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August 1, 2006

What makes a museum?

NPR had a story last week about museum collections on-line (both professional and avocational). Central to the story was MoOM, the Museum of On-line Museums, which gathers links to favored sites (from the Rijksmuseum Amsterdam to a collection of whistling records). The story explored whether any curated, on-line aggregation of content is worthy of the name ''museum,'' or whether there were other essential ingredients required to earn the term.

Merriam-Webster provides two definitions for the word museum: ''an institution devoted to the procurement, care, study, and display of objects of lasting interest or value,'' and ''a place where objects are exhibited.''

[Jim] Coudal of MoOM likes the latter definition. ''The choosing to display is what makes a museum, [and] the taste of the curator'' he says. ''The curation makes the museum.''

Wilson O'Donnell, director of the museology program at the University of Washington in Seattle, supports the first definition, suggesting that scholarship, training, and academic rigor are essential elements of both being a curator and being a museum.

Of course, unlike French, English doesn't have an official language police to make a final determination on the term ''museum.'' But if I were a bricks-and-mortar museum director, faced with growing competition and confusion from collections on-line, I'd want to be as curious, clear, and concise as I could be about what made my organization particularly worthy of the word.

Posted by ataylor at 9:02 AM | Comments (1)

August 2, 2006

Thinning the nonprofit arts herd

Western States Arts Federation (WESTAF) Executive Director Anthony Radich makes some rather bold statements in a weblog conversation by the Hessenius group (scroll about halfway down the page). In his opinion, the volume of arts production has grown beyond sustainability in many communities, and the oversupply is killing vitality and connection between arts and audience. His suggested solution? Encourage some arts organizations to die:

So let's euthanize some arts organizations. Let's pull some of the nonprofit arts programming off the arts-production line and free up funding and talent for reallocation to stronger efforts--especially to new efforts tilted toward engaging the public. Let's return to the concept of offering seed money for organizations that, over a period of years, need to attract enough of an audience and develop enough of a stable financial base to survive and not structure them to live eternally on the dole. Let's find a way to extinguish those very large groups that are out of audience-building momentum and running on inertia. Instead of locking arts funders into a cycle of limited choices, let's free up some venture capital for new arts efforts that share the arts in new ways with the public.

Euthanizing arts organizations will not be easy, but the alternative is the underwriting of a museum of arts organizations--a dust bin of well-intentioned nonprofit arts programming that either never quite connected with the public or whose day has passed. The public expects more from our field. They will return in numbers to nonprofit arts programming when we clear out the ghost organizations that live on without community support. These entities are a heavy weight on our efforts to share meaningful and insightful arts experiences with others.

It's a wrenching and incendiary conversation for our field...but absolutely necessary. Of course, the essential questions of such a strategy are ''who gets to decide which live and which die?'' and ''by what criteria do we make that decision?''

Posted by ataylor at 7:37 AM | Comments (13)

August 4, 2006

Of death and dying

There have been lots of productive comments to my Wednesday post about euthanizing arts organizations. Nothing like a controversial metaphor to spark a conversation.

In my opinion, euthanasia is likely the wrong metaphor and approach to address the issue of sick arts institutions, or a supply-heavy industry facing declining revenue on many fronts. The term implies taking an active role in killing an organization that's really just due for a transformation (although dissolution should always be one of the options). Rather, I'd suggest that artists and arts organizations lack a clear understanding of the full palette of choices already available to them for their structure, their size, and their lifespan. And they lack an easy path to make that change without feeling like they've failed.

As I've mentioned before, so many forces in the nonprofit arts system push organizations to get bigger and strive for longterm stability. Foundations almost exclusively give to 501c3 institutions, which leads to a biased selection process for new artists looking for a corporate structure. Individual donors generally want their gifts go to organizations that will last forever. And every other force of nature seems to nudge small organizations to get bigger, big organizations to get institutionalized, and institutional organization to become immortal through masses of invested capital.

It would be really interesting for clusters of smart and passionate people to help arts organizations at important transitions (in formation, in growth, in major forks in the road like leadership succession), helping them understand the many roads they might take to advance their art and maintain their vitality. Some could get smaller. Others could break into projects or pieces. Still others might decide that getting bigger actually serves their vision.

Perhaps I'm naive on the subject, but I believe if creative people had a better sense of their choices (beyond ''get bigger or die''), we'd end up with a much richer and more sustainable ecology of arts organizations and artists. In this process, some organizations would choose to dissolve, and we could certainly help them do so with grace. But others could choose to change in a thousand other ways than death.

Posted by ataylor at 12:05 AM | Comments (6)

August 7, 2006

But how do you REALLY feel about ballet?

Lewis Segal at the LA Times is fed up with ballet, and isn't afraid to say why in his recent opinion column.

Most ballet is every bit as bad as audiences secretly suspect -- and it's not going to improve until companies stop conning or shaming us into accepting damaged goods. In the meantime, guilt-free hatred of ballet is reasonable, maybe even necessary.

Ouch. Let the letters to the editor begin.

Thanks to Trevor and ArtsJournal for the link.

Posted by ataylor at 8:42 AM | Comments (0)

August 8, 2006

Designed to dissolve

We've been chatting a lot lately about the lifecycle of the nonprofit arts organization, and whether that cycle is as open as it could be to evolution, dissolution, or dramatic change. Thanks for the many thoughtful comments on the matter (here and here, for starters). But there's another wrinkle in the conversation worthy of note: nonprofit organizations that are designed to dissolve when their mission is complete.

One such wonderful case-in-point is Cultural Initiatives Silicon Valley. Formed in 1997 with a ten-year mission to improve arts education throughout Silicon Valley public schools, the organization is now winding down, spinning off its successful initiatives and handing out its assets to other organizations. Says Executive Director John Kreidler in a press release on the web site:

''Cultural Initiatives was intentionally established to operate for a finite period of time. The last ten years have involved very deliberate efforts to integrate the arts into various sectors of the community and to give that knowledge base to key partners so the programs would continue to thrive long after our organization was gone.''

Come December, Cultural Initiatives Silicon Valley will be gone. One of its major initiatives, the Creative Education Program, was handed off last month to the Santa Clara County Office of Education, along with a large grant, and the promise of more money from the coffers when the founding organization dissolves.

Clearly, the temporary arts organization model isn't for every initiative or purpose, but it's a model that could have real power in certain situations. When the goal is to gather forces, focus energy to change a specific part of the world, and then get out of the way, an advanced promise to dissolve can be yet one more catalyst for positive action.

Posted by ataylor at 8:40 AM | Comments (3)

August 9, 2006

Understanding and fulfilling the presenter's contract

The Presenter's ContractPublic presentations -- speeches, conference panels, reports, proposals, and so on -- can be engaging moments of learning or excruciating wastes of time, depending on how well the presenter understands his or her job and prepares to deliver on that understanding. The ability to make an engaging presentation remains one of the key competencies of an effective arts leader (or any other leader, for that matter).

Lucky for us, two gentlemen with a particular flair for presentation and public speaking have posted some thoughts on the matter, hoping to help us all get better at this essential element of our work.

The oft-mentioned Neill Archer Roan has posted a series of entries on his weblog, exploring how to frame and prepare for a public presentation. As you might expect, the planning encourages close analysis of the needs and interests of the audience, the outcome goal of the presentation, and the key knowledge points that will serve that audience and that outcome. Read on to learn more:

And just this month, another frequently cited sage on public presenting, Andy Goodman, posted his wonderfully sarcastic but insightful ''Presenter's Contract,'' making explicit all the implicit quirks of a live presentation to a group of people (you'll find it in his August 2006 newsletter, available in PDF format). Some choice clauses of the contract include:

AUDIENCE promises to instinctively and mercilessly judge PRESENTER within the first thirty (30) seconds of PRESENTER opening his or her mouth. In return, PRESENTER promises to plan, rehearse, and possibly even memorize the opening of his/her presentation to garner AUDIENCE's respect and to sustain its attention for the remainder of said presentation.

AUDIENCE promises to view overall presentation with naked self-interest, implicitly asking ''What's in it for me?'' In return, PRESENTER promises to conduct research prior to the presentation to understand AUDIENCE's interests and beliefs and to craft his/her presentation in such a manner as to speak directly to said interests and beliefs.

AUDIENCE promises to view PowerPoint slides that employ standardized templates (e.g., title followed by multiple bullet points) with disgust, loathing, or similar emotions of AUDIENCE's choosing. While PRESENTER's use of such slides shall not be considered a de facto termination of this agreement, it may permit AUDIENCE to exit said presentation, check email on BlackBerry or other handheld device, slide into unconsciousness, or any combination of the above.

Very useful stuff in both discussions. If we all followed the contract (and took our preparation seriously), imagine how our meetings, conferences, and public discussions would improve!

Posted by ataylor at 9:01 AM | Comments (2)

August 11, 2006

Sharing the power

Helen De Michiel of the National Alliance for Media Arts and Culture (NAMAC) has posted a thoughtful discussion about her organization's administrative division of labor. Instead of the traditional hierarchy with a single administrative director, NAMAC now has co-directors, sharing equally the burden of executive leadership. Says she:

Many arts nonprofits find themselves dealing with variations on two extremes: either directors don't stay long enough (burnout, not enough money, better opportunities) to really guide the organization into a next meaningful phase; or an entrenched executive director, exhibiting "founder's syndrome," has inadvertently molded the organization to fit his or her personality, while permitting little new oxygen into the mix.

Helen and her co-director Jack Walsh have carved out an executive partnership to avoid both problems, and to give each of them more time to step back, tend to their lives, and continue their creative work in the media arts.

It's certainly not a model for every organization. But its worth a read.

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

August 14, 2006

Mission, Models, and Money

The Mission, Models, Money initiative in the UK seems to be tracking similar issues to those in this weblog, through conferences, case studies, provocation papers, and such. Particularly interesting are their identified principal issues facing arts and cultural organizations in the UK, many of which might sound familiar across the pond in North America, as well.

  • How can we, as a sector, better engage with the changing demographic, technological and social environment?
  • What can be done to improve the capabilities of Arts and Culture Organizations (A&COs) to develop both new and more collaborative approaches to sustaining their customer/visitor base, develop new markets and build engagement and participation in the arts?
  • What strategic alliances could be developed between organisations to achieve back office cost efficiencies and how could these be extended 'front of house' to include more collaborative business models which, for example, enabled new kinds of artistic collaboration, better connections to culturally diverse communities and organisations or new income streams.
  • What are the priority issues with regard to governance in the not for profit arts sector what changes need to occur to reflect the changing landscape arts organisations are operating in?
  • What are the key competencies A&COs need in order to manage mission-led strategies which are successful both in terms of mission and financial sustainability?
  • How can we expand the financial capacity of A&COs, for example by creating reserves and/or developing new financial instruments and once created and/or developed how do we manage and control them?
  • What new methods of operation, business models and infrastructure will deliver sustainable, vibrant and cultural endeavour?

Also worth a read are the three provocation papers nudging their work, written by Adrian Ellis, John Knell, and Graham Devlin.

Posted by ataylor at 8:58 AM | Comments (1)

August 15, 2006

Help wanted

As I've mentioned before, I was recently elected president of the Association of Arts Administration Educators, an international membership organization of degree-granting programs in arts and cultural management, policy, and research. The association is now in the process of hiring its first-ever administrative director (part time), to support our members and advance our mission.

I figured I'd shamelessly exploit my weblog to spread the news about the job, and encourage all of you to pass it along to anyone interested.

Formalized education (undergraduate and graduate) in arts and cultural management is an extrordinarily juicy puzzle, leading our members to all sorts of interesting conversations and debates. If you're interested in making those discussions more dynamic and more productive, consider the gig (also available as a PDF download).

Posted by ataylor at 8:34 AM | Comments (6)

August 16, 2006

The path to California's $500 million for arts education

The Music for All blog tracks the efforts and political forces that led to California's astounding public investment in K-12 arts education -- including $105 million in annual block grants for arts and music education, and a one-time, $500 million capital allocation for the purchase of sports, arts, and music equipment.

The new state budget is 500 million miles away from its position a few short years ago, when California appeared to be gutting its public arts infrastructure.

The weblog offers a few lessons learned from the coordinated effort to boost state arts funding. Worth a read if you want to nudge your governor to go the way of Arnold.

Posted by ataylor at 9:37 AM | Comments (1)

August 17, 2006

Pandora's music box

I'll admit a strange fascination with the "recommendation engines" scattered around the on-line world, that take lists of things you like (through purchase or claimed preference), and suggest things you'd probably also like. The bulk of these systems seem to use collaborative filtering software to match the patterns of your choices with a database of other user preferences (ie, Amazon's "users who bought this book also bought...").

Pandora Internet Radio uses an altogether different approach...matching artists and songs based on their 'genetics,' or the fundamental qualities of the musical performance and composition. Say the folks at Pandora:

Together we set out to capture the essence of music at the most fundamental level. We ended up assembling literally hundreds of musical attributes or "genes" into a very large Music Genome. Taken together these genes capture the unique and magical musical identity of a song -- everything from melody, harmony and rhythm, to instrumentation, orchestration, arrangement, lyrics, and of course the rich world of singing and vocal harmony. It's not about what a band looks like, or what genre they supposedly belong to, or about who buys their records -- it's about what each individual song sounds like.

Each user may not agree with that those fundamental genes are, or how they should be combined. But the discovery process the system allows is rather fun to listen to, and fascinating to explore. Give a listen.

Posted by ataylor at 8:54 AM | Comments (2)

August 21, 2006

Batting 600

A quick glance at my weblog stats shows this to be my 600th post since I launched this effort in July 2003. I thought I'd mark the occassion by saying absolutely nothing of enduring value.

Besides, our MBA orientation starts this morning, and my attention is necessarily directed toward a new batch of fabulous Arts Administration students, and a new set of possibilities for interesting conversation (plus, there's free coffee!).

Posted by ataylor at 8:36 AM | Comments (3)

August 23, 2006

Better learning through comics

Bound by LawIntellectual property law is a sticky business for creative individuals -- especially those who end up including existing works of expression in their creative works (documentary filmmakers, for example). Unfortunately, most educational materials on the subject are as dense, dull, and disengaging as the law itself. Not so with Bound by Law, a copyright textbook in comic book form.

It's a whimsical but extraordinarily informative effort on an essential topic for artists and arts organizations. Says the blurb:

A documentary is being filmed. A cell phone rings, playing the "Rocky" theme song. The filmmaker is told she must pay $10,000 to clear the rights to the song. Can this be true? "Eyes on the Prize," the great civil rights documentary, was pulled from circulation because the filmmakers' rights to music and footage had expired. What's going on here? It's the collision of documentary filmmaking and intellectual property law, and it's the inspiration for this new comic book. Follow its heroine Akiko as she films her documentary, and navigates the twists and turns of intellectual property. Why do we have copyrights? What's "fair use"? Bound By Law reaches beyond documentary film to provide a commentary on the most pressing issues facing law, art, property and an increasingly digital world of remixed culture.

Now, if only someone would write a comic book on capital finance structure in the nonprofit arts. Perhaps the hero could be "Bond...Tax-exempt Bond."

Posted by ataylor at 8:55 AM | Comments (2)

August 24, 2006

Living a different life

I've mentioned the Beloit College Mindset List once before in this weblog (back in 2003). But since it's become a ritual for me to read at the beginning of every school year, it warrants another mention.

The mindset list describes the world as experienced by the incoming freshman class each year. It's intended to remind Beloit College faculty that their own experiences and cultural references are not consistently shared by their students. Says the intro to this year's list:

Most 18-year-old students entering the class of 2010 this fall were born in 1988. They grew up with a mouse in one hand and a computer screen as part of their worldview. They learned to surf the internet as they learned to read. While they were still in their cribs, the 20th century started to close as the Berlin Wall came down, the Soviet bloc disintegrated, and frequent traditional wars in Latin America gave way to the uncontrolled terrors of the Middle East.

It's extraordinarily helpful for anyone who longs to connect with a younger world -- including arts marketers, managers, educators, development professionals, artists, and such -- to recognize this cultural disconnect. To offer some highlights from the list, for citizens born in 1988:

  • The Soviet Union has never existed and therefore is about as scary as the student union.
  • For most of their lives, major U.S. airlines have been bankrupt.
  • There has always been only one Germany.
  • "Google" has always been a verb.
  • Phantom of the Opera has always been on Broadway.
  • They have rarely mailed anything using a stamp.


Posted by ataylor at 8:36 AM | Comments (1)

August 25, 2006

Keeping an eye on the kitty

While motivating, trusting, and supporting their dedicated staff is a primary issue for cultural managers, it's also their duty to keep a close eye on the cash. The Orange County Performing Arts Center found this out the hard way this past spring as it discovered an employee had stolen $1.85 million from the coffers (more on this case here).

Auditors have several red flags they look for when sniffing out fraud or theft. Employee pressures and incentives are key indicators (personal financial problems or ill will against the organization), as are opportunities left open by easy access to cash or inventory, or lack of financial controls. Finally, attitudes and rationalizations by staff can suggest a need to dig a bit deeper (disregard for accounting controls, sudden change in lifestyle, and such). Full details of these risk factors are on-line, including specific examples of what to look for (thanks to Nonprofit Eye for the link).

It's an unpleasant reality you may never have to face. But you owe it to your donors, your constituents, and your board to be alert.

Posted by ataylor at 7:29 AM | Comments (2)

August 28, 2006

It turns out EVERYBODY wants to be flexible

Management and marketing consulting firm AMS Planning & Research has a new on-line newsletter with knowledge nuggets mined from their work in the arts. Of particular interest in this article on the subtleties of single ticket and subscription buyers.

The common wisdom about the two groups has been that single-ticket buyers value flexibility over all...willing to lose the best seat and the best price to keep their schedules clear. But, AMS has discovered that even subscribers value flexibility, although defined slightly differently:

Single ticket buyers we interviewed preferred a high level of flexibility -- in terms of both what they bought and when they bought it. But subscribers also sought flexibility -- to better incorporate performance events into their busy and unpredictable schedules while still availing themselves of the benefits of a subscription.

Many multi-ticket buyers use the subscription to make placeholders for arts experiences in their schedules. For these folks, the exchange policy of the arts organization becomes a key element of their final purchase decision.

Perhaps it's not revelatory, but it's a useful bit of nuance in the marketing and support of subscribers. And, heaven knows, that advance commitment and cash is worth a little extra attention.

Posted by ataylor at 8:56 AM | Comments (2)

August 29, 2006

An early holiday gift from the U.S. Census

It was Christmas in August for a select set of policy wonks, researchers, economists, and statisticians as the U.S. Census Bureau released its American Community Survey results a few weeks back. The data set provides 2005 demographic information for communities larger than 65,000, offering the first such updates for many since Census 2000.

The less data-inclined among you might say, "so what." But, those with a true curiosity for their market area and their organization's role in its community will be warming up their Excel skills, and digging into the American Factfinder for the fresh insights on ethnic mix, economic status, family size, and other population trends.

So much of our decision-making in the nonprofit arts (or anywhere else, for that matter) is driven by hunch and vague speculation. It's always exciting (trust me, it's exciting) to get real data on the people we claim to serve.

Posted by ataylor at 9:34 AM | Comments (0)

August 30, 2006

Going to scale without falling to pieces

There's lots of focus in the entrepreneurship community about ''going to scale'' or successfully growing a small business into a major player. Anyone who has experienced a rapidly growing organization has seen the tension -- old methods and models fail to function at a certain volume of business, formerly tightknit organizational cultures fray at the edges, cash flow evaporates as service level rises before revenue comes back in.

The same ''scaling'' challenges hold true for nonprofit arts organizations, where rapid growth can come for many reasons (moving into a new, fancy facility; receiving a major gift; hiring a new artistic leader with a bold vision; and so on). Smart managers realize (sooner or later) that they can't run a larger organization just as they ran the smaller one. Instead, they have to balance the qualities that made them successful against the new control, staffing, and capital requirements of the bigger beast.

Nonprofit consultant Steven LaFrance explores this balancing act in his weblog on the subject. According to LaFrance and his colleagues, smart nonprofits need to balance seven capacities while increasing their scale, or risk coming apart at the seams:

  1. MISSION: Defining and Adhering to Core Mission. Clearly defining and adhering to the mission provides focus for decision-making and resource deployment during the scaling process.
  2. STRUCTURE: Balancing Control and Flexibility. Scaling, particularly when it entails organizational expansion, places great challenges on organizational and management structures. The challenge is to balance control with flexibility for innovation and impact.
  3. MODEL: Codifying What Works. Impact can be scaled more effectively by clearly articulating essential components of the model so that it can be more easily and faithfully replicated.
  4. CULTURE: Cultivating and Perpetuating the Culture. For scaling to succeed, organizations must cultivate and perpetuate during the scaling process those aspects of the culture--shared values, behaviors and norms--that are critical for mission achievement.
  5. DATA: Collecting and Using Data. The ability to gather and use data can be critical for informing important scaling-related decisions such as establishing needs in new issue or geographic areas, demonstrating the effectiveness of a model, setting priorities, and choosing strategies.
  6. RESOURCES: Connecting Fundraising to the Mission. Successfully-scaled social entrepreneurships are able to expand their resource base by viewing fundraising as a way to achieve mission and by finding ways to connect supporters to programmatic work.
  7. LEADERSHIP AND GOVERNANCE: Making the Right Decisions for Scaling. Leaders and boards are the agents that initiate and manage the scaling process. Strong leadership and governance means making sure the right decisions are made to foster greater mission achievement during what is often a period of rapid organizational change.

Of course, the larger question is whether to scale up at all. Sometimes the choice not to grow is the most powerful choice of all.

Posted by ataylor at 9:02 AM | Comments (0)

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