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September 5, 2007

A mini manifesto

The start of a new school year in the MBA program I direct brings fresh students, blank notebooks, new boxes of pens, and a lingering, persistent question: How do we make best use of the two years to come? We spend a lot of time in our program discussing strategy and tactics for cultural leadership, always emphasizing the need for a clear and specific outcome goal. But what is the outcome goal of our degree program for arts and cultural managers, and how do we know when we've achieved it?

It's certainly not a question unique to our program, but common among any educational or professional development initiatives for arts managers.

This summer, one part of an answer emerged in my conversations and readings. I've scrawled it on the whiteboard in my office in three short phrases:

see with clarity
choose with purpose
act with intent

The longhand version is 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. What do I mean?

See with Clarity
Arts consultants George Thorn and Nello McDaniel wrote almost three decades ago that ''the first responsibility of professional leadership is to define and describe reality.'' The ability to see and describe ''how the world works'' is an essential quality of any leadership, particularly cultural leadership. How do audiences connect with your work? How does money flow through your organization? What draws volunteers and thoughtful board members to spend their time with you? What environment and organizational structures focus your staff, and what elements diffuse that attention? And more broadly, what lenses can you use to perceive these often-invisible ecosystems -- financial, social, political, cognitive, research?

Choose with Purpose
The field of economics is often broadly described as studying ''the allocation of scarce resources among competing ends.'' In the arts organization (and in life for that matter) all individuals face that same challenge with every moment of their waking day. Given the vast array of things you might do in this minute, this hour, this day, this month, this year, how do you choose to allocate your time, resources, and energy? How does your organization choose? The answers to these questions have often been labeled ''strategy,'' but that word comes nowhere near the power and potential of this ever-evolving choice.

Act with Intent
The clearest vision and the most compelling purpose mean little or nothing without action. Yet it is the meeting of vision and reality where many leaders stumble, and many organizations fall. To ''act with intent'' is to apply your vision and advance your purpose in tangible and meaningful ways. It means excelling at the job at hand while watching for the job ahead. Further, it means constantly questioning the traditional ways of doing things.

There's surely something missing in this short and cryptic list, but it's my place to begin this semester and this year. I'd value any feedback and additions.

Posted by ataylor at 8:10 AM | Comments (4)

September 6, 2007

Managing the evidence...literally

A colleague of mine describes the role of the arts marketing and communications as ''managing evidence.'' Since constituents invariably form their own decision about your work and your organization (why should they believe words that come directly from you?), the best strategy is to find out where they look and who they trust, and be sure they will find positive things about you there.

It's a concept as old as PR and politics, but its relevance is greater today than ever before. Google and other modern media tools have given our constituents (donors, ticket buyers, volunteers, board members, policy-makers) a thousand points of contact to our work and what people say about us. Blogger chatter, on-line reviews, customer comments, web-based discussion forums, all define the public image of our organizations. Managing that evidence has become job one for those who are paying attention.

So, it should come as no surprise that powerful interests are cutting right to the source. This article in Wired explores edits and deletions to the on-line Wikipedia encyclopedia, apparently done by corporations hoping to shine their image. Says the article:

Voting-machine company Diebold provides a good example of the latter, with someone at the company's IP address apparently deleting long paragraphs detailing the security industry's concerns over the integrity of their voting machines, and information about the company's CEO's fund-raising for President Bush.

In response to this trend, a Cal Tech computation and neural-systems graduate student has built a data-mining system that connects Wikipedia edits to the corporations that make them. But the Wikipedia edits are probably only the tip of the iceburg.

While many arts organizations would love to edit the on-line comments and reviews posted about them, the best we can manage is to ensure that the good stuff is highlighted (on our web sites, among our friends, in our e-mail bursts) and the bad stuff is at least part of our feedback.

And when we feel overwhelmed at the prospect, we can always look for a laugh on the subject, as provided by The Onion;/i>: ''Hard To Tell If Wikipedia Entry On Dada Has Been Vandalized Or Not''.

The fact that the web page continually reverts to a ''normal'' state, observers say, is either evidence that ongoing vandalization is being deleted through vigilant updating, or a deliberate statement on the impermanence of superficial petit-bourgeois culture in the age of modernity.

Posted by ataylor at 9:45 AM | Comments (0)

September 11, 2007

On price and value

If you needed more evidence that price and value are complex equations, cast an eye in the direction of Apple and their recent iPhone price change. Just 10 weeks after customers camped overnight for the right to pay $599 for the coveted gadget, Apple slashed the price by $200 (no waiting required).

The announcement made the loyalists cranky (or at least the non-iPhone-owners speaking on their behalf). Apple's first response to the complaints was ''get used to it, it's technology.'' Then they cleverly switched their message, suggesting this was a ''holiday promotion.'' Finally, Steve Jobs published an open letter offering his apologies (not for the price drop, but for communicating it poorly), and giving $100 back (in Apple merchandise credit) to ease the pain.

The particulars are less important than the lesson in price and perception. Ten weeks ago, thousands of consumers thought the value received from several hours in line and $599 (not to mention the monthly phone service cost) were well worth the cost. They likely calculated the premium of being first, of waving the iPhone in front of their friends, of casually flashing it in a restaurant or bar. Perhaps they saw the product as the key to a better and more connected life. They made that assessment even knowing that a better version of the same device would be cheaper and easier to get in just a few months.

The ready flow of cash and the sudden twist of fate both underscore the complex equation that defines value and price. When a product or service is also closely tied to a person's public identity or sense of self, there are even more variables in the mix. Consider, then, cultural consumption. What are people buying when they wait in line at the box office, or absorb the outrageous Ticketmaster fees? What complex value set drives them to spend more than they probably should on a premium touring show, but then balk at a $25 local professional production?

Arts managers are quick to point to price when sales are down and seats are empty. But it isn't's perceived value, that drives the final purchase. Posted by ataylor at 8:57 AM | Comments (2)

September 12, 2007

Okay, so how about a 'fantasy orchestra' league?

Public radio's ''Marketplace'' ran a quick segment last week on the rise and wealth of ''fantasy football'' leagues. These are formalized networks of fans who create their own fictional teams, and analyze the stats of their real-world players to determine the winners and losers.

The virtual leagues make real money, drawing membership dues, internet subscriptions, and other service fees from 15 to 30 million fans (there's even a real professional association for the fantasy sports industry, for goodness sake). And, of course, the professional teams love the energy, the attention, and the obsession with the game that such leagues attract and advance.

It's a form of fandom now being studied in academia, as well. Researchers at UW-Madison are exploring how such leagues convey knowledge and insight about the game, and how educators might take advantage of that type of learning.

How can arts managers ride the wave? I haven't figured it out yet. Anyone out there have an idea or an example of engaging arts enthusiasts in a similar fantasy pursuit?

Posted by ataylor at 9:36 AM | Comments (3)

September 13, 2007

Next comes free agency

While the arts may not have the vibrant fantasy leagues I posted about yesterday, at least we have trading cards. Yesterday also saw a few stories on the Houston Symphony's musician trading cards (in the Houston Chronicle and on NPR).

While not intended to spark trading and competitive bets, the cards turn out to be a useful way of reminding audiences that the formally-clad phalanx on stage is made up of real people, professionally trained, active in their communities, with a broad range of interests and skills (the trombonist coached his son's Little League team to a division championship).

Houston is certainly not the first orchestra to play the sports card. But it's great to see that they're in the game.

NOTE: For the visual arts community, there are also Artist Trading Cards. Collect them all!

Posted by ataylor at 8:31 AM | Comments (1)

September 14, 2007

Rethinking city transformation

The CEOs for Cities blog flags a growing question in community redevelopment: Is our common wisdom about revitalizing lagging cities actually true? The entry builds on this article in the Boston Globe, questioning the perceived success of Lowell, Massachusetts, which has long been a model for other efforts nationwide.

Says the Globe:

On key economic indicators like income growth and job creation, the city differs little from other ex-industrial cities in Massachusetts, according to a series of recent studies. Poverty in Lowell has gone up substantially since 1980. And despite its "renaissance" reputation, empty storefronts still dot Market Street, one of downtown's main drags. Lowell's national reputation is fading, say urban planners and community development analysts, as the city's impressive face lift has failed to yield the expected gains for the working class.

The city's efforts to repurpose old mills and warehouse buildings into condos and to invest in big-ticket community items like arenas and performing arts did have some impact on its desirability for Boston commuters. But seem to have little measurable impact on the full range of its residents. The researchers suggest that job training and basic skills development for lower-income workers would have had a greater impact.

The folks at CEOs for Cities make the larger point, that saving a city from a lagging industry past isn't a matter of picking one strategy over another:

Sadly, solving those problems requires more than a physical transformation and upscale housing. But strategies for upgrading workers' skills and conversion of factories to housing and commercial development are not mutually exclusive. It's not as if preserving the factories would make the manufacturing jobs return. Urban leaders have to learn how to tackle both strategies at once and take them both seriously.

It's an argument worth watching for any cultural facility that claims positive impact on its surrounding neighborhood or its struggling downtown.

Posted by ataylor at 8:12 AM | Comments (2)

September 18, 2007

At least one indicator changing in our favor

David Brooks has a great Op-Ed in the New York Times (requires subscription, probably) on the diminishing influence of I.Q. as a measure of intelligence.

While the conception of the intelligence quotient had some basis in observable fact, Brooks suggests that it was always a bit inelegant and opaque in describing such a complex characteristic. The measure couldn't explain global changes in IQ, nor could it account for environmental factors that influenced its results (like living in a loving home).

Similar things could be said for most of the ways we measure and evaluate the public impact of arts and culture. While we have evidence of tangible impact on economics, workforce, civic participation, and the like, these feel like inelegant and opaque placeholders for the larger importance of creative experience.

Brooks brings it home with his last two paragraphs, suggesting how the larger implications of this decline of the IQ. Says he:

The cultural consequence is that judging intelligence is less like measuring horsepower in an engine and more like watching ballet. Speed and strength are part of intelligence, and these things can be measured numerically, but the essence of the activity is found in the rhythm and grace and personality -- traits that are the products of an idiosyncratic blend of emotions, experiences, motivations and inheritances.

Recent brain research, rather than reducing everything to electrical impulses and quantifiable pulses, actually enhances our appreciation of human complexity and richness. While psychometrics offered the false allure of objective fact, the new science brings us back into contact with literature, history and the humanities, and, ultimately, to the uniqueness of the individual.

Posted by ataylor at 9:31 AM | Comments (1)

September 19, 2007

Faking authenticity

I know that a weblog post on a four-month-old article may be equivalent to a baker's "day-old bread" bin. But if the bread still feeds a hunger, I figure it's worth the offense. And Bill Breen's article on authenticity from Fast Company has lots of caloric value for arts and cultural managers, even if it is from May. Says Breen:

Playing the authenticity game in a sophisticated way has become a requirement for every marketer, because the opposite of real isn't fake--it's cynicism. When a brand asserts authenticity in a clumsy way, it quickly breeds distrust or, at the very least, disinterest.

While focusing on the commercial world, the article offers lots of little knowledge nuggets (or should I say "knowledge knuggets" -- trademark pending) on what can nudge a brand from authentic to fake -- from increasing market share to mismatches between message and action (like General Motors celebrating the American working man in their truck ads, while laying off thousands of them from their factories).

But ''authentic'' doesn't mean static, either, as several well-entrenched corporate brands have discovered over time. Says Breen:

To maintain its integrity, a brand must remain true to its values. And yet, to be relevant--or cool--a brand must be as dynamic as change itself. An authentic brand reconciles those two conflicting impulses, finding ways to be original within the context of its history.

It's a balancing act, to be sure. But it helps to actually care about the work you do, and to build your brand from the shine of true intentions, rather than the sheen of marketing spin.

[ Thanks to Scott for the link! ]

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

September 20, 2007

Evolution vs. adaptation vs. ultimate good

I'm slogging my way through the fascinating economics book Culture and Prosperity by John Kay (known as The Truth About Markets in its original UK release). Kay offers a thoughtful and detailed overview of how markets work, or don't work, and how economists have succeeded and failed at describing that functionality over time. He's also particularly adept at describing our common assumptions about free markets, and then beating them apart like some party piñata.

I'm still getting to the good part, but two recent sentences stopped me in my tracks:

Evolution favours what is good at replicating itself, rather than what is good. This fundamental distinction is essential to understanding any evolving system.

We can easily see in human history (and I see it in my own biases) a presumption that evolving systems slowly create better results. We've used the argument in reinforcing the supremacy of humans on the earth (animals and nature are in service to man, because man was the one to evolve the best). And we often use the bundled assumption in describing healthy organizations -- in the arts and elsewhere.

But Kay's simple point cuts to the heart of these assumptions. Evolution -- and even adaptation -- are extraordinarily effective at advancing what can be replicated. But they have nothing to do with selecting and advancing the best responses for any larger challenge. In fact, established organizational cultures are highly effective at perpetuating themselves through these very systems.

A museum with a culture of inward-focus and civic entitlement, for example, will have a board with such a culture, who will hire administrative leaders with such a culture, who will hire staff with such a culture. The rewards, incentives, and social mores of the organization will encourage such perceptions and behavior, even among staff who aren't quite in line. Those who don't eventually adapt will leave or be sidelined.

Whether or not that particular culture is effective for the mission and larger success of the museum is not part of the evolutionary system. Kay discusses several organizations, businesses, and political entities that entered the same trap, where ''the behavior which is adaptive within the organization is dysfunctional for it.''

So leading organizations that have a positive, dynamic, and responsive connection to the community and the needs they serve isn't just about creating a strong internal culture. It's also about constantly assessing whether that internal culture advances or detracts from the thing you claim to do.

Probably a bit of an esoteric point for a Thursday morning. But it stuck in my head, so I thought I'd spread the love.

Posted by ataylor at 9:24 AM | Comments (4)

September 21, 2007

A Friday diversion

This week's weblog conversations about intelligence, authenticity, and evolution found a fitting closure in the YouTube video featured on yesterday.

The overview of Theo Jansen and his extraordinary work with kinetic sculpture and hand-crafted biology is just the thing to remind us about the energy, insight, and mind-transformation our colleagues in the arts can deliver.

Thanks, Doug, for posting the link. Always nice to have my awe reflex re-calibrated.

Posted by ataylor at 8:38 AM | Comments (1)

September 24, 2007

What is scientific literacy? An essay contest helps decide

In the quest to define and advance ''scientific literacy,'' SEED Magazine has hosted an essay contest for the best answer to the question: ''What does it mean to be scientifically literate in the 21st Century?'' Both the first and second place winners are worth a read. Both have relevance for leaders in the arts.

In the winning essay, Thomas Martin untangles the confusion between facts and process. Says he:

We frequently hear the refrain that if our nation simply raised the level of science courses, taught our children more subjects, and/or gave them more hands-on lab work, we could ensure the production of a citizenry capable of understanding an increasingly complex world. They would then be prepared to make the difficult choices of the 21st century, etc.

But Martin, who teaches science and science history at an honors college, routinely engages students with impressive factual knowledge of both science and history, who nonetheless refuse to challenge their own foundational beliefs. To him, therefore, it's the process of scientific discovery that defines scientific literacy. The foundation of science education, he says, should involve direct student experience in the challenge and clarity of exposing theories to peer review and opposing evidence. Says he, again:

In an era in which we tremble at offending the sensibilities of our neighbors, students must comprehend that it is not only possible but absolutely vital that we criticize each other's ideas firmly yet civilly. They must do this despite clear cases of prominent scientists falling into petty, acerbic (and therefore counterproductive) exchanges. The responsibility for fostering scientific literacy of this sort--that is, literacy construed as an ongoing commitment to evidence over preconception--falls upon all of us in our discussions both formal and informal, both public and private. When scientific celebrities fail to set a good example for students, it is especially incumbent upon the rest of us to set them back on the proverbial right track, rather than to reflexively hasten their derailment.

I'd suggest that the same debate is vital to the purpose and goals of cultural literacy -- also known as ''arts education.'' As we ''ask for more'' arts education in our public schools, we should also clarify ''more of what?'' More factual study of cultural history? More structural knowledge of traditional art forms? More expressive opportunities for students to make art together and on their own? We can certainly ask for more of ''all of the above,'' but even then a vision for what ''cultural literacy'' looks like would help define our choice.

Perhaps an essay contest on a similar topic might advance the conversation: ''What does it mean to be culturally literate in the 21st Century?''

Posted by ataylor at 8:57 AM | Comments (3)

September 25, 2007

We manage what we measure, so let's measure what we value

Since metrics are the mantra of public education these days (No Statistic Left Behind), it's been difficult for arts education to maintain a stake in the larger conversation. Without hard numbers about the current state of arts education, neither policy-makers nor parents could argue in anything but vague and emotional terms.

New Jersey District MapThanks to an astounding initiative in New Jersey, at least one state now has something more concrete to argue about. In an effort I mentioned last year, a collaborative partnership decided to actually capture the state of arts education, one school at a time.

The result is the New Jersey Arts Education Census Project, which just released its first findings and summary report. The initiative, the report, and the web site claim to be ''one of the most comprehensive efforts ever undertaken by any state to gather, evaluate and disseminate data regarding arts education in every public school.'' In my experience, that's entirely true, and a beacon for other states to follow.

One of the most visceral reporting strategies is the district-by-district index map, showing which districts are delivering exceptional arts education and which are falling short. It's the kind of infographic that can truly reframe and revitalize the conversation between parents, communities, and school boards.

Congrats to the gang in New Jersey on a job well done. Let's see how it changes the stakes in the policy cycles to come.

Posted by ataylor at 8:42 AM | Comments (1)

September 28, 2007

Strategy as storytelling

A web discussion at SocialEdge, a program of Skoll Foundation, is exploring the idea of strategic storytelling -- or the promise and challenge of creating more compelling narratives about our work. While all agree that narrative is a powerful force in conveying purpose and meaning, it also has a controlling side that should lead us to be cautious and thoughtful in our telling. Says one participant:

Stories are the prima materia of identity, culture, and social order. Every relationship, every experience, and every object - is stored in the mind with a story attached to it. Cognitive science supports this with extensive research on the mechanisms of narrative and sense-making.

So, on the one hand we are completely lost and direction-less without our ability to construct, organize, and remember stories. We need stories in order to know who we are and where we are going.

Yet on the other hand, consider how quickly we can become enslaved to the stories that we inherit from our parents, school, religion, society, and our organizational peers....These same stories also impose limits on what is ultimately possible, leading to a self-defeating pattern that keeps individuals and organizations stuck from moving forward.

Many arts organizations I've seen aren't even aware of the many stories they already tell -- to their customers, their audiences, their artists, their boards. Every spreadsheet they present is a story, as is every policy they draft, and every description they give of an upcoming event or an event gone by.

If even these little stories were told with intent, with purpose, and with clarity, imagine how much more compelling an organization would be.

Posted by ataylor at 8:56 AM | Comments (4)

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