[Createquity Reruns] What Do I Mean By An Artistic Marketplace?

(Individual artist week continues with the introduction, in March 2009, of the concept of an “artistic marketplace” – a parallel marketplace “in which the currency of trade is respect from one’s peers rather than the ability to draw a big-spending crowd.” This idea ended up serving as the intellectual foundation for a number of subsequent articles at Createquity and elsewhere, and this is probably one of articles that I’ve linked back most frequently over time. “What Do I Mean By An Artistic Marketplace?” lays out the importance of curation to the individual artist’s livelihood, and argues for the wisdom of treating the act of curation itself as a form of marketplace activity. -IDM)
In a recent post here, I threw around this idea of an artistic marketplace, as distinct from the market itself. I had thought I came up with the idea in one of my Thoughts on Effective Philanthropy posts from last year, but perhaps not surprisingly, I discovered that Adam Forest Huttler had articulated it much more clearly than me in a response to that post:

The most important decision I ever made at Fractured Atlas was our late 2001 shift from a curatorial strategy to a wide open one. By accepting that I lacked the vision or wisdom to reliably identify the next Jackson Pollack or even Richard Foreman, I democratized our whole approach to supporting the arts community. The new goals were about leveling the playing field by providing resources and tools that reduced the likelihood that real talent would be squashed by bad luck or poor access to vital services. Ultimately Fractured Atlas helps our industry’s “market forces” function more effectively by limiting the often significant impact of non-artistic factors (e.g. healthcare, funding, technology).

Here’s what a functioning artistic marketplace doesn’t look like: in 2005, the heyday of my experimental rock band Capital M, I booked a total of nine gigs at well-known small clubs such as the Knitting Factory, the Bowery Poetry Club, and the Zeitgeist Gallery up in Boston. To give you a bit of context, my band has some serious firepower in its lineup, musicians who have played with the likes of the Bang on a Can All-Stars, Bruce Springsteen, and Yo-Yo Ma’s Silk Road Ensemble. These concerts included the release party for our debut CD, a CMJ Music Marathon concert, and the 21st Century Schizoid Music Festival, and included appearances with Elliott Sharp and Todd Reynolds among others.

Our revenue from these concerts averaged less than $65 a night. Take out the show at the Zeitgeist, which is misleading because we had to rent the space in order to play there, and the average is closer to $40. That’s $6.67 for each of the six members of the band. But wait! In order to prepare for these gigs, I had to rent rehearsal space at an average cost of $86 per show. So rehearsal expenses alone were enough to put the band underwater without subsidy, and that’s not even considering equipment, recording expenses, publicity, or anything else. In total, the band cost about $7,000 that year and took in less than $600 in concert revenues.

After 2005, I changed Capital M’s business model to one in which we played fewer concerts, but the concerts we did play included an annual World Premieres Extravaganza for which I conducted extensive fundraising. For the second World Premieres Extravaganza at Tonic in April 2007, I received grants from Meet The Composer and the Manhattan Community Arts Fund which enabled me to pay each band member a respectable fee of $300 and (thankfully) still break even. All that donor largesse, however, didn’t do much for Tonic; the venue closed forever less than two weeks later.

Our experience with this system is by no means unique. All presenters within the arts ecosystem, even nonprofit ones, must develop programming based on a blend of artistic considerations and market considerations. The problem is that some of the best art is, by its very nature, anti-market. Jazz guitarist Marc Ribot has written a must-read essay on the plight of small independent music venues in New York City, a number of which have failed or been forced to move in the last several years. In it, he diagnoses the problem:

”Do It Yourself” is a lovely idea, one which leaves its believers with a comforting sense of control over their destiny. the only problem is that when the “It” is running a business capable of treating musicians fairly and the “Yourself” is the musicians themselves, it doesn’t work, for the same reason that kibbutzes haven’t globally replaced private farming, food co-ops haven’t replaced supermarkets, housing co-ops haven’t (as their original proponents theorized) provided massive havens of low income housing and workers co-ops haven’t replaced private industry: Businesses need capital. People who work gigs for a living, by definition, don’t have it.

Without capital, venues either eventually fall back on the old strategies of musician exploitation, abandon new music priorities, fail or all three. If those venues are ‘artist run’, the only difference is that we get to exploit ourselves. Hooray for progress.

Ribot reveals that the reason jazz has survived at all in this country is largely thanks to subsidies from across the pond.

In truth, our belief that the market could fund new music was always as illusory; European touring, heavily state subsidized, has been the real economic motor of experimental jazz/new music for decades, the light at the end of the tunnel of months of scarce and/or poorly paid NYC gigs. […]

I’ve spent close to two months a year on tour in Europe since 1984, playing over 1,000 gigs. For years, I’ve asked presenters how their funding was structured. I was often surprised at the answers: even some of what I thought were private clubs were in fact administered by jazz or new music societies or co-operatives. The European gigs were almost always subsidized: usually by the city or state government completely donating the performance space itself.

Note the method of intervention here taken by European governments. Rather than directly subsidizing Ribot’s ensemble and those like it, they instead lowered the costs for the organizations that present the ensemble, enabling those organizations to pay Ribot a decent artist’s fee. This, to me, is a key element of a sane and sustainable artistic marketplace.

The basic elements of cultural production are the creator, the performer, the producer, and the presenter. In our current arts funding system, different public and private donors might be providing assistance at any and all points along this chain. It’s extremely haphazard, and it can lead to bizarre juxtapositions like the same musicians getting paid $600 one night at Merkin Hall and $6 the next night at Zebulon, or one composer receiving a $5,000 commission in connection with the premiere of a new piece at a concert and another composer receiving zilch for another premiere at the same concert.

Wouldn’t it be simpler if all performers could have a reasonable expectation of getting paid by virtue of being booked at a venue that programmed noncommercial work? So that the only thing the ensemble would have to worry about is proving their artistic worth and relevance to the curator, rather than whether they can afford to go deeper into debt in hopes of greater exposure? For this to happen, arts funders would need to focus their resources on lowering the cost of cultural production and distribution for everybody, rather than trying to pick and choose who gets the spoils. In other words, they would outsource the curatorial role to those who do it for a living: bookers, artistic personnel, and artistic directors. It’s almost like giving a mini-regranting program to each presenter, and endowing them with the autonomy to dole out the funds as they see fit.

In the context of my writing on philanthropy, the idea of enabling a self-functioning and self-regulating artistic marketplace has one important implication: namely, that funders would not worry so much about the quality of the art that they’re funding. That sounds counterintuitive and scary to a lot of donors, but if you think about it it makes some sense. Funders are not necessarily in the best position to judge artistic quality, relative to other people who might be able to do the same. Unless they’re ready to commit to sending staff to performances every night, listening to every CD and watching every video that comes in through the door whether solicited or not, and generally pounding the pavement scouting new talent, they’re not going to be in that position. (This is why many already partially outsource this expertise by regranting funds to discipline-specific service organizations and/or convening rotating peer review panels to make the decisions.) Most importantly, arts funders wield a disproportionate amount of power due to the resources they hold, yet the aesthetic tastes of their staff, no matter how well-informed, are no less subjective than anyone else’s.

By funding artistic systems instead of artistic producers, funders can distribute those resources to a much broader network of informed decision-makers, each of whom will make their own judgments about the artistic merit of individual players on the scene. Their aggregated decisions, awarding this date to that band and that residency to this performer and so on, collectively represent the artistic marketplace of which I speak: a marketplace in which the currency of trade is respect from one’s peers rather than the ability to draw a big-spending crowd.

I’ll end with this quote from the Marc Ribot essay that I linked to earlier. I think it nicely sums up the importance and potential of thinking about the arts in this way.

The idea behind European public arts subsidies, the reason why NYC jazz/new music artists for at least the last 40 years have played Paris, Cologne and Zurich many more times than they’ve played Hartford (and how many have ever played Des Moines?) is a doctrine called “the European cultural exception”, a set of government policies based on the concept that, even within a market economy, art/culture is to be treated differently from other commodities.

This concept asserts that some music deserves to exist even if the market says it doesn’t. That the best string quartet isn’t necessarily the one that plays the most TV commercials. That the best composer isn’t necessarily the one George Lucas picks to score his film. That the best band isn’t always the one most favored by a large radio network’s advertisers. […]

That enough Europeans have chosen to value this social benefit, to codify these values into law and fund the laws into being…is why about half the music I care about exists.

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[Createquity Reruns] Professionals vs. Amateurs (part 2)

(Welcome to individual artists week at Createquity! The plight of the non-superstar artist has been a common theme here over the years, and this site in some ways rose out of the ashes of a failed artistic venture founded by yours truly. Today we have one of Createquity’s earliest posts on the topic, originally published in the spring of 2008. In it, you can see me grappling with the paradox of why so many people are trying to be artists when being an artist is so hard to pull off financially. Attempting to explain and deal with this tension is at the center of much of our later work on the topic. -IDM)

One of the reasons I’ve found it challenging to keep up with Createquity at times is the sheer volume of material that my RSS reader brings me into contact with every day. Knowing that my colleagues in the blogosphere are generating so much high-quality material themselves makes me feel that much more pressure to make sure that my own contributions live up to their standards and are not overly duplicative. Merely sifting through the dozens (hundreds, if I’ve been away for a while) of posts takes an immense amount of time, and that’s not even considering the comment threads on each of these entries that can become quite lengthy in their own right. The 24-hour nature of the Internet tends to impinge uncomfortably on things like class time and girlfriend time. I certainly don’t earn any remuneration for the effort and time I put into the blog. And yet I keep on, as do many, many others who find themselves in this exact situation and still feel they have something to say.

In my last post, I talked about how suppliers of creative content are (for the most part) declining to exit the industry despite extremely strong competition and unfavorable odds for financial self-sustainability, to say nothing of massive success. The standard explanation of this is that artists, writers and the like are “driven to create”—they can’t imagine doing anything else with their time. That may be true at least in some cases, but a class from my business school core curriculum provides a more interesting way of looking at it. The dean of the school, Joel Podolny, and my Competitor professor Fiona Scott Morton co-authored a study of California wineries and found that hobbyist suppliers—basically, rich people that wanted to run their own winery—concentrated so heavily on the high end of the wine market that they collectively made it less profitable for businesses that were interested in maximizing profit. As a result, businesses that wanted to make money would concentrate more on lower-end wines. Podolny and Scott Morton called these hobbyist suppliers utility maximizers and suggested that these winery owners consumed the quality of their own wines (in other words, were willing to accept a lower profit level in order to possess the identity of a high-quality wine producer). Another study found that investment banks with the best reputations actually did not need to pay top dollar relative to their competitors to attract their targeted employees, because the employees to some degree consumed the status of their employer (and were willing to accept less money in exchange for the prestige of working for a top firm).

Basically, I think that the reason we don’t see more exit from creative industries is because most creative content producers are also consumers of their own status as such, and are therefore willing to put up with a boatload of bullshit—including a very high likelihood of making next to no money—in order to be able to call themselves composers or directors or actors or artists. Because, let’s face it, being a creative professional is fun. It’s virtually guaranteed to get people’s ears perked up at parties, and can serve various aphrodisiac functions (though the whole poverty thing can just as easily kill the mood). The undercurrent of ego is strong, particularly for something like composing—you’re getting other people to pay their own money for the privilege of experiencing something that you created for the fun of it. Not only that, many creative professionals retain a massive degree of control over the final feel and execution of their vision, making the satisfaction level at the end of the process that much higher.

There’s a cultural shift going on in which more and more young people are graduating from high school and college and wanting to do interesting things with their lives, something that reflects who they are and what they think about the world. In previous generations, most young adults would end up working in agriculture, manufacturing, or other labor-intensive mega-industries and form their professional identities around a career that might have been set in stone before the child was even born. Now, having been weaned on a Baby Boomer-influenced education emphasizing self-expression and -actualization, Millennials want creativity to be a part of their professional identity, and more and more that means working in some kind of creative industry.

That leads in to the other side effect of this shift: as more and more people decide that it’s not enough to be an audience member or a reader or a listener and decide to express themselves as well, they have less time to consume the work of others. In other words, as the number of suppliers of creative content increases, their average audience decreases (even if the total audience might be increasing dramatically). Andy Warhol’s prediction that in the future everyone would be famous for fifteen minutes is proving ever more prescient in the Internet age. As universal awareness becomes more and more difficult to achieve and a minimal level of awareness easier and easier, the lines between amateur and professional content creators are becoming increasingly blurred. It may be that we are all pursuing vanity projects to some degree.

Some kind of massive aggregating system will undoubtedly pop up to organize all of this content for us and keep it manageable. What I’m less sure of right now is what it will look like. Until then, I’ll try to keep up with my RSS reader.

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[Createquity Reruns] Mood affiliation and group loyalty in the arts

(With all of the skepticism expressed in Createquity’s Uncomfortable Thoughts week, one might reasonably wonder whether Createquity really believes in the value of the arts at all. In fact, that’s something we’re intentionally open-minded about. This 2012 post explains why we believe it’s important to offer “a perspective on the arts that is independent of a rooting interest, other than an interest in reality.” -IDM)

Some food for thought as we navigate public debates about gun control, taxation, and the value of the arts (emphasis mine):

[T]he study presents both observational and experimental data inconsistent with the hypothesis that political conservatism is distinctively associated with closed-mindedness: conservatives did no better or worse than liberals on an objective measure of cognitive reflection; and more importantly, both demonstrated the same unconscious tendency to fit assessments of empirical evidence to their ideological predispositions. Second, the study suggests that this form of bias is not a consequence of overreliance on heuristic or intuitive forms of reasoning; on the contrary, subjects who scored highest in cognitive reflection were the most likely to display ideologically motivated cognition. These findings corroborated the hypotheses of a third theory, which identifies motivated cognition as a form of information processing that rationally promotes individuals’ interests in forming and maintaining beliefs that signify their loyalty to important affinity groups.

To put that in Cowenspeak, both sides are guilty, the smart are guiltiest of them all, and the desire for group loyalty is partially at fault.

When I was in college and shortly afterwards, my hometown Boston Red Sox were locked in a dire rivalry with the ascendant New York Yankees. The Bronx Bombers may have had the better pedigree, having racked up 26 baseball world championships including four between 1996 and 2000, but we surely had the better story: no World Series title in 86 years, despite a dozen or more excruciatingly close calls, bad breaks, and missed opportunities. In the early 2000s, when both teams were among the best in the sport, every Red Sox game against the Yankees, no matter how early in the season, was high, high drama. The players felt it too, getting into several on-the-field fights and various wars of words in the press. Every time one of these would happen, Red Sox fan websites and bulletin boards would light up with the indignity of it all, painting the Yankees as the “Evil Empire” and lampooning their greedy, entitled, cheating ways. I felt like I couldn’t even talk to people who were Yankees fans and avoided them like the plague (which was easier living in New York than you might think). It felt so good, so comfortable to be among a crowd of people “on my team” – people united around a common enemy, cheering and booing the same events, occupying the moral high ground with me. So comfortable that it was easy to overlook the things that my team did that were rather like the very things I was booing the enemy for – like spending lots and lots of money to try and buy a title, or relying on the contributions of stars who may have been using performance-enhancing drugs. “It’s different,” I would tell myself about these transgressions, when I bothered to think about them at all. The fact is, I was a Red Sox fan first, and nothing would (or likely ever will) change that.

It’s one thing to be a die-hard fan of a sports team. My mood affiliation with other Red Sox fans creates instant community whenever I visit Boston again, and provided for some of the most thrilling moments of my life when they finally won it all while vanquishing the Yankees in dramatic fashion in 2004. But more and more, lately, I see us following political developments with all of the nuance of the guys in the bleacher section wearing body paint on their chests. Defeating the other guys takes precedence over all other priorities, including careful consideration of facts on the ground. I know I don’t have time to thoroughly research every political issue that comes up on my radar. So instead I rely on filters to do the hard work of reporting and interpreting the news for me. I imagine most other people are in the same boat.

As mainstream, reporting-driven news media loses power and influence, it’s becoming easier and easier to process information inside a bubble with its own facts, talking points, and agendas – a bubble made up of like-minded people as surely as the sports bar outside the ballpark. This has been true on the right for years with talk radio and Fox News, and increasingly on the left as well. Social media like Facebook, providing as it does an ideal platform for advocacy via images, video, and sound bites, only turns up the volume. Bright spots like Nate Silver’s election projections aside, it’s hard to find filters who share your values (especially when those values are distant from the political center) yet allow those values to remain subordinate to the pursuit of facts and truth.

We see this phenomenon in the arts as well. I’m not just talking about descending upon Capitol Hill to root, root, root for more NEA funding, or circulating online petitions decrying cuts in arts education. To my mind, any time we attempt to universalize the “uniquely human” experience of the arts or its capacity to “heal the soul” – any time we imply that people are living a spiritually impoverished existence because they don’t regularly get to the gallery or the symphony – any time, in short, that we assume that people we don’t know are just like us – we are committing the sin of mood affiliation. And if you think you’re too smart to fall into that trap, the study quoted above suggests that you’re wrong – because the smartest people are the ones least likely to see the trap coming.

Why is that? If I may be permitted a bit of speculation here, I’d say it’s because smart people can rationalize anything, and I would guess are more likely than others to trust our own instincts and reasoning. If we can always rationalize new information to fit a predefined narrative about who’s right and who’s wrong, well then, we never have to be wrong. And it sure does feel nice to be right all the time.

That’s why, officially, Createquity takes no position on the value of the arts. I wouldn’t have created this site and be doing what I do if the arts hadn’t had a profound impact on my own life. But I can’t rely only on the experiences of the other people at the ballpark with me to know what it’s like for folks who root for the other team – or who don’t follow sports at all. Posts like our Arts Policy Library analyses and our Uncomfortable Thoughts pieces are intended to provide a perspective on the arts that is independent of a rooting interest, other than an interest in reality. That’s a high standard to hold to, but I hope you’ll hold me and the site to it.

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[Createquity Reruns] Uncomfortable Thoughts: Are We Missing the Point of Effective Altruism?

(It was just nine and a half months ago that Talia Gibas published this awesome post responding to the hullabaloo around Peter Singer’s op-ed in the New York Times arguing that a donation to a blindness charity is morally superior to a donation to a museum. Talia places Singer’s article in the context of the movement known as “effective altruism,” and shines a light on some of the important and very real questions the movement’s core arguments raise for anyone working in this or any other field. For what it’s worth, I like to think of Createquity’s new editorial direction as modeling an effective altruist approach within the context of the arts. -IDM)

"I want change" by m.a.r.c.

“I want change” by m.a.r.c.

Toward the end of the summer, bioethicist Peter Singer raised the hackles of art lovers everywhere with a New York Times op-ed that considered a hypothetical dilemma: should you donate to a charity that combats blindness in the developing world or should you spend that money instead on an art museum? After running through a cost-benefit analysis of each option, he determined that the charity addressing blindness “offers [donors] at least 10 times the value” of the museum.


To no one’s surprise, the arts community didn’t exactly roll out the welcome mat for the piece, calling Singer’s argument “a shocker,” “absurd,” and “tyrannical.” Another round of alarm ensued recently when none other than megaphilanthropist Bill Gates threw his support behind Singer’s thesis. The responses from our field to date have generally coalesced around two broad counter-arguments:

As satisfying as these rebuttals may feel to arts advocates, they unfortunately miss the point. The crucial assumptions behind Singer’s argument are that

  1. there are objective reasons for thinking we may be able to do more good in one [sector] than in another,” and
  2. we have a moral obligation to make choices that do as much good as possible.

It’s important to understand this perspective in the context of “effective altruism,” a relatively nascent but growing area of applied ethics that has been featured more than once on this blog, not to mention a recent edition of This American Life. Besides Gates, fellow philanthropic heavyweight and past Hewlett Foundation President Paul Brest has declared himself a fan. “Effective altruists,” or EAs, are on a quest to “do good” by way of hard-nosed rationality. “Doing good” doesn’t mean recycling a little more, or occasionally doling out spare change to a beggar on the street. It doesn’t mean foregoing a high-powered corporate career to work for a nonprofit. It means taking the time to analyze how to do the most amount of good possible with the resources available – or, to use a more nerdy turn of phrase, to “[use] science and rational decision-making to help as many sentient beings” as they can.

Most funders are already in search of a big “bang for your buck,” but in trying to identify the objectively best causes to support, effective altruists stray from the conventional wisdom of mainstream philanthropy. EAs cast a global net when determining where to focus, and often settle on supporting causes in faraway parts of the world, the results of which they may never see in person. They also believe that while human lives are created equal, philanthropic causes are not. Those causes that can save or improve the most lives must take first priority.

How does this play out in practice? Let’s say you donate to the free medical clinic in your area. You do this for good reasons: you care about inequities in the American healthcare system, and want to give back to your community. You like the feeling you get when you walk by that clinic every day. Maybe you even know people who benefit from the services the clinic provides. The clinic gets its donation, and you get warm fuzzies. Everybody wins. Right?

Not so, an EA would counter. Despite your good intentions, your donation amounts to a near-waste of resources:

We understand the sentiment that ‘charity starts at home,’ and we used to agree with it, until we learned just how different U.S. charity is from charity aimed at the poorest people in the world. Helping people in the U.S. usually involves tackling extremely complex, poorly understood problems… In the poorest parts of the world, people suffer from very different problems…

We estimate that it costs [Givewell’s] top-rated international charity less than $2,500 to save a human life… Compare that with even the best U.S. programs… over $10,000 per child served, and their impact is encouraging but not overwhelming.

EAs advocate making evidence-based decisions even if they don’t resonate on an emotional or intuitive level:

Effective altruism is consistent with believing that giving benefits the giver, but it’s not consistent with making this the driving goal of giving. Effective altruists often take pride in their willingness to give (either time or money) based on arguments that others might find too intellectual or abstract, and their refusal to give suboptimally even when a pitch is emotionally compelling. The primary/driving goal is to help others, not to feel good about oneself.

If this approach leaves you with an empty feeling in the back of your throat, it is by design. “Opportunity costs” – the costs of choosing not to behave in a certain way – weigh heavily on EAs. Every time you make a donation, considering where your money could have gone is as important as considering where it will ultimately go (emphasis mine):

In the “Buy A Brushstroke” campaign, eleven thousand British donors gave a total of £550,000 to keep the famous painting “Blue Rigi” in a UK museum. If they had given that £550,000 to buy better sanitation systems in African villages instead, the latest statistics suggest it would have saved the lives of about one thousand two hundred people from disease… Most of those 11,000 donors genuinely wanted to help people … But these people didn’t have the proper mental habits to realize that was the choice before them, and so a beautiful painting remains in a British museum and somewhere in the Third World a thousand people are dead.

Weighing choices isn’t limited to how we spend our money – it also applies to how we spend our time. Just as EAs dispute the notion that people should support whichever charities they feel “passionate” about, they question whether channeling those passions into a nonprofit or medical career is the best way to make a difference. Many suggest instead that people “earn to give,” saying they “might be better off…in a high-earning job and making a deliberate commitment to give a large portion of what [they] earn away.“ The organization 80,000 Hours, founded to “become the world’s number one source for advice on pursuing a career that truly makes a difference in an effective way,” elaborates,

Working at a non-profit can be a great way to make a difference. But it’s no guarantee. Amazingly, lots of non-profits probably have no impact. And do workers at [a] non-profit have more impact than the people who fund them? The researchers who push forward progress? The entrepreneurs who transform the economy? Policy makers? Maybe. No one stops to ask.

Putting ideas like these on the table is a great way to make those of us in the arts squirm. While there are echoes of the effective altruism movement in some recent trends within our field, like the “universal call” for better data on the impact of the arts and the pointed questions about who ultimately benefits from arts funding, the arts are chock-full of people – artists and arts administrators alike – who were drawn to their work by that same passion that EAs claim clouds our judgment. The idea of allowing cold rationality to dictate and limit our quest to “do good” flies in the face of our artistic sensibilities, and challenges the assumptions many of us made when we entered the nonprofit sector in the first place – even those of us who have a sincere desire to address social inequities.

Tempting as it may be, it would be short-sighted to dismiss the EA movement as the pet project of a bunch of aesthetically stunted curmudgeons. It’s hard to dispute the notion that we could improve the human condition if only we could get our act together and commit our resources to a data-driven approach. After all, the nonprofit darling of the moment, collective impact, is based on the same premise. What effective altruism does is counter our cause-specific argument for the arts with a dizzying moral appeal for cause agnosticism. And to be honest, it’s hard to see how the arts win if they play the game by the EAs’ rules. The “both/and” argument mentioned previously is unlikely to sway an effective altruist who weighs each decision as a choice between two different futures, one in which a museum gets funded and some lives get saved and one in which the museum struggles and more lives get saved. Even if the museum shut down completely, its patrons could probably find or create an alternative “creative outlet and emotional oasis,” while the people dying of malaria can’t very well make the mosquito nets themselves. The “we give lives meaning” argument likewise rings hollow when we’re talking about lending privileged lives (anyone living on more than $2 a day is privileged in a global context) a dose of incremental “meaning” at the expense of giving others a shot at basic survival. It also comes across as incredibly condescending to those others considering that they would likely never get the opportunity to visit or benefit from Singer’s hypothetical museum. In any case, art is hardly the only possible delivery mechanism for meaning. In the words of one effective altruist,

Trying to maximize the good I accomplish with both my hours and my dollars is an intellectually engaging challenge. It makes my life feel more meaningful and more important. It’s a way of trying to have an impact and significance beyond my daily experience. In other words, it meets the sort of non-material needs that many people have.

Whether the EA movement sputters or gathers steam, taking the time to engage with its principles, even critically, is a healthy exercise. The bottom line is that EAs may actually be onto something when they argue it’s possible to make a bigger dent in one sector than another. Rather than insisting otherwise or dodging the argument altogether, we could heed the call to examine how altruism really manifests in our work, particularly when examined through the lens of what benefits the people we engage, rather than what benefits our organizations or our donors. Might we, too, have objective reasons for thinking we may be able to do more “good” in one program, or with one population, than in another? Do we, too, have a moral obligation to maximize that good? How would that change how we operate and who we serve? Do we want to change how we operate?

If the effective altruism debate makes anything clear, it’s that to be able to make art, not to mention argue about it, is to be fortunate. Taking a hard look at our assumptions about what draws and keeps us to this work may not be easy, but if we squirm a little, so be it. In the grand scheme of things, a little squirming is a luxury too.

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[Createquity Reruns] The Myth of the Transformative Arts Experience

(Arts marketers and advocates are fond of invoking the arts experience that changed their lives, and the one that presumably could change yours if only you came to this next show. But are most arts experiences on has as an audience member really like that? In this post from three and a half years ago, I argue no, and that if we’re searching for transformation we might be looking in the wrong place. -IDM)

Punchup mirage

“mirage” by Flickr user Punchup

For a long, long time (as in, literally, months now), I’ve been meaning to respond to an essay by Philadelphia’s Chief Cultural Officer Gary Steuer lamenting what he sees as “the greatest sacrifice arts workers make” – the inability to recapture one’s first, “innocent” experiences of the arts, the ones that presumably convinced the person in question to pursue a life in the arts in the first place. Here’s the crux of his argument, succinctly:

No, I think the more significant – and unique – sacrifice arts workers make is that we lose the capacity for full, innocent and glorious enjoyment of the very art that our passion for drove us to make our life’s work in the first place. What do I mean by this? Think about your earliest experiences with the arts, your first encounter with Matisse, or Chuck Close; your first time in the audience for Sondheim, or Verdi; that time you first saw Baryshnikov on stage, or Judith Jamison. Remember that childlike joy – even if you were not a child – that total immersion in the art where the whole world disappeared and you were unaware of time, of the person chewing gum next to you? Now tell, me when was the last time you felt that? Sure, you are still passionate about the art form or all art forms, you still go to museums, or opera, or theatre, but something has been lost. Admit it.

Culturebot’s Andy Horwitz had more to say here. Gary’s essay drew a strong and enthusiastic response from more than two dozen arts professionals on his own blog and Huffington Post, with much agreement that the arts experiences those individuals were having were by and large uninspiring. Most commenters seemed convinced that this phenomenon was the result of their own position, a casualty of getting so caught up in day-to-day drudgery that they could no longer take a step back and let the art work its magic like it always did before.

Well, I’m sorry, but I don’t buy that at all. I don’t think the problem is with us, or our jobs. I think it’s with the art. Or to put a finer point on it, I think the problem is with our expectations for what art can do for us.

My memories of my earliest experiences with the arts are a bit fuzzy, but I can tell you with certainty that they were not that special or amazing. I recall being taken to Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts a couple of times and finding it utterly boring. I had some mild enjoyment of and fondness for The Nutcracker, but otherwise classical music left me cold. During my tween years, my older sister was involved in a few dance performances and a family friend participated in a play or two; I attended them or watched videos, but remember being more confused than inspired.

I didn’t really experience the arts’ magical properties until much later, when I was a senior in high school. I’d had no formal musical training up to that point, although my violin-maker downstairs neighbor did teach me how to read music at the age of 12 when I was looking for cool songs to program into my computer’s internal speaker. But previous music appreciation classes and a lot of singing in the shower had been enough to convince me to try giving music more of a role in my life, at least for that year. So all at once, I enrolled in a music theory AP class, joined the high school Glee Club, and started composing on my own (to the point where I decided to spend my independent senior project – a five-week stretch of no classes during which most students completed an internship – composing and recording a primitive “rock symphony”).

That year completely changed my life. First of all, I loved singing in chorus. Hearing the music come together from the inside, over time, was a totally different experience than listening to the finished product from a seat in the audience. I felt like I gained a much deeper understanding and appreciation of each piece by virtue of so intimately being a part of it than I ever could as a spectator. But even more than that, I loved being a composer. I loved the process of imagining a sonic landscape, articulating it in a common language, working with other people to bring it to life (I found that music was a wonderful vehicle for helping this socially anxious soul make new friends), and most of all, hearing my creation in my own ears, given breath by a community of people who were inspired to share their time and talents with it.

For me, that was magical. But none of it involved being in the audience for anything. It involved doing art: actively involving myself in the creation or production of an arts experience. (Not to say that all of my early experiences with that were magical either. I acted in a school play around the same time and hated it. Why? Because I sucked at acting, that’s why. I enjoyed music in no small part because I was good at it, and part of the magic no doubt lay in self-validation.)

When we limit our discussion of arts experiences to ones in which we participate passively, I imagine that the bar for something “transformative,” something magical, is far higher. It does happen, don’t get me wrong. But how often, really? The first truly transformative live arts experience that I can remember in which I was solely involved as an audience member did not occur until I was 21 years old – long after I’d already decided that the arts were going to play a big role in my life. I was traveling in Europe for a couple of weeks on a summer fellowship, and happened to catch a Japanese guitar-bass-drums trio called Altered States at an experimental record store in Rotterdam. They played a two-hour, 100% improvised set of jazz-rock fusion that was unlike any music I had ever heard before, and I can honestly say it changed my life in profound ways. Some months later, I saw renowned Polish conductor Jan Szyrocki perform with the Szczecin Technical University Choir at Yale in a concert that just blew me away and totally reframed my concept of what was possible in choral music. Since then, I can report that I’ve had deeply moving or inspiring arts experiences like that as an audience member at a rate of perhaps one every other year. To be sure, that’s a lot more than I experienced during my teenage years – but it’s also only one out of every several dozen events I attend!

I think that the people who had transformative arts experiences as youth of the kind that Gary talks about – where they heard Verdi or saw a Matisse and were hooked right then and there – just got lucky. They were in the right place at the right time and were bringing to the table just the right cocktail of personal background, talent, and curiosity to have a magical moment. I bet if you polled arts professionals more broadly, though, the vast majority would report having their minds first blown by the arts during an active state of engagement. Laura Zabel, now executive director of Springboard for the Arts, just recently wrote a lovely thank-you note to the Tulsa Ballet for visiting her small town in Kansas when she was growing up and getting her hooked on the arts. Not by performing, mind you – though they did that as well – but by welcoming her into their production of the Nutcracker.

Getting out and seeing a show now and then is always nice. But getting to be in the show – that’s what’s truly transformative about the arts.

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[Createquity Reruns] Uncomfortable Thoughts: Is Shouting About Arts Funding Bad for the Arts?

(One of Createquity’s hallmarks has been its willingness to entertain questions that many cheerleaders for the arts would prefer not to touch with a ten-foot pole: questions about the effectiveness and relevance of arts programming or advocacy strategies, about the appropriateness of the ways in which we amass knowledge, even about whether the arts really matter all that much after all. In honor of that propensity for navel-gazing, Uncomfortable Thoughts week begins here with a 2011 guest post from Margy Waller, who focuses on strategic communications and creative connections to promote broad support of the arts at Topos Partnership. -IDM)

This all started with a throwaway comment I made to Ian when I was dropping him off at the airport. Sharing an idea that you’ve been mulling over for awhile, but never said aloud and aren’t sure you’re ready to discuss, is best done when the sharee is dashing for a flight and won’t really engage. Or so I thought.

Ian said: 1) Now that’s worth discussing. 2) I’m not sure whether I agree with you. 3) Maybe you should write a blog post about it.


So – now you know how I ended up here.

The Theory: Shhhhhhh

Public Art Paris


Here’s the theory I pitched at Createquity that day: Advocates for the arts might be better off doing their work under the radar than trying so hard to get a lot of media and public attention when fighting for public funding of the arts.

Createquity readers get regular updates on public funding of the arts. So we all know this was an especially rough year for many state arts councils.

But is this unique? Nope. We all have examples in our catalogue of “can-you-top-this” horror stories about arts advocacy experiences from over the years.

Like this.

When President Obama proposed including funding for the National Endowment for the Arts in the stimulus legislation, the media covered the topic in typical he-said-she-said style with headlines like “Stimulus funding for arts hits nerve: Some doubt it would create jobs.

The arts are often used as a way to politicize and undermine bigger issues (like the stimulus bill), because the public tends to erupt with charges of elitism like this one:

“Why should the working class pay for the leisure of the elite when in fact one of the things the working class likes to do for leisure is go to professional wrestling? And if I suggested we should have federal funds for professional wrestling to lower the cost of the ticket, people would think I’m insane….” — Catholic League President Bill Donohue speaking of an exhibit at the Smithsonian in 2010.

Media coverage like this encourages a debate over the “facts.” Unfortunately, rebutting the doubts with our research findings means that arts supporters have to stay in our opponents’ frame.

They Aren’t Listening Anyway

A debate that lives within the position of a critic (like arts jobs aren’t really jobs or the arts should be supported by the rich) does little to shift the public landscape of a widely-shared belief, such as: the arts are a low priority for public funding.

Unfortunately, facts and research we’ve accumulated to prove the value of the arts as a public matter of concern, and then worked hard to get reporters to cover, are too often dismissed or ignored when seen through the lens of an idea that’s not new and about which people have already made up their minds.

Most people will simply ignore the rest of the story (where all our snappy facts live) once they’ve seen the headline. We all filter the barrage of information in today’s info-heavy world, paying little attention to all but those matters of deepest interest to us. A headline that presents an issue we’ve already decided for ourselves is likely to be read as: “Oh, that again. I know what I know about that. And I don’t need to know anymore.”

Worse Even: The Backfire Effect

But even worse is the possibility that a public debate makes things harder for arts advocates in the long run because, as Chris Mooney explains, “…head-on attempts to persuade can sometimes trigger a backfire effect” where people react by defending their position and holding onto their views “more tenaciously than ever.”

In other words, when we think we’re reasoning, we may instead be rationalizing. Or to use an analogy offered by University of Virginia psychologist Jonathan Haidt: We may think we’re being scientists, but we’re actually being lawyers (PDF). Our “reasoning” is a means to a predetermined end—winning our “case”—and is shot through with biases. They include “confirmation bias,” in which we give greater heed to evidence and arguments that bolster our beliefs, and “disconfirmation bias,” in which we expend disproportionate energy trying to debunk or refute views and arguments that we find uncongenial.

It’s true that in the end, Congress included some funding for the NEA in the stimulus bill. But it took a very heavy lift — well executed by Americans for the Arts — to set up hundreds of conversations between constituents with influence and members of Congress. It’s certainly sometimes possible to overcome bad press and the fear felt by elected officials that they might doom their own careers supporting an unpopular cause. But it’s seriously labor intensive and asks a lot of our supporters — not an ideal way to ensure success year after year. And it forced us to revive an old debate – possibly making things harder for arts supporters next time around.

An Alternative: Don’t Try to Change Minds, Change Perspective

One solution to this dilemma is to craft a new communications strategy —one built on a deeper understanding of the best ways to communicate with the public about the arts—that would increase a sense of shared responsibility and motivate public action in support of the arts. That’s what we’ve done at ArtsWave.

Instead of reviving an old debate, we sought a new way to start the conversation – based on something we can all be for, instead of something we’re defending against an attack. And importantly, we aren’t trying to change people’s minds, but present the arts in a way that changes perspective. Therefore, we held the message accountable to factors such as whether it prompts people to focus on certain aspects of the topic (such as broad benefits) rather than others (such as personal tastes); whether a message is coherent and memorable; whether it promotes the idea of public/collective action; and so on.

After a year of investigation and interviews with hundreds of people in the our region and surrounding states, this research—conducted by the Topos Partnership for ArtsWave (happy disclosure, the writer is affiliated with both) —found that public responsibility for the arts is undermined by deeply entrenched perceptions. Members of the public typically have positive feelings toward the arts, some quite strong. But how they think about the arts is shaped by a number of common default patterns that ultimately obscure a sense of shared responsibility in this area.

For example, it is natural and common for people who are not insiders to think of the arts in terms of entertainment. In fact, it’s how we want people to think when we are selling tickets or memberships. But, in this view, entertainment is a “luxury,” and the “market” will determine which arts offerings survive, based on people’s tastes as consumers of entertainment. Consequently, public support for the arts makes little sense, particularly when public funds are scarce.

Perceptions like these lead to conclusions that government funding, for instance, is frivolous or inappropriate. Even charitable giving can be undermined by these default perceptions. People who target arts funding, as they did in the stimulus bill, know that these dominant ways of thinking about the arts will work in their favor. Our investigation identified a different approach, one that moves people to a new, more resonant way of thinking about the arts.

What is it? The arts create ripple effects of benefits, such as vibrant, thriving neighborhoods where we all want to live and work. This is not only compelling, but it also sets an expectation of public responsibility for the arts.

However, even though most people agree with this view already (so we don’t have to change their minds), we know that it will take time, repetition, and many partners across the nation to bring this way of thinking to the forefront of people’s minds.

Stay Off the “Front Page”

So — back to my theory about arts advocacy – until we effect that change, the better strategy, when possible, may be to keep stories about public funding for the arts off the front pages and out of the media.

To some this may seem counter-intuitive. Or at least uncomfortable. If we care about the arts, shouldn’t we be shouting about it? Getting people to pay attention to our facts and our data.

Well – it depends. Is our advocacy goal a widely seen news piece outlining all sides of the issue? Or, do we want a successful budget outcome?

I think it’s the latter. And when it can be achieved with a quiet effort, making sure to begin modeling this new way of thinking about the arts in our meetings with decision-makers, that is preferable to another big public debate. Because the big fight in the default way of viewing the arts is very losable. And in our efforts, we’re forced to expand a precious resource: the time and energy of staff and key supporters who have to work so hard to convince public officials that they won’t suffer consequences in the next election.

Moreover, every time the fight is public, we’re likely to be reinforcing the dominant ways of thinking about the arts that are getting in our way now. When attacked, we rebut with facts, and the media covers the issue as a political fight with two equal sides – both seen through a lens that sets up the arts as a low priority on the public agenda. And as we know, this can have the effect of making people defensive and hardening existing positions. Of course, it should be no surprise that even officials who are friendly to arts funding are reluctant to be in the middle of that kind of coverage.

The Ohio Success Story

This past year, I watched closely as our state arts advocates at Ohio Citizens for the Arts carefully managed what seemed to be a stealth campaign to retain funding for arts and culture through the Ohio Arts Council. Despite an initial proposed cut by the newly elected Governor, the final outcome was an increase in funding over $4 million more than the previous budget. Each step of the process brought an increase in the proposed funding level — the House vote, the Senate vote, and the reconciled proposal sent to the Governor, resulting in $6.6 million more than the proposed executive budget. And it went forward without fanfare or comment when signed into law.

Compare this scenario with the nightmare that was Kansas. Of course, the Governor started a fight there — and there’s some evidence that this battle to the death did bring out supporters. But it clearly brought out opponents too.

As a little test, I tried two Google searches: One for blogs mentioning ‘“Ohio Arts Council” budget’ and the other for ‘“Kansas Arts Commission” budget’. In both cases, I limited findings to the first six months in 2011. The Kansas search revealed over 1000 posts, compared to only 42 in Ohio. An even greater disparity than I had imagined.

It appears that the Ohio advocates strategically sought to keep the campaign under the radar. And it worked.

To be sure, I called Donna Collins – the executive director of the Ohio arts advocacy organization. And she confirmed my theory.

“We didn’t want to be in the headlines,” she said. “We didn’t want to see masses of people on the statehouse lawn with signs about funding the arts. We wanted people on message, talking with their own elected officials at home, as well as in Columbus. Our advocates, from the smallest rural community to the large urban centers, all had compelling stories about the positive impact of the arts.”

Collins credits long-term investment in relationship building with state decision-makers and encouraging a consistent message: the value citizens place on the way arts make places great. She organized a meeting about this message for partners on the morning of a well-attended statewide Arts Advocacy Day in the capitol. There was no big public fight, no need to defend a position in the media, no risk of the opposition hardening in place – and therefore little reason for politicians to fear supporting the increase in funding for the arts.

So…this is a theory, and one deserving of more study. But until we have a new landscape of public understanding, it seems a theory worth testing again.

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[Createquity Reruns] The Future of Leadership

(Emerging leaders week at Createquity concludes with another crosspost from ARTSBlog, this one written with the help of Jean Cook of the Future of Music Coalition and Fractured Atlas‘s Adam Huttler in April 2010. It’s our statement on how we think arts leadership in the early 21st century looks different than arts leadership in the late 20th. -IDM)

We hear a lot of talk about the coming leadership transition in the arts. Baby Boomers are nearing retirement age, and Gen X’ers and Millennials are itching to take on increased responsibility. It’s important both for the good of the arts as a whole and for the individuals involved to make sure that, when the time comes, the people getting behind the wheel will have had some experience riding shotgun first. Hence our conversations have frequently centered on professional development, training, networking, and mentorship as strategies to better prepare our young(er) drivers.

It’s important to recognize, though, that the conversation isn’t-or shouldn’t be, at any rate-solely about passing the keys from one generation to the next. That’s something that has been happening since time immemorial, and is part of the normal cycle of nature and humanity. What’s so newsworthy about that, really? Naturally, there are lessons about leadership to be handed down from the elders to the newbies – and the conversations on ArtsBlog on this issue have boasted some elders’ generous attempts to do just that. Every so-called “emerging leader” who knows what he or she is talking about acknowledges that there is much to learn from those who came before, and that we would be foolish to pretend that we already have the answers. After all, the calls for mentorship are coming more from the younger generations than it is from the elders.

But even as we honor and benefit from the contributions of the Boomer and Silent generations, we also must face the fact that there are some forms of wisdom that are not transferable from previous generations. Our world has changed dramatically just in the time that Generation Y has been alive, and the rate of change only keeps increasing. Certain ways of thinking, communicating, and organizing ourselves are proving to be a better fit with the past than they are with the future. So as we develop new strategies to support the next generation of arts leaders as they begin this leg of the journey, we need to keep in mind that simply talking about where we’ve been will provide an incomplete map of the road ahead.

So, what is this new normal that we face? What are the imperatives that anyone leading an arts organization in the 21st century, regardless of generation, must grapple with in order to lead effectively? Recognizing once again that we do not have all the answers, here is an attempt at identifying the most important factors.

  • Technological literacy. Nearly all of the sweeping changes in how we do business and live our lives that have taken place during the last 20 years can be traced to dramatic advances in communication and data storage technology. Twenty years ago, there was no World Wide Web, cell phones as we know them today did not exist, word processing software was still in its infancy, and a typical hard drive held 1/10,000th of the space boasted by a comparably-priced device today. Think about that for a second. In a single generation’s time, our collective capacity to store, process, and share information has exploded beyond all recognition. This one development has completely transformed our work and our relationships, and its impact on the arts and arts organizations is no exception. Future arts organization leaders will need to, at a minimum, be literate in current technologies, and ideally should be fluent in them. As for the leaders of our entire field, the service organizations and grantmakers among us should have the capacity to shape technological trends, not just keep up with them.
  • Transparency. Yes, all of those status updates on Facebook about what people had for dinner are annoying. And why would you broadcast details about your love life to everyone you know? It may seem nonsensical to those of us who grew up in a different environment. But in the digital age, secrets are increasingly a fiction. The proliferation of data, the ease of sharing it, and the slow demise of less easily tracked transactions (e.g., cash) all mean that unless you remove yourself from the grid (and thus miss out on all of its benefits), information about your activities is out there for people to find whether you like it or not. If this is the case for individuals, it’s doubly so for arts organizations, many of which are nonprofits and subject to various regulations governing the sharing of information with the public. Recognizing how thoroughly technology has changed the rules around information-sharing, the more forward-thinking leaders in the sector have begun taking a “if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em” approach to transparency, recognizing that trust ultimately remains the true currency of effective operations. Proactively sharing data that previously would have been considered confidential and merging internal and external “faces” can enable the organization to speak authentically with one voice. But transparency need not be merely a defensive measure. What arts leaders are realizing is that transparency, widely adopted, can have benefits of its own, especially when taken to the next step:
  • Collaboration. The advent of numerous “crowdsourcing” platforms has shown us that sometimes, things get done better, faster, and more cheaply when we all chip in. While competition certainly has its virtues, the arts sector can only thrive in the 21st century if its individual actors remember that, in the end, we are all on the same team. The theater that opens up shop down the street from yours is not a threat – it’s an ally in your quest to make your street a place to see theater. The organization that starts a program similar to yours the next town over is not drawing foundation funds away – it’s a source of new capacity that can benefit your program even as you teach the lessons you learned from your own experience. As much as the private sector extols the virtues of competition, in every well-functioning workplace collaboration and division of labor is the norm. When we are working toward a common goal, that is as it should be. Thus, the arts leaders of the 21st century will need to be ready to embrace coordination of efforts, willing to occasionally divest their ego from a program for the good of the field, and enthusiastic about learning from and teaching their peers in a variety of contexts.
  • Openness. One could write an equation based on the previous two concepts to the effect of “Transparency + Collaboration = Openness.” Openness is the state of mind, the work philosophy that results from adopting both a collaboration orientation and a commitment to transparency. When fully absorbed by the arts field, openness will have far-reaching implications for how individual organizations go about fulfilling their missions. At its most fundamental level, openness translates to letting people into your line of sight who would normally stay underneath the surface. It means accepting and seeking out conversations with total strangers who nevertheless share your interests (now easier than ever before thanks to blogs, Twitter, and other social media). It means considering how the work you’re doing intersects or parallels the work people like you are doing in seemingly unrelated fields, like education, communications, international aid, or urban agriculture. It means changing hiring practices and internal organization management to reflect the fact that people are multidimensional and that good ideas sometimes come from the least expected places. And most of all, it means opening up the important conversations and decisions about our future to everyone, not just the select few who have always had those conversations and have always made those decisions. Generational transfer is all well and good, but if the only result is fewer gray hairs and balding heads among the power elites of our field, we will have completely missed the point of our moment in history.
  • Adaptability. Finally, the reason we find ourselves where we are today is because things changed so fast and so completely in a single generation. If those two decades are any guide, the pace of change is not about to let up anytime soon. Who had heard of blogs ten years ago? Who had heard of Facebook seven years ago? Who had heard of YouTube five years ago? The arts leaders of the 21st century, above all, will need to be prepared for a bumpy ride and many twists and turns as they make their way forward. Strategic planning, formative evaluation techniques, and data analysis will play increasingly important roles as arts organization leaders learn not just whether their decisions are effective, but how to make effective decisions in such an environment. Those who are most adept at adaptation will, just like Darwin predicted, be best positioned to survive and thrive.
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[Createquity Reruns] Generation Y and the Problem of “Entitlement”: A Bullet-Point Manifesto

(This post was originally written in 2009 for a blog salon on Americans for the Arts’s ARTSBlog discussing emerging leaders and intergenerational dialogue. For a couple of years, it had the distinction of being the most-commented post on ARTSBlog ever, thanks to the rather cheeky tone I decided to take. It later become Createquity’s most popular post for some time as well. I was inspired to experiment with this format by a guest post on Sean Stannard-Stockton’s Tactical Philanthropy blog by Nonprofit Finance Fund Capital Partners founder George Overholser. Now, as then, I hope you enjoy it. -IDM)

  • An oft-heard complaint about Generation Y (and other “emerging leaders”) is that they have a sense of entitlement—that they think they are smarter than everyone else.
  • I don’t believe that people in Generation Y are any smarter than generations that came before.
  • HOWEVER, here’s something I do believe:
    • The people in Generation Y that YOU DEAL WITH in YOUR OFFICE are very likely smarter than the people who would have been in that office in earlier generations.
    • Which means that they may well be smarter than YOU!
  • The secret power of Generation Y is not that we’re smarter: it is that we are MORE!
    • More numerous: the population of the world is 6.7 billion, 81% higher than it was in 1970.
    • More highly educated: 29% of Americans age 25 and older have bachelor’s degrees now, compared to 11% in 1970.
    • More professional: Nearly one-third of employed Americans work in the so-called “creative class” (i.e., white-collar professions), compared to about a fifth in 1970.
    • More egalitarian: the percentage of women in the workplace has shot up both domestically (from 43% to 59% between 1970 and 2006) and internationally, and racial barriers to employment have lessened significantly.
    • More ambitious: The number of high-quality colleges that offer meaningful financial aid has exploded; many more scholarships exist for talented low-income individuals.
    • More international: Enrollment by foreign residents in US colleges and universities is up significantly in recent decades.
    • More technologically able: More about the technology than the people; the Internet has completely revolutionized the way we communicate and think about opportunity.
  • The result of all of these factors is that the size of the qualified labor pool who applies for things like entry-level arts administration jobs in the United States is much, much higher than it used to be.
    • Sure, the number of arts administration jobs has increased, too. But based on the cultural economics literature I’ve been reading recently, I’m not convinced that this is taking place any faster than overall US growth in GDP. My hunch is that the qualified labor pool has increased much more.
  • What happens when the pool of qualified candidates increases relative to the opportunities available?
    • Let’s take the Olympics as an example.
    • China won zero gold medals at the 1972 Summer Olympic games, out of 195 total.
    • In 2008, China won 51 gold medals, or 17% of the total—more than any other nation.
    • Does this mean Chinese athletes are infinitely better in 2008 than they were in 1972?
      • Of course not – it means that far more Chinese have the opportunity to compete for a gold medal in 2008 instead of toiling in the rice fields or sweat shops for their entire lives.
      • The talent was always there – but now less of it is getting wasted because of discrimination, prejudice, income inequality, and social fragmentation.
    • So Chinese athletes presumably had no more natural talent in 2008 than they did in 1972—
      • But the Chinese athletes competing in the Olympics in 2008 were more talented than the Chinese athletes competing in the Olympics in 1972.
  • Take this metaphor to arts administration in 2009.
    • It’s not that Generation Y is any smarter than the generations that came before.
    • It’s that more of us have the opportunity to compete for arts administration jobs – which, despite their flaws, are pretty awesome compared to careers many of our ancestors were stuck with instead.
    • As a result, the best candidates for entry-level arts administration jobs (who are the ones who get them) are smarter, on average, than the best candidates for entry-level arts administration jobs in a previous era (who are the ones now leading arts organizations).
      • (Assuming, again, that the growth in the number of arts admin jobs has not kept pace with the rise in qualified candidates for those jobs. Let’s just say I would be really, really surprised to learn otherwise.)
  • But wait! That’s not all!
    • Why are Generation Y employees so damn ambitious?
      • (Well, remember, we’re talking about the cream of the crop here—the unambitious ones will probably never get a chance to work with you.)
    • You see, with all of these talented people around us competing for the same jobs and spots in the class and other opportunities, we have to get used to being on top of our game.
    • That means we have to apply to more opportunities to have a decent chance of landing one, which conveniently is made far easier than it used to be by recent advances in technology. (Anyone remember typewriters?)
      • BUT! That means any given opportunity will have more people bidding for it, which makes getting that opportunity EVEN THAT MUCH MORE competitive! And so the cycle continues and feeds upon itself.
    • We have to continually show that we’re better than whomever else you might hire/accept/grant/award, which requires us to have a sharply defined sense of what “better” means.
      • Not to mention a healthy sense of self-confidence. After all, if we’re going to go into an interview and tell you that we’re the best candidate for what you’re offering, we’d better believe it ourselves.
    • If we are pre-disposed to look for and recognize examples of superior performance, is it any surprise if we get impatient when examples of it on our part go unrecognized by our superiors?
      • Is it any surprise, in that situation, that we find ourselves looking outside of our organization for the recognition that we’re failing to get from within it?
  • So to sum up,
    • Generation Y is not smarter than anyone else.
    • But the specific members of Generation Y populating your office probably are.
      • And if they are, that’s a testament to your hiring skills! Nice work!
    • Not only that, they probably have their eyes on bigger things than mail merges—because, in fact, they are capable of bigger things.
      • Which is good! Wouldn’t you rather have talented, multifaceted people on your team than folks who are satisfied doing one thing sort-of well?
  • Finally, if you’re reading this and find yourself overcome with intergenerational resentment, you can comfort yourself with this thought:
    • However uncomfortable this may be for you, it’s going to be far worse for us when it’s time for Generation Z or AA or whatever to enter the workplace. All of those trends towards “more” are not likely to let up anytime soon, after all.
    • That’s why it’s critical that we reform our organizations NOW to take proper advantage of great ideas and constructive feedback wherever and whoever they come from, so that we won’t find ourselves in the exact same position 20 years from today.
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[Createquity Reruns] Ten Strategies for Engaging Generation Y in the Nonprofit Workplace

(Emerging leaders week at Createquity gets off to a fashionably late start with this post from 2009, one of those that helped expose the blog to a wider audience. Generational succession in the nonprofit sector was a hot topic five years ago, with early baby boomers widely expected to start retiring yet many of them hanging on due to the economic climate. As someone on the cusp of generations X and Y, I thought this post drawing from my own experience as a young and eager employee would be helpful. I’ve revisited it several times since then when onboarding new colleagues, and can vouch for the advice! -IDM)

In the week since I posted my thoughts on compensation of support employees in the nonprofit sector, the entry has been Facebooked, LinkedIn, Twittered, re-blogged, and emailed to the point that it is now the second-most-viewed Createquity post of all time (and fast gaining on the leader, Got Milk?). It’s no coincidence, I suspect, that the topic of Generation Y in the workplace provoked such a storm of activity on social media heavily used by Generation Y. Although I wasn’t talking exclusively about Generation Y in that post (some support employees, after all, are veterans of the trade, though this is seemingly becoming less common), my thoughts were certainly informed by my own experiences as a twentysomething entry-level employee in several nonprofit organizations as well as the stories of a number of my peers.

For this post, my thoughts were further informed by my own experience, albeit more limited in scope, managing others. Managing employees is a skill in and of itself, and one that is seldom taught, not even (surprisingly) in business school. After all, most people who ascend to management positions, particularly at smaller organizations, do so because they are good at their previous jobs—jobs that often don’t involve managing others—not necessarily because they are good managers. So, I offer the following ten suggestions with a deep respect for how difficult the art of managing, especially in an under-resourced environment, can be. My hope is that those who read them will find therein ideas and inspiration for forging stronger, deeper ties with the young employees who represent the future of their organizations, and of the sector as a whole.

Ten Strategies for Engaging Generation Y in the Nonprofit Workplace

  1. Have things for them to do on day one. There is no surer or quicker way to turn young, fresh-faced, enthusiastic Gen Y social citizens away from the nonprofit sector forever than to suffocate them with boredom in their first job. All too often, employers fall into the trap of being underprepared for their new team member’s first day, hurriedly throwing a heap of random tasks into their laps or simply telling them to spend a few days (or weeks, or months) “getting to know” the organization’s internal files. Much better to prepare an orientation of sorts for them, at least a day in length, during which they’ll have the undivided attention of their manager as they are introduced to the rest of the staff, briefed on the overall strategic direction of the organization and how their job fits into it, shown the major functions of their job, and offered specific training on the initial tasks to which they’ve been assigned. Managers should have at least several weeks’ worth of projects determined in advance of the new hire’s first day, with realistic targets for completion set and regular check-ins planned.
  2. Take their intelligence seriously. If your new employee is just graduating from college, she is coming from an environment in which demonstrations of her intelligence and individuality are valued, celebrated, encouraged, and expected, and she will be looking for the same from you. If she comes from a school with a well-recognized name, it’s also entirely possible that she went through a selection process that was more competitive and rigorous than anything you’ve been through, even if you graduated from the same school. The increasing numbers of Americans going to college, combined with an increasingly competitive talent pool as need-blind admissions become more and more common and international students vie for slots, have made getting into top colleges a grueling affair. Even if she graduated from somewhere else, she probably is one sharp cookie to have made it through the even more grueling selection process that led to her being hired by your organization. After all, it’s not unheard of these days for organizations to get hundreds of applications for a single entry-level job. So recognize that you may have a rock star in your midst, and instead of feeling threatened by it…
  3. Give them challenging work that matters.take advantage of it! Look, whatever they tell you during the interview, no eager young grad comes to a nonprofit organization dreaming about organizing your tax records! or telemarketing ticket sales! or sucking up to rich people! They’re there because they believe in the mission of the organization and because they WANT TO MAKE A DIFFERENCE. Now, that’s not to say that any entry-level job will necessarily be free of boring busywork. But to the extent possible, try to find projects for them to work on, even for only part of the time, that stretch their abilities and represent new frontiers for the organization. Small organizations, especially, should have plenty of material to work with in this regard, since no one ever has enough time to do all the things they’d like to do. The work will excite them and serve as an energizing counterbalance to the aspects of the job they may not enjoy as much.
  4. Don’t squash initiative. Does your new employee have lots of ideas about how to improve the way things work around here? Is he eager, maybe a little too eager, to share them with you? Does that kind of piss you off, and make you think it would be better if he just shut up and did his job? Does it make you want to shoot him down, just a little bit? Don’t give in to the temptation! This is a natural reaction whenever anyone who hasn’t “paid their dues” presumes to judge the hard work that you and your colleagues have put in. But though it may be natural, it’s not productive. What your new employee thinks about organization or departmental practices is valuable information. His perspective as a quasi-outsider and, perhaps, a member of a generation your programs are trying to reach, is difficult for you to replicate. If his opinions bother you, rather than rejecting them outright, see if you can corroborate them from other sources. He may be telling you something you need to hear. (Oh, and by the way, squashing initiative is another great way to kill a young person’s affection for the nonprofit sector.)
  5. Don’t be a slave to the job description. Your new hire brings with him a unique package of abilities and interests that may or may not have all that much to do with the job that he was hired for. Sure, you wouldn’t have hired him if you didn’t think he could do the work. Nevertheless, it’s quite possible and even likely that your employee is much more passionate about the mission of your organization than he is about the details of his day-to-day job. So, as you and your employee become more familiar with each other, figure out what kinds of work really get him excited and draw his engagement. If you come across a situation in which he seems much more interested in working on something other than what you thought you needed him to be working on, especially if he is showing initiative in seeking out that work, don’t get frustrated! See it as an opportunity to forge a better match between employee and function, and try to find ways to get more of that work onto his plate. Sometimes, employees enjoy having a number of different projects to juggle; Gen Y workers, having grown up on instant messaging and cell phones and using laptops in class, tend to be particularly comfortable with this type of multitasking. If you can, you might even consider structuring (or restructuring) your organization to take advantage of this. Private sector consulting firms, for example, recruit college and MBA grads to be “Analysts” and “Associates” respectively. There’s no function or industry designation in the title. The expectation is that employees will be generalists, applying their talents wherever they’re needed. It’s then up to the managers to identify those talents and use them wisely on behalf of the company’s clients. Similarly, nonprofits could develop rotational programs for their entry-level employees that provide experience in a number of functional areas, or simply maintain a more informal workplace environment in which responsibilities are carried out by teams of workers or task forces rather than individuals. The more effectively a manager can tie an employee’s work to his abilities and interests, the more that employee’s productivity and loyalty will increase.
  6. Invest in their professional growth. This one is hard for smaller nonprofits, because in most people’s minds, “investing in professional growth” means hiring expensive professional development consultants or helping employees pay for graduate degrees. While I think such programs can be quite valuable and should absolutely be explored by wealthier organizations, there are simple steps that even cash-poor nonprofits can take to develop their emerging leaders. First, by following the advice above and regularly adjusting job responsibilities, organizations will give their young employees experience in a variety of different functional areas, all of which can come in handy later. Secondly, an effective performance review system, with appropriate feedback mechanisms for the employee, can do wonders to add helpful structure to a working relationship. What are your goals for them for the next year? What are their goals for themselves for the next year? What can you do to make their work more enjoyable and effective? Finally, work to fill in the expertise gaps the employee might have that are relevant to the job at hand. Let’s say you need her to maintain the organization website. If you can teach her what she needs to know yourself, great. If not? Maybe there’s someone else connected to the organization who can help. Failing that, enroll her in a class or workshop. Expecting her to pick up these skills herself, without any further guidance, should only be a last resort.
  7. Reward talent and hard work. Given that there are hordes of contenders for even entry-level nonprofit jobs, from an economic standpoint, it’s probably not necessary or wise to try to compete with private sector firms on starting salary. After all, every new hire carries with it a certain risk that things won’t work out, and that risk is more substantial when the employee has very little or no full-time work experience. Nonprofit starting salaries thus can, and probably should, reflect that risk. But once the employee has had a chance to prove herself—and, really, it shouldn’t take that long—that starting salary is no longer necessarily a fair indicator of the value she brings to the organization. So if she’s been working her tail off for six months or a year, bringing new ideas to the table and volunteering for extra tasks that interest her, and realizes that she would have achieved the exact same result for herself by slacking off and doing the minimum necessary to keep from being fired, it’s not surprising that she might begin to lose energy at that point. It’s not surprising that she might start looking around for another job at that point, or thinking about grad school. Because if she finds herself in a place where her contributions are neither acknowledged nor seemingly even noticed, she’ll want to put herself in a place where they are. So my recommendation is this: establish a probationary period of, say, three months for all new entry-level employees as they train to do their jobs. Make sure they know what the expectations are, hold them accountable to those expectations, and don’t be afraid to let them go if they’re clearly not measuring up. If they show themselves to be as competent as you thought they were when you hired them, give them a raise. If they continue to distinguish themselves after that period is over, give them another raise. If raises are a problem because of finances, change their title. Give them more responsibility. Give them ownership, autonomy. If someone else leaves, consider giving them that job. It doesn’t have to be a lot at any given time, but workers need to feel like they’re progressing and that they’re appreciated. A steady diet of recognition that’s based on actual accomplishments is the best way to do this.
  8. Give them face time with leadership. When was the last time your entry-level staffers were invited to a board meeting? Doesn’t it make sense, if you want them to be invested in the organization, for them to know what’s going on with it? I was invited to be the note-taker at board meetings at one of my early jobs, and I was glad to do it. It was exciting for me to be a fly on the wall, see what a board meeting was like. Have a large staff? You could still let people participate on a rotating or lottery basis. If you’re feeling really ambitious, you could even let entry-level employees make presentations to the board. This idea of face time applies to executive leadership no less than it does to the board. I was at one of my previous jobs for months before I got to spend more than a couple of minutes with the organization’s executive director. Remember that until such interactions take place, top leadership will seem distant and inaccessible to an entry-level employee. A lunch date or a meeting in the office can quickly solve that problem.
  9. Give them face time with the public. Does your organization ever send people to sit on panels? Hold public workshops? Maintain a blog, or a Twitter account? Why not give your emerging leader a shot at one of these? Remember, Generation Y is accustomed to expressing their individuality and sees it as an integral part of their existence. Many will reap a fair bit of excitement and intrinsic satisfaction from the opportunity to represent their organization before the public, and get their name out there in the process. It doesn’t have to be a big deal—for example, you could add the employee as a contributor to the blog and allot him a couple of posts a month, rather than having him run the thing entirely—but even little gestures will go a long way in this regard.
  10. Incorporate their voices into organizational decision-making. One of the reasons that many nonprofit organizations now find themselves struggling to connect with younger generations is because they didn’t take full enough advantage of that generation’s presence among their employees. Today’s twentysomethings’ experience of childhood is completely different from that of their parents, due to the technologies that have emerged in the meantime. Their social networks are totally different, their relationship to information is totally different, and their cultural preferences may be totally different as well. It’s valuable, incredibly valuable, to have those voices represented at the table when making decisions that affect the organization’s future direction. Not to mention that if you have an employee who is sharp as a nail, who works hard, who believes in the mission of the organization, why wouldn’t you want that person involved in decision-making, no matter what her age?

As you can see, the above suggestions follow a certain order: certainly, you wouldn’t necessarily want to give a fresh-from-college hire a golden key to your organization’s Twitter account on his first day. But it doesn’t take that long to tell whether an employee has a future with the organization that’s hired him. And if it’s determined that he does, the above steps will help ensure that his talents and ideas are leveraged for the organization’s maximum benefit, rather than left to die on the vine. It should always be an organization’s ambition, whenever possible, to turn an entry-level employee into an emerging leader.

Further (recent) reading:

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[Createquity Reruns] Looking Beyond Our Borders for National Arts Education Policies

(Talia Gibas week at Createquity concludes with Talia’s capstone article for the Createquity Fellowship in January 2013, a look at arts education policies across six continents. This is easily one of the most ambitious articles ever written for Createquity, involving tons of original research and compiling piles of useful information into one place. It may require a bit of time to read, but it’s well worth the investment! -IDM)

The former entrance to the US Department of Education. The red schoolhouses were removed by the Obama administration in 2009.  Photo by Andy Grant

Former entrances to the US Department of Education. The red schoolhouses were removed by the Obama administration in 2009. Photo by Andy Grant

Common perception among arts educators in the United States is that the arts are “edged out” of the curriculum because schools value them less than math and reading. Schools value the arts less than math and reading because math and reading are on state tests; in turn, math and reading are on the state tests because schools are required to show growth in these areas under the federal Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA). If only those federal policies around arts education were different, we often say, things would be better.

But what might a different national policy look like, and to what extent could it change the degree to which arts education is implemented – and implemented well – in public schools?

One way to get a sense of our options is to take a look at how other countries handle this issue. Such an investigation is particularly timely right now, as most states in the US have adopted the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) – the biggest step we have ever taken toward a “national” system of curriculum and assessments. While the Common Core has generated its own share of debates (head over to Americans for the Arts’s recent Common Core blog salon for a great cross-section of perspectives from arts educators), it nevertheless represents a defining moment in education policy in the United States. A big selling point of the standards is that they are internationally benchmarked. This will provide, in theory, a better sense of how our students are doing in relation to peers in other countries, so that we don’t keep getting sideswiped by the United States’s “poor performance” on the dreaded Program for International Student Assessment (PISA). (Whenever you hear policy makers lament that we are xxth in math or reading, PISA scores are usually what they are referring to.) Other counties even point to the Common Core as evidence that we are finally willing to learn from strides made elsewhere.

So how do arts education policies look in other countries?

This article covers Australia, Brazil, Canada, China, Germany and South Africa. Specifically:

  • What policies and standards are in place at the national level regarding the arts in schools?
  • What dedicated funding streams are available (again, at the national level) for arts education during the school day?
  • What are the roles of federal versus state/municipal governments in implementing/monitoring education?

The first two questions relate to concerns I hear voiced most often about the national arts education landscape in the United States – i.e. that the policies set by The Government (in the broadest sense) aren’t conducive to flourishing arts practice in public schools, or that we don’t dedicate enough money to arts education. The third question is necessary for context-setting –how The Government makes decisions about education depends on whether education is a national or a local responsibility.

Limiting my scope to the national level means a lot is left out, particularly regarding funding. If a country doesn’t have a lot of national funding directed toward arts education, that does not mean that its state and local governments aren’t choosing to invest in it. On the flip side, a country may have strong national policies that are haphazardly enforced at the state and local levels.

Though by no means an exhaustive overview of arts education practice in each country, this article aims to provide a bird’s-eye view of national policies that affect which students get which disciplines during the school day, and how. Let’s begin with a quick refresher on national arts education policy in our own country.

The United States

If you’ve paid even scant attention to public education debates in the last decade, you’ve heard of No Child Left Behind, our much decried cornerstone of national education policy since 2001. No Child Left Behind is an updated and renamed version of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), originally passed in the 1960s. Per our Constitution, education is a state responsibility – each state is responsible for setting standards in each academic discipline, implementing its own assessment systems, and providing the bulk of education funding. Our federal department of education oversees the ESEA and provides funding for certain provisions of that law (e.g. Title I, which aims to “improve the educational achievement of the disadvantaged”).

Jennifer Kessler’s 2011 Createquity post on ESEA provides a great summary of its history and relevance to the arts. The ESEA was up for reauthorization when Jennifer wrote her article and is still awaiting reauthorization now. The Obama administration has floated a number of ideas for how it would like to change ESEA, but since education did not factor prominently into the 2012 election cycle, the chances of reauthorization happening anytime soon, with or without substantive adjustments, are slim to none.

In the decade-plus since the 2001 version of ESEA/No Child Left Behind was passed, it has been nearly universally blasted by arts education advocates – mainly due to its negative impact on schedule, workload and funding for programs related to the arts. However, No Child Left Behind did include the arts in its definition of “core academic subjects,” as follows: The term `core academic subjects’ means English, reading or language arts, mathematics, science, foreign languages, civics and government, economics, arts, history, and geography.”

Using the single word “arts” leaves a lot up to interpretation. However, the arts’ inclusion as a core subject is important for a couple of reasons:

  1. It places the arts, as a matter of policy, on equal footing with other subject areas
  2. It allows any federal funding designated for “core academic subjects” – including Title I, Title II, and economic stimulus funds – to be used for arts education

The latter point has faced obstacles: despite Secretary of Education Arne Duncan’s 2009 letter clarifying that the arts are eligible for general purpose federal funds, some states have pushed back. California’s State Superintendent, for example, maintains that schools cannot use Title I funds for programs whose “primary objective” is arts education, but can apply them toward arts-related strategies that have been demonstrated to raise achievement in English and math. As the issue of federal-versus-state control of our education system is both heated and politically fraught (especially in the era of Common Core), Secretary Duncan is unlikely to take anyone to task over this.

Besides general purpose federal funds for education, national funding streams for arts education include the National Endowment for the Arts’s arts education grants and the Department of Education’s Arts Education Model Development and Dissemination (AEMDD) Grants Program. While the NEA’s commitment to arts education appears steady, AEMDD grants are slated to be collapsed with other subject areas under Secretary Duncan’s proposed revisions to ESEA, in favor of creating a new, larger pool of competitive funds to “strengthen the teaching and learning of arts, foreign languages, history and civics, financial literacy, environmental education and other subjects.”

Again, because the effort to reauthorize ESEA is currently dead in the water, don’t expect this or any related proposal to gain momentum in the immediate future. Few people seem to like our major national education law, but even fewer seem to agree on how best to fix it. Until they do, it will sputter along on autopilot as the Obama administration absolves states of meeting its more stringent requirements in exchange for agreeing to equally controversial reforms such as linking teacher evaluation systems with student test scores.

Add the sorta-kinda-national-but-not-really-Common Core movement into this mix and the future of national arts education policies in the United States form a big, bold question mark – but one with a great deal of potential to shift our landscape.


For a glimpse of what we may have in store if the Common Core movement gains enough traction to anchor a “national” curriculum, look no further than Australia, which adopted a standardized curriculum andassessment system in 2008. Australia and the United States have a great deal in common: Australian K-12 education primarily has been the responsibility of state and territorial governments, and according to Robyn Ewing’s excellent overview of the history of arts education in that country, British and North American traditions heavily influence Australian arts education policy. While the arts have been designated one of “eight key learning areas” across the country for more than a decade, visual art and music tend to be taught the most, while drama is lumped in with English/language arts and dance with physical education (sound familiar?).

That’s poised to change, however, with Australia’s Curriculum, Assessment, and Reporting Authority (ACARA), newly responsible for developing and implementing curriculum across the entire country. That curriculum includes the arts as five distinct disciplines: visual art, music, dance, theater and media arts.

That’s right, five disciplines. Our national policy defines the arts as “arts,” and Australia’s gets into specifics. The full curriculum won’t be finalized until February 2014, though you can take a look at draft versions here. In the meantime, our own College Board’s 2011 overview of international arts education standards found Australia’s curriculum “exemplary in the breadth of its scope, the considerable attention to defining its own language, and the lengths it goes to in recognizing the differences in abilities and learning opportunities at the different age/grade levels.” This sample chart gives you the idea (click through for better resolution):

Australia Sample

ACARA states each school should determine how to teach the arts, and how much time to devote to each discipline. Its general guidelines (see page 4 of this document), outline a minimum of 100-120 hours of the arts per year through primary school, increasing to 160 hours in secondary school as students gravitate toward a specialty.

As great as these guidelines may sound, not all segments of Australia’s arts education community are excited about them. ACARA’s goal for students to study all five arts disciplines throughout elementary school has met some backlash in arts education circles, particularly those focused on visual art and music. Because some territorial governments invested heavily in those two disciplines already, they balk at the idea of “watering down” existing programs to make time for theater and dance. (This rad YouTube blog offers a performing arts student’s perspective on the issue.)

The irony of such squabbling is that the arts were originally entirely left out of the national curriculum, and were included as a result of heavy lobbying by a “united front” of all disciplines. As Ewing states,

One of the most significant things about the advocacy for inclusion of the arts education in this iteration of the Australian curriculum was a united stand by the various arts disciplines, which contrasted to the previous fragmented arguments for individual allocations for separate arts disciplines. At the time of writing this review paper there is some re-emergence of that old fragmentation, with the assertion that some arts disciplines are more important than others.

Fragmentation in arts education communities deepens when resources are scant, and dedicated national funding streams for arts education in Australia are few and far between. The Australia Council for the Arts supports research on the effectiveness of partnerships between schools and the “professional arts sector,” and funds an Artists in Residence Program managed primarily by each state and territory’s arts council and education department. Arts funding in general has taken a squeeze recently. On October 15, Young People and the Arts, Australia’s national service organization representing arts education providers, lost its funding from the Australia Council for the Arts and announced staffing and operations would cease for at least the short term. Arts funding at the university level is getting trimmed as well.

Nonetheless, the country’s commitment to the arts as integral to Australia’s curriculum is impressive – and may provide us lessons for what to expect when (if?) we ever elaborate on that vague “arts” reference in ESEA.


As in Australia, Brazil’s national education policies are undergoing big changes. Unlike Australia’s those changes don’t explicitly have a lot to do with the arts, but they dohave a lot to do with money and the affirmation of access to arts and culture as a basic human right.

In 2000 Brazil ranked dead last among more than forty countries that participated in the PISA. Since then it’s committed to overhauling its education system, and the effort appears to be having an impact on the country’s performance on international tests. The backbone of that overhaul is a recently approved National Plan for Education (PNE) that will structure education policy for the next decade. The plan emphasizes committing resources to education, eradicating illiteracy, and increasing access to elementary and lower secondary school. (To give you a sense of where things stand right now, according to this recent article, students in some rural areas of the country spend little more than 3 hours a day in school, oftentimes without teachers present.)

One of the PNE’s many goals is to expand “mandatory” basic education, currently required of students aged 7-14, to include ages 4-17 by 2016. Doing that requires building schools, raising teacher salaries, professionalizing the teaching industry and finding a whole lot of money. A major sticking point (and victory) of the PNE is that it raises Brazil’s spending on education to a whopping 10% of GDP – nearly twice the rate of our spending.

Where do the arts fall into all of this? While the national government defined the arts as compulsory in 1972, it provides few guidelines for which disciplines to include at which grade levels, or who should teach them. (According to this overview of arts education practice, few arts specialists are in primary classrooms.) The PNE, framed as a “guarantee” of financial and material resources to support the country’s educational infrastructure, doesn’t get into specifics about what should happen in the classroom. It does, however, indicate that all students have a right to the arts and culture. Here is one of the strategies it lists regarding the arts (with apologies for the clunky Google translation):

Promote the list of schools with institutions and culture movements, [to] ensure the regular supply of cultural activities for the free enjoyment of students inside and outside of school spaces, ensuring that even schools become centers of cultural creation and dissemination.

Universal access to arts and culture is listed alongside access to clean water and sanitation as goals of the PNE. This vision aligns with Brazil’s 2010 National Culture Plan and established around the principles of “culture as a right of citizenship,” “culture as symbolic expression,” and “culture as potential for economic development.” With the assistance of the Ministry of Education, the Ministry of Culture is also developing a National Policy for Integrating Education and Culture focused on training teachers, establishing partnerships between cultural organizations and schools and creating an asset map of schools in relation to cultural spaces. The Ministry of Education, meanwhile, has a Mais Educação (More Education) program funding schools to work with cultural groups.

Brazil will be a country to watch over the next decade. Brazilian educators Augusto Boal and Paolo Freire, who used the arts to galvanize political expression in the 1960s and 70s, strongly influenced arts education in the United States. As Brazil’s education infrastructure expands and stabilizes its translation of cultural rights into education policy may well influence us again.


Most countries in this survey, including our own, place a heavy emphasis on test scores and are leaning toward standardizing their education systems. Our friendly neighbor to the north is a glaring exception. “National” education policy does not exist in Canada; it does not have a national ministry or department of education, and policies from primary grades through high school are set, implemented, funded and monitored exclusively at the provincial level.

Thanks to this, getting a comprehensive overview of arts education across Canada is a little tricky. Canada’s national universities don’t have any admission requirements related to arts education, and only five of ten provinces require some arts credits to graduate high school. According to the Canadian Commission for UNESCO, the arts are considered core subjects in “many” provinces, but all arts disciplines tend to be grouped under one program.

This doesn’t mean that arts education policies don’t exist, of course – just that they vary greatly from province to province. By extension, the quality and content of curricula vary as well. Compare, for example, Ontario and Alberta. Ontario requires full day kindergarten programs and English-language schools to provide “the arts” across all grades, though how much art is needed to fulfill that requirement is unclear. The only specific mandate is that students taken one arts credit to graduate high school. Ontario does, however, have a fairly robust arts curriculum that covers dance, drama, music and visual art in grades 1-8. As the College Board notes, “Unusual among the countries studied [in its international comparison of standards], [Ontario’s] curriculum provides … specific examples of possible demonstrations of standardized skills and knowledge [and]… teacher ‘prompts’ in the form of questions.”

By contrast, Alberta defines “fine arts” as an element of its core curriculum through grade 6, but its standards (in visual art, music and theater) date back to the 1980s. They are up for revision and in 2009 Alberta’s Ministry of Education identified certain issues for consideration in its Arts Education Curriculum Consultation Report:

  • the ramifications of renaming “fine arts education” as “arts education” (interestingly, most educators opposed to the change, fearing the “integrity of disciplines” would erode)
  • a near-universal commitment to include dance in any revision
  • a recognition that while flawed, the existing standards allow for creativity and flexibility that might wither if policies became more concrete

The timeline for updating the curriculum and standards is up in the air; while a draft framework was released in 2009, according to the Ministry of Education’s Web site, “revision of Fine Arts programs has been slowed to ensure alignment with current changes underway in education… the implementation of an inclusive education system, and other ministry initiatives.”

While the two provinces contrast in their arts curricula and requirements, their dedicated funding streams – or lack of them – are similar. According to Statistics Canada, provincial governments allocated less than 5% of their arts and cultural budgets to arts education. Neither province’s Ministry of Education appears to have specific allocations for arts education, though their individual Arts Councils include funding for artist-in-residence programs (an overview of Ontario’s is here and Alberta’s here).

National arts and culture funders, meanwhile, seem to hold arts education at arm’s length even though Canadian citizens value government investment in the arts. Canada’s Department of Heritage supports programs to increase audience engagement and train arts workers, but does not seem to support arts in schools directly. The Canada Council for the Arts lumps arts education with audience engagement and states that while “there are challenges to equitable and sustained arts education and access for youth and children… the Canada Council is not directly implicated in the development of arts education curriculum.”

In place of formal government infrastructure for arts education, Canada has a number of initiatives supporting K-12 arts learning across the country. The most prominent is ArtsSmarts, a pan-Canadian nonprofit that attempts to reduce disparities between “have” and “have not” provinces by partnering with like-minded organizations and provincial ministries to advance creative process and artistic inquiry in classrooms. It is also plays an active role in national research and dialogue on arts education through conferences like its recent Knowledge Exchange. A very young nonprofit called the Canadian Network for Arts and Learning also hopes to establish a national presence, with an emphasis on research about arts’ impact on learning.

So if our department of education were abruptly disbanded – not a completely farfetched idea, depending on which way political winds are blowing – would arts education efforts suffer a major setback? Not necessarily: despite its decentralized system, Canada performs well on international education metrics and isn’t leaping onto the testing bandwagon that so often “crowds out” arts learning. At the same time, efforts like that of ArtsSmarts make clear that regional governments feel they need broad-scale support, collaboration and exchange to enhance their arts education efforts.


With its rising economic prominence and “remarkable” performance on the PISA, China spurs the majority of our fretting over how to prepare students for a global marketplace. It is also occasionally held up as an example for the need to promote arts education in the United States; Chinese students may kick our butts on standardized tests, some argue, but they aren’t taught to be as creative and flexible as ours.

Such anxiety and pride are both justified. China is an enormous and rapidly modernizing country that has made huge strides in educating swaths of its population in a relatively short period of time. It is also aware of the advantages of our higher education system and its liberal arts ethos.

For the past few decades China’s education policies have focused on reducing disparities between its rural and urban populations. It declared nine years of education compulsory for all children in 1986 and has since put much energy toward ensuring that basic mandate is fulfilled. Despite significant progress, according to UNESCO’s overview of current policies in the country, “by the end of 2007, there were still 42 counties in the west of China which had not fulfilled the ‘two basics,’ e.g. universalizing the nine-year compulsory education and eliminating illiteracy among young people and adults.”

Concurrent with the nine-year mandate, China overhauled its higher education infrastructure from a “free” system to one in which students compete for government scholarships through a notoriously difficult national exam called the gaokao. The gaokao is central to education in China and according to one student is “responsible for killing ninety percent of the creativity” in the country. The exam’s approach has an inverse effect on the amount of arts learning students receive: the closer the exam, the less the arts are emphasized.

China’s elementary curriculum was revised in 2001 with a number of goals, including to “highlight the requirements on the innovative spirit and practical abilities of students, attach more attention to cultivation of their initiatives, encourage their creative thinking… and foster their curiosity and aspiration to knowledge.” Accordingly, visual art and music appear in the curriculum, with standards that seem to place a heavy emphasis on cultivating early interest and enjoyment of the arts, which are linked to character, integrity, spirit of patriotism, and optimism. (Caveat: a thorough translation of the standards is difficult to find, though the College Board provides a rough overview here.)

According to UNESCO, music and fine art are required for two hours a week in elementary school, down to one hour a week in junior secondary school. The first two grades of senior secondary school (e.g. high school) offer one hour a week of “art appreciation.” Based on my conversations with several students from China, those courses are more in line with what we think of as “art history” than in-depth studio courses; not a lot of emphasis is placed on students creating works of art themselves. Those students also stressed that most classes are taught as lectures, with teachers taking very few questions. Not surprisingly, then, dance and drama have very little presence in schools, though after-school programs are available to students in urban areas.

To most Western observers the country’s emphasis on rote memorization is a problem the country will need to tackle eventually, especially as the country considers reforming its higher education institutions to resemble our liberal arts universities. (In fact, some universities are explicitly designed around a liberal arts agenda.) The arts may play a more central role in China’s schools if and when significant university reforms move ahead.


We’ve touched on what might happen to arts education if we didn’t have a national body overseeing schools and student learning. What might happen if we had a bigger one – or, even better, several of them?

Judging by the German model, we’d have more money – or at least an easier time tracking it. While most countries have few government offices concerned with arts education, Germany’s Federal Ministry of Education & Research has an entire division devoted to it. Per this fantastic 2010 issue of UNESCO Today, the Federal Ministry for Family Affairs, Senior Citizens, Women and Youth has one too. Not to be outdone, the Federal Commissioner for Culture and Media oversees an annual award program of €60,000 (roughly $80,000) to “acknowledge the importance of exemplary cultural education projects.”

Just as in the United States, Australia and Canada, education in Germany is considered a state responsibility. The country moved, however, toward more nationalization in response to its poor performance on (what else?) the 2000 PISA. Among other reforms, national standards and curriculum frameworks for primary grades were adopted in 2003. As far as I can gather, the arts were not included in that effort.

Nevertheless, by all external appearances Germany is doing such a bang-up job of providing support systems for arts education that untangling them is a daunting proposition. Luckily, two intrepid academics, Susanne Keuchel and Dominic Larue, beat me to it with a graphic titled “Arts education as a cross-sectional task in German federalism”:

Arts Education As a Cross-Sectional Task in German Federalism Thanks to Keuchel and Larue’s analysis (and a 2008 parliamentary mandate to track this spending), Germany is the only country for which I could ballpark discrete national investment in arts education. Between 2001 and 2007, the Ministries of Education and Family Affairs doled out €9.5-10.5 million ($12.6-$14 million) annually for the arts. Taking current federally-funded initiatives into consideration, one can assume those numbers increased in the last 5 years. The current initiatives include researching Jeden Kind ein Instrument, a pilot program in the state of North Rhine-Westphalia that provides instruments to students ages 6-10, and the recently announced “Educational Alliances to Reduce Educational Deprivation,” which has the Ministry of Education supporting after-school cultural education programs to the tune of €30 million ($40 million) a year.

In short, national support for arts education is abundant and complex. With so many arts-friendly policies in place, do all students in Germany get more arts education during the school day than we might expect in the United States?

The surprising answer is no. How much arts education a student receives depends on how he or she is tracked. All students receive the same basic education (grundschule) from roughly age six through nine. After those first four years, students are divided into one of three programs:

  • Haptschule, designed for students perceived as having lower academic skills. The program lasts approximately five years and culminates in a vocational certificate.
  • Realschule, designed for students perceived as having some academic skills. This program lasts six years, and prepares students for middle-management positions.
  • Gymnasium, for students perceived as the most academically adept and “suited” for university. Gymnasium lasts through what we would consider high school, but is more challenging than the typical high school in the United States.

Visual art and music are included in all tracks, but the recommended allotments of time vary:

  • Grundschule: 85 hours per year
  • Hautpschule: 56 hours per year in grades 5-6, zero beyond that
  • Realschule: 141 hours in grade 5, 113 in grade 6, 56 in 7-9, zero in grade 10
  • Gymnasium: 113 hours year in grades 5-7, 56 in grades 8-10, zero in 11-12 (though electives are available)

We can’t glean much from these numbers (are the content and structure of art offerings the same in all tracks?), but a few things stand out. All students are not expected to learn or have access to the same things, but arts education seems to be universally valued. To quote Keuchel and Larue again,

“If ten years ago in Germany the need and the importance of arts education were still stressed, today the accents have shifted: one does not ask any more whether arts education is good, but checks upon the quality of arts educational projects in particular cases.”

Even the Germans don’t think they have everything figured out – three years ago, the Enquête Commission of Culture in Germany issued a series of recommendations (summarized here starting page 22) to advance arts education. Those recommendations include:

  • adding the arts to the Arbitur (the college entrance exam issued to Gymnasium students), probably to address concerns that the arts are “squeezed out” as students prepare for the Big Test
  • developing national standards for cultural education
  • funding more competitions and awards for cultural education
  • developing partnership networks between schools and arts organizations

Germany’s model implies that a country can make a sustained, direct investment in arts education with admirable results. It also implies that the age-old tension between quality and equity does not necessarily go away with increased resources.

South Africa

As the United States reacts against No Child Left Behind’s narrowed curriculum with the Common Core, South Africa reacts against a flexible system with a return to “the 3 Rs.” Spurred by an “education crisis” and “national disgrace,” the country is in the middle of a massive reform that retains the arts as core in its curriculum while adopting the most large-scale, standardized system profiled here.

South Africa spends more money on education (more than 5% of GDP) than any other country on the continent, and by most accounts is getting a poor return on its investment. With the end of the apartheid regime in 1994, education was made compulsory for all students through grade 9, though the legacies of apartheid and language barriers (South Africa has 11 official tongues) have hampered the country’s quest to provide equal access to education for all its young people.

The first education reform in newly democratic South Africa was “Outcomes Based Education” (OBE). Intended to support a holistic approach to learning that allowed students to demonstrate understanding in a variety of ways, OBE provided few guidelines to teachers. Since many teachers were poorly trained under apartheid, they were ill equipped to deliver instruction through an open-ended system. OBE was scrapped in 2010, with little complaint:

“In theory, at least, OBE turn[ed] the educational process away from a rigid top-down system to one that … let[s] students demonstrate they “know and are able to do” things derived from their growing understanding and mastery of material. Too often, however… OBE became a treadmill for teachers to create their own student study materials, evaluate a stream of student projects and deal with the administrative tasks and documentation that absorbed hours, even in the poorest schools.”

OBE was replaced by “Schooling 2025,” which outlines a much more rigid and uniform curriculum – driven at the national level and consistent across the entire country — with specific breakdowns of how much time teachers should be spending on each topic, and little choice in what should be taught when, or how. (For an example of how it addresses the arts, see this National Curriculum and Assessment Policy Statement.) Based on conversation with Yvette Hardie, a theater educator, producer and director in South Africa involved with the curriculum process, textbooks are similarly prescriptive, designed to “teach teachers how to teach” rather than supplement instruction.

Schooling 2025 standardizes assessments and workbooks, and “collapses” certain curriculum areas to ease the burden on teachers. Hence, in grades K-6, the arts are included in a broader subject called “life skills.” Life skills “aims to develop learners through three different, but interrelated study areas, that is, personal and social well-being, physical education and creative arts.” The creative arts include four arts disciplines to be “studied in two parallel and complementary streams – visual arts and performing arts (dance, drama, and music).” As a subject area, “life skills” is typically taught by oneinstructor who, similar to the generalist elementary teacher in the United States, does not have a great deal of arts training.

K-3 students receive six hours of life skills per week, with the arts allocated two of those hours. In grades 4-6, allocations are reduced to 4 and 1.5 hours, respectively. Students receive two hours a week of discrete “creative arts” in grades 7-9, and pick from arts electives in grades 10-12. Schools choose which elective disciplines to offer based on the availability of qualified staff and the “abilities, talents and preferences” of their students. Distinct Curriculum and Assessment Policy Documents have been developed for each discrete arts discipline at those upper three grades.

Only grades 4 and 10 are using the new curriculum so far, though policy documents are complete for all grades. It is too early to tell what the impact of Schooling 2025 on the arts will be. On the one hand, including arts in the standardized curriculum may ensure all students get a basic level of instruction. On the other, the system, designed to scaffold the most poorly trained teachers, is so prescriptive it may prove stifling in the long term.


Amidst this maze of education reforms, priorities, policies and national/state structures, a few themes leap out as relevant to our national dialogue around arts education.

First and foremost, assessments matter. As much as we bemoan the “drill and kill” culture associated with large-scale, standardized testing, all countries (except Canada) are motivated by test scores, whether issued via the PISA or internal metrics. We are also not the only country to see the arts de-emphasized in favor of what is on a test. We do seem to be unique in:

  • When that de-emphasis takes place. China’s gaokao and Germany’s Arbitur are at the end of high school, whereas testing under NCLB focuses on elementary grades. In China and Germany arts learning requirements diminish as students prepare for the test; in the United States, more high schools than elementary schools report teaching art subjects.
  • The scale of testing (the Arbitur is given only to students graduating Gymnasium, which is approximately one-quarter of the student population; the gaokao is technically optional).

As the Common Core is implemented in the United States, the content and structure of its corresponding assessments will impact how much attention is paid to the arts. States participating in the Common Core choose to participate in one of two testing “consortia” – Smarter Balanced or Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC). Both had planned on assessments that would include complex performance-based tasks alongside multiple choice questions – which seemed to provide an opening for more arts integration. Smarter Balanced’s recent decision to scale down the number of performance tasks is disheartening, but the truth is that we know very little about what the “testing” climate in the United States will look like in the next few years.

Secondly, including the arts as “core” is important, and defining them as “arts” has weaknesses AND strengths. To many of us, the victory of “arts as core” under ESEA was muted by a sense that the definition should be more specific. Vagueness has its drawbacks: I’ve had numerous people – including museum educators – express surprise that my work in “arts education” includes theater. Seeking validation of each specific art form through our definition of “arts” is understandable. Australia, as the only country to name five arts disciplines in its curriculum, recognizes this. The country should be lauded for its goal to provide all students instruction in five art forms, but the discipline in-fighting leading up to and resulting from Australia’s policy changes is instructive. Even if we extend school days across our country, we have to acknowledge the trade-off between breadth and depth of experience. Requiring students to participate in many arts disciplines within the school environment prevents them from gaining a lot of experience in any one.

Similarly, a strong national arts education “mandate” can be a double-edged sword. Enacting pan-Canadian arts education policy is difficult, if not impossible, without a central body overseeing education. Nonetheless, Canada isn’t clamoring for a department of education (maybe because despite its de-centralized system, its PISA scores are pretty high). Australia’s ambitious national requirements around the arts in schools, meanwhile, leave some states grousing the new curriculum doesn’t honor or acknowledge quality work that has already taken place.

Germany occupies an interesting middle ground between these two, in that the federal government issues few distinct arts education policies, but does invest a great deal in support of arts education. (Brazil will be interesting to watch for a similar, non-arts-specific reason – its current education plan provides few specifics for how things should happen in a classroom, but a whole lot of resources to give that “how” breathing room.) Beyond providing financial resources, Germany’s national ministries lend visibility to the intersections of arts and education, and assert that the arts play a central role in the country’s identity despite the fact that all students are not provided them equally.

More arts-education friendly policies in the United States might not mandate that all children learn x, y and z. They may instead continue to affirm “arts” as core, while supporting assessments that accurately capture student gains without overburdening schools. With the Common Core on the horizon, we have a lot to learn about whether something resembling a national curriculum is even viable. As we do, the models above, for all of their strengths and challenges, provide hints of where we may wind up.

(The author would like to thank the following individuals who assisted in the research of this piece by answering questions, sharing resources and expertise, and/or providing connections to people who could: Octavio Camargo, Agnieszka Chalas, Yvette Hardie, Volker Langbehn, Kate Li, Jessica Litwin, Christopher Madden, Jennifer Marsh, Tom McKenzie, Ian David Moss, Scott Ruescher, Jason van Eyk, Shannon Wilkins and Yang Yan.)

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