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June 1, 2007

To change, or not to change

Here's a final question from my series on The Getty Center convening on leisure trends and cultural organizations: Does the knowledge of dramatic shifts in the lives of your community require you to change what you do? It sounds like an obvious and leading question -- of course you do, duh. But I'm not sure it's that simple.

Several participants at the Getty Center session remarked on the change of tone in the conversation over the past decade. Not so long ago, a conversation among nonprofit and public cultural organizations would have been much more entrenched and less receptive to changing behavior -- Change the art? Respond to the market? How dare you even mention it.

But now, even the most entrenched cultural institutions are considering the idea of dramatic and structural change -- in their management, outreach, and yes, even in their programming. It's a refreshing and positive evolution, but as ever, the danger lies in oversimplifying the question.

Should you change the content, context, and process of your cultural work in response to your community? I'd say it actually depends. Artists and organizations that claim to be responsive and community-focused in their mission and marketing materials, and claim a portion of the public purse as a result, have essentially promised to be relevant, and therefore must change. But what about small, focused, innovative, expressive cultural organizations that don't make such claims and don't grab such money? Consider all the astounding works of expression that were completely disconnected from their audience when they were born.

There is and will ever be a continual tension between staying true to your voice and being relevant and connected to your audience. I'm thrilled we all seem more ready to explore that tension, and our individual responses to it, but we'll never make it go away.

Posted by ataylor at 9:05 AM | Comments (3)

June 4, 2007

The interplay of business and the arts

Does business practice transform artistic expression? Theater maven and Second City co-founder Bernie Sahlins thinks so, and explains how in his brilliant keynote speech now available on-line.

The speech was a highlight of the annual conference last week of my colleagues in the Association of Arts Administration Educators. And it captures the elegant interplay of management decisions and artistic opportunity that vexes and inspires the work of the cultural manager.

Sahlins constructs the argument around James Burbage, a sixteenth-century English entrepreneur in the arts, who ''invented'' the box office. Said Sahlins:

When Burbage had that brilliant notion...he not only changed forever the structure of play presentation but (and here is the delightful and wondrous point; here is the ultimate value of what an arts administrator does), he started the process of transforming the actor from being a beggar, who humbly passed the hat, to being an artist, who was held to be of great worth to the community. And there you have the indispensable, the crucial role of your teaching: to bring to art the world's respect and to the artist, self-respect.

Great speech. Great insights. With some high ideals for what it is we're here to do.

Posted by ataylor at 6:35 AM | Comments (2)

June 5, 2007

How to respond to global commerce? Be more local. has yet another useful trend to watch in their report on ''(Still) Made Here.'' In brief:

''(STILL) MADE HERE encompasses new and enduring manufacturers and purveyors of the local. In a world that is seemingly ruled by globalization, mass production and 'cheapest of the cheapest,' a growing number of consumers are seeking out the local, and thereby the authentic, the storied, the eco-friendly and the obscure.''

The report offers several reasons for the new emphasis on local production. The rising awareness of carbon use is leading many consumers to consider how far their goods and services have traveled (by diesel). The rising homogeneity of global culture is giving new power to place as a unique selling proposition...suits made in Milan, bikes made in Amsterdam, etc. (this dynamic tends to contradict the first, but consumers are fickle). And, finally, local purchasing is becoming a form of advocacy for many communities, who hope to retain local ownership and flavor by forgoing national chains.

For arts and culture organizations -- which are so often geographically based -- this trend suggests yet another assessment of your organizational voice, your communications strategy, and your inclusion of place in all that you do. Could your symphony be from anywhere? Or are there aspects to your work that are rooted in your specific region? Would a performance by your local professional theater be different than a national tour? If so, say so. If not, why not?

Arts organizations are creatures of place -- of the artists, audiences, supporters, and contexts that surround them. This trend reminds us to remind our audience of that important point.

Posted by ataylor at 12:47 PM | Comments (4)

June 7, 2007

What's not to love about amateurs?

John von Rhein offers a lovely little essay in the Chicago Tribune about the strange disdain the professional cultural world has for ''amateurs.'' These are people who play for the love of the music, he says, adding the barb: ''How many 'professional' musicians truly delight in the music they are paid to produce?''

Well, a lot, actually. But he makes a larger point. The rise of the professional arts in the past 50 years seems to have downgraded those who play for the love of it, rather than for pay. Perhaps the emerging professional nonprofit industry needed to distinguish itself from the community groups that came before. Perhaps our high ideals about what ''high art'' was supposed to be in a cold war era made us a bit hyperbolic.

Whatever the reason, the gap between the amateur and professional is one of the most troubling and damaging elements of our current cultural landscape. And fostering that gap is one of the dumbest moves for an industry struggling to reclaim relevance, connection, and meaning. Says von Rhein:

Musicians who play for love rather than money can teach even jaded ears something vital about what it means to make and experience music. They are one reason classical music remains a living art.

Posted by ataylor at 9:02 AM | Comments (8)

June 11, 2007

Welcome to my world

I was thrilled to see the launch of a new ArtsJournal weblog with a subject near to my heart. Flyover provides a space for four arts journalists working between the coasts and away from the major metropolitan areas of the U.S. (the folks in the ''flyover'' states) to express themselves, and explore the unique challenges of their work.

As most media outlets chop back at their cultural coverage, the folks in smaller markets are particularly feeling the pain. It's fantastic to have an oasis for such conversation. Thanks to ArtsJournal's Doug McLennan for creating that oasis, and thanks to the four journalists for sharing their time, insights, and ideas with the rest of us.

Posted by ataylor at 9:30 AM | Comments (1)

June 13, 2007

Defining (or redefining) the amateur

There are some wonderful and thoughtful comments now attached to my post last week about the amateur arts. Many seek to define the difference between amateur and professional, with the usual indicators in the mix: paid vs. unpaid, skilled vs. less skilled, creating for the audience vs. creating for the self.

These would be clean and useful distinctions if they were true. But I'm realizing that the distinctions I use to understand the professional/amateur divide aren't particularly relevant to the real world. What about non-paid artists with professional training and exceptional skill? Are they amateurs or professionals? What about professional artists who choose to create and perform an alternate form of work with their peers for the love of it, rather than for money? What about amateurs without traditional training, and without any interest in being professional, who have an audience focus and a skill level that matches their professional peers?

For example, I helped found a summer project choir here in Madison that performs only once each year, with two weeks of intensive rehearsal. Many of our members are ''professional'' singers by most standards (highly trained, earning a portion of their income from their craft). Many of our singers are professionals in other industries with a love and passion for choral performance. None of us is paid for our performance in the choir (in fact, we all chip in to pay the bills). We're all in it for the love of the challenge and the depth of the repertory we wouldn't be singing otherwise. Yet, if I dare say, our performance quality is professional-grade, we have a national recording of some merit of contemporary choral works (some of which we commissioned), and we certainly provide a positive audience experience to a packed, paid house every year.

Are we professionals or amateurs? Is our choir professional or community? Does the audience know the difference? Do they care?

In short, are we sure in our arguments about professional and amateur artists that we all agree on the differences? And are the differences really the ones that make a difference?

Posted by ataylor at 8:01 AM | Comments (8)

June 15, 2007

Engaging art, engaging audiences

Lots of juicy conversation is now going on in a special weblog on ArtsJournal called Engaging Art. The blog is a pre-conference conversation leading up to the American Symphony Orchestra League's convening in Nashville next week.

The conversation circles around a new book on the past, present, and future of cultural audiences, and the challenges of ''engaging art'' in every meaning of the phrase. And, true to its topic, the conversation will try to engage its audience in new ways during the live session in Nashville, with the audience blogging questions and comments even as the panelists speak.

One intriguing thread running through these chapters and these conversations is that creation and expression matter more to people now than ever before, but that our particular part of the system intended to deliver that expression (the nonprofit arts in general) matters less.

Posted by ataylor at 8:16 AM | Comments (0)

June 18, 2007

Working to REDUCE one impact of the arts

While we're all well-versed in the positive impact the live arts have on communities, families, and individuals, a new trend is suggesting at least one way that arts organizations should reduce a different kind of impact: the environmental impact of live events.

Back in March, Wolf Trap Foundation for the Performing Arts announced its initiative to become a zero-waste and carbon-neutral organization. Said Wolf Trap President Terre Jones to the National Press Club (speech available in PDF):

I believe the arts have a role; have an obligation to inspire our sustainable future because this collective of visionaries has always communicated the relevance of current events and has long been a bastion for causes of all types, from social justice to education. So now is the time for us to take seriously our role in environmental responsibility.

Wolf Trap has already begun the process with a national advisory group and an assessment of their environmental footprint (see their press release). Next steps will include minimizing that impact throughout their operations, and positioning the organization as an environmental model and resource for artists and arts presenters across the country.

In related news, the Live Earth concert event scheduled for July 7 will follow a new set of Green Event Guidelines, designed to ''holistically address the key areas of impact of a large live event -- including recycling and composting, food and beverages, packaging, transportation, energy, water usage, and the event site itself. The guidelines also place special emphasis on measurable improvements.''

Wolf Trap and Live Earth may be large and national organizations, but their initiatives should encourage the question at even the smallest arts group: How green are you?

Posted by ataylor at 9:10 AM | Comments (2)

June 20, 2007

Turns out you never owned the recording anyway

1906 Record LicenseThe digital age has thrown all sorts of complexity into media transactions -- the purchase, license, transfer, or permission to experience recorded audio or video works. This fabulous label from an early recording shows that the issue is nothing new (found on this blog entry through BoingBoing).

Even back 1906, record companies were pushing the idea that you don't buy a record, you buy the right to listen to the music encoded on the record. In fact, the label doesn't call it a purchase at all, but a lease:

This record is leased solely for the purpose of producing sound directly from the record and for no other purpose; all other rights under the licensor's patents under which this record is made are expressly reserved in the licensor.

It may sound like semantics, but the issue lies at the foundation of the many media industries (some of which I've touched on it before). We're used to thinking of the contents and the container as the same thing (''I just bought a new CD,'' ''I loved the film so much that I bought the DVD''). And with many cultural objects, the business model and the law support that assumption (books and records are covered under the first-sale doctrine within copyright law, allowing the purchaser of to sell or give away a ''particular, lawfully made copy of the copyrighted work without permission once it has been obtained'').

With digital technology, however, the only way to sell or give away a piece of music or a moving image (from your iPod or hard drive for example) is to make a copy of it. This gets copyright attorneys all a-quiver. The vagaries make media managers freaky, as well, since the rules and rights of commercial transactions define how most industries work (or don't work).

In 1906, the Victor Talking Machine Company hoped to define the nature of the recorded audio transaction. In 1908, copyright law redefined it for them. Who knows how long it will take for the law and the marketplace to untangle the nature of cultural transactions in a digital world.

Posted by ataylor at 9:38 AM | Comments (1)

June 21, 2007

Nice work if you can get it (and not be indicted)

The two recent evaluation reports of the Smithsonian Institution are not the best way for the organization to enter its budget review process with the federal government. The New York Times reports (Washington Post as well) on the independent committee's discoveries about the worklife of former chief executive, Lawrence M. Small:

From 2000 to 2006, the report said, he also took nearly 70 weeks of vacation -- about 10 weeks a year -- and spent 64 business days serving on corporate boards that paid him a total of $5.7 million.

My neighbor blogger, Tyler Green, makes another important assessment about culpability in the mess:

Both reports made clear that the Smithsonian's regents have been derelict in their duties. The release of the two reports was sad comedy: First, the regents released a report acknowledging incompetence while simultaneously refusing to be held accountable for it. Its 55 pages can be summarized as: "We goofed. We failed to do our jobs. Oops. Our bad. Mulligan!" Then the independent commission's report revealed the scope of that incompetence.

Here's where to find the independent commission's report. Here's the report and recommendations from the SI regents.

Posted by ataylor at 9:21 AM | Comments (0)

June 27, 2007

But I still need a grant in my FIRST life

With everybody else wandering into virtual space, it was only a matter of time before organized philanthropy found its way. Such was the news from the MacArthur Foundation, which has begun sponsoring a series of conversations and initiatives in the virtual world of Second Life. Says an article in the New York Times (registration probably required):

The goals are to gain insight into how virtual worlds are used by young people, to introduce the foundation to an audience that may have little exposure to institutional philanthropy and to take part in and stimulate discussions about the real-world issues that it seeks to address.

"This is not just some fad or something new and interesting that we've grabbed onto," said Jonathan Fanton, MacArthur's president. "Serious conversations take place there, people are deeply engaged, and that led us to think that maybe a major foundation ought to have a presence in the virtual world as well."

According to Fanton, the foundation will eventually open an office in a virtual world and make grants through it that will become actual grants in the real world. (More details on the first MacArthur event in Second Life are available on TechSoup's blog.)

I hope their office fares better than John Edwards' campaign headquarters in that same virtual world...

[Thanks to Adrian for the link.]

Posted by ataylor at 8:58 AM | Comments (0)

June 29, 2007

Dialing back for the summer

I won't be posting as frequently during July and August to give the blogging part of my brain a rest, and to focus on some summer projects. If postings are really slim, I may send out my usual Friday e-mail summary every other week for a while.

Hope you all have a fabulous summer.

Posted by ataylor at 8:45 AM | Comments (0)

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