Monday, December 8, 2014

Reports on Alternative Venues, Eliminating Budgets in Grant Applications, and Thoughts from Thomas Cott

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

Several items this week that are well worth taking a look at:

I.  The James Irvine Foundation released a report last week entitled Why "Where"? Because "Who", authored by Brent Reidy of AEA Consulting, addressing the issue of alternate venues for the presentation of art, examining "why place has become an important variable for arts practitioners to consider as they chart a course for the future."

This is an outstanding contribution; well researched, well written. The tendency for most of us is to read the Executive Summary of these kinds of reports and often skip the rest.  That would be a mistake with this offering; there is a lot of meat here.  You really ought to take the time to read the whole thing.  Particularly prescient is the section on "context", making a convincing case "challenging the assertion that the trend towards presenting arts in "unusual spaces for new audiences" is a recent one.  In discussing 'placemaking' Mr. Reidy offers:

"An irony of these initiatives (towards the presentation of arts in "unusual" places) is that the places being creatively “made” have for much of the long history of the arts been primary sites for creative expression and engagement, and the public these projects reach was once less distant than it is today. The arts have not existed for eternity in stand-alone cultural facilities apart from our shared public life. In this respect, these efforts do not create a new paradigm, but rather restore one that was lost over the last two hundred years."

Bricks and mortar 'in-house' temples to the arts are the new development in arts presentation, not those venues we now think of as unusual.  As the arts shifted from being considered as the popular culture of the mainstream to being presented as "something to be worshipped in its own right", the arts moved away from the common venues of bars, taverns, public gardens and the like to what would soon become 'temples' where the power of the arts could be appropriately worshipped.  As we moved from art as something to "delight and wonder" audiences, to something to "educate and improve" audiences, that sacralization moved presentation further from the audience - a trend that seems to have plowed forward over the past fifty years.

And now we are again trying to consider what kinds of places might lend themselves to expanding a narrowing audience for art; where arts presentation might again find favor with a wider public - and in that pursuit the perhaps unspoken attempt to again allow the arts to simply entertain and be enjoyed without the requirement that the arts act as a moral compass or an attempt to represent some deep truth.

And why this shift?  Because the audiences have been shrinking. Because there is heretofore unheard of competition for the public's attention and interest.  Because, perhaps, the attitude that the arts are sacred, is seen as patronizing - at least by mushrooming populations.  But mostly because we are having a hard time surviving under that now dated rubric.

In some senses, presenting art in less formalized environments (e.g., outdoors or in public places) allows audiences the freedom they may have once enjoyed when art was presented in people friendly venues; audiences can eat and drink and talk among themselves and still enjoy and wonder at quality art - much like sports fans do when they attend sporting events.  The hallowed halls of our expensively built temples to our art has made it off putting to a lot of people.  It worked for us, but not, necessarily, for the wider audiences we wanted to share it with.  Anything outside those temple walls came to be considered as 'non-traditional".  And the truth is that any mission statement that confines its objectives to the presentation of the art to the true-believers in what are (only) now "traditional" places is a mission that is in trouble in today's world.

As the author argues:

"The word “nontraditional” is relational; it refers to something that is not traditional to some person or some group. In this case, the people who view some spaces as “nontraditional” are not the people to whom many of these efforts try to reach. The term is therefore self-defeating — it sets one up in opposition to the very audience one is attempting to cultivate."

The report goes on to consider the successes (and lessons learned) of ten individual organizations as case studies in exploring options for 'non-traditional' venues.  In arguing for an expansion of the 'places' art might be presented, Mr. Reidy offers six recommendations on moving forward:

1. Plan the approach. Just showing up isn’t enough. Successful efforts in new spaces that connect with new participants are often the result of many months of planning and engagement.

2. Share ownership. Invite communities to fully participate by sharing ownership. Don’t just go to new places to “give” art to the people there. Listen to that community and learn from it.

3. Partner up. Efforts of this type are enabled by a broad array of partnerships involving community groups and other local organizations, private businesses, donors and foundations.

4. Prepare to invest and adapt. This work is often labor-, time- and resource-intensive. Pursuing it may require rethinking programming, business models and funding.

5. Aim for engagement. This work is not about luring audiences back to a conventional venue. There may be some audience crossover, but project objectives should focus on engagement at the chosen locations, not hope for engagement somewhere else later on.

6. Open new doors. It’s not an all or nothing game. New sites have been successfully integrated as part of an organization’s total offering, the majority of which still occurs in less unusual places.

Placemaking has gained wide traction in our field based on the common assumption that the arts can play an instrumental role in defining and making meaningful 'place'.  This report intelligently suggests that 'place' itself plays an equally defining and meaningful role in the health of the arts.

Great report.

II.  The second report that caught my eye was on the GIA site:

Entitled:  "Why One Funder Eliminated Grantee Budgets to Improve Financial Due Diligence"

"The Unitarian Universalist Veatch Program at Shelter Rock on Long Island awards approximately $12 million annually to nearly 200 organizations nationwide. After working with a consultant to overhaul the financial component of its application process, the program eliminated requests for budgets last year. The Foundation Review published the case study titled, "In Other Words, the Budgets Are Fake: Why One Funder Eliminated Grantee Budgets to Improve Financial Due Diligence." Through this report, the Veatch Program proposes one model for reducing administrative burden on applicants while simultaneously getting a clearer picture of an applicants' financial well-being and capacity to fulfill project goals."
While this report will have particular meaning to funders, it ought to be read by rank and file arts organizations as well - as it examines the problems attendant to the lack of standards in budgetary preparation, having multiple budget approaches for multiple purposes and the confusion that results from unrealistic projections of income.  As a field, we really need to get a handle on our budgets and the financial health of our organizations those budgets purport to represent.

III.  Finally, here is a link to a brief interview with Thomas Cott - he of the highly regarded and widely praised You've Cott Mail blog (and if you don't subscribe to his blog, you really ought to).

We don't get enough of Thomas' own insights and thinking.  He is a very smart marketer and observer of the issues in our field.

Here's a sample:

Question:  "What do you see as the live entertainment industry’s biggest challenges?

TC: There are any number of challenges I could cite, but here are three big ones which I view as interrelated: (1) the marginalization of the arts, despite great public interest; (2) the conundrum of how to present performances on a set schedule in an “on-demand” world; and (3) the generally slow speed of change in the way the live entertainment industry works."

Happy reading.

Have a great week.

Don't Quit.