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October 3, 2005

With Broadway in Vegas, the house may win again

Regional and metropolitan performing arts centers and touring houses may have yet one more thing to worry about in their eroding business models -- the aggressive entry of Las Vegas into their world. The New York Times covered the trend yesterday (login required, try BugMeNot if you don't have an Times account). But the issue was bubbling even late last year among industry sources. Says the Times:

If it isn't already, Las Vegas will soon be the second city of Broadway, home to more New York musicals than any market outside Manhattan. It was this, not just snobbery, behind the "Avenue Q" alarm: the fear of further disruption in an already unstable business. If Broadway shows went to Vegas instead of touring, what would happen to the traditional road theaters and their customers? More saliently, what would happen to their backers, who are often investors in New York productions? If they were outflanked by casino operators, how would that alter the kinds of shows that make it to Broadway in the first place? For even though the tail of touring had to some degree wagged the dog of Broadway for years, Vegas now threatened to clone a new dog entirely. A big dog with sequins.

In Vegas, Broadway producers can get the theater they want (built for them, in fact) rather than cram into the existing, landmarked real estate in New York; their artists can live comfortably in one city for the run, rather than bumping from town to town in a national tour; and with nearly 40 million visitors a year to Las Vegas, they can expect an audience. Since most trim the shows to 90 minutes or less, producers can also run 10 shows a week rather than 8 under the same performer salaries.

While both articles emphasize the impact of Vegas on Broadway, the real folks at risk are the performing arts centers and presenters scattered around the United States. These venues depend on blockbuster tours to keep their accounts in good standing, and to subsidize the rents of resident performing organizations (the symphony, the theater, the ballet, etc.). The positive economics of a Vegas venue, especially for established hits like Avenue Q, Phantom of the Opera, Mamma Mia, Hairspray, and Blue Man Group make the idea of a long, national tour much less appealing. For at least one popular show, Avenue Q, Vegas is an opportunity not to tour at all. Says one producer:

''What the road seemed to be offering was at most 50 weeks,'' said Kevin McCollum, a producer of ''Avenue Q,'' "with low guarantees because it wasn't a show about a warm kitten and your grandmother....Also the size of theater our show works well in, 1,200 seats at most, doesn't exist on the road. Generally they're around 2,000 seats, as much as 4,500 in Atlanta.''

At the Wynn [in Vegas], Mr. McCollum got the theater size he wanted, without censorship or the enormous cost of moving each week. And because concierges and cabbies are more influential than critics in Las Vegas, he also got the chance to let the work speak for itself. ''On the road, by the time you develop word-of-mouth, you're in the next city,'' he said.

Much of America's infrastructure of performing arts centers and renovated theaters was built on the energy, income, and promise of the Broadway tour. If Vegas skims the cream off the top of that industry, local arts presenters will need to find another way to balance the books.

Posted by ataylor at 8:29 AM | Comments (2)

October 4, 2005

On the power of design and art

Great thoughts and comments in Carol Coletta's ''Smart City'' radio program, as she interviews Jennie Winhall of the UK's Design Council and Williams College economist Stephen Sheppard (you can hear the program here).

Winhall works for a special division of the Design Council called RED, which strives to apply design and process analysis to complex social issues -- like energy use, civic engagement, and public health. The civic engagement analysis is particularly interesting for cultural managers, who could certainly benefit from applying a designer's eye to their own organizations. Says the intro to the report:

This project explores three important encounters between our State and its citizens: voting, jury service and the new citizenship ceremony. These encounters are often designed, it appears, by default, and in ways which are increasingly out of step with experiences in other areas of life. We used design research techniques, following a small group of citizens to document their experiences of 'Touching the State'. Looking at the role of design in mediating and defining the relationship between the State and citizens, we ask: can these encounters be designed differently to increase engagement and a sense of citizenship?

In a separate interview, Stephen Sheppard discusses the impact of cultural organizations on their surrounding communities -- but with more nuance and depth than most such conversations. Sheppard has been tracking the specific impacts of the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art (Mass MoCA) on the struggling community and economy of North Adams, Massachusetts. Rather than following the usual cheerleading and faulty framing of most economic impact studies, Sheppard seeks ''carefully done, defensible, quantitative measures'' on the economic and social dynamics behind the interaction.

His measures and analysis have suggested that the economic impact of the arts in communities comes through three important pathways:

  • Their ''direct and important employment and income generation'' that happens through the arts (they employ people, they attract people, they encourage related industries to relocate and grow).
  • Their impact on the desirability of the community as a place to live. People love to live in communities where there is a vibrancy and vitality -- often available through the arts. This desirability can eventually directly effect the price of housing.
  • The way the arts bring different types of people together. Says Sheppard: ''The arts and cultural organizations serve as a sort of crucible within which people come together, and within which social capital is formed.''

As part of the exploration, Sheppard, Williams College, and Mass MoCA have founded the Center for Creative Community Development to share and expand the findings of their work.

Posted by ataylor at 8:55 AM | Comments (0)

October 5, 2005

Seeing the connections

World of MusicA fascinating project from graduate students at Stanford, MIT, and CalTech, and a senior research scientist at Yahoo! (described here and available in greater detail here) seeks to make visual the interconnections of 10,000 music artists as perceived by their audience. Based on user ratings and preferences from 150,000 Yahoo! Music LAUNCHcast members, the project clustered artists together, connected them across clusters, and mapped out the data in a visually stunning way.

Really cool.

Posted by ataylor at 8:52 AM | Comments (1)

October 7, 2005

Measuring Value

Download this speech
in PDF format

(requires free Acrobat reader)
...and Who Makes Value, Anyway?
a keynote speech by Andrew Taylor to the
New Jersey Theatre Alliance conference:
"Arts Alive: Staying Ahead of the Curve"
September 23, 2005
Hyatt Regency, New Brunswick, New Jersey

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.

First of all, let me say out loud what many of you may be thinking right now: "measuring value," how awful. How clinical. How stale and stifling. It's like one of George Carlin's famous oxymorons: "jumbo shrimp," "military intelligence," and I often add another, "arts administration"—a word so small and dry alongside another that's vast and expansive. I'll ask you to suspend that distaste at the idea of measuring something so broad, complex, and personal as "value," however we define it. At the end of the session today, you can re-engage that distaste if you like.

But I'm going to suggest that we all measure value in our own ways. So we might as well bring those measures out into the open air.

With that, let's get to it:

My statistics professor liked to tell the story of a man with his head in the freezer and his feet in the furnace. On average, it turned out, he was quite comfortable.

Such is the challenge of evaluation and evidence: they only barely describe—and often badly describe—the true nature of human experience. And what is broadly true for all human activity is particularly true of creative endeavor. An individual's or a community's interaction with creative expression and cultural experience has an impact, has a footprint, has a value. But it's a slippery and elusive critter to track in ways that can be measured and described.

That's the puzzle I'm here to talk with you about today—the puzzle of measuring value. And it's a puzzle I hope you'll play an active role in unraveling and reassembling. We'll explore why we measure or evaluate the outcomes of creative activity. We'll talk about how we have chosen to measure and evaluate in the various spheres that do such things—the individual, the organization, the community, the society. And we'll talk about some of the traps that distract us along the way, and how we might escape them.

Since we're all at the end of a journey together—this two-day convening that I've so enjoyed—I'm also hoping we can intermingle some of your comments and perspectives as we chew on this rather abstract stuff. And I'll try to mix in some specifics of my own from the sessions and conversations I've experienced here.

But let's start with some framing statements, so you all know what I'm talking about. When I say "evaluation," I'm talking about any conscious attempt to assess an action or initiative. Evaluation is the thoughtful gathering of evidence, to understand scope or scale, to count, to compare against some stated goal, perhaps.

Why do we bother to evaluate, to count, to measure, to assess, to compare? In short, we have no choice, because we are constantly choosing. As artists, organizations, or communities, we can't do everything, nor would we want to. So we choose. And in the process of that choosing, our efforts to find feedback, information, insight, and assessment of how the world responds to our actions helps us eventually—we hope—make more productive choices, and help others around us do so, as well.

The active artists among you know all about choice…nudging a vision against the constraints of reality to forge something new. All along the way in the creation of a new work or the invocation of an existing work, you choose, you change, you reconsider. You may not do so by measuring or counting, but you're evaluating all along.

Managers of cultural institutions know all about choices, as well. Facing fixed resources of time, talent, energy, capital, and cash, you choose how to mix and mingle those limited elements, you choose how to frame the problem with your colleagues, you choose a range of possible approaches, and you choose when to choose another way—perhaps when faced with new constraints or unexpected twists in the road.

Funders certainly understand choice. There's so much to do, and only so much at hand to do it with. How do you know when you're choices have been successful? How do you know how to learn from past choices to make better ones in the next grant cycle? How do you know if the grant cycle is even the appropriate road?

And communities choose, too. They choose how to allocate their own collective resources. They choose how to frame the playing field—with laws, policies, regulations, and incentives—to encourage individual choices that contribute to the common good. And they choose representatives and agents to make those choices in their interest and on their behalf.

So, we choose—each of us individually and all of us together. And evaluation is an integral part of that choosing, whether we state it out loud or not, whether we understand how we do it, or not. And we've been choosing and evaluating ever since our ancestors found the capacity to do so.

You might ask, then, if we've been choosing and evaluating forever, why is measurement and evaluation such a hot topic now? Why is it bubbling up at regional meetings like this, around foundation board tables, and at national meetings of artists, arts leaders, and arts supporters? Believe me. It's bubbling.

The answer has a few pieces that seem to be working in concert: constraint, complexity, and scale. First, constraint: for a dozen different reasons, many of the inputs and assets that make nonprofit cultural institutions work have smacked up against constraint. Endowments were severely impacted by the economic downturn following September 11, 2001. The personal wealth of major donors was impacted in similar ways. And so was the accumulated wealth of major foundations. The labor pool that fed the growth of our industry over the past decades has also begun a sharp decline. Stack onto that a decrease in leisure spending, and severe budget imbalances at city, state, and federal levels, and you've got what many have called the "perfect storm" of constraints—Katrina and Rita notwithstanding.

Then, throw complexity and scale into the mix: the massive growth in numbers and sophistication of nonprofit organizations in the past three decades—arts included. Even with the fairly radical growth in philanthropic resources since 1960, the scale, complexity, sophistication, and professionalism of the field have grown to keep pace, if not to pull ahead.

From that intersection of constraint, complexity, and scale has inevitably come the call to measure ever more, to choose based on evidence, and to evaluate our choices by some common criteria. This call most often comes from professional funders, but also from city, state, and national government officials seeking some "return on investment" ratios to help support their allocation of constrained public resources. At the same time, ever more professional and strategic cultural organizations are seeking their own measures of performance and success…driven either by executive leadership or by business-minded boards. Terms like "organizational effectiveness" and "capacity building" have crept into our conversations, both requiring benchmarks and progress measures.

So, what's the problem? It sounds like a perfectly reasonable and responsible thing to do. When faced with constraint, why shouldn't you increase your efforts to make good choices, and to confirm that those choices were good by measuring some results? The problem is captured in a quote that's been attributed to Albert Einstein. Whether or not he actually said it, it shines the spotlight in the right direction:

"Not everything that counts can be counted.
And not everything that can be counted counts."

For individuals, organizations, and groups that foster and capture cultural expression, the true power, value, and profound beauty of what we work for can easily get lost in the numbers, and our passion and purpose can get lost or distracted along with it.

Systems ecologist Donella Meadows expressed a similar challenge when she wrote: "We try to measure what we value. We come to value what we measure. The feedback process is common, inevitable, useful, and full of pitfalls" (Indicators and Information Systems for Sustainable Development, Sustainability Institute, 1998).

The arts world is certainly not alone in this challenge—which is either comforting or confounding. Many sectors and industries are confronting the lure of measurement and evaluation against the ephemeral and indescribable outcomes they truly value. It's obvious in current discussion about rankings and recommendation engines on the web, that tend to highlight popular and glib over the focused and insightful. It's also obvious in education, especially K-12, where, according to many, measures have come to eclipse learning. Consider the perspective of psychologist Kenneth Kenniston (as quoted in The Hurried Child, by David Elkind, 1988):

"We measure the success of schools not by the kinds of human beings they promote but by whatever increases in reading scores they chalk up. We have allowed quantitative standards, so central to the adult economic system, to become the principal yardstick for our definition of our children's worth."

There's certainly evidence of this challenge here at this conference. Just a few of the statements I heard as I wandered from session to session prove the point: Said one participant, "we're constantly trying to fit ourselves into what others want us to be." Said one funder on a panel discussion, "We're moving away from relationship-based philanthropy," toward funding based on matrices and aligned with corporate brand. And said one member of the storytelling workshops, "I'm so busy, I've become disconnected from the stories of my own organization." Stories are a powerful form of feedback that often get lost in the struggle for measurable results.

In almost every conversation I heard, there seemed to be an effort to measure our outcomes by someone else's criteria—by the criteria of K-12 education, for example, or economic development, or social services. And just as plants grow toward the light, we often bend our organizations toward the measures or the money that seem to shine most brightly. In doing so, we can distort our goals and our efforts away from the elements that give our work meaning and value in the first place. For example:

  • The Bias of Time
    Evaluation criteria and feedback measurements can often emphasize the short-term over the glacial. A continuous decision process can bias us all toward measures that move quickly, rather than those that take generations to evolve. Consider Ralph Waldo Emerson's belief that "The measure of a master is his success in bringing all men round to his opinion twenty years later."
  • The Bias of Disconnection
    As we search for the measurable outcomes of our actions, it's too easy to assume that our separate and distinct actions had the results we see in the world. In reality, meaning and value in any experience comes from a complex web of previous experiences. Our efforts and organizations are lucky if we're just a tiny sliver of the cause behind a meaningful moment.
  • The Bias of Utility
    Acts of measurement and evaluation continually draw us back into thinking about utility, about the concrete "usefulness" of what we provide in the world. Alexis de Tocqueville recognized this tendency in his early analysis of America centuries ago. He said, "Democratic nations….will habitually prefer the useful to the beautiful, and they will require that the beautiful should be useful."

So what do we do about these biases, and the challenge of having to measure what cannot be measured?

First off, we need to get used to it, and brace ourselves. This trend and this tendency isn't going away anytime soon, and is likely to grow stronger as resources plateau and our nonprofit infrastructure continues to grow in size and sophistication.

Second, we can attempt to change the measures that define us. The arts world certainly has a unique opportunity to attempt this, due to our close and direct connections to the funders that support us. But many of the measures are beyond our direct control, as they are driven by larger sectors of society—public education, city planning and development, government, and such.

Third, we can make every effort to construct measures and evaluations of our own, to guide us against external measures that might distort what we do. These evaluations must grow from our mission, our purpose, and our internal compass. They must be established with grace and nuance to encourage our work, rather than diffuse and distract it.

Sounds like a tall order, and it is. But there are steps to get us there. I'll suggest a few:

Step one: We must explore and consider who actually makes the value we seek to measure. Is the power and meaning of what we do as cultural institutions something delivered and received? Do our artists and organizations construct and complete it and then release it to the world? Or is the value and meaning we seek a co-construction, begun by us, perhaps, but always completed by someone else—our audience, our communities, our peers? Our measures of success will be derived from this core metaphor of what we do, so we must work continuously to understand it.

Step two: We must broaden and clarify our efforts to evaluate our own work, beginning with a simple question: "What evidence would we expect a successful effort to leave behind?" If our organizations were working at their highest capacity, what would be the observable residue of our actions? Would it be an audience that looks like the community in which we live? Would it be an extra second of silence after the curtain draws to a close? Would it be a greater number of artists contacting us to ask about joining our work? These need not be complicated and clinical metrics, but merely connected to our work as we define it.

Step three: Once this potential evidence has been considered and defined, we must then consider how to measure it in ways that help us rather than waste our time. Can we enlist our entire staff and board to ask a single question of patrons they encounter, and report back the results? Can we extract the information from data already being collected in our contact lists or box office activities or member services? Can we simply stand, watch, and listen as individuals engage our organization's work, being receptive to whatever discoveries emerge? There are ways of observing and listening available to us from the worlds of design, anthropology, consumer research, sociology, human factors engineering, and a dozen other disciplines. What can we learn and apply from these existing ways of watching?

Step four: As we build our criteria and our capacity to evaluate them, we must always remember that the measure is not the goal. It's important to watch for the footprints of what we do, but they are only footprints. It's easy to forget about the giant that left them there.

What does an industry look like when its measures become its goals? Consider telecommunications. A colleague with expertise in the field tells me that the incremental cost of a phone call is now zero. What you're paying for, he says, is the system required to track your call and bill you for it. It sounds bizarre, but I'm sure it also sounds eerily familiar to some arts managers out there who are increasingly expected to provide outcome measurements. It can feel as though your organization is more about measuring what you do, than actually doing something. And that's a most unpleasant place to be.

So, where are we? We can't stop ourselves from measuring the value of what we do. We can't stop others from determining criteria for their measures of us. We can't deny the biases that come with these perspectives on the world—the compression of time, the illusion of causality, the lure of making things seem useful. What we can do is embrace this unsolvable problem as we embrace so many others in the process of creative expression and experience. Complexity and tension is our business, it's the stuff of art.

We do things that count. Much of it can't be counted. But the effort to discern, evaluate, measure, and assess is part of what keeps us connected. Let's make it an open and dynamic element of how we do our work.

Posted by ataylor at 12:02 AM | Comments (1)

My keynote on measuring value

I finally got around to reconstructing my speech to the New Jersey Theatre Alliance conference on September 23. It's available in web and PDF format in the Thoughtbucket section of this weblog. Comments, criticisms, and large wads of unmarked cash are welcome.

If you're an impatient sort, here's the gist of it:

....such is the challenge of evaluation and evidence: they only barely describe—and often badly describe—the true nature of human experience. And what is broadly true for all human activity is particularly true of creative endeavor. An individual's or a community's interaction with creative expression and cultural experience has an impact, has a footprint, has a value. But it's a slippery and elusive critter to track in ways that can be measured and described.

Give it a read if you like.

Posted by ataylor at 12:08 AM | Comments (0)

October 10, 2005

Filling in what we lack vs. building on what we have

Tom Borrup discusses asset-based community development and works to connect that way of thinking to the arts and culture world. In a nutshell, an asset-based approach seeks to discover and connect what a community has to work with -- people, money, facilities, social networks, etc. -- rather than working to import or create what it lacks. According to Borrup:

[It's a] way of thinking that starts from an analysis of assets, strengths and capacities -- to see change and power as things that most appropriately come from within. This is in contrast to the old approach of working from deficits, problems and limitations -- perpetuating the sense that communities were powerless and had to depend on outside intervention, resources and problem-solvers.

Colleagues tell me that the approach has proven particularly useful in rural communities, where efforts for improvement and change can't rely on the dense aggregation of wealth, cash, and capital of big cities, but rather succeed on their ability to reframe and reconnect what assets are already there. But Borrup suggests that the asset-based mindset has true power and potential in big cities, as well. As an example, he explores the implicit strategy of the large performing arts center:

Big-box arts presenters, increasingly part of urban fix-it strategies, import lowest-common-denominator material that sends the message that culture comes from somewhere else and requires big names and major sponsors to be realized. Focusing on and nurturing the unique and special strengths and assets of a city or neighborhood ultimately leverages and attracts more resources and creates a more sustainable and equitable environment. Exchanges with the larger world help in that process but not when they diminish the cultural practices of the local.

While Borrup may be painting with a rather broad brush (aren't resident professional musicians, actors, artists, and support staff local assets too?) it's an interesting analogy to chew on.

Posted by ataylor at 7:21 AM | Comments (1)

October 11, 2005

Flat or spiky? matters to place-based culture

There are interesting conversations bubbling about the contrary positions of New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman and Rise of the Creative Class author Richard Florida (Wired magazine's Chris Anderson weighs in on the debate, as well).

Friedman's book, The World is Flat, suggests that technology, transportation, and travel are increasingly ''flattening'' the world, diminishing the need for any business or individual to be in a major metropolitan area, and changing the face of competition in the U.S. and around the world. In the October Atlantic Monthly, Florida counters that the world isn't flattening, but is in fact growing ever more concentrated in creative centers (which looks mighty ''spiky'' when mapped on a graph). Florida's four-page article is available for download from his Creative Class web site (or just grab the PDF here). Says Florida:

By almost any measure the international economic landscape is not at all flat. On the contrary, our world is amazingly ''spiky.'' In terms of both sheer economic horsepower and cutting-edge innovation, surprisingly few regions truly matter in today’s global economy. What’s more, the tallest peaks—the cities and regions that drive the world economy—are growing ever higher, while the valleys mostly languish.

John Hagel suggests that both perspectives are skewed by their static view of the world, distracting them from the intricate dynamics of what's really going on. Certainly, population is concentrating around major hubs around the globe, but innovation and creative clusters are also sparking where they hadn't before...not enough to show up in a spike, perhaps, but enough to make a meaningful difference.

Why should the artful manager give a hoot? Both authors are exploring the shape and distribution of people and creative energy over the coming decades. That has real importance to the fortunes and vitality of place-based cultural organizations. In one view, wealth, innovation, and creative productivity spread away from major centers and scatter around the world. In the other view, these essential resources aggregate in fewer and fewer places. So, since you likely can't move your building, do you expect your audience and assets to grow or disperse over the next decade?

Posted by ataylor at 10:07 AM | Comments (1)

October 12, 2005

The Hessenius Group

I'm writing in a different part of the blogosphere this week, as part of a group discussion hosted by Barry Hessenius. The topic at hand is the impact and response to the current stress on philanthropic dollars, in the wake of Katrina, Rita, and Pakistan, and on the heels of a down economy that had already stressed artists and arts organizations.

My colleagues in the conversation include Wayne Lawson, Cora Mirikitani, Jerry Yoshitomi, Betty Plumb, and other guests. Public comments are also welcome. Come take a look.

Posted by ataylor at 8:59 AM | Comments (0)

October 17, 2005

The interrupted life

Yesterday's New York Times magazine explores the interrupted life of the modern office worker (login required). It turns out, as most of us will acknowledge, that distractions don't interrupt our work, but rather distractions make up the bulk of our work. According to one researcher who measured actual drones doing actual droning:

Each employee spent only 11 minutes on any given project before being interrupted and whisked off to do something else. What's more, each 11-minute project was itself fragmented into even shorter three-minute tasks, like answering e-mail messages, reading a Web page or working on a spreadsheet. And each time a worker was distracted from a task, it would take, on average, 25 minutes to return to that task.

So most of us -- and our intended arts audiences -- spend our workdays bouncing around from task to task, resulting in what one software executive in the article calls ''continuous partial attention,'' where we're so busy tracking everything, we never focus on anything. And despite our constant complaining about this state of affairs, many workers thrive on the buzz of constant distraction (and perhaps even build their environments to encourage it), since it helps them feel necessary in the world:

This can actually be a positive feeling, inasmuch as the constant pinging makes us feel needed and desired. The reason many interruptions seem impossible to ignore is that they are about relationships -- someone, or something, is calling out to us. It is why we have such complex emotions about the chaos of the modern office, feeling alternately drained by its demands and exhilarated when we successfully surf the flood.

It's a jarring contrast to formal arts experiences, which often require more than 11 minutes of our direct attention. That contrast can either be our selling point (escape distraction, find focus) or the thing that makes us completely foreign to the rest of our audience's daily lives. Goodness knows that commercial media -- television, film, music -- haven't responded to this complexity with serenity, but with even more complexity (ticker news on screen, picture in picture, ever more rapid edits).

Are we offering the arts as an antidote to the interrupted life? And if so, are we structuring our own organizations, communications, and self-evaluations to that goal?

So many arts managers I know are masters of crisis management -- so much so that they'll create a crisis when there isn't one available. But if our goal is to counter complexity with clarity, we may want to adopt a different work ethic. Perhaps we should all take up Tai Chi.

NOTE: After reading the Times article, I immediately adjusted my e-mail program to check for mail every 30 minutes, rather than every five. Because, honestly, what e-mail is so essential that it can't wait 25 minutes to be seen?

Posted by ataylor at 8:27 AM | Comments (1)

October 18, 2005

Would you buy your own facility for $1?

I often wonder what becomes of those grateful families on Extreme Makeover Home Edition in the years following the gift of a glorious new home. After the unveiling, after the tears of joy dry away, after they clean the yard of stray ''good luck'' banners and coffee cups, they must eventually discover what it means to own a large, opulent, state-of-the-art home. What happens when they get their first heating bill? Their first electrical bill? Their first property tax bill? Their first insurance bill?

It's not that the new home isn't a wonderful gift to a worthy family. It's just that the gift comes with liabilities nobody explains to them when they hand over the keys.

Such is the moment of truth in Madison, Wisconsin, where the City Council tonight debates and votes on who gets the keys to the Overture Center for the Arts...the multi-venue performing and visual arts center that's half open, with the other half opening over the coming months.

The city has been asked to provide partial backup to a bond refinancing that would preserve a $100-million trust over the next 30 years (and keep the city out of the facility business). The mayor has determined the risk to the city would be too great, and prefers that Overture liquidate the trust to pay the bonds, and that the city buy the building for $1 (the city always had right of first refusal when the bonds were paid...but it wasn't likely to happen for three decades). The city council tonight takes its first and last look at the proposal before they choose to pull the trigger on the refinancing or let it go.

So the question comes: would you buy your own cultural facility for $1...knowing what you know about the obligations, stewardship demands, and unexpected expenses that come along with it? The mayor believes he is mitigating the risks to the city by avoiding the refinancing and investment gamble. But he may well be forgoing reasonable risk in favor of actual future operating and capital repair expenses of up to $60 million over the next 20 years ($40 million in estimated repair and replacement costs, and likely another $1 million in annual operating support beyond what the city already provides).

If the city does buy the building -- with no endowment, no trust, and poor odds of raising significant contributed income (who wants to write another check to the city?) -- my thoughts will return to that Extreme Home Makeover family, standing in the front yard of their massive new home after all the busses, cameras, and crowds have gone. They're grateful, to be sure, but completely unprepared -- and woefully underfunded -- for the radical changes the gift will bring.

Posted by ataylor at 8:41 AM | Comments (1)

October 19, 2005

Drawing collective conclusions

Two items of interest today that may seem worlds apart, but to my mind are wonderfully resonant:

Last night, the Madison City Council voted 15 to 5 to support the refinancing of the Overture Center for the Arts (see my entry yesterday for details). I sat through all five hours of the public testimony and council debate, and was struck again by the exceptional challenge of understanding and assessing potential risk.

For the refinancing proposal, the city was asked to serve as third in line to support bond interest payments over the next six years...capped at $2.5 million per year, and protected by $7.5 million from the donor and the district. Total exposure to the city in the absolute worst case: $7.5 million. Without refinancing, the most likely result would be city ownership and operation of the facility for the long term, without an endowment or trust. Total exposure to the city: perhaps an additional $1 million to $1.5 million a year for the next 50 years in operating and capital support, perhaps more.

As expected, the bulk of the debate and the disagreement focused on the risks of the next six years, rather than the long-term exposure to city taxpayers. After five hours, however, the long-term concerns seemed to win the day. As ever, it's horrifying and revelatory to watch the public process at work.

With that process in my head, I stumbled onto SwarmSketch, a web site that allows collaborative drawing on a common canvas, framed by a different subject each week. According to the site:

Each user can contribute a small amount of line per visit, then they are given the opportunity to vote on the opacity of lines submitted by other users. By voting, users moderate the input of other users, judging the quality of each line. The darkness of each line is the average of all its previous votes.
[take a look at the evolution of the drawing shown above]

The result is a collective construction around a selected topic, built from individual lines, and completed by each visitor's assessment of the value of the lines already drawn. Remarkably similar, I'd say, to the public process of the City Council and other deliberative elements of our world.

The process demands that we all add our line to the picture -- both figuratively or literally -- and that we all look hard to see the evolving image. Not to be overly dramatic, but: what will your line be?

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

October 20, 2005

Construct your own marketing metaphor

Researchers have now concluded, through a recent study, that candy is more tempting when you can see it and it's within reach. Shocking but true.

According to the AP report on the study, the researchers ''gave 40 university secretaries 30 chocolate kisses in either a clear or an opaque candy jar placed on their desks or 6 feet away. The dish was refilled each night, and researchers counted how many candies were eaten over the next four weeks.'' The conclusion?

Secretaries ate an average of 7.7 kisses each day when the candies were in clear containers on their desks; 4.6 when in opaque jars on the desk; 5.6 when in clear jars 6 feet away; and 3.1 when in opaque jars 6 feet away.

There's probably some profound metaphor for marketing the arts in these results. I'll leave that to you. I just keep picturing grad students in lab coats -- who must have something better to do -- tormenting university secretaries with chocolate kisses, candy jars, and tape measures. Isn't research a wonderful thing?

Posted by ataylor at 8:52 AM | Comments (2)

October 21, 2005

The art of persuasion

Not sure how I missed it when it aired, but a link from the gang at Next Generation Consulting pointed me to the PBS Frontline past series on persuasion and persuaders -- in advertising, in media, in politics.

Fascinating stuff to watch and learn about high-concept advertising, emotional branding, the science of selling, narrowcasting, and other advancements in convincing large numbers of people to try or buy specific things. Go watch.

Posted by ataylor at 8:50 AM | Comments (0)

October 24, 2005

Balancing the triangle at Steppenwolf

An exceptionally interesting case study of Steppenwolf's past 25 years (available for download from the Nonprofit Finance Fund) paints a complex picture of how the organization moved in and out of balance as it grew from tiny to iconic.

Like other analyses from the NFF, this story explores the dynamic balance in arts organizations among three sides of a pyramid: ''the artistic mission; the organizational capacity in the form of staff, skills, and investment in business operations; and the capital base, principally real estate, cash, investments, and equipment.'' The authors argue, quite convincingly, that changes to any one side will necessarily bring changes and stresses to the other sides. If you expand your artistic mission, for example, either capacity or capital will need to adjust, as well. If you buy or build a building and dramatically expand your capital base, artistic and capacity issues will eventually smack you in the face.

The issues of edifice are particularly vexing to creative organizations, since building ownership seems like a great way to control your creative destiny -- all the time and space you've been dreaming of but could never attain. But buildings inevitably turn arts organizations into landlords, with a weight and responsibility that can crush the creative soul. Says the study:

Real estate and its operation are, above all else, a mass of fixed costs. Moreover, the production expenses required for mounting a show and filling the house in a bigger venue are fixed as well. But the unpredictability of ticket revenue -- and to a lesser but still important extent, the variability of production expenses -- makes high fixed costs dangerous and confining. That’s especially true for a company like Steppenwolf, whose reputation is based on the presentation of challenging work that will sometimes flop.

It's great to read a 'happy' case study, not driven by disaster or collapse, but by decisions that actually turned out well in the end. It's even better to read a nonprofit business story with depth and dynamics worthy of the theater world.

Posted by ataylor at 12:11 AM | Comments (2)

October 26, 2005

Everything's about a date in Kansas City

The on-line arts research warehouse CPANDA has a new 'quick fact' this month that's bound to annoy the aesthetically pure. Drawn from a cultural participation study in 1998, the summary shows the stated motivations of surveyed Kansas City residents who had attended an arts event in the prior year.

The answers shouldn't shock any of us by now:

  • 62 percent said that ''a lot of the reason'' for their attendance was ''to get together with friends or family for social reasons''
  • 47 percent said that ''a lot of the reason'' was ''to support a friend or family member who was involved''
  • 41 percent said that ''a lot of the reason'' was the ''quality of the art''

But the gut punch comes in the alternate responses that showed the ''quality of the art'' was completely irrelevant to 21 percent of those surveyed. In other words, 21 percent of respondents claimed that artistic quality played no role in their motivation to attend. None.

I'm not saying there is a proper motivation for attending a cultural event. I honestly believe there's truth, honor, and beauty in (almost) all ways of connecting with cultural experience. I'm just suggesting that many arts organizations continue to believe their own promotional materials -- that it's all about excellence -- when a sizable percentage of their audience doesn't agree.

In my head, I'm picturing a group professional actors staring out at a full house, realizing that perhaps 20 percent of the people staring back at them had no interest in the calibre of their work (at least when choosing to attend). Sure, the audience may have chosen them as the best environment for their date or gathering. Sure, they may be there as family and friends of those on stage. And sure, the same people could be sitting anywhere else at that moment, but they chose not to be. Despite all those wonderfully positive choices, it's likely a disconnecting statistic, nonetheless.

Posted by ataylor at 8:28 AM | Comments (2)

October 27, 2005

The rankness of rankings

Urban and Regional Planning professor Peter Fisher offers a wonderful dressing down of five national ''business climate rankings'' that seek to define the best places in the nation for business. His primary concerns:

The underlying problem with the five indexes is twofold: none of them actually do a very good job of measuring what it is they claim to measure, and they do not, for the most part, set out to measure the right things to begin with.

Fortunately, he concludes, nobody of any importance is using these indices to make major business decisions.

So, why is this useful fodder for arts and cultural management? National rankings and ratings of cities do play a large role in validating the local citizens, government, and media in the cities that come out on top (just look at the Madison boasting surrounding the topic). And arts organizations, always eager to be part of the good news, may decide to focus on the metrics that make such rankings run.

Trouble is, when the rankings are designed to promote a specific policy issue (ie, lower taxes for the wealthy, or less regulation of start-ups), when the rankings don't actually measure what they claim to value, and when the rankings value things that are counter-productive to a vital cultural ecology, an organization can lose itself and its footing when striving to win a higher slot.

Thanks (again) to the Smart City radio show for leading me to the link.

Posted by ataylor at 8:59 AM | Comments (0)

October 28, 2005

Stanford on iTunes

Kind of a cool initiative over at Stanford University, where they've created a special section of the Apple iTunes music store to distribute audio and video content to the world and to their own. Their overview says the initiative has two parts:

  • a public site, targeted primarily at alumni, which will include Stanford faculty lectures, learning materials, music, sports, and more.
  • an access-restricted site for students delivering course-based materials and advising content.

Now, I'd like to see the Getty, MoMA, the Metropolitan Opera, the Guthrie Theatre, the San Francisco Symphony, and a few other cultural types take a shot at the same idea. There's still a few gigabytes on my iPod that crave cultural content.

Posted by ataylor at 12:32 AM | Comments (5)

October 31, 2005

Arts on iTunes

In response to my post last week on Stanford's iTunes initiative, several folks wrote to tell me about arts organizations entering the on-line distribution business. Here are a few:

Digital distribution agreements and homegrown podcasts are a giant step into the on-line world. Stanford, as can be expected, is about five steps beyond in terms of integration into the iTunes platform and in their own mission delivery. But it's great to see a few brave arts organizations taking those steps.

Posted by ataylor at 7:55 AM | Comments (0)

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