January 2008 Archives

Pretend for a moment that I'm the owner of a fine-dining establishment.

I've experienced a success that few would complain about. I have a very loyal customer base, including those who pay me weekly visits. I've enjoyed great profit margins, outperforming most other restaurants in the area.

My chefs have won awards for the quality and creativity of the dishes they create. One review even said that we've helped to change the culinary environment of our region because of our chef's artistry.

Food costs are high and it isn't cheap to produce and serve our food, but that's been more than made up for in profit and customer loyalty.

One day, I look about the food and beverage environment and read about the success of McDonald's. They have far more customers than I do and they make more money. Changes have to be made!

I call a staff meeting and tell my executive chef that he's going to have to start offering chicken fingers and fried burger patties. Also, he needs to reduce the amount of time it takes to prepare orders by pre-preparing the most popular dishes and getting rid of any dishes that take too long to prepare. I skillfully ignore the look of horror that comes across his face and hand him the statistics that point out people want fast food--it's obvious by how many people are buying it.

What will happen to my audience? Even if my chef doesn't immediately quit in a huff, it's pretty certain that I'll quickly drive away all of my loyal customer base. I'll lose the customers I have and will likely find myself unable to compete with the resources and processes of a McDonalds.

The story seems pretty foolish, and yet, sometimes it feels that it is precisely how newspapers today are being run. Rather than work at appealing to the readers that they have, they're chasing after television viewers, Internet junkies, and non-readers. The loyal readers are treated with almost contempt as editors and writers state with conviction that everything needs to be written in bullets and short little bites because, "No one reads anymore."

Newspapers slavishly cover pop culture in a pale imitation of entertainment networks while ignoring those readers who really want substance--those readers who have been the bread and butter of subscribers. Newspapers rabidly pursue the masses, seemingly blissfully ignorant of the Long Tail concept that reminds us that today's economy is swinging toward selling more for less rather than less for more.

It's almost a mantra in corporate America that it is more expensive to get a new customer than it is to keep and please a loyal customer--and loyal customers will earn you more revenue than new ones. They're also more likely to become advocates for you, doing some of your marketing work for you.

So why is it that newspapers have little interest in readers? Yes, growth is important, but there needs to be growth among people who want your product. It's an uphill battle to constantly remake yourself in an attempt to sell yourself to someone who really doesn't want you--especially if in the process you stop being what your loyal customers wanted from you.

What sparks this rant today? In part, it is this article. The vast majority of the article talks about the health of theater in Detroit--the creation of new companies, the expanded seasons, and the fact that despite financial hardships, not a single company shut its doors. Then in the final paragraph, Don Calamia reports that Marty Cohn retired from the Free Press--leaving not a single full-time arts critic at any of the dailies in the greater Detroit area.

It would be one thing if this were just a single incident. Yet, while the arts community continues to grow, flourish, and expand in surprising new directions, the coverage gets smaller and smaller. I've talked to far too many people in both the academic and arts community who say they don't bother to read the paper anymore because there is no longer anything compelling in its pages. There is no longer a reason to convince them to plop down their two quarters. They don't want something they can read in a 30-second glance. They want to read something that will provoke them, get them to think, evoke an emotion, or inspire them to do something.

How can you accomplish those things with three printed bullets?

January 31, 2008 9:43 AM | | Comments (2)

It's the 50th anniversary of Lego's. How many hours have I spent building imaginary creations with this wonderful toy? Countless. Since its invention in Copenhagen on Jan. 28, 1958, the company has made a staggering 400 billion Lego elements, or 62 bricks for every person on the planet. Lego's influence is so pervasive that even Eminem loves them. Well, at least his music was used in this wonderful short film using Lego's and the hip-hop star's alter ego, Slim Shady, to recast Shakespeare's tragedy of Macbeth. Enjoy.



January 28, 2008 8:11 PM | | Comments (0)

I made a few New Year's resolutions this year. (One wasn't writing more here, but that's definitely on the agenda!)

How about you? Have you made any arts-related resolutions? As January draws to a close--have you made progress on them? My start has been slow.

January 28, 2008 9:46 AM | | Comments (0)

A couple of months ago, a magazine called Inside Arts commissioned me to write an article about how performing arts presenters - that is, concert halls and theaters that host shows by touring performers - go about localizing the touring shows they present. In the course of working on the story, I ended up calling more than a dozen presenting companies around the country.

During a few of those conversations, it came up that I live in Missoula.

"Oh, Missoula," the refrain always came. "Great theater town."

I heard the same thing from several people last February, when I attended a theater journalism institute in Los Angeles, presented by the National Endowment for the Arts.

In the arts world outside Montana, Missoula is practically synonymous with theater - and for good reason. Montana Repertory Theatre, now celebrating its 40th year as a going concern (see related story), spends each spring traipsing across the nation, performing in major and minor halls to oft-enrapt audiences, earning rave reviews at practically every stop: "This is what theatre is meant to be," crows the Charleston Gazette; "an outstanding afternoon, filled with power," says the Green Bay (Wisc.) Press-Gazette.

Meantime, Missoula Children's Theater has made an international name for itself by sending crews of theater professionals to some of the most far-flung regions of the earth. During its 2007-2008 season it will send a total of 27 teams to raise 900 shows with over 55,000 children in all fifty states as well as Canada, Europe, South America and Asia. No other children's theater company in America comes close to equaling what MCT does.

It's funny how different things look from inside the city limits of Missoula itself.

As I typed that last sentence - as if by divine intervention, or at least a stage cue - my phone rang. It was a woman from Kalispell -- a small city about two hours north of Missoula. She was in Missoula visiting for the week.

She wanted to know if there was any theater worth seeing while she's here.

"I looked online and couldn't find anything except ('A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum' at) MCT," she said. "I saw that already, so I was wondering if there are other things going on."

No, dear caller, there are not. Nor, for the most part, are there ever more than one or two plays running in Missoula at one time - even if you count student productions and independent productions.

Professional theater, with paid actors? It practically doesn't exist. Next week, we Missoula-folk will get a quick run of performances of "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof," this year's Montana Rep show. Unless something surprising happens, the next time we'll see paid actors on stage is when Montana Shakespeare in the Parks comes through Missoula - which usually happens sometime in August. Then, we'll be waiting until February again, for the next Montana Rep show.

That may sound more dire than warranted. For one thing, the season of shows by University of Montana students is often chock full of great plays done surprisingly well; same with the community productions put on by MCT.

Additionally, Montana Rep Missoula has emerged in the past couple of years as an exciting new local production company, presenting challenging modern plays to local audiences. The goal of that company - started by Montana Rep director Greg Johnson -- is to reach a point where a full season of shows performed by paid actors and crews can be presented in Missoula.

And every few months it seems that some independent group appears on the scene, putting up a short run of a play, often with fine results.

But given Missoula's reputation out in the world, isn't it just a little strange how little theater we have going on here in town?

"It's a great irony, isn't it?" muses Greg Johnson. "I think about it often."

In fact, Johnson has tried to remedy the situation before, as far back as his own history goes in this town. When he arrived in Missoula in 1990, he immediately founded the Young Rep, a company focused on presenting new plays to local audiences, employing student actors. That company petered out around the beginning of the new millennium.

"It sort of ran its course," says Johnson. "We decided to close it down and see what would happen next."

What happened was Montana Rep Missoula, a similar company with less reliance on student actors and crew. Since its founding in 2003, the company has enjoyed increasing success, often selling out tickets when it performs at the Crystal Theater.

"We're on the cusp, I think," says Greg Johnson. "Demographically, socially, economically - we're almost there where this town can support a local theater company."

In the meantime, we in Missoula should probably be careful to count our blessings -- to enjoy the fact that people around the nation and the world associate our city's name with theater. It's better than being known as the Tire Capital of the World, or Clam Town, USA.

"I always try to see shows when I come down to Missoula," noted the woman who called earlier, "because there's nothing happening in Kalispell."

(cross-posted at Nickell's Bag)
January 24, 2008 3:13 PM | | Comments (1)

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The next time someone tells you art is something extra, something to be added to the fundamentals of life, like jobs and education, point this out: the impending fight over the likeness of "Pitchfork" Ben Tillman at the State House in Columbia.

John Monk, a columnist for The State, characterized the politician today as "one of the leading white supremacists of his time who worked for years to deny African-Americans their rights. As S.C. governor, he advocated lynching black people. Later, he helped usher in the state's Jim Crow era."

Monk's piece ran the same day that Rep. Todd Rutherford, D-Richland, introduced a resolution to remove a huge statue of Tillman from the grounds of the State House. Evidently, the resolution is unlikely to gain traction, according to The State newspaper.

Lawmakers are already aiming for compromise.

Instead of tearing it down, some are proposing that a plaque be affixed to the statue that illustrates Tillman's racist legacy.

South Carolina has already changed the statue memorializing the late Strom Thurman, a former Dixiecrat and segregationist. It now lists Strom's daughter born of a black woman among his four other white children.

Two things to remember here: One is that Rutherford's effort is part of a larger nationwide push for greater accuracy in the historic record as African American history is represented the form of public art. The push intensifies, naturally, this time of the year when thoughts turn to Martin Luther King Jr. and his heroic push for civil rights.

The other thing to keep in mind is that art matters even when we don't think of the thing in question (i.e., a statue of Tillman) as art. Art is a reflection of society, of a literate culture's values. It tells us who we are and who we have been. It's no surprise to see people getting upset by an homage to Tillman, a man who embodied white supremacy and white violence toward black Americans. Statues evoke a sense of permanence, but most thinking people would likely want to leave Tillman in the past.

We'll see if anything happens. As of this writing (Jan. 17), an online poll on The State's website indicates 50 percent of voters wanted change: either remove the statue or put a plaque on it. But the other half said that nothing should change.

(image above courtesy of The State)

Cross-posted from Unscripted.

January 19, 2008 12:46 PM | | Comments (0)

There are lessons here.

I used to joke with a friend who wrote about religion that she dealt with crazy people. She saw it differently. As an arts journalist dealing with artists and their temperamental ways, I was the one dealing with the crazies. She had it lucky.

There's some truth to it. Artists are indeed passionate about what they do and they are protective, too, knowing how fragile art can be in post-industrial America. Even institutions built as monuments to art and cultural heritage face uncertain futures especially when the time comes to change policies, attitudes, missions.

As the arts reporter for the Savannah Morning News, I had occasion to witness an institution's change of attitude, a process that was somewhat painful for those involved. The Telfair Museum of Art, the cousin of the Gibbes Museum here in Charleston, embarked on a search for a new director around the same time that it had to acknowledge that it was responsible for its own public image.

See, the Telfair was seen by many to be a bastion of whiteness, the preserve of Savannah's upper crust, a gentleman's club for for gentlemanly blue bloods.

Not that surprising. Ask any institutional leader if they have a public image problem and he or she will say, yes, who doesn't? That's the nature of being involved in these large, complicated, nonprofit entities. It's a messy business.

Ask the same people who's responsible for that image and they'll say we are. It's the institution's job to do two things: 1) make programs, events, etc. available to the public, to serve the public and 2) make it crystal clear that these programs, events, etc. are available by way of aggressive efforts at education and outreach.

More and more, you see art museums devoting more resources to education and outreach. They have to. Much of their funding comes from public coffers. To justify the use of that money, they have to not only open the doors, but send out invitations.

The Telfair didn't understand this, at least its former director, Diane Lesko, evidently didn't. She was adamant in denying the Telfair had a public image problem, especially among Savannah's majority (nearly 60 percent) black population. In an Oct. 7, 2006, op-ed piece, she said "it appears there are those who perceive us to be less than inclusive. Since perception is often confused with reality, I believe it is critical for the Telfair to set the record straight."

Not the kind of language you'd expect from a top administrator. But then again, Lesko wasn't known for her tact, much less her political savvy. After the Telfair opened a new $25 million facility, a spectacular facility designed by starchitect Moshe Safdie, she was pushed out of her job, according to sources close to the Telfair's board of directors. I was told more than once in private that she took too much credit in interviews with me for getting the new center built.

Even so, the Telfair's board faced a bigger problem -- how to pay for the new center. It was going to cost $2 million in fund-raising from the ground up every fiscal year "just to survive," I was told. That meant getting as many people through the doors as possible and that meant becoming as open and transparent and accessible as possible. With Lesko being the face of the museum, the face that denied its image of exclusivity and elitism, it was time for her to go. So she did.

I wrote the following piece during the board's search for a new director. I was not a popular person after it went to press. Even so, I still feel it had a positive impact on the museum and its search for a new director.

Steven High, who was selected this time last year, told me straight away in our first interview that it was his and his museum's job to address the image problem, a statement illustrating a huge change in attitude and policy at one of the South's oldest museums.

TELFAIR MUSEUM OF ART AIMS TO CHANGE ITS IMAGE
Stung by charges of elitism, it is undertaking programs that reach out to the community as a whole

Late last year, Mayor Otis Johnson and Savannah City Council did something that sent shock waves through the Telfair Museum of Art.

They decided against underwriting two of the museum's community outreach programs, "Four Free Weeks" and "Family Sundays."

Aldermen questioned whether the programs were a good use of taxpayer dollars. It was unclear to them if the programs were effective in reaching disadvantaged African-Americans, especially adolescents.

More than $61,000 was tabled pending further review.

The move signaled a vexing issue for the 120-year-old museum: how to combat a public image as an elitist institution - exclusive, high-brow, inaccessible, anti-democratic.

It's an issue that plagues art museums across the country, said Barbara Archer, a former curator at the High Museum of Art in Atlanta.

Museums that do not acknowledge the problem and move to overcome a troubled public image can expect to continue alienating those who perceive them as elitist, she said.

"There are a handful of people who support museums in a serious way," Archer said. "If they don't fix the problem, then all those wonderful exhibits will never be enjoyed by most people."

The Telfair's problematic public image may come in part from its history.

Mary Telfair, who bequeathed the Telfair Academy of Arts and Sciences to establish a monument to Western art and culture, came from a powerful, privileged Southern family whose holdings made them one of the largest slave owners in Georgia.

Her family owned more than 600 slaves. For many, that fact alone makes her gift not a legacy to creativity, community involvement and civic responsibility, but a memorial to cultural separatism, white power and black disenfranchisement.

Recent developments have served to compound the problem.

The opening of the $24.5 million Jepson Center for the Arts in March and news of an endowment now exceeding $23 million have perhaps deepened the image of the South's oldest art museum as the preserve of rich whites rather than poor and middle-class blacks.

RECOGNIZING THE PROBLEM
As the new president of the Telfair's board of trustees, John G. Kennedy III has said his goal is to boost membership to 5,000.

So far, membership, spurred by the Jepson's opening, has doubled since the beginning of the year to 3,600.But Kennedy, whose tenure began this spring with a search for a new executive director, is aiming higher.

He wants the Telfair to have the level of community ownership the public library system has. Tens of thousands of Chatham County residents have library cards, he said. With all the Telfair has to offer, including the new center for the arts, he sees no reason why it cannot successfully make the case that it exists to serve the community.

But to achieve this, he said, the Telfair's image problem must be addressed.

"We need to market the museum to be viewed as inclusive, not exclusive," Kennedy said. "The big push is to make the community aware of what we have to offer."

That the leadership of the Telfair acknowledges the need to do more to convince people, especially the African-American community, of its openness and egalitarianism signals a change in policy, one likely to impact the museum's search for a new director.

Diane Lesko announced in May she was resigning as executive director at the end of October. One of the "critical issues" the new director faces is the ability to "energetically engage in aggressive outreach" to city and county officials, schools, the Convention & Visitors Bureau and businesses and organizations around the city, according to a document compiled by the search committee called the "director's description."

Another key need, according to the document, is "the ability to energize a widely diverse community while building a positive image and lasting relationships with the TMA." Moreover, it's essential the new director be able to "work in politically sensitive situations."

"This institution reflects the values of our time," Kennedy said. "Just one look at the Jepson tells you it's open and welcoming."

FINDING SOLUTIONS
Part of the Telfair's awareness-raising campaign was convincing City Council of its merits.

The museum paid out of pocket for the first two Family Sundays (there are four annually). But by summertime, when the third Sunday was scheduled, museum officials feared having to cancel the program for the first time in more than 20 years. The Telfair doesn't make money during its free programs; in fact, it loses it, because tourists pay nothing as well.

Walter O. Evans, a member of the Telfair's board of trustees and one of the most prominent collectors of African-American art in the country, lobbied hard to convince City Council that the museum's prolific outreach programs and exhibits are indeed attracting diverse audiences.

City Manager Michael Brown corroborated the claim in a June report showing nearly 4,700 African-Americans - more than half of the total number of patrons - took part in "Four Free Weeks" in 2005. (3,438 were white; 252 were Asian or Hispanic.)

Without fanfare, City Council voted to reverse its earlier decision, restoring the money before a July 6 council session.

Harry DeLorme admits the Telfair is undergoing a transition of leadership as well as establishing a persona of egalitarianism.

But as the museum's curator of education for the past 18 years, he insists the transition has been happening for a long time.

The Telfair reached about 6,000 schoolchildren last year and expects to bring even more in to the Jepson Center's classes, workshops and seminars.

"We've always offered programs to provide greater access and opportunities for education," he said.

Still, some changes are a direct result of City Council's early skepticism.

In response to the city's desire to see more programming for adolescents, Telfair curators are creating a Teen Advisory Council to help design educational programming and exhibits intended to appeal to teenagers.

The museum is poised to launch a quarterly film series for children that DeLorme said he hopes will gain enough traction to be presented on a monthly basis.

It has also streamlined its 2007 proposals for city funding to be more collaborative with other city-sponsored events, such as the Savannah Asian Festival and the Black Heritage Festival.

One indirect solution to the image problem is the formation of the Friends of African-American Arts, an auxiliary board to the Telfair's board of trustees.

Chaired by Shonah Jefferson, a lawyer with Hunter Maclean, the group makes its official debut during the Oct. 11 opening of the Telfair's retrospective on the work of Sam Gilliam, one of the country's leading African-American artists.

"Our mission is to raise awareness of the importance of the Telfair to the African-American community and the importance of the African-American community to the Telfair," Jefferson said.

"Given that Savannah has a more than 50 percent black majority, it's important to know the Telfair is everyone's museum."

Savannah Morning News
September 4, 2006

Cross-posted from Unscripted.

January 13, 2008 5:59 AM | | Comments (1)

The day after Christmas, President Bush signed an appropriations bill that included $144.7 million for the National Endowment for the Arts.

The amount was about $20 million more than NEA funding for 2007: $124.5 million.

According to this report by the Akron Beacon Journal, this is the largest increase the once-belabored federal agency has seen in 24 years.

The highest level of NEA's funding was $175.9 million in 1992. But after the fall-out from the taxpayer-sponsored Piss Christ, it seemed the NEA would forever be aligned by social conservatives with urine and the bullwhip lodged firmly in Robert Mapplethorpe's ass.

It's taken nearly two decades, and mountains of change led by NEA Chairman Dana Gioia, a poet and former corporate executive, but it's finally happened -- the conversation about the arts has grown up.

In other words, we're no longer stuck on poopy jokes.

Perhaps the testimonials by leading artists and administrators like Wynton Marsalis had some impact on members of Congress and the President. But it's also possible, perhaps more likely, that the United States has just gotten savvier when it comes to the arts.

Some writers, like Artsjournal's Doug McLennan, have talked about the rise of an arts culture. But there's also the enormous amount of research that has gone into studying the arts as they relate to medicine, psychology, education, urban renewal, and quality of life.

Perhaps I'm being a bit of a Pollyanna in thinking that we've turned a corner of some kind. Maybe we can set aside the deleterious notion that the arts have to justify themselves somehow -- lately, with reams of paper devoted to economic impact studies. Maybe we can embrace the assumption that the arts are a good thing unto themselves.

Cross-posted from Unscripted.

January 9, 2008 5:53 PM | | Comments (10)

Greetings from a fellow NAJP fellow. Enjoyed Joe Nickell's post on the Nutcracker and sports. I did something similar last year, with a story called "the Guys' Guide to the Nutcracker," that played up the athleticism of ballet (and the prospect of seeing fetching foreign young ladies in revealing clothes).

But the link between sports and arts goes deeper, I think. It something I might address somewhere, assuming the paper gives me the room (the once-arts friendly tulsa world is getting subsumed by readers' poll troll, it seems). People have a connection to certain things because they can imagine themselves performing these feats. Most kids dream of being rock stars, and even the tone-deaf can "air-guitar" with the best of them. Even those whose idea of exercise in yawning can imagine they can execute a football play, hit the ball perfectly between fielders, sink the shot from the top of the key -- or at least coach those who can do these things to do them properly (see: all the portly pontificators at any gathering, pointing out all the faults that cost some team a victory). But the fine arts -- classical music, opera, ballet, sculpture, etc. -- are activities most people cannot envision themselves doing. And therefore they have no personal connection -- or interest or curiosity -- about them.

Or maybe I just haven't had enough coffee this morning.....

all the best,
jim watts

January 6, 2008 8:39 AM | | Comments (0)

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