On Stories vs. Data

(Cross-posted from the Fractured Atlas blog. This is the second in an occasional series on Fractured Atlas’s research approach and philosophy. The first can be found here.)

Many of us, especially if we’ve been present at a Rocco Landesman speech in the past year or so, are probably familiar with the quote widely attributed to W. Edwards Deming: “In God we trust; all others must bring data.” And if you’ve filled out a final report for any grant recently, you’ve probably come face to face with philanthropy’s insatiable hunger for numbers. Attendance figures, financial data, surveys—all of these and more are increasingly becoming an immovable fixture of life in the arts, often to the chagrin of fundraisers and arts administrators.

Much of the recent drive toward measurement in the nonprofit sector is being driven by a new generation of philanthropists, many coming from metrics-obsessed corporate America, who see in numbers the promise of being able to evaluate the effectiveness of their giving with the same facility as evaluating their investments in the stock market. The leaders of this so-called “smart giving” movement carry a strong distrust of anecdotal evidence (GiveWell is pretty much exhibit A for this), and privilege “hard,” rigorously collected data instead. Conveniently, they also typically focus the bulk of their attention and resources on cause areas such as education, poverty, and global health, where data is in much more ready supply.

Caught in the middle of this trend, artists frequently express discomfort with perceived attempts to translate their work into a statistic. For a field that prides itself on expressing the inexpressible, the notion of reducing a potentially life-changing experience to a number doesn’t just feel confusing, it’s kind of insulting. What’s more, fundraisers who work with individual donors often find that, by contrast, a powerful story can do wonders where facts and figures fall flat. (The same could be said for advocates and politicians.)

It’s easy to see why artists and administrators might prefer stories to data. A story is rich, full of detail and shape. Data is flat. Put another way, data is mined from the common ground between various stories, which means that in order for it to work, for it to be converted into the language of numbers, you have to exclude extraneous information. Even if that “extraneous” information happens to be really interesting and cool and sums up exactly why we do what we do!

The reason stories work for us as human beings is because they are few in number. We can spend two hours watching a documentary, or a week reading a history book, and get a really deep qualitative understanding of what was going on in a specific situation or in a specific case. The problem is that we can only truly comprehend so many stories at once. We don’t have the mental bandwidth to process the experiences of even hundreds, much less thousands or millions of subjects or occurrences. To make sense of those kinds of numbers, we need ways of simplifying and reducing the amount of information we store in each case. So what we do is we take all of those stories and we flatten them: we dry out all of the rich shape and detail that makes up their original form and we package them instead in a kind of mold: collecting a specific and limited set of attributes about each so that we can apply analysis techniques to them in batch. In a very real sense, data = mass-produced stories.

It sounds horrible when I put it like that, right? But it’s an essential process because without it, we can’t be assured that we’re looking at the whole picture. Especially when we’re dealing with a large number of potential cases or examples, if we just concentrate on those that are nearest to us, whether that proximity is measured by geography or social/professional circle or similarity to our own situation, there is a very real risk that we will draw inappropriate conclusions about examples that are a little farther afield. Either random statistical noise (especially in the case of small sample sizes) or a bias that skews the kinds of examples we seek out can contribute to this lack of precision about our conclusions.

So we gain something very significant when we flatten stories into data. At a minimum, if we’re doing it right, we gain the confidence that comes with looking at the whole picture rather than only a piece of it. At its very best, we gain the opportunity to formulate stories out of data – such as in the case of Steve Sheppard’s work on MASS MoCA and the revitalization of North Adams, MA. But we lose something too. We lose the ability to cross-reference obscure details about one of our examples with obscure details about another, and sometimes those obscure details turn out to be pretty important. We lose some of the context for understanding why data points might look the way they do, and depending on how well we’ve constructed our data, that may or may not change the conclusions we draw.

But make no mistake: stories are never incompatible with data. When you or someone you know has an incredible experience at an arts event, or when a troubled child’s life is saved through involvement with the arts, or when people are brought together who wouldn’t otherwise meet because of the arts, those are all great stories – and they’re also data. One could imagine counting the number of lives saved by the arts, scoring the quality of arts events, cataloguing the new connections and friendships made possible through arts activities. I’m not saying it’s easy to do such things, but that doesn’t mean they can’t be done meaningfully and with integrity. I think we need to challenge ourselves as a field to be more creative about how we articulate and measure the ways in which the arts improve lives. The answers that we’re looking for might be closer within our reach than we thought.


Re-envisioning No Child Left Behind, and What It Means for Arts Education

From the Obama-Biden Transition Project via Flickr

In his 2011 State of the Union Address, President Obama spent almost 10 of his 60 minutes discussing why it’s so essential to offer every child a world-class education:

Over the next 10 years, nearly half of all new jobs will require education that goes beyond a high school education. And yet, as many as a quarter of our students aren’t even finishing high school [...] To all 50 states, we said, ‘If you show us the most innovative plans to improve teacher quality and student achievement, we’ll show you the money.’

As part of his education agenda, Obama proposes to change the No Child Left Behind Act, formerly known as the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA). You may have heard of No Child Left Behind: a Bush-administration law that requires schools to heavily test students, and that punishes schools where students do not meet baseline test scores. It hasn’t really worked, but more on this later.

What I wanted to know is what Obama is proposing in his Blueprint for Reform: the Re-authorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act.” And perhaps the juicier question for the arts education field: what does this proposal imply for the future of the arts in schools?

The Elementary and Secondary Education Act: A brief history

In 1965, the U.S poverty rate was at about nineteen percent (higher than the yearly national average, which vacillates between 13%-17%; in 2009, the figure was about 14.3%). To tackle this problem, President Lyndon Johnson created a legislative agenda called the Great Society, an initiative to provide social welfare programs from education to health care, including a program called the War on Poverty. The Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) was designed as part of the War on Poverty to ensure that every child had equal access to quality education. It was enacted initially through 1970, but Congress has voted for its re-authorization every 5 years since then.

While it has gone through a few revisions since 1965, the most significant changes took place in 2001 under the Bush administration, when the ESEA was re-authorized with a new name and very different set of guidelines, known as the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB). The main goal of NCLB was for all students to reach national levels of academic achievement each year through rigorous standardized testing.

Why No Child Left Behind failed

Under NCLB, 100% of students are expected to reach government-set “proficiency” by 2014. All 4th-8th grade students are required to improve on test scores each year in reading and math, “something no educational system anywhere on earth has ever accomplished,” Claudia Wallis notes. Evidence now shows that since the law was enacted, schools have failed in meeting the standards set by NCLB. As of March 9, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan is saying that 82% of schools could be labeled as failing federal standards under No Child Left Behind. Check out more articles about the problems with the law here and here.

The rigorous testing has had an impact on the arts, as many teachers have had very little time to focus on integrating other subjects into the curriculum. Douglas Mefford sums it up best: “With the threat of lost funding and even total disbanding of the school at risk if even one specific group of students did not show ‘improvement,’ school systems were forced to redefine and lower their educational standards in order to avoid punishment.”

Obama’s proposal to change NCLB: Blueprint for Re-authorization of ESEA

The Obama administration proposes a different – and equally ambitious – goal to replace that of NCLB: for every student to graduate from high school prepared for college and the work-force.

The biggest shift presented by Obama’s proposal is that instead of giving a little money to everyone and implementing punitive measures for failure to perform, the government offers incentives in the form of grants to people doing the best work. The idea is to leverage current financial resources for dramatic systemic change, and to empower districts, schools, and teachers to make the best decisions about improving their educational environments.

A NY Times article from March 2010 explains more about the Blueprint: “The administration would replace the law’s pass-fail school grading system with one that would measure individual students’ academic growth and judge schools based not on test scores alone but also on indicators like pupil attendance, graduation rates and learning climate.”

A Complete Education

Obama asserts that in order to remain a competitive country economically and otherwise, our students need a complete education, and encourages “a new investment in improving teaching and learning in all content areas – from literacy to science, technology, engineering, and mathematics to history, civics, foreign languages, the arts, financial literacy, environmental education, and other subjects – and in providing accelerated learning opportunities to more students to make post-secondary success more attainable.”

A complete educationsigh. I suddenly had visions of every school around the country starting an orchestra program, an art department, a choir. Children singing in harmony as they became more proficient in history, more creative in science, more savvy in math. OK, maybe not quite. But is a “complete education” as promising as it sounds, particularly for the arts?

At a first glance, it is.

To ensure a well-rounded education, the Blueprint offers competitive grants to states, nonprofits, and districts to strengthen teaching and learning in areas such as the arts (Blueprint, pg. 28). In order to make the case to keep or develop the arts in schools, the federal government first has to recognize the arts as an academic subject, and one sentence in this Blueprint indicates that we’re headed in the right direction: “Competitive grants will be awarded… to programs [that] focus on improving student academic achievement in core academic subjects, ranging from science, to history, [and] the arts.” (Blueprint, pg. 32).

Creating incentives for success, playing to people’s strengths instead of their weaknesses. Sounds great, but how do these grants work?

Richard Kessler (no relation), Executive Director of The Center for Arts Education, was tremendously helpful in providing some guidance for this blog. He broke down the grant process, and why he thinks it may pose challenges to getting education funding, as follows:

Grant process

  • Oftentimes, a project is initiated and developed by an arts organization, which needs to partner with a Local Education Agency (LEA) to be eligible for the grant.
  • Each LEA and partners apply together in one application for each individual grant.
  • One example of an LEA taking the lead is the Rochester School District, which has initiated arts integration projects with cultural organizations. Every project needs to have a set of outcomes in arts learning alongside improvement to test scores in English and math.


  • Core funding for school districts should be tax-levy based “hard” funding, which is a larger pool of money that lasts longer than grant money (“soft” money), which runs out.
  • Grant money might be great for certain research projects that school districts may not pay for, but arts organizations and school districts question the feasibility of building or sustaining programs that rely on the short-term nature of outside funding.

So, the grant process may not be that appealing for long-term arts education support. While grants may not be a major threat to integrating arts into schools, there are three other issues that could be significant potential threats:

The uncertain future of testing: It seems as if Obama’s proposal reorganizes the funding available to the arts and gives schools more flexibility in assessing student achievement. However, we have little proof that the rigorous testing will actually go away. And if the testing doesn’t go away, teachers may continue to put the arts on the curricular back burner to make more time to prepare students for tests in reading and math.

Budget ambiguity: Nothing is explained in the Blueprint about how much of the grant “pie” the arts will get. An issue brief from Americans for the Arts indicates that the arts will be part of a bigger pool of other subjects, but that we don’t know yet how much the arts will get in this pool.

Proposed budget cuts: It appears as if there’s an even bigger threat to the revival of the arts in schools: on March 1, Congress voted to eliminate the Arts Education Program at the federal level as part of a temporary budget measure, which will take away $40 million in current-year funding for arts in schools unless it is reversed.

I like Richard Kessler’s silver lining on his blog Dewey21C: “Maybe it will take these sorts of events to create new possibilities for how the field can work together and with other sectors to advocate for children, education, and the arts.”

Obama’s Blueprint may seem promising for the arts, but we still do not know whether it will shift schools away from rigorous testing to focus on building a complete and robust education for students, with the arts as well as with other subjects. What we can do is work together to make sure that the arts are recognized as an essential part of a well-rounded education for all of our future leaders.

Here’s some more information about supporting the arts in schools if you’re curious:

Time-line for restoring funding to the federal Arts Education Program

The next continuing resolution is between March and September 30. In other words, now.

How to make a difference today

Join arts education advocates by writing to your Congressperson and asking to restore funding to the Arts Education Program. This would reinstate funding that was cut, and would ensure more access to grants for the arts. Take five minutes to fill out an easy online petition here or here.


Supply is Not Going to Decrease (So It’s Time to Think About Curating)

Image by Flickr user Waddell and Condor

(Cross-posted from the NEA’s Art Works blog. The version that appears there was edited for length; this is the original.)

I’ve been waiting for a while to respond to the controversy that erupted after Rocco Landesman’s comments on supply and demand in the arts at Arena Stage in January. (Createquity’s previous coverage, provided by Aaron Andersen, is here.) Most of the very thought-provoking commentary in the interim has taken issue in one way or another either with the notion that demand cannot increase, or the appropriateness of the supply/demand construct altogether. Now that the dust has settled a bit, I want to propose a slightly different way of thinking about the situation.

The first thing for us to understand is that Rocco’s comments did not come out of nowhere. People in arts policy circles have been grumbling about the dramatic increase in arts organizations for years. I had actually been collecting links on this topic all through last year in preparation for a post on oversupply when the news of Rocco’s speech hit. Here’s Michael Kaiser, for example, noting that “so many people” over the past two years have suggested to him that we must thin out the field (he does not agree). Jim Undercofler, arts management professor at Drexel and former CEO of the Philadelphia Orchestra, admitted recently that he was questioning his “initiating assumption” that there are too many nonprofits.1 Here’s former Mellon Foundation Associate Program Officer Diane Ragsdale with a post on oversupply 10 days prior to Rocco’s address at Arena Stage. And this past fall, Grantmakers in the Arts’s much-heralded National Capitalization Project Report ended up making a lot of people nervous, primarily because of the inclusion of this statement among its core hypotheses: “there is an oversupply of product in some marketplaces, and…current funding practices do not address this issue.”

I take the view that, whatever the merits might be of reducing supply, there is virtually nothing anyone—funders included—can do to actually make it happen. For one thing, conversation about supply and demand breaks down a bit when the suppliers have an intrinsic motivation to be in the marketplace. Classical economic models assume that suppliers don’t have any particular emotional attachment to what they’re supplying; all they really want to do is to make money. As a result, if they’re not making money, they’ll exit the industry, leaving more to go around for everyone else.  As we see from Kirk Lynn’s contribution to the discussion, however, many artists (especially artist-entrepreneurs) have far too much passion for their work to consider exiting solely for financial reasons. The result of this lack of exit is a surfeit of fantastic art that few aside from its creators have time to take in.

Notice that I didn’t say in that last sentence “a surfeit of fantastic art that few want to take in.” An immutable fact of contemporary culture is that the volume of expressive content and product available for us to consume overwhelms not just our desire, but our physical ability to experience it all. The number of albums released on CD in 2008 is enough that a listener couldn’t get through more than an eighth of them even if he had his headphones on for 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. Users upload the equivalent of 176,000 full-length movies to YouTube every week. And that’s just the stuff that’s being released today! Meanwhile, every creator must compete not only with all of her contemporaries, but also with all of those who came before her whose work survived to the present—and that supply is not about to decrease anytime soon. (Unfortunately, creators cannot similarly count on dead audience members to be a part of their fan club.) Moreover, the phenomenon of oversupply—or, put another way, hypercompetition—is far, far bigger than the nonprofit arts sector. It affects industries ranging from video games to smartphone application stores, Facebook, cable TV, and yes, blogs. In many ways, it is existential in scope: our brains and lifespans are not built to withstand this onslaught of choices. The supply of artists, arts organizations, and even capital may increase with relative ease, but the supply of time in the day, last I checked, remains pretty constant.

So to me, the conversation we should be having is not about reducing supply. Instead it is about defining the responsibilities of cultural institutions to provide stewardship for a world in which supply of creative content is exploding and will never shrink. In this era of infinite choice, there is a desperate need for guidance as to how we should allocate the precious few hours that we have to experience something that will feed our souls, make us think differently, or incur a hearty laugh. In other words: for curation. We need someone to listen to, watch, and view all of the chaff so that we can confine our own time to the wheat. But quality curation-that is to say, curation that results from independent, original research and informed, critical judgments-is not just good for us as consumers. It’s just as important for the artists. In particular, in a hypercompetitive environment like this one, we need to look out for the artist with the talent and drive to make great art, but without an income stream that will support her as she makes it. The voices of these artists—the gifted but resourceless—risk getting shut out unfairly because many others have the capital and connections to bring their work to the attention of gatekeepers, even if that work is inferior.

I believe it’s critically important that, as we seek to impose structure and sanity on this world, we do not cut off the flow of new ideas and new voices in the name of triage. The main reason why we have this proliferation of nonprofits, I think, is because artists think it’s the only vehicle they have available to them to do their work. But as Adam Huttler points out, it’s not – in particular, fiscal sponsorship provides an attractive and immediately available alternative structure in which to accomplish one’s artistic goals. With fiscal sponsorship, there is no assumption of perpetuity; no mandate to form and submit to a board that may not understand or share the founder’s agenda; and much less in the way of paperwork and reporting requirements.

So why would anyone form a nonprofit? A nonprofit still makes sense, in my view, if its focus is not on a specific artist or group of artists. Any organization that provides infrastructure - presenters, community arts organizations, arts education providers, local arts councils, service organizations, and the like – is a good candidate for the nonprofit form. Rule of thumb: if an organization would have no reason to continue on if its founder(s) left tomorrow, it probably shouldn’t be a nonprofit.

If I were a funder, I would be thinking about how to focus my support on organizations that are nonprofits for the right reasons. Funders can accomplish more impact by supporting institutions that work with and involve a wide range of constituents, be they artists, audience members, community members, etc.  And yes, that does suggest—as both Rocco and Grantmakers in the Arts have suggested—larger grants to fewer organizations. However, this only works with the other pieces of the puzzle if all of the following three things are true about the organizations receiving grants:

  1. They actually pay the artists. This is how we can get away with not supporting artistic producers directly. There needs to be a mechanism for those producers (i.e., dance and theater companies, musical ensembles, individual painters, sculptors, etc.) to make money through the system that is being set up. If grantees that present the work of artists to the public are not compensating their creative collaborators proportionately with the support they’re receiving, this strategy is undermined.
  2. They’re performing their curatorial duty. If all the organizations that hire artists and ensembles are too lazy or hamstrung by commercial pressures to seek out new voices and instead simply work with the same narrow pool of established names, there will be no room for innovation and the field will stagnate. Many funders’ well-intentioned focus on butts in seats in the name of community relevance creates incentives counter to providing good curation, while failing to instigate widespread increases in arts engagement. Institutions already have all the incentive they need to maximize butts in seats – it’s called earned revenue. By accepting charitable support, I would argue, organizations have an obligation to seek out work that isn’t guaranteed to put butts in seats. And if an institution’s cost structure won’t allow for that, even with subsidization, that is a telling sign that it may be overbuilt.
  3. They play well with others. At this time of extreme pressure on philanthropic and especially government support for the arts, the field needs to make efficient use of scarce resources like buildings, equipment, real estate, and attention. There’s no sense in pouring millions of dollars into a new facility only to have it sit dark three-quarters of the time. That’s not only a huge waste, it is deeply uncharitable. Donors (including institutional funders) should demand accountability on this point.

Much has been written about the increasingly blurred line between creator and consumer of art. With plummeting production and distribution costs, unprecedented levels of global interconnectedness, and nearly 50% of the United States population engaged in some form of personal creation, it’s no surprise that we are faced with art all around us – more than at any previous point in history. Abundance of creative expression isn’t going away; it is our future. Maybe what really needs to be “fixed” is not supply and demand – since, with due respect to the NEA, that issue is a whole lot bigger than us – but rather, the processes and rationales we use for determining how to distribute public subsidy.


1 All of the “too many nonprofits” talk reminds me of how differently we treat nonprofits from businesses for no good reason (after all, donors are customers too). You never hear anyone saying “there are too many small businesses”—by contrast, private-sector entrepreneurship is recognized as a critical mechanism for spreading innovation and a key source of real economic growth, especially in a recession.


Get a (folk)life: How folklore research helped an arts agency

Selected by MovieMaker magazine as one of the 'Top 25 Coolest Film Festivals,' Cucalorus Film Festival screens over 150 independent and international films.

North Carolina is known nationally for its extensive network of local arts agencies, featuring 84 local arts councils in a state with 100 counties. One county, however, is conspicuously absent. The 10th most populous county in the state, New Hanover County on the southern coast, has not had an arts council since 2002. The leaders of the county seat of Wilmington asked the North Carolina Arts Council (the state arts agency) for help. The Arts Council then asked for help from someone else—the North Carolina Folklife Institute.

You might ask, what do folklorists have to do with the founding of an arts council? The answer lies in cultural asset research.  Before establishing a new organization, the North Carolina Arts Council wanted to research what cultural assets were present in the area and what particular challenges were facing the arts community.  And according to Kate Prescott of the market research firm Prescott and Associates, this kind of exploratory research is best accomplished through qualitative methods such as interviewing. Folklorists, as it happens, are some of the best trained interviewers out there. They also have a particular advantage when it comes to arts research: folklorists are trained to seek out and recognize creativity in all forms, especially that which comes from people who don’t consider themselves “artists.” By working with folklorists, the North Carolina Arts Council and community leaders in New Hanover County were rewarded with a vivid picture of the arts in their area that went far beyond numbers, bringing to life the personalities and groups that make the community unique.

The Process

Folklore research in some ways mimics folk art itself. You start off with a solid foundation or template, and then “go with the flow.” Sarah Bryan of the North Carolina Folklife Institute, along with Sally Peterson, Folklife Specialist at the North Carolina Arts Council, were selected to head the cultural asset research project. First, they conducted document research about the arts in Wilmington, tracing the city’s arts heritage to the late-18th-century founding of Wilmington itself. Then they moved on to the city’s current arts assets, starting with stakeholders from various disciplines referred to them by arts leaders in Wilmington. To make sure they were hearing from everyone in the region, including artists working outside the established arts infrastructure, members of immigrant groups, and artists working in new media, they grew that list organically through their fieldwork.

Fieldwork can be both structured and unstructured. Structured fieldwork is a simple matter of ending interviews with the question, “Who else do you think we should talk to?” Unstructured fieldwork is exploring an area through any means possible. Ms. Bryan gave examples of unstructured fieldwork such as attending festivals and talking to people, perusing community bulletin boards, and shuffling through the stacks of business cards at gas stations and talking to the attendants. Ms. Bryan made one of her discoveries while at a red lightthe car in front of her was emblazoned with “DragginFly Entertainment”, which turned out to be a gospel recording studio specializing in a new genre of gospel music, holy hip hop. This process of starting with a group recommended by people in the community and growing the list organically through informal conversations and observations lends authenticity to the interview process and encourages inclusion of artists outside the established infrastructure.

Likewise, interview questions in folklore research have a similar structure of following a template. In this study, there were two topics covered in all of the interviews—opinions about the nature and health of Wilmington’s arts community, and the interviewee’s own experience in Wilmington as an artist or someone working to support the arts. However, the questions themselves weren’t prepared; rather, the interviewer had topics in mind and questions arose as part of the natural flow of conversation.

The final component to the research process was a survey of largely open-ended questions made available to the entire community. In total, 180 responses were collected from interested citizens, artists, arts board members, volunteers, arts participants and arts administrators. They survey covered essentially the same topics as the interviews and ensured a broader community imprint on the study.

The Results

After eight months of research and fieldwork, Ms. Bryan and Ms. Peterson along with the North Carolina Arts Council staff came out with three reports: “Report on the Arts Resources and Cultural Traditions of Wilmington and New Hanover County,” the public survey results, and “Recommendations for Forming an Arts Council in Wilmington and New Hanover County” (all of which can be found here).

The report on arts resources, in particular, brings all of the cultures and traditions and personalities of New Hanover County to life. It reveals a varied history of organized cultural events at the town’s oldest theater, Thalian Hall, originally built in 1759. It also turned up an incredibly rich African American cultural history, from Jonkunnu “carnival”-style festivals, to young black women who were pioneers in vaudeville and opera, to gospel music and the new “holy hip hop” genre. The area is not only known for bluegrass, but duranguense, the Mexican version of country western music. There is a large Latino population in New Hanover County (many from the province of Oaxaca) who celebrate traditional holidays such as Tres Reyes or “Three Kings,” and still engage in traditional arts forms such as painting and embroidery. Being a coastal town, residents are experts in boatmaking and oyster-shucking. And  it’s not just traditional southern food that’s served here—the diversity of the community means that Latino (especially Oaxacan) and Greek food are also available. Finally, over the last forty years, Wilmington has become a popular place in the film industry because of its variety of architecture, locations, and low cost of doing business.

The public survey results reveal some overarching themes. Wilmington is attractive to creative workers due to its existing local arts scene, affordability, and proximity to water (both the ocean and the river), which many artists cite as inspirational to their work.  The city faces challenges, however. While Wilmington is a haven for early and late career artists, it loses mid-career artists who have to move away to find work. In addition, being a small community with limited resources, artists and organizations openly admit to struggling with competing amongst themselves instead of working together.  Residents have clear ideas of what they want an arts council to accomplish for the city. They believe that their arts assets are economic assets, but that they haven’t fully been realized as such. They want an arts council that can turn their local culture into dollars for the city. The survey also reveals a strong desire for public art in the city.

The recommendation report pulls everything together into a guidebook for what the new arts council should look like and how it should function. Incorporating feedback from the interviews and the survey, it advises that the arts council should concentrate on three core areas: securing funding, recruiting experienced staff, and building relationships both within the arts community and with other key stakeholders. It also recommends to “strike while the iron is hot” by forming a council within the next year and a half.  It provides a set of beliefs to guide the new council, as well as a budget for the first year.

The Benefits

Wayne Martin, Senior Program Director for Community Arts Development at the North Carolina Arts Council, explains the benefits that came from using folklorists in this project.

  • Authenticity

“By having folklorists trained in interviewing, we got some really eloquent statements that we were able to quote exactly. The results of the research were in the words of residents, which was a different tone than when other consultants would come in and write about a place. We were confident that the assets they reported on were valued by those in the community, lending an air of authenticity and connection we hadn’t had from other reports.”

  • Community Engagement

“The work itself was a great community engagement tool. The interviews and conversations engaged the community at a deeper level than other projects.”

  • Identifying artists outside the infrastructure

“Folklorists are trained to seek out and recognize creativity in a variety of forms. While it’s easier to just engage with artists and arts organizations, you leave out a big segment of the community who can bring a lot of depth in terms of artistic assets.”

  • Identifying Community Culture

“Folklorists understand how artistry is a window onto a community. They are able to articulate how the art that is produced there reflects the values of that community and makes it distinct.”

Moving Forward

After a two year process and eight months of research funded by a $15,000 contract, an arts council for Wilmington and New Hanover County is around the corner. The city has already agreed to appropriate funds for the council if the county takes the first step.  This month, there will be a County Commission meeting to decide that.

Folklorists aren’t usually asked to conduct this kind of cultural asset research, but the method shows great promise. Mr. Martin says that the North Carolina Arts Council has already shared their work on this project with their counterparts in Kentucky and adds that they would be happy to share with others.

Imagine the possibilities, though—what else can folklorists help us with? Stay tuned for more about how folklorist research can interact with more than just traditional arts, and can become a tool for cultural advocacy, tourism and business councils, and region-specific grantmaking institutions.

Special thanks to Wayne Martin and Sarah Bryan for their help in preparing this post.


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Around the horn: Japan edition

(OK, here’s the follow-up. Enjoy!)


  • Marc Vogl and Jeanne Sakamoto of the Hewlett and Irvine Foundations, respectively, hosted a Grantmakers in the Arts webinar on the subject of retaining emerging leaders in the arts field. Here is the full 40-minute presentation, and Marc and Jeanne have also put together a NextGen Arts Leadership microsite with other resources on wikispaces.
  • Andrew Taylor gave this keynote at the Arts Enterprise Summit in Kansas City last month called “The Art of the Business Model.” And he had a co-keynote with the wonderful Russell Willis Taylor at American University’s Spring Colloquium, which you can view here.
  • Nina Simon’s keynote from the 2010 NODEM conference on design for participation.





  • We focus a lot of attention on using arts and culture to reframe urban life. But what about the suburbs? Yonah Freemark imagines a more sustainable suburbia.
  • Doug McLennan writes of the walled garden problem and the economic incentives for new technologies not to adhere to the open-standards practices that have helped us make so much technological progress over the past couple of decades.
  • Crowd-curation marches on, this time at museums.


  • CultureBot’s Jeremy Barker marks the public debut of New York Live Arts, the new company formed by the merger of Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company and Dance Theater Workshop.
  • Not a merger, but this collaboration between fellow Lincoln Center tenants the Metropolitan Opera and Juilliard does beg the question of why it didn’t happen sooner.
  • More on the Awesome Foundation’s, uh, awesome growth.


  • GiveWell describes an interesting method for self-evaluation: giving an independent observer a chunk of money to allocate using GiveWell and other sources, and testing how useful GiveWell was in the process. It’s kind of like a lab experiment for smart giving.
  • The Center for Effective Philanthropy has released its strategic plan for 2011-14.


  • Foundation Source Access is a new fundraising website from Foundation Source, a company providing back-end services to many small family foundations. While at first glance it might seem redundant with other types of crowdfunding sites aimed at individual donors, this project is interesting because of the audience. The huge national foundations don’t control all that much of the nation’s institutional giving, but it’s always been difficult to tap family foundation money without personal connections because of those organizations’ lack of infrastructure. If family foundations actually use this tool to seek out grantees instead of sticking with the tried and true (and that’s a big if), it could be an important new resource for fundraisers.
  • Craig Newmark (founder of Craigslist) is launching craigconnects, a project to curate nonprofits and get them wider attention.
  • TicketForce is looking to sell tickets to your Facebook events…in Facebook. (Thanks to Thomas Cott for the above two links.)
  • Travel search engine Hipmunk has a new mapping overlay feature for its hotel searches. You can now see heat maps of food, shopping, tourist opportunities, and “vice” in the area around your hotel. I tried it out in my own neighborhood and found the data a bit suspect, but it’s still an interesting and very practical application of cultural asset mapping.
  • The International Federation of Arts Councils and Culture Agencies has a cool new resource called “Ask IFACCA.” Not only will they take your questions, they’ll publish some of the answers as well. Geek out alert!
  • Great to see the DiMenna Center for Classical Music (new home of Orchestra of St. Luke’s) up and running in Manhattan, especially since the genesis of the project was a 2004 feasibility study by Exploring the Metropolis.
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More trouble for NPR

So by now you’ve probably heard the latest news: James O’Keefe (that guy who secretly filmed ACORN) posed as a Muslim philanthropist to Ronald Schiller, Senior Vice President of Development for NPR and President of the NPR Foundation, and Betsy Liley, NPR’s Director of Institutional Giving. Over lunch, the clandestine camera records Mr. Schiller calling the Tea Party “racist”. Mr. Schiller, who had already given his notice that he was leaving to accept a position at the Aspen Institute as director of the Harman-Eisner Artist-in-Residence Program, made his resignation from NPR effective immediately when the video was released. He has now also resigned from Aspen. NPR CEO Vivian Schiller (no relation) also resigned after the Board decided that “the controversies under [her] watch had become such a distraction that she could no longer effectively lead the organization” (referring, presumably, to the dismissal of Juan Williams in January).

So much fallout from one video (which I encourage you to watch), filmed by a person who has been arrested for tampering with phones at a federal building, who attempted to sexually humiliate CNN anchor Abbie Boudreau, and is the subject of various lawsuits resulting from the ACORN videos (at least the Brooklyn branch of ACORN, btw, has been cleared of wrongdoing). The video also comes at a time when conservatives are agitating for the end of government funding to NPR and public radio. And with yet another two week extension with more cuts to the arts (cuts to the arts for children, even!), that threat is becoming very real.

A lot of people are asking—is what Mr. Schiller said so unreasonable? He points out in the video that federal funding actually makes up only one percent of NPR’s funding and 10% of the station economy, and that NPR is not a government program, which many people believe. He goes on to say that while he thinks NPR would be better off in the long run without government funding (which O’Keefe will no doubt run wild with), if funding were cut now, “a lot of stations would go dark.” Mr. Schiller is also careful to “take off his NPR hat” when he starts to express his own opinion that educated “so-called elite” people in America are now the minority.

There’s not much focus on what O’Keefe and his colleague say in the video—“Jews do kind of control the media,” “what Israel does can’t be excused”—but I suppose he can always say that he was playing a role.

Incidentally, there is now evidence that NPR refused the $5 million donation check offered in the meeting. NPR isn’t stupid- they’re not going to accept money from a donor with no history and who wants to get more favorable coverage on the news.

If you still believe that federal funding is essential for non-commercial radio that promotes local cultural events and offers a public space for discussion, get involved by sending a letter to congress, or just by talking with your neighbors. And maybe just keep in mind what mama said—if you can’t say anything nice, don’t say anything at all.

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Around the horn: Libya edition

(Note: this ATH is already quite long, so I’m going to split it up into two parts. Look for the rest of the links in a few days.)

A quick note about some upcoming speaking engagements: I’ll be on a panel next month at the annual Emerging Arts Leaders Symposium hosted by American University, speaking on the topic of “What Makes a Good Arts Leader?” I’m looking forward to sharing the stage with the NEA’s dynamic and ubiquitous Director of Public Affairs, Jamie Bennett, and my good friend Stephanie Evans of Americans for the Arts. The symposium takes place on Sunday, April 3 in Washington, DC, and my panel is in the mid-afternoon (3:45-5:00). Secondly, I’ll be co-hosting a discussion as part of Kathy Supové’s Music with a View Festival at the Flea Theater in New York on March 30, talking about some of the themes raised in my article for NewMusicBox, “Composing a Life.” Come say hi if you’re around!


  • So, Congress reconvened and passed a two-week continuing resolution that features $4 billion in cuts – including the elimination of the $40 million arts education program at the Department of Education. Meanwhile, negotiations are taking place now on the longer-term continuing resolution that will fund the federal government for the rest of the year. The version that the House passed a few weeks ago contains a 25% cut to the NEA. Guy Yedwab has an excellent roundup of reasons to support the NEA (although I do advise leaving any return-on-investment arguments to the professionals). Lex Leifheit suggests that we get our parents and grandparents involved in arts advocacy, a la Sarah Silverman’s Great Schlep.
  • Some general commentary on the budget fight: Richard Kessler reminds us that this is not just about the arts, but rather a wholesale attempt to roll back the New Deal, and David Brooks suggests that we should be allying ourselves with other interest groups who stand to lose from cuts to discretionary funding, not fighting against them.
  • Obama is also trying again to lower the limits on the charitable deduction donors can take on their taxes. This has some in the nonprofit community worried, and it is worth noting that arts organizations are disproportionately supported by high-net-worth donors most likely to be affected by the changes. I don’t know, though – I am skeptical that the tax deduction is as significant a motivator in donor behavior as most people seem to think it is. (Most of the research I’ve seen on this suggests otherwise.) I think the impact to arts organizations would be real, but not as big as feared.
  • There are advocacy doings at the state and local levels too. Governor Walker of Wisconsin, already endearing himself so much to lefty-leaning artists through his union-busting ways, is threatening to severely reduce arts funding in that state as well. At least Chicago’s new mayor – and former ballet dancer – Rahm Emanuel has pledged support. And it looks like our friends in Kansas may have enough support in the state legislature to save their arts council. (That article is well worth the read, by the way.)
  • Don’t forget that government advocacy is not the only kind that’s important. The Meyer Foundation, which had long been an arts supporter in the DC area, has adopted a new strategic framework that leaves the arts out in the cold. Obviously many fewer people have the ability to influence the decision-making processes of private foundations than do government bodies, but those who do have that influence should not be afraid to use it.


  • The conversation Rocco started a month ago continues. The most interesting content lately belongs to Scott Walters, who recounted his experience attending a convening of arts leaders at the NEA to discuss the issues at hand; here is more.
  • Meanwhile, the NEA released a trio of research reports re-examining aspects of the well-worn Survey of Public Participation in the Arts.  Perhaps the biggest headline comes from the fact that when you expand the definition of arts participation beyond ticket sales at the likes at the symphony, opera, art museum, etc. to include things like engagement with electronic media and personal creation, the proportion of people who engage with the arts rises to nearly 3 in 4. Thomas Cott has a great round-up of the reports themselves (which also examine the roles of arts education, age, and generation in arts attendance) as well as reactions from around the web.


  • Man, a lot has been happening in Detroit since we last checked in. The Detroit Symphony Orchestra’s season is now cancelled, but rumors fly that management is considering hiring replacement players. Now the musicians are proposing binding arbitration to resume the season without a contract, under the terms that management last proposed, and are impatient for a response. Yikes!
  • Last year, I predicted that composers would use the method employed by Eric Whitacre to create his Virtual Choir to crowdsource performances for their own pieces. It looks like this is now, in fact, happening, as Canadian composer Glen Rhodes is starting up a “virtual orchestra project” to play an original composition of his. (There’s a nice interview of Rhodes by Tara George at the above link.) Meanwhile, the YouTube Symphony, which is a live-action flesh-and-blood orchestra composed of members who auditioned via YouTube, is having another go-round under the baton of Michael Tilson Thomas.


  • Americans for the Arts has joined up with Hyundai for a test of whether slactivism can help the arts: Hyundai’s new ad campaign, “Cure Compact Crampomitosis,” has AFTA as a charitable partner. For each person who joins the Facebook Causes page set up by Hyundai for the purpose, the car company donates 50 cents to AFTA – up to a maximum of $25k. (They are already more than halfway there.) On the one hand, I’m very glad to see a car company choosing an arts organization for support rather than any of the thousands of more traditional charities it could have picked. On the other hand, though, it seems like a pretty damn good deal for Hyundai…only $25k for 50,000 deep impressions? If just a handful of people buy cars as a result of this campaign, Hyundai comes out ahead. (In fairness, Hyundai is also matching donations made through the page, which nearly doubles the commitment as of this writing.) Well, good luck to them.
  • Is giving money to the homeless a good way to help after all? Maybe it is, if you just ask them what they want and buy it for them.


  • I’m still making my way through Animating Democracy’s excellent Impact Arts site, but I can already tell it’s going to be a tremendous resource for me as well as the field.
  • A new cultural policy think tank is in the house, and it wants your input: the Institute for Culture in the Service of Community Sustainability. Headed by Paul Nagle, ICSCS (pronounced “Isis”) is an affiliate of the British think tank DEMOS and takes a radically democratic approach to its work. Nagle has two guest posts on the IT Foundation blog that are well worth reading.
  • Is extending copyright to fashion designers a good idea? UCLA economist and sociologist Gabriel Rossman says no.


  • Muhammad Yunus, the grandfather of microfinance, is being forced out as the head of Grameen Bank in Bangladesh in what many see as a politically-motivated vendetta.
  • Ex-Senator Chris Dodd is going to lead the Motion Picture Association of America, taking over for the legendary Jack Valenti.
  • Former Hewlett Foundation Performing Arts Program Director Moy Eng will be the new head of the Community School of Music and Arts in Mountain View, CA.
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Well, well…

Two weeks ago, I noted the increasing pressure on state arts agencies, and in the process took two national arts service organizations (the National Assembly of State Arts Agencies and Americans for the Arts) to task for not providing a single, easy-to-find place on their websites where concerned arts advocates could go to get the latest information on what’s happening across the country. That post quickly became the 6th-most viewed on Createquity ever, so it’s fair to say that this is an issue people care about.

Well, it looks like we have before us a case of “ask and ye shall receive.” Five days after my original post, NASAA uploaded this very helpful roundup of major state arts agency budget and restructuring proposals to its website. Not surprisingly, they have better information than I did: in addition to Kansas, Arizona, Texas, Washington, and South Carolina, several other states are facing significant restructuring proposals and/or reductions including Connecticut and Georgia (again). Also, in Texas, apparently the Governor’s budget includes money for the state arts council even though he proposed eliminating it in his State of the State address, so things aren’t quite so dire as might have seemed from news reports.

And now we hear this from the State Arts Action Network, an affiliate of Americans for the Arts:

[A brand new area of our website,] the state arts appropriations update section, officially launching tomorrow (February 24), features a clickable map that will take visitors directly to individual state pages featuring the most recent and proposed budgetary numbers for the arts. In addition, each state page will feature links to your SAAN organization(s), the state arts agency, and to either individual state action alert pages or the Americans for the Arts advocacy alert page.

This project is a high-priority one for Americans for the Arts and we are constantly updating the pages, so if you don’t see the information you are looking for just yet, check back in a day or two and you’ll have plenty of information to take in.

We hope that you find these new tools useful as you continue to advocate on the ground for state budget allocations throughout the country.

The page looks good, and if you click on the page for Kansas, for example, you can see that a House committee voted to override Governor Brownback’s executive order to eliminate the state arts council last week. Not the final word, of course, but at least there’s evidence for legislators fighting back. My only request would be for a news feed on the general, 50-state page that automatically updates with the latest changes to the state pages, so that I don’t have to hunt and peck to keep on top of things. But it’s a great start.

While we’re on the subject of arts advocacy for the 21st century, the general point I was making in calling for these integrated, big-picture resources was that we should be moving in the direction of fostering a sense of shared responsibility among arts advocates in every state for what happens to the arts in every other state. Along those lines, I just loved this note that I got last week from Lisa Carnevale, executive director of Rhode Island Citizens for the Arts. Lisa writes:


In the midst of this national fight against severe cuts and possible elimination of funding to the National Endowment for the Arts, we need to you contact your national networks!

As you have heard, Congress is poised to make significant cuts to the National Endowment for the Arts’ budget (as well as National Endowment for the Humanities and a zero out of Corporation for Public Broadcasting (NPR/PBS) funding).  Yesterday, we heard two members of Congress have introduced amendments that would further cut, or terminate, funding to National Endowment for the Arts for the remainder of FY11.

While normally we would urge you to follow the links to send a letter to Congress, here in Rhode Island, our Congressional delegation already “get it”.  Our most effective call to action would be to help further support our delegation when they stand against these cuts. Let’s reach out through our networks to put pressure on other members of Congress to ensure they stand against this as well!

Forward this email to your friends nationwide and ask them to send a letter or call their Congressional delegation!

You see what she does? She knows that Rhode Island’s two Representatives are already in the tank for arts funding. She could have declined to send any advocacy note at all, or just mechanically passed along the call to action to contact one’s own reps even though it wouldn’t have made any difference. Either choice would have been a total waste of Rhode Island’s advocacy network. Instead, she puts it to use by asking members to notify people in other states about the situation so that they can take action there. Any folks reached by this campaign who might not be already plugged in to their own state or national arts advocacy networks represent a win for arts advocacy. Well played, indeed.


Audiences at the Gate: Reinventing Arts Philanthropy Through Guided Crowdsourcing

Image by Flickr user Mordac

Image by Flickr user Mordac

(This article originally appeared in 20UNDER40 anthologyi edited by Edward P. Clapp, and has been republished with permission.)

Spurred on by major technological advances, the number of aspiring professional artists in the United States has reached unprecedented levels and will only continue to grow. The arts’ current system of philanthropic support is woefully underequipped to evaluate this explosion of content and nurture its most promising elements—but we believe that the solution to the crisis is sitting right in front of us. Philanthropic institutions, in their efforts to provide stewardship to a thriving arts community, have largely overlooked perhaps the single most valuable resource at their disposal: audience members.

We contend that by harnessing the talents of the arts’ most knowledgeable, committed, and ethical citizens and distributing funds according to the principles of what we have termed guided crowdsourcing, grantmaking institutions can increase public investment in and engagement with the arts, increase the diversity and vibrancy of art accessible to consumers, and ensure a more meritocratic distribution of resources. We envision an online platform by which a foundation may crowdsource philanthropic decisions across a wide-ranging network of aficionados, aspiring critics, artists, and curious minds, bolstering its capacity to give fair consideration to the full range of artistic talent available and ensure that the most promising voices are heard.

* * *

I. Choking on the Fire Hose: The Arts’ Capacity Catastrophe

In 2009, a play I directed off-off-Broadway was one of the best reviewed shows in New York at any level. It got the kind of reception that you’re told means your career will start to take off. The talent pool is so huge and the number of spots for artists so small, though, that even my really well reviewed, lines-around-the-block show doesn’t really help. I got paid $250 for six weeks of work on that show, and I made one connection with [an off-Broadway theatre]. If I am lucky (and that means really lucky, they have a lot of artists who they develop), in 3-5 years they will produce a show of mine. If they do, my pay for whatever mythical show that might be would probably be between three and five thousand dollars, and it would be for a project I had probably been working on and off on for several years. I’m in the process of leaving pursuing professional theatre to only focus on projects I care about because both the financial realities and the lifestyle created by those realities is not one I want to subject myself, my upcoming marriage, or my (a couple years down the road) child to.1

—Theater Director, age 30

An Embarrassment of Riches

The muse works feverishly in the 21st century. In the United States, more than 2 million working artists identify their primary occupation as an arts job, and another 300,000 or so earn secondary income from the arts.2 Yet those numbers only hint at a far bigger phenomenon: the ranks of those who create art, whether or not they earn any money from it, have ballooned to some 20 million adults in 2008.3 Many of those in this latter category fall under the rubric of what Charles Leadbeater and Paul Miller have called “Pro-Ams,” serious amateurs and quasi-professionals who “have a strong sense of vocation; use recognized public standards to assess performance; …[and] produce non-commodity products and services” while “spend[ing] a large share of their disposable income supporting their pastimes.”4 Thanks to historically inexpensive production and distribution technology, more artistic products can reach more people more easily than ever before: as of January 2009, for example, users were uploading the equivalent of 86,000 full-length movies to YouTube every week.

The human brain—not to mention the human lifespan—simply cannot accommodate a considered appreciation for so many contenders for its attention. Even if a music lover kept his headphones on for every minute of every day for an entire year, he wouldn’t be able to listen to more than an eighth of the 115,000 albums that were released just in the United States in 2008.5 Because we do not possess the capacity to give equal time to every artistic product that might come our way, we must rely on shortcuts. We may look for reviews and ratings of the latest movies before we decide which ones we’d like to see. We often let personal relationships guide our decisions about what art we allow into our lives. And we continually rely on the distribution systems through which we experience art—museums, galleries, radio stations, television networks, record labels, publishing houses, etc.—to narrow the field of possibilities for us so that we don’t have to spend all of our energies searching for the next great thing.

Every time we outsource these curatorial faculties to someone else, we are making a rational and perfectly defensible choice. And yet every time we do so, we contribute to a system in which those who have already cornered the market in the attention economy are the only ones in a position to reap its rewards.

The Arts’ Dirty Secret

We regard the market’s lack of capacity to evaluate all the available art as a systemic and rapidly worsening problem in the arts today. Artists take time to learn their craft and capture attention; while the market may support an “up-and-coming” artist to maturity if she is lucky, making the transition to “up-and-coming” requires nurturing that the market will not provide. Before an artist becomes well known, the “market” she encounters is not the market of consumers but rather the market for access to consumers. This market is controlled by a small number of gatekeepers—e.g., agents, journalists, literary managers, venue owners—who each face the same capacity problems described above. Even the most dedicated and hardworking individuals could not possibly keep up with the sheer volume of material demanding to be evaluated.

This tremendous competition for gatekeepers’ attention frequently forces aspiring artists into a position of having to assume considerable financial risk to have even a shot at being noticed. An increasing number are receiving pre-professional training in their work; degrees awarded in the visual and performing arts jumped an astonishing 51% between 1998 and 2007.6 Others are starting their own organizations; the number of registered 501(c)(3) arts and culture nonprofits rose 42% in the past ten years.7

Yet all of this increased training and activity comes at a steep price, one all too often borne by the artist herself. Master’s degrees at top institutions can set her back as much as $50,000 per year; internships that could provide key industry connections are frequently unpaid. Artists in the field have been known to incur crippling consumer debt in pursuit of their dreams; the award-winning film documentary Spellbound, for example, was made possible because the co-creators maxed out some 14 credit cards to finance production. Indeed, a daunting investment of direct expense and thousands of hours of time not spent earning a living are virtual requirements to develop the portfolio and reputation necessary to translate ability into success. However one defines artistic talent, it is clear that talent alone is not enough to enable an artist to support herself through her work.

It’s not just those with education debt that have a hard time being a full-time artist, but really anyone without a safety net. I know I can count on one hand the number of composers I know in our age bracket whose parents didn’t pay for their undergraduate education (at least the vast majority of it).8

—Composer, age 27

If traditional gatekeepers lack the capacity to identify and provide critical early support to artistic entrepreneurs with little pedigree but plenty of potential, there is a real concern that to compete for serious and ongoing recognition in the arts is an entitlement of the already privileged. For a sector of society that often justifies philanthropic and public subsidy by purporting to celebrate diverse voices and build bridges between people who see the world in very different ways, this is a grave problem.

Portrait of the Artist as a Young Grantee

Grantmaking institutions have a critical role to play in the market for access. Grants represent a very different kind of support from sales of tickets, stories, or sculptures. They may prove crucial for demonstrating proof-of-concept for a new venture—or simply for the development of a style, portfolio, and audience. Most important, they provide a temporary financial cushion that can allow the artist-entrepreneur to manifest her true vision rather than see it continually undermined by scarcity of equipment, materials, staffing, or time. They can make the difference in production values that ensures a serious reception from critical eyes and ears, and allow the artist an opportunity to use time that might otherwise need to be spent earning income to perfect and promote her work. In short, grants are a seemingly ideal vehicle through which to address the fundamental inequities created by the pinched market for access.

Sonically, anything you do is going to be compared to established artists whose studio budget has more zeros on the end of it than yours. And the sonic quality of the recording itself is often the first thing critics (and listeners) hear and respond to.9

—Jazz Musician, age 34

Sadly, the lack of evaluative capacity biases the philanthropic market for the arts just as it skews the commercial market. In a perfect world, foundation and agency employees would have the time and money to find grantees by continually seeking out and experiencing art in its natural habitat. In the real world, a notoriously small number of staffers at a given foundation or panel of experts from the community is often hard pressed simply to review all of the art that comes through the door.

Not surprisingly, then, grantmakers take defensive measures to protect against being overwhelmed by an inundation of requests. First, they explicitly narrow their scope through eligibility restrictions. Nearly half of foundations that support the arts refuse to accept unsolicited applications at all, and even those that do frequently consider applications only for particular art forms, geographic regions, types of artist, or types of projects.10 Until 2009, to cite an especially dramatic example, the Judith Rothschild Foundation in New York only made “grants to present, preserve, or interpret work of the highest aesthetic merit by lesser-known, recently deceased American [visual] artists.” Many grant programs additionally refuse to consider organizations without a minimum performance history or a minimum budget level, and a majority will not award monies directly to individuals, for-profit entities, or unincorporated groups.

Funders also narrow their scope implicitly through their selection process. The selection is usually made by some combination of the institution’s staff, its board of directors, and outside experts called in for the purpose (often in the form of grant panels).  Because so few individuals are involved in the decision-making process, triage strategies are unavoidable. Application reading may be divided up among the panel or staff, with the result that only one person ever reads any given organization’s entire proposal. When work samples are involved, artists’ fates can be altered forever on the basis of a five-minute (or shorter) reception of their work.

These coping mechanisms are perfectly understandable, given the sheer volume of art produced and imagined. But the unfortunate result is that institutional money is distributed with hardly more fairness than commercial money—and this is especially troublesome because of institutional grantmakers’ power beyond their purses as outsourced curators of other funding streams.  After all, for most individual donors and consumers alike, the art that they even have a chance to encounter is likely to be art that has already passed the muster of multiple professional gatekeepers. The capacity problem that hampers grantmakers’ ability to choose the most promising artists in an equitable way thus compounds itself as it reverberates through the rest of the artistic ecosystem.

The shortage of capacity and its consequences on the diversity, liveliness, and brilliance of the arts world are not going away. With the proliferation of digital distribution networks making it easier than ever to put creative work in the public eye, the defensive mechanisms that funders employ to limit intake are only going to become more and more strained. A solution is needed, fast. Fortunately, there is a cheap, practical, and responsible way for institutions to better cope with their lack of evaluative capacity: they can use crowdsourcing to harness the passion and expertise of a broader range of people dedicated to the arts.

* * *

II. Calling for Backup: Crowdsourcing (to) the Rescue

Typically, institutions select the members of their staffs and grant panels on the basis of passion for and experience with the arts, on the theory that these qualities promote discerning judgments about the merit of applicants. But such traits are by no means limited to this narrow group. Tapping the thousands of dedicated and knowledgeable devotees of specific art forms who engage in robust discussion of the arts every day would allow foundations and agencies to go a long way towards addressing their own capacity problems—and towards opening the distribution of arts philanthropy to a broader range of deserving artists.

Our proposal draws inspiration from the phenomenon of crowdsourcing, which is the practice of outsourcing some function to the public or a significant part of it. Crowdsourcing has its roots in the open-source software movement, which designed and built complex software through the collaboration of anyone with the time, interest, and ability to contribute to a project. The best known example of this practice may be Wikipedia, which draws on the knowledge and editorial acumen of a huge pool of often anonymous volunteers to create a crowdsourced encyclopedia. Rather than relying on a handful of experts, crowdsourcing enlists dozens, hundreds, or thousands of people to do the work—and, in its purest form, to ensure the quality of the end result. The following pages explore some of the ways the commercial and philanthropic sectors have deployed crowdsourcing to direct money to worthy causes, to harness dispersed talent, and to build community.

Directing Donations

Online philanthropy markets that allow individual donors to contribute to charitable causes and micro-entrepreneurs around the world—websites like Kiva, DonorsChoose, Modest Needs, and GlobalGiving—illustrate the practice of crowdsourcing funding decisions across a large number of donors acting independently. Some of these websites aggregate small donations to fund larger projects using a mechanism for voting with dollars. For example, at Modest Needs, donors purchase points that can be allocated to specific, prequalified projects described on the site (such as the cost of a replacement water heater for a single mother). When a project has received enough donor points, the amount requested is sent to the applicant.

Similar online giving models have been employed at a smaller scale in the arts. For example, ArtistShare allows “fans to show appreciation for their favorite [musical] artist by funding their recording projects in exchange for access to the creative process, limited edition recordings, VIP access to recording sessions, and even credit listing on the CD.” Kickstarter allows individual donors to make pledges to creative projects—in the arts, journalism, design, and technology—with defined funding targets and timing. If enough pledges are received by the deadline, the project is funded; otherwise, the funds are returned to the donor.

These online mini-markets facilitate individual support for artists by providing donors more direct access to the artistic process and environment. In cases where the projects funded can be appreciated online, supporting them is not so different from buying a ticket. An alternative model of crowdsourced philanthropy that has gained more recent prominence allows individuals to exert influence on how other people’s philanthropic contributions are spent. Two recent major initiatives by corporate foundations employ this “voting without dollars” concept. JP Morgan Chase’s Chase Community Giving program gave away $5 million in early 2010 to nonprofit organizations based primarily on the votes of Facebook users. Similarly, PepsiCo diverted the $20 million it might have spent on ads during the 2010 Super Bowl to the Pepsi Refresh Project, a new monthly initiative that invites “ideas that will have a positive impact” to compete for grants ranging from $5,000 to $250,000. Visitors to the site vote to determine the grant winners.

Aggregating Ability

In the examples above, the “crowd” need have no particular expertise to participate fully. (Indeed, one frequent criticism of these models is that a “one person, one vote” or social-network-based approach to philanthropy can all too easily degenerate into a popularity contest with little connection to the merit of the potential recipients.) But crowdsourcing has also proved very effective at harnessing dispersed talent. In the for-profit design world, Threadless, an online T-shirt company, produces designs created and voted on by users of the website. The winning designers receive cash prizes, and the shirts nearly always sell out, generating $17 million in revenue for Threadless in 2006.11

Philanthropic foundations, too, have begun to take advantage of the expertise of passionate people from across the country and the world. Philoptima allows would-be donors to offer “design prizes” to anyone who proposes an innovative solution to a problem chosen by the donor, and “implementation prizes” to any non-profit that submits a promising plan to carry out the solution in its community. (The first design prize on this young site was offered by a new grantmaker seeking to create “a discipline-wide typology of the environmental sector.”) Since 2006, InnoCentive has partnered with the Rockefeller Foundation to give global development organizations access to high-quality R&D resources; Rockefeller selects the nonprofits and contributes award money to a network of scientists to solve a specific “challenge” posed by the nonprofit.

Building Community

By engaging and connecting a broad cross-section of individuals, crowdsourcing also has the potential to create a robust community and locus for lively discussion. The Yelp Elite Squad, chosen by Yelp employees from among the popular local search site’s most active contributors, benefit from invitations to exclusive offline events in addition to greater exposure for their reviews. In the nonprofit sector, several websites that make grants emphasize the creation of a forum for the discussion of social issues. Ashoka’s Changemakers initiative is a “community of action” that collaborates on solutions through discussion forums, issue groups, and competitions that reward innovative problem solving. Another site, Netsquared, connects nonprofits, grant-makers, and individual social entrepreneurs both on- and offline to foster social change. The organization sponsors in-person meetings for social innovators and engages its community in a grants program for social action projects. The finalists of its grant-making challenges are shaped by these discussions and chosen by community vote.

Putting it All Together: Guided Crowdsourcing

The very best examples of crowdsourced community—the models that illustrate the potential of the concept at its fullest—augment the tools of crowdsourcing with just enough top-down hierarchy to promote an environment of shared opportunity and responsibility. We call this model guided crowdsourcing. So far, this technique has not been explored in depth by foundations, arts-focused or otherwise, but it has been developed robustly elsewhere.

As mentioned above, Wikipedia is perhaps the oldest and most famous large-scale example of crowdsourcing on the web. While the site is most often identified with the crowdsourced labor used to generate its principal product, some 14 million encyclopedia entries in 272 languages, Wikipedia is also home to a fiercely dedicated user community that has self-organized into a meritocracy. Though the site is open to editing and revision by anyone, a small army of experienced volunteer “administrators” boast additional powers, such as the ability to make edits about living people. These users are chosen by “bureaucrats,” who themselves are selected by community consensus, and disputes among editors are resolved by a volunteer-run Arbitration Committee. These responsibilities not only keep the community’s most passionate members fully engaged; it also puts them to work to improve the community and its project.

Barack Obama’s 2008 election campaign used guided crowdsourcing to establish a seamless continuum between motivated volunteers and professional staff. As part of routine campaign operations, professional field organizers would assign new volunteers, who had been recruited online, progressively more difficult tasks to test their fitness for roles carrying greater responsibility. As the campaign progressed, many early volunteers rose to full-time staff positions, providing a clear path of upward mobility for the most dedicated and effective community members. This fusing of top-down leadership with grassroots openness enabled the campaign to achieve its own capacity breakthrough by establishing a viable presence in districts, towns, and whole states that had been considered off-limits by previous Democratic contenders for executive office.

Taking its cue from these successful efforts to shape a broad-based grassroots effort with gentle guidance from the top, a foundation could invent an entirely new model of arts philanthropy—one that matches the explosion of artistic content with an explosion of critical acumen to evaluate it.

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III. Philanthropy’s Finest: The Pro-Am Program Officer Paradigm

We propose that a grantmaking institution supplement its work with guided crowdsourcing by creating an online grants management platform that will also serve as a social network, multimedia showcase, and marketplace for individual donors. By redirecting some portion of its grantmaking budget through this website, the foundation or agency can leverage the critical faculties of passionate and thoughtful arts lovers to address its capacity problem. A sophisticated set of algorithms will empower the website’s community to identify the most qualified and dedicated voices among its own ranks and elevate them to increased levels of influence on a continually renewing basis. In this way, those whose artistic judgments carry the most weight will have earned that status from their peers and colleagues.

How It Works

The process begins when an artist or artist-driven organization (nonprofit or otherwise) applies for a general operating support grant from the sponsoring foundation’s arts program—all forms of art are welcome. Rather than being sent to a program officer for review, the applicant’s materials—proposal narrative, samples of the artist’s work, a list of upcoming events or classes open to the public—will be posted online. This information will be incorporated into each applicant’s public profile on the site.

Members of the public will also be invited to create and maintain profiles. Once registered, they can view materials submitted by grant contenders and share reactions ranging from one-line comments to in-depth critiques. In order to jumpstart the conversation, ensure an initial critical mass of reviewers, and strike a constructive and intelligent tone, the foundation should reach out in advance to knowledgeable arts citizens (perhaps including some of the very gatekeepers mentioned above who might otherwise serve on grant panels) to encourage their participation on the site. The goal is to engage a broad range of art lovers in a robust conversation about the proposals under review—and about the arts more generally—thereby ensuring a better-considered distribution of grant money.

Of course, not all commentators will make equally valuable contributions to the discussion. Just like art, providing critical analysis and consistently thoughtful, informed, and credible feedback requires considerable skill and practice. In short, we want to be able to open up the process to anyone without having to open it to everyone. What qualities would we desire in those who influence resource allocation decisions in the arts? Certainly we would ask that our critics be knowledgeable in the field they review. We would also want them to be fair—not holding ideological grudges against artists or letting personal vendettas influence their judgment. We’d want them to be open-minded, not afraid to dive into unfamiliar or challenging territory when the time comes. And finally, we’d want them to be thoughtful: able and willing to appreciate nuance, and mindful of how what they are experiencing fits into a larger whole.

Technology now allows us to systematically identify and reward these qualities in a reviewer. On the website, a reviewer increases her “reputation score” by winning the respect of the community. Each user can rate individual comments and reviews based on the qualities outlined above; higher ratings increase a reviewer’s standing. To keep the conversation current and make room for new voices, the ratings of older reviews and comments will count for less over time. The reputation algorithm can also reward seeking out unreviewed proposals and commenting on a breadth of submissions. A strict honor code will require users to disclose any personal or professional connections to a project they review, with expulsion the penalty for violators. Reviews suspected of being at odds with this policy can be flagged for investigation by any site user, and the site’s administrators will take action where deemed appropriate.

Every quarter, the professional staff of the foundation will review the reputation scores of community members and choose a crop of users to elevate to Curator status. Selection will be based primarily on peer reviews, but the staff will have final say and responsibility over who is given this privilege. A clear set of guiding principles will be developed and shared to ensure that the choice is as fair and transparent as possible. Curators receive an allowance of “points” to distribute to various projects on the site, usually limited to the discipline or area of the Curator’s expertise. Curators are identified by (real) name to other users so as to foster a sense of accountability, and their profiles show how they have chosen to distribute their points. So long as a Curator maintains a minimum reputation score by contributing new high-quality reviews, he will continue to receive new points each quarter.

As a project accumulates points from Curators, it receives more prominent attention on the site. It might show up earlier in search results, appear in lists of recommendations presented to users who have written reviews of similar projects, or be highlighted on the home page. But since Curators maintain their reputation (and aspiring Curators gain their reputation) in part by reviewing proposals that have failed to attract comments from others, the attention never becomes too concentrated on a lucky few.

When it comes time to award the grants each quarter, the collective judgment of the Curators is used as the groundwork for the decision-making process. This approach ensures that organizations cannot win awards simply by bombarding their mailing lists with requests for votes, because the crowd exerts its influence indirectly through Curators selected on the basis of sustained, high-quality contributions. While it is still ultimately the responsibility of the foundation’s board of directors to choose recipients, we anticipate that adjustments will be made only in exceptional cases—that, essentially, the heavy lifting will have been done by the crowd.

Meanwhile, the very best contributors—the stars of the site—may be engaged by the foundation as paid Editors. Editors are part-time, contract employees who are sent out on assignment to see and review specific public events in their area associated with proposals on the site. Their reviews are highlighted prominently to give their expert work maximum exposure. This system allows the foundation to send trusted reviewers to distant events without having to pay exorbitant travel costs; meanwhile, the writer receives a financial incentive for exceptional ongoing service to the site and the arts community.

Of course, artists, administrators, and contributors won’t be the site’s only audience. Since work samples will represent an important part of many applications, the platform will also be a convenient way for the public to discover new artists and ensembles, guided by the judgments of a myriad of devotees. Each proposal uploaded will give passersby the opportunity to contribute their own money in addition to any comments they may have. As such, the site has the potential to become the first effective online donor marketplace for the arts. The sponsoring foundation could even give donors the option of tacking on a small “tip” to each donation to help defray the site’s (minimal) operating costs.

It is worth emphasizing that, despite the many roles website users will play in the grant process, they will not replace the foundation staff. One or more program officers will need to be in charge of the website and accountable to the board of directors for its successful operation. They will oversee the website to ensure that the ongoing discussion remains frank, thoughtful, and passionate—but not vicious or counterproductive. Such a desirable culture will not develop automatically; fostering it will mean setting and continually revising rules and procedures, reminding users of the funding priorities established by the foundation and engaging in dialogue about those priorities when appropriate, selecting Curators wisely on the basis of peer reviews, expelling users who violate the standards of the community, and developing a method to evaluate and report on the grants made through the site, both to the board and back to the users. Furthermore, we do not anticipate that this model would or should supplant a foundation’s or the field’s traditional grantmaking entirely. “Leadership”-level awards to major service organizations or institutions with a national profile do not face the same kinds of capacity challenges as grants to smaller producing and presenting entities or individual artists, and may require a greater level of expertise in evaluating factors such as financial health and long-term sustainability than a nonprofessional program officer may be able to provide. Thus, we see this approach as one element in a broader portfolio of strategies to optimally support the arts.

Few good ideas come to fruition without resources, and this one is no exception. The platform should be sponsored by a major foundation or institution with a substantial initial investment (we suggest at least $1 million) to signal seriousness of purpose and ensure a meaningful level of support to the artists and organizations involved. Although it would be possible to pilot the system in a limited geographical area or with only certain disciplines at first, the concept can only reach its true potential if a certain critical mass is achieved—enough to make it worth artists’ while to ensure representation on the site and worth reviewers’ while to contribute their time and curiosity to making it thrive.

We anticipate that this system will be highly sustainable. Once the infrastructure is in place, the website will be inexpensive to maintain, and may well prove cheaper than more traditional methods of distributing funds. The powerful incentives provided to both artists (access to a source of funding coupled with real-time feedback on their proposals) and reviewers (the opportunity to gain notoriety, influence, and even material compensation for doing something they love) should be sufficient to maintain interest on all sides.

Finally, the greatest beauty of the site is that there is ample opportunity to experiment with various approaches until just the right formula is found. If the original algorithm for calculating reputation scores turns out to be ineffective, it can be changed. If the rules against reviewing the work of friends turn out to be too draconian, they can be adjusted. If the foundation decides it wants to give Curators actual dollars to distribute instead of abstract points, that is an easy fix. Meanwhile, if the system proves successful, the sponsoring foundation could invite other funders to contribute their resources to the pool, making even deeper impact possible.

Program theory for guided crowdsourcing platform

Figure I: Program theory for a guided crowdsourcing platform for the arts.

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Summing Up

Our guided crowdsourcing model is designed to integrate many virtues of existing crowdsourcing concepts: giving small-scale projects access to new pools of capital; aggregating the expertise and labor of users; and creating a social space for strangers who share a common interest. When combined and applied to the arts, this triple crowdsourcing carries several special advantages:

  • First, it addresses the lack of evaluative capacity in the philanthropic market, enabling a more meritocratic distribution of grants and thus a more vibrant and socioeconomically diverse artistic community.
  • Second, because of the structural role of grantmaking institutions, the website indirectly addresses the lack of capacity in the commercial market: the path to commercial success will be made a little less arbitrary through the work of our volunteer curators.
  • Third, the robust community we hope to facilitate will double as a feedback mechanism for artists and artist-driven organizations, enhancing the production of art even before grants are awarded.
  • Fourth, the site will serve as an incubator for critical talent, identifying and empowering new commentators who can establish a reputation as informed adjudicators, while providing a new outlet for more experienced voices at a time when the job market for critics is rapidly shrinking.
  • Fifth, by rewarding contributions that can serve as examples of critical analysis at its best, the site will encourage a more thoughtful and articulate public conversation about the arts. In so doing, it facilitates the establishment of a new breed of Pro-Am curators to match the convergence of amateur and professional in artistic creation and performance.

We expect that, if successful, this model will result in a more equitable distribution of philanthropic funds that always takes into account the actual work product rather than reputation alone; be based on the opinions of acknowledged leaders in the community who continually earn their standing among their peers; and fairly consider the efforts of far more artists and artist-driven organizations than would ever be possible otherwise. If really successful, the model could actually increase the size of the philanthropic market by providing what amounts to the first functioning donor marketplace for artists and arts organizations.

While guided crowdsourcing cannot guarantee all aspiring artists a living, by empowering a new and unprecedentedly large group of thoughtful consumers of the arts to help decide whose dreams deserve to be transformed into reality, it can provide more equality of opportunity than could ever be possible under the current status quo—and guarantee the rest of us richer artistic offerings than ever before.

It’s time to appoint the next generation of arts program officers: us.

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i. Clapp, E. P., ed. 20UNDER40: Re-Inventing the Arts and Arts Education for the 21st Century. Bloomington, IN: AuthorHouse, 2010: 81-97.

1. Anonymous. Personal communication. February 21, 2010. All of the individuals whose views appear in this article are critically acclaimed emerging artists under 40 years of age, and are quoted with permission.

2. Gaquin, D. Artists in the Workforce: 1990-2005. Washington, DC: National Endowment for the Arts, 2008: 1; See also National Endowment for the Arts. Artists in a Year of Recession. Washington, DC: National Endowment for the Arts, 2009, and; Davis, J. A. & Smith, T. W. General Social Surveys: 1972-2008. Chicago: National Opinion Research Center, 2009.

3. Williams, K. & Keen, D. 2008 Survey of Public Participation in the Arts. Washington, DC: National Endowment for the Arts, 2009: 43.

4. Leadbeater, C. & Miller, P. The Pro-Am Revolution. London: DEMOS, 2004: 21-22.

5. This calculation is based on a conservative estimate of 40 minutes in length per album.

6. Kusher, R. J. & Cohen, R. National Arts Index 2009. Washington, DC: Americans for the Arts, 2009: 62.

7. Ibid: 49.

8. Anonymous. Personal communication. February 20, 2010.

9. Anonymous. Personal communication. February 22, 2010.

10. Foundation Center. “Foundation Directory Online” (n.d.). As of April 2010, only 1.3% of arts funders in the database accept applications with no geographic restrictions.

11. Howe, J. “Join the Crowd.” The Independent (London), (September 2, 2008): 2.


Around the horn: Egypt edition

Stand Up and Represent

  • First it was the state arts agencies; now the NEA is under attack. It turns out that the federal budget for the current fiscal year was never actually finalized, but instead was paid for bit by bit. As a result, the Republican House has called for a $22.5 million, or 13%, reduction in the NEA’s budget for the current fiscal year. As in, the one that is going on right now, for which grants are already being made. This would be the largest reduction to NEA funding in 16 years. (Not surprisingly, Republicans have since offered amendments to cut things even further…including one amendment from Scott Garrett (R-NJ) to eliminate the agency.) On top of this, President Obama’s budget for FY2012 (which begins October 1 of this year) calls for nearly as deep a cut – despite the fact that other cultural agencies (including the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and the Smithsonian) did not receive proportionate reductions. This NEA is brimming over with smart, capable leadership and has been moving in some really exciting directions lately; it would be a shame to see that momentum blunted by capricious political winds outside of its control. You can take action here; please do this, especially if you do not live in New York City, Boston, DC, Chicago, LA, or San Francisco. Your voice matters.
  • If you don’t like the economic impact-focused arguments at the link above, feel free to use Arlene Goldbard’s alternative letter instead. Arlene makes the moral case for arts support like no other.
  • On the other end of the spectrum, Barry Hessenius offers an important perspective on the pragmatic side of arts advocacy. No vote occurs in a vacuum or truly on its merits in politics; everything is a horse trade. It’s ugly, but it’s what those people in the Middle East are taking to the streets for.
  • Other perspectives on this: Adam Huttler fires a shot across the bow of our single-issue, NEA-funding-focused advocacy model and argues for more strategic alliances with and awareness of non-arts-specific goals. Arlene Goldbard and Guy Yedwab suggest that if we want to make a good long-term case for public arts support, the term “arts” might not be the most helpful and we might want to make sure  the work we do actually serves the public. And Matthew Guerrieri has this awesome find of a clean energy industry economic impact study that promises substantially fewer jobs created per dollar spent than in the arts.
  • Finally, the greatest threat to our public arts infrastructure may not be rabid conservatives, but apathetic progressives. I’ve been frustrated for a long time by the lack of reciprocity between the arts community’s support for the liberal establishment and the liberal establishment’s support for the arts. This week, we have Jonathan Chait, Matt Yglesias, and Kevin Drum coming out as anywhere from mildly to strongly opposed to direct federal funding for the arts, and Tyler Cowen (though not exactly a liberal himself) denying that there’s a liberal case to be made. These are important voices, folks…a lot more important than Bob Lynch. They are thought leaders in the progressive community who don’t get the rationale for why the arts should have a role in federal policy. We need to educate them.

You Say You Want a Revolution

  • Is this a game-changer? Kickstarter is letting organizations “curate” pages of crowdfunding campaigns. For-profits, nonprofits, and government are all represented among the current curators.
  • I haven’t written too much about the crisis facing the Detroit Symphony; here is the latest news, some analysis from New England Conservatory’s Tony Woodcock, and more from Greg Sandow.
  • Diane Ragdsale says in order to solve the supply/demand problem, we need to be able to identify mission-failing institutions and help them die. Sound familiar? By the way, here’s Diane’s manifesto on arts philanthropy and sustainability.
  • Meanwhile, Toronto’s Soulpepper Theatre goes for a more flexible business model. And a California legislator introduced a bill to create a flexible purpose corporation to compete with B-Lab’s Benefit Corporation and the L3C. Finally, Andrew Taylor writes on the intriguing economic set-up of Carnegie Hall’s upcoming Spring for Music orchestra festival.
  • Shocker alert: Rosetta Thurman no longer identifies as a nonprofit professional. Don’t worry Rosetta, as long as you don’t adopt Dan Pallotta’s positions on compensation, you’ll still be okay in my book. :)
  • Turns out the connection between the arts and regional economic growth goes back a long way:

    [C]ities in which printing presses were established 1450-1500 had no prior growth advantage, but subsequently grew far faster than similar cities without printing presses.

Someone’s Gonna Pay

Figuring Out the Details

    Revolutions Can Be Fun Too

    • Cool article about the Knight Foundation’s program supporting Random Acts of Culture.
    • OKTrends considers the questions to ask on a first date. Want to know whether that hot chick will sleep with you? Ask her if she likes the taste of beer. How about that hot dude? Ask him if he’s ever imagined killing somebody. (I’m not making this up.)
    • Congratulations to my friend and colleague Ron Ragin, whose performance on “Baba Yetu,” better known as the theme to the best-selling video game Civilization IV, helped the composer win two Grammys over the weekend. Here’s Ron bustin’ out the pipes for a PBS special on Video Games Live.
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