When does coaxing become coercing?


Last week I wrote a post on the efforts of foundations to encourage diversity (of various forms) in nonprofit arts organizations, in which I suggested that such efforts could be construed as a form of coercion. In particular, I discussed a new initiative at the Irvine Foundation and suggested that Irvine has been trying to "coax" its grantees into uncharted territory and "coerce" them into behavior that some are not ready or willing to adopt. In response to my post, Ted Russell at the Irvine Foundation tweeted the excellent question, “We're … [Read more...]

On coercive philanthropy and change: Breakups may be good and necessary


Clay Lord has been on fire over this past week with a couple truly substantive and provocative posts—both aimed at issues around ethnic diversity in the arts. The first asserts that (1) valuing diversity and managing it are different (the former relatively easy, the latter not so much) and (2) funders interested in funding organizations to reach more diverse audiences are not as patient as they need to be if they want to see this change realized. The second post examines data from the Bay Area that attests to the (relative) lack of ethnic … [Read more...]

Are the arts trading in happiness? If so, what kind?

happiest place on earth

A couple weeks ago I wrote a post on changing definitions of success in which I, essentially, asked, Can we change them? And do we really want to? In a thoughtful comment to the post (well worth reading in full) a veteran policy advocate, Margy Waller at Topos Partnership (who worked with ArtsWave in Cincinnati on The Arts Ripple Effect) floated the possibility of happiness among citizens as a measure of our success. She wrote: Enrique Peñalosa, former mayor of Bogota, … redefined the measure of success for his city: “If we in the Third … [Read more...]

Can we change our definition & measures of success? Do we really want to?


Happy New Year a week late. I picked up a book at the university library a few days ago called Morals and Markets and have read a few chapters, which have been tumbling around in my mind with an excellent New Year's essay by Polly Carl on the measures of an individual playwright’s success, a New York Times op-ed on trying to measure the impact of social media using “yardsticks” of traditional marketing, and a much cited New Year's prediction for the arts by Rick Lester at Target Resource Group that appeared on Thomas Cott’s Year End Predictions … [Read more...]

I see an arts cliff, too, Mr. Kaiser; but it’s not fiscal in nature.

Cliff-Warning BT

HuffPo blogger and Kennedy Center chief Michael Kaiser recently wrote a post reflecting on the financial corner that many arts organizations have painted themselves into (which he compares to the Fed’s fiscal cliff). His post got me thinking about our tendency to see the problems facing the arts and culture sector as inherently financial in nature. Kaiser ends his post with the following recommendations: I have spent the better part of my life arguing that revenue increases are not only advisable, but necessary. It is inarguable that over … [Read more...]

Have we squandered the economic crisis and the opportunity for transformation?


About a month ago, art critics Sarah Thornton and David Hickey threw in the towel citing frustration, disillusionment, and annoyance with corruption in the art world. Reading their back-to-back commentaries gave me pause. I found myself stewing on their words for several days--not because I am consumed with their particular concerns regarding the machinations of the art world (though these are, indeed, troubling), but because I'm beginning to lose faith that necessary transformation in the nonprofit arts sector will come. Recently, I … [Read more...]

In the Intersection: Partnerships in the New Play Sector


In November 2011, twenty-five theater professionals gathered in Washington, DC to discuss nonprofit and commercial collaborations aimed at the development of new theatrical work. In spirit (if not structure and size) the meeting represented the third installment of an ongoing conversation that was sparked in June 1974 when 224 representatives from the American theater gathered at Princeton University to entertain the (then) remote possibility of cooperation between the nonprofit and commercial theater in the interest of advancing the American … [Read more...]

The Dark Side II: Not In It For the Money


A couple weeks ago I wrote a post about the recent turmoils at a few orchestras in the US which garnered several comments—all well worth reading and more interesting, in my opinion, than my original post—so I thought I’d continue the conversation. As one person wrote, the section of my post that seemed to provoke the most discussion was the statement: “I must be hopelessly naïve because I want to believe that if you go work for a nonprofit you’re not doing it for the money.” More than a few said that this was a potentially damaging idea for … [Read more...]

The dark side of nonprofit-land


Unseemly. This is the word that keeps coming to mind when I think about the recent spate of lockouts, strikes and general discord at US orchestras. The underbelly of orchestras that has been shown in too many of these cases completely undermines my belief that nonprofit organizations are filled with good people trying to do the right thing. Moreover, I worry that the public airing of these disputes has left the American public with the inaccurate impression that all orchestras are filled with greedy bastards both on stage and in the offices. … [Read more...]

Renegotiating the value of a museum

dia levy passes

Over the past couple of weeks quite a few people have weighed in on the Detroit Institute of Art’s successful appeal to three counties in Michigan to pass a “millage” (a property tax) which would provide $23 million per year for the museum (91% of its budget) over ten years, while it raises $400 million for its endowment to replace the tax revenues when they run out. One of the most interesting aspects of this strategy is that the DIA offered free admission to the museum only to people living in the counties that passed the levy (which equates … [Read more...]

Nonprofit Arts Orgs and the Boards That Love Them

Ashamed head-in-hands

Last week I read an article by Pablo Eisenberg in the Chronicle of Philanthropy in which he argues that greater oversight of nonprofits is needed because nonprofit boards can no longer be trusted to make sure the institutions they govern are serving the public interest, which they are legally obliged to serve. Eisenberg mentions hospitals and universities in particular, citing the recent debacles at University of Virginia and Penn State as evidence for why we can no longer put our faith in boards. However, I think it’s fair to say that the arts … [Read more...]

Are we a sector defined by our permanently failing organizations?

zombies are people too

A few weeks back I wrote a post responding to a session at the Theatre Communications Group conference in which an esteemed leader of a resident theater (Michael Maso) called “bullshit” on some criticisms being lobbed at large theater institutions. I am incredibly grateful to all who took the time to read or respond to the post. The comments, including a link to Mr. Maso’s response, are well worth reading if you have not done so. I want to pick up on some of the ideas raised by Maso and others in a future post, but today I want to draw … [Read more...]

When did being pro-artist make one anti-institution?


I attended the Theatre Communications Group conference in Boston a couple weeks ago. On the first day of the conference Michael Maso, managing director of the Huntington Theatre, was presented with an award recognizing his contributions to the American theater. Towards the end of a humorous and lovely acceptance speech, Maso switched gears and used the opportunity to share thoughts on those that would question the priorities and processes of large institutional theaters. He said: Over the next few days we will be engaged in an exploration of … [Read more...]

As nonprofits do we (or should we) put all art in service of instrumental ends?


This past Thursday and Friday I had the honor of attending a convening on global performance, civic imagination, and cultural diplomacy at Georgetown University, hosted by Derek Goldman and Cynthia Schneider. By bringing "leaders in international theater and performance together with foreign policy leaders from academia, think tanks, and government," the stated hope of the organizers was to bridge the gap between the fields of politics and culture, to the mutual benefit of both. Over the course of the first two days of the convening some … [Read more...]

Are feasibility studies a racket? If not, then why do so many capital campaigns derail?


Last Friday, I read a story posted on AJ about Michigan Opera getting a one month reprieve on the $11 million it must pay to Chase Bank if it is going to avoid a possible bankruptcy related to delinquency on a bond obtained for a capital expansion in 2004. How did this arts organization get here? I’m assuming there was a feasibility study at the outset and that the feasibility study gave the arts organization a green light, right? So how did it end up several million dollars “short” on its campaign? How did we end up hearing yet another … [Read more...]