Live from GIA: Day II – Arts, Culture, and Community Economic Development

(cross-posted at the GIA Conference Blog)

On Monday, I attended an off-site session at chashama’s 126th Street artist studios, which provides workspace for 38 artists in a rapidly gentrifying area of Harlem. The subject of the meeting, appropriately, was the arts and economic development. Organized by GIA board member Janet Rodriguez, the session featured remarks from Scott Metzner, the owner of the building that chashama currently occupies; Heather Hitchens, the executive director of the New York State Council on the Arts (NYSCA); Anita Durst, the founder and artistic director of chashama, and Mary Puryear, program officer for the Prudential Foundation in economic development.

Durst spoke first and told the story of chashama. The organization was founded in 1995 when Durst, a theater artist whose family owns a large portfolio of Manhattan real estate, found her friends asking her more and more frequently for access to her personal rehearsal space. Durst had the idea of using her family’s real estate connections to convince landlords to lend space that would otherwise be temporarily vacant to artists in the interim. The model has proven quite successful, and chashama now has a long list of both landlords and artists who want to be matched with each other. While stays in a given space can be as short as a month, the average tenure for a chashama space is 2-3 years. The organization has served more than 6,000 artists in the past 15 years, including nearly 100 at the present time.

From a developer’s perspective, like Metzner’s, the value proposition of chashama is compelling not only for the promise of filling otherwise vacant space (Metzner estimated that the financial benefit to his firm will be negligible), but also for the promise of a reliable tenant who actually will take care of the space. The fact that chashama carries its own insurance was seen as notable by both Durst and Metzner. Metzner specifically cited Durst herself in her role as champion as the main motivating factor for him in deciding to go ahead with the deal.

Though Puryear works in the economic development realm for Prudential, she and the Foundation see the arts as a means toward her program’s goals. She took care to note that, from her perspective, it doesn’t matter at all that it’s the arts that cause these effects–the point is that it works. Prudential, which is typically the #1 or #2 funder in the state of New Jersey with an annual investment in the city of Newark of $7-8 million, played a particularly major role in helping the New Jersey Performing Arts Center to happen. Puryear reported that the neighborhood has seen such enormous changes since the opening of the facility that there is no comparison.

Hitchens spoke about community economic development from a state funding standpoint. When Hitchens arrived at NYSCA, the agency was pretty much an island unto itself – interactions with other state entities, even those that also funded arts organizations (such as economic empowerment agencies), were rare and not at all systematized. Worse, NYSCA was seen by lawmakers as the “fun” agency, implying that it was not taken seriously. Despite this, Hitchens reported that legislators from both parties are largely on board with the notion of the arts being helpful to economic development; a common refrain is that the priorities for economic development are crime, schools, and culture. For that reason, Hitchens feels that the challenge has to do (at least in New York) less with making the pitch than with connecting the dots: convening people doing similar work in different areas and breaking down internal and external silos.

Though research has shown remarkable parallels between arts activity today and growth in real estate prices tomorrow, there seemed to be some disagreement and uncertainty among the attendees as to the exact nature of the arts’ impact on economic development and especially how one would measure that impact. Metzner remarked that the specific scale and mix of arts activity required to “move the needle” is unknown at this time.

Despite the extremely interesting content of the session, the highlight might have been the tour of the studios themselves. Many of the artists were present, working with a dizzying array of media and in some cases transforming their workspaces into elaborate creations in their own right. There is also a gallery of works in the main entrance.

Share
Leave a comment

Live from GIA: Day II – Resources for International Exchange and the Ballad of American Arts

(cross-posted at the GIA Conference Blog)

The jam-packed days of the 2009 Grantmakers in the Arts Conference are now in full swing, and yesterday’s was especially full to the brim. Our morning started bright and early at 8:00 with a selection of “breakfast roundtables”: informal topical discussions over croissants, yogurts, and coffee. I attended the Resources for International Exchange session, which was organized by Jennifer Goodale of the Asian Cultural Council and Trust for Mutual Understanding.

An observer indicated that he wanted to “take the temperature” of the state of cultural exchange programs in the United States, and the response he got was that it is “freezing.” The major theme of the talk was increasing the pool of funding for cultural exchange. Historically, the support of foundations such as the Pew Charitable Trusts helped create a number of opportunities, but as those foundations moved on to other priorities, new sources of funding failed to take their place. Furthermore, Arts International’s folding several years ago (it now exists as a program of the Mid-Atlantic Arts Foundation, but only covers performing artists) contributed to a winnowing of opportunity in the area. There was a general sense that there may be some opportunity on the federal level with the advent of the new administration and its focus on openness with the international community. However, one participant noted that any changes to federal policy will likely take a while (as in a year or two, perhaps) to fully manifest. In the meantime, several participants were focused on rebuilding support for the international exchange grantmaking within the domestic funder community.

Two representatives from the country’s regional arts agencies participated in the conversation. The regionals already provide domestic touring support, and in some cases subsidize American artists to perform abroad. As a consortium, they recently published a report called Global Positioning Strategy for the Arts that urges leadership from the White House on the issue and points out the importance of experiencing other nations’ cultures in addition to sharing our own. Another report, from the Robert Sterling Clark Foundation, surveys trends in international exchange and cultural diplomacy programs in more depth.

A comparison between the United States’ and other countries approaches, facilitated by the presence of the Director of Performing Arts for the Consulate General of the Kingdom of the Netherlands, is instructive. One participant reported encountering shock on the part of his counterparts in other countries that the US, with all of its money, had no funds to treat visiting artists with the same hospitality as countries with much smaller GDPs. Western European nations tend to have much more holistic and centralized cultural policies in which international exchange programs are coordinated with other artistic programming. For example, the Netherlands is actually becoming more interested in importing superb foreign artists to the country. This decision is the result of a government-commissioned publication, All that Dutch, that involved outreach to artistic professionals in other countries to get outsiders’ feedback on the Dutch arts scene. Word came back that the Dutch were getting complacent and needed an infusion of new ideas. Hence, the changes to cultural policy.

The session concluded with a resolve to get international exchange on the agendas of GIA and other funder affinity groups in a more formal way. The participants have already formed an email support group and plan to continue the conversation after the conference is over.

*

Following the no-bloggers-invited morning workshop, The Future and Our Role in Shaping It (whose synthesized results will be reported at Wednesday’s closing session), I sat in on Wynton Marsalis’s performance of The Ballad of American Arts over lunch. The performance is a reprise of Marsalis’s Nancy Hanks Lecture on Arts and Public Policy for Arts Advocacy Day this year. That performance quickly achieved viral legend status when it first took place, and the Americans for the Arts’s Nina Ozlu Tunceli, introducing the piece, called it one of the “greatest honors of [her] career” to have been involved with it. I have little to say about the piece that hasn’t been said before; Marsalis blends poetry, music, and monologue into a compelling case for the essentialism of the arts. If you’re curious about it, I suggest you watch the video from the original performance here. On top of the history lesson and the tight playing, Marsalis provided a lighter touch when his trombonist left the stage in the middle of the piece, apparently to catch another gig. Marsalis barked at him, “what, you don’t like what I’m saying?”, provoking many a confused giggle in the audience.

Back later with a report from the Arts, Culture & Community Economic Development off-site session!

Share
Leave a comment

Generation Y and the Problem of “Entitlement”: A Bullet-Point Manifesto

(cross-posted on ARTSBlog for this week’s 20UNDER40 discussion on emerging leaders and intergenerational dialogue)

(Note: I was inspired to experiment with this form by a guest post on Sean Stannard-Stockton’s Tactical Philanthropy blog by Nonprofit Finance Fund Capital Partners founder George Overholser. I hope you enjoy it.)

  • An oft-heard complaint about Generation Y (and other “emerging leaders”) is that they have a sense of entitlement—that they think they are smarter than everyone else.
  • I don’t believe that people in Generation Y are any smarter than generations that came before.
  • HOWEVER, here’s something I do believe:
    • The people in Generation Y that YOU DEAL WITH in YOUR OFFICE are very likely smarter than the people who would have been in that office in earlier generations.
    • Which means that they may well be smarter than YOU!
  • The secret power of Generation Y is not that we’re smarter: it is that we are MORE!
    • More numerous: the population of the world is 6.7 billion, 81% higher than it was in 1970.
    • More highly educated: 29% of Americans age 25 and older have bachelor’s degrees now, compared to 11% in 1970.
    • More professional: Nearly one-third of employed Americans work in the so-called “creative class” (i.e., white-collar professions), compared to about a fifth in 1970.
    • More egalitarian: the percentage of women in the workplace has shot up both domestically (from 43% to 59% between 1970 and 2006) and internationally, and racial barriers to employment have lessened significantly.
    • More ambitious: The number of high-quality colleges that offer meaningful financial aid has exploded; many more scholarships exist for talented low-income individuals.
    • More international: Enrollment by foreign residents in US colleges and universities is up significantly in recent decades.
    • More technologically able: More about the technology than the people; the Internet has completely revolutionized the way we communicate and think about opportunity.
  • The result of all of these factors is that the size of the qualified labor pool who applies for things like entry-level arts administration jobs in the United States is much, much higher than it used to be.
    • Sure, the number of arts administration jobs has increased, too. But based on the cultural economics literature I’ve been reading recently, I’m not convinced that this is taking place any faster than overall US growth in GDP. My hunch is that the qualified labor pool has increased much more.
  • What happens when the pool of qualified candidates increases relative to the opportunities available?
    • Let’s take the Olympics as an example.
    • China won zero gold medals at the 1972 Summer Olympic games, out of 195 total.
    • In 2008, China won 51 gold medals, or 17% of the total—more than any other nation.
    • Does this mean Chinese athletes are infinitely better in 2008 than they were in 1972?
      • Of course not – it means that far more Chinese have the opportunity to compete for a gold medal in 2008 instead of toiling in the rice fields or sweat shops for their entire lives.
      • The talent was always there – but now less of it is getting wasted because of discrimination, prejudice, income inequality, and social fragmentation.
    • So Chinese athletes presumably had no more natural talent in 2008 than they did in 1972—
      • But the Chinese athletes competing in the Olympics in 2008 were more talented than the Chinese athletes competing in the Olympics in 1972.
  • Take this metaphor to arts administration in 2009.
    • It’s not that Generation Y is any smarter than the generations that came before.
    • It’s that more of us have the opportunity to compete for arts administration jobs – which, despite their flaws, are pretty awesome compared to careers many of our ancestors were stuck with instead.
    • As a result, the best candidates for entry-level arts administration jobs (who are the ones who get them) are smarter, on average, than the best candidates for entry-level arts administration jobs in a previous era (who are the ones now leading arts organizations).
      • (Assuming, again, that the growth in the number of arts admin jobs has not kept pace with the rise in qualified candidates for those jobs. Let’s just say I would be really, really surprised to learn otherwise.)
  • But wait! That’s not all!
    • Why are Generation Y employees so damn ambitious?
      • (Well, remember, we’re talking about the cream of the crop here—the unambitious ones will probably never get a chance to work with you.)
    • You see, with all of these talented people around us competing for the same jobs and spots in the class and other opportunities, we have to get used to being on top of our game.
    • That means we have to apply to more opportunities to have a decent chance of landing one, which conveniently is made far easier than it used to be by recent advances in technology. (Anyone remember typewriters?)
      • BUT! That means any given opportunity will have more people bidding for it, which makes getting that opportunity EVEN THAT MUCH MORE competitive! And so the cycle continues and feeds upon itself.
    • We have to continually show that we’re better than whomever else you might hire/accept/grant/award, which requires us to have a sharply defined sense of what “better” means.
      • Not to mention a healthy sense of self-confidence. After all, if we’re going to go into an interview and tell you that we’re the best candidate for what you’re offering, we’d better believe it ourselves.
    • If we are pre-disposed to look for and recognize examples of superior performance, is it any surprise if we get impatient when examples of it on our part go unrecognized by our superiors?
      • Is it any surprise, in that situation, that we find ourselves looking outside of our organization for the recognition that we’re failing to get from within it?
  • So to sum up,
    • Generation Y is not smarter than anyone else.
    • But the specific members of Generation Y populating your office probably are.
      • And if they are, that’s a testament to your hiring skills! Nice work!
    • Not only that, they probably have their eyes on bigger things than mail merges—because, in fact, they are capable of bigger things.
      • Which is good! Wouldn’t you rather have talented, multifaceted people on your team than folks who are satisfied doing one thing sort-of well?
  • Finally, if you’re reading this and find yourself overcome with intergenerational resentment, you can comfort yourself with this thought:
    • However uncomfortable this may be for you, it’s going to be far worse for us when it’s time for Generation Z or AA or whatever to enter the workplace. All of those trends towards “more” are not likely to let up anytime soon, after all.
    • That’s why it’s critical that we reform our organizations NOW to take proper advantage of great ideas and constructive feedback wherever and whoever they come from, so that we won’t find ourselves in the exact same position 20 years from today.
Share
11 Comments

Live from GIA: Day I – Opening Plenary Dinner

(Cross-posted at the GIA 2009 Conference Blog)

The 2009 Grantmakers in the Arts Conference officially opened on Sunday night with a half-salmon-half-chicken dinner (something for everyone, I guess?), welcoming remarks, housekeeping notes, a performance, and a keynote by pollster and author John Zogby.

The strange tensions of the times we live in were in full evidence during the session. I mentioned in my first post that this is not only the first time that GIA has had an official blogger for its annual conference, but the first time it’s had any press coverage at all, save for one exception years ago. The conference is traditionally closed to all but staff of grantmaking organizations and invited speakers. In addition, there is a strict policy against solicitation of any kind – if a member is both a grantmaker and a grantseeker, it’s expected that the organization will send the program staff, not the development personnel. The result is that the conference creates, as GIA board member Janet Rodriguez characterized it, a “safe space” for the sharing of ideas among colleagues. However, at the only major national convening for arts funders every year, this strategy can also remove the possibility of healthy confrontation in a field in which getting honest feedback can be a challenge. In this context, the choice of Chief Oren Lyons of the Ondaga Nation to give the opening welcome proved to be a daring one. After offering a traditional greeting, Lyons wasted no time in adopting a truth-to-power pose: “I’m on the short end of my life, quite short these days, so I don’t have a lot of time to be nice to you.” Lyons warned of the dangers in allowing the earth to be treated as it has, and on behalf of indigenous peoples everywhere urged critical action to combat global warming. (The subject matter of the conference itself seemed to be of decidedly secondary concern, though perhaps that was the point.)

Lyons was followed by an unannounced and rather more lighthearted welcome from Brooklyn Borough President Marty Markowitz. Jokingly insisting that the1898 merger that created the modern New York City was a mistake, Markowitz spent most of his speech trashing Manhattan and gloating over the spillover of wealth, artistic and otherwise, that has found its way to his borough in recent years. (He insisted that he welcomed the influx of artists because “anywhere artists want to live to day is somewhere you either want to live tomorrow or can’t afford to live tomorrow.”) Markowitz concluded with a flourish, officially declaring October 18 “Grantmakers in the Arts National Conference Celebration Day” in Brooklyn, handing GIA Director Janet Brown a plaque as bemused arts funders applauded.

The highlight of the evening was a performance by Urban Bush Women of a work-in-progress called “Naked City,” inspired by Toni Morrison’s novel Jazz and featuring music by Pyeng Threadgill, daughter of jazz great Henry Threadgill and UBW choreographer Christina Jones. The movement started slowly, but soon became a dizzying ensemble piece straddling the line between anger and ecstasy.

Finally, pollster and author John Zogby gave the keynote presentation. Though Zogby’s activity in his chosen field has not been without some controversy, the broad qualitative trends he identified in his speech made intuitive sense to me. Zogby has been working on his book, The Way We’ll Be, for quite a while, gathering and reviewing data going back to the 1970s to understand how Americans’ conception of the American Dream is changing. And it is changing, he says: from a fundamentally materialist vision of nice cars, a good job, and a big house, to a more ethereal notion of leading a fulfilling life. Zogby identifies four inputs for the growth in this group he calls “secular spiritualists.” First, 27% of Americans now work at a job that pays less than the job they previously held. Zogby posits that these individuals are gaining a broader perspective on life from having to cut back on their material spending. Second, there is a broad movement toward simplification at the upper echelons of the socioeconomic ladder, as people who have “made it” decide that they are tired of the rat race and want their lives to have meaning in other ways. Third, the baby boomers are the first generational cohort that will see 1 million of its members live to the age of 100 (I am assuming Zogby was referring only to the United States with this statistic). That extra lifespan means that boomers, particularly those who are still trying to recapture the glory days of the ’60s, are having to contemplate what they will do with all of the extra time. Finally, the people in the 18-30 age cohort (represent!) are what Zogby calls the “first global citizens,” in that 56% of us have passports. “First globals” put the arts higher on their list of life priorities than other age groups do.

What does it all mean for the arts? According to Zogby, the arts will benefit by investing in audience engagement early; by strategic outreach to and cultivation of tastemakers and influencers in a socially networked world; and by making a credible case for the arts to secular spiritualists. There is a growing demand among this group for affordable self-improvement. As Zogby pointed out, the arts are cheaper than a massage, easier than going to the gym, and healthier than having a second scoop of ice cream. As a positioning strategy, I can think of many worse examples than that.

Share
Leave a comment

Live from GIA: Day I – Arts and Social Justice Preconference

(Note to Createquity readers: I’m blogging the 2009 Grantmakers in the Arts Conference from Brooklyn, NY this week. This post was originally published at the GIA 2009 Conference Blog.)

A strikingly diverse group of arts funders gathered at the Pratt Institute Sunday morning for the Arts and Social Justice Preconference. GIA’s Arts and Social Justice Committee is a relatively new phenomenon; this all-day session represented only its third official meeting. Nevertheless, two well-designed session groups provided much food for thought on the subject of effectively employing creative disciplines in service of broad social goals.

The morning session was devoted to measuring the impact of social justice arts philanthropy. Organized by Barbara Schaffer Bacon and Pam Korza of Americans for the Arts’s Animating Democracy project, as well as the Barr Foundation’s Klare Shaw, the session presented several perspectives on the difficult but essential task of translating a notoriously difficult-to-define spectrum of activities into measurable indicators.

After some get-to-know-you games facilitated by performance artist Rha Goddess, the first presentation belonged to Klare Shaw of the Boston-based Barr Foundation. The Barr Foundation launched Culture for Change, an initiative brokering collaborations between youth development organizations and community arts organizations, as a pilot program in 2008. The idea grew out of a combination of community arts organizations’ frequent reports of youth populations with problems bigger than they were equipped to address, and Shaw’s observation that youth development organizations’ arts programming often were somewhat underdeveloped from a quality standpoint. The Barr Foundation funded a team consisting of an arts trainer and a youth worker on each site. The pilot program lasted for 10 weeks in 2008 at 10 sites in Boston, and consisted of training, grant support, a resource library, artist residencies, and a concluding celebratory event and convening. The pilot served 145 youth aged 11-21 in total.

Given the subject matter of the session, Shaw went into some detail about the evaluation of the pilot conducted by Barr Foundation staffer Christine Lamas Weinberg. Using a survey, observation, focus groups, site visits, written reports, interviews, and the convening, Weinberg determined that the key successes of the project were the design of the pilot (particularly with regard to its clear timetable and the successful integration of the different components); the engagement of the young people in the arts activities, the role that artists took on as mentors, and the fact that some of the organizations elected to continue with the programming on their own and raise separate funds for it. The program met with challenges, however, in seeking to engage youth beyond their own immediate problems to grapple with issues in social justice more generally; logistical issues (mostly related to a lack of sufficient time); and in conducting the evaluation itself. The project was documented throughout with video and blogs, and at the end, Shaw polled the participating organizations to find out whether they would rather continue the program or receive general operating support instead; 60% indicated they wanted the program to continue. Barr hopes to reach 1000 youth through the project by 2011.

After a 10-minute break, we next were treated to a performance by Rha Goddess of an excerpt from her solo play LOW, chronicling the travails of a woman struggling with mental illness. Afterwards, Rha Goddess was joined on stage by Suzanne Callahan of Callahan Consulting for the Arts. Callahan has been working with Rha Goddess on an evaluation framework for the piece, a particularly challenging project from a scientific standpoint. Callahan started by asking Rha open-ended questions about her goals for audience experiences, reactions, and follow-up. Rha indicated that an important goal was to break the “culture of silence” around mental illness; to encourage people who saw the show to talk about it openly and perhaps take action on their own to get help if applicable. From there, the team collaborated on the creation of a survey instrument that would be administered to audiences after a show. I found Callahan’s description of this process particularly notable: to maximize the response rate, the survey was branded as a “reflections sheet,” printed on colored paper, and presented to patrons personally at the door. A designer pen light was offered as an incentive for completing the survey. Audience members were reminded to complete it both before the opening curtain and just following the emotionally climactic conclusion of the show. Amazingly, the response rate was over 90%. Survey participants were given a number of unusual prompts such as an “emotion canvas,” which involved selecting emotion words spread out across the page and identifying moments in the performance that provoked those feelings, and a question about what the audience member would have done had he/she been a character in the play (this was to get at action orientation).

The final presenter of the morning session was the Urban Institute’s Maria Rosario Jackson, who shared reflections from her work as an urban planner on evaluation techniques in social justice-oriented arts. A major theme of Jackson’s talk was a warning that community-based arts initiatives often seek to affect broad social conditions that are beyond their immediate control. This can lead to a trap of trying to take responsibility or credit for impacting those conditions when such direct causal relationships are exceedingly unrealistic. In fact, Jackson warned against trying to “prove” causal impacts in general, noting that in other fields in which she works, such as housing, correlations between indicators are often seen as sufficient to make a case. Jackson also urged the identification and inclusion of stakeholders in the evaluation process and clarity about the context and constraints in which funders operate. She explained that evaluation at its best is an ongoing process, integrated naturally into the way an organization does business. It’s also reflective of a desire to learn the truth, rather than a defensive posture or something to check off a list. Ultimately, the goal of evaluation should be to enable arts organizations to do their work more effectively.

*

Following a brief lunch, the preconference attendees returned for a session on new media as a tool for engagement in the arts, co-organized by the Ford Foundation’s Roberta Uno and the Nathan Cummings Foundation’s Claudine Brown. I will tell you one thing: media people know how to put together a snazzy presentation. This observation was driven home to me in particular by Barry Joseph’s dizzying “prezi” for Global Kids, which can be downloaded here. Global Kids invests in several strategies for engaging youth in new media. First, it brings video games (and in particular, video game design) into the classroom using tools such as Scratch. Did you know that 99% of boys and 94% of girls play video games at this point? Second, Global Kids leverages virtual worlds such as Second Life to engage kids in activities like making short movies. Finally, the organization treats social media like a Boy Scouts activity, allowing youth to earn “badges” in areas such as “judgment,” “negotiation,” and “distributed cognition.” All in all, a fascinating presentation.

Next, filmmaker Leba Haber Rubinoff introduced two very different media-oriented projects. The first, Where My Ladies At?, is a sort of web-based multimedia scripted drama featuring three African-American characters – a rising hip-hop star, a former porn actress turned legit, and a DJ. The project sought to tackle difficult questions about body image, money, and heritage in collaboration with its fans, who would interact with the “stars” via videos and blogs (the actresses even responded to user comments in character). The show apparently was authentic enough to fool the students of one of the actresses, who teaches in public school as her day job, into thinking that their teacher and her character were one and the same. Rubinoff’s other project, entitled Mobile Movement, provides cell phones to youth entrepreneur groups in Kenya. It is hoped that the cell phones will serve as a platform for commerce and communication for microbusinesses in that country.

William Crow of the Metropolitan Museum of Art gave a brief presentation focusing on collaborative advances in the training of educators. The Met invested several years ago in an online learning experience for its teachers working with students of all ages. These new platforms allowed new means of collaboration: for example, a wiki area allowed teachers to share lesson plans, and a blog encouraged teachers to compare their interpretations of specific works. Furthermore, the sharing of these resources with museum patrons created a new kind of audience, one that had taken the time to educate itself online before visiting the museum. Crow saw a number of new possibilities opened up by the system, including the involvement of audience members in the collaborative creation of educational materials paired with the works in the museum.

Ed Buckner and Andrew Larimer followed with a powerful presentation focused on the Porch, a cultural organization serving the 7th Ward of New Orleans. A relatively recent organization, the Porch uses arts education as a tool for empowering children and residents of the 7th Ward. One of the organization’s early successes involved a play created by children about the Pink House, a notorious crack den in their neighborhood that somehow continually escaped police notice. Buckner invited members of the police to witness the play put on by the students, and sure enough, two days later the Pink House was no more. Another Porch project, Down in the Seventh, is a student-produced movie focusing on the problem of youth violence in the area. This portion of the presentation was just heartbreaking – Buckner told stories of how kids were carrying out hits on each other based on what was going on on each other’s Myspace pages. In a tragic irony, Buckner recounted that his own son, still in college, was murdered during the creation of Down in the Seventh. The emotional drama would have been presentation enough, but Larimer went the extra mile to offer specific practical lessons learned from the project about helping young people produce video.

Ken Ikeda of the Bay Area Video Coalition presented on the Producers Institute, a unique ten-day intensive residency program that results in cross-disciplinary subject-focused multimedia platforms. For example, The Way We Get By, a project focusing on soldiers and veterans, combines a documentary film highlighting “Troop Greeters” who shower affection on returning soldiers that they’ve never met with a “virtual care package” application that allows visitors to send pictures, videos, messages, and other online goodies to soldiers overseas. The film will be shown on PBS on Veterans Day. Other Producers Institute projects include Not in Our Town, an initiative to respond to hate crimes globally, and IJCentral, a push to establish an international criminal justice system.

Ian Inaba, looking far younger than his 38 years, spoke next. Inaba is co-director of the Citizen Engagement Laboratory, which creates digital content (videos, art, emails, etc.) and looks for ways to distribute it to a wide audience while encouraging them to act. The Lab’s signature project so far is Video the Vote, a way of crowdsourcing reporting on voter disenfranchisement issues in connection with the 2006 and 2008 elections. The project featured a viral video with prompts to the user to share the content or volunteer to report on voter registration issues, which built an army of citizen reporters to videotape activity at the polls on election day. Video the Vote attracted 3500 volunteers who produced 1000 videos for the most recent election cycle. Inaba talked at length about the collaboration efforts his organization undertakes with likeminded advocacy groups – as long as the messaging can be coordinated, costs can be reduced substantially and reach enhanced by centralizing content creation in the hands of Citizen Engagement Lab.

The final presentation was given by Marlène Ramírez-Cancio of Fulana, a four-member Latina artist collective that produces humorous bilingual video content (fake ads, parodies of Telemundo shows, etc.), often with a sharp political edge. Fulana makes extensive use of social networking platforms (Facebook, vimeo, Myspace, etc.) to reach out to new fans.

And thus ended the Arts and Social Justice Preconference – more exploratory than prescriptive, but containing a number of intriguing models worth further exploration. For me, the most compelling aspects were the efforts to corral Rha Goddess’s highly emotional performance art into a quantitative framework for evaluation; Ian Inaba’s fountain of ideas for increasing impact through viral marketing and strategic collaboration; Barry Joseph’s swanky online presentation platform; and the Porch’s wrenching personal story. I encourage you to check out the work of these individuals and all of the others on yesterday’s program.

Share
1 Comment

Response to Arts Policy Library: Breakthroughs in Shared Measurement

Recently, I had the honor of posting my first contribution to Createquity’s Arts Policy Library, my response to the report “Breakthroughs in Shared Measurement and Social Impact.” In the comments section, one of the report’s authors Lalitha Vaidyanathan took the time to respond to two of the main points of my response.

The first point that Ms. Vaidyanathan responds to was my desire to see more data on the effectiveness of the shared measurement programs examined by the report. First Ms. Vaidyanathan writes:

Your observation about the relative youth of the systems investigated for the report is spot on. Success Measures and Cultural Data Project are the oldest of the systems we examined in depth and both started operations around 2005. As such their experience is limited to 3-4 years. At this stage, the effectiveness measure of these systems that is most quantifiable is the savings seen in terms of time and cost. The data supporting this is sprinkled throughout the report but in the interest of clarity, it is summarized and elaborated upon here below. In terms of increased impact as a result of using these systems, Strive (the example of an Adaptive Learning System detailed in the report), even though just two years in operation (it was launched in late 2008), has started to see positive improvements on many of the 10 community-level indicators it tracks. While this was mentioned in the report, it was not elaborated upon – I take the opportunity to do so here.

Firstly, I hope I made it clear in my first report that while I very much hungered for data on the effectiveness of the programs, I did understand the youth of the projects. In a way, my comments were less a criticism of the original report, and more a desire to see more investigation in the future along similar lines.

Secondly, Ms. Vaidyanathan is right that the best way to tackle such a short life-span is to look at the most straight-forward, short-term impact, which is the time and money saved by reducing wasteful grant-writing.

(a) Increased effectiveness in terms of time saved
Time saving resulting from the use of the Cultural Data Project system offers a good example. The system streamlines both grant application and reporting for participating arts organizations. Assuming an average grant size of $50,000 (and this is an over-estimate since Center for Effective Philanthropy (CEP) data shows this average to be true only for the largest foundations in the US), an organization with an annual budget of $500,000 would have 10 funders. Assuming grant application and reporting for each funder takes about 40 hours (this is the median data reported in CEP’s Grantee Perception Report for health foundations), that is a total of 400 hours a year. The Cultural Data system on the other hand, requires annual update of a single Data Profile – while there are 300 questions, many of these (like contact, background, description, etc) need only be entered once. The effort here would be at the most 2 weeks of work or 80 hours a year – this represents an 80% time saving for the non profit.

The numbers are ball-parked, but they seem useful enough to illustrate the time-saving. However, the numbers are still a projection, based on the following stated assumptions:

  • Average grant size of $50,000 (estimate based on CEP Data)
  • Organizational budget of $500,000 (hypothetical)
  • Grant application and funding time of 40 hours per funder (source: CEP Grantee Perception Report)
  • Cultural Data system requires 80 hours of work a year (personal projection)

There is also an unstated assumption that underpins her conclusion. The assumption is that a grantee organization that uses the Cultural Data system does not need to apply anywhere else for funding.

I compared these shared measurement systems to the Common App in my analysis of the report, and my own experience with the Common App makes me think that such an assumption is not founded. I applied for 16 schools when I was applying to college, 11 of which were on the Common App. NYU, my top choice (where I attend now), was on the Common App but required an additional supplement. There were a few other schools that were in a similar category. I also applied to a number of schools on the UC system, which had its own equivalent of the Common App (one UC application for all of the schools). In the end, I wound up filling out more applications than just the single Common App.

This is not to say that the Common App was useless. It did in fact allow me to apply to more schools in less time. I’m not using this as an argument to say that shared measurement systems are not time-savers, I simply want to point out that the 80% time saving projection strikes me as rosy, especially in the early days.

After all, in context of the relative youth of these systems, the question is how many funders within a given field have signed on to the shared measurement system. To compare to the Common App again, the Common App allows applications to 150 colleges in the United States. According to the US Census, there were 4,084 higher learning institutions in 1999. In the case of the Common App, I only needed to be accepted by one. But if I’d needed to be accepted to 10, I would have had to apply to more, and more of those colleges might have been non-Common App schools.

In the funding world, where sources are more limited and more are needed, it is important to ask how many of your funders are going to be participating in the shared measurement system. Can the organizations which participate in such systems put together their entire budget with funding acquired from participating funders? Or is the figure 80% of budget? 60% of budget? It is an important question for an organization to contemplate as it decides on whether or not to participate.

Also, remember that budget sizes are fluid, and that human beings are apt to think that more money is better. Supposing that an organization saves 80% of our time on the grants they planned to apply for. Will they spend that time on their organization? Or will they simply apply to more grants, hoping for more wins and more money?

I’m also curious about the time-saving from the perspective of the funder. Does the ease of applying for a grant lead to more applications? If so, how would the increase in applications compare to the time saved due to an easier review process?

My hunch is that, when these questions are answered, shared measurement systems are still more effective and save time. But I also think that it may not be quite as much time as we would think. Organizations who think that joining a shared measurement system entitles them to fire their grant-writing staff might be unpleasantly surprised.

(b) Increased effectiveness in terms of cost saving
The Success Measures Data System (SMDS) serves as a good example here. In the absence of outcomes data from a system like SMDS, funders would have to use external evaluators to understand the outcome of a grant. The cost formal external evaluation can run anywhere from a few tens of thousands of dollars to millions of dollars – let us assume an average cost of external evaluation of around $50,000. The SMDS annual subscription fee is $2,500 – assuming an external evaluation is conducted every 5 years – that represents a 75% cost saving.

I have an easier time believing in the cost savings, although some of the same problems from time savings also apply here. The example Ms. Vaidyanathan chose is one of the more clear-cut aspects of cost saving: being part of a system that generates outcomes data does reduce the need to bring in external evaluators to generate outcomes data. Other costs that might be reduced, such as the money that salaried full-time grant-writing staff might be harder to reduce, but this one seems a fair point.

It is important to note that both the above calculations do not capture the other important benefits realized from such systems – improved data quality  and reduced need for evaluation expertise (definition/measurement of outcome indicators requires some expertise – a specialized skill set that most non profits do not have in-house). We would expect both the above benefits to result in increased programmatic impact – as noted below, due to the early stage of these systems, quantitative impact data is not yet available.

All of those are fair points. Certainly, if it turns out that the time saving is really less than 80% and the cost saving is really less than 75%, it is worth pointing out that the other important benefits are part of the cost-benefit analysis as well. Once the quantitative impact data becomes available, we’ll know how much those other benefits compare to the time and cost savings.

(c) Increase effectiveness in terms of impact
The higher level benefits of the above mentioned two systems – increased knowledge for non profits (ability to learn from higher performing peer organizations) and funders (ability to make better programmatic grant decisions) – and the resulting increase in impact of the work is not yet documented in a quantitative manner due to the early stage of development of these systems. As you suggest, we do think a follow up report in a few years that documents this will be beneficial for the field.

Strive however, does provide some quantitative evidence of this point. Even though only in operation for two years, it has already seen positive improvement in all 5 of its major Goal areas (see http://www.strivetogether.org/documents/ReportCard/2009StriveReportCard.pdf  for a copy of its 2009 report card). Perhaps as importantly, the report card also allows it to identify areas where the indicators are trending downwards (e.g. Goal 5 indicators for Cincinnati State Technical and Community College that are trending downwards include College Readiness, Retention in Associates Degree, College Graduation, Number of Associates Degrees Granted) and thus where additional effort would be needed in the upcoming years by those action networks. This ability to identify issues, adapt strategies based on measurement and then act on it is only possible in Adaptive Learning Systems. It is our belief, as we state in the Conclusion section of our report, that Adaptive Learning Systems hold the greatest potential of moving the field toward its ultimate goal of impacting and solving social problems.

The Strive 2009 Report Card is an excellent blueprint of an informational infrastructure. The quality and depth of information in the report is impressive, and it is presented in a manner which, although dense, is clear to follow. The potential there to unify efforts, isolate problem areas, is definitely enough.

What the Strive Report Card is not is a meta-analysis. Strive is an analysis of the outcomes in the community, but it is not an analysis of Strive. We don’t know whether money was effectively used in Strive or if it went to waste, we don’t particularly know what Strive-related projects impacted what parts of the report card. In management, that’s process maturity: having a process about your process. Strive can clearly isolate issues in the outward community, but it doesn’t yet seem like it is able to isolate issues within itself. Unless it does so in internal documents that I haven’t located, and which I’d love to be made aware of.

Again, it’s called process maturity for a reason. Strive is one of the more mature systems, but it isn’t fully matured yet. It is only three years old.

Lastly, Vaidyanathan addresses my main personal insight into the program:

2. Role of public sector
The Arts specific implication you suggest of having the public sector invest in a shared measurement infrastructure for the field is an excellent one. The original development of the Cultural Data Project in Pennsylvania did include the Pennsylvania Council on the Arts which is a public agency in the Office of the Governor of PA. There is however, much greater scope for public sector involvement in building of such infrastructure. Perhaps with the setting up of agencies such as the White House Office of Social Innovation, infrastructure efforts such as that suggested here might be more likely to happen.

The potential for the White House Office of Social Innovation and Civic Engagement (WHO-SICE) is one I briefly entertained in my own blog in a post here, where I proposed that WHO-SICE would become the patron saint of young, new arts organizations and the NEA would become a caretaker of large, old, established organizations in the traditional grant-making structure. I’m not sure if creating shared measurement systems would fall more under WHO-SICE or NEA in that dichotomy. However, if you note what furor was whipped up around the NEA when they tried to get individual artists to participate in a National Day of Service, you’ll see that any scheme in which the NEA helps the arts without being accused of influencing the artists themselves is probably a better direction for the NEA.

So, thanks to Ms. Vaidyanathan for directly responding to my analysis of “Breakthroughs in Shared Measurement.” I think we’re both basically in agreement that there’s a definite opportunity for a follow-up report three to five years from now that will be able to dive into the impact of the shared measurement systems with more depth and quantitative rigor. The youth of the programs in question prevent answering many of my questions at this time, but I appreciate the opportunity to air them and get responses.

Share
Leave a comment

Achieving Consensus in a Pluralist Value System

527538443_2792a58247_oimage by jef safi (‘pictosophizing) – Creative Commons license

In the course of my occasional blog discussion with Tony Wang about the nature of value (economic and otherwise), I’ve gotten us off on a bit of a philosophical tangent: namely, exploring the question of whether a pluralist value system–one in which we don’t assign any judgment to what one person believes/wishes versus another–is a sufficient framework to allow us to determine what rules/policies/social structures are optimal for the human race at any given moment in history. In his latest post, Tony says,

I think it’s ok to disagree on what’s valuable. Do Ian and I really have to duke it out and come to some sort of shared valuation of happiness, freedom, and egalitarianism in order to talk about organizational structures? Or is it ok if Ian values happiness a bit more and I value freedom and egalitarianism a bit more? If pluralism is not ok then the alternative is that we would all have to agree on our relative valuations of happiness, freedom, egalitarianism, etc. before we moved forward in any substantive conversation. And to be honest, I think that’s counterproductive.

I agree with Tony as far as the first sentence. No, we don’t have to agree on what’s valuable – he might care more about education and I might care about economic empowerment, or he might care about science whereas I care about the arts. That’s fine. My point is that as long as there is some means of reliably measuring or knowing what each individual values and how deeply, it should be possible to come up with a single set of rules/policies/social structures that works optimally given the specific mix of people in the world. (When I say “a single set,” I am including among the possibilities a decentralized system that would take into account local differences and customs, etc. In fact, there would likely have to be at least some decentralization in order to maximize collective benefit.) It would just be a straight-up modeling exercise, albeit one with a potentially gigantic number of parameters. Note that the “values” I am talking about are different from preferences as considered in a market-based context: whereas markets are shaped by participants’ immediate preferences when presented with a limited set of possibilities, here I refer instead to values or long-term goals that people would strive to uphold regardless of the extent to which they may be realistic at that moment.

I would imagine that this line of thinking intersects rather significantly with happiness economics, which I am dismayed to admit I haven’t yet had a chance to explore to the extent I’d like. Indeed, we could go ahead and simply equate utility with happiness, though doing so requires an assumption that human desires can all eventually be reduced to one goal (and also an assumption that people actually know what makes them happy). Even if we don’t, however, we can still work with a finite list of desired “final” outcomes (e.g., world peace, personal prosperity, universal submission to His Noodly Appendage, etc.) as long as we have an idea of how many people care about them and how deeply (and in which direction). The next step after these goals have been identified would be to design an enormous “logic model for the world” that would consider what intermediate factors impact each goal and what societal levers can be manipulated to facilitate the movement of those indicators in a positive direction. It is very likely that in some cases, the intermediate factors (or even the goals themselves) will compete with each other — helping one in a specific way will hurt another. Banning guns, e.g., may be helpful for the goal of world peace but may hinder the goal of individual liberty. In such cases, the relative weights of each goal matter, as does the measure’s ability to impact each goal. So, if banning civilian gun ownership is much more likely to hinder individual liberties than it is to help achieve world peace, and more people care about liberty than peace, then we don’t ban guns. The logic model’s construction would need constant revision as our understanding of the causal links between various regulations and social behavior improves, but given its fundamental basis in logic and science, it should be possible to make one that is as “correct” as possible within the limits of human knowledge.

So why don’t we get off our asses and just do this already? Well, unfortunately, that necessary condition I mentioned at the top–knowing what people value and how deeply–is a work in progress. We don’t have enough information about that now, probably, to be able to perform an exercise like the one I described. But I think we’re getting closer to being able to do it every year that passes, and I think it’s entirely possible that within Tony’s and my lifetimes we will have enough good data to be able to at least get a good start on it.

In the meantime, there are tools we already use to approximate what people’s value systems might look like. The most significant one is the market economy. Friedmanesque true believers claim that most social interventions on the part of government and others are superfluous, because markets already reflect the preferences of the people participating in them–as long as all transactions are voluntary, there are no deceptive practices, transaction costs are minimal, and anyone can participate. And it is certainly true that markets can do wonderful things when all of these factors are in place. One problem, though, is that they often aren’t–and many times, existing participants (especially suppliers) have powerful incentives to keep it that way. Furthermore, many market transactions have things called externalities, costs or benefits that accrue to third parties who are not part of the transaction (and thus do not participate voluntarily). A third problem is that markets have a way of leveraging existing inequalities and power differentials between participants by putting greater amounts of wealth in the hands of those who already have it — a quality exacerbated considerably by our practice of handing down family inheritances from one generation to the next. Finally, markets use money as their currency and also as a proxy for value — but as we discovered earlier this year, money and value are not at all the same thing. In fact, the observed relationship between money and happiness is murky at best.

All of these factors lead to what are known as market failures — situations in which the market economy, despite working as designed, fails to achieve an optimal outcome for the whole. And in such situations, we have the government to take up the slack. In many arenas, including defense, national security, emergency services, low-income housing, some health care and education, and the law, the government takes part in the marketplace directly. Furthermore, the United States has recognized and systematized a third legal status of organization, the 501(c)(3) public charity, to which it provides indirect subsidy in the form of tax exemption. Thus, in this country, we are provided with three sectors with which to try to maximize social good.

Market failures aren’t in and of themselves a bad thing, but they are bad when they result in a loss or non-optimization of collective utility. The arenas in which the government operates through direct action or indirect subsidy are those arenas that it has defined as poor fits for the market economy–essentially, where it thinks market failures that are bad for society are likely to occur. These arenas can provide us with a hint as to the proper and optimal organization of activities if our overall goal is to maximize social good. For the most part, though, these designations come from an earlier era, and the world has changed a lot in the past couple of generations. So part of our job over the next several posts will be to re-examine each of these arenas and try to come to our own conclusions about whether each one might be better suited for market solutions or not, and if not, whether direct government action or third-party nonprofit/NGO intervention makes more sense.

Share
Leave a comment

New Ideas for New York

On September 30, the New York City Mayor’s Office announced a set of five new initiatives involving a collaboration between the city’s Department of Cultural Affairs and its Economic Development Corporation. Ever since I started following trends in creative economy policy and research a couple of years ago, it has seemed to me that despite having one of the most active cultural economies in the world, New York was embarrassingly behind the times in comparison to places like Massachusetts, Austin, and the UK. Thus, I’m overjoyed to see the city finally considering the arts in their broader economic context in a more explicit way.

A closer look at each of the initiatives reveals much to admire. Here’s what the city is planning:

Curate New York City – The Curate New York City program will offer visual artists a new opportunity to display their work for free across a portfolio of City-owned properties managed by NYCEDC. Exhibits will run for up to one month and rotate through the 12 to 18 month duration of the program that is expected to begin in 2010. Potential properties include: the Essex Street Market Building, the Brooklyn Army Terminal lobbies and atrium, Fulton Ferry Landing, St. George Ferry Terminal restaurant space, and Richmond County Bank Ballpark restaurant space. NYCEDC will issue a Request for Proposals (RFP) tomorrow, and – in cooperation with the Department of Cultural Affairs – will identify a lead organization to oversee the solicitation and selection of artists to participate in the program.

I’ve written before on this site about how the horrible real estate market is convincing for-profit developers to give artists a second look. Artists’ space needs are often shorter-term than businesses, and they create significant value by making productive and aesthetically pleasing use of storefront space. It’s a win-win partnership waiting to happen. My only concern is what happens once the 18 months are over and the real estate market gets hot again. I hope NYCEDC won’t simply throw the artists back out on the streets after they’ve made an investment in helping the city’s economy recover.

New York City Performs – In an effort to increase the availability of affordable performance space and simplify the permitting process, NYCEDC and the City’s Department of Parks & Recreation will provide organizations with publicly-accessible outdoor space free of charge at locations throughout the City. NYCEDC will release an RFP tomorrow to identify a lead arts organization to oversee the solicitation and selection of artists to participate in the program. Selected shows will run through spring and summer 2010.

Great idea — alleviate the performance space crunch with performances that are inherently highly accessible to the public. This is reminiscent of the rotating festival concept proposed in my Fictional Foundation Fun series earlier this year.

JumpStart for the Arts – The City continues to develop strategies to retain and retrain talented workers affected by the challenging economic climate. Similar to JumpStart New Media launched in July, the City will initiate Jumpstart for the Arts, a training program for up to 50 displaced entrepreneurial junior to mid-level professionals to apply their skill sets to the nonprofit arts and cultural sector. The program will provide organizations within the sector a pre-screened pool of highly-qualified candidates for placement. JumpStart for the Arts will comprise a five-day intensive boot camp focusing on basic skills that appeal to nonprofit cultural organizations. Participants will have opportunities to interact with leaders in the arts/culture sector through guest lectures and networking events. NYCEDC will select a partner organization to help design and oversee the program, which will launch later this year.

I’m a little unclear on how this one works. So it’s a training/workforce development program for non-arts professionals to enter the arts? What about placement? Isn’t the problem not that there aren’t plenty (way too many, in fact) of talented arts workers out there, but rather that the jobs for them don’t exist? How is that going to be solved by creating more arts workers? And how much impact can training 50 people really have? I’m all for leadership development, but I’m not convinced this is the best way to do it.

Artists as Entrepreneurs – Today’s competitive art market increasingly demands artists to be equipped with entrepreneurial skills that extend beyond their craft. To address these needs, the City will administer a pilot program to provide artists and creative professionals with the skills to reach target markets, set financial goals, build effective teams, and develop viable business plans. Upon selection of an organization to oversee the program, Artists as Entrepreneurs will hold a five-day training program to assist artists in determining the viability of their business plan and outline the steps necessary to implement the plan. Upon completion of the program, participants will have access to low-cost studio space at the Brooklyn Army Terminal, operated by Chashama, an organization created to find ways to connect artists with vacant real estate at subsidized rates. NYCEDC will issue an RFP tomorrow for a third-party organization to develop and implement the pilot training program.

Chashama is happy to be developing a new partnership with EDC, joining resources to promote artistic development in tandem with entrepreneurial practices,” said Chashama Founder and Artistic Director Anita Durst. “The new facilities will offer space to 30 additional artists. We look forward to deepening our presence in Sunset Park, and plan to have activities for artists to interact with the local community, including a youth outreach program.”

Fantastic. Resources for artist self-training are becoming more plentiful, but there is still a huge need for entrepreneurial skills out there. Again, my only concern is how much good it does to provide space and training to 30 artists. Certainly better than nothing, but maybe the city could have explored ways to make at least the training open to more people. Then again, they do say it’s only a pilot. Let’s hope it works out and they decide to expand it.

Arts Clusters Promotion Program – In addition to the world renowned art and cultural institutions of Manhattan, many clusters of artists and cultural organizations exist in the neighborhoods and communities throughout the five boroughs. To increase awareness and promote visitation of these art consortiums, NYCEDC will release an RFP tomorrow to identify two local art clusters to receive grants of $25,000 each, an amount that will be matched by a group of arts organizations and businesses as representatives of the clusters. The clusters and their representatives will be tasked with the development and implementation of a strategic marketing program and incentives packages designed to draw local and citywide audiences into their communities.

“The Alliance for the Arts strongly supports the City’s efforts to market and strengthen the arts industry,” said The Alliance for the Arts President Randall Bourscheidt. “We have an opportunity and a responsibility to encourage the ongoing development of New York City’s unparalleled resources to ensure that our artists and cultural organizations flourish throughout the area. Investing in the arts organizations and artists who live and work in New York City is more than a way to promote an individual artistic legacy; it sends a statement that the City is devoted to providing the necessary resources towards building a cultural infrastructure to set the stage for future growth in the sector.”

This is the one that gets me really excited. The devil’s in the details, of course, but New York has tremendous untapped potential for neighborhood-based cluster marketing. Right now, its cultural tourism efforts focus pretty much exclusively on Broadway, the big museums, and other high-profile single attractions like the Statue of Liberty and the Empire State Building. That’s great, but as artists know, there is a lot more to experience in New York besides that. Do tourists coming from Europe or Japan know about the amazing indie rock and art galleries in Williamsburg? The off-off-Broadway shows in the East Village? The cultural renaissance of 125th Street? Hell, do most Manhattanites know about these things? NYC bursts at the seams with cultural and creative capital, but it’s all brutally uncoordinated and fragmented, especially across disciplines and sectors. Hopefully, this cluster campaign will help to build stronger ties between artists, organizations, businesses, and residents on a neighborhood level and lead to better outcomes for everyone.

Overall, this looks to be the most forward-looking set of initiatives undertaken by the city’s cultural guardians in years. Kudos to the NYC DCA, the NYCEDC, and the Bloomberg administration for making this happen, as well as chashama and Alliance for the Arts who clearly played key roles as well.

Share
1 Comment

Ben Davis takes up the banner

Props go to artnet Magazine’s Ben Davis for being the second member of the professional media to actually do his homework on the NEA conference call controversy, joining the Los Angeles Times‘s Mike Boehm. (Hat tip to Anonymous Commenter.) And what marvelous things he uncovers! You should really read the whole thing, but here are some of the choice passages:

The White House’s reaction has been so craven that it has actually fueled the fire by seeming to admit that it had something to be embarrassed about. Instead of forcefully insisting on the truth, that the infamous call was about such diabolical issues as promoting “preventative health care” and “getting kids library cards” — surely things that most people can get behind — the White House moved to sacrifice Sergant and admit the “appearance of impropriety,” even though this appearance was manufactured by foes of the administration. Thus, Courrielche has been given space to continue his assault, claiming, with no real basis besides his own overactive imagination, that the call asked artists “to address politically controversial issues under contentious national debate.” (NB: Since nothing particularly partisan was actually advanced on the call, Courrielche’s argument depends on the leap that because the art community is liberal, any government contact with it can only be veiled code to unleash the gates of partisan propaganda. I’m serious. That is his argument.)

A far more concise and potent distillation of the matter than I could ever muster. Davis is right to point out that the entire smear rests on speculations about what could have happened, not what demonstrably did happen.

In other words, all Courrielche’s platitudes about protecting the arts from outside manipulation are so much hot air. This guy manipulates artists for a living. Yoking artistic communities to inscrutable institutions is his bread and butter. As a matter of fact, Inform Ventures got caught out in 2005 for precisely the political character of its manipulation. As part of its effort to target the Scion at an urban audience, Inform put together an “unsigned emcee search,” judged by a team of hip-hop pros, to give a “quick taste of what it would be like to have label support,” in Courrielche’s words. After the judges selected rapper Bavu Blakes as a finalist, Inform Ventures turned around and disqualified Blakes when the company discovered that his track, Black Gold, contained the line “Now Bush and bin Laden got so much they rotten,” as well as lines suggesting anti-death-penalty and anti-Iraq-War positions.

Ah, some new information! I had previously noticed that Courrielche’s self-characterization as an independent artist was a convenient distortion, but I had no idea about this business with Scion.

Here’s where it gets extra spicy:

With regard to Courrielche’s mingling of politics and marketing, it is also worth noting the fact that his first major intervention as a conservative art commentator was an essay titled “The Artist Formerly Known as Dissident,” in which he championed the anonymous “Obama / Joker / Socialism” posters that appeared around Los Angeles earlier this year. Somewhat improbably, Courrielche defended the posters as an example of speaking truth to power, dismissing claims that the image was racially provocative and claiming that the artist remained anonymous because he was intimidated by the intolerance of the liberal art establishment.

My own working hypothesis about these posters, on the other hand, would be that they were the product of a calculated right-wing viral marketing campaign organized by a professional — someone like, say, Patrick Courrielche. The image, after all, was appropriated from the internet and then put up in poster form on the streets of L.A., exactly mirroring the trajectory of the Shepard Fairey “Hope” campaign and clearly intended to be picked up as its counterpoint. The “Hope” campaign, of course, was famously organized by. . . Yosi Sergant, the man that Patrick Courrielche got kicked out of his job at the NEA.

WOW! I have to admit it never occurred to me that it could be Courrielche behind the Socialism posters. Total speculation on Davis’s part, of course, but not without some justification. After all, while the creator of the image has been identified as Chicago college student Firas Alkhateeb, the identity of the person who downloaded the image from Flickr, made it into a poster, and started distributing it in downtown LA is still a mystery. Wouldn’t that just take the cake if it were true? After all, this is what this guy does for a living, and it’s not like the hip, urban viral marketing crowd is exactly teeming with conservative libertarians like Courrielche.

And finally, we get some dirt on the relationship between Courrielche and Sergant:

Which brings us to the final question: Why hasn’t Patrick Courrielche owned up to the fact that he has a personal grudge against Yosi Sergant? Because it turns out, in fact, that the two men worked together. [...] According to an acquaintance of Sergant’s, Robert Greene, when he met Sergant in 2006, his story was that he had left the Scion campaign because of his increasing commitment to environmentalism and bike culture (Sergant’s strong commitment to biking is almost the first thing mentioned about him in a 2008 L.A. Weekly profile.) On the other hand, the word on the street in L.A. is that the break was bitter, and involved Courrielche accusing Sergant of stealing information from him. Sergant went on to work for a rival lifestyle marketing firm, Evolutionary Media Group, which consulted for the Obama campaign early on.

I’ve been trying to emphasize the personal connection between Courrielche and Sergant ever since I discovered it for myself over a month ago, but Davis and Boehm are the only media figures to pick up on it so far, along with a few bloggers here and there like Dalouge Smith of Dog Days. I don’t know how seriously to take this anonymously-sourced bit about the nature of their break, but it seems clear that there was one. Regardless, the notion that Courrielche is some sort of disinterested, agenda-free observer is completely obliterated by Davis’s multi-pronged investigation.

Share
8 Comments

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?

Share
6 Comments