an ARTSJOURNAL weblog | ArtsJournal Home | AJ Blog Central

« February 2007 | Main | April 2007 »

March 1, 2007

Artists crossing over (no, not into the afterlife)

CrossoverIf you need any further evidence that the distinction between nonprofit, for-profit, and informal/community arts isn't a particularly relevant distinction, a quick look at this report out of the University of Minnesota's Humphrey Institute of Public Affairs should do the trick. The report by Ann Markusen et al, Crossover: How Artists Build Careers across Commercial, Nonprofit and Community Work, tracks the rampant sector-hopping that constitutes the lives of most working artists.

Says the report:

Surprisingly large percentages of artists split their arts time among the three sectors. Overall, 39% spend most of their arts time (65% or more) in the commercial sector. Another 19% do no commercial work, and 42% engage part-time in commercial artwork. Smaller shares of artists spend most of their arts time in not-for-profit (public and nonprofit) sector work (29%), and 55% report working part-time in that sector. Only 6% devote most of their art time to the community sector, but 69% work in community arts at least some number of hours.

Interestingly, artists found different aspects and benefits to working in different sectors -- commercial, nonprofit, and community -- and made the most of those benefits by jumping between them. Again from the report:

More artists rank the commercial sector highest in offering greater understanding of artistic and professional conventions, broader visibility, networking that enhances artwork opportunities, and higher rates of return. Artists rank the not-forprofit sector highest for increasing aesthetic satisfaction, exploring new media, collaborating with artists across media, and satisfying emotional needs. The community sector ranks highest as a place to enrich community life, affirm cultural identity, and pursue political and social justice goals.

So, if arts and cultural managers are really in the business of advancing art (which at some point involves supporting and advancing artists, one would think), a less sector-insular approach seems necessary. How can we foster opportunities for artists across sectors and organizations? How can we ensure we're providing the best opportunities our particular sector can provide (and allowing other sectors to do what they do best)? And, most notably, are the nonprofit arts in the business of supporting artists at all?

Much to chew on. And this report offers some thoughtful background and context upon which to chew productively.

Posted by ataylor at 9:32 AM | Comments (6)

March 5, 2007

I suppose it's a form of customer service

It looks like the U.S. Postal Service has found a way to downplay the long wait at post offices nationwide: get rid of the clocks. The Associated Press story (published here in the Houston Chronicle) reports that clocks have been removed from some 37,000 post offices as part of a "retail standardization program" launched last year.

Says Stephen Seewoester, Dallas spokesman for the U.S. Postal Service:

"We want people to focus on postal service and not the clock."

Well, I suppose it's easier than actually improving service.

Thanks to The Consumerist for the link, and the pithy response.

Posted by ataylor at 8:44 AM | Comments (2)

March 6, 2007

Your income statement will tell you what you sell

Last month, Ozzy and Sharon Ozbourne announced a new strategy for their annual summer Ozzfest concert tour. Their response to rising production costs, rising ticket prices, and declining attendance is this: stop charging customers to come, and stop paying bands to play.

Essentially, through their new ''free admission'' policy, Ozzfest is refocusing what it sells and to whom it sells it. The traditional model (familiar to promoters and arts folks alike) suggests you pay the performers and their production costs, then charge a ticket price that will cover that cost plus earn a profit (or get donors to pay the difference). The "free fest" version of Ozzfest has decided, instead, to sell the audience to major sponsors, and sell the positive exposure of performing to emerging metal bands who will waive their fees or even pay to play. They're also hoping some big-name bands will want a piece of the hype, and will perform a few tour dates for free.

Of course, a high volume of attendees, even if they don't buy tickets, will pay for t-shirts, parking, beverages, and other merchandise while they're there.

It's an interesting and risky response to a faltering business model. And there's no telling the unexpected effects it may bring to the festival (reduced perceived value, for example, or no-name bands). But the inversion isn't a new one in the entertainment world.

Television has always been in the business of selling its audience to advertisers -- the shows produced and presented are the bait, not the product. And the nonprofit arts, judging by many of their income statements, are often in the business of convincing major donors and foundations to give them cash. An associate of mine admits his primary focus is selling six tickets a year -- the gifts of his six largest donors -- since those are the transactions that really keep him in business.

If a group of thoughtful strangers looked at your income statement, without knowing what you do, what would they think you sell?

Posted by ataylor at 8:29 AM | Comments (2)

March 8, 2007

Experiments in distributed financing

The folks at ArtistShare had an interesting idea that seems to be bearing fruit. The web site connects musicians and their recording/composition projects with a world of supporters and patrons on the web.

Artists post their projects for possible funding. Fans can browse the list of offers and contribute from $10 to $10,000 to fund their project of choice. Artists can also set up an official project home page on the site (here's one for Simpson's composer Alf Clausen).

While it's not a new idea -- artists have been gathering funds from fans since Beethoven and before -- the web enables a new level of connection for a wider range of artists.

The service recently celebrated its first member Grammy award, with the Brian Lynch/Eddie Palmieri Project's Simpatico.

Kinda cool. Thanks, Derek, for the link.

Posted by ataylor at 8:36 AM | Comments (3)

March 12, 2007

MacDowell Redux: Serving artists DOES serve the public good

Way back in December 2005, I noted an emerging court case in Peterborough, New Hampshire, in which the town was challenging the charitable tax status of the MacDowell Colony for artists. Most will be pleased to know that earlier this month, the court ruled against the town and in favor of the Colony.

The MacDowell Colony celebrates its 100th anniversary this year, as a retreat and work haven for promising artists to focus on their craft. But in 2005, budget shortfalls led Peterborough's Board of Selectmen to evaluate every nonprofit in their taxing district. The MacDowell Colony appeared to them a ripe target for challenge, since (they believed) it served artists, not the general public, and since the art produced was not of direct benefit to the citizens of Peterborough or the state. More specifically, the town's attorneys advanced four arguments against the Colony's tax status:

  1. While the Colony promotes artists to produce art, it does not itself produce art, and therefore, is not serving a public good.
  2. The Colony does not provide its benefits to the general public or some indefinite segment of the public.
  3. The Colony does not serve New Hampshire residents because there is no assurance that any New Hampshire residents will be admitted to the program.
  4. Because artists are not required to produce art while in residence, the Colony is not serving a public good.

Judge Gillian L. Abramson found none of the above arguments to be compelling, and drove some useful stakes into the ground in the process. Said the ruling:

For society to enable the production of art, it must necessarily support the artist. Art does not appear from thin air. It is created by an artist. The artist uses a process to make his or her art. By providing artists with an environment conducive to creating such art, MacDowell encourages the production of art....Thus, MacDowell undertakes a chartiable mission in supporting the artistic process, thereby providing a benefit to, at the very least, artists across the world, and, in a broader sense, the general public.

The city of Peterborough is pondering an appeal.

NOTE: For the legal eagles among you, I've uploaded a a full draft of summary judgment (in PDF format). Useful stuff throughout.

Posted by ataylor at 8:49 AM | Comments (1)

March 13, 2007

One symphony's dance with capital markets

Much has been written already about the New Jersey Symphony's decision to sell their collection of rare string instruments (here's the story in the New Jersey Star-Ledger, and here's fellow blogger Drew McManus' reporting on the topic). Beyond the artistic, marketing, or public relations issues surrounding the decision, a few business issues are getting buried in the coverage. Among them:

Capital Issues
The instruments were a capital investment, and their purchase shifted the capital structure of the symphony. As Clara Miller at the Nonprofit Finance Fund tells us often, changes in capital invariably alter the structure and behavior of all areas of the organization, and such changes should only be made with great care and consideration.

In the for-profit world, decisions to invest in capital are based on expected future returns on that investment (more equipment leads to greater productivity, or lower costs, or access to a wider market, for example). In the nonprofit arts, those calculations are necessarily more complex.

In theory, arts organizations invest in things for two reasons. One reason is similar to the for-profit world: the expectation that an investment in infrastructure will improve the organization's bottom line (through increased sales, or more and bigger contributions by enthusiastic donors). The other reason nonprofit arts invest in capital is to enhance their ability to deliver their stated mission -- a museum adds exceptional art works to its collection, a theater builds a new space. Of course these two reasons are closely related, but they also suggest different financing strategies (reason one is intended pay for itself through increased net revenues over time, reason two will not).

In New Jersey's case, they seemed to be playing both strategies simultaneously. They expected the exceptional string instruments to garner attention and adoration from more and more ticket buyers, and spark excitement among their donors. Plus, they perceived the purchase as an aesthetic choice requiring more altruistic philanthropy. At the same time, they decided to absorb all of the risk of both strategies buy purchasing the instruments outright, rather than financing access to them in a more distributed way (investment partnership, separate nonprofit trust, bond financing, etc.).

Influencing the Market
Another interesting element of the announcement is its probable impact on the rare instrument marketplace that they intend as their financial savior. The international market for rare string instruments is extraordinarily limited. But like any other market, it's driven by the forces of supply and demand. Essentially, by announcing their intent to sell all of their instruments, the symphony is radically increasing supply and therefore influencing the demand (that is, the price) of the instruments. They may not have intended to announce their decision with such a flourish. But that flourish may well have cost them millions.

Finally, the sale raises interesting analogies to the museum world, where organizations are extraordinarily strict about how and why they sell their works of art. Because they are presumed to buy, preserve, and present artworks for the public trust (hence their nonprofit tax status), museums are sharply criticized when they ponder selling that art to save their bottom line (see this story, for example). Granted, a symphony is not a museum. But one could argue that their purchase of these instruments was an investment for the public trust, and their return to the private market -- where they will likely not be played in public -- is a violation of that trust.

Is a rare violin a work of art or a means of production? If it is both, how do you untangle the two in your policies on selling it?

A sad situation for the symphony. A complex set of questions about symphony finance.

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

March 14, 2007

Making the entire planet a toy

SporeIngenious computer game designer Will Wright had some rambling but fascinating things to say about games and narrative during his SXSW conference keynote (one attendee's transcript is available here). The designer of the insanely popular and genre-busting Sims series is hard at work completing his next invention, an evolutionary creature/tribe/civilization design game called Spore.

Wright is tired of games that superimpose the linear and goal-driven narrative of previous media into the game environment. When individual players (or entire communities of players) can be active and material authors of their experience, he believes a different kind of narrative is required. Says he:

Stories are about empathy, and games are about agency. I'm causing what's going on on screen. Can I do this? Can I accomplish this? These models are cognitive technology. They're the original educational technology. They involve abstracting the world.

SporeWith games like Spore, he hopes to push the envelope of that participatory experience, allowing users to explore and create, free from the traditional constraints of linear narrative or predefined goals. In this approach, the game software doesn't drive the plot or define the outcomes, but informs them both based on the patterns it recognizes in the user's behavior:

You can have the computer understand, "Oh I see, this is a boy meets girl story," etc. If we know what the goal states are, we can present dramatic obstacles, things to amplify the drama.... If we can parse the player's intended story, we can change the lighting, the music... the events! If it's a horror story, we can add spooky music... we can add zombies. Maybe we drive events to clarify a story, and then actually you've created a movie. I think this [generative power] might happen by observing lots of parallel players and pulling the data out of that.

I'm thinking the Truman Show, where you would allow the player to run around with a certain amount of free will, and the computer is like the director, who controls the envelope around Truman but can't directly affect his movements.

The aesthetic of every creative expression is defined and refined by the constraints of its medium -- the motion picture, the theater stage, the canvas. We're only just beginning to see the evolution of aesthetic insight for the computer-mediated world. It's great to know that somebody is nudging that insight forward.

Posted by ataylor at 8:36 AM | Comments (1)

March 16, 2007

Like ''La Boheme,'' but with money

Richard Florida is digging deeper into his premise that bohemian, artistic, and gay populations in a region have a direct impact on home values and economic vitality. In his weblog, he links to a new working paper he co-authored on the subject. Says he:

The findings indicate that the Bohemian-Gay Index has substantial effects on housing values across all permutations of the model and across all region sizes. It remains positive and significant alongside variables for regional income, wages, technology and human capital. The Bohemian-Gay Index also has a substantial direct effect on other key variables, particularly income, and because of that has an additional indirect effect on housing values.

As ever, some might quibble with Florida's categories and their broad inclusion of many different groups (the ''creative class'' seemed to include almost everyone). Florida counts as ''bohemians'' everyone who works in arts, design, entertainment, and media occupations (about 1.3 million in the U.S. by his count). Whether all artists would consider themselves bohemians, or all gay people would choose to associate with the group, is a fundamental question behind his calculations.

Regardless, the theories and their findings make it all worthwhile when you picture the conversations they must generate at city councils and among conservative real-estate developers.

Posted by ataylor at 8:20 AM | Comments (1)

March 19, 2007

Creative, expressive, connected, remembered

At a recent arts advocacy event in Wisconsin, I was struck again by the loss of words we often suffer when arguing for public expenditure for arts and culture. Economic impact is still limping along as an angle for some. Creative economy arguments seem to be strong but peaking. Tourism and education are also contenders for talking points. And, of course, an effective advocacy strategy blends all of the above in response to its audience.

But four phrases came to me during the speeches, presentations, and conversations at that event. I'm not sure what else to do with them, so I'll post them here.

It seems to me that a diverse, rich, and vital cultural ecology in any city, state, or country fosters opportunity for every citizen to inform these elements of their existence:

  • a creative life
    The opportunity to make something from nothing, or transform fragments of objects or thoughts into a cohesive whole, is an ennobling and empowering thing. Everyone should have the option to do so, no matter what their stage of life, circumstance, technical ability, or training.
  • an expressive life
    Finding your voice and having an opportunity to be heard is an essential quality of being alive and aware in the world.
  • a connected life
    The interpersonal and social sharing of meaning is the connective tissue between loved ones, community members, and civilizations. While the arts are not the only means to this sharing, they are among the most powerful and enduring.
  • a remembered life
    The accumulated actions and artifacts of our expressive lives are our most vital threads to who we were, who we are, and who we might become. Beyond our children, they are the most compelling evidence that we ever existed at all.

While these four elements, combined, may influence positive external effects for a city, a county, a state, or a country, they carry the most power when fostered as a central focus of public policy, rather than as tools toward other goals. Perhaps I'm naive to suggest such intrinsic goals for cultural policy and public subsidy. But I'm increasingly noticing us getting lost in the arguments we've constructed, and forgetting the reasons we exist.

Posted by ataylor at 9:12 AM | Comments (8)

March 20, 2007

Portrait of the artist's workspace

artist's studio photoIf you wonder about the spaces in which creative people work, and you're too lazy to wander an open studio tour, On My Desk has come to your rescue.

The web site encourages professional designers, artists, illustrators, or other creatives to post images of their workspace, along with a narrative on the items within it that they find important, inspirational, interesting, practical, or essential to their work and art.

The result is like a parade of homes for professional artists (most of them visual artists), and a place for them to share tools, tricks, reflections, and connections with each other.

Do we dare create such a site for arts and cultural managers? I would imagine image after image of paper piles, rotary phones, and second-hand office furniture.

Thanks to BoingBoing for the link.

Posted by ataylor at 8:37 AM | Comments (2)

March 21, 2007

Measuring leisure time

Steven Landsburg in Slate takes a moment from his busy schedule to discuss leisure trends in the American workforce. According to a meta-study from the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston (from way back in January 2006, available on-line), leisure time has risen dramatically among most population segments over the past 40 years. But the most significant increases have been in an unexpected place:

By and large, the biggest leisure gains have gone precisely to those with the most stagnant incomes -- that is, the least skilled and the least educated. And conversely, the smallest leisure gains have been concentrated among the most educated, the same group that's had the biggest gains in income.

Compared to their 1965 counterparts -- people with similar family size, age, and education -- modern Americans have gained 4 to 8 hours a week of leisure time, or approximately seven extra weeks of leisure per year. Those in the lower income and lower education groups have gained up to 14 hours per week.

In the arts, where the primary ticket-buying and donation-giving cohort is more highly educated and of higher income, the shift in leisure time is an obvious concern. But we can be grateful that, on average, we have an additional 4 to 8 hours each week to worry about it.

By the way, if you're struggling to decide how much time to spend at work and how much at leisure, the research paper offers the following formula. I hope you find it as helpful as I did:

Leisure time calculation

Posted by ataylor at 8:30 AM | Comments (3)

March 23, 2007

Off for the week (or more)

I'll be traveling with my family for my kids' spring recess, and not posting to the blog for a week or two. But fret not, there's plenty of juicy and interesting thoughts to read throughout the other blogs on ArtsJournal!

Go see for yourself.

Posted by ataylor at 4:03 PM | Comments (0)

« February 2007 | Main | April 2007 »