Gaia, Healthcare, and the Arts

The arts will always exist.
Wherever there are human beings the arts will be there.
It is far less clear that today’s arts organizations
will survive through the next several generations.

(You know you are old when you begin to use self-quotes as epigrams.)

This post responds to three things I’ve read recently that have me stewing (again) about the future of big- (and medium-) box nonprofit arts organizations, the ones that bear the DNA of the European aristocratic cultural tradition.

First, in articles about healthcare for all, I learned that one group of supporters views the elimination of the entire health insurance industry as a feature, not a bug. They believe the industry’s very nature is incompatible with the provision of cost-effective, responsive care. While I’m in total support of an approach that leads to universal healthcare, there is a mind-boggling investment in the healthcare infrastructure. I found myself wondering if eliminating it at a stroke is wise. And that reminded me of my frequent observation that we as a society have invested so much financial and human capital in the nonprofit arts industry that it needs to be re-directed so that it can far better serve the broad public good.

Second, the NY Times article The Earth Is Just Alive as You Are was a fascinating discussion of the theory that the earth as a whole is a living organism. It evolves as a sum of the parts that inhabit it. One of my takeaways was that there will always be life on earth so long as there is an earth. Even immediately after a nuclear war, there is a good case to be made that some species would survive. But there may not be human life. Careful readers, note the quote at the beginning of this post.

And third, my blogging buddy Trevor O’Donnell says he’s throwing in the towel in his effort to get arts marketers to adopt customer-centered marketing. (I’ve Been Wrong This Whole Time) He has become convinced that big nonprofit arts organizations, because of their core nature, are incapable of change and we shouldn’t annoy them by trying to make them do things differently. I pray they can change but I won’t swear to it.

One of my very first public presentations about the arts and community engagement took place nine years ago in St. Louis. My title was “Turning a Reluctant Battleship: The Arts Establishment and Community Arts.” I got a lot of pushback then that the big organizations were incapable of change.

I won’t swear that significant change is possible; but I live in hope fueled by awareness of what a terrible waste of societal resources it would be if it’s not. And I do see people–many people–working to transform thinking in our industry. But the inertial forces that preclude community-focused thinking are certainly overwhelming. That’s why I used the battleship metaphor.

I would ask that we all keep doing all we can as long as our energy lasts and trust that when we can’t handle it any longer others will step up. (And Trevor, thanks for being a voice in the wilderness.)




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Engagement at the Core

This is the last of a series, introduced in Baby Steps, about arts organizations’ initial efforts in community engagement. For details about the premises upon which these posts are based, see below. The essence is that simple, inexpensive initial steps offer the best way to embark upon community engagement.

Engagement at the Core: Early Efforts
As I said in Baby Steps, the key to successful engagement “is as simple, inexpensive, and excruciatingly difficult as changing habits of mind. The essential transition is to stop seeing our work as delivering a product that should be consumed by a nameless, faceless public and to view it instead as a valuable resource for specific individuals and communities whom we know (or are getting to know).” This applies equally to early efforts and mature ones.

In addition to what has been said to this point concerning community relationships, programming, and marketing, I would suggest that in the beginning all internal stakeholders in an arts organization continue their work as is and simply imagine how a commitment to relationship building might affect and improve their results. In other words, keep it simple.

Fundraising is (or should be) about relationship building and so is a natural fit for community engagement. And a community engagement focus vastly improves funding prospects–not because there is so much money out there for engagement work (there is not) but because of a seldom spoken truth about arts funding. There is a finite universe of potential arts funds. Arts-friendly individuals, foundations, corporations, and government agencies represent at tiny (and, arguably, shrinking) sliver of the funding world. This is why arts organizations are so loath to share donor lists or funding source information. However, when arts organizations begin to expand their focus beyond artcentric programming and address the interests of communities, the range of legitimate funding opportunities expands exponentially. (See More Pies)

Boards are rightly understood as resource generators, although it is a profound mistake to see them as only that. Yet even here, money is not the only resource board members bring to the table. Each one has expertise and a variety of relationships. Challenging them to assist with building bridges into the many communities of which they are members could, in some cases, be even more valuable than their financial contributions. In addition, if one criteria for board membership were community connections, this might expand the pool of talent beyond the “usual suspects” and provide access to new communities. The respect a board member has in a community could carry over to “benefit of the doubt” for the arts organization, a resource money can’t buy. (See The Board as Engagers and A Board of Engagers)

Volunteers working directly with the public are ideally positioned to support engagement work. Docents (see Docents as Engagers), box office support, even ushers can be trained to interact with people in a way that supports relationship building processes. Asking questions and reporting back on what is heard can provide valuable insight to support engagement.

While this does not cover all aspects of arts administration, it should be sufficiently illustrative to point the way. (As one more example, altering marketing focus group meetings to become more two-way dialogues is a simple switch that can elicit both the essential marketing information and support relationships between the attendees–and the communities of which they are a part–and the organization.) Again, early work in engagement should begin with a new habit of mind applied to current practices and see where that leads.



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The premises of this blog series are twofold. First, since relationship building is the core of community engagement, attempting to do too much too fast (before the relationship is established) will likely not be productive and, in fact, may be counter-productive. Second, there are many things that can be done to support engagement that do not require new personnel or new budgets. Simply re-imagining (and perhaps slightly re-tooling) things that are already being done can support engagement in very effective ways.

It should go without saying that the core of all engagement work is a strong (even if not unanimous) desire on the part of the organization to make connections with new communities.If the will to do so is lacking, the work will be at best minimally successful.

The Relevance Test

WillWorkForRelevanceI am currently working on “how to” processes for a book about establishing community engagement as a core function in arts organizations. Certainly, one of the first and most important steps is developing a cadre of engagement advocates. The arguments for engagement are many. However, I’m starting to believe that  the best place to begin may be with what I’m calling “the relevance test.” Here is how I’m articulating it right now:

The following questions, with a variety of different categories (as appropriate to the local situation), can be excellent conversation starters.

If you went out of business tomorrow, who would care?

  • City council
  • County commissioners
  • School board
  • United way
  • Chamber of commerce
  • Community’s religious leaders
  • Neighborhood associations
  • The general public
  • (Any of them?)

If so, why? How do you know? (That is, on what evidence do you base your answer?)

If not, why not?

In responding, the critical issue is the demand for honest answers, seen from the point of view of each entity listed rather than from that of the arts organization.

These questions are valuable because, in fact, few arts organizations can make a compelling case that if they went under or if their existence were threatened, a groundswell of support would arise to carry them forward. (Certainly, some are in that enviable position.) The “If not, why not?” question is particularly telling. The truth is that for a variety of reasons (especially the fact that many of our missions do not take community into account) the answer is fairly obvious: Because little effort has been made to be directly supportive of the community. Substantive, systemic community engagement is the path to relevance because it is based on being valuable to people in ways that are meaningful to them. And it is such relevance that forms the basis for individual, institutional, and community support. This is a case that can be a powerful one to those being sought as allies.



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The “Pandering” Straw Man

StrawManThis post is not part of a series, so it may seem a bit out of context. I’ve addressed the issues of quality and community on numerous occasions previously. (The Pursuit of Excellence, Quality and Community, Quality and Community-2) However, the issue comes up so often in Q&A sessions, it’s probably good to share this as I write it in the context of a larger project.

Critics (and uncomfortable observers) of community engagement in the arts world often assume that the effort to reach those without a background (or current interest) in the arts demands pandering–presentation of inferior or simplistic work–a prospect that is, rightly, rejected out of hand.

This is, however, a remarkable and, upon brief consideration, terrifying conclusion. The current base of support is insufficient to sustain the arts establishment. If the only way to achieve viability is to present work that is incompatible with arts missions, the industry is truly doomed.

“Pandering” is such a powerful accusation that it can distract from efforts to reach the community and thus reinforce artcentricity. It is, to be frank, a pernicious charge intended as a conversation stopper that undermines the humility and respect I’ve cited as essential for making essential connections with our communities.

Discomfort with the prospect of change is a principal catalyst for this argument. Granted, a lack of awareness of good examples of engaged programming can be another contributor, but both are rooted in satisfaction with the status quo (at least with respect to artistic content) and a failure of imagination.

The pandering charge is a straw man, although it is true that some programmers do not understand this and–either cynically or with misguided good intent–present work they deem inferior in an effort to “engage.” As has been demonstrated previously and will be again, those who desire to do so can uphold standards of artistic excellence while providing content that is deeply meaningful to the public.

Engage (authentically and without shame)!


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Gravity 3DI’m not one to spend much money when I go to the movies. I wait until they are on Netflix or go to discount matinees. I prefer the word thrifty to cheap, but if the shoe fits . . . . That’s why it was so remarkable that I chose to see Gravity (yep, George Clooney and Sandra Bullock) in IMAX 3-D. I spent three or four times what I would normally pay for a movie ticket to do so. . . . And I would do it again.

This is not a movie review (although it was, to me, a great, scary, uplifting film). What prompts me to comment on it was something I realized about the evolution of movies. From silent to “talkies,” black and white to color, who knows what all trends in sound, 3-D (in its many iterations over the decades), “big screen” innovations to IMAX to IMAX 3-D, the movie industry has leapt upon technological innovation at every moment possible. Of course, they had to to remain viable. All their competitors were doing it.

There are, for me, two principal observations about this. First, these changes are presentation changes, not content innovations, although some of them were directly tied to content. It’s not been enough for the motion picture industry to simply produce new work. With each passing decade, the new work was paired with increasingly high production values. We have certainly seen presentation changes in the arts: supertitles, sound reproduction, grand new performance/museum venues to name a few. (It is instructive, though, to note that the first two had/have fierce critics and the grand places are creating serious financial difficulties.) However, the change in the arts experience from 1913 to 2013 is minor compared with the stunning transformation of movie experience over the same period of time. I in no way suggest that all change is improvement, but the contrast is incredibly stark.

That leads to the second observation. Movies are, despite what we might wish, one element of our competition. The further “behind” we fall in the capacity to astonish, the more difficult it will be to draw people to our doors. I’m not saying therefore turn up the volume or install more glittery lights. I am pointing out that if it is getting more difficult to compete on the level of “spectacular” we will need to work differently. My prescription is, as always, to connect more deeply with the community, to be understood as increasingly meaningful by being so.