[Createquity Reruns] The Future of Leadership

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ten Strategies for Engaging Generation Y in the Nonprofit Workplace

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

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

Further (recent) reading:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So how do arts education policies look in other countries?

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

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

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

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

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

The United States

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

Australia Sample

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

South Africa

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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[Createquity Reruns] MOOCs and the Future of Arts Education

(Talia Gibas week at Createquity continues with Talia’s analysis from last fall of how MOOCs (Massively Open Online Courses) could impact our practice and advocacy for arts education. As enlightening as this post is on its primary topic, my favorite part is Talia’s anecdote about a(n e)special(ly nerdy) birthday present from her dad. -IDM)

Image by Giulia Forsythe via Flickr

Image by Giulia Forsythe via Flickr

The field of education is swimming in acronyms (care to forecast what a new AYP system will look like once CCSS fully replaces NCLB?) but a new one, MOOC, is causing a stir. MOOC, which as a New York Times columnist dramatically emphasizes, “aptly rhymes with nuke,” is shorthand for Massive Open Online Course.

In the simplest of terms, a MOOC is an online mechanism for teaching and learning that (metaphorically) blows the walls off the traditional classroom, and the gates off the traditional campus. In a MOOC, the instructor still stands at “the front of the room” and delivers content, but the audience has expanded to hundreds of thousands of people. And most of those people haven’t had to go through an arduous admissions process or, better yet, pay a nickel to get in the (virtual) door.

It’s important to pause here and stress what a MOOC is not. The online course you took for credit three years ago? Not open to everyone and probably didn’t have enrollment surpassing 100; not a MOOC. The free webinar your local funder hosted about a new grant program? While informative, it was not a sequential, structured course offering, therefore not a MOOC. The free course material, including videotaped lectures, course notes and reading lists you happily lap up on MIT Open CourseWare or Open Yale Courses? The content may be fascinating, but as it is posted in bulk without a registration process, live instructor, or formal assessment systems, it is also not a MOOC.

Online learning models have existed since the dawn of the Internet, and private universities have experimented with posting free content for years. The concept of a MOOC, however, is fairly new. One of its more obvious precursors, Khan Academy, is only about seven years old. Khan Academy began when its founder, Salman Khan, posted short, low-tech videos on YouTube to help his nieces and nephews learn math thousands of miles away. Today it boasts more than four thousand short videos and exercises on everything from arithmetic to physics, and interactive learning dashboards that help students pick their next lessons. According to lead developer Ben Kamens, it has about fifteen million registered users.

Khan Academy gained significant attention in 2010 with large grants from Google and The Gates Foundation. Around the same time, higher education began experimenting with putting content online in new ways. In 2011, Stanford professor and artificial intelligence guru Sebastian Thrun offered his popular Introduction to Artificial Intelligence course to anyone with an Internet connection and ten hours a week to spare. A year later he founded Udacity, one of the two most well known MOOC providers. The other, Coursera, was launched by Thrun’s Stanford colleagues the same year. Meanwhile, Harvard and MIT teamed up to launch EdX. Berkeley, Princeton, Columbia, and others jumped on the MOOC bandwagon, adding courses to the Udacity, Coursera, and EdX rosters. Suddenly MOOCs were all the rage. Little more than a year after the silly-sounded acronym was coined, the California senate passed a bill requiring universities in the state to offer and provide credit for MOOC alternatives to “oversubscribed” classes – i.e. courses that students needed to graduate, but were shut out of as a result of California’s pernicious budget issues.

The diversity of MOOC offerings has expanded as rapidly as their number. The majority of early MOOCs (and remember, by “early” I mean they launched waaaay back in 2011) tended toward math, engineering, and computer science courses with multiple-choice exams that could easily be processed by computer. As of this writing, however, Udacity has added “design” as a new course category. Coursera, meanwhile, boasts courses on everything from poetry to comic books to public speaking. Coursera has also partnered with alternative education sites, including the Museum of Modern Art, which recently offered a MOOC on museum teaching strategies for classroom educators, and the American Museum of Natural History.

Now to those of you who, like me, have found yourselves swept up in reminiscences of the reading list for an awesome philosophy course you took in college, a MOOC sounds the best thing since your dad gave you a set of “great lectures on world history” CDs for your birthday (‘fess up: you loved them). But in their short-but-swift lifespans, MOOCs have inspired their fair share of controversies. Some are small-scale and amusing hiccups, like the case of the failed MOOC about how to teach a MOOC. Others, however, raise deeper questions about pedagogy and quality control. While “massive” numbers of people sign up for MOOCs, very few – according to one study, less than 7 percent – stick around to earn course credit or a formal certificate of completion. How do you prevent them from cheating—and how do you determine whether they are learning anything? A professor at the University of California, Irvine abruptly quit teaching a MOOC on microeconomics, citing difficulties in getting his thousands of students to read required material. Meanwhile, philosophy professors at San Jose State University formally protested the school’s plans to partner with EdX and Udacity, arguing MOOCs, “designed by elite universities and widely licensed by others, would compromise the quality of education, stifle diverse viewpoints and lead to the dismantling of public universities.” San Jose State went ahead with its plans and suffered another setback a few months later, when more than half of the students signed up for the first round of MOOCs failed their final exams. The university has since put its MOOC experiment on hold, though early rumblings indicate it may return, with some changes, next year.

Despite these difficulties, there are enough success stories that interest in MOOCs shows no sign of waning. MOOCs may well be on the verge of disrupting higher education in the United States. If they do, they will have a revolutionary impact on K-12 public education – and, by extension, arts education. At first glance, MOOCs don’t appear particularly relevant to the arts. While a handful of arts-focused institutions have jumped on the bandwagon early (offering courses like “Creating Site-Specific Dance and Performance Works”), so much of best practice in arts education relies on hands-on experience that it’s difficult to grasp at first how online platforms could impact it. However, arts educators working with public school systems on a frequent basis need to pay attention for three reasons:

  1. Online learning may soon move to the top of any district official’s priority list. An effective K-12 system must provide a clear pathway to higher education, and our new Common Core State Standards put an unprecedented emphasis on college and career readiness. If our notion of how college is structured changes, traditional K-12 classrooms will shift accordingly.
  2. If it does, those in the arts and humanities fields will have some catching up to do. Unsurprisingly given MOOCs’ origins, people in science and technology fields seem more favorably abuzz about MOOCs than those in the arts and humanities. While pedagogical concerns are valid, insisting our fields cannot be translated to a MOOC-like learning environment may set up an unhelpful contrast between artistic and scientific disciplines. Not long ago the University of Florida entertained a controversial “differential tuition” proposal that would have involved charging students less to enroll in science, technology and engineering courses than arts and humanities courses. The university’s rationale was to provide students added incentive to enter fields it felt spur economic development. While the debate never got into MOOCs specifically, it may foreshadow cost/benefit analyses that will only get more pointed if even a handful of MOOCs succeed. And speaking of cost/benefit analyses…
  3. If MOOCs take off, they will turn the economics of education upside down. In their current structure – large, easily accessible, and most importantly, freeMOOCs may be to colleges and universities what Napster was to the music industry. MIT’s Michael Cusumano, pointing to the decline of newspapers, magazines, and the book publishing industry, cautions that price is an important signal of value, and that “’free’ sends a signal to the world that what you are offering has little value and may not be worth paying for.” He writes, “Stanford, MIT, Harvard et al, have already opened a kind of ‘Pandora’s box,’ and there may be no easy way to go back and charge students even a moderately high tuition rate for open online courses.” With the cost of higher education ballooning out of control, the idea that MOOCs signal it “isn’t worth paying for” may strike some as an overdue but welcome reality check. However, with Harvard University recently issuing a call to its alumni to serve as volunteer teaching assistants for the MOOC version of a popular philosophy course, one can’t help but wonder if a new precedent is being set for the teaching profession. Is it possible that in the not-so-distant future, a handful of academic hotshots fresh off their TEDTalks will be paid handsomely, while their discussion groups are farmed out to unpaid interns or retirees?

Taking these three points together and thinking about the implications for arts education, the issue of cost immediately stands out. While cheaper isn’t always better, it is more tempting, particularly to elected officials and the public employees who work for them. A few months ago the Georgia Institute of Technology announced it would offer a new, virtual master’s program at one-sixth the price of its traditional master’s degree. If this learning paradigm becomes common practice in higher education, K-12 will try to follow suit. Working with a school to include and integrate the arts, though, particularly through a shared delivery model, takes a lot of time and money. Arts educators will therefore need to be prepared to articulate how their work with students and teachers can complement and enhance the broad financial and pedagogical shifts that MOOCs portend.

That means starting to think now about how arts education will translate to a different platform. A few years ago, Thomas Friedman argued that any jobs that can be outsourced, will be outsourced; by the same token, any knowledge and skills that can be taught online will be taught online. Certain components of arts education are likely to transfer well: basic vocabulary, the elements of visual art, how to read music. The questions that remain are a) which components can’t be included, and b) which of those are most relevant and engaging to students on their own terms. A recent report commissioned by The Wallace Foundation finds increasing numbers of students using online tools and digital technology to pursue “interest-driven arts learning,” a “form of participation where youths research and learn about their creative passions and hobbies, connecting them to peers with the same interests who may extend beyond their immediate social circle.” In doing so, students appear to be gaining the same skills they would otherwise acquire in K-12 learning settings. The report also notes a contrast between the digital tools young people use when they make art on their own and the traditional materials and disciplines they encounter in schools. Does this mean that traditional artistic disciplines will become obsolete in classrooms? No, but it may mean that they are used explicitly to reinforce skills like precision and attention to detail that students explore outside of the classroom first, and then can later apply directly to their work in Sketchbook Pro.

This idea that students use in-class time to practice, refine and experiment with basic skills they learn online describes a “flipped classroom,” and also represents the most optimistic scenario for MOOCs in the long run. In a flipped classroom, the traditional roles of classroom time and homework are reversed. Rather than learn a concept in the classroom and then apply it at home via worksheets, students acquire content online via a pre-taped lecture or Khan-Academy-like lessons. Then they come to class to discuss and experiment.

Infographic from knewton.com/flipped-classroom

Infographic from Knewton

In this model, teachers are less content experts and more partners in learning. TED Prize winner Sugata Mitra took this idea further with his vision of a “School in the Cloud” in which learning is entirely self-directed and a network of experts and educators (many retired, it’s worth noting) support children across the world. If MOOCs find their footing in education, they could serve as a “great equalizer” of educational opportunity. Beginning in the 1970s, public television via Children’s Television Workshop (aka Sesame Street) was developed specifically to reduce disparities in kindergarten readiness between high- and low-income toddlers. By most measures, it succeeded. If online learning, via some version of MOOCs, were designed for children with similar pedagogical rigor, classroom time could free up significantly. Cross-disciplinary applications, project-based learning, partnerships with cultural and community arts providers… these could become the core of what happens in all schools.

That’s the optimistic scenario. The pessimistic scenario reserves everything I’ve described above for the wealthy. In the pessimistic scenario, second-tier and community colleges are no longer economically viable, leaving students who cannot afford to attend bricks-and-mortar colleges to navigate through a maze of MOOCs. Those with the innate motivation and inquisitiveness to create a “school in the cloud” do so; the rest do not. ”Public” education shifts to an online platform. Students in wealthy districts with active PTAs and education foundations have the means to keep their bricks and mortar classrooms as spaces of inquiry and experimentation. The rest supply their students with iPads (as some large, urban districts are already doing) but not much else.

I’m an optimist by nature, but avoiding the latter scenario won’t be easy. Recent research out of Stanford points to a widening gap between rich and middle/lower income families’ abilities to invest in their children: to provide tutors, after-school dance classes, and opportunities to travel and explore. As our Secretary of Education put it while summarizing national data on arts in schools, “the arts opportunity gap is widest for children in high-poverty schools.” If MOOCs and online learning take off, it will be much easier for arts education providers to adapt within schools where they have existing relationships – and which are probably wealthier — than to start from scratch elsewhere. For MOOCs to “level the playing field” rather than widen the gap, we will need to make basic digital infrastructure available to all students and target online learning efforts toward vulnerable populations. Sesame Street did it with toddlers decades ago using a public broadcasting forum, but unfortunately the Internet doesn’t yet have such an equivalent. The “digital divide,” meanwhile, is persistent; while broadband access has improved for most Americans in the last few years, many schools continue to lag far behind.

MOOCs are extremely young, and for all their hype, may flame out as quickly as they rose to prominence. We are prone to misreading the impact technology will have on our lives. When televisions first became ubiquitous in American households, those in the Instructional TV movement opined that televisions (or Big Bird?) might replace teachers. They were, obviously, wrong. Even if they are a passing fad, though, MOOCs can still teach us something about the pedagogical benefits and pitfalls of online learning, and about cracks in the economics of public education. Many arts educators cite “21st-century skills” and the demands of our “increasingly connected world” as an argument for teaching dance, drama, visual art and music in classrooms. As we consider the implications of increased connectivity for our students, we should take care to do the same for ourselves.

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[Createquity Reruns] Unpacking Shared Delivery of Arts Education

(This week in Createquity Reruns, we’re celebrating Talia Gibas, who has been involved with the site in one way or another continuously since applying for the Createquity Fellowship two years ago. Now a stalwart member of the editorial team, she has been our resident arts education expert for all that time. Here, in one of her first articles for Createquity, she breaks down the phenomenon of “shared delivery” for clueless people like me who need a helping hand to understand the lingo. -IDM)

Venn diagrams. Photograph by Demetri Mouratis

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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[Createquity Reruns] Beyond Gamification: Alternative Models for Games in Arts Organizations

(Our weeklong celebration of Createquity’s Jackie Hasa concludes with the second installment of Jackie’s analysis of the role of games in the arts. This entry explains why so-called “gamification” is weak tea when it comes to exploring the true potential of interactivity, and offers a number of suggestions for how arts organizations can make better use of the principles of gaming in their programming. -IDM)

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.

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[Createquity Reruns] Games and the Arts in the 21st Century: An Introduction

(Jackie Hasa week at Createquity continues with the first entry in Jackie’s two-part series on games and the arts, likewise dating from Jackie’s time as a Createquity Fellow in the spring of 2012. Enjoy! -IDM)

The idea of using games as a new way to engage audiences has gained immense traction in the last 5 years. The museum world in particular has seen a great deal of discussion on this topic, from Nina Simon’s dozens of posts to this year’s Museums and the Web conference; these conversations are a natural outcropping of a much larger discussion about games in our everyday lives. I’ll be writing more about games in a later post, but I hope this one serves as an introduction to why this dialogue is happening now and what is at stake for the arts.

So why is everyone suddenly talking about games? Put simply, the immense growth of the video and social gaming industry is inspiring innovators across many sectors to ask how they might hitch themselves to this rising star. In 2011, video and computer games became the U.K.’s biggest entertainment sales category at 40.2% of the market, beating out music and video. The Entertainment Software Association notes the following staggering statistics about the 2010 U.S. market:

  • Consumers spent $25.1 billion on video games, hardware, and accessories in 2010.
  • 72% of U.S. households play computer or video games.
  • 42% of all game players are women. In fact, women over the age of 18 represent a significantly greater portion of the game-playing population (37%) than boys age 17 or younger (13%).
  • In 2011, 29% of Americans over the age of 50 played video games, an increase from 9% in 1999.

Note: Sales numbers provided here include console and PC sales only; the $25.1 billion sales total for 2010 provided by the Entertainment Software Association includes a broader range of video/online games.

The implications of this data extend far beyond the screens that limit video games to the virtual world—their newfound cultural ubiquity means that huge numbers of the population can now more easily recognize tropes and imagery from video games in real-world settings. The tools of the online gaming world (getting points for accomplishments, ascending in level, unlocking achievements, and participating virtual social circles) have become powerful ways to engage an audience for any organization, whether an arts nonprofit or a private company. Foursquare is just one well-known example of this phenomenon, as participants receive points and other rewards for visiting a particular venue in real life.

Academics and game designers have generated a number of theories about the power of these kinds of games. Jane McGonigal, probably the most visible representative of this cohort, has made a name for herself arguing that games can literally make the world a better, happier place by harnessing their power in the service of solving real-world problems, from bodily injury to oil shortages. In his review of her recent book, Reality Is Broken, Ian Bogost argues that games allow for engagement with real-world problems by providing complex modes of inquiry rather than clear solutions. Finally, folks like Jesse Schell imagine a terrifying future in which nearly every activity we undertake is part of a game in which we accumulate points via specially-designed sensors. These are powerful ideas, and they are continuing to gain traction as technology allows for the omnipresence of games in our lives through smartphones, ultralight computers, tablets, wireless internet, and even Schell’s toothbrush sensors.

While games can clearly serve numerous social, educational, or marketing goals, the debate over whether they might form a legitimate arts genre rages on. Roger Ebert famously thinks not, and undoubtedly not all games should be considered art, since most are created primarily as products to be sold to a mass audience. However, more and more institutions are placing at least certain kinds of games on the art pedestal. In just the past few years, Georgia Tech has co-hosted an Art History of Games conference, the Computerspielemuseum (Museum of Computer Games) opened in Berlin, and the Grand Palais in Paris hosted the Game Story exhibition; in May, MoMA will host a program titled “The Game as an Art Form.” This proliferation is rooted in games’ fundamental resemblance to conceptual art in which the audience, or player, is integral to the work. One can cite a range of work in this vein, including Yoko Ono’s instructional Grapefruit, Allan Kaprow’s performances, a great deal of the art produced for Burning Man, and Punchdrunk’s ongoing Sleep No More production. Other pieces like Manchester street artist Filthy Luker’s playable Space Invaders installation pay more direct homage to popular games.

Filthy Luker’s Space Invaders installation. Credit: Duncan Hull.

Arts organizations stand to gain a great deal from refining their relationship to video and real-world games. As games industry growth outpaces already-recognized art forms like music and video, institutions should certainly incorporate games into a larger marketing or audience engagement strategy to stay relevant. But beyond that, arts organizations can positively affect the trajectory of games in culture through serious investment in programs like commissions, residencies, or cross-sector collaborations. When music and video became dominant entertainment forms, they were embraced and challenged by artists willing to push the boundaries of popular practice, and arts institutions can and should encourage the same evolution in games.

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[Createquity Reruns] Parklets: Coming Soon to a City Near You

(Last week may have been tax policy week at Createquity, but it doubled as John Carnwath week, as both of the articles he’s written for the site were featured. So this week we’re following suit with three articles by Jackie Hasa, who likewise joined the Createquity editorial team in June. This one was Jackie’s first article for the Createquity Fellowship back in March 2012 – an examination of the phenomenon of parklets in San Francisco and their implications for the arts. – IDM)

The original PARK(ing) Day parklet. Credit: Rebar

In the last year, parklets have taken San Francisco by storm. At the start of 2011, San Francisco had four of these sidewalk-adjacent, itty-bitty public spaces created by repurposing parking spots. Now there are more than 20, with dozens of others in various stages of review. Other cities, including New York, Long Beach, Los Angeles, Philadelphia, and Vancouver have taken notice of this phenomenon as a cheap, flexible way to enliven their streets with small seating areas and green spaces. Their importance for even non-design-oriented arts organizations is twofold: 1) their evolution from guerilla art action to policy success can serve as a blueprint in other arenas; and 2) parklet programs in development present opportunities for local arts organizations to shape these urban interventions to serve their communities.

While urban planners laud parklets as revolutionary uses of public space, their short evolution from the original PARK(ing) Day in 2005 to a celebrated piece of city policy in 2011 is perhaps just as astonishing. PARK(ing) Day began in San Francisco, when the design collective Rebar paid a parking meter, set up some sod, a tree, and a bench, and used the space as a park until the two hours on the meter ran out. Then, they rolled up the sod, and the space went back to its original car-oriented purpose. By 2011, it had turned into a decentralized worldwide event, in which thousands of individuals and groups created 975 informal parks for a day across six continents. In San Francisco, the Pavement to Parks program now officially supports the development of more permanent parklets with a permitting process and guidelines. Among other things, the guidelines stipulate that all parklets are sponsored and managed by a private partner, all seating must remain available for public use, and at least some of the seating must be permanent.

The first official parklet in San Francisco, at Mojo Bicycle Cafe on Divisadero. Credit: Jeremy A. Shaw

Although there has been a great deal of support for parklets, thus far, most in San Francisco don’t quite fulfill their promise. Arts organizations have a fantastic opportunity to improve upon their current form. The requirement for a local business steward means that parklets often end up serving as little more than well-designed outdoor seating areas for cafes or restaurants, albeit technically open to the public. In a review of 19 parklets, John King, the San Francisco Chronicle’s architecture critic, found that fifteen are managed by a cafe or restaurant, two are managed by other businesses, and one is adjacent to a private home. The 19th? An example to us all: the art gallery Fabric 8 is managing its own parklet, which will host art installations that rotate each year. The current installation, by Erik Otto, is available for purchase and can be moved to another location at the close of its exhibition at Fabric 8.

Fabric 8′s first parklet, by Eric Otto. Credit: Fabric 8

Arts organizations in San Francisco and elsewhere should follow Fabric 8’s example and push for parklets that support public programs rather than supplement local businesses. A California Planning and Development Report already contains the kernel of a great idea–the creation of a sponsorship program to cover the $5,000-$10,000 in parklet start-up costs for worthy organizations that can’t afford it. Other possibilities include the coordination of parklet design to enhance (or generate!) arts districts, the development of a single permit to utilize all of a neighborhood’s parklets for a mobile arts event, the formation of new arts-business partnerships for parklet stewardship, or the creation of parklets specifically for performance. Parklets represent a version of place-based community development that even small arts organizations can deploy to achieve great impact.

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[Createquity Reruns] The Bottom Line on Film Tax Credits

(Tax policy week at Createquity concludes with our most popular article thus far in 2014, John Carnwath’s investigation of the value of tax credits for film and television. Are they worth the hassle? Maybe, but probably not to the extent that lawmakers in New Jersey, California, and Austin think. -IDM)

Photo by vancouverfilmschool. Some rights reserved.

Photo by vancouverfilmschool. Some rights reserved.

About a year ago the New York Times ran a series of articles on corporate tax breaks, complete with a web-accessible database of state tax incentives for businesses. All in all, the Times discovered 1,874 state and local incentive programs that give out a combined $80.4 billion to corporations each year. To put those figures in perspective, the tax breaks doled out by Oklahoma and West Virginia are worth about one third of those states’ entire budgets. Manufacturing is the most highly subsidized industry, receiving about $25.5 billion in tax breaks annually, followed by agriculture and oil, gas, and mining. Fourth on the list? Surprisingly, it’s the motion picture industry, which nets about $1.5 billion in state and local tax credits per year.

What’s behind this $1.5 billion tax rebate for filmmakers? While industries such as agriculture have been subsidized for decades, state and local tax credits for film productions are relatively new. Louisiana was the first state to introduce such an incentive in 1991, and other states were slow to follow suit. Only four states offered incentives to movie producers in 2002, but once the idea caught on it spread like wildfire, and by 2010 forty-four states offered some form of incentive to filmmakers. The specifics vary from state to state, but typically the financial incentives (for which TV productions, industrial videos, commercials and sometimes even video games are eligible) consist of some combination of tax credits, cash rebates, employment rebates, sales tax and lodging exemptions, and fee-free use of shooting locations. In order to qualify, productions must generally satisfy certain conditions, such as spending some percentage of their total budget locally, shooting a certain percentage of the footage in-state, employing a certain quota of local residents, or exceeding a minimum amount of in-state spending. In addition, some states require that the action of the films take place in a local setting or even demand that the film depict their state in a positive light in order to qualify for tax credits.

To be clear, the film industry isn’t supported out of any particular concern for cinematic art, nor are politicians incentivizing the production of films because they think we’d be better off as a society if we had more movies and TV shows to watch. As is the case with many other corporate tax breaks, the main reason for offering tax credits for filmmakers is simply jobs, jobs, jobs. State officials don’t particularly care if a company is making movies, auto parts, or toothpaste—if it has the potential to create a lot of jobs for local residents, officials want those jobs in their legislative district rather than someone else’s. They are willing to dangle tax breaks as bait on the assumption that the jobs created by the firm will bring more money into the local economy than the government will lose by providing the tax break.

So how effective are the tax incentives for film and TV productions in generating jobs and/or revenue? That depends on whom you ask. Or who funds the research you’re looking at.

The ROI of film tax credits

Reports funded by the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA), the main lobbying arm for the movie industry, consistently show a positive return on investment for state treasuries. For example, a recent study of the New York State Film Production Tax Credit commissioned by MPAA found that “for every $1.00 of credit distributed, the State and City received a combined $2.23 in taxes.” In Florida, a research firm that was hired by MPAA found that $118.7 million in tax credits yielded $140.44 million in 2011/12, for a more modest return of $1.18 to the dollar.

By contrast, a recent report on Louisiana’s Motion Picture Tax Credit by the State Auditor found that the state supported the film industry with $196.8 million in tax credits and only received $27 million in additional taxes in return (about $0.14 for every dollar spent), and the Massachusetts Department of Revenue found its return to be only marginally higher at $0.16 per dollar spent. A 2011 article by the Tax Foundation lists several other studies by state agencies and a few that were funded by MPAA exhibiting the same discrepancies.

How do these studies arrive at such vastly different numbers? To get some insight into this question, we can take a look at two conflicting reports on Massachusetts’ Film Industry Tax Incentives that were published this year: one by the Massachusetts Department of Revenue (mentioned above) and the other by HR&A Advisors for MPAA.

MA Department of Revenue


Tax credits awarded

$44 million

$37.9 million

Taxes generated

$6.9 million

Not reported

Jobs created in MA



Economic Impact

$118 million

$375.3 million

* This is not explicitly reported as the number of jobs created, but is implied by the statement, “Massachusetts motion picture production employment increased 46.1 percent from 1,630 jobs in 2006 [the year the tax incentives were introduced] to 2,380 jobs in 2011.”


As far as I can tell, the disparity, most notably in the estimated economic impact, results primarily from the following differences in the models and their underlying assumptions:

  • Opportunity costs: Since the state is required to maintain a balanced budget, the Department of Revenue assumes that any incentives that are provided to the film industry have to be paid for by saving money somewhere else in the budget. So instead of just calculating the positive effect that the tax credits have on creating jobs, their analysis factors in the number of jobs that will be lost in other areas of the state’s budget due to cuts. Of course, these cuts have negative ripple effects throughout the economy just as the newly created jobs have a positive impact. By contrast, the MPAA report only looks at the positive effects of the new jobs that are created.
  • Wages paid to non-residents: Both reports acknowledge that some of the jobs that are created by film and television productions in Massachusetts will be held by people whose primary residence is in another state; however, the manner in which the studies correct for that varies considerably. The MPAA report merely exempts “individual employee salaries over $1 million, as it is assumed the majority of these employees are non-residents, so multiplier effects associated with this spending are not realized within the Commonwealth.” The Department of Revenue similarly excludes all payments to recipients earning more than $1 million per production, but in addition it excludes 95% of all other wages paid to non-residents. The rationale is that most of the lodging, food, and incidental expenses for non-resident employees are paid for by the production company, so that only a small portion (estimated at 5%) of the non-resident workers’ paychecks gets spent in-state.
  • “New” spending vs. total spending: The Massachusetts Department of Revenue is careful to exclude the production of TV shows and commercials that would have been produced in-state even in the absence of the incentives. This wasn’t of great consequence in 2011 (the latest year included in the study), since $174.6 million of the $176 million spent on TV and movie productions was deemed to be “new” (i.e., induced by the tax credit). However, in 2010 41% of the total film production spending ($29.5 million out of $71.6 million) would have been expected to take place in Massachusetts even if no tax credit had existed. (The large difference between 2010 and 2011 was attributed to the discontinuation of some long-running TV programs that were produced locally). The MPAA study doesn’t factor pre-existing film production into the equation, preferring to attribute all of the current film production activity to the incentive.

Despite the considerable differences between the studies’ findings and their disagreement about whether the incentives produce a net benefit for the state treasury, everyone agrees that the tax credits have a positive impact on the economy. For example, the 2013 audit in Louisiana found that every dollar of film tax credits resulted in $5.40 in economic output. However, that’s not really saying much, since almost any form of government spending is likely to have a positive impact on the economy. The question is how the impact of the tax credits compares to other things the state could have done with the money.

What about those jobs?

As mentioned above, in most cases the objective of these tax incentives isn’t necessarily revenue generation but job creation. Are film tax credits efficient means of creating jobs? One way to consider that question is how many tax dollars are being spent for each job that is created. According to the Department of Revenue, Massachusetts’s taxpayers had to fork out $128,575 in tax credits for each job that was created in the film industry in 2011. Seeing as the median wage for jobs created by the film industry in Massachusetts was $70,657, that doesn’t seem like a very good deal. The state could have employed almost twice as many people at the same income level if it had simply hired those people directly, instead of subsidizing motion picture companies. The picture looks somewhat better if one uses MPAA’s numbers, but it’s still not great. Assuming (generously) that all of the jobs that were created by TV and film productions between 2006 and 2011 can be attributed to the tax incentives, 750 jobs were created in 2011 at a cost of $37.9 million. That comes out to $50,533 in state spending for each new job. So even using MPAA’s more favorable numbers, it seems that the state paid more than two thirds of the wages for the film industry’s new employees.

Film-induced tourism

One factor we haven’t considered yet is the effect that film and television may have on tourism and the public perception of the locations where they are produced. There are certainly a number of cases in which blockbuster films have led to significant increases in tourism, as The Lord of the Rings trilogy did for New Zealand. And once local residents get past the street closures, traffic delays, and general nuisance that come with a major movie shoot, I’m sure many would agree that there’s some excitement in spotting Hollywood celebrities at local restaurants. There’s also some satisfaction to be gained from recognizing familiar landmarks on the big screen when you see movies that were shot in your hometown. In that sense, local film productions may promote a sense of pride in and attachment to a location, so that tax credits could be justified on the basis that they improve the quality of life for local residents. If nothing else, they give them something to talk about.

Both the tourism and public opinion arguments are valid reasons to support tax incentives for movies. It therefore seems appropriate that MPAA includes film-induced tourism in its recent reports on state tax incentives (in Florida and Massachusetts); however, the measurement of this effect remains problematic. Having consulted twelve representatives of Florida’s tourist industry, MPAA figures (conservatively, it claims) that 5% of all tourism in the state can be considered film-induced tourism and can therefore be added to the economic impact of the film tax incentives. The MPAA-commissioned study of Massachusetts’s film tax incentives uses a different methodology that was employed to assess the value of New Zealand’s exposure in the Lord of the Rings and Stockholm’s exposure in the Millennium trilogy. This approach equates each recognizable shot of the location where the film is set with the publicity that is achieved by a 30-second paid advertisement for the destination on primetime television. The cost of purchasing enough airtime on television to reach an equivalent number of viewers is then assumed to be the value of the advertising that the film provides for the location.

However, if tourism is the objective, the tax credits shouldn’t be granted to all movies indiscriminately. Only those that showcase the location prominently and identifiably should be eligible. I wouldn’t doubt that ABC’s Nashville is having a positive effect on the psyche of that city’s residents as well as on tourism and the local economy. As the assistant commissioner of communications and creative services for the Tennessee Department of Economic and Community Development noted, “You’re not only getting the 20-plus episodes per season”: every advertisement and preview for the TV show is essentially advertising Nashville. By contrast, it’s hard to imagine how shooting Homeland in Charlotte, NC, would do much to increase public awareness of North Carolina’s attractions, given that the show is supposed to be taking place in Washington, DC. Incentive programs that require films to be set in-state and/or depict the location in a positive light make a lot of sense from this perspective (though the latter condition may seem dangerously close to censorship).

So where does that leave us?

In December, the Bureau of Economic Analysis, which among other things is responsible for determining our nation’s Gross Domestic Product, for the first time released a calculation of the economic value of the arts and cultural production in the United States. According to the BEA, arts and culture contributed $504 billion to our GDP in 2011. To put that in perspective, that’s almost twice the $289.9 billion generated by mining (which includes all oil and gas extraction). The motion picture industry alone added $83.2 billion to the US economy, which, believe it or not, is more than the total value added by automobile manufacturing. The motion picture industry has long been touting its economic significance to argue for more favorable tax treatment, and these latest numbers will only bolster its case.

Yet critics of film tax credits claim that these policies do nothing to stimulate the economy and merely pit states against each other in a race to the bottom. Even some people within the movie industry acknowledge that if the tax credits are the only thing that a certain location has going for it, business will likely move somewhere else as soon as the financial incentives are rolled back or some other state offers even bigger tax breaks. Once the states have foregone all tax revenue from movie producers in the rush to compete with other locations, the playing field will once again be even and the industry will settle where it was to begin with—the only difference being that the production companies no longer pay taxes and state budgets are even tighter than before.

I haven’t found any data to indicate whether or not the incentives are increasing due to competition between states, but from a theoretical perspective the race-to-the-bottom argument is compelling. Even if one believes the MPAA studies that show a positive return on the states’ investment, if the states keep raising their tax incentives to compete with their neighbors, the public benefits of attracting motion picture productions will eventually approach zero.

In the material I’ve reviewed for this article, there is little to suggest that the current incentives offered by state and local governments are optimal in any sense. I have yet to come across calculations that show that a certain level of tax incentives creates the greatest number of jobs per tax dollar forgone. So why do some states offer 15% tax rebates while others offer 20%? Are the expected returns really higher in some states than others, justifying the additional investment? Or are the higher tax incentives necessary in states where the conditions for filmmaking are otherwise so poor that no producers would go there if the rates were any lower? Since I haven’t been able to find a convincing rationale for the levels of the tax credits, I assume the levels are indeed set according to inter-state competition, which is consistent with the race to the bottom scenario. If that’s the case, I’d say it’s a poor justification for public spending. (This situation isn’t unique to the motion picture industry, by the way. The same doubts about inter-state competition and the race to the bottom hold true for all sorts of corporate tax breaks that try to bribe corporations into setting up shopor keeping current plants open – in particular locations.)

So how might we improve the current system of incentivizing film and TV productions? Even if the economic argument offered up by MPAA doesn’t hold—and, personally, I’m inclined to believe the governments’ internal audits that show a net loss for the states—I don’t think one must abandon the idea of incentivizing motion pictures entirely. The system might just need to be improved to target those productions that are likely to generate the greatest public benefits.

The fact is, the current tax credits already target specific types of motion picture productions. Minimum requirements for the production budget and/or the amount of money that is spent in-state are presumably designed to ensure that the tax breaks go to big-budget productions that will employ a lot of people. The large corporations behind those productions are the ones most likely to respond to incentives, moving their operations to whichever state offers the lowest costs, whereas a small film production company in Massachusetts is likely to work in Massachusetts whether or not the state offers any incentive. However, for that same reason one might argue that the large corporations are precisely the wrong place to invest public money: they operate nationally (or internationally) and will fly in people from around the world to work on the production, so relatively few of the jobs created will go to local residents. Furthermore, as soon as another state offers bigger tax rebates, they’ll pack up shop and move there. Any spike in economic activity from a big-budget production coming to town is therefore likely to be short-lived. Wouldn’t it be better to give the tax breaks to smaller firms whose production budgets are too modest to fly in talent from out of state? Those productions might not hire a whole lot of people, but at least the paychecks will be going to local residents, and if the production does well and the company grows, that growth will happen in-state.

The one argument that does work in favor of giving tax breaks to big budget productions is their ability to reach a wide audience and potentially increase tourism or improve public opinion of a certain location. In order to fully endorse this approach, I’d need to see more credible research on the economic value of the exposure that shooting locations receive, preferably coupled with a greater capacity to predict which films are going to have a significant impact in that regard. As tempting as it is to reduce the conversation about film tax credits to a simple thumbs-up or thumbs-down, it would be smarter to consider how to determine which productions to incentivize with tax credits and where such tax expenditures would be wasted. That’s speaking from the perspective of job creation, of course. If the objective were to improve the quality of cinematic art, an entirely different set of selection criteria would be necessary.

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