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July 6, 2006

Growing out of creativity

The good folks at the annual, invitation-only TED conference (Technology, Entertainment, Design) are finally sharing some of their big-wig keynote speakers through on-line video and audio. Of particular note is creativity and human resource guru Sir Ken Robinson, talking about creativity and education. Robinson believes our public education infrastructure conspires to destroy creative thought, and prepares children for an industrialized world that no longer exists.

Of particular concern for him is our capacity to be wrong, to take chances when we don't know the answer. Says he:

I don't mean to say that being wrong is the same thing as being creative. But what we do know is, if you're not prepared to be wrong, you'll never come up with anything original. And by the time they get to be adults, most kids have lost that capacity. They have become frightened of being wrong. And we run our companies like this, by the way. We stigmatize mistakes. And we're now running national education systems where mistakes are the worst thing you can make. The result is that we are educating people OUT of their creative capacities.

The talk is a bit heavy on humor and light on productive alternatives, but it's an entertaining view of an essential topic for our children and our collective future. Worth a watch.

Posted by ataylor at 8:53 AM | Comments (1)

July 7, 2006

Lawsuits and Lion King

Philadelphia's Kimmel Center for the Performing Arts -- dogged by budget problems and acoustic snafus since its opening -- has found at least a short-term formula to turn a deep operating deficit into a sudden surplus: Broadway blockbusters plus litigation. The Center is waiting for auditors to confirm a $1.2 million budget surplus in its recent fiscal year, primarily due to an extended run of Disney's The Lion King and an undisclosed settlement with its facility designer, Rafael Viñoly Architects.

The surplus is likely a happy oasis in what will be a challenging future for the facility, which still has $27 million in debt from its construction, will soon come to the end of a multi-year, $13-million support package from three massive foundations, and has to renegotiate rental agreements with six of its resident companies. A task force convened to address the operations and financial issues now suggests that a longterm solution will require about $55 to $65 million in additional capital (beyond the $35 million already pledged or contributed).

Blockbusters on the scale of The Lion King are rare beasts, indeed. And lawsuits against design architects are not likely to be revenue line items for other mega-million performing arts centers. But many will soon be facing fiscal pressures similar to Kimmel (even though they won't say so out loud). With several, comparable facility projects now announced or underway, it will be interesting to see how the new kids learn from the challenges of those that came before them.

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

July 10, 2006

Jugglers wanted

St. Paul theater critic Dominic Papatola writes an open memo to the Ordway Center for the Arts regarding their search for a new president (after David Galligan's resignation a few weeks back). Papatola's concerns about the job could well be said for any performing arts center with both a presenting wing and resident performing organizations:

You know the Ordway has finished as many of its fiscal years in the red as in the black. You know relationships with your major tenants -- the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra and the Minnesota Opera -- have been filled with contention and resentments. You know no one has ever been able to successfully juggle the building's multiple roles as landlord, presenter and producer.

So Papatola suggests the Ordway board search for an out-of-towner with no institutional memory, a hard-baller who can show the resident companies who is boss, a strategist who can clarify the purpose and function of the institution, and a gladhander that can work the community. Salary commensurate with experience (about $250K to $270K, based on past tax reports and Galligan's current compensation).

But Papatola seems to miss the larger point that, no matter who takes the job, they'll be hired and reviewed by the very same board, and supervise most of the same staff in the same infrastructure and the same organizational culture. The right president can certainly be an agent for changing all of the above, but he or she is only an agent.

It will take more than a few tweaks in a job description or search process to make the insane juggling act of a major performing arts center ''successful,'' by whatever definition of that word you choose.

Posted by ataylor at 8:57 AM | Comments (1)

July 11, 2006

The art of data visualization

I'll admit that I'm a sucker for great data visualization -- that is, the graphic representation of statistical information. It may sound extraordinarily boring to some, but a well-designed graph or graphic can truly help people see their world differently, and challenge soft assumption with grounded observation.

That's why I'm so intrigued by GapMinder, an ambitious project that transforms world economic and development statistics into graphical tools for exploration. To see the experiment in action, watch the TED Talk by world health expert Hans Rosling, where fertility and life expectancy data from the past 40 years play out like some sort of abstract global horserace.

You can also play with the data yourself through the Gapminder Google Tool.

When I see such complex data sets expressed in such elegant and insightful ways, I'm struck at how obscure, uninformative, and dense most analysis is for nonprofit organizations. Why can't our financial and annual reports strive for such clarity and learning power? And as teams of creative individuals, who better than us to find that better way?

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

July 12, 2006

Content and commerce

Fellow blogger Tyler Green calls out the growing commerce-friendly focus of the Smithsonian Institution in this LA Times editorial. Says Green:

The Smithsonian's leaders and their congressional overseers are allowing too much of our national museum to be transformed into a series of pavilions where, in exchange for sponsorship money and other deals, corporations may determine what parts of the American story should be told.

Faced with a budget crunch and a growing need for capital improvements, the Smithsonian is turning to creative incentives for corporate funds. Green wonders at what point those creative incentives supercede the institution's public purpose for balanced and scholarly inquiry.

Of course, the line between content decisions and commerce pressures isn't unique to the museum or even the nonprofit world. Even that bastion of commercial hucksterism, network television, is struggling with the boundary, as well. KCRW's ''The Business'' devotes an entire episode to the question of product integration -- the weaving of branded moments into television content (like the whole family on ''Seventh Heaven'' chattering about Oreo cookies, or the contestants on ''Treasure Hunters'' turning to ASK.COM for clues). It turns out that network television is also feeling the financial pressure from a fractured audience and a more competitive marketplace for corporate attention.

The difference between the Smithsonian and the networks is the tenor of the struggle. For the Smithsonian, it's a question of violating public trust and public purpose...especially when the majority of its funding comes from our federal taxes. For the networks, it's a question of how much the audience will tolerate before switching attention to any one of a thousand other media choices.

Credibility and trust are key variables in both equations. It should be fascinating to watch how both the nonprofit and for-profit industries find their feet.

Posted by ataylor at 8:38 AM | Comments (2)

July 13, 2006

Striving for clarity, watching for jargon

"Have something to say
and say it as clearly as you can.
That is the only secret of style."

  Matthew Arnold
  British poet and critic, 1822 - 1888

That wonderful quote launches ''When Words Fail,'' the most recent of Tony Proscio's three diatribes against the jargon of public purpose, and the vague and cluttered language of philanthropy (available for free download here). All three essays are gems of wit and wisdom, not just for professionals in philanthropy, but for anyone who claims a public purpose in their written communications (grantwriters, advocates, policy makers, arts marketers, academics).

Proscio explores why and how the conversation of public service and public good got to be so obtuse and impenetrable. And he nudges all of us toward clarity in what we say -- so that our constituents will understand, and so that we can form a productive conversation amongst ourselves. All are short and worth a reading. But to get you started, here are Proscio's suggestions for writing more clearly, taken from his first essay, ''In Other Words: A plea for plain speaking in foundations.'' It's not rocket science, but that's the point.

    If you are writing for a general audience, meaning well-educated people who don't happen to share your line of expertise, it may be helpful to envision one typical reader -- preferably a friend -- and write as if you were sending a letter to that person. If your friend wouldn't understand a term or phrase, don't use it. Better still, ask yourself how your non-specialist friend would describe the same idea, and borrow the language, in a sense, from him or her. Experience suggests that the first few attempts at this method may feel hopelessly limiting (and may be so time-consuming that it jeopardizes deadlines). But regular practice is an effective way of weeding out arcane, obscure, or ''inside'' expressions.
    As you sit through meetings -- the boring ones are best for this -- start a list of the buzz-phrases you hear others overusing. The fact that these phrases annoy you should be reason enough to avoid them yourself. Yet you may be surprised (and humbled) to discover that you do not, in fact, always avoid them. That painful discovery is no fun, but many people find the making and keeping of such a list both helpful and (during the worst meetings) therapeutic.
    Outlining is one of those tasks from college that you probably left behind with your French irregular verbs. And ordinary outlining can, it's true, be a little burdensome. The key exercise in this context, though, is not really the outline itself, it's the words you use in the outline. The rules are roughly these: (a) use just half a dozen words for the average numbered item, with a maximum of 10; (b) use only words and phrases that would fit naturally in USA Today. The point is definitely not that your eventual writing should mirror USA Today -- only that the topics should each be expressible as a headline suitable for a very general newspaper readership. ''Comprehensive initiative impacts system reform'' won't do. ''Wide-ranging project changes how City Hall serves the neighborhood'' is better. Eventually, your full written product may have to contain a few technical phrases, if the subject is at all technical. But in making the outline, you will at least have given every topic an ordinary, clear name. And the process of making up those names usually focuses creative attention on concepts that would otherwise have been expressed in jargon.
    This may not work for everyone, but when it works, it's powerful. Hearing long, convoluted sentences and dense phrases read aloud can be shocking and revealing. The benefit of hearing text, rather than just reading it, is that it gives the writer an opportunity to ask, "Would anyone really say that?" When the answer is No--and it often is--then the odds are good that a rewrite is in order.

Thanks to Andy Goodman for the link (part of his summer reading list, containing other gems). And attention to anyone that ever writes anything about the arts or their organizations.

Posted by ataylor at 12:39 PM | Comments (0)

July 14, 2006

The Artful Manager turns three

Hard to believe that it was three years ago today that I launched this weblog with its first missive, and its statement of purpose. I'm astonished at the wealth of new friends and colleagues I've connected with, and the spectrum of wonderful thinking and resources I've discovered along the way.

Thanks to all who make this weekly work so rewarding. Here's hoping there's much more of the same ahead.

Posted by ataylor at 8:35 AM | Comments (8)

July 17, 2006

Escaping Atlanta

A featured link in ArtsJournal describes the exodus of the Atlanta Opera from its performance home downtown to a new facility in the suburbs next year. Says the article:

The move is historic: It marks the first time a major-city opera company will leave its established location within a city and move all its performances to a suburb.... And though metro Atlanta's reputation may be that of one large, sprawling landmass, for the opera, being in Cobb County could present an uncertain bundle of financial, sociological and political ramifications.

The exodus underscores a particularly vexing tension for many metropolitan "SOBs" (symphonies, operas, ballets). As major institutions, they are often expected to play a role in sustaining and revitalizing urban downtowns (and often, they claim that role for themselves in fundraising pitches). At the same time, for many, the bulk of their patrons are not downtown. If they were to really respond to the needs and interests of their primary supporters, they would make their home away from the city, and beyond the beltline, as Atlanta Opera has decided to do.

The opera's research suggested that 52 percent of its ticket prospects (current and lapsed subscribers, and all single-ticket buyers from the past two years) live closer to the new location than to downtown. And 68 percent of larger donors (gifts over $1000) live closer, as well. Of course, the difference between actual distance and conceptual distance to the new location has yet to be discovered.

As you might expect, there are many additional variables leading to the historic move -- lack of an appropriate or responsive venue downtown, among them. But Atlanta likely has a few major peer institutions now more seriously looking around the edges of their current downtown homes.

Posted by ataylor at 8:48 AM | Comments (1)

July 19, 2006

The longer narrative on the ''long tail''

I posted back in 2004 about the idea of ''the long tail,'' advanced by Wired magazine's Chris Anderson. The gist of his theory was that emerging (primarily Internet) distribution models were dramatically altering the revenue potential of non-blockbuster material. In other words, while space-limited retailers like Walmart and Best Buy had to focus on selling massive quantities of very few things (ie, Madonna CDs, blockbuster movies, best-selling books), there was a world of opportunity in selling low quantities of lots and lots of things (specialized music, fringe films, niche or low-selling books).

The Long TailThe ''long tail'' refers to the recurring graph of sales in a given industry, where the top few items sell like hotcakes and grab most of the total revenue, and the remaining 80 to 90 percent trail off in a long tail, among them sharing the lesser percentage of revenue. Anderson suggested that as the cost of storing and distributing content approaches zero (it's only disk space and bandwidth, after all), there would be increasing opportunity to mine the non-blockbuster, and that some of the wind would go out of the blockbuster-focused marketplace.

I've often browsed Anderson's weblog on the subject, since it's so essential to the arts. Now he's published a book that's at the top of my reading list (if I ever get to actually read). Here's a review in the New Yorker if you want the quick perspective.

Posted by ataylor at 9:06 AM | Comments (1)

July 24, 2006

Off again

A cluttered schedule and myriad deadlines will keep me away from my weblogging this week. See you all again on July 31.

Posted by ataylor at 7:24 AM | Comments (0)

July 31, 2006

Act like a business? Why aim so low?

I wrote this opinion piece for the July/August 2006 issue of Inside Arts, the magazine of the Association of Performing Arts Presenters [available on-line (registration required)]. I reprint it here with my permission.

In his recent monograph, Good to Great and the Social Sectors, Jim Collins makes a rather bold statement: "We must reject the idea -- well-intentioned, but dead wrong -- that the primary path to greatness in the social sectors is to become 'more like a business.'" His point is that most businesses are poorly run, and that many business practices correlate with mediocrity, not greatness. So, to him, telling nonprofit organizations to "run like a business" is like telling artists to lower their standards, or telling a visionary leader to "aim low."

For those of us who have been struggling to convince cultural leaders to work with more focus, more discipline, and more responsiveness, Collins' words come as a bit of a blow. But I have to admit he has a point. For the past decades, our industry has fundamentally misunderstood what it means to run "like a business." As a result, we've tended to become more rigid, less joyous and increasingly disconnected from the communities and the creative spirit we were formed to serve.

In the Arts Administration MBA degree program I direct, we get to see both sides of the question -- dwelling in a School of Business, and working every day with cultural nonprofits. From that perspective, I suggest a six-point alternative to "running like a business," to give ourselves more worthy targets:

  1. Arts organizations must strive to be better than a business.
    Being responsible, accountable, transparent and responsive is the lowest standard we should set for ourselves. Let's be exceptional.
  2. We must use business tools with an artist's hand.
    Business tools are merely ways to see the world, and ways to structure our interaction with it. Let's be like the artists around us and explore those tools with creative abandon.
  3. We must embrace our roles as social engineers.
    So much of our work involves engineering compelling social experiences and catalytic community space. Let's learn the tools of those trades with the same energy and effort we commit to our more familiar tasks.
  4. We must define our own goals, rather than having them assigned to us.
    We are continually lured by outside measures of success: economic impact, educational enhancement, social service. If these are our goals, let's embrace them. If not, let's clarify our purpose to our constituents and ourselves.
  5. We must work with clarity and discipline.
    Nonprofit arts organizations don't have the luxury of elbowroom; every action must be taken with elegance, intent and an openness to learn and improve.
  6. We must calculate our efforts in multiple currencies.
    There are a multitude of resources beyond money that drive what we do: joy, discovery, connection, sense of purpose, sense of place and on and on. Let's make room in our spreadsheets and strategic plans to ensure we're measuring what matters.

In the end, behaving "like a business" is a matter of semantics. Arts organizations are businesses, so their behavior is businesslike -- just as good or just as bad. The deeper question is what kind of business do you want to be? And what skills and perspective do you need to get there? It's not about mimicry. It's about clarity, curiosity and courage.

Posted by ataylor at 8:39 AM | Comments (7)

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