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August 4, 2003


Time for a little housecleaning on this weblog, namely posting some of the responses I've received about previous posts. Thanks to all of you for your comments and notes, and if others have a thought, link, article, or complaint about the topic of arts management, please send them along to me.

Drew McManus took some issue with my last post about what makes a good arts manager. Here's his response to the quote "An exceptional arts manager uses the tools and, yes, the 'gobbledegook' of business to serve an artistic mission. Whether that manager self-identifies as an artistic thinker or a business thinker is irrelevant, as long as he or she is actually both.":

The problem with this seemingly agreeable statement is that it assumes an arts manager is trained. Yes, a good manager must have a complete grasp of both artistic and business necessities. The problem with the vast majority of managers out there today is that they honestly believe that they are an 'artistic thinker.' Most are woefully incapable of fully appreciating the necessary talent that comprises the players and the level of training, dedication, and sheer gifts necessary to accomplish winning a position in a symphony orchestra. They may claim that they understand and may have even earned some sort of degree in music but they tend to be failed performers or attended a hack institution to begin with. They never achieved the level of excellence necessary to qualify the claim that they posses artistic vision.

Here's a prime example of the pervading insolence among today¹s arts administrators: salary. The average executive director (president and/or CEO) draws a base salary (not including bonuses, retirement, and other incentive based pay) of between 1.6 and 7.35 times more than the base pay for a section musician in their respective organizations (based on figures from and That averages to 4.18 times more than the base level of talent that comprises the ensemble. There isn't a single arts administrator out there today worth that much money. Not a solitary individual among them can honestly say they are worth more than 4 times what the lowest paid player. The reason the inequality exists is their complete lack of understanding what it is to be truly artistically qualified, but they believe that they are.

In response to an older post‹raising the question "What would an organization look like who's true mission was to engage a broad audience in classical music?"‹Kevin Laurence suggests the British Broadcasting Corporation:

The BBC broadcasts commercial-free 'serious' music nationwide on Radio 3 twenty-four hours a day. It provides live performances of classical music through the BBC Symphony Orchestra, the BBC Concert Orchestra and the BBC Singers, among others, all year long. It funds and hosts the country's biggest music festival, the Proms, which it also broadcasts on radio, TV and now the web, and for which it commissions a significant number of new works each year.

Given the BBC's size, it's easy to forget that it's a non-profit organisation. Its ambitious mission is well defined. In the words of a great American lyricist 'Who could ask for anything more?'

Thanks to all. This is becoming a great conversation.

Posted by ataylor at 9:37 AM

August 5, 2003

The Arts Dividend

There's yet another study (login with username: 'ajreader' and password: 'access'), this time in Minnesota, on the economic value of the arts in a local economy. The 'great cities' class of justification for public art support (that great cities have arts, and lame cities do not), is just the latest in a long line of utility arguments for artistic activity (the arts make more economic activity, the arts make smarter children, the arts help at-risk youth).

It's clear that all of these things are true, to an extent, but that none of them are true only of the arts. And while direct connections are best when visiting any elected official (cut the arts, and you destroy the economy, your children, and society), they can cloud our view of more complex interconnections‹between expressive learning and scientific learning, between commercial and non-commercial urban planning, between family counseling and individual creativity.

These more complex and subtle connections of the arts to our world are horrible for advocacy, but necessary for any high-level manager of an arts organization. There are some interesting conversations surrounding all of the above (like the Memphis Manifesto Summit I attended last May, or a more philosophical roundtable in London last June) worthy of a little time and attention.

Posted by ataylor at 10:15 AM

August 6, 2003

Gone fishing...

I'm off-line most of today (and possibly tomorrow), so I'll point you instead to a great interchange that's happening among two other blogs in my neighborhood. Both Greg Sandow and Terry Teachout reference an Opera News piece about the bleak future of opera on PBS, and both have a different take. Here's Sandow's perspective:

What registers for [Terry Teachout] is PBS rejecting art, refusing to show challenging operas because they won't attract a massive audience. For me what might be going on is different. I wonder if the problem isn't that PBS demands a massive audience (though perhaps it might), but that opera draws a very tiny one‹so tiny, for works that aren't widely known, that no responsible large-scale broadcaster could afford to show them.

Here are Terry's comments, and here are Greg's responses. What a great way to carry on a public conversation with depth and substance. Blog on, brave friends.

Posted by ataylor at 12:16 PM

August 8, 2003

The Lure of Something New...

There have been a large number of stories about 'flash mobs' recently (here's one from the Philadelphia Inquirer, another in Canada, and one from across the pond in the EU). If you want more, check out this Google News search on the subject.

A flash mob is a sudden gathering of strangers, usually drawn together through a rapid blast of e-mail, phone messages, instant messages, and other electronic communications. They come together for some random act of silliness (like applauding for a few seconds, or asking the same question of the shop clerks in a store over and over), and then disburse.

Many journalists have waxed philosophical about the deep social needs that Œflash mobs¹ fulfill. Others run it as a quirky sidebar about how strange and connected our world has become. For the arts manager, the trend is worth noting mostly for two reasons:

  • It¹s an extreme example of another trend in arts consumers‹making purchase or cultural activity choices closer and closer to the day-of-show (wreaking havoc with our traditional cash flow and planning strategies). In this case, the decision is made only moments before the activity.
  • It¹s another example of how people long to be involved in something unique, engaging, intriguing, and different, even if it has no purpose. We need to find ways to connect these needs to cultural experiences, which have become more known for their static and anachronistic character than for the dynamic excitement of live attendance.
This particular trend will likely pass, after a short period of rapid growth. But it¹s underpinnings are with us, and have been with us for quite some time.

Posted by ataylor at 8:54 AM

August 9, 2003

On Being Nonprofit

On Being NonprofitFrumkin's overview of the whys and wheres of the nonprofit corporate status provides a clear and balanced view. It also highlights some of the most vexing questions about nonprofits now being raised by government, by business, and by the public being served.

see it on
(any purchase benefits the Bolz Center for Arts Administration library fund...not much, admittedly, but a bit)

Posted by ataylor at 3:24 PM

August 11, 2003

The Box

Sometimes when we try to talk our way out of a problem, we end up reinforcing the problem...or even making it worse. Such is the case with 'the box,' that clever phrase that rose to prominence at arts conferences and conventions in the '80s and '90s, and that lives on today. Thinking 'outside of the box,' or 'beyond the box,' became a professional pastime of arts managers and keynoters over the past 30 years, usually making its comeback during tough economic times. True to form, ‘the box’ is back with a vengeance.

The frustrating reality of negating something, however, is that you actually strengthen its hold. If I suggest that you NOT think of a giraffe right now, what pops into your head?

Okay, now don't think of the walls around you that block your creative thinking, ignore the barbed wire between you and an integrated response to your current challenges, and whatever you do, don't feel a sense of helplessness and loss of energy in your professional life.

There, didn’t that help?

With all the focus on ‘the box,’ we often forget that there is no box. It’s a fiction. It’s a metaphor. It's a catchy phrase for a conference brochure. There certainly can be limits that keep us from seeing a wider world of possibilities—limits like social and psychological blind spots, inflexible assumptions, groupthink, and entrenched ‘common knowledge.’

But these limits are much more maleable, variable, and actionable than 'the box' implies. Perhaps the first step in thinking outside the box is to stop talking about the box. It's a construct that we constructed ourselves, and we only make it stronger by plotting our escape.

Posted by ataylor at 1:49 PM

August 12, 2003

That Darn Technology

A technology snafu has kept us bloggers from posting for the last several days, showing that the Internet giveth, and the Internet taketh away. The problem now seems to be resolved, at least for the short term, so I'm back in business.

More thoughts later...just wanted to let you know I hadn't vanished from the earth.

Posted by ataylor at 2:27 PM

August 13, 2003

The Domineering Donor has a nice article called "Green Strings: Should Arts Donors Make Demands?" about the struggle between engaging contributors in the mission of an organization, and handing over the keys.

One featured struggle is the pending lawsuit against the Metropolitan Opera by representatives of the late Sybil B. Harrington (covered in the Financial Times, and elsewhere). Apart from an alleged misreporting of funds, the representatives suggest that the money was spent in violation of Ms. Harrington's wishes. Here's how the Associate Press tells it:

In a 1987 agreement, Harrington specified that her money be used to underwrite new productions of core composers "in a traditional manner." In the production of Wagner's work, all three acts were set on a raked stage with a backdrop of large transparent triangles that met at the rear and changed color.

While it's easy to get all curmudgeonly about the donors and their meddling (sounds like a line from Scooby Doo), it's hard to argue that an individual shouldn't have some input on how their money is spent. The problem is more one of specific can a donor's limits be before they actually inhibit the expressiveness of the organization (and therefore, the fulfillment of the donor's original intent)? It's a complex and nuanced dance to manage, since both sides have to REALLY listen to the other and explore their mutual interests and needs.

The process of major gifts almost requires more counselors than lawyers. Just imagine how such a session might have gone for our unhappy couple above:

Counselor: Ms. Harrington, what is it you want to tell the Metropolitan Opera?
Harrington: Since I was a child, I've always loved the traditional opera. I want to be sure my gift offers others that same experience I found. So, I only want to fund 'traditional opera'.
Counselor: Metropolitan Opera, how does that make you feel?
Metropolitan Opera: I'm grateful, and yet uneasy. We have so many cooks in the kitchen as it is.
Counselor: Ms. Harrington, do you hear how your restrictions are causing unease? Do you have a comment on that?
Harrington: Frankly, it makes me angry. I don't think I'm asking so much.
Counselor: Let's explore what you're asking for, then. You said you want others to have the same profound experiences you had with traditional opera productions. Is that right?
Harrington: Yes.
Counselor: Can you see a possibility that future audiences, say 50 years from now, might have a different view of what 'traditional' means?
Harrington: I suppose so.
Metropolitan Opera: What if we focused your contribution, instead, on the full season of performances? Then we'd have the widest opportunity to provide future patrons with those profound experiences, but we don't have to define the type of production that will lead them there.
Harrington: Perhaps. But I don't want to fund any backdrops of large transparent triangles that meet at the rear and change color. I've always been afraid of triangles, especially ones that change color.
Metropolitan Opera: We can live with that.
Counselor: You should both be very proud of this open discussion. Now, let's talk more about triangles...

Okay, it's a stupid dialogue; I never claimed to be a playwright. But, in a world where such transactions feature more lawyers than family counselors, such open, frank, and responsive discussions will continue to be hard to foster.

Posted by ataylor at 9:20 AM

August 14, 2003

How Many Seats Make a Difference?

The LA Times has an interesting story on two entrepreneurs in California, making a bet on theater space (not for direct economic return, thank goodness, but for changing the face of their cities). Z. Clark Branson has sunk $5 million into a performance space in Pasadena. Tom Gilmore has a bid in to run the Los Angeles Theater Center in LA.

The two projects are interesting for different reasons: for the Pasadena project, it's the size of the venue (one 99-seat theater and one 60-seat space); in LA, it's the debate about the arts and urban planning.

Branson claims that tiny theaters are the only economically viable spaces for his market (but then defines their benefits by the audience experience: "intimate," "experimental"). His business associate reinforces the economic argument, saying that equity only demands a $15 actor stipend for such small spaces (but they plan to pay $25).

Gilmore's issues are also about venue size, but instead of being 'pro-small', he's 'anti-big', railing against his community's fascination with very large venues that he says have little on-going impact. This is from the article:

Gilmore attributes the failure of the Music Center, Staples Center or the Convention Center to rekindle downtown to L.A.'s short-sighted affection for "silver bullet" projects that receive gobs of attention, like an exclamation point at the end of the sentence. He says it's now time to pay attention to the sentence itself, to the diverse populations required to build lasting neighborhoods in a pattern of urbanization that holds the future for America's cities‹that is, affordable housing, attractive restaurants and a diversity of cultural venues.

So, if your goal is to change the dynamics of a community, how many seats does it take? Many cities across the country are banking on fairly large performing arts spaces that can host Broadway tours and top-choice performers (usually around 2500 seats). In the process, some cities have overlooked the lower, less developed ecosystems that make a more subtle difference (experimental theater, funky night spots, entrepreneurial entertainment ventures, alternative live music venues, etc.). Note the similar theme to my earlier post about orchestras.

In Madison, Wisconsin, my home turf, the argument has extended beyond the arts ecosystem to the business ecosystem. With the construction of a major new arts center, the local retailers are starting to feel the common consequence of focused cultural investment‹higher rents (here's a story from last fall on the subject).

Could it be, as in most ecosystems, that both big fish and little fish (and other organisms) are required for dynamic, creative, vibrant communities over the long haul? It's funny how the big and the little in these projects seem to talk at each other rather than with each other.

Posted by ataylor at 5:45 PM

August 15, 2003

Cascade Failure

There are so many juicy metaphors to be found in yesterday's collapse of the Eastern power grid, it's hard to know where to begin. But, in deference to the millions without air conditioning, public transportation, and Starbucks Frappuccino, I'll only pick one and let it go: cascade failure.

The news today is describing a classic example of a 'cascade failure', a potential tendency of any highly interconnected network running at capacity (here's an article in the Washington Post on the topic). For example, if a network of power generators are all running at full blast and one cuts out, the demand is distributed to the others. Since they are all running at 100 percent already, the increased load sends them over the top. The weak ones go first, distributing an even greater load to the others until one by one they are all overwhelmed. Hence the name 'cascade failure.' I use the example of electrical networks, but the same can be true for natural ecosystems, computer networks, biological systems, and on and on.

Why the lesson in networks? Just think of the network of organizations, funders, and associations that create, present, support, and deliver the arts across America. These organizations and individuals are mostly running at over-capacity (long hours, low pay, bad computers, etc.). They are more interconnected than they know. Many are showing signs of burning out. And most of the generators that kept them going are cutting back or cutting out (state arts agencies, national foundations, individual donors, earned income, volunteer labor, etc.).

The best and only way to avoid cascade failure in any network is to recognize the interconnection, and to create incentives for individual players (inside and outside the system) to consider the health of the system in their choices. If anyone knows of projects that seek to do this in the arts ecosystem, please let me know. Maybe I missed them.

Posted by ataylor at 9:36 AM

August 18, 2003

Bridging the Gap

The Knight Foundation has published a follow-up briefing to its massive study of classical music audiences. Bridging the Gap is a 16-page treatment of the full study report, but offers a nice segmentation model for orchestras (and any arts organization) to hone their strategies for engaging a wider audience.

The brief reinforces the primary disconnect the original Knight study identified, between a larger population that has a connection to classical music, and the small subset of that group that actually explore that connection at live events:

Roughly 10 to 15 percent of American adults have what might be termed a close or moderately close relationship with classical music, and again as many have weaker ties to the art form. This translates into tens of millions of people with some interest in the art form.

But here¹s the catch: Only half of those who express the very highest levels of preference for classical music actually attend symphony orchestra concerts, even infrequently.

Posted by ataylor at 9:44 AM

August 19, 2003

A Brief Pause

It's orientation time in the graduate business degree program I direct, so I'll likely be a bit more spotty in my posts this week and next. Take the time you would have spent browsing the weblog and turn it, instead, to assisting an orphan puppy, or forming a philanthropic foundation. See you soon.

Posted by ataylor at 9:41 PM

August 20, 2003

Okay, a Quick Entry and Then a Pause...

Yesterday, I said I was busy with student orientation, but this article about libraries in the Guardian, and the corresponding report it discusses nudged me back into the weblog business.

The report looks at the roles of public libraries in Great Britain, and suggests that they are increasingly disconnected from their communities, and operating in ways that actually turn people away rather than draw them in (sound familiar to other cultural organizations?).

Here's a favorite quote from the article/report:

"The library has the potential to be the 'living room of the city' or a 'club for everyone'," says the report, Better Public Libraries, citing a score of developments as pathfinders for the new approach. "New libraries should increasingly be long-stay places for students, a safe haven for children, even a home from home. They should include cafes, lounge areas with sofas, and chill-out zones where young people can watch MTV, read magazines and listen to CDs on listening posts."

Like any report that suggests populist approaches for mission-driven cultural organizations, the ideas make me vaguely woozy. But there's something alluring about positioning culture at the center of people's lives, rather than at the edges.

Posted by ataylor at 10:01 AM

August 25, 2003

The Footprint or the Giant

The Boston Phoenix has an interesting story on Somerville, Massachusetts, a formerly downtrodden suburb of Boston that has begun to rebuild its vitality and community in part through efforts in the arts. Much of the credit in the story goes to the city's local cultural council (LCC):

While most other LCCs are small grassroots volunteer organizations that exist solely to reallocate Massachusetts Cultural Council money to cultural and educational projects within their districts, the SAC [Somerville Arts Council] is much more than a funnel for state grants. It¹s a relatively high-profile, community-based collective that not only produces independent cultural programming all year long, but works to draw out the artistic strengths of its community. Which makes Somerville a kind of local-arts-scene success story, a city in which the influence of art isn¹t merely discernable, but recognized for helping improve the town¹s very tenor.

With a growing number of communities captivated by Richard Florida's Rise of the Creative Class and its emphasis on attracting the creative workforce, it's nice to have an example from the community-building side of the argument.

In both cases, however, vibrant communities are the residue of cultural engagement, not the purpose...they are the footprints, not the giant. It's easy to forget that in our quest for vital neighborhoods, thriving economies, and entrepreneurial havens of creatives, the arts are not a tool to wield like a hammer. They, instead, require a focus on the creation itself, and the engagement of individuals in that creation.

The result may be better communities and better environments for business, but that's not why great art exists. It's just something it leaves behind.

Posted by ataylor at 9:29 AM

August 26, 2003

Quotes to Live by

As I continue to juggle orientation for our new students at the Bolz Center, I thought I'd pass along some arts-management-relevant quotes from one of my favorite philosophers/comedians, Steven Wright. You can find more great stuff on his web site. These are all suitable for hanging on the office door:

''If at first you don't succeed, destroy all evidence that you tried.''

''A conclusion is the place where you got tired of thinking.''

''To steal ideas from one person is plagiarism; to steal from many is research.''

''The early bird may get the worm, but the second mouse gets the cheese.''

''42.7% of all statistics are made up on the spot.''

I'll be back in real business soon.

Posted by ataylor at 9:12 AM

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