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April 1, 2005

We are not alone

A short piece in the Christian Science Monitor shows that it's not just cultural managers who are under stress from all theater owners are feeling the pinch, as well.

With razor-thin profit sharing deals with the major studios, mounting pressures to push blockbusters through their doors, and increasing competition for audience time, money, and attention, movie managers are also longing for days gone by:

''In the '50s and '60s, everybody went to the movies,'' says [Michigan movie-chain owner Joseph] Chabot, adding that with all the competition from other entertainment sources, including ever more sophisticated home theaters, people are getting out of the moviegoing habit. ''We need to do more to develop the habitual moviegoer,'' he says.

Perhaps a renewed emphasis on movie education in our public schools, a few economic impact studies, and a national tour of Citizen Kane would solve the problem. Perhaps not.

Posted by ataylor at 12:14 AM | Comments (2)

April 4, 2005

The answer, in a word, is 'no'

Back in 1981, a report from National Economic Research Associates asked a pointed question about the new opportunities of cable television:

Will Cable Save the Arts?

The buzz about cable back then was that it opened a wealth of new channels and flows for all kinds of content. Broadcast television had been a horribly narrow pipe, with only three major networks, and a necessary rush to the lowest common denominator. With cable and its dozens (now hundreds) of channels, some thought, surely some would be dedicated to the traditional arts, providing audiences, access, and revenue streams to the cultural world.

If that moment ever did exist, this article on the evolution of the A&E network (which used to mean 'Arts & Entertainment') suggests that it has passed.

''Classic arts programs, whether theater or ballet, are not where our network is going,'' says Bob DeBitetto, A&E's executive vice president of programming. ''Our tagline now is the art of entertainment.''

Fans of drawing-room mysteries may shudder at the new formula, but the ratings tell another story: A&E's makeover is working. In the first quarter of this year, A&E was the fastest-growing cable network among two coveted groups, 18- to 34-year-olds and 18- to 49-year-olds.

Despite what seemed to be a vast number of channels, the pipeline was apparently still too small...leading market forces and tight advertising margins to consume the missions of even the most noble efforts for full-time arts channels.

For a decade now, there's been a similar strand of hope and hype about the role of the Internet in advancing the arts. But we're just beginning to see the corporate and commercial crowding of that space, as well. The question might now be:

Will the Internet Save the Arts?

Ask me again in another decade.

Posted by ataylor at 8:47 AM | Comments (0)

April 5, 2005

Stocks, flows, and connectors...oh my

If you're in a particularly wonkish mood, you might be interested in the release and public launch of the Cultural Dynamics Map, the first tangible outcome of a collaborative project I helped launch back in 2003 along with friends and compatriots Russell Willis Taylor of National Arts Strategies and John Kreidler of Cultural Initiatives Silicon Valley. The map is a first attempt to apply the methods and modeling language of systems thinking to the world of arts and cultural production, consumption, support, and experience in the United States.

For those that have no idea what I'm talking about, there's a brief overview of systems thinking and systems mapping on the newly launched website of our collaborative Cultural Dynamics Working Group, which will be the base of conversation for this project from now on.

The map and the process may not be for everyone -- in fact, they may not be for anyone. But it's one small effort to find a different lens to see the world of arts and culture, and to explore some new perspectives on how the dynamics of that world work.

Posted by ataylor at 12:53 AM | Comments (0)

April 6, 2005

Do what we say, not what we do

One would expect the Central Intelligence Agency to think alot about thinking. After all, they have agents and analysts spread about the globe...drawing on whatever data, experience, and context they can to form actionable plans for complex issues. So, while other organizations might measure and assess the effectiveness of their construction process or supply chain, the CIA is likely in the business of doing the same with the distributed network of knowledge-builders that make up what they do.

Of course, that same CIA has been attacked of late for a few tiny errors in their analyses -- or the faulty interpretation by others of their analyses (don't worry, this isn't a political blog). But we can still benefit from the thinking they do about thinking, even if they don't actually read the reports themselves.

One such treatise is the Psychology of Intelligence Analysis by Richards J. Heuer, Jr., available in full text on the CIA's web site. It's a kind of training textbook for CIA operatives to understand their 'mental machinery,' explore various tools for thinking more clearly and effectively, identify the various cognitive biases (bad wiring) that leads us to false conclusions, and form a plan for continually improving (or avoiding) the above.

Heuer's central ideas in the work, summarized in the introduction, make it clear how adaptable this information is to any endeavor...including the data-gathering and decision-making elements of arts and cultural management:

  • The mind is poorly ''wired'' to deal effectively with both inherent uncertainty (the natural fog surrounding complex, indeterminate intelligence issues) and induced uncertainty (the man-made fog fabricated by denial and deception operations).
  • Even increased awareness of cognitive and other "unmotivated" biases, such as the tendency to see information confirming an already-held judgment more vividly than one sees ''disconfirming'' information, does little by itself to help analysts deal effectively with uncertainty.
  • Tools and techniques that gear the analyst's mind to apply higher levels of critical thinking can substantially improve analysis on complex issues on which information is incomplete, ambiguous, and often deliberately distorted. Key examples of such intellectual devices include techniques for structuring information, challenging assumptions, and exploring alternative interpretations.

Of course, instead of using our analysis to topple regimes, siphon money to international splinter groups, and assess security threats, the arts manager might focus more on donor thank-you letters, marketing evaluation, and whether to serve rubber chicken or dry fish at the upcoming gala. But it's kind of the same thing.

My thanks to friend and colleague Andrew Blau for the link.

Posted by ataylor at 9:04 AM | Comments (0)

April 7, 2005

Teaching the unknowable

I'm on the road today to Pittsburgh for the annual gathering of Arts Administration degree program directors, faculty, and such (members of the Association of Arts Administration Educators). On the agenda, as always, are various panels, lectures, and breakouts about how to teach something that none of us can exactly define: proactive, effective, flexible, and engaged management and leadership of primarily nonprofit and public cultural enterprise.

It's sure to generate some weblog fodder over the coming days. But for now, I've got an (awfully) early flight. Stay tuned...

Posted by ataylor at 4:16 AM | Comments (1)

April 8, 2005

The Simpsons spoof cultural facilities

Anyone who watched ''The Simpsons'' last week got a hilarious view of the cultural facility development process, featuring the voice of architect Frank Gehry. Summarized on this Simpsons web site:

While in Shelbyville, the Simpsons watch a musical about the town, which includes a character from Springfield who isn't particularly bright. Marge suggests to the Springfield Cultural Activities Board to have a concert hall, built by Frank Gehry (voicing himself); however, when it becomes clear that nobody in Springfield likes classical music, the building is sold to Mr. Burns, who turns it into a prison.

At the town meeting to unveil the design (a riff on Walt Disney Hall in LA) the town leader calls for the vote this way: ''All in favor of a $30-million 'screw you' to Shelbyville?''

Clearly, Matt Groening and his team have a particular perspective about why communities build cultural icons, and how engaged those buildings are with the world. Painful, but very, very funny.

Posted by ataylor at 5:47 AM | Comments (2)

April 12, 2005

A hammer or a sponge

I was part of a fascinating conversation of 'new business models for the arts' the other day. The general set-up was that the nonprofit corporate form is showing some wear, and that the downsides of the model (its tendendency toward undercapitalization, organizational isolation, plodding governance structures, cumbersome and demanding funding sources, etc.) are coming to outweigh the benefits.

Our impulse for framing the question is to ask what other business models are available. If the 501(c)3 is not the future of the arts, then what? But, as is often the case, that impulse question may be leading us in unproductive directions.

Imagine that you're working at a hardware store, and a customer comes in with a basic question: ''Should I use a hammer or a sponge?''

Odds are, since you're a good hardware store clerk, the first response out of your mouth would be another question: ''What, exactly, do you need to do?'' A hammer is quite useful for certain tasks, and quite useless for soaking up water. A sponge is also effective when set to an appropriate use, but not great at pounding in a nail. For some jobs, it would be wise to have both tools, and some others, as well.

The question about the next business model for the non-market-supported arts is quite similar to the hardware customer's question. What business model should you use? What, exactly, do you want to do?

There are dozens of corporate and organizational forms, and thousands of combinations of those forms: S Corporation, C Corporation, LLC, LLP, sole proprietorship, non-stock corporation, unincorporated group, impromptu gathering, municipal entity, quasi-governmental authority, subsidiary, fiscal sponsor, etc. None of these are particularly new. And all of them can be useful tools for advancing a creative cause. Further, the traditional nonprofit form still is quite handy, as well, and will often play a part in the final mix.

As is common in human endeavor (but particularly common to the nonprofit arts) we seem to have confused the tools we use with the job we had in mind. We are not about the nonprofit structure, we are about the artist, the audience, the art, and the places where they meet. We just use that corporate form to accomplish our goals.

So perhaps when we find ourselves considering the next business model for the arts, we should pause our mad dash toward business models and, instead, describe what we want to accomplish, and the barriers and opportunities that stand in our way. There are plenty of tools available to us, and through policy we can even make more. But first, we need to describe the task.

Posted by ataylor at 8:43 AM | Comments (3)

April 13, 2005

Reconnecting science and art

A short piece in New Music Box reminds us of the close and symbiotic connections between art and science, despite the efforts of the past few centuries to separate the two:

In the modern world, we have seen scientific knowledge assume a status as the most valuable or authoritative kind of knowledge, while artistic knowledge and intelligence is relegated to a secondary status....Yet equations are metaphors for reality and perhaps have more similarity to art than we might usually accord them.

It's a topic explored in several books, one favorite being Jamie James' Music of the Spheres, where he laments the lost connections that came with the Industrial Revolution:

After the revelations of modern scientific enquiry, educated people will never again be able to face the universe, now unimaginably complex, with anything like the serenity and certitude that existed for most of our history

With all the battles in universities and public schools between emphasizing math or art, science or music, technical or creative writing, we lose the larger point. These are all 'ways of knowing,' and all required for an elegant engagement with our world.

Posted by ataylor at 8:46 AM | Comments (0)

April 14, 2005

When you say it with money, you mean it

A reader comment to a previous post let me know about the Canadian $20 note, and its specific emphasis on the arts. I already had a warm spot in my heart for my northern neighbors, after spending two days talking with them about 'the healthy arts leader' and the importance of a supported and engaged workforce in the nonprofit arts. Now I admire them even more.

$20 noteThe Canadian $20 has the queen on the front (God save her, by the way), and a themed series of images on the back, celebrating Canadian arts and culture. The quote on the bill comes from Canadian author Gabrielle Roy, and speaks to the identity and expression that comes to a country and its people through the arts:

''Could we ever know each other in the slightest without the arts?''

It's a far cry from the Federalist practicality of U.S. currency, which says, instead:

This note is legal tender for all debts, public and private.


In God we trust.
(Note a really interesting history of that phrase on our currency.)

Currency is a shared fiction, a printed piece of parchment that is worth something because we all believe it to be. How cool to use this bit of symbolism to express the other things a country believes to be important (and to include the arts among them).

What else do Canadians believe in? Here's the breakdown of all the currency in the same series:

  • $100 - Exploration and innovation
  • $50 - Nation building
  • $20 - Arts and culture
  • $10 - Remembrance and peacekeeping
  • $5 - Children at play

Posted by ataylor at 8:31 AM | Comments (2)

April 15, 2005

The big cultural nonprofit as nation state

Eamonn Kelly, president and CEO of the Global Business Network (a futurist think tank of sorts), knows something about the future -- or at least how individuals and groups can project dynamic trends into what might be someday. So, it's interesting to hear his perspective on the next 500 years of civilization...especially when he can deliver it in 20 minutes or less.

Boldness or lunacy led him to do just that this past December at the Scottish Parliament Futures Event, and his brief speech is available on-line through GBN.

Two take-aways for me, relating to the world of arts and culture, are his points about how and why countries should be involved in a global dialog, and how we are woefully limited in our perception of solutions. I'll take each in turn.

First, Kelly says that one of his larger 'mind-changes' in how he views the future is in the scope and purpose behind any country's involvement in a global dialog. Instead of focusing global conversations only on improving their own lot, he suggests countries like Scotland should engage in a conversation because they can inform the future for everyone. Says he:

....increasingly I've concluded, with the issues that are in play at the moment in the world, that it's important for Scotland to engage with the global conversation, not just to create a better Scotland. Because I truly believe that Scotland has a role in creating a better world. It's a major shift in my thinking in terms of the aspiration for a group of this sort. The world is in flux at the moment and it's going to be recast and reshaped in the coming decade or two. I truly believe that Scotland and the Scots can play a significant role in helping to recast and reshape the future that we are all going to exist in globally.

Second (at least my second, he has more), he wonders about our limited view of solutions to world conflicts...particularly our obsessive focus on 'nation states' as the appropriate scale of intervention and resolution. Says he again:

In the twenty-first century I think the nation state is becoming an increasingly meaningless concept -- yet it’s the only real form of government we have in the world. If we look at what’s happening in Iraq right now, for example, we are absolutely dedicated to retaining that nation with elections for the whole nation. Nobody is talking about whether we could do elections in cities. Nobody is talking about whether Iraq should be split into regions. Nobody is talking about anything other than the nation state. It is completely locked into our consciousness as the form of government.

How does this relate to arts and culture? For me, these two issues strike at the heart of our current conversations as an industry facing structural challenges and seizmic change. To the first point, for all of our preaching about the arts as an engaged element of a vital society, the true motivation for most conversations I've been in has been to preserve our way of doing things (sustaining a symphony, preserving the nonprofit form, shuffling revenue streams to maintain business almost as usual). But, in fact, arts and cultural leaders have a central role to play in a larger conversation...not always because it is in their organizational self interest to do so.

The second point is much like the first, and I've made it several times before: the large, centralized nonprofit (our version of the nation state) is not the one best way to produce, preserve, deliver, and sustain authentic cultural and creative experiences. If we opened our eyes to other options and opportunities, we could go far in advancing our stated missions even as we reluctantly sideline our traditional means of achieving them.

Preachy, preachy, I know...and probably an awful stretch of global futurism to fit U.S. cultural practice. But this is a weblog, after all, home of the unaccountable provocateur.

Posted by ataylor at 8:40 AM | Comments (0)

April 18, 2005

Seems like only a decade ago

MIT's Technology Review recently reprinted an article from April 1995 describing the then-emerging World Wide Web, just to remind us all how new the phenomenon is to our hectic world. A mere decade ago, technology students were drafting their first home pages, a few companies were sticking a big toe into this new idea for on-line communications, and a handful of starry-eyed reporters were starting to ramp up their utopian hyperbole about the new age of equality and opportunity.

When the article was written, there were about 10,000 web servers in operation (the Internet-connected computers that hold web content). Just for a little scale, this month a web statistics site found 62,286,451 servers on-line, a gain of 1.7 million servers from just one month before (a million new servers a month is fairly routine these days).

This is not to be all gee whiz about the growth of the web protocol (although, it is pretty gee whiz), but more to remind us all how young this particular form of communication is. It may be pervasive now, but only a decade ago, the web was the realm of geeks. So if anyone at a conference or in a consultancy tells you they know where the web is right now, and where it's going next, you can be sure about one thing: they are wrong.

Posted by ataylor at 8:40 AM | Comments (0)

April 20, 2005

Building stale metaphors in stone

The design and construction of a new cultural facility is a unique moment in the life of an arts organization or arts community. It's a chance to rethink how arts and audiences connect, how works are produced, how thriving ecologies of innovation and meaningful experience are structured and sustained.

But there's a fascinating tension in cultural facility design between what might be possible with a clean slate, and what our artistic and management traditions tell us will work.

Case in point: the design of the modern box office. I've seen more than one brand new performing arts space lately with a box office that looks like an age-old box office -- fully enclosed, teller windows, separation glass, stanchions and velvet rope to mark the place to stand in line. They are built in beautiful stone and glass, I'll admit, but they are nonetheless ossified evidence of an old metaphor: box office as bank.

In the olden days, box offices were centers of cash transactions, requiring high security, complete isolation between tellers, and immovable blast walls between patron and staff. Even though the cash transaction is all but gone for ticket purchases, the metaphor remains: we are secure, we are separate, we are transactional, we don't trust you...get in line.

Yet if you enter an upscale bank these days, you'll see a different metaphor at work: sofas, sitting areas, carpeting, countertops rather than teller windows. In some cases, there aren't tellers at all, just personal financial assistants at desks or tables. The symbolism isn't intimidation, but personal attention and service. For an example, just check out this bank in Portland, described by its design firm as follows:

Part upscale hotel, part retail (and a little bank), Umpqua's innovative new store invites customers to read the paper, enjoy a free cup of coffee, surf the Internet, and shop for banking products. While some banks discourage customers from entering a bank branch and other banks compete against the Internet to provide convenience and speed, Umpqua's new store inspires and encourages its customers to relax and take their time when making financial decisions.

So, why can't a cultural facility team rethink its ticket office in a similar way? The design consultants will likely point at the current box office staff, saying ''we tried to show them a new way to conceive of their sales area, but they are luddites.'' The current box office staff will likely point at the expensive design consultants, saying, ''they offered systems that would break, that weren't tested, and that cost an arm and a leg to build and operate...we're running a revenue center here. And we know what works.''

Of course, they are both right. The box office must often be a machine of efficiency, and has important elements of transaction. But, as more patrons buy tickets on-line, and as fewer (if any) use cash, the rigid security and separateness of a ticket sales area isn't necessary anymore.

Consider, for example, the new Museum of Modern Art in New York, where the admissions area is just a large social space with several long tables. During business hours, these are the membership and ticketing stations. After hours, all equipment is tucked away to make reception space, and the transaction tables become buffets and bars.

Or, even more radical, why have a box office at all? The same functions could be managed by a killer web site, an off-site phone center, and an on-site roving band of service representatives carrying handheld computers and belt-clip portable printers (like this one or others).

I'm not saying that's the answer. I'm just suggesting that we question the metaphors that shape these buildings (and there are plenty of others worth questioning), before we encode them with stone.

Posted by ataylor at 12:21 AM | Comments (0)

April 21, 2005

The power of 'slacktivism'

Have you received an earnest e-mail from a friend or colleague lately, with some impassioned call to action, and a request to sign the bottom and e-mail the e-petition on to all your other e-friends? Perhaps the message had to do with the impending destruction of the NEA, NPR, CPB, or other public cultural agency. Perhaps it shared the story of a young cancer victim in England, hoping to gather enough greeting cards to break a world record.

This is the powerful impulse of 'slacktivism,' an on-line trend that combines our internal need to make a difference with the personal inertia that keeps us from actually making an effort. According to this article on the subject:

Slacktivism, the phrase itself a rather lazy haemorrhaging of the two words slacker and activism, is the counter-intuitive idea that you can somehow change the world and topple its complacent political classes without even rising from your chair.

Problem is, the effort required to forward an e-petition is about equal to its effectiveness in influencing public policy, philanthropy, and social causes (ie, zero). According to this diatribe on e-mail slactivism, even the most well-thought-out and directed effort would have no impact whatsoever:

Those in a position to influence anything...accord e-petitions only slightly more respect than they would a blank sheet of paper. Thus, even the best written, properly addressed, and lovingly delivered e-petitions whose every signature was scrupulously vetted by the petition's creator fall into the same vortex of disbelief at the receiving end that less carefully shepherded missives find themselves relegated to.

So where's the harm? It only takes a few seconds, and it doesn't generate any excess landfill waste. Well, just consider the cumulative power of those few seconds, multiplied by a million. Then consider the loss of personal momentum when you've forwarded such a message, and figure you've done your good deed for the day. Finally, consider the fact that many such messages are out of date, out of touch, or just plain wrong.

For example, consider the story of that young cancer victim collecting greeting cards. Yes, there was and is a Craig Shergold. And yes, he did have a brain tumor at age 9. And yes, an actual plea was sent out in 1989 for greeting cards. And yes, he made the world record books by 1991. Problem is, the e-mail didn't stop circulating, and the cards didn't stop coming (and thanks to a revised version of the e-mail, business cards started coming, as well). Now cancer-free and 26 years old, Craig Shergold is still beseiged by mailings from around the world, and frankly wishes they would stop (so does the Make-a-Wish Foundation).

Imagine if even a fraction of that collective energy (and postage) was directed toward a cause that still existed.

Posted by ataylor at 8:38 AM | Comments (1)

April 22, 2005

If you ran the government

Only time for a short link today, but one well worth your time. The UK's Guardian put a fascinating question to 50 cultural and civic leaders regarding the purpose and function of government support for the arts. The question, in a nutshell, is 'What would you do for culture if you were running the next government?'

It's the kind of question that demands more than just criticism as a response, but positive steps as well. Some of the respondents actually stepped up to the challenge. Take a look.

Posted by ataylor at 10:11 AM | Comments (0)

April 25, 2005

The wonderful world of budget games

I was just revisiting Chris Argyris' classic (and strangely expensive) book from 1990 on Overcoming Organizational Defenses, and rediscovered his list of 12 budget games managers and politicians play when trying to get a project passed through the system. See how many look familiar to your organization or to yourself (be honest):

  • Foot in the door
    Sell a new program modestly. Conceal its real magnitude.
  • Hidden ball
    Conceal a politically unattractive program within an attractive one.
  • Divide and conquer
    Seek approval of a budget request from more than one supervisor.
  • Distraction
    Base a specific request on the premise that an overall program has been approved when this is not in fact the case.
  • It's free
    Argue that someone else will pay for the project so the organization might as well approve it.
  • Razzle-dazzle
    Support the request with voluminous data, but arranged in such a way that their significance is not clear.
  • Delayed buck
    Submit the data late, arguing that the budget guidelines required so much detailed calculation that the job could not be done on time.
  • Our program is priceless
    It is difficult to argue against defense or human life.
  • It can't be measured
    The real benefit is subjective.
  • Tomorrow and tomorrow
    If there are no results today, promise some in the future.
  • Stretching things
    The real skill is not simply to promise something that is difficult to prove; promise something that is impossible to disprove.
  • Both ends against the middle
    Play competing committees against each other.

Let the games begin!

Posted by ataylor at 8:34 AM | Comments (0)

April 26, 2005

The essential unnecessaries

Creative conundrum Brian Eno has some interesting things to say about art and culture and their role in modern life. In this short interview/overview for The Globe and Mail, he defines things this way:

''Culture is everything we don't have to do,'' he said. Eating is necessary, but cuisine is culture. Clothes must be worn, but couture is culture. Haircuts and Shakespeare and early Saxon burial poetry all pose some kind of unnecessary order, he said, that we accept because it stimulates our most distinctive faculty.

''Imagination is the only thing we're really good at,'' he said. ''What we're doing [when we're engaging with cultural objects] is exercising that part of our mind that makes it possible to imagine things being ordered differently, and most importantly, to imagine what's in other people's minds....''

It recalls a quote by C.S. Lewis, with similar tension between what's necessary and what's important:

''Friendship is unnecessary, like philosophy, like art....It has no survival value; rather it is one of those things which give value to survival.''

Posted by ataylor at 12:36 AM | Comments (1)

April 27, 2005

How many users does it take to become odd?

Tom Foremski poses an interesting question on the Silicon Valley Watcher, a site that tracks and analyzes business and business culture in Silicon Valley: large of a population is needed before a community starts exhibiting spontaneous, unpredictable, aggregate behaviors. Is it 500 people, 15,000?

The question springs from the strange and emergent behavior that often shows up on social software platforms like Friendster or Flickr or (all sites that allow individual users to post, share, and express their on-line personalities and social networks on the web).

As an example, Friendster has already had several splinter groups using the system for unintended purposes, and knocking off strange alternative versions of the social network idea. Among them were 'fakesters' or 'pretendsters,' groups of people who posted fake identities on the system, or even posted profiles of their pets instead of themselves.

Another knock-off is Dogster which takes pet anthropomorphizing to a whole new place.

So, as I often ask, why is this relevant to arts and cultural managers? These systems are about social networks, personal identity, expressive behavior, group behavior, and the explicit representation of so many elements of our world that have long lived below the surface. Just read this excerpt from a SF Weekly article on the fakester trend:

Emboldened by their masks and often preferring the weird over the normal, fakesters are turning Friendster on its ear. They link to other users they've never met in real life, flouting the site's original intent of connecting people through verifiable personal relationships. Many compete to link to as many other users as possible, so that their fictional characters function as social hubs in the Friendster network.

Though they are some of Friendster's most ardent fans -- many spend several hours a day on the site -- fakesters do everything they can to create anarchy in the system. They are not interested in finding friends through prosaic personal ads, but through a big, surreal party where Jesus, Chewbacca, and Nitrous are all on the guest list. To fakesters, phony identities don't destroy the social experience of Friendster; they enrich it.

This is social interaction as cultural expression. Tell me that's not relevant to managers in the business of social interaction and cultural expression!

And how many users does it take before spontaneous social behavior emerges? Foremski's best guess is 10,000 to 15,000. So, now may be a good time to pare down your mailing list.

Posted by ataylor at 8:37 AM | Comments (0)

April 28, 2005

Facing submersion, ship captain decides to take on more water

A headline in yesterday's Boston Globe offers a strange and compelling problem/solution set:

Facing debt, Wang to produce its own shows

In other words, in response to excess risk and exposure to losses from touring performances, Boston's Wang Center for the Performing Arts has decided to increase its risk and exposure to loss as a producer. Says the article:

Instead of relying on touring Broadway musicals to anchor its season, the nonprofit Wang will produce or coproduce its own shows, with an emphasis on ''event musicals'' and family entertainment. Among these will be ''White Christmas,'' which the Wang plans to make a biennial holiday-season attraction. Spaulding hoped that the lucrative ''Radio City Christmas Spectacular,'' the Wang's biggest hit of this season, would run in alternate years.

The new approach is more likely one of reactive necessity than proactive strategy. The Wang's competitive marketplace, and its access to popular touring content, has vastly changed in the past few years with the aggressive market entry of Clear Channel Entertainment. Formerly the anchor of large touring productions, the Wang is now second or third or fourth to Boston venues controlled or owned by Clear Channel (which also holds an interest in most of the touring Broadway shows). Clear Channel's purchase and restoration of the downtown Opera House (which became home to the mega-market-mashing Lion King) pushed the Wang's business model even further into the red. According to one Boston producer:

''There's no competition anymore, because the theater business is run by conglomerates, who also own most Broadway shows....Their interest is in keeping their houses full, so they can leverage their investments on Broadway.''

The situation is made even more awkward by the Wang's ouster of one of its resident company's cash-cow productions last year, the Boston Ballet's Nutcracker, to present a Clear Channel Christmas spectacular. Now, the self-produced 'White Christmas' is likely to be yet another competitor for the Ballet's holiday favorite, and another point of tension between the venue and its local tenants.

More fun stuff to watch in the Boston performing arts market, and a glimpse of things to come in other cities across the country.

Posted by ataylor at 9:22 AM | Comments (2)

April 29, 2005

The dance of donors, cities, and arts projects

The ramp-up to a new cultural facility is an exceptionally complex dance, between project proponents, public officials, public opinion, and private donors. What will we build? Where will we build it? Who will pay for it? And when are those payments due?

That dance just entered a very public phase in Richmond, Virginia, after the Virginia Performing Arts Foundation acknowledged to the mayor that it won't meet a July 1 fundraising deadline. The group was to have raised $93 million by that date to support the development and construction of the new Virginia Performing Arts Center.

Problem is, the city support to the project seems contingent on that deadline being met. And now Mayor L. Douglas Wilder is suggesting the arts foundation has violated its earlier agreement:

''What happened with [former City Manager Calvin D.] Jamison and [former Mayor Rudolph C.] McCollum is one thing,'' Wilder said. ''This is something brand new, totally new, and we'll deal with it accordingly.''

A fascinating addition to the debate comes on the website of the Richmond Times-Dispatch, which allows reader comments to its published articles. The comments posted to this story give a real flavor for public sentiment on both sides of the argument.

Posted by ataylor at 9:05 AM | Comments (2)

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