AFTA Convention Wrap Day 1

It’s late, so I’ll be brief. Seattle is very, very pretty. Went to the Creative Economy: By Design advance workshop today to learn about creative community building with Meri Jenkins, Tom Borrup, Craig Dreeszen, and Maren Brown. Here were the major notes and takeaways for me:

  • Some startling statistics: in Massachusetts, attendance at arts & cultural events is nine times the state’s population, and seven times the number that go to sports events (and this is Boston Red Sox country, remember). Total audience spending is $1 billion a year. As Meri Jenkins likes to say, this is “an underplayed hand.”
  • In talking about the intrinsic vs. instrumental benefits of the arts, one panelist claimed that the distinction doesn’t matter in the end, because “bad art doesn’t inspire economic development – good art does.” I’m sympathetic to this line of thinking, but skeptical at the same time. Could we possibly test this empirically? Some food for thought.
  • John McKnight is the pioneer of asset-based community development, which uses community strengths as a starting point rather than “needs assessment.” Assessment of needs happens anyway as part of the process; the point of starting with assets is to focus the tone of the conversation in a positive and constructive direction.
  • Craig Dreeszen introduced us to a couple of different ways of defining the “creative economy.” For me, the most interesting part was a portion of one of the definitions reserved for “creative workers in non-creative businesses.” This is a really tough one methodologically, and a largely unexplored dimension of how creativity can impact the economy as a whole. Is there such a thing as “partially creative” industries?
  • Craig also gave a roundup of current national and international trends in creative economy planning and development. Some of the most interesting trends to me were cross-sector and cross-agency partnerships (big in mainstream philanthropy as well), support for individual entrepreneurs (shades of a microphilanthropy/microenterprise model for the arts?), link to larger planning goals (yes! integration!), and “art as business and as partner to business.”
  • Sustainability is a HUGE issue with creative economy partnerships, especially if not staffed by administrators dedicated to the project (dedicated in the sense that that’s their only job). Partnerships are exceptionally vulnerable to leadership transitions, and many groups quit at the first sign of trouble, complicating matters.
  • A couple of themes that kept coming up: first, promoting industry clusters – this is something that I hope to research further this summer, but apparently, the CW is that clusters are a key part of creative economy success. Looking for the existing clusters in your community is important. Second, there seemed to be an acknowledgment that use of storefront spaces makes a big difference in facilitating artist-led neighborhood development.
  • Gentrification was a hot topic. Definite consensus that the responsible thing to do is to anticipate its effects as part of the planning process, since we know that the arts have this effect on communities.
  • People are still figuring out what the proper and most productive relationship is between nonprofit cultural organizations and creative industries, and what the differences are in supporting each. This is a very nascent field.
  • Pretty much everyone seems to agree that “big box” arts development – i.e., huge performing arts centers in the middle of downtown – are not the answer; networks of small independent organizations and individuals are.

Tomorrow, the conference officially begins. Will be back with more shortly!

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Around the horn: convention edition

Later today, I’ll be off to Seattle for the Americans for the Arts Convention, and will be live-blogging and -tweeting my experiences there as time and internet access allow. W00t!

  • Recession blues roundup: JazzTimes is no more (at least for now); The Ford and Robert Wood Johnson Foundations are offering buyouts to 33% and 40% of their employees, respectively; it’s time for St. Ann’s Warehouse to look for a new home; charitable giving fell an inflation-adjusted 5.7% in 2008, and the arts were among the hardest-hit; and Connecticut and New Jersey join the arts advocacy fight.
  • Making lemonade department: this is a great story about a California company that is paying its employees to volunteer at local charities for part of their working day, rather than lay them off. This allows the company to take a tax deduction, making the proposal economically viable. Now that’s creative thinking!
  • Nonprofit Finance Fund and MetLife are teaming up to offer a cool-looking new technical assistance program to help arts organizations through the recession. Services “will be customized based upon need and will include workshops, webinars, recession planning and financial analysis.” Via Grantmakers in the Arts, the Robert Sterling Clark Foundation has a new initiative focused on international cultural engagement. And Atlanta-area small-to-mid-size arts organizations now have 2.5 million new dollars to play with through an arts stabilization fund.
  • I’m always curious to see what kinds of causes from the arts world break through to mainstream attention. In this case, TED’s Chris Anderson is calling for donations to fund an El Sistema fellow.
  • Sean Stannard-Stockton points us to a new information exchange platform that could have ramifications for the nonprofit sector. And to an article about that TV show The Philanthropist, which as it turns out is based on a real person.
  • One of my favorite blogs that no one seems to have heard of is Carolyn Jack’s space at Geniocity.com. She had a great post this week on gatekeepers and their role in a functioning artistic marketplace:

    Even with the Internet putting public access in reach of anyone with a website, an e-mail account or a social network, it’s clear that gatekeepers still control whose creative work gets widely seen or heard. And [there] will always be gatekeepers of some kind, as long as humans have mass communication. And that that, believe it or not, is a good thing.These days, many of those choosing the information to disseminate are self-appointed. [...] But even if every one of us on the planet ends up with a blog someday, most of us likely still won’t have real access to the public. That’s because access comes through influence, and influence comes from the ability to reach a consistently large number of people. And what consistently draws a large number of people?

    Expertise and useful, reliable, entertaining content.

    I would amend this slightly to say that influence comes either from being able to reach a consistently large number of people, or being able to consistently reach the right people. Many DC political blogs are influential even thought they reach far fewer people than, say, cable news, because the people who write the cable news shows read the blogs. What the Internet does make possible is the democratization of gatekeeper status: the point is not that everyone will become a gatekeeper (except, perhaps in their own minds), but that almost anyone could, through the combination of expertise and content that Carolyn defines above. This is a critical principle of my own vision for an artistic marketplace that I articulated back in March:

    By funding artistic systems instead of artistic producers, funders can distribute those resources to a much broader network of informed decision-makers, each of whom will make their own judgments about the artistic merit of individual players on the scene. Their aggregated decisions, awarding this date to that band and that residency to this performer and so on, collectively represent the artistic marketplace of which I speak: a marketplace in which the currency of trade is respect from one’s peers rather than the ability to draw a big-spending crowd.

  • Creative thinkers have been doing their part to jumpstart local cultural policy. Exhibit A: Louisiana is unexpectedly ahead of the creative economy curve, having identified 39 cultural districts around the state and hosted a World Cultural Economic Forum last October. Exhibit B: Portland, ME has come up with a brilliant way to compensate artists for the actual economic value they create in communities. The lede says it all:

    The City of Portland has figured out a creative way to support the arts. The new arts tax increment financing (TIF) is the first of its kind in the country. It recognizes that as artists make a place more attractive, they threaten their own sustainability. So now, when developers make improvements through renovation or construction in the Arts District, an increase in property value means giving back. A portion of the increased taxes will go to support those same individuals and organizations that played a critical role in making the area attractive to begin with and whose ongoing presence contributes to the vitality of the area.

  • This week’s BLOGGER ON FIRE is Guy Yedwab, with two great posts on the arts as social movement and this intriguing, though very complicated, scheme to turn arts funding into a game.
  • Lots of arts ed news this week. First, this case study bonanza released by IssueLab; second, this arts education report card published by the Department of Education.
  • A new book details how the whole “rational market” hypothesis came to be dogma in academic institutions and houses of economic policy alike. Meanwhile, a new report argues “that academic economists were too disconnected from the real world to see the crisis forming.” Two plus two equals…?
  • A propos of my post yesterday, the NEA’s new research on art and public participation finds further evidence of convergence between professionals and amateurs, noting that “more than 78 million Americans enthusiastically make art in their free time, but they are spending less time and money going to watch the professionals.” Seems it’s something most everyone would like to do if they had the money. Indeed, says Richard Florida, while Harvard kids are still heading into finance and consulting, if they had their druthers, they’d be artists:

    When grads were asked “what career they would choose if finances were not a concern,” the number one field was the arts, with 16 percent choosing it as their “dream field,” followed by public service (12.5 percent) and education (12 percent). Finance and consulting dropped to five percent each.

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On the Arts and Sustainability

As I get ready for the 2009 Americans for the Arts Annual Convention, Renewable Resources: Arts in Sustainable Communities, and prepare a panel session on the creative economy for the 2009 Net Impact North America Conference, Advancing Sustainable Global Enterprise: Changemakers, Innovators, and Problem Solvers, I’ve been doing some thinking on what “sustainability” means for the arts.

Certainly, the term has had buzzword status in the field for at least several years, especially at the philanthropy/grand strategy level. Yet this ubiquity obscures the fact that when people talk about sustainability, they usually mean one of two different things. The more common usage comes from the donor perspective and boils down to when can I stop pouring money into this thing? For these people, a “sustainable” business model essentially means one that generates money from people other than them on a consistent and reliable basis, preferably in direct exchange for goods and services to a large extent since business-minded people tend to inherently distrust any long-term reliance on charity. You’ll notice that I’ve put “sustainable” and “sustainability” in quotes to this point – that’s because I believe that there are a lot of problems with this way of thinking about the concept. When a reader of this blog asked me recently what I thought about sustainability, I shrugged and said, “I think it’s a myth!” I was only half-joking. Some of the richest and most extravagant organizations on the planet (like, for example, the school I just graduated from) are nonprofit organizations that rely extensively on contributed income, giving lie to the notion that reliance on altruism is necessarily a risky strategy. On the other hand, the collapses of blue-chip institutions such as Merrill Lynch, GM, and AIG have shown that even the most powerful private-sector entities are vulnerable to market conditions, managerial incompetence, and fluctuations in consumer taste. So no, I don’t think that a business plan can be “sustainable” or “not.” Rather, sustainability of this kind exists in a continuum, best understood as the likelihood that financial health (or growth) can be maintained in the near future under current conditions. I think it is a useful metric or frame for understanding organizations, but by no means the be-all and end-all: it is no more and no less than a facet of overall good management.

By contrast, when other people mention sustainability, they mean it in more of an ecological sense. This definition of sustainability boils down to a system that, once set in motion, can run effectively without further input from the outside. It’s a much broader conception of the issue and one much more ideally suited for policy discussions as they relate to the arts (or other fields). The arts can easily be conceptualized in this way: the most important elements of the ecosystem would include artists themselves, the organizations that help to bring their work before the public, the ticket-buyers and other beneficiaries of arts programming, and the government and private institutions that subsidize the cost of doing it all. Certainly there are many important details that the above picture leaves out, but most attempts I’ve seen to define the arts infrastructure have shared these elements in common. A sustainable system is one that is kept in balance by its various components, where resources passing out of one part of the system are replaced or reused in another part. Markets, when they work, are inherently sustainable because the value created through transactions can be recycled to create more value in the future. The arts have a problem there because their costs cannot, in some ways by definition, be supported by the market. Therefore, a marketplace model that relies on other levers (like peer respect) is needed, one that might look something like what I described in this post back in March.

Many people, beginning with the pioneering work of William Baumol and William Bowen in Performing Arts: The Economic Dilemma (1966), have tried to show that the arts, in the aggregate, are not sustainable. I hope to write more in depth on Baumol and Bowen later this summer, but for now suffice to say that while the work represented a giant leap forward in arts management, their conclusions suffer from the same misconception of sustainability mentioned above. They correctly diagnosed that performing arts organizations were doomed to rely increasingly on contributed income as their costs increased relative to the rest of society (a detailed discussion of why this is the case is available here), but failed to anticipate that contributed income sources would successfully make up the difference (as they have in other fields suffering from “cost disease,” such as higher education). Indeed, the forty-odd years since the publication of Performing Arts: The Economic Dilemma have not seen a substantial contraction in the orchestra field; if anything, the opposite has been the case.

On the other hand, I am beginning to suspect that the arts are suffering from a different kind of threat to sustainability that is much more serious, in part because it is much trickier to deal with. This problem is the disappearing viability of the career as a professional artist for more than a tiny minority of A-list individuals.

My blogging buddy Isaac Butler at Parabasis has been on fire on this issue over the past few weeks. It started with this startling disclosure of his personal finances as he prepared for a busy year ahead:

The year stretching roughly from March 2009-March 2010 will be amongst the busiest and most successful times for me as a theatre director thus far. It will including the following:

– Being the SDCF observer on one off-broadway show
– Quite possibly assistant directing another off-broadway show
– Taking a show to the DC Fringe festival
– Staging a showcase of a song cycle in anticipation of a summer 2010 tour
– Directing a play regionally
– Directing multiple readings and short plays at various venues
– Guest teaching once or twice
– Scouting plays for a regional theatre

[snip]

So let’s talk turkey. Or should I say, money:
- My total compensation for all of the above will most likely top out at $2500.
- I’m at a point in my career where I’m getting work somewhat regularly but it’s not paying
- But in order to be available to get that work, I can’t have steady day-time employment (the stuff that pays requires daytime work hours and/or going out of town) and being available to take meetings with people all the time has been enormously beneficial

This is a classic Catch-22 for so-called “emerging” artists, one that I myself faced while working full-time in New York for three years and losing several thousand dollars per annum on my artistic activities. The situation is hardly limited to Isaac and me, though. As he continued to point out in several follow-up posts, playwrights across the country take in ridiculously small amounts of money:

– Roughly 3% of income is from royalties
– Avg. commission amount = $3-4K
– Takes 6 months-2 years to write a play (if you took one year to write a play at $4K, you’d be making $333.33 a month off writing that play)

Isaac, these playwrights who make $4k a year from writing, and I are all examples of Pro-Am artists – individuals who produce professional (or near-professional) quality work and receive amateur-level compensation for it. And I believe that the greatest threat to the ongoing sustainability of the arts is the sheer number of us who are coming to get our piece of the pie.

In the past, this problem was “solved” (avoided, really) thanks to severe restrictions on who could become a successful artist. A powerful vise of racism, sexism, classism, and tightly controlled distribution channels conspired to dramatically narrow the pool of potential artists, meaning that competition was much lighter than it might otherwise have been. Markets were constricted as well, so indeed an artist’s life has never been easy. The difference, though, is that whereas semi-successful artists in the past disappeared into poverty and obscurity, today’s artists must compete, often directly, with all those who have gone before. The artist of the past’s claim to a share of attention, and therefore money, is no less legitimate than that of today’s emerging artist, and so the pie gets divided up among more recipients than ever before.

Furthermore, though the size of the pie is also increasing, it’s not clear to me that it’s in any way keeping up with the dramatic increase in the number of artists and arts organizations. The Internet has reduced the costs of distribution such that it’s now fairly easy to make one’s work available on a massive scale, greatly lowering the barriers to entry for new participants. As Charles Leadbeater and Paul Miller detail in their 2004 monograph The Pro-Am Revolution, a number of societal changes are conspiring to encourage “serious leisure” activity in all kinds of human endeavors, not just the arts:

  • the expanding life span (people are living between 10 and 20 years longer than they did 40 years ago)
  • growing levels of education
  • a more open society in which people want a sense of individual fulfilment
  • the spread of horizontal social mobility as people develop distinctive lifestyles
  • changes in occupational patterns which mean that people are increasingly likely to turn to second careers in their 40s and 50s
  • increasing affluence, and an apparent willingness to downshift, trading income for time and better quality of life

In many ways, this is a beautiful thing. Of course we should want people to be able to express themselves fully, engage meaningfully in subjects that interest them, and perhaps most significantly, make important contributions to human progress whether they do so on a full-time basis or not. And that’s what makes this threat so difficult. Because the pernicious thing about the Pro-Am revolution is embodied in Isaac’s original post on the subject:

So how am I able to live? Well, I make some money off of writing, which is quite time consuming. In order to make more money off of it, I would need to devote more time to it. In order to make a living off of it, I would need to work at it full time and not direct any more. And as I said before, I’m quite lucky. I have a small amount of inheritance that I partially live off of and Anne has a good job.

This is the topic that no one in the arts wants to talk about. Now, Isaac was very courageous to share this information publicly; though I’m making an example of him here, it should not be taken in any way as a reflection upon his work, the quality of which I have no reason to doubt. But I feel it must be said: the fact that he, and others like him, are able to do what they do thanks to their family and/or marital situations is fundamentally inequitable. Every time someone in Isaac’s position gets a gig, he potentially takes a spot away from a more talented, but poorer competitor who, if he had the luxury of spending as much time on art as Isaac does, might outdo him for these kinds of opportunities. The societal changes of the past half-century may have succeeded in making luck a little more democratic, but luck is no less significant in determining artistic success than it was before.

Now, there’s nothing new about this – income inequality is a big issue throughout society, not just in the arts. However, the cash-starved nature of the arts makes the problem more acute. If the only way to earn money is through exposure, and the only way to get exposure is to spend thousands of hours making (and marketing) art that you could otherwise spend earning money, the people who need to earn money now are at a major, perhaps definitive, disadvantage. As a result, over time, you would expect to see more and more people who were lucky enough to have a cushion early in their careers (if not on an ongoing basis) persist to become professional artists, and fewer and fewer who have had to do it completely on their own. You see this in all sorts of places that this field touches; just today, Jodi Carter posted a great piece on performing arts internships that included this caveat:

It is an unfortunate reality that most organizations can’t afford to pay interns minimum wage and it is heart-breaking because it creates all sorts of issues, the most difficult to accept being that the programs are populated by interns whose families can afford to provide financial support.

Yet the truly frightening thing is that even the relatively lucky ones like Isaac, who achieve some measure of artistic success while financial success waits in the wings, can’t really make this work. The system is so strained that a living wage is only possible for a tiny, tiny minority.

Meanwhile, that minority is doing better all the time. Mark Stern documented income inequality among artists in a 2005 working paper available here, and found that the arts fit all the characteristics of “winner-take-all” economies: systems in which most of the economic value created (and captured) is attributable to a few people at the top. Between 1980 and 2000, this income inequality among professional artists, which was pronounced to begin with, only intensified, meaning that the people at the top enjoyed faster increases in their wealth than the people in the middle or at the bottom. And that’s only taking into account self-defined professional full-time artists according to Bureau of Labor statistics – the explosion in Pro-Am activity during that time would not be considered even though its impact on available resources (through competition for grants and audience members) is very real. For his part, Stern concurs that income inequality is only likely to increase going forward due to the changes afoot.

Wasn’t the Internet supposed to fix all this? you might be wondering. Indeed, in The Long Tail, Chris Anderson predicted that such power-law distributions would be lessened by the infinite carrying capacity of the Internet; with Amazon.com and iTunes providing a more robust back catalog than WalMart stores, he argued, won’t the back catalog do better? Though he’s right in a theoretical sense, at least one study has suggested that winner-take-all economies appear even when transaction costs are zero, such as among peer-to-peer file share systems.

This is the real threat to sustainability in the arts of which I speak. The Internet, by lowering the costs of distribution to negligible levels, has in fact democratized many aspects of participation in the arts as well as numerous other activities. But in opening up the gates to untold amateurs and semi-pros who had previously been shut out from public attention or supplemental income streams, it has simultaneously fostered an atmosphere of intense competition that makes it nearly impossible to succeed as a full-time professional.


To be honest, I find myself at a loss for a brilliant answer to this quandary. But it seems to me that we are probably not paying as much attention to it as we should. Most of the discussion about cost disease focuses on mainstream organizations, and in some ways those organizations are indeed at risk. To my mind, though, the most overwhelming changes are coming at the individual and quasi-individual (i.e., small organization) level. The commentary I most often hear about small organizations in the context of the recession is that they “are used to scrapping, so they’ll be fine.” I don’t think that’s true. Having run a couple of those small organizations myself, I can tell you that little scraps of money can be life or death, the difference between putting on a show or not. The same is going to be true of many artists. Sure, small organizations and individual artists as a category will survive, but as resources get divided among more and more competitors, you’re going to see a lot of carnage. And I’m not entirely sure what we can do about it.

Further reading:

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Around the horn: June swoon edition

I am a ramblin’ man lately: in NYC yesterday, spent last night in New Haven, Boston today, Providence at this moment, Willimantic, CT tomorrow, back in New Haven for a couple of days, NYC at the end of the week — and then it’s off to Seattle for the Americans for the Arts Annual Convention! Anyone else who’s going, hit me up here or on the Twit.

  • This is crazy: everybody’s favorite government bailout recipient, insurance giant AIG, is seeking control of a “$490 million charity endowment,” also known as the Starr International Foundation, so that it can pay bonuses to managers. Not only do they want their hands on the endowment, they are actually suing to recover $27 million in grants distributed during the past three years. What despicable bastards. (Note to arts peeps: the Starr International Foundation appears to be a different entity from, though associated with the same benefactors as, the more familiar Starr Foundation that gave $22 million to arts organizations in 2008.)
  • Well, thankfully not all corporations are evil: charitable giving remained surprisingly resilient in 2008, despite 68% of surveyed companies reporting drops in profits, according to the Committee Encouraging Corporate Philanthropy. (We’ll see what happens in ’09.)
  • Either 13 or 14 charges have been dropped from the increasingly ridiculous-looking vandalism suit against Shepard Fairey, the artist best known for creating the “Hope” Obama poster.
  • On the heels of my “Lessons I Learned in Business School” post from last week, Seth Godin shared the results of his own experimental alternative MBA program.
  • Thinking about starting a business of your own? Check out this interesting taxonomy of 6 advisor archetypes. The descriptions apply pretty well to board members for nonprofits, too. (h/t Tony Wang)
  • This economy’s so bad, even the trustafarians are hurting.
  • The 60 arts activists who visited the White House last month have published a report on the conversation. And Chorus America is out with a new report of its own on the impact of choral singing in the USA. The study estimates that nearly 43 million Americans sing in choirs of one kind or another.
  • This is the most awesome wedding invitation you’ll ever see. (h/t @lisa_hoang)
  • Tired of all this Twitter talk? Well here’s something you can complain about. A new study finds that men are much more likely to follow other men on Twitter, even though men and women tweet at similar rates. Also, it seems 90% of the content is generated by 10% of the users, though using this to claim that Twitter is “useless” is dubious at best (lookin’ at you, New York Metro).
  • Great profile of the Dirty Projectors in the New York Times. If you’ll forgive me an “I knew him when” moment: I booked Dave Longstreth to play a short solo set back in 2002 as part of a little conference-cum-concert I put together as a senior in college that was designed to look at convergences between popular and contemporary classical music. Dave, who was a freshman at the time, led everyone out of the concert hall and took us up to the top of a nearby stairwell, where he strummed his guitar and howled a song (I think about birds) in his beautiful, hollow tenor as we all stood on the stairs below and watched him. Always an original.
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Avoiding Success Disease: Building Trust in the Grantmaking Process

This week, the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation announced that, in light of the recession, it is open to renegotiating terms of previous grants in order to allow arts organizations to spend the funds on more immediate needs. At around the same time, the Gates Foundation was releasing a statement by CEO Jeff Raikes saying that the behemoth grantmaker needs to create a “culture of listening” to its grantees. I think these are both positive developments and a step toward promoting more positive, open communications in the field.

One of the biggest lessons I’ve taken away from my study of philanthropy over the past two years is that poor communication between funders and grantees can create a lot of problems. My class on philanthropic foundations demonstrated the point rather vividly by showcasing one of those horror stories you sometimes hear about: a high-profile funder with big pockets encourages the president of a university to develop a new program for curriculum reform; the dean submits a proposal despite reservations about the program’s feasibility; sure enough, the program, while funded for a pilot round, is essentially a failure; but in order to preserve the relationship with the funder, the program is spun in the report to seem like a success; therefore, the program is funded again and the foundation’s board members pat themselves on the back for a job well done. The names were fictionalized in the materials we read, but anyone who has been in the nonprofit trenches knows that situations like this happen far too often.

What’s really going on here is that each of the parties has a strong incentive to delude themselves into thinking that a poorly performing program is successful. Organization leadership wants to secure more money for the institution and preserve its relationship with the funder. Development and program personnel want to keep their jobs, which means doing what the people in charge tell them to do. The funder’s staff and board, meanwhile, want to believe both that they have designed the right kind of programs and that they have done a good job by selecting the right partners to carry them out. Pretending that the program is successful, even if it’s not, is the easiest way to keep everyone happy. It’s a dysfunctional culture that enables mediocrity and rewards effective grantsmanship over effective outcomes. I call it success disease, and sadly, the people who ultimately get hurt by it the most are a) the organization’s constituents who have to deal with subpar programming, and b) innovators who come up with better ideas but can’t get support for their implementation because of commitments already made.

Now, it should be said that plenty of funders don’t act this way. Some, like the Hewlett Foundation where I worked last summer, sincerely want to do the best job possible, and understand that that necessarily means being honest about their own failures as well as those of their grantees. But even if some funders adhere to this philosophy, their grantees have been trained too well by all of the other funders and donors who just want to feel validated in their investment. Not to mention, there’s a hell of a lot of money at stake. So instead of honesty, we get these complicated guessing games, with the funder wondering: are they telling the truth? What are the numbers hiding? What haven’t we asked them that might crack this nut? And on the grantee side, it’s: what are they really looking for? How do we measure up? What can I tell or not tell them that will make a difference? It’s all very inefficient, and does more than perhaps anything else to get in the way of long-term, productive, truly satisfying partnerships.

Think about other kinds of relationships that involve close collaboration toward shared goals. (Because they are shared, are they not?) Would this be any way to treat a trusted employee? Or a student? Even business-customer relationships are often more open and straightforward than this, in the sense that there’s usually not a whole lot of doubt about what each party is looking for. Having had experience now on both sides of these conversations, I can appreciate that promoting trust in the grantmaking process is easier said than done. With that said, here are some suggestions that any funder can use to encourage healthy relationships with their applicants and grantees.

  • Cut down on unnecessary procedures. Make sure that everything you’re asking for will actually be used during the proposal review process. If you haven’t read the Project Streamline report, Drowning in Paperwork, Distracted from Purpose, please do yourself a favor and download it now. It contains numerous cogent recommendations for reducing the cumulative administrative burden faced by nonprofits who operate in a sea of heterogeneous grantmaking requirements and procedures.
  • Be transparent about criteria and process. While most grantmakers are pretty good about publishing eligibility requirements for their programs, quite a few are secretive about the actual considerations used to make decisions. If some criteria are more important than others, say so! If there’s a scoring system involved, why not publish it? The more information applicants have about how they’ll be judged, the more likely they will be to apply for the right opportunities and not for the wrong ones.
  • Require a letter of inquiry or preliminary application for any new grant. Many funders already do this, but it’s worth mentioning because of the incredible timesaving device it can be when used well. You don’t want to waste energy reading uncompetitive applications, and neither do organizations want to waste energy preparing them. A simple, no-fuss form designed to screen for eligibility and general fit with program goals can save everyone valuable time.
  • Incorporate feedback along the way. Wouldn’t it be great if, after the initial pre-evaluation of new grants, applicants got back not just a “yes” or “no” but some meaningful information about their chances? Why not divide responses into, say, four categories, with some applicants being strongly encouraged to apply based on their materials, others encouraged with reservations (specifically noted and communicated to the applicant), still others told that they are welcome to submit but would not stand a high likelihood of success without a substantial reworking of the application, and the final group strongly discouraged from applying?
  • Encourage communication between applicants. One of the most creative strategies I encountered in my fundraising days came from Rockefeller Philanthropy Advisors during their administration of the New York State Music Fund. Apparently, many of the pre-applications in a particular category bore a number of similarities to each other, so RPA created a voluntary exchange by which applicants could share abstracts of their pre-applications with all of the other participants in the exchange, with the goal of forming partnerships and potentially combining bids where appropriate. It was kind of an awkward experience, but getting a peek at the competition gave us a better understanding of our role in the field and helped us decide that a full application would not be the best use of our resources.
  • Provide feedback to unsuccessful applicants. These people just spent quite a lot of time preparing a proposal, only to have it all come to naught. Particularly if they haven’t received feedback earlier in the process, they deserve to understand why their application was not successful and what they might do to improve their chances in the future. Make sure systems are in place to record notes of discussions or investigations of the proposals as they’re happening, so that advice given later won’t be of the off-the-cuff variety.
  • Stay active during the grant period. And I don’t just mean active in the sense of, “are you doing everything you said you would do?” Ask them if they need any help. Ask them what aspects of the project are going well, and what aspects aren’t going so well. Do site visits if you can. Interests are never more strongly shared between funder and grantee than they are during this stage – never forget that their success is your success, and vice versa.
  • Use the reports! This is also mentioned by Project Streamline, but I wanted to call it out specifically because it absolutely flabbergasts me how times I have heard about reports from previous grants never even being read, much less used in the evaluation process. Ideally, I would think, a report should look much like the final paper one hands in for a class – in other words, it should be more detailed than the application, not less. And then that report should receive a grade: actual feedback from the funder, both quantitative and qualitative, on how successfully their efforts advanced the funder’s overall goals, including specific suggestions for improvement. This report should then become part of the track record for the organization when considering future investments.
  • Reward intelligent failure. Ultimately, most of the problems basically come down to this: the disproportionate impact of grants on the grantor and grantee. Failing to secure a big grant can be life-or-death for an organization, but for a funder, not awarding that grant just means the money will go to someone else. Funders drive success disease by being unwilling to accept failure from their investments, or from the investments of others (when considering new grantees). But this is silly: failure can be extremely useful when it results in a learning experience for an organization or, better yet, the field. The trick is to distinguish between failure that is handled with intelligence and dignity from the kind of failure that tears apart an organization at the seams and renders it unable to operate effectively going forward. In fact, one of the most important things a funder can do is to spot potential troubles on the horizon and help the organization to avert them, rather than leaving its grantee to fend for itself.

This little list is only the beginning, I’m sure. Certainly, the little things count as well: telling applicants when they can expect to hear from you, for example, or making sure that board and staff members have a consistent understanding of eligibility requirements and review criteria so that applicants aren’t told different things at different stages of the process. A general attitude of respect is similarly essential. Issuing public requests for proposals instead of maintaining an invitation-only policy can help applicants feel that they are being judged fairly and based on objective criteria. What other strategies can build trust in a funding relationship and combat success disease? I welcome further ideas in the comments.

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New Blogs!

Well, that didn’t take long. One week after I “finished,” and I already have four great new sites to share with you. Ain’t the internet grand?

<100k Project
This is the blog of Scott Walters’s <100k Project, an innovative effort to bring resources for and awareness of artists and arts organizations to small and rural communities with populations of less than 100,000. What little I’ve read of Scott’s work so far indicates a keen understanding of key issues in the community arts and of things in general. Well worth checking out.

CultureFuture
Guy Yedwab is an arts management student at NYU who, like seemingly everyone else I run into, is interested in arts policy. He has embarked on a research project seeking to identify and quantify the kinds of metrics one needs to use to identify healthy arts communities. So far, he’s off to a great start.

off-stage-right
Jodi Schoenbrun Carter, former managing director of the Westport Country Playhouse, has been getting her blog on something fierce the last few months. She writes mostly about theater topics, but there are some larger arts-related posts as well — her take on Rocco Landesman is worth reading, for example (though it’s unfortunate that she quotes an entire NYTimes article in her post — not kosher, people!). Jodi also Twitters up a storm at @jodisc.

Springblog for the Arts
This is the official blog for a fascinating-looking organization called Springboard for the Arts that’s based in St. Paul, Minnesota. They seem to be kind of like a Midwest-centric version of Fractured Atlas, though they’ve been around for a decade or so longer. As for the blog itself, I first came across it because of this great essay by Eric Booth from Chamber Music magazine, which was reprinted with permission on Springblog. Eric had a key role in putting together the content of last summer’s National Performing Arts Convention, and makes reference to Jim Collins’s keynote speech in the article.

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Lessons I Learned in Business School (Or, My Humble Attempt to Save You $150k)

I really didn’t know what to expect when I came to business school in the fall of 2007. I had lived my whole post-college life in the nonprofit sector, and most of that time was spent hanging around musicians. I was brought up by two ex-hippies who, shall we say, did not exactly fit in with corporate culture. (My mom did have a job at a bank once, which she used primarily as an opportunity to read up on astrology textbooks.) So I had a number of questions in my mind as I got ready to start my MBA program. Would I get along with my classmates? Would I get involved in the life of the school? Would I have time to compose and pursue individual projects? Would I actually learn anything?

If nothing else, I knew I would come out of the experience with two things: (a) a piece of paper in my hand that said I was a smart person and (b) a whole lotta debt. Both of these things turned out to be true. But that was about the extent to which my premonitions and preconceptions held water. Time and again, something about the experience would surprise me, and I remain now in awe of not only how much my feelings about b-school evolved, but how much I evolved. In no particular order, then, I offer the most valuable concepts, ideas, skills, and learnings I take away from my four semesters in New Haven, CT:

  • As math subjects go, an understanding of statistics must rank close behind basic algebra in highest usefulness-in-daily-life-to-mental-effort-required ratio. It’s amazing to read websites like fivethirtyeight.com now and actually understand how those graphs were produced. And if that’s not practical enough for you, decision analysis can shed light onto even the most intransigent dilemmas by identifying dominated (i.e., foolish) strategies and helping to organize one’s thinking. A tool that I will use for the rest of my life.
  • Program evaluation is not rocket science. All it requires you to do is to apply logic relentlessly, a skill that does take some practice. A class on ethics and human behavior taught us that the only reliable way to counteract persistent biases, such as overconfidence, is to ask oneself at critical junctures: “how could I be wrong?” This is what program evaluators, good ones anyway, do at every step of the process. It’s so simple, but it can save you a world of remorse down the line.
  • The teaching of introductory economics needs serious reform. I have written about this at length, but having taken additional coursework in the subject and witnessed a global financial meltdown since my original rants, I now feel quite confident in saying that externalities and behavioral analysis should occupy a much more prominent role in the discussion, and that normative judgments about policy should be taken out. Free markets with perfect information, perfect competition, and rational actors are the exception, not the rule.
  • Most of us are far too risk-averse. As a simple example: have you ever been really attracted to someone but decided not to ask them out because you were afraid of getting rejected? It’s silly, right? What, exactly, are the consequences of getting rejected? How is it worse than not asking in the first place? Take this thought and apply it to your job, a fundraising ask, an application to school — you name it. Make sure the risks you’re avoiding are actually risks, and not just fears in disguise.
  • When it comes to negotiation, it’s amazing what difference a little planning makes. Knowing exactly what your preferences are and thinking about what concessions you’re prepared to make–and not–beforehand will equip you with the tools you need to guide the conversation toward an optimal conclusion. This little lesson can be applied to almost any kind of negotiation, not just the usual suspects like big business deals or bargaining at the flea market.
  • Presentation matters. It really does. Oh sure, it doesn’t matter as much as content, at least in the long run. The thing is, presentation is a part of your content. That’s why it matters.

As much as I’ve learned from business school, perhaps the most profound lesson I take away is how much I still don’t know. In 2006, I knew a hell of a lot about choral music, the history of experimental rock ensembles, who’s who in the American classical composer social hierarchy, and where to find hassle-free street parking in New York City. At the time, that seemed like a pretty decent chunk of stuff to know a hell of a lot about. I now know that it’s about 0.00000000001% of the full extent of human knowledge and achievement. After two years in business school, I can now claim a passing conversance with, oh, maybe 0.00000000003%. Which, you know, is triple what I knew before — and still BARELY ANYTHING.

On the other hand, I now have tools to help me make decisions and manage in situations even when I don’t have all the information. I know how to figure out what questions I must ask in order to get to the answers I need. I know how to surround myself with people who know more than I do about particular subjects so that I don’t have to keep reinventing the wheel. And most importantly, I can feel secure in the knowledge that, for as long as I live, I will never stop learning new things. And that is a great gift.

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Around the horn: real world edition

My lesson for this week: sometimes, taking four and a half classes off of your schedule doesn’t necessarily make your life any less busy. Not sure if that says more about my classes or about me. Either way, here’s your roundup for the first week of June:

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More on income-sensitive tickets

I was pleased to see that Wednesday’s post on income-sensitive tickets got some traction, as it was picked up by You’ve Cott Mail, Parabasis, and smArts & Culture (“revolutionary”? You guys sure know how to make a blogger blush!). At the end of my post, I noted,

I realize that there are some potential holes to be plugged, but I’m interested to know what people think. Is there any reason, besides political will, why something like this couldn’t work in practice?

After reading some of the critiques of the idea in comments and talking to a few other people, I haven’t yet seen anything that makes me doubt its overall feasibility, but it’s clear that the implementation would pose several challenges. Here are the main problems that would have to be overcome, as I see them:

  1. Privacy concerns.
    Jodi SC in the comments to my original post raised an expected concern, that she’s “not sure if [she likes] the idea of everyone having a card that classifies them by income.” Maryann Devine mentioned as well that a report on arts participation by college students indicated that they were embarrassed to ask for student tickets at the box office. I suggested that perhaps the Art Card could only be used online, thereby bypassing any personal interaction when receiving the discount and limiting the number of people with exposure to the amount of the discount. On the other hand…
  2. The digital divide.
    It’s well known that lower-income people are not only less likely to own a computer themselves but also less likely to have access to credit cards or bank accounts, both of which would be required for online ticket purchases. I suppose the Art Card could work like a charge card that would need to be paid off every month, but that would add a whole other layer of complexity for the issuing body (most likely the city) that doesn’t seem worth the trouble. So, certainly, an online option should be available, but the card will still have to be accepted at the box office in order to promote truly fair access.
  3. The potential for fraud.
    The biggest potential issue with price discrimination is that the discount buyer, having received the good, can then turn around and resell it to someone else, thus becoming a direct competitor to the original supplier. So, let’s say we had a program like this in place for the Nintendo Wii. Because I’m po’, I could buy my own Wii for, oh, $120, and then turn around and sell it on eBay for full price, taking profits that arguably should have gone to Nintendo (since I clearly didn’t care enough about the Wii to keep it). Moreover, in theory I could do this many times, enough so that I could establish a side business as a bootleg Wii-seller sucking all kinds of profits from Nintendo. (Of course, if I got rich doing this I would no longer qualify for the discount program, but that’s not an issue in the short term.) The reason this is not an issue for something like college financial aid is because (a) it’s not possible to “resell” one’s college admission, and thus finanical aid package, to another party; and (b) you can’t keep going back to college over and over again to keep getting the “discount.” Now, arts tickets have more in common with the first situation than the latter, but some simple safeguards can protect against this kind of abuse. First, all online purchases with the Art Card could be held at “Will Call,” and the arts insitution could make a policy to ask for either the card or photo ID when picking up the tickets. (This gets in the way of problem #1 above, but you can’t have everything, I guess.) Second, it should be possible to disallow multiple purchases from the same Art Card for the same show (or the same day). That means that couples would have to each apply for their own card, unless there were a “family edition” of the card for married couples filing jointly, perhaps. And then what about the kids? Well, many museums and so forth already have kid-friendly admission prices, so hopefully that wouldn’t be too much of an issue. After that, you run into some questions of fairness–is it right to enable a family of 8 to see a show in a small theater for peanuts and take away other people’s seats, for example? I’m not sure. There would have to be a line drawn somewhere, I would think.
  4. Where will the money come from?
    To be sure, organizations could compensate to some extent for the loss of revenue from lower-income customers by raising prices for higher-income customers and tourists. However, there is a limit to how far they can go with this without losing market share to other tourist attractions and cutting into their donor base. I suspect that in order to make the program palatable to arts institutions, the city would have to offer, either directly or indirectly, some sort of subsidy — or perhaps a guarantee of a minimum level of income for the first year or two based on previous years’ performance. This, of course, raises the cost of the program and makes the political challenge harder — hopefully not by that much though.

Taking all of this into account, I’m still not totally sure myself where this idea falls on the continuum between “interesting” and “great,” but I definitely think it is worth discussing, especially as arts institutions around the country struggle with questions of accessibility, diversity, and community relevance. We should give some serious thought to whether these aims would be best accomplished with the current haphazard, every-organization-for-itself approach or a more formal, centralized infrastructure like the one I’ve described.

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New Blogs!

If I’ve learned nothing else in the first half of this year, I’ve learned that the arts policy blogosphere and its related universe is far more vast than I once imagined, and growing all the time. If you’re a regular reader of this blog, take note: these folks are all your friends and colleagues too. Please pay them a visit and say hello, because we are part of this movement together.

From now on, New Blogs will be an occasional feature whenever I have enough new ones to share with you.

Applied Imagination
Createquity reader Steve Dahlberg recently got in touch with me and pointed me to his blog about “creativity, creative thinking, creative problem solving, innovation, applied imagination, education, creative studies and more.” Steve brings a welcome science-oriented focus to his writing that is missing from most of the other content I keep up with; a number of posts, for example, highlight current trends and conversations in neuroscience. Steve also runs a consulting service called the International Centre for Creativity and Imagination.

Arts Council Blog
My good friends at the Arts Council of Greater New Haven have been maintaining this cool little blog for quite a while, actually. Currently, it appears to be toiling in some obscurity, judging by the paucity of comments, but it would be an ideal place to talk about how things that are going on nationally (like the recession, the new administration, etc.) impact on the local arts scene. I encourage anyone who’s reading this in New Haven to check it out. And even if you’re not in New Haven, there’s lots of eye candy in the form of photos from recent exhibitions and events around town to keep you entertained.

NYC Performing Arts Spaces Blog
As if the Fractured Atlas blog weren’t enough, NYC Performing Arts Spaces (which is now a Fractured Atlas project) just introduced one of its own. There’s some content overlap, but the NYC PAS blog tends to focus more narrowly on space-related and NYC-specific issues.

The IdeaFeed
Totally fascinating site from the head and keyboard of Jay Corless, a Miami-born cultural policy maven who has done time in Paris and London and and is now once again based in the States. You must check out this extremely intricate interactive report on the development of the UK creative industries policy in the 1990s. Jay is also gearing up for an awesome-looking cross-country tour of creative community-building efforts in 35 cities across the United States that will result in an online travelog and hardcover book. If you want to help him out, it looks like the donation page could use a little love.

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