Monday, May 29, 2017

Is It Time for an Arts Think Tank Yet?

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

Floundering under the weight of the Russian Investigations and Probes, it was reported this weekend that the Trump Administration is assembling a WAR ROOM (borrowing a page from the Clinton Administration that, facing the Monica Lewinsky scandal, assembled lawyers, investigators and communications people to manage that White House situation).  An internal War Room seeks to contain, manage and respond to the investigations, theoretically allowing the rest of the White House to continue with normal business and their legislative agenda and other projects.

A War Room is akin to a Think Tank in that you assemble experienced experts who can approach the subject from a wide variety of perspectives, do their own investigations and research and lobby for specific actions based on the consensus of their findings and their own agenda.  In truth, it is an assemblage of the Generals who can fight the war to victory, then disband.

Think Tanks or Policy Institutes are independent organizations that assemble a body of experts to consider specific social, political, economic, societal or cultural issues by engaging in research and advocacy around those issues.  Unlike War Rooms, they are ongoing institutions.   Click here for a list and description of the Top 50 Think Tanks in America.

The most media covered Think Tank of late is the Heritage Foundation, founded in 1973, which originally gained recognition during the Reagan years, and more recently as the most influential conservative organization in the country by having its roadmap adopted in large measure by the Trump Administration as its agenda.

Other influential Think Tanks - both liberal and conservative (ranging from the Human Rights Watch,  to the Council on Foreign Relations, the Urban Institute to the Economic Policy Institute) center around science, the environment, the economy, technology, war and international relations.  Many are generally unknown to the public, but wield considerable power in political and government circles.  Many, but not all, are affiliated with a University, and many have full time fellows and researchers working on issues under the purview of the organization.  Well funded Think Tanks have full staffs, ambitious research, communications teams and substantial outreach to decision makers and to the media.  Over time they gain prestige and are seen as authoritative sources of information.

Two or three (The Rand Corporation, The Aspen Institute, The Urban Institute) have, from time to time, taken up studies, research and positions on Arts and Culture topics, but these have been isolated, occasional forays.  There is no Think Tank that has as its principal charge the Arts, Humanities, Creativity, Culture, Heritage and other facets and divisions of the wider field of culture and creativity.

Why not?  

Given the disparity between what the public says about arts and culture and their actions, given the repeated and regular attacks on the Arts, given both the suggested and proven value of the arts on multiple levels and given the extent to which the arts and creativity are a major facet of the American job market and economy, one would think the many disciplines under the banner of Arts and Culture would be a prime area for the formation of a Think Tank dedicated to the study and consideration of the field.

There are a number of University programs that focus on various aspects of the Arts and Arts Administration - but for the most part these are student oriented degree programs, and not Think Tanks per se.  And there are a number of national arts service organizations that have programs and events that are almost mini abbreviated Think Tanks - but again transitory and without portfolio or faculty.   And, to be sure, there is now widespread, independent, robust and rigorous research being conducted on a global basis on Arts, Culture, Creativity and the attendant subjects thereto.

But no real Arts and Culture Think Tank.  No organization with the authority, prestige and cache of an established Think Tank.   And we could use something like that.  Such an institution could play a role in protecting and sustaining the knowledge base of our most accomplished and experienced leadership as they retire.  It could also play a role in the mentoring and preparation of future generations of leadership.  And it could launch and sustain deep conversations about issues that impact all of us.  Finally, it could command media interest and attention so that the field isn't ignored.

The principal reason we don't have an Arts Think Tank is very likely no funder has ever considered the seed funding to start one.  And that is usually what it takes to launch this kind of ongoing effort.   We have within our ranks the experts - with prestigious qualifications and degrees.  We have the basis of the research apparatus.  We know the issues.  We have the need.

Maybe the time has come for a consortium of funders to consider the establishment of a legitimate Arts and Culture Think Tank (The Arts and Culture Institute),  affiliated with a University somewhere, and which could provide an umbrella for research, advocacy, dialogue, inquiry and discussion of Arts and Culture in America.  And help unite all the many disparate conversations that are already going on.

I'm not the only one over the past decade who thinks this might be of enormous value to our field.  Maybe some smart people might put together a proposal and seek funding.

Have a good week.

Don't Quit

Sunday, May 21, 2017

Postcards for the Arts

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

The Trump Administration releases its FY 17 / 18 Budget this week.  The reported cuts are so draconian, including, very likely, elimination of the National Endowments of the Arts and of the Humanities, that the budget is likely DOA in Congress.  Now the lobbying to protect funding for hundreds of programs and projects, valued by a wide variety of interests, including the arts, will start in earnest.

Continued effort by the sector to make the case for the value of the NEA and the Arts will be essential to insure that the agency continues to exist and that funding isn't decimated.

Last Thursday was apparently International Museum Day and Arts Museum Day, and a number of museums included postcard writing stations on site - encouraging the public to fill out postcards in support of the continued funding of the NEA to be sent to people's elected officials.  This is a very simple idea that every arts organization in the country ought to include at their performances, exhibitions and other programs, starting now.

The postcards can include a pre-printed message of support citing the value of the individual sponsoring organization to the local community or a general message of support for the many contributions the arts make locally, closing with support for the NEA.  Every such postcard ought to include the message:

I am a registered voter in your district, and the continued support for the National Endowment of the Arts and the National Endowment of the Humanities is critically important to our community and to me personally.  
Followed by whatever message the organization or the individual wants to include, and closed with a Signature, date, address, zip code, and phone number.  The writer may also request a response from the official.

While you can make available to those willing to fill out a card easy ways to  determine who their Congressperson and / or Senator is, and their local and Washington D. C. office addresses, that should be done at the point where the cards are being filled out.  OR in the alternative, your organization should simply collect completed and signed cards, and have staff or volunteers complete the addressing.  You can pay postage or ask the people filling out the cards to do so.  You should do the mailing.  If you leave it to the public to take the card with them and do it all themselves, a huge percentage of the card will never get sent.  The easier you make it for people to help, the more cards you are likely to collect.  And thus the greater the impact such an effort will have.

This represents a minimal investment of cash and time to defend the arts.  If every arts organization would do this over the next few months, we could generate hundreds of thousands (and maybe a million or more) messages.

Please consider such a project, or something similar.

Thanks to Hyperallergic for the story and to the museums for generating the idea.

Have a good week.

Don't Quit

Sunday, May 14, 2017

The Arts Brand

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


Over the past decade we've talked a lot about branding and our brands.  It's a somewhat confusing topic, and we are often unsure what we mean by the term.  Briefly, our brand is the public's awareness and perception of our organizations, and the goods and services they offer.  It is the sum total of their perceptions and experiences with our organizations and what they offer.  It is created by all of the various parts of our organizations.

Larger arts organizations and those that have been around for some time have a more established brand in the public's mindset.  Smaller and newer organizations have a more difficult time both creating and establishing their brand. But whereas it may be axiomatically more difficult for the larger, older organizations to change their brand image, it may be easier for up and coming organizations to grow their brand at a faster pace.

But beyond our organizations, the arts as a whole also have a brand, and this is what interests me.

Private sector industries all have brands.  Take the airline industry as an example.  For the most part, the airline industry brand is that air travel is a safe, convenient and cost effective way to travel. The major aircraft manufacturers - Boeing and Airbus - are seen as companies that produce reliable, safe airplanes.  Competition has produced relatively affordable ticket pricing.  Airline routes are extensive.  But the brand has suffered of late for a multitude of reasons - including increasing incidental pricing of services that use to be free - from baggage charges to onboard food purchases to extra charges for premium seating.  The brand has suffered from a public perception that air travel for the passengers has become unpleasant at best, and insufferable at worst.  Crowded airports and planes, security line hassles, long waits, delayed and late flights all make for an increasingly unpleasant experience.  Compounding the tarnishing of the brand has been the recent spate of individual airlines mistreating passengers.  The Friendly Skies of United are now perceived as anything but friendly.

And while the airline industry brand has thus diminished, because of the convenience, relatively reasonable pricing, and safety, people are likely to continue to fly, and the industry is likely to continue to profit.  But the brand itself may be in trouble, and over the long haul, that may cause problems for the industry.

What is the Arts Brand - not that of any individual arts organization - but the whole of the arts?

I think over the past couple of decades we have succeeded in increasing the brand's image as a sector that has an economic component valuable to both the local and national economy; as responsible for jobs and economic benefit.  We've moved the dial in the perception of the brand as valuable to placemaking, and as an important part of overall education.  We've expanded the brand somewhat to include a wider consideration of creativity and its importance.  And there has been much discussion of the wisdom of the brand emphasizing the ancillary values of art over the intrinsic values.  Both are part of our brand. While audience attendance may be down in many situations, online involvement is up and the choice of arts experiences has never been deeper.

But despite those developments, we still suffer from our brand being regarded as a  frill; something elitist and exclusive and, the evidence to the contrary notwithstanding, as not a priority item when it comes to support - both financial and otherwise.  While we may legitimately think of the arts as essential to the very fabric of society, alas, that's not our brand image.

How do we change that part of our brand?

Unfortunately, we lack the economic resources, the organizational capacity as a sector, and even the will to mount any massive and successful campaigns to re-brand ourselves as a top tier priority and the producer of goods and services that are essential and not a luxury.  But that remains the challenge if we are ever to change the necessity of continual self-defense and having to fight for our very lives (as evidenced by the ongoing struggle to protect the NEA and state and local government funding attacks, which are decidedly political), and if we are ever to elevate ourselves in the public mind.

There have been some attempts in the past to tackle the problem (I'm thinking of efforts like AFTA's television ad campaign as part of the Ad Council's program as an example), but those were limited and not part of any larger, sustained campaign.

Somehow, we have got to figure out a way to move the brand in the public mind to being considered a value of such magnitude, and one without any reasonable disagreement, that the consensus is that the arts are as important as the ecology, as necessary as education, as valuable to the individual as health.  Unfortunately, the overall brand is more than just the sum of the individual brands of the thousands of organizations that comprise the field.  It is both a part of those individual brands and something distinct and separate from them.

One problem is that all of those organizations that have their own individual brand within our sphere, very few, if any at all, spend any concerted or coordinated effort at pushing for the overall sector brand change.  What is needed is consideration by every organization, that in addition to marketing itself as valuable, is the simultaneous marking of the value of the overall arts.  And not just in times of defending the arts against specific attacks such as the recent NEA issue.  And, of course, countless of our organizations unable to do much about their own brand.

How do we mount the kind of cooperation among ourselves that might move us in this direction,? Perhaps we can build on the current effort in our own defensive, to move to a long term, sustained effort of cooperation and collaboration among ourselves to work together to rebrand the Arts as a whole, with every organization including that marketing goal as part of their wider marketing efforts in an attempt to re-brand the arts.

Mind you that effort is not simply a catchy slogan or fancy logo. While the Art Works phrasing initiated during the Rocco Landesman NEA era is of value, it simply isn't, by itself, enough to have changed the public's brand perception.  Partly that is due to the fact that for the most part, the audience for the slogan and the meaning behind it, is largely us.  It is  principally directed inward. It preaches to the choir as it were.  We haven't had the money or other resources to mount an effective campaign to make the public aware of it.  And while it's inclusion in the marketing materials of thousands of arts organizations across the country is enormously valuable in trying to assert it as a sector brand, that's not enough by itself.  The problem is more complex and at a different level, and we haven't yet spent enough time trying to address that challenge.

It would be helpful if the challenge itself were taken up by a wide variety of our national service organizations and funders.  There have been occasional murmurs about trying to strategize about the challenge, but nothing ever seems to come of it.  That's a shame.

Re-branding on that level would be of invaluable help in making our advocacy efforts easier, and might well help overall marketing efforts of our thousands of organizations, including, ultimately increasing audiences.   When we talk about increasing public value of the arts, we are talking about a re-branding effort.

The alternative is to simply let the Arts brand mean what it has meant (not to me, not to you - but to far too many) - an elitist pursuit that while valuable, is a luxury society can often ill-afford when compared to higher priorities - despite its contributions to society on other levels, and despite its theoretically widespread public support.  (I say theoretically, because while public opinion sampling polls invariably show substantial public support, the perception of us as an elitist frill still dominates decision making on every level.)  People say we are important, but rarely translate that belief into actions.

Have a good week.

Don't Quit

Monday, May 1, 2017

Generations and the Seminal Events That Define Them.

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

In an article in New York Magazine by Jesse Singal, he posits that there are really two groups within the Millennial generation (roughly those born between 1981 and 2000) - what he terms Older Millennials (those born around 1983, which includes him), and Younger Millennials (those born in 1989 and after) - and that each is defined by when the seminal events that impacted the Millennial generation hit.  Those events are suggested to include the 2008 financial crisis and the rise of smartphones.

"Their impact can’t be overstated, and because of precisely when they hit, it really might be the case that in 2017 a 33-year-old is more different from a 23-year-old than at any other point in recent history. 
Take the financial crash. Many Old Millennials were either already in the workforce by then, or close enough to entering it that we were able to “sneak in” before the crisis had fully unfurled itself. Which means we were raised and educated during a period in which we were promised that if we followed the rules in certain ways, there would be gainful employment waiting for us in our early or mid-20s — which there often was. The same definitely cannot be said of Young Millennials. The crisis permanently rejiggered the world for them. They grew up, like us Old Millennials, assuming that things would more or less work out if they followed the rules laid out by adults, only to have the rug pulled out from under them entirely during a very formative period in their lives.
Then there are smartphones and social media, which hit the two halves of the generation in massively different ways. For us Old Millennials, the social aspects of our middle- and high-school-years were lived mostly offline. Sure, AOL Instant Messenger was a pretty big deal when it first caught on, but most of us didn’t even have cell phones until college, and smartphones until after. Think about all the stuff you go through between the ages of 12 and 22 in terms of your development as a person. Now think about how many of those experiences are affected by the presence or absence of a cell phone and social media.

That makes sense to me, and the same theory would apply to my generation of Boomers.  Older Boomers were just on the cusp of becoming young adults when the Vietnam War was central to American politics, while Younger Boomers were of the same age when Watergate was the dominant issue of the times.  While part of the same generation, those two events created different impacts on each segment.  The reaction to the Vietnam War, coupled with the change in lifestyle attitudes (dress, music, relationships, sex, and authority), laid the groundwork for how the second half of the Boomers dealt with Watergate and the Nixon Whitehouse and the American attitudes at the time.

So what?

The point being that broad descriptions of a generation can be misleading, if not outright, erroneous, as likely every generation has at least two sub-groups that share similar experiences and contexts resulting in shared attitudes and challenges faced, but which groups are very different beings depending on when within the generation they transition to young adulthood.   And it's very likely that there are numerous divisions within each sub-category depending on education, income, where one grew up, religion, ethnicity, and so on.  What is the value of knowing this?  I think the reality that no generation is a monolithic entity, and no universal characteristics or attributes can be easily assigned to the whole of what we have decided to call a "generation" is knowledge that might help us as we formulate strategies that target generations - whether as audiences, supporters, donors or whatever.  Talking about and fashioning approaches to Millennials, for example, for whatever purpose, should not presuppose they are uniform in either their experience or their thinking, let alone their behavior.   It's easy to deal with them as though they all think alike and act alike, but they don't.  The appellation "millennial" is really of limited use.  In discussions involving that generation, it's more a starting point, then the final destination.  I think perhaps we've been treating it as the end point.  We bandy about the term "millennial" as though 80 million people share lots of things beyond their birthdays.  Some do, others don't, but we treat them conceptually like they are a monolithic entity.  The same applies in retrospect to the Boomers.  I went to school at UC Berkeley.  We use to think the Boomers all across the nation were a united front; we were in this together.  How wrong we were.  We may have shared the same music and the same global events, but not much more.  Certainly not politics, nor even basic values.  In the last election some Boomers were for Hillary, others for Trump.  The only real value of even having a label like Boomers has devolved into a simple way to describe people of a certain age - and not much more. And that may be as true for Generation X and Millennials as well.  If we want to single out generations, we need to dig a lot deeper than a couple of shared decades.

But as an aside, all this does make me wonder what are the events that are now - or will soon be - impacting the current generation - those born after 2000, and which would then extend to those born up to 2020 or so.  I don't know what people are calling them - say, hypothetically, Generation Q.  The early part of this generation were still kids when both the 2008 financial crisis hit and smartphones were introduced and began to change the world. Both realities were part of the fabric of the country before they reached their teens.  In 2017 they are just beginning to enter young adulthood, and so the seminal events impacting that transition period are just coming to the fore.  It seems reasonable that the global populist movement (including Trump's election) and the global march towards authoritarianism might be one of the events that will define the first half of this generation.  We can only speculate on the ramifications of these developments and how the impacts will manifest, but it seems likely they will somehow impact the first half of this generation.  It may be reasonable to suppose that the growth of Artificial Intelligence and Robotics, as they proceed apace, might be the events that will significantly impact the second half of this generation, but again, we can only speculate on how those impacts will be manifested.  These are just before the fact guesses.

The question of how those events (or others, and what they might be) and their impacts, will influence and impact our sector - in terms of everything ranging from public value of the arts, to public and private funding, to audience development, to job displacement, to artistic creativity and even to organizational management and leadership dynamics - should soon be something we begin to ask.  And we would likely profit from some early consideration of what it all might mean; not now, but in a decade.  It should be obvious by now that planning for the reality of a decade in the future, needs to begin immediately.

Of course, there may soon be other (currently unknown) developments that will eclipse and dwarf these two events and more dramatically impact the next generation (pandemics, nuclear war, climate change resulting in droughts and famines or who knows what), and we can't be absolutely sure until after the fact.  But the idea of investigating the reasonable possibilities seems like something all sectors will soon be embarking on, and so should we.

This is yet more fodder (in a very long list of things) for heavy consideration by Arts ThinkTanks.  Too bad we don't have one.

Have a good week.

Don't Quit