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.


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.


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.


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!


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.


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, 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.


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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Upcoming Creative Conversations

For those of you in or visiting New York City, I’m presenting at two events on consecutive Tuesday evenings at 6:30pm, both sponsored or co-sponsored by Emerging Leaders of New York Arts (ELNYA), the local Americans for the Arts-affiliated emerging leader network here. This Tuesday, I’ll be on what looks like a pretty awesome panel with The Art Newspaper’s Andras Szanto and Alliance for the Arts’s Randy Bourscheidt to talk about defining impact in the arts and the implications of that conversation for arts funding. The panel will be moderated by Bolder Giving’s Jason Franklin and is presented in coordination with NYU Wagner’s excellent Student Network Exploring Arts and Culture (SNEAC). Here’s the link for more info.

WHEN: Tuesday, October 5, 6:30pm
WHERE: NYU Wagner Rudin Family Forum, The Puck Building, 295 Lafayette Street, Manhattan
HOW: Free event.  RSVP here.

Then, on October 12, I’ll be back with a Pecha Kucha-style mini-presentation on cultural mapping and related topics as part of “Four Topics in Search of a Dialogue” at the Salt Space in Chelsea. Fellow presenters include my sometime coworker and ELNYA dynamo Selena Juneau-Vogel, Marit Drewhurst, and Jose Serrano-Reyes. Further details here.

WHEN: Tuesday, October 12, 6:30pm
The Salt Space, Salt Space, 1158 Broadway, (5th Floor, enter at 27th Street), Manhattan
$5 suggested cash donation at the door.  Please register here.

Hope to see you at one or both! And if you’re not in New York, there are other Creative Conversations happening all around the country this month. Go here to find out if there’s one near you.

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Creative Placemaking (and Panelmaking) with the NEA

(Originally posted at the Fractured Atlas blog.)

Two weeks ago, I traveled down to DC to take in the “Creative Placemaking” discussion organized by the NEA and hosted by the Canadian Embassy. (Two of the panelists, Tim Jones of Artscape and Richard Florida of all things Richard Florida, are current residents of our neighbor nation to the north.) The goal of the session was to discuss “the role of the arts and the creative community in creating livable, sustainable communities.” In addition to Jones and Florida, the panelists included Rick Lowe of Project Row Houses and Ann Markusen of the Humphrey Institute of Public Affairs at the University of Minnesota. Carol Coletta of CEOs for Cities moderated.

Coletta began by asking Rick Lowe to describe what makes a place creative. He named three highly qualitative characteristics: optimism, or a sense of possibility; a kind of contagious inspiration that affects not only artists but those who experience their work; and a culture of curiosity and openness to new experiences that often correlates with clusters of highly educated people. (I would have loved to hear from the other panelists as well on this, since the question seems pretty central to framing the discussion, but it was not to be.) Artscape’s Tim Jones followed, answering a question about the role of measurement in creative placemaking. He pointed out that the lack of consensus on what is important to measure hampers progress forward, but articulated the key as the extent to which creativity is “valued” in a community. Ann Markusen drew a clear distinction between creative capital and human capital and put emphasis on strategies to develop creativity from the “inside” using existing cultural assets rather than importing it from somewhere else. She described a recently-published case study from the Twin Cities that looked at the impact over a period of 15 years of redeveloping three abandoned warehouses as artist live/work spaces, using a mix of quantitative and qualitative measures. Artists were better off on a number of measures, and there seems to have been evidence of positive results for local businesses and tax revenues. The spaces also made the surrounding areas safer.

In response to a question about what he says when he talks to a mayor, Richard Florida cited three things: stop “pissing money away” – betting huge sums of money on stadium complexes downtown or attracting a single company to the city; artists are committed to a community and will put in the effort to make it better; and the statistical correlations found in his work between concentrations of creative types and indicators of economic growth. Towards the end of the discussion, a key point arose about the requirements that creative placemaking strategies can put on arts practitioners. Florida quoted a colleague in saying that “so much of the arts have been about putting creativity on display; now we have to find ways to put creativity to work.” Similarly, Rick Lowe identified a difference in creativity for production versus for placemaking. Is there a role for art for art’s sake in placemaking?

A couple of the audience questions yielded thought-provoking responses. Two focused on the class dimensions of creative placemaking: one worried that it would become simply a middle-class enterprise, and another wondered whether the same strategies that might work for a place like Toronto would work for Camden, NJ. The consensus response was that creativity strategies have to be built from the ground up, involving everyone in the community to the degree possible. It’s not just about professional artists and those who aspire to the same. Another question, from Chairman Landesman himself, asked the panel to consider whether using creativity as a tool for regional competitiveness was a zero-sum game. Florida pointed out that artists will naturally cluster where there is or is perceived to be a market for their goods and services, but Markusen added that her research has found some very interesting age patterns in artist migration; artists will often move back to small- and medium-sized communities later in life after spending time in high-rent areas like New York and San Francisco in their 20s and 30s.


As I attend more of these kinds of discussions, I perhaps inevitably am starting to find it more interesting to analyze the panel itself rather than what was actually said by its participants. Given that it has been the primary focus of my academic work and later my job for the past couple of years, creative placemaking is a familiar subject to me by now. Still, there is plenty that I have yet to learn about it, and it was clear that the panelists at last Tuesday’s session would say the same. Alas, other than by Markusen, I didn’t detect as much probing of uncertainties during the event as I would have liked. Even though Ms. Coletta did an outstanding job of keeping panelists on point and playing air traffic controller for audience questions, I felt that the conversation missed opportunities to dig into some crucial questions that remained unanswered at the end of the hour:

  • In practical terms, how have researchers and practitioners historically defined creative places and what are the arguments for and against these definitions?
  • What is the role of nonprofit arts and culture in creative placemaking, and what is the role of other parties like so-called “creative industries,” neighborhood restaurants and shops, technology firms, universities, and community groups?
  • What has the past decade’s research told us about creative placemaking, what are the areas that further research could help illuminate, and what questions probably can’t be answered by research at all?
  • What strategies have individual cities and governments employed over the past decade to make their own communities more creative? Which have worked out well and which haven’t, and why?

In fairness, Coletta tried to press the panelists on this last question in particular, asking them what advice they would give to a mayor who is considering investing resources in place-based creativity. The consensus response was an emphatic “it depends,” which I suppose is fair, but not all that helpful. If clear patterns and themes among real-life examples are in short supply, I would have loved instead to see some speculation, some brainstorming, some expounding upon pet theories, some arguing. Perhaps this was unrealistic of me, but I was hoping that this session would be less of a chat and more of a summit – an opportunity to bring together some of the brightest minds and most adept practitioners in the field and come out on the other side with some action steps in hand. The NEA has played field-wide convener several times over the past year, most impressively with the large group of arts administrators it brought together last fall for the discussion of the 2008 Survey on Public Participation in the Arts, but I think there’s further potential there that has yet to be tapped. In particular, here are a few suggestions for any conversations of this type that our nation’s federal arts agency might be planning in the future:

1.       Encourage the participants to engage with each other directly rather than obliquely. Challenge assumptions, ask questions, delve into the details when warranted. If participants’ approaches or viewpoints differ, don’t just say so, have a debate! Academics are used to this; it is a part of their lives. It should be part of ours too.

2.       Make sure there are people in the room who have the power to do something about the topics being discussed, not just the power to talk about them. Bold and underline this if there is a specific outcome desired as a result of the conversation.

3.       The NEA has done an excellent job of bringing the conversation to the world (by webcasting events and creating hashtags for them on Twitter, for example). The next step is to bring the world to the conversation. Soliciting questions on Twitter is one way to do it, but more could be done to make the sessions truly interactive. Why not ask regional or state arts councils to organize local watch parties for events with discussion afterwards, the way that political campaigns often do when there is a major address or debate? Since Twitter reaches only a small percentage of the population, why not invite people to submit questions for panel participants in advance through a web form or email, which a staff member can curate during the event depending on where the conversation goes? Better yet, why not integrate question submissions right into the webcast so that anyone who’s watching online has an easy way to ask their own question, see others’ questions, and vote on which one should be asked next?

Okay, so maybe that last vision is a little ambitious. But the others should be well within the agency’s power to implement right away. The hardest part will be picking the right topics. But maybe we can all help with that too. We won’t know unless we try, right?


On ARTSBlog, Stephanie Evans from Americans for the Arts tackles a similar panel that was hosted last week by the Center for American Progress.


New Blogs!

Some blogroll updates first:

  • Do the Math has a new URL and feed. It’s no longer a band blog, but purely the work of Bad Plus pianist Ethan Iverson.
  • Brigid Slipka’s blog is now at The feed should be unchanged.
  • The Future of Music Coalition blog’s feed has changed.
  • The Idea Feed’s, uh, feed has also changed. I was really glad to discover this one was still active but upset to realize that I’d missed several months’ worth of posts!
  • Community Arts Network, the publishers of both APINews and CANBlog, is no more, so I’ve removed them both from the list. The CAN website, which has a number of fantastic educational resources for arts policy nuts, is archived here.

You might have noticed a few aesthetic changes here at Createquity, as well: the rotating backgrounds form a more coherent set, and I’ve consolidated the large number of categories to four “channels” (Policy & Advocacy, Philanthropy, Economy, and Research) and begun using a tag-based system instead. Thanks once again to the talented Evan Stein for his help with this.

Art and Avarice
Voice teacher and opera singer Milena Thomas has a degree in finance and an ardent affection for the free market. It’s a dangerous combination that has caused her to take some headscratching positions, like when she argued that outlawing unpaid internships would disproportionately hurt the poor or that letting big record companies bribe radio stations for airplay would somehow create more opportunity for indie musicians. I went back and forth for a while about linking to her for this reason, but Thomas is a gifted writer whose ideas are often worth considering even when her politics are (in my opinion) misguided. The post that got me off the fence was her most recent one, a beautiful reflection on the balance between art and family. Thomas was nine months pregnant when she wrote it, so understandably she’s been a bit MIA since then, but when she comes back, I’ll be reading.

Buzzing Reed
No relation (that I know of) with his namesake above, Columbus Symphony clarinetist David H. Thomas writes this very active blog about clarinet, classical music, and audience engagement. A reader who plays clarinet will definitely get more out of Buzzing Reed than one who does not, but Thomas is a voracious reader who keeps up with some very different sources than I do, so I appreciate his bite-sized reactions to classical music articles like this one. A good way to keep up with what orchestral musicians are thinking these days.

The New York Foundation for the Arts has a long history of providing grant and technical support to artists in New York State and beyond (NYFA Classifieds, for example, is one of the key local sources for job listings in arts administration). Now NYFA has a blog written by executive director Michael Royce, and it looks pretty promising. Of greatest interest to me was an early peek into the NEA’s strategic plan framework for 2012-16, though unfortunately the link to the plan itself no longer seems to be active. Still, there’s lots of other good stuff to keep one occupied here.

OK Trends
I have to hand it to my coworker Tim Cynova: he emailed me a link to a New York Times article that discussed this blog some months ago and my life has not been the same since. Christian Rudder and Chris Coyne perform technically ambitious and highly entertaining data analysis on the 3.5 million active members of OKCupid, a well-known online dating service. The OK Trends blog bucks some pervasive blog-authoring conventional wisdom: posts are infrequent, averaging about one a month, and very, very lengthy. But hey, they’re about romance and sex, so somehow people find the time to read them (one post has, um, attracted more than 1300 comments to, um, date). Math + Cultural Anthropology + Hilarity = Awesome.


New article at

Yesterday, the good folks at NewMusicBox (the web magazine of the American Music Center) published a rather massive article of mine called “Composing a Life, Or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Dollar.” It’s my plea to composers and the new music community (which is the world I come from) to get more actively involved in the conversations that affect the lives and careers of all artists. Along the way, I go into greater depth on the Pro-Am Revolution, turn a critical eye toward graduate music education, and consider the diversity problem in classical music’s shrinking audiences, sprinkling statistical nuggets and research findings throughout.

Here’s an excerpt:

What changed me the most [at business school] was the exposure to an endless panoply of other areas of human life beyond contemporary classical music. Sure, I learned about assets and liabilities and how to read a cash flow statement, but I also learned about the auction for 3G wireless ranges, competition between Target and Wal-Mart, why Turkey is an emerging power player in the Middle East, and how colleges and foundations manage their endowments. [...]

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. So here are a couple of vignettes from my own journey into the belly of the capitalist beast, which I offer in the hopes of connecting my experiences (and perhaps some of yours) to the bigger picture. After all, we are just variations on a theme.

Read the rest over at NewMusicBox.


Around the horn: [in the general vicinity of] Ground Zero Mosque edition

I will be attending and blogging the NEA’s “Creative Placemaking” panel discussion this Tuesday from 3-4:15pm Eastern time. The panel features Richard Florida, Tim Jones, Rick Lowe, and Ann Markusen, and will be moderated by CEOs for Cities’s Carol Coletta. There will also be a webcast. I’m looking forward to finally meeting Florida and Coletta in person, as I’ve been a fan of their blogs for quite some time.

  • The third annual Barry’s Blog listing of the top 25 most influential arts leaders came out recently, and this time to my surprise I’m actually on it. I’m tied for #21 along with two other “emerging leaders” who I respect very much (Marc Vogl and Edward Clapp), kind of in the peanut gallery towards the back where Barry starts grouping people according to his whim. Barry allowed each of the 60 nominators, of which I was one, to put their own hat in the ring if they wished, but since I didn’t, that means at least one other person out there must have thought of me. It’s strange to be mentioned in the same breath with those names, but I was gratified that to see that two “emerged” leaders who are nevertheless in their early 30s, my boss (Adam Huttler) and Future of Music Coalition’s Jean Cook, both made the list at #8 and #11 respectively. Fun fact: when I was getting ready to leave New York three-plus years ago to go to business school, I reached out to the two smartest people I knew in the arts to get their take on what I should look out for as I began my education. Their names? Adam Huttler and Jean Cook. Must have been doing something right back then.
  • Barry is also putting together a campaign to have the gubernatorial candidates in California answer questions about their support for the arts. Some very smart people are working on this, and you can read more here.
  • Another arts advocacy campaign to watch: 1% for Culture in New York City. (Yes, that’s 1% of the entire city budget for arts & culture. The current figure is less than a quarter of that.) Here’s Grantmakers in the Arts’s Janet Brown, who knows as much about arts advocacy as just about anyone, with her thoughts on the subject. And look out, world: Robert Lynch has a blog.
  • Uh oh: in Britain, two-thirds of the public agrees that cutting public arts funding by 25-30% in that country would be a good idea. In case you haven’t been following this story, the Conservative government led by David Cameron is proposing moving to an American-style system of private support for the arts instead of the current hybrid approach used in the UK. It’s worth noting that even an arts system that relies on public funding still costs a pittance. We’ll have more on this story here soon.
  • Research compilations galore! First up, here’s a summary of current research data from the theater world, courtesy of Tom Loughlin. Next we have Brigid with a round-up of recent psychology and neurobiology experiments involving philanthropy (along with her caveat about them). With the blog’s new page menu structure under development, I’m thinking about putting something similar together one of these days. Special mention in the research compilation category goes to this excellent-looking article from Theatre Bay Area’s Clay Lord on (lack of) diversity in audiences for the stage, into which I am looking forward to digging further. It’s already begun provoking discussion around the office.
  • Mapping madness! My colleague and friend Ron Ragin at the Hewlett Foundation, himself an emerging leader to watch, guest blogs at the Center for Effective Philanthropy Blog and name-drops the Bay Area Cultural Asset Map along with several other data-driven Hewlett initiatives. Arena Stage gives a preview of the user functions of the New Play Map, currently under development. The University of Toronto’s Martin Prosperity Institute (aka Richard Florida’s shop) comes out with a map of the “creative class” in Canada’s largest city. Judith H. Dobrzynski reports on the Foundation Center’s new interactive map of arts grantmakers by state. And check out this boffo analysis of the top 10 ZIP Codes by startup venture capital per resident (via ReadWriteWeb).
  • Data delight! Today’s selection of studies, charts and graphs includes an explanation of why misunderstanding statistical variance might have cost the Gates Foundation a whole lot of money; a rundown of how musician salaries at top orchestras have fared during the recession; an examination of how personality type affects taste preferences in entertainment; an evidence-based look at what dance moves most impress the ladies (hint: engage the head, neck, and torso, not just your arms and legs); and what a dating website tells us about stuff white (and black, and Asian, etc.) people like. Here are the top arts- and entertainment-related results for each race/ethnicity & gender: white men, Tom Clancy; white women, Nicholas Sparks (unless you count “mascara”); black men, Menace II Society; black women, The Color Purple; Latino men, merengue; Latino women, also merengue (both the top results overall); (East) Asian men, The Rock; (East) Asian women, “love story”; Indian men, Shantaram; Indian women, Bhangra; Middle Eastern men, The Sopranos; Middle Eastern women, The Kite Runner (unless you count “scarves”); Pacific Islander men, The Rock; Pacific Islander women, Alicia Keys. Love the OKCupid blog!
  • Crowdsourcing continues to enter mainstream thought, to the point where one begins to wonder when we’re all supposed to have time to do our “real” jobs. The Brooklyn Museum is hosting the first-ever visitor-curated Target First Saturday on October 2; website visitors are both nominating and voting for their top choices. Orpheus Chamber Orchestra is commissioning composers and programming concerts based in part on Yelp-style reviews and comments. You know this shit has hit the big time when even humanities scholars are trying it out for their precious peer-reviewed journals! Standing firmly behind the expert-curated model, meanwhile, is Apple, which has published guidelines for its iPhone App Store that sternly warn against the online marketplace becoming “amateur hour.”
  • One positive trend I’ve been seeing recently is a greater willingness among grantmakers to share their thinking and, increasingly, their actual source materials, with the world. Witness, for example, the publication of the McKnight Foundation’s Grantee Perception Report, conducted by the aforementioned Center for Effective Philanthropy. (The results were remarkably similar to the Hewlett Foundation’s, as disclosed by Ron Ragin in another guest post.) Meanwhile, over in the public sector, there was a minor kerfuffle regarding the new federal Social Innovation Fund’s transparency practices that resulted in the SIF releasing the entire set of scores and comments from the application review process. I’ve never seen that level of disclosure from a private funder not named GiveWell.
  • Speaking of GiveWell, the founders are temporarily working out of Mumbai, India, and Holden Karnofsky is wondering if he wouldn’t be practicing better philanthropy just by walking into poor neighborhoods and randomly giving out cash.
  • And Ken Berger of Charity Navigator, GiveWell’s longtime nemesis, has co-authored an article exploring what philanthropy can learn from baseball’s statistical revolution.
  • RIP Community Arts Network. The website will be archived by the Open Folklore Project at Indiana University. Back when the recession first hit, many people predicted we’d see a ton of closures of nonprofits and, more interestingly, mergers. I think it’s fair to say at this point that those predictions have not come true, but two organizations that have merged are the Cape Cod Conservatory of Music and Arts and the Cape Cod Symphony.
  • The Nathan Cummings Foundation has hired Maurine Knighton as the new Program Director for Arts & Culture.
  • Social media is the new NYC. That is, if it doesn’t become totally lame first. Or are those mutually exclusive?
  • Attention USA: we’re going to need to raise taxes. Get used to it.
  • Oh. My. God. Vice Magazine is doing classical music reviews. “Like if one day you visited Vivaldi’s apartment and discovered some bassoon-shaped nipple hasps or jelly dongs, would you honestly be that surprised?” Indeed. (h/t Life’s a Pitch)