What We Talk About When We Talk About Race

Plaque honoring Stephen Schwarzman, after whom the New York Public Library's flagship building is named.

Plaque honoring financier Stephen Schwarzman, after whom the New York Public Library’s flagship building is named. Photo by Flickr user vagueonthehow.

Young whites poring over books, memorizin’ but never learning
And I wonder how the fuck they’ll justify genocide.
“I…I was in the library, honest to God, I didn’t even know.”
—From “The Library,” by Felipe Luciano of The Original Last Poets

On March 7 of this year, my friend and I attended a screening of the film Right On!, a seminal creation of the Harlem spoken word poetry movement of the 1960s. Featuring 28 performances by a group called The Original Last Poets, Right On! is essentially a double-album-length music video that presaged MTV by over a decade. The film’s monologues-with-a-beat offer a brutally honest window into black urban life and identity in the midst of the civil rights era. According to the movie’s producer, as relayed by the marketing copy accompanying the event, it was “the first ‘totally black film’ making ‘no concession in language and symbolism to white audiences.’” It was intense, confrontational, and not quite like anything I’d seen before. I loved it.

“The Library,” quoted above, is not even close to the angriest number in Right On!’s hit parade. But watching the images of what is now the Stephen A. Schwarzman Building at the New York Public Library pass by as Felipe Luciano’s fellow Last Poets mockingly intoned “The Liiiiii-bra-ree,” I couldn’t help but revel in the irony of my location: the Museum of Modern Art.


As it turns out, Right On!’s run at MoMA was the world premiere of a digitally restored version of the film. Lost to the public for many years, Right On! had been little more than a fading memory until the museum’s To Save and Project festival of film preservation undertook the challenge of bringing it back to life with support from donors Celeste Bartos and Paul Newman.

The work of restoring and presenting Right On! to the public is the sort of thing that institutions like MoMA routinely cite in grant applications as proof of their commitment to diversity. Yet MoMA could hardly have been a more iconic symbol of the white establishment to serve as a setting for the Poets’ time-lapsed performance. Forged from Rockefeller privilege, MoMA was founded to promote the artistry of European modernism, and the most famous works in its collection are nearly all by dead white men. It has $1 billion in net assets, pays its (white) director a seven-figure salary that places him among the best-paid nonprofit executives in New York, and charges among the highest admission fees in the country for an art museum. It was the first target of Occupy Museums. The very room where the Right On! screening took place, The Roy and Niuta Titus Theater 1, first gained notoriety within the filmmaking community for its D. W. Griffith retrospective in 1940, which surely must have included the racist and Ku-Klux-Klan-reviving Birth of A Nation.

Remarkably, the Poets themselves made an appearance at the opening night of the run. I can only guess that it was a heart-warming spectacle of racial healing and harmony, as Luciano didn’t respond to my request to interview him. All I know is that the following night, the night I was there, I counted two black people in the audience.


Earlier this year, Talia Gibas analyzed Holly Sidford’s manifesto “Fusing Arts, Culture, and Social Change” for Createquity. “Fusing” has become a rallying cry for cultural equity advocates who believe that philanthropic resources are unjustly concentrated in venerable institutions with white European roots like MoMA. The study analyzed the flow of philanthropic dollars to the arts using data from the Foundation Center, and found that less than 10% of arts grant dollars went to serve marginalized communities, including African Americans.

Interestingly, the restoration of Right On!, undertaken by MoMA with the support of individual donors, not foundations, would not have registered as a project serving a marginalized community under Sidford’s methodology. And by excavating a treasure of the black cultural canon from functional oblivion with (from all appearances) the full cooperation of the creative individuals involved, one could argue that MoMA is doing the African American community a wonderful service, fulfilling its role as custodian of heritage in a truly inclusive way. But it’s also not hard to see the transfer in setting from underground movie theater in heady 1970 to establishment art museum in 2013 as a particularly insidious kind of cultural appropriation. It was a striking experience to watch Right On! from the comfort of MoMA, of all places. It was, in fact, like being in a museum, as if there were a glass wall between the movie and me allowing me to appreciate it as a cultural object while preventing me from truly entering its world. The raw, unfiltered power and emotion directed at the camera was boxed in and partially neutered by the time it reached me on the other side of the screen, sitting next to my white college friend and the many white people in the room who could have been my friends if I’d happened to come across them in a different context. As unmistakable as the film’s point of view was, it was easy, too easy, to compartmentalize it as an artifact of a different era, a time when revolution was in the air and the evils of racism were upfront and obvious.


I’m not sure there is anything that has claimed as high a brain-energy-expended-to-public-output-generated ratio for me as race this past year. Way back in February, some of you might recall, I inserted myself into a discussion about race and the arts that had been started by New Beans’s Clayton Lord, then Director of Audience Development for Theatre Bay Area and now VP of Local Arts Advancement for Americans for the Arts. At the time, I noted that “virtually all of the recent discussion…in this particular corner of the blogosphere [was] happening among well-meaning white liberals who just can’t help themselves from occupying public space with their opinions.” I wasn’t the only one who noticed. Roberto Bedoya, head of the Tucson Pima Arts Council in Arizona and a longtime follower of this blog, thanked me for pointing it out and challenged me and five other bloggers—pale pasties, all of us—to “share with us some of [our] good thinking and deep reflection on [our] understanding of how the White Racial Frame intersects with cultural polices and cultural practices.” Piece of cake, right?

You can read the responses from Clay, Doug, Nina, Barry, Diane, and Roberto himself at the links provided. As eager as I was to participate (I promised I would, after all), extracting words from my brain these past months was like squeezing blood from a stone. The topic of race offers a white liberal like me a frustratingly narrow range of socially acceptable rhetoric. Like any self-respecting contrarian, I have no interest in saying what’s already been said, but at the same time I felt woefully underprepared to confidently take the conversation in a new direction. It took a long time, a lot of background research, and many discussions with family, friends and social and professional acquaintances who consciously engage with issues around race before I finally felt comfortable airing my views in public.

If there’s one positive and concrete suggestion I can offer in the wake of that learning process, it’s that we do what we can to create an open environment for talking honestly about race relations in all of their kaleidoscopic, maddening, shame-inducing complexity. The dialogue that Clay and Roberto have started is a great first step in that direction, but we need to keep it going if we truly want to achieve more than symbolic progress towards a more racially just sector. And the more I learn, the more strongly I suspect that in order to keep that dialogue going in an authentic way, we are going to need to take it into some very uncomfortable, challenging territory – for white people and non-white people alike, for anti-racism advocates and white privilege apologists both.


Several of my fellow bloggers who responded to Roberto’s prompt made valuable points about the need and opportunity to be more inclusive and welcoming in our institutions’ programming and audience engagement practices. And certain artistic works undoubtedly have the power to hold a mirror up to ourselves and question the assumptions of our environment, as Right On! was able to do for me. But I feel that this conversation is missing something crucial if we neglect to expand the frame outward, to grapple with how our country and society’s dysfunctional relationship with race informs and warps our lives more generally.

Art and arts organizations are not capable of solving racism on their own. It’s not that the arts have nothing to say about race or that diverse cultural expressions aren’t important, but in the absence of a clear and shared understanding of the underlying factors that perpetuate racism, I fear that arts-centric interventions can all too often end up being little more than a band-aid – a way to reassure ourselves that we’re doing something important and valuable when in reality we’re really having very little impact at all. I believe that the sooner we as a field start framing our efforts not around “what can we do as artists and arts administrators to promote diversity?” but rather “how does racial injustice manifest today, what are its root causes, and how can we as human beings most effectively be part of the solution?”, the sooner we’ll actually have something to be proud of.

For example, I’ve now been a part of several organizations that have struggled with the fact that their staffs are mostly white. One of the most visible commitments to diversity that an organization can make is to have strong representation of people of color among its staff, board, and leadership. Not surprisingly, then, managers typically have these considerations at back of mind when entering the hiring process, and sometimes even explicitly consider race as a factor in their decision. And yet they get frustrated when they are unable to find competitive candidates of color at a rate that would, as advocated by Robert Bush, make them “look like the people [they] serve.”

Simple statistics, however, quickly start to illuminate some of the reasons behind this frustration. Virtually every arts administration job I’ve ever seen requires a Bachelor’s degree as a minimum condition of employment. I’m willing to bet that most arts administrators don’t realize that fewer than a third of American adults over the age of 25 have one. More to the point, however, black and Hispanic adults are 40 to 60 percent less likely respectively to have graduated from college than whites. So if having a Bachelor’s truly is a requirement for doing the job well*, then “success” as it relates to representativeness actually means matching the proportion of people with college degrees, not the general population.

Of course, if you have any conscience at all, the above rationalization is unsatisfying. It openly admits and does absolutely nothing about a basic racial equity issue: access to opportunities based on educational attainment. But therein lies the rub: if we actually care that the disparity in college graduation rates is causing our application pool to be less diverse, that is if we care enough to do something about it, our daily work may not be the most appropriate forum in which to take action. What’s needed to close that gap, in all likelihood, goes way beyond the arts.

(*This is, of course, an important question to examine in its own right, but in the interests of not biting off more than I can chew with one article, I’m going to sidestep it for now.)


The stark disparity in college graduation rates described above can be seen as one manifestation of the so-called “achievement gap” between white students and black and Hispanic students. This achievement gap is present from a very early age, though not necessarily birth. One contributing factor to the achievement gap, though undoubtedly not the whole story, is the vast differential in the quality of the schools available to white students vs. students of color, especially in urban environments.

America’s cities are highly segregated geographically, in part a vestige of real estate redlining practices and white flight following the Second Great Migration in the mid-20th century. Even today, there is evidence that white homebuyers are willing to pay more money not to have to live in a neighborhood with lots of people of color. As a result, by some measures school systems in the United States are even more segregated today than they were when Brown vs. Board of Education was first implemented in the 1960s. Meanwhile, school systems are governed by local rules and jurisdictions and, crucially, paid for via local property taxes. Ever wonder why people move to the suburbs to send their kids to good schools? Well, that’s why. On a per-capita basis, suburbs are much wealthier than urban cores and therefore can afford schools that are less crowded and feature more amenities for their students.  People who don’t follow the education field may not realize that public school systems are struggling in large cities all across the country, not just where they live.

There is no magic bullet for fighting racial inequity; in the Atlantic Cities recently, for example, Emily Badger makes the case that establishing universal preschool is the best single thing we could do, but even the rosiest projections offered in that article make clear that such a measure would hardly erase the achievement gap. Nevertheless, as educated professionals, one action we could take that might actually make a difference is to locate ourselves in areas where our tax dollars will go to support these struggling school systems. And yet, many of my white peers are doing the exact opposite: explicitly shopping for real estate by school district, trying their best to ensure that their kid(s) will be less likely to end up in a bad situation – and, incidentally, a lot less likely to be surrounded by kids of color.

It’s awfully tough to ask someone to choose between fighting for racial equity and forgoing the best possible education for their child. I believe that sacrifice is a virtue, but I am not enough of a romantic to count on it as a large-scale strategy for social change. Perhaps the real enemy here, then, is not the racism-perpetuating behavior, but the system that sets up the incentives that encourage it. In this case, that system is the funding of public school systems based on local property taxes. If we really want to attack this part of the problem at its core, perhaps we should be advocating instead for a system that runs schools locally but funds them nationally, presumably through an expanded Department of Education. What can arts organizations do to push forward that outcome? And why is hardly anyone else talking about it?

Let’s take a step back for a minute and remember how we got here. We were wondering how a hiring manager could get her staff to better reflect the diversity of her community. Now, 900-some-odd words later, we’re talking about advocating for a giant expansion of the Department of Education, universal preschool, and in the meantime intentionally sending our kids to substandard schools. Does it make sense now why, despite all of our conversations about race and privilege, nothing ever seems to change?


I like to think of myself as a technocrat – as I get older, I find myself becoming less and less interested in what sounds good and more and more interested in what works. On this blog and at my day job alike, I advocate for “evidence-based decision-making.” I champion logic models and theories of change as tools for taking apart complex systems. I push for a big-picture, strategic approach to everything, most of all to gigantic social clusterfucks that take lifetimes to unravel.

I don’t do these things for giggles or to increase my SEO ranking. I do them because I genuinely believe in the power of analytical thinking to help us make sense of the world. Using good research methodologies can tell us useful things like the fact that even your mom smoking crack while she’s pregnant with you doesn’t screw up your life anywhere near as much as being born into poverty, or that educating parents on how to parent better might just be a way to fix some of these problems.

In order to really be able to use research, you have to keep an open mind. You’re not going to learn anything if you’re not willing to let the research surprise you. And sometimes those surprises can be an unpleasant source of cognitive dissonance.

I think this is where I have the greatest difficulty with the “discourse” around race as I’ve most often experienced it in this country. Some months ago I wrote on this blog about the phenomenon of “mood affiliation,” a term coined by economist Tyler Cowen to refer (as I interpret it) to a tendency among participants in debates to ally themselves with a certain “side” and subordinate new facts or information to the preferred interpretation of their “team.” A more widely recognized name for this sort of thing is confirmation bias.

I feel like there’s a whole lot of mood affiliation that goes on in conversations about race. The population subgroups that are active in these conversations place a high value on coordinated action and messaging. That means that, if you consider yourself an anti-racist and would like for others to perceive you that way as well, there are very real social and even professional risks associated with taking certain positions on issues that may not be clear-cut at all. Something like stop-and-frisk may not be good policy (it’s not), but we need to be able to ask the question of whether it actually works before dismissing it on moral grounds – and, more importantly, be prepared to answer the question of what if it does? Alas, stories about race become politicized so quickly that it becomes much more difficult to take an unbiased, critical look at the situation than it is to rely on whatever position one’s identity group has rallied behind.

For that reason, what I crave the most is to see conversations about race imbued with the complexity and nuance they deserve. I’m not talking about the throw-up-our-hands-and-declare-defeat kind of acknowledgement of complexity, but the okay-let’s-get-into-the-weeds-and-figure-this-shit-out kind. In order for that to happen, critiques that question conventional wisdom about race are going to have to play a bigger role. Critiques like these:

  • How important is race relative to other forms of difference? Race gets a lot of attention, but is it the most relevant lens through which to view social justice in the present-day United States? I’ve noticed that the idea of comparing injustices to each other gets a lot of pushback from anti-racists; the phrase “oppression Olympics” gets thrown about a lot. And I understand how, from an advocacy perspective, this line of thinking is counterproductive and can be used as a rhetorical device to turn underprivileged groups against each other. But from a policy perspective, asking these kinds of questions is essential. Policy always involves making tradeoffs among finite alternatives – taking one approach can often mean not taking another, so you have to choose priorities and emphases carefully. There are lots of unearned inequities among different segments of people in this life, many of which have established places in national dialogue and many of which have not. Did you know, for example, that height is significantly correlated with earning power? On the strength of a study conducted for his book Blink, Malcolm Gladwell even claims that “being short is probably as much, or more, of a handicap to corporate success as being a woman or an African-American.” I’m not sure I’d go that far, but I do think it makes sense to try to identify and target leverage points that trigger lots of injustices at once. One of those leverage points might be socioeconomic class, given that economic security touches so many areas of life. In no small part due to the legacies of historical discrimination, race and class today are closely intertwined: white families are on average an astounding six times wealthier than black and Hispanic families. But this means that a strategy to address class inequities, which can benefit from some existing infrastructure in the form of progressive taxation, will have the benefit of addressing many (albeit not all) of the racial inequities as well.
  • Can we stop talking as if there are only two sides to this story? Too many of the mainstream narratives about race in the United States are stuck in mid-twentieth-century paradigms of black vs. white. The classic archetypes of the oppressor and the oppressed make for good movies, but the racial groups that feature in conversations about race today are insanely reductive visions of reality. Hispanic/Latino makes lots of sense as a language-based subculture (superculture?), but it’s not an actual race even though we often talk about it as if it is. Arab Americans are considered Caucasian by the Census, but try talking to them about white privilege while they’re going through US Customs. Most African Americans are actually mixed race, and first-generation African immigrants often have little in common with descendents of American slaves beyond their skin color. There are Jewish Venezuelans and white Africans and black Dutch. People of color are not a monolithic group, and don’t always like each other; there is a long and ugly history, for example, of East Asian bigotry against black people. Nor do they face the same challenges: whereas the college graduation rates for African Americans and Hispanics are 20% and 14% respectively, Asians have been north of 50% since 2005. We are prone to equate gentrification with “white people taking over the neighborhood” but ignore the role that people of color play in that process.  Even within the arts, we oversimplify the racial identities of our institutions, casually applying the adjective “white” to orchestras for example, in spite of a huge influx of Korean, Chinese and Japanese instrumentalists in recent decades. The anti-racist movement is fond of pointing out that race is an artificial social construct—maybe we should all start treating it like one?
  • What is the role of assimilation in defining racial power structures? White people are not a monolithic group either. In the United States alone, there used to be bitter hatred towards ethnic Germans, rampant discrimination against Jews, and immigration restrictions erected against Italians, to name a few. What we think of as “white privilege” today was WASP privilege 100 years ago. What lessons can we learn from the dramatic cultural shift that has taken place in the meantime? And how much of a role has intermarriage between white ethnic groups (see below for more) had in making that shift possible? Moreover, does talking about white people as one group – since no white ethnic group would constitute a majority on its own – serve only to solidify the sense of whiteness as the majority default? In a long piece for the Grantmakers in the Arts Reader, Heinz Foundation arts program officer Justin Laing criticizes “the normativeness of White people’s arts and culture experience that is often implied when ALANA [African, Latino/a, Asian, and Native American] work is referred to as ‘culturally specific’ or ‘ethnic arts’ or ‘folk arts,’ as though White artists’ and arts organizations’ work is less specific, ethnic, or folksy.” Laing goes on to write, “This false idea, Whiteness, is maybe the most damaging of all of the race-based fallacies because it plants deep within us the idea that White people are both separate and the standard; it’s a particularly harmful idea in our field that treats the best of White culture as classical not only for Europeans but also for the world.” To what extent does the diversity conversation in the arts perpetuate the very inequities we’re trying to dismantle?
  • How is demographic change going to affect the way we think about race? The United States will be a majority-minority country within 30 years. Four states – California, Texas, New Mexico, and Hawaii – along with the District of Columbia already hold this status. The vast splits between racial and ethnic groups in recent presidential elections remind us that in a democracy, having a baby is not just a personal decision, it’s also a political act. Of course, just increasing the numbers of brown people won’t necessarily lead to the end of white hegemony – see the early-20th-century South or mid-20th-century South Africa for proof of that. Perhaps more important, then, is the increasing trend toward multiracial families via adoption (especially by increasingly visible gay parents) and widespread intermarriage, both of which are and will continue to be facilitated by the growing numbers of non-white individuals in the U.S. Could this blurring of racial categories smooth over old tensions to the point that no one cares about them anymore? I wouldn’t discount the possibility, especially when you consider how much the drive towards acceptance of gay marriage has been driven by loved ones coming out as gay. The elevation of a mixed-race President may not signal a society that has moved beyond race, as some have over-optimistically claimed, but it may yet be a harbinger of America’s post-racial future.
  • How committed are anti-racist white people to ending white privilege? This is an important point that I really don’t think we ever talk about. Merely recognizing that white privilege exists and feeling bad about it is not a recipe for change. Real change, all else being equal, must involve actual sacrifices on the part of those in power, with the white majority being the party in power when it comes to white privilege. Power is not necessarily a zero-sum game, but relative power is – and the privileged position in which white people find themselves in the United States is a result of the exercise of asymmetric power dynamics in the past. My questions for those who fancy that they would like to end white privilege are as follows: why don’t we ever talk about giving large swaths of land back to the Indian tribes who once occupied them, and whose value system is so rooted in the land itself? Why don’t we ever talk seriously anymore about reparations for slavery, the reverberations of which are still very much being felt today? (Such reparations would be hardly unprecedented, by the way.) Wouldn’t such things represent much more meaningful change than reminding oneself to make eye contact when one sees a person of color coming the other way?
  • Would we be better off as a society if we were actually less conscious of race, not more? Even if that’s not the right or a realistic goal for the short term, is it what we should be working towards in the end? If so, how would that change how we approach conversations about race? In a 60 Minutes interview with Mike Wallace eight years ago, Morgan Freeman famously called Black History Month “ridiculous” and called for its dissolution. Wallace asked how we can get rid of racism otherwise, and Freeman responded, “Stop talking about it! I’m going to stop calling you a white man, and I’m going to ask you to stop calling me a black man. I know you as Mike Wallace, you know me as Morgan Freeman.” I imagine that many people reading this are familiar with the concept of priming in psychology – the idea that subtle stimuli can (often unconsciously) affect our behaviors and performance. There’s even a significant literature exploring the racial dimensions of priming; for example, one study found that simply identifying their race on a pretest questionnaire cut black students’ performance on GRE questions in half. Well, what happens when we continually prime white people to believe that they’re racist, and people of color that they are victims of racism? Does that in any way exacerbate the problem?

Introducing this sort of complexity into the equation may come off as an invitation to chaos. But think about it this way: would we be satisfied with a map of the world that just had the seven continents on it and a vague notation of which direction they are relative to each other? No, we do what we need to as a society to have hyper-specific geographic markers down to a few hundred feet, all connected, continually updated, existing within an ecosystem of other information like traffic patterns and mountain heights and vote totals.

I believe that the frame for our discussion must be both that large and that fine-grained in order to make real progress. On the large end of the scale, what do we care about most? Is containing racism, rather than ending it, acceptable? And if ending it is paramount, then is equality of opportunity sufficient for ending racism, or is equality of outcomes necessary? At the micro scale, who benefits and who suffers from racial constructs, to what extent and in what ways? In each case, down to the individual level, how much of that benefit or suffering is the product of socially-constructed and mutable ideas of race and how much is tethered to immutable realities of race? And what of those inequities are solely attributable to race rather than tied up in other kinds of disadvantage/privilege?

What can I say, it turns out that understanding and dealing with race is really hard! But I truly believe that only the hard work of identifying what our true values are and articulating how we resolve dilemmas when they come into conflict with other values can help us resolve the large-scale questions. And only the hard work of mapping out all of these intimidating complexities as they play out in individual lives will enable us to make the changes to our societal rules and behaviors that will end up serving the most people the most fairly. In fact, I don’t see how anything other than hard work, strategically focused, will make any difference at all. So let’s get to work.


(I am deeply grateful to Talia Gibas, Selena Juneau-Vogel, Daniel Reid, Hayley Roberts, F. Javier Torres, and Jason Tseng for their incisive comments on an earlier draft of this article, and to many others for their conversations and perspectives that helped expand my world these past nine months.)

Further reading:


Around the Horn: Rob Ford edition



  • Ralph Remington is stepping down as the NEA’s Theater/Musical Theater Director to become the western regional director and assistant executive director at Actors Equity Association. He had been at the NEA since 2010.
  • Los Angeles has a new mayor, and will soon have a new head of cultural affairs. Olga Garay-English, who served as Executive Director of the city’s Department of Cultural Affairs since 2007, announced she is stepping down January 4.
  • Kenneth Foster, former Executive Director of the Yerba Buena Center for Arts, has kicked off his tenure leading the new Arts Leadership Program at the University of Southern California and offers some words of wisdom on how funders can best serve the performing community, and why  “best practices” aren’t all they’re cracked up to be.
  • Continuing a string of recent layoffs of classical-music radio staff, Houston’s KUHA has cleaned house. The station claims that the move will actually lead to more coverage of local arts groups.



  • In his coverage of last month’s 2013 Future of Music Summit for the Chicago Tribune, Greg Kot describes a frustrated yet resolved music industry, “Music is generating a ridiculous amount of money, none of it flowing to the people who create it.” Check out the write-ups from day one and day two.
  • Nina Simon responds to the backlash that her novel programming at the Santa Cruz Museum of Art & History has generated in recent months locally and, to a lesser extent, nationally. The contention is that encouraging active participation so strongly erodes the traditional museum environment of quiet contemplation, distracting the MAH from its historical charge. Simon argues that the new approach allows for both kinds of experiences, while “balancing priorities, embracing creative tension, including diverse voices, and staying true to our mission.”


  • The ambitious Sustain Arts project aims to bring the wonders of Big Data to the cultural sector over the next three years, ultimately strengthening the nation’s cultural infrastructure. The first wave of work is happening now in the San Francisco and Detroit regions; Marc Vogl, Bay Area Field Director of the initiative, explains what he’s up to and how Bay Area folks can get involved.
  • New Bonfils Stanton Foundation president Gary Steuer weighs in on the “is ‘innovation’ a nefarious buzz-word” debate (which is really the ongoing argument over how funders find the sweet spot of nurturing, not hindering, their grantees) and provides other thoughtful comments on the recent National Innovation Summit for Arts + Culture. (All 27 talks from the Summit, by the way, are now available online.)
  • Google has launched Helpouts, a service that provides live on-demand chatting with experts in fields ranging from the arts to cooking and electronics. Udi Manber, VP of engineering, believes Helpouts will offer users a more “precise” mode of online learning.


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No Strings Attached

Photo by Claudia Daggett.

Kenyan shilling. Photo by Claudia Daggett.

A few years ago four grad students from Harvard and M.I.T. decided they wanted to use their brains and dollars to improve the lives of some of the poorest people in the world. They researched different strategies of philanthropy, looked at the data available, and based on the evidence they chose a novel approach. No microlending, school-building, or vaccination campaigns for them: they would just give away cash, no strings attached. They called their new charity, simply enough, GiveDirectly.

The Concept

This is how it works: money is transferred from the organization to pre-identified families in Kenya via cell phones. GiveDirectly’s selection of recipients is based solely on need as signaled by mud or thatch roofs, as opposed to more durable materials. The standard amount is $1,000 over one to two years, about as much as a poor Kenyan family might spend in a single year. There are no restrictions on what a family can buy with money from GiveDirectly. Unlike with more traditional philanthropic efforts, there are no mandatory health check-ups or vaccinations, no obligatory training programs, and no mandates of any kind. The cash is completely unfettered. It is a “UCT”: unconditional cash transfer.

One common use of GiveDirectly cash transfers is the purchase of a metal roof. Mud and thatch don’t hold up well to weather elements and must be repaired or replaced often. There are major savings to be had with the purchase of a metal roof, which typically lasts at least a decade.

That’s not the only way in which recipients spend the money, however. If you own a motorbike in Kenya that can withstand the terrain, won’t break down on long journeys, and can carry a passenger, you can be a taxi driver. With an influx of cash, you can literally buy yourself a livelihood.

These sorts of purchases improve quality of life and increase earning capacity, and some even have a ripple effect beyond a single family. A cow, for example, can provide milk for an entire village, an income stream for the owner, and can create more cows to continue to multiply the benefits.

The Logistics

Since a normal transfer from bank account to bank account isn’t an option, and transportation and distribution of thousands of dollars of physical cash would require security and increase liability for the charity, the transactions are carried out via cell phone. In Kenya the “mobile-money system” is called M-Pesa, and it’s one of the most successful of its kind; transfers are discreet, simple, and perfect for this atypical exchange.

One M-Pesa location in Kenya. Photo by Fiona Bradley.

One M-Pesa location in Kenya. Photo by Fiona Bradley.

Using this technology, GiveDirectly can keep track of hundreds of recipient families with a single spreadsheet and send them money each month safely and securely. The recipient gets a text message indicating that the money has arrived and goes to his or her local M-Pesa franchise to pick it up (the one described in the radio show “This American Life”’s GiveDirectly coverage is basically a VW bus turned bank with a ledger, a box of cash, and one staff person). It might sound dodgy to the Western world, but the M-Pesa system is dependable and ubiquitous in Kenya and saves people time and money previously spent traveling to traditional banks or delivering money to family in remote and inaccessible areas.

The Evidence 

As Jacob Goldstein for the New York Times writes, “At its most basic level… GiveDirectly’s work is an attempt to test one of the simplest ideas in economics — that people know what they need, and if they have money, they can buy it.” As radical as the approach may seem, it is grounded in a strong evidence base. According to Holden Karnofsky, co-founder of a charity that supports GiveDirectly, “cash transfers…happen to be the most extensively studied non-health intervention we know of.” Indeed, traditional charities often call the very act of transferring funds into the hands of low-income people success. In GiveDirectly’s model, by contrast, the impact measures are more nuanced. Money changing hands is the intervention, not the desired outcome.

GiveDirectly is committed to investigating and recording its own impact. The organization recently completed a randomized control trial in Kenya, which reveals that; “recipients are not just spending their transfers, providing a one-time boost to their consumption without affecting their overall well-being.” The trial shows that food-consumption increased 20 percent for transfer recipients and the value of recipients’ livestock increased by 50 percent. The study even showed that recipients’ stress levels improved – their actual stress hormone levels decreased. The full report and a summary are available here.

The Implications

Pondering the broader lessons of UTCs and GiveDirectly, I’m reminded of all of the nonprofit organizations out there for which an influx of funding could really change their organizational “standard of living.” What GiveDirectly is providing goes by another name in the nonprofit sector: general operating support.

General operating support is the holy grail of nonprofit fundraising, defined by the Foundation Center as “grants for the day-to-day operating costs of an existing program or organization; also called unrestricted grants.” There may be reporting requirements Kenyans don’t have to adhere to, and an application process with more vetting than GiveDirectly’s system of identifying families in need, but the concepts aren’t too far off. The similarities between general operating support to organizations and cash transfers to families, however, might not be as obvious for some in the nonprofit sector.

“We had conversations with people [in the non-profit sector] who said there was a lot of internal resistance to unconditional transfers,” Niehaus [one of GiveDirectly’s four founders] told [reporter Dana Goldstein]. “If this works, what are we all here for? Why do we have jobs? There’s an industry that exists that tries to make decisions for poor people and determine what’s best for them.”

Shouldn’t we want the same kind of aid for the poor that we in the nonprofit sector would want for ourselves?


Createquity Office Hours in NYC: November 22

Get ready: Createquity Office Hours is coming back home to NYC! A full contingent of Createquity family members past and present will be in attendance, including past Writing Fellows Katherine Gressel, Jennifer Kessler, and Jacquelyn Strycker, current Writing Fellow Lindsey Cosgrove (we’ll be meeting her for the first time!), editorial consultant and newly-minted foundation executive Daniel Reid, and of course yours truly.

As a reminder, Createquity Office Hours is an informal gathering in which we turn a bar into Arts Nerd Central. Come with your questions, ideas, requests for career advice, whatever — it’s a great way for us to get to know some of you a little better and, more importantly, for you all to meet each other.

Since there are limited spots available, please be considerate to your fellow readers and only RSVP if you are pretty sure you can make it. See you in the Big Apple!

Createquity Office Hours: NYC 2013
Friday, November 22
Stitch Bar & Lounge
247 West 37th St
New York, NY
RSVP here by November 19

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A Tale of Two Strategies: Participation and Organization at Adobe Books and SFMOMA

(Calcagno Cullen is a multimedia artist and arts administrator living in San Francisco, California. She is currently the education associate for school and teacher programs at SFMOMA and board member and gallery director at Adobe Books and Arts Cooperative. -IDM)

In recent years participatory culture has subverted consumerist habits, mass media production, and even our social interactions. People who wouldn’t previously have considered themselves creative are getting opportunities to become true collaborators in producing what they consume in fields where once they could only serve as audience members. Nowhere is this more true, arguably, than in the San Francisco Bay Area, the birthplace of parklets, Twitter, and Yelp. It’s clear that the lines between producer and consumer are being blurred in arts administration and education as well. Organizations of vastly differing sizes are adjusting to our changing culture in their own ways, altering how they interact with the public and how the public interacts with them.

Viewed from the outside, the two organizations I work for could not be more dissimilar, and yet both find themselves enveloped in this trend. Adobe Books and Arts Cooperative, where I head the gallery and serve on the board of directors, is a small, community-run bookstore and art gallery open since 1989; the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA), meanwhile, where I work in the education department, is a large, international collecting institution of modern and contemporary art. Both are at crucial points in their history, and progressing in divergent directions in their vision for public participation and assessment of their educational goals. SFMOMA is reaching to be more experimental, more integrated into daily life, and more collaborative, while Adobe Books is realizing that it must become more like a museum in many ways (more organized, more curated, with a developed mission statement) in order to stay afloat. These organizations are evolving slowly towards each other, providing us with a unique window into how cultural institutions are balancing educational priorities with dueling needs for top-down curation and creative collaboration.

Both Adobe Books and SFMOMA are known as culture makers, information disseminators, and artistic/cultural venues in San Francisco. And both, in the past year, have left their longtime homes. SFMOMA has decided to infiltrate the city and beyond with creative programming and artist projects, “on the go” until 2016 while the museum is closed for an expansion, and Adobe Books was pushed out of its longtime home on 16th Street due to rising rents and gentrification, recently relocating to a cozier space on 24th Street. The similarities end there. SFMOMA has over 200 employees, and has the resources to maintain a strong presence in the city, with or without an actual building. Adobe Books, by contrast, could not survive without a store; it is known locally as “the living room of the Mission,” and providing a space for people to meet and for the public to gather is a crucial part of who we are. Though Adobe Books’s art gallery is now fiscally sponsored through Intersection for the Arts, the bookstore portion is still just that, a store, with goods to sell.


Adobe Books at its new location on 24th St. Photo by Tiffany Seinz.

Adobe Books at its new location on 24th St. Photo by Tiffany Seinz.

The Story of the Community Bookstore

Clay Shirky argues in his book Here Comes Everybody that organizing without organizations is the modus operandi of the 21st century, writing that “unlike sharing, where the group is mainly an aggregate of participants, cooperating creates group identity.” Adobe Books, though a sole proprietorship for nearly 25 years, has seemingly always operated on a community-run, collaborative model. By stepping back from curation and allowing community members to give life to the space, former owner Andrew McKinley was able to establish Adobe Books as a safe harbor for ideas, a place for meeting and doing, and a spot of artistic intervention for many.

Adobe Books is a natural spot for self-directed learning. Despite a more tightly curated selection of books in our new, smaller spot on 24th Street, as a mostly-used bookstore with an ever-fluctuating inventory, most customers come in with the expectation of finding something they didn’t yet know they wanted. Because the programming is mostly developed by the visiting public, free programs happen easily and often. Only just recently has the Board of Directors created an online events calendar, or a website at all for that matter. Yet, as Shirky might have predicted, this lack of organization did not deter people from coming into the space; if anything, it fueled widespread neighborhood involvement. People came to the Adobe space on 16th Street for the books, the people, and the likely chance that something was going on: an art opening, music performance, poetry reading, etc. This scarcity of management also gave the makers and doers of the community a sense of comfortable ownership over a space where they could speak their peace, make their mark, host a party, or even take a nap.

In 2013, however, with a rapidly gentrifying Mission District and steeply rising rents throughout San Francisco, time was running out for a bookstore that operated more like a community center than a for-profit business. Transitioning into a cooperative business with a fiscally sponsored gallery seemed to be the only option for survival. With significant seed funding from a successful Indiegogo campaign, Adobe Books has financially found a new lease on life. At the same time, as a cooperative with a managing board of directors, we struggle with how much to curate the space rather than let the community dictate our programming.

The new 24th Street incarnation of Adobe Books is a bit more reserved than before. With 14 directors full of their own artistic ideals, the pressure of fulfilling the promises of a successful crowdfunding campaign, and the gallery’s new fiscally-sponsored status, we feel the responsibility to be organized and thoughtful about our decisions. As an administrator by trade, I must admit I garner some pleasure from drawing up loan agreements, event MOUs, and vendor contracts. I like that we maintain a calendar, and that price negotiations on all book sales is no longer the norm. As I happily file reimbursement forms, I do wonder if all of this “organization” is slowly killing the community space that Adobe Books used to be.

Artists in the Adobe Books gallery often give me sideways glances when I hand them a loan agreement—the sort of formality that has never been instituted before. More and more inquiries about book readings, concerts, and other events are being directed to a single events manager, which is just as convenient for us as it is inconvenient for the person inquiring at the front desk who has to remember to scribble down the correct email address. Adobe is learning to be more top-down, and all the while asking ourselves if this structure is worth the exclusion that often comes with this sort of organizational map.


SFMOMA takes programs "on the go" with Mark di Suvero's sculptures on Crissy Field. Photo by Dominic Santos.

SFMOMA takes programs “on the go” with Mark di Suvero’s sculptures on Crissy Field. Photo by Dominic Santos.

A Museum On the Go

In contrast, SFMOMA is ever so slightly turning bottom-up, and learning that providing arts experiences with a listening ear can be more relevant and valuable to today’s population than white walls with a system for dispersing information about objects.

At SFMOMA, even the education department has a directive to curate its offerings for the public in a more or less top-down way. As with any museum, we have both the task of engaging the public as well as protecting a historical archive. However, SFMOMA is unusual in our commitment to becoming part of urban life for the residents and visitors of San Francisco. In the 2.5 years of its closure, the museum has committed to activating the city in exciting ways, perhaps echoing the recent rise of socially engaged art. Projects like Project Los Altos in the town of the same name and our decentralized exhibition of the 2012 Society for the Encouragement of Contemporary Art (SECA) awards insert art into everyday life. David Wilson’s SECA piece literally directs viewers to follow itineraries through San Francisco to find secret art interventions, with all journeys commencing from the closed museum doors. While some SFMOMA departments may see the temporary displacement as a hindrance, asking questions like “how will we keep membership numbers up with no museum admission?”, the education department frames it as an opportunity to do what we’ve always wanted to do, reaching out into neighborhoods, schools, and communities to participate in art projects and programs that reflect the dynamics of our city.

Rather than taking a soapbox approach to its educational programs, SFMOMA is developing two-way partnerships with schools and creating new public programs that rely heavily on audience participation. This year we are piloting several school projects that are part artist commission, part school curriculum, and part student-driven learning. These efforts are still in their infancy, but show promise in that both parties seem willing and excited to collaborate to bring contemporary art to the classroom in dynamic new ways. Our public educational programs are evolving as well. As part of our Project Los Altos exhibit, the Education Department is asking artists who participated in the exhibition to create a series of participatory art instructions to be printed in the Los Altos Town Crier, the local newspaper. Responses and documentation from those who choose to participate will be documented on the web as well as a few printed in the following week’s paper. After decades of hearing the likes of Paulo Freire and Sir Ken Robinson tell us that creativity and two-way communication between the educator and student are essential for dynamic learning, educators and education administrators are finally translating these ideals into actual teaching practices. We’re seeing the rise of Visual Thinking Strategies and other inquiry-based learning methods, evidence of the impact of participatory trends in our culture on museum education. The fact that education as a discipline has been at the vanguard of this shift means that museum educators are freer to adapt more quickly.


“You Do Have to Relinquish Some Control”

Forging new community partnerships is crucial to the health of  SFMOMA while it is without a building. Whether this comes as a welcome change or not, our 2.5-year closure may be exactly the catalyst necessary to transform SFMOMA into a leading 21st=century institution, one thoroughly and intentionally engaged in its community. On the other hand, newly burdened by rising rent and the bureaucracy of organizing a cooperative (by-laws, articles of incorporation, etc.), Adobe Books is pushing hard to be structured while still maintaining its grassroots spirit. Both of these organizations have been molded by San Francisco’s unique, evolving culture, and transformed in recent months by both strong community support for the arts as well as by the money and change that comes with the city’s most recent tech boom.

This climate seems to have pushed San Francisco organizations to experiment with new methods of community collaboration, to search for the perfect balance between curatorial control and open source content. To stay relevant in today’s San Francisco, I suspect that more organizations will be striving for this middle ground—less “institutional” than the stuffy collecting museums of yore, yet more bureaucratic than the scrappy organizations that were once able to maintain cheap spaces in the city. As J.S. May, Chief Advancement Officer of the Portland Art Museum, recently said at the National Innovation Summit for Arts + Culture, “You do have to relinquish some control.” Just how much control to withdraw remains a pertinent and ongoing question for each individual institution – and as San Francisco’s experience demonstrates, large and small organizations have much to learn from each other across the resource divide.

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CultureHive, a New Home for Busy Arts Marketing Bees

There’s a new resource on the block for arts marketers in the UK that leverages the Internet’s natural talent for sharing. Combining crowd-sourced resource aggregation with expert curation, CultureHive is a search engine for arts marketers that aims to ensure all results are relevant and high quality. The site is a joint creation of the UK’s Arts Marketing Association (AMA) and Arts Council England in partnership with The Audience Agency, a national audience development organization. The goal is simple: to help grow audiences by offering the best possible information to the professionals who draw new people into cultural institutions.

Launched in April, CultureHive currently hosts over seven hundred resources organized into four categories: guides/toolkits, research, case studies, and articles. The AMA has a team of experts gathering resources and creating new ones on a freelance basis, and users are encouraged to submit their own examples of good practice as well.

The platform itself looks great and couldn’t be simpler. The homepage highlights the most recently added and the most popular resources, but it’s really all about the search box, which stretches the length of the page.

I tried typing “youth” into the search box, hoping to find resources about marketing to and engaging young people, and up came fifteen results, all downloadable pdfs. Narrowing the results further to case studies, there were nine choices left that covered pricing strategies, membership structures, orchestra models, family concerts, libraries, and museums, all with a special focus on young people.

CultureHive Results

Three things seem to set CultureHive apart. First, while CultureHive isn’t the first online repository of helpful resources for arts marketers, it might be the first to balance specificity about marketing for cultural organizations with relevance to diverse corners of the arts sector. In the U.S., for example, the Theater Communications Group and the National Guild for Community Arts Education have online collections of marketing resources, but they cater to their particular slices of the arts world, so they lack broad applicability – and they provide limited access for non-members. Conversely, some sources do cover multiple arts fields but go a bit too broad, neglecting arts-specific information in favor of something akin to Marketing 101. This seems to be the case for the one-size-fits-all marketing resources provided by many state arts agencies, such as those in North Carolina and Texas.

Second, simplicity and speed are paramount in CultureHive’s design – the site is extremely easy to use. Americans for the Arts’s Arts Marketing Project has an online resources section with a lot to offer, but it’s not keyword searchable and can require some digging to locate what you need.

Finding this combination of breadth, depth, and user-friendliness in a single place is rare and could make CultureHive a go-to site, but I would argue that its success is contingent on the third distinguishing factor: an emphasis on sharing. At the bottom of every single page is a link that says, “upload a resource.” The fact that this is a living collection of materials sets the site apart most of all – but only if it keeps growing. Since launching in April, the site has been getting about one submission per week. For CultureHive to really take off, this pace will probably need to pick up considerably.

We’ll have to wait and see if CultureHive lives up to its promise. I’m also curious whether arts marketers outside the UK will find the site useful. At present, the resources available are largely for and by UK arts marketers and organizations. There are some resources featuring examples from the States – including the Philadelphia Orchestra, the Museum of Modern Art in New York, the Providence Performing Arts Center in Rhode Island, and the San Jose Symphony Orchestra – and CultureHive hopes to expand its bank of U.S. information over time. (American readers, feel free to lend a hand with the internationalization: head over to CultureHive and upload away.)

For the moment, in a world where a Google search of “arts marketing to youth case studies” will get you nearly 22 million hits, it’s nice to search for exactly what you’re looking for in a catalogue of material vetted by experts. CultureHive provides a valuable service that will only improve as its pool of resources grows. In the best case scenario, CultureHive could help spur more effective marketing across the arts sector, leading more people to buy tickets, take classes, visit exhibitions – and hopefully like what they hear, see, do, learn and feel enough to keep coming back.

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Around the horn: Big Papi edition


  • Glenn Beck is at it again: the right-wing broadcaster recently attacked the U.S. Department of Arts and Culture along with the Imagining America initiative on his Internet show, The Blaze. Far from a government agency, the USDAC is a “citizen-powered” art project that hasn’t received any public funding to date. Not one to be deterred by facts, Beck claims the two groups are “America’s newest propaganda machine” attempting to “rewrite our history.”
  • The Metropolitan Museum of Art has signed a new lease with the city of New York that clarifies the museum is allowed to charge a suggested admissions fee, and added fees for special exhibitions. A lawsuit filed earlier this year alleged that the Met’s previous lease with the city required the museum to be free to the public five days a week.
  • Cultural policy researchers in England are crying foul over Arts Council England’s “long-standing bias” toward organizations based in London, which receive a whopping 82% of funding, and asking it be redistributed proportionally to the population across the country.
  • A number of theaters in upstate New York are concerned about the possible opening of several casinos in the area and the potential impact on booking major performers and retaining audiences. The advocacy group Upstate Theaters for a Fair Game is seeking protections from the state to “‘establish a fair and reasonable partnership” between the casinos and the local market.


  • The Museum of Modern Art sure is committed to staying on top of digital trends in education: it jumped on the MOOC train early, and now has a new partnership with Khan Academy.
  • Two Latino theater companies in New York, Pregones Theater and the Puerto Rican Traveling Theater, are getting set to merge with the help of Time Warner and the Ford Foundation. The two performing ensembles will retain their original names under the new organization, but will share resources.
  • The Theater for a New Audience has moved into its first permanent home after spending the last 34 years producing shows in a variety of rented spaces around Manhattan. City planners view the completion of the newly constructed theater as “the capstone” to a downtown Brooklyn cultural district long in the making.
  • What’s going on with the Brooklyn Philharmonic? The NYC-area orchestra made a splash back in 2011 with a daring programming strategy focused on marrying classical music with other more widely popular genres as well as local composers and artists. But all the positive press and attention the new direction received apparently wasn’t enough to stanch the organization’s financial bleeding.
  • While the debate rages on over whether Spotify is good or bad for musicians, YouTube muscles in on its territory by planning a subscription service that would give users on-demand, ad-free access to music videos on their mobile phones.
  • Musicians of the Charleston Symphony Orchestra recently voted to break from their local union chapter of the American Federation of Musicians in an unprecedented industry move. The decision was reportedly motivated in part by the “understanding that to be successful as an orchestra in the future, [they] need more flexibility, they need to be nimble, and…unions sometimes get in the way of that.”




  • The National Endowment for the Arts is offering a $30,000 prize for an interactive application that will “make the rich content of the 2012 [Survey of Public Participation in the Arts] more accessible to the public through a series of interactive, visually appealing, and easy-to-use data visualization tools.” Submissions are due February 3.
  • A new study by On the Move examines how European cities support “cultural mobility” – the ease with which artists and cultural professionals engage outside their home region.
  • In an effort to increase both convenience and access to data on the nonprofit sector, major players Guidestar and the Foundation Center have entered into a strategic partnership meant to “support the field in new and innovative ways.”
  • The Whole Schools Initiative in Mississippi reports that 5,000+ students participating in an arts integration program performed significantly better on fourth and fifth grade state assessments than their peers.
  • For its Arts, Culture and Audiences week, the American Evaluation Association highlighted assessment practices in arts education with a series of blog posts stressing that assessments can be “hands-on, active learning experiences for students.”
  • York University and the National Ballet School in Toronto are partnering to conduct a pilot study with the hopes of providing scientific evidence of the positive mental and physical effects of dance on people with Parkinson’s disease.
  • Grantmakers in the Arts’s ongoing research into support for individual artists has generated a crop of admirably detailed case studies of how a nonprofit grantmaker, state agency, private foundation, and family foundation select recipients for their awards to individuals.
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Fractured Atlas as a Learning Organization: An Introduction

(Cross-posted from the Fractured Atlas blog, as I expect many Createquity readers will be interested in this series. -IDM)

If you’ve been paying any attention at all to technology trends the past few years, you know that we live in the era of Big Data. All of those videos we upload to YouTube, hard drives we fill with government secrets (or cat photos, take your pick), and tweets we awkwardly punch out on touchscreen keyboards add up to a whole lot of gigabytes, the bulk of which are stored by someone, somewhere, indefinitely. By some estimates, human beings generate more data every two days than we did in the entire history of civilization prior to 2003 – and that was as of three years ago!

Indeed, these are exciting times for data nerds, and data nerds in the arts are no exception. Initiatives such as the Cultural Data Project, Southern Methodist University’s National Center for Arts Research, and the Americans for the Arts National Arts Index seek to collect or organize relevant indicators pertaining to everything from arts organizations’ financial health to audience reach and characteristics to long-term trends for musical instrument purchases.

Fractured Atlas is no stranger to data initiatives in the arts. Our Archipelago data visualization software is one of the largest such efforts, bringing together information on arts nonprofits, for-profits, fiscally sponsored projects, funding, audience distributions, and community context all in one place in the service of better understanding the arts ecosystem in a region. Facilitating data-driven decisions is a major long-term objective of Artful.ly, our just-launched cloud-based arts management tool, and a present-day reality for Spaces, our venue listing and booking service that can promote spaces with last-minute availability to users. Through our research advisory services work, we’ve helped funders such as ArtsWave organize their entire grantmaking process around principles of data-driven decision-making in order to further their philanthropic objectives. Everyone benefits when funders, organizations and individuals in the arts ecosystem make thoughtful decisions about resource allocation, setting up and responding to incentives, and more. At Fractured Atlas, we believe that data can and should be a crucial input into that thoughtful decision-making process, and we’ve been increasingly vocal in evangelizing for data-driven decision making throughout the arts and cultural sector.

There’s just one problem. Up until now, Fractured Atlas has not had any formal guidelines in place to ensure that we use data in our own decision making, with the result that our internal decisions – relating to management, marketing, strategy, and the like – have been guided primarily by managerial intuition. In a “doctor, heal thyself!” moment, we’ve agreed that is time for our practices to reflect our preaching, at both the program and institutional levels. In 2013, the scope of our operations, the size of the community we serve, and the financial stakes in our work demand informed analysis at a level of rigor that we have not historically practiced. (This directive was immortalized by our fearless leader Adam Huttler in the organization’s annual Strategic Priorities Memo with the colorful title, “Eating Our Data-Driven Dog Food.”)

So between now and next summer, Fractured Atlas is embarking on a pilot initiative to explore how we can use data and evidence to improve our decision-making process at all levels. We’re calling it Fractured Atlas as a Learning Organization, and through this and future blog posts, we’re giving you the opportunity to be a fly on the wall as use this process as a way of grappling with issues of organization identity, strategy, culture, and impact.


What Is a Learning Organization?

As I define it*, a learning organization is one for which information and strategy are joined at the hip. It is, quite literally, an organization that has successfully forged a culture of learning and integrated that culture into its decision-making process at all levels.

Why is this integration between information and strategy important? Because every organization operates in an environment of uncertainty about what is going to result from its decisions, and every decision we make on behalf of an organization is based on a prediction, whether explicitly articulated or not, about the results of that decision.

If you can reduce the uncertainty associated with your decisions, the chances that you will make the right decision will increase. Of particular interest here  are what I call decisions of consequence: dilemmas for which the consequences of making the wrong decision and uncertainty about the nature of the right decision are both high. So, how do you reduce that uncertainty? Why, through research, of course! Studying what has happened in the past can inform what is likely to happen in the future. Studying what has happened in other contexts can inform what is likely to happen in your context. And studying what is happening now can tell you whether your assumptions seem spot on or off by a mile.

In fact, I subscribe to the notion that research is only valuable insofar as it helps to answer a question that matters. I’m not the only one who thinks so, either: Jake Porway, the founder of a nonprofit that connects data scientists with social enterprises in need, wrote this past spring that “any data scientist worth their salary will tell you that you should start [a data project] with a question, NOT the data.” In fact, all of the excitement around Big Data notwithstanding, data divorced from strategy is not likely to be very useful.

A learning organization solves this problem by forging a powerful feedback loop between information and strategy, with each feeding the other and adapting in relation to the other. The more obvious implication of this symbiosis is that organizational decisions must adapt in response to new information, as discussed above. But the less obvious implication is no less important: information-gathering must be directed by the organization’s decision-making needs. Without that intimate connection, there are no real safeguards to prevent organizations from thinking they are making data-driven decisions without really putting much thought into either the data or the decisions.

More broadly, a learning organization develops a culture of seeking out and using information thoughtfully from the highest levels to the organization’s grassroots. The most effective organizations are conscious about the impact they are trying to achieve, and willing to be open-minded regarding the paths they take to maximizing that impact.

*Some readers may be familiar with the term “learning organization” as defined by MIT management scientist Peter Senge in his well-known 1990 book The Fifth Discipline. My use of the phrase is broadly in the same spirit as Senge’s, but he sets out a very specific formula for what constitutes a learning organization that I don’t make use of here.


Fractured Atlas as a Learning Organization

This fiscal year, which started in September and goes through next summer, we are undertaking a pilot project to put some of these principles into practice. The primary goal of the pilot is to develop a conceptual framework and a toolkit of situation-adaptable methods for reducing uncertainty about decisions of consequence. If we can reduce the uncertainty we have about those decisions through strategic measurement and information-gathering efforts, over time we’re likely to make better decisions that will in turn lead to better outcomes for Fractured Atlas and the people who benefit from our work.


As powerful as this idea is, it only works if we have a very concrete sense of what we’re trying to accomplish as an organization. While we’ve had a mission statement for some time now, the huge variety of programs and services Fractured Atlas offers is virtually impossible to fully capture in a single sentence. Accordingly, the first step in this process is to create a theory of change for every program at the organization, from which we’ll roll up an overall theory of change and logic model for the organization as a whole. This will allow us to define our overall goals as well as some key success metrics at various levels of operation, taking into account both Fractured Atlas’s mission objectives and its focus on developing programs that are sustainable with earned income.

Meanwhile, we’ve formed an internal task force to work on this project at a deeper level of engagement throughout the year. Affectionately called the Data-Driven D.O.G. Force (the “D.O.G.” stands for Data Over Gut), the group will meet every 6-8 weeks to receive calibrated probability assessment training, identify real-world decisions of consequence to use as case studies, and come up with measurement experiments to gather information relevant to those decisions. In doing so, we’ll be using a modified version of a methodology called Applied Information Economics as described in Douglas W. Hubbard’s book How to Measure Anything: Finding the Value of “Intangibles” in Business. One major advantage of AIE is that it explicitly takes into account the cost-benefit of measurement strategies by calculating something called the value of information, which we’ll be exploring further in a future post.

At the end, we’ll attempt to formalize a process for identifying decisions of consequence in the future and fitting measurement strategies to the situation at hand. We’ll also present some recommendations for building infrastructure in the form of ongoing data collection, to address those questions that are likely to be asked again and again. And through it all, I’ll be writing about it here – so that anyone who wants to can learn alongside us.


Learning in Context: Why Philosophy Matters as Much as Performance

Data-driven decision-making isn’t just about crunching numbers. It’s a practice that requires certain values in order to work. The hard part of being data-driven is not the “data” but the “driven” – you have to be willing to question your assumptions and actually change your behavior in response to the new information coming in. Put another way, a learning organization is, well, open to learning new things -even things that suggest that the way that we’re currently doing things isn’t working as well as it could, or that we’re missing important opportunities to increase our impact.

It’s much easier to attain that kind of open stance if we train ourselves to expect failure upfront. In general, organizations as well as people have a tendency to be far too risk-averse. Being a learning organization means embracing a culture of intentional experimentation and productive failure: we’re likely not going to hit upon the secret sauce the very first time we try something – or, sometimes, at all.

Being a learning organization similarly requires that we think about ourselves from a system perspective – how are we making a difference in light of what everyone else is doing? And how can our experiences shed light on those of others? That’s why we’re not just going down this path on our own and in private. If the specific activities of the pilot project turn out to be a big waste of time (and I can’t guarantee that they won’t), we won’t be able to hide that from you or the world. But even that would ultimately be a good thing – because, in true learning organization fashion, it would cause us to reconsider the limitations of a data-driven approach. Embracing change is hard, but one of the very best things about it is that it can allow us to extract just as much (if not more) value from failure as success.

For me, personally, this project is very exciting. Of course I’m eager to find out what we’ll learn. But more than that, Fractured Atlas as a Learning Organization is an opportunity for us to exercise leadership in a way that reaffirms our highest standards for ourselves and for the field. I’m looking forward to sharing our journey with you.

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Artists shaking up and strengthening communities in rural America

Audience members dock their canoes to watch a scene from a paddling theater production in Granite Falls, Minnesota. Photograph taken by the author.

Audience members dock their canoes to watch a scene from a paddling theater production in Granite Falls, Minnesota. Photograph taken by the author.

(Rachel Engh recently received a master’s degree in urban and regional planning from the University of Minnesota’s Humphrey School of Public Affairs. She currently lives in Minneapolis and is interested in exploring creative strategies to evaluate the success of community-based arts initiatives.)

Last May, nearly two hundred people paddled down the Minnesota River in large canoes, stopping throughout the three-hour ride to experience scenes depicting the bizarre true story of how Granite Falls (population 2,800) came to be the county seat of Yellow Medicine County in southwestern Minnesota. Audience members watched as local actors and musicians shared stories of Native Americans, French explorers, mussel diggers, and early politicians. Locals paddled next to tourists; kids splashed their oars in the water, and older folks went along for the ride.

The performance, “With the Future on the Line: Paddling Theater from Granite Falls to Yellow Medicine,” sprung out of a partnership among four nonprofit and public organizations: Clean Up River Environment (CURE), a local environmental nonprofit; Wilderness Inquiry, a Twin Cities-based nonprofit; the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources; and PlaceBase Productions, a theater company out of St. Paul that had previously worked with the community last fall. Celebrating the fiftieth anniversary of the Minnesota water trail system, the performance highlighted two of the region’s assets – the Minnesota River and local artists – while bringing new people to experience Granite Falls.

Why artists should be part of the conversation about rural population gain

“With the Future on the Line” is just one example of how rural communities are adopting arts strategies to re-energize towns, spark meaningful conversations, and attract visitors. Patrick Moore, former executive director of CURE and an artist himself, told me he wanted to involve PlaceBase’s founders, Ashley Hanson and Andrew Gaylord, because they are “not only artists with charisma but also community organizers, getting people to think together, act together, helping people find roles to make them feel good and connect them with the larger community.”

This type of connection is what prospective transplants to rural communities are looking for, argues Ben Winchester, a researcher at University of Minnesota Extension who has studied rural population change. Small towns across the county are seeing their cohort of 30-49 year olds grow, a phenomenon Winchester has called “brain gain,” because these folks are in their early or mid-careers and bring with them education, skills, and connections to professionals outside the community. Attracting and keeping people in this age group can be an effective way to create an increased tax base, a more diversified economy, a more vibrant school system (since these people tend to have families), and new ideas and optimism. Only about 35-45% of the brain gain cohort is returning to a place where they once lived, meaning the majority of people who move to rural places have been attracted to somewhere new.

Artists can play an integral role in brain gain, both as part of an incoming cohort and as a means of attracting others. Concerted efforts by a rural area to attract artists can be an especially high-yield strategy because of the nature of artistic work. Researchers Ann Markusen and Anne Gadwa argue that artists tend to be “footloose,” meaning they are not tied to a specific place and may work from home; because they often struggle to find affordable space in metropolitan areas, rural areas may be especially attractive to them. Once a rural area hosts a population of artists, they can help the region attract non-artist residents who value the arts as an amenity, and they can engage all residents in relationship-building through cultural activity.

Given this potential virtuous cycle, it is no surprise that rural communities have developed several strategies to attract, deploy, and connect artists as part of broader revitalization efforts. This article explores some of the ways rural places demonstrate their value for artists and the positive results that can follow.


Attracting artists by creating a built environment for the arts

Many small towns suffer from main streets with vacant buildings, schools without students to populate them, and housing stock that overwhelms demand. Some rural communities have adopted arts initiatives that repurpose this infrastructure into assets for artists and the community alike.

Oil City, Pennsylvania (population 10,500) started a successful Artist Relocation Program that offers artists fixed-rate financing, grants, and loans for purchasing and rehabbing property. Since 2006, the program has attracted 28 artists, 21 of whom have bought homes, and has brought an estimated $1.3 million to the local economy. Artist Relocation Coordinator Joann Wheeler notes that newly resident artists have also created gathering places, such as Art on Elm, where both non-artist residents and artists make and experience art. (Oil City’s program is based on the even older Artist Relocation Program in Paducah, Kentucky, which began in 2000.)

The Kaddatz Hotel opened in Fergus Falls, Minnesota (population 13,000), in 1914, closed in the 1970s, and sat empty until 2004, when Artspace converted it to 10 units of artist lofts. Eric Santwire was the second artist to move into the Kaddatz Artist Lofts. Priced out of his neighborhood and having difficulty connecting with the artist community in Minneapolis, Santwire, like the other initial occupants, decided to move to Fergus Falls specifically because of the Lofts. The Kaddatz Galleries occupies the first floor of the building, which means that artists can both live and show their work in one building. “The Kaddatz Galleries feels like more than a gallery,” Michele Anderson, Rural Program Director for Springboard for the Arts told me. “It’s a place where people go to strike up conversations.”


Deploying artists to tackle complex issues facing rural communities

As these examples show, having artists around can generate investment and a sense of place. A rural area can also launch initiatives that make use of artists’ ability to explore creative solutions for complex issues. This kind of innovation can make a community more attractive to artists and non-artists alike.

Starksboro, Vermont (population 2,000) established an innovative artist residency to do just this. Vermont artist Matthew Perry spent nine months in Starksboro as part of the Art & Soul program, a partnership between the town and the Vermont Land Trust that was funded with a grant from the Orton Family Foundation. Perry facilitated citizen involvement in town planning, a process usually left to elected officials, convening “roadside conversations” in which he encouraged community members to envision the future of Starksboro. Then, he and the residents turned the stories into works of art, and the impact is tangible. For example, the town funded new trails and public spaces and commissioned artists to help design them, creating important assets that make Starksboro a more attractive place to live. Although Perry didn’t stay in the community, he left behind community members who became empowered in planning processes through participating in the arts.

Elsewhere, Springboard for the Arts employs “Artist Organizers” (AOs) to infuse non-arts organizations with creative energy and unique problem-solving skills. Currently, four AOs are working in yearlong positions in the Twin Cities, collaborating with such organizations as a public school system; starting this fall, an AO will be working in western Minnesota alongside staff of PartnerSHIP 4 Health. The artist will create her own art to address public health priorities in the region and engage other artists to work on public health issues.


Beyond infrastructure and programs: building networks and strengthening relationships among artists

Housing incentives and programs that engage artists in imaginative problem-solving cannot alone guarantee a thriving arts community. Part of the reason for the success of the Oil City and Fergus Falls projects is that both offer not only physical infrastructure for artists to live and do their work but also places to meet other artists, show work, and cultivate connections with other artists and non-artist residents. It is the relationships fostered in and outside the buildings that make these infrastructure projects such strong models.

Local interactions aren’t the only way artists are building relationships, however: recent initiatives promise to connect rural artists across towns, either regionally or nationally. These associations and online platforms augment the brain gain strategies of individual rural areas by allowing artists to share resources more widely, find support from a larger network of others facing similar challenges, and seize opportunities and inspiration. They can also spread the word to new artists about funding opportunities and ways to showcase their work.

Art of the Rural, a national online platform that collects, organizes, and displays a diverse mix of artists, art projects, and arts organizations in rural places, recently unveiled its interactive Atlas of Rural Arts and Culture. Members can post stories of their own projects, adding to the 500 entries already completed, and many entries links to articles or websites that dive deeper into the stories. The creators note that the map can serve as a way to reduce isolation among rural artists, as artists can find information (including contact information) about people and organizations doing work, giving artists ways to connect with others virtually.

Another online platform, Rural America Contemporary Art (RACA), likewise seeks to connect rural artists to one another. The online magazine, which began as a Facebook group that now boasts over 1,300 members, profiles artists, advertises events, and offers feature editorials. Founder and artist Brian Fink lives in Mankato, Minnesota (population 40,000), and explains that the next “challenge is to take this idea of Rural America Contemporary Art and artists who make it and shift from a virtual community and actually do things out in the world.” Since launching the initial Facebook group, RACA has hosted gatherings for local artists to show their work, including the first ever RACA group exhibition. RACA also recently starting renting commercial space to create Open Space, a community work area for artists.


The promise of the arts for rural America

Towns aspiring to brain gain may consider large scale projects like some of those described or smaller steps to engage artists who already live in the area. In some cases, it may be as simple as setting aside some city funds to make art happen.

That’s what Granite Falls did when it invited PlaceBase Productions back to town in October to produce a third and final project. In the absence of grant support, the town came to the rescue: the city pitched in funds, along with nearly 40% of the local businesses and nonprofits. This type of support demonstrates the value residents place on the mobilization of artists in the community to address local issues and bring people together. “Granite Falls is the envy of the region,” Patrick Moore told me. With the Chamber of Commerce and the city investing in cultural tourism, young people buying property, and new businesses opening on main street, Granite Falls boasts amenities that draw people in. Although Granite Falls still faces many challenges shared by other small towns all over the country, local actors and musicians have witnessed how the town can reenergized because of their mobilization. With the community’s support, there’s a good chance that artists will continue to play an important role in the area’s future.


Createquity is 6!

Today is the sixth anniversary of Createquity’s first post in 2007. To celebrate, here’s a selection of favorite posts from our back catalogue:


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