A Public Conversation Among People Who Care
Daily Archive: March 10, 2005Looking For Solid Ground
Many good strands here. Bob lays out a clear map of the constituencies to which one must make a case for the arts and frames the languages they speak. Bill pulls the current situation into perspective by taking us back to the cultural landscape of 40 years ago, enumerating the challenges, and pointing to the solutions created then to address them.
And Adrian touches on the perhaps skewed balances between supply and demand after a heady decade of arts building and four decades of attempting to "spread culture across the land."
Creative industries of all types - whether commercial or non-profit - are currently seeing the ground under them shift and their business models needing to be reinvented. Mass culture is disolving before our eyes, and aggregated audiences seem to be declining across the board for TV, music, movies, books, sports... Some ventures, like the recording industry, cling desperately to their traditional model, evolving only when forced. Others are trying to grow new models, sensing opportunity in change. It's not that there are fewer people consuming culture, it's that their access to more things has expanded exponentially. In this context, the arts seem to be doing very well indeed at holding their own when compared to popular culture.
Are there any such opportunities in change for "the arts"? Much of this conversation has been about the language we use to "make a case". I guess I'm wondering if (moving beyond the language) anyone has practical ideas or strategies? Something solid to take away from this at the end?
We seem to be agreed that instrumental arguments aren't convincing for the potential arts audience (though they may be for the politicians and business leaders). We seem to be agreed that the supply of arts is ample (if not overly so). So is the problem in building demand? (that seems a hard case to make on a busy day at the Met or MoMA). Do we need more outreach? Earlier exposure to the arts so as to build better arts consumers? Are we simply looking for more bodies, or should we care more about the kinds of bodies that come through the door?
And finally - what, exactly is our definition of success? Is it to get more people through the doors each year? To keep on building more museums, theatres and concert halls? I gotta say - there are plenty of times when I wish there were fewer people in the museum or theatre while I'm there.
And if things are so bad, where are the wide-scale failures? Where are the orchestras and theatre and museums going out of business? Oh, there have been a few, and stories about clinging to the edge of the raft abound, but as I look around I see a lot more companies that seem to have lost their artistic reason for being and get by year after year than I do actual going-out-of-business signs. Maybe that's the real sign of distress - that we'd rather allow persistent artistic declines than some honorable deaths.Reminded of the NEA
Bob, as usual and as is to be expected (given his line of work), has made a solid argument for an inclusive approach to advocacy. As I said in my first posting, there is no obligation to be absolutely truthful when you're trying to make a case. Yes, our instrumental arguments might leak here and there, but they also contain some solid truths and they work.
Bob's mention of the turnaround at the NEA leads me to ruminate, for a moment, on the things that we changed within the agency that put the brakes on the three-year phaseout and got the Endowment's budget growing again.
A quick anecdote: after attending a management seminar for new political appointees hosted by VP Al Gore in the summer of 1998, I came back to the Old Post Office and said, "I thought I was Chairman of the NEA; I didn't know until this morning I was the head of a federal agency!" I was kind of kidding, of course, but my underlying point was that, inside the Endowment and outside the NEA, there existed a highly-evolved sense of entitlement and exceptionalism -- a strong feeling that the agency was above or exempt from the political rules that might affect, say, the Department of Transportation. "We're the arts; we're very, very special." In the non-profit arts world, this notion of exceptionalism and entitlement means, among other things, that the cultural sector feels free to make claims for support even when it's not possible to demonstrate demand for services. "Citizens want and need what we're offering even though they don't know it and aren't asking for it." That's a tough line to sell in any political environment and, even if you get by with it now and then and get some money, you're skating on thin ice in comparison to other petitioners who can argue citizen demand. (Responding parenthetically to Doug, I think the notion of arts exceptionalism makes it hard to let arts organizations pass away gracefully -- death of the entitled reeks of moral failure.) Also, back in the late '90s I also got the feeling that arts people in and out of government held the concerns of members of Congress in what I would describe as "minimal high regard," and I'm convinced that many members "got the message" that they and their ideas were not worthy of serious consideration. Personally, I found mostly smart and dedicated people on the Hill, and, above all, they were CONGRESS, and therefore were to be taken seriously.
The staff I inherited at the Endowment insisted that I didn't have time to learn the job but had to do something right away (They were correct; your time is always shorter than you think in those political positions.). So, in the summer of 1998 we gathered up much of the staff and developed a new strategic plan for the NEA. Most notably in that document, we moved away from describing the agency as one that "served art and artists" toward language that said we "served the American people by partnering with artists and arts organization." At about the same time, the senior career and political staffs were encouraging (in fact, really pressing me) to come up with a "special initiative." That initiative turned out to be "Challenge America," a small grant program that grew out of Senior Deputy Scott Peterson's experience in South Carolina. We sketched it out and launched the program in a Chicago speech early in 1999; we convinced OMB and the White House to request $50 million in new money for CA, and I went, bird by bird, to every advocacy and service organization in the country to elicit their support. They bought in, and the Challenge America Initiative is what Bob's many advocates came together around and supported with such coherent enthusiasm in 1999, 2000, and 2001.
Hindsight is 20/20, and I'd like to say we (meaning Scott P., Dick Woodruff, Cherie Simon, Larry Baden, and many others in and out of government) had it all figured out with the CA Initiative, but partly we got lucky on a couple of points. We had come up with a program that was really about community arts, and was geared toward helping communities realize their dreams through the arts with small, fast-turnaround grants. To our surprise, this was a program that made sense to the Hill, because it was like other federal programs intended to improve quality of life in their states or districts, and it left key decisionss to local leaders -- we weren't telling communities what they had to do. We also (somewhat unconsciously) had come up with political language in naming the program, and members of Congress were quick to incorporate "Challenge America" into committee comments and floor speeches. But the Endowment was in a pretty deep hole, and even with a new program that clicked with members, and even with a strong advocacy effort that was really "on point," it still took two years of work to get the first budget increase.
I go on at such length because, to me, the lesson I took away from the success of Challenge America was how much arts advocates have to gain by casting ourselves as a regular, mainstream, citizen-oriented part of the public policy process. That means accommodating demand, holding in check those feelings of entitlement and exceptionalism, and really listening to policy leaders with contrary views. My message was "I'm the NEA Chairman from Nashville with a solid program that helps your communities realize their dreams through the arts." It would not have helped me then, and probably wouldn't help now, to come in and talk about the intrinsic benefits of the arts.
While I was in Washington, I kept my little Piper Cub at an airport near Warrenton, Virginia. On my way home after flying I'd often stop off at the Wal-Mart to acquire those Wal-Mart items we all have to buy from time to time. I'd stand in the middle of the store, look at all the shoppers (I bet you didn't know that more than half of Wal-Mart shoppers don't even have checking accounts.), and ask myself "What is the NEA doing for these citizens?" I was never able to answer that question as directly as could, say, Janet Reno at Justice or even James Lee Witt at FEMA. However, I think there's an answer out there -- not the old, "build it and they will come," or the even older "bring great art to the unwashed, and they will be grateful" -- but something that really makes art and artists partners in improving quality of life for Americans.Toward a more nuanced ecology
Thanks to Doug for calling us down a bit from our broader policy and persuasion discussion (which has been a blast) toward a focus on actual action steps. To me, this conversation and this report have reinforced two areas that are ripe for action and exploration 'on the ground.'
The first is to relax and expand our conceptions of where aesthetic experience is delivered. Bill and Joli have urged us to consider meaningful experiences that live outside the nonprofit model (John Dewey, as I recall, also spoke of things like fly fishing), and to allow that there's a massive ecology that's worth supporting and feeding -- only part of which (perhaps just a tiny part) is in the formalized nonprofit arts.
Despite this nuanced ecology, our funding, policy, and support systems all drive artists to a Hobson's Choice: nonprofit or nothing. What range of options of support do we currently offer to creative endeavors that may live in neither the commercial or nonprofit world (what I've come to call 'unprofit' organizations)? Most contributed income is restricted to nonprofits, specifically 501c3 corporations, luring many artists to become much more structured and governed than they should be. Are there specific ways of loosening up this restrictive choice?
There is a vast middle ground between the symphony and the theme park, and it's ground we should more actively explore. I'm thinking here of 'fiscal sponsors' like Fractured Atlas, that allow artists and artistic projects to access contributed funds without forming as nonprofits themselves. I'm thinking here of microloans and co-ops and other support efforts currently focused on technology and biotech entrepreneurship. If there's powerful value in the fringes of our current system, let's send more energy to the fringes to see what happens.
I'll admit that this may not be the realm of public subsidy, but there's certainly opportunity for public policy to play a role (in zoning, in tax code, in corporate structure options, and such).
The second area of action/interest is clearly in this world of 'intrinsic' value (whatever we choose to call it). If the vitality of this individual and social connection is really the engine of all good things (including all the intrinsic outcomes), then arts managers and arts organizations should strive to understand it, to engage it, to build their business and their buildings around its possibility. I suggest that many organizations, funders, and managers have so readily accepted the trappings of the corporate metaphor, that they've lost part of the pipeline to the most powerful resources at their disposal -- meaning, message, discovery, purpose.
Ironically, such a management style is strikingly similar to our recommendations here for effective advocacy: not just talking but listening, connecting to why audiences really are drawn to what we do...not what we believe should draw them. This doesn't mean, necessarily, that we alter our art to suit the consumer...but more that we honor and recognize the many ways people can connect to the creative experience.
Some of this essential work has finally begun, in projects like The Values Study in Connecticut, which wasn't just a research study, but an effort to train a community of arts managers and leaders to truly listen. In part the goal was to lead organizations toward a conversation, rather than the traditional one-directional efforts of 'outreach,' 'presenting,' 'education,' and 'marketing.'
I'm percolating other specific action steps, but for now, that's enough of a rant.Doug's Deliberations ....
Doug asks two questions with respect to the ‘oversupply’ thesis (i.e. the argument that there are currently more nonprofit cultural organizations than can be satisfactorily supported through a combination of earned income, available public sector support and philanthropic contributions):
i) So how come places like the Met and MoMA are heaving with people?
ii) So how come there aren’t more 501(c )(3) organizations keeling over and dying?
I am not sure whether attendance figures are the only indicator of success. Or rather I am sure they should not be, but anyway….I think the answer with respect to the first question is very similar to what happens in professional sports leagues – that of ‘winner takes all.’ There is an increasing divide between the ‘top tier’ (premier league) institutions that are in a virtuous circle of civic and philanthropic support, high profile product, extensive media attention, and that have the ability to attract and retain punters, and ‘the rest’, that are caught in a more vicious circle.
The dilemmas of the top tier museums, for example, that are competing globally now for media attention, visitors, product and, above all, individual donors, are the dilemmas of success – issues like crowd-control and the degraded aesthetic experience that jam-packed shows offer. One response has been to charge lots of money to those who can afford to come in when the museum is ‘closed’ to less affluent folk. Their salaries are competitive, people fight to join their boards and discreetly write-off their year-end deficits, and the media follow their every twitch.
Move one step away from this privileged international band and the challenges are wholly different – it is how to secure a sliver of the cumulative media attention, or how to access the exhibitions and acts that are increasingly cartelized, and in which a cash market has replaced traditional barter relations. You literally have to pay $millions to secure shows that were once part of a more genteel system of long term reciprocity. In short you cannot take the success of the top tier as indicative of the health of the overall sector.
This is incidentally an international phenomenon – the front page story of this month’s Art Newspaper, which is on Japanese museums, contains the following, perfect, illustration:
“Despite the popularity of some shows [blockbusters that have got unprecedented visitor numbers], the total number of visitors in museums in Japan has actually been declining. Most institutions lack funds for acquisitions and long term exhibition planning. This has led to two extremes: at one end a small group of blockbusters, to which most of the money for planning and publicity is diverted, and a large number of small inexpensive shows that attract very little attention and few visitors.”
I think that the answer to the second question – why aren’t more arts organizations simply giving up the ghost – is, first, as Doug notes, that some are. But more important is that as the struggle for survival becomes more and more intense, the mission of the organization becomes subverted, so that energies are increasingly devoted to the act of survival rather than the informing purpose of the institution. This is not just the Guggenheim’s problem. Look at the Princess Diana exhibitions and the Titanic exhibitions that Clear Channel, National Geographic and Anschutz Entertainment Group are selling to museums. Institutions also under-invest in anything they can get away with under-investing in: building maintenance, professional development, scholarship, R&D, commissioning, etc. The result is not the dead organizations that Doug is looking for but ‘living dead’ organizations, a bit like ‘failed states’ that still exist but that no longer dispatch their primary responsibilities effectively.
Doug also asks ‘What is to be done?’ A separate posting I think…
Greg wanted to contribute to this, but his post turned into an essay longer than we could accomodate on the blog. So I excerpt it here, with a link to the full piece:
Here’s the problem. We — the arts — are an industry that needs more support. We want the rest of the world to think that whatever’s in our interest is also in their interest. Or as one of President Eisenhower’s cabinet appointees once famously said, “What’s good for General Motors is good for the country.”
I can imagine howls of protest for that last quote. We’re not General Motors. We don’t make anything as crass as cars. We’re not corporate profiteers. But we are making the same assumption that 1950’s CEO made, except that we make it about our stuff, not his. We deeply believe that the arts are good for everybody, and even necessary for everybody (or at least necessary somewhere in our culture). and I’m highlighting this belief as crassly as I did because—and I can’t stress this enough—we haven’t proved this assumption!
That’s where the study comes in, of course. It tries (among other things) to point us toward useful ways of making our argument. And for that it’s very helpful. But still it’s only taking baby steps, because the arguments it suggests aren’t yet helpful at all. In its section on “intrinsic benefits,” the study suggests that arts involvement can lead to four things, all of them good for society:
• expanded capacity for empathy
•creation of social bonds
•expression of communal meaning
But does it provide any proof? No. It’s ironic, really, to read these claims... click here to read the rest...Stuck in the middle
The image of arts managers as Wile Coyote suspended in mid-air is now a picture I'll keep in my head for a long time, thanks to Bill.
Yes, it's clearly past time to rethink the system. We have too many organizations in the middle range of size and resource, and if the cracks aren't showing yet it is only a matter of time, to echo Cassandra. This difficulty of the mid-size is by no means confined to the arts; with economists on our blog line I don't need to explain why in any system the middle is usually an untenable place to be -- lots of heavy tomes have been written about this. There will no doubt be some culling, and as painful as it may be this is part of any dynamic system. Adrian notes the problem of the "drive to survive" subverting the purpose of organizations, and this leads to an even greater problem with their long term sustainability: insufficient differentation. Everyone starts to look sort of the same to the consumer, in the same range of artistic risk and about the same price. This is the beginning of consumer indifference, and the points that Ben and Midori have made about the excellence of the product are ones that arts organizations ignore at their peril.
Enough doom and gloom from me. It is time for us to encourage and demand the funding of risk, for all aspects of programming. In the happy event of future surpluses, money should be retained to keep investing in pushing back the artistic boundaries, rather than doing the same thing faster and in a bigger hall. Bill points out that the expected failure rate in the commercial sector is much more realistic -- it's time for us to stop trying to make part of the case for the arts that its leaders have an ability to land on a dime every single time. But we can't have misses to leaven our hits if those misses mean we go out of business. So perhaps one of the better cases to be made to the arts to funders, both foundations and individual donors, is that funding risk and accepting failure are the visionary end of philanthropy. It also means we could take our conversations with them up a level, to actually talk about the art. I suspect they would enjoy it -- as would we all.Continental drift
For good or ill, the model that William Osborne describes with an affection I share is being dismantled in every major European country. All the issues addressed in this blog are pretty well global in their application and indeed as much thought is being given to them abroad as in the USA. Public funding in Germany, France and Italy is retrenching, and the stresses on the cultural sector readily apparent. Go further east and they are even more apparent. The UK has been through a lottery-funded building boom that has left in expanded but not necessarily strengthened. It is very unclear with what the traditional European funding model of arms-length publicly funded arts organizations is being replaced and I think that those who care are about the arts are as flummoxed in Europe as in America.
Specifically, the continents share rapidly accelerating demographic, technological and social changes, few of which serve to bolster the base for traditional art forms; and a distinctly un-patrician political class that is aware that spending on the arts is at least superficially regressive (taking from poorer and redistributing towards the richer), and therefore that there are few votes in it.
The result is that relations with audiences and funders are more hard-fought and more contingent everywhere; subscription (the traditional device by which innovative programming is put before more conservative audiences) is imploding; and funders more inclined to support politically fashionable programs than core operating costs etc. etc.
I say this because I think a superficial reading of William’s postings could lead one to take them as a description of European funding in its current tattered state as opposed to its Platonic ideal.
Several years ago one of our local county council members, a conservative from a conservative district, decided to hold a meeting in his district to learn more about the arts and heritage organizations in his community, all of which receive support, although not nearly enough, from the county’s cultural funding programs managed by my agency. His district is rural and relatively poor in comparison to other areas of the county, but it has an interesting mix of cultural groups: a professional symphony (Auburn Symphony), a classical dance school and company, founded by a former Pacific Northwest Ballet dancer (Evergreen City Ballet), a community chorus, community theatre, several excellent small history museums, a much-used high school performing arts center, and an after school poetry program for teens.
The councilmember opened the meeting with a preface about the county having no money, so “don’t be asking for money, but let me at least get a better understanding of who you are.” He asked everyone to introduce themselves and talk a little about what they did. He learned that most of the people in the room were volunteers, that only a few of these organizations generated enough income to have more than one or two paid staff positions, if that, but they all struggled to do what they did because they enjoyed it, were passionate about it and believe that they are helping to build a better, more connected community. These people are the “doers,” those in any community who get involved with Rotary and the Chamber of Commerce, and the local schools. And they are voters, not just eligible to vote, but likely to vote and volunteer to help get the vote out. This was not lost on our councilmember.
After about an hour and despite the earlier disclaimer, the conversation inevitably turned to money and the challenge to provide public benefit with extremely limited resources. Bake sales and car washes don’t pay the bills.
The director of a local history museum told the councilmember, “For $5,000 I can give every fourth grader in the Auburn school district a meaningful history experience.” The councilmember looked at his aide, turned back to the director, and said, “you’ve got it.”
The poet who started the after school teen poetry program talked about the kids he worked with, alienated, troubled, some from dysfunctional families, kids that could easily fall through the cracks. They took all their frustrations and vented them through poetry. One kid remarked, “An open mic is my drug of choice.” The program director told to the councilmember, “Everyone is always asking me to quantify the impact of my program in order to get grant money. How do I quantify the number of Columbines I’ve prevented? How do I prove what didn’t happen?” The councilmember’s response? “What do you need?”
Why am I telling you this story? Because I think it illustrates how we can most effectively make the case for the arts at the local level. Advocacy is retail. It’s one-on-one. It isn’t making a good case, it’s making a personal connection. Our councilmember didn’t gain a passion for Art at this meeting, but he saw how ”the arts” serve his passion for building community. The phrase “economic impact” was never mentioned; the teen poet who claimed that his life was turned around because he found an outlet for his anger (intrinsic) made a huge impression on this legislator. He saw instrumental benefits that derived from the intrinsic benefits, without realizing it.
I know those of you who love Art hate selling “the arts” on the basis of their social, economic or educational contributions, but for those of us on the ground, in the political arena, it’s the only game in town. If you want to appeal to the public sector, it has to be on the public sector’s terms.Beginning to Wrap Up...
Thanks to Adrian for the reminder that the global cultural system is being transformed and we don't know what the system will look like in a few years. I would reiterate that the for-profit arts industries are also being transformed, mostly to no good end. Global media companies have gobbled up all but a handful of the book and music publishers, record companies, film studios and the like. Consolidation is always accompanied by claims of synergy and efficiency but you end up with research diving out creative insinct, too much aversion to risk, too great an enforced concentration on quarterly parent company earnings and stock price, and too many crucial decisions made in places distant from the issue at hand. Industry leaders who need to invest in and nurture new talent and innovative material are walking around with their hands tied. The symptoms are the same as in the non-profit world where too many leaders have to make creative decisions that appear to insure financial outcomes. If I could wave a magic wand and give arts exectives in all our arts companies one thing, it would be a year of freedom from external financial pressure; not total freedom, perhaps, but enough elbow room to put creativity and artistry back in the room.
Andrew's right about a new ecology; I wonder what our system would look like today if we had devoted funding to "small versus large," rather than "non-profit versus for-profit?" The rarely-spoken conceit of our current system is that quality or excellence is the exclusive asset of the non-profit world, and that doesn't stand up to research or even to anecdote, and maybe if we'd sliced off what was worthy of support in a different way, we'd be better off. But we are all headed for a new landscape and nothing is either inevitable or eternal about the symphony orchestra or the bluegrass band. Adrian points out that changing demography is menacing the Refined Arts; in many ways the U.S. started this trend 100 years ago by using techology to empower film and recording industries capable of shoving the refined arts into a corner.
A couple of specifics in response to Doug's note:
Let's paint a picture of what we think a vibrant cultural system should look like, and then advocate on behalf of policies that take us there. In my experience, arts advocates tend to ask for "more," rather than for a specific outcome. If we want a drawing teacher in every fourth grade classroom, let's talk that way. I think policy leaders and funders like to know exactly what will happen if they support a program. The challenge, of course, is that once we get where we say we want to go, we have to be willing to stop, and not ask for more...That's been hard for us to do.
And what about a big idea? Say, let's put a guitar in the hands of every 13 year old in the country. (Don't groan, I could have said "banjo!"). It would take about $500 per kid, but would probably generate at least the level of lifelong pleasure that will be there from the $500 savings accounts somebody in Congress is talking about. Oh, I know, half of the instruments would end up parked in closets, but, hell, three-quarters of the trumpets and clarinets played in high school bands end up in closets, so we'd be ahead of the game. (And that thought sends me off on a mini-rant: How did we end up with a music ed system that functions, for the most part, as a wholly-owned subsidiary of high school athletics? The guitar and piano have competed for the number one position among American instruments for the past 100 years; they're the basic tools of American composition and performance, and the glue of informal music making at home and around the campfire; they're just now creeping into schools...Give me a break!)
We need to pay close attention to research on happiness and research on quality of life. Our population is aging and over the years whenever I've watched an Isaac Stern or BB King or Doc Watson or Martha Graham, I'm struck by the way art making youthfulizes old age. Right now culture is a second or third-tier component of quality of life, but I am convinced that it can be right up there beside health care, food, and shelter; the need to define and maintain quality of life into old age offers an opportunity.
Also, art offers a secular spirituality that can be a healthy companion to the kind of spirituality that is available through organized religion. There is clearly a spiritual search and a spiritual void in the U.S., but not everybody can or will resolve that search by going to church. There is a very healthy and I think logical way to establish value in this way, and even an opportunity to propose public policy that addresses spiritual longings through art (There's no separation of art and state in the Constitution, don't you know.), but many of us are instinctive secular humanists and so spiritual value may feel to some like a bridge too far.
And I do think the arts world needs to be willing to take on issues like copyright, mergers of arts industries, and consolidation of radio. We think of these as outside our domain but 1)they're not, and 2) they're the big factors shaping the character of our arts system. I mean, why didn't we, as a sector, work with unions 30 years ago to help keep American classical recording viable? There are plenty of ways to improve the cultural landscape that don't involve grantmaking.
I've got a few more ideas but I can't share absolutely everything...