Sunday, September 25, 2016

Arts Participation is Changing

This excerpt is from my regular column, Culture & Kibbitz on July 13, 2016, at The Clyde Fitch Report. You can read the entire post, which discusses the changing interests of younger audiences, here.

Audiences adjust to the times.
“They didn’t come for the quality, they came for the experience.”

This was the conclusion that a colleague and I independently reached regarding a series of sold-out evenings of traditional opera at LoftOpera in Gowanus attended by some 500 people who willingly sat on concrete (or uncomfortable portable seating) throughout a full evening of music, acting and singing, mixed with socializing, cheap or free booze, and a real scene. The performances we sat through would never make it on the Metropolitan Opera stage, but those attending these operas (Puccini’s Tosca and Britten’s The Rape of Lucretia) were engaged and hung on to every moment of the production — in addition to pre-performance, intermission and post-performance socializing.

Interest in traditional artforms, often referred to as elitist, has been repeatedly reported to be alive and possibly even thriving amongst younger audiences, despite earlier reports suggesting the opposite. These arts aficionados are showing particular enthusiasm for modern, new and adventurous work with reports of young people of color flocking to new theater pieces and sold-out music performances of classical music and opera. While surprising to some, it is familiar to those up on the real data of how younger audiences prefer to be engaged. Such data, however, also presents a major problem for traditional performance presenters, who continue to look through the lens of “quality” instead of “experience.”

Leon Botstein, the conductor and President of Bard College once laid out a fascinating theory of audience engagement. Before the piano, all music was referential. There was no standardized tuning and it was the piano’s physical structure that fixed a standardized reference point for tuning, reducing or eliminating the need for musicians and listeners to possess a referential aural capacity. Now, one could create “great” music by exhibiting only physical (musculo-skeletal) expertise. For listeners, this shifted their basis for appreciating music from active listening engagement to being a passive spectator, like those at sports events who appreciate and cheer for the superior execution of physical skills. He then theorized that the digital revolution has now engendered a similar but fundamental shift that restores the primacy of active engagement by the listener through their ability to curate their own experience, implicitly accepting the diminished quality.

If Botstein is correct, then those who continue to view and present art through the lens of “quality” and not “experience” will be doomed to struggle for audiences and relevance because the value proposition has changed. While audiences can and do still appreciate quality, younger audiences may willingly accept performances of lower quality because quality is only part of their experience and engagement.

Like our experience at LoftOpera, there is mounting data that the youngest cohort — age 18 to 25 — shows greater interest in attending and experiencing live performance of traditional artforms. If this does turn out to be true, it is important to acknowledge the shifted value-basis for each cohort’s participation in these artforms, and for the presenters of these artforms to engage with each cohort on its own terms — not on the terms chosen or imposed upon them.

Read the entire fully developed post in Culture & Kibbitz at The Clyde Fitch Report here.

Expanding Board Diversity

This excerpt is from my regular column, Culture & Kibbitz on September 12, 2016, at The Clyde Fitch Report. You can read the entire post, which discusses the complexity of diversifying boards of directors, here.

US Olympic Gymnasts 2016
In many areas of arts and culture, it is an article of faith that cultural groups, and the boards that oversee them, must better diversify. Greater similarities between boards and organizations and their communities is a laudable goal and makes complete sense; parsing what this really means and how to achieve it, however, is much more complex and difficult. What we know is this: to be successful, we must embrace the complexity of the topic and confront some uncomfortable issues.

Dr. Francie Ostrower, a professor at the LBJ School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas at Austin, concluded that each cultural and ethnic group participates in cultural activities differently and is motivated differently, so connecting to them requires a tailoring to their interests and behavior patterns – “one size fits all” will not work. In more recent research, she similarly emphasized that nonprofits must think differently to truly diversify their boards. When identifying the characteristics sought in a board candidate, for example, they need to consider the candidate’s interests, capabilities and behavior.

The July-August issue of the Harvard Business Review focused on diversity in the corporate arena. The article concluded that diversity-forward intentions and actions are very often ineffective even if a commitment is strong. Organizational culture and dynamics, it was found, are consistently too tough to overcome. What has proved effective, however, are mandatory, enforceable requirements that address the root of the problem at a critical choke-point: the review of potential community participants.

For example, in the 1970s and ’80s, American orchestras recognized that they were not hiring women, despite a great number of talented female musicians in the applicant pool. To address this, many orchestras required that auditions take place behind a screen so that hiring committees could not know a candidate’s gender, race or age. The result? A large increase in women players winning permanent seats in orchestras. More recently, the National Football League recognized, that it, too, needed to change and instituted the “Rooney Rule,” which requires minority candidates to be included when any coaching or senior administrative position in the league needs to be filled. As with orchestras, this mandatory policy brought about a marked increase in leaders of color in the league.

Yet if mandatory processes clearly deliver progress, they are not sufficient in and of themselves in addressing the full complexity of the diversity issue: for organizations to succeed they must also address cultural differences. While blind screen auditions may open the door for women, they do not confront the issues that make it difficult for players of color to train as professional musicians.

As I have written before, identifying a problem is never enough; advocates must propose concrete solutions to forge the progress they seek. People will argue that by the very act of diversifying our cultural institutions, these issues, challenges and questions will naturally be addressed. If this is true, then the best path is to follow the example of the orchestras and the NFL and impose mandatory rules and structures. But doing so without a real conversation to understand how an institution brings value and relevance to its community may prove counterproductive — especially if those things alter that organization beyond recognition.

Read the entire fully developed post in Culture & Kibbitz at The Clyde Fitch Report here.

Taking the Long View

This excerpt is from my regular column, Culture & Kibbitz on August 9, 2016, at The Clyde Fitch Report. You can read the entire post, which discusses the importance of taking the macro view along with the micro view, here.

Taking the long view.
In the past, I have written of the importance of taking the long view, in strategic and business planning. Similarly, it is critical to consider the macro issues of what we might call “change” while dealing with the micro impact of such developments. Until recently, the pace of change was such that it was possible to focus on the micro issues of how change affected individual's or organization's lives and leave the analysis of the larger, macro impact on society to historians. Since the industrial revolution, however, the pace of societal change has accelerated to such a degree that we can no longer ignore its macro impact on society in real time. Indeed, it is perilous to ignore the question of societal change in all public spheres.

In the political context, for example, our nation’s current electoral divide is driven by differing attitudes toward unstoppable macro trends unfolding in our world. One presidential candidate focuses on the micro impacts of change: job losses, tax-avoiding corporate inversions, animosity to immigration, proposing to stem the demographic, social and economic tides by forcing a return to “what was.” The other aims to strategically identify and advantageously address the macro, global changes we’re experiencing, while simultaneously addressing the micro impact of those changes on the individual.

In the cultural context, the decades-long weakening of the structures that have supported our creative industries make it tempting to focus solely on the micro impact of societal change: failing attendance, disrupted production and distribution mechanisms, chronic lack of resources from shifting philanthropic trends. But to focus solely on micro impacts and ignore the macro changes underway, or to assume they are unknowable and thus impossible to consider, invites catastrophe. Like in politics, considering macro issues is not risk-free: we will not know if we have properly planned and acted for the future until we look back with the eye of a historian.

Underlying much of these current macro changes is the triumph of unbridled markets. Fundamental, macro shifts have made it possible for some goods, services, money and people to flow freely around the world. With market forces now impacting, for example, the value of a nation’s currency, how health care is provided, and how funders ascribe value to creative efforts, to focus solely on micro-trends and societal change would be to act like penguins ignoring melting ice around them.

I have argued repeatedly in this column that the most critical consideration is our point of view. In teaching strategic planning, I impress on students that a plan is a rational, reasonable approach to the forces that a planner understands is at work. The strength of strategic planning is not in developing a roadmap to show the pathways for individuals across a never-changing geography, but in positioning buoys in an ever-changing ocean that keeps one directed on a path toward a successful goal. This is only achievable when a planner mixes careful consideration of the micro impact of events with the macro impact of change.

Read the entire fully developed post in Culture & Kibbitz at The Clyde Fitch Report here.

Sunday, July 3, 2016

Equity and Equality

This excerpt is from my regular column, Culture & Kibbitz on June 16, 2016, at The Clyde Fitch Report. You can read the entire post, which discusses changes in the arts education landscape, here.

Equity is not Equality
There is little doubt that issues of equity, inclusion and diversity are front and center in our political and cultural landscape. While Black Lives Matter may be the most visible embodiment of this movement, we have seen growing attention to the topic in mainstream publications such as The Atlantic (Ta Nahisi Coatescry for reparations) and The New York Times (Nikole Hannah-Jones’ story about choosing a public school for her daughter). In the arts field, organizations of all stripes and colors are adopting statements to address the issue(s). Grantmakers in the Arts (GIA), for example, has adopted a statement on racial equity in philanthropy. Not only has Dance/USA embraced and adopted equity, inclusion and diversity as core values, it actively uses them as a filter through which all of their operations pass. And, most recently, Americans for the Arts (AFTA) issued a Statement on Cultural Equity. While all of these are important steps in acknowledging critical issues, they do not go far enough. Why? Because without an active assertion of what equity, inclusion and diversity really means -- what these should look like in practice -- the barriers to their existence have little impetus to bend or fall.

When we talk about "equity," we don’t really mean equality, which would deliver the same result to everyone, and would necessitate a totally different social, economic and cultural system. Barry Hessenius, an author and former executive director of the California Arts Council, puts it this way:

Very likely there will never be absolute equity. As individuals, as a sector, as a society we all need to live with that reality. And equity doesn't necessarily mean absolute equality. Rather it means policy and practice that is fair and just. That doesn't mean that progress doesn't need to be made where it can so that we get to a point where we are closer to equity. And I think more people understand that we remain too far away at this point in time. We have to do better than we have.
Herein lies the central dilemma that is raging around our society's discussion of equity. Without a clear definition of what “fair and just” means, we cannot possibly hope to reach a resolution that satisfies all of us, let alone some of us.

Issues of language and its meaning have been critical to addressing the major topics of our society throughout our nation's history. Efforts to control debate through language have been very effective at times, and at least in the public arena it is now common to both the left and the right. We also know that if we do not put forward our own definitions and language, then others will put forward definitions and language for us. For anyone pledged to the cause of equity, it would be advantageous to try to control the conversation. In this regard, just as we strive for greater equity, we need to also ask what does "inequity" mean? Those who already have resources and/or power (that is, "privilege") are usually loathe to see their allocations of these things diminished and one can assume, therefore, that those with privilege are not going to “solve” this dilemma and may not be interested in the discussion. So it falls to those seeking fair equity to propose a new way to allocate resources, with all the pros and cons on the table, for there to be a basis of discussion.

Put another way, those who call for redressing inequity -- and here I'll expand this discussion to include diversity and inclusion, which suffer from the same definitional complexities -- must propose ways to achieve the equity they seek. Standing at the Lincoln Memorial facing a sea of people, Martin Luther King, Jr., famously described his own dream of equity. Dr. King also understood that he who commits to the idea of building a bridge must also offer the path to its construction. Should we fail to follow Dr. King's example, we are left as people standing on opposite sides of a river shouting at each other, with no real means to cross the river or to meet in the middle.

Read the entire fully developed post in Culture & Kibbitz at The Clyde Fitch Report here.

There's Something Happening Here

This excerpt is from my regular column, Culture & Kibbitz on May 24, 2016, at The Clyde Fitch Report. You can read the entire post, which discusses changes in the arts education landscape, here.

Something is Happening Here
There's something happening here
What it is ain't exactly clear...
Everybody look what's going down...

Fifty years ago, Stephen Stills wrote those lyrics, which were first recorded in an iconic version by Buffalo Springfield in reaction to riots in LA provoked by a culture clash of the 1960s. Since that era, proponents of different political and philosophical points of view have made concerted efforts, overt and covert, to bend our government and institutions to their interests. When rhetoric and actual facts on the ground have diverged (as often happens), we must look deeper to really see “what’s going down.”

Consider, for example, the diminishment and/or disappearance of arts education in our schools. This is truly harmful to our society in light of data clearly demonstrating that exposure to the arts in the lives of school children better prepares them for the complexities of life in our culture and, in particular, for success in our modern information age. So it is heartening to see that while our common narrative holds that arts education has disappeared from our schools due to a lack of funds and the need to focus on building other skills, “there’s something happening here.”

We are now seeing public and private efforts, some coordinated and some not, to successfully rebuild arts education programs in pre-K-12 education. After so much debate and rhetoric, some people are again acknowledging that exposure to a broad and diverse set of subjects are critical to a thriving civic and business environment -- and art must be one of those subjects. This acknowledgement stands in the face of the longstanding argument that because literacy in math and science are critical for success and advancement in our technology-driven information age, and because the US has fallen behind in these areas, we must focus funding and standards on those areas, to the specific detriment of literacy of the arts.

At the beginning of this decade, the President’s Committee on the Arts and the Humanities called for reinvesting in arts education in K-12 schools. Its report noted growing data showing that arts education increases academic achievement, school engagement and creative thinking. Since then, repeated studies have further shown that arts education increases student graduation rates, improves performance on standardized tests, leads to a better understanding of higher-level areas of knowledge, enhances critical thinking and processing of complex information, and elevates social capabilities, including the ability to understand others. The Committee has invested time and funding in schools around the country testing this proposition.

At the same time, significant efforts in Boston, Dallas, Seattle, Chicago, NYC and LA are adopting related, but different, approaches. The results, while not enough in and of themselves to address the pervasive problem, show definite levels of engagement that contradict the commonly promoted rhetoric that there is diminished or no arts education in schools. In some cases, public schools, private citizens and nonprofit organizations coordinate to provide strategic and philanthropic support and a number of these groups have even built a consortium to exchange ideas, results and strategies. Almost all of them are now documenting improved access to arts education and student performance, though some still have a long way to go.

It is in the nature of the culture we inhabit today that no public debate is free of extreme, often misleading rhetoric. We argue in sound-bites rather than holding a rational consideration of facts and ideas. Half a century ago, some of those unhappy with the direction of the country successfully promoted the idea that we cannot afford arts education in the face of more pressing needs. As data continues to emerge that more and more reinforces what we know about the importance and benefit of arts education, the case gets stronger and stronger to bury the old thinking, once and for all.

Read the entire fully developed post in Culture & Kibbitz at The Clyde Fitch Report here.

Friday, April 22, 2016

New Thoughts on Strategic Planning

This excerpt is from my regular column, Culture & Kibbitz on April 21, 2016 at The Clyde Fitch Report. You can read the entire post, which more fully discusses long-term planning's importance, here.

Planning Signposts
On a panel of accomplished arts executives where I recently appeared, someone asked about the importance of strategic planning and succession. Being opinionated on this topic (and having taught it to artists), it was easy to weigh in.
When properly and adequately done, strategic planning — or business planning, which is just another aspect of strategic planning — can provide a framework for daily operations and a vehicle for maintaining direction and focus over the long-term. While important in and of itself, it can also help nonprofit leaders structure their focus in order to shift their gaze from the near-term to the future.

The Value of a Strategic Plan
When properly conceived and executed, a strategic plan gives an organization several values. At its core, it provides a link between the organization’s mission (it’s “Why”) and the operational decisions the organization makes in such a way that there is a clear framework for decision-making. If this link is coupled with a logic model, there is a very clear matrix for making decisions. It provides leadership with a framework to evaluate expected outcomes and the success of the operations that flow from their choices.
Kellogg Foundation Logic Model

So What Is “Strategy”?
First and foremost, strategy answers a question. Without a question, there is only an idea or a stance. It is strategy to propose a path from point A to point B in solving a problem; it is not strategy to say “We will be the greatest.” For most organizations, strategy answers the question of how to achieve a goal (for a nonprofit, often the mission) with the givens at hand (resources and situation). Different people describe strategy in different ways. Richard P. Rumelt of the UCLA Anderson School of Management, for example, describes it as the “craft of figuring out which purposes are both worth pursuing and capable of being accomplished” — focusing on the connection to mission (what is worth pursuing) and realistic resources (what is capable of being accomplished). Rumelt notes that good strategy is rooted in decision-making — it does not avoid it. Bad strategy skips over pesky details, dedicating resources to “unconnected targets,” and failing to face relevant challenges.

Good strategic planning is invaluable for a nonprofit organization — or even for artists looking to build a career. If the process is effective and productive, one is forced to consider mission, to ask why one would invest resources in an effort, to examine the paths to fulfill the mission with available resources, to imagine what success would look like. When done properly, the result is a guide to decision-making that can be turned to time and time again. On a practical level, planning answers the critical questions every business must constantly ask itself and answer in order to run its business: What do I want to accomplish? How much (or what resources) do I need? When do I need them? How will I get them? If one can keep these questions in view, if one can measure the relevance of the answers, the responses needed to address short-term issues become much easier to handle.

Read the entire fully developed post in Culture & Kibbitz at The Clyde Fitch Report here.

Technology, Artists, Money

This excerpt is from my regular column, Culture & Kibbitz on March 23, 2016 at The Clyde Fitch Report. You can read the entire post, which more fully discusses long-term planning's importance, here.

The Crossroads of Technology and Arts
I was in Providence recently to attend the first annual Conference for Research on Choreographic Interfaces (CRCI), where I was lucky to meet with young artists who were discussing their practice and relevant issues in the most optimistic and excited tones. This fascinating meeting explored the intersection between technology and choreography — loosely defined in this case as anything involving gesture in the service of artistic communication.

The main takeaway from the conference is that technology continues to advance and insinuate itself pervasively into our daily lives, including in artistic practice. Thinking back on my interactions at the conference, I had the sense that these young practitioners view the world differently in at least three ways from those of my generation, born in the mid-20th century, and it is interesting to consider whether, with such a small sampling, there is anything representative to be learned about general trends from this group.

One shift that is noted and discussed at length elsewhere is that ours is a “gig” economy, in which mobility and transience will be hallmarks of one’s career. What was striking, however, is how comfortable the participants in the conference seemed to be with this shift. In my encounters with young technologists, both at the conference and elsewhere, I find people working simultaneously in multiple areas, seemingly transitioning back and forth fluidly and seamlessly, piecing together a living. The ease with which they shift extends beyond how they support themselves financially; it seems they have found ways to feed multiple parts of themselves and their needs, almost as if they have adopted multitasking as a basis for the structure of their lives.

Along with the fluidity of building a career in this way, or perhaps related to it, this group does not carry the negative assumptions about money and its connection to artistic practice that often pervades the traditional nonprofit world. These young artists feel strongly about their work and the “purity” of it, but have no antipathy to the involvement of money in their practice. Perhaps these artists are engaging in a sector that, like film or architecture, is really an industrial manufacturing process — one untroubled by reliance on capital and marketplace; they accept such forces at work, and in their work, very naturally.

Finally, for some in this group, research seemed to be the sine qua non — the very essence of what they were doing — rather than a vehicle to explore areas of interest. Their own curiosity was the “audience” for the work, not the outside viewer. In this sense, the work of these practitioners was akin to high-level mathematics or academic research, where posing and answering questions is the totality of the experience.
Looking ahead to next year’s conference, I know the organizers are already considering focusing more on the aesthetic and perhaps even the intellectual property issues raised in this year’s conference. It should be as rewarding and stimulating as this year’s conference and I intend to be there.

Read the entire fully developed post in Culture & Kibbitz at The Clyde Fitch Report here.