an ARTSJOURNAL weblog | ArtsJournal Home | AJ Blog Central

« March 2004 | Main | May 2004 »

April 1, 2004

Blending the vacuous and the sublime

Steve Martin wrote a great piece in The New Yorker back in December, that I only just stumbled onto now. It's a short fake script of Picasso appearing on 'The Entertainment Channel' to market his work, 'Lady with a Fan'. Just some flavor from it:

The Entertainment Channel: First of all, we loved 'Lady with a Fan.'

Picasso: Thank you. People seem to be very excited by the painting, and the test scores have been great.

E.C.: What was it like painting 'Lady with a Fan'?

Picasso: Very, very exciting. I was excited by the prospect of painting it and working with so many exciting people, the paint people, the canvas stretcher...

E.C.: So it was a very exciting project for you.

Picasso: Yes, I was really excited. Sometimes I was more excited, and sometimes I was less excited...

E.C.: But you were always excited?

Picasso: Oh, yes, always excited. Thatıs a good way to put it.

Marketing works of great genius through the media of entertainment and celebrity can certainly be a bizarre fit, sometimes. The inevitable result is a conversation about the process of the art, rather than the art itself. Martin offers an elegant parody of that very point, with the perfect closer:

E.C.: Thank you, Pablo Picasso. (Turns to camera) 'Lady with a Fan' can be seen at the National Gallery for the next one thousand or so years.

Posted by ataylor at 12:54 PM

April 2, 2004

I'm off until April 12

It's time for a weeklong break in my weblog posts...I'm off to refuel, and complete some other projects and proposals. While I'm away, I encourage you to visit some of my other weblog neighbors, who always have interesting things to talk about.

Posted by ataylor at 12:52 AM

April 12, 2004

Theater's version of risk management

The Washington Post has an unusual piece on the Arena Stage (username:, password: access), and their process of defining their theatrical season. It's a bundle of quotes by the creative and business team, tracking their discussions and decision-making over the course of several months.

What jumps out is the complex calculations behind building a theater season -- a nightmarish bundle of creative issues, logistics, math, economics, personalities, and available scripts. Discussions range from broad thematic development to the economic constraint of the number of actors (and therefore actor salaries) the season will require.

Also in the conversations are issues of balance: new plays vs. war-horses, big shows vs. small, challenging works vs. accessible fare. Quoting Arena Stage producer Guy Bergquist, the article admits:

'We're gun-shy about new plays.' They are a tough sell, and since the company no longer has the cushion of 15,000 or more subscribers signing up for all eight shows -- only 6,200 of the 17,000 current subscribers have bought the full package -- Arena needs to woo single-ticket buyers every time out.

"I don't think there is any not-for-profit anymore," Bergquist declares.

This juggling act isn't news for anyone who has worked in professional theater. But it's always fascinating to watch how it works. In the end, under the direction of Artistic Director Molly Smith, the selected season is a compromise of vision and constraint:

With these choices, Smith and company have shaped their collective destiny for another year, adjusting to budget news, the sudden George Street co-production, Bogart's blessed flexibility and Fichandler's dropping out -- surprises at every turn that compel them to plan Arena's seasons in sand until an elusive mix of will and fate hardens eight titles into marketable news.

'It has to be a combination,' Smith reflects when it's all over, 'of what you want to do, what you dream of doing -- you have to have the dreaming there. And there also has to be a circus barker. If you don't have both, you're in trouble.'

Posted by ataylor at 6:28 AM

April 13, 2004

Of unions and antitrust

In New York, union workers are preparing to picket the use of a new machine that threatens their jobs. In DC, a professional association on the other side of the table has just released an antitrust policy to help its members avoid indictment under the Sherman Antitrust Act.

No, it 's not about steel or coal or trucking. It's about orchestras, the modern battleground for corporate/worker conflict.

The New York story features American Federation of Musicians Local 802, which is preparing to picket a new off-Broadway show (here's a segment from NPR on the subject). The new show, opening tonight, uses the dreaded Sinfonia, a complex electronic music device that can follow along to a conductor's tempo. Musicians argue it's a cost-saving device that serves only to replace them (and it's doing so in several touring musical pit orchestras). The composer of the show insists that the device is a musical instrument...and more specifically, the instrument he wants accompanying his production.

Meanwhile in an unrelated story in DC, the antitrust policy comes from the American Symphony Orchestra League (available in Adobe Acrobat format), which says in part:

The most sensitive areas of the antitrust laws are those related to compensation and pricing. Thus, it is not appropriate to discuss in the League environment, the amount you pay or plan to pay for salaries or guest artists, or what you plan to charge for tickets or other things you sell. It is not necessarily illegal if you do so, but because an 'agreement' is proved by circumstantial evidence, it is better not to discuss these subjects.

The policy then goes on to assure its readers that antitrust violators aren't just fat-cat, cigar-chomping capitalists:

Many people indicted for antitrust violations are 'good citizens' who participate in community activities and are the type of people you would like to know. Most often they believe they are innocent of any wrongdoing.

Choose your sides, folks. The fun is just beginning.

Posted by ataylor at 12:10 AM

April 14, 2004

Metaphor marketing and the arts

I just stumbled onto an older article in Fast Company on professor Jerry Zaltman, a marketing and consumer behavior maven at Harvard. He's been working on ways to discover the hidden metaphors behind the way consumers view their world. His assumption is that we can't just ask people what they want, because they honestly don't know. From the article:

The problem, Zaltman says, is that our knowledge of what we need lies so deeply embedded in our brains that it rarely surfaces. Our native tongue is powerless to call it out of hiding; a second, more obscure language is needed. But few who speak to us in the marketplace even know that this second language exists -- let alone how to speak it.

'A lot goes on in our minds that we're not aware of,' says Zaltman. 'Most of what influences what we say and do occurs below the level of awareness. That's why we need new techniques: to get at hidden knowledge -- to get at what people don't know they know.'

Zaltman's response is the Zaltman Metaphor Elicitation Technique (ZMET). The process involves individuals finding images from magazines, family photos, catalogs, and other sources to make a concept abstract image that represents how they feel about a certain product or service. Then, through a facilitated and focused interview process, each participant talks through the image and why they chose the pictures they did.

In other words, they explore feelings and emotions through creative expression. Hmmmm.

The ZMET process has been applied to all sorts of everyday consumer goods: from pantyhose to chocolate bars. One fascinating result came in the study of the Nestle Crunch bar:

'The Nestle Crunch bar turns out to be a very powerful icon of time,' Zaltman says. 'The company had never noticed that before.' Subjects brought in pictures of old pickup trucks, of children playing on picket-fenced suburban lawns, of grandfather clocks, of snowmen, and of American flags. The candy bar evoked powerful memories of childhood, of simpler times. It was less a workday pick-me-up than a time machine back to childhood.

Back in 1998, the Heinz Endowments and the Pew Charitable Trusts supported a study by Zaltman of public perceptions of the arts (I wish there were a link to it, but there's not...I've got a copy on my bookshelf). The study found that participation in the arts carried a full range of metaphorical connections for individuals. They grouped these connections into four themes that any marketing director should take to heart in all that they do:

The Arts as Transporter
Participants in the study viewed the arts as a way of acutely experiencing time and space -- as the report puts it, 'living in the moment and stepping away from daily reality.'

The Arts as Redeemer
Participants in the study described the arts as providing a means of recapturing -- however temporarily -- a lost or unrealized potential, such as to be a singer, an artist or an actor. 'The arts are, in large part, about retrieving lost, buried, untapped desires and impulses and indulging them in safe, bounded places for temporary amounts of time.'

The Arts as Appropriator
Through this theme, participants described the ability of the arts to strip away layers of socialization and thus to carry them back to a more 'pure' and 'innocent' stage of development, namely childhood, when it was easier to shift from reality to fantasy. 'Ironically,' the report finds, 'while the arts seem to speak to the child within, they also help [participants] evolve themselves toward some higher state of being: becoming more mature, more confident.'

The Arts as Intermediary
Participants in the study viewed the arts as aggrandizing them by giving them the ability to see the world and themselves somewhat differently -- they valued its power as a lens to give them a new perspective. They also appreciated how the arts 'humanize and personalize the complexities of the world by putting a face on abstract issues.'

Zaltman has a book out on his work (not on the arts, but on consumers), if you're interested in learning more.

Posted by ataylor at 8:29 AM

April 15, 2004

The neglected audience

Christine Temin in the Boston Globe has a nice piece on several Massachusetts art museums reconsidering how they welcome and engage schoolchildren. Instead of the cattle call of the traditional annual school field trip, these museums are working to connect with children on many levels, and reinforce the museum as a place to discover their own creativity. Some interesting examples:

At Harvard's Fogg Art Museum in Cambridge, works by fifth-grade students from the Captain Samuel Brown School in Peabody are on the walls through April 22 in 'Fabulous Fakes.' Forgery training it's not; it's training the eye and hand through the time-honored means of copying the masters -- Picasso, Degas, and others, in this case. These days, that represents a radical turnaround from educational theories that copying might stifle students' creativity.

At the Fuller Museum of Art in Brockton, children are being recognized as collectors. The Fuller is inviting Brockton kids from ages 8 to 12 to bring their collections -- baseball cards, sea shells, whatever -- to the museum on April 25, for consideration for inclusion in 'Kids Collect,' at the museum from May 8 through July 25.

It's a welcome step forward from 'air-drop culture,' where busloads of public school kids are dropped off at a cultural facility, engaged in bulk, given space for a sandwich and a juicebox, and then sent back to school -- a tradition common to both museums and performing arts centers across the country.

The article also mentions a three-year grant from the U.S. Department of Education awarded to the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, to explore what elementary-school students actually learn from a multiple-visit program.

All welcome steps in connecting with the future artists, audiences, supporters, and civic leaders that will steward our culture once we shuffle off.

Posted by ataylor at 8:36 AM

April 19, 2004

Those pesky indirect costs

The Board of Directors of Independent Sector, a service and research organization representing nonprofits, recently endorsed and posted a statement on the dreadfully dry but essential issue of operating costs. Authored by Paul Brest, president and CEO of the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, the statement seeks to encourage a new dialogue between funders and grantees about who covers overhead, and how we can all move forward to something more productive than our current approach -- which could be summarized as 'suppress, ignore, deny.'

The core of the problem of indirect costs (light, heat, janitorial staff, clerical staff, filing, office infrastructure and other glamorous stuff) is that nobody wants to fund them. Foundations, individual donors, and corporations are all drawn to the juicy projects where the rubber actually hits the road (the new play, the educational initiative, the cool new building). They are less enthused and more leery of the humdrum back-office activities that make those cool projects work.

It's a massive structural flaw in what we do. And our collective response hasn't been particularly healthy: inflating project costs in our grants to cover overhead, denying the actual costs by burning out staff with more and more work without more pay, and distorting our own view of what our activities actually cost us in the true ecological sense (not just money, but energy, resources, time, attention, etc.).

The true cost of all this denial is that few cultural nonprofits truly understand their cost structures, and there's no real incentive to learn.

NOTE: I touched on a similar topic back in October, for newbies to this weblog. And I'm likely to drone on again...

Posted by ataylor at 10:31 AM

April 21, 2004

More on the Neglected Audience

In an add-on to my post last week on engaging school children in the museum experience, a colleague sent me a link to a recent study that's full of fun charts and graphs. The study, done by Harris Interactive for a December 2003 meeting of the National Assembly of State Arts Agencies (here's the meeting agenda with links to the Powerpoint, and here's a direct link to the Powerpoint), explored 'What Do Kids Really Think About the Arts?'

Among the summary findings:

  • Youth believe that art is a positive influence and creativity is a positive quality.
  • The majority of youth count creative or artistic activities among their favorite pastimes.
  • Youth participate in a wide range of creative activities.
  • The majority of young people like artistic activities because they feel good, use imagination, feel competent, express themselves.
  • School is the primary location for music and arts programs for most students.
  • Outside of school, creative activities are most often experienced at home or place of worship.
  • Friends are the main source of recreation information for youth, and TV is also important.
Not particularly earth-shattering, to be sure. But there's some other useful details in the data that might help arts organizations seeking to connect with kids. For example, the survey found that for 'tweens' (children 8 to 12), the top source of information about 'fun things to do after school and on weekends' was their parents. For teens, the top source was their friends (parents ranked low in the listing, as you can imagine). Among teens, other sources of information ranking high were the Internet (57%), radio (53%), magazine or newspaper (47%), and posters and billboards (40%).

In bad but not surprising news, live arts attendance didn't rank in the 'top 10' favorite activities. Although seven out of the top 10 involved connecting with creative products (TV, movies, DVDs, Internet, music, computer games, reading).

Posted by ataylor at 12:50 AM

April 22, 2004

Conferences, conferences, ever more conferences

So I'm off again to another conference, this time of the Association of Arts Administration Educators (yes, Virginia, there is an association for everything). This is a group of full-time degree program directors (of undergraduate and graduate programs) that prepare managers for the arts and cultural field.

Avid readers will recall a point-counterpoint argument I was having with fellow blogger Drew McManus back in November that addressed several of the pressing challenges of this group. Chief among these challenges:

  • Clearly stating and agreeing on what 'successful arts administrators' look like, what skillsets and attitudes they have, and how they engage in their work;
  • Agreeing on how to train and foster leaders to move toward the ideal we defined in item one above;
  • Measuring our outcomes in meaningful ways (again, consistent with item one), so we can adjust our definitions and strategies to get closer to the mark.
These are essential arguments for me and my fellow full-time degree program directors in arts administration, and essentially impossible to resolve. As always, I look forward to the endless urns of bitter coffee, the trays piled with sugared carbohydrates, and the watery cocktails...the trinity of essential elements that make great conferences run.

Posted by ataylor at 12:36 AM

April 23, 2004

The hot topic that leaves us cold

There's a word that's guaranteed to cast a glaze over the eyes of my arts management students, to encourage a silent slouch in the nonprofit board room, and to dampen even the liveliest discussion of the arts. The word is 'policy,' and it's arguably one of the most important words that arts managers don't want to say.

The deadening dullness the word inspires in most conversations is a result of a skewed perception of what it means. It calls to mind European cultural ministries, impenetrable stacks of documents written in legalese, and congressional debates among elderly former-attorneys with watch fobs. Policy is boring. Policy is bad. Policy is contrary to the creative spirit.

But what would happen if we perceived policy in a different way:

Policy is constraint on behavior.
Constraint is the essence of art.

Policy is ultimately an individual, an organization, a community, or a larger collective saying: 'we can choose to do things a thousand ways, but together we are going to choose one particular way.' When used properly, policy can direct our attention to appropriate goals and means, and can make our work clearer and more transparent to those around us.

But why, you say, would creative people want to limit their choices? Because that's, actually, what exceptional creative people do.

When a poet chooses to write a haiku, when a painter chooses a certain canvas size to work with, when a composer chooses an instrumentation or musical style, they are choosing a set of rules that constrain their available choices. They do so because, in part, those rules help direct their creative energy, provide them an obstacle to push against, and focus their work. The creative constraints of these forms can often be quite unforgiving. But it is the struggle of creative vision against constraint that makes great art.

It may be difficult to see the connection between choosing a haiku form and drafting returns policies for a box office, or fiscal policies for the annual budget, or grant policies that determine a foundation's funding preferences. But all of these are constraints on behavior, self-imposed for the most part, that are designed to help a creative endeavor channel its work in appropriate ways.

Policy is only dry and dull because we're not seeing it right, and worse yet, not using it as an essential and intentional element of our creative work.

As G.K. Chesterton stated decades ago:

"Art is limitation; the essence of every picture is the frame."

Posted by ataylor at 7:24 AM

April 27, 2004

Knee deep in the hoopla

It's the last two weeks classes here at the Bolz Center for Arts Administration, so my posts will likely be patchy and brief for a little while. So many papers to read, students to place, projects to launch. In the meantime, here are some articles worth your attention elsewhere:

  • More on the transaction value of art
    Thomas Crow, director of the Getty Research Institute, talks about the implications of his organization's current exhibit on the business of art (discussed in an earlier entry on this weblog).
  • Mergers and Acquisitions
    Two smaller advocacy and service organizations are merging into Americans for the Arts, an organization that, itself, was a merger of the National Assembly of Local Arts Agencies (NALAA) and the American Council for the Arts (ACA) back in 1996. Through a $120 million gift announced in 2002, Americans for the Arts is positioning itself as the mother ship of arts advocacy in the United States.
  • Our True Cultural Icon
    The Economist has a fascinating overview of Wal-Mart, the $256-billion purveyor of consumer goods.
Happy surfing!

Posted by ataylor at 8:58 AM

April 28, 2004

Debt, spin, and intrigue in Milwaukee

The Milwaukee Journal Sentinal featured a few articles on the Milwaukee Art Museum (one on the finances, one on new director David Gordon). Both articles addressed the museum's challenging combination of an over-budget signature building and the 'perfect storm' of revenue problems facing most arts organizations these days (lower enrollment/admissions, strapped government funding, 'right-sizing' corporations and sponsorship, poor current economics for usually generous donors, equity losses on endowments, etc.).

The combined stories also led Mr. Gordon to post a response on, reinforcing that the organization was doing just fine.

For me, the on-going public conversation about the new building and its cost/operating implications raises three main issues:

  • The first is that cultural facilities are political buildings by their nature. They often boldly define, in a very public way, what a community stands for, strives for, and hopes to be. The public naturally has a lot ot say about that.
  • The second issue is that cultural facilities, as art forms, are some of the most complex that modern civilization produces -- made not just from creative insight, bricks, and mortar, but from cash, debt, public finance, power, politics, and management savvy. Although often defined by its celebrity architect and his/her vision, a cultural facility is realized by a collective energy and forged by a collective will.
  • Finally, I am struck by the endless challenge of arts managers to balance the tensions of time. All of us -- journalists, managers, citizens, governments, etc. -- are increasingly driven by a decreasing span of time (the annual report, the quarterly financial, the daily box office). The greatest art among us has often taken generations or centuries to blossom and be valued. In many ways, the nonprofit tax status was designed to buffer socially valuable organizations from the pressures of immediate returns. That protection never really worked as planned.
I'm not suggesting that cultural facilities or cultural nonprofits shouldn't be accountable in the short term, even if their impact extends over decades. I'm just calling forward the astounding balancing act required of our leaders and our organizations, and suggesting why so many struggle to stay on the wire (as they are struggling in Detroit, in Scranton, in Seattle, and elsewhere).

Posted by ataylor at 8:42 AM

April 30, 2004

A virtual version of 'word of mouth'

The technology and technique of 'collaborative filtering' has been around the Internet for almost a decade now, and it's slowly creeping into everything we do on-line. Collaborative filtering is basically a way of comparing your preferences about something (books, movies, music, whatever) against a huge database of other preferences. When the pattern of things you have liked is similar to another group of users, the system can quickly suggest things that they liked that you hadn't yet experienced.

One techno-summary on the web describes the technology this way:

If you need to choose between a variety of options with which you do not have any experience, you will often rely on the opinions of others who do have such experience. However, when there are thousands or millions of options, like in the Web, it becomes practically impossible for an individual to locate reliable experts that can give advice about each of the options. By shifting from an individual to a collective method of recommendation, the problem becomes more manageable.

Most of us have experienced collaborative filtering on consumer web sites such as Apple's iTunes program is increasingly using the technology to encourage more purchases. (I just bought Chopin's Fantasie Impromptu in C-sharp Minor, Op. 66 from iTunes, and my e-mail receipt suggested that I might also like Louis Prima and Aretha Franklin, which I do.)

The idea of collaborative filtering is directly relevant to arts managers for at least two reasons. First, almost every cultural transaction is what economists call an 'experience good' -- the buyer doesn't know what they are buying until after they've experienced it...long after their purchase decision. That fits the challenge that collaborative filtering seeks to address in very large groups. And it underscores the idea that our direct marketing efforts to consumers are relatively useless in actually influencing their decisions. It's all about word of mouth, referral, and invitations from someone other than us.

The second thing arts managers can learn from collaborative filtering is that consumers are much more eclectic than we give them credit for. The artificial intelligence of iTunes made the connection between Chopin and Louis Prima. My local performing arts series would never have connected those two things (instead, they give me the chamber music series, the jazz series, the pop series).

There are great stories from commercial catalog companies that start to use collaborative filtering in their computers, and come up with combinations that nobody expected: 'so you'd like to order pillows, a comfortor, and some sheets...can I interest you in some car tires today?'

Arts organizations need that same sort of informed surprise when dealing with their audiences.

Posted by ataylor at 8:43 AM

« March 2004 | Main | May 2004 »