their idea to a panel of investors - who would then ask hard questions and either commit to invest in the idea or take a pass.  That show is really based on the long tradition in Hollywood of the "pitch" meeting - where writers, producers, directors etc. get five minutes to "pitch" their idea for a new movie project to studio executives who could "green light" the project if they so chose (a concept with which I had personal familiarity from when I worked in the entertainment industry).  The approach has also been adopted in various forms in Silicon Valley's venture capital world.

Bob liked the idea and apparently others on his staff and across his state liked it as well, and they determined to make it a go - as one - but only one - component of how they would allocate the additional funding available to them (Of the million dollar budget supplement, something in the neighborhood of $130,000 was earmarked for the Art Tank project.)

Throwing out an idea is the easy part.  Making it work is the hard part.  As they say: "The devil is in the details".  The genius is not necessarily in the idea, but in its execution.  Bob and his staff designed an intelligent, workable framework for the project - how people would apply, the judgment criteria, the desired outcomes, how to market the concept, including designing several preparatory meetings around the state, and finally, several actual events where finalists would "pitch" their ideas in front of a live audience, and a panel of judges would make the awards on the spot.  A lot of impressive work went into taking a left field idea and making it a reality.

Here is Bob's report on the project after the fact:

"It’s been a hunker-down mentality throughout the non-profit arts sector. For the last five years, arts organizations in Arizona have been struggling to survive: making that payroll, cutting programs, releasing staff. The Arizona Commission on the Arts has been operating under similar conditions, our budget cut back 4 years in a row, our staff diminished by half. When a special one-time, $1 million budget allocation to the Commission found its way into the state budget for Fiscal Year 2014, we saw new hope not only for ourselves, but for our whole sector.

Devised by State Senator Steve Farley and marshalled by broad bipartisan support in the legislature, this allocation was derived from interest accrued on the State’s Rainy-Day Fund. This innovative strategy, utilizing funds that would have otherwise lain dormant to increase funding for the arts, ensured that the state arts budget would not show a decrease for the first time in 5 fiscal years.

The majority of the funding was immediately applied to our existing statewide grantmaking activities, to help stabilize the field, but we wanted a portion of the remaining funds to go toward a new program that would give Arizona’s arts community a chance to look forward, to get beyond the present and on to something that is future-driven. We wanted to help organizations get out of the bunker.  In the same spirit of innovation and forward-thinking that we hoped to inspire in our constituents, we designed a funding initiative unlike any that we (or our fellow state arts agencies) had ever administered. We looked beyond the standard practices of our industry and borrowed ideas from the tech industry, university engineering and design programs, the world of entrepreneurship and venture capital, and even reality television. The result was Arizona Art Tank.

Arizona Art Tank is a funding initiative of the Arizona Commission on the Arts that makes strategic investments in Arizona’s best arts-based entrepreneurial ventures. At regional events held in four Arizona cities, top applicants were given six minutes each to pitch an arts-based venture to an expert panel and live audience. At the end of each evening, panels awarded top-scoring applicants with seed-funding of between $4,000 and $10,000. An additional $500 Audience Award was granted through popular vote at each event.

What is an “Arts-based entrepreneurial venture”? It could be many things, but for the purposes of this funding program we defined it as a product or idea that is innovative and entrepreneurial in spirit, that is creative and strategic, and that reaches beyond standard engagement and practice. Our tagline and mantra for the program summed up the desired outcomes of the program in one succinct statement: "Not business as usual, business unusual."

In our program guidelines, our marketing materials, our discussions of the program, and in the events themselves, we applied the metaphor of artist as entrepreneur. We used terms like venture, product, market, and seed-funding. Thus, we invited applicant organizations to see themselves and their work in a different light. It should be stated that our definition of entrepreneurship did not include a mandate to generate profits, but focused instead on the spirit of innovation, risk-taking, market responsiveness and boundary-pushing embodied by the entrepreneur.

Applicants were first asked to submit a brief written proposal, no longer than three pages in length. Aside from a general statement on how they would use funds at various funding levels, no project budget details were requested. Initial evaluations were conducted by our staff. Top applications from each of four regions of the state were selected to move on to the live pitch events.

The criteria for evaluation used by both our staff in their initial review and by our panels at the pitch events, were as follows:

  • Impact: The venture is innovative and entrepreneurial in spirit, with the potential to initiate change.
  • Responsiveness: The venture is creative and strategic in the way it responds to the concerns of an identified market.
  • Visibility: The envisioned outcomes of the venture are viable and visible, reaching the applicant’s standard engagement and practice.

At each Art Tank event, the panels were comprised of residents of the region. They included Governor-appointed Arts Commission members, state-level elected legislators, local artists, arts professionals and business leaders. Prior to the event the panelists were thoroughly instructed on the review criteria and the intended aims of the program.

Award amounts were determined by score:
  • Highest Scoring Venture:   $10,000
  • 2nd Highest:  $7,500
  • 3rd Highest:   $6,000
  • 4th Highest:   $5,000
  • 5th Highest:   $4,000
In addition to the panel-determined awards, an audience award of $500 was also up for grabs. Upon entry, each audience member was given a wooden token. At the conclusion of the presentations, audience members were invited to place their token into a jar corresponding to their favorite venture. We wanted the audience to be active participants in the event and to feel personally invested in the funding of these ventures.

Local personalities were enlisted as hosts for each event and local musicians played as audience members arrived and during a brief intermission. Arrangements were made for food trucks to be onsite for two of the events, while a concession stand was set up at another. All of these elements (secured at low-to-no cost thanks to the generosity and graciousness of those involved) contributed to a relaxed, engaging and festive atmosphere.

The presenting applicants and their ventures reflected the incredible diversity of our state’s arts & culture community. Many were focused on community building and social change, but others had more esoteric, purely artistic goals. Large, well-established organizations pitched against young, individual artists who had to secure fiscal-sponsorship to be eligible for the program.

Young upstarts represented the Tucson Museum of Art, pitching a program designed to attract visitors in their 20’s and 30’s, while a group of retirees, representing the Arts Council of the remote town of Gold Canyon, proposed a project that would assemble and showcase an oral history of their community.

Amazingly, no applicant appeared to hold, by virtue of their size, mission, or background, any distinct advantage over any other. The highest award in one region went to Arizona State University’s School of Art, while at another it went to a tiny, two-year old theatre company that creates original plays with urban youth who had never previously applied for, let alone received, an institutional grant. For one, the award means an opportunity to take a chance on exploring uncharted territory; for the other, the award means an opportunity to take a massive leap forward, far beyond what they were previously capable of achieving. Both represent the ideal of business unusual.

My staff and I are still in the process of unpacking the lessons learned from the development and implementation of the Arizona Art Tank program. Following are few additional notes and observations from these early discussions:

  • The Arizona Art Tank program allowed the Arts Commission to once again take on the role of convener. The budget cuts of the past half-decade have severely limited our capacity to host gatherings of Arizona’s artists and arts leaders. The value of this sort of activity within our constituent communities is immeasurable. Though we have made great effort to maintain open lines of communication with our constituents--via website updates, emails, social media posts, direct mailings, etc.—to be heard is no substitute for being seen, actually being present in a community, engaged with those we serve on a personal level, even for just a single evening out of the year.  
  • Watching these presentations it became abundantly clear how important it is that organizations be able to deliver information about their mission and programming in a clear, concise and engaging manner. In a world where 140 characters is the new normal, our six minute time limit was comparatively generous. Still, some applicants struggled to present a focused and coherent vision during their six minutes and left the event empty-handed. 
  • The CEO is not always an Organization’s best spokesperson. Often another member of an organization’s staff is better equipped to deliver a given message to a given audience. 
  • Arizona Art Tank helped position the Arizona Commission on the Arts as a change leader. More than a mere gimmick, Arizona Art Tank represented a fresh take on the grant review and awarding process. Time and again during these events we were thanked for trying something different. Innovation inspires innovation. 
  • Younger, less-established organizations truly shined at these events. Our applicant pool for Arizona Art Tank featured a number of new faces. Even among larger institutions, the entrepreneurial ideas often came from younger staff members or sub-departments. Not all good ideas come from the top down. 

Addressing the audience of our Tucson event, State Senator Steve Farley said, “The arts are the most entrepreneurial sector in the economy because they create value out of nothing, in every corner of the state. So, it isn’t just about supporting the arts, it’s about supporting our economy.

Here's how Kathleen Allen of  the Arizona Daily Star newspaper described one of the events:

"Every one of the proposals held promise, and some just knocked me out. But more than anything it was the passion, from the individual artists to the big organizations, that was so magical. 
The Tucson Museum of Art won the top grant — $10,000, for a project that will, in essence, periodically turn the museum over to young artists. Called Start, the museum will host new, emerging, young, old, exciting artists to perform, paint, exhibit at the museum and on the museum grounds. It's a pretty innovative program. 
Other grant winners were Opening Minds through the Arts ($7,500), with plans to develop teaching videos; Gold Canyon Arts Council, which is planning a project that will bring the stories of the elders of the community to school children ($6,000); Solar Sculptures & Dinnerware ArtSpace ($5,000), which has a pretty nifty plan to project art onto downtown buildings; and BlackBox Foundation out of Casa Grande ($4,000), which will use the grant money to train teachers so that art can become part of the curriculum. The BlackBox is an all-volunteer program and its simple proposal to bring arts education to the mostly-poverly level students was delivered with such fierce commitment. It really spoke to me.
Moises Orozco and Phoebe Jenkins won the $500 grant - the audience award - for their proposed eco-friendly mode of transportation, the Phoebe Bird."

And here is a report from Kerry Lengel of The Republic on Arizona Central:
"At the first regional event, held Tuesday, Jan. 28, at the Peoria Community Center, $7,500 was awarded to the Phoenix Center for the Arts’ Art4All initiative, which plans to take arts education mobile by bringing teachers of music, drawing, etc., into underserved communities.
“Think of it as a food truck for the arts,” went the pitch. 
A $5,000 grant went to TumbleTees, a youth-run T-shirt screen-printing business created by the Tumbleweed Center for Youth Development in Phoenix, which serves homeless people ranging from age 12 to 25. The largest haul of the night, $10,000, went to Phoenix’s Rising Youth Theatre, which develops original plays about real life in collaboration with children and teens in the Valley. 
I am bolstered by the fact that so many people were focused on changing the lives of young people,” said Robert C. Booker, executive director of the arts commission. “That to me speaks about a great need in Arizona, which is to get arts back into our schools.” 
“Impact, responsibility and visibility” were the watchwords for the judging panels, which included arts administrators, elected officials and local businesspeople. Otherwise, the grants were open to outside-the-box ideas from grass-roots start-ups and established institutions alike. 
At the regional event held Wednesday, Jan. 29, in Chandler, for example, grants were awarded to the city of Mesa’s department of arts and culture and Arizona State University’s School of Art. 
In addition to grants ranging from $4,000 to $10,000, a $500 award winner was chosen by an audience vote at each of the four events.
On Tuesday, that grant went to Phoenix’s Orange Theatre to help fund a “digital performance lab” that aims to develop technologies to integrate electronic media into live theater.
“We can actually do a lot” with $500, said troupe founder, Matthew Watkins.
“For this particular proposal, we can use $500 to pay for the materials to use in our prototyping lab, and then maybe we can get the funding to pay for the coordination and marketing from someplace else. But this is a pretty big chunk of what we need in order to put the project into effect.” 
For the 2-year-old Rising Youth Theatre, the $10,000 Art Tank grant will have a huge impact, said co-founder Sarah Sullivan.
“This is more money than we spent on our whole second season,” she said.
“The biggest thing for me is to be able to pay our artists what they’re worth. We’ve been working on a lot of sweat equity so far, and we have a lot of incredibly talented humans giving us a lot of time and working for a small stipend.” 
The Phoenix company’s pitch was for its spring project, “The Light Rail Plays.” The idea is to pair professional artists with young people to develop short works about the way people move around the city and to perform them on and around the light rail.
“We are going into a space that is very non-traditional, and being able to invest in the production value to make a non-theater space feel theatrical is going to be really exciting,” Sullivan said.
“And marketing is huge. We’re still new. Word is getting out about us, but being able to invest in telling people who don’t already know us that we’re doing a project is going to be really transformative.”

There are likely a number of lessons to be learned from this project, and as the outcomes are evaluated and monitored, Bob and his staff will be unpacking those lessons over the course of the grants.  They certainly succeeded in generating excitement, media coverage, and both arts sector and public interest, and in the process opened the door to a variety of new entrepreneurial projects.  I would like to congratulate everyone involved on taking the risk on a new approach, and executing the project so well.  I hope that others may follow suit and consider whether the idea might work in their venues.

Have a great week.

Don't Quit.