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January 3, 2005

Less of a lecture, more of a conversation

The new year brings loads of 'top 10' lists, trend analyses, and other retrospectives to the mediasphere. One of particular interest can be found on the weblog PressThink (a blog about journalism). This list is author Jay Rosen's Top Ten Ideas for 2004 for journalism.

I was particularly struck by idea number 5: ''News Turns from a Lecture to a Conversation,'' because of its parallels to arts marketing, education, outreach, and development. Says Rosen about the public and the media:

The shift in power is putting more tools, more choices, more media capacity overall in the hands of the people formerly known as the audience. The decline in authority goes hand in hand with that, since people who have lots of choices, who can "roll their own" (as Dan Gillmor says) don't care to be lectured to. Just by staying the same news sounds today more like a lecture because it gets compared to stuff that doesn't sound that way at all.

You know sometimes a crisis in authority is tonal. The answer to that is a shift in tone.

The 'lecture' tone is pervasive in the nonprofit arts -- in our marketing, our communications, our education, even in the words we use to describe those activities, which are so often one-directional (presenting, producing, outreach, etc.).

It will be interesting to see how many arts organizations and arts managers strive for a conversation in their work, rather than a lecture, in 2005.

Posted by ataylor at 9:44 AM

January 4, 2005

Carrots and sticks

The Stage on-line makes note of a possible change in Irish tax policy sure to affect at least some creative individuals. The government is set to review an exemption of income tax on writers, artists, and musicians in the Irish Republic.

The exemption, designed originally to provide another form of subsidy to creative artists, had also become a massive incentive for affluent creative individuals to make their home in Ireland. Now the government is feeling pressure to rethink that incentive, especially as it relates to the rich folk.

It's an interesting example of the challenges of carrots and sticks, or the various policies governments use to reshape their cultural landscape (intentionally, or more often by accident). Through income tax incentives, zoning, specialized tax credits (for preservation of historic buildings, for example), grants, awards, marketing, and communications, governments can encourage certain choices over others. In the aggregate, these redirected choices of individuals slowly accumulate into a new shape and face to a community, a city, or a country.

One of the more bizarre elements of Ireland's tax exemption is the burden it places on the government revenue bureaucracy. Since the legislation provides an exemption to artistic work that is 'original and creative' in one of five creative forms (see the on-line description of the exemption here), it's up to the Revenue office to determine what 'original and creative' means -- a task that would give even an aesthetics professor a conniption.

To resolve this, the legislation defines truth and beauty in creative expression, at least for the Irish universe:

A work has cultural merit if its contemplation enhances the quality of individual or social life by virtue of that work's intellectual, spiritual or asethetic form and content.

A work has artistic merit when its combined form and content enhances or intensifies the asethetic apprehension of those who experience or contemplate it.

It will be interesting to watch the debate over this particular tax incentive (okay, interesting for me, anyway), as the public wonders out loud about the relative value of having artists live in Ireland rather than somewhere else (even hyper-affluent immigrant artists). But in the meantime, it's wonderful to know that the definitions of 'cultural merit' and 'artistic merit' have been resolved by the Irish Revenue department.

All you humanities and philosophy professors can go home, your work is done.

Posted by ataylor at 9:12 AM

January 5, 2005

More carrots and sticks

My entry yesterday raised the idea of 'carrots and sticks,' or the tools that governments, philanthropists, community organizations, and others can use to reshape their immediate environment. It seems it might be worth a moment to explore that toolset to see what's inside.

Let's assume for a start that the goal of all such institutions is to change the shape of the world, if ever so slightly. If our community or city or region or state had just the right mix of artists, art, venues, audiences, engaged students, brokers, presenters, and civic participants -- without anyone adjusting the rules -- there would be no point in messing with the system.

But initiatives to support the arts or creative activity are built on the idea that the balance isn't right, and needs to be adjusted (more artists, more art, more audiences, more venues, more small businesses, whatever).

So, how do you change a world with limited money, staff, and time? The toolset is actually more diverse than you might think. Here are the elements of the world-changing toolkit that I can think of, each designed to influence the choices of individuals and groups. I'm sure there are others, but it's a start.

  • Distributing cash:
    The most obvious incentive system involves distributing money. You develop a grant program with certain rules to receive the money (create a new education program, focus more activity in an underserved area, present a certain kind of work), and artists, individuals, and organizations will grow toward the light. Less obvious elements in this toolset include other financial vehicles such as microgrants, loans, monetary awards for good behavior, and such.

  • Connecting the Dots:
    Governments, organizations, and individuals can also change their environment by leveraging the efforts of others. They can connect organizations, lobby for such connections, and nudge their friends and associates to move in a certain direction.

  • Defining Reality:
    Sometimes, by just defining a hole in your environment with clarity and persuasion, you can help other people see the hole themselves. By aggregating, generating, sharing, and analyzing information about the environment, governments, individuals, and organizations can shape a collective vision of what might be. If you create an obvious and compelling vacuum, it might just suck someone in to fill it.

  • Convening:
    A corollary to 'connecting the dots' and 'defining reality' is the noble art of convening -- bringing people together to synchronize their efforts, challenge their progress, or just to broaden their network can have powerful impacts on the shape of a regional culture.

  • Being an Agent:
    On the less glamorous side of the spectrum, organizations and governments can assume some of the back-office headaches of active individuals or collectives serving the chosen cause. This agency can come in the form of shared infrastructure, shared staff, shared office space, or even shared nonprofit status called fiscal sponsorship (which I'll discuss at another time). By providing this form of agency and structural support, organizations can encourage much more activity and much lower barriers to joining the fray.

  • Leveraging the Policy Toolkit:
    Governments create general incentive systems that can be used to benefit a specific cause (like the arts). If you understand your region's zoning rules, specialized tax credits, development incentives, and the like, you can help arts initiatives reap their benefits. A great example of this is Artspace Projects, which uses low-income housing credits (among other things) to finance artist live/work spaces.

  • Magnetizing the Environment:
    If your goal is to attract a certain type of individual or initiative to a community, you can sometimes just create a positive environment that draws them in -- through advertisement, branding, public relations, aesthetic improvements, or collective word-of-mouth.

  • Coercion:
    There are times when you can force an individual, organization, or group to behave in a certain way. It's not common in the toolbox of nonprofits, but governments can play this card with care. For example, many cities have a requirement that certain public building projects must allocate a portion of their construction expense to public art (here's such a program in Wisconsin). Even outside of government, organizations that license or certify can make requirements, as well (the American Association of Museums, for example, has strict behavior, structure, and organizational requirements for their museum accreditation process).

  • Do It Yourself:
    Even more obvious than all of the above is to fill the hole yourself. Municipal governments are often the local landlord of arts facilities (especially outside urban areas). They can also be the presenter and employer of creative workers. While this path can be the most expensive and challenging, it's often the only way through.

There's one major warning that should be emblazoned on the toolbox, however: beware of success. In a complex world, you can never change just one thing. As you monkey with the ecosystem around you with your grants and convenings and lobbying, always be aware of what other outcomes your work might spin out. If you're not careful, you might actually destroy the cause you had hoped to support.

Posted by ataylor at 8:41 AM

January 6, 2005

Rockettes aftermath

In the continuing saga of Clear Channel vs. the Boston nonprofit arts, it looks like Clear Channel took round one with a vengeance. As faithful readers will recall, the Boston Ballet's traditional cash-cow Nutcracker was bumped this season from the Wang Center for the Performing Arts, to make way for Clear Channel's touring ''Radio City Christmas Spectacular'' featuring the Rockettes (see my original posts here and here).

The big box-office lure of the Rockettes show was made worse by the concurrent running of ''The Lion King,'' another Clear Channel production which will likely gross $30 million by the end of its six-month Boston run.

The damage to nonprofit revenues? This story in the Boston Globe paints a bleak picture:

The impact of the Rockettes and ''The Lion King'' has been felt throughout the city. The Boston Symphony Orchestra, the corporate entity that oversees the Pops, canceled three Holiday Pops concerts because of slow ticket sales. Twelve of 29 Holiday Pops concerts sold out, but ticket sales were down from 2003's total of 79,000 to 63,000.

Revels, which held 18 Christmas Revels concerts in Sanders Theatre in Cambridge, saw its holiday ticket sales drop from 19,761 in 2003 to 17,900.

Handel and Haydn expected to earn $270,000 for its four performances of ''Messiah.'' The organization ended up earning $244,000.

Boston Ballet refused to release any figures on ticket sales or money earned for its just finished run on its smaller, restaged ''Nutcracker,'' but in a statement said that box office revenue was ''below expectations.''

It's a difficult battle for the local nonprofits, since they lack the marketing money, the market research, and international brand recognition...and they're up against a vertically integrated competitor (Clear Channel owns not just the touring shows, but also major local radio stations, billboards, and other goodies).

The locals might find inspiration from other small businesses faced with multi-national competitors (like local retailers vs. Wal-Mart). Their best response has been to amplify the local, responsive, friendly, and boutique customer experience that the box-box retailer cannot provide (yet). According to one short piece on the subject:

The smart small retailers know they can't beat Wal-Mart at Wal-Mart's game. So they change the game. Increasingly small retailers are becoming niche-focused. They strive to create a memorable, pleasurable experience for the customer. They offer levels of personalized service that the Wal-Marts simply can't match.

That said, ''The Lion King'' is a fairly stellar experience -- and not just in scale and glitz. So the Wal-Mart comparison may be wishful thinking, too.

It will be interesting to watch for round two next December.

Posted by ataylor at 9:26 AM

January 7, 2005

Exploring common ground in the performing arts

Way back in June, I helped lead a project team at the National Performing Arts Convention in Pittsburgh. The event was the first-ever gathering of multiple national service organizations in the performing arts and their membership (OPERA America, Chorus America, American Symphony Orchestra League, and Dance/USA were the primary partners). And it offered an astounding opportunity to learn what challenges these arts professionals were talking about, what ideas and insights they might discover as a cross-disciplinary group, and how such an effort to cross boundaries might work.

With the vision and leadership of my colleagues Alberta Arthurs and Steven Tepper, and an amazing team of graduate students from arts management, policy, and related programs, we forged an initiative to serve as the 'eyes and ears' of the various convenings...listening to the content and rhythm of the hundreds of conversations, and building a framework for encoding those conversations for analysis.

The I-DOC Project, as we came to call it (standing for our efforts to Interview, Document, Observe, and Clarify), was an amazing experience...driven through long hours and hard thinking by caffeine, starchy foods, and wireless laptop computers.

Our findings are now on-line in a final report that seeks to capture what we heard, what we learned, and how we might apply that knowledge to advance a more collaborative, discipline-crossing conversation among performing arts professionals.

It's only 34 pages (if you ignore the endless appendices), so it's clearly just the tip of the iceburg. But I sense and hope that it's the beginning of a deeper conversation somewhere.

Posted by ataylor at 12:37 AM

January 10, 2005

Let's take a break from the word 'change'

So I'm back at the annual Association of Performing Arts Presenters conference in New York (I was here last year, as some might recall). It has become a monster of a conference, with over 3900 participants this year. For those that don't know, Arts Presenters is the national service organization for performing arts professionals that book, present, and represent touring artists all across the country. If you went to see the Peking Acrobats anywhere near you, odds are the venue booked that act while visiting this conference in January, or at a smaller regional version throughout the year.

The theme of this year's conference is change ('Moving Forward on Shifting Ground,' to be exact). In fact, the theme of every conference I've been to for the past several years has been change. The pundit that said 'the only constant is change' must have been an arts conference planner.

But all this hand-wringing and sweat-wiping surrounding change management has me wondering: how much of our current struggle is really due to changes in how the world works? And how much is just a discovery of truths that have always been there?

I'm thinking of an analogy in physics. In the past few centuries, Newton framed and deduced the forces of gravity; Neils Bohr mapped out the path of an electron; Einstein suggested curved space. Throw in quantum physics and string theory, and you could certainly say that physics, as a discipline, has undergone radical changes far beyond what we could claim in our infant industry of arts management. But despite all that radical rethinking about the physical world, did reality change at all in that time? Or did physicists come to see that same reality in different ways?

When you start to tease out some of the common claims of a changed arts environment, the 'new issues' start to unravel into eternal truths: audiences never came just for the art, but for a complex set of reasons; the power and production relationship between donors and artists has always been complex and vexing; and on and on. Perhaps some of these changes aren't changes at all, but rather a more nuanced view of what was always the case. I'll grant you that communications technology and other factors have intensified some of these variables, but that doesn't make them new.

It sounds like a semantics game, but it has specific impact (at least in my head). 'Change' means we are victims...we are tossed around in tidal forces that sap our strength and cloud our way. 'Discovery' means we are explorers...knowing we can't ever be right, but learning as we go how we can match our models of the world more closely with our experience of the world.

One of those metaphors feels crushing and oppressive, and leads us to posture in defense. One feels expansive and encourages us to question. What if we shifted our collective rhetoric from 'change' to 'discovery,' to see if the weight on our shoulders is reduced just a touch? It may just be semantics, but symbol and metaphor are the heart of our business. We might as well take them out for a spin.

Posted by ataylor at 12:41 AM

January 11, 2005

A new approach to conference panels

Being at a national conference reminds me again about how odd the traditional panel discussion can be as a format for information sharing. You get four or five smart people and one moderator at a long table at the front of a crowded room. The moderator reads a long introduction to each. Then each talks for 10 to 20 minutes about the chosen topic, the moderator pontificates for 10 to 20 more, and there's 10 minutes for questions and comments from the audience -- just enough for the first grandstander to make a long and windy comment without a question attached.

Beyond the fact that the moderators aren't actually trained for what they do (they are good-hearted and civic-minded association members or smart people who do wonderful work but make lousy moderators), it's a strange approach to what could be a massively powerful moment of aggregated knowledge and experience. Worse yet, there are always people in the audience with brilliant insights and probing contributions to the subject at hand, but the structure of the event never gives them the chance to speak in depth.

It's particularly frustrating at a professional arts conference (like Arts Presenters, where I am now), because everyone in the room is supposedly a specialist in presenting artists, connecting audiences, and leading the symbolic lives of their communities. You'd think a group of arts presenters would have focused some attention on finding a better way to stage and arrange this particular form of theater.

So, here's my recommendation for whoever has the interest and resources to forge a new path:

Commission three or four artists (probably from the performing arts, and probably artists with a propensity to work with nonprofessionals as well as professionals) to rethink and reframe what a conference panel discussion should look like. You could consider it a cultural commission, challenging each artist to frame the space, the structure, and the rules of engagement to meet the specific goals (some moments to frame the issue at hand, open and free-ranging conversation, broad participation, a safe place for debate and discovery, with experts as necessary to inform the conversation). You could then 'present' these formats within the context of a national convention, as a series of social performance works in the time slots of the original panels they are replacing.

The results could be a catastrophe, of course. But these new perspectives and structures could also reframe how we talk to each other at professional conferences. Who knows, the arts could actually forge conference format innovations that would trickle to the rest of the professional convenings in other industries. They all must be in the same stupor as we are.

Even if the commissioned panel-discussion formats were a flop, they couldn't be much worse than what we do now. So many wonderful minds in a single space, so much potential for the most broadband of all communication formats (face-to-face discussion), and so much wasted energy on droning biographic introductions, detached comments, and disengaged audience members.

Mind you, I'm truly enjoying the people and ideas I'm hearing in the many rooms of the Arts Presenters conference. I'm just frustrated by the gap between what I hear now and what I might hear if the panel format wasn't so suffocating.

Does anyone out there know if some professional association has found a better way? If so, let me know.

Posted by ataylor at 12:38 AM

January 12, 2005

Taking brand placement to a whole new place

As traditional ad placements become lost in the clutter, or fast-forwarded on TiVO boxes and such, consumer companies are always searching for new and unexpected spots to display their brand. In Boston, Target now runs an animated commercial in the subway system...a series of images brought into motion by the train passing by. In another unique ad format, the white earphones and cord of the Apple iPod make anyone wearing one a moving brand builder. The white cord plays prominently in their television and print campaigns just to reinforce the point.

In Britain, one company has taken brand distribution seven steps further by offering foreheads for sale. The foreheads are the brainstorm of Cunning Stunts Communications, a guerilla marketing outfit that helps companies promote products through stunts, gags, viral marketing, and massive pranks. Their 'foreheADS' campaign allows you to rent out space on college students' foreheads, placing temporary tatoo ads or logos for public view.

Says their promotional copy:

Students/participants must display the ads for a minimum of three hours a day in highly visible locations such as instructed by Cunning, such as student bars, local pubs/bars and high footfall shopping or tourist areas. In return, they will receive approximately twice minimum wage on an hourly rate.

Participating students will have to provide photographic evidence of the transfer in situ whilst out and about.

We all know that enthusiastic audience members are our best advocates. I suppose we could ask the most enthusiastic among them if they'd be up for this. Or, what about members of the board? Hmmm. And with my hairline, I wonder if I could get time-and-a-half.

Posted by ataylor at 8:50 AM

January 13, 2005

Hurray for our team

The contract troubles at the St. Louis Symphony have certainly underscored the complex issues surrounding orchestral management. But even moreso, the story has shown the unique place, power, and potential of weblogs as a new form of information media. As newspapers allocate less and less space to arts stories (especially complex and nuanced stories like the St. Louis musician struggle), and as other media such as professional trade magazines, newsletters, and the like are published far less frequently with far less space for feature treatment, arts-related weblogs can be an essential resource for thoughtful, opinionated, and timely conversation.

Witness my weblog neighbor Drew McManus, who has been exploring the St. Louis story with a journalist's zeal -- complete with phone interviews and background research (here's one example, but there's a full string if you just visit his main site).

Fellow blogger Greg Sandow also chimed in on the issue of St. Louis.

As in many other industries and issue groups, weblogs can be a public forum (even if they are more monolog than dialog) for issues that may not have critical mass for in-depth public discussion in other media. I'm not saying that weblogs have no drawbacks or blind-spots. I'm just pleased that this medium is showing its potential in the arts, where it is so sorely needed.

Posted by ataylor at 9:11 AM

January 18, 2005

Patterns of compensation

An article in last week's Chicago Tribune discussed a study of Illinois arts executive compensation in some gloomy terms:

....the new study finds that only 10 percent of Illinois arts leaders receive any employer contribution whatsoever to their retirement savings. Other fringe benefits are in similarly short supply. And a striking 50 percent of Illinois arts groups make no contributions to the costs of their employees' health care, the study finds.

From the survey of 655 Illinois arts organizations, the study found that the average salary for a non-profit arts leader was $49,911, with the most frequent salary amounts at $35,000 and $25,000 (which means there are some serious outliers on the high side, throwing the curve).

There's all sorts of interesting data and analysis in the report (which is available for download in PDF format from the University of Chicago Cultural Policy Center). But particularly worth a note are the organizational profiles extracted from the data. These profiles cluster the variables with the highest correlation to compensation practices, and tell a story about each type:

  1. A competitive environment is found in pacesetting organizations. This environment attracts star leadership and is characterized by high factor loadings on donated income levels from board members, foundations, and ticket sales, and compensation variables with cash values including the value of the organization's contribution to retirement fund, total value of benefits, and base salary.
  2. A generous environment is found in benefit-friendly, standard-bearing organizations. These organizations include some institutions and some smaller, moderately stable organizations. They offer nearly every benefit available including health insurance, pregnancy leave, and contribution to retirement, but with less emphasis on the cash value of these benefits and more emphasis on access to benefits. Available benefits are not strongly correlated with budget size. The strongest loadings are on ''all benefits index'' representing the total number of benefits offered and ''number of benefits representing an indirect cost to organization.'' In a few of the smaller organizations with this environment, ''sometimes'' the executive director's check is late.
  3. A restrained environment is weak on benefits. This judicious organization balances staff management with strong institutional ties to government, strong ties to community leadership through its board, concern for the bottom line, and strong customer-service through ticket sales and food service. The strongest loadings are from ''how many full-time staff,'' ''line item from government,'' and ''board donations,'' with comparatively weak loadings on base salary and other compensation variables. All the loadings on ''benefits'' are weak, with a negative loading on ''organization pay a portion of health insurance.'' This environment attracts competent managers whose pay and benefits are not extraordinary. Strong governance through political and board relationships means it does not have to attract star leadership.
  4. A hard-working, struggling environment is found in organizations with strong benefits principles and low income. It supports a strong work ethic with good, basic benefits. While always struggling to make ends meet, it is, nonetheless, as supportive as it can be of its very hard working leader. ''Average weekly hours'' and ''organization pay a portion of health insurance'' load the strongest in this factor. Health insurance as a benefit is likely a strong attraction to executive directors working for such organizations. ''Check late index'' appears in this factor, although weak, (-.137) indicating that ''sometimes'' the executive director's check is late.
While the bundled assumptions in these groupings may take some time to unpack (is the fourth group the only one that's 'hard-working,' for example?), the gist of the analysis is worth a moment's pause.

We tend to cluster 'the arts' into one big bucket for any conversation -- be it economic impact, social importance, or management analysis. It's good to see some hard analysis working toward a more nuanced and granular view of how our world works. I'll look forward to digging in and sharing what I find.

Posted by ataylor at 8:30 AM

January 19, 2005

Peanuts, pretzels, art, candy bars, cigarettes

One way to make art more accessible to people's daily lives is to make art more accessible to people's daily lives. So often, accessibility initiatives are complex attempts to lure and cajole the public out of their daily activities and into our boxes (with discounts, coupons, bring-a-friend programs, lifelong learning initiatives, young professionals programs, cocktail parties, and such). But there are so many opportunities worth exploring to get creative expression out of our boxes and into the everyday world.

Art*o*matA fascinating case in point is the Art*o*mat, a collection of refurbished cigarette vending machines that now distribute original art.

The brainchild of artist Clark Whittington back in 1997, Art*o*mat machines now stand in more than 60 venues in 18 states, distributing the original work of more than 300 artists. The first machine, constructed to support a gallery show by the artist, eventually led to an abiding interest in the idea, and a new organization to support it, called Artists in Cellophane. According to the web site:

Artists in Cellophane (A.I.C.), the sponsoring organization of Art*o*mat, is based on the concept of taking art and ''repackaging'' it to make it part of our daily lives. The mission of A.I.C. is to encourage art consumption by combining the worlds of art and commerce in an innovative form. A.I.C believes that art should be progressive, yet personal and approachable. What better way to do this, than with a heavy cold steel machine?

I want one.

Posted by ataylor at 8:58 AM

January 20, 2005

Dark matter

lovely chartThere's a chart and some findings in the report I mentioned earlier this week on executive compensation among Illinois arts organizations that are worth a moment's reflection. The survey found that the large majority of arts organizations in their sample (and therefore in the state) were small in both money and staff (under $250,000). Says the report:

While the majority of arts organizations have at least one full-time staff member, 40 percent of the arts organizations in Illinois do not have full-time staff and nearly one fifth have no paid staff at all. Of those organizations that do have paid staff, 90 percent have less than 11 staff members. These figures point to the exceptional nature of the nonprofit arts economy, that is, many functioning organizations have budgets so small that they do not pay staff and are run totally by volunteers. Those that do have full-time, paid staff (61 percent) must still depend on a substantial amount of volunteer work, particularly from board members and other supporters.

And because there's a particular difficulty in finding and counting the really small organizations (under $25,000 or unincorporated or informal), it's easy to guess that the proportion is even more dramatic than the chart suggests.

The challenge in that reality is that it doesn't match our efforts to support the arts. So many of us (me included) spend the bulk of our energy, funding, training, and policy thought on larger arts organizations in urban settings, and the managers thereof. These numbers should remind us that by doing so, we're only speaking to a tiny fraction of the arts in America.

Once again, an analogy from science to make my point: Scientists have had all sorts of trouble understanding the dynamics of the universe because, as it turns out, most of its mass is invisible to them (they call it dark matter). When they focused only on the stars, planets, galaxies, and groovy, gaseous nebula, they were only seeing perhaps 10 percent of what made the whole system work.

Given the findings of the Illinois study (and others like it), it will be difficult for any of us to understand and support the creation, delivery, and experience of the arts in our country (or any other) if we only focus on the organizations we can readily see.

There's a glorious mass of unpaid and unseen individuals, volunteers, civic leaders, community groups, amateur clubs, tiny organizations, and impresarios -- spread out beyond the major cities -- that comprises the bulk of cultural experience. We'll need to include them in our calculations to really understand our particular universe.

Posted by ataylor at 9:30 AM

January 21, 2005

Feedback on conference panels

I received some supportive and thoughtful responses to my recent entry about the conference panel format and its annoying limitations as a means for sharing rich ideas. Some responses echoed the problems I identified, and let me know I wasn't alone. Said one:

I find most panel discussions ineffective, and not focused to the concerns of those in need. Most of the rhetoric heralds the accomplishments of the panelists rather than allowing the audience to explain their challenges and receiving advice. I have never witnessed much advice given, nor heard panelist brainstorm ideas between each other that may assist those with questions.

Another said much the same:

For years I have thought that the standard format was a disaster for all involved, from the talking heads to the moderators to the audience, and I am glad to find that I am not the only one. We need to demand much more experimentation in this area from our conference organizers--the current approach is clearly broken.

As for solutions or alternatives to the conference panel, some offered minor tweaks, others suggested an entirely different model.

There is one possible solution: the panel request questions be submitted in advance and their opening statements answer those questions. The challenge is to ensure those who submit the questions know that their question will be included in the opening discussion.

Another reader suggested a 'boot camp' for panel moderators...or a short, required training session with a professional facilitator just before the conference begins. Since I have seen conference panels that were quite lively and interactive, and this was often due to a thoughtful and artful moderator, that doesn't seem like such a bad idea.

Several readers mentioned the Open Space meeting model, not as an antidote, but as an alternative. This conference format is much more open and interactive, allowing the participants to both determine the session topics and then self-organize into discussion groups. One supporter also mentioned that the format had problems, as well:

[Open Space] can work better than the standard panel in the aspects you mention. One caveat is that sessions can also devolve into whine-fests, venting/sharing of complaints about things. While this has a place in supportive networking, its not the kind of productivity I think most of us seek in our pressured schedules. Im not a complete fan, and there are other downsides, but the Open Space technology in my experience does succeed in tapping into the intelligence in the room.

One friend in the evaluation world suggested we might learn something from the professionals who live to find better methods to share, explore, and evaluate ideas. Their solution is to offer several types of conversation models to better match the specific goals of the session:

The American Evaluation Association does a nice job of offering a range of formats for use at their annual conventions....For example, I've organized sessions using Debate, Roundtable, and Think Tank formats with good success. Much more interactive and recognizes the fact that we humans like to talk more than listen passively.

Another associate who plays a central role in conference development for a major association had seen many failed attempts to reconsider the panel discussion format, and was less hopeful of a positive solution:

In comparison to the discussions which happen in less formal settings or intentionally didactic workshops, every attempt that I've seen at deconstructing or rethinking panel discussions in a conference setting have resulted in exercises just as contrived and unrevealing as the abhorred panel format.

Finally, another reader burst the bubble altogether, by suggesting that the formal sessions of any conference are not where the truly valuable connections occur, anyway:

For the most part, I no longer attend conferences for the panels, the keynote speakers, or other distinguished guests, but for the opportunities to meet and interact with my peers and colleagues face to face, to be stimulated by their ideas and energy, and to renew my own commitment to the field. The best conference experiences happen in the interstices between the scheduled events, and I am feeling less and less guilty about prolonging these encounters past their approved boundaries. Conference organizers who zealously over-schedule our time, cut breaks short when sessions run over, and otherwise trample on these interstices need to be reminded that these moments are, for many of us, the highlights of the conference experience.

Nobody's taken me up on my big idea of commissioning artists to craft a new format for us all. But I'll still keep hoping.

Thanks to all who responded. It's a treat to make my little monologue a bit more interactive, as well.

Posted by ataylor at 8:52 AM

January 24, 2005

Cultural sprawl

Leo Kotkin had a piece in the Wall Street Journal last week on the growth of cultural facilities in the suburbs of America. Like most things cultural, the boom seems directly related to shifts in where people live -- especially people with means:

Since 1960, more than 90% of all population growth in America's metropolitan areas has taken place in suburbia. Today roughly two out of three people in large metropolitan areas live in the suburbs.

It's a difficult trend for urban arts organizations, many of whom strive to be the public lure that draws consumers out of the suburbs and into the city. And it's an interesting omen of the challenges to come, as more and more cultural facilities are built while many wonder if we may already have more than we can collectively support.

It's a vexing challenge, since more opportunity, more access, and more public space for creative experience and expression seems like an absolute good. But the long-term mathematics of so much fixed capital, requiring ever-growing annual operating support, has me wondering how these communities will balance the equation over the coming decade.

Posted by ataylor at 8:44 AM

January 25, 2005

It's all about the peak and the ending

How do we attach value to an experience after we've experienced it? It's a fairly basic question, of importance to economists, marketers, product manufacturers, service providers, policy makers, and of course, arts managers. After all, if an experience is remembered as highly pleasurable or profound, an individual is much more likely to want to experience it again (and if it's remembered as particularly painful, it will be avoided).

Thankfully, a small cluster of psychologists, economists, and others are starting to dig into the question. Chief among them is Nobel-prize winning psychiatrist Daniel Kahneman, who has done specific experiments to determine how individuals attribute pleasure or pain to a lived experience. Kahneman works both sides of the question -- both pleasure and pain -- since many are as interested in reducing remembered unpleasantness (the health care industry, for example) as they are in increasing remembered pleasure. But his initial findings and conclusions offer a fascinating glimpse at the human mind (if you want to really dig in, you can read one of Kahneman's scholarly papers on the subject).

One particularly interesting conclusion drawn from his work is the Peak/End Rule, defined by wikipedia as follows:

According to the peak-end rule, we judge our past experiences almost entirely on how they were at their peak (pleasant or unpleasant) and how they ended. Virtually all other information appears to be discarded, including net pleasantness or unpleasantness and how long the experience lasted.

So, if you had a long experience with a constant level of pain, and another shorter experience with an intense spike in the middle and a sudden drop at the end, you'd remember the second experience as more painful than the first. It's an odd sort of mental shorthand our brain seems to use to capture the gist of the experience, and to inform our future choices.

How might this apply to the arts experience or arts administration? Let me count the ways...

First off, this fact of perception seems to be already in the bones of the most well-regarded artists. For example, I once heard a jazz pianist tell a group of students how to craft a solo improvisation. The cheat-sheet? Build to a strong middle, and make a solid ending...the audience won't remember anything else. I've also seen many orchestral conductors add an especially dramatic flourish to their final cut-off, leading the crowd to go wild, regardless of what came before.

In the realm of arts management, the idea that audiences will attach a more powerfully positive value to their experience based on only two variables (its peak, and its end) would lead smart folks to expend a bit more energy on those particular variables. Even if you can't change the content or flow of the performance or exhibit, you can certainly manage the entrance and exit from the event -- adding a flourish where one is required, remaining out of the way when one is not.

Health care providers are already using this information to change the way they do particularly unpleasant procedures (don't ask which)...even extending the length of the procedure if it leads to a lower peak intensity and a more gradual ending. As a result, patients remember a less painful experience, and are more likely to continue treatment.

If you're not ready to be a radical change agent, just begin by watching an audience experience an arts event -- guessing where the peak intensity lies, as well as the nature of the ending -- and then ask a few participants how they liked it. A little social anthropology now and then can keep you on your game.

NOTE: For more on Kahneman's work as it relates to economics, check out this story in The New Yorker. For more about Kahneman, see his resume at Princeton (boring in the middle, tedious at the end...he must not read his own stuff).

Posted by ataylor at 8:43 AM

January 26, 2005

Krens and the great rich whale

Color commentary is still spinning out from last week's dramatic departure of the Guggenheim's board chairman Peter Lewis. The affluent and cantankerous insurance company CEO had finally come to blows with the tall and cantankerous Guggenheim director Thomas Krens. And it seems that Krens won this particular battle through the support of the remaining board.

The New York Times (via the International Herald Tribune) has a nice overview of the underlying issues, and comparable board/staff boundary-bending at other monster arts organizations (Vilar and the San Francisco Opera, Ranieri at American Ballet Theatre, Lauder at the Whitney).

The Observer spins some colorful hyperbole into an exploration of the Guggenheim's international reputation, although the author seems a bit overexcited at the dressing down, using phrases more appropriate to movie trailers than to cultural analysis ('shoot-out ,' 'a row that has rocked the art world,' and 'brought one of America's most prestigious institutions to its knees').

In the end, such public conflicts are inevitable between rich and powerful board members and the iconoclastic administrative leaders they often select to lead. In the case of the Guggenheim, however, which is thin on endowment and stretched even thinner by international projects carrying its brand, this common tale takes on some added gravitas, and makes it a story worth watching.

Posted by ataylor at 8:49 AM

January 27, 2005

More brain-blinders to watch for

While digging around the web to write my recent entry on the Peak/End Rule, I stumbled on a fabulous list of other cognitive biases that any thoughtful manager should be watching for in him/herself or his/her staff.

A 'cognitive bias' is a kind of blind-spot in our brains -- the result of short-cuts or habits within our thinking process -- that can lead us to make less productive choices. This list contains a long sequence of suggested biases, some of which have been shown repeatedly in clinical testing, others that are just theoretical. Many are obviously at work in the organizations I've worked in or talked with over the decades. And if I don't watch it, they're also hard at work in my own brain. Among the big ones:

Confirmation Bias and Expectancy Effect
These describe our tendency to seek out and accept information that supports our hypothesis and ignore or downplay information that refutes it. Think about economic impact studies, and their seemingly endless stream of good news about how the arts impact economic activities above all other things.

The Primacy Effect and Recency Effect
These describe our tendency to remember more vividly the first item in a sequence and the last (or most recent). This stronger memory can skew our decision-making to over-emphasize these particular choices. This is a handy thing to know if your board asks you for a list of five options for moving forward on a project, and you really prefer only two of them...list one first, and one last. Cognitive bias can be your best buddy, too.

Fundamental Attribution Error (a personal favorite)
This describes our tendency to 'blame the victim' rather than attributing behavior to an individual's environment. As the wikipedia describes it: ''people tend to have a default assumption that what a person does is based more on what 'kind' of person he is, rather than the social and environmental forces at work on that person.'' This is a classic fallacy among vocal critics of social services, who perceive welfare recipients to be lazy and unmotivated rather than exploring the environment that brought them to their current condition. It's also a classic problem when we harshly judge front-line staff for being unproductive, while not providing them the resources, training, responsive leadership, and support to do the job.

And just for fun, the Lake Wobegon Effect
A tendency for most of us to perceive our abilities as 'above average.' In one study, for example, 80% of students surveyed believed they were in the top 30% of safe drivers, which certainly can't be true. This is clearly a common affliction among the authors of grants and program notes, who fling the superlatives with the best of them.

Since thoughtful and artful management is all about making thoughtful and artful decisions, a constant awareness of our own cognitive blind spots seems an essential tool of the trade.

Posted by ataylor at 8:58 AM

January 31, 2005

The rise of the right brain

According to Daniel Pink in this month's Wired magazine, the logical left brain will soon be playing second fiddle to the creative and empathetic right brain as the engine of the American economy. (I know, it's not exactly a new theory, but it's always interesting to see how each version spins out.)

In the excerpt from his upcoming book, Pink outlines why he thinks logic, analysis, sequencing, and other left-brain traits will lose some their luster over the coming decade. In short: outsourcing will increasingly drive such jobs overseas (did you know that by 2010, India will be the country with the most English speakers in the world?); automation (such as TurboTax and legal programs) will make mid-level jobs in such fields less necessary; and the burgeoning excess of the American lifestyle will inevitably leave consumers aching for meaning. Says Pink:

Liberated by this prosperity but not fulfilled by it, more people are searching for meaning. From the mainstream embrace of such once-exotic practices as yoga and meditation to the rise of spirituality in the workplace to the influence of evangelism in pop culture and politics, the quest for meaning and purpose has become an integral part of everyday life.

According to Pink, this new reality will require a new emphasis on right-brain qualities such as creativity, empathy, emotional expression, and synthesis.

To flourish in this age, we'll need to supplement our well-developed high tech abilities with aptitudes that are ''high concept'' and ''high touch.'' High concept involves the ability to create artistic and emotional beauty, to detect patterns and opportunities, to craft a satisfying narrative, and to come up with inventions the world didn't know it was missing. High touch involves the capacity to empathize, to understand the subtleties of human interaction, to find joy in one's self and to elicit it in others, and to stretch beyond the quotidian in pursuit of purpose and meaning.

While the excerpt smacks of hopeful utopianism by a right-brained author, it will be a handy clip to share with your school board, your state representative, your governor, or anyone else who doesn't see a role for creative experience and expression in the work-a-day world.

Posted by ataylor at 8:32 AM

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