an ARTSJOURNAL weblog | ArtsJournal Home | AJ Blog Central

« February 2004 | Main | April 2004 »

March 2, 2004

Build your own weblog entry (assembly required)

It's student application review time in the graduate degree program I direct, so my posts will be patchy, at best, this week. I hope you all bear with me.

In the meantime, I have at least enough time to gather a 'make your own weblog entry' kit...sort of 'The Artful Manager: Home Game'. Just take a peek at the following three articles to spot the trend, catch the connections, or generate some sarcastic or glib commentary. You all must have something to say about the role of the critic in the arts ecosystem, and the explosion of options that face our audiences. Here's your chance. If you send along something short and snappy, I'll likely excerpt it in a future posting. If not, I'll be back to business as usual soon.

Article One: Poison Pen?
Ed Siegel explores his role as a theater critic in The Boston Globe. One quote ripe with potential:

Like it or not, and most critics don't, people turn to theater critics more for consumer advice than for wit, wisdom, perspective, or any of the other lofty reasons that are taught in Criticism 101. As time and money become more scrunched, readers are less interested in how Samuel Beckett may have influenced David Mamet or whether August Wilson ever read Eugene O'Neill than whether they should shell out up to a hundred bucks for a theater ticket.

Article Two: Invasion of the Web Film Critics
Wired offers a perspective on film critics on the web, and the frustrating gap in their recognition: more and more readers, still no respect from the Hollywood publicity machine.

Article Three: Select All: Can you have too many choices?
Christopher Caldwell reviews the new book The Paradox of Choice: Why More Is Less by Barry Schwartz. Both authors suggest that too many choices actually make us less happy over time.

Throw into the mix the quantity and variety of entertainment and leisure time activities in your local Sunday paper (not just arts, but movies, restaurants, family fun, recreation, home project guides, and on and on), and see what big ideas emerge.

Get your pens and keyboards ready....go.

Posted by ataylor at 8:52 AM

March 3, 2004

Fun with Latin, Best Practices, and New Zealanders

Ruth Harley, CEO of the New Zealand Film Commission, has some specific thoughts on why her country is suddenly the film capital of the universe. In the spirit of Stephen Covey, she lists seven habits of highly effective governments in attracting movie-makers:
  1. Patience
  2. Money
  3. Creative Freedom
  4. National Identity
  5. Entrepreneurial Spirit
  6. Thinking Globally
  7. Backing from the Top
The occassion for her debriefing, of course, was the New-Zealand-palooza of the Academy Awards, where Lord of the Rings cleaned house, and other films with a New Zealand connection were in the mix (Whale Rider, The Last Samurai, etc.).

I always love such lists because they attribute cause so readily, and connect those causes to success, rather than just success in this particular case for reasons we probably can't begin to understand. You rarely see the same lists when the very same principals were applied with little to no results.

The Latin for such a fallacy (for those Latin scholars out there, or watchers of West Wing) is post hoc ergo propter hoc, or roughly translated to 'after this therefore because of this.' Logicians call this thinking error coincidental correlation. Management consultants call them 'best practices,' neglecting to mention that they are usually quite useless.

In the case of the 'New Zealand seven,' there are at least two elements that don't make the list which might be argued to trump the list altogether: real estate and Peter Jackson.

If you're going to make a sweeping epic film, with astounding, pristine backdrops, and separated from current reality by history (Samurai) or by fantasy (Rings), you need lots of undeveloped land with great visual beauty. And when you're choosing among the few available options for such vistas, it helps to have a patriotic countryman, such as Peter Jackson, making the final choice. Jackson decided to base production in New Zealand, and made it work by force of will (and clear support and cooperation, of course). In the process, he forged the infrastructure for other film-makers to choose New Zealand, as well.

Of course, we could argue forever about the causes for New Zealand's rise as a film destination. The fallacy comes when we pick a few variables after the fact, and suggest them as the general tools for success for others hoping for the same results. Think here of any trendy management consulting book, or any 'six steps to successful [fill in the blank],' or the bulk of studies prepared about healthy cultural communities, or the bullet lists of best practices markered onto flip-charts at most national conference workshops.

Policy and management choices have an essential role to play, but they are less about hubris (we made this reality) than finesse (we recognized an opportunity and made room for it).

As a matter of policy, New Zealand had no immediate control over the primary asset at work (vast and beautiful undeveloped land). Their real genius was that they saw an opportunity and got out of its way -- making a few good choices about how to feed its fire with new capital opportunities, entrepreneurial incentives, and considered public policy. When you think about it, applying the same responses to a different stimulus would actually reduce your chances for success, even by New Zealand's example.

Posted by ataylor at 10:06 AM

March 4, 2004

When cultural experiences fall a bit short

Some stories just scream out to be shared on weblogs such as mine. This item in a North Wales newspaper suggests that there's a slight problem with the Welsh cultural experience offered by the 'Magic of Wales' shop at Disney's Epcot Centre. Specifically:

Disney officials in the USA confirmed there were no Welsh products on sale at present in the Magic of Wales store.

Instead, the shop offers a full range of Scottish items, including tartan ties, scarves, and even a map of the Scottish clans. So the Welsh North American Chamber of Commerce is stepping in to set things right.

Cultural managers are always struggling with extraordinarily complex issues of authenticity (how authentic is a performance of the 'throat-singers of Tuva,' for example, when performed in a historic opera house?...Or how authentic is an exhibit of Medieval religious iconography when hung on white museum walls?).

One way to avoid the shades of gray, I suppose, is to just get it boldly and absolutely wrong. Bravo Disney.

Posted by ataylor at 12:10 AM

March 8, 2004

A spectrum of response to ticket price increases

A few recent articles show the odd place that ticket price holds in the minds of audiences, and the internal calculus that helps them make decisions. In one, there's some shock and awe about the Boston Symphony's ticket increases on the eve of James Levine's arrival as conductor. In another, fans grumble but accept another increase in Red Sox spring training game prices.

Regarding the BSO increase, one patron said this:

'I've already talked the budget situation over with my wife,' said Richard Boisvert, whose 16-concert, Friday afternoon package will increase 60 percent, from $400 to $640. 'I'm not renewing next year.'

A spring training fan of the Red Sox had a slightly different response:

'No matter what, people will always attend Red Sox games. There¹s something about the Boston Red Sox. It doesn¹t really matter what the prices of the tickets are.'

Of course, there are fans for both organizations that took the other side of the argument, and thankfully, each article poses the opposite view (although the BSO article shows slightly less enthusiasm for the home team). In the spring training article, college administrator Anne-Marie Kenney has this to say against the increase:

'I think it is sad and unfortunate,' Kenney wrote in an e-mail. 'As someone who enjoys baseball, it has significantly reduced the number of games I can attend each year. My hope in coming down was to see as many games as possible, but the cost is a factor.

Both organizations justify the increase based on how it will support the core of their work. The symphony talks about the new revenue helping to 'maintain our artistic standards as one of the great orchestras in the world.' The Minnesota Twins (another team in the spring training story) explains that higher ticket prices help them 'to maintain and compete and to have a competitive team on the field.' Both also talk about how ticket prices were stable for many years before this shift.

It just goes to show how relative the price/value calculations are in the minds of audiences and fans...and how complex. There's something in their math about the personal value an event or activity provides them, and the comparable dollar price that's worth. There's something about the number of events they can afford at the new price, given their availability and allocation of money. And there's something quite powerful in their comparison to how much they paid last year.

In both baseball and symphonies, ticket revenue are just a portion of the total income that support the activity (in baseball, the balance is made in television rights, merchandising, corporate sponsorship, and consessions; in symphony, the bulk is made up in contributions). So both fans are technically receiving a subsidized rate.

So why is a price increase for one organization a shock and a disgrace, while the other is a force of nature?

Posted by ataylor at 8:23 AM

March 9, 2004

On growth and death

Two articles in the latest Fortune Small Business magazine offer a few nuggets of wisdom for the arts manager, and one truly disturbing business model. The wisdom nuggets come from this article on managing growth in a small business, extolling the decision not to grow.

It seems that several small business leaders have discovered that slow growth or no growth actually prove to be better for business, especially as the economy starts to tick up a bit. Fighting the natural impulse to judge success by increasing volume, customers, or sales, these businesspeople have found some real benefit (and real profit) in keeping things steady:

We confess that at first we thought 'slow-growth advocate' was a new term for 'loser' -- someone who can't cut it in a hypercompetitive business climate. But closer examination reveals that many of these iconoclasts reap benefits that are often at odds with an all-growth-all-the-time mentality -- higher quality, a more manageable and pleasant workplace, and greater profitability....'I run my company with this saying: Volume is vanity, and profit is sanity,' says Brad Skelton, 36, managing director of Skelton Tomkinson....

One case in point is Sharon Anderson Wright, CEO of Half Price Books, who launches all her new stores with cash on hand rather than with debt, and won't open any store without a seasoned manager to take the reins. Beyond the cash flow benefits, this strategy also reinforces the reasons customers choose to shop there:

Besides promoting only from within to fill managerial positions, she offers health insurance, in-depth training, and profit sharing to full-timers. 'Our cash cow is our repeat customers,' she says. 'The last thing we want to do is to grow too fast and become impersonal.'

Why the lecture on smart growth? Because arts organizations so often find themselves in the same trap of equating success with increasing size. Foundations encourage new programs over overhead and existing programs; individual donors and corporate funders like to see the same. Even within the organization, marketing or development directors are evaluated based on their increases of sales or contributions over last year.

The problem is that almost all of these new sources of revenue cover variable costs rather than total costs, leaving arts organizations with more and more to do with the same fixed infrastructure (building space, administrative staff, office equipment). Instead of profit taking a beating, it's their core mission that falters as resources stretch thin, and staff stress and burnout grow faster than the revenues. All arts organizations, regardless of size, are small businesses. There's a lot to learn from the smarter managers in the bunch.

The 'truly disturbing business model' comes in another story in the same issue, focusing on two brothers seeking to reframe the funeral and memorial business. One of their products, Lifestories, is a multimedia scrapbook of the deceased that's available at media kiosks near the burial site, as well as on-line. It's not the multimedia memories that are disturbing (that's the stuff of art, after all), it's the commodification of the process. Says the article:

Lifestories is the crux of the plan for a continual -- and continually profitable -- relationship with clients. Indeed, the brothers' ambitions stretch beyond death care and reach for a place where memory and technology combine. They want to be the digital custodians of their clients' narratives, voices, and images, and they want to do it on a grand scale. 'I want us to become something like the J. Crew catalog,' Brent says -- the mass-marketers of human memory.

In a chilling combination of Madison Avenue and Mozart's Requiem, that last sentence is likely to fester in my brain for a long, long time.

Posted by ataylor at 12:10 AM

March 10, 2004

A changing relationship with music

Most would call Apple's iPod and other similar personal digital audio players 'handy little appliances.' But at least one researcher is exploring how these devices are really tools for consumers to reshape time, mood, and personal space. BBC News offers this article on the subject, which has also popped up in recent issues of the New York Times and elsewhere.

According to Dr. Michael Bull, who has interviewed lots of digital personal audio device users, these portable cocoons of music have become tools for reclaiming choice in an environment that barrages us all with outside messages.

'They construct their moods, they re-make the time of their day,' says Dr Bull., 'It's a much more active process even though it's dependent on the machinery. Choice is the key factor, he says. By choosing the music, you reclaim some of the world -- it's no longer dominated by messages pointed at you.

The difference between these devices and their older, Walkman-type players is that users can carry their entire music library with them, and select from among 10,000 or so audio files in building a personal soundtrack (I had another weblog on this topic back in February).

In a quote that could apply to any emergent technology (from the compact disc to the cantilever in architecture):

Digital players in general and the iPod in particular are having a dramatic effect on the way people behave, he says.

When new technologies and ideas interact with their users, there are always fascinating effects that nobody can predict. The advent of the printing press, according to some scholars, reshaped the nature of childhood as the need for literacy created the formalized education system. The introduction of the telephone encouraged the growth of central cities and skyscrapers, as manufacturing managers could suddenly be miles away from their factories and closer to their clients. The innovations and aesthetics of constructed space have influenced form and style in musical composition and performance (think of the co-evolution of cavernous cathedrals and echoing, ethereal choral music in the 16th century, for example).

This is important stuff for arts managers, believe it or not, because the technologies evolving over the past decade are reshaping our audiences' relationship with music, media, language, and visual space. We can't possibly know where such changes will lead us, but we can begin to explore how they might influence our current management, marketing, education, outreach, and community engagement.

Commercial entertainment is already working on it, as shown by this recent effort in instant recording of live performance, and similar efforts by Clear Channel last year.

Arts organizations are driven and defined, in part, by the relationship their audiences choose and prefer with their specific art form (classical music, film, jazz, and so on). Since that relationship is shifting, we had best be aware of it.

Posted by ataylor at 8:25 AM

March 11, 2004

More on pricing and public relations

In a follow-up to Monday's weblog post about ticket price increases for the Boston Symphony and the Red Sox spring training, at least one of the two organizations has had a change of heart.

After much gnashing of teeth by loyal subscribers, the Boston Symphony has eased back on its announced season ticket prices for 1400 of the patrons most affected. The face value of the tickets will remain, but these targeted subscribers will receive rebates to ease the increase back down to 15 percent. According to the orchestra's chief administrator, the error was not one of pricing, but of timing:

'Our mistake was not phasing it in over a longer period of time,' said Mark Volpe, the BSO's managing director. 'We feel we have the right to price seats according to demand, and yet for some people that's a major burden, and we're trying to rectify that.'

There are at least two stories in this story (and likely many more): One is the fairly complex question about whether or not nonprofit cultural institutions actually 'have the right to price seats according to demand'; the other is about how organizations should announce and roll-out decisions about such pricing. In both stories, the public purpose and fiscal privilege of these organizations' nonprofit status looms large in the debate.

Posted by ataylor at 6:24 AM

March 12, 2004

On the road again..again...

So I'm in upstate New York in this converted mansion (now an executive training and conference facility) talking about how higher education and the performing arts balance their common purpose and divergent styles. The current American Assembly (a policy discussion series started by good ol' Ike Eisenhower in 1950) is all about the funky fit of creative expression and formalized education, which seem so often to work on different planets but need each other so desperately.

Nothing of great import to add yet, other than the fact that my brain already hurts. If it progresses beyond that, I'll be sure to let you know.

Posted by ataylor at 12:15 AM

March 15, 2004

Three questions worth asking

I'm back from an intense discussion experience at the American Assembly, focusing on how higher education and the performing arts can create more synergy and support of each other's mission and goals. According to one author in the event's prep packet:

The great, unheralded art patron of the 20th century is the American university.

Looking back over the last 50 to 100 years, that has most certainly been the case:

  • college- and university-based performing arts halls were the early backbone of touring performances (often the only venues in their communities) since the 1950s, spreading access to astounding artists between the affluent coasts;
  • higher education is a primary employer of working artists, composers, technical support specialists, and others that have kept the performing arts thriving through the salaries, health benefits, arts spaces, and other support provided by higher ed.;
  • colleges and universities are also among the last remaining major commissioners of new creative work, increasingly through consortia and partnerships with each other.
While some of our collective discussions celebrated the vital history of this connection, the bulk was spent exploring where the promise and potential isn't yet realized, and why the relationship is still so awkward in many cases. The creative activities of arts faculty don't always match the academic requirements of tenure. The potential synergy between art forms, departments, and resident performing arts professionals is often blocked or discouraged by complex policy and 'silo' structures. And the training of a new generation of professional artists and performers seems disconnected from the challenges and opportunities they will face in the world.

Conversations like this one are a great beginning (a final report will likely be out by mid-year). But they bring to mind the three basic questions worthy of any nonprofit cultural or heritage organization:

  1. What is our stated purpose (what we want to do and be in the world)?
  2. What is the evidence of our actions and choices (how do we select people, reward people, and engage with people as we move along our way)?
  3. Is there consistency or disconnection between the answers we discover to these two questions above?
The 'we' in these questions can be a number of clusters -- from a single college or university, to a music conservatory, to the whole connected ecosystem of the live performing arts (K-12 education, undergraduate, graduate, and professional).

It's astounding to ask these seemingly simple questions of any nonprofit arts organization (or of ourselves). If we can be open and honest in their answers, we may more quickly discover why we're always so frustrated with our results.

Posted by ataylor at 8:29 AM

March 16, 2004

Stuck in traffic of our own design

The parody newspaper The Onion has a great mock article that should strike a chord with us all:

Urban Planner Stuck In Traffic Of Own Design
PITTSBURGH, PA‹Bernard Rothstein, an urban planner and traffic-flow modulation specialist with the Urban Redevelopment Authority, found himself stuck in rush-hour traffic of his own design for more than an hour Monday.

The parody sounded like most of the major meetings I've been to over the past years, focusing on the dysfunction of the nonprofit cultural ecology, and the steps that might be taken to correct it. Which leads me to another quote from the article:

The gridlock-bound Rothstein, who has worked in urban planning for 24 years, passed the time by devising possible modifications to his original design.

If a large number of nonprofits are, indeed, increasingly top-heavy, disconnected from their missions and their audiences, distorted by funding constraints, and sapped of the energy that brought them into being, we should all claim a bit of the responsibility (including me). We got here through thousands of individual choices, despite the best intentions. We can only find our way out in the very same, distributed way.

Posted by ataylor at 8:36 AM

March 17, 2004

Here come the theaters

The Boston Herald reports on the Boston boom in new and renovated theater openings in the next 18 months. It's only a net gain of 4000 seats, spread among 8 new spaces (one of them having 2500 seats), but it's bound to change the theater/audience ecology in subtle and interesting ways.

The two most interesting (to me, anyway) are the new Boston Opera House, a renovation of a 1928 Beaux Arts box of 2500 seats, and the brand new 380-seat Charles Mosesian Theatre within the Arsenal Center for the Performing Arts just outside of town.

The big box is interesting for its renovator -- Clear Channel Communications -- and for its tenants -- including Boston Ballet's recently displaced Nutcracker performances. Clear Channel, as you may recall, is the mega-corporation owner of major radio, billboard, and theatrical venues and productions. With their own venue in Boston's downtown for their touring Broadway productions, other venues that used to rely on these tours for big revenue are likely shaking in their boots.

In an ironic and elegant twist, the Boston Ballet's Nutcracker -- which is to be bumped from its traditional home in the Wang Center thanks to a Clear Channel Christmas show -- will now be performing in a Clear Channel house.

The small house in the Arsenal Center is interesting for other reasons. One of the two primary tenants, the New Repertory Theatre, will be moving into its first, professional-grade performance space, after many years in a cramped but cozy (and low-cost) space in a Newton church. It's bound to be a bumpy ride as this outstanding theater makes a transition to much higher production and overhead costs, and the lure of more extravagant productions.

It's always exciting to have more space and more seats. The management and artistic challenge comes when organizations stretch their limits to fill them both.

NOTE: Casual weblog readers may wonder why I keep coming back to Boston for topics and news...I live in Madison, Wisconsin, after all. First, it's a fascinating cultural ecology -- not as massive as New York, but bubbling with juicy politics and public arts conversation. Second, it's my old home town.

Posted by ataylor at 8:47 AM

March 19, 2004

Don't change the players, change the game

An interesting NPR segment on campaign finance reform in federal elections (two years after the McCain-Feingold Campaign Finance Law passed) may not seem related to arts management issues. But frequent readers will anticipate what I'm going to say: it is.

The law sought to disentangle federal candidates from the 'soft money' that seemed to be distorting the election process. In a nutshell, it was an attempt to make a very complex system, with thousands of disconnected decision-makers, behave in a slightly different way. The NPR piece gave the legislation a generally positive review, saying that it did achieve it's primary goals, but also suggesting that the money is slowly finding other ways into the process again.

Great, you say, a civics lesson. But here's the bigger point: When you want to influence how part of the world works (especially when that part of the world involves lots and lots of people making individual decisions), you can either focus on changing the players, or you can work to change the game. In the case of McCain-Feingold, they could have focused all attention on the values of the candidates, provided seminars and workshops to educate them, and wagged their fingers in the air about the bad choices they all seemed to be making (which they did a bit of, to be sure). However, the focus of the intervention was to change the 'rules of the game', to require and encourage decisions that were closer to the world they wanted.

On average, the idea goes, people will make choices based on the rules and incentives most obvious to them at the time of their choice. We may wish that the world's citizens took a longer view, and many do, but on average (and especially under stress), we don't. I hear the complaint frequently in my university, for example, that students focus too much on their grades and not on learning. And yet we don't take a moment to consider the incentive system that might lead them in that direction (just look at their course requirements and grading procedures, for example).

Arts managers are in the business of encouraging large groups of individuals (their community) to make a specific set of choices (attend, contribute, engage, support, volunteer, attend more, etc.). We've spent a lot of time blaming the players for their behavior (they're not smart enough, not civic-minded enough, have short attention spans, favor flash over substance, etc.). It might be interesting, instead, to focus a part of that frustrated energy on considering the context of their choices, and the incentives, rules, and guidelines that might encourage them to choose us more often.

Posted by ataylor at 8:34 AM

March 22, 2004

The performing arts center and the mall

The New Yorker has a fabulous piece on the two pioneers of the American shopping mall, Victor Gruen and A. Alfred Taubman. Gruen created what is recognized as the archtypical shopping mall (two stories, facing inward, air conditioned, anchored by two major retailers, and featuring a central courtyard) in Edina, Minnesota, fifty years ago. Taubman took Gruen's early lead, and perfected the art of mall design through more elegant social engineering, traffic flow, and strategic store arrangement.

It's a fabulous article on its own, and well worth a read. But it's also a fascinating sidebar to the co-evolution of another American innovation: the multi-venue performing arts center. As Gruen and Taubman were just advancing the art of the shopping mall in the late 1950s, New York City was breaking ground on Lincoln Center (see the archives for more history), a new concept in performing arts aggregation. Lincoln Center was to become the model for dozens of such 'arts malls' that sprouted around the country in the following decades (and are still sprouting today).

It may sound like a crass comparison, but the concepts are clearly the same: aggregate 'sellers' in a controlled environment to build the volume of 'buyers' and to create a 'destination' rather than just another store. Admittedly, the intentions may have been different at the start -- with the shopping malls gunning for leisure spending, and Lincoln Center seeking to reshape a part of the city through culture (plus, of course, the nationalism that launched so much high culture in the United States).

But over time, and as touring Broadway became the fuel for success among these new centers in the 1980s and '90s, the economic model grew increasingly similar. From the article:

...well-run department stores are the engines of malls. They have powerful brand names, advertise heavily, and carry extensive cosmetics lines (shopping malls are, at bottom, delivery systems for lipstick) -- all of which generate enormous shopping traffic. The point of a mall -- the reason so many stores are clustered together in one building -- is to allow smaller, less powerful retailers to share in that traffic. A shopping center is an exercise in cooperative capitalism. It is considered successful (and the mall owner makes the most money) when the maximum number of department-store customers are lured into the mall.

Substitute 'Broadway touring season' for 'department stores', and 'resident performance organizations' for 'less powerful retailers' and you get an interesting picture. I don't mean to stretch the analogy too far (the resident symphony is not an 'Orange Julius' stand in this equation). But in the modern performing arts center, the large-scale touring productions have become the cash engines that subsidize all other tenants, and balance the bottom line.

The most striking thing about this comparison, however, is how differently the savvy mall developer and most cultural facility developers speak about what they do. With the shopping mall, at least among these two visionaries, design is about the consumers and how they engage with their world -- what draws them in, keeps them in, and lowers their barriers to purchase. With cultural facilities, we seem, instead, to focus on the producers in the equation -- the symphony, theater company, road shows -- and what they need to produce their seasons.

I'm not suggesting we make performing arts centers more like shopping malls. I'm suggesting that they already are like shopping malls (of a glorious and wonderful kind). So we might as well learn from the masters.

Thanks to my father for sending me the article in the first place. It's always nice to have an extra set of eyes in the world.

Posted by ataylor at 8:24 AM

March 23, 2004

Get thee to the Getty

The Los Angeles Times offers a quick view of a current exhibit at the Getty entitled 'The Business of Art: Evidence from the Art Market' (which has a nice on-line component).

The exhibit tracks the transactions of visual art, and explores the complex relationships that have determined the 'market value' of works and artists over the last two centuries. Says the article:

The cast of characters falls into four categories: artists, dealers, collectors and scholars. But their roles often overlap. Artists function as dealers, promoting their work or that of friends and negotiating prices. Dealers collect and collectors deal. Scholars might seem to be above the fray, but they too get involved -- however inadvertently.

Then there's a nice shot across the bow of the academic community, and especially those among us who feel we are separate from the market. The quote comes from Gail Feigenbaum, associate director of the Getty Research Institute:

'Scholars, critics, researchers and historians all shape the value of art,' Feigenbaum says. 'You think you are pure, but you give an expertise and you are participating in the market. Your assessment of quality, authenticity or attribution makes you a player, like it or not. You go to graduate school and think about truth and beauty, but there's this whole other world that affects the truth-and-beauty factor.'

Cool elements of the on-line portion of the exhibit include this letter from Paul Gaugin to Camille Pissaro, with some fabulous framing statements to help Pissaro select appropriate paintings to bring to a potential buyer (in this case, a representative for the Paris stock exchange):

Don't be offended by what I am going to say, but you know as well as I do that the middle classes are difficult to please, so I would like this young man to have two paintings whose subjects are as pretty as possible. He is a young man who knows nothing at all about art, and does not pretend otherwise which is already something; however, some of your works could frighten him despite my influence on his judgment.

Clearly, the dealers play a large part in bridging between the art, the artist, and the world that engages them both. Great stuff.

Posted by ataylor at 10:50 AM

March 24, 2004

Shopping mall responses

My post earlier this week about shopping malls and performing arts centers generated some thoughtful reader response. Richard Layman took me to task for putting only a positive spin on the self-contained 'mall' concept (as defined by shopping malls and extended by Lincoln Center-style 'culture malls'). Says Richard:

Your discussion about Lincoln Center ignored the negative impact its creation had on the surrounding area, based on Jane Jacobs-type principles of urban design. This (LC) is discussed in a chapter of the book _The Living City_ by Roberta Gratz. This would go double for the Kennedy Center, which is an isolated mall apart from anything exciting in the city. Your entry talked about all the 'positives' of the mall and none of the negatives, particularly the way malls are closed off from the vitality of the streets. Today's shopping center developments are 'lifestyle centers' and are street-focused, even if the streets are faux. These days, hardly any malls are being constructed anywhere in the country. It is the primary reason why department stores are declining.

Liz Russell pointed to an interesting hybrid in Seattle, that has worked to revitalize a community and a mall with an emphasis on cultural activity. Says Liz:

On the eastside of Seattle a local developer has taken what was a deteriorating mall in the middle of a large ethnic community and created a center to that community with live performing arts of ethnic music and poetry, an oversized chess set for the Russian emigrants and pulled in such sensible elements as a local library branch. Oh, and let¹s not forget good ethnic food as well! It¹s become a center to the community, one of the few authentic things in an otherwise boring suburb. Here¹s a link, take a look.

To Richard's point, I completely agree. My purpose, in fact, was not to laud and honor the self-contained, inwardly focused shopping malls at all (which are so often just big boxes surrounded by acres of pavement). I thought the co-evolution of these malls with the now traditional multi-venue performing arts center was interesting, and worth a bit more focus.

The note that few such shopping malls are being constructed anymore is also an essential revelation (and one that fellow blogger James Russell suggested, as well, in a separate e-mail). Perhaps the bigger issue here is that the Lincoln Center model of cultural facilities is still being constructed all over the country, despite our broader understanding about social, city, and consumer dynamics.

Thanks for the notes and thoughts. Positive or negative, they are always appreciated.

Posted by ataylor at 8:22 AM

March 25, 2004

How to kill classical music...a pointer

Fellow weblogger Greg Sandow is running a great series (okay, two entries in a row) on 'how to kill classical music'. Phase one was about the appalling CD cover art in so many classical releases, phase two talked about dry and uniformative press releases.

Both entries speak to the point of selling what people buy, rather than what the producers and scholars think they're selling. You see the same problem in so many performing arts center season brochures, where the two main shots of the venue are from the stage looking out into a sparkling but empty hall, or from the top balcony looking down on a curtained and empty stage. Even the alternative -- full-color, smiling head shots of the artists to come -- doesn't speak to what audiences are buying: a dynamic, compelling, vital, social performance experience (or a night out, a date, or a family celebration anchored by a live performance).

Behind the problem is the fact that arts marketers don't have much else to work with. They don't have the budget for professional performance photos (and even if they did, the artist might not be in their hall until the week of the show). And the best shots they have of their venues come from the architectural design or renovation team, who wanted a clean and empty photo to show their great work. If there are photos with people in them, they quickly look out of date thanks to changing hair styles, fashion, and demographic mix.

So, perhaps the more powerful venues need to start demanding more dynamic performance photos from artist managers and agents, as well as architectural photos of a facility that include people enjoying a show. Or perhaps one of the national service organizations representing a large number of smaller organizations could encourage a new 'stock photo' series of happy audience members enjoying a night on the town.

Posted by ataylor at 9:14 AM

March 26, 2004

More on value...but now it's just silly

This weblog talks a lot about how we 'value' culture (pricing, community support, etc.). So I couldn't pass up the hilarious burst of responses to a recent story out of Germany. Sixteen violinists from the Beethoven Orchestra in Bonn are suing for a pay raise, because they play more during a performance than the other instrumentalists.

Today's Chicago Tribune has a wonderfully sarcastic memo from arts critic Howard Reich on the issue, setting up a new pay scale for professional musicians:

Rather than the tired old union formula of salaries based upon years of service, musicians heretofore should be paid per note, a much more democratic approach, based on the following formula:
  • 64th note: 1 cent; this is basically the most fleeting and insignificant note.
  • 32nd note: 1.01 cents; it's hardly different from the 64th note.
  • 16th note: 1.02 cents.
  • 8th note: 1.5 cents; it's slow enough that you actually can hear the thing.
  • Quarter note: 2 cents, and not a penny more.
  • Half note: 1 cent; because it's half as easy to play as a quarter.
  • Whole note: .5 cent; easier still.
The memo goes on to suggest that rests should be counted as vacation time.

The Guardian took a more journalistic approach to the issue, soliciting comments from professional musicians on the idea of more pay for more play.

It all brings to mind that classic 'efficiency memo' about orchestral performance, in which a fictitious cost consultant was given orchestra tickets by his boss, and thought it was a work assignment. There's a version of the resulting mock memo here.

Posted by ataylor at 8:32 AM

March 29, 2004

The problem with purpose

So I get this pizza pan as a gift...I'm pro-pizza, to be sure. But when reading the promotional copy on the pizza pan, I find this:

Sensible and sublime, practical and whimsical, the objects envisioned by the world-renowned architect infuse our daily lives with joy.

Then I'm in Starbucks buying my mega-venti semi-caf no-foam mocha vanilla caramel latte and read this on the name badge of the attendant behind the counter:

Magic Moments: One human being at a time.

Then, I see a promotional flier for an Apple iPod:

What does music mean to you? Maybe it�s an escape from your daily grind. A place you go in your mind that is free, rebellious. A place where you get lost in stories of love. Joy. Pain. Rhythms and melodies that rush your blood. Make you drive faster. Walk quicker. Bob your head. Dance like a freak. Shake your head and spin. Or just close your eyes, smile, and remember when. It�s powerful stuff.

It used to be that the purpose and mission of nonprofit cultural organizations were unique in their communities. Other folks did the selling and crass service of consumer needs; we provided the more noble things in life. Nowadays, I can have my daily life 'infused with joy' by a pizza pan (it's a nice pizza pan, I'll admit), find 'magic moments' in a coffee-purchase experience, and be moved by the power of music by a fancy computer drive with headphones.

It may be time to pull out the old mission statements and crank them up a few notches. The big boys are swimming in our pool.

Posted by ataylor at 8:27 AM

March 30, 2004

A more balanced view of de-accessioning

Arts consultant Adrian Ellis suggests a more balanced and ecological approach to museum revenue discussions, beyond the rhetoric of the Boston MFA deal with Las Vegas, or the Barnes Collection struggles with de-accessioning (selling off pieces from the collection) to remain solvent. According to Ellis, all such conversations are cut from a common cloth:

There is a difference between renting your collection and selling bits of it. But the motives are the same: finding a way through the dilemmas of the sector‹overbuilt and undercapitalised; cash-poor, but asset-rich; with a high ratio of fixed to variable costs‹that threatens core purposes of stewardship, scholarship and effective public display.

Instead of ranting and shaking fingers, Ellis suggests, the museum world could benefit from more of a community spirit, that would 'allow for a more rational distribution of resources between cash-poor asset-rich institutions and cash-rich asset-poor ones.'

It's another great example of the benefits of broad, systemic alternatives to our current organizationally-focused approaches to issues in the arts. We can either continue to separate, protect, and defend our organizational turf, or actually advance our missions and goals in greater collaboration with our peers.

As Ben Franklin said as he signed the Declaration of Independence: 'We must all hang together, or, most assuredly, we shall all hang separately.'

Posted by ataylor at 12:07 AM

March 31, 2004

For fans of the random factoid

I'll admit that I'm addicted to random bits of information...Harper's Index is like coming home. If you're equally interested in seemingly useless bits of knowledge that aggregate into semi-useful clusters of facts, there are some sites well worth your clicks.

For general trends and opinions, wander by Harris Interactive where you can learn things like the current job satisfaction of public school teachers (which is the highest it's been in years), the current confidence level of Americans in their major institutions (White House and Supreme Court are down, higher education and organized religion are up); and who's up and coming as America's favorite sports star (Michael Jordan still hangs on).

If you must focus your factoid-finding on arts and culture, then the CPANDA site (Cultural Policy and the Arts National Data Archive, if you must know) is definitely for you. There are enough 'quick facts' to keep you entertaining at parties for weeks (how many artists are there in the work force? I hear you's how many).

And for pure bubble-gum fun, you can never beat the Google search engine's zeitgeist listings, which show what search phrases gained in popularity ('madonna' and 'dawn of the dead' were hot last week) and which phrases lost some ground (for some reason, 'robert pastorelli' and 'tyra banks' led the losers).

'Arts' and 'culture' are obscenely complex things to manage and understand. There's something about disconnected facts that, when taken in extreme doses, can help you feel more connected (even if you're not sure to what).

Posted by ataylor at 12:26 AM

« February 2004 | Main | April 2004 »