"And the beat goes on………………………."
We asked the Dinner-vention 2 Guests to submit Briefing Papers encapsulating some of their preliminary thinking on the topic of Broken Models - Picking Up the Pieces and Moving Forward --as a way to begin to organize their thoughts prior to the October 9th Dinner (click here for a full description of the Dinner topic, and here for the Dinner Guest's bios, and here for a review of the project)
We've asked the guests to question the basic assumptions and assertions of our field across a number of issues and challenges we collectively face, and to offer their thoughts and analysis as to what is and isn't working, why, and what the future might hold. We've also asked them to play Devil's Advocate with the positions of their fellow guests. We're looking forward to a probing and penetrating dinner discussion that we hope will be provocative, and which will further the sector wide discussion on this topic.
Any discussion of moving away from what is arguably no longer working must begin with several caveats. Rarely does any change in paradigm or process go totally smoothly, and almost always - when you replace something with something else - there arise unanticipated problems and consequences. Moreover, there are few universal situations or applications. What may not be working for a majority, may well be working just fine for a minority. One need ask: Do the gains and benefits of moving from one approach or strategy to another outweigh the potential negative consequences of such a move? To answer that, you need to have some idea about the benefits and drawbacks of any change. And that may be, at best, conjecture and speculation. We've asked the guests to factor in these kinds of considerations in their thinking about the ramifications, impacts and outcomes of moving from the old to the new; from where we are, to where they may suggest we go.
The fact is old models exist. And there is ample evidence to suggest many are not working well, if at all. In a world where change is now a constant, some of the models that govern our actions are decades old. Yet we cling to them. We've suggested to the guests that the challenge is to help the field move off them to something else, and to know when, and how, to do that. We've asked them to try to put themselves into the shoes of someone who will listen in on their dinner conversation, and think about how what is being said might be of use to that person.
Finally, we've asked the guests to consider how we move forward in any number of areas if the very idea of working models is no longer a viable option. Thus, for example, if there are no workable models, how can we possibly engage in any kind of a planning process?
We will live stream the dinner at 7:00 pm Mountain Time on October 9th (more to follow). And we will put a link to the video on this blog and the WESTAF website for people to access after the event.
We are delighted that the Dinner will be held at the Carmen Wiedenhoeft Gallery in Denver. Here is our host - Carmen's - bio:
Carmen Wiedenhoeft began her work in the Visual Arts in 1993 when she interned at the Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofia in Madrid. There, she worked with Catherine Coleman, the Curator of Prints & Drawings and later Photography. From the beginning Widenhoeft was interested in the concerns of living artists. She had earlier explored intellectual property concerns of artists during an internship with the estate of Tennessee Williams at the law firm of Mershon, Sawyer, Johnston, Dunwody and Cole in Miami, Florida. In 1994, she interned at the Museum of Modern Art in New York in the International Program Department.
In 1995, she entered the graduate Program in Arts Administration at Teachers College, Columbia University in New York. She completed her coursework and thesis on The Internet as Public Art Space: Communication, Access and Policy in 1999. In this work she looked at the Internet as a public space and used this framework to discuss online public art, access to the arts, and the issues that arise for nonprofit arts organizations seeking to use public spaces on the Internet as a tool for fulfilling their organizational missions.
During that time she also worked for two years at the Research Center for Arts & Culture at Columbia University on the study Information On Artists II exploring the living and working conditions of artists. In 2005, Wiedenhoeft served as a Video Conference Coordinator for the Open Exchange project between 12 museums of Modern & Contemporary Art in New York and Madrid as they explored issues in Museum Education.
For nine years, until 2007, Wiedenhoeft worked to disseminate the photographic work of her father-in-law, Ron Wiedenhoeft, to art history programs across the country. The collections represented images from 200 museums around the world, were in use by 500 universities and museums, and served millions of students. The database grew to serve 3,000 educators and 5,000 registered users (educators, art historians, librarians, administrators, students) of the web site representing 2,100 institutions. She founded the Gallery, to continue her work in exploring the concerns of contemporary artists.
HERE ARE THE GUEST'S BRIEFING PAPERS:
I. Sanjit Sethi
The Righting Arm
I have been thinking a lot recently of the nautical principle called the Righting Arm. I want to be clear that I don’t have a maritime bone in my body: I don’t sail, I don’t go out on the water regularly, and I don’t come from a family of boaters. Despite this, I can’t get this concept out of my mind. The Righting Arm is the horizontal distance between the center of gravity and the center of buoyancy of a ship that is displaced from the upright position. The Righting Arm represents the amount of movement a ship can have and still “right” itself before it capsizes. It’s a principle of physics which is both simple and complex, and does not look at a situation in a static manner, but rather through a series of fluid variables. It’s a principle based upon gravity, buoyancy, height, weight, and an intriguing concept called a Metacenter.
As I look at the future of arts and cultural organizations, and the trials that they face in order to achieve success, I find myself compelled to look for new models of evaluating, structuring and analyzing the manner in which these organizations thrive. Examining principles like the Righting Arm that exist inherently in a fluid world, can be incredibly meaningful as we reexamine the “stable” / “concrete” environment in which arts and cultural organizations presumably operate. What happens when we attempt to do what nautical engineers do all the time - to find the Righting Moment, that point which is the absolute maximum angle a ship can pitch before capsizing? What is our center of gravity within arts and cultural organizations? Our mission? Our community constituencies? What about our center of buoyancy? Is this our ability to survive crisis? Is our Metacenter that combination of acumen and lived experience that allows us to be nimble and lead through change?
The Righting Arm defies a traditional hierarchy of looking at the way an organization operates. Here gravity, buoyancy, centers are all on relative equal footing. Change one and you effect the entire system, sometimes for the benefit for the vessel and sometimes in opposition to it. Wide and shallow or a narrow and deep vessels have Metacenters that are very quick to roll and difficult to overturn; it’s easy to imagine the implications towards organizational capacity and agility. Inherently the Righting Arm is about an acknowledgment that change exists, that multiple factors are responsible for the ability of a vessel (read: organization) to survive these changes without knowing explicitly what they are or when they are coming. I believe we are at a stage where new models, new diagnostic tools, and new ways of thinking are not just useful, but necessary. See crude diagram below.
II. Rachel Grossman
I frequently encourage emerging artists, seeking inspiration and advice from dog & pony dc’s origin story, that they should not form a [theatre] company.
“Why do you want to?”
“To make work.”
“Then just make it. And let me tell you how to do so without dealing with all the bullshit.”
And now, the bullshit.
Because I wanted to form and run a company.
Because I love the bullshit.
What’s broken? The question we’re addressing.
The only way for me to begin wrestling with this is to travel back to the very beginning, to the genesis of every organization, and then fast forward to the present day, and at both points pose the same question: why do we exist? Why did arts organization come into being? Why do we persevere today?
I look around my city, across this country for the answer, and what echoes back are reasons to perpetuate, to continue to exist. Not of passion. Not of service to a higher calling. One of explaining our role in the universe. Of tackling conversations we shy or sprint away from. Of evoking fellowship, encouraging greater understanding, enlightenment.
What’s broken? We are in a cycle of perpetuating our own existence as organizations and cultural memorials rather than artists and cultural partners. We are in a cycle of perpetuation, not a cycle of service.
It took a collective of twelve mid-career artists four “formal” years and six devised shows to identify what dog & pony dc’s broad meta-process was for making new productions. Some of the original group of twelve had worked together for numerous years, dabbled with projects for many more, and been friends, spouses, and whathaveyou for even longer. (Some would call us “quick learners,” but I look back on this as being an arduous eternity.) And yet, in that time and even after, d&pdc assumed, threw out, and assumed anew organizational models and systems of operations through which to conduct our business affairs. The most “efficient” part of our company, all the jobs we knew how to do (e.g. create a budget, run a box office) seemed to stymie us. We couldn’t figure out how to do them “correctly” but as an ensemble; more importantly, as us. Time and time again we returned to touchstone systems and approaches from our past experiences in regional theatre only to end up frustrated and feeling shackled. We looked at other ensemble companies, but they mostly separated “ensemble” (meaning the artists) and “staff” (meaning the administrators) from one another; wholly dissatisfying. d&pdc sought to be fully ensemble-based in all its operations. We had the gall to want an organizational model that integrated our company mission, values, and vision.
dog & pony dc’s artistic musculature grew stronger and yet remained hanging on this delicate skeleton; a precarious scenario we knew would hinder company development and success. My “organizational advancement” colleagues in the company sank into dismay as we found ourselves doing just the opposite of our charge.
Then the gift of circumstances brought us a semester-long relationship with Carnegie Mellon University’s Master of Arts Management program. We were freed from our blinders by providing insight into more team and project based organization structures: podular design; holacracy (adopted by Zappos.com as of 2014). These structures decrease hierarchy and individual, centralized management, and increase collaboration, creativity, adaptability, and quick problem solving. I believe they create workplaces that function more like high-powered, adaptable networks in which supervisors can also be subordinates, and you can maximize the potential of every employee’s passion, interests, experience, talents, and skills to their fullest.
The CMU MAM students proposed one model, and recommended two alternatives. Ultimately, it took d&pdc under two months to synthesize their research, make a few adjustments, and approve a new organizational model. The board took a little more coaxing, but they’re accustomed to trusting a sound plan with clear vision and occasionally a vague output. On the six-month anniversary of this change, I barely recognize us as an organization. We operate more efficiently, at higher productivity levels, include more people in decision-making and have decentralized operations faster than ever imagined. We are able to take on more projects, bring in more revenue, understand dissenting positions better, come to consensus faster, and are overall happier and more unified as an organization. This would not be possible if we did not have the shared sense of purpose at our core: the mission, the values, the vision.
A List of Behaviors that Perpetuate that Not-So-Fresh Feeling of “Broken Models”
- Centralization of Power
- Seeking to Own Meaning
- Insisting on Adopting Best Practices
- Weighting Certification/Criteria over Practical Experience
- Hoarding Resources
- Lack of Specificity
- Lack of Goals
- Lack of Self-Examination
- Culture of Scarcity
- Meetings as Primary Solutions
- Email as Primary Communication
- Disinterest in Reflection
- The Old “Why fix it if it’s not broken” Adage
- Short Term Vision
- People are Expendable
- Your Way is The Only Way
A List of Behaviors Off the Top of My Head You Could Attempt That Wouldn’t Fix But Might Counteract the Feeling of “Broken Models”
- What if you let people make their own titles?
- What if you got rid of job descriptions?
- What if the entire budget was open for review by the entire staff?
- What if you made a list of things you would never do, ranked them, and then did the least “scary” of them in the next month, documented what happens, and shared with everyone on staff and the board what occurred?
- What if you made a list of things you really wanted to do but are terrified about the risk involved, made a plan right now to do it including a way to measure its success, did it, documented what happened, and shared the findings with everyone staff and the board?
- What if once a week, you looked for a way to adapt a strategy from another industry into your daily work practice?
- What if you sought out collaborations with anyone and everyone based on what you can give more than what you can get?
- What if you accepted the assistance of someone you wouldn’t normally—the next person like that to come along?
- What if you started to give things away that you normally wouldn’t without expecting anything in return?
- What if you asked people what they wanted and gave them resources to make it happen themselves?
- What if you gave staff a day create and do using company resources, provided they shared the results with their colleagues?
- What if you used data before making your next decision?
- What if you said “screw data” before making the next decision you felt inclined to gather a bunch of information about first, and just went with your gut?
- What if you determined the appropriate learning curve and then really gave yourself enough time?
- What if you made a decision that would require more time than you can ever possibly imagine giving change to occur—like your lifetime—and then waited?
Adaptation. Exaptation. Evolution.
This is nature and technology attempting to teach humanity over time to respond to the needs of our environment but we are creatures of story, of pattern, of habit. When coupled with Capitalism and industrialized Western business culture, efficiency, productivity, and profit rule in American non-for-profit arts sector. And as artmakers we spin the same story year after year: self-preservation.
What if we flip the script? Stop once and for all the art-administration bifurcation, and instead embrace a more holistic physical model. Look at arts organizations like athletes in training, all systems interconnected, all bodies unique. All requiring doses of regulation, of extension, of exertion, of injury, of recovery, of victory, and, one day, of retirement. But all over a long, healthy, vibrant career.
III. Ron Ragin
The economic and political systems that surround us make it increasingly difficult for workers across class to achieve financial stability, if not survive. Basic costs of living are rising, and real wages are decreasing for most people. In this globalized post-capitalist neoliberal moment, all labor is becoming more precarious, some kinds more urgently than others. Artists and culture workers are just that, workers, and they are grappling with the ills of this system too. Many work with few resources and little organized power, save for a few musician and tech unions in major cities. So what does this have to do with broken models? A lot, but I’ll just focus on one, “siloization,” which is linked to many others.
Let’s imagine something together: What would happen if ALL arts organizations, artists, and cultural workers understood and engaged with their work in its full political and economic context? What if EVERY arts advocate also advocated in support of community issues like affordable housing and access to health care as arts issues? Artists are part of their communities and need those things too, after all. What if EVERY arts organization saw creating a more equitable world as part of its core mission and dedicated some portion of its resources to working arm-in-arm with other community actors to make a just future a present reality – for artists, for culture workers, and for everyone? I think these shifts could unleash immense power for social change, and would also improve the lives of artists and their ability to do their work.
Most artists work multiple jobs to subsidize their creative time and meet basic needs. With few exceptions, most aren’t meeting those needs with income derived from the sale of their work or tickets to their shows. While the arts and its nonprofit institutions may popularly be deemed elite, many artists are not. And while the organizations in our field have typically acted in isolation, it’s becoming clearer that we can no longer afford to do so. More artists, culture workers, and organizations could be working in solidarity with social movements that are tackling issues that directly impact artists and others in their communities – like ensuring everyone has a living wage, providing pathways to citizenship, challenging unjust policing practices, countering environmental degradation, and more. Creative folks have stakes in these battles, important skills and tools to humbly contribute, and broadly speaking, much to learn.
The good news is that there is a long history and robust network of current-day artists, cultural workers, cultural organizers, and arts and culture organizations who are already working for change and have much to share and teach those who are new to it. There is also a growing number of funders who support work at the intersections of art, activism, and social justice.
At RRF, we believe that creative problem solving and outside-the-box thinking, which are germane to artistic practice, can be true assets to all causes and actions, and our expanded Artist as Activist program enacts that belief. Artists of all disciplines – visual, performance, media, and more – who address global challenges through their practices, can apply for travel and research grants or larger unrestricted grants. Open calls for both of these opportunities are live right now. Although our focus during this round is on individual artists and shoring up support for their part of the ecosystem, we acknowledge that organizations play a critical role, and we plan to provide a handful of operating grants (applications accepted by invitation only) to a small number of organizations that have been exemplars in supporting artists working at the intersection of art and change.
For individuals, organizations, and funders to whom this kind of intersectional work is new, stepping into activist spaces and networks may be complicated, uncomfortable, and require otherwise challenging shifts in practice. These growing pains are increasingly necessary and urgent as environmental and social crises intensify around us. We need to work for change in solidarity with other members of our communities, of which our organizations, our selves, and our art are a part.
I look forward to diving into this conversation with my Dinner-vention 2 peers! Thanks to Barry and his collaborators for making this possible.
IV. Ebony McKinney
What’s not working?
What is broken is the perpetually fragile nature of small and mid-sized arts organizations. This likely inhibits their ability to create value for communities. With a widening income gap, there is also a question of cultural equity and privilege. Which groups are best positioned to speak up, scale up and take risks?
What is broken is an overreliance on government and foundation funding, particularly since the pool of resources is in many cases shrinking.
What might work better?
I won’t delve too deeply into government and foundation-funding recommendations except to write that I hope to see a move toward more general operating support and capacity building, particularly for small and mid-sized organizations developing experimental work and/or deeply rooted in under-resourced communities. Additionally, several foundations in San Francisco are now developing small cohorts of ten or more grantees who receive organizational or financial assessments and coaching or consulting services in addition to operating support. In some instances, ‘communities of practice’ form and collaborations or opportunities to share resources are considered. I find these initiatives promising, but will center my thoughts on the potential for support from the market and social realm.
A recent report titled the Birth and Mortality Rates of Arts Culture Organizations 1990-2010 found that organizations with revenue between 30% and 40% and a moderate level of contributed income rather than a heavy reliance (characterized as 90% or more) were more like to exist over time. According to researchers, “these findings highlight the important role fiscal stability and financial independence play in enabling long-term organizational sustainability”. In my work, I have found that there is also a real need for opportunity, change, facilities or equipment capital. So, if access to government and foundation support is limited or fluctuates, what are other options?
The market is related to quid pro quo exchanges, such as sales, which don’t necessarily trigger ongoing relationships. However, the arts certainly bring additional value - inspiration, empathy, civic engagement, aesthetic growth, sense of belonging and the list goes on and on. During Barry’s blogathon on Arts Enterprise Andrew Taylor noted that “with the rise of social enterprise, all sorts of values and outcomes are now deemed worthy of entrepreneurship”. Consider the growing movement toward business for social good.
In this model, business aims support, and are subservient to social aims and a triple bottom line (people, environment and profit) helps guide business decisions. What would a triple bottom line look like for arts enterprise?
Parallel or hybrid entities like 826 Valencia, combine a pirate store and writing center for students. The Center for New Music and Gray Area Foundation for the Arts, serve as co-working spaces during the day for musicians and technologists, respectively, and performance and rental spaces in the evenings. Emerging arts managers that I’ve come in contact with in the Bay Area desire flexibility in organizing structures. Some have expressed interest in learning more about Benefit corporations (B-corps), such as Ben & Jerry’s or Dansko.
A social orientation involves a greater reliance on the cultivation of networks, building trust and creating pathways for information to flow. It privileges sharing, reciprocity, gift giving and relationship building. Here we all become “participants in this conversation called art” professor Arjo Klamer wrote in Mode of Financing Matters. What is the right thing to do? (This paper provides the building blocks for this post.)
In 2012, Beck released “Song Reader’ a booklet of songs in sheet music and invited industrious musicians to record their own versions and submit them to the ‘Song Reader’ website. Beck’s songbook is an example of a successful effort to build stronger relationships among those who share similar social norms and values. It aggregates and amplifies. It also highlights the role of the prosumer, a concept from futurist Alvin Toffler, that blends the notion of the producer with the consumer. This is the high level of participation and customization that many consumers expect today.
Recognizing that knowledge important to the group may lie beyond it, a system of open innovation allows outside research or expertise to flow in. For organizations oriented in this way, Margaret Wheatley writes in Leadership and the New Science ‘meaning can be a powerful force of attraction”. Internal cohesion around purpose and values, investment in staff, a unified strategy and a deep appreciation for learning and adaptation are key to balancing this approach.
The hacker ethos is grounded in sharing, community and collaboration. Hacks are often about building bridges to heterogeneous groups and drawing in participants outside of the regular circle. We have many examples of crowdfunding like Indiegogo and Kickstarter, but crowdsourcing can problem solve and build social capital as well. One successful site is OPEN IDEO. The non profit arm of the well known design firm sends out big questions to it’s network, which then sends in ideas. The best are shortlisted and refined. Finally, the sponsor and OPENIDEO select the top idea.
Hackathons are spaces to problem solve, cultivate new relationships with coders, designers, makers and others. Exciting examples are the Tribeca Hacks which develop avenues for interactive storytelling and Yerba Buena Center for the Art’s (building upon a concept originated with Gray Area Foundation for the Arts) Urban Prototyping Festival wherein “San Francisco’s main thoroughfare will become a testing ground for new ideas to improve our city’s public space.”
Each of these, doesn’t translate directly into monetary gain, but if participation, connection, meaning, trust and relationship building are the new distinguishers in a busy marketplace, perhaps the arts can fashion a space between the market and social.
Built on collaborative processes, the networked economy is less about control and much more reliant on decentralization circulation and relationship building. Collaboration among and between peers as well as producers and consumers changes what were passive encounters to active, meaningful and mutually beneficial exchanges. The arts entrepreneurs best able to create meaningful content, understand who they are, select the appropriate tools or methods, and cultivate fruitful relationships will be the richest, socially and culturally, and the most resilient.
V. John Arroyo
Problem Solving vs. Problem Setting: A “Model” Problem
“It is easy to be a realist when you accept everything. It is easy to be a visionary when you confront nothing. To accept little and confront much, and to do so on the basis of an informed vision of piecemeal but cumulative change, is the way and the solution.”
~ Cornel West & Roberto Unger
One of the most valuable lessons I gained from a mentor was learning the difference between problem solving and problem setting. “Many people can devise solutions to solve a problem, but how many people take the time to consider whether or not they are addressing the correct problem in the first place?” he asked me. It is a lesson I have applied time and time again throughout my work in urban planning, urban research, and arts and cultural programming. When considering the major issues that stem from “broken models” in the arts and cultural sector, I cannot help but wonder if the root of the problem lies in the sector’s relentless quest to adopt neat “models” or convenient “best practices.” More often than not, a model’s applicability within local context is an afterthought.
To a deeper extent, what does our need for—and ensuing reliance on—models say about a sector that is constantly in flux, especially from organizational, programmatic, financial, and leadership standpoints? It is as if models are policy-oriented security blankets that justify arts and culture’s very existence and value in public life. Does aligning ourselves with models ultimately hamper the creativity that is the inherent to our field? Or does it validate us, at the risk of growing complacent? A good model is one that is dynamic and adaptable. However, working with such a model requires a great deal of time, energy, and contemporaneity—all luxuries in our line of work. And even if it is worth it, who measures the success brought forth by the model—ourselves or our patrons, partners, funders, government partners, and all-around allies?
I come to the (dinner) table with nearly 15 years of experience working for various nonprofits, foundations, government agencies, and research and consulting firms at the intersection of arts and culture, urban planning, urban development, and urban design. In that time, I have seen each of these fields spend more resources seeking “validation” from vetted, pre-determined strategies than actually planning for and realizing them. I have seen this range from the way nonprofit organizations strategize for board recruitment to how government agencies envision revitalized waterfronts. Time and time again, the missing variable is local context. Sure, it worked well for another city, government agency, arts service organization, or dance group, but what makes us think we can enjoy a carbon copy of all the factors that made the “model” successful elsewhere (many of which are not arts related)? This pervasive characteristic is alive and well in every conference program, public meeting Powerpoint presentation, and dusty organizational brochure you see from arts and cultural organizations and planning agencies. At what point do we transition from aspiring to be “like that” to reflecting on the many innate talents and skills that make us unique (and have gotten us this far!).
Over time, my arts and culture and urban planning and design worlds have collided. I have seen the arts and cultural field readjust its macro-value according to trends in other basic quality of life sectors. I remember a time when people used the term “arts for arts sake.” I remember when individual artists had comparable financial support as collectives and organizations. I remember when funding (at every level) diminished, leading the arts to measure their value through economic development data, spending patterns, visitor statistics, and audience attendance. The paintings, photographs, and children’s drawings that were once beloved mainstays in arts and culture reports were now replaced by charts and grafts and economic and policy terms like “attractors,” “catchment areas,” “anchor institution,” and “job creation.” The arts and cultural sector had aligned with the very same market economy that has generated both its success and competition. Most recently, I recall when arts and cultural organizations asserted their role in the planning of communities through both social and physical infrastructure. While the ongoing evolution of the sector is a natural process, it is difficult to see if the arts and cultural field has made these agenda-oriented transitions out of necessity, out of their need to experiment, or out of their panaceatic ideals.
What does the field’s need to link to pre-established momentum in other sectors say about our models up to this point? Will we continue to be late to the party or will we just host our own? Such an effort would be on our terms, where the arts are not considered a secondary or superfluous factor, but a core one that synergizes new partnerships and funding alternatives with social service organizations, housing developers, educational institutions, environmental groups, public health agencies, water boards, and transportation projects. Change has been slow, yet increasingly effective, as Adrian Ellis, director of AEA Consulting, wrote in a recent article in Grantmakers for the Arts: “Culture is still an anemic and neglected area of public policy, compared with, say, health, transport, economics, or the environment, but there is currently more sustained thought given to cause and effect and less of an emphasis on just counting things and declaring them good.
In short, at what point do arts and cultural workers stop talking and working amongst themselves and start developing what may have been previously unlikely partnerships.
There has never been an era where so many creative people co-existed in society. From designers of public places and games to designers of mobile apps and theater sets. From MFAs to self-trained, amateur makers and doers. Furthermore, people are harnessing and celebrating all of this creativity both formally and informally, in museums, theaters, and non-traditional arts and cultural venues. What it means to be creative or artistic requires a reinterpretation. While arts and cultural organizations do their best to reach their target audiences, there remain creative people who may support our general argument for the value of art in civil society, but we fail to capture because they do not fit neatly in one category, type, or model. In this day and age we’re well beyond checkboxes or singular descriptions. Organizations that once were solely 501(c)3 now also have social enterprise arms. The once known painter down the street also develops an app to teach youth about different periods of art history. And the neighbor who improves her health by teaching weekly Zumba classes at the local YMCA revels in her mastery of the rhythm, but would shy away from calling herself an artist/dancer. How can a sector so multifaceted ever find a typical exemplar that works for all of its diverse audiences? This is both the benefit and curse of being in such a dynamic and accessible field.
What is the alternative? Having no models or best practices to base our actions on in the arts and cultural sector are akin to urban planners not having zoning codes or a universal color coding system for land use patterns. I am fortunate to be surrounded by many people who believe in the value of the arts. Many times, I also have a seat at the table amongst groups where that is not the case (and I am required to make it). I appreciate these opportunities for they force me to think critically about how to frame arguments for arts and culture to those who disagree. Yes, art can stir emotions, challenge assumptions, and suggest possibilities. It is also true that art is both an economic driver and as a force in bringing communities together.
Nonetheless, I believe the arts and cultural sector needs to move beyond “arts are valuable for ____” policy debates and focus on arts ability to become more involved and informed citizens in a democracy—without loosing site of local context. For example, if someone has worked on the national level, why should the arts and cultural field immediately (and, I believe quite ideologically) assume that it is going to work at the local level? A comprehensive paradigm shift is necessary for the way arts and cultural organizations internally manage both the front of the house (programming and production) and the back stage (operations, administration, fundraising, leadership) in the 21st century. I look forward to a dinner where we not only question broken models and propose solutions, but also question the need for depending on models at all. A nation of arts and cultural organizations that march to the beats of their own drums does have a nice ring to it.
VI. Karina Mangu-Ward
“We don't need new models, we need a new mindset.”
What's a model, exactly?
I'm a very literal person, so the first thing I did when tasked with this briefing paper was look up the definition of "model."
Model (n): 1) A standard, an example for imitation or comparison
OK, got it. A model is like a blueprint. Or a recipe. So, this DinnerVention is a debate about standard or best practices in our field. We're taking a long hard look at the routines we've replicated again and again because they work, or at least they're supposed to, or they once did.
What models are we questioning?
My next step was to plainly state what I see as the old model in each of the areas Barry mentions (plus I added strategic planning, evaluation, and artistic development).
However, I assume every model evolved to meet a particular challenge. So I also tried to name the challenge I think we're facing right now in that area. For me, there's nothing worse that poor problem definition. We can reform our models until we're blue in the face, but that's useless unless we get clear about the future we want and the challenges we’ll face in getting there. Only then can we answer the question: why aren’t our models working?
I think this was a useful exercise, so I've shared the results below. It's wide open for debate. My hope is that it serves as a starting place for a shared understanding of the standard practices we're questioning and the real challenges we're faced with as a field, so that we can begin to understand whether our approaches are the right ones.
In each case, I see a stark disconnect. The old models we're using aren't matching up with the deeply complex challenges we're faced with right now.
Old model: Ticket sales + government + foundation + corporate + wealthy patrons + small donors + endowment income = Balanced budget
New challenge: To generate new sources of sustained revenue and capital
Old model: Sell subscriptions and market shows
New challenge: To engage new and more diverse groups of people in meaningful arts experiences
Old model: Give/get boards focused on fiduciary oversight and maintaining stability
New challenge: To cultivate boards that are partners in change
Old model: More ticket sales, more revenue, bigger budget, nice building = Success!
New challenge: To evaluate the success of our organizations based on the value they create in people's lives
Old model: Attend leadership conferences and seminars, build your network, wait for your boss to finally leave/retire/die. (Alternatively, change jobs every year.)
New challenge: To develop a generation of new leaders equipped with the tools they'll need to tackle the wickedly complex challenges the future has in store
Old model: MFA programs, residencies, commissions, occasionally a grant, get a day job
New challenge: To support artists in making a living and a life
Old model: Decide where you want to be in 5 years. Outline the steps to get there in a long document no one will read.
New challenge: To plan for the future in a way that allows us to stay close to our core values and make incremental improvement while also making room for experimentation, failure, and rapidly changing conditions.
Old model: The money goes to whoever the funder says it to goes to. Usually bigger organizations run by white people in major cities.
Our challenge today: To distribute funds in a way that is equitable, geographically diverse, and creates the most value
Note: I decided I was too ignorant in the areas of creative placemaking, advocacy and arts education to weigh in. I'll leave that to my colleagues.
Here's my main argument:
Over 60 years in the field, we've developed standard practices, or models, in all these different areas. They worked for a while. Now they don't. This has given us a false notion that we need new models in each area. This is wrong.
Models, best practices, recipes, and blueprints work only when your challenge has a knowable, replicable solution. Sure, there are some challenges that fit this mold. I'd argue that having a great website, designing an effective ad, doing a successful crowd funding campaign, and producing a complicated show are all challenges where best practices, models, and experts are really valuable. You might not know the solution, but someone does, and you can find it out.
But what happens when there actually isn't a knowable solution to your challenge? When there is no expert, no model to call upon? When the only way forward is through experimentation and failure?
I'd argue that every one of the big challenges I name above falls into the realm of complexity, where the search for replicable models is fruitless. There isn't going to be a new model for generating revenue that the field can galvanize around that will work for every or even most arts organizations. Nor is there going to be a long lasting model for community engagement that can be replicated by organizations across the country. For the deeply complex challenges we face today, there simply isn't a knowable solution or model that can reliably help us tackle them. These kinds of challenges require a new way of working.
We don't need new models, we need a new theory of practice.
Instead of new models, I'd argue that we need a new theory or practice, one that champions a different set of priorities in how we do our work.
Our old models imply a vision of success that's rooted in growth, stability, and excellence. They drive us towards efficiency and competition by perpetuating an atmosphere of scarcity. They are not as creative as we are.
What if a new vision of success in our field could prioritize resilience, flexibility, and intimacy? What if we could be enablers, not producers? What if we could harness the abundance of creative potential around us?
This new vision of success doesn’t demand consensus around a new set of standards, best practices, or “examples for imitation,” it demands a new way of thinking and acting that empowers us to shift and change our routines all the time, as needed.
A proposed theory of practice for the future
Here is my call to the field: a proposed set of practices that align with the world as it is today, not as it was before:
- Let's get clear about the challenges we're facing and if they're complex, treat them as such
- Let's ask hard questions, listen, do research, and stay vulnerable to what we learn.
- Let's question our assumptions and let go of what's no longer working.
- Let's embrace ambiguity and conflict as a crucial part of change
- Let's bring together people with different experiences and lean into difference
- Let's experiment our way forward and fail often
- Let's recognize the system in which we’re operating.
- Let's rigorously reflect and continuously learn
When I set out to write this post, I wanted to question the premise that a conversation about "broken models" could even be useful in a time when expertise, excellence and replicability are the values of the past. I wanted to propose that we move past the very notion of models – let’s jettison the word itself from our vocabulary.
In the end, I guess you could call what I've proposed a kind of "new model." But I'd rather think of it as a new mindset.
VII. Sixto Wagan
Many of our field’s models and systems function on assumed hierarchies: fine art over community-based; large organizations more valued than mid-sized or small; institution over artist; Western over other; New York over everywhere else.
Without radical shifts in the assumed hierarchies, the prevailing models for arts distribution will continue their march into irrelevance.
A major roadblock that prevents substantive migration of thought in this area is the existing systems of financial support prefer conformity to an “institutionalization paradigm” that keeps the assumed hierarchies firmly in place.
The corporate board model that sustains the field promotes a “sustainability” model that prioritizes increased activity, expanding audience sizes, fiscal responsibility and profitability over time. While important, these measures reinforce a transactional/object-based mentality and operational conformity.
Nonprofit arts organizations have responded to this increased demand for quantifiable metrics that promote financial sustainability over creative growth by presenting risk-averse programming, non-mission-based outré events and burdensome organizational infrastructures. This response threatens their long-term allocation of human and capital resources.
For example, how do we free artists from the burden of incorporating as non-profits? How can we use this time to invest in arts markets not based in U.S. coastal cities, which are too expensive for the majority of artists to live and practice their discipline?
Additionally, the institutionalization paradigm keeps community-based, ethnically-specific and artist-generated endeavors marginalized. These traditionally less-resourced, program-driven entities score lower on institutional capacity metrics, and are relegated to compete for special interest money allocations. Yet, new audience engagement strategies are based on the methodology of community-based and ethnically-specific organizations. Most of these strategies are resource intensive, particularly on time and personnel, with few quantifiable results (at this time). When incorporated into larger institutions, these strategies are still relegated to the margins, and are treated as external to the core of mission of the organization – the service of Art – and will be the first to go once a modicum of stability is achieved.
To prevent that outcome, the first step for the nonprofit arts field is to become creative again. If we remove the idea of institutionalization, we can bring innovation to the new models we create.
One example is the growth of the placemaking model. The arts demanded a role as a catalyst and an equal partner in the formation of this model, and we’ve seen how places like Tucson have expanded on that community investment to create political clout.
With crowd-funding and micro lending, are there opportunities to expand on these hyper-personal relationships? If we gave the money to artists and got out of the way, what happens? The Warhol Foundation supported micro-grants in Houston that revitalized an artist-to-artist presentation network, empowered artists to reclaim neighborhood identities, and impacts we have yet to see. Maybe shift evaluation to include quality of interaction and impact over time? How do we quantify the impact of a dance project that initiated interfaith minister meetings that continued five years post-presentation?
We can embrace the philanthropic push for more data by thinking about how artists collect tidbits of knowledge from various sources to synthesize into a creative experience. We can extrapolate from that process how we can create better tidbits of data that inform and quantify organizational growth. Can artists/organizations define the pertinent info that best serves their audiences? Can the data be at the service of the organization so that we introduce metrics that are mission/value based? Can the public conversation between an 8 year-old after-school attendee and a city councilman or the empowerment of three HIV+ Latinas hold equal importance as 500 attendees? Some of these more intrinsic/social impact evaluation metrics have been developed, but are not agreed upon, widely circulated and only available to the more resourced organizations.
Are there methods from other sectors (education, anthropology, sociology, social work) that could be translated to the arts? Would that in turn build a shared investment into a common interest?
Essentially, I’m interested in models of funding, creation and distribution that steward artist and audience so that the experience is mutually valued and rewarded. This takes some of the assumed hierarchies and grounds them in the current reality and projected future.
VIII. Laura Bond
Due to a crisis demand on her time, Laura was unable to submit a Briefing Paper.
We hope you will join us on October 9th at 7:00 pm Mountain Time.
Have a great week.