The Art School as Artwork

"The University of Trash: at the Sculpture Center Photo by Graham Coreil-Allen

“The University of Trash: at the Sculpture Center
Photo by Graham Coreil-Allen

Artist-founded and administered schools have existed for over a century. In 1875, a group of artists pinned a notice to the bulletin board of the National Academy of Design inviting students and instructors to attend a meeting, effectively founding The Art Students League in New York City. In 1919, the German architect Walter Gropius started Bauhaus, an institution that merged fine arts and applied arts in pursuit of the “gesamtkunstwerk” (total work of art). His manifesto declared:

Let us strive for, conceive and create the new building of the future that   will unite every discipline, architecture and sculpture and painting, and which will one day rise heavenwards from the million hands of craftsmen as a clear symbol of a new belief to come.

And in 1933, the scholar John A. Rice began the experimental Black Mountain College in North Carolina. It was owned and operated by its faculty, which included artists, musicians and poets such as Josef Albers, Buckminster Fuller, John Cage, Merce Cunningham and Charles Olsen. The school believed in an interdisciplinary approach to education and combined communal living and farm work with classwork.

Over the past five years or so, there’s been a resurgence of artist-operated schools.  However, what differentiates these new exploratory educational practices from their historical predecessors is that the schools themselves are also the art, framed as participatory, collaborative community projects. Rather than using physical materials to construct a work that may comment on a social condition, the artists use language, thought and action to construct social spaces. Their art schools destabilize one’s notion of a school by placing it in a museum, a house, a park or a gallery while asking participants to work collaboratively, creating a shared sense of space. There’s precedent for this: Joseph Beuys first coined the term “social sculpture” in the 1960’s to describe interdisciplinary and participatory action-based work. Let’s take a look at some of these art schools as artworks:

 

The Bruce High Quality Foundation's "Teach 4 Amerika" school bus Photo Credit: Matt Kowal

The Bruce High Quality Foundation’s “Teach 4 Amerika” school bus
Photo Credit: Matt Kowal

The Bruce High Quality Foundation University

Founders: The Bruce High Quality Foundation, a mostly anonymous New York City-based arts collective. Most of the Bruces met while studying at Cooper Union.

Sample Course Offerings: “BYOU (Build Your Own University),” “Drawing Extensions,” “The Language of Love: Intro to Italian” and “XXXTreme Performance Studies”

Cost: Free

The Gist: Embracing a collaborative learning model where “students are teachers are administrators are staff,” the BHQFU claims to be “a community of scholars” and “a ‘f*** you’ to the hegemony of critical solemnity and market-mediocre despair.”

 

Artists at Mildred's LanePhoto by Naya Peek

Artists at Mildred’s Lane
Photo by Naya Peek

Mildred’s Lane

Founders: Artists Mark Dion and J. Morgan Puett

Sample Course Offerings: “Attention Labs with The Order of the Third Bird” and “PondHouseSpringHousePond”

Cost: $3000 (includes room and board)

The Gist: “Life is a studio” in this northeastern Pennsylvania communal art space where participants live and “collaboratively work with internationally renowned artists” who direct each session. An iteration of the working-living-researching-making environment is included in the Museum of Modern Art Education Department’s MoMA Studio, and, through discussions, meals and other interactions, “invites visitors to explore inventive forms of domesticity, tactile qualities related to textiles and the natural states of food.”

 

PIckpocket Almanack at Artissima 17Photo by Joseph Del Pesco

PIckpocket Almanack at Artissima 17
Photo by Joseph Del Pesco

Pickpocket Almanack

Founder: Contemporary art curator Joseph del Pesco

Sample Course Offerings: “Celebrating Dilettantism,” “Revolutionary Experimental Cinema in the Bay Area” and “Do-It-Yourself, Together”

Cost: Free

The Gist: “An experimental school-without-walls,” commissioned by the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art in 2009-10, curriculum used existing lectures, screenings, workshops and other public events in the Bay Area as its starting point, and then took them “out of context” for a new “thematic frame” and “unexpected discoveries.” Discussions happened online.

 

Anton Vidokle's "Exhibition as School" including "Night School" archivesPhoto by Knoxville Museum of Art

Anton Vidokle’s “Exhibition as School” including “Night School” archives
Photo by Knoxville Museum of Art

Night School

Founder: Artist and e-flux founder Anton Vidokle

Sample Course Offerings: seminars led by Boris Groys, Martha Rosler and Liam Gillick

Cost: Free

The Gist: Part of Vidokle’s series of temporary school projects, this iteration was hosted by New Museum in 2008. The program included a lecture series open to the public as well as additional workshops and discussions for a core group of 26 accepted applicants.

 

Portrait Drawing Round Robin at the University of TrashPhoto by Peter Walsh Projects

Portrait Drawing Round Robin at the University of Trash
Photo by Peter Walsh Projects

The “Skool of Refuse and Appropriation” at The University of Trash

Founders: Michael Cataldi and Nils Norman

Sample Course Offerings: “How to Stay Free,” “Supersede Yourself” and “Freeing the Airwaves from Corporate Control”

Cost: Free

The Gist: free and open to the public during summer 2009, the temporary, makeshift university as exhibition hosted lectures, workshops and screenings. Resources included stages, a low power FM radio station, internet, hammocks and a grill, and participants were invited to “teach a class, hold band practice, contribute to zine library or propose any project!”

 

School of the Future

Founders: Artists Cassie Thorton and Chris Kennedy

Sample Course Offerings: “Mutant Student Groups Think Tank,” “Compost Brigade,” “Philosophy Yoga,” and “Gender, Identity and Making Mustaches”

Cost: Free

The Gist: The “un-school” was first an “outdoor intergenerational free school” run by artists, activists and teachers in industrial north Brooklyn.  It has since become “an archive of lessons learned and a network of radical educators who question our current forms of education.”

 

A Trade School class in LondonPhoto by Canning Town Cara

A Trade School class in London
Photo by Canning Town Cara

Trade School

Founders: OurGoods co-founders Louise Ma, Rich Watts and Caroline Woolard

Sample Course Offerings: “Pilates in a Chair,” “Caviar: Demystified,” “Portrait Photography “ and “Baudrillard Camp: Media Theory vs Literary Criticism”

Cost: Participants pay for classes by bartering goods and services

The Gist: “Trade School celebrates practical wisdom, mutual respect and the social nature of exchange” and has been endorsed by socially-engaged-art heavyweight Pablo Helguera. They recently participated in Parsons’ Art, Environment, Action!“creative teaching laboratory and environmental ‘artshop.’”

 

Mike Perry's "Wondering Around Wandering" Photo by Meredith Jenks, courtesy of the artist's website

Mike Perry’s “Wondering Around Wandering”
Photo by Meredith Jenks, courtesy of the artist’s website

Wondering Around Wandering

Founder: Graphic designer and artist Mike Perry

Sample Course Offerings: “IMAG(in)ING the CITY,” “Never Nude!” and “Mega Zine”

Cost: Free

The Gist: Graphic Designer Mike Perry created a free three-month “exhibition and community event space” to coincide with the launch of his monograph. Perry and other designers conducted workshops, screenings, gatherings and open discussions where visitors could “explore freely and create their own unique experiences.”

*

Some of these education-as-art projects, most notably the Bruce High Quality Foundation University, have been posited or lauded as progressive and practical alternatives to the increasingly expensive Master of Fine Arts (MFA) education from accredited art colleges and universities. The Bruces explain:

Something’s got to give. The $200,000-debt-model of art education is simply untenable. Further, the education artists are getting for their money is mired in irrelevance, pushing them into critical redundancy on the one hand and professional mediocrity on the other.

Could programs such as these eventually replace our current institution-centric paradigm? I find the premise somewhat disingenuous and unrealistic. Many of the participants of the alternative art schools are either current MFA candidates, or have already received an MFA. And many of the lecturers or faculty are also faculty at universities—they’ve hardly rejected the academy. What’s more, the rigor of the course offerings for the art-school-projects wildly fluctuates, from seminars on Marxism to analyzing the dim sum offerings in Chinatown. Although the latter is interesting and arguably, the ability to differentiate between dumplings is a far more practical skill than being able to pontificate on the finer points of Foucault, it’s also not something one could receive credit for in graduate school. Finally, regardless of the intellectual and instructional level of materials, in all of these programs, there’s no consequence for failing to complete the homework or not engaging in a discussion. No degree is withheld, because there are no degrees.

And of course, this is the point. These art schools offer a re-imagining of our arts educational system. Yet, so many of the artists involved in these projects have formal arts degrees and continue to have positive relationships with traditional academic institutions—as faculty, guest lecturers and even students, that it’s difficult for me to trust that they genuinely believe in their institutions as replacements for the current model. Their true purpose is not as higher-ed replacement, but as an exploration of art’s value in a learning environment.

In this sense, these art schools as art projects are the purest form of education— the reward for one’s efforts is not a certificate, but instead, learning. In fact, that’s why these new alternative art schools are most intriguing. Unlike their historical predecessors, they aren’t meant to replace the art college/university model. In part, that’s why these new art schools are also artworks. They are social sculptures where pedagogy is a means to another end—participatory, socially engaged, community based art projects, education as exhibition.

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Around the horn: moment of silence edition

Going to be off the grid for the next little bit. Comments will be a little slow in getting posted. Back after next week!

ART AND THE GOVERNMENT

  • Who should be the next chair of the NEA? Barry Hessenius and Ray Mark Rinaldi trot out some possibilities.
  • Penn Hill Group, which is working with Grantmakers in the Arts on federal arts education policy, has published a report that “provides an initial analysis of the people, process, politics, and policies that are crucial to the consideration of federal education and job training policies in the next Congress and Administration.”
  • Toronto Mayor Rob Ford, who’s had an uneasy relationship with the city’s arts community, has been kicked out of office by a judge for a minor corruption charge. The judge’s decision is pending appeal.

MUSICAL CHAIRS

IN THE FIELD

  • Take that, Roger Ebert: video games are art! New York’s Museum of Modern Art announced recently that it is buying up 14 classic games for inclusion in its permanent collection, including Tetris, Pac-Man, and Myst. If it’s good enough for MoMA, it’s good enough for me. Too bad advances in technology are disrupting video game store economics.
  • Probably the most thorough English-language overview of the music scene in China that you’re going to find.
  • I’m scratching my head a bit wondering how a midlevel employee who didn’t work in the finance department of the Woodruff Arts Center was able to embezzle $1.5 million out of the organization over a five-year period without anyone noticing before now. That’s a lot of per diems to lose track of.
  • Who earns nearly $1 million a year for an arts organization and is still a relative bargain? Hint: he’s Venezuelan and directs a major orchestra. Culture Monster’s Mike Boehm runs the numbers.

BIG IDEAS

RESEARCH CORNER

  • Slightly old news, but here goes: The NEA is partnering with the Bureau of Economic Analysis to measure the contribution of the arts to the national GDP. The arts were already counted as part of GDP, but we didn’t have a good way of isolating their contribution – the relevant figures were only counted once every five years, and categories were unhelpfully broad (combining performing arts with sports and recreation, for example). The main short term significance of this, as I understand it, is that it will be a boon to researchers doing economic impact analyses of the arts and creative industries. Congrats to the NEA research team on making this happen – I know they’ve been working for a while on it. Meanwhile, more recently, the NEA updated its very helpful “How the United States Funds the Arts” publication for 2012.
  • Does Generation Y have unrealistic expectations about how much money they’ll be inheriting from their parents?
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Cool job of the month – no, seriously people

I’m biased, but I think this is the coolest job we’ve posted in quite some time – possibly ever! Fractured Atlas is hiring a full-time Program Specialist to work on one of our data + technology projects, Archipelago, out of our brand-new Washington, DC office. Your boss will be yours truly – and I can’t wait to meet you! Read on and check out the link for more details.

Program Specialist, Archipelago, Fractured Atlas

Fractured Atlas is seeking a full-time Program Specialist for a newly-created position.  The Specialist will manage components of Archipelago, Fractured Atlas’s cultural asset mapping tool, along with the organization’s participation in the Initiative for Sustainable Arts in America.  This position reports to the Research Director.

This is an exciting opportunity to join a cutting-edge nonprofit organization working at the intersection of culture, technology, design, and data. The successful candidate will be a creative “doer” who takes pride in delivering to the highest standards of performance time and time again.

Deadline: January 2, 2013.

 

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Applications Now Open for the Spring 2013 Createquity Writing Fellowship

Are you smart? A good writer? Interested in how the arts fit in to the bigger picture? Why not join this blog? The Createquity Writing Fellowship was designed to continually bring new voices into national and international conversations about the future of the arts. So far we’ve introduced eight bright, (mostly) young writers to the world, and we’re just getting started. You could be the next to join them, all while receiving mentorship, research assistance, and guidance on your writing from yours truly. Think of it as your very own virtual graduate practicum in arts policy. Details and application instructions, as always, are available at the Createquity Writing Fellowship page, and applications are due January 8. Please spread the word far and wide, and I look forward to reading your submissions!

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Economies and Diseconomies of Scale in the Arts – Take Two

(The following post is part of a weeklong salon at ARTSBlog on the subject of “Does Size Matter?” The entire salon is worth checking out, and former Createquity Writing Fellow Katherine Gressel has an entry as well.)

How does scale influence impact in the arts? In 2007, back when I was a fresh-faced grad student, I actually addressed this question head on in the eighth post ever published on Createquity. I argued pretty strongly that scale in the arts was a myth, or at least not salient to the same extent as in other fields:

It’s not that I don’t think large arts organizations do good work, or that they don’t deserve to be supported. What I’m going to argue instead is that there is a tendency among many institutional givers to direct their resources toward organizations that have well-developed support infrastructure, long histories, and vast budgets, and in a lot of ways it’s a tendency that doesn’t make much sense (or at the very least, could use some balance).

For one thing, those well-developed support infrastructures don’t come cheap. Consider the case of Carnegie Hall… [snip]

In contrast, small arts organizations are extraordinarily frugal with their resources, precisely because they have no resources to speak of. It’s frankly amazing to me what largely unheralded art galleries, musical ensembles, theater companies, dance troupes, and performance art collectives are able accomplish with essentially nothing but passion on their side. A $5,000 contribution that would barely get you into the sixth-highest donor category at Carnegie might radically transform the livelihood of an organization like this. Suddenly, they might be able to buy some time in the recording studio, or hire an accompanist for rehearsals, or redo that floor in the lobby, or even (gasp) PAY their artists! All of which previously had seemed inconceivable because of the poverty that these organizations grapple with.

The literature on scaling impact in the social sector tends to take for granted that scale is a good thing—that services are provided more effectively when centralized under a strong leader and when efficiencies can be exploited across functions and sites. This logic makes sense when the goal is to solve a systemic problem that is evident in many different  contexts, such as physical places. If you’ve come up with a solution that works in Chicago, why wouldn’t you want to bring it to New York and DC? Arts service organizations, in fact, can likely benefit from economies of scale. Fractured Atlas has certainly been able to accomplish a lot more because its focus is national and cross-disciplinary than would have been the case otherwise, and scale has no doubt been a motivating factor behind Americans for the Arts’s many mergers.

But when you get to talking about arts producers and presenters, which I think is what most people mean when they say “the arts,” the conversation about scale becomes very different. What problem, exactly, is being solved here? It seems like the whole point of the nonprofit arts is to add to the aesthetic diversity that would otherwise exist in the marketplace for creative expression. If the point is diversity, how is that goal served by attempting to scale up institutions? The very commercial marketplace to which the nonprofit arts strive to provide an alternative loves scale – it thrives on it, because scale begets market power, which begets revenue, which begets profit. (Profits worth talking about, anyway.)

Leaving our cultural lives in the hands of commercial entities, many theorists have worried, will result in a boring sameness, an attempt to feed the world’s aesthetic appetite with the equivalent of TV dinners every day.* Our sector takes it on faith that there are forms of artistic expression that have clear cultural value and relevance even if replicating them widely is not practical. I suppose if you believe that these forms are specific and identifiable in nature (e.g., classical music, plays by Henrik Ibsen), then scaling them to help them compete with commercial cultural products would make sense. But if you believe, as I do, that their value comes in large part from the diversity they add to our collective palate, it’s much better to spread the subsidy around.

On a purely theoretical level, my view hasn’t changed that much in the five years since I wrote that thought piece. However, having become more closely involved with several grantmakers (including serving on a couple of grant panels) since then, I’ve developed a newfound appreciation for what large organizations can accomplish with scale. The scale that institutions traffic in does not have to do with the creation or presentation of work, but rather the audiences reached by that work. There are arts consumers – plenty of them, in fact – who simply will never frequent a show or exhibition by a smaller, experimental group or venue unless they personally know someone in it. But give that experimental group an institution’s stamp of approval, and those audience members are all over it. That’s got to count for something, and speaks volumes of the curatorial role that large institutions have in the broader ecosystem.

That said, one thing I still don’t see much of on the part of arts funders is a willingness to consider the transformative potential (or lack thereof) of grants. Some years ago, the Hewlett Foundation developed a simple yet very clever rubric for grant selection called Expected Return. One of the ways in which Expected Return is clever is that it accounts for the proportion of a project’s success in an ideal world that can be attributed to the grant you made. The less of the budget you’re responsible for, the less of a difference you’re really making. As I wrote then and still believe now, “Foundations concerned with ‘impact’ should remember that it’s far easier to have a measurable effect on an organization’s effectiveness when the amount of money provided is not dwarfed by the organization’s budget.”

 

*Defenders of pop culture will no doubt cite the many creative achievements of the entertainment industry as evidence against this point – and they are certainly right to celebrate The Wire, Radiohead, and The Lord of the Rings. But for every groundbreaking artist who succeeds in the market economy, there are dozens more who don’t, and plenty of mediocre talents gumming up our headphones and screens instead.

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Unpacking Shared Delivery of Arts Education

Venn diagrams. Photograph by Demetri Mouratis

When some brave soul writes an updated history of arts education in the United States (any takers?) I think he or she will describe the early-to-mid-2000s as an ambitious era. The arts education sector, mirroring the broader arts field and the constantly reforming field of education, is having larger and broader conversations about impact, outcomes and sustainability. In the process it’s moving toward large and broader models of best practice such as the idea of  “shared delivery”  (also known as “blended delivery” and the “three-legged stool model”). Shared delivery has been in vogue for the last few years. It was a central topic of conversation at the Grantmakers in the Arts Conference in 2008. Americans for the Arts identifies shared delivery as a key component to a broader approach called “coordinated delivery” – which, in turn, was identified as a major arts education trend in 2010. My own initiative, Arts for All, upholds shared delivery as integral to the vision of ensuring high quality arts education for all students in Los Angeles County.

In the K-12 public school setting, shared delivery envisions students receiving arts instruction from three distinct parties: 1) generalist elementary school teachers, 2) arts specialists, and 3) teaching artists and/or community arts organizations. Under this model, the three collaborate to provide visual and performing arts programs to children. The generalist teacher integrates the arts throughout daily lessons across subject areas, the specialist hones in on skills and content specific to his or her art form, and the teaching artist supports one or both while engaging directly with students and providing the perspective of a working arts professional. The model posits that each of these three roles is of equal importance. While there are different attempts to represent this idea graphically (try here, here and here (page 17)), all fall back on a basic visual of three concentric circles:

Shared delivery does not reflect what I or, based on anecdotal evidence, the majority of people within my age bracket received in terms of arts education. My fifth grade generalist teacher was a woman named Mrs. Gonzalez. I saw her every day, and she taught me math, reading, science, history and so forth. My school had a visual arts specialist, Ms. Peters, whom I saw once a week. Art never really came up during my math/reading/science/history lessons, and math/reading/science/history never really came up during my art lessons, so if Mrs. Gonzalez and Ms. Peters worked together behind the scenes, their collaboration wasn’t readily apparent to me. The only visiting teaching artists I recall encountering in elementary school were members of a theater company who performed an abridged version of Macbeth during a school-wide assembly in our cafeteria. Afterwards they sat on plastic chairs and answered questions. They stayed for about an hour, and we never saw them again.

Were I the beneficiary of a true shared delivery model of arts education, those actors would have come into my classroom and taught me theater for a number of weeks or months alongside Mrs. Gonzalez, who would in turn be learning theater techniques to use in other subject areas, all the while also working with Ms. Peters to draw connections to visual art. I may have had a teaching artist work with me and my teacher in third or fourth grade so that I understood the elements of visual art by the time I got to Ms. Peters in fifth grade. I would have had a lot more art in my life, period.

Shared delivery is ambitious and, on a broad scale, largely theoretical. As with much in arts education, the roots of the model stretch back to budget cuts in public schools beginning in the 1970s, when broad anti-tax sentiment gripped the country. In California, this sentiment manifested in a state-wide ballot measure capping property tax rates, at a time when California’s school districts received the bulk of their funding from local property taxes. When the measure passed, schools braced for a huge – according to this 1978 estimate, more than 33%– drop in revenue. Similar cuts impacted state and local education budgets across the country; according to the Center for Arts Education, New York City had a robust curriculum in all four art forms before the city’s 1970s fiscal crisis pushed it to the brink of bankruptcy. How many visual and performing arts teachers were laid off as a result across the country is difficult to determine, but it appears that schools took a pretty big hit from which they never fully recovered. In 2007, per SRI’s analysis of arts education across California, 61% of the state’s schools did not have even one full-time equivalent arts specialist on staff.

Concurrent with these cuts, the field of teaching artistry was formalizing. As described in NORC at the University of Chicago’s 2011 report, “Teaching Artists and the Future of Education,”

Artists slowly began entering schools in the 1950s. Their roles were initially limited to introducing students to the excitement of live performance… That began changing in the mid-1960s… Artists in the Schools became one of the first programs of the new National Endowment for the Arts. By the mid-1970s, Young Audiences, Urban Gateways, Lincoln Center Institute of Arts Education, and other organizations in major cities were sending artists to schools to teach workshops and residencies.

These teaching artists brought with them what NORC calls a “new kinds of arts pedagogy” that “modified the more hierarchical pedagogy of the conservatories, rooted in European classical tradition, to find an approach based on the principles that the arts are for everyone.” As “quasi-outsiders” in the public school system, teaching artists could experiment with new ways of teaching the visual and performing arts, many of which went on to become best practices. Given the loss of arts specialists, teaching artistry also allowed many students who otherwise may never had access to a certain art form to learn directly from a professional. Schools, in turn, clearly saw the benefit.  According to the National Center for Education Statistics, in 2009-10 42% of elementary schools across the country reported partnerships or collaborations with cultural or community organizations, 31% with individual artists, 29% with museums or galleries, and 26% with performing arts centers.

Throughout the 1990s and 2000s, the standards-and-accountability movement took full force across the United States, with states defining or redefining what students should know and be able to do in each grade level and in each content area, including the arts. National visual and performing arts standards were developed in 1994 (with a revision due out later this year), and every state except for Iowa and Nebraska has adopted its own standards for the arts at the elementary or secondary level, or both. The quality of the state standards varies, but for the most part, they represent newly codified aspirations regarding what public school students should know in all art forms.

Alongside those aspirations came a realization that meeting the standards required changing how teaching artists and classroom teachers (both generalists and specialists) interact. A simple “service provider” arrangement, in which schools select and arts organizations deliver from a list of pre-designed programs, left classroom teachers and teaching artists operating in silos, with the teacher essentially “handing off” responsibility for arts instruction to a short-term visitor. As noted in the National Guild for Community Arts Education’s Partners in Excellence handbook, this approach “does not take full advantage of the expertise of both the artists and the educators to create in-depth, pedagogically sound arts experiences for children and professional enrichment for teachers.” The field’s definition of best practice shifted accordingly to include much higher levels of collaboration between teaching artists and classroom teachers. The teaching artist or arts organization’s goal is not to deliver a certain number of lessons to students, but to make sure something is left behind when the artist walks out of the classroom – be it lasting effects on students, a long-term increase in teachers’ skills, a changed school culture, or all of the above. Teachers, therefore, learn alongside students so that they can, in theory, carry on the arts instruction when the teaching artist is not there.

Hence, the shared delivery model engages not only students but also teachers, and posits that a number of individuals, and a lot of planning time, are needed to ensure that students learn what we want them to learn in dance, music, visual art and theater during the school day. The need for collaboration and planning is not unique to the arts in schools – numerous education initiatives (and even President Obama’s education platform) recognize that classroom teachers don’t have enough opportunities to work and reflect with their peers across subject areas. Shared delivery of arts education does, however, envision a lot of different visual and performing arts cooks in the proverbial education kitchen. Those cooks need to be paid and that kitchen needs supplies. Done well, shared delivery may have a fantastic return on investment, but collaboration takes time, and time takes money. As noted by SRI,

While integrating arts instruction into other subject areas may be pedagogically powerful and may maximize students’ instructional day, the collaboration necessary to make it successful appears to require a substantial amount of teacher time… This time came either from teacher contract time dedicated for planning or professional development or through schools paying to have two adults in the classroom – or both.

Shared delivery isn’t cheap, which begs the question of whether it’s realistic. Many schools, not to mention arts organizations, are gearing up for their fourth consecutive year of budget cuts. We can’t argue that having three parties work together to provide arts education during the school day is more economically efficient than just having one or two – it’s not – and we are particularly vulnerable if we assume the need for multiple parties is unique to the arts. Granted, “shared delivery of math instruction” sounds pretty weird: imagine if Ms. Gonzales, while teaching my class about variables and basic algebra, had been collaborating with a math specialist whom we also saw once a week, and we’d had periodic visits from a friendly community partner from, say, a local investment or research firm, and that partner led us through hands-on projects that allowed us to see how using letters to stand in for numbers applies to real-life, day-to-day careers and decisions – hold up, that sounds amazing.

The real costs/benefits of this approach have yet to be known, but in my mind, the promise of the shared delivery model is not that it allows us to “restore” arts education in a cheaper or easier way. True shared delivery is such a far cry from what most of us received growing up that its relevance to a (possibly mythical) “golden age” for arts education within classrooms is dubious. Instead, it aspires for an entirely new vision of how all students receive arts instruction – and perhaps, by extension, how education works in general. The promise of the model is that it acknowledges deep and meaningful learning, whether in nuclear physics or dance, happens when different experiences, concepts and skills overlap. You can’t expect to learn everything from a single source any more than you can consider yourself an expert on a topic by hunkering down alone and reading a textbook. Colleagues in other subject areas are aware of this; several math and science grant programs run through the Department of Education and National Science Foundation feature an emphasis on partnerships similar to what I described above, with the latter going so far as to aim to “promote institutional and organizational change in education systems — from kindergarten through graduate school.”

We may not be entirely alone, then, in the scale of what we hope to achieve. We even may be ahead of the curve in recognizing how deeply those concentric circles need to overlap in order to be effective, and in developing best practices for how that overlap happens. In order to take the model further, we need to pay more attention to the all-too-neglected shared spaces between the arts specialist and community arts provider, and between the arts specialist and generalist. We also need to be meticulous in documenting and discussing how the circles come together and stay together over time, and assertive in sharing what we are learning with colleagues from other subject areas. As complex as it is, the very notion of shared delivery reflects how far we have come as a field: from trying to “catch up” to other subjects in schools, to pioneering collaborations between teachers, schools and communities that those other subjects may very well learn from.  With luck, future students will thank us for our ambition.

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Our View of Creative Placemaking, Two Years In

"The Bridge" by artist Elena Colombo, image courtesy of ArtsQuest.

“The Bridge” by artist Elena Colombo, image courtesy of ArtsQuest (MICD25 grantee)

(As expected, Ann Markusen’s article Fuzzy Concepts, Proxy Data: Why Indicators Won’t Track Creative Placemaking Success has provoked lots of discussion and reaction among the creative placemaking practitioner community. Much of this can be found in the comments to the original post; in particular I recommend John Carnwath’s extensive discussion of the costs and benefits of measurement in the arts. On top of that, we now have official responses from the two major national creative placemaking funders that were the subject of Ann’s critique. ArtPlace posted a detailed rebuttal last week on its website, and below we have an essay penned by National Endowment for the Arts Director of Design Jason Schupbach and Director, Office of Research and Analysis Sunil Iyengar. Enjoy. -IDM)

We continue to be grateful for the level of national discourse that has emerged since the National Endowment for the Arts’ introduction of Our Town, the federal government’s signature investment in creative placemaking. In particular, Createquity has published a number of blog posts that have provided us with valuable feedback. They have also raised insightful questions about the program resources and research needs for an initiative of this size and scale.

So much has been happening at the NEA  – and some of the most vibrant conversations have been based in part on incomplete or out-of-date information – that we thought it made sense to run through our accomplishments and goals, now that we are in the second year of Our Town grantmaking.  (If, after reading this post, you want to know even more about what is happening across the country, please take a look at the current issue of NEA Arts: “Arts and Culture at the Core: A Look at Creative Placemaking.”)

 

Background

When Rocco Landesman arrived at the NEA in 2009, he put a name on something he saw happening all across this country, from the Little Haiti neighborhood in Miami, Florida, to the cultural district that sprang up around the Museum of Glass in Tacoma, Washington: cities and towns were using the arts to help shape their social, physical, and economic characters. We were rich in anecdotes, but individual communities and organizations lacked the opportunity to connect with others doing similar work.

Like any good producer, Rocco realized that we could not create a community of practice without a name for our shared endeavor, and so the phrase “creative placemaking” was introduced into our national lexicon. Two efforts quickly followed: a white paper by Ann Markusen and Anne Gadwa Nicodemus that defined this sector of work, and a national convening of 40 experts in the arts, community development, and research.  This diverse group launched a conversation about how to measure the presence and impact of the arts in U.S. communities.

 

The grant program

Both of these efforts helped inform the design of Our Town, which makes grants to partnerships among arts and design organizations and local governments to increase community livability through the arts. By framing the conversation around how communities can use the arts to contribute positively to shared priorities, rather than adopting the more traditional approach of simply stating what the arts organizations would like to do and asking for support to do it, Our Town projects have attracted an impressively diverse range of partners.  These have included social service agencies, botanic gardens, schools, religious institutions, scientific organizations, local businesses, and business improvement districts.

Through two rounds, we have now invested more than $11.5 million in Our Town grants to 131 communities in all 50 states and the District of Columbia. Along the way, we learned an important lesson: creative placemaking is a big and inclusive tent, and in order to make sense of this emerging sector, we need to look at the specific sub-communities it contains.  As grant administrators, we find that it helps to consider Our Town projects in terms of these sub-communities at different points of the award cycle.

From a grant-making point of view, for example, we sort applications into three subsets for review: arts engagement projects, cultural planning and design projects, and projects in non-metro and tribal communities.  This is far from a mutually exclusive / completely exhaustive taxonomy, but for our review panels, this division allows Our Town grant applications to be examined in clusters that share similar opportunities, challenges, and access to resources.

Once the grants have been made, and we move into the mode of grants stewardship, it has made more sense for NEA staff to look at the projects based on the specific activities being undertaken.  This list is bound to change or grow, but to date,  Our Town grants tend to fall into these distinct categories: creating and strengthening artists’ work spaces; asset mapping/cultural district planning; creative industries and entrepreneurship; creating and strengthening cultural facilities; investing in festivals, performances, and other innovative arts programming; reinventing public spaces through creative uses; and the planning and implementation of temporary and permanent public art.

To varying degrees, this taxonomy has subsequently guided our work in evaluating grant projects, conducting national-level research, and creating communities of practice.  Let’s take each of these in turn.

 

Grant evaluation

At the NEA, every grant program must help achieve one of five outcomes: creation, engagement, learning, research, or livability. The Our Town grants are all measured against livability, and grantees report to us through a final descriptive report form specific to this outcome.

Unlike private endowment-driven funders, the NEA’s budget is allocated annually by Congress.  Despite our name, the NEA does not, in fact, have an endowment, and we are mandated to make our grant decisions anew each year. These facts mean that the NEA cannot commit to funding specific projects over long periods of time, as is the practice with many foundations. (Organizations may, of course, re-apply to the agency.) The ability to make a multi-year commitment to a grantee is the moral prerequisite for doing a multi-year evaluation of that project. So we look at each grantee’s project on its own terms and measure it against its contributions to community livability.

These final descriptive reports allow the NEA to make an evaluation of each grant, but they are also a foundational element in fulfilling our other responsibilities, including both our national research into creative placemaking and our work to build communities of practice.

 

National research

Following publication of the Creative Placemaking white paper, several organizations and individuals  approached us, requesting cost-effective solutions for better understanding and communicating the value their work added to their communities. Almost all of these groups were more than adept at documenting their work with images, video, and anecdote, but they lacked easy access to quantitative information.

We felt that we could play a key role in building an infrastructure to address this need. In order to better articulate the concept of livability that underpins the Our Town program, we posited a hypothesis that almost any successful creative placemaking project would make a difference to its community in at least one of four ways: strengthening the infrastructure that supports artists and arts organizations; increasing community attachment; improving quality of life; and/or driving local economies.

These particular dimensions of livability emerged from a review of extant literature, consultations with the field, and an initial review of grant applications.  It also grew apparent that these outcomes would be profoundly difficult to measure.  So we decided that an appropriate next step would be to develop a framework of arts and livability indicators that would help the field think constructively about how these concepts might be reflected in data already being collected. The indicators are not intended to measure exactly what is happening in creative placemaking projects; they are instead – as the name implies – meant to indicate conditions on the ground that reflect important dimensions of livability and provide insights into relationships that might exist, thus highlighting areas for further research.

By tracking outcomes that are already publicly reported and widely available, we should be able to provide a reasonably reliable indicator of changes to a community’s overall livability.  Are all or even some of these changes necessarily due to the presence of creative placemaking activities? Absolutely not–but at least they are the kinds of community-wide outcomes that should matter most to people and groups engaged in creative placemaking. By allowing such outcomes to be tracked easily, the indicators system will bypass the need for elaborate and expensive data collection tools and analytics on a project-by-project basis.

How will we know that the indicators we choose are the right ones? Because they will be based on a series of hypotheses soon to be tested in real communities.  For instance, we hypothesize that one indicator of a strengthened arts infrastructure might be an increase in the number of employees at arts organizations. An indicator of community attachment might be the average length that a citizen has lived in a community. An indicator of quality of life might be lower crime rates. And an indicator of a strong local economy might be the number of valid business addresses in a community. Each of these example indicators is based on information already collected and made available by the Census Bureau, the FBI, and the U.S. Postal Service.

We need to test each hypothesis in multiple communities because a single indicator may not work the same way in every place. For instance, at the NEA, we have spent a lot of time internally debating whether “length of commute” is a potential indicator for increased quality of life. Not surprisingly, those of us who live in urban centers think shorter commute times equate with a higher quality of life; and those of us who live in the suburbs and have chosen homes specifically further way from work, feel that longer commute times better correlate with a higher quality of life.

We are working with a team of researchers from the Urban Institute to explore these kinds of nuances for every indicator, testing and validating each hypothesis in multiple use cases and documenting the ways in which a single indicator is and is not an effective proxy. We are also working with and learning from other federal agencies that are similarly building indicator systems from nationally available data sets. It is possible to use an indicators system very effectively, indeed, but it is also all too easy to misuse one – and we want to do everything we can to avoid such pitfalls.

Our team will also assess whether the appropriate data can be accessed at the geographical level of detail we require. Recently, Ann Markusen shared a summary from Arizona State University Professor Emily Talen that was circulated on a listserv for urban planning researchers. This sort of granular investigation into the data available from, in this case, the American Community Survey is exactly the next order of business for our indicators team.  So we are, yet again, indebted to Ann.

If we are successful in creating this indicators framework, then the nation’s arts organizations will have free and easy access to a system that helps them begin to visualize and report on some of the things happening alongside their creative placemaking projects.  From a social science perspective, will these metrics prove a causal relationship?  Again, absolutely not.  But for citizens, funders, civic officials, and business leaders, they will provide a good indication of what is happening.  And when viewed alongside qualitative data from the projects themselves, the indicators may provide sufficient evidence to satisfy stakeholders who seek assurance of the projects’ overall value. Others may wish to know more, and if so, the indicators and the qualitative data lay the foundation for further research and project-specific evaluation.

We believe this approach will help demystify data for organizations involved in creative placemaking.  An organization might be brilliant at developing an outdoor festival that would literally bring art into the center of the public square.  It might also excel at documenting the resulting changes it can observe in the surrounding neighborhood.  But it may not be skilled at identifying and analyzing data sets, and it may not have the time or the funds to undertake an expensive and exhaustive research project.  These organizations are exactly the target audience for our framework, since we will publish – in plain language ­– the data sets that pass our national validation tests and explain how to extricate only the data that are relevant to, in this case, innovative arts programming.

Photograph by Robert Allen, copyright Trey McIntyre Project, all rights reserved.

Photograph by Robert Allen, copyright Trey McIntyre Project (Our Town grantee).

 

Communities of practice

Taken together, these quantitative and qualitative impacts will allow the NEA to help connect and support communities of practice in creative placemaking.

We have issued an RFP for help in producing documentation that looks at each of the Our Town grantees and asks: what did you set out to do with your project; how did you go about doing your project; how do you know whether you succeeded; and what would you do differently having been through what you went through?

The field has been clamoring for “how-to” information. By combining the final descriptive reports from the Our Town grants, the indicators framework, and the in-depth documentation of each project, we will be able to play matchmaker.

A community that wants examples of successful, federally funded projects can comb through our analysis of the NEA’s final descriptive reports to learn which other communities have succeeded.

A community that would like to make a major investment in public art will be able to parse the in-depth descriptions of public art projects to see what lessons they can learn.

Even prior to all of those resources being available, we have started trying to create cross-community connections by having Our Town panelists share their insights and experiences in a series of archived webinars.  We will do even more of these in the coming months, featuring grantees.

 

Moving forward

We are really only two years into this work, and are proud of all that we have been able to accomplish. But we are also humbled by the work ahead. The good news is that there continues to be national energy and excitement around creative placemaking, and we are eager for any or all feedback.

We hope that there will continue to be a robust conversation in blogs, on listserves, and throughout the Twittersphere. And we also hope that people will continue to feel free to interact directly with the agency. We are always eager to hear from you at schupbachj@arts.gov or iyengars@arts.gov.

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Createquity Office Hours in NYC December 6

Our inaugural Createquity Office Hours event in Chicago earlier this month was a success, so we’re giving it another go in New York next week! Createquity Writing Fellows past and present Katherine Gressel, Jennifer Kessler, and Jacquelyn Strycker will join me at Concrete Bar, conveniently located on West 37th St. As a reminder, Createquity Office Hours is an informal gathering in which we turn a bar into Arts Nerd Central. Come with your questions, ideas, requests for career advice, whatever — it’s great way for us to get to know some of you a little better and, more importantly, for you all to meet each other. Looking forward to it!

Createquity Office Hours: New York
Thursday, December 6
6:30-8:00pm
Concrete (look for us upstairs)
320 West 37th Street
New York, NY
RSVP here

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Around the horn: cease fire edition

ART AND THE GOVERNMENT

MUSICAL CHAIRS

  • Victoria Hamilton has moved on from her post as founding executive director of the San Diego Commission for Arts and Culture.

ALL ABOUT THE BENJAMINS

  • Why we need arts policy: multi-millionaire financial mogul, founder of a mysterious firm that makes its money executing high-speed trades to exploit market arbitrage opportunities, has left his day job to focus instead on establishing “free art schools in Anguilla, the Dominican Republic, Pennsylvania, Sri Lanka and Thailand” to teach poor students the craft of photorealistic painting. Said donor thinks this is going to “change the art world” and is developing luxury hotels to put alongside the schools.

IN THE FIELD

BIG IDEAS

  • I was totally going to write a post-election blog post that was all like, “are arts organizations the Republican Party of the creative economy?” and then Trevor O’Donnell went and did it for me.
  • Michael Kaiser has caught a fair amount of flak from arts managers of my generation before, but I suspect they’ll be pleased with this column of his.
  • More evidence of Nina Simon’s awesomeness: she’s designing a You Can’t Do That in Museums summer camp (tagline: “You Can. We Will.”) to be held in Santa Cruz next July.

    This camp will be a 2.5 day event at which participants work in teams with pre-selected permanent collection objects to create an exhibition full of intriguing, unusual, risky experiences. If you’ve ever wanted to design an object-based exhibit that really pushed the boundaries, this is the event for you. Registration will be $150 and by application only. We will also offer a half-day series of workshops on July 10 for a wider audience for $50. Yes you can sleepover at the museum to heighten the insanity and reduce the cost. No you don’t have to be a museum professional to participate. Yes you can apply now. Please do.

  • And here’s Nina’s TEDxSantaCruz talk on opening up museums (with her own as Exhibit A).

CONFERENCES AND TALKS

  • Last year, I went to the Independent Sector conference on scholarship from the Ford Foundation and had a great experience learning from my peers across the nonprofit space. I wasn’t able to attend this year, but Nonprofit Law Blog’s Gene Takagi went and brings us this report in two parts.
  • National Arts Strategies is posting a bunch of videos in connection with the Salzburg Global Forum for Young Cultural Leaders - interviews with the young leaders themselves, as well as more established folk like Diane Ragsdale.

RESEARCH CORNER

  • Is there a link between creativity and mental illness? A new study suggests yes, but this fantastically thorough analysis by Keith Sawyer urges skepticism of the results.
  • The Native Arts and Cultures Foundation has released a report recapping a 2011 convening called “Strengthening the Bones.”
  • Phil Buchanan speaks the hard truth: “For Markets For Good to result in meaningful change, a big part of the emphasis must be foundations stepping up and supporting the development of good, credible data and robust nonprofit performance management systems.”
  • The Foundation Center has re-launched IssueLab, a repository for research of all kinds within the nonprofit sector.
  • The first studies funded through the NEA Art Works: Research program are starting to come out. Here’s one about the link between arts participation and civic engagement in the 2002 General Social Survey. As always, correlation does not equal causation.
  • Maria Rosario Jackson’s latest (and, presumably, last) publication for Leveraging Investments in Creativity explores artist-driven spaces in marginalized communities.
  • Guy Yedwab demonstrates how it’s possible to create useful graphs from Fractured Atlas fiscal sponsorship data. Good call too to create budgets in the same format that you’ll have to report them in (for most people, this is the Cultural Data Project or something like it).
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Late fall public arts funding update

DOMESTIC – FEDERAL

The National Endowment for the Arts will soon have a new Chairman. Rocco Landesman announced yesterday his plans to retire at the end of the year, in a decision widely anticipated among arts insiders. Senior Deputy Chairman Joan Shigekawa will serve as acting chair until a successor is named.

The Supreme Court will consider a case involving first sale doctrine and whether consumers have the right to resell copyrighted items bought abroad in the United States. The New York Times comes out in favor of copyright holders on this one. I’m more skeptical though – limiting consumers’ rights in this way seems like a recipe for convoluted legal restrictions and the Grey Lady offers no prescriptions for how the limitations should be put into practice. Meanwhile, the FCC is adopting new regulations pertaining to the use of wireless microphones (relevant for some large theaters and performing arts centers).

What do this month’s election results mean for copyright, anyway? Kal Raustiala and Chris Sprigman speculate that in the short term, we probably won’t see any major (successful) efforts to expand copyright protection, especially with two of Hollywood’s favorite pro-copyright Congressmen, Howard Berman and Mary Bono Mack, losing their elections. In the longer term, we may see Republicans try to pursue a libertarian line on copyright in an effort to draw a wedge between Democrats and younger voters. I’m not sure how well that would work, but there is already evidence that, among its many civil wars, there is also a generational divide among Republicans on this issue. Last week, the conservative Republican Study Committee released and then pulled a memo by 24-year-old Congressional staffer Derek Khanna advocating for meaningful copyright reform. Future of Music Coalition’s Casey Rae has more.

DOMESTIC – STATE AND LOCAL

Denver’s arts community is in an unusual situation, finding itself with $57 million in publicly approved bond money for capital construction to spend after a planned renovation of Boettcher Concert Hall failed to go through. The mayor has submitted a list of recommendations redirecting the cash to nine institutions. Denver’s not the only city with new publicly approved money for the arts: as previously reported here, the city of Portland, OR’s Regional Arts and Culture Commission will get $5.7 million a year in new arts funding because of a recently passed ballot measure. Eloise Damrosch explains how it happened.

Obviously inspired by the recent passage of a millage (property tax) to support the Detroit Institute of Arts, arts advocates in Ann Arbor put a similar millage proposal on the ballot for this month’s elections – this time to support public art. The measure would have cost taxpayers $11 per year and raised about $450,000 for public art programs, but failed to garner enough votes to pass on Election Day. Aaron Seagraves, Ann Arbor’s public art administrator who is interviewed in the article, says he doesn’t know why the measure didn’t pass, but I’m guessing the DIA’s $2.5 million advocacy campaign (and presumably the lack of same in Ann Arbor) might have had something to do with it.

INTERNATIONAL

For the second Createquity update in a row, the arts policy news from abroad ranges from inconvenient to tragic. Canada’s oldest arts advocacy group, the Canadian Conference of the Arts, is no more. The organization had received continuous funding from the federal government since 1965 which represented about three-quarters of its budget, but Canada’s conservative leaders decided to cut the cord. CCA had at times been critical of government-supported policies, though the decision appears to have been more financial than political. Advocacy is not completely dead in Canada, though – Shannon Litzenberger has a report from the all-volunteer Canadian Arts Coalition’s Arts Day festivities (similar to Americans for the Arts’s Arts Advocacy Day).

In the UK, Arts Council England is reducing its staff by 21% as part of a previously negotiated agreement with the government, and Creative Scotland is adjusting its grantmaking procedures in the face of artist concerns. Folks don’t seem to be happy with the general direction of things. In Newcastle, the local government has cut all funding to the arts for a whopping £90 million savings, losing 1300 jobs in the process – similarly drastic cuts had already happened in the cities of Somerset, Derby, and Darlington.

A very sad story comes from Bosnia-Herzegovina, where the 124-year-old National Museum is closing due to lack of funds. The museum, in Sarajevo, is the victim of a political crisis that is destabilizing the government of the young country. Several other revered cultural institutions are in danger of failing as well. Things are a little better in Greece, where Ira-Ilana Papadopoulou reports on how the economic crisis there has affected the cultural sector.

Even sadder news continues to come from the Muslim world, as news of arts-related tragedies attributable to conflict or oppression continues to pour in. In Syria, the ancient city of Aleppo is losing its cultural heritage in the wake of the civil war taking place there. In Mali, where the militant group Ansar Dine has already destroyed mosques in the ancient city of Timbuktu, Salafists are now threatening and harassing musicians. In Somalia, a popular poet, playwright and songwriter was assassinated in Mogadishu by Al Queda-aligned group Al-Shabab. Astonishingly, he is the 18th media figure killed by the group this year. Iran, thankfully, is not beset with this kind of violence, but its national orchestra is virtually dead in the face of financial difficulties and political pressure.

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