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April 3, 2006

The art of the start

Computer guru and entrepreneurship evangelist Guy Kawasaki has some thoughts on how to start things (companies, mostly, but other stuff too). His 2004 book, The Art of the Start, was recently recommended to me as relevant to arts organizations (the first chapter is available for free download from his web site).

It's the kind of book you can browse and digest while standing in the bookstore, so I wouldn't recommend an actual purchase. But the first chapter has some thoughtful nuggets that are, indeed, relevant to the arts. Kawasaki's five key points for entrepreneurs, for example, might as well be rules for the cultural manager:

  1. MAKE MEANING. The best reason to start an organization is to make meaning -- to create a product or service that makes the world a better place. So your first task is to decide how you can make meaning.
  2. MAKE MANTRA. Forget mission statements; they’re long, boring, and irrelevant. No one can ever remember them -- much less implement them. Instead, take your meaning and make a mantra out of it. This will set your entire team on the right course.
  3. GET GOING. Start creating and delivering your product or service. Think soldering irons, compilers, hammers, saws, and AutoCAD -- whatever tools you use to build products and services. Don’t focus on pitching, writing, and planning.
  4. DEFINE YOUR BUSINESS MODEL. No matter what kind of organization you’re starting, you have to figure out a way to make money. The greatest idea, technology, product, or service is short-lived without a sustainable business model.
  5. WEAVE A MAT (MILESTONES, ASSUMPTIONS, AND TASKS). The final step is to compile three lists: (a) major milestones you need to meet; (b) assumptions that are built into your business model; and (c) tasks you need to accomplish to create an organization. This will enforce discipline and keep your organization on track when all hell breaks loose -- and all hell will break loose.

Kawasaki's extension of point number two above is also worth a moment. He suggests postponing the mission statement until you actually know what you're doing, and know that it will endure. In the meantime, he prefers crafting a ''mantra'' -- a short, sacred, focused word or phrase that captures the essence of what you want to do (he points to Nike's "authentic athletic performance," and Starbucks' "rewarding everyday moments," among others). Says Kawasaki:

The beauty of a mantra is that everyone expects it to be short and sweet. (Arguably, the world’s shortest mantra is the single Hindi word Om.) You may never have to write your mantra down, publish it in your annual report, or print it on posters. Indeed, if you do have to ''enforce'' your mantra in these ways, it’s not the right mantra.

Posted by ataylor at 8:48 AM | Comments (0)

April 4, 2006

Being really, really, really committed to the art

News has been bumping around the web about playwright and director Jung Sung Sanabout, and his new musical exploring North Korean prison camps (listen to the NPR story here). Preparing for the controversial show's premiere in South Korea, Jung ran into some serious funding and logistical issues, to which he responded in a rather desperate way:

Some investors pulled out of the project, and a theater where the musical was to be staged canceled at the last minute. To finance the play, Jung says, he even had to offer his left kidney as collateral for a 20 million won ($20,600) black-market loan -- an illegal and highly unusual action. He says he will have to give up the organ if he can't pay up by next month.

The musical opened in March, and Jung must repay his loan this month, or forgo his kidney. Just a little perspective for all of us who complain about our grant requirements and our lack of resources.

Posted by ataylor at 9:47 AM | Comments (1)

April 6, 2006

Prison, purgatory, or playground

In my line of work, I often find myself in front of a group of cultural managers, walking them through a particular tool or strategy used in the commercial world, the social sector, or academia, and framing a conversation about how we might use it in the arts. One of the great joys of being on a large university campus is that I stumble onto wonderful methods and models everywhere I wander -- in the educational psychology department, political science, bioscience, law school, sociology, and on and on. So many of these might be applicable to cultural management if we tweaked them a bit.

I've done enough of these conversations to now recognize three possible responses from cultural managers to any new tool or management method:

  • It's a Prison
    Some percieve the tool or methodology as a horrible and horrific constraint against the creative spirit of their organization. We can't use that in an arts organization. It's cold, calculating, and callous (and probably some other words beginning with a "c"). This group is usually small but vocal.
  • It's a Purgatory
    Some have a middling reaction to the new strategy or tool, figuring it's one more thing they might have to do someday and will learn it when it's necessary. This group is the majority in the room, but rarely make themselves known. They slump and talk amongst themselves.
  • It's a Playground
    Some find the new tool intriguing regardless of their first impressions of its utility. It's a new playground, a new creative constraint that might lead them somewhere...or might not. You can see this group leaning forward in their seats, wanting to grab the keys and take the idea for a spin. They may well cast it aside, and decide to label it a prison or purgatory -- but only after they've had some time at the wheel. This group is also a small percentage of the room. They usually identify themselves after the session or in e-mails later on.

I respect every reaction. The tool may, actually, be useless. And the daily pressures and constraints of cultural management don't generally allow for play and experimentation. But I'll admit a special affinity for the "playground" group, since it's much more fun and productive to explore these tools together from various perspectives. And you can't explore if you don't come out to play.

Posted by ataylor at 9:38 AM | Comments (1)

April 10, 2006

The power of flaws

The April edition of Free Range Thinking (a short newsletter on nonprofits and storytelling, available for download here) shares an insight that should be second nature to all arts managers -- the compelling and endearing qualities of flaws and imperfections.

The story focuses on Character, LLC, a consulting company that revamps and refreshes brand icons, such as M&Ms, Goldfish crackers, and Ronald McDonald. Among other things, the company runs an intensive Character Camp for brand managers, who tend to make a common mistake:

When corporations bring their characters to camp, [Character founder David] Altschul says, the most frequent problem is perfection. ''The characters are charming, friendly, and helpful,'' Altschul explains, ''and the closest they come to having a flaw is when they’re described as a little mischievous.'' What the marketing managers find delightful, however, is deadly dull to the audience. It’s the flaws, Altschul says, that make characters interesting. Or as his partner, Brian Lanahan, succinctly puts it, ''Superman is boring without kryptonite.''

It's an insight as old as theater -- conflict, flaw, and tension are what make narratives compelling. And yet, read through most arts marketing materials or grant applications and what will you find? Perfection, triumph, success, and positive spin. Their performances are always exceptional. Their audiences are always ecstatic. Their reviews are always resounding (or mysteriously missing from the packet). Their communities are always connected and enthralled. In short, they are superhuman, disconnected, and insincere.

I'm not suggesting that cultural nonprofits shouldn't publicly celebrate successes -- heaven knows they've earned them. I'm just reminding us that imperfection and struggle are part of what makes great art great. And evidence of that same struggle in an arts organization makes the insulated and iconic seem more real and human.

So the next time you find only superlatives in your communications or your grant narratives, take an honest look at what you're talking about. Odds are that there's a flaw somewhere in your organization's character, or a target you didn't quite hit, that will make your story more powerful and more real.

Posted by ataylor at 8:35 AM | Comments (6)

April 11, 2006

Who owns culture?

Copyright maven and public rights activist Lawrence Lessig has posted a wonderful slide and audio overview of culture and copyright in the digital age. Lessig has been struggling against extended and inflexible copyright for years, and particularly the way it constricts the public access to creative works.

He traces some of the earlier struggles between established creative industries and new technology -- back to the player piano. Then he explores how the current battle for creative rights in the digital age is both the same and dramatically different. His primary concern is that in the current war against the open use of new media (downloads, peer-to-peer networking, remixing and mash-ups), we're destroying the potential expressions of the world to come. Says Lessig:

This is what this architecture begs for.... The freedom to remix not just words but culture, and to use a free digital network to spread it as broadly as the world demands it. This is what these technologies make possible. But here's the point: As we wage war against piracy...we will kill these new forms of expression too. There's an environment here.... And when we make the environment fit the 20th century models of doing business, we will destroy it's potential for the 21st century forms of creativity. This is DDT sprayed to kill a gnat.

As stewards of creative expression and cultural heritage, we should all be aware of the issues involved, and how they might shape tomorrow's ability to create and curate cultural expression. Give it a glance.

Posted by ataylor at 8:54 AM | Comments (3)

April 13, 2006

Copyright and heritage

Building on Tuesday's post about the threat of copyright and restrictive creative contracts on new forms of expression, this article in the Financial Times exposes the flip-side of the same constraints: the challenge of bringing existing media content onto new distribution platforms.

That is because the contractual arrangements that have long governed business relations between media companies and “the talent” -- actors, directors, writers and other artists -- never contemplated the commercial opportunities presented by the iPod, video-on-demand or other emerging media venues.

The article focuses on the back catalogs of television shows, sitting in warehouses constrained by creative contracts rather than flowing onto iPods and web sites for cash. While older sit-coms may not meet your criteria for "heritage content," the story gives an important view of something you might care more about -- any and all existing media of essential creative works.

If a busload of lawyers and the promise of cash can't readily resolve ownership issues in commercial television, imagine how hard it will be to get nonprofit content cleared for take-off. For example, shouldn't you or your children or their children have access to video recordings of Martha Graham, Balanchine's early works in New York, seminal theater productions of Mamet or Miller, or musical performances by the legends of every discipline? If you think so, there's a web of creative ownership rights standing in the way of that access.

There's a whole generation of extraordinary content captured on video and film that is nearly impossible to clear for public viewing -- on-line or otherwise. That's not just a threat to future creations and creators, but to the very memory of our world that great art represents.

Posted by ataylor at 8:38 AM | Comments (2)

April 17, 2006

Counting what counts

How can you know if your state's public schools are providing equitable and integrated education in the arts? Here's a radical thought: actually ask them. That's the conclusion of a cluster of state and nonprofit representatives in New Jersey, who have just launched a study of arts programming in the public schools (or see it here in an AP story). Says the release:

Officials from the Department of Education said the partnership will provide schools, policymakers, and community leaders with an analysis of arts education while at the same time providing schools and communities with tools and resources to strengthen student learning in the arts. “An in-depth analysis of the school data will help the Department of Education and its project partners understand the level of student involvement with the arts, help to identify model programs across the state, and facilitate the alignment of resources to strengthen student learning of New Jersey’s visual and performing arts CCCS,” said David Miller, Executive Director of the New Jersey State Council on the Arts.

Beyond the data gathered from the effort, the study is an important symbol that arts education is at least worthy of being measured in our increasingly metric-centric public education system. Keep an eye on New Jersey to see if counting leads to change.

Posted by ataylor at 7:31 AM | Comments (0)

April 18, 2006

Moving forward in Kansas City

Despite shortfalls in their fundraising goals, and concern about where promised city support will come from, the board of the Metropolitan Kansas City Performing Arts Center has voted to move forward with the proposed $326 million multi-venue arts complex. Groundbreaking is in October, construction starts in December, then it's full speed ahead for an opening in Fall 2009.

The dramatic and iconic design by Moshe Safdie and Associates (see a 2002 overview of the project here) is just the latest in a series of mega-multi-hundred-million cultural facilities designed to refocus energy downtown, and bolster the professional arts in their cities. By any measure, these are massive projects, requiring not just Herculean capital fundraising for their construction, but multiple millions in additional annual operating subsidy for decades to come.

Dallas ($275 million), Miami ($484 million, and counting), and Madison ($205 million), are other current examples of the trend.

Big and audacious goals are good things. Big cultural buildings may be good things, as well. But one of these days, we'll need to assess the impact of these massive infusions of granite, steel, and glass on the delicate cultural and community ecosystems that surround them.

Posted by ataylor at 8:23 AM | Comments (2)

April 20, 2006

On the road to Toronto

I'm traveling today to attend the Association of Arts Administration Educators conference in Toronto -- a gathering of degree-granting higher education programs in arts and cultural management and cultural policy. These are good and noble people with a rather impossible job: defining, discovering, and nurturing a new generation of cultural managers and leaders.

It's always a blast to argue with each other about how to do that.

Posted by ataylor at 4:06 AM | Comments (0)

April 21, 2006

Seeking clarity

The problem with most mission statements and the strategy points that often follow them is their haziness and their breadth. Peter Drucker called such statements ''hero sandwiches of good intentions,'' stacked with way too many ingredients to really encourage focus and clarity among leadership and staff. Worse yet, many organizations clearly see their mission statements as lip service to appease external constituents. We'll say we're about transforming communities and serving youth, but we really just want to do the art we want to do in whatever way we want to do it.

To me, at least, clarity is the next big challenge for cultural organizations over the coming decade. We've got plenty of tools and strategies to work with (although we can always learn how to use them better). We've got a good sense of the inputs and outputs that make us work. The question remaining is: what, exactly, do we exist to do? And what's the most elegant, responsive, and responsible path that gets us there?

To that end, I'm rather fond of the vision, promise, and goal set of the Sydney Opera House (available here), which really seek clarity about the business they're in, and the goals that follow from that realization. Take a look:

Vision: To Excite and Inspire the Imagination

Our Promise:
To take people on a journey from the ordinary to the extraordinary into a world where the inspiration of the building outside is reflected in all we do. In short, we are in the business of Inspiring Experiences.

Be Australia’s pre-eminent showcase for performing arts and culture and an international leader in the presentation and development of artists and their work.

Attract and engage a broad range of customers and provide compelling experiences that inspire them to return.

Maintain and enhance the Sydney Opera House as a cultural landmark, performing arts centre and architectural masterpiece.

Create a customer focused workplace where people are recognised for their contribution, realise their potential and inspired to achieve outstanding results.

Invest in the performing arts, cultural activities and audience development by maximising business results of the Sydney Opera House and leveraging its assets, resources and brand.

You may like it, you may hate it. But at least it's clear. And better yet, these goals become a public yardstick by which management and constituents can gauge the organization's success over time.

Posted by ataylor at 6:51 AM | Comments (2)

April 25, 2006

Back in business

I'm finally back after a jam-packed weekend conference in Toronto with the Association of Arts Administration Educators (AAAE) -- folks like me that run or work with degree-granting programs in arts and cultural management, research, and policy. I'm always struck by the amount of insight and industry intelligence in the room at these events, and the true passion for making this strange and dysfunctional realm of the world work.

Panels, keynotes, and plenaries explored ways for higher education institutions and their faculty to engage and advance the truly vexing issues of the culture field -- community engagement, financial management and strategy, diversity in word and deed, leadership and succession, audience connection, generational shifts -- as well as the various tools we have to address them -- case studies, internships, curriculum, on-line technologies, and such. And, of course, there was drinking -- beer, wine, Canadian scotch, and even a splash of ratafia, believe it or not.

The number of great individuals and big ideas in the room reinforced my belief that we don't lack capacity in this field, we lack productive and dynamic interaction. The answers to our challenges are all out there, in bits and pieces among existing practice, emerging research, and extraordinary passion. The trick is to assemble those answers from the various insular pockets of insight where they are currently trapped.

I have been affiliated with AAAE for over a decade, and a board member for the past three years. On Saturday, I was elected to serve as the association's president -- an exciting and humbling thing. I plan to dedicate my term to encouraging those connections, and helping more people in more places discover the glorious individuals our association represents.

Posted by ataylor at 8:22 AM | Comments (3)

April 26, 2006

How can a hamburger have more friends than I do?

An interesting piece in the New York Times on the MySpace social networking site lays out where it came from and where it might go. The site is astoundingly busy (more than 70 million members, displaying more web pages each month than almost any other site), but is still struggling to find a way to cash in on that popularity. Major advertisers aren't sure whether a primarily social site will translate into purchases.

One thought is to establish corporate brands or special promotions as actual members on the site, allowing other members to tag them for ''exclusive'' inside news and opportunities, just as they now do with their friends. Says the article:

The bigger opportunity, however, is not so much selling banner ads, but finding ways to integrate advertisers into the site's web of relationships. Wendy's Old Fashioned Hamburgers, for example, created a profile for the animated square hamburger character from its television campaign. About 100,000 people signed up to be "friends" with the square.

The ability to harness social networks toward a propensity to purchase is clearly a core challenge for the cultural manager. It's fascinating to watch that effort play out on such a large scale.

Posted by ataylor at 8:21 AM | Comments (3)

April 27, 2006

The math of book profits (or loss)

A blogger on LiveJournal offers an inside view of how mass-market books earn or lose money. It's a fun little fictional case-in-point that lets you learn industry terms like ''laydown,'' ''incremental coop,'' and ''PPB'' along the way. As in all creative industries, most potential earnings are chipped away along the supply chain, leaving little chance of profitability for the artist or the publisher.

Give it a read.

Oh, and since it's ''take your child to work day so they can realize how much sitting you do,'' here's a message from my nine-year-old son, Sam. His first-ever blog entry (drum roll please):

Hello world! My dad's desk is a mess.

Thanks, Sam.

Posted by ataylor at 9:06 AM | Comments (5)

April 28, 2006

Museums and rain forests and chocolates (oh my)

The Milwaukee Public Museum announced last week that it was transferring ownership of its Costa Rican rain forest to a new nonprofit foundation (thanks to Charity Governance for the link). The transfer/sale is part of the museum's effort to refocus its work and reconstruct its finances after its cataclysmic financial disaster of 2005 (which I wrote about here).

Why did a museum in Milwaukee own a rain forest in Costa Rica in the first place? The Milwaukee Public is a human and natural history museum with a strong emphasis on research. The rain forest was one initiative to connect that research to learning. Says the article:

It was the model for the rain forest exhibit that the museum opened in 1988. It was the source of some of the exotic insect species that inhabit the Puelicher Butterfly Wing, opened in 2000, and the ''Bugs Alive!'' exhibit, opened in 2003.

And it was the laboratory for Allen Young, emeritus curator of zoology, as he studied the links between the forest's health and its cacao trees. Young's research led to the museum's introduction of the dark chocolate Cacao de Vida bar.

Dark chocolate? You ask... Oh yes, the rain forest is also an experimental organic cacao plantation, which produces the key ingredient in the Milwaukee Public Museum's chocolate bar.

It may sound like an odd and sprawling mission that incorporates Midwestern museum space, Costa Rican rain forests, and gourmet dark chocolate bars. And it's clear that by year's end, the Milwaukee Public Museum will be a much more locally focused institution, with a less expansive operation (if it can remain solvent in the meantime). But the story is a larger version of a similar struggle going on at place-based arts institutions around the country.

Cultural organizations that are bound by their bricks and mortar are increasingly labeled as insular and disconnected from their communities. Organizations that reach out beyond the borders of their buildings and their geography are often blamed for stretching the limits of their economic model, and their governance capacity. The balance between being focused and strategic, and being bold and exploratory, is becoming trickier by the day.

The easy criticism of the Milwaukee Public Museum would be that it over-extended its reach. But the true source of the financial problem was the stunning lack of internal controls and fiscal leadership to mind the details of the business at home. It's not wrong to reach. But it's wrong to reach without knowing you're standing on firm ground. Artful managers must always think both inside and outside of their particular box.

Posted by ataylor at 8:25 AM | Comments (0)

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