Justice for Jazz Artists?

158858806_aa1dec10e8_o(Image by Flickr user hitchica, Creative Commons license)

A while back, an intrepid reader of this blog got in touch to inform me of the American Federation of Musicians Local 802’s Justice for Jazz Artists! campaign, which seeks to establish pension payments for jazz musicians who play at venues in New York City. The campaign has a petition, which you can still sign, and has garnered endorsements from several public officials, including New York City Council President Christine Quinn. AFM hosted a rally on September 29 to draw further support and deliver signatures to the Blue Note; you can see video here.

The official story behind the campaign is as follows:

Since 2006, the Justice for Jazz Artists! campaign has attempted repeatedly to engage New York City’s Jazz clubs in constructive dialogue to secure retirement benefits for the Jazz musicians they employ. Some have agreed to meet with Local 802. Most however, have been unresponsive.

In 2007, Local 802 in partnership with some club owners, successfully lobbied the State Legislature to forgive the sales tax on tickets for Jazz club. [sic] That was done in order to allow the sums formerly collected as admission sales tax to go toward Jazz musicians’ benefits especially for retirement, at no cost to the clubs. However, since the law’s passage, no club has volunteered to make any pension fund contributions.

A fact sheet (see page 2) explains the proposal in more detail. The basic idea is that rather than pay taxes to the state, the jazz club would pay the funds to the union instead, which would then figure out the appropriate distribution to the artists. A similar model has been in place since 1963 on Broadway.

Interested to learn more, I wrote my tipster back and eventually found myself speaking to Todd Weeks, who represents jazz at Local 802. Todd confirmed for me that the legislation pushed by 802 in 2006 and 2007 (the timeline is not clear; though the press release says the legislation was signed in 2007, this article celebrating its passage dates from October 2006) was not accompanied by any signed agreements between the union and the clubs that they were hoping to induce to pay pension benefits. The union did get lukewarm indications of support from a handful of high-profile clubs such as the Village Vanguard Jazz Standard prior to passage, hoping that this support would translate into industry-wide practice after the legislation was in place.

Not only did this not happen, but the expected support from the high-profile clubs vanished into thin air as well once the tax money no longer had to be paid to the government. Suddenly, club owners stopped returning calls. The problem is well illustrated in symbolic terms by the Times‘s coverage of the rally:

When the procession reached the front of the [Blue Note] club, Bill Dennison, a vice president of the musicians union, brought forward a petition as thick as a cereal box signed by more than 2,000 professional musicians that forcefully asked management to change its ways. The doors to the Blue Note did not open all the way. There was no dialogue. Mr. Dennison handed the stack of papers to a worker at the door, politely waved and thanked the representative and rejoined the crew outside.

The Blue Note had no comment.

I couldn’t agree more that jazz musicians deserve better pay and working conditions than most of them get. But with all due respect to the J4JA! campaign and the people behind it, it seems to me like this situation is the product of a serious strategic blunder on the part of AFM. To be sure, the logic leading to pushing for the original legislation was nothing short of brilliant. Jazz clubs are something of an endangered species in New York – judging by how many of them have closed in the past decade, it’s safe to assume it’s not exactly a get-rich-quick scheme for the club owners. Surely there is a public benefit to having places to see, hear, and experience jazz, America’s classical music, particularly in America’s largest and most famous city. So why not “increase the pie” by having the government rescind its sales tax on club admissions? It’s legislation whose time has come, and the amount gained from having an extra 8.75% to play with would be a clear win-win for clubs and musicians.

AFM’s first problem, then, is that it apparently expected the clubs to pass along 100% of this benefit to the musicians, without keeping any for themselves. That’s not the way to build a coalition. If I come to you and say, “this issue is about both of us, we have to support this legislation together, are you in?” and then add, “oh, and by the way, you don’t get anything for yourself from supporting it,” your support of my issue is probably going to be lukewarm at best. And AFM’s contention that the pension plan comes “at no cost to the clubs” is rather disingenuous, as there would be both one-time costs associated with changing business practices to accommodate the new system, and ongoing costs associated with increased paperwork (the clubs would have to submit information on who played and how much they got paid in order for the system to work, unless the bandleaders took care of that for them). As noted above, it’s not like clubs are rolling in money, so letting them keep some of the spoils seems like a potentially crucial incentive.

The bigger issue, though, is that there was really nothing to prevent the clubs from doing exactly what they’ve done – turning their backs on an agreement that was never formalized as soon as it was convenient to do so. Frankly, I’m a little shocked that Local 802 expected anything different. When nonprofits negotiate with for-profits, especially those with whom there has traditionally been a contentious relationship, you have to prepare for eventualities like this. Combined with a strategy of including the clubs in the process as described above, AFM’s support of this bill could have been very valuable to the clubs, valuable enough to serve as a useful negotiating tool.

In any case, now the union is left to argue its case in public instead. Unfortunately, it faces a collective action problem on the part of the clubs. A club acting alone to contribute to the pension fund would put itself at a competitive disadvantage relative to its peers; in a for-profit context, that’s a non-starter. So they would essentially have to collude with each other in order for it to make sense for them, which, in the absence of a strong industry association for for-profit jazz venues, seems a tall order. Even if that problem is overcome, though, there’s another: the campaign focuses on the top jazz venues in New York City, but the law (repealing the sales tax on admissions) applies to all live music and theater venues in New York State. The Blue Note and the Vanguard might thus convincingly question why, in a fluid market for night-time entertainment, they should have to pay pension contributions when Madison Square Garden and Irving Plaza get to keep the entire tax savings for themselves.

Finally, even jazz musicians aren’t unanimous in their support, as their relationship with the AFM has not always been smooth and the initial strategy would benefit only those who are famous/lucky enough to play at top jazz clubs. (See the NPR stories here and here for more on this.)

Whatever else can be said of the J4JA! campaign (and it still may find success), at best it seems like a band-aid on a much larger problem: the chronic undercapitalization of jazz venues in the country that gave birth to the art form. When a team of my business school classmates and I were conceptualizing programming for a hypothetical new arts foundation in New York, one of the programs we dreamed up was specifically designed to attack this problem:

A smaller part of the Building Infrastructure program would be aimed at existing venues and organizations. [...]  The second is a unique idea: identify key for-profit companies that provide an important service to the arts community and find themselves struggling financially because of it (think Tonic), and offer them a package of management/legal consulting services and up to five years’ worth of bridge funding to turn them nonprofit. This “offer they can’t refuse” would be primarily targeted at organizations that are at severe risk of failing, but the program could also consider comparatively healthy organizations that wish to take a more proactive approach to their situation. (Depending on how the L3C develops, that could be a viable alternative to nonprofit status as well.)

It couldn’t be clearer that the for-profit marketplace is a bad fit for jazz, which is a niche genre whose audience’s passion is not matched by the depth of its pockets.  By removing the profit incentive from the equation, it would be much easier for stakeholders to insist on minimally adequate treatment of artists, whether those expenses can be made up in bar tabs or not. Nonprofit status would not necessarily need to go hand-in-hand with sterile “institutionalization” associated with a place like Jazz at Lincoln Center; there are plenty of gritty, intimate live music spaces across the country that operate as nonprofits. Furthermore, venue subsidies are common in Europe, where many NYC-based jazz musicians travel to make up for the losses they incur in their hometown.

I’m sure there’s more to say on the subject, but this post is long enough already. What do you think, dear reader?

[UPDATE: Todd Weeks has submitted a lengthy response that provides a wealth of additional information on this topic.]


The NEA and hip-hop

So, Lee Rosenbaum (perhaps better known to the world as blogger CultureGrrl) scored an interview with NEA Chair Rocco Landesman and writes about it today in the Wall Street Journal:

In a freewheeling conversation we had on the day of his Brooklyn visit, Mr. Landesman was true to form—brashly candid. But his provocative words in both the speech and our discussion suggest that he doesn’t see what’s looming between him and the goal—political opponents, waiting to tackle him.

Rosenbaum goes on to list the litany of “controversies” the NEA and Landesman have been involved with in recent months, including the “firestorm that had erupted before his arrival over the possible partisan agenda of the new Democratic administration’s NEA.” (Said firestorm was unwittingly enabled, let us not forget, by Rosenbaum herself. She wrote a concern-trollish piece inspired largely by Patrick Courrielche’s original, borderline fraudulent essay about the conference call he secretly eavesdropped on and recorded, then found herself prominently quoted in Courrielche’s next essay to provide “legit” culture blogger cover for his case–to her dismay.)

What really cracked me up about this piece, though, was Rosenbaum’s characterization of Landesman’s idea to have the NEA fund hip-hop:

Do you think that hip-hop would be an appropriate area for NEA to fund?” I inquired.

“Absolutely. And mural painting and graffiti are art. There are popular aspects of all the arts that I think shouldn’t be ignored.”

Funding hip-hop—the best of which is rhythmically poetic, but commonly punctuated by profanity, violence and/or misogynistic sexuality—could put the previously embattled agency back in the crosshairs of the decency police. Congress had considered shutting the agency down in the 1990s over grants to exhibitions and artists that some politicians deemed obscene, blasphemous and unworthy of government support.

::facepalm:: Thank you, Captain Obvious, for explaining to us this strange new phenomenon known as the “hip hop.” Gawker, of course, picked up on this awesome paragraph immediately and let her and the WSJ (“bless its nilla heart”) have it:

Sure, rappers have rhythm. Many can dance! But, you know…bitches and hoes. Guns and malt liquor. Pussy and weed. Glocks and rocks. The WSJ thinks you know what it means. The things those people talk about.

Hilarity aside, though, I find articles like this one incredibly annoying. Landesman’s opinions about the National Endowment for the Arts are in no way controversial except to those looking for controversy. Since he’s not careful about his word choice, though, anyone looking for controversy (which describes pretty much the entire right wing at this moment) can find it easily — or in Rosenbaum’s case, create it. I mean, seriously, get a load of this weasel-word concern-trolling: “could put the previously embattled agency back in the crosshairs of the decency police?” Is that what CultureGrrl wants? Because she just sounded a pretty serious dog-whistle to the right-leaning readers of the Wall Street Journal. Landesman just started his job – the Sergant affair happened the day before he took office – and this is the time when his image is being defined in the public imagination, which means that the framing of his comments by mainstream media writers has a huge influence on how he’ll be perceived from here on out. So if things blow up later, sure, she can act all innocent and say, “don’t look at me, I just asked him a question,” but doing so would reflect a leaden misunderstanding of political media in the 21st century.

UPDATE: Sssh, don’t tell Lee, but the NEA already funds hip-hop! From 2009 alone:

Dancing in the Street, Inc. (aka Dancing in the Streets)
New York, NY
To support the third annual Hip-Hop Generation Next. The full-day block party at Coffey Park in Red Hook, Brooklyn, will feature a variety of artists. [link]

Diversity of Dance, Inc. (aka Earl Mosley’s Institute of the Arts)
Brooklyn, NY
To support Earl Mosley’s Institute of the Arts, a series of school-year residencies and a residential summer dance institute. Students will receive rigorous dance training from professional dance educators through classes in technique (ballet, modern, jazz, hip-hop, African dance, and tap), composition, and repertory, as well as participate in master classes with guest artists. [link]

Henry Street Settlement
New York, NY
To support the Abrons Arts Center Dance Ensemble and the Abrons Arts Center Junior Dance Ensemble. Students will study ballet, jazz, hip-hop, tap, salsa, and flamenco, and participate in choreography workshops. [link]

Su Teatro (aka El Centro Su Teatro)
Denver, CO

To support performances of Representa!, a hip-hop theater play and related outreach activities. The new work will be created and performed by spoken word poet Paul Flores and rapper Julio Cardenas. [link]

Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz
Washington, DC
To support BeBop to Hip-Hop. Professional musicians will introduce students to the latest recording technologies and software and teach students composition, music theory, arranging, improvisation, lyric writing, turntable scratching, and sampling. [link]

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Around the horn: fall back edition

Whose brilliant idea was it to put the end of daylight saving time in the middle of Halloween night? Can we do that every year?

  • NEA Chair Rocco Landesman’s Art Works blog is shaping up to be the must-read of the holiday season. Not just because of what he writes there, but because of the chance it offers for conservative anti-NEA agitators to take their special brand of bile directly to the source — an opportunity they have wasted no time in seizing. Last week, the conservative Power Line blog linked to the article with some snooty remarks about Landesman’s oft-repeated claim that President Obama is “the first president that actually writes his own books since Teddy Roosevelt and arguably the first to write them really well since Lincoln,” as well as his comparison between Obama and Julius Caesar (note that this all comes from one paragraph out of 46 in the speech). The 79 responses to Landesman’s inaugural post (a reprint of the speech he gave at the Grantmakers in the Arts Conference two weeks ago) are thus the oddest mix of arts organization representatives begging Landesman to come to their city, and conservative after conservative after conservative repeating, like dutiful fifth-grade schoolchildren, the same points made by Powerline: that many other Presidents supposedly wrote good books, that Lincoln didn’t even write a whole book, that Landesman is just “bootlicking” Obama, etc.–as if this were all even remotely relevant to the point of his speech. (The teabaggers like to decry “Obamabots,” but it sure seems to me like they invented the form.) Anyway, this past week Landesman actually took the bait, coming back with a post in which he admitted that he probably made a boo-boo about the author thing and he didn’t mean the Caesar comparison seriously and can we please get back to talking about Art Works? Oh man, this one ain’t gonna die for a while.
  • Meanwhile, Fox News isn’t showing any sign of letting up on its not-so-subtle campaign against the NEA. Isaac has the details. Thankfully, actual policymakers clearly could care less what Fox thinks, as Congress just passed a $12.5 million increase for the agency for FY10, bringing funding to its highest nominal level in 16 years (though still far below its inflation-adjusted peak).
  • Speaking of Fox, apparently GE has been looking to unload its ownership stake in NBC and one of the early bidders was…Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation! That would have been interesting. As it is, it looks like NBC will be sold to cable oligopolist Comcast instead, which frankly may not be all that much better an outcome.
  • Now, this is the kind of culture war I can cheer for: Hong Kong is duking it out with Singapore to become Asia’s top cultural attraction. The numbers mentioned in the article are rather staggering: $1 billion to invest in Singapore’s cultural infrastructure ten years ago. $2.8 billion this year to build an entire “arts and culture neighborhood” on 40 hectares of reclaimed land in Hong Kong. Remember, these are city-level investments. Both cities see pumping up their arts scenes as essential to attracting a competitive, global workforce and maintaining their international profile over the long term.
  • How about our own “World City”? Alas, internal politics are turning New York’s grand plans for a performing arts center at Ground Zero into a grand mess.
  • At least Philadelphia has Gary Steuer. The city’s Chief Cultural Officer reports on a fascinating arts leadership convening model and awareness campaign from Canada this week, and has another post explaining the complexities of municipal cultural planning and implementation.
  • When I linked to the discussion of new models in theater a couple of weeks ago, I neglected to mention an important one: the Stolen Chair Theatre Company’s Community Supported Theatre concept, which was recently awarded a $20,000 grant by The Field’s Economic Revitalization for the Performing Arts program. The Stolen Chair idea is similar in many ways to the enhanced-participation paradigms proposed by Chris Ashworth and Scott Walters, but the difference is that theirs has actually made the transition from idea to implementation; the pilot phase starts this coming season. You can listen to artistic director John Stancato talk about the project on this nytheatre.com podcast.
  • Speaking of new models, Darcy wonders why jazz bands don’t include opening acts in their touring the way that indie rockers do. As always, the answer comes down to the moolah.
  • And Barry Hessenius has a monster of a response to my (semi-)live-blogging of the Grantmakers in the Arts Conference two weeks ago. Barry declares it a new day for GIA and looks forward to the organization taking a more proactive role steering its members in a positive direction for the field.
  • Hollywood composers are considering unionization. The Society of Composers and Lyricists would affiliate with the Teamsters local 399.
  • Man, these community foundations are on fire with their online giving campaigns. This is the second story I’ve heard in the last couple of months of a fundraising effort that reached its goal so fast that the website had trouble processing donations. In this case, it’s the Pittsburgh Foundation that ran out of matching funds in all of 23 minutes!
  • The Animating Democracy project, led by Barbara Schaffer Bacon and Pam Korza, has released a triumvirate of new research studies on the social impact of arts and civic engagement initiatives. Included among these are the reflection paper that Maria Rosario Jackson presented during the GIA Conference, as well as a literature review by top-notch Penn academics Mark Stern and Susan Seifert. (h/t APInews)
  • I couldn’t help but laugh at this lede, from an article entitled “West Fest long on vibe, hazy on record attempt”:

    An attempt to top the Guinness world record for largest guitar ensemble, with 3,000 players performing Jimi Hendrix’s “Purple Haze” at Sunday’s West Fest concert in Golden Gate Park, fell short by about 2,950 participants – and some of those may have been playing ukuleles.

    A Crimson Grail it was not.

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New Blogs!

Here’s a spooky Halloween edition of new blogs for you to check out:

Arts Admin
It doesn’t sport the most earth-shattering name ever dreamed up, but Michael Rushton’s blog is a great find. It’s extremely active, typically with several posts a day, and many of those are quite substantive in scope. Rushton is the director of the Arts Administration program at Indiana University and regularly mines events at school for blog content.

Arts, Culture, and Creative Economy
Philadelphia’s “Culture Czar,” Gary Steuer, used to work for Americans for the Arts before he got lured away to be the head of Philly’s Office of Arts, Culture and the Creative Economy. His blog, which is quite new, has quickly established itself as a consistently fascinating source for creative economy talk, often featuring information that is unavailable or hard to find anywhere else.

Chris Ashworth
Chris Ashworth is a theater artist and computer programmer who has a fun and creative blog on arts marketing and related topics. A few of his recent notable posts include this proposal for a new business model in theater, and this somewhat controversial piece on public funding and the arts (which features a shout-out for Createquity’s Arts Policy Library write-up of Gifts of the Muse).

Judd Greenstein
Composer, record label proprietor, and all-around great guy Judd Greenstein has a section of his website devoted to funny, cogent, and often quite lengthy essays about music, politics, and what it all means. I don’t usually link to sites that aren’t “blogs” in the strict sense, but Judd’s “why?” page is basically a blog without the RSS feed, and so I encourage you to check it out (and to listen to his music, which is great).

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Final thoughts on the GIA Conference

(crossposted at the GIA Conference Blog)

It’s been a pleasure covering the 2009 Grantmakers in the Arts Conference for you all, and I hope you’ve enjoyed getting a glimpse into sessions you may have missed or the conference as a whole (if you didn’t have the chance to be among the 351 attendees). Before I go, I thought I would leave you with some final reflections on my experience in Brooklyn last week:

  • I didn’t get a chance to mention my Monday night dine-around in Bushwick. Bushwick is a largely Hispanic neighborhood in Northeast Brooklyn that has slowly been invaded by artists and young hipsters as the Manhattanesque housing prices in nearby Williamsburg push them further East on the L subway line. We ate at a trendy restaurant called Northeast Kingdom, during which we met with representatives from local nonprofit organizations (both arts-oriented and not). Afterwards, we crowded into art gallery opening taking place in someone’s dining room(!) and visited a black-box theater (the only one in the neighborhood) where we apparently interrupted a rehearsal in order to get a welcome and tour from the proprietors. It was a strikingly different experience from the comfort of the Brooklyn Marriott and brought me back to my days as a bandleader earlier in the decade. I was familiar with some of the people who were leading us around from other events I’ve attended, and know that they’re concerned about issues of gentrification and cliquishness as a result of artists moving into an area. It seemed like no one really has good answers, though. I will say, though, that I’m impressed that this excursion was a part of the conference and that as many funders joined in as they did. These underground, emergent, barely-organized scenes should be part of the arts conversation too.
  • Speaking of emergent arts communities, we spent a lot of time in the off-site session talking about the economic impacts of artist concentrations, particularly in terms of real estate values. Though the discussion rightly focused much attention on how this connection could be used for advocacy purposes to encourage governments and businesses to invest in the arts, what was missing, it seemed to me, was any kind of proposal to help artists actually share in the neighborhood wealth they create. The reason this does not currently take place in a hot real estate market like New York is because most artists are too poor to be able to buy their own space in the first place, and therefore are also too poor to buy property to rent out to others. Here’s a thought that occurred to me during the session: why not create a REIT or other kind of pooled fund in which artists could make small investments, smaller than a monthly rent check? The fund could then purchase buildings and properties in the vicinity of artist concentrations, profit directly from higher real estate values created from the artists’ activity, and return those profits to the artists. If anyone knows of a program like this already in place, either in this country or elsewhere, I’d love to hear about it.
  • I was actually pleasantly surprised by the degree of racial and gender diversity in evidence at conference–especially the number of women of color. It seems that the field has really put its money where its mouth is in terms of opening up the gates beyond the old boys’ club, at least at the program staff level. It’s not only the right move, but a smart move in light of the country’s changing demographics.
  • Which brings us to Ben Cameron’s final speech, which I did not do justice to when I wrote it up earlier (his fast and fluid elocution made comprehensive note-taking a challenge). Luckily, Tommer from GIA forwarded me his complete notes, from which I will quote extensively below. As mentioned earlier, demographic change and the drive to greater social equity was, in fact, cited as one of the central issues for the next 10 years in arts philanthropy, along with technology, globalization, and the blurring of the line between professional artists and amateurs. The full list of anticipated interventions is as follows:
    • Data gathering, tracking and evaluation
    • Leadership development and mentoring
    • Advocacy
    • Arts education
    • Innovation/ experimentation
    • Networks and collaborations
    • Convenings
    • Efforts to articulate and substantiate the value of the arts in and for their communities

    And here’s the full list of key collaborators in this work:

    • Artists
    • Other funders
    • The media, including TV, radio and the press
    • Youth groups
    • Social service agencies
    • Non-arts government agencies (transportation, education, economic development)
    • And many “outliers” in different groups, including casinos, libraries and energy corporations
    • Non arts sectors, citing especially the value of other sectors to nurture and stimulate true innovation

    I found this paragraph from Cameron’s notes particularly interesting:

    Funders were self-critical as well, citing frequent isolation, the need for renewal. Moreover, there were recurring conversations about the philanthropic exchange—conversations about inadvertent burdens funders place on grantees, the degree to which funders are proscriptive vs. responsive, and the need for increased candor and transparency in these times.

    I’m really glad that these conversations are happening at the funder level–it shows that people are really thinking about the issues described in a serious way. It was my sense throughout the conference that attendees are very much aware of the need to institute new ways of operating in order to more fairly and accurately reflect the times, but that putting words into action will be the real challenge. As Cameron stated in his speech, “the hunger to ‘shatter the box’ was palpable in many rooms, even while we are clearly at an early point in figuring out what that will mean and how we can achieve that.” Funders are often seen as a cautious group, but dealing successfully with some of these societal shifts may well require taking more risks than might initially feel comfortable. If funders can overcome the fear of what the bosses will think, or what the board will think, or what the lawyers will think if we decide to do things differently, those risks can be evaluated with their upside in mind in addition to the downside.

  • With that in mind, it’s immensely encouraging to see that GIA itself is not afraid of taking a few risks, like (oh, just to take an example) asking an unknown blogger to bring the conference’s discussions to the public for the first time in its history! If you’ll permit me a moment of introspection, it’s sort of amazing that this experience happened at all. Two years ago, I was just another student in his first year at business school, and nobody in the world of arts philanthropy (save a couple of people I had spoken to or worked with here and there) knew who I was. The blog I’ve been writing since this time is the sole factor that made my attendance at this conference possible. It’s not just about the content — it’s about the fact that, prior to this decade, someone like me would not have had any means of sharing ideas about arts policy and arts philanthropy with people who actually work in the field on any kind of systematic basis. In the past, the platform to do so has only come with joining the field oneself. When people talk about how “technology” changes/will change the way we work, that’s what they mean. It’s not just about being able to do the things we already do more efficiently — it’s about changing whole organizational practices, behaviors, and cultures to take advantage of new opportunities that simply didn’t exist before. With that in mind, then, I want to express my deepest thanks to Tommer Peterson and Janet Brown for understanding this and for inviting me to play a small role in inaugurating this exciting new era for arts philanthropy.
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Around the horn: Go Phillies edition

Gradually getting back on schedule here, so the regular round-up is on Tuesday this week, then returns to Monday next week. Here’s the goods!

  • A propos of recent discussions on emerging leaders, the Council on Foundations has released a first-time report looking at Career Pathways to Philanthropic Leadership. Among the highlights:
    • Nearly four out of five new foundation CEOs or executive directors were hired externally rather than from within the organization.
    • Nearly two-thirds had an executive-level position (CEO or VP) in their immediate prior position.
    • While gender diversity was pretty good, only 20% of successful candidates were non-white.
    • Most troubling, a full 85% of interviewees “expressed significant skepticism about the willingness of trustees, search consultants, and other hiring decision makers to be influenced by leadership development efforts (such as fellowship programs that train new leaders) as they contemplate hiring decisions about executive candidates.” Ouch!
  • Amelia Northrup from Technology in the Arts has a preview of Google Wave and what it means for arts organizations.
  • What a fascinating story: a group of guerrilla artists conducted an operation removing those ubiquitous advertisements on construction sites in New York City (most of which, they claim, are illegal anyway) and replacing them with original art. But as soon as they were done, guys in pickup trucks showed up and put up more advertisements. Who are these mysterious pickup truck advertising men, and why won’t they talk to the media? And is unsanctioned, uncurated guerrilla art any better for the public space than the ads? Great read. (h/t Steve Dahlberg)
  • The group of community arts activists behind the Art and the Public Purpose cultural policy framework are getting the word out. Arlene Goldbard has a longer explanation on her blog, and Nick Rabkin writes of it in the Huffington Post.
  • Maybe I’m just a sucker for personal retrospectives on blogs, but if you are too, go read Andy Horwitz’s reflections on six years of CultureBot.
  • Great discussion on diversity in the arts going on, tipped off by Michael Kaiser and expanded upon by Adam Thurman of the Mission Paradox blog. I have to say that Adam’s take seems compelling to me. Your thoughts?
  • Bloomberg is running with the Carnegie Hall stagehands story, and now reports that Joyce Theater stagehands (who are paid much less than Carnegie’s) have voted to link up with the same union that represents the Carnegie workers.
  • Createquity contributor Guy Yedwab has been blogging furiously at CultureFuture this week, and has some interesting thoughts on the relationship between cultural policy and political power.
  • Watch out: there might be more cuts to the New York State Council on the Arts on the way.
  • Is this the next big thing or just more talk? Inquiring minds, etc.
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An Open-Source Arts Field

(crossposted from the Americans for the Arts Emerging Leaders Salon)

I want to express my appreciation to my fellow Salon bloggers last week and everyone who has commented—you’ve given me a lot to think about. Before I go, though, I want to make what seems to me like an essential point. We’ve spent a lot of time in this salon so far talking about problems, but solutions have been somewhat elusive. I think part of the reason is contained within a comment I wrote earlier last week on my Generation Y and the Problem of “Entitlement” post but didn’t realize the true significance of until later:

I think the generational shifts are a related, but separate phenomenon from the concentration of power in our field at the top and the frustration that many feel as a result of it, regardless of generation.

There are really two separate issues we’re talking about here, and that’s why our wires keep getting crossed. On the one hand, we have genuine ways in which Generation Y is different from all the generations that came before, particularly with regard to how technology has impacted our communications habits, our work ethic, our social norms, and most importantly, our expectations for ourselves and others. However, this is NOT the same thing as the second issue: the concentration of power in a few individuals that pushes out other voices, both at an organization level and in the wider field. THAT is not new at all, and in fact is probably in a better place now than it ever has been. However, the combination of the increased expectations of Generation Y, improved communication technology, and obvious examples of “crowdsourcing,” social media, and open architecture leading to superior performance or outcomes at drastically reduced cost, have conspired to bring this issue to the forefront in a way that has never been possible before. They are related only insofar as Generation Y (and to some extent X), which has the highest expectations and also the greatest familiarity with the possibilities of both technology and open-source architecture, is disproportionately excluded from the ranks of the powerful few. It’s an important relationship, but not, I think, the central one.

In order to move forward, I think we need to focus on the second issue, not the first. The message of Emerging Leaders in the arts or any other field should not be, “get out of the way, we are the future, it’s time for us to take over.” If that’s what it sounds like, then that’s a miscalculation on our part. Our collective mission should be to make our organizations and our field more open, more meritocratic, more adaptable, and more inclusive regardless of generation. To borrow a phraseology from Fractured Atlas’s Adam Forest Huttler, we need to make our field more open-source.

What will this look like in practice? There are many possible directions this could go, but here are a few practical suggestions to get us started in no particular order:

  • Include and solicit the voices of junior staffers in staff meetings, board meetings, and strategy discussions. Not only will they benefit from learning more about how their organization works, you’ll benefit from their “on-the-ground” perspective from their direct work with constituents, donors, and vendors.
  • Diversify boards in ways beyond race and gender. Obviously, those two are still important, but try to also have a healthy representation of different ages, occupations, social circles, and socioeconomic history. Look for smart, capable people who play well together, no matter who they are. Consider forming an advisory board of non-moneyed constituents if you want to reserve Board spots for people who can pull their weight financially, since they are likely to be older and overrepresent a particular perspective.
  • Invite more than the usual suspects to participate in panels, convenings, focus groups, and interviews. Does it always have to be the Executive Director who speaks at these things? Does the Executive Director always have to accept the invitation? Consider sending out junior staffers, especially the ones who you know have lots of great ideas from working with them but aren’t very visible to the broader world, as a professional development opportunity. Not only will they get valuable public speaking experience, but they’ll meet likeminded individuals as well and may make new connections for your organization. Similarly…
  • Send junior staffers to conferences. You don’t have to send everyone to everything, but you’ll be able to get better coverage if you send lower-cost employees to more events than if you send yourself to fewer. This is an especially good idea if there is a business development or advocacy aspect to what you do as an organization.
  • Share in the grunt work. One point that kept getting brought up in the Generation Y discussion was that someone has to do the menial tasks. Well, if I know I don’t want to do them, and you know I don’t want to do them, and I know you don’t want to do them, and yet you make me do all of them anyway, do you really expect me to enjoy my job? It makes a huge symbolic statement if the leader or senior staff or even the boss takes time out from their Very Important Day and joins an envelope stuffing party or helps get the tables set at the event, etc. Not all day—it’s understood that the primary responsibility remains with the entry-level people—but just for an hour, perhaps. A cameo appearance, if you will. While you’re there, take the opportunity to ask about their time at the organization, about their lives more generally, and whether they have any suggestions for improving how things get done around here. Consider it a very cheap investment in staff morale on your part—and hey, you might even get a very valuable idea or two out of it.
  • Consider what grunt work really needs to be performed by staff members. Is it necessary to have intimate knowledge of the contemporary dance world to manage your books or design your donor database? If not, consider contracting out some of that work to organizations that specialize in it, like, say, Easy Office or Annkissam. Alternatively, you could pursue shared-back-office arrangements with other nonprofits in your area. Every time you do this, you potentially avoid hiring some eager beaver who really wants to be involved on the program side but is just pretending to like spreadsheets to get in the front door.
  • Don’t overvalue seniority in the hiring process. Experience is great for a lot of things. But it’s not the only, or even the most important qualifier for many jobs. Rickey Henderson has more experience playing major league baseball than just about anyone. But is he qualified to play in the major leagues today? Absolutely not. Obviously things are a little different for desk captains than for athletes, but the reality is that it’s possible to have an impeccable resume and still be terrible at what you do—or terrible for a particular job. The litany of people who have accomplished extraordinary things without the benefit of experience is endless. I like to point out often than Mark Zuckerberg founded Facebook as a college student at Harvard. How many employers would have turned him down because he didn’t have enough experience? How many wouldn’t have extended an interview to George Steel, who transformed Columbia University’s Miller Theater into a new music powerhouse as its executive director after just two years in arts administration? To continue the baseball analogy, how many wouldn’t have given a chance to Theo Epstein, who won Boston’s first World Series in 86 years shortly after becoming the youngest general manager of a baseball team ever hired at 28, and then won another one three years later? Stop looking so hard for a record of accomplishment and start giving great people a chance to accomplish things.
  • Design organizations around people instead of hiring people around the organization. If you really want to get talented employees and retain them for the long term, you have to have some flexibility around the organization itself and think hard about where the alignment makes sense for both parties. Maybe each department (marketing, development, programming, etc.) has only a leader and then a crew of associates who trade and divide up specific responsibilities according to their strengths and preferences. Maybe you have a rotational program where entry-level types can work in one area for six months, another for three months, etc. until they find where they really fit. Whatever you do, make sure you solicit feedback at all times and track what happens, so you can go back later and analyze what was most effective. Incorporate ongoing learning into your HR systems and you will be unstoppable.

For more thoughts on dealing with entry-level employees on a one-on-one basis, please see Ten Strategies for Engaging Generation Y in the Nonprofit Workplace. (Apologies for the title, I wrote it before I had the particular “two-issue” insight I mentioned up top. However, the principles should hold true for entry-level employees of any generation.)

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Blogiversary II

As of today, I have been blogging at Createquity for two years. It’s pretty amazing to think how far things have come in such a short time. Even one year ago, this blog was still pretty quiet — a subscriber base of perhaps 20, a comment maybe every month or so, and a pretty light posting schedule. I remember intentionally writing blogs on the 30th or the 31st so that my total for the month wouldn’t be too embarrassingly low.

Something happened to this blog starting around February or so of this year, however. It wasn’t any one event, but a few factors conspired to make Createquity less of a lark and more of a “thing.” First, I started picking up the NEA story during the debate over the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (better known as the stimulus bill), which resulted in my first real exposure on the blogs of people I didn’t know and had never met before, a new and odd feeling. Second, I started posting more often and introducing regular features like Around the Horn on a schedule, which definitely seemed to help with traffic for some reason that I don’t totally understand. Third, for my final half-semester at business school, I decided to make one of my classes (my independent study on public policy and the arts) a glorified excuse for writing more blog posts. Instead of blogging for the class, I took the class for the blog. Several of the resulting essays became among the most-read Createquity posts of all time, and the experience led to the introduction of the Arts Policy Library series this summer.

Along the way, I got Createquity transferred to its own domain and a visual upgrade, attended, blogged, and met many new readers at the Americans for the Arts Annual Convention, welcomed Createquity’s first guest author, Guy Yedwab, guest-wrote for the six-week discussion on the NEA at Barry’s Blog and the Americans for the Arts Emerging Leaders Salon, and was the first blogger to cover the Grantmakers in the Arts Conference — an organization whose website I remember wistfully exploring prior to business school, wondering when I would get a chance to join the party. This month, I’m on track to average a post a day for the first time. And through it all, the readership has kept growing. What was a steady subscriber base of 20-25 people through the beginning of 2009 reached a peak of 351 earlier this month (since then, the total got cut by 100+ because of a mysterious decision by Google to shut down my old blog due to “spam concerns”). Given that arts policy isn’t exactly a dinner-table topic in most households, that’s not too bad.

It’s been a fun ride, and I want to take a moment to thank a few folks who have been instrumental in making it possible: my friend Darcy James Argue for providing much advice and wisdom at the very beginning; early fans like Adam Forest Huttler and Sean Stannard-Stockton for giving me a boost when I was still figuring things out; Thomas Cott and Ethan Iverson for sending hordes of curious readers my way and singlehandedly giving some posts a second (and third, and fourth) life; Tommer Peterson, Barry Hessenius, and Stephanie Evans for believing in me enough to let me blurt out my thoughts on their own turf; my independent study advisor, Jonathan Koppell, for being cool with letting my essays for class be in hyperlinked format; and last but not least, my student advisor at business school, Nancy Livingston, who really encouraged me to get this thing off the ground and is probably more responsible than anyone for it to have happened when it did. Thanks to all as well who have responded in the comments or on their own blogs, kept up a dialogue with me, and helped to raise awareness of new ideas and new frontiers in arts management and arts policy. I’m looking forward to year three.

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Live from GIA: Day IV – Brunch with Rocco

(crossposted at the Grantmakers in the Arts Conference Blog)

Wednesday morning, a crush of arts funders, news media, and video crew crowded along with your friendly blogger host for the final GIA Conference event: a speech by Rocco Landesman, the recently appointed chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts. Other than a talk at Symphony Space the previous night, this was to be Landesman’s first public appearance since starting his new job, and there was buzz that there was going to be an “announcement” this morning. Over omelets and fruit salad (incidentally, I must say that the catered meals were really quite decent for conference food this time around), we awaited with bated breath.

Continuing with the string of performances at plenary sessions throughout the conference, this keynote was preceded by two young men affiliated with New York’s own spoken-word champions Urban Word. They performed a harrowing piece dedicated to Matthew Shepard and Rashawn Brazell, two murdered teens targeted for their homosexuality, and received a standing ovation from the crowd.

GIA Board President Vickie Benson was up next to introduce Rocco. She mentioned that the man had read Janet Brown’s blog post in which she offered recommendations for the new NEA Chair, and joked that out of admiration she was considering changing her name to “Vicko.” (I can’t really convey just how huge of a laugh this got, coming as it was from prim and proper Minnesotan Benson.)

Finally, Rocco spoke. If today were still Wednesday, I would transcribe sections from the speech as best I could. But the wonders of the internet are such that not only has the speech been posted at the NEA’s new Art Works blog, but it has been reported on in multiple venues. So here it is, in its entirety, and I’ll meet you back below the fold. Read More »

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Live (sort of) from GIA: Day IV – Changing the Game

(crossposted at the Grantmakers in the Arts Conference Blog)

My final day at the Grantmakers in the Arts Conference began with a GREAT panel on “new models, new leaders, new ideas” for arts organizations and philanthropy, organized and moderated by Marc Vogl from the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation. (Disclosure: I worked closely with Marc last summer during my internship with Hewlett’s Performing Arts Program.) This session came as Americans for the Arts was hosting a weeklong online “salon” on emerging leaders in the arts on its blog, so the subject matter seemed distinctly in the air. This was not lost on conference attendees, who absolutely packed the room to hear this session—again and again, GIA staff and volunteers had to leave the room to get more chairs and still people were standing just outside the door or left to find other sessions because it was too crowded.

In a lively and stimulating exchange, the four panelists—Adam Forest Huttler from Fractured Atlas, Heather Cohn from Flux Theatre Ensemble, consultant Ebony McKinney (who recently received a grant to help set up San Francisco Bay Area Emerging Arts Professionals), and, in a most interesting twist, Nicole Derse from Organizing for America and the Obama ’08 campaign—discussed the ways in which they or their organizations are exploring new boundaries. For example, Huttler talked about Fractured Atlas’s entrepreneurial philosophy and the L3C it has formed in Vermont to handle its liability insurance operations, while Cohn spoke about her organization’s reliance on fiscal sponsorship to raise donations, as well as its collective management structure.

The panel spent a good chunk of time talking about fiscal sponsorship, which is a model that Fractured Atlas has promoted extensively to arts organizations as an alternative to full tax-exempt corporation status. The reasoning is that corporations carry with them an assumption of permanence that may not be appropriate for many arts organizations that draw their lifeblood from the efforts and talents of specific people who will not be around or active artistically forever. Another factor is that for organizations under a certain budget size (estimated to be about $500,000 by Huttler), it may be more cost-effective to operate under a fiscal sponsorship arrangement and simply pay the sponsor a fee for the administrative tasks that go along with it than to handle all of the paperwork and regulatory requirements internally. Cohn indicated that Flux Theatre is interested in pursuing tax-exempt status eventually, but McKinney reported that SF Bay Area Emerging Arts Professionals has no such intention.

As much as I enjoyed the contributions of the other panelists, for me, the opportunity to hear from and interact with Derse is what really made the panel special. The Obama campaign has fascinated me from a management standpoint ever since I began learning more about it last year. Derse reported that in the early days (she was the 41st person hired by the campaign, in February 2007), there was a fairly decentralized approach, as offices in different early states experimented with different management styles. Whereas in New Hampshire the campaign adopted a fairly traditional approach, for example, in South Carolina there was a strong emphasis on teams and bringing people in from the community. By and large, the campaign found that the more it was willing to take risks and try new models, the more success it realized. One of the most interesting insights that Derse provided was that the metrics used by campaigns sometimes determine the management structure. Realizing this, the Obama campaign threw out some of the standard metrics that didn’t seem so important and instead began measuring things that related to volunteer leadership, such as the number people trained, the number of one-on-one meetings held, etc. In addition, the campaign took risks by ceding no ground, setting up shop in places that had voted for Bush by 40-point margins in the previous election.

The theme of risk, in fact, kept coming up over and over again as the panelists explored this overarching idea of “new”ness. As Huttler pointed out midway through, the Obama campaign took these risks with an unimaginable amount at stake—the Presidency of the United States, the future political career of the candidate, hundreds of millions of dollars in donated funds. And yet some foundations are afraid to give money to tiny organizations like Flux Theatre Ensemble—which has an annual budget of $45,000—because it uses a fiscal sponsor rather than its own tax-exempt status. As Huttler elaborated, some funders are more like angel investors, willing to take such risks, but others are really like pension funds—sitting on a ton of capital, but wanting to be extremely careful to make sure it doesn’t get squandered.

The panel was opened up to audience questions less than halfway through the session, so the remainder became something of a discussion session. One of the more interesting questions was, “what metaphors do you live by?” Remarkably, all three panelists who gave answers touched upon ideas and intellectual property in some way. Cohn reported that Flux has a philosophy that great ideas should be put out into the world–they are not yours to own. Similarly, McKinney referred to a “commonwealth of knowledge” and Huttler drew upon his experiences with open-source software development. Taking Derse’s efforts to cultivate volunteer leadership into the fold as well, it’s clear that one of the big “new” ideas has to do with activating the commons by broadening the discussion outside of one’s traditional circle in ways that have not been possible or customary in the past, often by leveraging new communications technologies. It’s important to note that this trend toward openness is not completely new — in response to a question about grantmakers embracing transparency, for example, McKinney noted that her former employer, the San Francisco Arts Commission, operates under a “sunshine law” that requires all grant panels to be open to the public, which has sometimes led to interesting conversations and confrontations. And one representative from a big foundation who asked about moving the discussion forward was reminded by a colleague who used to work at the organization years ago that its culture was once far more progressive. Nevertheless, communications technology has changed the parameters of what’s possible, with the result that more collaborative organizational and leadership models that once seemed too unwieldy may now be coming back into fashion.

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