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November 3, 2003

A new blogger joins the fray

I'm pleased to note that frequent reader and commenter on this blog, Drew McManus, today launched his own weblog on ArtsJournal, called 'Adaptistration'. It's focus will be specifically on the status, potential, and challenges of the orchestra in American society. He and I have been flinging comments back and forth since this blog began, and I look forward to moving that conversation on-line.

I'm also glad to have the burden of symphony administration removed from my plate and moved to his. Not that I don't enjoy a good conversation about managing symphonies, but they are such a specific beast in the nonprofit arts and culture world (and such a conversation-dominating one), that we often miss the interesting stories in the other 95 percent of the field. (I made the analogy about symphonies, whales, kelp, and krill in an early post back in July.)

I'll still be writing about symphonies, mind you. But I'll likely leave the specifics to Drew and focus more on the wider world of arts and cultural management. So, do check out his weblog, and the future connections between us.

Posted by ataylor at 9:11 AM

November 4, 2003

PAC: Miami

More plot twists and bad news in Miami-Dade, as the opening day of their massive performing arts center (PAC) is delayed again. As some will recall, I touched on this soap opera back in an early weblog entry. But it's now become a 'whodunnit'.

Major errors in the construction of the facility, according to the article, include:

  • Improper work on structures that insulate the performance auditoriums from vibration and street noise.
  • Manufacturing problems with doors that close off about 100 echo chambers along the side of the symphony hall to tailor the sound for various performances.
  • Incorrectly fabricated steel tubes that form the frame for balconies where patrons will gather during intermissions.
In a related story, the 'whodunnit' is also becoming a 'who'sgonnapayforit', as the operating costs of the building start to sink in. A projected income shortfall of $2.7 million per year has left the management of the future facility scrambling for other income. The projected deficit comes even after earnings on a $21 million endowment, $1.4 million from a county 'bed tax,' up to $250,000 from the county cultural affairs department, and rentals from the resident companies.

The full range of services to earn revenue will also extend to corporate events and private functions (a strong source of income for many cultural facilities). Says new programming manager Justin Macdonnell: 'We'll even rent the lobby space for office parties, weddings and bar mitzvahs.'

Let the bookings begin.

Posted by ataylor at 8:36 AM

November 5, 2003

Zooming in on economic impact

I've gone on before about economic impact studies on the arts and their hazy logic (but astounding power among legislators). Now, two researchers in Toronto are attempting a different tack in assessing the civic impact of arts and cultural activity.

Instead of taking the macro view of a city or community and its arts-related activity, they are focusing in to a much smaller radius (500 meters around three specific arts facilities). By zooming in, they hope to discover the micro-developments that rise and fall around arts centers:

Their hope was that a highly detailed approach to a very small area would give them a more convincing picture of the impact of the arts than the larger but more general economic studies. They looked at economic factors such as how many building permits had been applied for; the turnover of retail businesses, the sales generated by square foot of retail space, rents and property values in the neighbourhood, and the employment rate. And they looked at social measures such as crime statistics and the age, ethnicity and education of residents, as well as polling residents about how they felt about their neighbourhoods. Was there buzz about the arts facility? Did they perceive the area to be cleaner?

What did they find? Among their tiny sample, property values, renovations, and retail sales generally went up over their control group. Residents largely saw the arts facilities as agents of positive change, but complained about traffic. And a few odd variations seemed worthy of further exploration (in one area, major crimes fell, but auto and minor thefts increased).

W.E. Deming once said that "All models are wrong. Some models are useful." And while this version of the economic impact study certainly has its flaws, it does seem to suggest a more interesting and actionable perspective of arts facilities in an urban setting (especially to zoning boards).

Posted by ataylor at 9:00 AM

November 6, 2003

Ousting the Nutcracker

Pointe shoes are flying in Boston after the Wang Center for the Performing Arts announced that it's bumping the Boston Ballet in 2004 from their traditional performances of The Nutcracker, possibly replacing that slot with the "Radio City Christmas Spectacular".

The Wang Center has been the home for the Boston Ballet's cash cow holiday performances for 35 years (except for one year when the roof was considered unsafe). As in many other cities, The Nutcracker has been the engine of survival for resident ballet companies, in this case, generating 30 percent of the organization's annual income.

This is one of the more public and brazen examples of a trend that's likely to bubble up around the country. Major performance venues are feeling the economic pinch along with every other arts organization. Often, the resident companies of these venues have discount rental arrangements, subsidized by the major touring shows (Broadway musicals, spectaculars like Stomp and Riverdance, and so on). As money gets tighter, the performing arts venues will be increasingly tempted by full-rent, big-revenue touring shows over the resident companies, especially when both want the best weekends of the year.

It's not an easy nut to crack, if you'll pardon the pun. But the questions of mission and money are coming soon to a venue near you.

Posted by ataylor at 9:12 AM

November 7, 2003

Attack of the Rockettes

In an addendum to yesterday's post about the Boston Ballet being bumped for the Rockettes holiday spectacular, the Boston Globe now reports that its a national phenomenon.

Since 1994, the Radio City Christmas Spectacular has entered 17 markets nationwide, with five units now touring to eight cities. Denver and Boston are the next in line for the invasion.

In many cities, the local production of The Nutcracker has been the main holiday spectacular, generating lots of ticket sales and cash that supported the ballet companies for the rest of their seasons. The competition from a major touring production has hit these organizations right in the budget. In Arizona, for example, the Nutcracker revenues dropped 40 percent when the Rockettes kicked into the market.

What are ballet companies doing to respond? In many cases, they are focusing efforts on more marketing, more hype, and less emphasis on the ballet's classical traditions. Martin Fredmann, the CEO and Artistic Director of Denver's Colorado Ballet, is gearing up for the fight:

'What we have to do, sadly, is advertise our show as a great spectacle, a great show, and great family entertainment,' says Fredmann. 'We will not use the word ballet.'

Posted by ataylor at 8:36 AM

November 10, 2003

Oh yeah, this is supposed to be fun

An interesting bit of self-serving research comes from scientists in Utrecht, who discovered that an hour a day of fairly lame computer games can increase productivity and job satisfaction. Researchers allowed a target group of corporate employees to play up to an hour of computer games each day at work (they chose when), while a control group was not allowed to play at all...just work. The game-playing group showed higher levels of job satisfaction.

Set aside the fact that they had to play goofy Windows games like Solitaire and Minesweeper, and there's an irony in here somewhere. I've seen so many examples of process-numb administrative staff at professional nonprofit arts organizations...mailing lists, flyer photocopying, pencil counting, memo-writing, board-packet preparing, and on and on.

Somewhere in our struggle to become corporate and office-like, we can easily forget that this work is a blast. We get to work with astounding artists, eager volunteers, and other passionate people with a common love for an art form. When we can remember and recognize that joyous potential (and when management finds ways to reconnect their staff to it), we don't need a round of Donkey-Kong to make work fun.

Posted by ataylor at 8:45 AM

November 13, 2003

Says you...

If there were a encyclopedia entry on the challenges of high-power nonprofit cultural boards, American Ballet Theater's board would certainly be the group photo. Yet another case in point for the uber-board's dysfunction comes thanks to Movado watch chairman Gedalio Grinberg, who plucked his company's traditionally generous annual support from ABT and gave it to rival New York City Ballet. The highly public 'dressing down' is now fodder for the financial and cultural media (see the Financial Times, or the New Jersey Star-Ledger, or the today's New York Times).

ABT has a proud history of contempt and power struggles among its board, and has a growing stack of disgruntled or discarded Executive Directors to prove it. With a $35 million annual operating budget, there isn't much choice but to gather New York's rich and powerful to governance. But it also seems a fact of nature that such a gathering will devolve to a sort of high-society 'Lord of the Flies'.

At issue in this particular dispute is what Grinberg claims to be an increasing financial reliance of ABT on the board's new chairman, Lewis S. Ranier, and a decreasing availability of relevant and accurate financial reports. Ranier responded that he has "nothing but respect" for Grinberg, and that the loss of the corporate support was a wonderful opportunity for ABT (in my head, I'm thinking 'Rolex').

This one will be worth watching in Google News, if only for the combination of fascination and disgust that's usually reserved for reality TV. The sad part here is that there's actually something at stake.

Posted by ataylor at 8:26 AM

November 17, 2003

A little whimsy goes a long way

If you've grown weary of the catch-phrases, slogans, taglines, and hucksterism of arts marketing, or the endless efforts to motivate an increasingly corporate staff, two nonarts organizations may hold the cure: Despair, Inc., and the Church Ad Project. One's a joke (and a great one), the other is an honest attempt to market religion in the big league. Both are fabulous for a well-earned laugh.

Despair, Inc., grew out of those nauseating motivational posters that cropped up on office walls and business catalogues a few years back (motivation, leadership, vision). This company makes very dark, highly sarcastic versions, suitable for framing. A few favorites that are particularly relevant to nonprofit arts managers, when they are in their dark place:

Pretension: The downside of being better than everyone else is that people tend to assume you're pretentious.

Adversity: That which does not kill me postpones the inevitable.

Meetings: None of us is as dumb as all of us.

Consulting: If you're not a part of the solution, there's good money to be made in prolonging the problem.

Motivation: If a pretty poster and a cute saying are all it takes to motivate you, you probably have a very easy job. The kind robots will be doing soon.

On the slightly more serious side, the Church Ad Project has spent the last 24 years supplying creative, cost-effective advertising and marketing tools for churches. In essense, they turn the big idea of the Ad Council (applying ad agency muscle to public service announcements) toward the effort to get butts in seats (or more accurately, butts in pews).

Leaf through their on-line catalog of stock ads, posters, and promotional merchandise, and you feel the same odd amuseument you get from a really clever cultural ad campaign. After all, both the Church Ad Project and the nonprofit arts are trying to sell highly abstract, intrinsic services to a broad audience...and constantly teetering between selling and selling out. Some favorites here:

Wireless: Prayer always provides a crystal clear connection between you and God. And there's never a charge for roaming.

Free Coffee: Free coffee. Everlasting life. Yes, membership has its privileges.

Dress Casual: It's okay to dress casual for church. Jesus did.

Original Powerbook: It comes with 4000 years of memory, images that are crystal clear, and an everlasting supply of energy. In fact, the Bible is the world's first and favorite laptop. Join us as we study it's lessons this Sunday.

Posted by ataylor at 1:46 PM

November 20, 2003

Arts Administration Training: A rebuttal

My blog neighbor, Drew McManus, posted an entry earlier this month on 'The trouble with arts administration degrees'. The underlying flaw with these programs, he suggested, was this:

Simply put, arts administration degrees are too vague and don't spend enough time focusing on the unique attributes of managing a particular medium of art. Each branch of art (music, visual, dance, drama, and writing) is unique in its own way, and to fully understand the creative process behind that art form takes an individual intimately familiar with it.

Since I'm the director of one such offending degree program, I suppose its up to me to defend our collective honor. One frustration is that I tend to agree with Drew that there are problems with the way we have traditionally taught management leaders in Arts Administration. Luckily for the argument, however, I think the trouble lies in our overemphasis on 'unique attributes of managing,' rather than the lack of it. And I'd suggest that Drew's cure would actually make the patient worse.

Management and leadership training, in a perfect world, asks three questions:

  • What are the qualities, skills, and abilities of effective leaders or managers in the industry as we have defined it?
  • Among those, which qualities, skills, and abilities can be trained or fostered through structured learning, which are advanced through apprenticeship and hands-on experience, and which can only be recognized as already there?
  • What media, methods, context, and content will most effectively convey, impart, transfer, or encourage the development of the few qualities, skills, and abilities we can actually influence?
In arguments about arts administration training, we rarely get past the first question. It's not a surprise, since the question contains so many charged and vague elements (What's 'effective'? What's the difference between qualities, skills, and abilities? What's the useful boundary of the industry: Artistic discipline? Tax status? Popular or aesthetic intent? Civic function?).

Drew's argument suggests that an overriding key to success as an arts manager is an artist's and craftsman's knowledge of the specific discipline being managed (orchestral performance, ballet, etc.)...not just love and passion for it, but extensive training in its production. I suggest that such depth of first-hand knowledge can be a nice quality in an effective manager, but it's not the fount of all good. In fact, it is myopia in all of its forms that has led us down our current path to confusion (seeing only as an artist, only as a manager, only as a marketing director).

Effective and kinetic managers and leaders of arts organizations are masters of synergy. They bring together artists, audiences, facilities, resources, as well as other creative, administrative, and support staff, all for a moment of connection. Beyond that, they foster an environment of complex constituents that supports recurrance and growth of that connection over time. These are artists of social engagement, of organizational structure, of fiscal management, of complex and dynamic thinking, of problem solving, of clear action and purpose, of storytelling, and of flexible perspective.

We can't train for much of the above, but we can foster, enhance, guide, and reinforce those qualities when we find them. Let's not limit our pool of prospects to a special few (especially a special few trained often in complete isolation from the social, civic, and educational elements of their art). Let's open our eyes wide to see who's up for the task.

More to come...

Posted by ataylor at 8:59 AM

November 21, 2003

Fun with mission statements

The parody newspaper The Onion has a fabulous tradition of satirizing the arts within its pages...from the article on Congress' accidental approval of more funding for the NEA to the artist protests outside a new exhibit that contained no combined religious iconography and excrement, to the classic story on the 'Tony Danza Curriculum' that harvested the cliches of arts education.

This week's edition has a news brief on mission statements that's sure to strike home with many this case not actually about an arts organization:

Donut Shop's Mission Statement Awfully Ambitious
FREEHOLD, NJ‹Patrons at Dotty's Donuts on Cranston Avenue agree that the mission statement posted near the shop's entrance seems overly ambitious. "It said, 'At Dotty's, our goal is to reinvent the morning,'" Dotty's patron Ken Mentilli said. "'Dotty's Donuts are guaranteed to bring a smile to your face and a ray of light into your soul.' That seems like a tall order for a donut shop." Mentilli added that Dotty's may not be able to deliver on its promise to "change the world, one fresh-baked bear claw at a time."

Posted by ataylor at 2:44 PM

November 24, 2003

Selling the Grim

The Sunday NY Times piece on how Hollywood sells grim and depressing movies to a mass audience felt like deja-vu all over again. In a nutshell, the article explored the challenge of selling difficult movies with a potential for larger audiences:

For moviegoers, dark films raise a basic question: Why subject yourself to death, devastation and anguish when you can see "Elf" instead? That is the kind of question marketers hate to see in print. For them the issue is: How can you entice viewers to an emotionally grueling movie, short of handing out anti-depressants at the door?

The short answer, according to the specialists quoted in the article, is smoke and mirrors. Never say 'grim' and 'depressing', but focus on 'mystery' and 'intrigue'. Push the news angle about the film's author, or emphasize the Grammy potential of the acting. The ideal combo is to allow a dark but hazy sense of something bad happening, and then garner the positive reviews, news buzz, and water-cooler chatter to get a larger audience to pay for the downer experience.

The deja-vu comes from recent weblogs, exploring the challenge of Nutcracker ballet productions across the country, in competition with the Rockettes' holiday spectacular stage show. Said one ballet company artistic director:

'What we have to do, sadly, is advertise our show as a great spectacle, a great show, and great family entertainment...We will not use the word ballet.'

The wordplay also recalls posts on Terry Teachout's blog about why we don't call certain musical/theatrical works 'operas,' but rather 'musicals' or 'serious chamber musicals'. The answer, as other blogger Greg Sandow suggested, is that composers would like to be paid, would like their works performed more than once, and fewer people will buy a ticket to an opera than a musical.

It's all a matter of semantics, of course, but that's what marketing is. It just seems that somewhere in the spin and wordplay, we may eventually lose sight of the actual selling proposition of non-mainstream cultural experiences...they are rarified, clarified experiences of the highest calibre of human expression. That's worth a few bucks, I think.

Posted by ataylor at 8:24 AM

November 25, 2003

Happy Thanksgiving

I'm off for a few days to rest the brain, hang with family, and eat far too much food. Here's hoping you all have a happy and artful Thanksgiving.

Posted by ataylor at 4:48 PM

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