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September 2, 2003

Juxtaposition

Two stories in the news reinforce the growing power of earned income, as all other forms of income for arts and culture take a dive. On one hand, Philanthropy News covers this Wall Street Journal story about cutbacks and strategies of arts groups in the face of a down economy -- ranging from reduced programming to staff cutbacks to lower ticket prices (although the logic of the last one escapes me).

On the other hand, the NY Times tells about Ticketmaster's plans to offer ticket auctioning services on top of traditional ticket pricing. A few choice quotes from the article:

With no official price ceiling on such tickets, Ticketmaster will be able to compete with brokers and scalpers for the highest price a market will bear.

"The tickets are worth what they're worth," said John Pleasants, Ticketmaster's president and chief executive. "If somebody wants to charge $50 for a ticket, but it's actually worth $1,000 on eBay, the ticket's worth $1,000. I think more and more, our clients�the promoters, the clients in the buildings and the bands themselves�are saying to themselves, `Maybe that money should be coming to me instead of Bob the Broker.' "

So, while some arts groups are in freefall, other venues are riding the free market. It's going to be an interesting year to say the least.

Posted by ataylor at 8:20 AM

Is Art Good for Us?

Is Art Good for Us?The arts make you a better person. The arts make better communities. The arts make students better learners. The arts save souls. These are persistent myths of American culture that we all accept and embrace in our management, advocacy, and self-definition as arts managers. But it's astounding how quickly this 'instrumental' view of the arts unravels when the right strings are pulled.

Joli Jensen pulls all of the rights strings in this fascinating analysis of why we came to think this way, and why we are so wrong.

Is Art Good for Us? questions the transformational power of high culture by tracking its fairly recent roots. Her words will work here better than mine:

These arguments—that the arts are good for us, the media bad for us, and the arts can counteract the effects of media—depend on an instrumental view of culture. An instrumental view of culture assumes that cultural forms do something to us. This view presumes that good culture does us good, and bad culture does us harm. If we are exposed to good stuff, we become better people; if we are exposed to bad stuff, we become worse. This treats high culture like a tonic, something we ingest that has direct effects. The instrumental view of the arts relies on a medicinal metaphor: the arts are good medicine, especially in today's "sick" society. The mass media, in contrast, are bad medicine, poisoning a healthy society.

Jensen tracks these arguments through the work of Tocqueville, Whitman, Mumford, and finally her patron saint John Dewey (mine too). She ultimately suggests that the expressive view of art and culture is more useful, and less debilitating. Even though we often claim the instrumental benefit of art to advance our political power, she suggests that those claims keep us from actually making a difference in the world.

If we want to change the world, we need to do it directly. The arts aren't good FOR us; the ARE us -- expressions of us. We can't look to the arts to transform us, or to make the world a better place. To make things better, we need to dispense with instrumental logic and intervening variables, and find democratic ways to identify and engage in right action. It's up to us, not art.

more info on Amazon.com...
(any purchase benefits the Bolz Center for Arts Administration library fund...not much, admittedly, but a bit)

Posted by ataylor at 3:19 PM

September 4, 2003

Canadian Orchestras Unite

Thanks to an active reader of this weblog, Drew McManus, for providing a pointer to this article in La Scena Musicale. It discusses an initiative of Canadian orchestras to rethink what they do, and how they do it, and to get beyond the hyperbolic 'crisis' metaphors that seem to block our thoughtful view.

The article also references the Soundings Report, which gathers some of the key findings from phase one of the initiative into a long but engaging document (available on-line).

More thoughts later, as I wade my way through. But I figured others might want to wade through themselves and form their own opinions (please send them along, when you do).

Posted by ataylor at 10:47 AM

September 8, 2003

Google's Birthday

September 7 was the fifth birthday of Google.com (reported everywhere, including this story from USA Today, and another from BBC News), the little search engine that changed the face of the Internet.

While I tend to hate 'best practices' listings taken out of context and applied to arts management issues, I'll break my own rule on this one. Google can teach us all a few lessons about life in a connected world, and what brings an organization to the center of our scattered attention spans. Arts organizations should at least take note of what appear to be the engine's elements of success:

  • Clean and simple: Google focuses on its core purpose, and delivers it with absolute clarity. No news feeds, entertainment news, stock quotes, or trivia gunk cloud its home page. Just that glorious search field and a button.
  • Succeeding by Helping Others Succeed: Early on, Google went out of its way to become the resource of choice for web developers by providing the easiest means to solve their nagging problems (free search functions, plug-and-play script links to major development software like weblogs).
  • It's Who You Are, and Who You Know: The Google search system is based not just on keywords, but on the number of other web links pointing to any given page. The more connections pointing to your site, the higher your ranking in the search.
  • Treat Your People Right: Google is legendary for its 24-hour food service, the ability of staff to spend up to 20 percent of their work time on other projects, and its laid back atmosphere that feeds the creative soul. Some of this certainly comes from having money to throw, but much of it is a culture choice.
I'm not saying that all arts organizations should rebuild themselves to be Google. I'm just suggesting that by opening our corporate eyes to the huge range of 'ways of being' around us, we might find a management style more resonant with the creative work we're doing.

Finally, I can't let a Google weblog entry go by without pointing to my favorite Google hotspot: their zeitgeist page, that draws odd little factoids from the millions of searches they do every day.

Posted by ataylor at 8:48 AM

September 9, 2003

Comfortable Being Out of Balance

PBS is running a great series on contemporary art, art:21, that's rich with metaphor and insight into the creative process...the process we managers are supposed to be supporting, nurturing, protecting, enabling. But it struck me, during the segment on performance/scupture artist Janine Antoni, that discovery and creation are the greatest energies arts organizations have to draw from, and also the ones so easily crushed by our corporate metaphor.

The corporate metaphor we all seem to carry in our heads is about command and control, about best practices, about efficiencies, about escaping 'crisis management' and the burden of always 'putting out fires'. Contrast that to Antoni's discussion of tightrope walking, which she learned in the process of creating her work "Touch" (excuse the length of this quote, but it's more than worth the space):

"So I practiced tightroping for about an hour a day and after about a week I started to feel like I'm now getting my balance. And as I was walking I started to notice that it wasn't that I was getting more balanced, but that I was getting more comfortable with being out of balance. I would let the pendulum swing a little bit further and rather than getting nervous and overcompensating by leaning too much to one side I could compensate just enough. And I thought, I wish I could do that in my life when things are getting out of balance. You know when you have a hard day and one bad thing happens after another? I sort of learned that I could just breathe in and sort of set myself back up onto the rope.

"The other thing that was really fascinating is I started to learn the bottom of my feet in a way that I had never learned before. If the wire is just a millimeter to one side or the other I can feel it in my arms. I started to learn all kinds of things about the skeletal structure. About my sternum and my sacrum and how to keep them in balance. It was quite a beautiful process, learning to walk on the rope."

What if, instead of trying so hard to control, contain, even out, and reduce conflict, we actually worked to become "more comfortable with being out of balance," and used that energy to our advantage?

Posted by ataylor at 10:53 PM

September 11, 2003

Free a Book Today

I'm not usually one to pass along e-mail blasts, but this one seemed a particularly elegant way of remembering the events of two years ago today.

A "Poetical Happening"

On Sept. 11th, join a "poetical happening" and free a book. Because a book is a symbol of freedom, sharing and tolerance.

On Sept. 11th, 2003, take a book which is important for you, a book that has changed your vision on the world, write in it a dedication, a few words, an address, or a drawing, and free it.

Leave it on a roadside bench, a bus stop or in a cafe making it available for any unknown reader. In this way Sept. 11th will be not only an anniversary of tragedy. Together let us affect this global sorrow with creative and generous action.

UPDATE: From fellow arts administration professor Ellen Rosewall comes these two web site that follow the same spirit of the idea above: www.bookcrossing.com and www.found-art.com.

Posted by ataylor at 7:41 AM

September 12, 2003

Too many cooks?

For those who love the politics and intrigue of cultural facility construction (that's everybody, right?), Miami-Dade is like "West Wing" and "American Idol" combined. The latest plot twist is the open conflict between officials overseeing the construction and the construction consortium doing the work. It seems that structural flaws might affect the final acoustics and price tag of the facility (see this groovy infographic).

In a particularly enjoyable quote, the construction consortium offered this acceptance/denial combo platter:

"PACB looks forward to working with the county manager to find appropriate solutions to any issues which may or may not exist."

The structural questions, and the estimated $50 million they could add to the cost of the project, are just the latest twists in a decade of wrangling about this particular facility from parking, to payment schemes, to project delays. The big public noise started back at the end of 2000, however, when construction bids for the project came in way over budget (budget at that point was $205 million, and the only two bids came in at $280 and $332 million).

Not all cultural construction projects are like Miami-Dade (in fact, almost none are of the same scale, in the same steamy political/business climate, with the same intrigue). But this project does underscore the strange beasts such projects have become: at the intersection of politics, economic development, big-ticket arts organizations, massive corporate interests, and wealthy donors.

It brings to mind the 19th-century chestnut by German chancellor Otto von Bismarck: "People will sleep better not knowing how their sausage and politics are made." I might add 'cultural facilities' to the list.

Posted by ataylor at 8:39 AM

September 13, 2003

Partnership

'Partnership' is one of those words that everyone agrees with and nobody defines. Without fail, it crops up at professional roundtables, arts conferences, board meetings, foundation strategy meetings, grant review panels, and thinking sessions by managers in the arts. In spite or because of that popularity, the word 'partnership' has become one of the biggest blinders to clear and responsive management in nonprofit arts and culture.

On the face of it, it seems a powerful and persuasive word. We can't change the world alone. There's safety and strength in numbers. Funders love partnerships. Working together, we can double our reach. All true.

But the dark side of the word is the worldview it promotes: that we are somehow separate and individual to begin with. In the context of these many conversations, 'partnership' implies that we have to make an active choice to influence and be influenced by other organizations, and that we can avoid that influence by choosing not to partner. You can see it in the active verbs we use in 'building', 'forging', or 'forming' a partnership.

Listen in on almost any leadership conversation on an impending partnership opportunity, and you'll hear more proof of that individual bias: 'How will this affect our individual identity?', 'Is there a way we can achieve this goal without the hassle of working with another organization?', 'Don't we both compete for the same audience and patrons?'

The assumption of sovereignty has stalled, blocked, exploded, or left unseen many potential connections. There are countless stories about arts groups refusing to share mailing lists, patron lists (except for the ones they print for all to see in every newsletter, program, wall plaque, and event brochure), or even non-core administrative services like purchasing, payroll, or media buys. To do so would threaten identity, control, and authority. So, instead, many organizations 'build,' 'forge,' or 'form' only a few careful connections, figuring that the status quo is better than the risk.

Here's the rub: we have no choice but to be interconnected. The decisions and actions of one organization affect the decisions and actions of another, whether or not they talk about it or make a conscious plan. We share board members, audiences, funders, communities, artists, musicians, geographic space, and virtual space. We can't give up sovereignty, control, or identity when we have so little to begin with.

The real choice here is whether or not we recognize and inform the connections that already exist—with peer organizations, real estate developers, city councils, public schools, local business owners, and countless others. The connections are there whether we choose to look or not. They affect us whether we understand them or not.

In a complex, interconnected world, we can't choose to be separate. Even if that nasty word—partnership—lulls us into thinking we can.

Posted by ataylor at 1:47 PM

September 16, 2003

Dancing with Systems

The late Donella Meadows was a wonderful mix of business theorist, social scientist, and world citizen. As an early student of Jay Forrester at MIT, she was part of a team of academics and practitioners exploring the principals of complex systems (social systems, business systems, ecological systems). I keep returning to two of her essays as I struggle with the future of arts administration, so I thought I would include them here for others to read, as well.

The first is an excerpt from what was to be her last book, never completed. It describes the different worldview and life perspective required to know our place in a complex world. The full excerpt is here, but here's a wonderful quote:

The future can't be predicted, but it can be envisioned and brought lovingly into being. Systems can't be controlled, but they can be designed and redesigned. We can't surge forward with certainty into a world of no surprises, but we can expect surprises and learn from them and even profit from them. We can't impose our will upon a system. We can listen to what the system tells us, and discover how its properties and our values can work together to bring forth something much better than could ever be produced by our will alone.

The second essay is a more practical approach to systems intervention. If we want to make a difference, she asks, what are our most powerful options? She goes on to list her choices, in reverse order according to their power and effectiveness (the full essay is available here):

9. Numbers (subsidies, taxes, standards).
8. Material stocks and flows.
7. Regulating negative feedback loops.
6. Driving positive feedback loops.
5. Information flows.
4. The rules of the system (incentives, punishment, constraints).
3. The power of self-organization.
2. The goals of the system.
1. The mindset or paradigm out of which the goals, rules, feedback structure arise.

Where on this list do your management team, your board of directors, your consultants, your funders, and your donors spend the most amount of energy these days? The purpose of this web site is to struggle (not solve, mind you, but struggle) with number 1.

Posted by ataylor at 8:49 AM

September 18, 2003

The lean get leaner...

A new report by the NEA shows a grim recent and future view of dance organizations in a down economy (also covered on backstage.com).

Arts Endowment Chairman Dana Gioia puts on as positive a spin as he can on the findings, which predict as much as a 30% drop in earned income for nonprofit dance organizations in the next few years (at a time when contribution, grants, and other support will be tight, as well):

"Contrary to its artistically ephemeral nature, American dance has proven resilient to shifting economic conditions. Dance companies' ability to adapt to changing environments speaks to their creativity and persistence."

In other words, dancers and dance organizations survive and continue despite their environment. For a wonderful discussion of why, take a look at my weblog neighbor Tobi Tobias' interchange with dancers about why they continue to do what they do.

Posted by ataylor at 8:46 AM

September 22, 2003

It's all 'Times Roman' to me

The New York Times has a whimsical article on MoMA's refurbished logo and typeface. While winking throughout about how nobody will ever know the difference, the article also showed the depth of thinking and craft that goes into even the things we never notice. It turns out, for example, that the original Franklin typeface had lost its character and flair somewhere over the past decades, as the article explains:

Metal type traditionally has slight variations between point sizes, to compensate for the properties of ink and differences in proportion. But digital versions of historic typefaces are often created from metal originals of a single point sizeas was the case with the commercially available Franklin. It had been digitized from metal type of a small size, distending the proportions at its larger sizes. Once its defects were recognized, they became glaring: the letters were squat and paunchy, sapping all the elegance out of the white space between them. With some of the signage applications in the new building requiring type four feet tall, the small variations became "hideous," Mr. Pusz said.

Within this whimsy, however, lies a fundamental disconnect between the business of art and just plain business. Excellence and obsession with detail makes great business sense when the consumer can recognize the difference, and pay extra for it. But great art is built on excellence and obsession that often goes unnoticed by its audience. From the perspective of critics, one performance or artwork may be profoundly better than another. But the vast majority of viewers or audience members honestly couldn't tell one from the other.

A business focus would suggest that we minimize these tiny and unperceivable increments of excellence (after all, they lead to much higher costs and aren't recognized by the consumer). The artful manager, on the other hand, sees that the exceptional moment of connection is all about those insignificant details.

Posted by ataylor at 8:47 AM

September 23, 2003

Creative Cities

I'm off today at the ArtGrowth Summit, a Madison, Wisconsin, initiative to explore the place of the arts in creative cities. It's one of countless such initiatives inspired by Richard Florida's Rise of the Creative Class.

The mother ship of such conferences will be in Toronto in October, the Creative Spaces + Places conference.

Posted by ataylor at 12:25 AM

September 25, 2003

From the Mouths of Mayors

As I mentioned, I was off early this week at Madison, Wisconsin's ArtGrowth Summit, one of many such meetings of arts, business, and civic leaders taking place around the country. And yet, preparing myself for the Richard Florida-speak of luring creative workers with creative amenities, I was pleasantly surprised by a more balanced reaction to the Creative Class frenzy that has gripped us all for the past year.

Specifically, our new Madison mayor offered some thoughts you rarely hear from public officials, covered in this local news story:

"The arts should not be about economic development fundamentally," Mayor Dave Cieslewicz told 300 activists today at a one-day "Artgrowth Summit" at Monona Terrace....

Cieslewicz allowed that attracting educated, creative people to a city is good policy. But he disparaged the "class" concept as condescending, saying it seems to "relegate the street people with purple hair to bit players in a play performed by the creative class.' "

Art is about three things, said Cieslewicz: creativity, honesty and taking risks, he said.

A fundamental role of the arts is to "shape our ideas of who we are and to help us govern ourselves," he said. "Politics without art is dull and uninformed. Arts without politics is without a point."

That's my mayor. Pretty cool (pending the proof of his commitment in his upcoming city budget).

Posted by ataylor at 11:32 AM

September 29, 2003

Brains from a Different Time

So many national conferences of nonprofit cultural professionals are consumed with 'attracting younger audiences'. From multimedia additions to symphonic performances, to 'singles night' activities, to superimposed trendy amenities on the same old visual art exhibitions, these responses so often seem to miss a more basic point. Younger audiences think with different brains, and from a different perspective than older ones.

A great case in point is the Beloit College Mindset List, a list of facts about the world as experienced by the incoming freshman class. Most incoming students were born in 1985. The list reminds us that many of our formative experiences are only history lessons to them. A few choice items from this year's list.

The United States has always had a Poet Laureate.

Garrison Keillor has always been live on public radio and Lawrence Welk has always been dead on public television.

There has always been some association between fried eggs and your brain.

Computers have always fit in their backpacks.

They have never gotten excited over a telegram, a long distance call, or a fax.

Test tube babies are now having their own babies.

Stores have always had scanners at the checkout.

They have always had a PIN number.

Granted, the Beloit list is highly biased toward middle-class, native-born American youth. Just imagine if the list also shared the life-experience of the increasingly diverse faces and minds of the 'young audiences' we all seem to be struggling after (just look at these U.S. Census reports on children, for examples).

Posted by ataylor at 8:18 AM

September 30, 2003

The Creative Commons

Hands down, one of the coolest things to happen to copyright in the past decade is the Creative Commons, a quick and simple way for content creators to share their creative works. Based on the premise that not all authors, artists, programmers, and other creative individuals want to lock-down what they create, the Creative Commons allows for a 'some rights reserved' copyright license that's both easy to understand and use, and backed by some serious legalese.

As a case in point (and an experiment), I've created a Creative Commons license for this weblog. It sets the terms for anyone who wants to copy and paste the words and weblinks that I write into a newsletter, magazine, web site, newspaper, or whatever. I give you permission up front, providing you follow a few simple rules (in my case, that you give attribution that I wrote it, and that you do not alter, edit, or create derivative works from it without my specific permission).

It may well be that nobody cares to use this stuff. But it may be that they do. The beauty of the 'some rights reserved' license is that I open up the opportunity without having to know that fact in advance. Through a minimal effort, I can release my thoughts and questions to a wider world, which is the point of this weblog, anyway.

So, if you have hole to fill in your organization newsletter, newspaper, or magazineor if you just want to print and distribute an entry to your staff, board, friends, or familyfeel free to find an entry you like on this weblog, or a book review, or an 'uncertain term', and use it as much as you like. If you want to let me know that you've done so, I'd love to know. But that's entirely up to you.

(Please note that my creative commons license only applies to my content, and not to the rest of ArtsJournal.com, the ArtsJournal logo, or any other content that isn't mine to give away).

Posted by ataylor at 8:48 AM

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