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April 1, 2008

What I know about you

When we do our work in the actual world, it's striking how much feedback we receive. Every sense can find some evidence of our actions and the reactions to them: we hear the sound of our voice, see the reactions of those we're speaking to, sense the acoustics of the space around us, feel the tension or tone of the group we're with, and experience the smells and sensations of our environment.

Google Analytics The virtual world, on the other hand, seems more like an anechoic chamber for the majority of us not in the celebreality world. We say things -- through blogs, or e-mails, or other posts -- and off they go. Maybe they're read. Maybe not. Maybe they provoke. Maybe not. As a result, bloggers like myself are grateful for whatever feedback we can find -- in web visitor statistics, references from other blogs (through Technorati, and the like), comments to our posts, and the odd comment or two when we meet a reader in real life.

It was the search for feedback, as well as curiosity about a new toolset, that led me to sign on with Google Analytics, a free web traffic analysis system that's full of charts and numbers. After about three months on the system, here's what I know about the visitors to my blog:

  • From January through March of this year, 17,157 of you visited 33,169 times;
  • On average, you read 1.46 pages during your visit. But 79.6 percent of you visited only one page;
  • Your visits lasted, on average, 1 minute and 15 seconds (long enough to get the gist of the post you came to read, I assume);
  • You connected from 124 countries and territories, but the vast majority of you browsed from the United States (with visits in decreasing frequency from Canada, the UK, Australia, Ireland, India, Germany, the Phillippines, New Zealand, The Netherlands, and then everywhere else);
  • 46 percent of you came by way of a direct link (from ArtsJournal, from my weekly e-mail summary, or from an e-mail link somebody sent you);
  • 32 percent of you arrived here from a search engine;
  • 22 percent of you came from a referring site (another blog, perhaps, or a referral site like;
  • you posted 92 comments, although many posted more than one.

So, what do I know about you? Almost nothing of import. I can see your footprints. I can read your comments. I can read your e-mails when you send them. I can find your posts on the web when you refer to my posts. And now I can view a hundred lovely graphs that represent your behavior over time.

I'm not complaining, mind you, as I'm perfectly happy to speak into an empty box (it helps me think better to write things down, and it keeps me honest to post them in public). I'm just struck by the peculiarity of posting thoughts in an on-line world.

Posted by ataylor at 8:45 AM | Comments (6)

April 3, 2008

''Business-like'' is not the problem

Justin Macdonnell offers up the latest salvo in the perennial push-back against ''business'' thinking in arts and culture organizations. It's a topic that lives at the center of my working life (directing, as I do, an MBA degree in arts administration). And it's a question to which I continually try to bring clarity, nuance, and honest reflection (some here on my weblog, some to myself).

My thumbnail perspective on the intersection of artistic endeavor and ''business'' thinking is in this short opinion piece from 2006. And the question lies dead-center in the call to arms that launched this blog.

To be fair, my access to Macdonnell's perspective is filtered through the journalist's lens, which can tend to flatten the complexity and heighten the contrast of any opinion. But his basic premise -- to rebel against ''business-like'' behavior and emphasis by governing boards -- is a frequent battle cry by those frustrated with the current state of the arts.

If nonprofits select board members who are unqualified for the complexity and depth of governance, they suffer for it. Those board members' day job as business person, social scientist, artist, civic leader, philanthropist, or anything else isn't the cause of their inability to govern effectively. The process by which we find them, invite them, engage them, and frame and support their work is the cause.

Nor is the problem a shortcoming of a particular ''way of knowing'' the world that a board member might bring -- be it business practice, or academic research, or creative expression, or the like. All ways of seeing, choosing, moving, and evaluating can bring great value to cultural governance, as long as they are informed by humility, curiosity, commitment, and flexibility, and a willingness to adapt to the particular needs and vision of the organizational mission.

Certainly, the blind faith in business-focused leadership on governing boards has done damage to cultural organizations -- as have the wealth-focused or task-focused or status-focused board selection processes that emphasize broad categories or types or roles over individual competence and fit.

At the end of the day, every day, arts organizations must be more business-like, more civic-like, more innovative-like, more creative-like, more connected-like, and more expressive-like than they were the day before. It might be time to put away the straw man in a business suit, and focus on finding, fostering, and connecting the real and complicated people who can advance our important work.

Posted by ataylor at 9:12 AM | Comments (4)

April 4, 2008

The difference between ''feeling'' and reality

Security technologist Bruce Schneier offers a useful distinction in Wired between feeling secure and actually being secure. His focus is on how the gulf between the two approaches has distorted our national security policy, and our own life choices. But his point is directly relevant to larger decision-making issues, as well. Says Schneier:

...there are two ways to make people feel more secure. The first is to make people actually more secure and hope they notice. The second is to make people feel more secure without making them actually more secure, and hope they don't notice.

The key here is whether we notice. The feeling and reality of security tend to converge when we take notice, and diverge when we don't. People notice when 1) there are enough positive and negative examples to draw a conclusion, and 2) there isn't too much emotion clouding the issue.

How does this relate to cultural management? Consider for a moment how you and your arts organization make decisions and evaluate your work. Do you act in a way that makes you feel like you're making a difference, or do you strive to notice if you're actually making a difference?

It sounds like a silly question, perhaps. But I've seen many organizations struggle with the distinction. Sometimes, for example, the most powerful impact a nonprofit can have is in silent intervention -- facilitating the success of other groups and individuals, without calling attention to themselves. But such silence rarely feels like you're making an impact. You don't see your name show up in the media. You don't hear congratulations from civic leaders. You can't point as easily to public evidence of your work when talking to foundations or funders. In these cases, it can feel more impactful to act in a more public way, but it would diminish your actual impact.

Ultimately, I'd assume we all want to make an enduring impact on our part of the world. If that's the case, then a reflection and reality check every now and then seems like a good idea.

[ Thanks to BoingBoing for the initial link. ]

Posted by ataylor at 8:13 AM | Comments (0)

April 7, 2008

Old product, new sales channel

The Requiem has long been a significant source of major new works (and major commissions) for composers. Mozart died while writing one. Others from Tomas Luis de Victoria to Andrew Lloyd Webber have tried their hand.

Thanks to the folks at Requiem for You, you no longer have to be an aristocrat to find and fund a great work of remembrance. The company will compose, record, and even produce the first live performance of your Requiem in a variety of different musical styles. And if you're not quite ready for the finality of a Requiem, you can also commission a ''Laudatio'' for any event, milestone, or celebration.

Of course, any of us could commission a work for any purpose right now, without a web site to help us (find a composer and give him or her a call!). But there's something so quick and convenient about an on-line one-stop shop.

I'm dying to try it [ba-dump-bump-KSHHHH].

[ Thanks to for the link. ]

Posted by ataylor at 8:20 AM | Comments (1)

April 8, 2008

What's your U-Index?

Jonathan Clements in the Wall Street Journal explores the connection between the way we spend our time and our sense of well-being. His reference point is a new study entitled ''National time accounting: The currency of life'' (abstract here, full PDF download here). The authors asked participants to track how they spent their day, and then to reflect on their emotional state for those activities (happy, tired, stressed, sad, interested, pain).

Clements finds most interesting the implication that one cluster of activities ranked higher on happiness and lower on stress than the others. Says he:

The standout cluster was what the authors label "engaging leisure and spiritual activities," things like visiting friends, exercising, attending church, listening to music, fishing, reading a book, sitting in a cafe or going to a party. When we spend time on our favorite of these activities, we're typically happy, engrossed and not especially stressed....

The obvious implication: If we devote more time to these activities, maybe we would be more satisfied with our lives. Yet the evidence suggests we've missed a huge chance to do just that -- which may help explain why Americans are little or no happier than they were four decades ago.

While Clements focuses on that particular cluster (and arts managers probably should, as well), I'm rather fond of the others in the list, comprising the following six:

  1. unpleasant personal maintenance
    personal medical care, homework, financial/government services, etc.
  2. moderately enjoyable tasks
    writing by hand, purchasing routine goods, walking, etc.
  3. engaging leisure and spiritual activities
    conversation, reading books, travel related to consumption, in-home social activities, out-of-home leisure, etc.
  4. neutral downtime and cooking
    watching television, food preparation, gardening, relaxing, doing nothing, etc.
  5. mundane chores
    laundry, ironing, cleaning, dressing, personal care, etc.
  6. work-like activities
    home or vehicle repairs, schooling, main paid work, care of older children, etc.

Despite the positive returns, the average percent of each day spent on ''engaging leisure and spiritual activites'' has declined since 1965, and the average percent of ''neutral downtime and cooking'' has increased. The study contains lots of detailed analysis, by gender, weather, social activity, and even day of the week. Well worth a browse of the tables at the end of the full report.

Another favorite measure in the study is the ''U-Index,'' defined as ''the proportion of time an individual spends in an unpleasant state'' [no jokes about New Jersey, please]. I can just imagine a competition among arts and cultural managers to see who can achieve the highest U-Index, even when working in a field they claim to love -- stress and fatigue being among our primary indicators of professional success.

Posted by ataylor at 9:08 AM | Comments (3)

April 9, 2008

Who owns the idea of what the campus means?

Mark McVay posts an interesting dilemma for architects of new university buildings. Specifically, in the design and development process, ''Who owns the idea of what the campus means? Who speaks for the whole university?''

Adding structures to a long-standing campus is a complex endeavor. Architects, and the campus stewards of the project, want something that resonates with the existing built environment, but also adds to and informs that environment. Problem is, the working groups that translate these issues between the architect and the university's many committees, gatekeepers, and administrators often lack both the language and the authority to negotiate the right balance.

The same could be said for cultural facilities -- both on campus and off. We construct them to resonate with their community environment, but also to galvanize and enhance that environment. But the same question arises: ''Who owns the idea of what a community means?'' We can't fix the problem just by adding voices to the mix, as such sprawling decision structures can dilute both the building's fit and its clarity.

McVay's response is to ensure a full dose of information and authority.

What should a university aim for? One way or the other, it should seek to empower design teams with as much information and discussion as possible about images, symbols, and the other subtleties of the campus. This allows design teams to be much more effective partners--and, in turn, allows them to do the best possible job of promoting the university's uniqueness.

Posted by ataylor at 10:38 AM | Comments (0)

April 10, 2008

Comic distractions for a Thursday morning

Those who haven't watched the Ricky Gervais BBC/HBO series ''Extras'' missed a brilliantly self-mocking comedic turn by Sir Ian McKellen, describing the secrets to his acting technique: ''What I do is pretend to be the person I am portraying in the film or play.''

Idiotic and compelling all at once. (Full episode info here.)

Posted by ataylor at 8:50 AM | Comments (2)

April 11, 2008

On recession and expression

Yesterday I was a guest on WNYC's Soundcheck (about 15 minutes into the audio file), to discuss the challenges nonprofit arts organizations face during economic hard times. The lead-in to the conversation was this article by Daniel Wakin in the New York Times. The Swiss bank behemoth, UBS, had decided to pull its $10-million annual promotional spending and financial support from the UBS Verbier Orchestra, and refocus its giving on the International Music Festival of Lucerne.

The question was whether the decision was tied to UBS' disastrous financial status.

From the little information available, it seems that the shift is more an issue of fit than financing for UBS, but such re-evaluations of all resource allocations are certainly expected in tougher economic times. The conversation on WNYC focused on whether this shift should be a warning for other arts organizations relying on corporate sponsorship, and what they should do to prepare.

Big-ticket corporate sponsors are wonderful means of support and promotion, but of course they carry a risk. As American Ballet Theater discovered in their kerfuffle with Movado back in 2003, or as the [insert merger-and-acquisition corporate name here] Celebrity Series of Boston discovered in their same sponsor/many-names history (Bank of Boston, BankBoston, FleetBoston Financial, Bank of America, then nothing), high-profile corporations can be fickle friends problematic.

As with most other forms of revenue, major corporate sponsorship is a matter of continual risk assessment, and thoughtful contingency planning (how boring does that sound?). There are a few things you can do to prepare for tough economic times. But nothing beats a voracious awareness of your environment, a continual eye on the health and happiness of your biggest supporters, and an iron stomach for the roller coaster of economic fate.

Posted by ataylor at 9:17 AM | Comments (3)

April 14, 2008

Progressive disclosure

I'm often struck by the complexity of communications and marketing in a nonprofit arts organization. Not only are arts marketers speaking to multiple audiences with radically different expectations and knowledge of the art form, but they are also doing so with limited budget, staff, and time in an increasingly noisy and cluttered environment.

A core problem of marketing the arts is in the balance between clarity and comprehensiveness. For example, do you offer a laundry list of your entire season to all prospective patrons? Do you provide filtered versions of that season based on different purchase types (rock, theater, contemporary, traditional, sculpture, oils, and so on)? Or do you segment your audience and your message by the style of interaction rather than the form of the art (casual, formal, learning-intensive, hands-on, dress-up, dress-down, etc.)?

Worse yet, how do you accommodate consumers that may take multiple approaches to their decisions over the course of a year -- sometimes based on a specific artist, sometimes based on a mood, sometimes based on a sudden interest in trying something new?

It turns out there's another industry that faces a similar communications challenge -- balancing a large volume of information against a consumer preference for simplicity and customization. That industry is software development.

Consider the challenge, for example, of constructing a software program (word processor, spreadsheet, or even a web site) in which some users will demand deep and nuanced control, while others will only need a few basic functions, and many will cycle between the two. How do you serve all of them at once, without creating entirely different software packages?

One approach has been progressive disclosure, a user-interface design strategy that organizes choices to balance simplicity with depth. The basic rules are simple (from the linked article):

  1. Initially, show users only a few of the most important options.
  2. Offer a larger set of specialized options upon request. Disclose these secondary features only if a user asks for them, meaning that most users can proceed with their tasks without worrying about this added complexity.

While those two rules sound simple, they demand an extraordinary knowledge of consumer behavior, user types, and user needs. It can be particularly challenging for the ''power users'' who design the software to realize that not everyone (in fact, hardly anyone) uses the program the way they do. Does that sound like a challenge for arts organizations, as well?

Consider what the article calls the ''two things you must get right'' in progressive disclosure, and reflect on how these relate (or don't relate) to your own marketing materials, programs, web sites, and even e-mail communications:

  • You must get the right split between initial and secondary features. You have to disclose everything that users frequently need up front, so that they only have to progress to the secondary display on rare occasions. Conversely, the primary list can't contain too many options or you'll fail to sufficiently focus users' attention on truly important issues. Finally, the initial display can't contain confusing features or you'll slow down user performance.
  • It must be obvious how users progress from the primary to the secondary disclosure levels:
    • First, make the mechanics of this operation simple. For a website, follow the guidelines for visualizing links. For an application, place the advanced features button in a clearly visible spot.
    • Second, label the button or link in a way that sets clear expectations for what users will find when they progress to the next level. (In other words, the progression should have strong information scent.)

I'm always eager to steal well-established strategies from other industries to advance the arts (partly because I'm curious, partly because I'm too lazy to start from scratch). I'd be really interested to hear from any of you that have witnessed highly effective ''progressive disclosure'' in arts marketing and arts messaging. Please post your thoughts and links!

Posted by ataylor at 10:15 AM | Comments (3)

April 15, 2008

Removing one more reason for institutions

Public radio's Marketplace program had a segment on yet another social networking and collective action web site that promises to change the way we interact and organize. This one has significant implications for some of the core functions of arts organizations.

The Point seeks to solve a vexing challenge for group action: confirming the critical mass to do something or buy something before you do it or buy it. For example, a social service organization might want to buy a new refrigerator, but wouldn't want to do so until they're sure they've got the contributions to pay for it. And prospective donors don't want to give money unless they're assured the refrigerator will actually get bought. Or, a group would like to threaten a boycott of some company, but has no leverage until they prove that they have lots of consumers on board -- there's no action without a large collective commitment, and there's no collective without the action.

There are two ways around this classic problem. One is to act through a formal institution, which brings its own budget and staff to float the cost and absorb the risk. The other is to get some binding conditional commitment from enough people to accomplish the goal once the threshold is reached.

The Point works to solve the problem the second way (its name is a reference to the ''Tipping Point''). Anyone can start a campaign (for a boycott, a collective purchase, a fundraiser, and so on), and then individuals can conditionally commit to that campaign: ''if you reach your threshold of people or money, I'm in.''

It may not sound transformative for the professional arts, but it most certainly could be. Consider this: What if you wanted to bring a professional performing artist to town for a show? A year ago, you'd need a performing arts presenter to find them, contract them, commit to paying them, and then drum up the ticket sales and contributions to make it viable. If the presenter falls short, they eat the difference, and hope that another show earns above its budget.

Now consider the entirely different organizing model for touring professional performances offered by The Point. An individual or informal group could propose bringing Ani DiFranco, or Royal Shakespeare Company, or Hubbard Street Dance to town on a certain day in a certain venue, and post the idea as a campaign on-line. Those who would buy a ticket or contribute to the performance could enter their credit card on-line. If enough people signed on with enough money, the contract would close and their cards would be charged. If not, the show wouldn't come.

It's a modern-day version of the old Community Concerts model, where a community group would sell season subscriptions, and book the artists after they knew how many tickets they sold. But it happens without the board and staff required of the original model.

Institutions exist, in part, to resolve the complexity of collective action, to bridge the distance between an idea and its completion, and to mediate the many transaction costs and risks along the way. Systems like The Point provide one less reason we need institutions to do the things they do now...arts institutions included.

Posted by ataylor at 8:27 AM | Comments (4)

April 16, 2008

Bruce Sterling on the future of everything

Since I seem to be on a '''technology and society'' kick this week, I might as well point to this fascinating keynote (at least to me) by science fiction author Bruce Sterling. Speaking to a conference of interface and interaction design professionals, Sterling deflates a whole series of common assumptions about the future of digital technology in our lives (sentient humanoid robots, direct computer-brain interfaces), and suggests a future that's both more plausible, and more brain-bending.

For example, what if everything around you had a digital tag, a connection to the network, and a GPS location capability (we're getting closer to that every day)? And what could such an environment provide for its citizens and require of its designers?

Bruce Sterling from Innovationsforum on Vimeo.

Posted by ataylor at 9:29 AM | Comments (0)

April 17, 2008

In thanks and praise to Fan Taylor

fan_taylor.jpgThe field of arts and cultural management lost a glorious voice this week with the passing of Fan Taylor at the age of 94. I am a direct beneficiary of Fan's extraordinary and field-defining work in managing and advancing the arts. And I had the great pleasure of a continuing conversation with her over the past many years.

Those who don't know Fan's work can find her professional history in the article online. But the core of that opus, and the passion behind it, will long endure in the hundreds she mentored, advised, haggled with, and cajoled while getting eager audiences and great artists into a shared performance space.

Back in the 1950s, when only a few considered the management, marketing, and advancement of the arts a professional endeavor, Fan was teaching UW-Madison students on the subject, and gathering a national coalition of her peers to learn from each other. She fostered countless networks of professionals, encouraging all of them to find and mentor others in turn. During one of our last lunches together here in Madison, she was still curious about my students, insistent on their curriculum, and bubbling with stories of her performing arts past.

Fan was also dissatisfied with the performing arts series presented in her retirement community, and plotting ways to improve the caliber, quality, connection, and audience turn-out of these events. This at 94.

''Book to your audience, only better,'' was Fan's programming philosophy. On-stage and off, she continually nudged everyone around her to do the same.

And for the record, although our last names are the same, Fan and I are not related -- except in our chosen profession and our interest in making it stronger.

Posted by ataylor at 10:17 AM | Comments (2)

April 21, 2008

Focusing energy off-line

aaae2008.jpg I'm playing host to an international conference later this week, welcoming my colleagues from degree-granting programs in arts and cultural management from around the world. I expect great conversations and engaging arguments about how we all find, enroll, prepare, and support innovative and productive leaders for arts and cultural organizations. I also expect to drink a reasonable amount of cocktails and beer with people I like and admire.

But the endeavor will keep me off-line this week, preparing for and producing the event with the Association of Arts Administration Educators' powerhouse staff of one (thanks Barb).

See you next week!

Posted by ataylor at 8:30 AM | Comments (1)

April 30, 2008

Still digging out...
I'm still working to dig out all the deferred detritus on my desk following the ramp-up and hosting of the recent Association of Arts Administration Educators conference here in Madison last week. It was an extraordinary event, with rooms full of smart, funny, and insightful people, all eager to learn and share about developing new generations of cultural leaders.

We heard about the brain science of happiness and compassion from Dr. Richard Davidson; about the structure and strategies of cultural policy from Jonathan Katz; and about the shaping and shifting of vibrant, creative cities from Carol Coletta. And in between, the various panels and work sessions explored cultural research, consulting, standards, international issues, university politics, arts in small communities, and other compelling topics now challenging arts administration degree programs.

There's more to come. But for now, the groaning stacks of ignored paperwork on my desk beckon me back. Thanks to ALL who made this past weekend such a glorious conversation. It was an honor to have you all with us in Madison, Wisconsin.

Posted by ataylor at 9:16 AM | Comments (0)

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