Is it time for the arts to become a partisan issue?

3005645604_116169be39_b(photo courtesy Flickr user victoriabernal, Creative Commons license)

So, in case you haven’t noticed, the arts have become a bit of a hot topic in the political arena lately. Though the brouhaha regarding the NEA’s involvement in the United We Serve conference calls seems to have died down a bit since Yosi Sergant fell on his sword, conservatives have been trying to expand the fight to other arenas, like the meeting with arts community activists in May and now, the Obamas’ choice of art to decorate the White House itself. As Janet Brown of Grantmakers for the Arts has pointed out, it’s silly to think this is about anything other than the fact that, in the words of Alan Grayson, “if the President has a BLT tomorrow, the Republicans will try to ban bacon.” For conservatives, this is about fighting Obama wherever and whenever they can, using any pretext possible, to try to slow him down and obstruct any change from happening. And if the arts have to be a casualty of that, clearly they could care less, even if an offspring or two has to suffer for it.

One of my great frustrations of the past couple of months, though, has been that many on the left seemingly could care less as well. A simple comparison of the play that the NEA/Yosi Sergant story received on each side of the aisle will serve to illustrate my point. Every time a “new” revelation from Patrick Courrielche’s closet of secrets came out on Big Hollywood, the story would receive the royal treatment from the conservative elite: front-page posts on Michelle Malkin and Instapundit, live television interviews on Beck and Hannity, extensive, day-after-day coverage from the Washington Times, etc. In contrast, the liberal media pretty much hit the snooze button until people’s heads started to roll. The controversy was virtually invisible on Daily Kos, one of the most popular left-leaning community blogs, despite my own best efforts in cross-posting three articles from Createquity there. Aside from a bit of coverage by Mother Jones and Huffington Post, there was barely any attempt to rally the troops in defense of the NEA on the part of the left until after the damage was already done (and only a halfhearted one even then). I don’t know about you, but I’m tired of artists caring far more about liberal politics than liberal politics cares about them.

And what of the arts blogosphere? When Courrielche’s story first came out, there was a lot of hemming and hawing in our corner that took most of the (as it turned out, borderline delusional) speculation in his original essay at face value — which, in some cases, only served to hand a hatchet to those who were on the lookout for one. This is my second great frustration with how this whole business played out. Look, you can think what you want about the appropriateness or lack thereof of the idea behind getting artists involved in a national community service initiative. But understand this: the Right is not interested in having a reasoned, constructive dialogue with you about the ways in which this concept could have been approached differently or could have delivered better outcomes for the American people. The Right wants an excuse, any excuse at all, to rip the President and anyone involved with his administration to rhetorical (and for some of them, literal) shreds. And if your words end up being that excuse, don’t act all surprised after the fact.

My final frustration relates to the NEA’s own handling of the situation. The communications office appeared completely blindsided by this attack and clearly thought that by stonewalling the inquiries it was suddenly getting from conservative media outlets, the issue would just go away. Instead, the lack of a response just provided more fuel to the fire, hampered the Endowment’s credibility, and gave the story new life every day that clear answers were not forthcoming. Then, by demoting Sergant and ultimately accepting his resignation, the NEA opened itself up to charges of “why are you disciplining him if you’re saying he didn’t do anything wrong?” I obviously wasn’t there, but to me the NEA’s actions during this period look an awful lot like those of an institution paralyzed by fear – ironic, since the great majority of the facts were ultimately on its side.

Taken together, it’s a sad commentary on the state of arts advocacy, both in terms of how others advocate for us and how we advocate for ourselves.

Which leads me to wonder: maybe we have our advocacy strategy all wrong, or at least wrong for this moment in history and this particular political environment. Despite the arts’ best efforts to slink away into nonpartisan anonymity after the culture wars of the late ’80s and early ’90s, we are now finding that the resulting gains in public investment have not only been modest but exceedingly fragile. What this summer has made clear is that conservatives love to pick on the arts. Like bullies of all stripes, they love it because it’s easy. And it’s easy because we’re small, because we’re poorly organized, and because we have no one to defend us – we’re nonpartisan, remember?

I don’t like the increasing polarization in American politics any more than you do, but maybe it’s time for us to recognize that it’s happening whether we like it or not. And given that one side has demonstrated, over and over again, that it is willing to ignore both facts and reason in pursuing its attacks against who we are and what we do, maybe, just maybe, we should think about allying ourselves with the other side in a more formal way.

What might this look like? As nonprofit organizations, most arts groups are limited in the amount of direct lobbying they can do, and they cannot endorse specific candidates. That’s not what I’m talking about, though. I’m talking about seeking a shift in the dialogue of the thought leaders on the left. I’m talking about making the arts a “progressive” issue in the same way that environmentalism, health care, reproductive rights, and labor are considered “progressive” issues. To be sure, this would lose us some fans and invite lots of confrontation, both of which are in a vacuum Very Bad Things. But it would bring with it an advantage, a huge, huge advantage: the machinery, infrastructure, and commitment of one of the two major political parties in the US–the one that at the moment just happens to have led in party identification among voters nationally for the past four years running. This is no small matter. For all the vitriol (and sometimes worse) that has been hurled at abortion-rights supporters since 1973, Roe v. Wade still stands. And where do you think the labor movement would be in this country without the strong support of Democrats through the years?

An alliance between the arts and the left makes a lot of sense on both sides. Most artists themselves identify as anywhere from moderately liberal to borderline Marxist, as do their core audiences. Art production and presentation has historically been concentrated on the coasts, in urban areas, and in town centers, a fact of life decried by some but that nevertheless aligns well with the progressive focus on cities and existing concentrations of progressives. Richard Florida’s “creative class” concept and the arts’ neighborhood-revitalization powers provide us with an opening; it’s up to us to use it wisely. Just as there is a movement of “greening” cities underway, there should be a movement of “arting” cities: providing color, infrastructure, and life to neighborhoods and communities as we clean them up and get them ready for the 21st century. Part of the reason culture conservatives hate the NEA so is because so much art speaks to largely progressive groups: homosexuals, atheists, people of color, the sexually liberated, the alienated, the outsiders. One could even make an argument that art and creativity are inherently progressive values: they require and celebrate a capacity to think critically, to question convention, to consider different viewpoints. Is it time for us to come out of the political closet and show the world who we really are?

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Around the horn: Brooklyn dreamin’ edition

This is apparently the month for Createquity guest-blogging. In addition to my contributions to Barry Hessenius’s NEA group blog, which continues this week with several panelists from the commercial music and television industries, I will be doing double-duty next week: running the official blog of the Grantmakers in the Arts Conference in Brooklyn, NY starting on Sunday, and contributing to a week-long discussion about emerging leaders in the arts for Americans for the Arts’s ARTSblog. More on both of those in short order.

  • Blogging at Parabasis, 99 Seats asks, “If [you] just slapped an MFA from whatever school you like most on your resume and left it there, who would question you?” It’s a provocative question, and unfortunately the answer is probably very few people. But this is nothing new – remember when the dean of admissions for MIT had to resign because she faked her own credentials? The more interesting question that it raises for me is this: if getting an MFA is increasingly seen as a requirement to get anything produced in the theater, how do all those MFAs distinguish themselves from each other? Maybe by getting an even higher degree? We’re already seeing it in music, where a master’s degree is no longer enough to make it in a lot of fields (notably conducting). This kind of “degree inflation” is happening in arts administration too, where enough people are getting master’s degrees that the degree itself doesn’t mean as much on its own as it used to. Net result: everybody’s getting smarter, but taking on more debt to do it.
  • Maryann Devine has quietly started reviewing marketing books at smArts & Culture, which is definitely the kind of thing we need more of (see Series, Arts Policy Library). Her latest entry is on Chris Anderson’s Free, about which she has mainly positive things to say. For another perspective, check the Clyde Fitch Report, in which Leonard Jacobs considers Anderson’s book from the perspective of professional arts criticism, blogging, and a column by noted music journalist Norman Lebrecht. Finally, at a site called QuestionCopyright.org, Nina Paley goes the whole hog and says, “It is assumed that a) Artists are inherently entitled to monetary compensation for their Art, and b) copyright is a mechanism for this compensation. I challenge both assumptions.”
  • Sean Stannard-Stockton has had a nice run of posts lately over at Tactical Philanthropy. In “Philanthropedia,” he points us to a new resource that surveys a network of experts for their opinions on the best nonprofits working in  a range of cause topics such as education and climate change. The assessments include not just the rankings and generic/public info about the nonprofits, but also a qualitative assessment of strengths and weaknesses for each organization. A good step in the right direction. In “Philanthropy at the End of the Recession,” Sean points out that, if indeed the Great Recession is nearing an end (a big if, mind you), now is a great time for nonprofits to retool and prepare for coming capacity building efforts. I think that’s true if said nonprofits have fully internalized the depth of the economic downturn and remodeled themselves as leaner, meaner organizations. However, those that have managed to squeak by without major cutbacks to this point might still have layoffs and other cost-cutting measures in their future, as foundations adjust their 2010 and 2011 payout levels to incorporate the full extent of their losses in the market in the past year. Finally, Sean has a guest post from the Nonprofit Finance Fund’s George Overholser, who puts forth a “bullet point manifesto” on how far we can expect impact evaluation to take us in our understanding of charity effectiveness. I have to say that I kind of love this format and may explore using it myself.
  • Compelling cases: over at New Voices in Philanthropy, Trista Harris (and E. J. Dionne) make a convincing argument for why the nonprofit sector should accept the Obama  administration’s proposal to lower the cap on charitable deductions for the super-wealthy in order to pay for health insurance reform. And at Better Together, Grantmakers in the Arts executive director Janet Brown comes out swinging on the subject of politically-motivated attacks on the National Endowment for the Arts. I was really glad to read these words from someone in her position: “The culture wars these days are not about culture. It’s a war about power and about winning. We need to call it what it is. And we need to continue with our work that unapologetically aspires to brighten the lives of all Americans.” Go Janet!
  • Thank you to Gary Steuer for making my job that much easier. Steuer, the Chief Cultural Officer for the city of Philadelphia, has an awesome direct account of what’s going on with the Pennsylvania arts budget. Apparently the much-dreaded “arts tax” (which is really just the application of the state sales tax to arts organization tickets and admissions) is not happening after all. On the other hand, it looks like the Pennsylvania Council on the Arts will sustain a cut of about 27% in all – not as bad as in some states, but still pretty bad.
  • Speaking of Philadelphia, I am coming to admire Peggy Amsterdam and the Greater Philadelphia Cultural Alliance more and more. The latest news is a $750,000 grant program based on the GPCA’s recent audience engagement study, Research into Action: Pathways to New Opportunities. True to the report’s name, this has to be the fastest time on record that one of these research reports has been translated into a bona-fide new grant program.
  • The wise ones speak: go read some great tips from social media Beth Kanter on measuring the effectiveness of your blog; Adam Thurman warns us not to focus so much on thinking outside the box that we forget why the box is there.
  • What a difference a year makes: even real estate developers in New York are falling over themselves to offer cheap (temporary) storefront spaces to artists now.
  • RIP to Suzanne Fiol, founder of the experimental music space Issue Project Room, who passed away at only 49 last week after a battle with cancer.
  • I’m happy to report that Lalithya Vaidyanathan, one of the co-authors of the “Breakthroughs in Shared Measurement and Social Impact” report that we analyzed last week as part of the Arts Policy Library series, has chosen to engage us in dialogue with an in-depth response. Everyone should go read it here. This kind of serious and constructive dialogue around texts is exactly the kind of conversation we hope to foster here at Createquity.
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Meet Me at Barry’s IV: Wrap and Reactions

The last of the panel questions for Week 4 of the Barry’s Blog discussion of the future of the NEA are up, and Barry himself has added some final thoughts to wrap up the week. Check it all out here. To give you a taste and encourage you to visit, once again I’ve cross-posted my own answers below.

Q: There is a growing class of recently retired arts leaders (including some who aren’t yet finished with their careers, but who have moved over to the consultant side of the fence as it were).  What role should the Endowment play in maintaining the sector’s institutional memory and somehow capture the lessons learned from this class of leaders for the benefit of the sector’s future leadership?  How might it accomplish that?

A: I would never presume to assert that emerging leaders have all of the answers. I’m only 29, but even in the last few years as I’ve gotten older I’ve begun to understand just how much there is that I didn’t know at 26, and how much more I have left to learn. So I think our retired and semi-retired arts leaders have an important role to play in guiding the next generation forward and grounding our efforts in historical perspective. Every management team can benefit from having experienced voices as part of it, even if those voices are heard in an advisory rather than supervisory capacity.

What is the Endowment’s most appropriate role? I’m not sure it needs to get involved to too great a degree in this transition, but I think it can start by setting an example in its own hiring practices by putting people with the right combination of experience, skills, vision, creativity, and energy in leadership positions and ensuring that experience levels are appropriately distributed among the teams. The Endowment could also commission an oral history or other research project to record the rich historical perspectives of the retired and semi-retired arts leaders and preserve them for posterity. The next generation of leaders will also need the humility to seek out those perspectives and not get caught up too quickly in their own brilliance. But with that said, I suspect the perspective of elders is more likely to be valued properly when sought out voluntarily or incorporated into a common vision than when dictated from the top down.

Q: Do the programs and services the Endowment currently offers reflect the best use of its money?  Do you think the NEA has (is) doing enough to promote and nurture smaller arts organizations and newer, more cutting edge art?  What about its support for multicultural arts?  What should the NEA do to ensure that it makes provision for these kinds of arts and arts organizations?  Where should the proper balance lie between support for traditional Anglo America arts forms, arts expressions and legacies, and arts organizations, and both multicultural arts and newer, more avant garde artistic expressions of younger generations?

A: As I mentioned before, I think the Endowment could do a better job distributing its resources to organizations of all sizes. There is really no reason for the NEA to be giving $50,000 grants to organizations with budgets in the tens of millions of dollars. It’s just another check off the list for those development departments. On the other hand, even a $5,000 grant could have a transformative impact on an organization with a smaller budget, and the vast majority of arts organizations fall into that category. Furthermore, I’m not convinced that the current discipline-specific structure really makes the most sense for the field, particularly as more multidisciplinary work and organizations appear and as genre boundaries between what has historically been considered “art” and multicultural, commercial, and vernacular forms of creativity become ever more blurred. I keep coming back to this point, but as the national funder for the arts in America, I really think the Endowment should focus most of all on maintaining and building the infrastructure that makes cultural production and consumption possible, leaving the specifics of what art gets produced when by whom to others who are in a better position to judge. The decentralized support to state and regional arts agencies is a good example of this infrastructure-oriented funding in practice. Specific programs to subsidize presenters of various sizes, competitions, record labels, distribution networks, community cultural planning efforts, research, and service organizations would help as well. But the Endowment should be vigilant in ensuring that an appropriate portion of these funds ends up ultimately helping artists, rather than arts administrators and for-profit consulting firms. Even though I am generally in support of unrestricted funding, then, there may be instances in which the NEA’s project-based support is more appropriate; and I would also advocate for the establishment of a robust evaluation department to assess program effectiveness using tools from the NEA’s 21st-century peers in the philanthropy community.

Meanwhile, my answer to Barry’s question about arts education from earlier in the week, in which I raised the issue of what happens to newly converted arts fans once they grow up and want to continue their activity in the field of their choice, has generated some interesting responses around the web. Two of the more in-depth commentaries come from Guy Yedwab at CultureFuture, who’s more optimistic than me that an increase in arts patrons resulting from better access to arts education would bring enough new money into the sector to accommodate more aspiring professional artists; and from Joe Patti at Butts in Seats, who points out that it’s actually in an industry’s interests to exaggerate the availability of professional opportunities so that employers can keep labor costs down (though he doesn’t go so far as to suggest that this kind of intentional scheming is happening in the arts).

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Meet Me at Barry’s III

Barry’s Blog has added two more questions to this week’s group panel on the future of the NEA. My answers are below; or you can check out the entire thing here (scroll down). If you do the latter, keep an eye out for Shannon Daut’s excellent comments on public arts agency leadership.

Q: We talk a lot about next generation succession and emerging leadership issues.  What role do you think the Endowment should have in helping to train, prepare, develop and support the next generation of arts leaders and how might it go about that?

A: I believe that our field too often privileges experience at the expense of talent, learning ability, and entrepreneurial spirit. The wisdom of experience is not the same thing as the functional skills required to get things done. After all, how many arts organizations across the country are now redesigning staff job descriptions around maintaining a presence on Facebook, created by Mark Zuckerberg from his college dorm room?

What the field needs most in this area is a clear leadership pipeline for arts managers. The private sector has formed many fruitful partnerships with top colleges, professional schools, and so forth, establishing rotational leadership development or project management programs, 360-degree evaluation practices, and a clear “track” for professional advancement in many industries such as consulting and banking. While not all of these innovations may be the best choice for the arts, clearly our field has a lot to learn from our for-profit cousins.

While the burden of involving next-generation leadership in organizational decision-making will ultimately fall to arts organizations themselves, the advantage of getting the NEA involved in this discussion is its national and cross-disciplinary scope. For example, the League of American Orchestras has developed an exemplary orchestra management training program, but it will never be open to non-orchestra professionals because that would be outside of the League’s mission. A couple of participants in previous weeks of this blog drew attention to the untapped potential of the Endowment as a convener, particularly of national service organizations. I think this would be an excellent topic to bring up at such a convening—and please, NEA, if you do so, include emerging leader voices in your planning process.

The truth is, though, we don’t need the Endowment’s help to start taking better advantage of the contributions of emerging leaders. Most of the bright younger and newer arts professionals I know are not hard to find; it’s just that their entry-level or junior management positions don’t afford them the kind of platform that others in the field have to make their intelligence and insight obvious to everyone. If your organization doesn’t already involve the entire staff in strategic conversations about the future, there’s nothing preventing you from changing that tomorrow. If your organization’s board doesn’t already include voices from people younger than in their forties, that’s an easy change to make. If you don’t have any idea of what your direct reports think about how the organization could do what it does more effectively, ask them. You might be pleasantly surprised by what they come up with.

What would you like to see the Endowment accomplish?  What policies should govern its actions?  What should be its priorities?  If you were to advise Rocco Landesman on what the agenda for the NEA should be –what would you tell him?

As I mentioned in a comment the other week, it strikes me that the NEA and most of its followers have focused quite narrowly on the concerns of nonprofit arts organizations in the United States. In a perfect world, I would like to see the arts field work much more collaboratively and proactively with other fields. There are a myriad of ways in which the arts intersect with broader federal and societal priorities. As Chairman Landesman has recognized, the arts potentially have a gigantic role to play in the economic revitalization of neighborhoods and downtowns, particularly outside of major metropolitan areas where small investments can make a big difference. So why isn’t there more interaction with Housing and Urban Development? The arts are widely regarded as the linchpin of a broader creative economy, due to the space they provide for innovation for its own sake. So why are the arts so rarely a part of the discussion of the White House’s new Office of Social Innovation? Our world is rapidly becoming more integrated even as it becomes more complex. If the recent political brouhahas involving the NEA teach us anything, it should be that we can’t afford to stay in our silos for much longer.

Beyond that, I would encourage the Chairman to focus on the infrastructure of arts production in the way that I mentioned earlier. While the Endowment already does a decent job of spreading funds around both geographically and to organizations of different budget sizes, the fact remains that the vast majority of arts organizations have no hope of receiving an NEA grant because they are too small. Arts organizations receive far more from the federal government in the form of Congressional earmarks than they do through the Endowment’s competitive process. Given that large, established institutions have by far the most tools at their disposal (prestige, connections, large customer base, individual donors) with which to ensure their own survival and artistic success, I believe that the Endowment’s resources would be best directed toward the identification and support of exemplary “under the radar” arts programs, including innovative models for cultural production and distribution.

Finally, as mentioned earlier, the Endowment’s value in centralizing attention on issues of fieldwide interest has yet to be fully realized. By convening discussions relevant to the field and by commissioning high-quality research that enhances our understanding of what the arts do and how they do it (not just how many artists and patrons there are), the Endowment could provide an extremely valuable service that not many others would be in a position to duplicate.

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Arts Policy Library: Breakthroughs In Shared Measurement

[Note to readers: I'm very pleased to introduce to you the first Arts Policy Library entry (not to mention first Createquity post of any kind) not written by me. Guy Yedwab is a budding theater professional who first became known to me through the magic of Twitter and later through his blog, CultureFuture. Currently a senior at New York University, he has already founded a theater company and a publishing house in the midst of going to school full-time, completing various internships and odd jobs, and now, writing for Createquity. I'm excited to have Guy on board and hope you'll give him a warm welcome. -IDM]

Breakthroughs in Shared Measurement and Social ImpactIn “Breakthroughs in Shared Measurement and Social Impact” by FSG Social Impact Advisors, authors Mark Kramer (FSG’s co-founder), Marcie Parkhurst, and Lalitha Vaidynathan take a look at the different ways foundations and their grantees have tackled the lack of performance measurement standards in the nonprofit sector. The short 26-page report was released July 2009 and funded by the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, one of the largest foundations in America. FSG Social Impact Advisors is a nonprofit consulting firm that helps foundations and philanthropic organizations make effective grants. It should be noted that the Hewlett Foundation participates in one of the shared measurement programs documented in the report, run by the Center for Effective Philanthropy.

SUMMARY

Kramer et al. are clear about their aims early on. The paper opens as follows:

“A surprising new breakthrough is emerging in the social sector: A handful of innovative organizations have developed web-based systems for reporting the performance, measuring the outcomes, and coordinating the efforts of hundreds or even thousands of social enterprises within a field. These nascent efforts carry implications well beyond performance measurement, foreshadowing the possibility of profound changes in the vision and effectiveness of the entire nonprofit sector.”

It is these breakthroughs that  the report seeks to document, primarily through interviews with participants and summaries of the systems involved. The authors isolate three important categories of breakthroughs, each building on the last:

  1. Shared Measurement Platforms, which are an agreed-upon set of benchmarks developed by funding organizations and their grantees;
  2. Comparative Performance Systems, which build upon a Shared Measurement Platform and look for ways to compare the results between different grantee organizations; and
  3. Adaptive Learning Systems, which seek to leverage both of the above systems to develop strategies and coordinate resources between multiple foundations and grantees.

The report looked at twenty different efforts of varying sizes and types.

Kramer et al. first examine the need for these initiatives. Each of these systems emerged in response to the same fundamental problem: the extreme inefficiency of the grant application process. Although foundations in the same field were attempting to evaluate the same organizations, each had its own process and its own benchmarks. Grantee organizations found themselves wasting large amounts of time filling out different applications, spending significant contributed income simply on the process of acquiring more money for their operations. Meanwhile, foundations and grantee organizations were not learning from either each other or their peers. The problem was described vividly in Project Streamline‘s 2008 report “Drowning in Paperwork, Distracted from Purpose.”

In addition to the problem of overhead and waste inherent in duplicative grant applications, the foundations involved in these experiments recognized that organizations did not have professional benchmarks to judge their own success. In the private sector, companies have specific quantitative standards to assess their impact: market share, revenues, etc. But in the field of nonprofits, Kramer et al. note that foundations currently face a choice between two equally problematic ways of evaluating impact: haphazard self-reporting, or expensive third-party auditing. Foundations and their grantees have a mutual interest in systematically overcoming these difficulties.

To address these needs, a number of different and independent Shared Measurement Systems have been set up, usually by a group of large foundations, as reusable yardsticks for their applicants,. These systems typically take the form of web-based applications that allow representatives of a grantee organization to plug in data from their own organization and analyze the results. In the case of Comparative Performance Systems, the participants can compare this data against other users in their field. Adaptive Learning Systems improve on this system by using real-world, face-to-face meetings to discuss the meaning of these results with others in the field.

The report notes certain obstacles to implementing these programs, which all seem attributable to fears on the part of participants. Grantees fear the complexity of some of these systems, worry about disclosing too much internal information, and are afraid of running afoul of funding biases if they participate. Foundations are hesitant to spend money on developing such systems because the spending does not go directly towards their stated goals; although such systems might indirectly help the homeless or the environment, the impact is less immediate. There is also the “free-rider” problem: foundations might pour substantial time and effort into developing a system, only to have later foundations and grantees benefit without having paid in originally. The authors note, however, that in the nonprofit field, concern about the free-rider problem should be less prevalent, seeing as the whole point of philanthropy is to benefit others.

The report identifies eight success factors for implementing these systems:

  1. Strong leadership and substantial funding
  2. Broad engagement by many organizations
  3. Voluntary participation
  4. Web-based technology
  5. Independence from funders
  6. Ongoing staffing to support member organizations
  7. Testing and continual improvement
  8. Users periodically swapping information.

The appendix contains four case studies and detailed information about the 20 organizations examined.  The organizations tackle issues as diverse as housing and economic development, cultural development, education, and environmental preservation—there is even an Adaptive Learning System for marine fisheries.

The four case studies have a number of notable elements in common. Most of these programs involved web-based data-collection and sharing and a support organization to help their members. Many are free to use, but others have subscription costs that can range into the thousands—although the authors are quick to note that the member organizations still save money over not using the system. Most of the programs were started by a few large, locally influential funders, such as the David and Lucile Packard Foundation or the Acumen Fund. The initial investment averages roughly $1.2 million (excluding the Cultural Data Project, a clear outlier at $2.3 million), and time to develop ranges from 2 to 5 years.

ANALYSIS

I found the report’s conclusions intriguing and the arguments put forward in favor of these shared measurement systems persuasive. The common-sense approach to solving problems through sharing of information and reducing overhead seems so intuitive that it’s hard to believe that these programs aren’t more widespread. My only criticism of the report is its lack of depth of examination and analysis of the implementation and effectiveness of the various programs.

The report is entirely qualitative in nature. For the most part, the authors limit themselves to descriptions of the programs they examine; there is no quantitative look at the effectiveness of any of the programs, or any analysis of the metrics used within the programs. The qualitative analysis is drawn entirely from interviews of participants in the organizations, and the interviews are all positive in nature. I wouldn’t go so far as to ascribe this to deliberate bias on behalf of the authors, but the lack of any sustained criticism from the participants or perspectives from organizations that chose not to participate may create an overly rosy picture.

The report holds that the trends described point toward a new direction for the relationship between grantees and the foundations that support them. The opportunities for reducing overhead and bringing order to the chaos of searching for foundation support are clear. In other contexts, this approach has been effective: the Common App, for instance, has made the process of applying for colleges somewhat more bearable for the thousands of students who use it.

Furthermore, there is a particular passage in the report where Kramer et al. seem to reach past the stated purpose of the programs to see an even larger picture. They note that the now-famous success of the Harlem Children’s Zone stems from the powerful coordination between all aspects of the education process. They see the potential for Adaptive Learning Systems to create the groundwork for networks of multiple organizations, as closely coordinated as the Harlem Children’s Zone, working in tandem to accomplish the same goals in other contexts.

Kramer et al. already see this happening in one example, the Strive Initiative. Strive is a large-scale partnership in the Greater Cincinnati area that brings together three public school districts, one diocesan district, eight universities/community colleges, and hundreds of other education nonprofits. Strive sets forward a series of Community-level Progress Indicators, measuring what percentage of children are performing adequately in each year. Furthermore, educational nonprofits using similar approaches to improve these progress indicators collaborate in Student Success Networks (SSN), such as the Tutoring SSN that encapsulates school districts, tutoring organizations, and the Cincinnati Metropolitan Housing Authority. What began as a shared measurement system (using the Community-level Progress Indicators) developed into an adaptive learning system (the SSNs).

In a way, the report’s argument for the impact of these measurements reminds me of Richard Florida‘s statement that the culture of the creative class could transform the effectiveness of manufacturing and service industries; here, it seems that the Organization Man has something positive to give to the creative class.

Despite the clear logic and potential of all these elements, the report offers little examination of the impact of these programs, and particularly little examination of the actual systems of measurement themselves. Examples of questionnaires and metrics are provided, but the lack of critical analysis of their effectiveness and use makes it difficult to evaluate their impact. The only empirical evidence put forward is a circumstantial increase in funding for the arts in Philadelphia, possibly as a result of the organization and empirical benchmarks put forward by the Cultural Data Project, but this is only one data point and the causation isn’t very clear.

In fairness, there are a number of reasons why the report does not attempt that level of depth. Most of the projects examined are less than a decade in operation, and many of them have not yet been fully implemented. The “breakthroughs” hailed by Kramer et al. are still quite in their infancy, and it may be difficult to judge their full impact at this time. Still, an attempt to analyze the metrics used by the different organizations would have been very helpful in understanding how they operate.

Perhaps the goals of this report should be revisited in the next decade, with a more detailed and quantitative analysis of the effects of these programs. A future report could create more specific guidelines for how to create new successful systems, and share the lessons learned by the early trailblazers. This could have the added effect of lowering the development time and cost of new systems, as well as building an even stronger case for adoption and expansion.

IMPLICATIONS

The implications of this report point the way toward an excellent new strategy for approaching philanthropy, and by extension arts and culture. Although most of the organizations examined were not arts organizations, it is clear that the lessons translate across boundaries from anti-poverty groups to performing arts. The Cultural Data Project, specifically, looks to be the vehicle for this change.

There is, however, an arts-specific implication overlooked by the authors of the report, and this is the aspect that most interested me. The report focuses largely on the current structure of these shared measurement organizations, namely led by large private foundations. It does not investigate the possibility of public sector involvement. For instance, the report discusses the reluctance of foundations to embark on this sort of indirect investment. This weakness, however, becomes a strength when applied to the public sector. One of the political barriers to the debate in favor of arts funding has been a reluctance (to put it mildly) of public officials to risk funding artists and arts organizations directly, especially at the national level. It is exceptionally easy to attack the arts by attacking a few examples of controversial organizations, and there will always be a toxic debate surrounding which organizations to support and by how much.

The power of this report is that it puts forward another strategy of supporting philanthropy (and in specific the arts), one which avoids the problem of directly supporting organizations. Instead, it proposes an informational infrastructure for the arts.

In this age, we’ve come to recognize that knowledge and data have the particular power to maximize the impact of any organization. The government already provides its greatest support for the arts in infrastructural investments that are equally available to all arts organizations—the institutions of copyright and nonprofit tax credits are, from one perspective, infrastructural investments in the arts. The National Endowment of the Arts could appropriate a fraction of its budget to create national standards for data sharing in the arts, eventually creating adaptive learning systems for the arts.

The political advantage of this approach is that it avoids the picking and choosing of organizations that touch? on sensitive issues of censorship, ideology, and artistic merit. Foundations are better places to support individual organizations and artists—this way, the government’s investment will facilitate the ability of foundations to support those artists and organizations.

To a large extent, this is the federal government’s approach to stimulating industry. It would be very difficult to measure the impact of the Bureau of Labor Statistics on the national economy, but no one would deny that for a relatively modest cost it provides huge benefits to the world of labor. So it could be for the arts.

Consider, for a moment, that with an investment of $2.3 million, such an infrastructure is being established in seven states in the form of the Cultural Data Project. Suppose that the cost per state of this is fixed; it would thus take $16.4 million to cover all 50 states (this is a very rough approximation, just for the current point I’m making). This is still only a portion of the $50 million in stimulus money appropriated for the arts, and I suspect that the cost would likely be less than that. In other words, for a very plausible amount of money, the National Endowment of the Arts could invest in a project whose benefits would be accessible to every arts organization.

This report is an important first step in building such an approach. Although more work remains to be done, the report provides a clear method of cutting overhead, sharing information, and eventually building a strategy for coordinating the arts.

[UPDATE: Don't miss Lalitha Vaidyanathan's (one of the report's co-authors) lengthy comment below and Guy Yedwab's response.]

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Meet Me at Barry’s II

I’m participating in this week’s portion of Barry Hessenius’s and Anthony Radich’s six-week online discussion about the future of the NEA, hosted at the Western States Arts Federation website. Barry has the panel’s answers to the first two questions already up. You can check them out here, or if you’re pressed for time, I’ve reposted my own contributions below. I highly encourage you to check out the entire panel when you have a chance, however.

Q: What will it take for the arts to finally move arts education to an equal level of support and respect with math and science – in the minds of educators, politicians, business & industry, parents, the media and / or the general public and what specifically do you think the NEA can do to help us reach the goal of K-12, sequential, curriculum based, arts education for all students?

A: This is surely not going to make me the most popular guy in the room, but I think that it’s really, really important that we have an industry-wide conversation about the long-term implications of increased arts education before we just assume that more arts education is a good thing. Before you call me out as the Grinch who stole music classes, let me explain. I think that the conversation about arts education is inseparable from the conversation about the professional arts infrastructure in America. The reason is simple: the kids who fall in love with learning to play the tuba or do a pirouette today are the adults who are going to be competing with each other for gigs and grant money tomorrow. If we are successful in our efforts and ensure that every child has the opportunity to experience all the arts they want to during their formative years, what happens to them once they get to college? The arts are a powerful drug, as addictive as nicotine for some. The arts encourage people to dream big, and we’ve developed a post-Baby Boomer culture in America that tells children to follow their dreams no matter what obstacles they encounter. That’s fine so far as it goes, but there needs to be a pot of gold on the other side of that rainbow. When music conservatories, playwriting programs, schools of art—institutions whose ranks and capital budgets have been swelling apace in recent years—blithely charge marginal students tens or even hundreds of thousands of dollars and fail to offer them even the pretense of “real life” entrepreneurship skills, that’s as close to third-sector malpractice as it gets in my opinion. A recent poll of Harvard graduates from the class of 2009 revealed that 16%—more than any other industry—considered the arts their “dream field” that they would pursue absent other considerations (6% actually are pursuing careers in the arts). If we’re trying to hook 55 million children on the arts in a system that pours 3.2 million new high school graduates into the market every year, even if only 10% of them decide to pursue professional careers, what happens to them when, by the NEA’s own figures, only 2 million artists can coexist in that market at any given time?

I’m not saying that we shouldn’t have arts education or that students across the socioeconomic spectrum don’t deserve access to it. But I do worry that focusing our efforts on arts education is an example of putting the cart before the horse. Much of the literature that advocates arts education as a strategy for cultivating demand for the arts assumes that students who have invested thousands of hours of their lives in perfecting a craft during their formative years will happily set all of that aside as soon as they turn 18 or 21, become productive members of society with skills that they somehow picked up while practicing piano for four hours a day, and donate all of their expendable income to their local arts organizations. Really? Don’t you think that some of them might be a little bitter about having to leave their dream behind? Don’t you think some of them might continue on and spend their parents’ life savings on three graduate degrees in a quixotic quest for fame and glory that never materializes? Is this the best use of our collective human capital? Before we lean too hard on a strategy that, if successful, is virtually guaranteed to pour legions of new aspiring professional artists into the system, we need first to resolve the chronic undercapacity issues that plague that system, starting with significantly increasing the supply of philanthropic capital (whether government or private) available to the arts field.

Q: Several previous panelists have expressed caution about the Endowment trying to re-establish direct funding of individual artists because of the possibility of political attacks putting the agency once again in a vulnerable position.  We’ve already seen signs of that.  Do you think the Endowment should consider funding to artists once again?  How might the Endowment help to create more intersections between independent working artists and nonprofit arts administrators?

A: Again, my position is rather iconoclastic on this one. I don’t think that direct funding of individual artists is a particularly good use of the Endowment’s resources. My objection is less political than operational. Let’s say the NEA is right that there are two million artists in the United States. No agency is equipped to properly evaluate the talents of two million artists—or even a tenth of that number. Hell, top colleges only receive twenty to thirty thousand applications a year. Individual artist fellowships might have made sense back when the NEA was first formed and the arts infrastructure was significantly underdeveloped compared to now. In 2009, though, it’s a horribly inefficient way of distributing money, unless artistic merit (quite a subjective bugaboo to begin with) is just thrown out the window and anyone who claims to be an artist can apply for an automatic $20 grant. But somehow, I don’t think that’s what the individual artist fellowship advocates have in mind.

Far better, in my opinion, for the NEA to support the infrastructure that makes funding for artists possible. There are established procedures in place to pay most individual artists for the activity that they generate. Composers can be commissioned by the ensembles they write for. Dancers can be paid by the companies they dance for. Playwrights can get royalties from the plays they write. The problem is not that artists can’t get money for their work, it’s that too many artists can’t get enough money from their work to make a living. Rather than circumvent the curatorial system that already exists and add another, very expensive layer on top, the NEA should work to subsidize the payments that are already made through the system—especially at the smaller organization level—and thereby support the curatorial activity that already takes place. There is one thing on which the individual fellowship advocates and I will agree: artists don’t receive nearly enough of the funding that goes to support the arts. According to Americans for the Arts’s research study Arts & Economic Prosperity III, artists themselves receive only 11% of total arts organizational expenditures—a figure far too low.

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Around the horn: California dreamin’ edition

  • Rocco Landesman responded slowly and clearly last week to the inquiry into the infamous NEA conference call on the part of GOP Senators, saying “I am unaware of the use of any taxpayer dollars for the…conference call or related activity,” and debunking a number of other myths while striking a conciliatory tone.  The Senators’ response? Republican Mike Enzi issued a statement saying, “on initial review [he] appreciates Chairman Landesman’s response and his commitment to ethics training to make sure this does not happen again.  He looks forward to working with the Chairman to help fulfill NEA’s mission.” Final as that may sound, though, they aren’t yet giving up over in the alternate universe that is the conservative blogosphere. Now the focus has shifted to a May meeting with arts activists organized by Arlene Goldbard among others. And after virtually disappearing for two weeks, Patrick Courrielche is back with a nitpicking response to Landesman’s letter in which he continues to push the fiction that Americans for the Arts was involved with the call (AFTA, for its part, says it didn’t even know that it was happening). Meanwhile, Media Matters documents how conservative media organizations are now encouraging their audience to dig up dirt on private citizens who work at arts organizations.
  • I’m getting so used to misrepresentation on the right that it’s easy to forget it can happen on the left, too. While trolling around the web the other day, I came across this hilarious (though recently inactive) website dedicated to vilifying Richard Florida on the grounds that his policies “celebrate a society based on inequality, in which a select group of glorified professionals is supported by an invisible army of low-wage service workers.” The Toronto Star followed up with an extensive interview with Florida in which he responds to some of the charges. I find it very interesting that Florida is getting attacked from the left in Canada. There are certainly criticisms to be made of Florida’s work, and he clearly makes a very good living for himself doing what he does, but it’s kind of obvious that the anonymous “collective” behind the website haven’t actually read his books, since theyattack him for not saying things that he in fact says all the time.
  • I think I feel another…oh…oh…there it is!…BLOGGER ON FIRE award coming! This one goes to Adam Thurman of The Mission Paradox Blog, for several of his patented, thought-provoking and aphoristic posts. In Yawn, he notes that “A bit of chaos is useful to the artistic process. But it is death to the business of art.”  In Savings Souls, he picks up on the discussion of art vs. sports between 99 Seats and me and points out, “…imagine if I called my friend and we first had to discuss whether the Bears won or lost, or the standards for winning or losing, or whether winning or losing was important in the first place. Then we would have the arts.” He suggests that church may be a more apt comparison, a thought I’ve poked at before but haven’t really explored in depth. And a little while back, in The One-Foot Level, Thurman argues that the best way to convince people that art is a “necessity” is to “convince a small, defined number of people that YOUR art is a necessary part of their lives.”
  • Looks like the Future of New York mini-conference last week was a doozy: the Deputy Mayor announced a sweeping new partnership between the NYC Economic Development Corporation and the Department of Cultural Affairs. Initial examination looks very promising; expect more on it later in the week. Speaking of the creative economy, Philadelphia’s Chief Cultural Officer, Gary Steuer, has a blog and is using it to protest the imposition of the state sales tax on arts events and museum admissions. And Michigan’s ArtPrize is turning out to be quite the quite, if Carol Colletta and Judith Dobrzynski are to be believed.
  • Can we create better social outcomes by getting involved earlier in the urban planning process? Renowned Stanford economist Paul Romer has quit his tenured professorship to find out.
  • Kathleen Enright, the head of Grantmakers for Effective Organizations, argues in the Chronicle of Philanthropy against the notion that mergers between nonprofits are the answer to increasing efficiency in the social sector. Rather, Enright says, funders should take a look in the mirror and consider combining their own resources to increase impact.
  • Seems the Netflix Challenge was so successful they’re going to do it again. However, our favorites The Ensemble (the 30-member syndicate that briefly took the lead in the competition) lost out because they submitted their (equally good) solution a mere 20 minutes after the other team.
  • Createquity reader Chris Ashworth has a great rant on health care and the free market. Go read it! And speaking of market failures, here’s an oldie but goodie: an exhaustive treatise from Bill Wyman on why newspapers are failing. Part I; Part II.
  • Brooklyn has a new community foundation. And Radiohead’s Thom Yorke has a new stealth band.
  • Did you know that October is Funding for the Arts Month? Neither did I. Does this mean we all get a free car? Or at least a cookie?
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Watch the National Arts Journalism Summit here @ 12pm ET

Doug McLennan, the founder of the incomparable ArtsJournal.com, has asked bloggers around the web to co-host the live stream of today’s National Arts Journalism Summit in Los Angeles, at which ten new models for arts journalism will be presented. Naturally, I thought this was a cool idea and volunteered to sign up. The action takes place from 12-4pm Eastern time (9am-1pm Pacific), and you can view the Twitter stream and chat feed here as well. (Note: if you’re reading this in email or on a feed reader such as Google Reader, you’ll probably need to click through to the site in order to see the multimedia.)

The Video

Live video by Ustream

The Chat

The Tweets

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New Blogs!

Here you are with the first post-Blogger batch of new blogroll additions!

99 Seats
Mmm, I love me some good anonymous rant blog. Actually, I don’t, usually, but 99 Seats employs his/her undercover status for the greater good, offering incisive commentary on arts management, arts policy, and what 99 sees as the broken model for theater production in the US. 99 and I have traded some links in the past week, and I’m looking forward to exploring the little black box further.

Gift Hub
I’ve been enjoying getting to know Phil Cubeta’s Gift Hub, one of the granddaddies of the philanthropy blogging world if Sean Stannard-Stockton is to be believed. Cubeta has a terse, acerbic wit and a sharply defined sense of social (especially socioeconomic) justice. Throw in his religious perspective (he bills himself as a “morals tutor” for the wealthy), and it makes for an unusual yet satisfying addition to the conversation.

Tracking Righteousness
Continuing the politically-aware theater professional thread, Toronto-based multi-disciplinary performer Aaron Talbot is primarily associated with a show called Superhero Live, but has also been keeping tabs on the arts funding saga in British Columbia better than most. It’s nice to have a voice from the wilderness to the North on the blogroll, to boot.

The Wicked Stage
Theater critic Rob Weinert-Kendt is Associate Editor of American Theatre magazine. He’s been linking to Createquity for some months now (and provided this blog’s best pull-quote ever the other week), and I figured it was about time I returned the favor. Rob’s site covers a range of topics related to the stage, and his style reminds me of Alex Ross’s popular The Rest is Noise in its brief, multimedia-heavy presentation. Along with several of its colleagues in the theatrosphere (99 Seats, the Clyde Fitch Report, Parabasis, etc.), The Wicked Stage has been among the few arts blogs to have followed the recent political drama involving the NEA with any seriousness. I’m not sure why it’s the theater blogs who seem more attuned to such matters (none of my classical music peeps have mentioned it at all, as far as I can tell), but I’m glad at least some are paying attention.

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Jon Stewart on the NEA flap

Not in absolutely tip-top form, but hilarious even so:

The Daily Show With Jon Stewart Mon – Thurs 11p / 10c
America: Target America
www.thedailyshow.com
Daily Show
Full Episodes
Political Humor Ron Paul Interview
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