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January 3, 2008

The continuing rise of contrivance

As the political theater season kicks into full swing in Iowa tonight, I'm struck by the pervasiveness of contrived events -- events designed and delivered specifically to be reported on and YouTubed and blogged. Way back in the 1960s, historian Daniel Boorstin labeled these as ''pseudo-events,'' voicing concern even then about their impact on our collective experience of community. As Boorstin defined it, a pseudo-event had the following characteristics (from The Image: A Guide to Pseudo-events in America):

  1. It is not spontaneous, but comes about because someone has planned, planted, or incited it. Typically, it is not a train wreck or an earthquake, but an interview.
  2. It is planted primarily (not always exclusively) for the immediate purpose of being reported or reproduced. Therefore, its occurrence is arranged for the convenience of the reporting or reproducing media. Its success is measured by how widely it is reported...
  3. Its relation to the underlying reality of the situation is ambiguous. Its interest arises largely from this very ambiguity. Concerning a pseudo-event the question, 'What does it mean?' has a new dimension. While the news interest in a train wreck is in what happened and in the real consequences, the interest in an interview is always, in a sense, in whether it really happened and in what might have been the motives. Did the statement really mean what it said? Without some of this ambiguity a pseudo-event cannot be very interesting.
  4. Usually it is intended to be a self-fulfilling prophecy. The hotel's thirtieth-anniversary celebration, by saying that the hotel is a distinguished institution, actually makes it one.

We can all wring our hands at the fact that pseudo-events now comprise the large majority of our media experiences. But the more compelling question for me (at least for this blog) is how cultural managers should respond to the dominance of false reality. We are, after all, purveyors of contrived content -- often meticulously planned, scripted, crafted, practiced, and delivered to exacting standards. What distinguishes our work from the larger social theater of politics, of marketing, of media?

Back in a 2000 essay in the New York Times, playwright Tom Donaghy called this very question for his peers in the live theater. In a world of reality television and ''realness'' in the commercial media, what's the unique and powerful role of live cultural experience? Thankfully, he answered his own question:

[It is theater's singular power] to contemplate our collective reality; as audience, actor and story engage in an unspoken discussion of what reality is, how definitions of reality can be broadened. Theater affords this opportunity like no other medium, as actors and audiences breathe side by side, together engendering the spiritual and meditative power that that shared experience implies.

In the end, we're all weilding the same tools to construct the experiences and events we offer to the world. The difference is in the intent and purpose with which we weild them.

[ Thanks to The Monkey Cage for the initial commentary and links. ]

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

January 4, 2008

Learning how we learn

Next week, I'm traveling with a group of my MBA students to the Arts Presenters conference in New York, where they will be presenting a special session commissioned by the association. This will be our third go-around in this initiative, in which we unleash a group of curious graduate students on a key trend, question, or issue in the performing arts. The students get great hands-on experience exploring vexing questions. The conference and its participants get a research-focused seminar session (few and far between in association conferences). And I get to learn cool things from smart people. It's a win-win-win.

This year's effort explores how and where performing arts professionals ''learn'' -- that is, find and engage resources to resolve work-related challenges and expand their knowledge of their craft and their environment. The full session description follows:


Association of Performing Arts Presenters Annual Conference
Sunday, January 13, 9:30 - 11:30 am
Hilton New York and Towers

In a continually evolving industry and a rapidly revolving world, how do Arts Presenter members solve new problems and forge new skills? Do they learn primarily from structured offerings like academic training, conference workshops, executive education, and community leadership initiatives, or more through informal networks, self study, weblogs, listservs, and on-line research? Join a team of graduate students and special guests as we explore the current ecology of professional development, and the strategies that might make it stronger. This third-annual effort of the Bill Dawson Research Internship Fund will honor Bill's life and work by connecting essential research to professional practice and by stretching what you know about how you learn.

If you're attending the Arts Presenters conference, please come to the session to lend your voice and your insight to the conversation. Even if you can't make the discussion, we hope you will inform the research by completing our on-line survey before January 9.

It's only 15 questions long, and it will help the student team understand the resources and networks you use to advance your craft.

Posted by ataylor at 8:43 AM | Comments (2)

January 7, 2008

Learning web basics without looking stupid

There's an interval after you meet someone in which it feels okay to ask their name again. But after that interval, awkwardness and self-reproach block many of us from asking what we don't know. ''I can't ask their name now! Any normal person would know it already. They'll realize that I'm an idiot and a sham.''

For many, it's the same with technology. We hear words frequently enough that we feel we should know what they mean -- blog, wiki, social networking, RSS feed. But we don't want to be the one to expose our ignorance and ask the obvious question (even though two-thirds of the others in the room likely don't know either).

For those individuals, CommonCraft comes to the rescue. They've created a series of blisteringly simple video tutorials describing blogs, wikis, social networking, RSS, and a range of other topics you might be embarrassed to ask about in public.

So, before your next staff meeting or conference, close your office door, turn down the computer volume to a whisper, and get the basics. Nobody has to know that you didn't know already.

Posted by ataylor at 8:30 AM | Comments (1)

January 8, 2008

Slicing the pie horizontally

ArtsJournal points us to a new study that challenges the assumption of a ''cultural elite'' (a fact sheet about the study is available for download here).

''We are unable to identify any numerically significant group of cultural consumers whose consumption is essentially confined to high cultural forms and who reject, or at least do not participate in, more popular forms,'' says the report.

Instead, they offer a different way to slice the pie -- by actual consumption patterns (as described in this project summary):

  • Univores - people who have an interest in popular culture only
  • Omnivores - people who consume the full variety of different types of culture
  • Paucivores - people who consume a limited range of cultural activities
  • Inactives - people who access nothing at all.

While I'm always eager to see evolving segmentation models that might serve cultural professionals, I'm also wary of the effort if wielded without clarity. The categories above, for example, rely on underlying assumptions about ''high'' and ''popular'' cultural forms that are shaky, at best, and fundamentally flawed, at worst.

I recall the studies of the past decade, for example, showing dramatically strong and growing interest in opera. Much media praise and discipline-based bluster ensued. When nudged a bit, however, the most popular operas referenced by respondents turned out to be Phantom of the Opera and ''The Three Tenors.'' This isn't to suggest that those events aren't ''high'' or ''low,'' but rather that the distinction is too fuzzy to be of practical use.

Is The Nutcracker high culture or popular culture? Is commercial film high or low? Is A Christmas Carol serious theater or popular entertainment? And does the answer matter in the least?

To be fair, the goals and insights of the study were well beyond the bullet list trumpeted in the press (it sought to explore how cultural consumption is related to social status, and how the status-consumption link might be modified by social class, education, income, age and gender). But we have a track record, as an industry, of running with the bullet points in forming our policy and our management decisions.

No matter how you decide to slice your audiences or your artforms, it's best to do so in a way that's directly relevant to the decision at hand, rather than by some perceived ''master'' segmentation model. Each of us comprise many roles, many faces, many networks, and many categories. It can be useful to divide us into manageable chunks, but it can also blunt or blind our decision process if we believe such chunks to be ''real.''

As market segmentation strategist Walt Whitman put it:

Do I contradict myself?
Very well then I contradict myself,
(I am large, I contain multitudes.)

It's worth noting that the idea of cultural ''omnivores'' and ''univores'' was first introduced more than 15 years ago by sociologist Richard Peterson. Props to Richard for an idea that keeps coming back!

Posted by ataylor at 10:23 AM | Comments (2)

January 9, 2008

Way beyond butts in seats

Many of us have complained about the metrics we use in the arts to inform our management and measure our success. Number of tickets sold. Growth/decline in audience numbers year over year. Overall budget growth. These are inelegant and off-mission indicators that distract us rather than focus our work. But our complaints always ended the same way: what else is there?

Intrinsic Impacts StudyBlissfully, a new and extraordinary research study on the impact of cultural experience has dived right into the deep end to find out.

The WolfBrown report, Assessing the Intrinsic Impacts of a Live Performance, just released from embargo this month and posted yesterday for free download, works to bring both intent and insight to the transformative power of live performance. Says the report summary:

The true impact of performing arts experiences is what happens to individual audience members when the lights go down and the artist takes the stage -- and the cumulative benefits to individuals, families and communities of having those experiences available night after night, year after year. If this is true, it would seem that efforts to assess the impact of arts programs would aim to better understand and measure how audience members are transformed -- what happens to them in their seats.

Most other discussions on intrinsic value conclude that we lack the language and the tools to discuss and measure such values. This effort takes that conclusion as its beginning. The three driving assumptions behind the work are simply stated but radically conceived:

  1. Intrinsic impacts derived from attending a live performance can be measured
  2. Different types of performances create different sets of intrinsic impacts
  3. An individual's 'readiness-to-receive' a performing arts experience influences the nature and extent of impacts.

I'll be digging into this report in greater detail in the weeks to come (I'll be attending a series of discussions involving its findings at the upcoming Arts Presenters conference to help me understand it more clearly myself). But I wanted to provide the pointer as soon as it was available.

This is important stuff.

Thanks to Alan Brown and his team for taking on the challenge. And thanks to the consortium of leading university presenters that brought their money, their time, and their significant attention to the project to bring it to life.

Posted by ataylor at 8:48 AM | Comments (3)

January 11, 2008

Presenters to the left of me, presenters to the right of me

I'm in NYC for the Association of Performing Arts Presenters conference. If you see me, flag me down. With more than 4000 participants this year, it may be difficult to spot me. So, consider it a real-world game of ''Where's Waldo'' (substitute ''middle-aged bald man'' for Waldo).

I'm sure there will be things to discuss next week. But for now, have a great weekend.

Posted by ataylor at 11:35 AM | Comments (0)

January 14, 2008

Rules of engagement

I'm back from the Arts Presenters conference in New York with a head full of questions and a pocket full of business cards (two good indicators of a successful conference experience). I'll be posting some of those questions and thoughts in the coming weeks, and reporting on the fantabulous work of my students on their session. But first, I need to get my oft-repeated rant off my chest:

Our professional conference models, methods, and metaphors are broken. They are successful to the extent that they attract a dense collection of practitioners into a confined space (which is why I have my questions and new contacts). But almost everything we do once we've collected that group seems misaligned with the opportunity of doing so.

We structure one-directional panels and workshops that promise time for questions but rarely deliver. We book keynote speakers to talk at us, as if there weren't a dozen other technologies that could deliver that kind of monologue without consuming our precious collective time. And we even schedule brownbags, discussion sessions, breakfast roundtables, and other informal conversations without establishing productive rules of engagement (clarity of topic, preparation of participants, and so on).

I mean no disrespect to Arts Presenters, as this error is seemingly generic. As I'm helping craft a conference of my own this spring, I'm making the very same errors. It's what's expected in a conference. It's what the buyers say they want, to the extent they can articulate. And none of us have the time, staff, and energy to entirely reconceive something so large.

So, during this conference, I decided to come up with ''little innovations,'' that might help turn the tide, or at least encourage more focused and effective use of this invaluable collective time. I'm sure there are others (post comments to suggest them). But it's a start.

  • The ''No Exposition'' and "No Bios" Rule
    The large majority of every panel discussion seems to be exposition -- here's who I am, here's what my organization is, here are all the details of the project or program I was asked to speak about. Any questions? Oops, there's no time for questions. The juicy stuff -- the tensions, the contexts, the discoveries, the back-and-forth with others in the room who have struggled with similar programs -- is inevitably delayed or eclipsed. Bios and project descriptions can be posted on the web, included in the program, even provided as audio files to download before the event. Conference leaders should prohibit exposition and biography readings, and deliver a spitball to the back of the head of anyone who violates the rule.
  • The ''Hot Mike''
    It's not only panelists and moderators that have trouble with clarity and being concise, it's everyone else, as well. Once we have the mike in our hands, we feel compelled to provide the very same exposition allowed of the panelists, even when it adds no relevance to the conversation. To provide a visceral feedback against this challenge, I suggest the design and production of the ''hot mike,'' a microphone that slowly heats up to unbearable temperatures over the course of three minutes (or, perhaps you could set the ''unbearable temperature'' clock to a duration most appropriate to the convening). Then, everyone who spoke would know that they would burn their hand if they spoke for more than three minutes (and they might prepare their comments accordingly). And those who got lost in their own exposition would have a not-so-subtle reminder that they've spoken long enough.
  • The Disconfirming Information Track
    We're all aware of ''confirmation bias,'' or the unique and powerful ability of humans to seek out and select ideas and evidence that reinforce what we already believe to be true. The modern professional conference seems to be an extraordinarily efficient ''confirmation bias'' machine. Panelists and keynotes tend to be people like us (arts professionals, from nonprofits) who agree, in general, with our collective assumptions (arts are good, professional nonprofit arts are better). It seems to me that conferences are an ideal time to throw a wrench in our collective beliefs -- not because they are wrong, necessarily, but because they are weak and untested. How about a whole track of panels, keynotes, and workshops that convey evidence disproving what we believe to be true? Large fixed investment in cultural facilities might not be the best strategy toward cultural vitality. Audiences might not be aging. Young people might not be technology-crazed, socially detached culture haters. The nonprofit arts might not be the only path to meaning, discovery, and social capital. I know that we're concerned that the world is watching, and we can't discuss anything critical to provide our enemies ammunition. But I'd suggest that the nonprofit arts are less sustainable over the long run if our understanding is biased, our perspectives are blindered, and our arguments are unclarified by intensive scrutiny. Bring it!
  • The Moleskin Conference Program
    There were several sessions at Arts Presenters on fostering ''green'' arts organizations (a welcome innovation in conference content, I'd say). And we all went to these sessions with our registration tote bag jam-packed with glossy, non-recycled promotional materials, artist and agency fliers, compact discs, plastic promotional crap, and thick programs and listings. Granted, the conference tote bag is a revenue opportunity for the convener. But I wonder if we've really run the numbers on the net revenue of such endeavors, especially after we calculate all the staff time that went into securing those promotions. What if, instead, the essential elements of the conference schedule were bound into a single notebook, with space for participants to write their thoughts and key ideas. How about a version of the Moleskin City Notebook, including a city map, a calendar, and lots of empty note pages? Moving toward a more sustainable footprint would suggest limiting the use of paper and physical objects to their most necessary and focused use. Further, the goal of conference materials should be clarity, not clutter.
  • The Trained Facilitator
    I saved the most radical innovation for last: How about requiring or even encouraging professional training for anyone who would like to moderate a panel, convene a roundtable, or facilitate an informal conversation? Perhaps provide a $50 registration discount for any member who takes a one-hour facilitator training course on the basics of group learning, conversation direction, and effective facilitation. Imagine what would happen if an increasingly large percentage of conference attendees were trained in effective conversation and group learning. Might that not only transform the conference, but also the field?

Sorry to blather. But this issue continues to vex me. I'm eager for any other innovations you've seen, or you've considered. Please post some.

Posted by ataylor at 8:52 AM | Comments (21)

January 15, 2008

Your customer doesn't always care

Good thoughts from copyblogger Dan O'Sullivan (via Donor Power Blog) on the voice and tone of successful communications (to audiences, donors, conference attendees). Says he:

When you're working on new marketing materials, take a step back and assume the role of a skeptical customer. Ask yourself: Why should she care about your product? How will it make her life better or easier? What are the damn benefits?

Even more shocking and radical, O'Sullivan dares to suggest: ''Your customers don't always care about what matters to you.''

If you lack the language to describe the benefits of your work, and its impact on your audience, see the report linked in a previous post.

Posted by ataylor at 8:39 AM | Comments (3)

January 16, 2008

Curating impact through artists

One of the more radical phrases spoken during the recent Arts Presenters conference seemed to breeze over the room without much attention. In describing his collaborative research project, exploring the intrinsic impacts of live performing arts attendance, Alan Brown suggested that the cultural manager's role was ''curating impact through artists.''

In other words, our ultimate goal is not finding, filtering, fostering, preserving, and presenting cultural works, but delivering the human and social impacts that engagement with those works provide. It may sound like a semantic distinction, but it's a fundamental reshuffling of how most arts managers align their resources.

In this view, a compelling arts experience is not the end of our efforts, but the means by which our true product is produced.

Consider the following mission statements, for example:

  • Playhouse Square Foundation is a not-for-profit performing arts center whose mission is presenting and producing a wide variety of quality performing arts... [ full mission here ]
  • The Clarice Smith Center transforms lives through sustained engagement with the arts. [ related ''key messages" here ]

One is in the business of presenting and producing art. The other is in the business of transforming lives.

I'll admit to being rather fond of the inversion, given its implications for how we measure and manage our organizations. But I can also see the challenge of the phrase in connecting with the core expressive power that drives that impact.

So many extraordinary expressive works are the result of creative self-indulgence, detachment from the expected, and even disregard for how they might be received. The dangers of defining our work through its impact are two-fold (at least): First, we might begin to assume we know in advance where and how that impact will arise. Second, we might compress the time in which we expect that impact to show itself (Will we transform lives this quarter? Or will it take several decades to transform even one? And is our board ready for that kind of long view?).

Despite these dangers, I'd encourage everyone to ask themselves, their co-workers, and their boards about the core and ultimate purpose of what you do. Do you present art? Or do you curate human impact through the arts?

Posted by ataylor at 8:42 AM | Comments (4)

January 22, 2008

Systematizing innovation, or the future of the B-School

Since I live daily at the intersection of cultural enterprise and higher education, I'm always pleased to hear that the two are mutually exclusive. Knowing my chosen environment (a business school) is contrary to my espoused value (innovative leadership of expressive endeavor) is both a personal badge of honor, and an extraordinary opportunity to blame my limited impact on external forces. Think Sisyphus meets slacktivist.

It's particularly fun when really smart people engage the cause, as Grant McCracken does in his recent post. Says he:

If the first business of business is innovation, the first task of management reinventing the corporation continually, the first order of problem solving broad and powerful pattern recognition, the ''b-school'' will not serve us. We know at a minimum that b-schools do not confer the cultural literacy, the intellectual foundations, or the conceptual tools that capitalism now prizes and requires.

As a result, McCracken has been mulling alternatives to business schools, among the more compelling being his Bloggers Business School [which brought to mind Seth Godin's New Order Business School (NoBS), or Josh Kaufman's Personal MBA Manifesto].

As we all ponder the preparation and continuing development of cultural managers, it's a topic I'm eager and anxious to engage. I'll be first to admit that business schools specifically, and higher education in general, have lots of baggage and structural flaws blocking the effective development of innovative, responsive, and reflective leaders. But I also hold the opinion, perhaps self-serving, that such environments hold unique potential for engaging the issue.

The fun lies in releasing that potential while navigating the barriers. I can't promise that the program I direct will succeed in that endeavor (since, as McCracken states, we are not structured to succeed). But we'll give it a positive try, nonetheless.

Thanks to George for the link!

Posted by ataylor at 9:47 AM | Comments (1)

January 30, 2008

Greetings from South Africa (aka, Wisconsin)

States and GDPI'm rather fond of maps that offer new perspective on familiar terrain. There's a whole series of upside-down world maps, for example, that put the southern pole on top. The idea that north is up is a relic of past cultural preference (of the map-makers and their patrons). Why not nudge the presumption?

Similar insights and brain-bending are available through this map, renaming each of the United States with the countries that most closely match their Gross Domestic Product.

Since our news system and national bias in the United States tend to insulate us from global insight, I'm glad for any opportunity to connect local experience with the larger world.

Posted by ataylor at 7:56 AM | Comments (1)

January 31, 2008

For another $30 million, you get cupholders

If you're fond of tracking multi-hundred-million civic structures (and who isn't?), your eyes would be fixed on Texas and New Jersey, where the money is flowing like Mentos and Diet Coke.

The Dallas Center for the Performing Arts just bumped its fundraising goal from $275 million to $338 million. The Dallas Cowboys new stadium is pricing in at $1 billion. And the Giants-Jets stadium development at Meadowlands in New Jersey is likely to cost $1.3 billion.

While the sports stadiums are more gargantuan, the Dallas Center for the Performing Arts is a story with more nuance (at least for this blog). The new goal and enhanced facilities plan grew from a simple discovery -- that they could afford to build what they already had in mind. Says President and CEO Bill Lively:

''When we realized that we would achieve the original $275 million,'' he said, ''we were ready to make a recommendation for the board to increase the goal to build more stuff.''

Might the new goal include more endowment to cover the more-than-likely-higher-than-expected operating expenses for all this new stuff and the stuff already in the plan? Of course not. Such money will be raised more aggressively in 2009, says the article. For now, the focus is ''more stuff.''

Posted by ataylor at 12:34 AM | Comments (7)

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