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February 2, 2004

How people think vs. how we want them to

A seemingly unrelated news item about a new book speaks volumes about arts audiences, patrons, and friends. The book is by social/political researcher Katherine Cramer Walsh, about how people talk about politics (Talking About Politics: Informal Groups and Social Identity in American Life, for speed readers, here's a news summary to get the gist of it).

Walsh spent several years observing and interacting with a group of retired, white, middle- to upper-middle-class men in a coffee shop in Ann Arbor. As a doctoral student at the University of Michigan, she became intrigued by how this group discussed politics, even though it wasn't their reason to gather. Says Walsh:

'Researchers generally believe that when people make sense of politics, they do it with party identification and political tools....What I found was that they make sense of politics with social tools. People aren't political animals first. They are more social animals, and they are relating to each other and making sense of the world along with each other.'

So, who cares, you may ask (and probably already did). I'd suggest that the assumptions made by political researchers are much like the assumptions made by arts managers, marketers, and other staff: people must discuss and engage with the arts much like we do -- with all the distinctions between disciplines, genres, professional/amateur, cultural context, and history we use.

I'd suggest that if you made a similar effort to Walsh's and listened, instead, to how people discuss cultural events and engagement you'd find a similar result. To paraphrase: People aren't arts audiences first. They are more social animals, and they are relating to each other and making sense of the world along with each other.

Another discovery by Walsh could be equally adapted to arts audiences:

'When most people talk informally about politics, they aren't doing it to solve the world's problems,' she wrote. 'Their intent is not to improve democracy or foster brotherly love. Instead, their conversations are a way of sharing time, figuring out the world together and feeling like part of a community.'

Similarly, engagement with cultural expression isn't a separate endeavor for arts attendees (or even for arts professionals, I'd boldly suggest). It's part of a continuum of activities with which we engage our world, make sense of it, share it with others, and feel like we're part of something. How useful is it, then, to continually perceive and define the arts as something separate from life?

In an odd twist, Walsh labels this last point as a 'pessimistic conclusion,' suggesting that people should discuss politics with the primary intent of solving the world's problems. How similar to the many conversations I've heard from classical music managers, frustrated with their audience for coming to events for reasons other than the music.

Posted by ataylor at 11:21 AM

February 3, 2004

The co-construction of the arts experience

Chris Jones offers this interesting but odd opinion piece in the Chicago Tribune about the changing behaviors of arts audiences, and the disconnect with traditional practices in presenting the arts.

The core of his argument is as follows: 'this is the age of arts consumer as an empowered co-generator.'

The piece is interesting because it tracks a bunch of different consumer behavior trends (less network television, more video games; less CD purchases, more downloads, etc.) and tries to attach an underlying motive to all of them: namely, that arts consumers are increasingly interested in controlling and curating their own experiences, rather than passively consuming other people's choices.

The piece is odd because Jones makes massive leaps in his arguments in an effort to prove his point. Says he:

From its inception, the arts world has relied on the assumption that the content-provider knows best. Few things have been as seductive and precious to the artist as autonomous creative control. Movie directors such as Alfred Hitchcock, known for precisely shaping and honing the gaze of the audience, unleashed only one personally authorized version of their movies on the world at large. Narrative-obsessed bands such as Pink Floyd or The Who relished laying down tracks on their albums in carefully ordered sequence.

He goes on to suggest that the existing arts infrastructure isn't ready for the big shift (which I will grant him, gladly):

Many arts constituencies, of course, are invested in the artist, not the consumer, remaining in control. From multimedia conglomerates to arts and theater schools to newspaper arts sections, the notion that artists need talent and training (and consumers need deference and a willingness to consume) has billions of dollars behind its ongoing defense.

There's great stuff in this article, and the beginnings of some wonderful conversations. What seems to be missing, however, is a more nuanced understanding of the concept of 'control' for the audience. In Jones' description, control is all about selecting the sequence of events (alternate movie endings, individual songs rather than entire albums, etc.) or the schedule for consuming (single tickets vs. subscription sales, TiVO rather than broadcast television). And yet shuffling the sequence and schedule of professionally produced creative work are just two elements of creation and control...both relying, in fact, on the existence of a creative work in the first place (each of those alternate endings, after all, were professionally produced; and no matter when the show goes on, it's still a show).

The other issue is that arts as a 'co-creation' isn't new, it's just intensified and made more obvious through emerging technologies. Art has always been a co-creation of artist and audience, not a 'passive consumption' activity. The fact that many arts organizations have forgotten this point doesn't make it less true.

The impulse after reading Jones' arguments would be to add sequencing opportunities for live arts audiences (remember Sheer Madness or The Mystery of Edwin Drood?). But such efforts -- when applied to art forms that weren't intended for them -- almost always feel forced and disrespectful to audience and art. Perhaps a better angle would be to recognize and reinforce, once again, the dynamic and highly interactive qualities of live performance or live arts experience. We've buried it a bit over the past three decades, but it's in there somewhere.

Posted by ataylor at 8:37 AM

February 4, 2004

Only $6 per month for entertainment nirvana

The Register has a whimsical, number-crunching overview of a proposed music and movie distribution/compensation model from Harvard professor William Fisher. What are the benefits? To quote Fisher himself:

Consumers would pay less for more entertainment.

Artists would be fairly compensated. The set of artists who made their creations available to the world at large and consequently the range of entertainment products available to consumers would increase.

Musicians would be less dependent on record companies, and filmmakers would be less dependent on studios, for the distribution of their creations.

Both consumers and artists would enjoy greater freedom to modify and redistribute audio and video recordings. Although the prices of consumer electronic equipment and broadband access would increase somewhat, demand for them would rise, thus benefiting the suppliers of those goods and services. Finally, society at large would benefit from a sharp reduction in litigation and other transaction costs.

All this for a flat surcharge of $6/month for all broadband users -- whether they use the service or not.

Economists love to monkey with massive monetary systems in order to make them more transparent or more efficient. Fisher, a professor of intellectual property, adds a wonderful layer over this number shuffle, connecting it with industry relationships, incentives and motives that drive its players, some serious detail about the entertainment/media infrastructure, and an honest struggle to find common ground.

It ain't gonna happen. But walking through Fisher's detailed proposal (you can download the preview chapter from his upcoming book) is a great education in how jerry-rigged the current music industry model is.

Posted by ataylor at 8:57 AM

February 5, 2004

Cash flow (or lack thereof)

An article in today's New York Times highlights the cash flow problems of American Ballet Theater, a company who's history is plagued by that common arts challenge. Similar doom and gloom came in this overview of the Denver arts scene, showing that for many Denver organizations, subscriptions are down, memberships are down, and attendance is down. Add that to a down economy, when endowments and their interest are down, as well, and you quickly move from 'cash flow' to 'cash trickle'.

There are several reasons that the amount of available cash is a continual problem for arts organizations, some of them so structurally engrained it's hard to see a way out.

First, cultural organizations that produce events or exhibits have 'sunk costs' disproportionate to most other industries. Before they see a dime of event-related revenue, they've got to build sets, ship artwork, rehearse musicians, pay production staff. These costs are called 'sunk' because they are difficult if not impossible to retrieve once's not like an opera stage set has much value on the open market.

Second, a corollary to the first perhaps, arts organizations have become dependent on next year's subscription and membership sales to pay off last year's bills. So the big subscription ticket push in the spring for the upcoming season provides cash to pay the overdue bills from last season's set designer, production crew, and creditors of all kinds.

It's a scary but functional model, as long as your subscription and membership sales increase or stay level from one year to the next. That's not how most arts organizations would describe 2003.

Third, of course, nonprofit arts organizations -- almost by definition -- produce cultural experiences that cannot be sustained by their earned revenue. That's why they're nonprofits in the first place.

How do you address these structural issues? It's hard to change the third issue without changing your very nature, so let's set that one aside for now. Sunk costs will always be there, but they can be softened through collaborative productions (two or more different theater companies or museums co-producing and co-presenting the show, sharing sets, costumes, directors, etc.). They can also be softened on the revenue side by harvesting what cash you can from what you've already created (see the CostumeRentals initiative of the Children's Theatre Company and the Guthrie).

Getting the monkey of subscription sales off your back takes a bit more effort, as it requires a slow weaning from dependence on next year's sales (requiring more cash now, somehow, or less expense). Perhaps there's a nicotine patch for the nonprofit arts.

Posted by ataylor at 8:28 AM

February 6, 2004

The old (sacred) bait and switch

What do you do when what you offer the world isn't immediately appealing to a good chunk of the public? Or when, in fact, what you offer has negative social stereotypes that put people off? Well, if you're part of an emerging group of evangelical sites (not arts...but wait), you rely on the old bait and switch.

This New York Times article on the new web evangelism describes just such an effort by an increasing number of religiously motivated web sites. Says one webmaster who hosts a site with 'no overtly religious images or affiliation, and articles about weight lifting, nutrition and profiles of athletes':

'I wanted it to look like a sports magazine....It's a little covert. I know that religion or Christianity is a turn-off with a great part of the population. I didn't want to shove it in people's faces.'

Another maven in the emerging trend adds this ethical caveat:

'You're not trying to trick people....You can't appear to be something you're not. But Christians should legitimately appear to be taking a starting point on a subject that doesn't appear to be religious.'

The situation should seem eerily familiar to anyone that markets 'high art' for a living, especially in a world where opera is used as a punishment in court. But beyond the queasy feeling of selling out, or the frustration of a public that doesn't connect to the art form like we want them to, there's a kernal of important truth in this approach, if we're careful:

In the segmented realms of the Web, said Tony Whitaker, editor of a guide for online evangelists, sites that use overtly Christian material will reach only people who are already Christians, while everyone else can click by. Unlike Christian radio or television, the new medium calls not for powerful religious symbolism or rhetoric but for the absence of them, he said.

If you take a dispassionate look at the web site, brochures, flyers, mailers, and other media of your arts organization, are you preaching only to the converted?

(Thanks to Mark Nerenhausen for the article link!)

Posted by ataylor at 8:53 AM

February 9, 2004

Let's just call it negative growth

So much of what we do in America is based on the assumption of growth. Growth in value and market share are keystones of success in the for-profit world, of course. Among arts organizations and their funders, there's a notion that success should be measured by the addition of new programs and an increasing annual budget. In city planning, 'smart growth' has become a catchphrase over the past decade, as cities sought to grow, but not so fast as to outstrip their infrastructure.

But this article in the New York Times suggests that the growth assumption isn't always true, and that many cities, in fact, are shrinking. Says the article:

...while city dwellers make up nearly half the world's population, new research by the United Nations and other demographers has shown that for every two cities that are growing, three are shrinking. Some cities that were bustling centers of commerce just a generation ago have become modern-day Pompeiis.
One of the immediate questions for planners within shrinking cities is, of course, how to get those people back (which can be like trying to stop the tide from going out). A more subtle question being addressed at long last is: what do we do with the space they leave behind?

As the article suggests, the developer's impulse is to clear away the empty buildings to provide a blank slate for new development. But some cities, like Detroit, are working to counter this impulse by infusing the challenge with artists, architects, and community partners. These cities are finding that leaving the spaces available can actually lead to better solutions:

Every city, of course, is different. But research by Shrinking Cities has revealed that planned development is often counterproductive. And buildings left vacant often lend themselves to curious and unexpected uses that can trigger development at the grass-roots level.

While some of the solutions might give us pause (see the photo in the Times article of the old movie house converted to a parking garage -- with all the garish golden plaster work and velvet drapes intact), others are inspired (like Detroit's attempts to make abandoned buildings into works of community art). An organic view of adaptive reuse wouldn't see these two projects separately, anyway, but as parts of a larger ecology.

Samuel Beckett once said:

All art is an attempt to fill an empty space.

City planning scholar Jane Jacobs has an often-quoted statement, as well:

New ideas require old buildings.

There's something in between these two quotes to suggest that artists and arts organizations have an important and powerful role to play in the shrinking cities issue...not just to lure the emigrants back, but to re-imagine the empty spaces.

(More on the Shrinking Cities project here.)

Posted by ataylor at 9:21 AM

February 10, 2004

Arts manager as evangelist

A few readers took issue (in consent and dissent) with my recent discussion of evangelism on the world wide web. I was suggesting that engaging a broad public in traditional forms of cultural expression (theater, symphony, visual arts, opera, etc.) had many similarities to engaging that same public in religious exploration. Both are a 'hard sell' in that they provide abstract and philosophical benefits that aren't always immediately recognized. Both also carry a stigma that lead many in the public to disengage before the message is even complete (those not inclined to visit a religious web site would quickly click past it if they recognized it as such).

I often have this struggle with the graduate business degree I direct in Wisconsin: should the training of arts administrators look more like an MBA or a Master of Divinity? The only answer I come up with is: 'yes'. Our industry is conflicted by its very nature: half earned, half contributed. The training and practice of managers need to live on both sides of that fence.

One note from friend and weblog reader Mark Nerenhausen brings it all home:

Arts administrators can't seem to decide if we want love or money. Do we want people to love the arts or do we want bodies in the seats? While these may be related issues, they are two very different problems. Further compounding the issue is the fact that arts administrators treat the performance as the only tool to solve both problems. In fact, putting money in the till may be a problem that is solved in a very different manner than getting people to love the arts.

What do you all think? Let me know.

Posted by ataylor at 12:28 PM

February 11, 2004

Persistence of vision

Boston media was abuzz with a new report last week outlining the arts audience and the value of the arts to its citizens. Among the key findings of the study (prepared by the Performing Arts Research Coalition...more on this later):

  • More than three-fourths of greater Bostonians went to a live performing arts event in 2002, and more than one in six attended twelve or more events.
  • More Bostonians attend live performing arts events than professional sporting events.
  • Respondents, regardless of how often they attend, strongly agree that the performing arts play a positive role in their lives.
  • Bostonians strongly agree that the performing arts contribute to the education and development of children.
  • Bostonians agree more strongly about the contributions of the performing arts to their community than about the value of performing arts to themselves.
  • Bostonians who attend the performing arts are more likely to vote than nonattenders.
Of course, the leading news in most stories was the comparison of live performing arts attendance to professional sporting events. In the wake of the Patriots' jam-packed Super Bowl event, and in the heart of Red Sox country, such statistics seem contrary to experience and common sense. Problem is, that will make such findings less likely to stick in the political and civic minds of decision-makers.

When feedback seems contrary to experience, we tend to cherry-pick only the facts that fit our experience. In cognitive and management theory, it's called 'confirmation bias'. In politics, it's called reality. So you can say that more people attend live performing arts events than professional sports, but what most people see during every evening newscast is a stadium or ballpark filled with tens of thousands of people. They don't see the thousands of smaller performing arts events with smaller audiences, but larger aggregated attendance. The numbers don't fit their experience, so their experience wins out in the end.

Similar 'more arts than sports' findings were waived in Wisconsin several years ago with similar flash but limited longer-term impact. They are fabulous statistics, with real numbers to back them up. But they are swimming upstream to gain and retain the attention of those driving policy (that's why the voting habits of attendees offers an interesting spin in this report). Keep swimming, I say, but expect to fight the riptide for quite some time.

Those interested in the study -- which was a massive, national effort to research and compare 10 communities -- should visit its homepage on the web, or take a peek at the 10 community reports available for download.

Posted by ataylor at 9:02 AM

February 12, 2004

Another place that classical music doesn't fit

Fellow weblogger Greg Sandow has a great opinion piece in the Wall Street Journal on his frustrations with Apple's iTunes system. It seems that the way iTunes and other on-line music services classify and categorize their individual audio files is incompatible with the standards of classical music recordings. Says Sandow:

Before classical music is ever going to take off in digital downloads, the whole classical-recording database -- this is a mammoth job, but it's got to be tackled -- will have to be rejiggered. Music has to show up correctly labeled, and fully searchable, by composer, composition and performers (with each artist's role correctly specified).

iTunes and most other music download services are streamlined for more standardized recording fare -- stuff with an artist, an album title, individual track names, and a few extra details. Classical works can span multiple tracks (for multiple movements), can have different soloists on each movement or track (as opera does), can have different conductors with the same ensemble or different ensembles with the same conductor, and on and on.

It sounds trivial, but it's quite a problem. The standards and quirks of music distribution systems have always had a profound impact on what types of music get filtered, selected, and discovered by a wider audience. Just think of the three-minute song format bias of broadcast radio, and how it encouraged and rewarded certain types of performance over others (despite the frustrations of time-breakers like Queen and Pink Floyd). It doesn't mean these forms of music can't succeed, but that they succeed despite the prevaling system rather than being supported by it.

If one of the fastest-growing forms of audio distribution isn't compatible with classical or non-mainstream categorization schemes, it means more swimming upstream (or off-stream) for those formats and for the listeners that love them (or might).

Posted by ataylor at 9:11 AM

February 13, 2004

The 100th Post

The counter on my weblog system tells me that this is my 100th post to The Artful Manager, a fair bunch of bytes since its launch in July of last year. In fact, if you printed out all of my ponderings and wanderings and laid them end to'd clearly be someone with too much time on your hands.

After 100 posts, I'm not sure if I'm any closer to the stated goal of this weblog. But it's been a blast and a privilege to take a shot at it. Thanks to all who have sent a comment, idea, complaint, or correction. Keep them coming as we move to the next 100 posts.

Posted by ataylor at 12:40 AM

February 14, 2004

Action Speaks Louder than Studies

NOTE: I wrote this opinion piece on philanthropy and communications technology projects for The Chronicle of Philanthropy, where it was published in the March 7, 2002 issue. I include it here because it still rings true with the barriers and habits I continue to see among foundation-funded technology projects and other funded initiatives. -- Andrew Taylor

We are all creatures of habit, so it should be no surprise that the philanthropic organizations we create are much the same way. Sometimes, however, the decisions of habit can lead us in entirely the wrong direction.

Consider a perennial philanthropy favorite: the feasibility study. Among foundations and grant-proposal writers, the feasibility study has become the habitual response to new ideas. Instead of taking active steps to build a solution, we commission a study to outline if and how that solution will work. Someone assembles relevant readings. Someone gathers experts together. Someone takes notes of their thoughts and responses and drafts a final report.

In most cases, it all makes perfect sense. Fiscal responsibility, appropriate allocation of resources, and an informed perspective of the issue at hand are all important in any project. But in certain cases -- such as nonprofit communication-technology projects -- this reflex response can lead to investment with no return.

As the Internet has grown, all of us in the nonprofit realm see the need to expand our ability to communicate with one another and our constituents. So, we bring our old tools to the table and set to work: framing a problem, posing a solution, and proposing a study to justify moving forward. But the decision to 'study' is based on pretenses that may no longer be true: that we understand the question to be answered, that we see the full range of possible responses, and that we can identify the individuals or organizations relevant to our analysis.

A basic truth about the Internet is that we can't yet know the basic truth. In the face of this uncertainty, the feasibility study can certainly be comforting, but it can also leave us months behind the curve, with less money, energy, time, and flexibility remaining when we staple the final report. Worse, the process itself can reinforce ineffective results. Among the potential barriers:

Size and complexity. The high costs of a study -- lots of time, effort, and individuals involved -- can encourage final recommendations of equally large size and complexity. That impulse runs contrary to the dynamics of the Internet, where small changes can in many cases have the biggest impact.

Too much structure. Even in the early 19th century, Alexis de Tocqueville remarked on the American obsession with creating new associations -- a national habit often reinforced by the feasibility study. When two or more people gather to think about a new idea, the reflex response is to create a new structure (such as a new Web portal, a new association of associations, or a new think tank), rather than enabling existing systems already in place. This again runs contrary to the online world, where structure can actually limit innovation. For example, the MP3 audio-compression format didn't create a new structure, but enabled a thousand new uses and users of audio content in ways and places we could never predict. The Internet itself has no official structure or central control, which is part of its explosive power and adaptability.

Inflexible evaluation standards. Feasibility studies, by their nature, contain the seeds of future evaluation -- that is what makes them so useful in so many situations. But in a dynamic environment, actual impact and measurable outcomes may be entirely different than we expect. When those outcomes are unknown and unknowable, predefined standards can inhibit discovery, redirection, and midcourse corrections, all of which are essential to communications-technology projects.

So what is a foundation to do? In this unknowable world, perhaps action can provide a better form of study.

Talk to any entrepreneur or start-up company manager and they will probably strike a similar theme: We didn't know what we were doing until after we did it wrong.

In the high-speed, high-feedback world of online communications, direct engagement with users is often the only way to test an assumption, probe an opportunity, or jimmy with a perceived systemic flaw.

This approach is common to the software-development industry, where early (or 'beta') versions of software products are released for use and review, long before the final product hits the market. In those projects, the user becomes co-collaborator -- exploring, commenting, complaining, stress testing, and recommending modifications to the system, or even suggesting alternate users and uses not considered by the original developer.

The same process, to a radical degree, is evident in the open-source software development world, where not only product previews but also the entire source code for projects is made available to the world for direct enhancements, additions, integration with other software, and re-engineering.

Foundation-supported projects in online communications could clearly benefit from at least experimenting along similar lines. Instead of a study, a team could develop a working 'beta' version of a project, testing it among users to define the next steps. Even complex communications-technology projects can be broken down into essential components, each being tested and refined with real users in the real world.

Two points are essential in making this connection among start-ups, software, and foundation technology projects. One is that planning and action are not mutually exclusive -- the online world calls for action as planning, with all the same rigors of analysis but at a different part of the process.

The second point is that, given the unknowable nature of our environment, both the study and the action are guaranteed to be wrong (either wrong by degree or by target audience or by underlying concept). Taking action gives us a more grounded and dynamic understanding of how the original idea might be adjusted for greater success.

A few examples of this approach in philanthropy do exist.

The eBase database, which provides nonprofit groups with a tool to manage memberships, donations, and activist information as well as e-mail communication, was developed in close collaboration with its nonprofit users. And Northwestern University's Collaboratory Project works with open-source development tools to help elementary- and secondary-school teachers and students integrate the Internet into the learning experience. But such examples are buried in a sea of studies, and wave upon wave of studies yet to come.

If only a fraction of the time, money, energy, and expertise behind these studies could be directed to actually connecting ideas and users, just imagine the things we could learn. Of course, we would still be missing the target, since we can't know where that target is, exactly. But at least we'd be casting off old habits, and giving the dart a chance.

Posted by ataylor at 9:27 AM

February 16, 2004

But will the 'living machines' buy opera tickets

The techno-geek in me is compelled to point you to this series of articles in the February 2004 Wired magazine on living machines. For anyone interested in human interaction and the dynamics of social groups (which should describe most arts managers), it's interesting to note that many of these properties and behaviors are now being designed into robotic pets, virus software, and computer-aided design. Among the properties being modeled:

EMERGENCE describes the way unpredictable patterns arise from innumerable interactions between independent parts. An organism's behavior, for instance, is driven by the interplay of its cells. Similarly, weather develops from the mixing of oxygen, carbon dioxide, water, and other molecules.

SELF-ORGANIZATION is a basic emergent behavior. Plants and animals assemble and regulate themselves independent of any hierarchy for planning or management. Digital simulations made up of numerous software agents have demonstrated self-organization in systems ranging from computer networks to tornadoes.

REPRODUCTION was considered strictly the purview of organisms until recently. Now computer programs procreate, too. Genetic algorithms mimic biology's capacity for innovation through genetic recombination and replication, shuffling 1s and 0s the way nature does DNA's Gs, Ts, As, and Cs, then reproducing the best code for further recombination. This technique has been used to evolve everything from factory schedules to jet engines.

COEVOLUTION inevitably accompanies evolution. When an organism evolves in response to environmental change, it puts new pressures on that environment, which likewise evolves, prompting further evolution in the organism. This cycle occurs in many social systems - for instance, the interaction between behavioral norms and legal codes.

It sounds geeky, I know, until you squint a bit to apply the same basic properties when looking at arts organizations, or art forms, or audience behavior, or the economy. As one author in the series of article suggests:

...look closely and you'll see the same dynamic at work in every system, and at every scale. Whether the name of the game is microbiology or geopolitics, it all boils down to the delicate balance between competition and cooperation.

While you're on the Wired site, also take a look at this odd and funny Flash animation, warning us all to use cartoons responsibly.

Posted by ataylor at 8:35 AM

February 17, 2004

Museums and the perils of success

Two pieces in the UK Guardian explore the perils of success among museums (or any nonprofit/public cultural organization). In one, Tristram Hunt posits on the downside of popular temporary exhibits (ie, blockbusters) and their threat to the contemplative, quiet, and even sacred spaces museums are intended to provide. In another, Dan Glaister explores the Boston Museum of Fine Art's Monet (and money) transactions with the Bellagio Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas.

In Hunt's tirade against blockbuster exhibits, he offers a passing note of gratitude for the new audiences they bring to the museums, but he quickly suggests that 'more people more of the time' isn't the true purpose of such cultural institutions:

Each exhibition has been cleverly marketed, enjoys strong brand sponsorship, and will generate impressive visitor numbers. But is that the true purpose of a museum or art gallery? For there exists a growing disquiet in the curatorial world that in the process of launching an ever more high-profile temporary exhibitions, part of the deeper function of the museum -- as a place of reflection free from the everyday maelstrom; as a public sphere with a different ethos to the marketplace -- is being lost.

Similar complaints are rising against the MFA in Boston for their 'loan' of Monet works to a casino in Las Vegas for a fairly commercial exhibit in a very commercial space. The article isn't particularly objective in its point of view, evidenced by its colorful and patronizing tone:

Enter the Bellagio's lavish foyer, head past the slot machines and gaming tables, and follow the signs for the wedding chapels....Just past the ice cream parlour is a haven of good taste, a bastion against Las Vegas's rampant commercialism: an exhibition of paintings by the 19th century French artist Claude Monet.

Granted, the exhibit could generate up to $1 million for the MFA...leading many to question whether the transaction was truly based on mission. The article contrasts the deal with the US Association of Art Museum Directors' guidelines, which say: 'In any decision about a proposed loan from the collection, the intellectual merit and educational benefits, as well as the protection of the work of art, must be the primary considerations, rather than possible financial gain.'

Both issues are cut from the same cloth, and formed by the same inherent conflict: nonprofit institutions are not isolated from market forces, much as we like to believe. Instead, public status offers more of a buffer than a firewall to commercial concerns. These institutions gather a significant portion of their income from earned sources...museums less so than performing arts, of course, but still significant. As collection-holding organizations they are extremely expensive to operate and maintain. As public institutions, they are also expected to serve a wider public rather than a privileged few. Finally, as money grows tight from all sources -- government particularly in the UK -- the dance between mission, market, and mass audience grows increasingly complex.

I'm not sure why visitors to Las Vegas aren't worthy of great art, or why the idea of bringing that art to them rather than luring them to the art is necessarily evil. I'm also not sure why there can't be room in the mission and practice of museums to be both hotspots of more popular cultural fare and sacred spaces of preservation and contemplation. Certainly it's all in the balance, the nuance, and the delivery of the dance...which is why the administrative and management professionals must increasingly be 'artful' about their work.

Posted by ataylor at 9:13 AM

February 18, 2004

Evangelists as arts managers

I'm getting some great responses to my recent posts on the evangelical qualities required of arts managers (I'll post some excerpts from those responses soon). But I had forgotten how the comparison runs the other way, as well: religious organizations are vital arts administrators, too.

I stumbled again on this arts and religion survey done by Gallup a few years back, and the findings bring that issue home:

...about six out of every seven places of worship (85%) sponsored at least one of the following artistic activities within the year preceding the survey -- an adult choir; a children's choir; a drama or skit; a musical performance (outside of worship services); an art festival or craft fair; a group discussion of art, literature, or poetry; a liturgical dance performance; or private music lessons. The most common artistic activities available to congregants were adult and children's choirs, present in about 71% and 58% of places of worship, respectively.

Even without counting choirs, nearly three-quarters of places of worship (73%) sponsored at least one of the other artistic activities listed above during the year prior to the survey. Nearly half (47%) sponsored a drama or skit, while a similar percentage (45%) sponsored a musical performance outside of worship services). One-third of places of worship (34%) sponsored an art festival or craft fair.

[here's a handy chart]

It's easy to get stuck in the idea that professional, nonprofit cultural institutions are the primary and central providers of cultural experience for their communities. It's nice to get a reminder now and then -- as these statistics provide -- that we're just one player in the game.

For those keeping score at home, Evangelicals and Fundamentalists program the most dramas and skits, Roman Catholics dominate the arts and craft fair category, and Mainline Protestants hold second place across the board [here's another handy chart, suitable for framing]. Now, there are some factoids for water-cooler conversations.

Posted by ataylor at 8:33 AM

February 19, 2004

Open source, not just for hackers anymore

This linked article in ArtsJournal on open-source software development rekindled my fondness and interest in the connections of that approach to arts and cultural management (especially on the community level).

For those unfamiliar (the article above is a bit thick for the newbie), open-source is a way of developing software through the independent work of dozens or hundreds of distributed programmers: each drawing on software code developed by others, enhancing or extending it for their own projects and purposes, and reposting the updated code for the rest of the world to see and use. The phrase 'open source' refers to the source code...the inner workings of a software program that proprietary companies such as Microsoft hold under lock, key, and encryption. Says the article:

Yochai Benkler, a law professor at Yale University, has called this 'commons-based peer production.' The commons refers to the sharing of the underlying code or the output that is open to all, akin to the public land that farmers once grazed their livestock upon. Peer production means that producers participate for their own varied reasons and in ad hoc ways, not necessarily via legal contract or management fiat. Benkler calls this a third mode of production for the market, distinct from the company and the "spot market" (or, in employment terms, the freelancer). Open source shows that it is possible for part of the economy to function without companies but with many self-employed individuals contracting with each other.

The idea of 'commons-based peer production' feels closely connected with cultural production, especially in the community setting, where artists have always collaborated and cross-collaborated across organizational boundaries. It also exposes the contrast of so many local arts organizations that perceive their work as proprietary -- just try to wrench their mailing lists out of their grasp for a shared mailing or a community-wide market assessment.

Despite the recent withdrawel of Howard Dean, who built a massive infrastructure through (in part) open-source grass-roots-enabling software and open-source principals of organization, there was something quite astounding in the energy of that campaign, and lots to learn from its work.

It's interesting to consider an arts community constructed and supported on similar principals -- where individual artists and organizations are unflinchingly willing to expose their own 'source code' for each other to share, learn from, and build upon. If we're looking for a charter to guide us, we could adapt the open source definition, which seems a great beginning.

NOTE: The open-source article prompted me to dig out an opinion piece I wrote for the Chronicle of Philanthropy back in March 2002, which I just dumped into this weblog's Thoughtbucket section.

Posted by ataylor at 9:32 AM

February 20, 2004

Do we sell the bottle, or the wine?

James Sullivan is a bit upset in the San Francisco Chronicle to think that the compact disc might be dead by 2007. With the growth of digital downloads, he says, the young folks are moving past the 'stuff' of physical recorded media, and the 'collectible' connection that drove a previous generation, and framed their relationship with music.

Toward the end of the article, he contrasts the music download to a transaction, and the collection of physical recordings as a relationship.

It brings to mind another article by marketing maven Seth Godin on the distinction between content and the 'wrapper' that contains it. He had just thrown out all the jewel boxes to his CD collection, to the shock of his neighbors and friends:

People are quick to attach emotional memories to packaging, all the more so when the substance within that packaging is ethereal. Anyone who has paid to put her wedding dress in storage knows what I mean. You're never going to wear it again, your kids are unlikely to want it, but you keep it because it's an important wrapper. It was the packaging around a romantic, once-in-a-lifetime -- and hard-to-recapture -- personal experience.

Godin goes on to suggest:

If your company makes contents, get out of the wrapper business as fast as you possibly can....If you're in the wine business, and your wine is well reviewed and has a huge following, maybe it's time to sell a special vintage directly to your customers, bypassing liquor stores and forgoing fancy bottles. Sell the wine -- not the bottle!....

If you're in the wrapper business, get better at it!....Emulate the cosmetics industry in your packaging, Nordstrom in your customer service, and Apple in your sheer sexiness.

So, in an age where wrappers and content are becoming separable, in which business would we place the arts organization? Certainly, we'd be quick to say 'content' -- the painting, the dance, the symphony, the theater work. But in the live cultural experience, what do our audiences pay for? A Mozart sonata or an evening on the town? A poetry slam or a hip, urban atmosphere? Of course, the true cultural experience requires the content, but it's the wrapper and the context that define what we do.

As content is increasingly available on-line, on-screen, and off-site, the live arts experience is increasingly about the wrapper that contains it. Some have called this the 'experience economy,' some call it the art of 'context-providing.' Either way, it's a funky new world for us all.

Posted by ataylor at 12:32 AM

February 23, 2004

We can't see where we don't look

This article on jobs and the economy from the Sunday New York Times Magazine has wonderful parallels to our perspectives on the 'arts industry'. The article underscores our quick perspective on jobs lost, and our inability to see jobs gained:

In a quickly evolving economy, in which increased productivity constantly makes some jobs redundant, we notice the job losses. It is much harder to spot where new jobs are emerging. Our mental categories tend to be behind the times. When we think of jobs, we see factories, secretarial pools, police officers, lawyers. We forget all about jobs we see every day.

The article goes on to explore the 'blind spots' in our way of looking at the working world -- many of them reinforced by the oracle of such perspectives, the Bureau of Labor Statistics:

The bureau's occupational survey, which might suggest which jobs are growing, doesn't count self-employed people or partners in unincorporated businesses at all. And many of today's growing industries, the ones adding jobs even amid the recession, are comprised largely of small companies and self-employed individuals. That is particularly true for aesthetic crafts, from graphic designers and cosmetic dentists to gardeners. These specialists' skills are in ever greater demand, yet they tend to work for themselves or in partnerships.

Beyond the focus above on 'aesthetic crafts' -- a clear connection to cultural production -- the challenge of 'blind spots' plagues the arts world, as well.

As long as we've been measuring arts and culture in the United States (which isn't all that long), we've focused primarily on the formal, nonprofit and public organizations that self-identify as primarily arts focused. That includes all the usual suspects of theater groups, symphonies, museums, performance halls, and so on. Based on that primary focus, we draw charts and run year-to-year comparisons about industry scope and scale, economic impact, and total philanthropic giving (see the Giving USA chart for the most public example).

The problem is that such focused research can actually reinforce our blind spots rather than resolving them. The Giving USA statistics suggest that only 5.1 percent of all philanthropic giving in 2002 went to arts and culture organizations. But what about arts-related activities of hospitals, churches, social service organizations, educational institutions, international affairs initiatives, and even environmental concerns?

Beyond that, what about the thousands of unincorporated, sole-proprietor, or other for-profit small businesses and businesspeople that provide cultural and creative experience in their communities?

Thankfully, we are starting to shine the flashlight into these hazy spaces of our understanding. A few great examples:

We may discover as we explore these 'nooks and crannies' of community cultural engagement that the formal, nonprofit, arts-focused organization is, itself, a nook or cranny. It may be that the bulk of new growth and new thinking is happening somewhere we weren't looking.

Posted by ataylor at 8:37 AM

February 24, 2004

Evangelism responses

I received quite a few responses to my posts last week on the evangelical qualities of arts management, despite our continual focus on business practice. Most respondents reflected the same sense of conflict and confusion between mission and marketing. Said one reader:

The arts are being asked to prove their worth based on evidence, proof, hard figures. And I think that's harder for something spiritual, which the experience of the arts is. Are preachers asked to quantify why they think God is good? Not when they're preaching to the choir. But when they're trying to attract 'patrons,' they are, and they struggle like the arts do.

Another had a direct personal experience of the connection between arts management and the clergy:

I had a very good philosophy professor in college who had started out to be an Episcopalian priest. He left the effort when the local Bishop told him he had two jobs: to keep the pews full and to keep the money coming in. Sound familiar?

Finally, one reader took off on the idea of a 'bait and switch' strategy for arts marketing, building from the example of one faith-based effort:

An interesting option might ironically be to adopt the approach of the Chick tracts ( which very overtly proselytize. I really disagree with what they say and the manner in which they try to transmit their message, but it is a great format for dissemination. Even though the illustrations tend to look dated, the pictures attract your attention when you see them laying around and create enough interest to make you want to pick them up even if you may not agree with the subject matter. They are cheap to print and are a good size for carrying around and passing out.

He went on to suggest that the challenge of such marketing efforts is that it's difficult to track (and therefore justify) the results of time and money 'on a project that is expressly designed to be so subtle.'

On the parallel matter of the Museum of Fine Arts' apparent sacrilege in loaning precious works to a Vegas resort, a reader pulled another example from the headlines for comparison:

The Boston Globe has an article on the Cordova Museum (Lincoln, MA) program to rent paintings to business locations. Generating $500,000 a year - how does this differ from the MFA deal, other than in scale and quality of work?

Thanks for the ideas and comments, keep them coming...

Posted by ataylor at 8:39 AM

February 25, 2004

The fight over rent (not the musical)

The ramp-up to the opening of a new performance hall or performing arts center always involves a public discussion of rent. It's beginning (again) in Madison, Wisconsin, as the new $100-million Overture Center for the Arts approaches its Phase I opening day this September.

Here's how it usually goes:

  1. A new cultural construction project is announced and welcomed with great fanfare;
  2. There's some discussion of operating costs early on (you hope), which are quickly eclipsed by the fun and intrigue of architectural renderings and design;
  3. There's some public story or controversy about halfway through construction, when a major donor or bond issue is needed to fill the gap of rising construction costs, or plug the endowment, or cover some other big-ticket need;
  4. A year or less before scheduled opening, the contract negotiations with tenant organizations for the facility (symphony, opera, theater, dance) intensify, and a more detailed operating budget comes into focus. The economy has probably shifted in the meantime...hopefully for the better, but usually not;
  5. The new facility (either because of its larger size, or higher finish quality, or higher expectations, or all of the above) is significantly more expensive to operate than the older building(s) -- just as a mansion is more expensive to heat, light, clean, and maintain than a bungalow;
  6. The implications of that higher operating expense mix in with the tenant negotiations, in the form of higher requested rents for the hall(s), additional surcharges on every ticket, other increases in fees and chargebacks;
  7. The fun and intrigue of the building itself takes a quick backseat to the sticker shock;
  8. Media reports begin, usually suggesting that the local arts are in jeopardy against the touring productions, ticket prices will rise, and the community will bear the burden of this number-crunching while the rich catch a week-long run of Cats.

In every city, the process has a different intensity (the pre-opening of the Kimmel Center in Philadelphia was particularly intense). All sides (if there are sides) have a very real and direct concern that affects their ability to do their work: the performing arts center has a bottom line and high expectations from a leery public purse, the local professional arts organizations are always living on the edge anyway and an increase in any cost is trouble, the community is often conflicted between the opulence and status of a new cultural facility and a vague concern about elitism.

The odd thing is, at the end of the day, rent is actually the smallest slice of the pie for almost everyone at the table. For the primary professional arts organizations, rent is usually less than 10 percent of their total annual expenses (often less than 5 percent). For the performing arts center, rental income is about 10 to 15 percent of annual income (and rent from tenant organizations is usually just a fraction of that). Despite these small percentages, rent is the lightening rod and the public debate in almost every case.

The real costs of a new facility are the new level of quality in production it demands (bigger stage, better seats, more technology, more options, higher audience expectations, more rehearsals, etc.). The real economic benefits come from the impact of all those things on the many revenue streams already in place (full houses rather than half full, excited donors -- if there's any money left in town after the capital fund drive, special events, and the like).

And somewhere in there is the true benefit -- a new canvas for the creative interaction of audience, artists, and art.

NOTE: The Madison coverage of the rent issue also included discussions with three primary tenants, and how they would address the higher costs: including the Madison Ballet, the Madison Symphony, and the Madison Opera.

Posted by ataylor at 8:26 AM

February 26, 2004

Leaving on a jet plane

I'm on a plane to DC this afternoon, so will only have quick note today, and perhaps none tomorrow. I'm traveling to follow up on a conversation I co-started back in October -- attempting to adapt and apply the discipline of systems dynamics and systems mapping to the world of arts and cultural management.

It's still buzzing around in my head, but there's something extremely useful in a more interconnected, dynamic, and ecological perspective on the industries of creative expression and experience. My collaborators and I are hoping to have a better summary of our October conversation to post and distribute very soon.

In the meantime, I've been tweaking this weblog's infrastructure, specifically to add a quick headline archive of every post submitted since I started. It will be a useful tool for me to avoid repeating myself (more than I already do). Perhaps some of you will find it useful too.

Signing off.

Posted by ataylor at 8:51 AM

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