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October 2, 2006

Is culture overbuilt?

I'm traveling today for a think-tank/roundtable/confab thing-y exploring the state of America's professional cultural infrastructure, and whether or not it has grown beyond the scope of all combined sources of potential revenue and resources. Perhaps not a happy topic, but certainly a persistent one over the past few years (in fact, almost exactly two years, in my case).

The goal of this particular convening is to define how we might ask that question in a more productive way: What would we measure if we wanted to know? What evidence would we gather? And what, exactly, do we mean by ''overbuilt'' in the first place?

Not sure what will come of it, but I'm looking forward to the conversation. More to come in time...

Posted by ataylor at 12:32 AM | Comments (6)

October 3, 2006

Dinosaur or phoenix?

The Irvine Foundation has just released a short report that seeks to capture the critical issues facing the arts in California. While the report is specific to the state, the tensions and dynamics it defines might as well be about any state in the Union. Irvine is also interested in gathering comments, and has created a feedback site to encourage it.

While outlining dramatic demographic and economic shifts, the report is particularly bleak about the ability of traditional nonprofit cultural organizations to react and respond. Saying:

Many nonprofit arts organizations, insulated for years from the immediate effects of market shifts, have continued to operate under an outdated understanding of what the general public values. Individual organizations and the sector as a whole have increased fixed costs consistently over the past 40 years by building new facilities and adding programs, even while attendance and earned and contributed revenues remain stagnant or fall. There is now a serious imbalance: the current level of public participation and financial support is not sufficient for what the nonprofit arts sector needs to survive.

The report goes so far as to suggest that the cultural nonprofit as we know it is a species that has had its day: appears that the era of the nonprofit arts organization's preeminence in the American cultural landscape is coming to a close.

While I'm not quite ready to begin a eulogy for the 501c3, I do agree that the particular corporate structure as we have interpreted and enacted it doesn't have a great future. As George Thorn and Nello McDaniel suggested over a decade ago, it's the myths of the nonprofit structure, rather than the realities, that get us into trouble.

Still and all, the Irvine report offers a thoughtful map of the choppy waters ahead. It's well worth a read.

Posted by ataylor at 7:36 AM | Comments (3)

October 5, 2006

Is Andrew overbooked?

I'm neglecting my weblog duties this week due to an intensive conference schedule and sequence of meetings here in New York -- all generating interesting ideas and challenging my basic assumptions. I'll spin some of those out in the coming days and weeks. But for now, it's back into the fray to talk policy with wonks and researchers.

Posted by ataylor at 7:47 AM | Comments (0)

October 9, 2006

Scatter maps for fun and profit

If you've wondered about the number and distribution of arts organizations in your state, or wondered if your elected representatives ever wondered such things, there's a wealth of insight now available from Americans for the Arts. Their effort to map the cultural industries across every state legislative district in the country is now on-line and ready for download.

creative industries mapAmericans for the Arts took data from Dun & Bradstreet business and employment data, and created scatter maps and summary tables for each district. So, a quick look at the map for my senator's district (ie, the whole state) shows 8615 arts-related businesses employing 43,383 people.

There are a few kinks in the system, of course. First, Dun & Bradstreet is a creature of the commercial world, and their data on nonprofit businesses is incomplete (so, AFTA is encouraging arts organizations to sign up and be counted).

Second, everybody seems to have a different definition of the ''creative industries.'' Americans for the Arts takes the slightly conservative road, focusing on ''businesses involved in the production or distribution of the arts,'' which they define as ''arts-centric businesses that range from nonprofit museums, symphonies, and theaters to for-profit film, architecture, and advertising companies.'' Other efforts draw a wider circle, such as the Creative Clusters initiative in the UK, which defines the group as ''those activities which have their origin in individual creativity, skill and talent and which have a potential for wealth and job creation through the generation and exploitation of intellectual property.'' And, of course, Richard Florida includes anyone that ever had an original thought.

Still, the Creative Industries map is one more useful sheet of paper to bring with you when you meet with your elected officials (you DO meet with your elected officials, don't you?). Every little color chart helps, if only to show that you have color chart capacities.

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

October 10, 2006

What the heck is 'cultural policy' anyway?

I'm part of a weblog discussion this week on Barry Hessenius' weblog, discussing ''policy'' and ''policy formation.'' Before you nod off to sleep at the idea, give it a read. As I mention in my opening salvo, I've come around to think that policy is the center of EVERYTHING in cultural least the way I define it.

If you don't think so, post a comment over there to nudge the conversation along.

Posted by ataylor at 10:41 AM | Comments (2)

October 11, 2006

Copyright in verse

For those intimidated by federal legal code and confused by copyright law, Israeli game designer Yehuda Berlinger has a whimsical solution: rewriting the copyright code in rhyming verse.

His poetic approach isn't particularly elegant or refined, but it's much more fun than reading the original document. For example, this stanza:

Owning work doesn't mean
Owning the container;
And you own the container
Not the work; could I be plainer?

is derived from this lovely bit of prose:

Ownership of a copyright, or of any of the exclusive rights under a copyright, is distinct from ownership of any material object in which the work is embodied. Transfer of ownership of any material object, including the copy or phonorecord in which the work is first fixed, does not of itself convey any rights in the copyrighted work embodied in the object; nor, in the absence of an agreement, does transfer of ownership of a copyright or of any exclusive rights under a copyright convey property rights in any material object.

Ah, the power of poetry.

NOTE: If you like the copyright poem, also see the poetic treatment of the U.S. patent and trademark codes.

Posted by ataylor at 9:06 AM | Comments (0)

October 13, 2006

So let's rename ''classical'' as ''authentic retro-ambient''

Pity the plight of the dear old prune. Long promoted for its fiber and vitamin qualities, it had lost connection to a younger audience who perceived it to be an old-person's fruit. It wasn't hip. It wasn't even retro-hip. It was a product without a future.

So, what did the prune lobby do (yes, there is a prune lobby)? As we all know, they petitioned the Food and Drug Administration for a new name. The prune became the ''dried plum'' in June 2000. Changes in marketing, packaging, and product soon followed (dried plums with lemon essence, cherry essence, herbal essence...wait, that's a shampoo). Says this account of the transition:

"For many years it was advertised as a laxative," recalls [Sunsweet VP of Marketing Howard] Nager. "What we're trying to present today isn't a whole lot different. We may not be using the word regularity, and we're certainly not using the word laxative, but we are promoting the benefits," he says.

Despite general enthusiasm by the nascent dried plum industry, at least one academic remained unconvinced that such a radical rebranding was necessary. Said Adel Kader, professor of post-harvest physiology at the University of California Davis' Department of Pomology:

''It's a very tasty fruit. I don't know why people shy away from eating it because of the name.''

I have no profound conclusion or connection to make here (except to say that I now want to be a ''pomologist''). Please take a moment to construct your own...

Posted by ataylor at 7:43 AM | Comments (2)

October 16, 2006

Extreme commuters

NPR had coverage this morning of a new transportation report on American commuters. The study shows that the duration and direction of U.S. commuters has changed dramatically over the past decades in several ways. Says the report's press release:

From 1990 to 2000, about 64 percent of the growth in commuting in metropolitan areas was from suburb to suburb, while the traditional commute from suburbs to a central city grew by only 14 percent. As more employers move out of cities to be closer to skilled suburban workers, the suburbs now account for the majority of job destinations.

The latest census data also show that, compared with previous decades, more Americans are leaving for work between 5 a.m. and 6:30 a.m., are commuting for longer time periods -- between 60 and 90 minutes -- and are leaving their home county to work in a nearby county.

This latter group of ''extreme commuters,'' so named by the census bureau in 2003, has risen more than any other class of commuters. Now, eight percent of all Americans commute more than an hour each way.

What does this mean for cultural institutions? If your facility is in the downtown core, it means your potential audience has a longer drive home, and may not even be coming downtown anymore. If your facility is in the suburbs, your audience may be coming home tired and ready to cocoon. But if you're creative about when and how you connect with an audience, there are lots of interesting ideas awaiting (podcast interviews with your artists for listening in the car, short and early commuter concerts to keep audiences downtown just long enough for the roads to clear, and on and on).

Either way, you'll have lots of time to think about it on your long drive home.

Posted by ataylor at 9:09 AM | Comments (1)

October 18, 2006

The line-item nonprofit

Matthew Richter is fed up with the nonprofit corporate model, and isn't going to take it any more (in an excerpt from a longer work on the subject). He suggests that the time has come for a more market-forces-friendly structure that will bring back profit motive and equity ownership to social-sector challenges. Says he:

What's needed in this country is a new hybrid model for organizations that want to do traditionally "charitable" work--a new type of socially responsible corporation that takes the best that the for-profit world and the nonprofit world can offer. A new structure that allows its owners equity in what they've built while maintaining the charitable rating that allows it to fund charitable-purpose programs.

He suggests a line-item nonprofit model, where a for-profit company can request a charitable tax status for specific activities that serve the public good (a nightclub could run a performance art program; could run a literacy and free book initiative). The primary drive of these organizations would remain profit and ownership and self-interest...but the social and public interests of the owners would have a new way to sustain themselves.

Richter does a great job outlining the internal and external pressures now facing the nonprofit world. But he's among many that seem to be over-playing the corporate structure as the culprit in our current woes. Fact is, any current nonprofit or for-profit entity can already rethink its structure, and create a hybrid in a dozen different ways. We don't need a new exemption for commercial enterprise, we need a more nuanced and sophisticated interpretation of the tools already available. (To be fair, Richter is aware of these experiments, and describes them in his longer essay. But he believes them to be insufficient for long-term change.)

Such nuance and sophistication comes only from focused and open discussion. Thanks to Mr. Richter for framing such a productive argument to push against.

Thanks to Alexis for the link!

Posted by ataylor at 8:49 AM | Comments (8)

October 20, 2006

Keeping an eye on dashboards

When you're driving your car, there's a LOT going on under the hood. And yet, there are only a few dials and displays in front of you to keep you informed, and keep your eyes on the road. Such is the idea of business process ''dashboards,'' which distill only the most essential information into a single dynamic page or report, usually in graphic format (you can see a few samples here).

The for-profit corporate world has been using such decision-support tools for a long while now. According to The Chronicle of Philanthropy, nonprofits are exploring them as well (thanks, Drew, for the link).

Of course, such systems raise a rather vexing challenge: what, exactly, are the few key indicators you would need to watch to monitor your success? It's this question that actually proves to be more effective than the dashboard tool itself. To know what you should monitor, you need to know what you're trying to do, and you also have to define what success looks like (more people? happier people? more art? better reviews? prolific artists?).

For Kaboom, the nonprofit featured in the Chronicle article, the dashboard development process led them to clarify their mission, and define their goals. According to Kaboom CEO Darell Hammond, it even led his organization to improve its focus.

''...we decided that we would focus on a system that would help us improve our own performance, and not mess with trying to prove the downstream social impact, like whether playgrounds lead to less childhood obesity," [Hammond] says.

He adds: "We wanted the dashboard to be a tool to help us stay on course toward the social change we want to effect -- healthier kids, more civic engagement -- not be the barometer of that social change. If we do our job right and efficiently, that will come."

So what are the three to five things you and your staff would measure every week if you wanted to judge your effectiveness in delivering your mission?

Posted by ataylor at 8:54 AM | Comments (0)

October 24, 2006

The absentee landlord

Sorry to say that other urgent activities are keeping me away from weblogging this week. So, I hope you take the few moments you would have spent here and wander over to some of my neighbor weblogs on ArtsJournal.

Posted by ataylor at 10:07 AM | Comments (0)

October 30, 2006

The rise of the active audience

I'm preparing this week to host the bi-annual alumni conference for the master's degree I direct in Arts Administration. It's always such a joy to welcome back graduates, to learn from them about their work, and to explore together a theme or trend that's rising in our collective industry.

Our theme this year, ''The Rise of the Active Audience,'' digs into the growing sense of imbalance in the way professional nonprofit arts organizations engage their communities. For several decades, we've been emphasizing the ''professional'' arts experience -- where the audience is expected to be quiet and receptive, and the art or artist is intended to fill that receptive space.

But there are signs that such a relationship isn't the main game in town -- or perhaps that it never was. Individuals are engaging aesthetic expression in a thousand different ways -- by making art in handicraft or community arts, by curating their lives through Flickr and multimedia computer software, by adorning their world through fashion and design, and by taking control of their professional-grade cultural experiences with iPods and TiVo and the like.

Much of this isn't new, but it's nudging against the more traditional marketing and audience development methods of cultural institutions (and cultural managers). What are we to do about it among nonprofit cultural initiatives? How do professional arts organizations foster and encourage participatory practice in our communities, and is that part of their job? How can we rethink even the most professional of experiences as highly interactive? Or are we working along a spectrum of cultural opportunities that demands we focus even more narrowly on our point in that spectrum?

Theater director Anne Bogart has a wonderful perspective on the issue as it relates to live theater, says she:

The theater is what happens in the space between spectator and actor. It is an art form completely dependent upon the creative potential of each audience member in relation to the events on stage. Without a receiver, there is no experience. The receiver completes the circle with his/her own experience, imagination, and creativity.

I'm looking forward to the exploration with so many dear colleagues and friends.

Posted by ataylor at 8:31 AM | Comments (5)

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