Arts Policy Library: The Participatory Museum



(For a briefer edition of this analysis, check out the abridged version.)

“This may sound messy,” Nina Simon, engineer turned experience designer, writes of participatory projects. “It may [also] sound tremendously exciting.”


Written in 2010 as a handbook for museum professionals who want to engage audiences in deeper forms of participation, The Participatory Museum presents Nina Simon’s social, web-inspired approach to exhibits and partnerships. At the time of writing, Simon was a highly sought-after experience designer whose philosophy was made popular through her blog, Museum 2.0. Part argument for participation and part toolbox, The Participatory Museum aims to inspire readers’ enthusiasm about participatory design and prepare them to launch their own successful projects.

The book itself is the product of a participatory project. Simon used an online wiki format to allow readers to submit relevant case studies and assist with writing and eventually editing. The online version of the book features linked footnotes for the examples used throughout the text.

Taking cues from social websites like YouTube, Netflix, LibraryThing, and Flickr, The Participatory Museum explores how brick-and-mortar institutions can learn from virtual participatory experiences. Simon defines a participatory cultural institution as one in which “visitors can create, share, and connect with each other around content.” Participation encourages multidirectional content experiences: a museum, rather than limiting itself to sending information in the direction of visitors, can encourage those visitors to contribute information to the institution and even share among themselves. Participation also encourages more equitable relationships among all stakeholders, making objects and entire institutions more accessible.

All of this requires an adjustment in thinking about authority, the role of the visitor, and the flow of information between individual and institution. In participatory projects, museum staff members used to holding absolute authority in the interpretation of objects must cede some of that power to visitors. Simon asserts that the very process that makes participatory projects rewarding for museum audiences is often a source of apprehension for museum staff. Done right, according to Simon, “participatory projects create new value for the institution, participants, and non-participating audience members.”


Drawing by Jennifer Rae Atkins

Using the example of how interactivity has transformed entire organizations such as the Boston Children’s Museum, Simon imagines a future where some institutions are “wholly participatory.” The Participatory Museum advocates for the power of participatory design to fulfill idealistic mission statements about engagement, connection, and inspiring action. Nevertheless, Simon is careful to include the caveat that this new method of design isn’t meant to supplant traditional techniques but to augment them, and argues that the two can peacefully coexist.

Structure and scope

The book is organized into two sections. The first, more theoretical part lays out several participatory design principles, and the second details how four different models of participation can work in practice.

Participation in theory

For Simon, the first and perhaps most important point that undergirds all successful design is a clear connection between the institution’s mission and the benefits to be gained from a participatory project by the institution, participants, or audience. No one will be engaged – or fooled – if a museum halfheartedly invites participation because it has become trendy. To reap the rewards of participation, staff and leadership must understand how the project will advance the museum’s core purposes. This grounding in mission and clarity of benefits makes everything else possible.

The Participatory Museum identifies “two counter-intuitive design principles at the heart of successful participatory projects” that reappear throughout the book. The first is scaffolding, the guidance and constraints given to visitors to help frame the range and nature of responses generated. Scaffolding is necessary to set up a safe environment where audience members feel comfortable sharing and interacting with each other. Simon juxtaposes the completely open-ended request for participation with the thoughtfully narrow one.

Compare, for example, the open-ended dialogue program of British artist Jeremy Deller, It Is What It Is: Conversations About Iraq,with the Human Library, an event first held for youth at the Denmark Roskilde Festival in 2000. It Is What It Is attempted to encourage visitors to ask questions of people who had served in Iraq by creating a large gallery with provocative images from the country and installing living-room-style seating. At points throughout the exhibition, soldiers, translators, and others were on hand to answer questions from visitors. Simon argues that It Is What It Is lacked “sufficient scaffolding to robustly and consistently support dialogue”: the two times she saw it at the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles, there were just two guests sitting on couches next to a powerful object.

The Human Library explores similar terrain: it is intended for “anybody who is ready to talk with his or her own prejudice and stereotype and wants to spend an hour of time on this experience.” Participants select a “book” from a catalogue of stereotypes, such as a black Muslim, a cop, a Goth, or a quadriplegic; once at the “checkout counter,” they encounter a person embodying their chosen stereotype for a discussion lasting anywhere from 45 minutes to two hours. The experience was more carefully crafted, and it was a success at generating the kinds of provocative discussions the designers hoped for. The framing of the event as a library eased some of the expected reluctance in confronting visitors’ own prejudices, allowing participants to choose their own book provided a personal entry point into the activity, and even restricting the time helped set people’s expectations. Simon reasons that limitations make people more likely to participate and that better-defined parameters lead to higher-quality and more relevant participation.

Good scaffolding alone doesn’t automatically result in amazing social participation. Truly social interaction, Simon says, has to start with the individual, who begins to climb a participatory ladder from a personal entry point, her second design principle. “Me-to-We” design, a recasting of her own earlier hierarchy of social participation, guides visitors through those entry points to connections with content, and ultimately to other individuals.


Not everyone will always want to engage with others socially, even if an exhibit is designed to allow it. To categorize the different styles of participation, Simon looks to statistics on American adults from Forrester Research’s 2008 “social technographics” tool, which categorizes audience profiles in social media engagement.

Forrester Research’s social technographics participation ladder.

In this framework, audience profiles are based on types of activity. Creators make up a small part of the participation pie, whereas critics, collectors, joiners, spectators, and inactives represent the majority in social platforms – and all but the last two (not just creators) count as truly participatory. Good design acknowledges the mixed composition of audiences and provides an outlet for each role to be involved, enabling the actions of each audience type to enhance the experience of others.

Simon devotes considerable attention to two other elements of design: technologies for social experiences and social objects. Each of these concepts is meant to aid in moving toward the “we” end of design. Simon asserts that mediating technologies can make people “more comfortable socializing with strangers” within the physical space of the museum. For example, Internet Arm Wrestling, an exhibit set up concurrently in several science centers around the U.S., enabled long-distance personal interactions. Visitors at one institution sat behind a metal arm and a computer screen and arm wrestled someone elsewhere at the same center or hundreds of miles away at another. The exhibit succeeded in engaging audiences in types of behavior they would not normally try within a museum or, probably, anywhere.

Simon doesn’t neglect the role of objects themselves in prompting social interaction. Simon argues that “social objects,” a concept taken from engineer and sociologist Jyri Engestrom, perform a similar role as mediating technologies, allowing visitors to “focus their attention on a third thing rather than on each other, making interpersonal engagement more comfortable.” Social objects differ from regular ones in that they tend to spark interactions among audience members who see them. Simon uses the non-museum example of her dog, who serves as a focal point for social exchanges with passersby when she is out for a walk. Harnessing social potential is as much about good design choices as good object choices, and giving objects a social dimension is an art. It can involve making design tweaks, physically altering objects, or reworking interpretive tools such as panels and labels to make objects more personal, relational, active, and provocative..

Participation in practice

Shifting to the practical considerations for participation in the second part of the book, Simon borrows three categories of participation from the Public Participation in Scientific Research (PPSR) project of the Center for Advancement of Informal Science Education (CAISE) and supplies a fourth of her own. One chapter is dedicated to each of the participatory models:

  • Contributory
  • Collaborative
  • Co-creative
  • Hosted

Simon describes contributory projects as “casual flings between participants and institutions,” with the most common form being the comment box or feedback wall. As the name suggests, these projects solicit contributions from visitors, which can take the form of opinions, stories, or personal objects such as photographs. Of the four participatory models, contributory projects are the simplest to execute and can involve the most people. Even though these projects are relatively casual, scaffolding still helps institutions ask for and receive meaningful contributions through thoughtful questioning and modeling desired behavior. The London Science Museum incorporated visitor-donated toys into the exhibit Playing with Science, and visitors reported feeling a sense of ownership and pride in seeing their toys on display.

In collaborative projects, institutions still take the leading role in project development, but they work side by side with community members to create new exhibits, programs, and services. These projects usually require a higher level of commitment from participants than those in the contributory category. The National Building Museum in DC runs an annual program that collaborates with local youth to create an exhibit based on the photography and creative writing of community members. Participants take part in twelve classes and have the opportunity to “partially self-direct” an exhibit at the museum. To Simon, though, the exhibit is just the beginning. She asserts that the real measure of success for these projects is what happens after they end – specifically, whether participants remain involved with the institution beyond the project. Simon suggests establishing four non-overlapping roles for the management of collaborative projects: project director, community manager, instructors, and client representatives. Each of these roles balances different levels of authority and intimacy with participants, so keeping them distinct, Simon argues, is important to project success and staff sanity.

Co-creative projects may be undertaken at the initiative of outside participants. On the surface, these projects may look very similar to collaborative projects, but the key difference lies in the share of power between the institution and participants. Co-creative projects are demand-driven and “require institutional goals to take a backseat to community goals.” The special sauce that makes these projects successful is a mixture of non-specialists equipped to accomplish both community and institutional goals, and institutions genuinely desiring community input and leadership. Seattle’s Wing Luke Asian Museum uses the co-creative model exclusively in developing their exhibits. Wing Luke staff members facilitate the development of the themes, content, and form of the exhibits by a team of advisors from the community.

In hosted projects, outside participants have almost complete power. One of the most common of these is a late night social event or reception sponsored by an external organization, although some museums may turn over a set of rooms for exhibitions controlled entirely by someone else. In all of these projects, the outside partner carries out their own project within the museum’s space. Despite the near-total abdication of power in these projects, creative constraints are still useful in ensuring a degree of consistency between community-led projects and those led by professional staff.

While the participatory models range from less to more control on the part of the participants, Simon believes that they needn’t be attempted in any particular order and shouldn’t be seen as a progression. She has even demystified choosing among models through a chart that walks through assessing your commitment to community engagement, desired control over the project, preferred level of leadership, availability of staff, skills gained by participants and benefits to nonparticipants.

Toward the end of the book, Simon devotes chapters to evaluating and sustaining participation. Evaluating participatory projects can be especially tricky because it must focus not just on results for the multiple beneficiaries but also on the process itself. And even the best design can crumble with inadequate institutional support and management structures. Simon suggests a few methods to get staff comfortable with taking on more challenging participatory projects, such as encouraging them to “spend time on the front lines with visitors” or conduct audience research. She also offers several strategies for keeping momentum going with newly started participatory projects, including hiring a community manager and cultivating a participatory culture from the very top.


After reading The Participatory Museum, museums and their staff, regardless of their size or resources or content, should be able to begin their journey to reinvigorating themselves, right? What’s good for the web must be good for the galleries? I have to admit that at first I had my doubts.

Specifically, I was skeptical that the book’s techniques would work in a museum like mine, the Traditional Arts and Ethnology Centre in Laos: tiny, few staff, little money, no technology, almost no repeat visitors, and in a developing country. Forrester Research’s social technographics data draws on audiences in North America, Europe, Australia, Metro China, Japan and Korea – all relatively developed places. If any setting could test the limits of this model, it would be here. As I read, however, Simon seemed to anticipate my objections, and The Participatory Museum succeeded in allaying most of my questions about its applicability.

Many books meant as guides meander through abstractions and skimp on specifics, but The Participatory Museum is as dense in practical information as in theory. Tips (“Generally, a platform that has one-fourth to one-half of the space open provides a feeling of welcome and encourages visitors to share”) are peppered throughout the book. Simon reinforces her points with numerous case studies that illustrate both successful and unsuccessful attempts at encouraging participation. For example, in the section on collaboration, she shares her involvement with The Tech Virtual Test Zone, a 2007 project of the San Jose Tech Museum that did not turn out as expected. Simon’s own personal example of participatory failure was a poignant reminder that even seasoned designers don’t get things right all the time.

The examples are also diverse, featuring organizations from several countries, of many kinds and sizes, and at different points on the participation spectrum—some, even, from organizations similar to mine. To cite just a few cases, Simon presents an advice booth set up in the University of Washington-Seattle Student Center, a community photo-documentation project at the Vietnam Museum of Ethnology (VME), and a participatory book-tagging experiment in the Netherlands.

I also saw the applicability of Simon’s approach to the developing world firsthand recently, when my museum undertook a community-based participatory project similar to the VME’s. This work brought a flood of enthusiasm among community members previously untapped through traditional design methods. And a colleague in Indonesia recently quoted the book in justifying decisions she made within her museum. Between the examples in the text, and anecdotal evidence from colleagues, it’s clear that participation, as a tool, is useful in building engagement across a wide spectrum of audiences.

But can we trust the theories underlying The Participatory Museum’s recommendations for practice? While an exhaustive review of primary sources upon which the book draws is outside of the scope of this article, Simon certainly seems to have done her homework: her central typology of participatory projects (contributory, collaborative, co-creative, and hosted) is taken from the literature on public participation in scientific research. She deftly adapts it to the somewhat different context of museums, and added the final category (hosted) herself to account for the use of a museum’s space by an outside organization, where she argues persuasively that the principles of successful participation still apply.

That said, readers should be aware that most of the theory underlying The Participatory Museum had not been formally tested in a museum environment at the time the book was published. Simon speaks forcefully about the need for more and better evaluation of participatory projects; she calls the lack of it “probably the greatest contributing factor to their slow acceptance and use in the museum field.” The Participatory Museum seemingly does a good job of enlisting what assessment does exist and translating it into practical advice, and even lays out a blueprint for what good evaluation could look like, but the evidence presented in most cases is anecdotal. (There are exceptions, such as a 2002 impact study of Glasgow’s Open Museum, which lent objects to visitors in the community.) Purely on the basis of what was known in 2010, it is hard to be sure what tradeoffs would be involved in manifesting Simon’s ultimate vision of a new, wholly participatory kind of museum, or exactly how best to do it. Even so, The Participatory Museum gives every indication of being directionally correct, and an excellent guide to starting that process at an institution.


Whether you love or hate it, the impact of Simon’s book on the museum field is undeniable. With over 250 citations in books and journal articles, and required reading status in graduate museum studies programs, The Participatory Museum is widely touted as a must-read for museum professionals. The book has inspired conferences, institution-wide discussion sessions, and professional workshops around the country, and reignited debate over how to breathe life into decaying institutions. Simon continues to experiment with these principles at the Santa Cruz Museum of Art and History, where she has been executive director since 2011.

It’s hard to know how much credit The Participatory Museum can claim for this, but there has been a shift—or at least public perception of a shift— toward more participation in the four years since its publication. The Economist recently noted that museums were almost completely unrecognizable, having changed from being places “where people look on in awe” to being places “where they learn and argue.”

But is participation for everyone? There is a tension in The Participatory Museum between Simon’s utopian vision of wholly participatory institutions and her call for balance between traditional and participatory design. Writing about her divergent experiences during a visit to Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Parks in Wyoming in 2008, she admitted:

I am an elitist when it comes to national parks. I like my parks hard to access, sparsely populated, and minimal in services…I believe in lowering barriers to access and creating opportunities for visitors to use museums in diverse ways. On this trip, for the first time, I truly understood the position of people who disagree with me, those who feel that eating and boisterous talking in museums is not only undesirable but violating and painful.

If participatory design is not the only worthwhile kind of design, where is the proper balance? How do institutions and staff know when they’ve hit the participatory sweet spot and when they’ve gone too far?

Indeed, the principles Simon advocates in her book have met with resistance from some quarters. While many institutions have begun transforming themselves into the new kind of museum that Simon envisions, others hold to their support of quiet contemplation and traditional design and seem to believe that they can meet their missions effectively and satisfy their audiences without these design techniques. Bruce Bratton, a Santa Cruz resident, and Judith Dobrzynski, a New York Times writer, are the most recent standard-bearers of the camp that is critical not so much of The Participatory Museum as of the concept of participatory design itself. Dobrzynski believes that the participatory trend, or as she calls it, “the quest for experience,” has led to a field-wide identity crisis in which entertainment has taken over the previously quiet and contemplative environment for which museums were known. Bratton’s more personal attack took aim at Simon’s own museum, calling it a “hobby circus” and claiming that the Santa Cruz Museum of Art and History had devolved into a community center under her leadership.

The Participatory Museum does acknowledge these concerns about audience members who don’t want to take part themselves or feel that others’ participatory experiences are intrusive. Early on in the book, Simon argues that the segment of the audience seeking a more traditional experience should not be left out of the process of “mapping out audiences of interest and brainstorming the experiences, information, and strategies that will resonate most with them” that is foundational to audience-centric design. The research profiling participant types notes that “passive” participants outnumber creators anyway, and through strategic design they can still benefit from others’ contributions. But at the end of the day, are audiences more engaged and are institutions meeting their missions more effectively through participatory design techniques?

For all the accolades and buzz it’s received, The Participatory Museum’s usefulness ultimately rests on the answers to those questions. We will need closer study of participatory work to fully understand the implications of the broader trends the book catalogues and appears to be ushering forward. What do we gain from participatory exhibits or institutional cultures of participation? What do we lose? Are there gaps between perception and reality on this front? (For example, the book presents little evidence that participatory design can make museum audiences less white.) Finally, how can we most effectively take Simon’s advice to put the audience first in any design, given the varied desires and priorities of individual members of that audience? The good news is that the success of The Participatory Museum and the speed at which its recommendations have been adopted should provide a wealth of material for researchers to begin answering these questions with more specificity in the years ahead.

Further reading:


Nationalism and government support of the arts

Fireworks going off over the Bird’s Nest Olympic Stadium in Beijing, China. Photo Courtesy of guccio@文房具社.

On the evening of August 8, 2008, I sat in the Bird’s Nest in Beijing with 91,000 other spectators and a television audience in the billions, watching China tell its story through the arts. Sure enough, after the final firework exploded over the Bird’s Nest, China had accomplished its goal: prove that, through discipline and creativity, it had become a formidable player on the world stage.

After winning its bid to host the Olympics, China stirred with excitement as it crafted the image it would project to the world. Nationalism was palpable among school children, taxi drivers, government officials, and Olympic volunteers. The games may have been about athleticism, but the prelude, the Opening Ceremonies, was about artistry and the Chinese identity. A blank traditional scroll unfurled on the ground and dancers used their bodies to paint the scroll as they danced. Performers danced on a large globe suspended in the middle of a dark Bird’s Nest giving the illusion of being in outer space.

Dancers performing on a globe suspended in the Bird’s Nest. Photo Courtesy of guccio@文房具社.

Leaders in Beijing knew that their creative abilities were being tried along with their ability to pull off an event of this scale and importance. They spared no expense in making it what many critics hailed as the most spectacular opening ceremony to date.

Nation-building and image-building

All countries engage in what political scientists call “nation-” and “image-” building. Nation-building (not to be confused with state-building) is the internal process of creating a shared identity among citizens through policy and the allocation of public funds. Its external counterpart, image-building, deals with shaping outsiders’ perceptions of a country. The arts often factor into these endeavors: domestically, they affirm a sense of shared culture and enrich social life, while through their export, they help communicate a nation’s identity and may serve as a benchmark for international competitiveness. As countries develop, it is thought, investments in image-building can yield both economic and diplomatic returns.

As the globe’s richest and most heavily armed nation, the United States is in a unique position relative to the rest of the world. Looking at examples beyond our borders shows how other countries handle limited budgets, growing or diminishing international stature, and the desire to be competitive. The four countries compared here—Korea, China, Cambodia, and Brazil—are in different phases of development and provide an important contrast to the industrialized European nations to which cultural policy in the United States is so often compared.

In each of these cases, we will examine the importance of the arts to nation-building efforts, as evidenced by public spending; the degree to which the arts are included in nation-building as an explicit or implicit response to America’s perceived cultural dominance; the degree to which the arts are included in a country’s concept of international competitiveness; and the status of the arts as part of an image-building strategy. Looking at examples such as these can offer fresh insights into the arts’ role in creating a national identity and projecting an image of vitality to the outside world.


Historically, China’s cultural sphere spanned the Asian continent. Today, however, it sees its influence in danger of being eclipsed by that of its neighbors—and of the West. China’s investment in the arts is a safeguard against the perceived infiltration of American culture, an attempt for its cultural products to carry more economic weight and status within the region, and a natural extension of its ascendance as a global economic force.

As a relative newcomer on the international stage, China believes that a strong arts sector can help put it on equal footing with developed countries. In recent years, officials have valued culture’s role in “the competition of…national strength.” In 2011, a comprehensive plan for cultural reform was unveiled. China already spends significantly on culture. In 2012, China spent 54.054 billion yuan, or 9.3% of its national budget, on culture, sports, and media. Teasing out the amount for the arts is challenging given China’s notoriously opaque budgets, but if we assume one-third of that 54 billion goes to culture, China’s financial support would be the equivalent of nearly $3 billion in US dollars.

This spending is driven in large part by a reaction against encroaching foreign values. The Chinese consume more American than Chinese cultural products. This trend, and the accompanying values shift, is so alarming to Chinese officials that they counter it with increased spending on theater, television, and radio and regulations restricting foreign programming. In 2006, China’s contribution to the global cultural market trailed that of its smaller neighbors. Japan and Korea made up 13% of the global market for cultural products including literature, popular culture, and games, while the rest of Asia, including China, made up only 6%.

Whatever funding China dedicates to the arts risks being seen by people in more open governments more as a political maneuver than an earnest attempt at moving the arts forward. Financial investments remain undercut by China’s most contentious policy: censorship. From things as trite as blacklisting Lady Gaga and as pedantic as pixelating Michelangelo’s David-Apollo’s privates, to filmmakers and writers being restricted to the point that it forces mediocrity, China tries to keep a tight rein on the ideologies communicated through cultural products. Works of modern dance require approval from a member of the party before they can be performed for the public, and certain topics such as the infamous 1989 Tiananmen Square crackdown remain taboo.


Once upon a time, South Korea’s national investment in the arts was a response to the United States’ cultural dominance. After the Korean War, arts policy in South Korea prioritized fostering national identity by highlighting the uniquely Korean aspects of culture. Article 9 of the Korean Constitution declares “states have an obligation to put forth effort in bequeathing and developing traditional culture and creatively enhancing national culture.” In 1973, Korea’s first five-year cultural plans stipulated new funding for culture, 70% of which was allocated for folk arts and traditional culture. Subsequent government administrations drafted their own national cultural plans, and by the 1980s the arts were more broadly included in goals to promote the excellence of the arts and foster contemporary art. By the 1990s, the advent of democracy shifted the focus to cultural welfare, where the arts are used to address social issues and enhance the nonmaterial aspects of life. Recently, however, its motives have changed. The government now looks to the arts to promote soft power, national image building, and economic growth.

Today, Korea has a strong arts infrastructure—arts agencies, university arts programs, performing arts companies, and festivals— that has surprisingly little visibility outside the region. In 2010, Korea’s central government spent approximately 5.7 percent — $56 per capita — on culture through its Ministry of Culture, about a quarter of which went specifically to the arts. The local government spends twice as much. In recent years, arts and culture in Korea is the one category of spending to enjoy an increasing proportion of government budget allocations, a trend mirrored in few other national budgets.

Korea also has a robust set of policies that support the arts -112 in all. These policies cover public art, the promotion of museums, arts education, tax incentives for businesses and individuals, and artist welfare issues. The country’s largest state-funded arts council and funding agency, Arts Council Korea (ARKO), was mandated as part of the Culture and Arts Promotion Act in 1973. The Public Art Promotion Act requires new large construction projects to allocate 1% of their total costs to public art. Corporations can claim higher exemptions for allocating money to cultural services.

With the rising popularity of Korean television, music, and movies abroad, the government has sought to capitalize on their profitability. South Korea’s overseas shipment of cultural goods came to $4.6 billion in 2012. Comparing cultural exports is a regular practice within East Asia, each country hoping to outdo each other and establish its own world-class arts, entertainment, and creative industries. While Korea enjoys relative success in exporting its cultural products within the region, and there is growing interest among the Korean diaspora abroad in cultural products and traditional culture, it also continues to work on spreading its influence to the States and beyond.


Brazil has experienced rapid development in recent years. Like China, it has enjoyed growing economic power and attention on the international stage, but unlike China, its arts policies are not a reaction against the perceived threat of US cultural influence. In one way its motivations seem closer to Korea’s: attaining peer status among developed countries. It also has an increasing demand to keep up with its citizens’ purchasing power, as interest in consuming culture and the arts grows.

Because it’s not possible to unite all Brazilians behind a shared ethnic identity, a strategy used in more homogeneous countries like Korea or Japan, the government must take a more active role in creating a sense of shared identity based on other factors. It seems fitting then that following the 2005 UNESCO Convention on the Protection and Promotion of the Diversity of Cultural Expressions, Brazil has allocated funds to promoting social cohesion through the arts and culture.

In 2007, direct funding from the Ministry of Culture accounted for only 0.7% of the national budget, or approximately $420 million USD. But what Brazil’s government lacks in direct funding for the arts it makes up for through a series of innovative policies, including tax incentives. The Social Service of Commerce (SESC), among other things, is Brazil’s leading private financer of the arts. The SESC’s budget for programs in Sao Paulo alone is roughly equivalent to the NEA’s yearly budget. The organization’s funds are tied to a 1.5% payroll tax on companies that is virtually unopposed by policymakers and companies. In addition, the so-called Rouanet Law has allowed corporations to divert their owed taxes to finance cultural activities since 1991 and now drives about $630 million towards the sector annually. In January 2013, the government began offering small annual stipends for each citizen to use on “cultural expenses.” Employers foot the bulk of the money that funds the stipend, with individuals supplying the remaining 10% through their paycheck.

Brazil enacted a ten-year cultural plan in 2010, which lays out strategies and priorities for Brazil’s cultural development. The top priority includes using culture and the arts to help bolster Brazil’s image abroad. One of the others is a series of bills promoting culture and cultural exports, such as a plan to work with trade organizations in hopes of becoming one of the world’s top 20 cultural exporters.


Until relatively recently, Cambodia held prominent cultural status within mainland Southeast Asia, and many artists traveled there to train in their craft. But today, the arts struggle for rehabilitation and revival. When the Khmer Rouge took over Cambodia between 1975 and 1979, intellectuals and artists were targeted for purging. While 25% of the population that died during that period, an astounding 90% of museum workers, professors, performing and visual artists, and writers were killed, forcing the closure of many institutions. Many of the artists that survived subsequently sought to return Khmer arts to their former glory. When things finally stabilized, protection for the arts—both its institutions and practitioners—was written into the new 1993 constitution. However, funding for them did not always follow.

Robert Turnbull describes the situation in the book Expressions of Cambodia: The Politics of Tradition, Identity and Change: “While the Cambodian establishment frequently alludes to Cambodian classical arts being the ‘soul of the nation,’ it has been largely unwilling to develop performance culture in ways that are sustainable or give artists under its charge reason for optimism.” Government funding for performing arts, for example, is on average just 0.25% of the national budget.

Faced with limited government assistance, arts organizations often rely on foreign individuals and foreign-backed NGOs for financial support to rebuild a national identity and improve Cambodia’s image abroad through the arts. Cambodian Living Arts, one of the most active arts organizations, exists in part to “facilitate the transformation of Cambodia through the arts” and specifically, “to create an understanding of what it means to be Cambodian and to create a sense of unity and shared culture.” Amrita, Cambodia’s premier contemporary dance and performing arts organization, seeks “new life for Cambodia’s ancient artistic heritage” in part through networking internationally both to raise the status of Cambodian arts overseas and to find donors.

American influence in Cambodian culture has only recently become an issue, in part because of how reliant the arts are on funding from foreign sources. Cambodian artists and arts administrators are investigating ways to become more self-sustaining. Artists and performers, rather than waiting for acknowledgment from the government of their value, are thus demonstrating initiative in ensuring the arts don’t get neglected while the government focuses on other important development issues.

Bringing It Home

Ironically, the United States, whose arts infrastructure is envied around the world, devotes hardly any government support to the arts at the federal level compared with other nations. Even if you look beyond the National Endowment of the Arts and include appropriations to entities like the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, the Smithsonian Institution, and the National Portrait Gallery, the US still spends less than one one-tenth of one percent of its budget on arts and culture – orders of magnitude lower than some of the countries covered here. Even Cambodia’s investment in arts and culture dwarfs our own – on a relative basis, anyway.

While government support for the National Endowment for the Arts in particular has declined in recent decades, the truth is that Washington has never played a central role in the shaping of the arts ecosystem nationally. In part this is because of the decentralized nature of government arts funding: a recent NEA analysis shows that state and local funding for arts and culture outweighs federal support by a factor of nearly 5 to 1. And of course, the strong history of private giving in this country makes up for the lack of centralized support to no small degree.

So how has the United States been able to achieve such cultural dominance with so little government support? Certainly, the country’s economic and military might, developed largely without the help of state-supported museums and symphonies, are contributing factors. But it’s hard to ignore the role that the for-profit cultural industries, Hollywood in particular, have played in spreading American identity and influence abroad. US cultural exports in 2011 reached almost $40 billion, with over half coming from the motion picture industry.

Indeed, our examples here confirm that the private sector can have an energizing influence on the arts even when governments have limited capacity to invest directly. In Brazil, the government supports the arts through tax benefits that incentivize private investment; in Cambodia artists and arts administrators have taken the situation into their own hands and been active where the government has been silent.

In this light, the efforts of China and, to a lesser extent, Korea to explicitly build national power and identity through government investment in culture represent a fascinating natural experiment. Every year, the World Economic Forum ranks countries by international competitiveness. Twelve “pillars” including infrastructure, macroeconomic environment, higher education and training, financial market development, market size, and technological innovation determine a country’s rank. Each pillar matters, but each affects countries in different ways. According to the report, economies fall either squarely into one of three stages of development or are “transitional,” falling between them. The first development stage consists of economies like Cambodia driven by unskilled labor and natural resources, with low wages, and only the most basic commodities. Here, competitiveness depends on the strength of institutions, infrastructure, public health, primary education, and a stable macroeconomic environment. China is at the second stage representing “efficiency-driven” economies that thrive on manufacturing. Competitiveness at this stage hinges on higher education and training, an efficient goods market, mature labor and financial markets, technological readiness, and large domestic or international markets. Brazil is in transition between the second and third “innovation-driven” stage, where economies become more competitive by improving business sophistication and through technological innovation. South Korea and the US both fall into this third category, but interestingly, the US’s rank has been declining over the past several years. Will America’s cavalier attitude toward nation-building prove shortsighted in the end? Only time will tell.

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Around the horn: memorial edition

Note to folks going to the annual Americans for the Arts Convention in Nashville – Ian and Talia will both be present, and presenting: Talia at Making Arts Education More Equitable and Available to Everyone and the Lightning Workshops during the Arts Education Preconference; and Ian at Creating a Culture of Learning at Your Organization and the Expert Roundtables. Come say hi!






  • Is it time for foundations to embrace partisan politics instead of trying to remain above the fray? Writers for the Stanford Social Innovation Review think so. “Partisan conflict is not an external factor that advocates can work around,” they write. “It is the defining axis of American politics today, and funders must be unafraid to reckon with it.”
  • The expansion of the Gates-Buffett Giving Pledge – a promise to give away at least half of one’s fortune – to include billionaires from around the world raises questions about different cultural attitudes toward philanthropy (in China, public or transparent giving is eschewed) and about the relative merits of the Big Philanthropy model vs the more distributed community foundation model of giving.
  • Arts entrepreneurship aficionados, look out: Barry’s Blog has a stellar lineup, uh, lined up for a weeklong blogathon on the topic starting…today!


  • The National Academy of Sciences has hard numbers that show students learn better through hands-on activities than through lectures – at least when it comes to the sciences.
  • Philanthropy Northwest reports on a year-long peer-learning project on diversity, equity, and inclusion efforts involving 10 foundation CEOs in the region.
  • Corporate giving is up again, according to the Committee Encouraging Corporate Philanthropy’s annual tally.
  • South Arts has released two research reports on arts education in the South. The first, a survey of nearly a third of all principals in the region, found among other things that Southern students have less access to visual arts and music than other American students but greater access to dance – with significant variation among Southern states. The second, case studies of nine strong arts education programs, found that the successful schools cultivated a shared vision of the arts, incorporated the arts into the core curriculum driven by state and national standards, and exposed students to working artists.
  • Bringing the ability to make snazzy charts and tables to the masses, evaluators Stephanie Evergreen and Ann K. Emery have developed a data visualization checklist for the graphically challenged among us.
  • In case you ever wondered about the correlation between per capita consumption of cheese and the number of people who die by becoming tangled in their bedsheets, Tyler Vigen has you covered.
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Late spring public arts funding update


Jane Chu is inching towards nomination as the next NEA Chair, as the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) Committee voted to approve her candidacy with “no controversy.” Over the past few years, Republicans appear to be content to let the NEA languish in level-funding purgatory rather than continue to whip up the kind of culture-war controversy that proved so successful in handcuffing the agency in the ’90s. Let’s be grateful for small victories.


This is the season for state arts council budget drama, and there are certainly a few stories worth reporting. First and foremost is the prospect of an incredible resurgence for the Florida Division of Cultural Affairs, which had its budget cut an astonishing 94% over a three-year period and nearly zeroed out in the heady summer of 2009. Since then, arts advocates have slowly moved the needle towards more funding, but nothing compared to the 384% increase the agency would be in line to receive if Governor Rick Scott signs the budget recently passed by the Legislature, restoring funding to pre-recession levels. It’s not a done deal yet, though – Scott has line-item veto power and may be itching to use it.

In somewhat more bittersweet news, after all the brouhaha from last time, Maryland has agreed to increase tax incentives to Media Rights Capital, the producer of Netflix’s House of Cards, settling on $11.5 million to keep the show in the state. The figure does represent a decrease from the average amount the show had received in previous years, but as previously reported the state had to raid a fund intended for local arts organizations to make the deal happen.

On the local front, the Art Newspaper takes stock of NYC Mayor Bill de Blasio’s arts agenda: whereas Bloomberg invested in large-scale projects designed to drive tourism and economic impact, de Blasio appears to be focused on the outer boroughs, access, and community engagement. Meanwhile, de Blasio’s first budget for New York City is out, and with a 6% overall increase in spending gives educators a lot to be happy about: steps toward universal pre-K, expanded after-school programs and a $20 million allocation for arts education.

Los Angeles may be on the verge of overhauling its public art ordinance, thanks to an audit that recommends the city relax the requirement that developers’ public art fees be spent within one block of the constructions that generated them. Paralyzed by the geographical restriction, the city’s Department of Cultural Affairs had been sitting  on $7.5 million in funds earmarked for public artwork.

Any cities or counties pondering local tax increases for arts and culture, take note: the ultraconservative Americans for Prosperity is wading into local politics with a campaign against a local tax increase in Franklin County, Ohio meant to benefit the Columbus Zoo.


The authors of last year’s report showing that the UK Arts Council gave London-based organizations five times as much money per capita as those in other parts of the country have released a new study showing that UK lottery arts funding is similarly concentrated in the capital. The Mayor of London and organizations in his city  support raises for others but not cuts for themselves. And Parliament may decriminalize non-payment of Britain’s $250 annual TV-licensing fee, the primary source of income for the BBC. Scofflaws, such as the 107 TV owners jailed in 2 years for failing to pony up, would still be subject to civil penalties. Meanwhile, the BBC is calling for payment even by those who don’t own televisions in an age when physical TVs are an afterthought.

Australia’s conservative government has taken aim at the arts, enacting more than $100 million in cuts to various national funding bodies. Since most of that amount is spread over a four-year period, the impact is not as drastic as it sounds, and the head of the Australia Council doesn’t seem too worried. Still, $100 million is $100 million…well, about $94 million in American dollars. On the other side of the ledger (and the world), the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is investing $1.7 billion to build 230 new museums across the country, intended to show off the nation’s rich cultural history. Private-sector firms, including the oil giant Saudi Aramco, are getting in on the museum-building act as well.

Despite all the money that Russia pumps into the arts, there is mounting criticism—especially in the theater world—against its contents, with a new, envelope-pushing generation of artists facing political pressure from the government. Woolly Mammoth Theater’s Festival of New Radical Theater, which was set to include works from Russia, has become the most recent collateral damage in Moscow’s politicization of art. Meanwhile, on July 1, it will become illegal to curse in public performances in Russia – though the ban may cover only four very, very dirty words. Russia, of course, isn’t the only major world power wanting to shape artistic expression: China appears to be stepping up its campaign against Western media, banning four US television shows from streaming websites for violating a regulation aimed at shows that “harm the nation’s reputation, mislead young people to commit crimes, prostitution, gambling or terrorism.”

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Cool jobs of the month

Associate Director, Artist INC

UMKC Innovation Center Artist Inc. Programming, is seeking an Associate Director Program/Project Operations. This position is the chief administrator of the suite of Artist INC.programs and is responsible for the program’s consistent achievement of its mission and financial objectives. Artist INC programs are delivered through a collaborative partnership of the Charlotte Street Foundation, ArtsKC-Regional Arts Council, and the UMKC Innovation Center. The Director position and program offices are housed in the UMKC Innovation Center. Artist INC programs include the original Artist INC Live eight-week seminar that focuses on professional development and business training for emerging and mid-career artists; two speakers’ series that connect artists with national and local experts in arts entrepreneurship; the Artist INC website where artists can find the resources they need to shape their careers and grow their businesses; Artist INC Online, a web version of the live training seminar that significantly broadens geographic access to the groundbreaking program; Artist INC’s official blog PushingTheFlywheel, a digital resource destination for the local artist community; Artist INC II, an advanced project-based seminar available to all Artist INC Live alumni; One-On-One Strategic Planning sessions with Artist Peer Facilitators; and Artist INC Community Trainings that provide hands on training and support to communities in the Mid-America Arts Alliance six-state region so they may offer their own community’s sessions of Artist INC Live.

Deadline: May 27. This job is based in Kansas City, MO and compensation starts at $52,700.

Senior Consultant and Associate Consultant (two positions), TRG Arts

TRG Arts is a results-driven consulting firm that helps arts and entertainment organizations achieve increased, sustained revenue and loyal patronage. Our firm counsels some 1,200 client organizations – orchestras, arts centers, museums, festivals, Broadway presenters, opera, dance, and theatre companies – across North America, and now extending abroad to Australia and the UK. Informed by data, TRG consultants and analysts guide growth to achieve results. TRG’s ongoing study of patron transactions and behavior informs understanding of arts and entertainment consumers—who they are and how they invest their time and money. TRG applies that knowledge to each client situation, using data to craft strategy and find the most actionable means for each client to optimize revenue, and increase and sustain loyal participation.

No deadline, but the Senior Consultant position was posted a while ago.

Manager, Program Support (Education, Creativity and Free Expression), Ford Foundation

The Manager, Program Support is a composed and effective project manager, decision-maker, and implementer who functions as a key partner in the Office of the Vice President (OVP). The primary responsibility of this position is to initiate, develop, and manage strategic and tactical activities that optimize and support the work flow of the Vice President. The ideal candidate will possess the ability and confidence to initiate and move forward projects and related work independently on behalf of the Vice President, partnering with program and non-program directors, peer groups and colleagues across the foundation to identify and implement action items that maintain effective operations.

No deadline. Basically you would be working for the person at Ford who oversees all of its arts funding, among other things.

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Around the horn: Donald Sterling edition



  • MacArthur President Robert L. Gallucci will step down when his term expires on July 1. Julia Stasch, VP for US programs, will act as interim president while the board searches for a replacement.
  • Jarl Mohn, chairman of Southern California Public Media and former MTV executive, is the new head of National Public Radio. Mr. Mohn has the enviable charge of pulling NPR out of its deficit, sowing harmony among member stations, and figuring out how to fundraise in the post-pledge drive era.


  • The Knight Foundation has awarded Theaster Gates $3.5 million to transform an office space on the south side of Chicago into an incubator “where neighborhood residents will come together with artists, designers and urban planners to work on revitalization projects through art.”
  • Reflecting on the Hewlett Foundation’s recent announcement of the end of its Nonprofit Marketplace Initiative, Tony Proscio wonders whether the funder pulled the plug too soon. Meanwhile, in another frank self-assessment, Hewlett undertook a field scan of evaluation spending and found room for improvement in its own practice, particularly regarding embedding evaluation strategies in the early life of programs. As a result, the foundation plans to up its evaluation spending from roughly 1.2 percent to 2.3 of its overall grant budget.
  • Bad news for “cultured professionals” looking to buy art at auctions: the average price for fine art has doubled over just four years, leaving many to settle on prints. And in other art market news, between 2012 and 2013 online art purchases increased 83 percent. Total sales have finally exceeded $1 billion.
  • Angie Kim summarizes the origins and history of the 5 percent payout rule for foundations and argues a variable payout rate, based on a foundation’s performance over 25 years, would better ensure that foundations’ wealth does not grow disproportionately to their support of the greater good.



  • As Piketty-mania continues to drive interest in income inequality, a comparison of the prices of various goods in the United States over the last ten years yields grim insights about its effects. While the cost of education and health care — i.e. services that can’t be outsourced — has risen dramatically, the cost of electronics, clothing, and other personal goods has fallen. One commentator sums things up nicely: “Prices are rising on the very things that are essential to climb out of poverty.”
  • Mania being what it is, it’s not surprising that some conversations about income inequality have taken an interesting turn, suggesting that the widening gap between rich and poor may be good for artists. As at least one author has pointed out, that argument fails to demonstrate that the arts are “more dynamic under high inequality than… under conditions of low inequality,” and even if great art has been produced in awful social conditions, that by no means justifies those conditions. Add to that mix confusion about the difference between rising wealth creation and wealth inequality, and you’ve got a growing debate on your hands.
  • Design methodology is increasingly used to solve unwieldy social problems at a policy level in the European Union, but the US has been slow to catch on. The National Endowment for the Arts contracted the Design Council to organize a webinar addressing how to use design “to create public services around the people who use them, to introduce new methods into the civil service skill set, and as a tool to aid the process of public policy development” as part of the Learning from Abroad series.
  • The National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy has launched Philamplify, a collection of in-depth assessments of the top foundations in the country. Assessments of the Lumina Foundation for Education, William Penn Foundation, and Robert W. Woodruff Foundation are included at the moment, though the site plans to add about one hundred more within the next few months. Website visitors can indicate whether they agree with Philamplify’s recommendations for the foundations and add comments.


  • Arts marketing specialists LaPlaca Cohen released the sixth edition of their CultureTrack report on participation in cultural events and held a panel discussion about it. The report characterizes American audiences as promiscuous (we range across media) and social (we hate to go alone, and personal recommendations and invitations are among the main drivers of participation). The verdict on attendance is mixed: more people are attending museums, musical theater, and classical music each year (though not straight plays, theater, or opera), but overall they are going less often.
  • A new study by researchers at the London School of Economics concludes that engaging in the arts makes people happy – as happy as if you paid them $100-150 per month. Michael Rushton, as is his wont, argues caution.
  • The NEA has an update on three current projects that aim to support continuous learning in the field: 1) an assessment of the artistic excellence of grantees’ work products, 2) a pilot survey of grantee organizations’ audiences, meant to measure the extent to which they were engaged and moved by arts experiences, 3) a new evaluation by the Urban Institute of the the NEA’s Arts & Livability Indicators.
  • inBloom, a massive educational data collection effort supported by the Gates Foundation, is shutting down following mounting concerns voiced by parents regarding their children’s privacy. Besides serving as a cautionary tale of how philanthropic efforts can stumble when they lack appropriate buy-in, the example may portend a backlash against collecting data on children — and arts audiences of all types.
  • Of 7,000 Victorian novels, only a few dozen are read today. How does an author pass the test of time? Salon interviews cultural historian Franco Moretti, who uses big data to analyze bad books.
  • Speaking of not getting read today, do you ever feel like posting reports online is adding to a virtual wasteland of PDFs that will never be opened? You’re probably right. The World Bank decided to test that feeling by running analytics on its website and discovered that a whopping one-third of its research reports have never, ever been downloaded. Only 13% were downloaded more than 250 times.


  • Positive reviews on sites like Yelp and Amazon translate into real money for businesses – even though as many as a third of reviewers may be fake and the real ones may not be representative of customers.
  • The Gray Lady suddenly appears to find itself in the business of hiring actors, thanks to a new “Verbatim” series that features “recreations of actual events from the halls of law and government” by “transform[ing]… legal transcripts into dramatic, and often comedic performances.” The first one comes courtesy of a 2010 lawsuit involving photocopying public records. It has to be seen to be believed.
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Crowdsourced corporate philanthropy died a year and a half ago, and no one seems to have noticed

Pepsi Refresh Project

Hey, remember Chase Community Giving? And Pepsi Refresh? And the American Express Members Project?

The social-media-driven, crowd-powered giving initiatives promised to “redefine corporate philanthropy” and were frothily hailed as a “taste of things to come” just a short while ago. American Express had gotten the trend started back in 2007 with the Members Project, a campaign that drew hundreds of thousands of AmEx cardholders to sign up, nominate and vote for recipients of a couple million dollars in grant funds. Chase upped the ante in late 2009, announcing a partnership with Facebook whereby nonprofits would compete for votes via the social media platform. Whoever got the most votes – and, in the process, recruited the most Facebook fans for Chase – could receive grants of up to $250,000. And Pepsi followed in 2010 by famously foregoing its traditional Super Bowl ads, spending the $20 million budget instead on a year’s worth of grants to ideas in six categories (including arts and culture), all of which would be determined by the frantic votes of fans. Shortly afterwards, American Express revamped the Members Project via a new collaboration with TakePart, a social action network linked to the hit documentaries An Inconvenient Truth and Food Inc.

All three of these and similar initiatives sought to use emerging digital technologies to devolve the power of the corporate purse to the populace, ostensibly under the banner of corporate social responsibility (but funded, especially in Pepsi’s case, primarily with marketing dollars). It wasn’t long before such contests made their way into the daily lives of nonprofit administrators, including arts organizations. As far as philanthropic innovation was concerned, it seemed like it was all anyone could talk about.

That was four years ago. If you haven’t heard anything about these initiatives recently, it’s not a coincidence. It’s because they all appear to be dead.

Pepsi Refresh seems to have had the best-attended funeral, with a well-trafficked media news site pointing out that the soda giant “let its much-vaunted social impact initiative…quietly fizzle away” in 2012.

A key factor in this shift? Business realities. While the Pepsi Refresh Project was running, Pepsi had consistently been losing market share and volume, leading to a humiliating drop to lowly third place behind Coke and Diet Coke. Add to that widespread investor pressure on CEO Indra Nooyi to focus on driving core businesses, and the handwriting was on the wall.

Members Project has gone the way of the dodo more quietly. No official announcement could be found on the web about the project’s demise, but the official TakePart website wants no part of the action, and the Facebook page it points to instead hasn’t been updated since April 2012.

Chase Community Giving’s fate is a bit murkier. The brand’s Facebook page is still active, with an impressive 3.7 million fans. But the posted content consists exclusively of fluff such as “Use your Chase debit or credit card to purchase Beyoncé and JAY Z’s #OnTheRunTour benefitting the Shawn Carter Scholarship Foundation.” The latest announcement I could find of any actual grants awarded was, again, from 2012 – a year when Chase had received reams of bad press for alleged cheating and unscrupulous behavior on the part of contestants and organizer alike. It seems likely the bank finally decided that it wasn’t worth the trouble.

So there you have it. Crowdsourced corporate philanthropy died a year and a half ago, and no one seems to have noticed. What does it mean? Well, to me, it’s a depressing reminder of the tension that exists between corporate philanthropy and corporate goals. Remember, these projects were supposed to be a marketer’s dream, tapping into the idealism and digital savvy of the Obama generation. But either that generation wasn’t that idealistic after all, or the annoyances created by the competition for votes overwhelmed any positive vibes generated by the often modest amounts awarded.

Business school types, at least the kind of folks who were in school with me half a decade ago, really want to believe that profits and virtue go hand in hand – the old “doing well by doing good” mantra. I mean, who wouldn’t love to have your cake and eat it too? Surely such opportunities exist here and there, but if you believe the efficient market hypothesis, if there were vast money-making opportunities involving grants to nonprofits hiding in plain sight, someone would be taking advantage of them already. I suspect that if corporations genuinely care about “doing good” for the world, they’re going to need to separate that agenda out from the profit-maximization mandate, as much as their shareholders might resist. On the plus side, our long national nightmare of annoying solicitations from everyone you know to vote for projects every day for a month seems to be over – for now, at least.


Around the horn: Slovyansk edition



  • Grant Oliphant, former Pittsburgh Foundation leader, will begin a new role as president at Heinz Endowments this June.
  • Also in June, the Canada Council for the Arts will welcome its new CEO and president Simon Brault. Brault was previously vice-chair of Canada Council’s board before moving to the National Theatre School Montreal, and will serve in his new position for a five-year term.
  • Michael Kaiser, a man who wears many hats, will add another one in co-chairman of IMG Artists, which will also involve managing a new cooperation between IMG Artists and DeVos Institute of Arts Management at the University of Maryland.
  • Jonathan Fanton, former president of the MacArthur Foundation and of the New School, has been named President of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. Former president Leslie Cohen Berlowitz resigned last July in the wake of a scandal over her compensation and qualifications.
  • Lorin Dunlop will join the M. J. Murdoch Charitable trust this June as Program Director. Most recently, Dunlop was responsible for public safety grant programs of the Oregon Criminal Justice System.





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Fractured Atlas as a Learning Organization: Navigating Uncertainty

Photo by ed_needs_a_bicycle

Photo by ed_needs_a_bicycle

(This is the third post in a series on Fractured Atlas’s capacity-building pilot initiative, Fractured Atlas as a Learning Organization. To read more about it, please check out Fractured Atlas as a Learning Organization: An Introduction.)

I don’t know about you, but I’ve always been a reluctant decision maker. When I go out to eat at a restaurant, I often drive my dinner mates crazy by asking the wait staff for recommendations and then just ordering what I was thinking about getting anyway. In high school, I used to agonize over what now seem like trivial choices like what topic I should choose for my English papers. Perhaps that’s why I’m so drawn to the science of decision-making. I’m somebody who likes options, who likes variety. As soon as I make a decision, I close myself off to a world of possibilities. So I want to be sure I’m making the right one!

As much as anything else, making the right decision has to do with accurately forecasting what will happen once you make it. The trouble is, a lot of times we are pretty uncertain about just what those consequences might be. In the previous post in this series, I talked about how we frequently use too narrow a range of possibilities when trying to make a prediction about something we’re not sure about. In part that’s because our society – and perhaps our brains – have trained us to think deterministically rather than probabilistically. What that means in plain English is that when we make a guess, we typically hone in on one option. If you’re a contestant on Jeopardy! and the category is Tom Cruise movies, you can’t chime in with “What is either Magnolia or Top Gun, I’m not sure?” You gotta pick one. And that’s true of decision making as well, isn’t it? In the end, there’s only so much you can hedge your bets. We only get one life to live (well, that we know about) and we are accustomed to choosing a single path from the many in front of us.

The thing is, though, if we want to make smarter decisions, we need to train ourselves to be a little more comfortable with ambiguity. Sure, that course you took last fall seems like a slam-dunk right choice in retrospect, but did it look that way before you decided to sign up? What if it hadn’t worked out the way you’d hoped? The funny thing about decisions is that sometimes you can make the right call and still have things turn out badly – or vice versa. Improving the decision-making process is a long game – it banks on the idea that, over time, and across many decisions, you’re going to come out ahead for approaching each one thoughtfully. And thoughtful decision making involves defining the assumptions and potential consequences of your decision carefully and considering the full range of possibilities associated with each.

Forecasters have long been using a tool called Monte Carlo simulations to help us do just that. The Monte Carlo method was invented by a physicist named Stanislaw Ulam and was originally used to help design atomic bombs. (The codename “Monte Carlo” comes from the legendary casino in Monaco, where Ulam’s uncle used to gamble.) More recently, the method, which typically involves running thousands (or sometimes tens or hundreds of thousands) of simulations on a model and then aggregating the results, has shown up in everything from computational biology to corporate finance. Data scientist and former New York Times blogger Nate Silver, who famously predicted the 2008 and 2012 presidential election results with near-perfect accuracy, relied on a sophisticated Monte Carlo model to do so.

Using Monte Carlo methods within a decision-making context enables us to make predictions about the consequences of those decisions, and thus better understand the opportunities and risks associated with them. At Fractured Atlas, where we’ve set up an internal team to experiment with this sort of decision modeling, we’ve begun to hone the process for bringing quantitative definition to our decision dilemmas and making predictive estimates. Below, I’ll lay out the steps we currently use to do this.

  1. Define what your dilemma actually is. For many people, this exercise is fairly intuitive, but sometimes it takes a little bit of work to get your decision to a state where it can actually be modeled. Something like “what should I do with my life?” is not really at that place yet. But let’s say you’re deciding whether or not to move your office to a bigger space. That’s a very clear, specific dilemma that a process like this one can help resolve (with a bit of elbow grease).
  2. Articulate what excites you, and conversely, what worries you about this decision. If we had perfect information all the time about what was going to happen in the future, decision making would never be a source of stress. In fact, it would be very boring! What causes us to worry about making the wrong decision is that hard decisions always carry some sort of risk, opportunity, or combination of the two. Translating your emotions about the decision into words will help you understand the criteria by which the decision will be judged successful or not, and what factors could affect the outcome.
  3. Define the “central question” for the decision and identify the relevant variables affecting it. This central question needs to be understood in quantitative terms and usually boils down to some sort of cost-benefit equation: for example, will the amount of money I earn from the points on this credit card exceed the annual fee? Alternatively, the central question might weigh two options against each other: does a change in the business model for my program yield better results than the status quo? Once you know what your central question is and have identified the elements of the decision that you care about most, the next step is to define variables – things like the number of people attending your event, the expected cost of a new software feature, and the like. The variables should collectively work together to create an equation that ultimately answers the central question.
  4. Estimate values and distributions for the variables. For each of the variables in the model, we need to give our model some sense of what the numbers might be. For example, you might be 90% confident that the proportion of folks who will buy a book after they hear you speak is somewhere between one-tenth and one-third. This is where the calibration training mentioned in the previous post comes in handy. If we’ve learned anything about estimating ranges, it’s that we need to make sure to make them wide enough!
  5. Run the Monte Carlo simulation. We set up Excel to run 10,000 individual scenarios, each one a plausible real-life outcome according to the assumptions we’ve set up in our model. The model aggregates the results of each of those to tell us, out of those 10,000, what percentage ended up answering the central question a certain way. And now we have a prediction of how our decision is going to turn out!

I imagine this must all seem kind of abstract, so let’s run through the process again with a concrete example. Let’s say you run a rental space and you’re deciding whether or not to extend your hours later into the evening. You’re excited because a lot of customers have been requesting to rehearse at those hours, and there’s a reasonable expectation that the change is going to bring in more revenue. On the other hand, you’re worried that the fixed costs of staffing the space during the late-night hours, whether it’s being used or not, will outpace any incremental dollars you might bring in. The central question is one of simple costs and benefits: is extending the hours going to be worth it in the end?


Defining the incremental costs of the change should be fairly simple. Most of it will have to do with labor. If you pay your people hourly, it’s as simple as the additional hours you’ll have to pay out due to the extended schedule. You may want to account for the possibility that you’ll need to hire an extra person to handle the load; in that case the drain on your time to find that person should be considered as an upfront cost. If you want to get a little fancier, there may also be increased utility costs (electricity, etc.) that you’ll incur as a result of the increased usage of the space, as well as increased wear-and-tear that could be expressed as faster depreciation.

Defining the benefit side of the equation happens much the same way. Do you have only one rental rate for all your customers? Then it’s just a matter of estimating how many new customer-hours will be enabled by the schedule extension and calculating how much they will pay for those hours. Things get a little more interesting if you have lots of different rates for different customers and uses – e.g., rehearsal vs. recording, non-profit vs. for-profit, etc. In that case, you’ll want to segment those customers out by their different properties, and calculate how much new revenue is generated by each type.


(click to enlarge)

Ultimately, we end up with a set of estimates for the potential costs and benefits of following through with your decision. The Monte Carlo simulation can then calculate, out of those tens of thousands of scenarios, how often the decision turned out to be the right one. Basically, it’s offering you a recommendation on which path to choose – kind of like the waiter who confidently tells you to get the saltimbocca. Just don’t be like me and order the chicken anyway!

If you’d like to see the formulas and play with the numbers yourself in the example above, you can download a simple version of it here.

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Cool jobs of the month

A plentiful bounty this month!

Multiple positions, National Endowment for the Arts

Literature Director (GS-0301-14/15)
Literature and Arts Education Division
Salary Range: $106,263.00 to $157,100.00 / Per Year
Excepted Service Not to Exceed 2 Years

Media Arts Director (GS-0301-14/15)
Visual Arts Division
Salary Range: $106,263.00 to $157,100.00 / Per Year
Excepted Service Not to Exceed 2 Years

Director of Museums and Visual ArtsVisual Arts Division
Salary Range: $106,263.00 to $157,100.00 / Per Year
Excepted Service Not to Exceed 2 Years

Music & Opera Director (GS-0301-14/15)
Performing Arts Division
Salary Range: $106,263.00 to $157,100.00 / Per Year
Excepted Service Not to Exceed 2 Years

Theater & Musical Theater Director (GS-0301-14/15)
Performing Arts Division
Salary Range: $106,263.00 to $157,100.00 / Per Year
Excepted Service Not to Exceed 2 Years

Deadline: Better hurry! All positions close tomorrow, April 23.

Multiple positions, ArtPlace America

ArtPlace America is a collaboration among 14 foundations, 8 federal agencies, and 6 financial institutions dedicated to strengthening the field of creative placemaking.  Toward this end, ArtPlace has invested in projects in which artists and arts organizations play an explicit and central role in strategies to help shape their communities’ social, physical, and economic futures.

Current employment opportunities include:

Director of National Grantmaking Strategies

Director of Research Strategies

Director of Communications

Operations Manager and Program Associate

Deadline: They started reviewing applications earlier this month, but the positions are still open.

President, CultureWorks

CultureWorks, an independently-funded 501(c)3 nonprofit organization that provides service and leadership for arts and culture in the Richmond Region, seeks nominations and applications for an experienced and visionary leader to serve as its President. Formed in 2009 by recommendation of the Richmond Region Cultural Action Plan, CultureWorks’ mission is to make lives better in the Richmond region by strengthening arts and culture and leveraging strong arts and culture to strengthen other facets of the region.

Soft deadline of May 1.

Executive Director, Arts & Cultural Alliance of St. Lucie

The Arts and Cultural Alliance of St. Lucie, Inc. is a nonprofit arts organization formed in 2009 and the designated Local Arts Agency for St. Lucie County, Florida. The Executive Director is responsible for all activities of the Alliance, consistent with the direction of the Board of Directors and approved Strategic Plan. The Alliance is dedicated to the promotion of St. Lucie’s individual artists and arts organizations, responsible for marketing local arts and cultural activities, advocating for arts funding and providing grants to cultural organizations and local artists.

No deadline.

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