an ARTSJOURNAL weblog | ArtsJournal Home | AJ Blog Central

« May 2006 | Main | July 2006 »

June 2, 2006

To be cool, or not to be

Marketing maven Grant MacDonald offers a top-ten list of ''basic instincts'' among teens, targeted by his firm when trying to make a product or service ''cool'' to the youngens. If your work involves making sackbut ensembles hip and trendy, this list is worth a look (heaven knows you'll need the help). In a nutshell the ten basic instincts are:

  • Personal Expression: Teens want to be known for having their own styles and identities.
  • Social Connection: Teens want to be accepted and validated by their peers for who they are.
  • Accomplishment: Every teen wants to be recognized (by peers and parents) as being really good at something.
  • Belonging: Every generation has its big identifying issues or generational consciousness. For this generation, it is technological smarts/leadership, diversity and tolerance.
  • Freedom: Teens are constantly under the thumb of rules, regulations, authority, parents, expectations and pressure. Think how powerful your brand could be if it offered release and escape to teens.
  • Rebellion: Teens define their identities by destroying the rules, taboos, institutions and sometimes smashing the mailboxes that came before them.
  • Tribalism: Rites of passage are so important in making a statement that one has arrived on the scene.
  • Risk Taking: It is amazing that some of us survive our teens. We were invincible, bulletproof and immortal. We defined ourselves by pushing the envelope and testing the limits.
  • Cynicism: Teens define themselves by questioning institutional rules and authority. They want their own set of guidelines, not the ones of previous generations.
  • Sexuality: This is about more than sex. It is about allure, control, attraction and influence as a validation for who you are.

Yet, according to design maven Bruce Mau in his Incomplete Manifesto (thanks to Neill for the link), the effort to be ''cool'' is both limiting and sad, says he:

Don't be cool. Cool is conservative fear dressed in black. Free yourself from limits of this sort.

Posted by ataylor at 8:45 AM | Comments (1)

June 5, 2006

Conversations to come

I'm just digging out from a wonderful time in Milwaukee, participating in the Americans for the Arts convention. More thoughts and comments coming soon. But it was a real pleasure sharing the stage with the little improvisational ''think tank'' assembled by Barry Hessenius -- including me along with:

Barry has promised a full report on the session (Neill Roan has already posted a short summary report), and there may be an audio file in the works. In the meantime, thanks to Barry and Americans for the Arts for inviting me. I hope it's the beginning of many productive conversations to come.

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

June 6, 2006

Gift or purchase?

Arts organizations have always explored the boundary between charitable gifts and fees for services. It's one of the inevitable struggles when you receive significant revenue from both earned and contributed sources. But if we needed a warning about violating that boundary, we have a wonderful poster child in academic athletics.

Take, for example, the University of Wisconsin football franchise, which requires fans to contribute at a certain level in order to be considered for ticket purchases. Granted, it's not dramatically different than offering preferred ticketing to major givers in an arts institution. But it's a lot more sales-like and overt. Says a recent radio ad (with the UW fight song playing in the background):

"One of the state's greatest treasures is Wisconsin football at Camp Randall Stadium. While kickoff is still months away, a limited number of season tickets are available right now. That's right, Wisconsin football season tickets could be yours. It all starts by supporting the Badger Fund. Contributors to the Badger Fund enjoy the first opportunity to request season tickets to all UW sports, including football. If you've ever considered season tickets, the time to act is now."

Unfortunately, at least one avid fan didn't get the distinction between what might happen and what would happen if he made a significant gift. So he perceived his $550 contribution as a downpayment for the rights to season tickets -- worthy of a refund if he didn't get picked. The result was harsh publicity, dulled public opinion, and a more transactional perception of any donation made by anyone.

So, certainly explore the border between a gift and a ''gimme'' -- there are all sorts of motivations behind each financial transfer. But as stewards of your organization's integrity, know that there is a border there, somewhere.

Posted by ataylor at 7:39 AM | Comments (2)

June 7, 2006

Here comes ''crowdsourcing''

Wired magazine has a piece on yet another trendy word construction made possible by the on-line world. Crowdsourcing includes any effort by a commercial enterprise to leverage the scattered talents of large groups of individuals on the web. Many firms are finding the technique extraordinarily powerful in building stock photo archives, writing or testing bits of computer code, handling evaluative tasks, or even solving complex problems in chemistry or science. Says the article:

Technological advances in everything from product design software to digital video cameras are breaking down the cost barriers that once separated amateurs from professionals. Hobbyists, part-timers, and dabblers suddenly have a market for their efforts, as smart companies in industries as disparate as pharmaceuticals and television discover ways to tap the latent talent of the crowd. The labor isn't always free, but it costs a lot less than paying traditional employees. It's not outsourcing; it's crowdsourcing.

The trend is one more indication of the growing boundary blur between professionals and amateurs -- covered before in this weblog as the ProAm revolution. In the arts, we've built a solid and sophisticated infrastructure around professional endeavor. The world around us -- and the artists among us -- are realizing that ''professional'' isn't always what they want, or what they need to make or experience exceptional work.

Also be sure to see Wired's suggestions for the five rules of the crowdsourcing labor pool. Most entertaining is number 4: ''The crowd produces mostly crap.''

Posted by ataylor at 8:51 AM | Comments (4)

June 9, 2006

Of mission and motion

There are lots of conversation starters in this short article on change and refocusing at Seattle's Capitol Hill Arts Center. The three-year-old arts center is discontinuing its theater productions after the current season draws to a close, and focusing their efforts on other work.

''Everything [we do] is really successful, except the theater season,'' says [Artistic Director Matthew] Kwatinetz. "If what we do is so important to the community, they have to come out.''

At issue in the article are two things: whether or not an arts organization has a right to change (says the journalist, ''If CHAC doesn't continue to produce these compelling theater works, who will?'') and whether the for-profit model is possible for an artsy, funky, socially conscious cultural organization. Most of you will know my personal opinion on the matters -- of course it does, and of course it is, if both are consistent with the organization's purpose.

But, obviously, the two questions are related. The in-house theater season hasn't drawn the crowds or the earned income necessary to cover its costs. For most arts organizations, that's a fact of life, softened by the balance of contributed income. But CHAC decided not to form as a nonprofit corporation, making economic sustainability through earned income an essential element of its mission.

Tax status doesn't make the Capitol Hill Arts Center more or less noble as an arts organization. That status certainly offers different tensions and opportunities than a contribution-supported theater might face -- which is why they chose it. It will be interesting to watch how those tensions and opportunities play out over time, and what other arts organization choose a similar path.

Posted by ataylor at 6:54 AM | Comments (3)

June 12, 2006

Opera vs. cheese

Just time for a short post today, pointing you to yet another cool and addictive prototype from Google, Google Trends. This system allows you to view the relative frequency of searches for up to five terms, plotted along a timeline. Says Google:

With Google Trends, you can compare the world's interest in your favorite topics. Enter up to five topics and see how often they've been searched for on Google over time. Google Trends also displays how frequently your topics have appeared in Google News stories, and which geographic regions have searched for them most often.

For an example of the useful/useless knowledge available through the service, check out my trend analysis for theater, classical music, opera, and cheese.

Posted by ataylor at 9:29 AM | Comments (3)

June 13, 2006

Calling the question

Andrew Adler in the Louisville Courier-Journal touches on a question that's bubbling up a lot these days, not just in the arts, but in the entire social sector: given all the talk of need and crisis and funding, where's the public conversation about the value and content of cultural activity? Says Adler:

...simply saying we "need" an orchestra isn't sufficient. Same with the opera, the ballet, etc. Of course it takes money to keep these organizations afloat, and more than that, to make them thrive. But the aesthetic imperative continues to be obscured when financial concerns constantly occupy the foreground.

Adler encourages a broader conversation about the aesthetics and experience that communities should expect from their arts organizations. Others are questioning the larger public purpose of any institutions that receive fiscal privilege and public subsidy. These are fair questions, and juicy conversations. But they're also another indication that the foundational belief in cultural enterprise as community good is growing thin.

We'd best all be ready to engage the debate.

Posted by ataylor at 8:47 AM | Comments (2)

June 14, 2006

A bit too ubiquitous

iPod bathroom tissue dispenserIf you hadn't yet realized that Apple iPods were everywhere, or soon will be, then take a look at the new iPod player ''slash'' bathroom tissue dispenser. It just goes to show that there are markets, products, and services yet to be exploited. All we need is a large marketplace with relatively affluent and lifestyle-focused consumers.

I suppose cultural managers should take heart in the fact that some people absolutely have to have music with them wherever they go (and I do mean ''go''). But I'll admit that products like this make me wonder about the capitalist system just a bit.

Posted by ataylor at 8:46 AM | Comments (1)

June 16, 2006

What might nonprofits looks like in 2016?

Some interesting thoughts over at Social Edge about the future of nonprofits, NGOs, social sector organizations, or whatever we might be calling them in 2016. According to the intro, a decade from now, these organizations will:

  • Be mobile
  • Offer instant transparency and social impact measurements
  • Become rapid response social opportunity networks
  • Access free, on-demand technology tools
  • Have direct channels to the public

While the set-up is a bit thin, and a few commenters are more focused on semantics than substance, there are some useful thoughts in the mix. Worth a moment.

Posted by ataylor at 12:08 AM | Comments (4)

June 19, 2006

Defining success

For various reasons -- as a board member, a staff member, an advisor, and such -- I find myself in the middle of four separate strategic thinking efforts among four separate organizations and initiatives. Although these are non-similar organizations, with very different purposes and governance structures, the conversations have been strikingly similar.

The most vexing question they've all come around to is this: what would success look like if we achieved it? In other words, if our organization or initiative was working exceptionally well, what evidence of a difference would we see in the world around us?

It seems a simple question, but I've seen it stump several rooms full of really intelligent and passionate people. It seems most of us -- as board members, staff members, volunteers -- are unprepared for the question, and lack the words to answer it directly.

Perhaps that's because an answer to that question requires more than the vague, aspirational phrases you usually find in mission statements or grant language -- ''we strive to connect our community to the magic and power of [insert art form here] at the highest level of excellence.'' Instead, you have to be focused and specific. If you did connect your community to some kind of magic or power, what evidence would you expect to see? What does excellence in your particular discipline look like -- critical acclaim, national recognition, customer satisfaction, artist satisfaction, percentage of house sold?

There are books and seminars galore on ''outcome measures'' and ''managing for results,'' jam-packed with tools, methods, processes, and matrices to help you form that conversation. But it seems even the most simple version of the outcomes question can be rich ground for meaningful discussion and debate:

What would success look like if your organization achieved it? And what might that vision tell you about how to focus, how to work, and how to judge your progress along the way?

Posted by ataylor at 8:38 AM | Comments (5)

June 20, 2006

Two questions worth asking

The job posting now on-line for the President & CEO of Madison's $205-million Overture Center for the Arts includes multiple essay questions along with the resume and reference requirements. Two questions, in particular, are worth a moment for any manager of a large, professional-grade cultural facility:

Describe what you believe to be the central role of a major, multi-venue performing and visual arts center in a city the size of Madison. What should be such a facility's top three measures of success and sustainability? And what would be your top three priorities for the Center in your first year as director?

How could Overture Center, and you as its leader, promote, advance, and support the vitality of the larger cultural ecology of Madison and Dane County? What would be your responsibility to resident companies of the facility, and to other cultural organizations in the community?

The first question goes to the purpose and function of a huge cultural capital investment -- is it about dominating the market? Filling in the cultural gaps in the market? Fostering resident companies and local organizations? Refocusing the community's economic activity?

The second question goes to the inherent tension between any significant cultural facility and its resident arts organizations and cultural neighbors. As shown in Broward County and at large performing arts centers across North America, the balance between serving the needs of the facility and the needs of the cultural ecology is often a delicate and highly political one.

Feel free to answer either or both of the questions above in comments to this weblog. I'd love to read what people have to say...whether or not they're applying for the Overture job.

Posted by ataylor at 8:29 AM | Comments (4)

June 23, 2006

A massive dose of perspective

If you need a new sense of where you are in the universe (a common need for a Friday), just take nine minutes to watch Powers of Ten, the classic instructional film that's finally available on the web.

The film, created in 1977 by Charles and Ray Eames, begins with an image of a man sleeping on a picnic blanket, then zooms back by increasing powers of ten into the universe. Then it descends by powers of ten into the subatomic structure of his hand. It's a massive dose of perspective for those fretting over tiny little issues like multi-million-dollar performance halls, exhibition halls, and capital campaigns.

The film has had a profound impact on viewers for almost three decades now -- it even has its own web site, poster, and national celebration day. Trust me. It's worth nine minutes.

Posted by ataylor at 7:33 AM | Comments (1)

June 26, 2006

Off for the week (and then some)

I'll be away from the weblog this week and early next week, tending to much-needed home chores and life maintenance. See you on July 6.

Posted by ataylor at 1:41 AM | Comments (0)

« May 2006 | Main | July 2006 »