Sunday, April 26, 2015

Tasting Menus for the Performing Arts

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

More than a decade ago, great chefs became celebrities - on a global basis.  Gastronomic excellence became like haute couture - food as fashion. And the vast majority of Michelin Star Restaurants (especially the rare, exhalted Three Star establishments) moved to exclusively offering the Tasting Menu as the only menu option - seven to forty individual courses served over anywhere from three to six or more hours - each featuring the highest level of the chef's talent and experience in a feast for the body, mind and soul.

The Tasting Menu has become a sought after experience - by not only the gastronomes among us, but for ordinary people who simply wanted the experience (people with the money, of course, because these Menus tend to be very pricey) .  Indeed, the Michelin Stars offering the experience are usually booked months in advance, and the trend is so popular many restaurants require up front payment with the booking.

These meals are different from ordinary restaurant fare, in that they are "tastes" of what extraordinary dishes the kitchens of the most talented, most renowned chefs in the world are capable of producing.  For most people, it is an expansion of their whole idea of dining - let alone merely "eating".  Most people who do this, very likely only do it once or twice in a decade - or maybe in a lifetime.  It is as much "theater" as dining.

There are critics of the Tasting Menu phenomenon in the restaurant world - most singling out the inordinate amount of time a dinner that features 20, let alone 40, courses requires.  But for our purposes, it ought to be easy enough so that we can appropriate the idea, tailor it to our own needs, and make it appealing to our target audiences.

And the idea of a tasting is something I think the performing arts organizations ought to consider borrowing from -- performing arts organizations in a given area working  in collaboration with each other. Thus, say eight or more ballet or other dance companies, symphonies, operas, jazz groups, choral organizations, theater companies and / or multicultural groups in the various disciplines could produce a single show with short pieces performed by each participating organization in a two hour program.  These individual pieces would be examples of the excellence of each of the companies; calling cards if you will for what they offer.  Something like movie trailers perhaps.

Versions of this kind of approach have, of course, been tried by us before.  I remember an annual event done in San Diego whereby tickets were sold to an evening that featured brief performances by dozens of artists from scores of arts organizations; performances staged in various rooms at a downtown hotel - all accompanied by fancy buffet food.  Tickets sold out.  It was an annual fundraiser for something or other, and it worked on a number of levels.

But I'm thinking this kind of Arts Tasting Menu would not necessarily be just a one off promotional kind of gimmick, but rather a more permanent (for a time anyway as an experiment) fixture of a group of arts organization's regular annual performance schedules - say three or four such evenings over the regular "season".  That kind of commitment would, I think, be necessary to see whether or not such an experiment might really change things - perceptions, loyalties, new blood etc.  What if eight arts organizations got together and did three or four such shared Tasting Menu performances each year as part of their schedules.  And what if they thought out of the box in terms of the venues they used (thus for example a warehouse with multiple temporary stages and seating, with bars and food buffets spread around, so people could sample the different offerings on their own timeline etc. instead of the conventional auditorium with seating in front of a fixed stage.)  This kind of approach allows for some experimentation and reasonable risk taking.  It isn't really about replacing an existing approach or structure - it's more of an add on; something new and different. 

This theoretically might do several things:  1) It might be a way to attract new audiences for, and excitement about, what has remained hidden to a lot of people; people who are unsure they want to attend a long program of any single discipline organization -- exposing them to a wide variety of the arts and culture available in a given area. Priced right, these events might attract new audiences spread out across various demographic categories including age, income levels, geographic location etc.; 2)  It might prove so popular that ticket prices could be raised and the event could be a positive source of income for the participating organizations; 3) It could cross pollinate the spectrum of arts offerings thus strengthening the whole of a field in a given area.  Most importantly though, it might open the door to potential new audiences / supporters / donors, AND it might be yet another way to program performances highlighting the best of what the organization and its artists have to offer.

If the idea had any legs, all kinds of possibilities in the same city might be possible:  thus, for example, eight theater groups could collaborate on such a Tasting Menu evening.  Or eight varied dance groups.  Or eight Latino Arts groups.  Or eight symphony, opera, choral, jazz etc. groups.   It might be an idea for big and small arts organizations.   Of course, all these organizations want to produce and perform full works within their disciplines - that's their mission and that's a given, and the vast majority of their annual offering schedules would be what they have always done.  But nowhere is it written that they can't offer "tastes" or samples of their work to entice more people to want to experience more - and do so in a different way that excites people and fosters a buzz in a community.  And were this a viable approach, it might be reasonable that if a portion of the audience preferred sampling to the alternative of full immersion -- then providing them the option would help subsidize the longer form of the art.

Part of the "sell" of this kind of approach is for people to try something new, but the risk is minimized in that they are pretty much guaranteed that what they will be trying (sampling) is certifiably excellent.  I certainly would be up for trying an evening like this and I think I could convince any number of friends who don't usually patronize the arts on a regular basis to join me.

If we want more people to feast on the arts, it may be necessary to first get more of them to "taste" what we offer.  

Have a great week.

Don't Quit

Sunday, April 12, 2015

Lessons from Steve Jobs

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

The Real Leadership Lessons of Steve Jobs 

In an article in the Harvard Business Review, Walter Issacson, CEO of the Aspen Institute  (and author of the Steve Jobs biography) details some of the lessons that can be learned from Steve Jobs' extraordinary success as an innovator in transforming how we communicate and do business.

Several of these caught my attention as spot on relevant to our work.

"When Jobs returned to Apple in 1997, it was producing a random array of computers and peripherals, including a dozen different versions of the Macintosh. After a few weeks of product review sessions, he’d finally had enough. “Stop!” he shouted. “This is crazy.” He grabbed a Magic Marker, padded in his bare feet to a whiteboard, and drew a two-by-two grid. “Here’s what we need,” he declared. Atop the two columns, he wrote “Consumer” and “Pro.” He labeled the two rows “Desktop” and “Portable.” Their job, he told his team members, was to focus on four great products, one for each quadrant. All other products should be canceled. There was a stunned silence. But by getting Apple to focus on making just four computers, he saved the company."

“Deciding what not to do is as important as deciding what to do,” Jobs told Issacson.  And that's an important lesson for arts organizations - whether talking about fundraising, marketing, programming, or audience development.  It is critical in any business endeavor to zero in on what you need to do, and jettison all the rest.  The most successful people in the business world I have ever met (and I've been fortunate to meet a number of highly successful people), all shared that common trait of being able to put aside all the distractions and to focus on what they needed to do to succeed.

"Jobs aimed for the simplicity that comes from conquering, rather than merely ignoring, complexity.  It takes a lot of hard work,” he said, “to make something simple, to truly understand the underlying challenges and come up with elegant solutions.”

People in all businesses and in much of their personal lives make the mistake of making things more complicated than they need to be.  Often, the simple, direct solution just seems like it's not enough, when, in truth, it is precisely enough.  We, in the arts, would be wise to look at the challenges and tasks we face and try to come up with simple solutions rather than always rushing to embrace layers of complexity where they aren't needed.

Take Responsibiity End to End:
"Jobs and Apple took end-to-end responsibility for the user experience—something too few companies do."

Far, far too often in the arts we ignore this advice.  We don't take responsibility for the whole of the user experience.  So for a performing arts organization, end to end responsibility includes awareness of, and access to the art form, as well as the art itself, but also includes all the mundane issues that our users encounter - from convenience, scheduling, price and more.  I wonder what an arts organization would look like that took that responsibility?  I wonder what a foundation would look like that took that responsibility in its relationship with its grantees, or community?  I wonder what an advocacy organization would look like that took that responsibility in marshaling its supporters to lobby for its cause?

We think our brand is the art we present.  It is, but it's a lot more.

Bend Reality:
"Jobs’s (in)famous ability to push people to do the impossible was dubbed by colleagues his Reality Distortion Field, after an episode of Star Trek in which aliens create a convincing alternative reality through sheer mental force."

"One day Jobs marched into the cubicle of Larry Kenyon, the engineer who was working on the Macintosh operating system, and complained that it was taking too long to boot up. Kenyon started to explain why reducing the boot-up time wasn’t possible, but Jobs cut him off. “If it would save a person’s life, could you find a way to shave 10 seconds off the boot time?” he asked. Kenyon allowed that he probably could. Jobs went to a whiteboard and showed that if five million people were using the Mac and it took 10 seconds extra to turn it on every day, that added up to 300 million or so hours a year—the equivalent of at least 100 lifetimes a year." After a few weeks Kenyon had the machine booting up 28 seconds faster."

The point is that we might accomplish much more than we do if we didn't start out believing that what we can do is limited.   Effective leaders push; they demand their people break new ground, come up with new solutions, do what hasn't been done before.  We won't always succeed with this attitude, but we'll likely rarely succeed without it.  Complacency is the enemy; self-doubt is the enemy; timidity is the enemy.   We need to take a lesson from the artists we represent and push the boundaries; demand more of ourselves; set the bar higher.

"When Jobs was designing the iPhone, he decided that he wanted its face to be a tough, scratchproof glass, rather than plastic. He met with Wendell Weeks, the CEO of Corning, who told him that Corning had developed a chemical exchange process in the 1960s that led to what it dubbed “Gorilla glass.” Jobs replied that he wanted a major shipment of Gorilla glass in six months. Weeks said that Corning was not making the glass and didn’t have that capacity. “Don’t be afraid,” Jobs replied. This stunned Weeks, who was unfamiliar with Jobs’s Reality Distortion Field. He tried to explain that a false sense of confidence would not overcome engineering challenges, but Jobs had repeatedly shown that he didn’t accept that premise. He stared unblinking at Weeks. “Yes, you can do it,” he said. “Get your mind around it. You can do it.” Weeks recalls that he shook his head in astonishment and then called the managers of Corning’s facility in Harrodsburg, Kentucky, which had been making LCD displays, and told them to convert immediately to making Gorilla glass full-time. “We did it in under six months,” he says. “We put our best scientists and engineers on it, and we just made it work.” 

"Jobs’s early mentor Mike Markkula wrote him a memo in 1979 that urged three principles. The first two were “empathy” and “focus.” The third was an awkward word, “impute,” but it became one of Jobs’s key doctrines. He knew that people form an opinion about a product or a company on the basis of how it is presented and packaged. “Mike taught me that people do judge a book by its cover,” he told Issacson".
We pay a great deal of attention to our packaging - in how we curate exhibits and in the design of our space, in our sets and costumes, in our graphics - but how much time do we spend on the whole of the packaging of our organizations, our products and brand?  People judge us not just based on the art we present, but on a spectrum of impressions and perceptions about who we are, what we do and how we do it.

Not every leader can be a Steve Jobs, but every leader can learn lessons from all those people who change the rules and open new vistas.  There were a lot of things about Steve Jobs that people didn't like, but success isn't about being popular.  We talk relentlessly about innovation and creative thinking.  We need to put that talk into action, and the above are a few ideas that might help us to do that.

Have a great week.

Don't Quit

Sunday, April 5, 2015

10th Anniversary Milestone for Barry's Blog

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

Today marks the 10th Anniversary of Barry's Blog as distributed by WESTAF.

I've actually been blogging longer than ten years, as I started writing a weekly online (distributed via email) newsletter when I was Director of the California Arts Council in 2002.  Back then, it wasn't called a blog, but, in essence that's what it was.  I started this blog back in 2005 as a monthly+ effort, then went to weekly+ in 2009.

Not counting the earlier CAC endeavor, this iteration of the blog has posted nearly 450 blogs (somewhere over 300,000 words probably) that have landed, in the aggregate, in nearly four and a half million mailboxes over the decade.  Of course, that doesn't mean four and a half million people have read them, as I am fully aware that many people (myself included) don't read everything that arrives in their mailboxes.  But I'm also blown away that literally hundreds of thousands of people have read some of these posts that may have interested them on some level.

The world has changed dramatically in the past decade.  Ten years ago there was no iPhone, no Facebook, no Linkdin, or Twitter, or Snapchat, or Buzzfeed, or You Tube, or Instagram or any of the scores of other social media platforms.  The world was crazy already, but perhaps not as crazy as it has become.  In the nonprofit arts, we weren't yet involved with Placemaking, or Engagement.  Social justice and equity issues weren't yet at the forefront.  We hadn't yet faced the global recession that changed (probably forever) the funding dynamics for our organizations.  And there weren't all that many nonprofit arts bloggers ten years ago.  Everything changes, and I've been one of many in a position to try to chronicle some of that change.  What a great gig.

Far and away the most widely read individual of my posts have been the annual Top 50 Most Powerful and Influential People in the American Nonprofit Arts.  But there have been any number of other posts that have garnered a wide readership as well - including many of the (45 or so) interviews I have been fortunate enough to do with key leaders in our field; the "What I Have Learned" posts with extraordinary advice from those who have been in the trenches for awhile;  the two Dinner-Vention projects; and the Blogathon Forums zeroing in on specific topics.  Of those blogathons, the six week forum on Arts Education (done as a joint effort with Julie Fry of the Hewlett Foundation - and it wouldn't have come to fruition without her help, guidance and expertise) has attracted close to 100,000 individual page hits from people in addition to those on the email subscriber list.

I have, over the decade, tried to provide a variety of posts that are true to the masthead - "News, Advice, and Opinion for the Arts Administrator (probably a little too heavy on the opinion part from time to time, but that's a perk of having your name on the title).  I've tried to balance the posts with serious, critical policy issues, and the more mundane daily challenges facing us all as practitioners in the field.  I've tried to bring some humor to the blog and to make it interesting to you the readers by coming up with different features.  Sometimes I've succeeded.  Obviously, sometimes (many times?) I have not.  I have appreciated your patience in waiting for the better material.

I've enormously enjoyed the process of writing this blog; I'm grateful for the doors it has opened for me; thankful for the countless people I have had the pleasure to meet;  and indebted by the incredible support I have gotten from across the whole spectrum of our field.  I am humbled by that support, and deeply appreciative.

There are too many people to thank for that support over the years:  To the many of you who have been kind enough to send me a note when you think I made a good point and have offered me your encouragement and, more importantly, your insights.  It is your insights that have changed my perspective over time, and on many occasions forced me to seriously reconsider stances and positions I have taken.  Even more importantly to me, this blog has allowed me the great and wondrous gift of learning about what meaningful and impactful things are going on in our field.  It's given me the chance to weigh in, to think aloud (not always the best approach), and to formulate ideas and take positions that everyone may not endorse.  I have tried to write posts that in some way might be helpful to you - inform you, challenge your thinking, or entertain you.  I have taken the luxury of being able to write this blog as serious business, and tried to offer reasoned and reasonable thoughts and insights of my own.  I have written with a deep and abiding respect for you, and while it may be a conceit to think so, I hope that I have, from time to time, been part of the movement to greater dialogue on all those issues and challenges that we face.

I am proud and honored to be among such intelligent, passionate, caring and dedicated people as populate the nonprofit arts field - and though that may sound trite - it has been one of the big take aways for me over the past decade.

I would be remiss if I didn't single out Anthony Radich at WESTAF for his giving me a platform (via WESTAF's distribution of the blog) that has allowed me to comment, analyze, pontificate, and opine on anything that I wanted to; for supporting me and all the ideas I brought to him; for his unwavering belief that via this blog I had something to contribute; and for being a mentor, a teacher, and a very good friend. I am living proof that you can teach an old dog new tricks (simple ones anyway).  I hope to continue posting for at least a couple of years [and I've still got ideas about new projects that I hope (when launched) will be thought interesting, and even worthy and of some value].  I'm still having fun.

I am also indebted to the WESTAF staff who have been part of this effort in support over the years - Laurel Sherman, Shannon Daut, Bryce Merrill, Seyon Lucero, Leah Horn and many others.

I'm also indebted to the many of my fellow bloggers (Thomas Cott, Ian David Moss, Doug McLennan, Doug Borwick, Arlene Goldbard, Andrew Taylor, Diane Ragsdale, AFTA and many others), who, from time to time, will pass on a link to one of my posts - and every time they do so, there is a spike in page hits.  Thank you all.

Finally, I am indebted most of all to each of you for being loyal readers and subscribers.  Now if each one of you could just send me twenty dollars -- no, no just kidding.

If I have one lament, looking back over this decade, it is the feeling that sometimes blogging has become too much like broadcast journalism -- it has become the almost exclusive recitation of the litany of all the challenges we face, the problems and everything that threatens us, with too little mention and inclusion of what is going right, of all the positive contributions of the field, of all the progress, and all the end results of which we can, as a field, be proud.  I think, in the blogosphere, it's often times easy to get caught up in covering what is going wrong, when sometimes we need to hear about what is going right.

So to celebrate the Tenth Anniversary, I offer you three stories about projects by people in our field that I came across this week (and this is, I think, a typical week) that are each absolutely wonderful, and bespeak an energy that is undeniably exactly what the world needs more of  -- proof that as a field the arts contribute mightily to the betterment of our world and are acting responsibly and wisely to thrive in a difficult environment.

  • First, an experiment in genuine out-of-the-box thinking by the San Francisco Symphony to attract new audiences in new ways.  "As part of a growing national movement to revitalize the symphony experience for patrons, the San Francisco Symphony recently launched SoundBox, a show series meant to create new musical experiences and entice new audiences."  This is an absolutely brilliant approach that changes dynamically how symphony music can be presented and accessed - exciting, energetic, engaging and completely different from the old model.  I love this.  Go to the site and watch the video to understand what a breakthrough this is. 
  • Second, this story from Fractured Atlas about a 2015 Arts Entrepreneurship Awards honoree:  The Laundromat Project, connecting communities to their creative potential, working in community spaces such as laundromats, libraries, parks, and the like.  Read the brief interview with Executive Director Kemi Ilesanmi by Jason Tseng to get a sense of what is being accomplished by this wonderful ten year old organization.  
  • And finally, an extraordinary video documentary, entitled Spiral Bound (click on the link, go to the site and watch the trailer), "on the role of arts in learning and specifically how the loss of arts in the schools is a social equity issue." by the Arts and Science Council in Charlotte, North Carolina.   A bold effort by one of the best local arts agencies in America.  

The reality is that there are thousands of projects all across the country that are making communities and lives better, and are helping our organizations to thrive.

Thank you all again for your kind support over the past decade.  If you've found anything of interest or value in the blog over the years, I would appreciate it if you would tell one other person and suggest they subscribe.  There are tens, if not hundreds, of thousands of nonprofit arts people that I would love to have as subscribers to the blog.  Before I'm done I'd like to get up to at least 25,000.  I hope you might help me by mentioning the blog to your constituents.

And thank you for being part of the glorious and grand attempt to exhalt the arts as one of humanity's best instincts by working in this field.

Have a great week.

Don't Quit