All You Can Hear: The SPCO’s Netflix-Style Membership

Photo by Dave 3024

In April, the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra (SPCO) announced the launch of a Netflix-style membership model where you could “get all the SPCO you want for $5 a month.” Still relatively untested in the arts world, this pricing model allows subscribers to see an unlimited number of performances for a low monthly fee. Additional perks may be included, but the key differentiator between this membership model and traditional subscriptions is that subscribers cannot select their seat and can choose to go (or not go) at the last minute.

The Netflix model, although currently under the gun due to strategic misfires, was the go-to in the home movie business for most of the last decade due to the convenience of mail delivery, Netflix’s wide selection of DVDs, and affordability. Its success was a disruptive innovation that permanently changed the video rental market. The Netflix model is now the superlative example for new or existing businesses that want to increase share of wallet (and time) of existing customers.

So how does Netflix translate into the world of the performing arts? The existing subscription model ties a customer to an annual fee for a fixed number of pre-determined performances. We’re well aware that audiences are increasingly reluctant to commit to 12 or even 6 concerts ahead of time. Although choose-your-own subscriptions allow flexibility in the subscription package, they still demand commitment to a set program far in advance as well as substantial upfront costs. A Netflix model allows subscribers to attend any performance on an organization’s schedule at the last minute and importantly, spreads out the financial burden.

What makes this model really interesting is the psychology behind it. The approach captures an individual’s desire, not commitment, to attend more arts events. Arts marketers know that in order to become a subscriber, an individual must first have been a single ticket buyer, then a multi-ticket buyer. The Netflix model’s purchasing psychology is different; people decide that they can part with a small amount of their monthly earnings to have the opportunity to see art. There is less upfront financial commitment than a subscription and a lot of promise that they will become closer to the art form. Latent demand may be captured in ways that single tickets or traditional subscriptions do not.

Another interesting facet of the Netflix model is that memberships are able to capitalize on excess capacity. On any given night at the theater or concert hall, seats go unused. If there are too many seats left available, marketers will try to paper the house with free tickets. The membership model doesn’t necessarily address the issue of empty houses, but it does allow arts organizations to sell unoccupied seats at a discount, acting as an additional source of cash when the monthly memberships come in. Even if no subscribers of a monthly membership attend a performance, a fraction of their monthly fee can be attributed to the performance. Similar to gym memberships, you can have many more members than can actually attend the concert because 1) there is no guarantee that you will get a seat and 2) it is highly unlikely that all members will attend the same performance.

So where’s the rub? Essentially free money for seats that you had anyway?  Arts marketers have plenty to say about why this won’t work. Just like Netflix or any subscription, after a while, if it goes unused for too long, members eventually cancel their account. Additionally, the amount of staff time it takes to run such a program might not be worth the incremental revenue it would bring in.

Research by TRG Arts shows that people who attend once are only 30% likely to return, but if they attend twice, that number doubles. If purchasing a membership encourages repeat attendance, those who are able to attend even twice within a season are more likely to become loyal to the organization. You can almost think of the membership model as trial pricing. It can be a low-cost entry to increasing the lifetime value of an audience member.

In Seattle, this model has been working for the ACT Theater, which has created a Netflix-style subscription called the ACT Pass. Becky Lanthrop, marketing director for ACT, says that two-thirds of their members who have an ACT Pass use it on a monthly basis. Launched in 2009, the program started with 40 subscribers and grew to 1200 in 2011. At $25 a month ($20 if you are under 30), this fee is more expensive annually than ACT’s subscription for 4 performances for $200. Thus, the ACT Pass could cannibalize the theater’s traditional subscribers, and yet the company would not lose revenue. In fact, ACT might even reduce marketing costs, as annual renewal campaigns are no longer be necessary when subscribers have to opt out of the program in order to end their subscription. Regardless of whether the ACT Pass becomes the primary model for subscriptions, it’s clear that the goal of the ACT Pass is to increase revenue and loyalty to the theater company.

The SPCO’s goals are quite different than ACT. At only $5 per month, the SPCO claims the goal is to increase access, not revenue or members. Ticket sales are a marginal source of revenue and the SPCO is not focused on increasing earned revenue from subscriptions. Marketing Director Jessica Etten has this to say about the project:

Over 80 percent of our revenue is related to philanthropy and less than 20 percent comes from ticket sales. We exist because people come to the concerts and fall in love with what we do and want to support the organization. So, we’ve always said that what we need to do is make it possible for people to come to concerts and come often and come over a long period of time, so the SPCO becomes a big part of their lives.

With prices for single tickets starting at $10, this new program seems to be aimed at audiences who already know they want to see the SPCO multiple times per season. Although the program is well positioned to increase access for existing audiences, it may not be as successful in attracting newcomers. There is nothing wrong with this, except that increasing access in the arts typically refers to broadening participation rather than deepening it.

There is another major difference between the ACT’s and SPCO’s model. ACT’s inventory of performances is a bit larger than the SPCO’s. ACT works with other venues and companies to produce additional shows, significantly expanding their choice of offerings. In addition, they produce shows all year, so subscribers do not run the risk of not having enough selection during the summer months. Although SPCO presents concerts in ten venues across the Twin Cities, there is no summer season and its typical season has 100 concerts. This is the biggest issue for any performing arts organization considering the Netflix model. Unless an organization has a large and diverse selection of productions or partners with other arts organizations to increase its offerings, the value proposition just isn’t strong enough. Netflix’s model hinges on its inventory – even now, one reason Netflix is struggling because its streaming business does not have as large a selection of new movies as its DVD business.

Lastly, targeted marketing and compelling pricing is necessary when adopting a membership program. The ACT Pass had a very clever marketing campaign, including videos, clear pricing, and purchase channels. The ACT Pass is listed separately across the top navigation of the webpage, and you can start ordering online with one click. Although not too difficult to find, the SPCO’s membership is listed under “Concerts & Tickets”, and you can purchase online, after clicking through 2 or 3 pages. I did find a zinger in the SPCO model  – you have to keep with the program for a year or accept a $50 cancellation fee. The ACT Pass only requires that you stay on 3 months. This latter approach is in better alignment with the commitment-phobes who are likely attracted to this program in the first place.

After years of working to expand audiences, it turns out that performing arts organizations’ problem is not with attracting new people; it’s getting them to come back. The membership model can be part of a retention strategy for certain performing arts organizations with a wide selection of offerings and excess seat capacity. Regarding the SPCO, it’s likely their program will increase attendance by loyal audiences, but I’m not convinced the new pricing structure or marketing messages are going to broaden their audiences as they claim. Even so, if the program does increase loyalty of current audiences and increase attendance, it will send a strong message to other orchestras that this model is worth trying out.


In Defense of Logic Models

Photo by 707d3k

Photo by 707d3k

Last month, my post Creative Placemaking Has an Outcomes Problem generated a lot of discussion about creative placemaking and grantmaking strategy, much of it really great. If you haven’t had a chance, please check out these thoughtful and substantive responses by—just to name a few—Richard Layman, Niels Strandskov, Seth Beattie, Lance Olson, Andrew Taylor, Diane Ragsdale, Laura Zabel, and most recently, ArtPlace itself. I’m immensely grateful for the seriousness with which these and other readers have taken my critique, and their questions and suggestions for further reading have been tremendously illuminating.

Now that the talk has subsided a bit, it’s a good opportunity to clarify and elaborate upon some of the subtler points that I was trying to make in that piece, which definitely left a bit of room for people to read in their own interpretations.  So, just to be clear: despite the provocative title, I wasn’t trying to slam the practice of creative placemaking itself, nor call it into question as a focus area for policy and philanthropy in general. As I wrote in response to one of the comments on the original post, I believe strongly in the power of the arts to have a role in revitalizing communities, and I view the desire to direct resources toward bringing such efforts to life as a very positive impulse on the part of funders and policymakers. Furthermore, although I agree with the point made by John Shibley and others that the arts may not be the best way to foment economic development, no one said that cities and regions can only use one strategy. Economic development is a complex beast, and intuition and common sense would hold that there are most likely some specific situations in which the arts can have a real, irreplaceable, and catalytic impact.

My critique is really about how we don’t have much information about what those situations are – nor about how infusions of philanthropic capital can make a difference in those situations. What’s more, I am not confident that the tools we’re currently developing, as useful as they may be for other purposes, will get us there on their own. My contention is that logic models and their conceptual cousins, theories of change, can be useful tools in filling this gap – by forcing us to articulate our assumptions about the way the world works, and by providing a framework that we can use to test those assumptions. The problem is that most of the logic models that I see aren’t worked out to the level of detail that I believe is necessary to gain really useful information about the dynamics of these complex processes. In my post, I provided a couple of examples of theories that, while surely far from perfect, at least attempt to recognize some of the numerous and interlocking assumptions embedded in grantmaking of the kind engaged in by today’s funders supporting creative placemaking.

It’s clear from some of the responses, however, that not everybody shares my optimism in the utility of logic models. Laura Zabel writes that she “hates” them for being too reductive. Diane Ragsdale, taking a cynical view, is worried that they may be misused by funders in order to make themselves seem smarter than they really are or blame grantees for failed strategies. ArtPlace’s response suggests that logic models raise the bar for research too high, and that because proving a causal connection between these investments and the change they produce (or don’t) is so difficult, we’re better off not trying. While I can sympathize with each of these critiques, I also think that they give logic models a bad rap. I feel that logic models are a tool of tremendous power whose potential is only beginning to be unlocked. It’s true that, just like philanthropy and policy, logic models can be done very badly. But that doesn’t mean there’s no gain for us in trying to do them well.

Before we get into all that, however, I’m guessing that some of you probably could use a refresher course on logic models and the terminology associated with them, which can be quite confusing. So let’s start with a little background on what this is all about.

What the Hell Is a Logic Model, Anyway?

Simply put, a logic model is a method of describing and visualizing a strategy. Logic models have their conceptual origin in the “logical framework approach” originally developed for USAID in 1969 by Leon J. Rosenberg of Fry Consultants. Their use was largely concentrated in the international aid arena until 1996, when United Way of America published a manual on program outcome measurement and encouraged its hundreds of local agencies and thousands of grantees to adopt logic models as a matter of course. Since then, large private funders such as the Kellogg and Hewlett Foundations have integrated logic models into their program design and execution, and the concept is commonly taught in graduate programs in public policy, urban planning, and beyond.

Even though logic models have achieved greater adoption over the past several decades, there is little standardization in the content, format, and level of ambition seen in professionally produced logic models for institutions large and small. Worse, everyone seems to want to come up with their own terms to describe features of the logic model, and as a result, you’ll notice a lot of variation in language as well. Below, I’ll do my best to isolate the elements that most of these efforts have in common.

Nearly all logic models contain the following fundamental elements. In combination, they describe a linear, causal pathway between programs or policy interventions and an aspirational end-state.

  • Activities are actions or strategies undertaken by the organization that is the subject of the logic model. These activities usually take place in the context of ongoing programs, although they can also be one-time projects, special initiatives, or policies such as legislation or regulation.
  • Outputs refer to observable indications that the above activities are being implemented correctly and as designed.
  • Outcomes are the desired short-, medium-, or long-term results of successful program or policy implementation.
  • Impacts (or Goals) represent the highest purpose of the program, policy, or agency that is the subject of the logic model. Sometimes you’ll find these lumped in with Outcomes.
Logic model for a bicycle helmet public information campaign

Logic model for a bicycle helmet public information campaign, courtesy RUSH Project

Many realizations of logic models combine these essential elements with additional information that provides contextual background for this causal pathway. Several of these supplemental concepts are listed below in approximate order from most common to most obscure.

  • Measures (or Indicators) for outputs, outcomes, and impacts are concrete, usually quantitative data points that shed light on the degree to which each result has been achieved.
  • Inputs are resources available to the program or organization in accomplishing its goals.
  • Assumptions are preconditions upon which the model rests. If one or more assumptions proves unsound, the integrity of the model may be threatened.
  • Benchmarks extend the concept of measures to incorporate specific target goals (so, not just “# of petitions delivered to Congress” but “50,000 petitions delivered to Congress”).
  • Target Population refers to the audience(s) for the activities listed in the logic model.
  • Influential Factors are variables or circumstances that exist in the broader environment and could affect the performance of the strategy as designed (e.g., an upcoming election cycle whose outcome might change the underlying landscape in which the program operates).

What About Theories of Change?

A frequently-employed alternative logic model approach strips out this latter set of contextual elements and instead aims to visualize the linear causal chain at a finer grain of detail. This version of a logic model is typically referred to as a theory of change (or, sometimes, a program theory). A well-executed theory of change diagram “unpacks” the processes and factors that lead to successful outcomes, exposing relationships between isolated variables that can then become the subject of research or evaluation.

Partial theory of change from Project SuperWomen case study (ActKnowledge/Aspen Institute Roundtable on Community Change

Partial theory of change from Project SuperWomen case study (ActKnowledge/Aspen Institute Roundtable on Community Change)

Sometimes logic models and theories of change are presented as distinct concepts, while other times they really refer to the same thing. This is because logic models and theories of change evolved out of distinct communities of practice, but the philanthropic field has not always respected the distinction in the terminology it’s adopted to describe these tools. In my own practice I prefer to use theories of change, but for the sake of simplicity and readability, in the rest of this article I’m going to use the term “logic model” inclusively to refer to any diagram that clearly shows some combination of activities and outcomes, regardless of what other elements it may include or the visual approach it takes.


OK, now that we have our definitions in order, we can start talking about what makes logic models so awesome.

Awesome #1: Logic Models Describe What’s Already Going On in Your Head

So, here’s the thing: the core questions involved in creating any logic model—What am I trying to do? Why am I trying to do it? How will I know if I’ve succeeded or not?—represent the very essence of strategy. As a rabbi might say, “the rest is commentary.” If you have a strong sense of what the answers to these questions are, then you have a logic model in your head whether you realize it or not. All the diagram does is make it explicit.

To illustrate this, we can look at a simple example. Let’s say I decide I’m done with this whole “arts” thing and I want to go to law school instead. I know, though, that in order to get into a good law school I need to get a good score on the LSAT. So, how can I make sure I get a good score? Intuitively, I decide that taking a test prep class is the way to go.

Why do I think taking a test prep class is a way to increase my score on the LSAT? Well, if my score isn’t as high as it could be, it’s probably due to some combination of two factors. First, I may not know the material well enough. So, if the class helps me to learn how to answer the test questions better, I’ll likely perform better on the test. Second, there may be a psychological factor as well. If I’m someone who gets nervous on tests, then my performance on them may suffer. The practice exams and deep engagement with the material that comes with a class could help me to get more comfortable with the idea of the LSAT and make it seem less intimidating, thus improving my performance.

Seems logical enough, right? And voila, it lends itself quite easily to a logic model:

Sample program theory

The truth is that any decision you make, if it has any element of intentionality at all, can be diagrammed as a logic model. You might hate logic models with every fiber of your being and think they’re the stupidest thing ever created, but I’m telling you right now: if you believe in strategy, then you believe in logic models.

Awesome #2: Logic Models Are Incredibly Flexible

Now, there’s a difference between having a logic model in your head and having a good logic model in your head. The example above is simple, but it’s limited by that simplicity. It doesn’t explain why I might have decided to go to law school, or explore other ways that I could get into the school I want besides increasing my test score. In short, it’s pretty much just a straight-up mapping of a decision already made.

The best logic models don’t do that. Instead, they proceed with the end in mind (what is the goal we want to achieve?) and then methodically work backwards to understand what activities or strategies would be most appropriate to achieve that end. The ultimate outcome of this exercise may be a very different set of strategies than the ones you were originally contemplating or the programs you already have in place! Because of that, the logic model creation process can be great for opening up new ways of thinking about old problems or longstanding dreams, as well as clarifying what’s really important to you and/or your organization.

I mentioned earlier that not everyone is a fan of logic models. Here’s what Laura Zabel had to say about them in her post responding to mine:

I hate logic models. For me they are, somehow, simultaneously too reductive and too complex. Too simple, too linear for how I think the world works and too dry, too chart-y for how beautiful the world is. They make me irrationally grumpy.

Arlene Goldbard, in a 2010 essay, is similarly grumpy about logic models:

[R]equiring one of these charts as part of a grant proposal bears about as much real relationship to community organizations’ work as would asking each to weave a placemat…[T]he task of boiling the answers down to colored bars often wastes days, compressing most of the useful meaning out of the inquiry.

I can’t speak to Laura’s and Arlene’s experiences directly, but I know they are not uncommon. Unfortunately, logic models that are rife with imprecision, questionable assumptions, and inappropriate associations are more frustrating to work with than no logic model at all—and it’s not as easy as it looks to create logic models that are free of these flaws. Such problems are magnified when logic models are treated as edicts sent down from on high rather than the learning, living documents that they are intended to be.

In her post, Laura presents an alternative formulation of a logic model that describes her theory of change for creative placemaking: artists + love + authenticity -> creative placemaking. While I’d classify this as more of a definition of creative placemaking than a logic model, it goes a long way toward illustrating my point that we all have latent logic models in our head that are just waiting to be expressed as such. Laura writes, “there’s no logic model in the world that can capture how a crazy parade [the annual MayDay parade in Minneapolis] can restore my faith in humanity.” I couldn’t disagree more – in fact, I made one, relying solely on the way Laura describes the parade in her post. Here you go:

Laura Zabel's Faith in Humanity

For the past few months, I’ve been researching impact assessment methods used across the social sector in connection with some evaluation work we’re doing here at Fractured Atlas. Seemingly every year, someone comes up with a new way of evaluating impact, whether it’s for social purpose investing, choosing grants, or measuring externalities. I’m not done yet, but what I’ve found so far has only reinforced my appreciation for the logic model. The beauty of logic models is that, because they relate so directly to the fundamental elements of strategy, they are endlessly adaptable to almost any situation. I actually find it kind of funny when people call logic models too rigid, given the alternatives – especially considering how much of our lives is ruled by the granddaddy of rigid, one-dimensional success metrics: money.

Awesome #3: Logic Models Are a Victory for Transparency

Hewlett Foundation Performing Arts Program strategic framework

Hewlett Foundation Performing Arts Program strategic framework

One of the really powerful things about downloading the implicit strategy that exists in your head into a diagram is that it confronts you with gaps that may be present in that strategy and allows you to try and work through them. The Underpants Gnomes example that I used in my creative placemaking post is a great illustration of this. The Gnomes clearly felt that stealing underpants would lead to profit, but hadn’t clearly thought through the fuzzy middle part of the scheme. The Underpants Gnomes might seem like a fanciful exaggeration of the problem I’m talking about, but I would argue that there’s been more than one arts organization (and funding initiative) started with a similar lack of congruity between the proposed activities and intended results.

Diane Ragsdale is skeptical that logic models can serve this function, suggesting that funders might misuse logic models and turn them against their grantees. First, I think it’s important to make a distinction here: Diane and Arlene and Laura are all talking about logic models at the level of the individual organization/project. While I think these can be helpful, in my mind the most important logic model is the one for the funder itself. This is admittedly a rarer practice, but several foundations – such as FordHewlett, McKnight, and Boston – have taken the steps of not only developing a logic model to describe their grantmaking strategies, but sharing that logic model publicly. Those that don’t publish at least sometimes make them available to peers outside the organization. Once a logic model is “out there,” there’s no taking it back. Therefore, logic models both pull back the curtain on a funder’s current thinking and also make it harder to project the illusion after the fact that a funder knew how things were going to work out all along.

Even more importantly, though, logic models are a victory for transparency with oneself, not just with others. The most important part of any logic model creation process is the set of assumptions revealed about how your program or organization works, and what it needs to be successful. Sometimes these assumptions might seem like no-brainers, and other times they will seem as unproven as they are central. Being comfortable with naming your assumptions as such is not just good practice for ensuring that your organization is constantly learning and growing. It’s also extremely helpful on a psychological level for dealing with the specter of possible failure. Because logic models explicitly draw a distinction between program design and program execution, they acknowledge the very real possibility that you could be doing your job perfectly and your program could still fail, because its theoretical foundation rests upon faulty assumptions. This is an incredibly freeing realization, because it means that radically changing or even scrapping a program that isn’t working doesn’t necessarily have to mean changing program leadership.

One of the reasons people sometimes feel anxious about evaluation and measurement is because they’re afraid of being held accountable, especially to things that they don’t have full control over or to metrics that don’t seem relevant to what they’re trying to do. When that happens, there are enormous incentives on managers and their supervisors to “cook the books” or otherwise game the system to show results that look better than reality, because any failure—even failures that are no one’s fault—reflects on them personally. That’s the danger of trying to enforce a data-driven culture without first developing the theoretical frameworks that determine what data you’re trying to collect. Because logic models separate the person from the program, they can distinguish between lagging initiatives that might just need more time to prove themselves, and failures of design that can be transformed into productive learning opportunities.

A Note About Logic Models and “Proof”

One of the criticisms directed at logic models generally, and by ArtPlace at my post specifically, is that they promote an impossible standard for proof. Here’s what ArtPlace had to say about it:

A critical limitation of elaborate logic models of the style developed by Moss is that it is nearly impossible to quantify or measure all of the different factors and relationships proposed. While many of the asserted relationships are plausible…almost none are measured in practice. Many – if not most – of the variables…could only be gauged imprecisely at great expense or are not susceptible of measurement at all. Multiply this problem by the 50 variables the model uses and the dozens of relationships it asserts, and it’s clear that it is beyond anyone’s ability to actually prove or disprove the model for even a single metropolitan area, much less the nation.

In one sense this criticism is right: these are difficult research challenges that highly qualified professionals have been struggling to address for decades, some of the more promising approaches demonstrated at the recent NEA/Brookings Institution convening on economic development and the arts notwithstanding.

But contrary to popular perception, the term “scientific proof” is a misnomer: proof is a concept germane to mathematics, not science. (Admittedly, my previous post could have been clearer on this point.) Scientists, including social scientists, develop hypotheses about how the world works and then gather evidence to support or undermine those hypotheses. Whereas proof is black-and-white, evidence has shades of gray: it can be strong or weak, circumstantial or conclusive. My colleague Kiley Arroyo made a great courtroom analogy in response to my creative placemaking post: she wrote, “think of forensic analysis if you will. You’re not just going to look at where and how the bullet hit, but what it was shot from, where, by whom and why.” Our job as researchers is not to “prove” anything – instead, it’s to amass evidence in search of the truth.

The biggest problem that I see with most logic models is that they are too simple for what they are trying to describe, and thus consign us to amassing a whole bunch of weak evidence. Logic models are often developed as much for communication purposes as for research, and can thus face intense pressure to be “dumbed down” for public consumption. I frequently hear comments like, “make sure that there are no more than five categories, because after that you’re going to lose people,” and God help you if your diagram doesn’t all fit on one page. But think about it, would you apply this standard to a budget? To a work plan? For a major, mission-critical project with many moving parts? I’m not interested in logic models as a communication tool; I’m interested in them as a means to help us do our jobs better.

In the case of ArtsWave, we do intend to collect data to show progress towards the goals that have been established through the model. But the task is less daunting than it looks. Because we are not trying to “prove” the model, not everything has to be measured directly; indeed, not everything has to be measured at all! Instead, the model serves as a road map for us in considering what is most important to measure, given what we don’t know. Is it that assumption that the arts can differentiate Cincinnati from its peer cities in the minds of tourists and potential residents? Can we be confident that people from diverse backgrounds will interact with each other if they happen to come together for the same community-wide event? A smart research design will test the assumptions that are most in need of testing, and the purpose of the modeling exercise is to identify which assumptions those are.

It’s not like we are all alone in this effort, either. There is an ever-growing body of literature on the ways that the arts interact with communities, and there is no need for us to demonstrate yet again connections for which strong evidence exists in other contexts. Furthermore, since many of the data points involve stakeholders beyond the arts, there is an opportunity to collaborate with other local entities to share resources and develop knowledge infrastructure collaboratively. Cincinnati is home to the STRIVE initiative, which has been made famous in the broader social sector as the poster child for the “Collective Impact” concept as coined by consultants from FSG Social Impact Advisors. One of STRIVE’s chief accomplishments has been the development of a “adaptive learning system” for use by hundreds of education nonprofits in the region, which has helped align the efforts of those organizations around a common set of purposes and benchmarks. If it worked in education, and in the same city no less, why can’t it work in the arts?

But that being said, none of the three benefits that I’ve cited above—articulation, flexibility, and transparency—require “proving” the logic model. They all come, at least in part, just from creating one. And creating a logic model doesn’t have to be a tortured, involved process. It doesn’t have to cost hundreds of thousands of dollars. You can write them out on a back of a napkin (okay, for some things you might need a really big napkin). Creating a logic model for something that will require a lot of your time or money is one of the most highly leveraged activities you can possibly undertake. I hope more arts funders will undertake it.


Beyond Gamification: Alternative Models for Games in Arts Organizations

In my first post on games and the arts, I wrote that the massive growth of the video games industry in the last 20 years is motivating the integration of game dynamics with all sorts of products and services. While games that take place in the real world have a long history (e.g. sports, board games), new forms are emerging as the lines between our online and offline lives continue to blur. A number of arts organizations are considering mobilizing games in the service of increased ticket sales, improved audience participation, and outreach to new audiences, but these so-called “gamification” efforts typically fail to take advantage of games’ full potential for creativity. This post provides a few paths forward for organizations interested in really delving into this rich world. Good games are hard to make, but done well, they can help arts organizations achieve their missions—and help them rewrite the rules for audience engagement.

Gamification: Scratching the Surface

Gamification refers to any system that uses game design elements in a non-game context, usually to encourage some desired real-world behavior like participation in market research or the achievement of health goals. In essence, gamification takes an act usually valued for its intrinsic qualities—play—and exploits it for an instrumental purpose. Its proponents claim to be able to make a game out of literally anything, a powerful idea that understandably excites arts organizations looking for new, innovative business models. Because instrumentality fundamentally defines gamification, though, these schemes can result in an experience that isn’t really very fun or engaging. For instance, the Brooklyn Museum’s tagging game to crowdsource collection indexes might help it organize its objects, and the Sydney Festival’s scavenger hunt-style mobile app might help its attendees navigate their offerings, but neither use game mechanics as more than a thin veneer over experiences that may (or may not) already successfully engage participants. Ultimately, many uses of gamification are as superficial as credit card rewards programs; cultural critic Ian Bogost has even suggested the name “exploitationware” to critique gamification’s more addictive qualities and removal of any expectation of actual play.

There’s nothing wrong with arts organizations using points and other game rewards as part of a toolkit to boost attendance, reach fundraising goals, or solve a host of other potential problems. However, those sorts of programs don’t take advantage of the intrinsic qualities of games that encourage creativity in players. In The New York Times, Sam Anderson quotes Frank Lantz, the creator of the iPhone game Drop7, describing why gamification doesn’t tap into games’ full potential as works of art in their own right:

He said that real games are far too fragile and complex to be engineered by corporations and that their appeal goes much deeper than reward schedules. “It’s as hard to make a really good game as it is to make a really good movie or opera or hat,” he told me. “Sure, there’s mathematics to it, but it’s also a piece of culture. The type of game you play is also a part of how you think about yourself as a person. There’s no formula that’s going to solve that equation. It’s impossible, because it’s infinitely deep and wonderful.”

Drop 7, photo by Dan Callahan.

Drop 7, photo by Dan Callahan.

Complex, well-executed games intrinsically provide both structure (in the form of rules) and the creative freedom to experiment (as participants explore ways to win through play). As experiences, they are playful, interactive, and also provoke participants to think through unfamiliar systems—a characteristic that runs directly counter to the mindless quality of most gamification efforts and aligns games more closely with challenging artworks. Games can be immersive, aesthetically interesting experiences that investigate many of the same sociological, cultural, political, and formal questions more traditional artists address. By investing in games for their intrinsic rather than instrumental qualities, arts organizations can serve their missions in a fresh way while engaging audiences primed to reflect on more commercial gaming experiences they’re likely already having. Fortunately, the broader culture of gaming provides plenty of fodder for an organization looking for models beyond compulsive point rewards.

New Game Subgenres and What They Can Offer

A number of relatively new subgenres can provide inspiration for game experiences that allow audiences to play as creative agents. Below, I’ve provided a short list of subgenres along with examples of how an arts organization might use them. As with any new project, the target audience should drive an organization’s decisions, since they hold varying levels of appeal for different groups.

  • Role-Playing Games (RPGs) have their modern roots in Dungeons & Dragons, which was first published in 1974. These pen-and-paper games are essentially interactive fiction, in which the players determine the story collaboratively. To do so, players take on different roles and powers defined by the game master as s/he interprets the gaming guide, a set of rules defining the fictional world they inhabit, challenges to overcome, and possible player actions. The game evolves as players take turns, accomplish tasks, and interact with the fictional world. Video games that require players to choose an avatar as part of a fantasy or science fiction story are often based on tabletop RPGs. They have also given rise to the live action role-playing game (LARP), a theatrical variation that takes place outside the home and often involves elaborate costumes and battles with fake weapons.
    • Why an arts organization might create one: By taking on specific roles, audiences can engage with complex histories or present-day cultural landscapes. For instance, players at a museum could become artists in a particular collaborative (like the Bloomsbury Group) and create alternate histories of the artists’ work and lives through gameplay. A theater group could include well-known local performers as roles in the gaming guide—and then invite those performers to participate in the game by acting as the game master. RPGs tend to be most rewarding to play when participants feel welcome to riff on their roles, so organizers need to be willing to cede control of the game narrative to the players.
  • Alternate Reality Games (ARGs) are related to RPGs, and are similarly characterized by a fictional narrative. However, ARGs cultivate a deeper suspension of disbelief because they tend to take place over many weeks, and gameplay is interspersed with more everyday, “real world” activities rather than being governed by a text-based guide. Plots are often cloaked in mystery, and designers tend to run things from “behind the curtain.” In an ARG, instead of turning the page to find out what happens next, players must solve puzzles or find clues hidden in the real world, which then unlock communications from (often virtual) fictional characters that move the plot forward. ILoveBees is one of the most famous examples of this sort of game.
    • Why an arts organization might create one: Among other things, ARGs can take people all over cities to solve puzzles and perform different tasks, scavenger hunt-style. They can be useful if an organization would like audiences to visit partner venues, and demonstrate connections between disparate places or ideas through the ARG narrative. Because of the fictional plot, ARGs are also an opportunity for organizations to tell a story—it just has to be engaging enough that audiences want to discover the next piece.
  • Blended Reality games take integration with the real world a step further. Rather than focusing on the fictional “layer” over reality, in blended reality games, the game world is our world, and play takes place without the intervention of characters or invented plot devices. Games like SFZero (which I have worked on) define themselves more as an “interface” for the player’s city than an alternate reality.
    • Why an arts organization might create one: These sorts of games have similar applications to ARGs, but don’t necessitate the creation of a fictional world. Rather than veiling the gameplay in a custom-made fictional plot, designers use our everyday fictions and symbols to color the game. In Paul Ramirez Jonas’s Key to the City, participants used keys to unlock dozens of doors throughout New York (many of which were at museums), endowing the normally symbolic gift of city keys with real-world consequences. Blended reality games can help arts organizations encourage participants to think critically about their everyday behavior in a more explicit way than an ARG.
  • Augmented Reality Games use the camera, tilt sensor, GPS, and accelerometer features in handheld systems to interact with real world conditions. Players can kick a virtual soccer ball through their iPhone camera, or fight other players for territory using a GPS map of their locations.
    • Why an arts organization might create one: Depending on the audience, arts organizations may prefer to use technology to spur engagement in a game, and the use of smartphones can allow participants to play anywhere, in a much more casual way than most of the other game types listed here. Following the ARstreets graffiti game example, arts organizations could create augmented reality games that allow players to reimagine already-extant murals, change the marquees of concert halls, or design a building for an empty lot. The augmented reality game can be viewed as a genre unto itself, but it’s also possible to integrate augmented reality features into other types of games. For instance, in an alternate reality game, rather than finding physical clues in a gallery, a player could simply hold up his or her phone to the space and reveal a message hidden virtually. Creating a system that works well and offers substance beyond a “cool” tech factor would require a significant investment of resources, though.
  • Serious Games engage with the real world through the lens of a particular pressing problem. As with Jane McGonigal’s World Without Oil, these games often use elements of ARGs and crowdsourcing techniques to engage players to find solutions for in-game problems that hopefully have implications for the real world.
    • Why an arts organization might create one: A film festival presenting a particularly political series of documentaries might like audience members to gain a better understanding of the problems presented by working to solve them. Serious games can be created to find solutions to any problem, but engagement often depends on finding a sufficiently compelling problem and framing it well. Serious games can also cross the line into gamification if their design relies too heavily instrumental tools like adding up points and achievements, and less on intrinsic qualities like player imagination and interactivity. For example, American Public Media’s Budget Hero gamifies balancing the federal budget in a closed, virtual setting and has successfully garnered over 6,000 comments. If those commenters could work collaboratively toward their budgets, or in a more open-ended way, a different, less gamified experience would result.
  • Big Games or Street Games tend to eschew heavy use of technology or fictionalized narratives and (as the names suggest) bring together masses of people to play in public spaces like streets, parks, or malls. Big game designers often borrow heavily from playground games like tag, hide-and-seek, or scavenger hunts, but view the site-specificity of the city environment and act of playing as an adult as potentially transgressive. Because these games usually necessitate the presence of an organizer or referee, they tend to take place in festival format, as exemplified by IndieCade, igfest, and Come Out and Play (which I work on in San Francisco).
    • Why an arts organization might create one: These sorts of games are often cheap to produce, and work nicely with a lo-fi maker/DIY aesthetic. They can help transform socially rigid spaces like galleries, theaters, or offices, but may work less well if a more polished experience is intended.
Come Out and Play New York, photo by Kate Raynes-Goldie.

Come Out and Play New York, photo by Kate Raynes-Goldie.

In addition to how a genre fits with a particular need, arts organizations should also consider playability and the nature of engagement in the game. These qualities define the game’s mood and level of accessibility, and help shape the game to a particular audience.

Playability. Playability might seem like an intrinsic characteristic of any game, but a spectrum exists here as well, as many games prioritize abstract aesthetics and concepts over lived player experience. Penn & Teller’s Desert Bus video game, in which players must drive a bus in real time from Tucson to Las Vegas—a journey that takes eight hours and cannot be paused—intentionally eliminates as much actual play from the game as possible. Many gamified activities also deemphasize play, though in the service of chosen outcomes rather than art. Some ARGs and LARPs focus on the fictional narrative over play.

Nature of engagement. The nature of engagement indicates the sorts of activities a player must undertake to play the game. These can range from the simple and easy to learn, as with Foursquare (just go somewhere and check in), to The Jejune Institute, a months-long ARG that required players to visit multiple sites around San Francisco, listen to a special radio station in Dolores Park, and obtain information from street performers, among other tasks.

Experimenting with Games – SFMOMA’s ArtGameLab and Beyond

ArtGameLab wall text, photo by Rusty Blazenhoff.

ArtGameLab wall text, photo by Rusty Blazenhoff.

SFMOMA’s current ArtGameLab exhibition offers a fantastic sampler of many of these sorts of games in a museum context, created in part to “break down institutional barriers to experimentation by providing new models for presenting multi-vocal, crowd-sourced content.” While a step in the right direction, the art museum’s own “institutional safeguards” prevented a completely untamed game experience (and curator Erica Gangsei certainly recognizes as much). The exhibition lives up to its claim as a “lab,” posing questions about how games can work within a large institution.

Labs are fantastic, but more fully realized game programs are the next step. While participatory art and activities of all kinds are slowly making their way into organizational settings, games represent an even deeper way to embrace contemporary, less hierarchical definitions of art. By offering an alternate set of behavioral rules, games present an opportunity for audiences and institutions to revise those that govern the presentation and consumption of art. Through games, organizations can rewrite what an arts experience really is, and recognize that changing the rules doesn’t have to be so scary.


Around the horn: I’m on a plane edition

  • Narric Rome tells us about where the arts fall in the federal government’s new tourism strategy.
  • After threatening to cap the tax deduction available to donors as a means of raising revenue, the British government has abandoned the plan.
  • Barely two years after changing things up last time, the Kresge Foundation has announced a further evolution of its arts grantmaking. Now, all of its considerable funding will be concentrated under the umbrella of “creative placemaking.”
  • Kickstarter may be the big name when it comes to crowdfunding in the arts, but its $99 million in pledges last year is only a small fraction of the $1.5 billion crowdfunding platforms raised across all causes worldwide in 2011. And this interesting article argues that crowdfunding (the investing kind, not the donating kind) could create unaccustomed competition for venture capitalists. One observer notes that if every American set aside an average of 1% of their liquid net worth to invest in new ventures, the available capital for entrepreneurs would jump by a factor of 10.
  • McKinsey & Co. has published a white paper on social impact bonds, which are currently being piloted in the United Kingdom.
  • Is investing in art an asset class? Not yet, according to Felix Salmon, who picks apart a new “index” of artists’ market value put together by Artnet. It seems to me that the art market is not so different from the real estate market, and that investing in artists is rather like investing in a particular home builder. To make art a real asset class, someone would need to build the equivalent of real estate investment trusts (REITs) that buy up particular artworks and then sell shares in the collection. It would be an interesting experiment, no doubt.
  • The Council on Foundations conference, an event that’s only open to grantmaking institutions, is becoming more transparent, with resources from the event becoming available online. One such resource is this report from Katherine Miller.
  • The Cultural Data Project and Nonprofit Finance Fund are teaming up to offer a new Financial Health Analysis tool to arts nonprofits. When you submit your financials to CDP through the normal process, you’ll be presented with a report detailing your organization’s financial strengths and weaknesses. Congrats to Kim Cook and the other folks at NFF and CDP for what looks to be a useful resource.
  • Next American City’s Diana Lind reports from the CEOs for Cities conference, hosted by the Contemporary Arts Center in Cincinnati.

    It’s a nice unfiltered window into how the urban planning community views/engages with the arts: [T]here was…no one at all who left the reception on the lobby floor to explore the upper galleries (which were free to the public, by the way). It was just me and three security guards whose boredom was palpable….I went back downstairs where people drank beer and talked about how to make a better city. Somehow that disconnect, right there in the space, seemed like a perfect metaphor. Hundreds of people came to a contemporary art museum to talk about engaging the city’s art scene but missed all the art.

  • FSG (the originators of the “Collective Impact” concept) explains how collective impact is like a symphony orchestra:

    “It is Sunday afternoon and the musicians have all convened to play a symphony. Indeed, they’ve even agreed to play a Beethoven symphony. But now imagine the following scenario: they have not actually agreed to which Beethoven symphony. None of them have any sheet music. And there is no conductor! This is the setting of isolated impact: wonderful individual efforts that don’t actually add up to a cohesive whole. A lot of noise, but no symphony…”

  • The NEA has announced its first-ever round of research grants.
  • Don’t miss this sponsored supplement to the summer 2012 issue of the Stanford Social Innovation Review, featuring reflections on evaluation and strategic philanthropy from five major foundations. And Grantmakers for Effective Organizations has just published a manual called “Four Essentials for Evaluation,” one of the readers for which was Jerome Vielman of Houston Arts Alliance.
  • Surprise, surprise: self-publishing is a winner-take-all market too: “a survey of 1,007 self-published writers…found that while a small percentage of authors were bringing in sums of $100,000-plus in 2011, average earnings were just $10,000 a year. This amount, however, is significantly skewed by the top earners, with less than 10% of self-publishing authors earning about 75% of the reported revenue and half of writers earning less than $500.”
  • We’ve had a strong sense for a while that walkable neighborhoods are more valuable, but just how much more valuable? A new study from the Brookings Institution looking at the DC area puts the price premium at up to $1200 per month. This will be something important to take into consideration when thinking about research studying the effects of creative placemaking: how can we disentangle the contribution of arts amenities when those amenities tend to cluster in areas with lots of other things that people find valuable as well?
  • Richard Florida offers a defense of his economic theories against a critique of him on the Forbes website, which serves double-duty as his latest thinking on the composition of creative cities. At the end, he advocates for a both/and approach, encompassing investments in amenities with business-friendly practices. I’m not sure I buy that that’s “been [his] message all along,” but it does make sense – after all, while the “coolness” of a city’s reputation certainly factors in to many people’s relocation decisions, jobs do too.
  • What would it mean to quantify the potential value-add to society of a third grade teacher?
1 Comment

Public arts funding update: May


The IRS and Treasury Department are finally starting to bring some clarity to program related investments, releasing a rule that represents the first update in 40 years to the language describing how these financial instruments can be used. Unfortunately, the one arts example in the mix describes a 501(c)(4) “social welfare” organization, rather than the more standard 501(c)(3) nonprofit. This is a little worrisome given that the arts aren’t actually mentioned as one of the categories in the tax code that qualify for tax-exempt status, and 501(c)(4)s are not able to provide a tax deduction to donors.

Elizabeth Quaglieri describes the Obama administration’s Turnaround Arts Initiative, a pilot program spearheaded by the President’s Committee on the Arts and Humanities, the Turnaround Arts Initiative provides arts curriculum resources and the attention of celebrity artists to eight struggling “turnaround schools” across the country. The arts materials are designed to be thoroughly integrated into the schools’ turnaround effort, and the whole shebang will be evaluated by Booz Allen Hamilton after a two-year trial.


Obviously, the big news of the month was Kansas getting its arts council back, reported here on Friday. Elsewhere, the news is mostly decent. New Hampshire arts advocates were successful in turning back a threat to the state’s Department of Cultural Resources and public art fund by mobilizing more than 100 business leaders, artists, teachers, economic development officials, and others to attend a public hearing, impressive for a small state. A somewhat controversial plan in Connecticut to replace line item funding for arts organizations with a competitive pool also ended up going nowhere. I have mixed feelings about this one – I get that you don’t want to expose institutions to major financial risk on short notice, but as a general practice I think line items for specific arts organizations are pretty undemocratic (because the organizations with the resources to procure them tend to be on the richer side anyway) and bad policy (because the line items are not subject to any kind of centralized performance review by industry professionals who know what they’re doing).

This is slightly old news, but the New York State Council on the Arts reversed the trend of the past four years and came out of the latest budget process with a $4 million increase, to $35.6 million. NYSCA remains the best-funded state arts council in the nation.


The Washington, DC city council has given preliminary approval to an increase in the budget of the DC Commission on the Arts and Humanities from $3.9 million to $11.9 million. That sounds a lot better than it actually is; the increase just partially makes up for a combined loss of over $16 million from the DCCAH and the National Capital Arts and Cultural Affairs program over the past couple of years.


England cut funding to arts groups two years ago, and the Brits apparently aren’t missing it too much. A survey reports that support for public funding for the arts has dropped from 52% to 44% since 2009. Meanwhile, Scotland’s arts council is moving many of its arts groups to short-term, project funding in an effort to get more mileage out of its shrinking budget.

The Australia Council for the Arts has just completed a five-month review process, its first in two decades, and the results are making some waves. The review advocates that the Council reform its “rigid” structure that silos arts grantmaking by discipline, and also put up much more of its funds for competition as opposed to guaranteeing money to specific institutions. Interestingly, it puts this move under the rubric of emphasizing “excellence,” whereas in the United States that word is typically code for the larger, established organizations.

Turkey has become the latest battleground for the arts and government censorship, with conservative Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan taking a hostile stance to Turkey’s theatrical community after performances of a Chilean play sparked controversy in Istanbul. The events led to Istanbul’s Islamist mayor taking over decision-making for the city-funded theater troupe that staged the play. Supporting that move, Erdogan also threatened to cut off state funding to Turkey’s theater companies in response to protests and resignations by artists pushing for freedom of speech. The bad vibes apparently date back at least to a performance of a different play when Erdogan’s daughter found herself the involuntary recipient of an onstage actor’s attention during an improvised scene and subsequently walked out of the show. That incident led to the actor, who claimed he didn’t know that the young woman in the front row wearing a headscarf was Erdogan’s daughter, being suspended and brought before the country’s minister of culture to explain himself.

1 Comment

Brownback Caves: Kansas Gets Its Arts Funding Back

Well, ain’t this a nice turn of events:

Today, a great victory has been won by everyone in the state of Kansas who loves the arts. The Governor this morning signed the budget, which includes $700,000 for the newly-created Kansas Creative Arts Industries Commission.

Advocates from all corners of the state spoke – and spoke loudly. Our voices have been heard. A big thank you goes to all of you who have helped spread the word through your communities and to your elected officials about the importance of public arts funding in all of our lives.

Congratulations to all on a job well done.

Thank you for your support of the arts in Kansas.

That’s from Kansas Citizens for the Arts, which led what can only be termed a phenomenally successful advocacy campaign to bring arts funding back to Kansas. A campaign that forced a sitting governor to beat a very public retreat from the idea of removing the arts from government in one of the nation’s most conservative states.

The new Kansas Creative Arts Industries Commission represents a merger with the state’s Film Services Commission, and the combined total for the new agency is essentially the same as what the arts commission alone was working with before all the controversy. But even so, arts advocates have occasion to celebrate this year, along with Sarah Fizell and the rest of the folks at KCA. In fact, if anything, this is an even bigger win for the rest of the US than it is for Kansas. For years, conservative ideologues have been trying to kill funding for the arts at the state level, but the threat of losing matching federal funds from the NEA had always held them in check. So finally, one governor follows through and eliminates funding entirely, and he gets lambasted mercilessly for it all year and has to reverse his stance in the very next budget. What does that say to the next governor who might be thinking about following Brownback’s lead?

It says you don’t want to mess with arts funding.


San Antonio, Twin Cities, & New York

As conference season heats up, I have a few panels and such coming up to share with you all:

June 8-10
Americans for the Arts Convention
Grand Hyatt San Antonio
600 E. Market Street
San Antonio, TX
Info and registration
(I’ll be speaking as part of the session entitled “From Nice to Necessary: Local Arts Funding and Collective Impact” on Saturday the 9th from 11am-12:30pm, along with ArtsWave’s Mary McCullough-Hudson and The Boston Foundation’s Javier Torres.)

June 13-16
Chorus America Conference
Radisson Plaza Hotel Minneapolis
35 South 7th Street
Minneapolis, MN
Info and registration
(I’m moderating a session called “Audience = Participants: The Arts’ Search for Relevance and How Choruses Can Help” from 3:30-4:45pm on Friday the 15th. Alan Brown and Sunil Iyengar will be on the panel with me. This will be my first time moderating a panel since college, I think – let’s see if I’ve gotten any better at it in 10+ years!)

C4 and Fireworks Ensemble Present Sparks Fly

Finally, C4, the collaborative chorus that I founded in 2005, has its final concerts of the season in New York City this week. This edition is a co-presentation with Fireworks Ensemble, an “amplified chamber band,” and features four new pieces ranging from a proggy setting of Victorian poetry to a rock musical Requiem to something that’s perhaps best described as an random word generator on crack. The concerts include our debut at (Le) Poisson Rouge on May 30, though I’ll be singing only in the June 2 performance. More information and tickets are available here.


Understanding Through Tangential Questioning: Art, Dance Your Ph.D., and the Large Hadron Collider

The Large Hadron Collider/ATLAS at CERN, image by Image Editor

The Large Hadron Collider/ATLAS at CERN, image by Image Editor

(Shane Crerar received a BSc. in chemistry in 2000, and a BFA in sculpture in 2010.  He lives in Regina, Saskatchewan, Canada and is employed by the city where he works as an arts administrator, dealing with public art, collections, film, and community arts organizations.)

Dance and theater make no sense to me.  I was formerly a chemist, and I cannot count how many times I watched someone’s expression go blank  and heard back “I hate chemistry” or some other adverse reaction to math and science when I told them what I do.  I imagine that dance and theater are as incomprehensible to me as chemistry is to, well…everyone else.  It can be a matter of taste: some people love pineapple.  I hate it.  Some people hate licorice.  I love it.  Some people love dance, and maybe I just miss the reference point.  Some people find it hard to relate mathematics to “real world” examples, while I find the relationship between dance and reality overly strained and contrived.  But on the other hand, I’m fascinated by “Dance Your Ph.D.

Dance Your Ph.D. works for me. I’m not sure if the original intent was to market science through dance, or to market art to scientists, or maybe it is based on a meme of ridiculous interpretive dance. But it works. A Ph.D. thesis represents a huge investment of time and energy, but it also represents an incomprehensible tome that is rarely read, in full, by more than a handful of people. “Dance Your Ph.D.” provides an alternate way to present years of work as a “real world” phenomenon.

I think there is a common perception that science and art shall not mix. Having been involved in the culture of both, it seems to me that the general attitude is that the other is incomprehensible mumbo jumbo. Dance Your Ph.D., however, flies in the face of that idea.  The winning entry from 2011 uses a stylized video technique created by stitching together thousands of still images. Perhaps it works for me because although it is literally interpretative dance, it is derived from a thoroughly explored concept. The concept is intimately familiar to the artist, if not the audience.

Art and science have a longstanding relationship, and it does a disservice to both to pretend that isolation from one another is the best approach. For example, there is a long history of illustration in biology. Chemistry uses pictograms with specific rules to convey structures and arrangements of atoms and molecules. Many of these traditional methods have specific rules to most accurately represent ideas, or particular aspects of an idea. These methods of visualization are developed to work within the scientific community, frequently to the exclusion of the lay person. But interesting things begin to happen once those strict rules of representation are relaxed. Most specifically, in Dance Your Ph.D. we see scientists imagine their works through dance.

It is my firm belief that art can be an aid to science. One may often find that a concept cannot be understood clearly until that concept can be communicated. Not only do others benefit from the dissemination of knowledge, but working out how to discuss and communicate an idea can solidify it for oneself. Explaining the concepts in a Ph.D. thesis through dance may actually be of great benefit, not only to people who may become interested in the topics danced, but also to the scientist who is finding a new avenue to communicate her idea.

I think that one of the most significant scientific projects currently in progress is in desperate need of such communication. The Large Hadron Collider (LHC) is the most extensive and expensive scientific project in history. It is close to answering a problem that has been at the heart of particle physics research for the past 50 years. It seems to me that the magnitude of the project and the public funds dedicated to this international facility demand that its importance be recognized, if not understood.

Since the conception of the Standard Model of physics, physicists have been trying to find every particle and force it predicts, and the Higgs boson is the missing piece of the puzzle. The Higgs boson is incredibly important because it is the particle that (theoretically) gives matter mass, and the Large Hadron Collider is trying to find it. But how often does one encounter references to the LHC in arts writing? The LHC is not a breakthrough technology. It is one more step along a path that started with the first particle collider in the 1950s. Alongside other scientific achievements like atomic energy, space travel, or even relativity (and its time travel implications), the LHC seems like a little ‘c’ concept. The closest the LHC has come to stirring the collective interest of the world was the discovery of time-traveling neutrinos, which turned out to be an error in data caused by a loose cable.

Despite the relative obscurity of the LHC in popular culture, it has managed to capture the imagination of some artists. Kate Findlay has created a series of quilts based on photographs of the Large Hadron Collider. The development of her project appears to be based on images released in 2008, and the article indicates that she is working towards projects that incorporate aspects of the LHC beyond recreating photographs in quilts. I find this rather poignant. The images of the object inspired her to learn more about it, and as she’s developed her quilts, she’s developed an interest not simply in the imagery, but in the concepts the LHC is exploring. I believe this is important. The interest is not drawn by the fact that it is science, or physics, or technology, but instead starts from imagery.

I feel that science can provide inspiration for art, as the above example demonstrates. I also believe that science shouldn’t be afraid to get involved with art. The Collide@CERN project gives me hope that scientists can engage in the development of artwork. The project is a partnership between CERN (the organization behind the LHC) and Ars Electronica, which is an international festival celebrating art, science and technology. This should be a fantastic partnership because CERN is at the forefront of science, and Ars Electronica is a forum for science-based art. The project involves a two-month residency at CERN followed by a one month residency at Ars Electronica Linz. Throughout the residency, the artist (Julius von Bismark) will have mentors from both CERN and Ars Electronica.  The goal is to develop and create works in the second half of the residency.

It seems rare, indeed, for science to seek out the arts. Projects like Dance Your Ph.D. and Collide@CERN are the exception, not the rule.  To me this seems like a failure of both art and science, as there is ample opportunity for each to enrich the other.


Around the horn: It Gets Better edition


  • Weird, the very day that the Huffington Post published my “debate” with Carla Escoda about arts funding, the New York Times published a “Room for Debate” feature on a very similar topic. Something in the water? Anyway, Sean Bowie has a nice summary if you don’t have time to read all eight entries.
  • The National Governor’s Association, which has been friendly to the arts in the past, has released another study highlighting the economic role of arts and culture in state government.
  • Marisela Treviño Orta has a good take on a bill proposed in the California Assembly that would have placed a tax on live theater tickets. Thanks to advocacy by the LA and SF arts communities, the bill has been withdrawn.


  • Andrew Taylor is leaving his longtime post as the head of the University of Wisconsin’s arts administration program to join the faculty at American University in Washington, DC. Quite a coup for Sherburne Laughlin and company.
  • Anne Corbett is moving on from her role as executive director of CulturalDC (formerly Cultural Development Corporation) to lead a commercial real estate development project in northwest Washington, DC.
  • Congratulations to Mary-Kim Arnold, new arts program officer for the Rhode Island Foundation…
  • …Wayne Martin, new executive director of the North Carolina Arts Council…
  • …and Earl Lewis, new president of the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, succeeding Don Randel. Mellon continues its record of hiring its head honchos from academia – Lewis was provost of Emory University and already serving on Mellon’s board.
  • The Center for Effective Philanthropy recently published an interesting analysis of the winding career paths of foundation CEOs.


  • A huge gift from Oregon philanthropist Fred W. Fields will go to the Oregon Community Foundation to support education and the arts.
  • Nina Simon shares some lessons learned from her first year as executive director of the Santa Cruz Museum of Art and History.
  • Liz Lerman has choreographed a performance of Debussy’s Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun for the University of Maryland Symphony Orchestra. The orchestra played from memory and danced around the stage during the piece. While the dancing is about at the level one would expect from classical musicians, there’s enough there to suggest a vision of what might be if people actually pursued this as a serious subgenre. The video and further discussion, from Andrew Taylor, are available at the link.


  • The Animating Democracy project at Americans for the Arts hosted a wonderful blog salon during the first week of May on impact and evaluation of social change in the arts. The posts are well worth sifting through, but some of my highlights included contributions from Rachel GrossmanMark Stern (and again), Chris Dwyer, and former Createquity Writing Fellow Katherine Gressel. And now, just a couple weeks later, the Public Art Network is doing a blog salon on evaluation in public art.
  • Barry Hessenius has another interesting interview, this time with Association of Performing Arts Presenters director Mario Garcia Durham.
  • Nina Simon reports from the 2012 American Association of Museums conference.
  • The Foundation Center’s PhilanTopic blog has a “Flip” (video) chat with Courtney O’Malley, VP of the Starr Foundation, about foundation transparency. It’s an interesting choice of topic (and thus, conversation), given that Starr is probably one of the least open and transparent foundations supporting the arts in its size group.
  • The NEA’s Art Works blog did a week’s worth of posts on art and science (or “artscience”). Here are a few examples. In the last link, the NEA’s Senior Advisor for Program Innovation, Bill O’Brien, notes that the NEA will be encouraging grant applications that involve collaborations with science across all of its programs.


  • The NEA co-organized a convening at the Brookings Institution last week on the topic of “The Arts, New Growth Theory, and Economic Development.” I was fortunate to attend and may share some of my notes later, but in the meantime, audio from the day’s sessions is available here.
  • Great list of data and visualization blogs worth following from stats blogger Nathan Yau. You can find Createquity’s version of this here. Nathan also shares five common statistical fallacies. Have you been guilty of at least one of these in the past week?
  • GiveWell is doing some interesting and important research into strategic cause selection (the merits of supporting international aid over domestic education, e.g.). After some preliminary investigation on what large funders are most likely to support today, they have identified four priority cause areas for future exploration: global health and nutrition, scientific research, something called “meta-research,” and mitigating catastrophic global risks such as climate change and nuclear war. I’m particularly interested in the meta-research cause area, which GiveWell defines as “trying to improve the systematic incentives that academic researchers face, to bring them more in line with producing maximally useful work.” I wonder if they will focus on non-academic research as well. As for arts and culture, GiveWell announces that it will not be a priority; while I’m not surprised at this outcome, I’ll be curious to read their justification for it as promised in a future post.
  • House Republicans have acted on their dislike of the American Community Survey and voted to eliminate it (this has no chance of passing, thankfully). Here is more on the American Community Survey. The politicization of government data collection is a very troubling trend.
  • Child mortality in Africa is going down, down, down – is this a vindication for international aid, free markets, or both?
  • Mark Kramer says we need a flexible paradigm for evaluation, because social problems are complex. I couldn’t agree more. Talking about evaluation in blog format is hard because the conversation requires a lot of subtlety and nuance. There isn’t one right way to do it, but at the same time there are countless wrong and/or dumb ways to do it.
  • The online education revolution is only in its infancy: Harvard and MIT have just committed $60 million toward a new online course platform called EdX.
Leave a comment

Cool jobs of the month

Director, Bolz Center for Arts Administration, University of Wisconsin

[From outgoing director Andrew Taylor:] If you’re passionate about arts and cultural management and leadership. If you’re able not only to do the work, but teach the work to brilliant business-focused professionals. If you bring a vital network of cultural professionals and can plug into an existing global network quickly and effectively. If you want to discover, design, and develop next practice for our field. Consider this job.

Deadline: May 17, 2012.

Managing Director, Free Music Archive, WFMU

Oversees the creation, acquisition, licensing and curation of audio material for The Free Music Archive. Produces editorial content and oversees user-generated editorial aspects of the site. Maintains relationships with software developers, musicians, and curatorial organizations who are active participants in the Free Music Archive.

Deadline: May 15, 2012.

Leave a comment