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February 5, 2008

What's ''authentic''?

Some interesting threads about ''authenticity'' are tracking around the web, many in response to the new Pine & Gilmore book on the subject (haven't read it yet, but it's in ''the stack''). Included in the thread are posts by Grant McCracken, then Sam Ford, and then Sam Ford again.

At issue is what we all mean by ''authentic,'' which seems to be a placeholder for lots of different variables -- clarity of purpose, lack of pretense, sense of genuine care and attention, endurance over time.

McCracken's original post was in response to one reader who blasted Unilever for promoting their ''campaign for real beauty'' through Dove soap, while also blatantly objectifying women with their ''Axe effect'' campaign for young men. The assumption was that such conflicting messages made both ''inauthentic.''

Says McCracken, get over it:

This is precisely what is wrong with the authenticity argument now being promoted by Gilmore and Pine. In fact, brands have no native voice. They may have a brand heritage. Some brand meanings may come more easily than others. But there is nothing a brand must say, and nothing, within limits, it mustn't say. Brands are designed to be exemplars of responsiveness. This means we may not insist on what they "really" mean, or what they "must" say. The very point of the exercise, as this is carried forward by branding, marketing, capitalism, and a dynamic society, hangs in the balance.

Since arts organizations are often perceived (or perceive themselves) as havens of authentic expression, it might be worth a moment to define, exactly, what that means.

Posted by ataylor at 9:10 AM | Comments (10)

February 6, 2008

More on authenticity

I was pleased to get a comment on my post yesterday from Bill Ivey, former chair of the National Endowment for the Arts, and current director of the Curb Center for Art, Enterprise and Public Policy at Vanderbilt. I had a great visit to the Curb Center just last week for an intriguing conversation between sociologists, researchers, arts practitioners, and national service organizations about where their various worlds might productively intersect.

I'm not sure if folks go back and read comments from past posts, but I thought this one was well worth a separate mention. To me, the definition and delivery of "authentic" expression is a core challenge for cultural managers. I'd encourage you to give Bill's comment a read, then post your own perspective.

Posted by ataylor at 10:27 AM | Comments (0)

February 7, 2008

Does anyone listen to lyrics?

Thanks to BoingBoing for pointing me to this Lawrence Welk show performance of ''One Toke over the Line'' (if you're out of the loop, ''toke'' is slang for smoking Marijuana...I'm guessing Gail and Dale didn't figure that out). The cultural disconnect recalls the recent Washington Post article on the songs used in presidential campaigns, and the odd symbolism they reveal when you really listen to their lyrics.

Some might consider this evidence of shallow thinking on the part of television producers and campaign consultants. But I revel in the evidence that expressive acts can carry invasive meaning wherever they're invoked. What a hoot.

Posted by ataylor at 9:39 AM | Comments (4)

February 8, 2008

Agent or manager...the distinction blurs

In the arts and entertainment world, there's a distinction that's often misunderstood as semantic, when it's actually driven by law: the difference between a manager and an agent. In film, touring performing arts, theater, publishing, and other realms of creative expression, both agents and managers work to advance their clients' work. The difference is that agents can procure work for their clients and require a license to do so. Managers can promote their clients, but cannot make the deal.

The reason for the distinction relates to the perils and pitfalls of ''agency,'' where one person is doing business on behalf of another. There are reams of research on the challenges that the principal-agent relationship can foster -- among them an imbalance of expertise and knowledge between the principal and the agent (the realtor often knows more about the value of a house and the terms of a contract, but may not always have a monetary incentive to share that knowledge), and the challenge of knowing exactly whose interests an agent represents between the buyer and seller.

In arts and entertainment, the distinction is commonly known and frequently blurred. And that distinction was the subject of a recent California Supreme Court case. If you are an artist, or contract with artists, it would be worth understanding the difference.

Posted by ataylor at 8:56 AM | Comments (1)

February 11, 2008

Thanks to Microsoft, I'm a better person...

upgrading identityAs I was upgrading my Microsoft Office software to the new version last week, the dialog box shown here popped up on my screen. I know we all define ourselves, in part, by the goods we purchase and the tools we use. But I thought it was particularly thoughtful of Microsoft to upgrade my sense of self without me asking them to.

My identity is upgraded. I'm a whole new man.

Posted by ataylor at 9:08 AM | Comments (1)

February 12, 2008

Getting in our own way

Charles Isherwood in the New York Times has mixed feelings about emerging theater works with an emphasis on active audiences, where the viewer plays a significant role in the way the event unfolds. It may be event-worthy and alluring to new audiences, he thinks, but it lacks many of the essential qualities of complex narrative and ''serious theater.''

Part of the problem with such interaction, he suggests, is that while we're wandering through the interactive setting, we are too aware of ourselves to get lost in the experience:

If we are too conscious of our own presence in the presence of art, it can be a distraction to engagement. Think of how hard it is to connect with a beloved painting if you come upon it after too many hours in the museum, your feet sore and sticking to the floor. The mind is most receptive when our sense of ourselves as physical entities impinging on the world can be forgotten, and we are free to open up to a new experience.

It's a subtlety worth exploring, as all roads in the lively arts seem to be moving toward more visibly active audiences, less traditional audience chambers, and less sitting quiet in the dark. Isherwood even wonders if our common definition of ''active'' is starting to skew toward visible and physical action rather than more invisible, internal forms. is worth reiterating that to be an active participant in a theatrical experience, you don't have to put on a mask or have your feet fondled; you just have to be spiritually present.

Posted by ataylor at 8:44 AM | Comments (4)

February 13, 2008

Allocating that complex asset, the museum collection

The decision by billionaire philanthropist Eli Broad not to donate his vast art collection to the new Los Angeles County Museum of Art is causing quite a ripple in the museum world (CultureGrrl explored the topic last month, as did Tyler Green, following the New York Times January article on the decision). Rather than donate the collection, Broad decided to hold it within an independent foundation that would loan the works to LACMA and other institutions.

Broad's decision is a response to the invariable challenge of collecting museums, where the vast majority of the art is warehoused and rarely seen. Since collections can be huge, and gallery space is limited, some works may never be seen by the public again. So, Broad wondered, how does that serve the public trust? And more specifically, how does it serve his collection?

Back in 2005, I blogged about conversations in the United Kingdom on this very question -- how is the public served by large individual warehouses of artifacts allowing only limited flow from one museum to another? There, the recommendation was to change our mental metaphor for the UK's public museums -- shifting focus from the institutions to the aggregated collections those museums held in trust.

If I were a cold and heartless MBA program director -- oh wait, I am -- I'd call this a classic asset allocation problem. How do you maximize asset value (connecting artifacts with people, both now and for generations to come) and minimize asset cost (in part, how and where do you maintain the asset)? And finally, is the traditional asset-allocation model of the collecting museum really the best structure for the job?

Posted by ataylor at 9:33 AM | Comments (1)

February 14, 2008

Balancing the masses and the elite

Social-networking maven Kevin Kelly posts some fascinating thoughts on the past and future of user-generated content systems (Wikipedia, distributed networks, smart mobs, blogs, and such). At issue is how such systems balance the aggregated, bottom-up insights of non-experts against the editing, filtering, curating, and clarifying energy of top-down, ''elite'' content managers.

We all know by now that the traditional model -- where a few, favored individuals and institutions select, craft, and distribute content through authorized channels -- is turning upside-down. That flip is what's making traditional cultural institutions so nervous, and nudging established cultural gatekeepers to scan the want ads. But Kelly warns that purely bottom-up systems can't get us where we want to go, either.

Rather, he says, it's the balance of mass insight against thoughtful selection, design, and direction that defines the new frontier. We won't end up on either side of that equation, just dancing around the middle.

Even that bastion of the hive mind, Wikipedia, is not a purely distributed network of non-expert content creators. Rather, it's a mass-input device structured and manipulated by a different kind of editor. Says Kelly:

...a close inspection of Wikipedia's process reveals that it has an elite at its center, (and that it does have an elite center is news to most). Turns out there is far more deliberate top-down design management going on than first appears. This is why Wikipedia has worked in such a short time.

How does this relate to arts and cultural management? In almost every way. Our professional cultural institutions were primarily built on the traditional model of content creation, development, selection, and delivery. A handful of highly skilled and aesthetically (or economically) elite individuals defined what we do, and determined who would get to do it (providing centuries of extraordinary results, I might add). But now that the world is shifting to a more bottom-up, participatory, and mass-insight infrastructure, our way of working has become increasingly awkward and anachronistic.

Kelly suggests that the solution is not to swing entirely toward the hive mind, nor to abandon the role of curator, editor, expert, or even elite. The solution is in bringing our artful eye toward rethinking the system itself:

The real art of business and organizations in the network economy will not be in harnessing the crowd of "everybody" (simple!) but in finding the appropriate hybrid mix of bottom and top for each niche, at the right time.

Let the hybrids begin!

Posted by ataylor at 8:53 AM | Comments (2)

February 19, 2008

Illiterate or hyperliterate? It depends on how you count

Techno-trends author Steven Johnson offers a critical response to the idea (and the NEA report advancing the idea) that Americans are reading less now than they used to. The NEA study, released last November (available for download here), raised media concern and national discussion about the demise of voluntary reading. Said NEA Chair Dana Gioia in the press release about the report:

"This study shows the startling declines, in how much and how well Americans read, that are adversely affecting this country's culture, economy, and civic life as well as our children's educational achievement."

In his recent rebuttal to the study in The Guardian, Johnson raises two primary concerns: First, he doesn't think the data actually shows the negative impact of the proposed decline (and actually shows improvement of some indicators among certain age groups). But more importantly, he decries the fact that none of the studies cited include on-line reading in their analysis. Says Johnson:

Simply excising screen-based reading from the study altogether is like doing a literacy survey circa 1500 and only counting the amount of time people spent reading scrolls.

So, are Americans reading less or reading more? Are we writing less or writing more? Are we listening to less music or more music? Are we more aesthetically aware or less? Are we more or less sensitive to issues of design?

These are fairly important questions for the cultural industries. It might be worth trying to explore the answers in full.

UPDATE OF 2/20/2008: The current and former directors of the NEA's Office of Research & Analysis posted a rebuttal to Johnson's rebuttal in today's edition of The Guardian that disputes Johnson's counterpoints and reinforces the findings of the original study. Worth a read.

Posted by ataylor at 8:07 AM | Comments (0)

February 20, 2008

Sort of like PowerPoint haiku

Through a friend's copy of Presentation Zen, I stumbled onto the strange beauty of Pecha Kucha, a seemingly arbitrary but undeniably compelling approach to PowerPoint presentations.

Suggested and refined by architects Mark Dytham and Astrid Klein (and described here by Presentation Zen author Garr Reynolds), Pecha Kucha emerged as a way to share focused bursts of information in a fixed amount of time. Here are the rules:

  • You get 20 slides in your PowerPoint deck
  • each slide gets 20 seconds exactly
    (no clicker involved, the slides advance automatically)
  • in six minutes and 40 seconds, you're done.

The idea took off in Tokyo, and spread to Pecha Kucha nights all over the world -- featuring designers, architects, artists, and other creative types. Now the practice is spreading to business, where six minutes and 40 seconds turns out to be plenty of time to convey a clarified idea.

Why add seemingly random constraints to a presentation format? Because wide-open boundaries of time and volume can lead to laziness and message sprawl. Artists throughout history have found ways of adding constraints to unconstrained expression to clarify their thinking and their work -- through poetic or musical form, through norms and styles, through the limits of specific media. As I've said before, constraint is the essence of art.

Pecha Kucha may not be art (or it may be). But regardless, any premise that requires a bit more attention by the presenter and demands a bit less endurance by the audience is a step in the right direction. Could this be one of the ''little conference innovations'' we've been looking for?

[ Thanks, John, for the discovery. ]

UPDATE OF 3/3/08: On a related note, a colleague just forwarded me this Boston Globe article on PowerPoint Karaoke, where presenters have to narrate a set of PowerPoint slides they've never seen before. Sounds like a blast! [ Thanks Jenn! ]

Posted by ataylor at 1:25 AM | Comments (1)

February 22, 2008

A little vision of collective meaning

Human Brain CloudThanks, as ever, to information aesthetics for this link to an on-line visualization of collective thinking.

The Human Brain Cloud describes itself as a ''massively multiplayer word association game'' that asks its visitors to enter words they immediately associate with provided words, and then maps the clusters of responses in a dynamic and visual way.

Another cool Internet trifle, perhaps. But a lovely metaphor for how we all construct meaning and patterns in the world through our interactions with others. It's Friday, after all, take a quick play break.

Posted by ataylor at 8:50 AM | Comments (0)

February 27, 2008

Bringing a new eye to facility design

The United Kingdom's Design Counsel offers a handy primer by Jeff Kindleysides on the emerging challenges of retail space design. If you simply replace the words ''retail'' and ''stores'' with ''cultural facilities,'' you can cut right to the relevance for arts leaders.

Like every other built environment serving a social purpose these days, retail is running into complex dynamics between what customers want, and what their traditional business models require. Says the overview:

...the challenges are first in the understanding of consumers; deciphering and then interpreting a mix of needs and desires that create unique shopping experiences; then in satisfying the consumer's expectation of an information-rich dialogue at retail, with a hunger for live interactive experiences. Balanced against this are demanding commercial realities and pressures to create a greater use of space, at a time where we are redefining of the role of a store and its importance for individual communities.

Particularly relevant to cultural facilities is this little nugget on providing a sense of belonging and place:

There is a growing trend towards local relevance and stores which are designed to demonstrate empathy with the local surroundings and recognise and respect local issues. This has manifested itself in many forms, from the sympathetic renovation of historic locations involving the local community in the process, to stores with dedicated spaces which are turned over to the local community after hours (Comme des Garcons does this in Glasgow), to celebrating the uniqueness of a city or town in which they trade within (Virgin Megastores did this in Manchester).

Does that effort for local relevance and empathy sound like your local major performing arts center, symphony space, or recital hall? Would you know one community cultural facility from another one in a different town? To what extent are your cultural facilities open and available to community use?

Glad to have folks in other industries exploring our challenges and offering solutions (in the form of ten examples of retail spaces working to innovate along these lines).

Posted by ataylor at 10:31 AM | Comments (0)

February 28, 2008

When do you serve your mission by closing your doors?

Mark Hager and The Nonprofit Quarterly launch a somber but essential conversation in his article/case study ''The Ultimate Question,'' exploring when nonprofits might help their cause most effectively by shutting down and getting out of the way. The article tells the story of Metro Arts and Film, a nonprofit struck with a sudden funding crises that reveals leadership, board, and vision problems that may (or may not) be too large to overcome. Do they close down? Do they regroup? How do they even have the conversation?

It's a conversation that usually only comes after a significant shock (loss of funding, death of a founder, or the like). But it's a conversation that's well worth having as part of every strategic plan. Says Mark:

Organizations that contribute value to a community have an obligation to that community to continue to provide their services. But if dissolution of an organization best serves the community's well-being, then its board should not hesitate to close it. If an organization no longer meets its goals effectively, it should step aside to allow other organizations to pursue that end.

A sobering thought, to be sure, but a thought worthy of any organization that claims to be driven by mission.

To foster the larger conversation, The Nonprofit Quarterly is hosting an on-line discussion this month. Add your thoughts to the mix!

Posted by ataylor at 9:37 AM | Comments (0)

February 29, 2008

The all-Google office?

Computer software and servers have long been the (necessary) bane of the nonprofit arts. If you could afford the equipment and software, you couldn't afford to keep it current. Since not everyone used the network server for their updates, finding the current version of any file was an exercise in ''who had it last." And since tech support was rarely in the budget or in the cards, a responsive back-up protocol was often a dream, or lingering nightmare.

Over the past year or so, Google has been slowly evolving another way. As an antidote to your addictions to Word, Excel, and PowerPoint -- and even to an operating system like Windows or Mac -- they've been assembling Google Apps, a bundle of on-line applications that turn your web browser into an operating system, complete with most of what you need to get your job done.

In the middle of the e-mail program, calendar system, team web page, chat system, and search engine now lives Google Docs, a virtual bundle of a word processor, spreadsheet, and presentation software that's always updated, always backed up, and always accessible (assuming you can find an Internet-connected computer...and not even your own).

While this is sounding like a commercial, it's more of an enthusiastic observation. A scrappy and eager arts organization could now run a reasonably sophisticated business without Microsoft Office or its brethren, without a server, and even without a consistent computer for each staff member. Google would be your hard drive, your operating system, and your software team. You'd just need a reasonably stupid computer with a fast connection and a web browser, and that's getting cheaper by the month.

So, if you're just starting an office and wandering off to buy (or borrow) the software, ponder Google Apps for a moment. It may not be there yet, but it's coming on fast.

Posted by ataylor at 12:15 AM | Comments (2)

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