From Grassroots to Institution, Growing With Integrity

"Rhythm & Rest" by the Animus Collective, 2009" at FIGMENT NYCPhoto Credit: Suzie Sims-Fletcher courtesy of FIGMENT

“Rhythm & Rest” by the Animus Collective, 2009″ at FIGMENT NYC
Photo Credit: Suzie Sims-Fletcher courtesy of FIGMENT

For the past two and a half years I’ve been involved with FIGMENT, a non-profit organization that produces participatory art events in a growing list of cities, including New York, Boston, DC, Detroit, Jackson and Pittsburgh. When I first joined FIGMENT in 2010, it had already grown from a one-day event on New York City’s Governors Island attended by about two thousand people in July of 2007 to an annual weekend-long participatory arts festival attended by tens of thousands. FIGMENT had begun to expand geographically, producing a weekend event in Boston, and temporally, with a dedicated summer-long FIGMENT area on the Governors Island featuring an artist-designed minigolf course and an interactive sculpture garden. Since then, the organization has continued to grow, with events and members in cities across the United States, and even internationally—there are plans for FIGMENT events in Canada and Australia. Last year, FIGMENT received its first grant from the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA), and this year it hired its first paid employee (the organization had previously been run entirely by volunteers). Also for the first time this year, FIGMENT will be providing some artists a small stipend beyond the cost of materials. Past Createquity Writing Fellow Katherine Gressel also works with FIGMENT, and recently profiled the organization’s growth in a piece for Americans for the Arts.

Because of my own personal investment in FIGMENT, I’ve become increasingly interested in the effects of institutional support on alternative arts organizations and projects. This grassroots/alternative arts group is hiring paid staff, providing artist compensation, creating guidelines and consistent branding for events, and receiving more mainstream institutional support and recognition. How will its ability to carry out of its principles, which include participation, decommodification, inclusion and access, be affected?

To understand what FIGMENT might encounter in the future, I thought I’d investigate how more established non-profit arts organizations have fared during similar transitions. Perhaps the organization can benefit by looking at the successes and pitfalls of other groups.

In 1974, a trio of actors founded the Steppenwolf Theatre Company in a Deerfield, Illinois Unitarian church with a commitment to ensemble collaboration and artistic risk. The company’s stated mission was to “advance the vitality and diversity of American theater by nurturing artists, encouraging repeatable creative relationships and contributing new works to the national canon.” In the past nearly 40 years, the organization has had numerous expansions—first to the basement of a Catholic school, then to a 134-seat theater at the Jane Hull House Center in Chicago, again to a 211-seat space at 2851 North Halsted Street in Chicago, and finally to its present home, a theater complex at 1650 North Halsted. Today, Steppenwolf is an ensemble of 43 artists, including actors, directors, playwrights and filmmakers, with an annual audience of over 200,000 and an operating budget of $13.5 million. The company has won numerous awards, including a National Medal of Arts and a Tony Award for regional excellence.

As Steppenwolf has evolved, it has remained financially solvent while strengthening its community engagement, even as many performing arts organizations are struggling with a decline in subscription rates, or tickets for an entire season of programming can be renewed annually. In fact, Steppenwolf has also suffered from attrition in subscriptions, which means a decline in a steady, predictable stream of revenue. However, the organization used this funding issue as an opportunity to re-examine its core values. A 2011 study by the Wallace Foundation on building arts audiences profiled Steppenwolf’s strategy for building deeper relationships with both subscribers and non-subscribers. The paper outlined the company’s “Public Square” initiative, which included post-show discussions after every performance led by facilitators who are specifically trained to progress a dialogue within the audience; additional online content, with access to interviews, articles, podcasts and videos for each production on its website; and a series of social events that are free and open to the public and offer the opportunity to explore thematic elements of current productions. The strategy led to a 61% increase in multi-performance ticket sales, as well a deeper level of audience engagement. In short, Steppenwolf’s institutionalization has not resulted in the compromise of its values, but instead has actually furthered them.

Intersection for the Arts in San Francisco is another organization that has maintained and expanded its mission since its inception forty years ago. Founded in a former bar in San Francisco’s Tenderloin district, it began as an interdenominational space that sought to bridge artistic and spiritual ideas. The organization produced alternative musical performances, theater pieces, screenings, readings and workshops. Four expansions and relocations later, Intersection continues to provide such programming in addition to maintaining a gallery space, sponsoring artist residencies with individuals and collectives, and promoting community engagement via collaborative and educational opportunities. In fact, it is such an established cultural institution that in a 2005 San Francisco Chronicle article, Visual Arts, Literary and Jazz Program Director Kevin Chen acknowledged that “Intersection is no longer alternative.” But far from losing its way, Intersection has become an institution that smaller, alternative organizations now look to for support.

The success stories of Steppenwolf and Intersection for the Arts have achieved an almost mythic quality in Chicago and San Francisco—it’s the dream that that many non-profit arts organizations aspire to. But for every Steppenwolf or Intersection, there are multiple failures like The Franklin Street Arts Center, Collective for Living Cinema, Minor Injury and Matzo Files. It’s more difficult to find information on these defunct spaces and groups, which can seem to disappear in a day. Some began expanding, and then folded due to lack of funding, or were absorbed by a larger, more mainstream entity, resulting in a compromise of artistic vision and mission.

P.S.1 is one such example of an alternative arts organization that expanded beyond its means. Founded in 1971 by Alanna Heiss through the Institute for Art and Urban Resources, an organization that developed exhibitions in abandoned spaces across New York City, the center’s original mission was to showcase young artists and offer an exhibition space for risk-taking works that weren’t necessarily saleable or commercially viable. From 1994-7 P.S.1 underwent an $8.5 million gut renovation and expansion, adding an elevator and sculpture garden and redesigning their galleries. Although its subsequent 2000 merger with the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) was billed as a win for both organizations, enhancing MoMA’s contemporary art initiatives and giving P.S.1 access to MoMA’s collection and marketing resources, in reality, P.S.1 needed a larger institution to rescue it after the expansion had depleted its financial resources. Now renamed MoMA PS1, the Museum of Modern Art controls the center’s finances and has the right to appoint its board members. In 2008, after a planned 7-year transition period for the center and MoMA, Heiss was forced into retirement. In his 2008 New York Magazine article, Andrew M. Goldstein recounts his lunchtime conversation with Heiss and Glenn Lowry, MoMA’s director:

“I told him I didn’t want to retire,” Heiss explains. “And he said, ‘Why not?’ I said, ‘Well, I want to work another couple of years.’ And he said, ‘I think I’m going to go ahead on the retirement plan.’ And now we’re talking about what I might do.” Lowry says the discussions are ongoing—“These are not easy conversations”—but he made clear that he and MoMA’s board considered Heiss’s retirement necessary for P.S. 1’s evolving future within MoMA. “From my perspective, the seven-year period was a transition period; the goal was to get to know each other and make things work, and then at the end of that transition period to move on,” he says.

P.S.1’s institutional expansion—the addition of space and staff, as well as the support it received from the established MoMA–transformed it from an alternative arts space to a branch of a commercial contemporary art museum. It now throws parties sponsored by Volkswagen, and launches exhibitions anchored by established artists who can draw crowds. Recent and current exhibitions at MoMA PS1 include a Kraftwerk installation that coincided with the electronic-music pioneers’ MoMA retrospective; “September 11,” which showed work by heavyweight artists like Diane Arbus, John Chamberlain, William Eggleston, Felix Gonzalez-Torres, Alex Katz, Barbara Kruger and Yoko Ono; and a solo show of work by Huma Bhaba, who has work in the collections of The Whitney, The Saatchi Gallery, MoMA, and the Met. The final Warm Up of this year was DJed by Thom Yorke’s new project Atoms for Peace. This programming may be worthy in its own right, but it’s not the risky programming meant to give emerging artists a platform that the original P.S.1 was founded on. Administrative practices that enable sustained revenue should allow for more risk-taking and challenging work, but unfortunately, as with P.S.1, this is often not the result.

Building—creating a space or expanding a space– is arguably the purest form of institutionalization. It’s a concrete statement that an organization intends to be around for the long-term. “Set in Stone,” a recent study by the Cultural Policy Center at the University of Chicago, examined the results of the physical expansions of cultural organizations between 1994 and 2008, drawing on data from more than 700 construction projects. The authors looked at how new facilities related to organizations’ missions; the additional staff, technical support and marketing expertise needed to effectively operate new spaces; how new facilities helped or did not help organizations to engage the surrounding communities; and the relationship of funding streams to new spaces. The final report explains:

In many cases, the actual need for a new facility had not been demonstrated (even though there was often great enthusiasm about getting underway with construction); the connection between a new facility and delivering more effectively on mission was in many instances quite murky; realism about how a new facility could be sustained once built was frequently missing – both in terms of the financial resources and staff needed to successfully run a new facility. The list goes on. New facilities would open, organizations would then run into financial problems because of insufficient revenue, or an inadequate endowment, or because they couldn’t service the debt they incurred to build, or because the building was too costly to operate, or it turned out to be beyond the organization’s capacity to administer and sustain.

Although most of the organizations, projects and budgets in this study are much larger than FIGMENT or other young alternative arts organizations, the takeaway is still relevant: The most successful projects were motivated by both artistic mission and organizational need. Project leadership was clear, consistent and sustained throughout the process, leaders provided efficient timelines and effect feedback, and expenses were controlled during construction. While this study was specifically about physical expansions, I also believe that these points hold true for other types of expansions, such as in staff or geography.

With all of this in mind, then, the question remains: how can FIGMENT remain “alternative” even as it receives more mainstream support?

FIGMENT strives to provide opportunities for emerging artists to showcase interactive works that wouldn’t necessarily be commercially successful. The group quite literally takes art out of the museum or gallery, primarily using outdoor spaces such as public parks for its events. According to FIGMENT co-founder and executive producer Dave Koren, this strategy has helped FIGMENT remain inclusive and accessible by showcasing a broad array of work from many artists in large, free spaces that are easily reached by the public. FIGMENT’s open call for project proposals also facilitates a transparent and wide-ranging curatorial process. FIGMENT once decided not to go forward with an event in Mexico City because there wasn’t enough time to do an open call for art there. The organizers there had proposed to approach specific artists and collectives, but FIGMENT decided that handpicking people and projects for the event would privilege particular groups and run counter to the organization’s principles.

Koren says that this open call process is especially important when there is a limited amount of space, as there is in FIGMENT’s season-long area on Governors Island, which includes an architectural pavilion, an interactive sculpture garden, and an artist-designed minigolf course. Works are chosen for this exhibition via an open call for proposals with specific, intensive guidelines and a rigorous jury evaluation.

As FIGMENT expands to new cities, ensuring that the new organizers, teams and artists understand FIGMENT’s mission is not always easy. “They get the big picture, but not always the specifics that it involves,” Koren says. He recounted one group that planned to have a bar tent with beer for sale, similar to what one usually finds at an outdoor concert. He had to clarify to them that this would violate FIGMENT’s decommodification principle. “FIGMENT seeks to create social environments that are unmediated by commercial sponsorships, transactions, or advertising. We will not substitute consumption for experience.” FIGMENT events aren’t places to sell things, whether that be art or food or beer. For that reason, FIGMENT doesn’t want to endorse a vendor, or rely on commercial vendors as a source of revenue.

FIGMENT has recently been the recipient of some substantial grants, including one from the NEA, and the group continues to apply for funding in the form of grants from foundations. However, the group is wary of relying on these grants as a main source of revenue. Many grants have very specific criteria; it’s important that the group doesn’t lose sight of its own mission while trying to fit a grant’s standards. Ultimately, as FIGMENT builds its community, it hopes to build its donor base along with it. According to Koren, “what we’re seeing is that someone first comes to FIGMENT as an artist, then takes a greater role as a team member, and then also becomes a donor.” It’s this community of donors, it is hoped, who will sustain FIGMENT.

Institutionalization in the form of paid staff, money for artists, and physical or geographical expansion results in budget increases. Therefore, financial support from other institutions as well as from a group’s community also need to grow. The challenge for alternative arts organizations is in both growing that revenue and not compromising on artistic mission and principles. Will FIGMENT remain FIGMENT—retaining its essence and principles as it expands to Texas and California and Australia and beyond? Will its institutionalization further its mission, or weaken it? Will support from major funders lead to a realignment of values? Only time will tell, but the best predictors may be those outlined in the “Set in Stone” study: motivation, leadership and implementation. If these are the criteria, FIGMENT seems to be positioning itself well for the challenges ahead.

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From Palate to Palette: Can Food be Art?

Can food be art? Photo courtesy of Jacquelyn Strycker

Can food be art?
Image courtesy of Jacquelyn Strycker

Last night, I cooked broccoli rabe with caramelized onions and vegan fennel sausage, along with a creamy parmesan polenta and a crusty whole wheat rosemary bread made from the Camaldoli sourdough culture that I feed flour to each day. Like many artists I know, I love to cook. My bookshelves are filled with equal numbers of art books and cookbooks. I often spend between one and two hours making dinner each night. I used to feel guilty about this—worried that my time would be better spent in my studio drawing or printing or otherwise artmaking—but then I came to see that making food—combining textures, flavors, scents and colors—is also creative. Indeed, I know many artists who are also passionate about food, and have come to consider food a part of their practices. A recent New York Times opinion piece even claims that food “has replaced art as high culture.” Yet the same article argues that food is not art.

Proust on the madeleine is art; the madeleine itself is not art.

A good risotto is a fine thing, but it isn’t going to give you insight into other people, allow you to see the world in a new way, or force you to take an inventory of your soul.

Is this true, or do chefs deserve a place at the table with painters, sculptors, photographers, musicians and performers? Can food be art?

In fact, there’s a long tradition of food as artistic medium. A paper by Howard Coutts and Ivam Day published by the Henry Moore Foundation describes the European sugar sculpture, porcelain and table layouts from the 16th through 19th centuries. Dining was not just about eating food, but also about its elaborate display. Tables were adorned with sculptures made from marzipan, wax or sugar paste. Court artists and designers “of the highest caliber” were the creators of these edible works. Coutts and Day describe an 1815 feast given in the Great Hall of the Louvre by the Royal Guard to celebrate the final defeat of Napoleon:

Huge pièces montées, in the form of gilded sugar military trophies, crafted by the patissier Carême, were displayed between the tables. At this level, table decorations were an aspect of political and social prestige, and required the skills of the finest artists and craftsmen of the time.

More recently, we can look at German artist Wolfgang Laib’s milkstones and rice pieces. Laib’s milkstones are large square slabs of marble that have been hollowed out and filled with milk, resulting in reflective white squares. His “Unlimited Ocean” was a grid of 30,000 piles of rice installed at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. Laib uses these natural materials to create ephemeral and sensual experiences.

Leah Foster's "Muffin Tops"Image courtesy of the artist

Leah Foster’s “Muffin Tops”
Image courtesy of the artist

Similarly, we can also look at the work of emerging artist Leah Foster, who has created elaborate installations using cupcakes. For Muffin Tops, she used thousands of cupcakes and glazed surfaces of the gallery with batter and frosting.

But food as medium is not the same as declaring that a meal is art. We get closer to this with relational aesthetics and social practice, which often use food to facilitate social interaction and community. Last year, Rirkrit Tiravanija replicated his installation, Untitled (Free/ Still) at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA). Museum goers were able to enter a gallery and receive a bowl of vegetarian thai curry over rice, take some water from a stocked refrigerator and then sit at one of several communal tables. The work was originally installed at 303 gallery over 20 years ago. The artist describes the original installation in a conversation with MoMA’s Director, Glenn Lowry.

So when you first walk in, what you see is kind of haphazard storage space. But as you approached this you could start to smell the jasmine rice. That kind of draws you through to the office space. And in this place I made two pots of curries, green curries. One was made how Thai restaurants in New York were making it. To counter that, on the other pot was a authentically made Thai curry. I was working on the idea of food, but in a kind of anthropological and archeological way. It was a lot about the layers of taste and otherness.

A Fallen Fruit Collective "public fruit jam" Photo credit: Julian Bleeker

A Fallen Fruit Collective “public fruit jam”
Photo credit: Julian Bleeker

Fallen Fruit Collective is another example of participatory art involving food. David Burns, Matias Viegner and Austin Young use fruit as a material to explore notions of “urban space, ideas of neighborhood and new forms of located citizenship and community.” One of their most popular projects are their “public fruit jams” in which they invite members of the community to bring fruit and collaborate with one another to make jams. The collective explains:

Working without recipes, we ask people to sit with others they do not already know and negotiate what kind of jam to make: if I have lemons and you have figs, we’d make lemon fig jam (with lavender). Each jam is a social experiment. Usually held in a gallery or museum, this event forefronts the social and public nature of Fallen Fruit’s work, and we consider it a collaboration with the public as well as each other.

But ultimately the aforementioned projects are art first and food second. We don’t really care how Tiravanija’s curry or Fallen Fruit Collective’s jams taste; food is the means to creating a social work. Rather than art made from food (food as medium), or art that uses food to create an experience (food as impetus), is there art that is food that is art?

Future Farmers Victory Garden Seeds Photo Credit: Mark Simpkins

Future Farmers Victory Garden Seeds
Photo Credit: Mark Simpkins

We start to get there if we look at small-scale food production. Community gardens are now often viewed as both organic, local food sources and art projects. Victory Gardens 2007+ is a project developed by Garden for the Environment and the City of San Francisco’s Department for the Environment with “lead artist” Amy Franceschini. Both an art project and a model/ support system for urban gardening, they’ve received funding from art institutions like SFMOMA and the Fleishhacker Foundation. The project aims to create a network of “urban farmers” who utilize rooftops, window boxes, backyards and unused plots of land for food production. It includes the development and distribution of seed starter kits to home gardeners, food-production educational initiatives and the development of a city seed bank. The success of the gardens and seed bank are integral to the success of the project, making it equally about art and food production.

If food production can be art, why don’t we also consider the cooking of food as art? Combining and transforming materials is a fundamentally creative activity, whether those materials are paints, clays, musical notes or edible ingredients. In fact, gastronomy is even included in some countries’ ministries of cultural affairs. The embassy of Peru’s Public Diplomacy department lists “gastronomy, including the promotion of the Peruvian national drink, Pisco,” in the six types of cultural programming that the embassy supports, alongside visual arts exhibitions, cinema and music. Last year, Spain’s Ministry of Culture partnered with Casa Asia, the Cervantes Institute and the Spanish Embassy New Delhi to promote Spanish “culture industries” in India. The programming included a lecture from José Luis Galiana of Basque Culinary Center, the first university-level education centre in Gastronomic Sciences in Europe. And, in 2010, The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) honored the “gastronomic meal of the French” as part of the “intangible cultural heritage of humanity.”

If cuisine can be recognized as culture, then why aren’t we also acknowledging it as art? At street fairs in Brooklyn and on, handcrafted, small batch artisanal foods like habanero ketchup, black garlic mayo, buffalo jerky and sea salt chocolate caramels are sold alongside knit scarves, hand sewn quilts, embroidered tea towels and beaded jewelry. The most recent Renegade Craft Fair– a juried marketplace of handmade goods– had vendors selling items like letterpress stationary, molded soaps, screenprinted t-shirts, ceramics and carved wood furniture, as well as local honey, cookies, spices and bonbons, and offerings from Chickpea & Olive and La Crêpe C’est Si Bon. The DIY movement has embraced food as craft.

The design community has also begun welcoming cuisine into the fold. Core77 Design Awards includes a category for “Food Design.” The Vitra Design Museum Boisbuchet in France has hosted a lecture by food photographer, designer and cookbook author Emilie Baltz. And in 2011, I attended Talk to Me: A Symposium at MoMA, a program that featured presentations and panel discussions related to the Architecture and Design’s concurrent exhibition, Talk to Me: Design and Communication between People and Objects. Marcus Samuelsson, the acclaimed Ethiopian-born and Swedish-raised chef and owner of Red Rooster Harlem was one of the panelists. Samuelsson passed out spiced nuts to rapt audience members, and spoke about how he designed the menu at his restaurant so that it would reflect the diversity of the Harlem community in which it’s located: dishes include soul food and Dominican cuisine with nods to Samuelsson’s own Swedish heritage, all using foods from local farmers and artisans. He was both chef and designer.

An edible menu from Moto Photo credit: Seth Anderson

An edible menu from Moto
Photo credit: Seth Anderson

We can also look at molecular gastronomy as a point of intersection between design and food. Also referred to as modernist cuisine, it involves the application of scientific principles to cooking in order to create surprising and inventive aesthetics and textures in food. At Moto, a Chicago restaurant that specializes in this type of cooking, diners may be served a deconstructed/ reconstructed avocado, be asked to put on a smoked glove to eat a chocolate dish, and finish their meal with a printed elderflower-marshmallow menu. The restaurant’s kitchen includes a lab where chefs conduct technological experiments to create innovative dishes with flavors that often seem incongruous to their appearance, disrupting diners’ notions of what food can be.

The art world is beginning to notice. In October, Suzanne Anker, Chair of the BFA Fine Arts department at the School of Visual Arts, organized a conference called “Molecular Cuisine: The Politics of Taste” that investigated “the importance of taste from the perspectives of the culinary arts, sociology, art history and theory, anthropology, as well as the cognitive, material and biological sciences.” Anker’s projects at SVA include overseeing the creation of a Nature and Technology Lab, where, among other things, students can experiment with alternative growing systems like aquaponics, and a molecular gastronomy kit that gives them the tools to create items like olive oil foam, balsamic vinegar caviar and strawberry spaghetti.

The Edible Schoolyard at MLK Middle School in Berkeley Photo credit: mental.masala

The Edible Schoolyard at MLK Middle School in Berkeley
Photo credit: mental.masala

But it shouldn’t just be novel high-tech cooking techniques that warrant our attention. The art world needs to include chefs like Marcus Samuelsson, Alice Waters, David Chang and Christian Puglisi in its conversation as well. Waters’s restaurant, Chez Panisse, opened over four decades ago with seasonal menus created from organic, locally-sourced ingredients, serving as a model and inspiration for the locavore and slow food movements. Her Edible Schoolyard Project, begun in 1996, integrates gardening, cooking and sharing school lunch into the academic curriculums of participating institutions. Chang’s Momofuku empire serves food that combines techniques from and pays homage to wildly varying fare including Asian street food, French cuisine and McDonald’s. Puglisi’s Relea is committed to providing creative, organic, environmentally responsible meals while simultaneously eliminating the exclusivity associated with fine dining. These chefs aren’t just cooking inventive and delicious cuisine. They are also using food to tell stories, conjure memories, and to establish philosophies, such as a connection between cooking, community and sustainability.

The arts, including painting, sculpture, installation, dance and music, are in part about creating a sensory experience—something for the audience to see, feel or hear. And perhaps more than any other discipline, food has the ability to appeal to all of our senses—a combination of colors, textures, crunches, smells and tastes goes into the making of a meal, and the selection and transformation of those elements is creative. When a creative, sensory form also has the capacity to express philosophies, inspire multiple interpretations, conjure narratives and/or allude to complex meanings, it is art, whether the medium is paint or piano or polenta. Food has not replaced art as high culture; it is art.


Around the horn: fiscal cliff edition

A friendly reminder that the deadline for the Createquity Writing Fellowship is noon Eastern time on Tuesday, January 8. All it takes is a 250-word statement of interest to get started. Look forward to reading your submissions!



  • Senior program officer Lynn Stern is leaving the Surdna Foundation’s Thriving Arts and Cultures program.
  • The New York Times‘s veteran culture editor Jonathan Landman has accepted a buyout from the Gray Lady.


  • Mark Zuckerberg has committed half a billion dollars to the Silicon Valley Community Foundation. This is interesting in that community foundations have been increasingly seen as a relic of past generations of donors, with new millionaires and billionaires choosing to distribute their philanthropy with the help of private wealth advisors instead. This gift, coming as it does from one of the scions of the technology world, could change that in a big way. Dan Lyons reluctantly gives Zuck the slow clap.
  • Brooklyn’s new Barclays Center may be plenty controversial, tearing up as it did significant chunks of the neighborhood, but one thing that’s pretty great about it is that none of the concessions stands are operated by national chains. Instead, “you can get barbecue from Williamsburg’s Fatty ’Cue; Cuban sandwiches from Fort Greene’s Habana Outpost; pizza from Gravesend’s Spumoni Gardens; and, in an inspired old-school-new-school mashup, a confection called a concrete that combines Junior’s black-and-white cookies with ice cream from Blue Marble.” Here’s hoping other developers take the hint and start buying local.


  • After a period of impressive growth, Ovation, the only cable channel exclusively devoted to the arts (as traditionally defined), is being dropped by Time Warner Cable. The story is well worth a read, as it is an object lesson on what happens in the commercial marketplace for culture when profit maximization is the goal. Despite costing Time Warner a mere seven cents per subscriber, it (along with other low-rated networks) is being shed to help pay for major increases in the network’s most expensive channels, mostly sports-related. If you’re a Time Warner customer and would like to voice your concern, Ovation has set up a website for the purpose.
  • Greg Sandow has been offering an interesting series on “mavericks”/bright spots in classical music, including this profile of the River Oaks Chamber Orchestra in Houston.
  • More on the mysterious Woodruff Arts Center embezzlement fiasco.
  • Crowdfunding French style means helping the Louvre acquire $3 million ivory statuettes.


  • Some end-of-year looking back and prognostication: Nonprofit Law Blog recounts the big nonprofit moments of 2012; Thomas Cott crowdsources arts predictions for 2013, and Barry Hessenius says nothin’ much will change this year. (I think Barry’s got it right.) Meanwhile, Tim Mikulski possibly reveals too much in recounting the top posts on AFTA’s ARTSblog in 2012.
  • Smithsonian Magazine has a fascinating interview with Jaron Lanier, an internet pioneer and futurist who has now turned against many of the hacker-derived “information should be free” principles he once embraced. In explaining his change of heart, he cites the music industry as exhibit A of what went wrong.

    “I’d had a career as a professional musician and what I started to see is that once we made information free, it wasn’t that we consigned all the big stars to the bread lines.” (They still had mega-concert tour profits.) “Instead, it was the middle-class people who were consigned to the bread lines. And that was a very large body of people. And all of a sudden there was this weekly ritual, sometimes even daily: ‘Oh, we need to organize a benefit because so and so who’d been a manager of this big studio that closed its doors has cancer and doesn’t have insurance. We need to raise money so he can have his operation.’ “And I realized this was a hopeless, stupid design of society and that it was our fault. It really hit on a personal level—this isn’t working. And I think you can draw an analogy to what happened with communism, where at some point you just have to say there’s too much wrong with these experiments.”

    And then there’s this:

    “To my mind an overleveraged unsecured mortgage is exactly the same thing as a pirated music file. It’s somebody’s value that’s been copied many times to give benefit to some distant party. In the case of the music files, it’s to the benefit of an advertising spy like Google [which monetizes your search history], and in the case of the mortgage, it’s to the benefit of a fund manager somewhere. But in both cases all the risk and the cost is radiated out toward ordinary people and the middle classes—and even worse, the overall economy has shrunk in order to make a few people more.”

    Read the whole thing.



  • Here’s some advice from a pro on live-tweeting events and conferences in an official capacity.
  • “My five-year-old could have painted this” is so over. Now it’s, “my pet snake could have painted this!”
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Createquity in Quotes: 2012

Becker’s statement gets at some of the main challenges in measuring the “impact” of a work of public art—a task which more often than not provokes grumbling from public art administrators. When asked how they know their work is successful, most organizations and artists that create art in the public realm are quick to cite things like people’s positive comments, or the fact that the artwork doesn’t get covered with graffiti or cause controversy.

Katherine Gressel, Public Art and the Challenge of Evaluation (January 7)

But more than that, I sometimes wish we wouldn’t take what we do so damn seriously all the time. Maybe this is coming from someone who’s spent too much time on Roadside America, but I think that by pretending that all artwork is sacred, we unwittingly make failure (acknowledged or not) unacceptable. Of course art is subjective, but that’s precisely the point. Maybe it’s okay to hate a specific piece of public art, if that’s one’s honest response. Maybe we should be encouraging honest responses. Especially to public art, which, unlike a bad performance, is still there the next day and, unlike bad museum or gallery art, is visible to you whether you want it to be or not.

Ian David Moss, Uncomfortable Thoughts: Is Public Art Worthy of Hate? (February 21)

Given all the above, it may seem ironic that it is Kickstarter that has seized the mantle of democratizing access to the arts in the public imagination, rather than the NEA. A closer examination, however, quickly reveals why. In recent years, the NEA has focused on arts access from the perspective of the audience, particularly through geographic reach. The Endowment publishes national studies on arts participation twice a decade, supports touring programs through its network of regional partners, and frequently supports established organizations that are capable of bringing in large crowds consistently. But these measures are often not so friendly to the creator. The NEA’s focus on pre-existing institutions, its requirement that applicants hold tax-exempt status, and its extensive application requirements and lengthy review process all erect barriers to participation no less formidable than those that face artist-entrepreneurs who come to Kickstarter without access to a video camera.

Ian David Moss, Art and Democracy: The NEA, Kickstarter, and Creativity in America (April 9)

So if audience engagement is about utilizing the work of art to facilitate authentic, personally-relevant connections with others and the work of art itself, it seems we have an army of individuals waiting in the wings to be asked to the party. Teaching artists, still frighteningly in the margins of our quest to reinvent arts institutions, are experts in audience engagement. They do the following things exceedingly well:

  • Teach cognitive skills needed to think artistically and creatively
  • Teach aesthetic education, or the ability to make sense of art, not skills-based art-making
  • Understand how to create questions and activities that are relevant to diverse ages and levels of arts education
  • Work across the community, from performing and presenting works for discerning adult audiences as well as in schools in rural and low-income neighborhoods
  • Understand that what they do is spiritual in nature, and help create a link to individuals’ higher selves.

Kelly Dylla, Why Teaching Artists Will Lead the Charge in Audience Engagement (May 10)

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.

Shane Crerar, Understanding Through Tangential Questioning: Art, Dance Your Ph.D., and the Large Hadron Collider (May 16)

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.

—Ian David Moss, In Defense of Logic Models (June 28)

The survey bias may significantly undermine one of the five goals of the study, to “measure levels of cultural engagement, broadly defined” in the Inland Empire and Central Valley. Given that both Phase 1 and Phase 2 display signs of pro-arts bias, it’s difficult to take the reported levels of overall cultural engagement at face value. The four other goals don’t require as broad a view of the data, and Cultural Engagement serves them much better. They include exploring and defining what arts engagement means for the target regions; understanding differences in engagement across demographic cohorts; investigating the settings in which people engage with the arts; and developing recommendations for how Irvine can more effectively support arts and culture. Even if the report’s numbers for the general public represent an already arts-interested population, results showing an expansive definition of arts and culture, differences in engagement among racial/ethnic cohorts, and a wide variety of arts settings are likely relatively unaffected. WolfBrown’s recommendations to adjust Irvine’s funding to reflect these findings seem to rest on a fairly strong foundation.

—Jackie Hasa, Arts Policy Library: Cultural Engagement in California’s Inland Regions (July 3)

Nevertheless, what “Discovering Fiscally Sponsored NYC Dancemakers” does show is that fiscal sponsorship is a major force in the New York City dance world. Sponsored projects account for hundreds of distinct enterprises and at least $3 million in annual expenditures. They reach tens of thousands of audience members and serve something like a thousand artists (assuming a reasonable rate of overlap between projects). And remember, this is just in one discipline and one city of the country.

Ian David Moss, “Discovering Fiscally Sponsored NYC Dancemakers” (September 17)

In any particular place, changes in the proposed indicators will not be attributable to the creative placemaking intervention alone. So imagine the distress of a fundee whose indicators are moving the wrong way and which place them poorly in comparison to others. Area property values may be falling because an environmentally obnoxious plant starts up. Other projects might look great on indicators not because of their initiatives, but because another intervention, like a new light rail system or a new community-based school dramatically changes the neighborhood. What we’d would love to have, but don’t at this point, are sophisticated causal models of creative placemaking…

—Ann Markusen, Fuzzy Concepts, Proxy Data: Why Indicators Won’t Track Creative Placemaking Success (November 9)

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.

Talia Gibas, Unpacking Shared Delivery of Arts Education (December 3)

Here were the most-read articles from the past year, in case you missed them:

  1. Creative Placemaking Has an Outcomes Problem
  2. Public Art and the Challenge of Evaluation
  3. Fuzzy Concepts, Proxy Data: Why Indicators Won’t Track Creative Placemaking Success
  4. In Defense of Logic Models
  5. Unpacking Shared Delivery of Arts Education
  6. Parklets: Coming Soon to a City Near You
  7. Art and Democracy: The NEA, Kickstarter, and Creativity in America
  8. Burning Man is Dead; Long Live Burning Man
  9. Why Teaching Artists Will Lead the Charge in Audience Engagement
  10. Apply for the Spring 2012 Createquity Writing Fellowship
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The Top 10 Arts Policy Stories of 2012

From Santa Cruz Museum of Art and History's Family Fallapalooza

From Santa Cruz Museum of Art and History’s Family Fallapalooza

Each year, Createquity offers a list of the top ten arts policy stories of the past 12 months. You can read the previous editions here: 2009, 2010, and 2011.  The list, like the blog, is focused on the United States, but is not oblivious to news from other parts of the world. This year, for the first time, I opened up the creation of this list to Createquity authors past and present, and I am particularly grateful to Jackie Hasa for contributing the entries for orchestra labor strife and SOPA/PIPA versus the internet. If you’re interested in being a part of a growing and increasingly active team here, a reminder that the deadline for the Createquity Writing Fellowship is coming up on January 8.

2012 was a year of cautious optimism for the arts. As the economy continued its slow recovery, for the first time in four years, government funding at the state level did not see a decline, and the slash-and-burn tax-cutting fervor of political conservatives seemed to be blunted by November’s election results, at least temporarily. There were stories of individual organizations making good, and ambitious initiatives seemed to be around every corner. And yet in certain contexts, the arts were still or newly facing dark days. Arts communities in much of Europe and the Western world struggled with austerity measures, as did orchestra musicians in the United States. And in many Muslim countries, art and artists found themselves in the middle of (or even the target of) oppression, strife, and violence. One comes away from this list with the sense that things are going to be interesting in 2013.

10. Nina Simon reboots the Santa Cruz Museum of Art and History

I don’t normally include innovation stories from rank-and-file arts organizations on this list, but Nina Simon’s transformation of Santa Cruz MAH has been so far-reaching and impressive that its broader fieldwide significance is hard to deny. It’s not just about the numbers, though Simon has those too: attendance has more than doubled, the busiest day drew triple the participants over previous years,and there’s now a $350,000 cash reserve. More interesting, however, is the combination of Simon’s fame and her daring programming that has put the MAH “on the map” in a way that simply wasn’t the case before. Simon is the rarer-than-you-might-think example of a consultant who has successfully transitioned into an executive role, and in the process she has eagerly seized the opportunity to reshape a struggling institution into a playground for her (and the community’s) ideas. Through new programs like the You Can’t Do That in Museums Camp, an exhibition-as-exhibition, and more, Santa Cruz MAH is charting the frontiers of what it means to be a participatory museum, and we get to have a front-row seat by virtue of Simon’s long-running and admirably transparent blog, Museum 2.0. Simon’s approach may not be right for every arts organization, but it surely presents one very clear vision of the future, one to which attention must be paid.

9. The European funding model shows more cracks

Let’s be clear on this one: the core Western European philosophy of seeing culture as an essential arm of government is not on the verge of dissolving, and the wealthy countries that have historically been most faithful to this notion–including Germany, France, and the Scandinavian nations–have so far shown little willingness to abandon it in favor of American-style privatization fever. At the fringes of the European Union and beyond, however, government-centric cultural policies underwent substantial stress in 2012. In Bosnia-Herzegovina, for example, the national museum closed due to lack of funds provided by a non-functioning government; in Greece, spending on the arts has dropped 35% since 2009, and in Italy, Rome’s MAXXI Museum has been put into receivership. Arts Council England, having already suffered major cuts two years ago, is looking at a potential loss of 150 staff, while cities like Newcastle are looking at even more drastic cuts. This is a trend to watch in 2013.

8. SOPA/PIPA vs. the Internet

In early 2012, an enormous Internet protest caused both houses of Congress to indefinitely postpone voting on the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) and the PROTECT-IP Act (PIPA).  These bills sought to regulate Internet content in the name of fighting piracy, which split arts organizations into two opposing camps—those with a vested interest in strong copyright protections, which included many major entertainment industry unions and associations, and those concerned that the bills’ more draconian regulations would dampen creative exchange, which included a broader range of organizations, from McSweeney’s to Fractured Atlas to Dance/USA.  After tabling SOPA/PIPA, Google and other major tech companies helped Congress draft the Online Protection and Enforcement of Digital Trade Act (the OPEN Act) as part of a more balanced approach. Public comments on the OPEN Act are encouraged, even as its sponsor, Darrell Issa (R-CA) pushes for a 2-year moratorium on Internet regulations.  Efforts to control the web also failed on the international stage, when a U.N. committee charged with rewriting Internet rules couldn’t get buy-in from the U.S., U.K., Canada, and dozens of other nations due to concerns over censorship.   Lawmakers may not resolve these debates in 2013, but in the years ahead, we will doubtless see continued efforts to regulate Internet behavior.

7. The arts face violence and turmoil in the Middle East and North Africa

Where to begin? In Syria, where the ancient city of Aleppo has been devastated by that country’s civil war? In Mali, where a fundamentalist group called Ansar Dine has destroyed world-famous heritage sites in Timbuktu and threatened musicians with bodily harm? In Somalia, where some 18 media figures, including a popular poet and playwright, have been assassinated by the Al Qaeda-aligned Al Shabab, for daring to mock the militants in public? In dozens of countries where mass protests broke out, some turning violent, in response to a video made by an American filmmaker and con artist with insulting depictions of the prophet Muhammad? In the midst of all the tragedy, we also had uplifting stories like the role that young artists had in galvanizing Egyptian dissent during the Arab Spring. From our comfortable perch in the US, it can sometimes feel like the arts are a frill, a plaything for the privileged, or simply inconsequential. It seems fair to say that in this part of the world, today, the arts matter.

6. State arts councils turn the corner

State arts councils reversed a four-year slide in 2012, finally coming out of the annual budget appropriations process in the black. The National Assembly of State Arts Agencies reports that total appropriations rose 8.8% in the aggregate to $282.9 million, although most of this change is attributable to substantial increases in Florida, Michigan, and the District of Columbia, each of whose appropriations more than doubled over the previous year. (Michigan’s budget grew an astounding 366.8%, albeit after having sustained equally astounding cuts in previous years.) In addition, two anti-arts governors found themselves with egg on their face this year, as the recently vanquished Kansas Arts Commission made a triumphant return as the Kansas Creative Arts Industries Commission, and the South Carolina Arts Commission fought off yet another veto threat from Governor Nikki Haley. Other states with budget increases of $1 million or more included Connecticut, Minnesota, New York, and Ohio. (Update: See comments for info about Connecticut.) And while the Arizona Commission on the Arts continues to receive no legislative appropriation from its state government, it did win a ten-year re-authorization against the odds. The year was not completely free from bad news, however, as the arts councils in Louisiana, Missouri, New Hampshire, and Utah all suffered double-digit cuts, continuing a trend in the first three states.

5. Labor strife reaches new heights in orchestras and beyond

This year was rife with labor unrest in the arts, most notably among orchestras. Driven by fundraising shortfalls and sometimes debt from capital projects conceived in flush times, musicians walked out—or were locked out—all over the U.S. Unions in Chicago, Atlanta, Milwaukee, Spokane, Louisville, New York, Philadephia, San Antonio, and Indianapolis all successfully reached deals that ranged from modest raises (San Antonio) to 32% wage cuts (Indianapolis). The strife will continue in 2013: in the Twin Cities, both the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra and Minnesota Orchestra have been locked out for months, with no resolution in sight. We’re also seeing some signs of resilience and cooperation, as the previously disbanded Syracuse and Utica Symphony Orchestras vowed to return for the 2012-2013 season. In 2013, we may see more attention paid to the Colorado Symphony as a potential model. Following their own labor conflict in 2011, they revised their contract to allow for more organizational flexibility. For instance, the orchestra can now play in smaller groups, allowing them to perform in communities around Denver in minor venues.

4. Rocco steps down

It wasn’t a surprise, but it was news nonetheless: Rocco Landesman left the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) after three-plus eventful years as Chair. During his tenure, he set the agency on a technocratic course with more explicit attention paid to the instrumental benefits of the arts, particularly their economic value. His highest-profile accomplishment while in office was the creation of two new grant programs to encourage “creative placemaking,” Our Town and ArtPlace (more on that below). His most enduring legacy, however, may turn out to be his work, along with Senior Deputy Chair (and now Acting Chair) Joan Shigekawa, to develop partnerships between the NEA and other branches of federal government and to set the research office on a more strategic path. Lastly, it was during his tenure that the NEA began more explicit efforts to welcome the public into its decision-making process, offering a series of live webcasts of convenings and meetings including those of the National Council of the Arts, the body that oversees the NEA. No hints as of yet as to who may replace him, but we won’t likely know until well into 2013.

3. The Detroit Institute of Arts gets a millage

The Detroit Institute of Arts (DIA) was in a pickle. The venerable museum was facing a financial downward spiral, and it was one of the few institutions of its kind not to receive funding from either its city or state. The solution? Advocate for a millage (a form of property tax) to support the DIA in Wayne, Oakland, and Macomb counties, in exchange for free museum admission for residents from those counties. The measure passed in an election on August 7, and will raise a whopping $23 million annually for the DIA over the tax’s 10-year duration.  There are charitable and less charitable ways to interpret this development, and arts world response seemed to be divided between them. On the one hand, here was an example of a cultural institution demonstrating relevance to its community in the most direct, unimpeachable manner possible: a majority of residents in three counties, urban and suburban, voted to tax themselves so that this institution could survive and thrive. On the other, the DIA raised and spent an enormous sum of money – $2.5 million – getting a piece of legislation passed that benefits only one arts organization – itself. No matter how wonderful the DIA may be, that precedent is a bit worrisome.

2. The creative placemaking backlash

It was just last year that the #1 arts policy story was “Creative placemaking ascendant,” so it’s not surprising to see that the movement has come back to earth in 2012, facing public relations challenges on multiple fronts. Much of the discussion has focused on the way that the NEA’s Our Town program and its private-sector cousin, ArtPlace, plan to track and measure the impact of the grants they make – a dialogue begun here on Createquity with May’s “Creative Placemaking Has an Outcomes Problem” and continuing in the fall with further back-and-forth between researcher Ann Markusen and the NEA’s Jason Schupbach and Sunil Iyengar. But creative placemaking’s PR hiccups this year went much further than that. They started small, with the revelation that much of ArtPlace’s grant funding is geographically restricted, meaning that applicants in many parts of the country face longer odds than others, and a brutal exposé by the Los Angeles Times of problems within the ArtPlace-funded Watts House Project. By the summer it seemed that criticism and skepticism was pouring in far and wide, from sources as diverse as Thomas Frank (author of What’s the Matter with Kansas?) and Roberto Bedoya, and leading to trite headlines like “Hipsters won’t save us” in mainstream publications. To make matters worse, Richard Florida decided in the midst of all this to re-release his most famous and now-controversial bookThe Rise of the Creative Class, prompting a rash of articles attacking the intellectual origins of creative placemaking work. Some of the criticism has been fair and some of it considerably less so, but there’s no sign as yet that the creative placemaking juggernaut is slowing down as a result of it.

1. Election 2012

This last item is unusual, in that it’s more about what didn’t happen this year rather than what did happen. As things turned out, the balance of power in Washington hardly changed at all and we can look forward (I guess?) to divided government for at least the next two years. By contrast, most analysts agree that if Mitt Romney had won the election and Republicans had regained control of the Senate, both of which were distinct possibilities through most of the summer and fall, what little arts policy infrastructure remains at the federal level would very much have been in jeopardy. Romney had made no secret throughout the campaign of his disdain for the NEA, the NEH, and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, even bizarrely choosing to make Big Bird an issue in an otherwise well-received first debate with the President. And it doesn’t take much imagination to conclude that conservatives, fresh off a massive gain in Congressional seats during the previous midterm elections, would have felt empowered to take a hacksaw to domestic spending following even a narrow win. With these outcomes averted, it’s likely that funding levels will stay steady or suffer relatively minor cuts in the near future, though with the seemingly endless negotiations over the “fiscal cliff” and debt ceiling, anything could still happen. Election Day also saw the unfolding of some arts policy stories at a local level, most significantly the passage of an important new income tax in Portland that will fund arts grants and arts education.

Honorable mention:

Happy New Year to Createquity readers far and wide, and we look forward to what 2013 brings!


Around the horn: Wayne LaPierre edition


  • The Detroit Institute of the Arts, having convinced residents in three counties to pass a property tax supporting the institution in exchange for free admission, is facing a lawsuit on the basis that the deal doesn’t include special exhibits.




  • Interesting and entertaining perspective on collective impact and the need to support direct-service and backbone organizations simultaneously, with response by FSG’s Emily Gorin Malenfant.
  • More examples of transparency in action: Kevin Bolduc and the Center for Effective Philanthropy are revamping their flagship product, the Grantee Perception Report, in response to feedback from customers - and blogging about the process.
  • Peter Singer (author, The Life You Can Saveon donating to the arts:

    “Philanthropy for the arts or for cultural activities is, in a world like this one, morally dubious,” he writes in his book.

    He has heard two counterarguments repeatedly since the book came out in 2009. One points to the work that, say, art museums do with disadvantaged children. “I can see how that would be a worthwhile thing to do,” he said. “I’m not sure how well it compares with saving kids from dying from diarrhea or malaria.”

    Then, there are the crumbling buildings again. “I’m certainly not suggesting that when the roof of the Met starts to leak that you don’t repair it,” he said. “But I would not give a penny to the Met to buy another painting.”



  • The Strategic National Arts Alumni Project (SNAAP), an annual survey of arts training program graduates, has published “Painting with Broader Strokes: Reassessing the Value of an Arts Degree,” a supplementary report on the 2010 survey results by Danielle Lindemann and Steven Tepper.
  • Maribel Alvarez offers a review of Maria Rosario Jackson’s latest for LINC, “Developing Artist-Driven Spaces in Marginalized Communities.”
  • The James Irvine Fund has released a report on the its Arts Innovation Fund grants (undertaken under its previous program strategy last decade), conducted by Slover Linett Strategies. The report is accompanied by a nifty tablet-friendly interactive highlighting key findings.
  • The Future of Music Coalition is leveraging its Artist Revenue Streams data to engage in some mythbusting regarding how musicians make (or don’t make) money.
  • Arts education data in Los Angeles shows a complex picture of trends over the past 15 years.
  • Wow. Did you know that more than half of the US patent lawsuits in 2012 were brought by “non-practicing entities” – also known as patent trolls? These companies obtain patents with no intention of actually using them for inventions, but instead to “threaten young companies with lawsuits as soon as they obtain funding; or hamstring older companies, forcing them to divert cash into costly licenses for absurd patents rather than pay for costly defenses in uncertain, patent-friendly jurisdictions.” Good to know for anyone (such as Richard Florida types) relying on patents issued as a measure of innovation. Yuck.
  • As mentioned here previously, the Twin Cities is currently suffering a symphony drought, with both the Minnesota and St. Paul Chamber Orchestras shut down in the midst of labor strife. This probably isn’t the most empathetic response imaginable, but my first thought upon reading the headline “Orchestra fans getting restless” in the Minneapolis Star-Tribune was, wouldn’t this be a great natural experiment for measuring the value of orchestras to a community? I mean, you don’t realize how much you appreciate something until it’s gone, right? The evidence presented in the article suggests that some audience members are finding substitutes (“a few classical groups have noticed a spike in ticket sales”), but a substantial number are staying home. Independently organized concerts by locked-out members of the Minnesota Orchestra are selling out quickly, though obviously in an environment of substantially reduced competition. I could imagine all sorts of possibilities – a rare economic impact study that actually takes into account opportunity costs, for example, or a more scientific survey of orchestra subscribers to find out what they’re doing with themselves at night.
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Mood affiliation and group loyalty in the arts

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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.


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!


  • 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.



  • 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.



  • 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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