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October 1, 2007

It's the invisible structures that get you

Last month, I was invited to speak to a group of science outreach folks on my campus about cultural facility development, and the many sandtraps and surprises we've discovered in the arts. There is a ''new constellation'' of science facilities currently opening or under construction at UW-Madison, and this group is working to understand how to engage that construction and align it with their work.

The gist of my conversation was this: structure influences behavior, and not just in the obvious ways. In the development and construction process, the lure of the visible and physical aspects of the facility can draw our attention from the invisible structures we're creating at the same time: capital structures, cost structures, political structures, organizational structures, and even policy structures that inform all of the above.

Just as a new physical structure will inform and influence the choices and behavior of its occupants (''we shape our buildings, and thereafter they shape us,'' said good ol' Winston Churchill), these invisible structures will also lead us to perceive, behave, and interact differently. So, in the end, we may have a shiny new facility, but we may have lost the ''facility'' to actually deliver what we built it for.

The artful manager must therefore work to ensure that all structures involved with the construction of a new facility are aligned with mission, and appropriate to purpose. That's where a full spectrum of business knowledge, urban planning insight, human resource expertise, and fiscal elegance will come into play.

Posted by ataylor at 8:46 AM | Comments (1)

October 2, 2007

I think the alien gives it away

fake_art.jpgI'm sure it's disrespectful and heretical in a thousand different ways, but I'm still rather fond of this counterfeit art competition with the following rules:

You will take any famous painting or artwork (any period is fine) and alter it in such a way that it is obviously a forgery, as in the themepost. As always, quality is a must. We will remove poor entries no matter how much we like you. You'll have 48 hours to submit for this contest, so make your submission count.

Well, at least they're paying attention to the masters.

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

October 4, 2007

A mini manifesto (addendum)

At the beginning of the new school year in the MBA program I direct, I posted my own mini manifesto about the goals of our degree program, and the qualities we hope to foster in our students.

The gist of it was this:

I believe that our degree program is in the business of finding and fostering cultural leaders who see with clarity, choose with purpose, and act with intent. Further, we want to provide these individuals with the tools and insights to foster arts organizations with the same three characteristics.

Several commenters to that post noted that I was missing a rather important element: something about collaboration, communication, leadership in groups, and personal connection to the wider world. Since cultural and creative enterprise is almost always about collaborative action and galvanizing vision, I figured that they had a point.

After some collaboration of my own, I'm now adding a fourth characteristic to my trinity (I know, lists of three are far more powerful than lists of four, but it can't be helped), and exposing it to the open air through this post today.

As amended, the larger goal of our MBA degree in Arts Administration is to foster individuals who can bring themselves and encourage their organizations to:

See with clarity
Choose with purpose
Act with intent, and
Play well with others

A bit kindergarten, perhaps, but there wasn't nearly enough whimsy in the first three. The new fourth characteristic is intended to capture the extraordinarily social and collaborative nature of cultural endeavor, as well as the absolute joy of that nature (when stewarded well).

There might be an addendum yet to come (these things evolve, we hope). But I'd love to hear if I'm close to something.

Posted by ataylor at 8:38 AM | Comments (4)

October 5, 2007

Virtual dishes are more fun to clean

So I finally got around to trying my kids' recent video game purchase -- The Sims 2 Pets. In the game, you build a home and life for your virtual self, attending to your various life needs (hunger, fatigue, companionship, and so on) by directing your character's actions. In this version, you can also adopt and train pets.

I get a job. I go to work. I learn to cook. I clean the dirty dishes. I try to remember to bathe. I play with the cat. I clean the litter box. I fill the food bowl. I sleep when I'm tired. And I work to build responsive relationships with my neighbors and housemates (by talking, joking, flirting, listening).

When I finally achieve some level of happiness in the virtual world, I flip off the PlayStation to go to bed...only to discover that, in my real world, the cat's food dish is empty, the litter box is full, the dishes are dirty, and my family's fast asleep.

It's an odd universe we've constructed.

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

October 9, 2007

An unpleasant argument

Neill Roan flags a re-emerging public conversation about the costs and benefits of charitable giving, particularly to seemingly wealthy nonprofit arts organizations. Says he:

''Shouldn't charitable gifts go to the less fortunate?'' is a policy question that those of us in the cultural sector can expect to hear asked more often and more urgently. This question has been around a long time, and as a former fundraiser, I can attest that this question leads to a rocky and perilous conversational landscape.

Roan points to Jenny Price's essay against philanthropy in Good Magazine, in which she suggests that giving is often just a redistribution of wealth to repair the damages caused by that wealth generation. In another argument, Stephanie Strom proposed in the New York Times that the tax shelters for wealthy donors come at too high a cost to the public (which the National Council of Foundations called ''just plain silly'').

More recently, there was this little tidbit from former Secretary of Labor Robert Reich:

I'm all in favor of supporting the arts and our universities, but let's face it: These aren't really charitable contributions. They're often investments in the lifestyles the wealthy already enjoy and want their children to have, too. They're also investments in prestige -- especially if they result in the family name being engraved on the new wing of an art museum or symphony hall....

He goes on to suggest a modification to the current tax law:

If the donation goes to an institution or agency set up to help the poor, the donor gets a full deduction. If the donation goes somewhere else -- to an art palace, a university, a symphony or any other nonprofit -- the donor gets to deduct only half of the contribution.

It may currently be a debate about the spending, practices, and tax benefits of the ultra-rich and the mega-nonprofit. But the thoughtful cultural manager will prepare for such conversations to trickle down -- to their city council, to their major donors, to their public, and to their local media.

Why should people give to your organization rather than support the poor, the hungry, or the destitute? And why should your donors get a tax break on their gifts? They are horrible questions to answer, but you'd best have an answer at hand.

Posted by ataylor at 8:22 AM | Comments (12)

October 10, 2007

Do these spreadsheets make my assets look big?

Yesterday, I got to sit in on a small-group discussion on campus with Bennett Freeman, Senior Vice President for Social Research and Policy at Calvert. Calvert is an investment services company specializing in socially-responsible investment through their many mutual funds. As part of that investment process, Freeman's team analyzes companies along seven social criteria, including:

  • Governance and Ethics
  • Workplace
  • Environment
  • Product Safety and Impact
  • International Operations and Human Rights
  • Indigenous Peoples' Rights
  • Community Relations

Those companies and stocks ranked favorably on these criteria are included in the pool of possible investments, selected by the securities analysts in the firm. Those that fail never enter the funds.

There's certainly a niche of investors that want to align their money with positive impact on the globe (or at least minimize negative impact). But the question came up several times during the conversation: What is the role or responsibility of social-sector organizations when it comes to investing their own assets?

Back in January, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation took some heat for their investments. Said the article:

The foundation reaps vast profits every year from companies whose actions contradict its mission of improving society in the United States and around the world, particularly people afflicted by poverty and disease.

The Gates Foundation called the accusation naive, saying that while ''shareholder activism has worthwhile goals, we believe a much more direct way to help people is by making grants and working with other donors to improve health, reduce poverty and strengthen education.''

The counter-argument to socially screened investment among nonprofits suggests that asset strategies for social-sector organizations should serve the financial health and capacity of the organization, and that social restrictions on investments dilute such strategies. Freeman and others would counter that socially-responsible strategies can have equally strong and flexible financial results, while also aligning with the investor's personal or organizational values.

So, should union pension funds invest in companies with proven labor violations? Should health care organizations invest their endowments in companies that have a negative impact on health? Should cultural organizations invest their assets in companies that engage oppressive governments, or repress free expression?

I'm not suggesting that all cultural nonprofits should run out and change their endowment investment strategies (those with endowments, anyway). But it certainly seems a useful conversation to raise with the board. Your organization intends to make a positive impact in its community, in its discipline, in its part of the world. Should you also take care to put your money where your mission is?

Posted by ataylor at 8:28 AM | Comments (1)

October 11, 2007

What interns do vs. what interns want to do

The parody newspaper, The Onion, is always good for a laugh and a new view. This little fake newsbite (''Every Intern At Nonprofit Trying To Solve Refugee Crisis First'') pokes fun at the struggle to work with nonprofit interns, and juggle their big ideas against the drudgery to be done:

"I don't mind them attempting to levy sanctions against the Burmese junta or coordinate humanitarian airlifts to the oppressed Karen people on their own time, but we really need them to keep the copier full of paper and ensure we have enough pens," said the organization's director, Greg Davidson.

I'd comment, but I have to go find some pens.

Posted by ataylor at 8:58 AM | Comments (1)

October 12, 2007

An new (epic) stage of life

David Brooks in the New York Times explores a fairly recent addition to the considered ''stages of life.'' Sandwiched within the traditional childhood, adolescence, adulthood and old age, ''odyssey'' and ''active retirement'' are the newcomers to the spectrum.

Brooks specifically focuses on ''odyssey,'' those wandering years after college and before structured adulthood. Given the shifting structure of the social and global environment, he doesn't find the new stage much of a surprise:

Young people grow up in tightly structured childhoods. . .but then graduate into a world characterized by uncertainty, diversity, searching and tinkering. Old success recipes don't apply, new norms have not been established and everything seems to give way to a less permanent version of itself.

Dating gives way to Facebook and hooking up. Marriage gives way to cohabitation. Church attendance gives way to spiritual longing. Newspaper reading gives way to blogging.

As you might imagine, this emerging life phase is already having an impact on traditional social institutions and norms (says Brooks: ''It's a phase in which some social institutions flourish -- knitting circles, Teach for America -- while others -- churches, political parties -- have trouble establishing ties'').

While all such boundaries and taxonomies are constructs, not fact (Shakespeare suggested there were seven stages, the Greeks thought there were eight), they do provide another useful way to segment the challenges facing cultural managers.

Which stages comprise your core audience? Do you strive to serve more than one? If so, why should they care?

Posted by ataylor at 8:32 AM | Comments (1)

October 15, 2007

Your ticket price is merely the starting offer

If you thought you had a robust ticket pricing strategy, and you're on Broadway, it might be time revisit your thinking. After the repeal a few months back on price caps for ticket resellers, one primary reseller has set up shop on the Great White Way (according to this article in the New York Times).

Broadway and other downtown venues will likely grumble at the loss of cash to the market (if a ticket is worth $500, they figure, why don't they get the $500). But the growing marketplace for StubHub also absorbs market risk for those tickets that don't sell at cost. Says the article:

While most attention on the secondary market is centered on the hard-to-find tickets at nosebleed prices, the store could possibly open up the discount market as a place for brokers trying to dump tickets at the last minute. A spokeswoman for eBay, which owns StubHub, said that 40 percent of tickets on eBay are sold at or below face value.

So, who eats the loss when a reseller buys a ticket from a theater and then has to dump it at a discount? Technically, the reseller. But the original venue also loses control of its house and its prices, in the bargain.

Broadway and nonprofit theater in New York are clearly bit players here, as the bulk of reselling involves sports and bigger commercial entertainment. But it will be interesting to watch how the new rules and the new storefronts change the game for everyone.

Posted by ataylor at 9:27 AM | Comments (0)

October 17, 2007

Then I must be intangibly wealthy

A colleague passed along a link to this article in Reason Magazine on intangible wealth -- the invisible elements that drive the visible wealth of a country and its people. According to the World Bank, tangible wealth (natural and produced capital) only accounts for a fraction of any country's affluence.

If one simply adds up the current value of a country's natural resources and produced, or built, capital, there's no way that can account for that country's level of income. The rest is the result of ''intangible'' factors -- such as the trust among people in a society, an efficient judicial system, clear property rights and effective government. All this intangible capital also boosts the productivity of labor and results in higher total wealth. In fact, the World Bank finds, ''Human capital and the value of institutions (as measured by rule of law) constitute the largest share of wealth in virtually all countries.''

The 2006 World Bank report on the subject, Where is the Wealth of Nations? Measuring Capital for the 21st Century (available for PDF download), explored lots of things not captured in traditional measures of wealth, including the depletion of resources and damages to the environment. But its discovery about the invisible elements of capital are particularly striking -- accounting for 60 to 85 percent of a most countries' wealth.

It shouldn't be a huge surprise that ''stuff'' alone doesn't make for sustainable wealth. But it's helpful to have yet one more indicator that our indicators are flawed.

Thanks, Mark, for the link.

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

October 18, 2007

Preserving and changing at the same time

The CEOs for Cities blog points to a wonderful piece by Andrew Blum on the growing tension in urban planning -- between local and global, between preservation and change, between scale and density. The idealized, localized, human-scale urban neighborhood of Jane Jacobs is transforming right in front of us:

When I ''look, listen, linger and think'' about my corner of the world, I am persistently confronted with the broader world beyond. The barbershop chatter is in Creole, the cigar store might be closed for the end of Ramadan, and the cyclical chanting of capoeira, the Brazilian martial art, echoes from an upstairs dance studio. Planes pass overhead on their way to La Guardia. And at all hours people pause at the top of the subway stairs to finish their cell-phone conversations.

Blum nudges the received wisdom of Jacobs' urban ideals, and wonders out loud if they resonate with or resist the forces at play. Is our current understanding of preservation and community helping either, or hurting both?

The challenge Blum struggles with is well worth the struggle: How can cities (or any social structures) be both preserved and renewed? How can we balance the old-world personal and local interaction with the new world's global reach? How can virtual and face-to-face conversations thrive alongside each other, and even intertwine? If those aren't questions for cultural managers and arts organizations, I'm not sure what is.

Posted by ataylor at 9:36 AM | Comments (1)

October 22, 2007

Facts with a human face

This little student video project on the disconnect between the university classroom and its students is worth a watch for many reasons. First, it's compelling -- presenting the student research on the subject in human terms. Second, it's collaborative, showing just a piece of what learning and expressive opportunities are available to our universities if they could break the often-rigid structures that guide classroom life.

Third, it's a mirror issue for professional nonprofit arts. The opening scenes of an empty lecture hall are frighteningly similar to the traditional theater, symphony, or dance spaces, in which our audience is also asked to sit quietly and observe.

Posted by ataylor at 8:46 AM | Comments (2)

October 29, 2007

A naming gift without the name

My academic home, the UW-Madison School of Business, announced a rather unique gift this past weekend -- a naming gift that defers the need for a naming gift for the next 20 years.

The $85 million contributed to the school -- the largest single gift ever given to the university -- came from a partnership of alumni and supporters who were committed to retaining the Wisconsin name for the School of Business, but also eager to advance the work of the institution. Their donation does not block future efforts for a naming gift, but encourages future donors to renew the non-naming pact in the years to come.

Said UW-Madison Chancellor John Wiley:

"It is counterintuitive to go out to donors and say we want you to give us a lot of money to NOT name something after you. . . . But the simple idea behind this is something that's going to be copied by other schools around the country.

"It probably changes namings and philanthropy forever."

Who else out there is interested in contributing significant funds to ensure that nobody's name appears on their favorite institution?

Posted by ataylor at 10:52 AM | Comments (2)

October 30, 2007

Ten tips for new theater buildings

Chicago Tribune theater critic Chris Jones has ten nice things to say about the Guthrie's new theater space in Minneapolis. And he lists them as a tip-sheet for theaters yet to be built.

For those who haven't seen the new venue for the venerable organization, it's worth a look on the Guthrie's website, but even moreso on this interactive tour of the facility from the Star Tribune.

And yes, I realize the facility opened more than a year ago, which makes it ancient history by weblog standards. But Jones' piece offered a good excuse to talk about it anyway.

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

October 31, 2007

A major matrix

College majors in the U.S.Is someone in your life having trouble picking a major in college, or a purpose in life? This handy little graphic of college majors and their relative skills should help sort things out (permalink here).

Taken from the ever-humorous and graphically inclined Indexed blog.

Posted by ataylor at 10:32 AM | Comments (0)

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