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July 6, 2004

Missing the larger point

The Sunday New York Times splashed symphony conductor salaries in its arts section. Said the piece:

Paralleling trends in corporate pay, salaries for orchestra leaders shot up during the late 1990's. Among the 18 American orchestras with 52-week contracts, at least 7 pay their music directors more than $1 million, and 3 pay their managers more than $700,000.

But journalist Blair Tindall is a bit too quick to waive off that comparison to corporate America, where gaps between executive pay and labor pay have been widening for decades. Says Tindall:

But the similarity ends there. In the corporate world, the incentive to trim labor costs is to return greater profits to investors. The classical music business is nonprofit, which means that the investors aren't looking for financial rewards.

There seems to be a common assumption that market forces are all about money, when money just happens to be the most obvious among many elements of the system. In the nonprofit world -- especially among organizations that earn half their income and raise the rest -- traditional financial market forces are only half the story. The other half involves attention, affinity, status, political and social power, and the mind share of a community's major wealth.

Star conductors are perceived as magnets for big-name board members and big-league contributions. They help label the significance of an orchestra to its community and its peers across the country. And they do, it seems, return greater profits when 'profits' includes contributed income and community status. Such stars are necessarily scarce, and scarcity combined with perceived value equals higher price. At the same time, exceptional orchestral performers seem easy to find, with dozens or hundreds auditioning for every open slot in the orchestra.

That's not to say that the markets at work are reasonable and just. But these are market forces, not rational forces, we're talking about -- large aggregations of people making choices based on what they believe they know. There are some oddities and cross-connections in those beliefs -- such as the core importance of a conductor in the mix of a great orchestra, or the low perceived value of its musicians. It might be more productive to explore those odd beliefs and unbundle their source and sustenance than to wag a finger at the symptoms.

Posted by ataylor at 11:48 PM

July 8, 2004

Cause or effect?

How often have you heard statements like these at conferences, in board rooms, or in the back of your head?

Nonprofits are driven by mission. For-profits are driven by money.

Nonprofit performances are engaging and ennobling. Commerical entertainment is crass and pandering.

Nonprofit arts organizations build community. For-profit organizations destroy bonds and values.

Heads will nod in most rooms where you hear this...especially when all the heads belong to nonprofit organizational leadership or staff. And yet you'll seldom hear a voice asking if any of the above statements are actually true. Tease it out a bit and we all realize that plenty of nonprofits are driven by money (it just happens to be in the form of philanthropy in addition to sales). On the other side, plenty of 'for-profit' organizations are driven by passion and vision -- think of the florist, or the garage band, or the indie record label that never makes a nickel of profit and never seems to care.

But it just occurred to me recently that the real problem may not be the soft assumptions behind these statements, but the way they expose our distorted sense of causality. The statements above suggest that causality flows from an organization's tax status. A folk museum is more noble than a freelance folksinger, for example, because one is organized to be tax-exempt and the other is not. Tax status is the cause and nobility is the effect.

But what if we have it backwards? What if corporate and tax status are effects rather than causes? The cause would be my choice of creative expression and the context of a consumer market's willingness to buy it. When there wasn't adequate volume or density of consumers to cover the cost of my work, the effect would be a drift toward nonprofit status. When there was a sufficient group of individuals that wanted to buy the work at a price that covered its costs, the effect would be a drift toward for-profit status.

It seems a little point, but in making any kind of decisions in a complex world (management decisions, policy decisions, funding decisions, etc.), the flow and direction of causality is a rather essential issue. By the logic above, if I want more nobility, truth, engagement, innovation, and beauty, I should create more nonprofits or ensure that the larger portion of creative experiences are delivered by nonprofits -- because they are the cause. But if I've confused a cause with an effect, I may be doing more damage than good. And that's not a little point, at all.

Tax status is not a cause. It is not a source of nobility or honor or excellence or any other foundation-friendly word you care to utter. Tax status is a tool, a step, a way, an option. To boldly paraphrase a favorite quote of the gun lobby: 'nonprofits don't make art, people do.' They just happen to choose that tax status sometimes along the way. But they can also choose another if it serves their vision, their purpose, or their art.

Posted by ataylor at 12:24 AM

July 9, 2004

A few odds and ends

Two of my fellow ArtsJournal bloggers have been exploring topics related to my previous posts. I thought a few pointers would be handy.

For one, Drew McManus picked up the trail of this entry on conductor salaries, and was gracious enough to ask and quote clarification of my point. Drew has been posting a lot about discrepencies in artistic & executive director salaries at orchestras as compared to their musicians. Take a look at his topic archive to find these strands.

In another topic, Greg Sandow has been discussing his own experiences writing for and working with the Concert Companion gadget (which I wrote about in this entry). His most recent entry came just last week, building on an earlier entry back in May.

Greg's experience writing concert commentary for the wireless device exposes fascinating questions about the orchestral concert experience, about how to talk about complex music to a broader audience, and about why the device has received so much attention from orchestras and media alike. A particularly provoking passage:

Some people who don't like the Concert Companion have in mind, I think, an idealized conception of what goes on at concerts -- that the concert halls are full of people listening intently, following each unfolding nuance of the music. Or at least that this is an ideal, in principle attainable, which we should be working towards.

But who knows what's really happening? Studies of the audience, as I've said before, seem to show that people at orchestral concerts drift into what they feel is some kind of transfigured realm. That's completely compatible with losing track of the music for minutes on end, which I'll confess that I sometimes do.

So many intriguing thoughts and comments and strands of inquiry, so little time...

Posted by ataylor at 9:38 AM

July 11, 2004

Big Night

Big NightBig Night, released in 1996 and directed by Stanley Tucci and Campbell Scott, is a fabulous film, but also an outstanding allegory for arts management. Tucci, also the co-author, described it as "about the struggle between art and commerce and the risk of staying true to yourself." Two Italian immigrant brothers—Primo, a creative genius of a chef, and Secundo (Tucci), his more practical younger brother—struggle to keep their authentic Italian restaurant in business in 1950s New Jersey.

Primo is an uncompromising artist in the kitchen, frustrated with unsophisticated patrons (calling one woman a “Philistine” for wanting a side of spaghetti with her risotto). Secundo has the greatest respect for his older brother’s gift, but is stuck with sparse and cranky customers, overdue bank loans, and poor prospects for a sustainable business.

Meanwhile, up the street is Pascal’s, a restaurant catering to the common throng—heaps of bad Italian food and cheap chianti—which is always packed and raking in the cash.

The brothers’ last chance is one big meal for Louis Prima and his band—a publicity stunt to get attention and build an audience. Building up to the Big Night, Secundo is torn between the excellence and artistry of his brother, and the commercial pandering of Pascal.

In one particularly wrenching scene for anyone in the arts, Primo quietly sighs his disappointment with the way their world is working:

Primo: People should come just for the food.
Secundo: I know, but they don't.

more info on
(any purchase benefits the Bolz Center for Arts Administration library fund...not much, admittedly, but a bit)

Posted by ataylor at 3:32 PM

July 12, 2004

An engine shifting gears

The Washington Post has a great article on the seismic shifts in America's Broadway touring circuit, as seen through the eyes of Equity (ie, unionized) actors, tour producers, and performing arts presenters. The monster touring mega-musicals with Equity casts -- Cats, Les Miserables, Phantom of the Opera -- are gone now. Taking their place are smaller, non-Equity productions of revivals, mostly, that work on a different economic model.

The piece shows a lot of the plumbing behind the big-show touring market in the U.S., which comprises major markets, secondary markets, and then a full range of smaller cities and towns:

The road is generally divided among venues that can sustain a show for runs of a week or longer; venues that book only split (half) weeks or five-show weekends; and, last and least, those that present one-nighters. Traditionally, licensing to non-Equity tours has been held back until after the major markets have been served. Non-Equity producers, often working with what Gentry calls 'assignees' from the original creative team, then scale down the show so it can be moved more quickly among the split-week and one-night towns.

Nowadays, more big productions are moving directly into non-Equity tours (The Music Man and Oklahoma among them). Equity is angry about it. Producers are claiming that they're only responding to the market. And audiences don't really seem to know the difference.

The shifts underway are seismic because the very force that formed these Broadway-size venues across the nation is shifting under their feet. Many have pegged the huge cultural venue boom of the past two decades on the cash flow and blockbuster sales of the Broadway touring circuit.

It is Gentry's theory that the Mackintosh megamusicals of the 1980s and 1990s changed the touring landscape both literally and figuratively. ''The number of theaters that have been renovated in this country because of 'Phantom' and 'Les Miz' is phenomenal,'' he says. ''Back walls were blown out, new stage houses were put in.''

There are a full range venues still under construction or renovation around the country, all built on the promise and expected revenue of the Broadway touring mega-musical. There will be some interesting aftershocks as the size and scope of the touring productions, the interest of the audience, and the cost structures of the brokers and businessfolk all work to find their new equilibrium.

Posted by ataylor at 8:30 AM

July 14, 2004

A year ago today

It was exactly one year ago that I posted the very first entry on this weblog. It's not an astounding milestone, to be sure, but worth a personal note. So far, it's been great fun to spin, and rant, and connect some dots here and there. And I've met some great new colleagues through the activity...some electronically, some in 'real time,' as we say in the weblog business.

The more I connect with people and resources around the web, the more I realize that the original impulse for launching the weblog was fairly close to the mark. As I said about the management of arts and culture endeavors a year ago:

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 past weekend I went with my family to a children's theater production of The Little Prince, which offered yet another useful analogy for the current state of arts and cultural management (my seven-year-old didn't see the connection for some reason). The analogy came in the form of the poor lamplighter on one planet in the Little Prince's travels. Here's the conversation between the two from the book, with the lamplighter speaking first:

''I follow a terrible profession. In the old days it was reasonable. I put the lamp out in the morning, and in the evening I lighted it again. I had the rest of the day for relaxation and the rest of the night for sleep.''

''And the orders have been changed since that time?''

''The orders have not been changed,'' said the lamplighter. ''That is the tragedy! From year to year the planet has turned more rapidly and the orders have not been changed!''

''Then what?'' asked the little prince.

''Then--the planet now makes a complete turn every minute, and I no longer have a single second for repose. Once every minute I have to light my lamp and put it out!''

So many of the accepted rules, practices, traditions, and tactics of arts and cultural management now seem designed for a time when the world was different. And yet we seem committed to continue with them, wondering why we never get to sleep.

This weblog has been (and continues to be) a useful place for me to chronicle the symptoms of that problem, and explore its possible cures. I thank you all for coming along for the ride. Stick with me, and as always feel free to lend your voice to the cause.

Posted by ataylor at 12:15 AM

July 15, 2004

The value of creative production

Recent negotiation struggles on Broadway, at the Philadelphia Symphony, and elsewhere raise the complex issue of value in the creative experience. Any negotiation -- especially for salary or pay -- is an effort to assign value to each party's contribution to a collaborative process, and to encode that value in cash. Behind that seemingly simple statement, of course, is a full range of other factors -- from relative power of each side, to the scarcity of what they have to offer, and the like.

In a creative production process, the value of individual contributions to a final experience is an insanely difficult thing to allocate. In a symphony, for example, musicians are clearly at the core of the performance experience, but the final experience also needs a venue, an infrastructure to find and sell to an audience, a funding support system that covers the process, and a full series of behind-the-scenes activities from musical to technical to administrative.

Any of these elements separate from the rest would have little value to an orchestral audience (a venue without a symphony wouldn't work, a symphony without a venue wouldn't work, the both of them together without a way of bringing in an audience wouldn't work, and on and on).

Worse yet, there are many kinds of value. Some kinds are easy to count (dollars from tickets sold or donations raised), some are impossible (the incremental value of one actor in a company of actors). Often, these many types of value don't line up in an economic system (which is why equity is such a common issue in our market economy). And as organizations become more economically stressed, they'll tend to focus their limited money on individuals that make an obvious difference to their bottom line (the conductor and executive director, for example).

There's a quote attributed to Albert Einstein (which may have just been hanging in his Princeton office). While not specifically on negotiation, the quote should temper any process that attempts to measure value:

Not everything that counts can be counted and not everything that can be counted counts.

When you're arguing over the same dollar, it's easy to forget that point.

Posted by ataylor at 7:10 AM

July 16, 2004

Mike Wallace of the weblog world

As a case-in-point for my post yesterday about allocating value in cultural production, fellow weblogger Drew McManus has some great volleys about the Philadelphia Orchestra's musician negotiations.

Philly has been cutting staff and requesting musician compensation cuts while it has been giving raises to key staff and leadership. In Mike Wallace fashion, Drew corners Joe Kluger, the Philadelphia Orchestra Associations President, in a phone interview about his recent 10 percent raise.

It's interesting how many times 'market forces' come up in the interview and the media surrounding the struggle (inability of the market to support the orchestra at the current musician salaries, need to pay a competitive wage to administrative staff, comparisons of Kluger's salary to that of his peers in other large orchestras).

Nonprofit status for cultural organizations used to be a way of buffering cultural efforts from market forces, so that communities could have a wider range of cultural opportunities beyond the purely commercial. That buffer seems mighty thin these days, and is bound to get even thinner in the months to come.

Posted by ataylor at 1:17 AM

July 19, 2004

The gift that keeps on taking

Clara Miller of the Nonprofit Finance Fund writes some of the most clear and useful discussions of finance issues you're likely to find. Her current article in The Nonprofit Quarterly is a great example. The topic here is major gifts, and particularly their tendency to warp, distort, and sometimes destroy the mission and capacity of a nonprofit.

According to Miller:

For all nonprofits, sustainability means keeping the balance between mission, capacity, and capital....If any one side of the triangle changes, the other two must change. This takes place whether it is planned or not, whether the giver intends it or predicts it or not and, above all, whether anyone wants it to happen or not!

Major gifts flow into the 'capital' point in the triangle, and if not considered clearly and cautiously, they can throw mission and capacity completely out of whack. A larger capital base requires more administrative support (capacity) than most nonprofits expect, as does the larger operating budget that often follows. And the interests/purpose of the donor can often skew the original intent of the organization (mission). Just as plants grow toward the light, nonprofits often grow toward the money, taking on programs and initiatives they wouldn't have done at all without the hope of funding.

Miller offers some useful tools to check and balance the prospect of a major gift against the impact it might have on capacity and mission. She also outlines some of the 'gift physics' that can clarify the absolute value of a contribution, based on its restrictions and its liquidity:

  • The more restricted a gift, the lower the net positive financial impact, and therefore the higher the draw, most immediately on capacity and eventually on capital and mission.
  • The more illiquid a gift (the farther from 'folding green,' e.g., cash....), the greater the draw on the rest of the organizations resources.
  • The more liquid the gift of an asset (cash is the most liquid; land is one of the least liquid), the more power management has to balance the three points of the triangle while fulfilling overall program goals and meeting the givers overall wishes.
  • If a gift is both liquid and unrestricted (e.g., general operating support), it provides the greatest flexibility and presents the lowest risk and cost, and hence the most predictable boost to mission.
Plenty of real-world examples make this one well worth the read.

Posted by ataylor at 9:16 AM

July 20, 2004

And stop displaying such old stuff

Parliament in the UK suggests in a recent committee report that the nation's museums should be more business-like in their operations and more strategic in their planning. The report by the Public Accounts Committee (here's the whole thing if you care to read it) praises recent efforts by museums to build their revenue streams, but suggests that better business behavior could squeeze a bit more into the system. Said the committee chairman:

''Unbelievably, some museums and galleries have made losses on activities that were supposed to generate income, and have an inadequate grasp on the costs involved.''

The committees eight conclusions and recommendations to set things right sound perfectly reasonable, until you realize they miss the core purpose and operating reality of public museums, gloss over the internal inconsistency from one recommendation to the next (raise income in one while reducing entry prices in another), and leave out the government's integral part in making things the way they are.

Being 'business-like' isn't just about raising income and managing costs (although that's certainly part of it that can always be improved). It's about meeting a defined goal consistently over time. For museums, part of that goal is maintaining and sustaining a behemoth of an unforgivable asset base (their collection) that eats money, eats time, eats planning energy, and eats solvency. By some measures, the 'smart' business would jettison this collection, and retain only the most marketable works. And yet, the purpose of a museum is to fight that impulse with every fiber, and suck up the costs of that difficult choice.

Being 'business-like' in the world of art, culture, and heritage (especially on the nonprofit side) is a complex and nuanced thing. As John C. Whitehead said once on the subject:

A for-profit board has an obligation to get out of a bad business while a nonprofit board may have an obligation to stay in, if it is to be true to its mission.

While the MP's report has useful and reasonable suggestions, it could have easily focused on how government funding and regulations have created the problems they now attack.

Posted by ataylor at 9:48 AM

July 21, 2004

Selling out or sifting through?

Lots of conversations recently have been leading me back to a series of nagging definitional questions about cultural endeavor:
  • What defines art from entertainment?
  • What determines whether a work is 'independent' or not?
  • When does an artist or artwork move from being an increasingly popular individual voice to an audience-pandering sell-out?
These are not questions of absolute fact, but of social decision-making. Individuals and groups make these decisions every day as they assess their world and the creative individuals within it. And yet we rarely stop to assess the measures by which we're deciding.

It's not just an issue in the arts. Any communications movement seems to undergo the same struggle between purity and popularity. A current case in point is weblogging (the massive network of independently written on-line journals, like this one). Here's how Clay Shirky describes the trend in his own wonderful work:

A persistent theme among people writing about the social aspects of weblogging is to note (and usually lament) the rise of an A-list, a small set of webloggers who account for a majority of the traffic in the weblog world. This complaint follows a common pattern we've seen with MUDs, BBSes, and online communities like Echo and the WELL. A new social system starts, and seems delightfully free of the elitism and cliquishness of the existing systems. Then, as the new system grows, problems of scale set in. Not everyone can participate in every conversation. Not everyone gets to be heard. Some core group seems more connected than the rest of us, and so on.

But Shirky goes on to suggest that our reflexes for explaining the causes for that movement are way off:

Prior to recent theoretical work on social networks, the usual explanations invoked individual behaviors: some members of the community had sold out, the spirit of the early days was being diluted by the newcomers, et cetera. We now know that these explanations are wrong, or at least beside the point. What matters is this: Diversity plus freedom of choice creates inequality, and the greater the diversity, the more extreme the inequality.

In systems where many people are free to choose between many options, a small subset of the whole will get a disproportionate amount of traffic (or attention, or income), even if no members of the system actively work towards such an outcome. This has nothing to do with moral weakness, selling out, or any other psychological explanation. The very act of choosing, spread widely enough and freely enough, creates a power law distribution.

The seemingly bizarre distribution of attention, power, and resources we see (in popular music, among film stars, in web traffic patterns, and even among cultural nonprofits) may not be bizarre at all, but just a natural function of diversity and freedom of choice -- two attributes we usually run up the flagpole as systemic goals.

In another interesting twist, Shirky's assessment implies that our usual remedies for the inequity (fostering more diversity of expression and more access for arts audiences) are actually the engines that make the inequity worse.

Of course, this realization doesn't answer any of the questions above, but it does set them in an interesting context. We clearly have an embedded assumption that once something is popular, it can't be artistic or independent. Yet, popularity is an outcome out of the creator's control, and the seemingly unfair distribution of that popularity is really just a natural function of a complex social system.

It might be more useful not to base our 'art or commerce' decisions on the size of the audience an artist or work attracts. Instead, the creator or creative team's intent (although still slippery and unmeasurable) might be a better way to start. As Stephen Sondheim explains in this recent interview in the U.K.'s Telegraph:

''When you write a show, you don't really think about attracting audiences. You can't either write down to them or up to them, you just have to tell the story and hope that they're interested in the story the way you are and in the way you tell it. And if they're not, there's nothing you can do anyway.''

Posted by ataylor at 9:05 AM

July 26, 2004

Strategic calisthenics

Long-range planning is a lot like dieting and exercising: We all have a sense that we should be doing it more, but figure we'll get to it after the current doughnut on our desk. We hear the nagging voice of reason whispering: 'People don't plan to fail, they just fail to plan.' We glare at the foundation grant requirements asking for a copy of our current 25-year master plan, and wonder if a photocopy of our 'month-at-a-glance' scheduler will do.

Part of the problem with long-range planning is that it just doesn't make conceptual sense. When your work is primarily driven by forces beyond your control -- economy, technology, social systems, demographics -- and those forces are under radical flux, how can you manage a plan for even one year let alone five?

In his 1992 book Managing the Unknowable, Ralph Stacey uses a ship navigation metaphor to describe the problem (a well-worn metaphor, I know, but here it's used to good effect):

The trouble with standard maps and traditional navigation principles is that they can be used only to identify routes that others have traveled before: they can make sense only for managing the knowable. Only under familiar conditions can the captain identify the ship's future destination, and only under such conditions does it make sense for the members of the team to follow the leader slavishly. An old map is useless when the terrain is new. Old beliefs cannot help in the task managers face today: managing the unknowable.

Stacey's solution is to downplay planning altogether in favor of more dynamic, self-organizing entities that plan as they go. Others have suggested that planning still has a useful place at the table, but that it must be radically different than the traditional models allow.

One such effort over the past 20 years has been scenario planning, an exercise that encourages deep discussions of various alternative futures, knowing that none of them is exactly true. Global Business Network has been one of the key refiners and definers of the scenario method, and released a new guide for nonprofits this month entitled What If? The Art of Scenario Thinking for Nonprofits (available as a free download). According to the authors:

Scenarios are stories about how the future might unfold for our organizations, our issues, our nations, and even our world. Importantly, scenarios are not predictions. Rather, they are provocative and plausible stories about diverse ways in which relevant issues outside our organizations might evolve, such as the future political environment, social attitudes, regulation, and the strength of the economy. Because scenarios are hypotheses, not predictions, they are created and used in sets of multiple stories, usually three or four, that capture a range of future possibilities, good and bad, expected and surprising. And, finally, scenarios are designed to stretch our thinking about the opportunities and threats that the future might hold, and to weigh those opportunities and threats carefully when making both short-term and long-term strategic decisions.

Like any group facilitation process or thinking tool, scenario planning has its proper place and time (if you can't make this month's payroll or your facility is on fire, for example, it may not be the best time for a scenario retreat). But for those searching for a different way to talk among their staff, their board, their affiliated artists, their funders, or their communities, it might be an interesting method to consider.

Posted by ataylor at 2:55 PM

July 27, 2004

Regretting the Walkman

Norman Lebrecht takes a backward glance at the Sony Walkman on the occassion of its 25th birthday, and decides that the devices were the source of much evil in the world. According to Lebrecht, the advent of the personal stereo not only brought with it sub-standard audio reproduction, but also a disconnection of music from its context of place. Here he sees the body blow to musical experience:

The decline in classical concertgoing may be partly ascribed to the Walkman, which devalued magnificence and rendered it utilitarian. A Bruckner symphony buzzing away while you brush your teeth is an altogether different experience from attending a Vienna Philharmonic concert in the Musikvereinsaal.

The social pleasure of sharing music was terminated when people clamped plugs in their ears and tuned into a selfish sound. Music in the Walkman era ceased to connect us one to another. It promoted autism and isolation, with consequences yet untold.

He also suggests that the emergence of digital audio devices such as the Apple iPod have only extended the evil to a wider world:

...25 years of Walkman usage has destroyed any sense of a piece of music having a place in the world, in time, in our personal lives. Music, made portable, is removed from any frame of reference. It becomes a utility, undeserving of more attention than drinking water from a tap.

Missing from Lebrecht's argument is the idea that personal stereo devices (especially those with massive storage such as current players) are actually making music more a part of people's lives, and that the control they now have over their 'life soundtracks' may actually change the way they understand and engage with creative expression -- since the curation of that soundtrack is an act of creation in itself.

There's certainly a difference between 'mediated' musical experience -- through headphones or stereos or mobile phones or satellite radio -- and 'social' musical experience. But so what? The growth of one doesn't cheapen the other, as long as we understand them as fundamentally different things.

Lebrecht's rant does have striking similarities to another arts commentator back in 1913, when recording disks were making the first steps of separating music from its natural habitat of the concert hall:

At a time like ours, in which mechanical skill has attained unsuspected perfection, the most famous works may be heard as easily as one may drink a glass of beer, and it only costs ten centimes, like the automatic weighing machines. Should we not fear this domestication of sound, this magic that anyone can bring from a disk at his will? Will it not bring to waste the mysterious force of an art which one might have thought indestructible?

Or so said Claude Debussy. Little did he know that such 'domestication of sound' would actually serve to extend and revitalize his music for generations to come...admittedly out of the context he had intended. But as we say in the high-culture world of academia: 'tough noogies.'

Posted by ataylor at 4:02 PM

July 28, 2004

Go somewhere else

Interesting and important things are happening elsewhere in the ArtsJournal blogisphere starting today, so I'll cede my usual rant to encourage you in that direction.

ArtsJournal is hosting a short-term weblog called ''Critical Conversation: Classical Music Critics on the Future of Music'' that gathers a dozen of America's leading critics for an on-line conversation. Just starting today, the discussion is already rich with nuance, strong opinion, and disagreement.

Go there.

Posted by ataylor at 11:22 AM

July 29, 2004

Value revisited

In any business, social, or personal endeavor, value weaves through like a underground stream. In non-commercial arts activity, value has proven to be an elusive stream to discover and define in a public way. Witness the NEA battles of a decade ago, the current debates in state and city governments about funding arts in a down economy, and the continual struggle for audience attention, money, and time.

Ben Cameron, Director of Theatre Communications Group (a national service organization to professional theaters), has often taken on the subject of value to great effect. He did so again, more directly than ever, in a recent keynote to the Southwest Arts Conference (available for download in Word format).

With a background in both public arts support at the NEA and in corporate philanthropy at Target, Cameron has a wonderfully balanced perspective of where value lives in the arts, and where our arguments stumble. To begin with, he defines an important difference between intrinsic values that guide our organizations and our lives, and extrinsic values that describe the impact of our work on a larger world, specifically, he says:

Intrinsic values guide organizations choices, give clarity in decision making and distinctive profile

Extrinsic value -- the value of our work in a larger world -- are useful to cultivate investors, in shaping and promoting public policy, in building consensus between those who love the work we do and those who perceive that our experience is of minimal importance to their lives. Extrinsic arguments ask the listener to rise above the issue of taste in the arts and embrace larger, common values -- values that intersect with those he or she may hold dear beyond the arts themselves.

It's an essential distinction, since so many of our public arguments for the arts, and our defenses against those that see only negative values in more edgy, creative work, have been based on intrinsic values (those that drive us), rather than extrinsic (those that impact others). That disconnect puts us in a weak position, often screaming into the wind. Says Cameron:

In the arts fields, we must be far better about conveying, not only the quality of our work, but this [extrinsic] value. Every arts organization must be able to answer three basic questions:
  1. What is the value of having my organization in my community?
  2. Harder: What is the value my group alone offers, or that my group offers better than anyone else? Duplicative or second-rate value will not stand in this economy.
  3. Hardest: How will my community be damaged if we close our doors and move away tomorrow?
If you cant answer those three questions, the only likely supporters you will find are those already seated in your seats.

Even when organizations can answer these questions to funders, politicians, and communities, they must understand that there's another set of values that drive personal connection to creative experience:

Has anyone here ever looked across a table at a husband, wife or partner and said, 'Gee honey, if we go to the theatre tonight, kids in our community will do 80 points higher on the SATs. Grab your coat.'

Instead, he suggests, organizations must also understand their market value, or their 'ability to meet positively the seven points of compatibility defined by the retail world':

  • Emotion -- it engages us viscerally, whether through ebullience of comedy or the deep rewards of penetrating tragedy;
  • Aesthetics -- it appeals to our senses, visually and aurally;
  • Product identity -- it has a distinctness that separates it from others;
  • Impact -- it makes a difference to us in some way, either emotional or pragmatic;
  • Ergonomics -- ease of use, both from physical and cognitive points of view;
  • Core technology/reliability -- it has a certain consistency;
  • Quality -- of course, that ultimate trait that encourages reinvestment.
Three separate value systems to juggle and master, all of them essential to the healthy and engaged arts organization. The complexity and challenge of it all make this particular keynote well worth an extended reading.

Posted by ataylor at 10:10 AM

Emergence: The Connected Lives of Ants, Brains, Cities, and Software

EmergenceSteven Johnson has a way with complex subjects, and this subject in particular—complexity itself. Drawing on complex systems theory and emergence (the natural tendency of organic systems like ant colonies or human cities to cluster into patterns of behavior), Johnson makes the seemingly baffling topic quite palatable, with lots of examples from lots of different disciplines.

Why does it have anything to do with arts and cultural management? Just think about what we manage: thousands of audience members and patrons making individual decisions based on individual motives; a role in our cities and communities as social or economic engines of positive change (we hope); a nonprofit industry shaped by micro choices of donors, funders, and government regulation; and countless other complex systems.

If you squint a bit as Johnson explores how mold spores on the forest floor suddenly come together with no visible leader telling them to, or how cities form high-rent districts and slums without any outside control, you can see shimmers of the nonprofit organization itself in motion. Why do boards of directors, made up of intelligent business people and philanthropists, so often stumble and mumble their way through nonprofit governance? Why do some marketing campaigns stick, and others float off into space? Why does the 'blockbuster' exhibit seem to feed on its own success? These are all emergent patterns of complex systems. Since we can't directly control them, we had better understand how they emerge.

Just a taste of how this applies to cities, in Johnson's words:

Indeed, traditional cities—like the ones that sprouted across Europe between the twelfth and fourteenth centuries—are rarely built with any aim at all: they just happen. There are exceptions of course: imperial cities, such as St. Petersburg or Washington, D.C., laid out by master planners in the image of the state. But organic cities—Florence or Istanbul or downtown Manhattan—are more an imprint of collective behavior than the work of master planners. They are the sum of thousands of local interactions: clustering, sharing, crowding, trading—all the disparate activities that coalesce into the totality of urban living. (p. 109)

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(any purchase benefits the Bolz Center for Arts Administration library fund...not much, admittedly, but a bit)

Posted by ataylor at 3:36 PM

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