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December 1, 2004

The Ten Commandments of Arts Advocacy

A colleague recently reminded me of a wonderful keynote speech given many moons ago about arts advocacy and connecting the arts to their communities. I'm usually not a big fan of lists (the seven habits of highly effective habit-book writers, for example), but this one is useful for describing an essential management skillset.

Diane Mataraza used to run the Locals program at the National Endowment for the Arts, then moved to the NARAS Foundation, and finally into consulting, where she remains today. I've seen her in action on a few occassions, and heard her talk about what she does. In terms of connecting and being connected to a broad constituency, she's at the top of the game.

So, having her list her 'ten commandments of advocacy' is something worth a moment of time. And here they are, in cryptic form:

  1. Know thy cause
  2. Know thy issues
  3. Be well organized
  4. Know thy community
  5. Know thy public officials
  6. Know thy process
  7. Remember that the levels of success are directly proportional to the numbers involved
  8. Be persistent
  9. Forget not the characteristics of human nature
  10. Lead by example.
Details of each commandment are halfway through the speech (jump right to that section, if you like). So, go ye into all the world, raise ye money, schmooze ye legislators, and make ye powerful friends.

Posted by ataylor at 9:37 AM

December 3, 2004

Shrinking media and lagging coverage

Back in 1999, the National Arts Journalism Program at Columbia did a study of arts coverage in major metropolitan news sources (including newspapers, network television, online media, the alternative press and the ethnic press). The report intended to be a benchmark for future studies, tracking trends in arts reporting, arts attention, and even arts column inches over time.

Years later, NAJP has released a second report on how that universe has changed for arts reporting. And the news isn't particularly good. From the press release:

...while more Americans than ever are participating in cultural activities and the arts have gained in size and complexity, the resources that metro-area newsrooms allocate to the arts are generally flat or in retreat. Overall, there are fewer arts-related articles; newsrooms are devoting more of their arts space to listings; and electronic media are supplanting newspapers as a source for arts coverage.

More specifically, the recent study found that while arts sections had maintained 'relative positions of prominence at metropolitan newspapers,' they had the same relative slice of a smaller pie. Newspapers are shrinking, as it turns out, and arts coverage is shrinking along with them. Also, the stories that did make the paper were shorter on average than five years ago. The biggest losses of column inches were by newspaper staffers, who lost ground to freelancers, syndicated content, and wire services in total arts coverage.

Events listings also held their ground as column inches declined, leaving less space for narrative in the newspaper pages.

The report also discovered that even mass entertainment was slowly being slighted by the media mechine:

The tabloid television news programs -- Entertainment Tonight, Access Hollywood and Extra -- teem with celebrity soundbites and entertainment clips. Yet almost half their content concerns gossip, scandal and non-show-business stories rather than coverage of mass entertainment itself.

There's good stuff in this report, and some distracting essays in the back worth a moment of your time (see Robert Brustein on theater criticism, and Joseph Horowitz on classical music criticism...which seems perpetually at a crossroads).

I often wonder who actually reads these kinds of reports, beyond their authors, their funders, and scattered policy geeks like me. But it's a fascinating endeavor to measure what we value over time by the inches in a newspaper and the moments on the tube. I hope a slightly wider circle will give it a look.

Posted by ataylor at 12:20 AM

December 6, 2004

Uncluttered, unmuddled, unearthed

Americans for the Arts has always been a vast resource for data, research, publications, and especially advocacy materials for the arts. Now they've finally reconceived their web site so that people can actually get to that material. Chief among the newly organized goodies are:

  • The Arts Education Online Resource Center has stats and resources for anyone hoping to assess and improve their local school district's efforts in the arts.
  • The Youth Arts Toolkit supports and explores arts-related programming for at-risk youth.
  • 2004 Election Impact on the Arts provides an assessment of the candidates and election initiatives across the country, and their possible effect on arts activity (available for PDF download)
They are still working out the kinks of the new web site, so it's not quite a completely clear and consistent resource for the arts yet. But it's a thousand miles better and more useful than it was before, making it manna from heaven for data- and information-starved arts managers everywhere.

Posted by ataylor at 8:34 AM

December 8, 2004

Another iPod-inspired techno-trend

There's a new form of audio distribution bubbling up around the Internet, in the form of 'Podcasting,' a combination of Internet news feeds, downloaded audio files, and personal audio players like the Apple iPod.

Here's the gist of it:
There are a wealth of new ways to automatically grab text-based news and information to your computer, to your PDA, and across websites (all ArtsJournal weblogs have what's called an RSS Feed, designed to do just this). These files are in a simple, common format, that make their maintenance automatic (when I add this post, for example, my news feed is automatically updated, and anyone subscribed to it will get the update, as well).

Kinda geeky, but ultimately an interesting and useful advancement of content sharing.

On the other side of the system, there's this rapidly growing base of digital audio players, like the iPod, that are designed to synchronize audio files with your computer, so you can carry them around with you, allowing you to ignore other people on the subway more than usual.

Podcasting combines these two things: an automated way of updating content, and a large installed base of audio players. What you get is an automatically updated list of audio files that your computer grabs from the Internet, and your digital audio player grabs from your computer. So, instead of just their existing library of songs and audio books, users get constantly refreshed additional content to discover at their leisure. There are already quite a few Podcast feeds available, in all categories of content. More are coming quickly.

'Well, gee, Mr. Wizard,' you might say, if you were a tweener from the 1950s. 'Why are you dragging us through this techno-tutorial?' Here's why:

So much of cultural management is delivering rich content to an audience, one way or another. This content includes audio like music, or spoken word performances. But it also includes ideas and conversation surrounding a performance...artist interviews, conductor reflections on a certain performance, panel discussions, and such.

Podcasting is one of many new ways to come for cheaply distributing such content to your audience. Imagine a community-wide Podcasting site, where arts organizations could post audio interviews and discussions relating to their coming performances. Imagine a whole new branch of public-broadcasting-like content, that doesn't rely on the narrow and jam-packed broadcast frequencies (one site is already promoting the trend as a good prospect for advocacy efforts).

Podcasting may turn out to be another interesting idea that doesn't catch on. But technologies like it, that combine several existing trends in content distribution and consumer connection, are bound to be of use to the innovative arts organization that dares to use them.

Posted by ataylor at 8:41 AM

December 9, 2004

A bake sale on steroids

This month, the city of Chicago has been taking the traditional arts auction on-line in The Great Chicago Fire Sale, which they claim to be 'the first-ever municipally sponsored eBay charity auction.' While it's an evolutionary idea, rather than revolutionary, it did catch the attention of the UK Guardian a few weeks back.

Funds from the auction are designated to supplement efforts by the Chicago Department of Cultural Affairs, specifically in support of the Chicago Cultural Center, cultural grants, and Gallery 37. Items include a 1960s Playboy Bunny outfit, several decommissioned parking meters, arts, crafts, nights on the town, and other experiential goodies.

It's an interesting evolution when municipalities enter the fundraising business, beyond the taxing, legislating, and governance elements of their work. I'm guessing that the local arts organizations in Chicago are of mixed feelings...happy for the national media, wary of competition from yet another player in the game.

UPDATE: In another odd interchange of city government and charitable support, the city of Boston is allowing people to pay parking tickets with toys. For tickets of a certain type issued within a certain time frame, violators just bring in a toy, along with a receipt showing the value matches the fine. The goodies go to Toys for Tots. While it's a lovely idea, I'm wondering if the city office really had authority to forgo city revenue for a specific charitable cause.

Posted by ataylor at 9:17 AM

December 10, 2004

Myths of the creative workforce

Fast Company has a brief story on creativity in the workplace, and myth-challenging findings of at least one researcher. Teresa Amabile of Harvard Business School asked over 200 workers to keep daily diaries, and then coded the results for creativity issues. Her discoveries suggest that our common knowledge about creative energy isn't entirely true, and that the 'creative class' is more inclusive than we think.

Here are three of the six myths identified in the article, with supporting quotes by Amabile:

  • Myth One: Creativity Comes from Creative Types
    ''The fact is, almost all of the research in this field shows that anyone with normal intelligence is capable of doing some degree of creative work. Creativity depends on a number of things: experience, including knowledge and technical skills; talent; an ability to think in new ways; and the capacity to push through uncreative dry spells. Intrinsic motivation -- people who are turned on by their work often work creatively -- is especially critical.''
  • Myth Two: Money is a Creativity Motivator
    ''Of course, people need to feel that they're being compensated fairly. But our research shows that people put far more value on a work environment where creativity is supported, valued, and recognized. People want the opportunity to deeply engage in their work and make real progress.''
  • Myth Three: Time Pressure Fuels Creativity
    ''In our diary study, people often thought they were most creative when they were working under severe deadline pressure. But the 12,000 aggregate days that we studied showed just the opposite: People were the least creative when they were fighting the clock....Time pressure stifles creativity because people can't deeply engage with the problem. Creativity requires an incubation period; people need time to soak in a problem and let the ideas bubble up.''
The article ends with an affirmation from Amabile:

''My 30 years of research and these 12,000 journal entries suggest that when people are doing work that they love and they're allowed to deeply engage in it -- and when the work itself is valued and recognized -- then creativity will flourish. Even in tough times.''

It also probably helps to have computers that work, enough printer paper, and an organizational mission that isn't larger than life.

Posted by ataylor at 8:47 AM

December 13, 2004

Monday brain-bender

In my web wanderings, I stumbled once again on the writings of Marvin Minsky, a big-brained gentleman at MIT, who has contributed seminal thoughts to the fields of artificial intelligence, cognitive psychology, mathematics, computational linguistics, robotics, and optics, among others.

Within his diverse interests, Minsky also has a fascination for music as a cognitive process...what it does, why we like it, how we can think about those things. While the reading is fairly thick, it's a fascinating perspective for anyone that has to market, engage, educate, fundraise, or otherwise advocate the role of music in our lives.

In one paper, ''Music, Mind, and Meaning,'' he spins out some of his thinking on why we like music, and why traditional theory and analysis miss the mark by miles:

It has become taboo for music theorists to ask why we like what we like: our seekers have forgotten what they are searching for. To be sure, we can't account for tastes, in general, because people have various preferences. But this means only that we have to find the causes of this diversity of tastes, and this in turn means we must see that music theory is not only about music, but about how people process it. To understand any art, we must look below its surface into the psychological details of its creation and absorption.

Minsky explores our engagement with music from a cognitive perspective -- as a way of thinking, a way of learning, a way of focusing or redirecting our brain activity (to calm, to challenge, to reinforce). That exploration quickly leads him through emotions, reasoning, and other curiosities of the human brain.

Also worth a moment (or 20 minutes, actually), is Minsky's September 2004 interview on BBC (available in MP3 format), in which he discusses Beethoven, emotions, reason, and where they all combine.

Posted by ataylor at 8:54 AM

December 14, 2004

The ol' revenue shuffle

Two separate news items this week made for an interesting contrast. In New York, cultural institutions are mulling or justifying entry fee increases in the face of decreased funding from the city. In London, similar institutions are squirming under a new deal with the government to keep their entry free for another three years.

In both cases, arts organizations are making a direct connection between government subsidy, and their ability to provide low-cost or no-cost access to cultural works.

In New York, the 34 city-owned arts facilities known as the Cultural Institutions Group heard directly from the mayor about required cuts to their operations -- matching similar cuts to other city agencies. In the face of sluggish economy, lower endowments, reduced giving, and other elements of 'the perfect storm' of cultural management, the only element left in their arsenal, it seems, is entry fees.

In London, the government has a heavier hand in cultural enterprise, and basically mandated free entry to museums, offering some increased compensation to some museums that had charged admission.

Of course, the challenge in both cases is the volume of visitors. There's not much discussion in New York (at least not published) about how price-sensitive cultural attendees actually are. If they are very sensitive, a higher price will dramatically impact attendance, leading to a net loss in revenue. If they're not price-sensitive, it will be a ride on the gravy train.

In London, the common understanding (and the evidence of the past few years) is that admission and attendance are dramatically inter-related. Attendance at London museums is up quite a lot in many cases. But that increase leads to higher operational costs -- maintenance, cleaning, security, and so on. So, the loss of a variable revenue stream like admissions can again lead to a net negative impact on the budget.

And then there's that pesky element of mission, the bane of the cold-hearted revenue calculation. Even if the majority of attendees are not price-sensitive, odds are there's an element of any community that can't afford the expense. Arts organizations are usually quite smart about playing this particular card when discussing government subsidy. But when the government is struggling to keep up garbage collection and sewer lines, access to Renoirs and Greek sculpture doesn't always ring as essential.

NOTE: In news updates today, the UK government announced freezes and cuts to the bulk of subsidy and support for arts organizations. While the national museums fared reasonably well, the rest of the NGO cultural ecology are gnashing their teeth.

Posted by ataylor at 8:41 AM

December 16, 2004

Convenience at a cost

The grocery store loyalty cards that started to appear in the late 1980s were a first glimpse at a new phenomenon in retail and service industries: the subtle trading of personal privacy for price discounts and convenience. With a grocery loyalty or convenience card, you get access to special discounts at the register, and the ability to write or cash personal checks. But you also hand over a list of everything you buy, when you buy it, and how often, to the store and its consultants.

Grocery stores aggregate this data, connect it to the information you supplied when you signed up for the card (street address and ZIP code are really all they need to unlock the data mining opportunities), and then manage their inventory, their sales strategies, and their product placement based on what they learn. According to this consulting firm's web site, that massive data flow can have practical benefits even with the most basic analysis:

Consider the classic justification for association-based algorithms: The operator of a super market chain would like to know what is the common basket of goods that describes the typical Joe Doe shopper. In other words, he would like to classify the thousands of customers that patronize the super markets into realistic segments that he can serve uniquely.

Millions and millions of transactions that describe the buying behavior of these customers are collected, scrubbed and processed in order to establish a basket of goods similar to the ones shown below.

{eggs, orange juice, butter, diapers, tissue papers..}

{leafy vegetables, orange juice, butter, soft drinks, soya sauce}

{eggs, pepper, orange juice, bread, diapers, cereals, seafood}

{potatoes, leafy vegetables, Milo, soya sauce, fruits}

Fairly freaky, but just the beginning. There's a new technology in town that's likely to take this kind of activity and purchase tracking to a whole new universe. Radio frequency identification tags (RFID) are the hot topic among all sorts of retailers and service providers, and even among cultural types like libraries and museums.

An RFID tag is a tiny little computer chip that carries some basic identification code (like a bar code). This information can be scanned by radio frequency to give up its secrets, and integrate with a bunch of other databases for analysis.

You can imagine the benefits of RFID for inventory management in a warehouse, or book cataloging in a library. If every item has a tag, all you have to do is scan the stacks wirelessly to find out what's there, and even where it is. Take two steps forward in the concept, and you could also see RFID chips placed on or near museum displays, triggering specific audio or text on a visitor's handheld computer (at least one museum is doing this already).

But imagine the power and glory of attaching these little wonders to human beings. Gas stations have done this for a while, with their little keychain fobs that allow you to pay for gas with a waive of your keys. Toll roads are using a similar technology to allow for 'EZ Pass' drive-through toll booths. Now entertainment and service industries are coming out to play, such as theme parks.

According to this article from back in May, several theme parks are now testing RFID systems for use on their patrons. You would grab one of these wristbands or buttons as you enter, load it up with money so you don't need to open your wallet once you're there, and waive it as you buy drinks, enter rides, sit down for lunch, or watch a show. Better yet, get separate wristbands for your whole family, so your kids can buy stuff when you're not looking.

Behind the lure of safety and convenience is a massive data mining effort, looking for what you do, where you do it, how long it takes you to get from place to place, and where there might be long voids of time when you aren't buying things. Says the article

Often, says Manning [a consultant on such things], visitors enter a theme park, get overwhelmed by rides and other attractions, and wander aimlessly or not at allčand sometimes don't buy anything. ''Kids are random variables,'' says Manning. ''The ultimate benefit will be to monitor the randomness and eliminate downtime.''

Ultimately, parks could provide personal itineraries and use the same yield management techniques as the airlines to populate rides and target demographic groups such as boys 10 to 16 years old, says Manning. The best park managers will use this data to document customer behavior such as how customers enter a park and what they do once inside.

It's not clear whether the patrons using these systems really understand the terms of the transaction, or that their personal privacy is really what's for sale. But the RFID train is coming on fast for many elements of the entertainment industry, including, no doubt, some aggressive organizations in the arts. The cost? If you have a high volume of visitors, it will likely pay for itself:

If a visitor buys one more $3 Coca-Cola at the park because of the RFID wristbands, it will go a long way toward paying for the project.

[NOTE: If you want to see some of the many things retailers can do with this aggregated data, be sure to read this glossary of terms. Yikes.]

Posted by ataylor at 9:08 AM

December 20, 2004

Selling what you can't change

Independent film distributors are a lot like arts marketers -- some would say they are arts marketers. As independents, they lack the studio space or production capacity of the major studios. Instead, they look for completed films (at film festivals and such) to package and deliver to the world. Like all other arts marketers, therefore, they are selling a product they don't have the opportunity or the right to alter. And so begins the chase.

This sunday's New York Times Magazine magazine (login required) featured a story on one such independent distributor, Bob Berney of Newmarket Films. Berney has marketed such challenging independents as Monster, Passion of the Christ, Whale Rider, and Memento, among others, to great commercial success. Now he's working with a film with a market-killing subject: a relapsing pedophile in The Woodsman, starring Kevin Bacon.

His tactics? Emphasize the elements of the film that will resonate and intrigue an audience. In the case of the Kevin Bacon film, the media spots and publicity focus on a dark secret, a troubled past, and a personal struggle with internal demons. Berney also relies heavily on word-of-mouth, web marketing, and other methods that encourage a recommendation engine among those that have seen the film. One film director said this about Berney's strategy with one challenging film:

''Bob didn't want to change the film -- he tried to rework the system to fit the movie.''
Arts marketers also live in a world where they cannot change the product they sell -- at least not its direct content. For very good reasons, creative process and production are insulated (not always effectively) from the marketing machine. And the resulting experience isn't always the most obviously engaging to an audience, or resonant with their experience.

But successful independent distributors might have some useful ideas for connecting an audience to difficult and challenging work. And goodness knows, we need all the help on that subject we can find (for those that care, I wrote an entry on a similar subject last year).

Says one fan of Berney's work, an investor in the current film:

''Bob Berney has made art profitable, and that's an art in itself.''

Posted by ataylor at 8:50 AM

December 21, 2004

A major league question

NBC news ran a story last night on the struggle for a professional baseball team in Washington, DC. It seems the mayor made a deal with major league baseball that the city would cover the cost of the stadium ($440 million) as part of the package to win the team. Now the city council is balking at the pricetag, especially as other public services (like public schools) are coming apart at the seams. They suggest the city should only pay for half of the construction, with private money covering the rest.

It should come as no surprise to any arts manager that the arguments are focusing on economic impact:

Proponents argue baseball would be a bonanza for Washington -- citing how new stadiums in Cleveland and Baltimore have revitalized once run-down neighborhoods. But a new stadium in Seattle hasn't had that effect, and sports economists argue there's no reason to think a new ballpark would rejuvenate Washington's dilapidated waterfront.

Sounds a bit like all city council arguments surrounding cultural facility development or subsidy.

The inevitable public opinion poll informing the media debate didn't look too good for the baseball big-wigs, showing that 56 percent of those surveyed supported the city council's position. At least one citizen seemed a bit miffed at the question:

''Let them take their team and get out of town,'' said Carla Gaskins, 36, a homemaker and mother of four who lives in Southwest Washington. ''Let's get a new tax to raise money to build a new hospital. We can use new schools. We have so many other needs,'' she said. Baseball owners, she added, were "gaming D.C. to see how high we can jump.''

The debate in DC is yet one more reason arts supporters and enthusiasts should be polishing up some fresher and more robust arguments for cultural activity and development in American cities. The economic impact approach had good traction for a while, even though most knew it to be weak and biased. But now that a full range of other folks are beating it into the ground, it won't have such traction for long.

I was particularly interested to see the reference in the NBC story to 'sports economists,' especially in the plural -- showing media acceptance of a new and struggling branch of academia. For those that doubt there are more than one (they showed one on the TV story, and the tagline under his name proved it...'sports economist'), just take a look at their academic journal.

And yes, Virginia, arts and culture has its own economic journal fact, more than one. Check out the Journal of Cultural Economics, the Journal of Arts Management, Law, and Society, or the International Journal of Arts Management.

Posted by ataylor at 11:10 AM

December 22, 2004

Talk about an enthusiastic audience

What would you say if over 9,000 of your audience members pitched in to design, produce, and pay for a two-page advertising spread in the New York Times? And what might that say about their common connection to your mission, your purpose, and your work?

That exact sort of audience evangelism came to pass on December 15, in the form of this two-page ad spread (see bottom of page) for Firefox, a new web browser developed by a nonprofit organization in direct competition with Microsoft's Internet Explorer. The ad and the campaign were the brainchild of Minneapolis marketer Rob Davis, who doesn't work for the software company. He just liked the computer program and wanted to spread the word.

It's the most recent and public evidence of the Internet's ability to aggregate and focus vast numbers of like-minded individuals, with a passion for a product, a candidate, or a way of life. Weblogs and related technology helped spark the fire. Howard Dean's presidential campaign nudged the process even further with the web systems designed to support his grass-roots campaigning (now called CivicSpace).

For more examples of customer evangelism, and companies working to harness its energy, see the Church of the Customer weblog. The site's a bit hucksterish in its promotion of the authors' book on the subject. But it's a good place to start.

Or, check out Bzzagent, a social networking system designed to recruit and engage word-of-mouth marketers.

Posted by ataylor at 12:06 AM

December 23, 2004

Home for the holidays

I'll be off from my blogging behavior for the coming week, returning to the task on Monday, January 3. Here's wishing you and yours a wonderful holiday season. Thanks for reading. I'll see you soon.

Posted by ataylor at 7:59 AM

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