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December 4, 2007

Support the contents or the box?

The Guardian's Lyn Gardner offers a humble suggestion for a proposed levy on tickets to support London's West End theater infrastructure: such money should support the contents before it supports the box. Says Gardner:

In recent years, far too much public money has gone on capital projects and keeping the lavatories working in subsidised theatres, and far too little into the work that actually goes on stage. An empty theatre is just a building and nothing more, and if that building is not fit for 21st century theatrical purpose, then why not turn it into something else?....

If we have to make choices between putting public money into bricks and mortar or into making art and nurturing the next generation of artists, I know where I want it to go.

The challenge, of course, is that both sides are right. The contents (at least in their current form) need a box. And the box needs content. The trick is finding a resource balance -- from earned, contributed, and public funds -- that grows the two together.

Posted by ataylor at 8:44 AM | Comments (2)

December 5, 2007

Why we should care about Guitar Hero

KCRW's The Business radio program has a great segment (about 20 minutes in) on the continuing rise of rock-performance-related video games like Guitar Hero and the hotly hyped Rock Band from MTV.

While the addictive games may seem more like mimicry than musicianship to some (the goal is to click the correct buttons on your plastic guitar game controller, in sync with the music and fret boards on-screen), there's something more to the experience than that.

The radio interview features Alex Rigopulos, co-founder of Harmonix Music Systems, and co-developer of both the original Guitar Hero and the new Rock Band games. Says Rigopulos about the origins of the idea:

When we started the company, we weren't thinking about video games at all. We were really just motivated to fix what we believed to be a problem in the world that needed fixing, which is that playing music is one of the most profoundly joyful experiences that life has to offer. Everybody feels this innate urge to make music. And yet very few people get to have access to what it feels like.

The games have created a frenzy of toy-guitar-cranking among all ages, and even inspired an entire episode of South Park. Further, they've generated a new and unexpected stream of money to the music publishers that hold the rights to the classic rock songs (yes, Virginia, video game companies pay royalties on those rock songs). And since my kids have started playing it (it was a gift, I swear), they're mysteriously drawn to classic rock radio stations. I even catch my 10-year-old singing ''Smoke on the Water'' and old Allman Brothers Band music. Very odd.

Certainly, there's the same eye-body reflex challenge in these games as the ever-popular Dance Dance Revolution games. But there is also something in the feeling of making music, however approximate it might be, that's well worth our attention. And the evolution of group performance -- in the multi-player, multi-instrument Rock Band -- ads the element of ensemble to the mix. Making the feeling even more powerful.

I'm not sure if Cello Hero or Lute Hero would do the same for more historical forms of music, or Brecht Hero for theater lovers. But we can ponder the idea, can't we?

Posted by ataylor at 9:07 AM | Comments (5)

December 6, 2007

A ruckus on rankings

When faced with a complex and important decision in our lives, how do we choose? How do we filter the available options, weigh their various merits and costs, and navigate the series of decisions and actions required to move on?

It's a question at the core of cultural management, even though our community's choice to attend or donate or volunteer may not be life-changing on its own. And it's certainly a question at the core of complex, resource-intensive, and time-consuming service providers -- like colleges or universities, or major gift campaigns.

Increasingly, third-party ranking or evaluation agents are stepping in to help frame and filter the decision process. Charity Navigator runs the numbers on nonprofits for prospective donors, measuring their financial and organizational health through a complex point system. GuideStar offers a similar evaluation service, now linked with a direct opportunity to contribute. In the college marketplace, magazines (like U.S. News) and other information providers rank and cluster colleges and universities through their own algorithms.

These efforts to rank and filter are certainly necessary, as choice and reach expand ever faster for those with a decision to make. And yet, the underlying assumptions that drive these rankings pose a fundamental challenge to the systems they seek to inform.

Nowhere is this challenge more evident than in higher education. Rankings have been around for a long time, but the reach of the Internet and the exploding competition for resources have brought them to a new plateau in influence. Rising in national rankings has become a core promise in alumni giving campaigns, and a key indicator of institutional success. Many curriculum and admissions decisions are now driven, in larger part, by their impact on the rankings, and measured against the algorithms of these third-party assessors.

It is, perhaps, the inevitable result of an increasingly complex and connected system, when true value is impossible to define. But it is a challenge that will likely continue its reach into more markets (like arts and culture).

Many universities and colleges are beginning to push back, and question their increasing emphasis on external rankings over internally defined measures of success. One cluster is working through the Education Conservancy, which circulated an open letter to presidents of higher education last May. That letter claimed the system was flawed and dangerous because such rankings:

  • imply a false precision and authority that is not warranted by the data they use;
  • obscure important differences in educational mission in aligning institutions on a single scale;
  • say nothing or very little about whether students are actually learning at particular colleges or universities;
  • encourage wasteful spending and gamesmanship in institutions' pursuing improved rankings;
  • overlook the importance of a student in making education happen and overweight the importance of a university's prestige in that process; and
  • degrade for students the educational value of the college search process.

These rankings and algorithms can't be ignored or stopped, but they most definitely should be understood by the leaders they might influence. To the extent that their evaluations align with your mission and reflect your larger purpose, all the better for you. But when the indicators downplay or fail to capture your organization's unique value or impact, you'll need to decide where to draw the line in the sand.

Posted by ataylor at 8:37 AM | Comments (0)

December 10, 2007

When even local isn't local anymore

My local alternative weekly, The Isthmus, recently profiled the face and voice of a persistent trend in local radio -- the random shuffle with the human persona. While the idea has been in play for several years (here's a story from back on 2005), it's rare to actually hear from the human behind the facade.

The radio format forgoes local DJs and programmed playlists for semi-random shuffles from a slightly wider palette. To compensate for the lack of a local voice, the radio station, itself, gets a personality -- often with a friendly name, like ''Charlie'' here in Madison, or ''Simon'' in Greensboro, NC, or ''Jack'' in Denver, CO.

Morgan, profiled in the article, is the voice for at least three such stations from his home studio. He records the scripts and sends them along in MP3 to be assembled and broadcast as the voice of the station.

Most arts organizations are creatures of place. Their markets are local. Their artists are local. Their donors are certainly local. So, when local isn't local anymore, it's worth a moment's pause.

Posted by ataylor at 8:16 AM | Comments (5)

December 12, 2007

Making arguments rather than complaints

Many of us in the arts are concerned and confounded by the state of the arts in our public schools. While some districts have made positive strides, others are stuck in a downward spiral driven by federal testing requirements and constricting resource streams. But, of course, being concerned and confounded has little positive impact on the situation. Only action makes things change.

Since all politics is local -- especially in public schools, governed by their districts -- the best approach is the personal and face-to-face. And if you don't know where or how to begin, this on-line resource offers some tips and techniques, and some talking points.

Give it a read. Give the issue your voice.

Posted by ataylor at 8:46 AM | Comments (2)

December 13, 2007

Here's what our production line looks like

A model of the human brainManufacturing and production companies in the commercial sector spend a whole lot of energy understanding, analyzing, and rethinking their production lines -- the people, equipment, and processes that make their products. Without understanding the nature and challenge of the process in great detail, they figure, they can't deliver on the promise of their product in a way that makes business sense.

So, if we were to understand and analyze the manufacturing plant for our work in the arts, where would we look? Certainly we could look to the people and processes that construct our cultural offerings. But that wouldn't get to the heart of what we deliver. Rather, the true manufacturing plant for arts and culture lies within the workings of the human brain -- more specifically, the brains of our audiences, our artists, our communities, and all the others who make meaning from the expressions we foster.

We are in the business of meaning, of insight, of expressive discovery, after all. And all of the hardware and human endeavor that we observe around us in that work are just accessories to an essentially invisible process of construction.

So how do you analyze a manufacturing plant as complex as the human brain? Fortunately, there are dozens of other disciplines that do the heavy lifting in that regard. All we have to do is explore their work and bring our own perspective to what it means, and how we behave in response.

As brain science advances, there's more and more to explore. Case in point is this extraordinary initiative to model the human brain using supercomputers. Says the article:

By mimicking the behavior of the brain down to the individual neuron, the researchers aim to create a modeling tool that can be used by neuroscientists to run experiments, test hypotheses, and analyze the effects of drugs more efficiently than they could using real brain tissue.

Okay, probably not directly relevant to the life of an arts and cultural manager. But at least it gives us groovy pictures of what's going on in our primary manufacturing facility. As you'd guess, it's a very busy place.

Posted by ataylor at 9:59 AM | Comments (1)

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