Okay, it’s official: State arts agencies are in trouble

This week has been a bad one for beleaguered state arts agencies. First, after much sabre-rattling, Kansas Governor Sam Brownback followed through with his threat to eliminate the Kansas Arts Commission on Monday, with the plan to transfer its responsibilities to a new nonprofit and provide a token $200,000 one-time appropriation to help with the transition. (This is down from $1.1 million the agency received two years ago.) Worse, unlike other governors who have tried to do the same, he did the dirty deed by executive order, meaning that the bar is much higher for arts advocates to reverse the decision. They basically have to convince the Republican-controlled Kansas Legislature to override the Governor’s order within 60 days of the decision.

Sadly, Kansas is not the only one on the chopping block. In the Lone Star State, Governor Rick Perry’s budget includes no money for the Texas Commission on the Arts at all. In South Carolina, Governor Nikki Haley actually made elimination of the state arts commission one of her talking points for her State of the State address. In Washington, Governor Christine Gregoire has proposed elimination of the state arts agency as an independent entity and drastically reducing funding. And in Arizona, Governor Jan Brewer wants to eliminate state appropriations to the Arizona Arts Commission.

State arts agencies form a relatively small portion of the typical arts organization’s revenue stream. If they went away, it’s likely that the arts landscape would be more similar to than different from what it looks like today. But still, as this article in Miller-McCune points out, much would be lost. Besides the revenue itself, state arts agencies tend to be a source of particular support for community arts work, arts education, and smaller organizations run by a new generation of artists and administrators looking to get their first leg up. [Update: also, arts activities in rural areas; see Janet Brown's comment below.] In many cases, they also funnel money to local arts agencies in order to have an even more targeted impact. So while they are not the be-all and end-all of the arts world, they do have an important role to play. And as Janet Brown eloquently puts it, it’s much harder to get the infrastructure re-established than to retain what’s already there.

State arts agencies have survived numerous similar elimination threats over the past several years, and before that as well. Since their initial creation in the late ’60s in the wake of the establishment of the NEA, all 50 state agencies (along with six territorial agencies) have managed to survive each year, albeit sometimes only by a hair. Indeed, the NEA’s innovative decentralization strategy involving partnerships with state and regional arts agencies has been an extremely effective weapon in such advocacy campaigns, because elimination of state arts councils necessarily means forfeiting federal matching funds as well – making justification on the grounds of saving the state money come off as rather hollow.

But this year, things seem different. Part of it is that this has been the latest in a long trend of diminishing arts funding from states. According to the National Assembly of State Arts Agencies, the appropriations for the current year have declined more than one-third in nominal terms from the appropriations of ten years ago, from $410 million in FY2002 to $272 million in FY2011 — and if you adjust those numbers for inflation, the reduction is nearly 50% in today’s dollars. Part of it, too, is that several of the agencies facing pressure this year are already significantly hobbled, having staved off massive cuts or elimination last year or the year before. Arizona, Kansas, and South Carolina all fall into this category. It’s as if the governors in those states (political conservatives, all) have adopted an “if at first you don’t succeed, try, try again” approach, betting that the local arts advocacy infrastructure can’t survive a war of attrition.

And unfortunately, they’re probably right. We’ve invested a lot as a field in bolstering support for the National Endowment for the Arts. But there currently exists no formal, nationwide advocacy infrastructure for state arts agencies [update: actually there is, see below], which still collectively spend nearly twice as much on the arts as the NEA even after suffering massive losses. As of today, the Arts Action Fund, which is run by Americans for the Arts, makes no mention of state arts agencies on its website, even though its mission statement says nothing about an exclusive focus on federal funding. The National Assembly of State Arts Agencies, despite having a section of its website devoted to advocacy, is similarly mum on the predicament of individual members. Instead, it’s up to arts leaders in individual states to fend for themselves. The result of this decentralized approach to advocacy is that it is very difficult for the likes of Kansas and South Carolina to benefit from the efforts of their peers in places like New York, California, Massachusetts, and Illinois, and the geographic balkanization of our arts communities only continues. If we’re going to have a hope of retaining this vital layer of public infrastructure to the arts and restoring it to its former strength, we’ll need to start getting a lot more organized about it.

For further reading:

  • Leonard Jacobs argues that the root of state arts agencies’ current troubles is not fiscal conservatism, it’s right-wing ideology. I half agree with him (the unfortunate fact is that nearly all states face ruinous budget crises right now, and Christine Gregoire, Washington’s governor, is a Democrat), but it’s worth pointing out that Leonard predicted a return of GOP hostility to public arts funding earlier than just about anyone, and quite presciently so.
  • Matthew Guerrieri proposes a fanciful hardball tactic for Kansas arts organizations: threaten to move to Nebraska instead. Hey, it’s worked for film subsidies.
  • Arlene Goldbard argues passionately for a new approach to advocacy and messaging about the arts.
  • The Wichita Eagle’s editorial board has come out in support of the Kansas Arts Commission.

UPDATE: It turns out that there is a nationwide infrastructure for state arts advocacy: the State Arts Action Network at Americans for the Arts. Jay Dick, who heads up that effort, got in touch with me to correct the error. He also informed me that the Arts Action Fund is indeed federally focused, being a federal PAC. Alas, the SAAN homepage also makes no mention of current state arts advocacy campaigns, but if you live in one of the states whose agency is under threat, you can find and get involved with the relevant state arts advocacy group here. According to Jay, they need all the help they can get.

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New Blogs!

Hello there! It’s been a while since we last updated the blogroll. Since then, Arts Admin has gone and come back, as has Theatre Ideas. Future Leaders in Philanthropy is now located at networkflip.com, and smArts & Culture also has a new URL. Oh, and several blogs that we’d previously added have been inactive for six months or more, and I’ve removed them from the site. But the real point of this post is to shower attention on our new additions, as follows (you may recognize three of them from the list of top new blogs from 2010):

ArtsAppeal
David Zoltan’s blog about arts management, fundraising, and policy is well-written, engaging, and informed. He’s been keeping up an admirable pace over at ArtsAppeal since this past September, and shows little sign of slowing down. David is part of a bevy of Carnegie Mellon arts administration alums and students who, along with nearly half a dozen applicants to the Createquity Writing Fellowship, have collectively raised my esteem for that program quite a bit over the past few months.

Jumper
Former Mellon Foundation Associate Program Officer and current Ph.D. student Diane Ragsdale has been hitting all the arts policy high points in her new weekly ArtsJournal blog, Jumper. Check out these two recent posts on the question of oversupply in the sector and the search for new business models, as well as this one on funding partnerships that was written partly in response to a comment of mine. While Diane’s essays always make for interesting reading on their own, what makes Jumper especially remarkable is the fact that it has managed, over a very short period of time, to become a hotbed of action in the comment section – a very hard feat to pull off for any blog.

FlowingData
I have my Fractured Atlas colleague Kirsten Nordine to thank for pointing me in the direction of this fantastic data visualization blog by Nathan Yau, a UCLA Ph.D. candidate in statistics. Yau posts frequent examples of infographics, interactive data toys, and the like to his site and makes sure to present topics in a completely accessible way. You will definitely learn something from reading this blog.

Museum 2.0
Nina Simon’s rise to prominence in the museum world has been rather meteoric, and her excellent Museum 2.0 blog is at the root of it all. This four-part series on Paul Light’s book Sustaining Innovation provides an example of the seriousness with which she approaches her craft. Nina’s oft-cited book The Participatory Museum can also be read online. She’s a real-deal Gen Y nonprofit thought leader.

YourTownPerforms.com
Sadly, YourTownPerforms hasn’t been updated in the last two and a half months, but assuming Craige Hoover ever comes back, you can bet that it will be with something well worth reading. Craige is the founder of a consulting shop called Cultural Arts Solutions and the Seaside (FL) Repertory Theatre, which he led until last year. His posts shine an incisive light on local arts-led development initiatives and cultural plans, such as this one about Nashville (Hoover is from outside Nashville) and a cool series on “Great Arts Towns.” He also brings a perspective on new urbanism which will be most welcome in creative placemaking discussions.

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Attendance is not the only measure of demand

If you’ve followed theater blogs even casually over the past week, you will have heard about NEA Chair Rocco Landesman’s comments on oversupply of performing arts in his address to the #newplay convening at Arena Stage in Washington DC. Trisha Mead is a Portland arts marketer who broke the story, got quoted (sloppily, without context) in the New York Times, and has been the only blogger, to my knowledge, to get a direct response from Landesman so far. But if you want a more complete view of Landesman’s thoughts, it may be more useful to start with the NEA blog. In fact, if this concerns you, please do read Landesman’s post on the official blog. It may help you avoid hyperbolic hyperventilation. You can also follow #supplydemand on Twitter and participate in the conversation as it unfolds.

The gauntlet thrown down

Landesman cites the NEA’s 2008 Survey of Public Participation in the Arts in saying that performing arts event attendance has dropped 5 percentage points. More specifically, in 2002, 39.4% of U.S. adults (or 81 million) attended either a jazz event, classical music event, opera, musical play, non-musical play, ballet, or art museum or art gallery. In 2008 that number dropped to 34.6% (or 78 million).1

This 5% of decrease in attendance share, interpreted as demand, is juxtaposed against a 23% increase in the absolute number of nonprofit performing arts organizations during the same time period, interpreted as supply. The 5% is a decrease in percentage of attendees among the adult population, and the 23% is an increase in number of organizations, without reference to size or whether the additional 23% produce events at the same rate as previously existing organizations.2

It’s not a perfect comparison to put the 5% drop in percent of attendance against a 23% increase in number of organizations, but the opposite direction and the size of both changes is still disconcerting. If fewer people are attending arts events, but more organizations are creating them, then this could be a problem, right? Landesman said that we can’t realistically increase demand, so we ought considerer reducing supply. I.e., we need fewer performing arts organizations, or those organizations need to produce fewer events. This idea, that there is an oversupply of performing arts, has been met with negative reactions among many arts workers, to say the least. That the NEA also wants to fund fewer organizations has ratcheted up the anxiety level.

My problem is not that Landesman wants to further ration the already-rationed cookie jar. And I do not believe he thinks he can or should use the NEA to prune the gnarly tree of performing arts in the USA. My issue is that Rocco (can I call him Rocco?) presented a simplistic view of the economics of performing arts, one that hasn’t been much expanded in the discussion since, by focusing only on event attendance and NEA subsidies. Landesman, along with a passel of concerned bloggers, is ignoring what makes nonprofit economics sustainable, strong performance in multiple markets.

The demand function in nonprofit performing arts

Performing arts nonprofit organizations operate in at least three markets: markets for what people will pay to see them perform, the financial markets for debt, investments and endowments (do not apply to all organizations, and are not further discussed here), and the markets for private philanthropy and status. Markets for philanthropy and status are almost entirely missing from the demand side of Rocco’s equation (and the demand side of this traditional economic analysis by Devon Smith).

Rocco speaks of contributed revenue as if it is just a policy-driven subsidy, like a subsidy to the agribusiness industry. Or, as Trisha Mead later put it on 2amtheatre.com, a subsidy for scientific research and development, which is not a bad analogy when describing NEA funding. Frequently, a subsidy is the result of political influence, but when it is a well-intentioned policy instrument, a subsidy makes it possible to get things that we or the government think we need, but just aren’t willing or are unable to pay for on our own. It’s inherently paternalistic–making us eat our spinach (or at least pay for the spinach with a wee miniscule share of our taxes).

For now, I will use the word subsidy for policy-driven funding that somebody, like the government or a foundation, thinks is good for us. A subsidy pays for the spinach. But the vast majority of contributed revenue to arts organization comes from individuals (as the NEA knows; see page 1 of this report), out of sheer appreciation for the work that is generated. When a small business owner contributes $1000 every year to the symphony in her town, she is clearly stating that they music she enjoyed that year was worth at least $1000 more to her, and her community, than what she paid in tickets.3 That is a reflection of demand. Not only that, but she’s signaling to this organization that she likes what they’re doing. If they’re paying attention, and subsequently doing more of what they think she will like, then they are responding to market forces, just in a subtler fashion, and in a market with fewer participants.

Consider how demand differs from person to person. Conceptually it’s not complex. For any given thing that people buy, some people like it more, and are willing to pay more, than others. That’s why the iPhone cost so much when first introduced. Apple knew that some people would want one so badly that they’d happily pay a premium price, and when all their fanboys had one, it would be time to cut prices to reach the next group. If you can get everybody to pay the maximum they’d be willing to pay, then you’ll bring in the most money. Economists and marketers call it price discrimination. When you’re selling tickets you can do this, to a limited extent, with differences in price for seats in the front verses seats in the back (not exactly price discrimination), or through dynamic pricing (Trisha Mead is a big advocate of dynamic pricing). But to really get the most money, you’d like a way for somebody who adores your product to pay you even more than the highest price you’re charging. That’s exactly what you can do as a nonprofit organization when you accept contributions. If you have a good development & fundraising staff, you will get as much revenue as possible given the demand that exists. It will not be reflected, however, in the event attendance figures extrapolated from NEA surveys.

Some contributors aren’t so purely motivated. Corporations may donate for the PR or advertising. Sometimes donors want to sit on committees with other donors to make business contacts or find golf partners. Sometimes, they just want to be associated with a highly respected arts organization, because it impresses their neighbors or clients. This is the market for association and status. Don’t tell the donors that you know this, because such status may be more valuable when not explicitly acknowledged. But truly, there is demand for this. Naturally, this status is more likely to be supplied by larger, longer-lived institutions than by smaller upstarts.

Further, if you want nonprofit arts organizations to conduct R&D for the art world, donors (including foundations) often want to fund exactly that. They demand artistic R&D by funding it.

The demand to supply, and the benefits of competition to suppliers

The market for association and status is not limited to donors, sponsors and underwriters. It extends to the labor market, as well. Rocco is admirably concerned that if performing arts organizations oversupply, against lower demand, then they will have to share what he sees as a shrinking revenue pie with more organizations, which will eventually force organizations to pay their artists less, or at least will make it harder to pay artists a living wage. I think he’s generally right, if the industry structure remains fixed. When, on Twitter, a theater artist suggests that the “model is broken” if he or she doesn’t receive a living wage, I often reply that if they want to be paid more, then less theater should be produced.

Of course, each individual can’t alter the fact that artists supply their own talents for less than what the market will monetarily compensate. And, they really shouldn’t try. First, artists do get some intangible compensation. Anybody working for free, or almost free, creating art gets the intangible benefit of doing something that he or she loves or is driven to do. The artist may also receive respect and admiration from friends. Moreover, many artists are working to build recognition and reputation (or status), so that they have better opportunities to secure paid work in the future. There is a value to intangible compensation. And while we can’t perfectly measure that value, we know it’s there. If it weren’t there, people would stop creating art for free.

Further, the assumption that oversupply will lead to lower revenue per artist is one of those ceteris paribus arguments common in economic theory. If all else is held constant, then more theater and fewer theater-goers leads to less and less money for each theater. In real life, however, ceteris never stays paribus. If you want your city to gain a critical mass of creative, talented theater artists, it helps to have more production. Higher competition within a market will naturally give more options to your theater-goers, making it more likely that they’ll be able to find something they like. This might even increase demand, though there’s no guarantee this will happen, or happen quickly.

However, this is not a recommendation to form more theater companies or chamber orchestra groups. According to the National Arts Index, the vitality of the arts tracks fairly closely with the economy. Recessions impact all areas of demand discussed here. Since 2008, we’ve seen several orchestras fold or come close. Worse, the NAI research indicates that even during prosperous years this last decade, approximately 1/3 of nonprofit arts organizations ran at a deficit. This is a more serious concern, worthy of further analysis, but we still can’t leap to the judgment that this is driven by oversupply.

Conclusion

Demand is a function of more than just ticket sales and attendance. You have to include demand to provide funding, demand to contribute, demand for status, association, and even demand for truth and beauty. Further, the root of oversupply, if it exists, is in artists insisting on supplying more of their generative work to their communities. Rocco can’t stop this even if he wants to, and I doubt he really wants to. If it were to stop, our arts ecosystem would be less vibrant, would hold less potential, and would be less motivating.

Notes:

  1. If you analyze the attendance decrease in absolute number terms rather than change in percent, the decrease is 3.7%. But the decrease in percentage of U.S. adults attending is 4.8%, which Landesman has rounded to 5%. The attendance number includes attendance at for-profit events (it’s based on a survey of attendees, many of whom will not know or care if they are at a for-profit or nonprofit event), and the organizations number includes fairs, festivals, and media.
  2. The 23% increase in number of nonprofit organizations is taken from the Americans for the Arts National Arts Index. It is the increase from 2002 to 2008 in number of 501(c)(3) arts organizations in the above categories, plus nonprofit media organizations and fairs & festivals. It does not include for-profit arts organizations such as for-profit art galleries. If you convert this to the number of organizations per one million people, for more apt comparison to the change in attendees as percent of the population, then the number of organizations increased from 294 per million to 341 per million, a 16% increase. This isn’t a breakdown by organization size. We can’t assume that the total output of events increased 23% just because the number of organizations did. The additional organizations could be tiny, with low production capacity. If we look at both changes in terms of absolute numbers, you can see that attendance dropped 3.7% and number of organizations (not necessarily number of events) increased 23%. If we look at both changes in terms of percentage of the population, then attendance dropped 4.8 percentage points, and number of organizations per million increased 16.3%.
  3. On the value of the $1000 from the small business owner: sure, there is a tax deduction, too. But even if she’s a rich business owner, in which case she might give a lot more than $1000, the tax deduction will only be worth $350 at most (less if a large share of her income is from dividends or capital gains), which means she still wants to give away at least $650 to the symphony.
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Meet the Spring 2011 Createquity Writing Fellows

I’m very excited to welcome Aaron Andersen, Naomi Jackson, Jennifer Kessler, and Crystal Wallis as contributors to Createquity as of today. They will collectively cover a wide range of topics, and I think you’ll find these four individuals’ writing, analysis, and enthusiasm a terrific addition to the site over the next five months.

Aaron AndersenWith Aaron Andersen writing for the blog, Createquity will now have an MBA who actually studied economics instead of just pretending like he knows something about it. Aaron began his professional career in theater, serving in a wide variety of capacities as actor, technician and business manager. In the wake of the 2001 recession, Aaron’s career diverged into corporate accounting, where within five years he advanced from temporary staff to manager of the corporate accounting department of a mid-market environmental services company with $50M in annual revenue and divisions in seven states. Aaron graduated from the University of Chicago Booth School of Business with honors in 2010, having earned concentrations in economics, strategic management and finance. While attending the University of Chicago, Aaron began working at the Chicago Symphony Orchestra as its Senior Budget Analyst, a position he currently holds. In this role, Aaron’s analytical skills and business training and experience have converged with his original love of the performing arts. At the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, Aaron leads budget planning efforts and collaborates with senior leadership in strategic planning efforts. Outside of the CSO, Aaron serves on the Board of Directors of BackStage Theatre Company in Chicago, and blogs occasionally at http://phrasemongers.wordpress.com. He will tackle issues relating to public policy and arts funding this spring, and offer a bit of Windy City perspective where appropriate.

Naomi JacksonNaomi Jackson will cover cultural policy outside of the United States, civic participation and the arts (with particular attention to young people of color), and arts advocacy in the context of the 2012 election campaign. Naomi is program associate for the Rockefeller Brothers Fund’s Democratic Practice (U.S.) program and the New York City portion of the RBF’s Pivotal Place program.  She joined the Fund in late 2006, after spending a year in South Africa on a Fulbright fellowship. While in South Africa, she received her M.A. in creative writing from the University of Cape Town and worked as contributing editor for Chimurenga, a journal of arts, politics, and culture. Naomi’s previous nonprofit experience includes positions at the Studio Museum in Harlem, the Russell Sage Foundation, and Blue Ridge Foundation New York. She is a cum laude graduate of Williams College and a current board member of FIERCE, a membership-led organization that builds the leadership and power of LGBTQ youth of color in New York City. Her essays, short stories, and poems have appeared in literary magazines and journals in the United States, Caribbean, and the U.K. She lives in Brooklyn where she is at work on her first novel, Star Side of Bird Hill.

Jennifer KesslerJennifer Kessler will bring a strong voice in arts education policy and research to Createquity, filling a gap here that has been far too long in festering. Jennifer is an arts education curator, French horn player, and music educator who collaborates with artists and arts organizations in New York and abroad to design unique music education programs for diverse communities. She currently manages Bang on a Can’s Found Sound Nation, a composer-producer crew who leads young people through creative song composition projects. With Found Sound Nation, she is developing projects in Africa, Haiti, Switzerland, and around the United States. In her former position as Manager of Professional Programs at the Weill Music Institute at Carnegie Hall, Jennifer developed professional development workshops for educators, young professional musicians, and New York-based teaching artists. Previously, Jennifer lived in Berlin, Germany for four years, and in Tel Aviv, Israel for one year, where she played French Horn with ensembles including the Berlin Philharmonic and the Israeli Opera Orchestra. Alongside her performance career, Jennifer led music projects in Europe for disadvantaged children, and visited Venezuela to research El Sistema, the system of youth orchestras. She has earned a Bachelor of Music degree from Northwestern University and a graduate Diplom in Music Performance from the Hochschule für Musik Hanns Eisler, Berlin.

Crystal Wallis

Crystal Wallis will be a jane-of-all-trades for Createquity, bringing a fascinating combination of interests, skills and experience to her writing here. Crystal will graduate in May from the Master of Arts Management program at the Heinz College of Public Policy at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh. Originally from the “orchestra world,” Crystal has developed a passion for folk music and culture because of its spirit of inclusiveness and creativity. At Heinz and her summer 2010 internship at the Old Town School of Folk Music, she discovered a talent for quantitative skills and research.  She is interested is discussing and debating when those methods can help the arts, and when they aren’t as appropriate as qualitative methods. For example, during this fellowship, she hopes to discover more about the North Carolina Arts Council’s use of folklore research methods to identify cultural assets in communities.  Crystal plays viola (and fiddle, ukulele, and spoons), and prior to enrolling at Heinz was the Manager of Artistic Personnel at the Arkansas Symphony Orchestra.

Please join me in extending congratulations to our inaugural Createquity Writing Fellows!

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Around the horn: Big edition

It’s been a fun but busy January for Createquity. The subscriber count finally passed 1,000 a few weeks ago, we had a little Writing Fellowship competition (more on that tomorrow), and out of the blue Rosetta Thurman kindly named yours truly one of the top 10 young nonprofit bloggers to follow in 2011. (That list actually has two different arts bloggers on it, which is pretty awesome given Rosetta’s sector-wide focus.)

Big News

  • The Nonprofit Finance Fund’s founder and CEO, Clara Miller, will be the new head of the F. B. Heron Foundation, one of the pioneers of using a foundation’s endowment investments for mission-related purposes.
  • What would the Liz Lerman Dance Exchange be without Liz Lerman? Just the Dance Exchange, apparently.
  • Lois Weisberg, longtime head of the Chicago Department of Cultural Affairs, is out amid that agency’s continuing shakeup. Read an interview with her about it here.
  • The Washington National Opera and Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts will merge. (h/t Jonas)

Big Intrigue

  • Has the Pepsi Refresh contest been tainted by voters-for-hire from India for the past six to nine months? (Cf. Amazon’s Mechanical Turk being used for spam.)
  • Thanks to a Fellowship applicant, I just discovered this year-old, incredibly detailed (and critical) examination of the Richard Florida phenomenon from the perspective of cities who paid for his advice over the past decade. The more I learn, the more I think of RF as a kind of complex and fascinating Rorschach test, someone who reveals more about ourselves by our reactions to him than by anything he says or writes. Hear a recent interview with him by Steve Dahlberg and Mary Alice Long.
  • I’m starting to get increasingly freaked out about internet security, and this news that a researcher has developed wifi password hacking software using Amazon Web Services doesn’t help. Says the poster: “Cloud computing makes it easier for hackers to take advantage of weak security networks. There will be some huge and successful attacks this year. The level of preparedness is just not high enough to expect anything else except for some very high profile break-ins.” Uh oh.
  • More state arts councils in states run by Republican governors are in trouble. Now it’s Kansas that may be the first to see its arts commission go. Janet Brown, as always, offers wisdom on the role and value of state arts agencies.

Big Projects

  • Behold the British versions of Kickstarter and Indiegogo. While we’re on the subject of crowdfunding, Kickstarter’s “best of 2010” list is apparently “super inspiring,” and Brian Newman writes about a really-cool-sounding, Kickstarter-supported restaurant-cum-art-project called What Happens When.
  • Awesome map of spoken dialects across North America (via CultureFuture).

Big Data

  • The new National Arts Index has been unveiled by Americans for the Arts. You’ll hear a lot about the topline number (97.7, supposedly a 12-year low), but I feel the NAI’s real value is as a compendium for yearly data on 81 separate indicators in one place. I’ll be writing more on this later.
  • More Richard Florida: a study on beauty and community satisfaction; the geography of gun deaths. (Curious finding in the latter: McCain vote share was the single variable associated most with gun deaths at the statewide level, more so than poverty, drug use, or possession of guns.)
  • Speaking of beauty, here’s Christian Rudder with another stellar stat-porn post on internet dating, this time on female attractiveness and male attention. Marginal Revolution’s Alex Tabarrok responds.
  • From Helicon Collaborative, a snapshot of arts funding in California. (Also see item at the end of this post.)
  • Technology in the Arts surveys tech adoption and implementation among arts organizations.
  • In a TEDx talk, Charles Limb describes two neuroscience studies he’s conducted using MRIs of jazz musicians and freestyle rappers improvising.
  • Courtesy the Center for Effective Philanthropy, grantees report on their perceptions of foundation evaluation and reporting practices.
  • The good news: a majority of Americans oppose cutting government funding for “the arts and sciences” (thanks for the help there, Gallup!). The bad news: Americans are more enthusiastic about cutting arts and science funding than all but one other category the poll asked about.

Big Ideas

  • Amid all the hubbub about “emerging” this and that, Michael Kaiser stands up for the old farts. And so does Dan Pallotta (though in his case it’s because he’s about to become one).
  • More on the grad school debt racket, this time focusing on law schools. “Solving the J.D. overabundance problem, according to Professor Henderson, will have to involve one very drastic measure: a bunch of lower-tier law schools will need to close.” Gabriel Rossman explains the strong incentives professors and institutions have to feed the unrealistic dreams of their graduate students. Meanwhile, Rosetta Thurman explains why you may not need to go to grad school to accomplish what you’re looking to do.
  • Kyle MacMillan on how orchestras need to change in the 21st century, via David H. Thomas. Speaking of David H. and new orchestra practices, here he is, a professional orchestral clarinetist mind you, coming out and saying that he’d actually prefer to see an HD broadcast of a great orchestra rather than a live, local orchestral performance in person. Wow.
  • And while we’re on the subject of orchestras, check out the news that Alarm Will Sound conductor Alan Pierson will lead the Brooklyn Philharmonic. For those of you who are not new music nerds, know that this represents a very radical hire by the struggling Brooklyn Phil. If it pays off, orchestral music may never be quite the same. (And if it doesn’t, I’d be pretty worried about what’s going to happen to orchestras.) No pressure, Alan.
  • Nina Simon on Paul Light on innovation. Great read.
  • How’s this for attracting new audiences? Playwrights Horizons is offering babysitting services to theater attendees. Worth a shot, I guess.
  • Ciara Pressler has a very deep and provocative post at the Fractured Atlas blog on how we are all marketers. I would go even further than her examples: I think that potentially every action one takes professionally (and, arguably, personally) has repercussions for what one might call “reputation management.” The way in which we manifest ourselves to others both publicly and privately is always, ultimately, marketing, whether we choose to think of it as such or not.
  • Amelia Northrup rounds up some arts technology trends to watch in 2011.
  • At White Courtesy Telephone, Albert Ruesga offers 24 “theses” about foundations. And if Sean Stannard-Stockton tells me I should read this blog, I’m a-gonna read it.
  • Are liberals just predisposed to compromise more than conservatives? And does that give conservatives a lasting competitive advantage?

Big Opportunity

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Why Arts Research is Hard (And Why We Should Do it Anyway)

(Crossposted from the Fractured Atlas blog. This is the first in a series of posts about Fractured Atlas’s research approach and philosophy.)

I was a participant in a couple of conversations with fellow arts research nerds recently in which we discussed the notion of cause and effect. You remember that one from grade school, right? Well, it turns out that when it comes to research (and especially arts research), it’s not as simple as we all thought.

You see, in science, when we say that something caused something else, we tend to want to be sure. A common concept in statistics is “significance“: the idea that a meaningful connection exists between two variables that can’t be explained by random noise. If you’ve formed a hypothesis and designed your experiments correctly, and you get statistically significant results, you can be fairly confident that the results you’re looking at indicate something real and not merely an accident or coincidence.

Of course, it’s never possible to be entirely sure. But in some fields, you can get pretty close. The technical term for the degree of uncertainty we’re willing to tolerate in an analysis like this is the alpha: an alpha of 0.05 means that we’d like to be 95% sure that we can reject the null hypothesis (i.e., that we might just be looking at random noise) before we go ahead and report the result as meaningful. In some fields, it’s common to require an alpha of 0.001 or even lower – that is, a 99.9% certainty that random variation isn’t behind the results. And for something like testing a new drug, you most definitely want to be that sure that, for example, it doesn’t cause heart attacks as a side effect before you put that sucker on the market.

In the social sciences, though, which is where arts research generally lives, it’s much harder to be certain about your results. That’s not necessarily because it’s harder to get statistically significant results. It’s because it’s harder to design the models and experiments — in other words, your hypothesis as to what is happening and why, and the means you use to test it — with integrity.

In order for a model to work, it needs to account for everything that might affect the result that you’re looking for. For health sciences, this can be pretty simple: you give people a drug or administer them a treatment, and you measure whether they got better. You can collect other information about them, such as their race, age, gender, and so forth, in order to catch any differences along those axes, but otherwise it’s fairly straightforward. It’s also relatively routine (though sometimes complicated by ethical issues) to construct what’s known as a control group: a set of comparable individuals with the same problem who don’t receive the treatment.

In the arts, by contrast, both of these assumptions are challenged. First, when you’re looking at the impact of an arts program on things like, say, crime rates in a community, or educational outcomes for children, or hell, even just straight-up happiness for individual arts participants, it’s really difficult to isolate the unique contribution of the arts program from everything else that could be entering into the picture and affecting the results (e.g., the economy, quality parenting, or what they had to eat that day). And second, unlike in the case of giving somebody a pill, it’s hard to isolate the recipients or beneficiaries of arts programs from people who don’t benefit in a way that is scientifically rigorous – especially when the desired results concern whole communities or ecosystems.

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It would be tempting, faced with that litany of challenges, to conclude that arts research simply isn’t worth the trouble. I would disagree with such a conclusion. Well-executed arts research, though rarely providing evidence beyond all doubt, can nevertheless help to illuminate some of the key assumptions that we make when we design arts programs. And boy, do some of those assumptionsneed illumination!

I view causality and arts research more generally through a frame of program evaluation and impact assessment. Fractured Atlas is currently undertaking an evaluation of one of its own programs and also helping an external client develop a framework to assess the impact of its grantmaking. One of the most important steps in that process is to identify the underlying assumptions upon which your program strategy rests. Every time we employ strategy to make decisions, no matter what the context, we are making assumptions. When we sign up for a test-prep course to improve our score on the GRE, for example, we assume that the instructor and materials are of a sufficient quality to help us learn, and also that we’re intellectually capable of achieving a better score with assistance. When we open a Twitter account to drive traffic to a website, we assume that we’ll have sufficient time and inspiration to generate content for the medium in a way that will gain traction over time. And when we start an organization whose goal is to bring about world peace through the arts, well, there are a LOT of assumptions that go into that one!

Where research can help us most is by telling us whether or not our assumptions are valid. We might feel more confident about our decision to sign up for the test prep class if we can first view data on how much improvement previous participants saw in their scores after taking it. Our organization’s decision to sign up for Twitter would be made easier if we had information on the trajectories of comparable peers’ tweet activity and followers over time along with measures of how much of a drain it was on staff resources. To me, research is not especially meaningful or worthwhile unless it has the potential to inform, either directly or indirectly, the decisions we make. But if it does, it can be very valuable indeed.

That’s because, unlike in health care or the pharmaceutical industry, in the arts we’re (usually) not dealing with life and death. It’s okay if we make a mistake once in a while; the world will continue on. So we don’t need to have 99.9% or even 95% certainty that the choices we make are the right ones before we move ahead. Indeed, as of now it’s likely that we make some decisions with virtually no certainty of their wisdom at all! To the extent that research can play a role in reducing the uncertainty we face in making decisions within a strategic framework, that research can provide real, quantifiable value to its users.

Let me elaborate on that last point. One of the most powerful tools I learned in business school was decision analysis, a conceptual approach useful for incorporating uncertainties into scenario planning. A common concept in decision analysis is what’s known as “the value of perfect information.” You know you have perfect information when there is absolutely no uncertainty in the outcomes that might result from an action or set of actions you take. The value of perfect information is the difference in your “expected value” (i.e., the result of the best possible strategy given the average of all possible outcomes, weighted by probability) with certainty and without. For example, if you’re only 60% sure that taking the test prep class will get you to the GRE score you need, there’s a 40% chance the amount you spend on the class will be a waste. In the language of decision analysis, that’s equivalent to saying that you can “expect” to lose 40% of your investment. With perfect information that taking the class will lead to the result you want, you have no risk of wasting that money. Thus, the value of perfect information in this case is 40% of the price of the class.

Research, especially research in the arts, can’t give us perfect information. But it can sure as hell give us better information than we already have. Even if it can reduce our uncertainty that our strategy is the right one from 40% to, say, 20%, that’s still quite a boost to our confidence. But the value of research is only as high as its quality. Badly designed or poorly executed studies can be next to useless in reducing uncertainty, or worse, can actually increase it by confusing the underlying issues. Unfortunately, no certification body currently exists to ensure the research conducted in the arts is of a sufficient quality to be helpful. The best way to make sure as a field that we don’t get taken in by low-quality work is to take some time to educate ourselves on good research practices. For a good, short primer, I recommend Evaluation Essentials by my own program evaluation teacher, Beth Osborne Daponte.

Next time, some thoughts on how Fractured Atlas puts these principles into practice.

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Reminder: Createquity Writing Fellowship Deadline Coming Up

A brief reminder that the deadline for the spring 2011 Createquity Writing Fellowship is fast approaching. Applications have been steadily trickling in, but if the procrastinating ways of my peer group are any guide, I’m quite sure the floodgates will open over the weekend. Word to the wise: at 12pm Eastern on January 18, the competition closes – no extensions, no exceptions. Sounds harsh, but on the plus side the application is designed to take you all of about ten minutes if you have materials at the ready.

While I have your attention, I’ll take this opportunity to answer a few frequently asked questions about the fellowship and the application process:

I’m from [insert country here] and want to apply to the fellowship. Am I eligible?

For some reason, this is by far the most common question I’ve received. The answer is YES, you may apply to the fellowship if you’re from outside of the United States. The only caveat that I would offer is that most of Createquity’s readers are located in North America; thus, if your goal is to write from an international perspective, it will be important to present your thoughts in a way that will be accessible to people who aren’t familiar with cultural policies around the world.

What should I offer to write about?

You tell me! Seriously, I am much more interested in hearing about what gets you excited than in telling you what I think you should be writing about. The best applications will be as concrete and specific as possible in describing the issues that you feel are worth exploring through your writing.

How many Fellows will you choose?

I’m not saying. :) In all seriousness, I’m leaving this open since I don’t want to be locked into an arbitrary number. However, I do anticipate choosing at least one and probably no more than four.

Good luck to everybody, and stay tuned for the announcement on February 1!

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Around the horn: Happy New Year edition

Cities, Demographics, and People

  • A while back, I pointed folks to Scarlett Swerdlow’s suggestion that the arts community get involved in non-arts advocacy in order to forge alliances with key partners in other sectors. Well, here’s an opportunity to do just that: the Livable Communities Act, which would grant $4 billion to communities for comprehensive planning, faces an uncertain future according to Next American City…and if that money did go forward, there’s a good chance some of it might find its way to the arts.
  • Richard Florida on cities with the highest growth in college degrees per square mile over the past decade.
  • And yes, it’s true: everyone wants to live in a special place.

On the Chopping Block

  • The Honolulu Symphony: liquidated, joining the still-small ranks of high-profile nonprofits felled by the recession. A basket case apparently, but still, the death of an orchestra is no small thing.
  • The Chicago Department of Cultural Affairs, which has lost 29 employees since October. (via GIA News)
  • The Washington State Arts Commission: Governor Christine Gregoire has proposed elimination of the state arts agency as its own entity and reducing state funding of the arts to a bare-bones $250,000. Looks like we’ll have yet another “save the arts!” campaign on our hands this year.
  • The Arts Council of Northern Ireland will see its appropriation decline by £4.2 million over the next four years.
  • Booooo! NYC Transit is ditching the Train of Thought program (successor to Poetry in Motion) in favor of ads touting service improvements, because there’s “not enough space” for both.

Back from the Dead

  • Michael Rushton’s fantabulous Arts Admin blog. Thank goodness! Now don’t you run off and leave us again, y’hear?
  • The Local Community Radio Act finally passed Congress after 10 years of advocacy work by Future of Music Coalition. Mazel tov!

End-of-Year Reminiscences and Prognostications

  • Philanthropy futurist Lucy Bernholz offers 10 predictions for the next decade.
  • Tim Berners-Lee (the founder of the World Wide Web) claims that data analysis is the future of journalism. I can’t disagree…particularly since I believe that stories and data are two names for the same thing.
  • TCG’s Gus Schulenberg provides a helpful wrap-up of several studies, reports, and articles examining online social engagement in the context of theater or beyond.
  • Henry Peyrebrune, guest writing at Adaptistration, shares a brief history of orchestra funding in the United States.
  • Jim Undercofler offers 10 “work items” for 2011 for the field on his blog, State of the Art. Here’s the first.
  • Rosetta Thurman wonders if we’ll see a new generation of nonprofit organizations in 2011 and provides summaries of two publications and resources on the subject.
  • Assets for Artists hilariously recaps the top 10 arts stories you probably didn’t miss in 2010.

New Research & Analysis

  • Check out this cool new research report from WolfBrown, Helicon Collaborative, and the East Bay Community and San Francisco Foundations on the motivations of arts donors. Lots of good stuff in the summary, but I was particularly struck by this tidbit:

    In comparison to donors to mid-size and large cultural institutions, donors to artists and artists’ projects are more likely to be:

    • Artists themselves (professional or amateur)
    • Young adults or mid-life (18-54), without children, and of diverse cultural backgrounds
    • Interested in social justice and environmentalism
    • Interested in diversity of cultures and points of view
    • Giving less than $5,000 annually to all charitable causes
    • Interested in supporting small projects rather than sustaining institutions
  • Here was a useful rainy day project from the Clyde Fitch Report: a rundown of the social media presence of the 56 members of the National Assembly of State Arts Agencies. More like this please!

‘Twas the Season of Flashmobs

  • So, apparently the Thing To Do now if you’re an arts organization is to organize a “spontaneous” bursting into song or dance at a local mall or other public place in close proximity to Christmas. Marcia Adair (aka the Ominicient Mussel) did the yeoman’s work of gathering a bunch of them into one place over at Culture Monster.
  • One of said flashmob performances ended up garnering 25.7 million views on YouTube! (update: now up to 29.2 million!)
  • And in one case, the secret got out too soon, forcing the closure of an entire mall! (more video candy in the post)

Etc.

  • GreatNonprofits is recapping their Arts Appreciation campaign to rate nonprofits in the arts and culture arena. Feel free to hand out some stars to the organizations that you appreciated most in 2010. (via Barry’s Blog)
  • Beth Kanter engaged in a pretty badass campaign to get Apple to change its policy regarding charitable donations via the iPhone. She teased the company for weeks with big photos of Android phones on her blog and managed to get a New York Times story out of it. Apple appears to be standing firm, however.
  • Does knowledge capital depreciate? Interesting concept from Marginal Revolution.
  • Alastair Macaulay revels in the glory of Nutcrackers around the nation. Now if only such a broadly shared experience across communities could be possible with a living artist’s work…
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Createquity in Quotes: 2010

The quantity of available, accessible, highly relevant information is expanding at a rate far faster than the human brain was designed to handle, while at the same time we’re gaining the ability to communicate meaningfully with more people than was ever before possible. For quantitative information, our information surplus is easily solved by means of computing power, but for the trickier qualitative questions (what does it all mean?), our task is harder than ever.

What We’ve Learned So Far (January 2)

Arturo’s story is inspiring to watch from afar. And it is humbling when I think about my discomfort with facing beggars on the street. I stopped my generosity experiment because I found myself resenting having to give a quarter or a dollar to the same strangers in the subway day after day. Gloria gave a stranger off the street not just a dollar, but her home, family, and unconditional love. Her generosity experiment will last a lifetime.

Five Generosity Experiments (March 30)

Nearly all of the sweeping changes in how we do business and live our lives that have taken place during the last 20 years can be traced to dramatic advances in communication and data storage technology. Twenty years ago, there was no World Wide Web, cell phones as we know them today did not exist, word processing software was still in its infancy, and a typical hard drive held 1/10,000th of the space boasted by a comparably-priced device today. Think about that for a second. In a single generation’s time, our collective capacity to store, process, and share information has exploded beyond all recognition. This one development has completely transformed our work and our relationships, and its impact on the arts and arts organizations is no exception.

The Future of Leadership (April 13)

I think orchestras are most effective when they put forth their authentic selves. One non-traditional concert I recall enjoying was the Yale Symphony Orchestra’s annual Halloween extravaganza. The show started at 11:59pm and would feature an original film made by members of the orchestra, arrangements of popular theme music by the students, cameo appearances from the Dean and President of the college, and a hall chock-full of raucous, costumed, mostly drunk undergraduates. It was a PARTY. But it was able to be that party because it was a concert by students, for students. I can’t imagine how awkward it would have been to have a professional orchestra (playing past 11pm on those union contracts? Are you kidding?) try to replicate that fun-loving no-holds-barred atmosphere for an audience it wasn’t familiar with.

Orchestras and Authenticity (June 9)

Democracy is a wonderful thing, but grand leaps of imagination are not often achieved by group consensus. Yet one would be hard-pressed to argue that our dominant system of institutional giving is all that much better. The decisions of our corporate and foundation funders have an enormous impact in shaping the field, yet in most cases less than a half-dozen people have meaningful input into those decisions. Sometimes, a single individual might drive essentially the entire agenda for a portfolio of hundreds of thousands, even millions of dollars. That’s an incredible amount of influence accruing to an incredibly small number of people. And individuals, no matter how dedicated or qualified, are increasingly not up to the task of responsibly evaluating the full range of artistic activity within their jurisdictions. There simply are not enough hours in the day or days in the year for a human being to give ongoing, fair, and substantive consideration to the work of the millions of artists and tens of thousands of arts nonprofits in the United States today. For all of Chris Jones’s lauding of the “noble tradition of the corporate giving officer,” what percentage of the participants in Chase Community Giving or Pepsi Refresh have had corporate giving officers regularly (or ever!) attend their performances or exhibits?

Popularity Contest Philanthropy (August 6)

In the course of this sudden immersion into what the rest of the world thinks about and does on a daily basis, I came to realize that my former existence had been focused like a laser on about 0.00001% of everything that matters. It was like the veil had been lifted on my life: the choices I faced when I voted in an election or needed to buy produce or searched for an apartment to rent or, yes, chose a graduate school had all been determined by somebody, or more often a collection of somebodies acting in somewhat predictable ways. It became clear to me that I was never going to have control over my own destiny unless I had the capacity to see and understand the external forces that were influencing my circumstances. And if that’s true for me, it’s true for you, too.

New Article on NewMusicBox.org (September 16)

The recent NEA Survey of Public Participation in the Arts shows that in the year leading up to May 2008, less than 35% of Americans participated at least once in “benchmark arts activities,” which collectively cover the bulk, though not all, of the disciplines and genres we have traditionally considered to be part of our field. That means that nearly two-thirds of American adults went the entire year without seeing a single classical music or jazz concert, attending a single musical, play, opera, or ballet, or visiting a single art gallery or museum. Let me repeat that in case it wasn’t clear: 65% of American adults did none of these things at any time in 2007-08. (By contrast, fully 99% of American households have at least one television, and there are actually more TV sets than people in this country!)

Arts participation and the bottom of the pyramid (October 5)

I think that the people who had transformative arts experiences as youth of the kind that Gary talks about [i.e., as audience members] – where they heard Verdi or saw a Matisse and were hooked right then and there – just got lucky. They were in the right place at the right time and were bringing to the table just the right cocktail of personal background, talent, and curiosity to have a magical moment. I bet if you polled arts professionals more broadly, though, the vast majority would report having their minds first blown by the arts during an active state of engagement.

The Myth of the Transformative Arts Experience (December 27)

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

  1. The Top 10 (U.S.) Arts Policy Stories of 2009
  2. Popularity Contest Philanthropy
  3. On Vision, Ripples, Expression, and the Mysterious Other
  4. Economists Don’t Care About Poor People
  5. eighth blackbird and the Ethics of Pay-to-Play
  6. Interview with Helena Fruscio, Director, Berkshire Creative
  7. Playwrights’ Outrageous (Mis)Fortune
  8. Outrageous Fortune: a composer’s perspective
  9. The Top 10 Arts Policy Stories of 2010
  10. Economicsitis: A Response
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The Top 10 Arts Policy Stories of 2010

Painting the Street in Cincinnati

"Paint the Street" event hosted by ArtsWave, image by Rrrrred

Everybody likes a Top 10 list, right? Especially the nerdy ones! So here’s my contribution: the second annual list of the top ten arts policy stories from the past year. You can check out the 2009 edition here.

10. Intrinsic Impact Research Marches On

WolfBrown’s groundbreaking work on measuring “intrinsic impact” (the intangible, hard-to-define effects that arts experiences have on patrons) got a major boost in 2010, with a large project to bring the research to 15 theater companies in five cities around the country. Led by Theatre Bay Area, the endgame of this project involves a web-based toolkit that will allow rank and file arts organizations to adopt some of these methods themselves, without having to pay WolfBrown a pretty penny first. Audience surveys are already underway, and the final report and toolkit will be up and running by the end of next year.

9. Fine Arts Fund Reinvents Itself

In January 2010, a longstanding Cincinnati-based fundraising and grantmaking organization known as the Fine Arts Fund announced the results of a very interesting research study examining the attitudes of members of the public toward shared responsibility for (and benefit from) the arts. The political science perspective used in the study may have been a first for the field of arts research, and the results suggested that the field would be better off if the economic-impact- and arts-education-focused arguments that have characterized arts advocacy efforts over the past couple of decades were discarded in favor of a focus on vibrant neighborhoods and connected, engaged communities instead. Not satisfied with simply releasing a study and going about its business as usual, Fine Arts Fund took the additional, and frankly astonishing, step of wholly transforming its name (to ArtsWave), branding identity, and grantmaking priorities to bring them in line with these findings. (Disclosure: Fractured Atlas will be working with ArtsWave in early 2011 as part of this last initiative, though it had no role in the research or the strategic planning process that led up to this point.) ArtsWave’s very public metamorphosis shows that even an 83-year-old institution can still be on the leading edge.

8. Dance Theatre Workshop and Bill T. Jones Merge (And They’re Pretty Much the Only Ones)

Two years after the stock market crash of 2008 led numerous observers to predict a rash of mergers and closures in the nonprofit sector, the greatest carnage in the ranks of arts organizations has come not from the market but from the IRS (see item #7). While virtually every arts nonprofit has suffered stress in the wake of the economic recession, most have survived intact, with only a few exceptions such as the Honolulu Symphony, NYS Arts, and the Baltimore Opera — and that last one might even have been a good thing. DTW’s romance with Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company is without doubt both the most high-profile and the most interesting arts merger to come out of the recession so far, as the choreographer-led company joins forces with a presenting/service organization to create New York Live Arts. In the process, Bill T. Jones gets a dedicated space, and DTW gets access to greater financial resources. It looks great on paper, but then mergers often do…

7. IRS Revokes Exemption for up to 300,000 Nonprofits

This story went virtually unreported this year, but those who continually bemoan the rise in the number of nonprofits in this country had a bone thrown their way this year. The Pension Protection Act of 2006 required that all nonprofits, even those with budgets of less than $25,000 per year who had previously never been asked to file annual returns, complete the 990-N “postcard” form requesting basic information like addresses and website URLs. Those who failed to file for three years in a row risked having their tax-exempt status revoked by the IRS. Well, it turns out that nearly half of the 714,000 organizations in this budget category in fact failed to file, and after a number of temporary delays and reprieves, an unknown number were thrown overboard (the IRS will publish a complete list early next year). While most of these were likely dead organizations (indeed, some of them may never have been alive in the first place), an examination by yours truly of some of the organizations “at risk” for revocation in the San Francisco Bay Area revealed that a disproportionate number were arts organizations, and their ranks included a few that were observably still active.

6. Net Neutrality Has a Bad Year

This is a story that is very much still being told. For several years now, technology activists have been raising awareness of the issue of “network neutrality,” warning that without legislation to codify existing practices, there will be nothing to prevent internet service providers in the future from selectively crippling or blocking entirely websites that compete with their own business interests. Many see net neutrality as particularly important to the arts, given their usual position outside of (or even in opposition to) the corporate sphere. With the 2008 election of President Obama, a supporter of net neutrality legislation, there was hope that such legislation might become a reality with the current Congress. But things got complicated in 2010. First, a federal court ruled earlier this year that the Federal Communications Commission did not have authority to tell Comcast that it had to treat bittorrent transmissions on its networks the same way as everything else. While not the final legal word, it provided a strong negotiating hand to anti-net-neutrality forces. Then, Google, one of net neutrality’s staunchest supporters in the corporate arena, got into negotiations with Verizon, one of its most trenchant opponents, and came out with a compromise that left most neutrality advocates unsatisfied. Finally, just last week, President Obama’s FCC announced new guidelines that hew fairly closely to the Google/Verizon compromise, prohibiting discrimination on “wired” services but leaving the increasingly important mobile universe a veritable Wild West. (This hasn’t stopped Verizon from making noises about a legal challenge right out of the gate.) We’ll have to stay tuned to see what happens next, but with a Republican House and little evidence of broad-based passion for net neutrality among the populace, the chances for a legislative solution (the surest means to the outcome that advocates desire) seem slim for the moment.

5. State Arts Agencies Continue to Struggle

After a disastrous 2009, this year saw little respite for beleaguered state arts agencies. Despite a few success stories, such as in Rhode Island where the governor tried to cut the budget of the state arts council by over 50% only to have the cuts fully restored by his own legislature, these remained the exception rather than the rule. States and territories suffering double-digit cuts in 2010 (i.e., to their FY 2011 appropriations) included Arizona (down another 28.9% after a brutal 54% cut last year), DC, Georgia (which nearly had its council eliminated but “escaped” with only a 66% massacre), Kansas, Louisiana (where Gov. Jindal finally succeeded in squeezing nearly half the money out of the coffers), Missouri (where state officials are raiding a fund intended to provide dedicated support to the arts and humanities), New Hampshire, New York (with the largest total dollar decrease of the year by far), Northern Marianas, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania (already reeling from an exhausting and only partially successful advocacy campaign last year to save the agency), South Carolina (another state council to overcome near death in 2010), Texas (28%), Virginia, and Washington. Only Arkansas, Florida, Indiana, South Dakota, and Wyoming saw increases of a comparable magnitude.

4. Culture Wars Simmer

Ever since the 2008 election, there have been signs that the American right wing might return to the hostile stance it had adopted toward public subsidy of the arts starting in the late 1980s and continuing through the 1990s. Some of the evidence is in item #5 above: massive cuts or threats to zero out funding to arts councils by Republican governors in “red” states like Arizona, Georgia, Louisiana, and South Carolina; last year’s brouhaha over former NEA Communications Director Yosi Sergant’s attempt to involve artists in President Obama’s United We Serve initiative comes to mind as well, as do Glenn Beck’s occasional editorials on artwork associated with perceived enemies. With the election of a majority of Republicans to the House of Representatives has come new pressures on the funding of NPR, which got into an unfortunate fight with conservatives over the firing of right-wing commentator Juan Williams a few months ago. The most dramatic confrontation yet took place just last month, when a conservative news service publicized a gay-themed exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery that included a video by deceased artist and AIDS victim David Wojnarowicz with images of a crucifix covered with ants. After the controversy found its way to the ranks of Republican House leadership, the director of the Smithsonian ordered the video removed, even though the footage in question occupies only 11 seconds of the four-minute video, which itself was not a centerpiece of the exhibition. The action, unlike previous skirmishes, has produced a gigantic backlash in the visual arts community, with dozens of museums and other institutions around the world showing Wojnarowicz’s work in protest. The Andy Warhol Foundation, a major supporter of the exhibition, has also threatened to deny future funding requests from the Smithsonian. The situation seems to be under control for the moment, but don’t be surprised if things start heating up again in 2011.

3. The UK Tries American-Style Arts Funding

Feeling pressure from the economic recession, the new conservative government in England imposed cuts of 100 million pounds on the primary grantmaking agency for high-profile arts organizations on the island. The UK’s arts system has been described as a “hybrid” between the near-total private-sector dominance of American arts funding and the near-total government support seen throughout continental Europe. These cuts, totaling more than 22% of Arts Council England’s appropriation, represent a clear move toward the American side of the equation, especially when coupled with ACE’s decision to require prospective grantees, for the first time, to submit applications for funding (previously they had simply been selected by the agency though a noncompetitive process). The development is significant not only for its implications for England’s arts scene, but also as a potential bellwether for the rest of Europe, where politicians have been making noises for years about cutting back historically generous government support of artists and arts organizations and moving in the direction of greater privatization.

2. The NEA Charts a New Path

We knew that when Rocco Landesman arrived last year to take over the reins of the National Endowment for the Arts that, whatever the results, they would certainly be interesting. On that score, the agency has delivered in 2010. “Creative placemaking,” the role of the arts in revitalizing local communities economically and otherwise, is emerging as Rocco’s signature issue, with a raft of urban-focused Mayors’ Institute on City Design grants given out in 2010 and more coming in 2011 under the rubric of a new program called Our Town. The NEA has pursued a public engagement strategy beyond any in the agency’s previous history, webcasting the meetings of the National Council on the Arts (the NEA’s equivalent of a board), accepting questions via Twitter during panel discussions, and inviting a huge bevy of service organizations to take in the announcement of its strategic plan for 2012-16. It’s gone on a hiring spree, bringing marquee names like the Commonwealth of Massachusetts’s Jason Schupbach into the fold. A revitalized research department is pumping out new publications at a rapid rate, incorporating new media elements into some of them, and embracing its role as a convener, having brought together an A-list group of practitioners to consider how to measure “livability” this summer. What may turn out to be Rocco’s most far-reaching project, however, is his efforts to make inroads with heads of other federal agencies around ways in which the arts intersect with their work. Given that the budgets of departments like Agriculture, Housing and Urban Development, and Transportation dwarf the NEA’s and that the Endowment has continually been vulnerable to attacks on culture-war battlegrounds, this attempt to break down silos and “embed” the arts in other arms of the federal government is one of the smartest gambits we’ve seen in a long time.

1. Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act Passes

For years, the high cost of health insurance, especially for freelancers in our employer-centric system, has been identified by researchers and advocates as one of the biggest impediments to a thriving artist workforce. In 2010, after decades of failed attempts, Congress finally passed a comprehensive health insurance reform bill designed to counter some of the worst excesses of insurers while sharply reducing the ranks of the uninsured. To do this, everyone will be required to purchase insurance, even healthy individuals (although this mandate is currently being challenged in the courts). Fractured Atlas has a primer on the implications of the health care reform act for artists here; the short version is that by 2014, insurance companies won’t be allowed to discriminate or charge you a higher rate based on your gender or health status, take away your coverage after you get sick, deny you coverage based on a pre-existing condition, or set annual or lifetime limits on benefits. Although you will be required to buy insurance, if your income is in the low 40s or below, you’ll qualify for government assistance in paying for it. And if you’re a small business (like a theater company or gallery), you’ll likely be eligible for tax credits for giving your employees health insurance. While the full impact of the law won’t be known for years, if not decades, its provisions should disproportionately benefit artists and faciliate a significant improvement over the status quo.

Honorable mention:

  • Low Power FM Radio bill passes
  • Americans for the Arts introduces the National Arts Index

And as a bonus, here are my picks for the top five new (in 2010) arts blogs:

5. NYFA Blog (Michael Royce)
4. ArtsAppeal (David Zoltan)
3. 2am Theatre (various)
2. Your Town Performs (Craige Hoover)
1. Jumper (Diane Ragsdale)

(Note: had Devon Smith started 24 Usable Hours a couple of months later than she did, it surely would have made this list.)

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