Arts Marketing and the Social (Media) Conference: Observations from #NAMPC10

The 2010 National Arts Marketing Project Conference took place in San Jose between November 12 and 15. I attended on behalf of Fractured Atlas and presented during the Monday morning session, “Big Lists, Low Costs: Using List Cooperatives as Powerful Research and Advocacy Engines.”

This was a well-done conference. Unlike some that try to pack so many concurrent sessions into the same time slot that each attracts only a handful of attendees, NAMP presented only three conversations at any given time, making for a generous distribution of the 600+ conference participants at each one. The speakers that I saw were, for the most part, highly dynamic and engaging, including the “two Chips” – Heath and Conley – whose keynotes bookended the conference. (My only quibble is that the list was not terribly diverse, a lost opportunity of sorts for a field that is currently fretting about reaching new audiences.) Furthermore, I have to say that Twitter was used far more effectively at this conference than at any other I’ve been to. The usual experience goes something like this: hashtag gets set as an afterthought a few days before the event; the tiny minority of Twitter-savvy attendees robotically report notable quotables from this or that keynote speaker and then all retweet each other; conversation ceases the moment the conference does (if not before). In contrast, NAMP conference organizers set the stage long in advance, choosing a hashtag (#NAMPC10) far in advance, encouraging conference speakers (many of whom, of course, are leading social media experts) to tweet the conference and their sessions as they were announced, and — most importantly — paying for free wifi in the plenary halls/breakout sessions as well as in attendees’ hotel rooms. This allowed even attendees without smartphones or who are less comfortable using Twitter on a phone to participate in the conversation.

The result was that the true potential of Twitter as an alternative back channel – an alternative dimension, almost – for conversation at conferences was on full display at NAMP. The event generated more than 5,000 tweets in four-plus days, and unlike the drip, drip, drip at your typical arts conference, following along this time was a dizzying experience at sessions and social events alike. In several cases, the Twitter chatter became part of the live session experience, both in planned ways like when it was incorporated into the questions asked of keynote speakers or projected onto giant screens during lunch, and in unexpected ways like when panelists reacted in person to comments on Twitter about the session and vice versa. Session feedback was both immediate and decisive, as anyone following the stream could figure out what the “must-attend” events were during a given time slot and which ones were going off the rails. As a panelist, it was actually fairly nerve-wracking to know that anyone in the room could be reporting your words to the world with whatever commentary they liked in real time, but as an attendee it was kind of thrilling.

The conference both generated and inspired media in a number of other formats as well. Portions of the event were recorded and broadcast on livestream.com (a media sponsor for the conference), and three of the videos will remain archived at that link for the next six months. A crew of bloggers typed up a storm about the conference at Americans for the Arts’s ARTSBlog, and a number of interviews (both audio and video) were posted on the NAMP social media page. The coolest byproduct, though, was the series of video blogs from the team at Technology in the Arts, three of whom were in attendance. A real test of endurance, these videos (about half an hour’s worth each night) were filmed, edited, and posted after a full day’s worth of sessions and receptions. Here’s Day 1 and Day 2, the two “full days” of the conference; TiA also put up a NAMP-focused podcast featuring session organizer Ron Evans last week (in which they discuss the above-mentioned Twitter phenomenon), and more are apparently on the way.

So congratulations to NAMP for practicing what it preaches on the social media front. Of course, the big question is whether all this effort made a difference in the bottom line, since that’s the foremost question for many arts organizations when they think about social media (and all the effort it takes to seed a good conversation). We’ll never know for sure, but for what it’s worth this year’s 600 attendees represented a 20% uptick from the previous year — and with a substantially younger attendee base than I usually encounter at arts conferences, to boot. Considering the not-inconsiderable registration fees and the still-lingering effects of the recession, that’s not too shabby.

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20UNDER40 (with Audiences at the Gate) set for Wednesday release

More than a year ago, a student in the Harvard Graduate School of Education named Edward P. Clapp floated an idea for an anthology of twenty essays by young(ish) arts administrators and educators, titled simply 20UNDER40. The original call for submissions got passed around every which way, garnering a total of more than 300 proposals. I decided to approach a friend and former classmate, Daniel Reid, about co-writing a piece on using guided crowdsourcing in arts philanthropy, and our chapter, “Audiences at the Gate,” ended up as #6 in the book.

We put a lot of effort into both the conceptual underpinnings and the actual writing of our chapter, and I’m as proud of the final result as anything I’ve ever written for Createquity. Although it wasn’t part of the original plan, in the course of outlining “Audiences at the Gate” I felt that I clarified for myself some of the most intransigent roots of the economic challenges facing artists in our age of overabundance. In short, I now believe that finding a more effective way to process and curate – not just support – the work of new and underappreciated artists is not just a welcome convenience for the public, but a moral imperative for the sake of artists everywhere. Our proposal represents one possible approach for achieving that goal, but my hope is that, regardless of the solution, the centrality of the problem and the need to do something about it will become clearer as a result of reading the article.

The book goes on sale to the public on Wednesday, December 1 for $29.95 (or $9.95 for the e-book edition). My author’s copy arrived in the mail a few days ago, and what I have read so far of the other chapters looks extremely promising. I highly recommend that anyone concerned with the future of the arts find out for themselves what these individuals are saying about it.

Also, if anyone is interested in helping with this work, Edward has put together a small fundraising campaign (sponsored through Fractured Atlas!) to defray costs associated with publicity for the book. The link to donate is here. If you’re in or near the Boston area, there will be an all-day mega-release party taking place on Friday, December 10 (I unfortunately cannot attend, but many of the book’s other authors will be there), and rumor has it that some kind of get-together is in the works for New York the following Monday as well.

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Postcard from Japan

A little late, but what the hell:

So, I spent two weeks in Japan at the end of October and the beginning of November. Besides the culinary adventures (most joyously at a 90-minute all-you-can-eat deep-fry-it-yourself-at-your-table joint in Osaka, and most weirdly involving pig heart and some kind of pickled, fermented yuzu fruit), the trip provided some fodder for thoughts about the arts and policy from an American perspective.

I’m sure I’m like many people in that, as a tourist, I’m liable to seek out all kinds of arts and culture experiences that I’m too busy for or wouldn’t bother with the rest of the time. For me, this is especially true with museums and historical sites, since —  and this is a dark, dark secret so please don’t tell anyone if I ever become a grantmaker — I’m not really a museum person. There, I said it. It is the rare museum that holds my interest for more than about five minutes (especially if the exhibits are of art from before, oh, about 1950). But you know, you go to a foreign country, and your first thought is, “well, what is there to do there?” and so you pick up a guidebook and what do they list but museum, museum, park, historical site, aquarium, museum, and maybe some places to eat. Right? And you’ve got a whole day to fill and all of the sudden you’re planning whole itineraries around this stuff.

So, this is all to say that I visited a lot of temples in Japan. A lot a lot a lot a lot. (My SO wanted to visit even more, but my cause was helped by torrential rains on several days we were there. Thanks, old man!) Anyway, one of the ones we saw was Rinnoji, in the picturesque small town north of Tokyo known as Nikko. Upon our arrival, we were surprised to learn that one of the temples in the complex was under construction (you can see the actual temple peeking out to the left of the photo):

What we were really surprised by is this: if our reading of the signs outside is correct, they actually plan to leave it this way. That is, the encasement they’re building isn’t temporary – they’re making it into an indoor structure in order to save it (that’s why the outside has the life-size picture of the temple on it). Now, I haven’t been able to confirm this with a web source, so I could be wrong about the plan, but this seems like pretty unorthodox preservation strategy, no? Anyone know of similar efforts here in the United States?

A couple of days later, we hit up a performance at the National Bunraku Theatre of Japan in Osaka. Bunraku is acted out through a combination of extremely elaborate puppets that require as many as three people and years of training to operate, a shamisen player, and one or more narrators who voice the puppets in a kind of recitative-like half-song. Everything is highly coordinated and the performers will switch out between scenes since the narration in particular is quite physically demanding.

Bunraku is not the most, uh, accessible tourist experience imaginable. The performances are in old Japanese, so even my proficient half-Japanese girlfriend and her brother were at a loss to follow the dialogue. Like in kabuki, the characters often have to offer a minutes-long soliloquy before dying (which happens a lot in these things) or moving other plot lines along, making for a slow-paced event. The performances are expensive: 5800 yen for a program, which is like $70. And they are long - the one we attended started at 4pm and was between four and five hours overall. Another program was offered the same day at 11am, and they were clearly intended (for the full experience) to be consumed as a set.

But the National Theatre did something to mitigate all of these factors for the English-speaking tourist: they offered single-act tickets for a mere 1000 yen. A single act lasts about 1-1.5 hours, a perfect amount of time to get a taste and move on. Single-act ticket holders are given special nosebleed seats in the back so that they won’t disturb the other theatergoers, and are seated by the ushers after the other attendees have already taken their seats. It sounds like second-class treatment, but let me tell you, we were grateful to have the opportunity to get a cheap, low-commitment, and yet fully authentic taste of traditional performing arts in Japan.

I was thinking about this from the perspective of some of the audience development conversations we have about the arts. I figure my orientation to bunraku was roughly equivalent to that of someone unfamiliar with opera coming to see Marriage of Figaro. It was a strange, foreign experience, and even though I had sought it out and enjoyed it (to an extent) I doubt if I will ever see bunraku again. However, I might not have seen it at all if it were not for those single-act tickets.

Finally, for a cultural experience that wasn’t all that different in Japan, we sought out some experimental jazz at the Aketa No Mise club in the Nishi-Ogikubo neighborhood of Tokyo. One of my formative musical experiences was seeing a totally obscure Japanese power trio called Altered States perform two hours of 100% improvised jazz/rock fusion at a record store in The Netherlands in 2001. (Seriously, check them out, they’re amazing and so is everything else in this video.) Unfortunately, Altered States wasn’t performing while I was in Japan, so we set off to Aketa instead to see the house band, a trio with two drummers and (get this) a pianist doubling on ocarina. And when I say doubling, I mean doubling: at several points he actually played two ocarinas at the same time. Crazy shit. Anyway, just like in the US, there were like 7 people at the show – the only difference is that Japanese cover charges for jazz, even at the underground places, are insanely expensive: we paid 2500 yen (over $30) for this one, and many shows will cost you the equivalent of $50 or more. I guess if you’re going to get only a handful of audience members either way, you might as well milk them for cash!

(For more weird Japanese jazz at Aketa, taken from a show about a month prior to the one we saw, check this out:)

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Around the Horn: Far East edition

Posting has been light because I’m just wrapping up two weeks in Japan, my longest vacation in three years. As much as I attempted to disconnect from the world while I’ve been away, I couldn’t make myself let go completely, particularly since I knew that Google Reader would get very, very angry with me if I didn’t give it regular attention. (A typical weekday now dumps 150-200 blog posts in my lap.)  More on Japan in a bit, but in the meantime here’s what was happening in this hemisphere all this time:

  • Last month, I had the opportunity to participate in three different Creative Conversations (panel discussions and presentations organized by local emerging leader networks affiliated with Americans for the Arts). Materials related to two of them are now available in case you missed them. On Tuesday, October 5, I spoke at NYU’s Wagner School about measurement and research in the arts as it relates to philanthropy and advocacy with Andras Szanto and Randall Bourscheidt; the full podcast is available here. Then, on Monday, October 18, I was part of a panel hosted by the Chicago Emerging Leaders Network talking about emerging leaders and arts philanthropy with Marc Vogl and Daniel Reid. That event wasn’t recorded, but enterprising blogger David Zoltan (who has the best name this side of Guy Yedwab) wrote a nice wrap-up here.
  • The ballot for elections to Americans for the Arts’s Emerging Leaders Council has been announced, and if you’re a member of AFTA you should vote. Helena Fruscio, who was interviewed on Createquity a couple of months ago, is among the candidates.
  • Createquity friend Rosetta Thurman has just come out with a new book called How to Be a Nonprofit Rockstar, written with co-author Trista Harris (of New Voices in Philanthropy fame). If anyone can tell you how to be a nonprofit rockstar, it’s Rosetta. And in other book news, 20UNDER40, Edward Clapp’s anthology of 20 essays about the future of the arts and arts education all written by professionals under the age of 40, is coming out in December. New info about all of the chapters has been posted on the website.
  • The axe has finally fallen on Arts Council England, which after much hemming and hawing sustained a 29.6% cut to its budget. In order to limit the impact on grantees to 15%, ACE is being asked to take a draconian 50% hit to its administrative costs; in response, ACE will introduce a competitive application process for the first time, which will result in about 100 organizations losing their funding entirely. This is the first significant casualty, that I’m aware of, for the European method of supporting arts and culture primarily with government funds, but it probably won’t be the last. Already, for example, the Netherlands is considering shutting down the government-funded Netherlands Broadcasting Music Centre, which would entail the closure of three different orchestras and a library in Hilversum. The situation is leading to the odd spectacle of overseas arts groups looking to the U.S. for inspiration from our, um, oh-so-successful? arts advocacy campaigns and research. A new report from the Australia-based International Federation of Arts Councils and Cultural Agencies examines eight arts advocacy campaigns undertaken throughout the world, and three of them are from the USA; Judith Dobrzynski and Leonard Jacobs have further commentary. Most European countries have little tradition of private philanthropy on a mass scale, since the government pays for public services; as that begins to change, American fundraising gurus like Michael Kaiser may find themselves in higher demand (at least, he thinks so).
  • Meanwhile, in the States, Americans for the Arts produced a “report card” for Congress judging individual Senators by their votes on several arts-related issues as well as statements of support for the arts. While this is a very, very nascent effort (indeed TenduTV has some pertinent criticisms, particularly that it was released so close to the election), I’m glad to see it. If nothing else, it points to how rarely legislation of special relevance to our community comes before our elected representatives. At the same time, perhaps we should be broadening our definition of what relevant legislation is; Scarlett Swerdlow makes a good case over at ARTSBlog for why we should be repaying housing and transportation advocates with interest in their issues since they recently showed interest in ours.
  • Finally, for some rare good news in public sector arts support: Massachusetts (which is far and away the state leader on creative economy policy) recently asked mayors from across the state to make the case, via video, for why the arts are important in their city. And my old haunting grounds in New Haven are going to start seeing more storefront art soon. Arts advocacy, at least of the traditional variety, continues to make the easiest and best connections at the local level.
  • In general, we should remember that many of the exciting new initiatives we see are really pilots, and don’t necessarily reach maturity or their true potential for a long time. Phil Buchanan says that the entire field of foundation strategy is in that stage, and I would agree. Money quote: “Too much of what passes for strategy in foundations isn’t of a high enough quality. Our research suggests much of it isn’t even really strategy.” Another good post in the series is here.
  • At least one foundation isn’t taking the arts’ demographic challenges sitting down. The Maltz Family Foundation has pumped $20 million into an endowment for something called the Center for Future Audiences at the Cleveland Orchestra. The Center “will work to eliminate economic, geographic, and cultural barriers to attending the orchestra’s performances,” with initiatives such as subsidized ticket prices, outreach programs, and nontraditional concert formats and venues on the agenda. The ideas don’t sound particularly new, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they’re wrong; it will be interesting to see whether the scale of the investment or details of the execution help produce the hoped-for results.
  • Here’s a new model for corporate philanthropy: Converse (as in, the shoe company) is opening a free recording studio for bands in Williamsburg. I am turning in my head all sorts of possible explanations for why they might want to do this. Very interesting.
  • RIP Arts Admin, the blog of Indiana University arts administration program head Michael Rushton.  I never understood why Rushton’s blog didn’t catch on with the mainstream arts community the way that some others did; he posted top-notch content at a fiendish pace, which is usually all you need. I had actually planned to include Arts Admin in an upcoming feature on “The Best Arts Policy Blogs You’re (Probably) Not Reading.” It will be missed.
  • Andrew Taylor has the goods on Square, a new mobile phone application that could make processing in-person credit card transactions a whole lot easier for small arts venues and individual artists (e.g., at craft fairs).
  • More coverage of the Social Capital Markets conference here. And it looks like next year’s will be hosted by the State Department!
  • A few interviews of note: Philanthropy News Digest talks with AFTA’s Robert Lynch; Culturebot snags Sam Miller (the new director of Lower Manhattan Cultural Council). Barry Hessenius has two: first, with the co-Chairs of the Presidential Committee on the Arts & Humanities (shows you why we need technocrats in this position rather than figureheads), and the second with Adam Huttler of Fractured Atlas.
  • In the latter of those interviews, Adam talks about his concept for “organic data collection” – getting data from platforms that people and companies use every day as part of their normal lives or business operations rather than through surveys that may be biased, hard to replicate or standardize, and/or plagued by low response rates. Some for-profit companies have already been exploring such possibilities; OKTrends, for example, shows how aggregating and segmenting data from millions of singles on the lookout for love can yield insights everything from racial differences to sexual norms to dating strategies. Now Mint.com, a website through which you can connect your bank, investment, and credit card accounts to each other and manage your finances holistically, has announced that it will collect local data on spending patterns throughout the United States, something that could be important for future economic impact and creative industry studies, not to mention many other applications.
  • Whaaa? Google has developed a car that can drive itself. It’s already logged 140,000 miles without an accident (except for being rear-ended once). I guess this means that if Fractured Atlas wants to be the Google of the arts, we’re going to have to step up our game. Maybe we can take on teleportation next?
  • This year’s 10 Acumen Fund Fellows recently spent a day pretending to be a poor person in New York, to see what it was really like to live on $5 a day. It might sound gimmicky, but I wish more people (myself included) had the guts to try something like this. Obviously one’s personal choices make a big impact on success or failure. But one’s assigned position on the starting line is pretty damn important too.
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    Blogiversary III

    I’m actually on vacation at the moment, but am quickly interrupting it to note that Createquity has been, like, a thing for three whole years today. It’s been a serious thing for two years, and it’s kind of taken on a life of its own in the past year, to an extent that I frequently find kind of scary. I remember having a conversation with Tactical Philanthropy founder Sean Stannard-Stockton in early 2009 during which I told him that if I could get Createquity to a stable subscriber base of, say, 100-150, I’d be very happy – because I simply couldn’t imagine that more people than that had enough interest in arts policy to commit to getting updates about it in their inboxes or feed readers. Well, as of today this blog has 851 subscribers, and you all seem incredibly interested in this most esoteric of subjects.

    This past year hasn’t seen a ton of changes for the blog itself, but during that time my own life has changed dramatically, with a new job, a return to New York, and more direct involvement in the issues I’m writing about at the top of the list. More on that evolution in a future post (after vacation’s over). In the meantime, thank you for your support and remember to vote on November 2!

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    Grantmaker-Spotting in the Windy City

    This week, I spent three-plus days in Chicago to catch the annual Grantmakers in the Arts Conference. Some of you might remember that I blogged last year’s conference in Brooklyn for GIA; it was an incredible (and exhausting) experience during which I churned out more words in a shorter period of time than I probably will ever again. This time around was no less exhausting, though not because I retained official blogging duties; that honor, instead, was shared by Arlene Goldbard, Barry Hessenius, and Andrew Taylor, whose excellent contributions to the discussion can be read all in one place here. (Taylor also outdid himself on Twitter during the proceedings.)

    I wasn’t about to stay silent about the conference, since I blog therefore I am; but instead of the mammoth undertaking of writing up every single session I attended, this post will instead pick and choose the speakers and sessions I found most interesting and attempt to tie it all up into a bow of meaningful themes.

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    To the extent that any topic dominated conversation at the conference this year, it was the National Capitalization Project report commissioned by GIA, guided by a steering committee consisting of program personnel at some of the nation’s largest arts funders, and written by staff at TDC, a nonprofit consulting firm based in Boston. The report proposed a “common set of practices” for grantmakers designed to improve the financial condition of arts nonprofits, including:

    • Encourage surpluses and operating reserves
    • Take the long view and embed capitalization principles in conversations
    • Encourage organizations to right-size
    • Offer general operating support
    • Project funding should be tied to core mission and fully funded
    • Be clear about the structure and timeline of grants

    One would think that these recommendations, and the force of the consensus and voices behind them, would be music to arts nonprofits’ ears. Several, like the focus on general operating support and operating reserves, have been embraced by more progressive funders for years. Others, like the recommendation to encourage operating surpluses as opposed to just balanced budgets, are fairly new ideas in the field (even though that one was called out by Adam Huttler years ago). What nearly all of the proposals have in common, though, is that they lend themselves toward treating grantees well. (What a concept, right?) That is, aligning investments with organizations’ core mission and programs, trusting them to do great work, and taking responsibility for the gravitational pull that an infusion of money can have on an organization’s operations.

    The report has managed to draw some controversy, but not for the reasons you might expect. There was no cry of support for starving nonprofits of administrative costs or directing donations exclusively to specific programs. Instead, it was language like this that set off alarm bells for me and many others at the conference:

    But, the economy is not the only factor that urges us to act. Another important factor is the changing behaviors of arts patrons, particularly their level of demand. At a time of flattening demand there is increasing supply, as noted above, in terms of both the sheer number of organizations and the supply of product. Neither the audience nor the public or philanthropic sector can support this level of oversupply.

    The problem with this description is not that it is untrue (the existence of hypercompetition in the arts and many other industries involving content creation is indisputable), but rather that its overly simplistic dichotomy of supply and demand ignores the increasingly blurry distinction between the two. I think words like “oversupply” are very dangerous terms for arts managers to be using when, in the same breath, we like to talk about how important “audience engagement” is and how today’s patrons (and especially youth) want to “curate their experiences.” The path from curation to creation is a short one, after all – and once a creator, the urge to share one’s creations with the world is rarely far behind. We might as well get used to it: oversupply is our future, and a few targeted investments toward working capital or operating reserves here and there is going to do absolutely nothing to change that.

    Seen in that context, the report’s recommendations begin to appear more problematic, mainly in that they seem to require either a noticeable increase in the pool of subsidy funds available to the arts or (far more likely at this point in time) the funneling of more resources to fewer organizations. Rightly or wrongly, this implication, as well as the choice to focus on “capitalization” in the first place, was read by many at the conference as a signal of support for the largest, best established institutions rather than the myriad of community-based and artist-led organizations that tend to struggle with smaller budgets. I am not sure that this is what either the steering committee or the report authors themselves intended (I heard several admonishments that “different organizations require different capital structures” and the like), but nevertheless that is how it came across.

    Meanwhile, my colleague Anna Campbell made an excellent point in one of the sessions: all of this talk of capitalization means little if we are not thinking about where artists themselves fit in and how they benefit. In a field where already so little of the money subsidizing the arts actually ends up in artists’ pockets, such concerns are of no less relevance to them. One of the most important lessons I learned in business school was that our tendency to focus on income in conversations about socioeconomic disparities is misguided. Assets are far more important. If you have a million dollars, the decision to lose $50,000 a year while pursuing a full-time graduate degree in the performing or visual arts in a quixotic, risky quest for hipster glory doesn’t seem nearly so stupid as it would if you were broke. Effective capitalization, when applied to individuals, in a very real way enables risks and adventures that would either be impossible or impossibly misguided without it. Yet most artists never receive this opportunity unless they are born into it, and there is real question in my mind at least about whether better capitalization of institutions would make much of a difference for the rest.

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    Another noticeable theme, albeit driven in part by which sessions I chose to attend, was innovation and a search for what’s next. Last year’s conference really only had one panel that was explicitly devoted to new ideas: Marc Vogl’s memorable session on the final day that included Adam Huttler, Ebony McKinney, Heather Cohn, and Nicole Derse from the Obama campaign. This one, by contrast, had several: a panel on innovative models of support for artists and arts organizations that featured one of the founders of Kickstarter; a breakfast roundtable on innovation in the field; an afternoon-long session on artistic entrepreneurship with Dennis Scholl, the VP of Arts for the Knight Foundation; even a semi-”closed” session on intergenerational dialogue in grantmaking that was primarily aimed at the under-35 set. And of course, there was a keynote from venture capitalist and CEO of Creative Commons Joi Ito, during which Ito sang the praises of agile software development, risk-taking, interoperability, failing cheaply, and serendipity, to a generally receptive audience. As he said, “the more you plan, the less lucky you are.”

    So innovation, next-generation thinking, and entrepreneurship seem to be trending topics, so to speak, in the grantmaking field. Yet there was still plenty of room for more familiar conversations on arts education, social justice, cultural exchange, evaluation/assessment, and various offshoots thereof. I recognized a number of both panelists and themes from Brooklyn. The danger with such things, I guess, is that one can easily imagine people and ideas becoming balkanized into their own little corners of the room – the silos waiting to matter. Last year’s conference ended with a forceful closing speech from Ben Cameron that did a great job of weaving together the big questions at the forefront of everyone’s minds as the dawn of a new decade approached: demographic change and social equity, technology and the generation gap, increasing globalization, and the blurring between amateur and professional arts participation. This year, no such unifying threads were in evidence; instead, I got the sense that now that the Great Recession has stabilized and the specter of imminent, drastic change is (for the time being) averted, grantmakers were feeling once again the lure of more comfortable territory. Indeed, this year’s closing keynote by folk singer and activist Buffy Sainte-Marie (who, I must confess, I had never heard of prior to this conference) was met with a veritable avalanche of nostalgia from the largely Baby Boomer crowd. With so many directions that the conversation could go, we will have to work ever harder to focus it in ways that both advance the field and include as many people as possible. We will need more “truckers” (just visit the link) to step up and connect the various communities of practice to each other and to the larger discourse, so that we can all benefit meaningfully from each other’s work.

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    Many thanks to everyone who made the conference possible, as well as all of those I met and met again in Chicago. See you next year!

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    The marketing arms race

    (cross-posted from the Arts Marketing Blog Salon on ArtsBlog)

    In my last post, I talked about one reason that arts marketers are becoming increasingly important to the cultural ecosystem. Here, I’m going to talk about another – though I’m warning you, this one is going to be a bit of a downer.

    ArtsJournal’s Doug McLennan has written and spoken extensively about the implications for arts institutions of the face that we live in an era of infinite choice: suddenly, and within a very short period of time, the quantity and variety of aesthetic experiences that are available to us has exploded beyond all recognition. In their Green Paper on digital infrastructure for the creative economy, Fractured Atlas, Future of Music Coalition, and the National Alliance for Media Arts & Culture pointed to the role of “disintermediation” in making this phenomenon possible, defining it as “the fracturing of the system of bottlenecks and gatekeepers that controlled some of the major means of production, distribution and access to audiences.” More than ever before, it is possible for content creators (and their marketers) to have meaningful, direct interaction with consumers dispersed across diverse cultures, geographies, and social networks. For those just seeking to break in for the first time and who don’t need a mass market to stay afloat, this change is nothing short of inspiring: an opportunity to reach audiences faster and with less interference from tastemakers than could ever have been possible otherwise. For more established institutions with networks of artists and professional staff to support, however, the ramifications range from mixed to terrifying, as the sudden rush to enter the marketplace brought on by these lowered barriers creates unprecedented competition for consumer attention and dollars.

    We are transitioning into an era when the most valuable scarce resources for marketers are no longer best real estate and time slots (i.e., for advertising), but rather passion and time. To compete, say, in an online contest like Pepsi Refresh does not require much in the way of capital investment – but you are not going to get anywhere without a whole lot of staff capacity (whether paid or not) to tend to the campaign, and a deep base of “true fans” who are willing to go to bat for your cause again and again and bring others on board. The Holy Grail for marketers these days, of course, is when fans become so invested in the artist or institution that they derive intrinsic pleasure and fulfillment from working to support it – and from connecting with and broadening the circle of people who feel the same way. In theory, it creates a virtuous, self-sustaining cycle that just leads to greater and greater opportunity as long as that relationship with the fans can be maintained.

    What this rosy picture doesn’t take into account, though, is that if everybody is after the same goal of deep and broad engagement with lots of people, the collective rush to reach audiences may well be unsustainable. Much like the cow herders in the old story of the tragedy of the commons, it is in the rational economic interest of individual artists and institutions to develop and exploit the resources available to the greatest extent possible, even though it may be in the long-term interests of the community as a whole to scale back a bit. As a result, we are at risk of overtaxing and draining the very fans who are so important to the arts’ success. We’ve seen this kind of fatigue already with the aforementioned online contests; arts patrons participating in Chase Community Giving found themselves overwhelmed with requests to vote for this organization or that, and the meaningfulness of any one action or request suffers as a result. But such contests are only the latest nexus for what is becoming an increasingly fraught problem for consumers and marketers alike. Quick poll: how many email newsletters are you subscribed to, and how many of you have filters or other procedures set up to ensure that you essentially never have to read them?

    As it happens, I am currently reading through a study that examined (among other things) competitive interactions between performing arts organizations – in this case, between symphony orchestras and opera companies in the same city. The study found that fundraising expenditures by one organization was statistically correlated with lower contributed income for the other organization the following year, holding other factors constant. Perhaps more troubling, the study also found that fundraising expenditures at larger symphonies did not pay for themselves.

    The problem becomes yet more acute when one remembers that arts organizations are not the only ones – and certainly not the ones with the most resources – who face it. We are competing not just with each other, but with mass media, sports, restaurants, manufacturers of consumer packaged goods, auto insurers, etc. – all trying desperately now to create the same kind of time-intensive, passion-dependent audience engagement with the same people we’re trying to reach. It’s one thing to be a mere consumer of many different kinds of products. But can one be a “true fan” for Old Spice Guy, the Geico Caveman, Mad Men, Kings of Leon, the Social Network, and the theater company down the street all at the same time–all, perhaps, while trying to get attention for one’s own creations?

    As we come together for a convention to celebrate the efforts we make to reach audiences and share tips on how to do it, it’s worth remembering that the people who are on the other end of our communications are ultimately the ones who decide whether we succeed or fail. Our job is to make people aware of the product and encourage them to give it a chance. At that point, however, it’s up to the art itself to work its magic. Because if it doesn’t, they won’t lack for other ways in which they could spend their time instead.

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    Around the horn: March to Restore Sanity edition

    • Ron Ragin’s guest stint over at the Center for Effective Philanthropy blog, covered in last time’s round-up, continues with a meditation on general operating support in uncertain times and, my favorite from this series, lessons learned from grantee interactions. In the latter, Ron tackles the subject that no one in philanthropy likes to talk about: power dynamics.
    • Behind the times? Apparently less than a third of foundation CEOs read blogs regularly. But hey, that’s better than the 5% who tweet!
    • It seems like the Thing To Do these days in philanthropy is to coin terms that take the form “[Adjective] Philanthropy.” Strategic philanthropy, tactical philanthropy, venture philanthropy, new philanthropy, effective philanthropy, disruptive philanthropy, dinosaur philanthropy…you get the picture. My new favorite is Sean Stannard-Stockton’s “Deviant Philanthropy” – a term for philanthropy that challenges the social norms of the social sector. Sean gives some examples as follows:

      What might deviant philanthropy look like?

      • Foundations that publically belittle nonprofits which they believe are poorly run.
      • Nonprofits that pay their top employee at rates similar to the private sector including eye popping bonuses for outstanding results.
      • Foundations and nonprofits deploying lobbying and advocacy strategies to the fullest extent of the law and viewing themselves are critical players in American politics.
      • A large foundation using its endowment to invest in a concentrated pool of publicly traded companies whose operations they feel harm society or the environment and then launching a high profile shareholder proxy battle (in process by which shareholders can change corporate policies).
      • A foundation or nonprofit ousting the existing board and replacing them exclusively with intended beneficiaries of their programs.

      Sean takes care to clarify that he does not necessarily support these ideas, but does offer that “the current status quo in philanthropy is pretty lame.”

    • The Social Innovation Fund, already more transparent than almost any grant program around, just released even more information about its process.
    • The suddenly-everywhere Adin Miller has been blogging several philanthropy conferences over the past couple of weeks. Apparently the Communications Network conference featured a well-received keynote from James Surowiecki, author of The Wisdom of Crowds. Here’s Adin’s wrap-up, in which he nails the primary challenge associated with bringing crowdsourcing into philanthropy in a meaningful way: “The implication for philanthropic institutions means that getting diverse opinions may present some of them with significant challenges. Embracing diversity in developing a crowd should involve divergent community and stakeholder perspectives…. And yet, by embracing diversity, the foundation has to be willing to let the crowd challenge the power structure it represents. That’s not a comfortable space for many funders, I suspect.”
    • Hello: Mark Zuckerberg, co-founder of Facebook and subject of a not-so-flattering depiction in The Social Network, conveniently times a well-publicized entry into philanthropy with the release of the movie. His $100 million gift to the Newark public school system is notable not only for its size but also for the fact that it’s going to a government entity. It is, more than anything, an endorsement of Newark’s popular mayor Cory Booker.
    • One of the rhetorical weapons that economists sometimes use to denigrate government spending on nonprofits is that grants “crowd out” donations from individuals, who feel that because they’re paying taxes to said government, there’s no longer any need to support the nonprofit – potentially leaving the nonprofit worse off than before. A new paper suggests that actually, most or even all of the crowding out effect is the result of organizations having cut back on fundraising as a result of receiving government funding. Seems to me that actually makes things a bit more efficient, no?
    • While we’re on the subject of crowding out, how come we’re so concerned about gifts that should not have been made, but hardly at all when a gift that should have been made was not? (Another very wise post from Brigid: why donors cannot avoid funding overhead even if they want to or think they are.)
    • Michael Kaiser weighs in on the looming arts funding massacre in England, and takes the common-sense stance that if cuts are unavoidable, at least make them responsibly. And a long profile of the BBC’s Radio 4 argues forcefully that the rich variety of programming seen across the pond is made possible only by government funding.
    • If you have 40 minutes, watch this keynote speech given by Diane Ragsdale (former Associate Program Officer for the Mellon Foundation’s performing arts program) at the 2010 members’ meeting of Arts Alliance Illinois. It’s a wide-ranging talk about the various challenges that the arts field faces and some possible ways forward. Those familiar with Ben Cameron’s speeches will recognize some familiar themes, though Ragsdale focuses special attention on audience and community engagement. Via yourtownperforms.com, I also found this trove of Ragsdale video interviews filmed by National Arts Strategies earlier this year.
    • The new Philadelphia Knight Arts Challenge “is open to established arts institutions, independent artists, businesses, service organizations, and individuals who have a great idea for the arts.” Grantees in the Miami version have included an independent record store and a print shop. Good to see arts funders starting to think outside the box.
    • Really cool twist on participatory arts funding, spearheaded by my high school music teacher Danny Lichtenfeld who now leads the Brattleboro (VT) Museum & Art Center. At BEAN (Brattleboro Essential Arts Network) Micro-Grant Dinners, “for only $10 anyone can attend a Mexican-inspired dinner at BMAC provided by the Elliot Street Cafe (no, it’s not just beans!). Over dinner, guests will review and discuss funding requests for local art-related projects. At the end of the night, guests will vote for the proposal that deserves to receive the proceeds from dinner.”
    • I don’t know if this is a first, but I’ve never seen it before: the Rockefeller Foundation actually made a poster (pdf) to accompany its press release announcing the winners of the 2010 NYC Cultural Innovation Fund.
    • Philanthropedia, a startup charity rating organization that aggregates the opinions of experts to develop suggested funding portfolios for individual donors, has announced its rankings of national and Bay Area nonprofit arts and culture organizations. The National Endowment for the Arts took the top spot in the former. My employer, Fractured Atlas, came in at #13. (I was honored to be one of the “experts” consulted for the national rankings, but we were not allowed to nominate our own organizations.)
    • I was psyched to get an email from Cincinnati Fine Arts Fund’s dynamo vice president Margy Waller a few weeks ago announcing that her organization had changed its name to ArtsWave. A play on FAF’s “ripple effect” research report, the name change brings with it a broader mission that is less hung up on geography and specific organizations and a program strategy that takes a more thoughtful, intentional approach to its grantmaking and services. To celebrate, ArtsWave organized a Paint the Street event that drew 1500 people and covered a half mile of pavement. (In the interests of balance I should report that not everyone’s happy about the changes – a blogger by the nom de plume of “Cincinnati Art Snob” complains that the changes don’t go far enough because individual artists are still not eligible to apply directly for grants. While I understand why artists want grant opportunities that they can apply for directly, I remain unconvinced that this type of support is the best way to bolster the arts ecosystem.)
    • From Berkshire Creative, a cool example of a program bringing the nonprofit arts and for-profit design communities together.
    • This important Andy Horwitz essay on the limitations of social media as social activism is certainly Guy Yedwab bait. Ironically, the article itself got 31 retweets. Also on the subject of social media, the ever-illuminating Devon Smith has a post mortem on a marketing effort she engaged in while creating the New York Theatre Network for ART/NY and TheaterMania. Looks like Facebook is pretty cost-effective as an advertising platform, at least when the goal is to drive traffic to a website.
    • The Economic Revitalization for Performing Artists program of The Field has published a report analyzing the successes and failures of the four groups that received grants to develop new revenue streams, analyzed here at Culturebot. There’s also a video of a related panel discussion, which you can watch here.
    • Awesome, awesome travelogue from David Byrne’s trip to Detroit. Totally amazing photos in this one. Motown might just be the most fascinating place in America right now.
    • Check out these visualizations of racial concentrations in America’s cities. We are much less of a melting pot than we like to claim.
    • “Like the drunk looking for the lost coin under a streetlight rather than in the dark corner where he lost it, policymakers often favor those data that are easy to collect rather than the most useful.” Ladies and gentlemen, Hewlett Foundation President Paul Brest.
    • Createquity reader Sarah Collins knocked it out of the park with this quickie arts education literature review for the September arts education salon on ArtsBlog: part 1; part 2.
    • Does your research report engage in proofiness?
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    Arts participation and the bottom of the pyramid

    (Originally posted at ArtsBlog for the Arts Marketing Blog Salon, a weeklong conversation taking place between October 5-12.)

    I have to admit it’s a little strange to be part of this excellent blog team on the subject of arts marketing. I’ve never pretended to be any kind of expert on the practice of marketing; though I’ve done a lot of it, I’ve frankly shot blanks a lot more often than I’ve hit gold. (Among my more brilliant ideas was to advertise that there would be no alcohol provided at my twenty-first birthday party. One person showed up.) What I do know is how to look at the big picture when it comes to the arts. And I know from having done a whole lot of that over the past few years that all of you arts marketers are way more important to the future health and success of the professional arts than you may realize.

    One reason for this is that the live professional arts have always appealed most to a relatively small niche of society. 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!) Lest you think this is a recent phenomenon, in NEA surveys stretching back to 1982, equivalent arts activities never reached more than 41% of the population, and a landmark 1966 study of the economics of the performing arts by William J. Baumol and William G. Bowen found that audiences for classical music, theater, and dance in the early 1960s were similarly unrepresentative of the general population in both the U.S. and Britain. Then, as today, participants in the arts and culture are disproportionately socioeconomically privileged: almost half of arts attendees made at least $75,000 a year in the 2008 NEA survey, compared to 30% of the overall population, and arts attendees were nearly twice as likely to have a college degree as the general public.

    These days, multinational corporations and social entrepreneurs are finding common cause in reaching the billions of individuals around the globe, particularly in the impoverished countries of the Indian subcontinent and Africa, who to date have not been able to participate in the market economy. Smart businesspeople recognize that this so-called “fortune at the bottom of the pyramid” represents a tremendous opportunity not only to increase sales volume but also build brand equity and loyalty in entirely new markets. They look at the challenges of making products available to the poor as logistical rather than existential in nature. Figure out a way to do it cheaply enough, at broad enough scale, and meet the customers where they are, and now you’re talking.

    For the arts, our “bottom of the pyramid” is not those with the least means (though there is certainly some overlap there), but those who have never made a habit of participating in the arts. Successfully introduce them to arts experiences in a way that makes them want to come back, and the entire field benefits. No one is saying that’s an easy task – if it was, then the numbers would look very different – but then again, how much of that is a self-fulfilling prophecy? Obviously, it’s easiest (and cheapest) to market art to people who are already interested in the arts, so the inevitable result is that people who are already interested in the arts get the bulk of the marketing attention. And if the people who are already interested in the arts happen to be more well-off, better educated, and whiter than the average citizen, well, you don’t need me to tell you what happens next.

    Reaching the other 65% is going to require more than incremental strategies. A play about the plight of the rural working class here or with a largely non-white cast there probably isn’t going to make any great difference. And even when large numbers of new people are reached, attracting and retaining them is another story. We can’t expect that mere exposure, without context or accommodation, is going to instantly convert for life more than a handful of people. Yet even a small percentage of repeat customers, when drawing from a large enough pool, can make a huge difference both for an arts organization’s bottom line and its mission–and in the lives of those new people.

    Solving this puzzle is going to take transformational vision and compromises that various stakeholders (donors, board members, artistic leadership) may find uncomfortable, and not every arts organization will be in a good position to make a serious effort at it. To me, two stories from the past couple of years, both coming from very well-established institutions, have epitomized the kind of moves that could really make a difference: the Metropolitan Opera bringing its performances to movie screens around the country, and the LA Philharmonic’s inspired choice and savvy leveraging of Gustavo Dudamel as its principal conductor. Yet many more outreach efforts have failed to, as they say, move the needle in any appreciable way. Unlike Proctor & Gamble, we aren’t marketing products like toothpaste and deodorant whose appeal is fairly self-evident. Nevertheless, if 99% of the household-residing public likes storytelling, visual interest, and/or music enough to buy a TV (or two, or three), I’d venture to guess that there’s some opportunity there we haven’t yet tapped.

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    Two webcasts to follow

    One of the happiest developments of the past year or so has been that, thanks to live streaming technology and a growing culture of sharing ideas, many of the conferences that one formerly had to attend in person to experience are now available for free to anyone with a computer and a broadband connection. Two (really good) such conferences are going on today and tomorrow (one of them continues on Wednesday as well): the Future of Music Coalition Policy Summit and the Social Capital Markets conference, better known as SOCAP. Visit the links above to watch online. Rocco Landesman just finished up giving keynote address at the former right now; the latter gets started in a couple of hours. Enjoy!

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