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February 5, 2007

Seeing the big ideas

Interesting posts from Information Aesthetics and Guy Kawasaki remind us how powerful graphic representation can be in grasping and remembering a conversation. Both posts refer to the work of Martha McGinnis, an illustrator that creates large-format sketches at conferences or think-tanks while the ideas unfold.

visual logic by Martha McGinnisThe result is a complex image that captures, clarifies, and connects a group's discussion, and makes the ephemeral more tangible...which sounds much like the function of many forms of creative expression.

As it turns out, there's an entire international society of ''Visual Practitioners,'' as the discipline is known. And from my limited experience seeing it work (I attended a roundtable in early 2006 that had a visual practitioner sketching along), it's a fascinating enhancement to the often wandering and short-lived insights of most group conversation processes.

For those particularly interested in the full range of visualization methods, Kawasaki links to this handy periodic table.

Posted by ataylor at 11:08 AM | Comments (2)

February 7, 2007

To present or to preserve

A Washington Post article on the Cambodian ruins of an ancient temple (free registration may be required) describes a tension quite common to the management and stewardship of cultural treasures: the tension between sharing the treasure widely, and protecting it from harm. In this case, the 9th-century temple of Phnom Bakheng is drawing increasing numbers of tourists to the region, bringing money with them, but also leaving destruction in their wake.

While the easy argument places exploitation on one side of the challenge, and noble preservation on the other, it's a false and dangerous dichotomy to construct. What's the use in preserving something if nobody but scholars and preservationists get to see it? And what's the use in sharing something beautiful if the act of sharing destroys the thing, itself? (Hey, I think there's an Eagles song about this very thing...)

The best response available ensures that a portion of generated revenues are retained to secure, sustain, and restore the place or the object, and recruits third-party individuals or organizations to subsidize the experience of those who can't afford its true full cost (sounds like the nonprofit model to me). Says John H. Stubbs of the World Monuments Fund:

"We understand the clear need to have tourists visit the temples, and of course we want them to see this great achievement by mankind. But we also need to understand that the real focus should be keeping them safe."

That said, the deeper challenge and tension comes when the cultural heritage in question is not just a place or a thing, but a people, who often exploit or distort their own cultural traditions to attract the tourism trade. That's where political and business leaders must bring their true creativity, commitment, and passion to bear.

Posted by ataylor at 8:51 AM | Comments (1)

February 8, 2007

Buying culture in bulk

The New York Times reminds us all (login required) that the next cultural construction boom isn't in New York, or L.A., or even in London or Paris, but in the United Arab Emirates, where massive investments in real estate and civic infrastructure now include the arts.

The Times article details the newly unveiled plans for $27 billion worth of cultural development, including three museums by iconic architects -- Frank Gehry, Jean Nouvel, and Tadao Ando -- as well as a multi-venue performing arts center by Zaha Hadid (music hall, concert hall, opera house, and two theaters, one seating up to 6,300)...oh, and an arts college, arts schools, and 19 public pavilions.

In all, the project, known as the Cultural District of Saadiyat Island, would create an exhibition space intended to turn this once-sleepy desert city along the Persian Gulf into an international arts capital and tourist destination. If completed according to plan sometime in the next decade, consultants predict, it could be the world's largest single arts-and-culture development project in recent memory.

Youssef Ibrahim in the New York Sun thinks the effort brash and ill-considered. Abeer Mishkhas in the Arab News wonders why a big chunk of the art has to come from the Louvre (another chunk will be part of the Guggenheim franchise).

This Abu Dhabi arts mega-plex announcement comes after similarly lofty blueprints emerged in nearby Dubai (say those last two words five times fast), and concurrent initiatives to develop more integrated and thoughtful cultural policy for the neighboring country of Oman.

While the effort may well lead these cities to the same challenges and frustrations of every other city that's constructed an iconic cultural edifice, at least we can be sure that the consultant economy will flourish in the Middle East.

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

February 9, 2007

Different players, familiar tune

Who was gathering in Washington, DC, this week, claiming the economic impact of their creative activities, stressing their value in global diplomacy, and canvassing federal legislators for support? See if you can guess from this quote:

"We tell a lot of stories ... but we never really tell our story cohesively as an industry.... This is going to be one of the few times we come to Washington and really explain our view of how critical our industry is, why it deserves the attention of the government, why it deserves the protection of the government."

Nope, it wasn't the nonprofit arts -- Arts Advocacy Day is next month, when the arts do essentially the same thing. It was Hollywood (the Motion Picture Association of America to be exact), bringing star power (Will Smith and Clint Eastwood, among others) and gravitas (the event was held in a museum) along for the ride.

The MPAA even rolled out a new economic impact study, claiming that the film industry generated more than 1.3 million jobs and contributed $60.4 billion to the country's economy.

So there.

Posted by ataylor at 12:38 AM | Comments (2)

February 12, 2007

Building awareness and conversation, one restroom stall at a time

I'll admit to a fascination with IKEA, the Swedish home furnishing megastore with major outposts in major cities. It may be because the store impressed me when I first saw one in the Netherlands decades ago (so big, so clean, so cheap). It may be that I'll like any store that offers Swedish meatballs and lingonberries in the cafeteria.

But in recent visits, I've been impressed with the way they convey their message and their culture to their customers. Certainly, it's there in every aspect of what they sell, what they charge, and how they arrange it for sale. But there are also these little factoids posted in odd little places where people have time to look.

There are table signs in the lunchroom, explaining in friendly prose why you have to bus the table yourself, why there aren't as many sales people to help you as you might like, and why you have to assemble all the furniture yourself (all to benefit you of course). There are even little conversation cards posted in the rest room stalls, with a short paragraph and a photo about the store's strategy, values, or history ("IKEA" is an acronym constructed from the founder's initials -- Ingvar Kamprad -- plus the first letters of the farm and village where he grew up -- Elmtaryd and Agunnaryd).

A bit obvious, perhaps, to tell a little story in places where people have a moment to read one. But it's an obvious step I haven't seen in most cultural facilities.

Much of our job in managing cultural spaces is to increase our visitors' opportunity to succeed in the task they came for -- learning something new, recalling something remembered, connecting with a partner or friend through a shared experience. Dare I suggest that interesting little factoids in the restroom advance many of these goals?

At IKEA, I'll be darned if I didn't emerge from the restroom with an urge to share the little factoid with my wife ("Do you know where the name IKEA comes from?" says I with a knowing tone). She had a different factoid to share ("Do you know why they design all their furniture to fit in flat packages?" says she). Together we constructed a little moment of meaning (not dramatic meaning, mind you, but a tiny little moment), with IKEA as both the subject and the source.

So, I hereby propose the installation of little frames in all cultural facility restroom stalls (okay, urinals too), with a rotating series of information cards about the venue, the event, the discipline, or the artists. To encourage and reward conversation, you would need to post different factoids in every stall (giving everyone an opportunity to look smart). And of course, the factoids would need to be interesting, relevant to the event, and quirky enough to be shared (a little tidbit about acoustics, perhaps, or theater terminology, or a nugget about the composer to be performed -- "Did you know that medical tests of a lock of Beethoven's hair suggest he had lead poisoning that may have caused his life-long illnesses, impacted his personality, and possibly contributed to his death?" -- and other happy stuff like that).

Some symphony, theater, museum, or performing arts facility must have thought of this already. Please let me know who you are...

Posted by ataylor at 9:02 AM | Comments (7)

February 13, 2007

Enabling your fans, connecting their friends

As another presidential election rolls into gear, it will be instructional and fascinating to watch how each campaign makes use of social networking systems on the web. In fact, if you're watching correctly, a major national election can offer a practical course on community engagement -- exposing the best guesses of experts on how to galvinize and direct the individual choices and social actions of an entire country.

That's a useful course for cultural managers, whether they work on the local, regional, state, or national stage.

This time around, expect a whole bunch of energy and cash flowing on-line -- videos, photos, blogs, meetup groups, and on and on. Howard Dean's campaign in 2004 was a first indicator of what was to come -- raising tons of cash and attention in the virtual world, but eventually falling short in the world in which people actually vote (the infrastructure of Howard Dean's campaign has now evolved into CivicSpace, a fairly cool social networking web system for social causes).

As a first look, take a gander at Barack Obama's new social networking site, It offers lots of opportunities for any supporter to start a blog, build a buddy list, schedule local events, and raise money for the cause.

Imagine if your web site gave your most enthusiastic audience members the same opportunity, or at least encouraged and connected those who already post on-line.

Posted by ataylor at 8:39 AM | Comments (1)

February 14, 2007

Perhaps the Luddites had a point

There's a well-worn legend about the NASA space pen. Costing a million dollars to design, the pen was intended to solve the problem of writing in the no-gravity vacuum of space. The legend tells how the Soviets solved the same problem by using a pencil.

Hipster PDAAnd even though the legend isn't true, it's such a helpful metaphor that I still use it often. (Being accountable to the truth is such an inconvenience when I want to make a point.)

The false legend is especially useful for cultural managers, who often feel compelled to adopt new office technologies, even when they have no resources, no training, no support, and no internal staff who have time to make it work. And even when there may be a more elegant and less technological alternative available.

Which is why, even though I'm a technology fanatic, I so enjoy the Luddite alternatives: The simple but obvious adjustments that help clear the clutter of life, using physical folders and actual paper to focus your workweek, and such.

And you have to love the ''Hipster PDA,'' a rock-bottom-price alternative to the ubiquitous electronic gadget with the plastic stylus (essentially a stack of index cards and a binder clip). Says the description:

The Hipster PDA (Parietal Disgorgement Aid) is a fully extensible system for coordinating incoming and outgoing data for any aspect of your life and work. It scales brilliantly, degrades gracefully, supports optional categories and ''beaming,'' and is configurable to an unlimited number of options. Best of all, the Hipster PDA fits into your hip pocket and costs practically nothing to purchase and maintain.

Computer and communications technology is extraordinarily cool and often powerfully effective. But if it's easier, cheaper, faster, and more effective to use a pencil...use a pencil.

NOTE: If you'd like a slightly higher-tech alternative to the Hipster PDA, check out PocketMod. Geeky, I'll admit, but cool.

Posted by ataylor at 9:02 AM | Comments (4)

February 15, 2007

Buddhist Economics

Managers of all sorts of social enterprise (nonprofit, public, commercial, coop, whatever) often find themselves stuck between the laws of economics and the goals of social good. Economic theory explores the mechanics of value creation and value transfer among individuals and throughout social systems. As such, it certainly should inform our strategies and tactics in advancing our organization's work. But economics often sets aside the ''values'' that bring us to our jobs each day -- truth, beauty, fulfillment of personal potential, social justice, human expression, and human dignity.

As a result, managing a social venture can feel like swimming in a riptide, because we're trying to advance a non-commercial cause in a highly commercial world.

Enter Buddhist Economics, an effort to combine the ''physics'' of economic theory with the larger ''meta-physics'' that shape human existence. The combination is not intended as an academic party game, or an amusing oxymoron (like ''military intelligence,'' or ''jumbo shrimp''), but rather as a more holistic response to the needs of social systems:

If economists were to stop evading the issue of moral values, they would be in a better position to influence the world in a fundamental way and to provide solutions to the problems of humanity and the world at large. Ideally, economics should play a part in providing mankind with opportunities for real individual and social growth rather than simply being a tool for catering to selfish needs and feeding contention in society, and, on a broader scale, creating imbalance and insecurity within the whole global structure with its innumerable ecosystems.

The idea of merging economic theory and Buddhist principals traces back to a series of essays by E. F. Schumacher in 1973 entitled Small is Beautiful, an early effort by a serious economist to inject ''sustainability'' goals into an otherwise value-neutral social science. It seeks to suggest that moral behavior, ethics, and consideration of the larger good, should not be tacked on or sidelined in economic analysis, but integrated.

I'm not a Buddhist, nor have I studied Buddhism extensively, so others will have to tell me if these documents are fair and true to the larger belief system. And I'm as wary as anyone when I hear the phrase "moral values" -- a phrase co-opted by many these days.

But as the director of an MBA program that straddles the worlds of economics and social benefit, I definitely appreciate the effort to align the two. Says Ven. P. A. Payutto: the end, a truly beneficial life is only possible when the individual, society and the environment serve each other. If there is conflict between any of these spheres, the result will be problems for all.

Thanks, Colin, for uttering the phrase that led me here.

Posted by ataylor at 8:54 AM | Comments (6)

February 16, 2007

Revisiting a mission shift

I was pleased to get a new comment today from Matthew Kwatinetz, Producing Artistic Director of the Capitol Hill Arts Center in Seattle, which had been the subject of a weblog post way back in June.

My original post was on CHAC's decision to discontinue its traditional theater season, which was no longer working as a business model. Kwatinetz' comments suggest that the change has led to positive results, and new opportunities for non-traditional performance experiences. Says he:

...while some theatre productions seem to exhibit a dwindling audience, other very experimental (and often amateur) blends of performance/music/dance (in other words, nascent theatre) seem to be increasing in attendance.

In my view, this is an essential question for theatre producers (and artistic/managing director teams) to consider. Is there some feedback loop being missed by an anachronistic model that no longer is tied to the play-goer's (ie, consumer's) value?

Good question, and a welcome update to a story that continues to be worth watching.

Posted by ataylor at 8:38 AM | Comments (0)

February 20, 2007

Sunday in the Park with Cans

Sunday in the Park with CansThere's something safe and detached about very large statistics. The 29,569 gun-related deaths in the U.S. in 2004, for example. The 2.3 million Americans incarcerated in 2005. The 1.14 million brown paper supermarket bags used in the U.S. every hour. But there's nothing like a creative visual to bring the scale of those numbers into focus.

Which is what makes Chris Jordan's current work so interesting. Sure, it's a bit polemical. But there's power in actually seeing a statistic -- like the 106,000 aluminum cans American's use every 30 seconds -- laid out to mimic Seurat's A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte.

For a little more perspective, also see Ben Mauntner's Population:One web page, depicting an individual (you) in relation to the current total population of the earth.

Thanks, as ever, to information aesthetics for both links.

Posted by ataylor at 8:34 AM | Comments (1)

February 21, 2007

Staying exempt

The 501(c)3 nonprofit corporate form is a mainstay of the arts and culture world. It's not overly complex in its basics (a governing board of three or more, organized for charitable purposes, operating toward those purposes, and not distributing benefits of operations to any of the governing parties). We tend to make the form more complicated (with larger boards and sprawling missions), but its always a good idea to return to the basics every now and again to be sure you're living up to IRS standards.

Vernon, the tax helper guyThankfully, the IRS wants to help. Their on-line tutorial site, Staying Exempt, offers quick courses in the tax-exempt form, the requirements of nonprofits to remain nonprofits, how to deal with unrelated business income, how to manage employees, filling out the 990 tax form, and required record disclosures.

The site is even populated with friendly cartoon characters (Vernon is shown in this post, say "hi"), to make the journey less intimidating.

Thanks, Barb, for the link.

Posted by ataylor at 8:32 AM | Comments (0)

February 27, 2007

Managing yield, balancing guilt

The Chicago Tribune explores the potential and pitfalls of variable pricing in the arts -- charging different amounts for comparable seats, based on individual demand. The practice, which has long been the standard in airline ticketing and high-demand entertainment, is slowly entering the nonprofit cultural world, especially in Chicago:

For the last three years or so, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra has quietly raised single-ticket prices for concerts, once the organization's computerized models indicate that early sales suggest the event will likely sell out. Premium single tickets are under discussion at the Lyric Opera of Chicago. Goodman Theatre executive director Roche Schulfer says his non-profit group is seriously considering offering premium, last-minute tickets to hit shows to patrons "who are also willing to make a contribution," perhaps as soon as next season.

The strategy of individually varying pricing -- more broadly called ''yield management,'' since the goal is to maximize the total dollars earned, aka, the yield -- makes many nonprofit managers and marketers woozy, as it feels more commercial and profit-seeking than they're used to. But if done with care and respect to mission (especially that part of the mission related to broad access) it can be an essential way to remain sustainable.

The two challenges of variable pricing are mechanical and cultural. Up until recently, it's been fairly expensive to alter the price of a ticket at whim -- not to mention the cost of the data infrastructure and market intelligence required to inform that whim. Now more advanced ticketing and reporting systems are bringing those costs down. But the cultural challenges remain large -- with patrons fairly used to being subsidized, even when they're willing and able to pay more, and with staff and leadership nervous about pushing the envelope of profitable behavior.

For arts events that don't sell out, variable pricing has less of an up-side (it's those high-demand, last-minute tickets that can really boost your yield). And, in fact, we've grown quite comfortable with the discounting side of the strategy. But for the few that do sell out, better yield management could give an arts organization more cash and capacity to fulfill its mission elsewhere.

Posted by ataylor at 9:17 AM | Comments (0)

February 28, 2007

Stumbling towards ecstasy

As web sites, media options, leisure choices, and other clutter around us grows exponentially, one of the challenges of life is finding something worth paying attention to. Sure, you have Google and the like when you know what you're looking for. You even have Amazon and other collaborative filtering systems to observe your purchase patterns and recommend additional things to buy.

But what about serendipity -- that seemingly random happenstance that connects you with something worth seeing?

For that, there are sites like StumbleUpon, a collaborative site of users who like to discover and share cool things on the web. Essentially, StumbleUpon is a set of tools that allows anyone to flag web pages they like as they browse, and then share those pages with other users. When you want to stumble, you select the categories that interest you, and click a button to link to a random, well-ranked page in that category.

I'll admit to a daily addiction to the tool, allowing myself a few clicks when I get something significant accomplished. The clicks are almost always worth the effort: like Scott Wade's Dirty Car Art Gallery or Mr. Picassohead or these fun little foldable toys. I've even added "stumble it" links to each of my weblog entries, to see if it directs a few new readers to these conversations.

If only we could work such serendipity into the live arts experiences cluttering events calendars nationwide. Perhaps I could subscribe to a random series of arts tickets, mailed to me a week before a performance. Perhaps my local performing arts center could offer a discount "grab bag" of tickets to well-respected upcoming events. Perhaps I could pay a trusted friend to buy me an ecclectic bundle of events for the coming season.

Of course, the risk/reward ratio is different for a live event than for a simple web click. If StumbleUpon dissappoints me, I've only lost a few seconds rather than a whole evening and $50. But there must be a way to balance that risk and foster the joy of accidental rapture.

Posted by ataylor at 8:53 AM | Comments (1)

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