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March 3, 2008

The positive power of ignorance

The Online Spin blog points us to this University of Iowa research project on consumer knowledge and satisfaction. According to their experiments, consumers are often happier with their choice when they know less about what it is they bought. Says lead researcher Dhananjay Nayakankuppam:

''We found that once people commit to buying or consuming something, there's a kind of wishful thinking that happens and they want to like what they've bought.... The less you know about a product, the easier it is to engage in wishful thinking. But the more information you have, the harder it is to kid yourself.''

I'm not sure if that means we should enable the delusions of our audiences, or withhold information to make those delusions easier to sustain. But it certainly reinforces the idea that arts audiences really want to justify their investment of time, money, and attention in an experience, and will bend their perceptions to get them there. It also underscores the power of choice in defining who we are, and confirming our sense of self. Says Nayakankuppam:

''Once we've committed to something, we want to be happy about the decision and that drives our perceptions about it.... It's your decision, it's a part of you, and that creates an emotional attachment.''

Posted by ataylor at 9:11 AM | Comments (2)

March 4, 2008

Some arts leaders could use this kind of play

An interesting series on NPR explored the structure, purpose, and benefits of various forms of play among young children (more on Old-Fashioned Play Builds Serious Skills and Creative Play Makes for Kids in Control, including audio of the stories, available on-line). The premise is that structured playtime, and highly specialized toys, do less to develop essential cognitive and self-control functions than creative and imaginative play. Says the overview:

It turns out that all that time spent playing make-believe actually helped children develop a critical cognitive skill called executive function. Executive function has a number of different elements, but a central one is the ability to self-regulate. Kids with good self-regulation are able to control their emotions and behavior, resist impulses, and exert self-control and discipline.

It's a useful counterbalance to our frequent impulse to promote self-organizing skills through highly organized tasks (an error that many managers make with their own staff and board leadership, by the way). One of the particular mechanisms that extract self-organizing benefit from creative play, says the story, is by promoting ''private speech'':

According to [psychology professor Laura] Berk, one reason make-believe is such a powerful tool for building self-discipline is because during make-believe, children engage in what's called private speech: They talk to themselves about what they are going to do and how they are going to do it.

I wonder how many arts organizations serving young children are managing this balance in their programming. And I also wonder how many grown-up cultural managers bring this perspective to the workplace.

Posted by ataylor at 8:44 AM | Comments (0)

March 5, 2008

Invoking the 'C' word with a vengeance

oklahoma.gifThe state of Oklahoma is working to reframe itself as the ''state of creativity'' with a significant public relations, project positioning, and on-line effort to make their point. The Oklahoma Creativity Project, launched last month, works to get the now-ascendant ''C'' word to the front-of-mind of citizens, legislators, and business leaders both inside and outside the state.

The goals of the initiative are to:

  • Establish Oklahoma as The State of Creativity.
  • Empower all Oklahomans to develop their capacities for creativity and innovation.
  • Facilitate the growth of an entrepreneurial economy that will stimulate new careers, companies, and industries.
  • Make possible the further development of world-class cultural and educational opportunities.

The project web site is intended to serve as the hub for this conversation, and for individual users to post their own profiles and insights, and make connections through ''pods.''

The initiative is the most public evidence yet of the arrival of ''creativity'' (hand-in-hand with ''commerce'') on the arts agenda, and the renewed effort to connect expression and cultural life to entrepreneurialism, public problem-solving, and regional vitality. It's an evolutionary twist on the ''creative class,'' which focused on workers who were already outwardly creative in their jobs and profile, suggesting now that creativity can be grown at home (in many forums and formats) as well as lured from elsewhere. It will be interesting to see who shows up to talk, and how much front-loading such a large public conversation will require.

In my own backyard, the new logo design of the Wisconsin Arts Board (unveiled here on YouTube) embraces both ''C'' words as central to their purpose, extending them to four: creativity, culture, community, commerce.

What's the next word in the glossary of cultural advocacy? My money is one step down the alphabet, on the word ''discovery.''

Posted by ataylor at 8:36 AM | Comments (0)

March 7, 2008

GyPSiis and caravanserai

Emerging mobile phone software and social network systems like GyPSii are creating new ways for mobile folks to find their friends and leave their mark. GyPSii lets you record places and events from your daily life with text and photos from your mobile device, then ''geotag'' that content so it appears on a digital map. So, you can tag a great restaurant, a piece of public art, the location where you got engaged, the place and moment where you realized you felt entirely disconnected in a connected world, and on and on.

What's more, these systems enable their users to find each other through their mobile devices (also see Broadtexter or Mologogo). Want a cup of coffee with a friend? Check your map to see who's in the neighborhood and text or call them? Want to strike up an impromptu jam session? Find other users in the area who play.

The question for cultural managers is, how do you effectively engage this new form of social interaction and discovery? Could you join such a network and text any arts-interested users that pass through your neighborhood (''Hey, you're just blocks away from our cool exhibit or live performance!'')? Could you find ways to encourage found friends to meet at your location over another? Could you invite users of the system to ''tag'' your facility with their thoughts and experiences for others to find?

To steal a fantastic metaphor from my friend and colleague Neill Archer Roan, perhaps in this new world of wandering gypsies, arts organizations can strive to become the ''caravanserai,'' those gathering places for nomadic travelers where news and commerce and social connections flowed.

Posted by ataylor at 6:42 AM | Comments (3)

March 11, 2008

Nonprofit retention and vacancy

Nonprofit job site has posted the 2008 edition of its Nonprofit Retention and Vacancy Report (found via Philanthropy Journal), with an equal mix of good news and bad.

The good news: Their survey of nonprofits found an average turnover rate of 21 percent, less than half of the average turnover rate for the aggregated private sector. The bad news: A large portion of the organizations were not tracking why their employees were leaving (a full third didn't even know where they went).

The report offers tips and tactics for improving retention, as well as obvious steps toward understanding the problem (exit interviews, satisfaction surveys, management training, a full hiring/recruitment audit, and so on).

We all know (or we all should) that the pool of potential staff is getting smaller and more competitive. In a world where there aren't enough butts to fill the seats in our offices (not to mention our theaters), we had best ensure that those seats are in demand.

Posted by ataylor at 9:30 AM | Comments (3)

March 12, 2008

Curating our own space

The Open Range Anthropologist blog reinforces the organic link between the built environment and group and individual behavior. Even when we're not thinking about it, the spaces in which we work, learn, and interact have a profound impact on how well we can do any of those things.

Particularly handy is her link to this 2005 book excerpt by Thomas H. Davenport, which details what we know about effective office environments for knowledge workers.

The excerpt made me wonder how many arts organizations -- who otherwise obsess about the form and function of their performance and exhibit spaces -- apply even a fraction of that energy and expertise to their administrative offices. From the work areas I've visited and worked in over the years, I'd say ''not many.''

Take a look around your own office with a designer's eye. Have you built an effective ''stage set'' for the advancement of your work, and the support of the workers therein? If not, forgo the purchase of that office foosball machine, and spend a little attention and cash on improvements that matter.

Posted by ataylor at 8:38 AM | Comments (7)

March 13, 2008

The self-organizing audience

twitter.jpg Dave Hamilton at The Mac Observer offers an interesting example of self-organizing audiences, as facilitated by social networking technology. While attending the South by Southwest Interactive Conference, he noticed that the Twitter on-line service was guiding the real-time attendance and decision-making of conference attendees:

More than once I found myself in a boring session, only to check Twitter, find others who felt the same way and had moved to other, better, sessions. Instead of wasting an hour in a go-nowhere session, I was able to get up, move, and catch 90% of another session that was much more in tune with my interests. Additionally, Twitter chatter allowed mobile users to report -- in real time -- which parties were good, which parties were too crowded, and where people were going instead.

For those who don't know the system, Twitter is a seemingly annoying and self-indulgent on-line tool that lets you publicly post your moment-to-moment activities and thoughts. Through your computer or phone or mobile device, you essentially answer the same question throughout your day, in less than 140 characters: ''What are you doing?''. The answers are generally as dull and detached as you might expect (''going to get a sandwich,'' ''riding in a cab,'' ''visiting a doctor about my Blackberry thumb syndrome''). But the tool has become an instant feedback system for social networks to organize their behavior (''great party a Bob's Bar...get down here,'' ''buying tickets to tonight's show...join me!'').

The challenges and opportunities for cultural organizations are reasonably obvious. If your audience is continually aware of better ways to spend their time, just having them in the room will no longer be enough. And if you're suddenly the place everyone wants to be, your fortunes can turn in an instant.

You thought the trend towards ''day-of-show'' decision-making was a challenge to communications and cash flow? What about instantaneous decision-making with a minute-by-minute option to renew or renege?

Posted by ataylor at 9:41 AM | Comments (0)

March 14, 2008

When music 'wants to be free,' charge for something else

If you needed something to wring your hands about on a Friday morning, consider Chris Anderson's feature in Wired on ''Why $0.00 Is the Future of Business.'' His premise is that when most products or services meet the web, they will eventually be ''free'' to the consumer. Says he:

Basic economics tells us that in a competitive market, price falls to the marginal cost. There's never been a more competitive market than the Internet, and every day the marginal cost of digital information comes closer to nothing.

I put ''free'' in quotes, because, in fact, we end up paying somewhere along the line: whether with our time and attention for on-line advertising, with our connectivity spending on broadband, cable television, and mobile phone service, or with our upgrade purchases for premium editions of what we're getting for free.

The smart folks aren't complaining about the new normal, but rather exploring new ways to capture money from things that ''want'' to be free. Consider the band Nine Inch Nails, who released the first nine songs from their recent album free on the web, and charged $5 for those who wanted all 36 tracks. Or, you could pay $10 for the CDs, $75 for the ''deluxe edition,'' and $300 for the ''ultra-deluxe limited edition'' version (which sold out the 2500 copies available). The result as been over $1.6 million in sales, against no intermediary costs (they self-released).

The strategy was to charge premiums to the fans willing and able to pay, and manage the costs to maximize profits. Sounds like what performing arts centers do now when they ''scale the house'' at different prices, and offer special events for big donors. But likely to evolve from there.

If you're looking for ideas on the subject, Steve O'Here at the ''Last100'' blog posted five alternate business models for the music industry last October, some of which might apply to the live performing and visual arts, as well.

Will place-based, off-line activities ever be free? In some ways, they already are (think public festivals and such). But in an increasingly on-line world, consumers will become accustomed to different ways of paying. We'd best pay attention to our options.

Posted by ataylor at 8:16 AM | Comments (1)

March 17, 2008

The 'we' inside of me

I know I talk about brain science and brain function in this weblog a bit more than I should. But it continues to strike me that arts and cultural managers are in the business of fostering meaning, emotion, and human discovery. In that work, it might help us to know how the equipment works.

Which leads to this extraordinary lecture/reflection by neuroanatomist Jill Bolte Taylor. A lifelong student of brain science, Taylor shares with remarkable clarity her own loss of brain function, and what it taught her about her life and ours:

''...we have the power to choose, moment by moment, who and how we want to be in the world. Right here right now, I can step into the consciousness of my right hemisphere where we are -- I am -- the life force power of the universe, and the life force power of the 50 trillion beautiful molecular geniuses that make up my form. At one with all that is. Or I can choose to step into the consciousness of my left hemisphere, where I become a single individual, a solid, separate from the flow, separate from you.... These are the 'we' inside of me.

Which would you choose? Which do you choose? And when?''

Well worth the 18 minutes to watch!

Posted by ataylor at 7:28 AM | Comments (6)

March 24, 2008

The dull but necessary craft

It may not be the most glamorous or ''artsy'' part of the job, but a significant part of any arts manager's responsibility is to understand, assess, and manage risk. Our idealized vision of artistic endeavor is that it demands ignorance or arrogance to risk (creative, personal, physical, financial), and that any additional calculus in our action is tantamount to selling out.

In reality, the great artists and arts organizations are masters of managing risk -- reaching out as much as possible, while feeling and finessing the ground beneath their feet.

But, of course, that ground is always shifting, and only rarely under your control. Case in point is the current bond market, which had offered a creative financial footing for many larger nonprofit arts ventures, but is now crumbling away.

During a healthy economy, bond financing was becoming a handy alternative to building directly with contributed cash. Instead of spending the millions raised in a campaign on bricks and mortar, organizations would secure bonds against that money while investing it. Interest on the debt was exceptionally low, interest on the invested money was consistently higher. So, arts organizations could earn a little something on the float while they moved forward with their ambitious projects.

It all worked wonderfully on paper (and in real life for a while), before a shakier money market flipped the numbers (thanks to a soft economy, overly enthusiastic lenders suddenly realizing losses, and a general sense of impending recession). Investments are now on a roller coaster, while lenders are increasingly skittish about their outstanding bonds (and demanding higher interest to assuage their concerns).

I'm sure there are several arts managers (particularly in LA) who hadn't banked on banking as their primary job responsibility. But other managers across the country should be pulling out their green visors and re-assessing the risks in their current financial strategies.

It may not feel like art, but it's certainly part of the artifice that makes art work.

Posted by ataylor at 8:26 AM | Comments (1)

March 25, 2008

A new report on orchestral economics

Although American symphony orchestra's and their professional association are clear leaders in gathering data on their operations, they've long been mysteriously quiet about publicly analyzing that data for its implications. Sure, we get gross attendance and wealth indicators (especially when they're good). But the extraordinary educational and strategic power of this information, if placed in dispassionate and rigorous hands, has been either ignored, delayed, or perhaps even withheld from the public discourse.

Which is why it will be so interesting to watch the reactions to a new study on orchestral operational data, commissioned by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation and released last Friday by Stanford University. The study connected a heavy-hitter academic, International Labor Economics and Policy Analysis Professor Robert J. Flanagan, with 17 years of financial data on America's top-50 orchestras (provided, to their credit, by the League of American Orchestras) to see what one could learn from the other.

Drafts of the resulting 77-page report (the final version available for PDF download, a quick overview from Justin Davidson will give you the gist) have been rattling behind the curtains of the orchestra world for many months (Robert Levine offers one view of the process in his blog here). Some were beginning to wonder if it would ever see the light of day.

Early responses on-line have ranged from politely dismissive by the League of American Orchestra's Henry Fogel to reactionary pot shots from The Oregonian's David Stabler. Robert Levine seems among the first to reflect and respond to the study with something other than denial and dancing (although the category for his post suggests a more passionate bias). Let's hope future responses approach the rigor and evidence-gathering that went into the original report. That is, after all, how we learn to foster and advance the art we love.

I'm still working my way through the study, and will post more on its contents soon. But in the meanwhile, I thought some would enjoy the political and professional theater this particular spotlight will provide (you can watch it unfold through this Google blogsearch).

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

March 26, 2008

What does your brand sound like?

An interesting two-part series (here's part two) over at the AIGA web site explores the practice of audio branding and identity -- ''the intentional use of music, sound and voice to create a connection between people and organizations.'' Says the author:

Well-designed, behavior-based audio branding is a critical part of the experience that we have with everyday products and environments--from computers to cell phones, from ATMs to busy public spaces. If not carefully orchestrated, then unfettered sound becomes irrelevant clutter in the mind of consumers.

If you stop to consider the thousands of sounds your audiences experience when connecting to your organization (on-hold music, recorded voice messages, ambient music, street sounds, the acoustic qualities of the lobby or venue, the tone and tenor of your front-of-house or customer service staff, the sound of your entry or interior doors, the hushed or hectic social conversations, not to mention the sounds of the event, itself), there are likely thousands of little tweaks that could add up to a big difference, and a more compelling experience.

So be quiet and still for a moment (now or during your next event), and listen.

Posted by ataylor at 8:42 AM | Comments (1)

March 27, 2008

Donors *already* have voting rights

An interesting post and conversation at Tactical Philanthropy wonders out loud whether donors should get to vote for nonprofit board members, much as shareholders get to vote in publicly traded for-profits (discovered through Donor Power Blog). The premise is that a proxy vote, and a real say in the organization's governance structure, would lead to greater engagement and a sense of ownership.

Beyond the complexity of allocating such a voting privilege (Is there a minimum gift? Is the proxy power based on percentage of overall income contributed? Is there a cost to managing such a vote that would consume a large percentage of the funds contributed?), the conversation misses one essential truth: donors already vote for the strategy and outcome goals of a nonprofit, just as consumers vote for products or services with their discretionary income.

While the marketplace for philanthropic cash and capital works by different rules than the commercial marketplace, it's still a market. Nonprofits compete for attention, favorable policy, and charitable gifts. Those organizations that connect over time with compelling narrative, results, and connections will get more contributions. Those who disconnect or cannot effectively tell their stories will eventually lose those contributions. (To be fair, Sean at Tactical Philanthropy is already aware of this just doesn't show up in this particular conversation.)

If a nonprofit is not creating a sense of ownership, responsibility, and connection among its donors, and its other essential constituents, it has problems larger than a change in voting rights can resolve.

Posted by ataylor at 8:48 AM | Comments (2)

March 28, 2008

Considering a Creative Scotland

scotland.gifIf you're looking for interesting listening on your iPod or computer while you tend to other elements of your life, the Scottish Arts Council is at your service with this wonderful series of keynotes and conversations from their recent cultural summit.

The Scotland: Creative Nation Cultural Summit gathered over 400 participants in Edinburgh in late February. The topics were broad and the guest speakers were varied, but the central goal of the convening was to consider the context of a new national initiative. Creative Scotland will merge two arts agencies -- Scottish Screen and the Scottish Arts Council -- under a broader and deeper mission to advance arts, culture, and the creative industries.

The bill to authorize the new entity was submitted to the Scottish Parliament on March 13.

The conference brought together some great keynotes (Alan Brown, John Knell, Suzanne Lacy, and others) to explore three themes: The Impact of the Arts, Innovation and New Artistic Practice, and Engagement and Participation. Conference organizers were thoughtful enough to prepare all these conversations in multiple audio formats (including an enhanced iPod format complete with images), and post them for free for our listening pleasure.

Worth a listen.

Posted by ataylor at 8:22 AM | Comments (1)

March 31, 2008

The geography and demography of dating

Richard Florida offers us a useful map of the United States, showing metropolitan areas where one gender outnumbers the other by a significant margin (the graphic is better on his blog).

While the map could certainly help predict and describe the singles scene in your hometown, it can also inform your marketing and audience development strategies, and the way you connect with the larger challenges of your community. Says Florida:

The ability to attract young singles also bodes well for regional economies. Singles are a large and growing segment of the population and the workforce. With many postponing marriage until their late 20s and 30s, and with a significant share of marriages ending in divorce, singles now make up more than half of all American households, compared with just 20 percent or so in the 1960s and 1970s.

So, are your programs and promotions resonant with the social mix of your particular market? Do you know what the social (and ethnic, and economic, and educational) mix of your market actually is? If not, go find out!

Posted by ataylor at 9:20 AM | Comments (1)

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