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May 1, 2006

Setting literature free

While in Toronto last week, I discovered an abandoned paperback book in a public lobby -- Tom Clancy's Hunt for Red October. It turned out to be a liberated book, set there on purpose to be taken by some random stranger to read and then to re-release into the wild. It was a Bookcrossing book, set free by one of that site's 460,000-plus members (in fact, here's the very book).

Bookcrossing is one of many such object-tracking sites, like Where's George, where site members let objects go and then track where they wander in the world. For Bookcrossing, members register their book on-line, get a unique ID number which they write on the book, and slap on a sticker encouraging whoever finds the book to post where and when they found it, and perhaps to leave a comment, as well.

The result is a wonderful combination of book club, hunting game, and collective on-line travel journal. I particularly love the sense of play and openness the web site and its members represent. Literature is something to be given away to strangers, and something to be discovered by happy accident, like some little Easter egg of thought.

Turns out the Bookcrosser's convention was in Toronto at the same time I was -- hence the several such books I saw laying around in public places. According to one Bookcrossing enthusiast who traveled all the way from Australia to Toronto for the convention:

"People become BookCrossers because there is a great sense of fun and adventure. Apart from getting to read and enjoy more books, the thrill of having a complete stranger catch a book you've released into the wild, and comment on it, is something that sends me singing and dancing and leaping around the house. Silly really. But fun."

If only all of our audiences were that silly, and all of our cultural initiatives were that contagious.

Posted by ataylor at 9:01 AM | Comments (1)

May 2, 2006

In praise of the walkable city, in memory of Jane Jacobs

A week ago today the world lost a dynamic and influential voice in the lives of cities. Jane Jacobs, author of the 1961 treatise The Death and Life of Great American Cities, was an advocate for the human scale of cities, and a formative force behind much of the urban planning we see at work today (read the obituary in the New York Times or a nice overview of her work and its impact in the Chicago Tribune).

In an era when old buildings were being razed for newer, colder developments, Jacobs cried out in support of the ''sidewalk ballet'' that comes when density, diversity, and an eclectic mix of architecture brings people out into the streets to interact in daily life. It was a call for a more organic city, a more human city, and it was a vision worthy of any cultural manager's attention. Said she:

There is a quality even meaner than outright ugliness or disorder, and this meaner quality is the dishonest mask of pretended order, achieved by ignoring or suppressing the real order that is struggling to exist and to be served.

Wise words for any city-based cultural institution. Does your presence add to the streetlife around you, or inhibit it? Are you fostering and encouraging a vibrant community, or suppressing that vibrancy through false order?

Thanks to Jane Jacobs for calling the questions. Let's honor her by striving to answer them better.

Posted by ataylor at 10:08 AM | Comments (0)

May 4, 2006

The art of letting go

The McKinsey Quarterly has an interesting article on the challenge of exiting an unsuccessful initiative, or closing down a ineffective business. Even in the for-profit world, the assessment of success and the decision to discontinue are fraught with bias and emotional baggage. Says the article:

Why is it so difficult to divest a business at the right time or to exit a failing project and redirect corporate resources? Many factors play a role, from the fact that managers who shepherd an exit often must eliminate their own jobs to the costs that companies incur for layoffs, worker buyouts, and accelerated depreciation. Yet a primary reason is the psychological biases that affect human decision making and lead executives astray when they confront an unsuccessful enterprise or initiative. Such biases routinely cause companies to ignore danger signs, to refrain from adjusting goals in the face of new information, and to throw good money after bad.

Since ''letting go'' is a challenge among for-profits, you can just imagine (and have probably experienced) how difficult downsizing is in the nonprofit arts. Our projects and organizations are constructed with passion and personal commitment. Our measures of success or failure are hazy at best. And our nonprofit corporate structure is uniquely designed to be difficult to dissolve (an endowment, for example, is essentially permanently captured cash). Worse yet, the idea is in our bones that the primary indicator of health is year-to-year growth (bigger budget, more audiences, more productions, more staff). So any attempt to close down an initiative or organization is a public admission of failure.

The article identifies four primary decision biases that come into play as managers evaluate initiatives for possible dissolution: the confirmation bias, the sunk-cost fallacy, escalation of commitment, and anchoring and adjustment (groovy chart included). The authors also offer ideas on how to blunt the impact of these biases in your analysis and action.

But beyond the biases, the deeper irony is that creativity and creation require destruction and reconfiguration. Often, by holding onto projects and organizations that have lived beyond their impact, we are starving the next project or organization of the resources and attention it needs to blossom. It's an unpleasant reality, but sometimes we serve the larger cultural ecology -- and the art form we love -- by letting our projects die.

Posted by ataylor at 8:38 AM | Comments (1)

May 8, 2006

I need a week

Lots of loose ends on other projects for me to tie up this week, so I'm taking a short break from blogging. I'll be back the week of May 15.

Posted by ataylor at 8:34 AM | Comments (1)

May 15, 2006

Clarity vs. Chatter

I had a fabulous time last week speaking with theater board members and leadership as part of the Theater Wisconsin gathering outside Milwaukee (at Ten Chimneys...if you haven't been, you need to go). The subject of my particular part of the event was ''Clarity vs. Chatter: The theater board's new role in knowing (or defining) the difference.''

There's an awful lot of chatter in board governance and in institutional leadership. It was fun and fascinating to explore the issue with folks in the trenches.

To get some clarity around the role of the governing board, we worked from a wonderfully clear statement from board guru John Carver:

“Simply put, the board exists (usually on someone else's behalf) to be accountable that its organization works.”

The two challenges for the cultural nonprofit in that definition are: on who's behalf, and the definition of what it means to "work." That's where the chatter begins, and the clarity tends to fade away. Thankfully, in both cases, the answers are up to the board to decide. Do you work for the audience, the artists, the community? Just decide and go with it. What does it mean for your organization to "work"? Decide that with clarity, and resist the tendency for others to define it for you -- funders, advocates, audiences, artists.

My thanks to Theater Wisconsin for the opportunity to chat. I hope any and all that were there contact me to continue the conversation.

Posted by ataylor at 12:20 AM | Comments (1)

May 16, 2006

Two conversations worth a moment

Just wanted to direct you to two conversations now going on-line that are worth a read:

ArtsJournal is hosting a conversation among critics, focusing on the changing universe of criticism, filtering, and insight on creative works. You can read the conversation from the beginning here, or jump directly to the most recent posts. Here's the topic in a nutshell:

With a growing flood of opinions available to all, some suggest that the influence of the traditional critic is waning, that the opinions of the many will drown out the power of the few. But in a time when access to information and entertainment and art seems to be growing exponentially, more than ever we need ways to to sort through the mass and get at the "good" stuff. The question is how? Where is the critical authority to come from?

Elsewhere on the web, Barry Hessenius is hosting a conversation on ''change'' in the cultural industries, featuring a bunch of folks (including me). The tiny topic in issue one is this:

What kinds of societal changes, patterns, trends, events and movements are likely in the next five to ten years that will have an impact on the arts, what might that imapct be, and how can we deal with it? How do we begin to even organize such a discussion?

Both on-line conversations are preludes to real-time discussions at conferences to come. I'll be participating in the live version at Americans for the Arts in Milwaukee in June.

Posted by ataylor at 8:54 AM | Comments (1)

May 19, 2006


One of my favorite moments of the week is the flurry of bounce-back e-mails I get every Friday morning, just after I send out my weblog's weekly summary. The subscribers who are away at a conference, or out in the world, or taking a day off, set up their autoresponders, alerting those that contact them that they aren't there. "Out of Office," "Sorry to Miss You," "Off at a Conference," say the subject lines. The body of the messages tell me where you've gone, how long you'll be there, and when you expect to return.

The reason I like these several-dozen autoresponders I get each week is that they are the only indication I get of who my subscribers are. If they're accepting e-mail, my post just wanders off into the world. If they're out of the office, I get a little ''ping'' bounced back, like some submarine sonar describing the invisible terrain around me.

It's a silly thing, I know. But it's a welcome flood of feedback. It's also fascinating to know that sometimes you learn the most about someone when they're not there.

Posted by ataylor at 7:45 AM | Comments (1)

May 22, 2006

Separating 'generic' and 'expected' from 'augmented'

A great overview from Neill Archer Roan explores an essential marketing and audience experience model for arts and cultural managers. The model, originated by Theodore Levitt back in 1980, suggests why so many marketing and experience efforts in the arts fall flat: because they never rise above the generic expectations of the audience.

generic, expected, augmentedIn a nutshell, Levitt's model suggests that all elements of a product, service, or experience fall into three value categories for consumers: generic, expected, and augmented. Generic elements are things every such product or service would offer (ie, you would expect every grocery store to have food for sale). Expected elements are those things beyond the generic, but still expected from a quality provider (you would expect a good grocery store to be clean, well-stocked, and well-staffed). Augmented elements are the surprises, what Roan calls the ''wow'' that consumers don't expect from the experience (having your standard monthly order waiting for you in a shopping cart when you arrive at the store, for example).

When you try to differentiate yourself based on generic or expected values, you can wind up screaming into the wind. Yes, we know you have a beautiful space with thoughtful repertoire, extended program notes, and nice color photos of your artists. We expect that from any cultural organization in your class. With these elements, you can lose points for not providing them, but you can rarely gain points by marketing them better. They're expected, tell me what else you've got.

Roan also notes that the elements of experience tend to shift inward on the model as innovations become standard practices. He gives the example of web sites:

For example, it wasn’t all that long ago that only large arts institutions had web sites. They were uncommon enough that they weren’t expected; they were in the augmented product level. Today, audiences expect even small organizations to have web sites.

Having one isn’t enough, either. It must be well-designed, easy-to-navigate, intuitive, and anticipate the information that audiences want to retrieve. As innovations become more broadly diffused throughout a category, these innovations migrate inward from augmented level to the expected level. A strong argument may be made that some innovations become so integral to a product that they become generic. Today, web sites (which were once part of the augmented bundle) are part of the expected bundle. You’re expected to have one. Period.

So give Neill's overview a read, then take a look at your most recent season brochure or exhibition preview. Are you selling yourself entirely on things your audience expects you to provide? If so, how could you add the augmented, the unexpected, to your public descriptions of who you are?

Posted by ataylor at 9:03 AM | Comments (3)

May 23, 2006

Affective forecasting

Really fascinating stuff in this conversation with Harvard psychology professor Daniel Gilbert. Gilbert is most known for his work on ''affective forecasting,'' or the uniquely human ability to predict the pleasure or pain of future experiences, and to make choices based on those predictions. Says Gilbert:

We are the only animals that can peer deeply into our futures -- the only animal that can travel mentally through time, preview a variety of futures, and choose the one that will bring us the greatest pleasure and/or the least pain. This is a remarkable adaptation -- which, incidentally, is directly tied to the evolution of the frontal lobe -- because it means that we can learn from mistakes before we make them. We don't have to actually have gallbladder surgery or lounge around on a Caribbean beach to know that one of these is better than another.

His research focuses on such predictions -- which define so many human choices in daily, monthly, or the entirety of life -- and the systematic errors we make in the process. He continues:

We may do this better than any other animal, but our research suggests that we don't do it perfectly. Our ability to simulate the future and to forecast our hedonic reactions to it is seriously flawed, and that people are rarely as happy or unhappy as they expect to be.

Gilbert spends quite a bit of time on projections of negative experiences (loss, criticism, and such), but he also explores how people predict their emotional reactions to positive events. In both cases, the human mind tends to predict more happiness or unhappiness than actually materializes. And we don't tend to learn over time to temper these predictions, despite repeated experience. Part of the reason, Gilbert says, is that we are unaware of our own coping mechanisms that soften the blow of unpleasant experiences -- rationalization, justification, etc. Another part of the reason is that when predicting our reaction to a future experience, we tend to isolate that experience in our mind, rather than seeing it in context. Says he:

When we're trying to predict how happy we will be in a future that contains Event X, we tend to focus on Event X and forget about all the other events that also populate that future -- events that tend to dilute the hedonic impact of Event X. In a sense, we are slaves to the focus of our own attention. For example, in one study we asked college students to predict how happy or unhappy they would be a few days after their home team won or lost a football game, and they expected the game to have a large impact on their hedonic state. But when we simply asked them to name a dozen other things that would happen in those days before they made their predictions, the game had far less impact on their predictions. In other words, once they thought about how well-populated the future was, they realized that the game was just one of many sources of happiness and that its impact would be diluted by others.

Now, if the theory and study of ''affective forecasting'' isn't immediately relevant to you as an arts marketer, manager, or development officer, I'm clearly not doing my job as a blogger. Go read.

Posted by ataylor at 8:54 AM | Comments (2)

May 26, 2006

Americans for the Arts panel

I'm pleased to be participating in the upcoming Americans for the Arts Convention in Milwaukee next week, and hope to see many of you there. I'm among a panel of folks, coordinated by Barry Hessenius, on the topic of ''change,'' and what arts and cultural leaders might do about that ever-present and ever-increasing critter.

The panel will include me, Barry, Nancy Glaze, Cora Mirikitani, Bob Lynch, Anthony Radich and Cuong Hoang, and will run from 3:45 to 5:00 pm on Saturday, June 3. We'll be building on an on-line collaborative conversation already started, but not near complete. If you're attending the convention, come on by. Should be fun.

Posted by ataylor at 11:13 AM | Comments (1)

May 30, 2006

Choreographing public space

An article in the Sunday New York Times describes a collaboration between architect David Rockwell and choreographer Jerry Mitchell. Together, they conceived the structure and flow of the new JetBlue Airways terminal being built at Kennedy International Airport. The intent of the collaboration was to create a space that encourages people to move well.

The project led them to explore productive public spaces around New York. Among them, Radio City Music Hall's Grand Foyer offered a recurring theme of the power of interior architecture in directing individual and social behavior:

Individual behavior is only part of the story; the Grand Foyer also alters the behavior of crowds, who instinctively know how to use it. Much as a dancer doing pirouettes keeps her eyes focused on a reference point so she won't get dizzy, visitors, without even realizing it, use the room's precisely deployed architectural signposts -- stairway, chandelier, mirrors, doorframes -- to align themselves and stay on track. As a result, Radio City can pull 5,900 people through its lobby without contusion or confusion; more than that, it does so with the theatricality and orderliness that you might imagine at a formal ball.

Rockwell and Mitchell had worked together before on several Broadway shows -- The Rocky Horror Show, Hairspray, and Dirty Rotten Scoundrels -- where Rockwell's set designs had framed and influenced Mitchell's choreography. The extension of the collaboration into massive public space seemed a provocative next step. We'll know how well it worked when the facility opens in 2008.

In the meanwhile, it's striking to realize how little such work is done in cultural facility design and construction, where public spaces are generally less about helping patrons find their way through the building, and more about large pools of people (just see, for example, how many ushers it takes to direct people to the correct theater entrance, or how many people in a lobby look confused). Elegant public spaces tell you how they should be used, while also letting you find your own way. You would think cultural organizations would be the first to recognize this fact.

We may be stuck in the assumption that the lobby or foyer is just a holding room for the true experiential spaces in our buildings -- the galleries and theaters that hold the art. But, as Mitchell comments in the Times article, the distinction between the functional space and the creative space many not be as dramatic as we think:

"Is it an airport? Is it a Broadway show? What's the difference?"

Posted by ataylor at 9:01 AM | Comments (4)

May 31, 2006

Museums and the rights of publicity

An interesting story on NPR yesterday explored a unique lawsuit pending against the John Dillinger Museum in Hammond, Indiana. It seems one of Dillinger's descendents doesn't care for the museum's representation of Dilliinger as a murderer (certainly a thief, but not a convicted killer). Since he can't sue them for slander, he is invoking his ''rights of publicity,'' which restrict the use of someone's image or name for commercial purposes. In some states, that right extends to an individual's heirs.

The first court agreed with the heir. The museum is now appealing the decision.

Whether or not a museum is a commercial activity or a form of free expression is one of the questions up for review. The fact that this particular museum is affiliated with chamber of commerce as a tourist draw probably doesn't help matters. Its seemingly brash approach to its subject matter also begs the question of its ''museum cred.''

But the larger question is a fascinating one: At what point does an individual's or heir's rights to their name and image end, and the public exploration of history begin? And in an increasingly exploitative world, how might cultural institutions need to explore and rethink the burden of that balance?

Many museums will likely be watching the results of this case, as will I.

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

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