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May 2, 2005

Take a friend to orchestra month

My weblog neighbor, Drew McManus, has dubbed May 'take a friend to orchestra month,' and is jamming the festivities with personal stories from around the country. Says Drew:

Throughout the month of May, Adaptistration will feature several of the most entertaining, insightful, and clever culture and classical music bloggers as they write about how average patrons throughout the country can invite friends who don't regularly participate in live music events to one of your performances.

It's a wonderfully proactive response to the challenge of orchestra attendance, which is fading in many cities. According to the Knight Foundation's Classical Music Consumer Segmentation Study, the attendance numbers are far below the potential draw, even among those who claim they want to attend:

Roughly 10 percent to 15 percent of Americans have what might be termed a close or moderately close relationship with classical music, and again as many have weaker ties. Yet only half of those who express the very highest levels of preference for attending classical music concerts actually attend, even infrequently.

One of the powerful messages of the Knight study was the importance of social connections in promoting live concert attendance. In one baffling statistic, the study found that ''40 percent of those who’ve ever attended a concert by their local orchestra did not (and have never) purchased a ticket.'' Instead, they were invited by a friend or family member who actually made the purchase.

Will the friends connect with the orchestra experience, even with an enthusiastic guide? Will the guides find clarity in their own love of live symphonic performance by explaining it to a friend? Will symphony attendance suddenly double in May (and then plummet again in June)? It will be fun to watch and read along.

Posted by ataylor at 8:43 AM | Comments (1)

May 3, 2005

Radical Restructure at the Fictitious Symphony

A fictional 'think piece,' prepared for the Heinz Endowments
April 7, 2005
by Andrew Taylor, Director
Bolz Center for Arts Administration
University of Wisconsin-Madison, School of Business
Document available online at:

NOTE: This work is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike License, which means that you may copy it, print it, distribute it to colleagues, paper your wall with it, or republish it in your own newsletters or web sites without the specific permission of the author. Just follow the basic rules of the license.

[ Download this document in PDF format
(requires free Adobe Acrobat Reader software) ]

Mission or Means
The Fictitious Symphony Orchestra was founded in the late 1950s in a burst of civic pride for its region, and with a broad understanding among its forming board and artistic visionaries that orchestral and classical ensemble music of exceptional quality had an important place in the social and civic life of the city.

In the decades following its launch, the symphony consistently added concerts to its season each year, attracted increasingly higher levels of orchestral musicians, and built up an endowment of reasonable size given its annual budget. At the same time, the organization responded to a need in its community by opening a school for young musicians. Starting with just a few orchestra members serving as teachers, the school grew to serve several hundred school-age children each year, as well as a smaller group of adult learners.

In the 1980s, with the selection of a new artistic director, the orchestra extended its traditional mission with a specific focus on contemporary works and commissions, integrating the works of living composers within its more familiar repertory. The orchestra made special efforts to commission and encourage regional composers of small ensemble and full-scale orchestral works, and had built a national reputation for these initiatives.

By the late 1990s, the evolution of the Fictitious Symphony had brought it to three primary roles in its community:

  • To bring the highest-quality live symphonic and ensemble performance experiences to citizens of their region;
  • To champion the works of living composers -- especially regional composers -- through commissions, performances, and educational programming; and,
  • To foster a personal connection to music among young people through high-quality education in instrumental performance.

But while the organization's mission had evolved, its means for achieving that mission had remained much the same: a full-time, professional resident symphony, a music school, and a central administrative staff and board within a single nonprofit corporation, with a support trust holding the organization's endowment.

By early 2002, that model was showing extensive signs of stress: falling concert admissions and declining results from its annual fundraising efforts had created a cash crunch. And because this dropping revenue pushed the administration to review its largest single expense -- it's payments to contract musicians -- negotiations between the musicians and management were becoming entrenched and tense. While the organizations' school continued to be a strong draw, even becoming a moderate profit center, the financial struggles of the larger organization were beginning to affect the focus and quality of the school's operations, with any attention or improvements to facilities or staff training deferred to better times in the distant future. Also in the face of tight budgets, the board had reduced funding and emphasis on the larger commissions and the local composer program, suggesting a short-term focus on the traditional performance fare until audience numbers rose again.

While much of the trouble seemed tied to regional demographic shifts away from the orchestra's traditional base, as well as tighter economic times for its current and prospective patrons, the organization was primarily a victim of its ever-growing fixed costs, built up over decades of new programs, longer seasons, and a growing full-time or full-contract personnel. Growing fixed costs in the face of dropping revenue had contributed to a cautious and inflexible culture among administration and board, and a faltering focus on original mission.

In the midst of these external changes and internal tensions, a small group of board members began to wonder if the current structure, itself, had become a significant barrier to achieving their mission. The larger, single nonprofit entity made more sense when the community had fewer and less sophisticated nonprofit organizations -- within the arts and in other fields -- vying for the same dollars. And the inflexibility of the current organization to responsive action seemed more than a matter of stubbornness, perhaps even a matter of structure. Could a radical rethinking of the organization's approach to its work actually reframe and refresh the mission it claimed within its community?

Through intensive study, conversation, research, and community open forums, the board and the collaborative assessment team of administration and musicians came to a difficult conclusion: a full-time, contracted, regional symphony was no longer sustainable as a means to their end. Further, they came to wonder if the extended and exhaustive efforts to keep this particular business model afloat were crowding out other opportunities for innovation and audience engagement in the live performance experience.

In a flurry of press reports and angry letters from symphony aficionados and contracted musicians, the orchestra reframed its efforts into three unique organizations collaborating as a collective called the Fictitious Music Society, which included:

  • A performing arts presenter (a radical retooling of the original orchestra, retaining its endowment and much of its staff), focusing on bringing the world's best symphonies and chamber ensembles to the region for performances and extended residencies;
  • An arts support cooperative (drawing its initial funding as a project of the orchestra's support trust), providing fiscal sponsorship and other operational services to small performing ensembles or projects, with a special emphasis on commissions and performances of contemporary works (modeled on the San Francisco Foundation Community Initiatives Fund, Fractured Atlas in New York, or other similar efforts around the country); and,
  • A music school, formed as a for-profit subsidiary of the presenting organization, to provide instruction primarily in orchestral instruments, but also in theory, composition, and concert production. The school also was to launch a greater effort to attract adult learners and community ensembles.

The Fictitious Symphony board and staff hoped that disaggregating the various goals and functions of the original symphony into three separate endeavors would allow each to be more flexible and responsive to its specific mission. The presenter would focus on bringing the highest quality symphonic experiences to the citizens of their region -- now through primarily touring performances by world-class ensembles. The cooperative service organization would foster and support innovative efforts in the performing arts, consistent with the symphony's original goals, but extended to a full spectrum of local and national voices. The school would carry on much as it did before, but now more directed toward its service mission of musical instruction, with the bulk of its profits supporting the larger nonprofit presenter (with some withheld for on-going facility and staff improvement).

By 2004, the various legal, donor, and financial issues (which were considerable) were resolved, and the three organizations in the new collaborative were ready to launch their new approach to the extended mission of what was once the Fictitious Symphony. In the first year, as expected, many of the principal musicians of the original symphony left for other cities with full-time orchestras. But many other musicians remained -- some teaching full time at the school, others forming their own smaller ensembles with the support of the arts support cooperative.

The fiscal sponsorship service proved particularly powerful for fostering emerging ensembles and short-term efforts, such as commissions and professional recording projects. One collection of musicians started a new music festival under the umbrella of the support cooperative. Another larger group was planning a musician-managed chamber orchestra. Because of the sponsorship and production services, neither initiative would require a full nonprofit corporate status or extensive infrastructure during its early years.

The first season of the symphony presenter was also a success, with significant increases in ticket sales and donor interest over the final seasons of the resident orchestra, but also fewer performances. The board couldn't yet know the longer-term impact of their fairly radical restructuring on future audiences, long-term sustainability of any of the new organizations, or the overall availability and quality of live ensemble performances throughout the region.

Leadership and community members involved in this transition hoped to unlock some of the energy and resources that had been consumed by the faltering symphony structure, and release them back into the local cultural ecology. Only time would tell if their gamble had fostered or flummoxed their original mission.

ANOTHER NOTE: This case is entirely fictitious. Any similarities to any symphony, living or dead, is completely accidental, and the result of dumb luck.

Posted by ataylor at 12:13 AM | Comments (0)

Deconstructing the symphony (at least a fake one)

Last month, I took part in a fabulous leadership roundtable discussion hosted by the Heinz Endowments in Pittsburgh (which inspired me to talk about hammers and sponges). Part of our assignment in advance of the meeting was to draft a short case description of an arts organization that reconsidered its business model in response to some struggle or another. The case could be real or imagined, it was just intended to spark a broad conversation among the group.

With the kind permission of the Heinz Endowments, I've now posted my short case to this website: Radical Restructure at the Fictitious Symphony is now available in web and downloadable form (under a Creative Commons license, so copy to your heart's content).

The case explores the history of the Fictitious Symphony, and its realization that its method of addressing its mission may actually be a barrier to achieving its it deconstructs itself into smaller pieces.

Before anyone writes to pound me, I'm not suggesting that symphonies actually attempt the strange hybrid model described in the case. I just intended to nudge a conversation about why we frame our organizations the way we do, and why we often can't see the many other ways of getting to our goals.

The underlying thought is this: arts and cultural organizations have a mission (in this case, sharing live symphonic music with the world) and they have a means they've chosen to get them there (in this case, a full-time, resident, professional symphony). At some point, it may turn out that one no longer serves the other, and the organization needs to choose which of those is more important. Either answer is fine, but I'm suggesting that sometimes there has to be a choice.

Give it a read, and please post a comment if it invokes a response (positive or negative).

Posted by ataylor at 12:20 AM | Comments (3)

May 4, 2005

The essentials of science distilled

Spiked has a great piece featuring short responses from 250 renowned scientists (at least Spiked says they're renowned, which will have to do). They asked each of these big-brained individuals ''what they would teach the world about science and why, if they could pick just one thing.''

Supporting my previous post(s) on the subject, their answers could often work wonderfully if we substituted the word 'art' for 'science'. Here are a few:

Freeman Dyson: ''The main thing to understand is that science is about uncertainty. Science teaches us to have a high tolerance of uncertainty. We do not yet know the answers to most of the important questions -- nature is smarter than we are. But if we are patient, and not in too much of a hurry, then science gives us a good way to find the answers.''

Dr Deeph Chana: ''I should teach the world that energy cannot be created or destroyed; it can only be converted from one form to another. This is the simple and elegant statement of the law of conservation of energy -- a concept that has profound implications for any discipline that purports to be a science.''

Paul Davies: ''The essence of the scientific method is that there is an actually existing world out there, which is ordered in an intelligible way. The job of the scientist is to describe that order, in the best possible manner. Science is not about right and wrong, about truth, or even about reality. It is about providing reliable descriptions of the world that enable us to make new discoveries.''

Matt Ridley: ''The one thing I would try to teach the world about science is that science is not a catalogue of facts, but a search for new mysteries. Science increases the store of wonder and mystery in the world; it does not erode it.''

And, of course, there are a few that I absolutely don't agree with (which is part of the scientific process too). Here's one:

Dr Sonja Boehmer-Christiansen: ''I should teach the world that science, natural and social, is the only method we have for discovering -- or at least approaching -- truth, which is potentially accessible to all human beings.''

I can think of a few other methods for approaching truth in a way that's potentially accessible to all human beings: poetry, dance, painting, sculpture, music, literature, theater, handicraft, and on and on. But then again, they didn't ask me.

Posted by ataylor at 8:37 AM | Comments (0)

May 5, 2005

Well, there goes THAT argument

Technology, science, and trend author Steven Johnson has a new book that strikes to the heart of a traditional argument for nonprofit culture in American communities. Everything Bad Is Good for You: How Today's Popular Culture Is Actually Making Us Smarter challenges the common assumption that popular culture makes us stupid, which, by extension, challenges the intellectual high ground claimed by nonprofit culture.

As quoted in this Boston Globe book review, Johnson shows a massive increase in plot complexity, interaction, and narrative style in popular culture (television, film, video games, etc.), which he claims requires and fosters a higher level of brain function:

The greater complexity, Johnson argues, is ''creating minds that are more adept at certain kinds of problem solving.'' Thus, he says, today's pop culture is ''largely a force for good: enhancing our cognitive faculties, not dumbing them down.''

It's an interesting issue on the heels of the RAND report, ''Gifts of the Muse,'' which explored the benefits of cultural experience (with a heavy bias toward nonprofit culture). And it's bound to generate conversation on the blogs (as it already has).

Johnson wrote two of my favorite nonfiction technology/trend books -- Interface Culture and Emergence -- so this one is high on my summer reading list...or I could just wait for the TV miniseries.

Posted by ataylor at 9:09 AM | Comments (2)

May 6, 2005

The statistically improbable phrase

I have a new favorite catchphrase this week, provided by a unique search function within It turns out, now that the on-line retailer has access to the inside content of many of its books, it's been adding more elaborate search functions to its service.

One of the more interesting is the algorithm for 'statistically improbable phrases,' or those unique combinations of words that appear in published works. According to Amazon:

Statistically Improbable Phrases, or ''SIPs'', are the most distinctive phrases in the text of books in the Search Inside! program. To identify SIPs, our computers scan the text of all books in Search Inside. If they find a phrase that occurs a large number of times in a particular book relative to all Search Inside books, that phrase is a SIP in that book.

These statistical searches are intended to find catchphrases, core ideas, or unusual concepts that might help someone find a book, or other books like the one they have already found. For example, some SIPs for Malcolm Gladwell's new book Blink include rapid cognition, intuitive repulsion, and adaptive unconscious (thanks to onfocus for the links). You could also look for general concepts and current hot topics such as the creative class or the attention economy.

On the more creative side, if I wanted to find books that reference a favorite poem (such as James Wright's ''Autumn Begins in Martins Ferry, Ohio''), I could enter the most unique phrase from that work, ''suicidally beautiful,'' and see what pops up.

I'm not yet sure what this has to do with cultural management. But something powerful is happening to the way we discover and engage with creative works, as more of them become poured into the great big bucket of content we call the Internet.

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

May 9, 2005

Knowledge vs. magic

A short piece in the New York Times magazine exposes a common fear: that knowing how something works removes the mystery, or destroys the magic. In this case, the author is talking about recent advances in neuroscience in understanding the human brain:

The human brain is mysterious -- and, in a way, that is a good thing. The less that is known about how the brain works, the more secure the zone of privacy that surrounds the self. But that zone seems to be shrinking.

Many have said the same for an understanding of any cultural production process: that seeing the plywood backing of a stage set destroys the illusion of the scene; that knowing the science of acoustics dissolves an enveloping sound experience into charts and graphs. Such fears have stopped many arts organizations from really exploring the processes of production with their audiences, and honestly discussing the mundane and tactical challenges of what they do.

Perhaps it's just me (I doubt it), but I experience exactly the opposite. For me, every little detail I discover about how theater works, how visual art works, how musical instruments work, how the creative process works, brings with it a greater depth of awe and a more powerful sense of magic. Similarly, scraps of insight about the pieces of a complex process -- of brain function, physics, social systems, the arts, and others -- just bring more wonder at the whole.

The Times article ends with this perceived conflict of science and self:

The more that breakthroughs like the recent one in brain-scanning open up the mind to scientific scrutiny, the more we may be pressed to give up comforting metaphysical ideas like interiority, subjectivity and the soul. Let's enjoy them while we can.

But how wonderous it is that all those chemical and electrical processes -- no matter how much we know about them -- accumulate into a sense of self, at all. Perhaps, instead of being contrary forces, discovery and wonder are part of a virtuous cycle, and we should never be afraid to keep that cycle spinning.

Posted by ataylor at 8:30 AM | Comments (2)

May 10, 2005

coders + data + curiosity = cool

Thanks to BoingBoing, an exceptionally ecclectic and seemingly endless collection of strange and wonderful links, I stumbled onto the History of Sampling, a project of software/graphic/data designer Jesse Kriss.

The History of Sampling is a web-based software program that provides:

...a visualizer for the history of music sampling -- a timeline with colored dots represents some of the most widely circulated tracks; click to see all the tracks they spawned, click the tracks they spawned to see what other tracks they sampled.

Click on a dot in 1965, for example, and see how many contemporary songs sampled James Brown's ''Papa's Got a Brand New Bag.'' Then click on one of those songs featuring the sample, and see what other samples the artist used in their works.

It's a fascinating example of data visualization and software design intended for personal discovery of complex data. Instead of lists and citations, the viewer can click and explore, and slowly see patterns emerge from that exploration. Imagine such a system graphing play references between plays, or motif use among composers, or catchphrases among authors.

As BoingBoing suggests, it's mesmerizing.

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

May 11, 2005

My kayak salesman gets it

The local canoe and kayak emporium has a great radio spot that describes what they do (I'm paraphrasing):

We don't sell canoes and kayaks. We sell something much more valuable: time on the water. Time on your own. Time with your partner. Time to reconnect.

The sales pitch shows that this retailer knows what their customers actually buy. Certainly, they pay for a kayak. But they're really assigning value and handing over cash for what the kayak allows them to do...where it takes them (or more accurately, where they expect it to take them).

In contrast, open almost any performing arts season brochure and see what that organization thinks they sell: artists and repertory, musical excellence, performers 'hailed as a master' by some newspaper or another, a beautiful hall or venue. Certainly, those things are essential to the final experience (just imagine how a leaky canoe would impact your 'time on the water'). But they are really just vehicles (pardon the metaphor) for what audiences actually purchase.

The kayak radio commercial ends with a particularly blunt an insightful sales pitch, worthy of attention by arts marketers everywhere:

Come buy some time on the water.
We'll throw in the boat for free.

Posted by ataylor at 8:45 AM | Comments (3)

May 12, 2005

Finding capacity in the cracks

A piece in the New York Times describes two initiatives in Manhattan connecting working artists with vacant commercial office space. Both Chashama's A.R.E.A. program and the Lower Manhattan Cultural Council's Swing Space serve as brokers between landlords with extra space and artists or arts groups in desperate need of the same.

Landlords benefit by positive PR, interesting tenants that add something different to the building culture, and the benefit of activity (it's often easier to show and lease a space that's already in use, not completely empty). Artists get prime real estate of a size and quality that they couldn't normally afford, if perhaps only for a short time.

Funders and advocates often talk about capacity-building in the nonprofit arts. But they almost always focus that energy on building the capacity of individual organizations (new office technology, staff training, specific infrastructure investments, endowments). These programs remind us that finding and releasing dormant capacity within a wider system (between and beyond the nonprofit arts) can often be even more effective than adding more.

For example, how many corporate training sessions in town have an empty seat or two that might be filled by nonprofit arts staff? How many arts organizations manage their own ticketing with a system that could handle 10 times the volume (while others have none)?

There's capacity in the cracks, at the edges, in the corners. A clever arts community finds a way to set that capacity free for creative use.

Posted by ataylor at 8:28 AM | Comments (0)

May 13, 2005

Fun with keywords and data mining

One of the baffling qualities of digital media is its liquidity. Once something is encoded in binary code, we have endlessly interesting access to not just single creative works, but multiple works and even databases, along with the ability to search and see the parts and the whole in wonderful and new ways.

Weighted Word ListA new fascination for me in that regard is the 'weighted word list,' a visual representation of keywords (found in a document, in a book, in data sets, or on the entire Internet) that shows both the most common words and their relative frequency (more frequent words are larger, less frequent words are smaller). It's a contemporary cousin of those old, dusty concordances (counting word frequency in the works of Shakespeare, for example).

Weighted word lists are popping up everywhere nowadays -- from the new 'tagging' function of Technorati, to the web site interconnection analysis of Findory Neighbors. These visualizations provide a quick and intuitive view of complex data and the relationships between them.

So, why do I care? And why should you? The liquidity of information on-line has vast potential for helping us discover patterns, trends, connections, and disconnections we might not otherwise see. Imagine, for example, if Ticketmaster offered a weighted word list of ALL performers on sale nationwide, with the text size determined by total ticket sales? What an interesting constellation that would provide. Or, what if you could generate a weighted word list of the content from ALL of your marketing materials, and compare it to a similar list of ALL customer comments and feedback over the past year? You might just see some interesting patterns between what you sell, and what they connect to (or you might see some disconnects).

As an experiment, I've created a weighted word list of my own, compiling every word from this weblog's history, and arranging the most common words in graphic format. It's all done automatically and on the fly (the list rebuilds every time you load the page, adding every new weblog post as they come). If I'm doing my job, the BIGGER words should have some relation to my declared subject, and the patterns of words should reflect my common themes. Have a look and decide for yourself.

Thanks to dan & sherree for the base code for this function, which I modified a bit for use on this site.

Posted by ataylor at 8:19 AM | Comments (4)

May 16, 2005

Trouble at the Milwaukee Public Museum

There were some reactions of shock and awe last week as the Milwaukee Public Museum made public its deep deficit, and the draconian cuts and mission-shifting it was making to get out of the hole. The organization is now planning to cut 45 percent (or more) of its payroll, and transition from a research-focused natural history museum into a 'science center' focused on public displays.

But these planned cuts don't solve the looming cash crunch, which is leaving the large institution (with a staff of 240) short on its next payroll.

According to this article, Museum President Michael Stafford pinned the monster deficit on a full palette of problems:

Stafford says a ''perfect storm'' of factors has put the museum's 2005 budget into a projected $4 million hole. He has blamed unrealistic budgeting, shortfalls in private fund-raising that supports the bulk of the museum budget, the sluggish economy, too-rapid growth at the museum and freeway reconstruction for the ongoing deficits. Other sources said increasing health insurance costs played a role.

Still lacking a certified audit for the last fiscal year (which ended in August), president and board are now beating the bushes for cash to make payroll, and financial support to stay open in the longer term.

It will be interesting to see how a $4 million hole can go undetected for so long (that's about 18 percent of the total operating budget), or if it was detected and left unannounced until now. The Charity Governance weblog is tracking the story and providing analysis. I'll be watching too.

Posted by ataylor at 8:33 AM | Comments (2)

May 17, 2005

Life in bizarro business land

Great stuff from Clara Miller (again) on the particular peculiarities of the nonprofit business model, and the underlying dynamics that make our work so difficult. Her piece in The Nonprofit Quarterly on ''The Looking-Glass World of Nonprofit Money: Managing in For-Profits' Shadow Universe'' will baffle most for-profit managers, and surprise many nonprofit leaders, as well.

Says Ms. Miller:

...enter the nonprofit sector, and it's a new and irrational world, like stepping through a looking glass. The rules, when they apply at all, are reversed, and the science turns topsy-turvy. Not only are nonprofit rules that govern money -- and therefore business dynamics -- different from those in the for-profit sector, they are largely unknown, even among nonprofits and their funders....Even when revealed to for-profit cognoscenti, they are so at odds with the listeners' familiar world as to prompt confusion, disbelief, and related feelings of cognitive dissonance.

What's so different about operating a business in the nonprofit world? Miller breaks the issue down into seven statements that are obviously true in the for-profit world, but generally false among nonprofits:

    True or False?
  • The consumer buys the product.
  • Price covers cost and eventually produces profits, or else the business folds.
  • Cash is liquid.
  • Price is determined by producers' supply and consumers' ability and willingness to pay.
  • Any profits will drop to the bottom line and are then available for enlarging or improving the business.
  • Investment in infrastructure during growth is necessary for efficiency and profitability.
  • Overhead is a regular cost of doing business, and varies with business type and stage of development.

Miller, here, is discussing the broader nonprofit sector, not just cultural nonprofits, but she's right on the mark. This would be a handy article to share with your board members (especially new board members) when they start believing they know the business they're governing.

Posted by ataylor at 8:38 AM | Comments (0)

May 18, 2005

Now THERE'S a business model

Cultural productions of all kinds have a rather brutal financial model: there's a lot of investment of time, money, and energy up front (what economists call 'sunk' costs, because they can't be recovered once expensed), and a huge risk of not paying back those costs in either earned or contributed revenue once the production is ready for the world. All along the way, there are moments to make complex calculations, to decide whether to go forward or throw in the towel. This is true for theater works, operas, musical performances, visual art works, films, novels, architecture, and many other forms (and true for many other industries, as well).

Author Lawrence Watt-Evans is attempting an end-run around that financial model with his new work in progress, The Spriggan Mirror. Watt-Evans has posted the first few chapters of this new novel on the web, and promises to publish a new chapter each week, as long as he has collected $100 in on-line contributions.

Essentially writing on an installment plan, this author wants cash as he goes -- in part to compensate him for his efforts as he makes them, but also in part to determine if enough people care to continue.

Of course, the novel on installment is nothing particularly new. Charles Dickens wrote many of his long and orphan-filled works this way. A century-and-a-half later, Stephen King attempted the same thing with his novel-in-progress The Plant (which eventually withered). Watt-Evans drew specific inspiration from The Street Performer Protocol proposed by John Kelsey and Bruce Schneier. As with all such ideas, each new attempt brings new opportunities to learn and adjust.

When nonprofit pundits talk about new business models, they generally mean large and complex reconceptions of the 501(c)3 corporate form, or hybrid nonprofit/for-profit entities. But there's also huge potential in tinkering at the edges with smaller and more specific problems -- the cash flow and sunk cost problem, for example -- to see if there's a way to hack the system.

Posted by ataylor at 8:39 AM | Comments (0)

May 19, 2005

On better decision-making

A great interview on Smart City (a radio program out of Memphis) features Paul Schoemaker, co-author of the book Winning Decisions: Getting It Right the First Time. Schoemaker teaches and consults on issues of decision-making strategy, and on developing organizations that learn. His perspective on why we so often make bad decisions:

...people don't spend enough time framing or defining the problem. They tend to jump in and solve the problem as they initially see it, or the way other people have defined it. We find that people often, therefore, solve the wrong problem.

As an example, he offers two scenarios he's tested with many individuals and groups:

In scenario one, you are going to a play, for which the ticket cost $50. Somewhere on the way to the theater you realize that you've lost $50 in cash. When asked if they would still buy a ticket and go in to see the show, most people will say 'yes,' and chalk it up to bad luck.

In scenario two, you go to the theater early to buy your ticket for $50, and then wander around town a bit before the show. When you go to enter the theater, you realize that you've lost the ticket. When asked if they would go and buy another ticket for $50, most respondents will say 'no.' They've spent their allowance for entertainment, and they would just go home.

Even though the out-of-pocket is the same for each scenario ($100 for a $50 ticket), the frame people place around the problem is different. And therein lies the challenge.

As I've discussed before (here and here and here, for example), the human brain is wired in a wacky way, leading us into all sorts of decision problems if we don't structure our processes and continually challenge our conclusions. This is particularly true in extraordinarily human-intensive activities such as cultural production/presentation, and in resource-starved organizations such as nonprofits. So, cultural nonprofits get a double whammy.

Schoemaker also raises the common disconnect between feedback and learning, and the fact that managers and organizations can do something over and over and over, and still not get any better at it. Says he through analogy:

Each time you play golf, an average player gets 90 strokes of experience. But that doesn't mean that they play any better the next time. So, somehow, they are not able to take that feedback and translate it into learning. And I think it has to do with the lack of good conceptual models for understanding what underlies the craft.

Amen, brother. Give the interview a listen, and see how you might reconceive your own or your organization's information-seeking, analysis, decision, and evaluation processes.

NOTE: I corrected the two scenarios on May 20, thanks to a thoughtful comment from Joe at Butts in the Seats. Thanks Joe.

Posted by ataylor at 8:31 AM | Comments (0)

May 23, 2005

Sheboygan bound

I'm on the road today to speak to the Rotary in Sheboygan, Wisconsin. The topic is 'exploring the true benefit of culture to communities,' and the purpose is to take my arguments out for a public spin, and to stay connected as a university employee. Should be fun. If the speech works out, I'll post it. If it doesn't, I'll bury it deep in the confines of my computer's hard drive.

Sheboygan is a particularly interesting place to give such a talk, since it is home to a corporation particularly engaged with the arts. Kohler Corporation -- makers of kitchen and bath appliances, as well as other odd things like engines and generators -- has a long history of valuing and supporting creative expression, and even integrating artists into their work.

One fascinating example is the company's Arts/Industry Program which places artists for extended residencies within its manufacturing facilities. As most will know, bathroom fixtures require ceramics and metalwork. And Kohler's manufacturing plants contain state-of-the-art tools and equipment required to make both to exacting standards. Further, they employ master craftspeople with exceptional knowledge of the raw materials and the production process. As it turns out, ceramics and metal are also essential elements for many visual and sculptural artists. This program brings those worlds together to learn from each other.

The results for the artists include access to astounding teachers in ceramics and metalworking, availability of raw materials and equipment, and an active and public workspace for creative work they often do in isolation. For the manufacturers and craftspeople, the connection brings new perspectives on what they do, innovative ideas about the production process (that have informed actual product designs), and an interesting creative mix to their daily work (imagine a row of toilets coming out of the kiln, followed by what appears to be a ceramic dress).

There's a great overview of the program on the John Michael Kohler Art Center web site, where the effort is administered. And you can find works of some of the resident artists, along with video interviews, on PortalWisconsin.

Very cool stuff. I'm eager to see it in person.

Posted by ataylor at 12:36 AM | Comments (0)

The Footprints and the Giant

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The Value of the Arts to Communities
a speech to the Rotary Club of Sheboygan, Wisconsin, May 23, 2005
by Andrew Taylor

NOTE: This work is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike License, which means that you may copy it, print it, distribute it to colleagues, paper your wall with it, or republish it in your own newsletters or web sites without the specific permission of the author. Just follow the basic rules of the license.

Thank you for your invitation to speak to you today about the impact of the arts on communities. It's an essential topic any day, but particularly these days, as cities and counties come upon tight budgets and tough choices. And it's a subject that occupies a great deal of my work, for many reasons.

The title of my talk today is ''The Footprints and the Giant,'' for reasons we'll soon explore together. But since all public speeches are supposed to begin with a joke, here's mine. Forgive me if you've heard it before, but there's a point to it [NOTE TO WEBLOG READERS: Yes, I know I used the very same joke in my keynote to a Toronto conference, but it's such a flexible joke. I promise to retire this particular joke after this use.]:

Sherlock Holmes and Doctor Watson are out in the woods on a camping trip. In the middle of the night, Sherlock Holmes shakes Doctor Watson awake and says to him, ''Watson, look up at the sky and tell me what you deduce.'' So Watson rubs his eyes and looks up at the night sky, saying: ''I see a billion stars, among which there may be a million planets, among which there may be planets much like our Earth, and upon which there may well be sentient life looking back at their night sky at this very moment, wondering if we might exist.'' After this speech, Sherlock Holmes pauses for a moment and responds, ''No Watson, you idiot. Someone has stolen our tent.''

The point of that particular joke for today's topic is this: Sometimes we work so hard to see the details in the distance, that we completely miss the essential truth directly in front of us. I'm going to suggest that that's true when we explore the value of the arts to any of us and all of us. There are important details, to be sure, and we'll walk through them together. There are economic benefits, social benefits, educational or personal benefits, and broader civic benefits. These are important. They are compelling. And they are convincing when we ask individuals and groups to support the arts with time and money. But I'll also suggest that these arguments are really just the details in the distance I just mentioned in the joke. They are effects and not causes. They are the footprints a giant leaves behind, but they are not the giant. Today, we're going to talk a little about the giant, as well.

And, yes, I promise to do all this in the 15 to 20 minutes I've been provided to speak with you. While we'll likely argue about the value of the arts and how they should be supported, we all share a common value for our time. It's precious. And I won't waste too much of yours today.

But first a little background about me, so you know where I'm coming from. I'm the director of the MBA degree program in Arts Administration at the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Business. It's a full-time, two-year degree program, now in its fourth decade, training future managers and leaders of primarily nonprofit and public cultural institutions — theaters, symphonies, festivals, performing arts centers, museums, public television and radio stations, foundations, government agencies, and such. Our graduates help bring arts experiences to small towns and big cities, here in Wisconsin, and across the country.

Now, I realize that to some people, combining 'MBA' with 'Arts' might seem as odd as combining 'jumbo' with 'shrimp.' But you'll have to trust me that cultural institutions are businesses, they are complex puzzles, and they require a mastery of business strategy, financial skill, and social finesse that's often unrecognized. I'm sure that there are cultural managers and board members among you. Be sure to thank them, and thank yourselves, for doing the hard work required of this particular calling.

And as long as we're defining things, let me define what I mean by ‘the arts'. It's a fuzzy word, often left undefined. Today, I mean to discuss the arts in broad strokes, as an inclusive concept. Certainly, I mean the traditional nonprofit arts we all could name, such as dance, classical music, theater, visual art, sculpture, and such. But I also mean community or amateur arts like the community choir, the embroidery club, the quilting bee, the amateur theater, the school art program, and the adult pottery classes. And I even mean the commercial side of the creative world — the nightclubs, the recording studios, the live performance venues and festivals, the commercial art galleries, the popular performers you might catch on tour in a local venue.

In short, ''the arts'' here mean any creative expression or experience available to you within your community — ticketed or free, formal or informal, professional or amateur, nonprofit or commercial, whether you watch it being made or you make it yourself.

You can find these experiences in many places, but for today, I'm primarily talking about art that you experience in person, and not mediated through an electronic box like a television, a computer, or a radio. Not that these aren't important and meaningful. Just that I'm primarily talking about art in the community context.

So, given all that background, what is the value of the arts to communities? Why should we consider giving our money, our attention, our time, and even our tax dollars to be sure the arts are in our cities, our schools, and our civic life? Who cares if opportunities for creative expression and cultural experience are diverse, vital, and accessible to a full range of our fellow citizens?

Well, for one, a lot of people do care. They are the people that bring the arts to life: the artists, the volunteers, the audiences, the managers, the boards, the donors, the civic leaders. Ask most of these individuals and you'll hear that one art form or another has deep meaning for them, that it connects them, that it challenges them, that it calms them, that it reminds them of important people and moments in their lives, and that it brings them together with people and ideas they enjoy being with. There are many in the room that would say the arts are important because the arts are important to important that they want other people to have that same experience, both now, and in future generations.

But for the civic conversation, the praise of enthusiasts isn't quite enough. Some would say that it's great for people to find purpose and meaning in the arts, but not everyone does. Lots of people find purpose and meaning and even escape in fly fishing. But we don't allocate tax dollars or school district budgets for that. To expend community resources and attention, for any activity, we need reasonable assurance that the activity serves a public purpose...that it provides a public good.

This brings us to the broader arguments for the arts…the arguments that seek to show the wider public benefits of arts and culture, even to those who never attend. There are a lot of these arguments, but thankfully they come in four main flavors:

  • Economic
  • Social
  • Educational or personal, and
  • Civic

[the summaries and the categories were stolen brazenly from Adrian Ellis]

Let's take them one at a time:

The economic arguments for the arts suggest that cultural activities bring economic benefits to a community. They draw audiences, who buy tickets for a show, but also dinner before and drinks afterwards. These audiences hire babysitters. They stay in hotels. Furthermore, in the process of attracting audiences, artists and arts organizations spend money, as well — on lumber and office equipment and staff. Some claim that the vitality and nightlife they bring to a region helps in stalking the elusive ''knowledge worker,'' and the businesses that want to hire them. And arts organizations can be the anchors for downtown revitalization or development efforts, when those same knowledge workers are looking for a place to shop, to kick back, and to live.

The social arguments for the arts describe their power to gather people together, often across economic or cultural divides. While sociologists like Robert Putnam complain that American's are increasingly bowling alone, the arts are offered as an antidote to this isolation. They build trust and social capital. They reinforce the fabric that's often torn by the competitive marketplace. They foster empathy for different points of view, and give a voice to individuals or groups that might be otherwise ignored.

The educational and personal arguments for the arts claim the learning or healing power of creative experience. Test scores improve. Creative thinking is enabled. Broken spirits and tired bodies are restored. Minds are refocused and refreshed.

The civic argument combines all of the above and suggests that a vibrant cultural life makes for a vibrant civic life — with high economic performance, high inward investment, high educational attainment, and high levels of civic engagement.

There's a great deal of discussion going on these days among advocates and academics about these benefits, about how we can measure them, and about how direct the connections might be between the arts and the outcomes we claim. The Wallace Foundation released a major study this past February, called Gifts of the Muse, which explored each of these benefits, and the studies that supported them. The study found that the arguments had merit, but that their connections were under-researched and often over-sold. Instead, the study urged us all to focus less on what art does and more on what art is, and the intrinsic values it provides.

The topic of 'valuing culture' pops up at almost every professional conference I attend these days . As government money gets tight, as personal fortunes took a hit in 2001 and beyond, and as discretionary spending got lean, arts advocates have been struggling for better arguments and clearer cases to ensure their programs and their missions.

And as I've said, this conversation is important. There are hard choices ahead. City councils, county boards, state legislatures, and school boards are increasingly struggling with the math. Even the most eloquent arguments can't boost tax revenues or lower healthcare costs. Even the most convincing connections between arts and learning can't counter the constraints of revenue caps for public schools.

So, what arguments should we make, or can we make to ensure the vitality of creative experience and expression in our towns and cities? And what arguments can be heard, even, among the current climate of political gamesmanship?

Thankfully, even as we debate and craft our messages and strategies, artists and arts organizations quietly and effectively continue to find a way: they make art happen. While we struggle with semantics and public benefits, artists and arts organizations are gathering communities, forging new works, engaging young people, crafting new things to see and new ways to discover. Regardless of the arguments we attach after the fact, art is about what we do as a community, as individuals, as inhabitants of the same places here in Sheboygan, and in towns like Sheboygan across the country.

I'm sure you're all aware of many such active expressions of art in your own neighborhoods, among your businesses, and in your schools. You're fortunate to have an internationally recognized effort right here in town, in the Kohler Corporation's Arts/Industry program. This effort places working artists in residence in Kohler's manufacturing and design facilities, blending the company's ceramics and metalworking equipment and master craftspeople with visionary independent artists. Each learns from the other. Each pushes the other toward a new way of working and seeing. There are certainly benefits to this interaction, but they are outcomes not causes. The cause is the effort itself, the intensity of the conversation and challenge that creative visions provide, and the relationships such efforts bring.

Another example just happened in my hometown of Monona, just outside of Madison. My daughter is 11 years old, and her school just held an artist residency of its own. A wonderful performer, choir director, community member, and musician brought two middle schools from a common school district together to sing, to prepare for a public concert, and to work together toward that common goal. Again, there were benefits. The pride and supportiveness this event brought to the children was a wonder to behold. But again, these benefits were the effects, they were the impressions left by intense and creative effort among a group of people. These benefits were the outcomes, not the cause.

Which brings us back to the title of my talk with you today: ''The Footprints and the Giant.'' The footprints are the impressions left by something very large, but they are not the thing, itself. Economic impact is a footprint. Social connection is a footprint. Education and personal growth are footprints. And a vital civic life is a footprint, as well. They are easier to talk about because they are the things we can see and measure. But like Doctor Watson straining to explain the night sky, our focus on the footprints can blind us to the more important point. The footprints get larger and deeper only if we understand the giant that leaves them.

Some might be asking what the heck I'm talking about. Others might be wondering when I will stop talking. For both groups, I'll cut to the chase: the giant that leaves these large impressions on our community is the process of creative expression and experience, itself. In the making of theater we discover each other and ourselves. In the interaction of artistic vision and personal perspective we make new connections. In striving to express who we are and what we see, we learn who we are and what we see. And through creative expression and experience, we have an astounding opportunity to share that effort and that vision with each other.

The arts are not a separate thing from us. They are us. The sculpture, the novel, the song, the painting, the performance, the musical work, the poem, the drawing, the photograph are all ways we see each other and ourselves. They are all ways of learning — ways that connect with so many students who have trouble connecting by traditional means. They are ways of reaching across perspectives and backgrounds. In fact, our collective expressions are often what define us long after we are gone. And they are how we know the people, places, and civilizations that came before us.

Art is us. All of us. And the massive secret that sits right in front of us is that WE are the giant that leaves such wonderful footprints.

So, once more, back to the formal title of this talk: what is the 'impact of the arts,' and the 'benefit of culture to communities'? The glaring truth is that art IS community. It is the reflection and expression of what we all do, what we all are, and what we all hope to be.

So, while we're striving to describe the footprints, I encourage us all to focus the bulk of our energies on the giant, before we, like Sherlock Holmes and Doctor Watson, wake up to realize that someone has stolen our tent.

I welcome your questions and comments. And I thank you for your precious time and attention.

Posted by ataylor at 1:00 PM | Comments (6)

May 24, 2005

The Footprints, the Giant, and the Rotarians

I've now posted the Rotary speech I gave yesterday in Sheboygan, Wisconsin. It was an attempt to distill and discuss (in 20 minutes) the challenge of valuing culture in communities to an audience that hadn't been part of the academic or advocacy conversation.

Avid readers will recognize the opening joke, which I also used in a keynote address in Toronto earlier this year. I figured the Sheboygan Rotary wouldn't have read that speech. Plus, it's such a wonderful and useful joke to launch the conversation.

Give it a read, and add a comment if you like.

Posted by ataylor at 10:33 AM | Comments (1)

May 26, 2005

What gets made, what gets seen

Justin Davidson of Newsday has a two-part exploration of the production and distribution shifts in the American arts system. The first article discusses the advancement of do-it-yourself productions by artists, often called 'vanity projects,' which attempt an end-run around the traditional gatekeepers of culture. The second piece wonders, in this increasingly decentralized world, who decides what's worth seeing.

It's the cultural version of a struggle and juggle that's happening in every communications industry these days...from television news to publishing to newspapers to weblogs. As the means of production get cheaper and better, and the distribution pipe gets larger, expect to see more identity crises among the old guard of what's good.

Posted by ataylor at 8:51 AM | Comments (0)

May 31, 2005

When good donors go bad

Lots of news sources are following the second fall from grace of mega-patron Alberto Vilar, who was arrested at the airport last Thursday for fraud. Said the New York Times:

But it all came crashing down Thursday. That night, Mr. Vilar, 64, flew to Newark Liberty International Airport from Las Vegas, where he spoke at an investor conference. At the airport, federal agents arrested him on fraud charges, accusing him of stealing $5 million from a client -- and using the money to make good on charitable pledges. As he was led away in handcuffs, there was no doubt that the Vilar bubble had burst once more -- perhaps irreparably.

The first fall for Vilar had come several years ago, when he reneged on several of his multi-million dollar arts pledges, following the collapse of his primary technology fund. At a federal hearing on Friday, the prosecuter suggested that the $5 million fraud was just the tip of the iceburg.

Other coverage of the arrest and the financial troubles comes from CNN and Bloomberg, which offers a glimpse of the complaint:

Vilar used the unidentified client's investment in 2002 ``as a personal piggy bank to pay personal expenses and make charitable contributions, without the knowledge, consent, or authorization of the victim,'' U.S. Postal Inspector Cynthia Fraterrigo said in a complaint prosecutors unsealed yesterday.

It will be interesting to watch how arts organizations, who have named buildings, programs, and initiatives after the donor, respond to the allegations (for example, the Vilar Grand Tier at the Metropolitan Opera, the Vilar young artists program at the Royal Opera House in Covent Garden, the Vilar Center for the Arts in Avon, Colorado, and the Vilar Institute for Arts Management at the Kennedy Center).

Posted by ataylor at 10:05 AM | Comments (0)

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