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July 14, 2003

What's It All About?

So what's this blog called 'The Artful Manager'? Sounds a bit glib. Sounds a bit like a Highly Effective Habits for Habit-Listing People approach to arts management. I hope it's neither...but it may be both.

This blog is intended to be an on-line extension of the conversations I've been having throughout my work with arts managers, foundation leaders, students, academics, friends, colleagues, and unwitting strangers on airplanes. There seems to be a growing feeling of disconnection and frustration among those who manage, fund, market, and support nonprofit arts and culture organizations. In a professional field that's really only forty-something -- having its roots in the mass migration to nonprofit status in the 1960s -- there are classic indicators of a middle-life crisis.

The world doesn't work the way we thought it did, the way our common knowledge thinks it should, or the way our training prepared us for. Either the world is broken, or our eyes and brains aren't seeing it right. One, I suggest, is easier to fix.

This blog will explore the idea that there's another way to see the creation, support, delivery, engagement, and advancement of nonprofit arts and culture. I won't claim to know what it is, just that I'm looking. To that end, the exploration will move on several tracks:

  • Short links and notes on news, reports, and commentary around the web (which you'll find on the blog's home page -- ie, the page you're looking at right now);
  • more extended discussions and issue overviews in this site's Thoughtbucket;
  • a growing list of Uncertain Terms I've been tracking that often seem to block our better vision (mine included);
  • and links to Readings, Etc., where others are carrying the conversation in interesting directions.

I hope it's a discussion, even though I'm the one with the microphone. Please send your thoughts, comments, criticisms, connections, and I'll post a few as we go along.

But enough spin. Let's get to it.

Posted by ataylor at 12:01 AM

July 15, 2003

That's One Big Canary!

Bernard Holland's June 29th article in the New York Times, "How to Kill Orchestras," (which managed to offend both orchestra managers and arts administration programs like it can't be all bad) is just the latest in a series of panic pieces on the death of the American symphony. Certainly, the orchestra's operating model is facing a trying time (along with every other nonprofit on earth). And the seemingly more frequent news of budget troubles in Texas, Florida, Colorado, and elsewhere is only adding gasoline to the already fiery rhetoric (there's some slightly better news from Pittsburgh).

But since when did the local or regional symphony become the canary in our cultural coalmine? The troubles of symphonies are certainly, well, troublesome. And given their relative budget size in their communities‹and the number of musicians they employ‹there's good reason to raise the red flag. But symphonies are a very specific species of nonprofit arts organizations‹generally larger, generally better endowed, generally sustaining a higher production cost. It would be a shame to define policy based on the whale, and miss the kelp and the krill (okay, bad metaphor, but you get the point). Symphonies are part of an ecosystem. If we're going to panic, let's panic in a more general and systemic way.

Update of July 18, 2003
Fellow blogger Greg Sandow will be focusing on the orchestra issues in his new ArtsJournal blog. In a recent post, he points to a more specific root of orchestra woes:

":Some of the better people in the field are quietly saying that orchestras spend too much -- that they're spending more than they take in, and have been doing so ever since the '90s, though they didn't notice because of the economic boom."

Posted by ataylor at 12:01 AM

July 16, 2003

The Clap Trap

Rupert Christiansen's latest on the increasingly tepid applause at UK performing arts events makes an interesting guess at the cause:

"We are repeatedly exposed to the sounds and images of extreme drama, both actual and fictional. This may mean that the excitement that live music stimulates is less intense and surprising - we hear it, after all, every day, reproduced with a fidelity that wasn't possible in the pre-FM, pre-digital era. The passivity of television and a certain fed-on-a-plate laziness about our consumption of art also contribute to the fall in the clapometer."

Bundled in there somewhere are two common thoughts about the live arts: that they are a 'consumption' activity (where the artists 'produce' and audiences 'consume'), and that 'hearing' a performance is comparable to 'being there'. Both of these assumptions are worth challenging, because they always seem to lead us to the same frustrating conclusions: audiences are boors, desensitized by media, and they don't appreciate what we produce.

If we want to stick to production metaphors (as business people often do), what if we considered the live arts as a co-creation, where both artist and audience construct the final result? In that world, participants on both sides of the proscenium are integral to the production process, and only the group of us in space and time can consume what we've created together.

Posted by ataylor at 9:40 AM

July 17, 2003

Attend the Arts...or Die...

Colin Jackson, a good friend and an 'artful manager' from Calgary, forwarded a link to this Swedish study that concludes:

Attendance at cultural events may have a positive influence on survival.

For the visually-inclined, the report also includes this handy chart (suitable for framing) of the estimated survival of people attending cultural events often, occasionally, or rarely. Even though this is an old study, this may become my favorite chart of the year.

Thanks to the good work of researchers Lars Olov Bygren, Boinkum Benson Konlaan, and Sven-Erik Johansson (what fabulous names), we may have found a new marketing angle for our subscription sales pushes: "Subscribe...if you want to live." Which actually doesn't sound that bad.

Posted by ataylor at 10:02 AM

July 18, 2003

Imagine there's no money, it's easy if you try.

The August issue of Fast Company magazine has an article for the for-profit corporate set on How to Lead Now (ie, in a down economy), subtitled 'Getting Extraordinary Performance When You Can't Pay for It.' It outlines those astounding business leaders who build a sense of purpose and personal connection among their workers, who extract passionate commitment without throwing cash, who even get staff to work evenings and weekends for no pay at all to advance the company cause.

Of course, they never mention a field in which these are the standard requirements, not just the standards of excellence. This is the power that drives the nonprofit arts, and it's something the corporate world could learn from the great arts leaders we all know. As with most Fast Company articles, there are a few good thoughts and quotes for the nonprofit cultural manager, making it worth a quick read. But it also raises two bigger takeaways for our field:

  • We don't celebrate nearly enough the commitment and passion of our staffs, volunteers, boards, supporters, and friends‹all of whom are advancing their organizations for little or no money; and,
  • We can't ever try hard enough to understand the energy and power in this passion, and to learn as leaders to channel it in positive and productive directions.

Posted by ataylor at 12:49 AM

July 21, 2003

What does it cost?...What have you got?

David Leonhardt's piece in the Sunday New York Times on the increasingly variable price of Broadway tickets extends a discussion that has always been true‹different people are willing to pay different prices at different times for different events. The only real story here is that finally the arts managers are part of the process.

Ever since there have been tickets, there has been variable pricing. For big sellers, brokers or scalpers charged high premiums. For slow-selling events, managers "papered the house" with free seats for friends, family, students, and any other warm bodies they could find (not to mention 'rush' tickets, or the like). The problem was that the arts organization rarely benefited from the high-margin shows (with both scalpers and that pesky mission statement standing in the way of market-based prices), and only saw the losing end of the spectrum when they gave away their seats to fill the hall.

The analogy in the Times and elsewhere has been to airline tickets, where you could be sitting next to someone who paid twice as much, or half as much, as you did. British orchestras were exploring this very idea back in February by listening to the airlines themselves. The Chicago Symphony tried it a while back, but stumbled a bit with the public relations and patron perceptions it brought into play. In the nonprofit arts conference circuit, this topic is increasingly called 'yield management.'

The problem is that, almost by definition, even the full face value of a ticket to a nonprofit cultural event doesn't cover the true cost of the event (an associate in opera quips that they can sell out the house to rich people and still lose money). But with the increasing pressure for earned revenue, it's good to see some nonprofits monkeying with price points. The smart ones won't just be looking at opportunities to discount, but also opportunities to extract higher prices from those patrons who are able and willing to pay.

Posted by ataylor at 2:14 PM

July 22, 2003

Reintegrating our organizations and ourselves

Choreographer/dancer Liz Lerman has always provided a broad and engaging perspective at any professional conference I've seen her present. A friend (thanks Becky) recently forwarded this 2001 keynote address she gave to a performing arts educators forum (available as an Adobe Acrobat file here). I'll just let it speak for itself:

I think there was a time when people danced and the crops grew. I think they danced as a way to heal their children. I think they danced as a way to prepare for war�we know that because we know some of those dances. I think they danced when they had to examine complex questions that they couldn't answer any other way. I think that dance was a way to address the mysteries.

When I think about that time, I like to ask this question. Who got the best parts? If it is so important for the crops to grow and the rain to fall, whom did they trust? I think maybe they trusted the fattest person, the person with the most weight. You would think so�it would make sense. Or the oldest person, the person with the most wisdom. I'd like to imagine that they had a set of values in place that led them to understand why a particular person was dancing before them. And I'd like to think that everyone understood the dance. They didn't have to read about it in the paper the next day and have it explained to them. And I don't think it was because it was simple dance. I think that the dancing was highly abstract. There was no dumbing down in those cultures. The reason everyone understood the dance was because they all knew the dance.

Read the rest, it's well worth it.

Posted by ataylor at 12:27 PM

July 24, 2003

Mission or Means

I was off-line yesterday, attending a roundtable on the future of classical music radio up at Minnesota Public Radio (here's a press release about the project). At the event, Alan Brown gave a fabulous overview of the study he wrote on the audience for classical music.

Given the study's findings that people connect with classical music in many ways (radio, recordings, live performance), and that radio is, by far, the dominant mode of connection to the art form, Alan asked a challenging question: What would an organization look like who's true mission was to engage a broad audience in classical music? It certainly wouldn't focus only on live performance, as so many performing arts organizations do. It would reach through many and any media to bring value to people's lives through its art form.

The deeper question, for a future item in this weblog's Thoughtbucket, is whether nonprofit arts organizations are really serving a mission (a broad and lofty goal), or rather serving a means (a specific way of delivering an art form). Sometimes we seem to get so focused on the means we have chosen, we miss the opportunity to reach our communities where they actually live their lives.

Posted by ataylor at 12:16 PM

July 25, 2003

Partner in Crime

My writings and collections here will clearly have a lot to connect with fellow weblogger Greg Sandow, who's exploring the future of classical music through frequent posts. Take a look, particularly, at his July 24 post (called 'Snapshot') on what some classical organizations consider to be innovation. Very frightening.

Greg and I are in increasingly frequent contact, and hope to carry some of this conversation on-line to see what the rest of you have to say.

Posted by ataylor at 4:27 PM

July 28, 2003

Depends on what your definition of 'is' is...

The recent NEA report on the 2002 Survey of Public Participation in the Arts (summarized in this Chicago Tribune story) receives a positive spin from the NEA (despite 9/11, arts participation stayed steady) and a gloomy spin from the Tribune (stagnant participation percentages from previous studies, same old same old audience demographics, etc.). But bundled in the spin control is an even deeper question: who gets to define what it means to participate in the arts?

The study breaks down participation into live attendance (going to the symphony, theater, museum) and mediated or informal experience (through mediated interaction like radio, television, books, or through informal attendance at fairs or historic sites, art classes, and so on). Most folks focus on the live attendance, that shows about 40 percent of U.S. adults have attended some form of arts experience in the prior 12 months. That's where the doom and gloom comes in...only 40 percent, a bit lower than the 1997 study. Failure. Gnashing of teeth.

When expanded to include 'attending art or craft fairs, visiting historical sites, reading literature, watching or listening to an arts broadcast, performing, and taking an arts class,' then participation rises to 76 percent.

By the way we traditionally define participation, however, electronically mediated and 'informal' arts aren't true arts experiences. Never mind that millions of Americans find peace and engagement through 'passive' listening to classical music radio, or clicking on the television to a concert broadcast, or throwing a pot at a community center, or performing in a community theater production, or streaming arts content while they work on their PC.

Who are we to define where people find connection, creation, and consolation? It seems the value is theirs, not ours, anyway.

Posted by ataylor at 9:59 PM

July 30, 2003

How I Made $14.18's 'associates' program is an exceptional example of marketing through other people's passions. For those unfamiliar with 'associates' or 'referral' programs increasingly common among savvy web companies, they allow you to refer potential customers to them, and get a commission if the referral ends up with a purchase. It costs the associate nothing, comes with a bundle of support services to help you be a better web citizen, and results in a tiny but real payback (in my case, Amazon gift certificates so I can buy books for the Bolz Center for Arts Administration library).

On this site, for example, I'm already recommending books and movies and such in the Readings, Etc. section. As a courtesy, I would have pointed visitors to Amazon anyway, in case you had a driving need to read more about the resource. Amazon is smart enough to give me a toolset and service so that I'm more likely to point you there than to some other retailer. The book costs you the same, the link costs me nothing. And I now have a whopping $14.18 to spend on books for our library (not a lot, I admit, but quite a bit more than zero). Amazon's associates program boasts more than 900,000 members now, which doesn't sound bad for business (even if you multiply that number by my measly sales record).

The point here is not how clever Amazon is...although they are clever. It's to demonstrate an astoundingly powerful way of reaching audiences that seems almost untapped among arts and culture organizations. People who LOVE a certain arts organization, art form, or artist, are the most exceptional advocates we can find. They bring their friends. They help their friends prepare for the experience by expressing why they love it so much. They bundle an evening's worth of activities to make it all enticing to first-time attendees (let's meet at the diner, go to the show, and then wander to my house after for drinks and discussion).

This is all stuff that arts aficionados will do anyway, and are doing right now. Imagine what they could do if we helped them‹with an on-line associates program like Amazon (where they get something back for referring ticket buyers), or with a responsive depth of background materials to help them be smarter, more passionate, and better at telling their friends about the art form. And I'm not talking here about rewards for them as crass as cash (free tickets, maybe). The people I know who do this with panache aren't driven by economic reward, but by the great feeling they get sharing something they love with someone they love. There are ways beyond money for an arts organization to pay them in that currency.

Marketing plans for the arts seem rooted in a direct connection between every audience member and the organization itself (which is why we blanket the earth with subscription and membership brochures). What if a large portion of our audience comes to us through other people (their friends, spouses, co-workers, families)? If that¹s the reality (which seems pretty obvious), then we all could learn a lot from Amazon.

Posted by ataylor at 2:22 PM

July 31, 2003

The Art of Gobbledegook

Friend and arts manager Mark Nerenhausen in Florida sent a link to this article in The Guardian about the leadership shake-up at the Royal Shakespeare Company subtitled "Debate over business in art rages as Foy quits." The article points to a classic struggle among boards and we hire an artist or a businessperson to run the show?

A favorite quote from the article:

Some theatre insiders acknowledged Mr Foy's talent but felt the moment was right to call time on the management "gobbledegook" of business involvement in the arts.

The story exposes once more this common assumption that business thinking and artistic mission are mutually exclusive qualities. While this may be true in specific instances, it cannot be a universal truth. An exceptional arts manager uses the tools and, yes, the 'gobbledegook' of business to serve an artistic mission. Whether that manager self-identifies as an artistic thinker or a business thinker is irrelevant, as long as he or she is actually both.

Posted by ataylor at 11:22 AM

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