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October 1, 2003

You are what you measure

A recent article in the Washington Post explores the impact of short essays in standardized tests like state proficiency exams, the SAT, and the ACT. While concise writing is certainly an essential skill, the opening paragraph of the article shows the dark side of measures and incentives.

Sara Stevens is a very bright high school senior who wants to be creative in her writing. Like most American teenagers, though, she knows what will get her the best grade. "The essays have to be made-to-order, with topic sentences and a thesis and a conclusion," she said. "That's what the teacher wants to see, so that is what I write."

In a seemingly unrelated news item, the Chicago Climate Exchange held its first auction of carbon dioxide emission allowances yesterday, marking "the first multinational, public trading of greenhouse gases." In the exchange, companies that have trouble meeting emission standards can buy allowances from companies that are doing better than the requirements.

So what on earth do these stories have in common? And how can they possibly relate to arts management? Simply this: individuals and organizations value what is measured, but don't always measure what they value. We can either recognize and leverage that fact through creative measures and incentives (the emissions exchange turns regulatory standards into cash transactions, providing more immediate incentive to profit-driven companies to comply), or we can shrug our shoulders and say that it's the best we can do (we HAVE to use short, concise's a standardized test that needs to be graded).

As for the relevance to arts and cultural management, just look at the measures and incentives that drive how nonprofits behave in the world: grant guidelines, reporting requirements, civic success factors based on economic impact, individual donors, headcount reporting on funding reports ('the event drew 15,000 public school children to our venue'), ill-conceived budget forms and formulas on funding request applications, and on and on.

Certainly, we have to measure and analyze to be accountable, to inform our future programs, and to focus our efforts where they can make a difference. But every measure and incentive should also be consistent with our larger values and goals, or at least should be thought through to see where its gravity might pull us.

Posted by ataylor at 9:05 AM

October 3, 2003

Rethinking how we think

I'll be the first to admit that it's easy to take potshots at an industry when you don't take the next step and suggest alternatives. Weblogs in general, and this one as well, seem to be wonderful platforms for potshots, but often only sketchy at solutions. They are on-line rants, after all, intended to be short and pithy.

So, this weekend, I'm taking a small step toward a different way of seeing things. With friends and associates John Kreidler (of Cultural Initiatives Silicon Valley) and Russell W. Taylor (of National Arts Strategies), my graduate center is co-hosting a roundtable of some of the smartest individuals we know in the field of arts and culture.

The Cultural Dynamics Project is an attempt to use new eyes on a young industry. In this case, the eyes are 'systems thinking,' a discipline of mapping and analyzing complex, interrelated systems (like viruses, social services, migration patterns, and intergalactic space). We conveners of this event have a hunch that there are some interesting opportunities in applying this discipline to our understanding of arts and culture in America. So the smart people are coming to give the idea a test drive.

Of course, it may be just us. In which case, we'll merrily return to our potshots and ranting. But if it sticks, the application of systems thinking to arts and cultural management may become an on-going project of my center, and an alternative suggested in the midst of my on-line rants. I'll keep you posted.

Posted by ataylor at 8:52 AM

October 7, 2003

My head hurts

An apology for missing a day or five in my posts. I'm still unbundling my brain after a really interesting weekend of deep thought (see my last post for details). Stay tuned for a full debriefing.

In the meantime, to keep the links going, take a look at this interesting article in the Chicago Tribune, about the rise of kitsch and commemorative junk as a revenue source for arts organizations.

Posted by ataylor at 9:17 AM

October 13, 2003

State of the Art

The following text was part of a plenary panel at the 2003 Social Theory, Politics & the Arts conference in Columbus, Ohio, on October 9. Each panelist was asked for a ten-minute history and status report on their area of specialization (from sociology, to cultural policy, to economics, and so on). My assignment was arts administration—the management of primarily nonprofit and public arts and cultural organizations. A longer version of these remarks will appear in a future issue of theJournal of Arts Management, Law and Society.

Social Theory, Politics & the Arts Conference
Columbus, Ohio
October 9, 2003
Opening plenary session remarks of Andrew Taylor, Director
Bolz Center for Arts Administration

In preparing for this session, I reviewed what articles and writings I could find on the history of arts administration. As I reread the classic and recent histories of performing arts, visual arts, nonprofits, and the like, an old joke my father used to tell kept creeping into my head. With your forgiveness, here’s how it goes:

An individual (man or woman, you decide) goes to the tailor (again, man or woman, you decide) to pick up a brand new suit (Armani or Donna Karan, you decide). When trying it on, this person notices that the fit is horrendous…one arm is longer than the other, one leg is shorter than the other, the buttons don't come together in the front, and on and on. When he or she mentions this, the tailor jumps right in to address the problems.

"Just raise your left arm," he or she says, "and bend it slightly. Now, bend your right leg and extend your left. And hunch your shoulders, tilting your head to the side, and there you go!" Seeking to be an accommodating customer, and because he or she has urgent things to do, the individual assumes this position, and limps out of the shop into the street. At just that moment, two medical students are walking by. Upon seeing our suited friend, one says to the other, "Have you ever seen such a textbook example of that particular disorder?" And the other says, "No, I haven't, but doesn't the suit fit nicely?"

Such is the life and work of the nonprofit arts and cultural manager. Governed by an 18th-century board structure borrowed from universities and zoological societies, guided by a 1950s concept of corporate practice, and tugged by a broadening array of revenue streams and constituents, arts administrators have made a craft of contortion, and have made contortion a craft. Alongside the creative and technical professionals, arts administrators have fostered an astounding industry by adapting tools that never quite fit the job, and leveraging resources that never quite fit the need.

And yet, the suit fit nicely, just the same. The growth in the number and size of professional arts and culture organizations over the past four decades has been astounding, as many great researchers in this room will tell you. And the corresponding growth of arts management programs, executive training opportunities, professional associations, consultants, researchers, and funding sources seemed to follow suit.

As it evolved, the arts management field came to be defined by its creative solutions, its contortions in the face of challenge, its war stories, and its increasing attempts at business disciplines. Phrases like 'yield management,' 'best practices,' 'core competencies,' and 'customer service' started popping up at national conference workshops. Foundations and other funders became increasingly sophisticated in their interventions, and in designing measures and incentives to help arts organizations grow in what they defined as the appropriate direction.

Over time, however, contortion itself becomes a habit. The bends and twists of our efforts enter our muscle memory and begin to feel like our natural state. The resourceful shortcuts of a previous age become the 'best practices' of management training. To an outside observer, after four decades, our industry has come to look much like that patron leaving the suit shop—strangely contorted, but impeccably dressed.

Nowadays, signs of that dichotomy are everywhere. They are in the recurring conference theme of 'blurring boundaries,' that miss the point that the boundary was never real. They are in the increasingly sophisticated functional disciplines—from marketing to development to education to outreach—that seem to speak in separate languages rather than dialects of the same endeavor. They are in the 'best practices' and 'critical success factors' that pop up in research reports, implying that action and context can be separated. They are in the growing challenges of leadership succession, where general management positions at the highest level have only specialists available to fill them. And they are in the fitful struggles of arts organizations in the face of this year's 'perfect storm' of funding constriction (earned, individual, foundation, government, and corporate).

Winston Churchill once said about architecture, "We shape our buildings, and afterwards our buildings shape us." This has certainly been the case for the last forty years of arts administration. We are an industry of emergence, formed by the accrual of millions of individual choices made by millions of seemingly independent actors.

Lucky for us, we are just beginning to realize that the architecture that shaped us is movable and malleable. It wasn't built with bricks and mortar, but with myth, with metaphor, and with a collective construction of purpose, identity, and meaning.

It's a striking irony and a sign of hope that these are the very elements of art itself. Perhaps a more elegant and responsive metaphor for management has been hiding right in front of us all this time. Perhaps, if we look at ourselves with clarity and honesty, we'll see that we don't have to contort to fit the suit, but that we can change the suit to fit our needs. There's a growing feeling among my peers and associates that, in fact, we have a full wardrobe at our disposal, if we can open our minds enough to see.

Posted by ataylor at 9:24 AM

What price music?

The Sunday New York Times had this interesting article on the price of recorded music. It tracked the relative price of each new recording medium, from vinyl to eight-track to cassette to CD and now to the on-line world, noting that prices often doubled with the introduction of each new medium. The difference, of course, came with the growing standard of 99 cents per song, that Apple seemed to make up but that also seems to have stuck.

Big questions include whether individual track purchase will hurt sales of the CDs on which they live (why buy the cow when you can get a glass of milk?). But more interesting (to me, at least), were the implications about why people bought music, and what environments supported that purchase. Part of the power of Napster was the way it facilitated not just music trade, but also sharing of favorite tracks with like-minded individuals, the 'dream playlists' that let listeners flex their curatorial muscles, and the sense of community and connection afforded by the commons.

As one market researcher says in the Times piece:

"Creating a viable online music service is less about acquisition than tapping into what makes music work on a social level," said Mike McGuire, research director for media at GartnerG2, who has explored Napster and several of the other new services. "Once you get beyond the transaction to that place where it's kind of magic, I think what you're doing is ensuring future transactions."

While it sounds awfully revenue-centric, there are some interesting perspectives in that quote about what arts organizations sell, and what our patrons buy.

Posted by ataylor at 11:59 AM

October 14, 2003

You are here...

Last week, I was attending one of my personal favorite conferences, Social Theory, Politics & the Arts, in Columbus, Ohio. It's a favorite because of the funky mix of presentations you'll find there (although decidedly less funky this time around)...from tatoo art as social identity to the sociology of public art in Berlin to cultural policy development in Nepal to leadership succession in arts organizations.

Because this was thought to be the 30th anniversary of the event (but turned out to be the 29th), there was an opening plenary panel offering perspectives on the history and status of the many disciplines involved. I was asked to offer 10 minutes on the history and state of Arts Administration, and did so with about a thousand caveats. I've posted my comments in this weblog's 'Thoughbucket' for any that care to read them.

Posted by ataylor at 8:23 AM

October 15, 2003

Long live the Executive Director (we hope)

The boom of nonprofit arts organizations over the 80s and 90s had much to do with the economy, and with the rise of philanthropy, but also with the massive inflow of educated, passionate individuals into the workforce. As outlined in John Kreidler's classic article on the dynamics of nonprofit arts in America Leverage Lost, these workers were young and idealistic, willing to take a salary hit to do something they loved, and confident that the job market would support them when they changed their minds. Now, of course, professional leaders of arts organizations are entering their later years. And just in terms of size, the next wave of candidates isn't nearly as big.

Given that dynamic, it's not just constrictions in earned income, individual giving, and funding from government, corporations, and foundations that should have us wondering what's coming. We should also be watching the workforce dynamics as the boomers wander toward retirement age.

Professional churn has its benefits, I'll admit. Fresh ideas and new perspectives can do wonders to reconnect an arts organization to its purpose (assuming that's what the board has in mind). But that's only true if there are engaged, professional, passionate, and creative people waiting in line to get into leadership positions. And they'll only be waiting if they haven't burned out on the whole idea of arts leadership by the time they get the chance.

An on-going effort by the Illinois Arts Alliance Foundation is looking into the issue of our current leaders are feeling, how emerging leaders are connecting or not to their career path, and where we can look to fill the inevitable gap. There's some good reading here, for any leader or board member with the slightest inkling that they should be thinking about their organization's longterm welfare.

Posted by ataylor at 8:16 AM

October 16, 2003

At least we're all going down together

A recent survey by Encyclopaedia Britannica shows that Americans aren't the only artistic illiterates (although we still do it with more flair). In the homeland of so much Western culture, the United Kingdom, the basic awareness of artists and art is just as grim. A few excerpts:

Nearly half (49%) of those questioned were also unable to identify who painted the Mona Lisa. One in 10 Britons cited Vincent Van Gogh instead of Leonardo da Vinci as the master behind the Louvre's most celebrated treasure.

Meanwhile, despite the painting's popularity with students, more than four out of five people (85%) cannot name the Norwegian painter Edvard Munch as the artist behind The Scream.

Of course, there's a large argument to say that people can engage in creative and artistic experience regardless of their book learnin'. But if engagement and enjoyment of the classic arts is dependent on a foundation knowledge of its history, we may have a problem.

Posted by ataylor at 10:28 AM

October 17, 2003

Positive spin

In checking some broken weblinks from past posts, I stumbled onto the fact that the National Endowment for the Arts has a new website, and a new catchy slogan to go with it. Take a peek at the new site, which features the tagline:

A Great Nation Deserves Great Art

It's an interesting return to nationalism for the agency, which was formed at the apex of America's Camelot complex and the cold war. Much of its early efforts in 'national treasure' organizations (ie, symphony, opera, ballet, etc.) seemed encouraged by a nationalistic need to have high culture equal to or better than our adversaries. The slogan is also an interesting move away from the more education and access equity positioning of the NEA after the culture wars...the arts serve community, make education work, etc.

Working in a business school, I may overanalyze branding efforts, and especially the power of the pithy purpose statement (flexing my alliteration muscles, sorry). But these taglines are often the best indicators of where an organization thinks it belongs, and what it thinks its audience wants to hear.

It will be interesting to see how this new positioning plays out in the actions and other communications of the agency. Chairman Dana Gioia already provided a yardstick to measure the process in his congressional testimony of last March.

Posted by ataylor at 11:46 AM

October 20, 2003


I'm in Seattle early this week at the Grantmakers in the Arts conference...lots of foundations and program officers trying to make sense of a down economy. The upshot is that I'll likely be patchy in my posts this week, but that I'll also emerge with some new links and fresh thoughts (okay, perhaps not fresh, but at least freshened by the Pacific Northwest air).

A first volley: after arriving in Seattle I visited the Pike Place Market, famous for the fish throwing and old farmer's market charm. I noticed that the floor tiles had become naming opportunities for lots of individual supporters...much like the floortiles or commemorative bricks of a new performing arts center or public piazza. So, at some point, this central marketplace became unsustainable as a market but necessary as a cultural institution (for tourists and local flavor).

Odds are that they're already planning an endowment campaign and starting a fish-throwing school to ensure the future of this cultural icon...perhaps there will be a conference.

Posted by ataylor at 12:01 AM

October 27, 2003

Flocking funders

As I mentioned last week, I participated in the annual Grantmakers in the Arts conference in Seattle, as part of a panel discussing web technology and the arts. The travel and time kept me from posting much to the weblog, but as usual, launched a thousand new questions in my head.

Here's one for today: What's the impact of foundations on the history of arts and cultural organizations?

By all accounts (and according to one of the keynoters at the conference, Lucy Bernholz), foundations make up only a small slice of the total giving pie in the nonprofit world (see this handy chart). Yet, you could argue that they've had a disproportionate impact on the shape and direction of the arts and culture infrastructure.

Why so powerful an impact? Because of the coordinated incentive they provide to arts and cultural leaders. The incentives, or rewarded rules of behavior, provided by foundations in their giving (their grant guidelines, giving restrictions, professional advice, and so on), have had an incremental impact on the choices of thousands of arts leaders over the past four decades.

Let's take a bizarre detour to make the point. Dynamic systems models of animal behavior have found very simple rules behind rather complex behavior. One example is the flocking of birds, or the schooling of fish. As this fascinating web simulation suggests, you can make simulated birds swoop and swarm in a computer model by encoding only three rules of behavior: 'alignment,' 'separation,' and 'cohesion'.

  • 'Alignment' means that a bird tends to turn so that it is moving in the same direction that nearby birds are moving.
  • 'Separation' means that a bird will turn to avoid another bird which gets too close.
  • 'Cohesion' means that a bird will move towards other nearby birds (unless another bird is too close).
  • When two birds are too close, the 'separation' rule overrides the other two, which are deactivated until the minimum separation is achieved.

So, am I suggesting that arts leaders think like birds and fish...well, no and yes. I'm suggesting that under stress and situations of limited resources, humans tend to respond to the most immediate stimulus (which makes sense, when you see a bear coming at you). In a vague and complex world of multiple funding streams, foundations have provided one of the few clear and direct rules of behavior to artists and arts supporters. Some of the most powerful rules have been:

  • 'Be Nonprofit' - since the 1960s, and the early lead of Ford and Rockefeller foundations, as well as the NEA, the large bulk of foundation giving has been to organizations formed as 501(c)3 nonprofits. As a result, nonprofit is the tax status of choice for arts and culture organizations, whether or not it's an optimal choice for their purpose.
  • 'Grow, Grow, Grow' - The bulk of foundations, throughout history, have funded projects rather than operations, with an additional bias toward NEW projects. To get funding, arts organizations had to add new projects and increase the scope and size of their activities (and their staff, and their budget, etc.). As a result, many nonprofit arts organizations find themselves bigger and more complex than they need to be.
  • 'Lie About Costs' - Okay, perhaps a bit harsh, but a common limit on foundation funding is that they will not cover overhead (rent, heat, light, etc.), only incremental project costs. Since such new projects necessarily take attention and energy away from other activities (staff only has so many hours in a day), and since foundations often won't recognize this fact, arts organizations are left to be dishonest with their funders and with themselves about what things cost (usually by padding their project costs, or just forgetting to account for them). In my humble opinion, the inability to accurately reflect true costs (cash, personnel, opportunity, etc.) to others and to themselves is one of they key structural flaws in arts organizations.

Some will certainly say that foundations don't coordinate with each other to create consistent and thoughtful incentives, to which I will agree. But there are common myths among funders, mostly unstated or unrecognized, that have led to a remarkable similarity in how they give. My point here is twofold: that foundations have had and can have a massive impact on the shape of arts and culture despite their status in the pie chart, and that the power of incentives has rarely been explored in a public and open way among them.

Much of the massive growth in arts and culture is due to the formation and growth of foundations, with many great things to thank them for. But perhaps some of the structural flaws and stumbling points for today's nonprofits should also be traced back to their doorstep.

Posted by ataylor at 10:06 AM

October 28, 2003

The Edifice Complex

Here's a story in the Guardian about the current status of the UK's arts building boom, funded in part by their public lottery fund a few years back. Many of the new facilities are struggling to find audiences to fill their glorious new spaces, and stumbling for income streams to keep the lights on.

It's not a problem unique to Great Britain. In the U.S., as well, the great economic boom of the past decade led to lots of big ideas and even bigger cultural facilities. Many are doing just fine, thank you. But dozens of new facilities are still under construction, wondering where the money to run them will come from.

One striking recent example is the Bellevue Art Museum in Washington, which closed its doors in September, less than two years after it entered a brand new $23-million facility (last week, a few more board members and a major donor jumped ship).

It raises a dumb question that keeps spinning in the back of my head. Is a cultural facility an asset or a liability? I don't mean metaphorically, but actually...meaning how do you put it in the accounts? In the corporate world, facilities are booked as assets (here's a definition)...they can be bought and sold, can be used to improve efficiency and financial stability. But in the world of nonprofit cultural organizations, the same structure may be booked as an asset, but behaves as a liability ('a financial obligation, debt, claim, or potential loss'). It's a future, longterm, ongoing expense commitment by an organization. It's difficult or impossible to sell, since the facilities are designed for a very specific purpose. And the mission-driven nature of the organization often precludes the money-making choices for its use (as they should).

I'm not suggesting we shouldn't have built them. I'm just wondering if this asset/liability concept, borrowed from for-profit corporate strategy, has lost something in translation to the nonprofit world. Could it be one more example of a business metaphor that we never quite thought through?

If so, let's project forward: If cultural facilities are really liabilities, than we've spent a decade in the U.S. and internationally building a massive debt stretching into the distant future. I'm guessing the Bellevue story, and the stories from the U.K., will be a common theme of the next five years. Or am I wrong?

Posted by ataylor at 8:21 AM

October 30, 2003

Facility Feedback

Faithful blog reader Drew McManus had a bone to pick with me about my most recent post, that questioned whether cultural facilities behave as assets (as they are booked) or as liabilities. I'm hoping other will join the argument, as well. With his permission, I quote:

Actually, I think you are wrong. A building is not a liability in the sense that it should be managed in such as way as to create either breakeven income or a profit. The problem with many of the larger capital projects is that there is no single owner, rather a foundation or arts consortium. This leads to no clear mission. I'll look at one of my local examples: the Myerhoff, in Baltimore. The symphony 'owns' the hall (not like Pittsburgh, but the symphony management hires the hall management). Therefore, they book renters in addition to the BSO in order to bring in additional income. This results in the facility as an asset. But like any building owned/operated by a nonprofit or for-profit, they have to manage the facility well enough to cover costs. I believe it ties in a great deal to how poorly orchestra's do in bringing in new audiences. They are seemingly just as incapable to draw audience participation for other non orchestra acts.

I'm a big proponent that a primary tenant must also operate the hall in which they perform. The two management teams must come under the auspices of a single board and the income from ancillary renters must focus on supporting the primary tenant. Without that, then you are correct, a hall is a liability. Perhaps it's a better observation of bad management vs. good management.

So says Drew, what do the rest of you think?

Posted by ataylor at 1:20 AM

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