Go to the Gemba

GembaShow of hands. Who knows what the title of this post means?

As I’ve mentioned before, my son is a higher ed IT management consultant. From him I learn many fascinating things about what’s going on in the world of management theory and practice. Recently he told me that one of his favorite approaches–Lean, derived from Toyota’s management style in the 1980’s (which was the heart of Japan’s conquering the automobile industry)–incorporates the concept “Go to the Gemba.” As I maintained a respectful (and silent) ignorance, he patiently explained that “go to the gemba” means, basically, go to the source or go to where the action occurs.

John had already made the connection between this concept and much of my work. The goal in industry is to maximize value created and minimize waste. “Going to the gemba” serves that end. Arts marketers (good ones) have for years observed that it’s critical to meet with audience members and find out from them what is important to their decision to attend an arts event. (Lean principles also would have us learn from artists about how best to connect their work with potential “consumers” and with the work of arts organizations. Tiny pockets of such work exist–artist-led galleries and ensembles for instance–but they are pretty rare.)

When I went to a Lean Enterprise Institute explanation of the concept of gemba I discovered a fascinating explanation of “how.” Managers are instructed to “Go See,” “Ask Why,” and (wait for it) “Show Respect.” There, in six words, is the essence of community engagement. (OK, we have to ask more than “why,” but it’s only six words after all.) The three tasks are also circular since, in our world, the motivation to “go see” needs to be preceded by having (developing?) respect for our communities.

I spent a good deal of the last quarter of last year hammering home the point that the work of the arts industry needs to be focused not on the art we deliver but on the people for whom the art is to have meaning. I often break out in hives when people tell nonprofits to be “more like a business,” but in this case, there is a good reason to adopt a “Lean” way of thinking/doing. This is a fine thought with which to begin the New Year. Happy 2014.



Image source: http://www.resourcesystemsconsulting.com/blog/gemba/

Examining the “Mission Model”

MissionMotelOver the past five to ten years, much discussion has taken place about the need for revised business models for the arts industry. On the expense side this comes from recognition of the labor cost challenges faced by the performing arts and the capital cost struggles of edifice-centered organizations (museums and, again, some performing arts institutions). On the revenue side it comes from shifting trends in philanthropy and public policy and from demographic and social changes impacting arts consumption.

I have a continuing, nagging concern that while business models are important, the real issue that needs to be addressed is a deeper one. It may be that re-evaluating our “mission model” is even more critical.

A mission model for this millennium would consider three elements: the role of art, the relationship with the community, and the level (or, better, range) of involvement provided for those outside the institution with the content of the art presented. (For more re: mission, see The Metamission of Arts Institutions.)

  • What is the role of art in the organization? This is the first, critical question because as long as we place art exclusively at the center of our work we are on an (often) unconscious path to idolatry that confounds (and antagonizes) most of the public and conflicts with the public service mission of our 501(c)(3) organizations. Certainly, preserving and supporting reflective art, art that feeds the soul, must be a vital part of our missions, but it cannot be the sole reason for being. Art is the means through which we interact and the vehicle through which we improve individual and collective lives.
  • What is the relationship between the arts organization and the community? I do not hold that any arts organization should solely be a community service organization. Some choose to be such and that’s valuable. However, a service mindset rooted in mutuality of benefit is vital, as a practical matter, for the sustainability of our institutions. Otherwise, there simply is no future for them.
  • What is the range of involvement provided for those outside the institution with the content of the art presented? The unexamined assumption on the part of many organizations is that community members are spectators for the work chosen by the arts organization. Many in the arts establishment will continue to operate this way. (There are, however, social changes at work to make this approach less effective as time goes on.) But it will be increasingly important for organizations to make conscious choices about this issue. Alan Brown and Jennifer Novak-Leonard have created a continuum describing the range of options  in Getting In On the Act: How Arts Groups are Creating Opportunities for Active Participation, a report on audience involvement they developed for the James Irvine Foundation.  The labels below are not identical to theirs (and I’ve added one), but the general ideas are the same.
    • Spectator
      • Passive observer
      • Active learner
    • Participant
      • Curation (selection of existing work)
      • Implementation (following an artist’s instructions)
      • Creation
        • Co-creator (with artist guidance, framing)
        • Creator

For the future, the choice of what level(s) of community involvement to support can, and I think should, be a mission-level consideration for arts organizations. There need not be a single role for community members’ interaction with the arts organization. A range of interaction types will be more welcoming to the broad community and vocabulary for this is helpful in imagining possibilities.

Examination of the fundamental mission of the organization, acknowledging that substantial change in habits of thought may be necessary, is an important exercise for the arts industry as we seek to chart paths to a viable future.



Photo:AttributionNoncommercial Some rights reserved by Thomas Hawk

The Metamission of Arts Institutions

AngelWhere angels fear to tread . . . !

If changing environmental factors–like the rise of digital photography that decimated the world of photographic film production (remember Polaroid and Eastman Kodak)–threaten the future of the arts industry (The Buggy Whip Lesson), what should be done? We must seek an expression of the core purpose of art that is viable in the new landscape. For the photographic industry, the shift was from focus on a hard copy image (a product) to image capture devices and the sharing of those images (products and services).

At the risk of re-repetition, let’s be clear that the arts will always exist. It’s the arts industry/infrastructure/establishment that is of concern here. (And to clarify, this is not a discussion of the role of artists. This is about institutions.)

In the Western world, since the time of the Church in the Middle Ages the role of the arts establishment has been the production and/or presentation of art. (Note that visual artists are the producers of individual works; the institutions–galleries and museums–produce and present exhibits, exhibitions, and collections. In the performing arts, choreographers, composers, and playwrights create the equivalent of blueprints for work that others produce and present.) This worked as long as costs (primarily labor) were low and support sources (the Church, government, wealthy individuals, and corporations) were sufficiently committed to the product to fund it. Today both sides of the equation have shifted so much–increased expense and rapidly declining will (or ability) to fund a Eurocentric spectator experience–that an existential threat exists for the industry.

On the resources side, the key to the future lies in a dramatic increase in perceived public value. This will impact all potential institutional sources of support by increasing voter (for public support) and stockholder (for corporate support) understanding of the value of the arts. In addition, it will vastly expand the number of people interested in making personal contributions. But the path to this Nirvana runs through being valuable to people in ways far beyond continuing to do what we’ve always done. (There is little we can do on the expense side of the professional arts, since labor will only grow more expensive over time. One option would be to adopt a greater role–not an exclusive role–as supporter of opportunities for citizen artists to create and perform. This would cost less and would help develop increased public value.)

Like the producers of photographic film, newspapers, and buggy whips, the time is ripe (if not over-ripe) for the arts industry to re-examine its core mission. Survival depends upon it. The fundamental “metamission” shift needs to be from focus on a product and its delivery to a focus on community and how the arts can support ita service orientation, one honoring the integrity of the art.

Simply put, it’s not “about” the art; it’s about the arts’ interaction with people and how it benefits them. While this may seem a radical break from current habits of thought about art in our industry, it is essential.

We must seek more ways for our work to benefit more of the public directly, especially those who are not now convinced that any significant benefits exist for them. Fortunately, in practice this transformation need not be as world-shaking as some might fear.



Photo:AttributionNoncommercial Some rights reserved by Juliett-Foxtrott

Small Enough to Succeed

I have, for most of my life, been suspicious of the “growth is good” assumption that we often make in this country or did as I was growing up. (Sometimes when I replay in my mind the famous Gordon Gecko speech from Wall Street, it’s not greed I hear him praise but growth.) At the risk of appearing to trivialize something that is incredibly serious, cancer is a demonstration (an extreme one to be sure) that not all growth is beneficial. Less hyperbolically, the quest for resources to support program growth as well as the need for expanding infrastructure to sustain it often creates a situation in which the mission out of which the program sprang gets left in the dust. The attention required to amass funding and personnel gets in the way of focusing on the reason the program was created. But that is a systemic (and management theory) issue for another time, another place, and, likely, other writers.

Some in the for-profit world have been questioning the merits of “bigness” for years. Right-sizing, just-in-time production, and Jim Collins’ Hedgehog Concept (for focus on a core) and “Stop Doing List” (one of my favorites) all address the issue that big is not necessarily better, even in financial terms. In the not-for-profit arts world, the recent University of Chicago study, Set in Stone arrives at a similar conclusion about the dangers of facilities creep.

My principal interest is in effective community engagement in the service of creating healthier communities. This work is relationship driven and relationships cannot be mass-produced. However, as I discussed in a blog post some time ago–The Magic of Small Groups– megachurches, in creating and nurturing small subsets of the whole, have discovered a volunteer-labor-intensive path around that problem. Handmade in America, the “economic development through home-grown culture” program (that’s my attempt at crystalizing their essence), parallels this “small group” approach to scalability. Handmade provides vision and technical support for small towns across western North Carolina to develop locale-specific modes of economic growth (modes rooted in cultural heritage), but the success of the programs lies in the way each community uniquely expresses its identity.

Rural arts programs often have good track records because in smaller populations higher percentages of people can (and do) know each other and so there is greater potential for collaborating. There are simply fewer opportunities to be “lost in the crowd” when there are few crowds. The Ashe County Arts Council has done a remarkable job of supporting local artists (and encouraging non-native artists to move there). Its hometown, West Jefferson, NC has a population of not quite 1300 but supports a regular gallery crawl of its many art galleries. It also boasts over a dozen downtown murals (which means virtually every building is covered), and the immediate area has more than 30 gigantic quilts adorning barns around the county. Both serve as popular tourist attractions.

A neighborhood focus in urban areas has a similar effect, for similar reasons. The Queens Museum of Art’s work with the Corona neighborhood (Heart of Corona Initiative) has had (and is making) a significant impact. The scope of the work is focused on an area of manageable size.

In addition to the simple math that nurturing relationships necessarily limits growth, many times community engagement efforts focus on work with high impact on relatively small numbers of participants. Authoring Action, a program in my hometown, has as its core program a summer institute for 10-20 young people who have not been encouraged to value themselves or their own experiences. They are taught to write their life stories in poetry and prose for stage and video production. The results are stunning but the intensive nature of the work (and particular skills necessary to reach the participants) would make scaling up the program difficult; not impossible, but difficult.

Growth is not an unquestionable good. The for-profit world is recognizing this. Our mission-focus should make us wary, generally, and it is of special concern in community engagement work. Relationship-based programming does not thrive with unbounded growth, and the nature of some high-intensity work with individuals can exacerbate the problem. There are ways, based on an understanding of relationships, to scale up, but they involve understanding modes of supporting small enterprises and networking them together. These suggest organic models (hence the subgroups are sometimes called “cells”) rather than industrial, hierarchical ones.

Engage! (delicately)

Doug Borwick

[This post appeared in Animating Democracy’s blog salon at ARTSblog as part of a weeklong salon on the subject of “Does Size Matter?” If you missed it, check it out.]

Photo AttributionNoncommercial Some rights reserved by IITA Image Library

What Is the Arts Business?

The problem with unconscious assumptions is that they are  . . . unconscious. Even for me, spending time as I do questioning the status quo in the arts, the basic nature of the arts enterprise–deeper even than  the “business model”–often remains unexplored. But the arguments for and against community engagement inevitably have at their root this fundamental question. What is the arts business?

Individual or Community Resource?
A good (and valuable) preliminary question might be “Are the arts an individual or a community resource?” Trick question, of course. The arts inevitably serve both. However, I think much of our focus is on the individual, both as creator and consumer. I certainly believe more attention should be paid to the arts as a resource for community improvement. And, of course, by community I mean any collection of people who are bound–intentionally or, sometimes, de facto–by a characteristic they share: geography, certainly, but also culture, interests, concerns, preferences, background, etc. We speculate that this service to community was one of the origins of the arts but their binding or healing power for communities has been, in my opinion, under-appreciated, under-valued, and under-utilized by the arts infrastructure. (Evil Doug is trying to get me to say that the community service nature of the arts has been under-monetized. Oops, there he went.)

What Is the Business?
The deeper fundamental (and even less consciously considered) question is “What is the business?” I’ve got three metaphors to consider, but let me clarify as I always used to do for my students, the fact that I list three does not mean that I think these are the three, that these are correct, or that three is even the right number. I will also acknowledge that almost no one thinks of their work as part of the first two I list, but I am talking about unconscious assumptions.

This is a work in progress. I may not even agree with myself next week. With that caveat, here goes:

  • Reliquary, as in a shrine or container of relics. The only focus here is on the relic. A reliquary would still be a reliquary if no one looked at it. Arts organizations that are “all about the art” are reliquaries whether they deal in visual (fixed) or performing (variable) work.
  • Hajj, as in a regularly occurring pilgrimage to a holy place. I am taking a specific religious rite and attempting to make a secular metaphor out of it. The metaphor holds that in a secular hajj, the destination of the journey (the museum, concert hall, theater, etc.) and the content to be found there are primary. A pilgrim is required for a hajj, but the intent is for the participants to be uplifted by objects or experiences. In the arts hajj, it is the audience/visitor who is transformed or edified; the art is fixed and not altered or affected by external concerns, interests, or influences. For the art to be so would be sacrilege. The arts organizations that treat their offerings as a “city on a hill” that the public is lucky to have available fit this metaphor. What is important, again, is the art.
  • Commons, as in a resource accessible to all members of society. The commons belongs to everyone, even those who do not take advantage of it. People can utilize it individually or collectively. The commons is extremely valuable, but its purpose is to be of benefit to those who use it. While it might exist if no one took advantage of it, it would not be fulfilling its core purpose. In addition, as time and society changes, the merit of individual expressions of the commons may change. (Hitching posts for horses are not nearly as valuable today as they were in the West in frontier times.) Arts organizations that see art as a means of improving individual lives and collective experience are living out the commons metaphor. For them, if a work of art is not speaking to the community, that’s not the community’s fault; their response is either community-focused education or selection of alternative works.

I suspect I may be missing a metaphor somewhere between hajj and commons, but this is the best I can do today. The important thing is to consider what the focus of an arts organization is. As I suggested in Shifting the Center, the simple act of thinking about community interests in programming decisions can pay great dividends. Moving away from a reliquary- or hajj-like approaches will prove far more sustainable for the long term.



Reliquary Photo: AttributionNoncommercial Some rights reserved by Art History Images (Holly Hayes)
Kaaba Photo: Attribution Some rights reserved by Al Fassam
Commons Photo: AttributionShare Alike Some rights reserved by Jack W. Pearce