Wednesday, December 30, 2015

On a National Cultural Bank

This excerpt is from my regular column, Culture & Kibbitz, at The Clyde Fitch Report. You can read the entire post, which more fully develops and details the need for a bank and how it would function, here.

In its Taking Note post on Nov. 5, the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) research staff analyzed some high-level economic data prepared by the Bureau of Economic Analysis (BEA). Looking at the nationwide investment in “long-lived artworks” -- which the government defines as artworks “exploited” in physical media for more than one year -- the data indicates that over the past 15 years, we have invested in some sectors much more than in others. Without other, corresponding data however -- such as whether more movies are being created, or that fewer movies with bigger budgets are being made -- this high-level data cannot draw an accurate picture of whether investments in the cultural sector are ensuring a rich, flourishing sector, or how they impact individual artists. (See my more detailed look at the data here.)

The nonprofit sector, especially the cultural sector, is perpetually undercapitalized. This is understandable since the sector’s financial structure does not provide mechanisms for capital investment like the for-profit sector does. Nonprofits must rely on earned revenue and tax-based incentives to philanthropic giving for its capital because the underlying reality is that nonprofit markets generally cannot and do not generate sufficient surpluses of earned revenue -- which would be a source of needed capital for investment -- to sustain itself over time.

While we cannot know what the future will look like, this much we do know: the “traditional” institutional and industrial pathways for funding the creation and distribution of artistic product that existed during the latter half of the 20th century is largely gone. While artists are adjusting and finding new ways to express themselves, they are, at the same time, shouldering economic burdens formerly handled by others. Data such as that analyzed by the NEA can help us understand the macro trends in our creative sectors, but it cannot really tell us where investments need to be made. This can only be ascertained by a thorough analysis of the entire ecology of how artists are creating, distributing and making sure there is an audience for their work. But even if we did have, or did develop, such an analysis, we would still then need a mechanism to fund the capital necessary to deliver systemic support and relief.

When we talk about “systemic investment support where it is needed,” we are indeed talking about a national scale -- a monumental effort that may seem impossible in an era of partisanship infecting all conversations, cultural or otherwise. But assuming we could one day have such a conversation, a self-sustaining National Cultural Bank offering investment capital where a particular sector’s need can be demonstrated could provide the necessary systemic support and investment.

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

Tuesday, December 29, 2015

NEA Analyzes the BEA

Last month, the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) released some detailed analysis of national economic data related to the arts. In its Taking Note post at the NEA Blog on November 5, the NEA research staff detailed their conclusions drawn from some aggregated national data on the creative sector. In that post, they presented the capital investment in “long-lived artworks” created from intellectual property in the major arts industries: television, motion pictures, book publishing, and music, as well as “other materials” (theatrical scripts, greeting cards, and commercial stock photography). This data captures the amount of annual new investment in creating cultural products that are disseminated through physical form and that can be exploited over the long term (longer than one year). Additional costs in exploiting these artworks, such as marketing, copying, and distribution, are not considered investments but are part of annual national industrial expenses. Once calculated, the annual investment is added to our national “balance sheet” assets and tracked over time against the revenue the assets generate as the initial investment is depreciated. The result is a “value” of our national long-lived artworks assets each year.

Dance and theater are notably missing from this data as choreographic creations and plays produced are not generally embodied in a physical manifestation and, therefore, cannot be exploited over time without some additional expenditure of resources. One assumes that these activities are bundled with our annual expenses, which are tracked in other data records.

The capital investment figures, assembled and projected by Bureau of Economic Analysis (BEA) economists, show “that investment in new movies [over the past decade and a half] has generally increased, while production of new television programs has strongly increased. The production of new books, alternatively, has been flat. As for investment in new music, that has been in decline throughout the time period over which BEA reports real investment in entertainment and artistic originals.”

The methodology used to determine the investment when actual investment numbers are not available, as in the case of music, is a complex formula that projects the investment made each year based on a projected ratio of investment to revenue, as detailed in a BEA report, Research Spotlight – Artistic Originals as Capital Assets, published in 2011.

As with all such aggregated data, it is essential to remember that the data does not reflect the experience of one or of any given artist, that a data point alone does not demonstrate a causal connection of any kind, and other data may conflict and need resolution. For example, the data in these reports shows that there is an increased investment in the creation of new films over the past 15 years, yet anecdotal evidence is pretty strong, with well-known filmmakers such as Spike Lee turning to crowd-funding, that traditional funding sources are investing in fewer but bigger budget movies, not more movies. Similarly, in the music area, despite the significant decline in investment in new music, we hear that there is abundant activity creating new work, though it is often being funded by musicians directly or through new avenues such as crowd-funding. If both are true, it would seem that either more music is being created at a lower cost, which would seem to fly in the face of Baumol’s cost disease, or the alternative funding mechanisms are not captured in the BEA methodology. And just this past week, the Financial Times reported a significant drop in cable television viewers despite the dramatic increase in investment that the data reports, indicating that some real shift in the ecology of television is occurring or there is very serious over-investment. As these examples show, it is essential for us to integrate this kind of high level aggregated data with other data to reconcile contradictory information, variations, and other trends as part of understanding what is truly happening in creative areas.

The BEA research spotlight notes an additional point, which intuitively appears to be positive but really only shows how difficult it is to extrapolate trends or definitive answers to specific questions from high level aggregated data. According to the spotlight, from 1980 through 2009, on an inflation-adjusted current-dollar basis, capital investments in this area grew from 0.21% of the nation’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP) to 0.35% of GDP, an increase of 67%. The data, which taken on its face could lead one to assume that the culture sector is booming, can really only be taken to say that culture takes up a larger piece of the economic activity in our country in 2009 than in 1980, but this does not tell us anything about the impact on individual artists, how they do their work or make a living, or how the GDP has grown or diminished.

After reading this data, I was thinking about how such data, not directly tied to how an artist today makes a living, should be considered by those interested in cultural policy. By trying to reach an understanding of the entire ecology of a sector, it is more likely to be able to develop policy and, where necessary, direct support and an investment of resources to ensure a flourishing cultural sector, but we cannot rely only on these high level aggregated figures.

An easy way to see the importance of understanding the entire ecology is to look at the dance field, which is not captured in these numbers. In recent decades, the number of dance-only presenters in the United States has dramatically decreased from more than three dozen to less than ten. At the same time, domestic policy in light of the end of the Cold War and internal domestic policies in other countries, mainly in Europe, dramatically reduced touring funding for US dance artists as well. Touring has always served as a backbone of dance companies, generating sufficient revenue to support a company and produce new work while also providing opportunities to “distribute” the new work. The reduction in touring opportunities caused by fewer presenters and the diminished funding for such activity has directly altered the scope of activity for many companies and decreased the overall stability of the field. While not specifically a capital investment like the others already discussed, this revenue stream was a critical piece of the lifecycle of dance artworks and its diminishment has made a negative impact on the overall environment for dancers and dance creative works.

Perhaps what is most revealing about the NEA analysis and the BEA data is just how much the economic underpinnings of our creative sectors are changing. What it fails to illuminate, however, is the actual impact the changes are having on the lives of individual artists and if considered alone, it can, in fact, be misleading. While we might rightly assume that the nature of music and “filmed” entertainment creation is changing because of the increased investment the data shows, we would be hard pressed to find anyone in the publishing world who will tell us that their industry has not changed dramatically despite the investment we have been making remaining flat over time. In short, as I have noted in other comments, high-level aggregated data such as the NEA presents is illuminating and interesting, but only marginally helpful in understanding the actual impact on artists’ creative process and practice. To understand changes in these, we need a much fuller and robust understanding of the entire ecology in which artists’ create and exploit their work.

Friday, December 4, 2015

Beware the Metrics System

This excerpt is from my regular column, Culture & Kibbitz, at The Clyde Fitch Report. You can read the entire post here.

Last week at a committee meeting (I sit on the board and nominating committee of an arts organization), we were asked what metric we should use to measure our progress on equity, inclusion and diversity. The organization strives to serve the entire complexity of its field and with a limited number of board seats to replace each year, assembling a proper slate can be likened to a jigsaw puzzle, where pieces can form many pictures instead of just one.

Metrics qua metrics are tricky: by trying to capture a complex phenomenon in a simple number, they tend toward the reductive and are more subjective than we think. The Czech economist Tomas Sedlacek has cogently critiqued the idea that economic measures are objective, because they are actually normative -- related to good and evil because we apply value judgments to a measured number; surpassing the desired metric is success, not meeting or surpassing it is failure. And to paraphrase Nate Silver in his consideration of data, metrics need a direct connection to specific strategic goals or they will be less effective and we may miss an understanding of the impact our actions have. Moreover, relying solely on supposedly objective metrics often incentivizes behavior in unintended ways that do not advance the underlying imperative.

Metrics to measure success at building diverse communities may quantify how a “picture” is changing, but, in and of themselves, metrics do not effectively measure success as they do not get to the heart of the matter. These issues require an ongoing and evolving conversation because what underlines them are questions of community -- from who participates to the way the group treats its members. Therefore, the snapshot of a simple metric, at best, can only indicate the state of a group at a given moment in time. While a snapshot can be informative, -- and when compared to past and future snapshots it can document change -- it exists outside the context of a continuum that has a starting point and a goal. Standing alone, a metric is only a data point floating at sea.

For this reason, I suggest that any metric aiming to measure the success of a group’s efforts toward equity, inclusion and diversity must begin with a clear articulation of the intentions and goals of that group. As with any strategic imperative, a clear concise and comprehensible statement of the organization’s goals and intentions should provide sufficient guidance for an institution if it persistently measures and evaluates this statement through self-examination and adjustment—which metrics can aid. Unless considered in this way, metrics are potentially harmful, becoming fixed goals resulting in judgments rather than signposts along a journey towards organizational fulfillment. While metrics can play a role in organizational dialogue, it is the dialogue that matters, not the metrics, especially for a strategic imperative like equity, inclusion and diversity, which is rooted in communal relationships and dynamics.

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

Monday, November 23, 2015

More on the Apocalypse that Was or Wasn't

A couple of months ago, I posted at the Clyde Fitch Report in response to Steven Johnson's New York Times Magazine article The Creative Apocalypse That Wasn't and a trail of responses taking exception to the data he used and the conclusions he drew.

At the time, I commented that while the data seemed to show that the arts have not lost ground and in many cases have continued to grow in the recent past, anecdotally and despite what Johnson offered, individual artists of all stripes report that it is much more difficult to make a living now than in the past. Some two weeks ago, the National Endowment for the Arts research office posted the results of analysis on other data in an effort to help answer the questions Johnson posed. Their analysis concluded that:

  • creative industries such as film, sound recording, and the performing arts have fared well in recent years, but publishing, as a share of U.S. GDP, has remained flat;

  • the long-term growth in the number of musicians, measured as a percentage of all U.S. workers, has been flat;

  • musicians' earnings declined and remain less than the earnings of U.S. workers as a whole, although their real earnings, adjusted for inflation, have grown; and

  • year-over-year investment in new musical compositions has been in long-term decline.
While none of this contradicts Johnson's original conclusions, it points again to the difficulty of projecting an individual artist's situation from aggregated and average statistics.

What seems most salient here is that while musicians make up a consistent share of the US workforce, there is a long-term decline in the investment in the creation of new work. This would seem to indicate, for example, that more revenue is being generated from existing music than new work and/or that a smaller percentage of the musician's working are generating an increased amount of income, leaving the rest of the field to struggle with a smaller piece of the pie.

While not conclusive in any way, this new data and its analysis gives us a bit more detail on the evolving environment in which artists try to make a living.

Thursday, November 5, 2015

Contradictions of the Creative Economy

This excerpt is from my regular column, Culture & Kibbitz, at The Clyde Fitch Report. You can read the entire post here.

Lucy Sexton, the executive director of the [Bessie] awards, was not the only participant to remark on the difficulties that New York dance artists face, but she also noted that the number of dance companies in the city was higher than it was a decade ago.
Brian Seibert, New York Times, Oct. 20, 2015

We often hear that despite a growing arts industry, the lives of artists have grown increasingly difficult. I wonder, though, about the paradox of such statements. If the industry is growing, it should be thriving, and shouldn’t people be more successful? Why is there so much focus on difficulties?

Despite a lack of consistent definitions and key frames of reference, there is strong evidence that culture and its value are growing worldwide. Studies agree that today, culture contributes a larger piece to the economic pie and there are now more people employed by this sector globally — and in the United States. However, it is hard to draw a complete picture because most reports do not include information about earnings. Still, aggregated information and averages are available, though, as Steven Johnson noted in his recent controversial New York Times article, such high-level aggregate data-points are only of limited use and may not accurately portray the individual’s story.

Recently, two U.N. agencies concluded that the creative economy is one of the most rapidly growing sectors of the world economy. Notwithstanding this growth, real changes in local creative ecologies are forcing artists to adjust to some very burdensome challenges. For example, rising real estate costs in many urban centers is seriously threatening artists’ way of life. The high cost of real estate may also diminish artists’ proximity to their colleagues, tearing at the fabric that feeds artists’ practice. In addition, artists face fundamental changes in the ways they generate income. Evolving institutional funding priorities and diminished revenue streams in certain areas are forcing artists to rethink how they sustain themselves and their practice. And, of course, the digital revolution has affected both practice and sustenance for artists.

In response to changes in their environment, artists adeptly shift their practice. Greg Sandow recently recounted some of the history of how classical musicians have adapted, tracing the shift from a patronage model, where artists earned support with no claims on their work, to entrepreneurial musicians hired as employees to perform particular jobs. More recently, Matt McDonald described his shift from dependent musician with a record deal to a successful musician-entrepreneur generating more income and artistic success with the change.

Looking back, despite what we often hear, artists have persistently evolved with their environment in order to produce exciting work, responding to this evolution with resilience. So perhaps it is chimerical to try holding onto the 20th century model in which artists expect to create art for art’s sake and thus be delivered of a career. In the future, we may see that we had a golden age for artists and it was an anomaly. For practical steps, we can look to the concrete recommendations of the Center for an Urban Future’s “Creative New York (2015)” report. Its holistic analytical approach culminates in almost two dozen specific recommendations and is a model for how we can offer strong advocacy in response to the sometimes contradictory forces at work today.

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

Thursday, October 8, 2015

Nonprofits Raising Capital

This excerpt is from my regular column, Culture & Kibbitz, at The Clyde Fitch Report. You can read the entire post here.

A dance company I am involved with is in the midst of a business analysis and planning process. Like most of its nonprofit brethren, the company engages in a constant, exhausting search for capital, which I define as the resources needed to operate in pursuit of the organization’s mission. For any business, capital is essential to the life of the organization and accomplishing its goals. Generally, nonprofits have an ongoing and sometimes overwhelming difficulty in building sufficient revenue to meet their capital needs.

A for-profit company can offer the promise of sharing future profits to motivate people to supply its capital needs (along with the concomitant risk of loss). Nonprofits rely on other, often more intangible, incentives. Sometimes, as with tax deductions for donations, incentives are fostered by the government to achieve policy goals; sometimes institutions offer incentives themselves. All are designed to garner additional capital to subsidize the nonprofit’s insufficient earned income. Putting it in simple terms, we have traditionally relied on philanthropic impulses to support nonprofits, while for-profit companies rely on the potential for personal enrichment.

In addition to traditional fundraising pathways and motivations, there are new and additional opportunities to access capital, which all institutions should consider folding into their fundraising activities. The most common is crowdsource funding (or crowdfunding). Total crowdfunding is predicted to approach $35 billion this year, or more than double the $16.2 billion raised through this method in 2014, of which $2.7 billion –– $1 out of every $6 – was raised in the arts and entertainment area, making crowdfunding a source of capital nobody should ignore. Although this new method may be more in line with younger artists’ approaches — more project-based and freed of historical strategies and practice — it is of such potential value that even those organizations with established ways to generate unearned capital must consider it. While it is not yet clear whether these alternatives will become permanent or significantly impact nonprofit organizations, at the very least they offer one more avenue to generate needed funding.

The new instruments for raising capital that have popped up since the beginning of this century are driven simply by promising greater participation and closeness to the creative process. Kickstarter, the most widely known example, describes the motivation thus:

Backing a project is more than just pledging funds to a creator. It’s pledging your support to a creative idea that you want to see exist in the world (emphasis added).

This motivation could well describe other platforms, such as ArtistShare and IndieGogo, among others.

If properly structured, nonprofits should be able to combine this approach with traditional tax incentives that have proven so appealing and effective, thereby expanding their arsenal of capital-raising tools. As with all fundraising, however, it is essential to appreciate and address the motivation of those providing the capital and to further appreciate that the traditional incentives are largely absent here unless incorporated in some hybrid approach.

There is no doubt that artistic and cultural organizations and individuals will continue to need to raise capital constantly to accomplish their goals. As new capital-raising vehicles arise, organizations that decline to explore and utilize them to their advantage do so at their own peril, particularly those nonprofits that resist considering the accumulation of capital to realize their mission.

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

Tuesday, September 8, 2015

Data and How Artists Make a Living

This excerpt is from my regular column, Culture & Kibbitz at The Clyde Fitch Report. You can read the entire post here.

In the Aug. 23, 2015 issue of The New York Times Magazine, Steven Johnson’s cover story, The New Making It (entitled The Creative Apocalypse That Wasn’t online), proposes that creative workers are slightly better off today than in 1999, when Napster first hit the scene. Basing his analysis on data from the Labor Department and other sources, Johnson concludes that well-known predictions of the death of creative artists and the collapse of creative industries due to changes wrought by the digital revolution have not panned out.

Johnson’s article doesn’t go far enough in the data it presents to fully understand or appreciate the fact that not all is rosy for artists trying to make a living today. There is little doubt that the methods of creating, marketing, distributing and consuming cultural products have changed in the past 20 years due to disruptions caused by digital technology. Previously, artists had a realistic possibility to create valuable content and live off the exploitation of that content. Today, with the value of content being driven towards zero, it is rare to make a living solely from such exploitation and artists have had to evolve how they sustain themselves. Additionally, in most cases, artists have also had to pick up the work of building and maintaining a career that others (agents, publishers, record companies) used to do; and all of this has a cost.

Regardless of the economic environment in which artists live, there have always been artists who have found ways to create their art and express themselves in ways that speak to large parts of society. In some cases, they have made a living from their art and in others they have not. Over time, it is also true that the relationship between artists and their art, and the economic framework in which culture exists, has continually evolved. In our current environment where everything is commercialized, artists are not immune from having to consider the economic impact of the work they do if they desire to make a living from their work. For some artists, however, trained in an ethos that predates our current century and the economic and industrial changes it has wrought, this new reality is a tough pill to swallow.

The debate that Johnson’s article engendered exemplifies the shifted landscape and the difficulty some have to adjusting to the changed realities of our creative industries. But, in the end, if artists want to make a living from their art, they have no choice but to engage with the current economic industrial realities and consider their intentionality in how and what they create. This, and not whether the data or its analysis is correct, is the real story underlying Johnson’s article.

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

Thursday, August 13, 2015

Engagement - Busting Out All Over

This excerpt is from my regular column, Culture & Kibbitz at The Clyde Fitch Report. You can read the entire post here.

Engagement is breaking out all over -- audience engagement : community engagement : engaging audiences : arts engagement -- and I am as guilty as the next person at promoting this. For years, I have proposed that arts organizations will have a diminished future unless they find a way to solidly engage with their communities. As a result of ongoing technological and demographic changes the relationship between artists and arts organizations, and the audiences for their work, is altered resulting in a changed value proposition that is, in many cases, less relevant. This leaves our arts organizations, generally, to struggle with diminishing audiences and less stability as the connection between the arts consumer and those offering the arts has frayed. In order to re-establish a solid connection, organizations and artists need to understand their engagement with their community and with their audience.

To be successful, an organization has to look at what it is doing in the context of a shifted landscape and be willing to change, rather than just look to find a different way to do what it has always done. It is a much tougher job now and only those that actually engage and use the information they learn will be able to sustain a future.

Whereas in the past, due to the limited ability to create and see art, arts organizations provided the only vehicle for engagement for most people, now that making art is universally accessible, perhaps organizations no longer need fulfill that role. To appreciate the depths of this shift on their business environment, arts organizations need only look at the commercial sphere. There, companies that create and distribute content have seen their business model collapse or become severely threatened (newspapers, book publishers, music producers, movies) and businesses providing platforms for participation have reached stratospheric valuations (Facebook, Instagram, YouTube).

When looked at in total, to deliver maximum value to its constituents, any organization that wishes to remain viable needs to carefully consider its community engagement and its audience engagement and, if necessary, its audience building in developing a strategy to deal with the increased complexity of the cultural environment today. As non-profits, we have a responsibility to deliver value to our communities and audiences and the pathway to ensuring we are maximally fulfilling that responsibility is to regularly assess our engagement with our community and audience.

In an earlier time, we arts leaders likely had a clearer pathway to understand our engagement with our communities and audience, and how to deliver the value they expected from us. Today, in our tumultuous continually evolving and diverse environment, to fulfill our mission to deliver maximum value, we must pursue different pathways to achieve that goal. Success will rely on a careful and clear understanding of the strategic imperatives and goals we set for ourselves. This can only be fully done if we set those goals and imperatives while keeping the close relation between audience engagement, community engagement, and audience building in mind, but considering them each distinct areas, and by not conflating them into a single question for consideration.

Tuesday, July 14, 2015

The Untenable Pressures on Higher Education

This excerpt is from the first post in my new regular column, Culture & Kibbitz at The Clyde Fitch Report. You can read the entire post here.

Higher education is constantly under attack these days:

These are all common critiques. Underlying such attacks are raging debates pitting competing ideas of the function of higher education against each other amid a shifting political-economic-technological landscape. Higher education has become, in some ways, the locus of a proxy battle over our society’s future. Rather than covertly engaging on the issues, we would be well served to openly consider our choices and develop a holistic policy addressing our competing needs.

The pressures on higher education are clear:
  • we face a dramatically increased demand for higher education so that a larger part of our community can have access to the economic and political spoils of success;
  • businesses are looking for pre-trained graduates, who have both the specific skills necessary to do the requisite jobs and the critical thinking skills to work independently and productively; and
  • the training we offer must be economically viable and provide value for both the student and the community.

These pressures have always been here, but the balance between these issues and our expectations around them have shifted. Unlike other countries where the state determines which track a student enters, we previously structured our educational system with varying opportunities for students to get the set of skills they wanted and that we needed as a society. Today, however, we are unwilling to accept the inherent stratification such a system yields; we expect every student to have equal access to all the tools necessary for success.

The challenge we face -- to develop both critical thinking for success and skills training for a modern labor force in those we educate -- can only be achieved by a top-to-bottom reconsideration of our curriculum and how we design the limited time that students can spend in their studies.

Saturday, June 13, 2015

Ford Signals Major Changes for Arts Landscape

In the future, we may very well look back on Darren Walker’s announcement of the Ford Foundation’s shifting program parameters as a seminal moment, marking the day the golden age of art for art’s sake had clearly slipped away. Ironically, it was Ford, amongst others, who seeded the environment for the full flowering of that idea as an organizing principle for arts organizations and artistic creation. Importantly, Walker reaffirmed his support for the arts, noting, however, that arts-makers and presenters will need to follow a different path to receive funding:

[]Ford, which started Lincoln Center in 1958 with $25 million in grants, won’t abandon its support of the arts, according to Mr. Walker. But to catch the grant maker’s attention, artists, filmmakers, and choreographers will need to focus on social justice and challenge "dominant narratives" that perpetuate inequality.
Ford’s announcement that it will only fund activities that address inequality follows a growing trend by public and private funding bodies to shift their focus to broader societal issues. The impact of this trend on arts organizations is monumental; the inherent value of the arts is no longer axiomatic, leaving arts organizations that want to thrive with the task of rediscovering or reaffirming the value they provide their community. This is, by no means, a diminishment of the importance of the arts nor should it per se suppress the quality of the art we create. Past experience with such strategies, like the WPA's Federal Project Number One, successfully funded important works of art while employing large numbers of artists.

In this new framework, the arts are only one of a number of vehicles available to accomplish other societal imperatives. Whereas in the past 50 years, there was great support for the arts qua arts as a sign of the heights of the accomplishments of our society, there has been an ongoing trend to redefine the cultural landscape and, therefore, the role the arts play in accomplishing broader societal goals. For arts organizations going forward, this only accentuates the need to understand and have a strong sense of their community engagement, so as to maximize the value they deliver when considered in this new paradigm. Arts organizations that do not make this shift, from considering their role as solely creating and presenting exciting art to relating such activity to benefiting other community aspirations, will find it more and more difficult to generate the necessary funds to sustain themselves.

Thursday, March 12, 2015

Book Review: Performing Policy

This book review was originally posted as a guest post at the Clyde Fitch Report

Artists have always had a hard time making a living. Unless engaged in certain commercial areas, they produce unique one-of-a-kind products and cannot reap the rewards of scale that most purveyors of goods enjoy. Performing artists have it even tougher. Their customers can’t walk away with a product; they’re buying an ephemeral experience. Still, to earn a living, artists must engage with the market as others do. They must seek customers, ally themselves with funding sources and deliver their product — often on an agreed-to schedule. It is not unusual for artists to “outsource” these economic functions to producers or managers. Until relatively recently, artists had to choose to work in a commercial environment, serve a patron (a version of a commercial arrangement) or work as an amateur driven by non-market concerns. In all cases except when working as an amateur, artists have depended on the taste and beneficence of others.

For more than a century and a half, as a result of the continually increasing personal agency and autonomy sought by our Western culture, we elevated the arts and the work of artists to a higher plane. The notion of creating “art for art’s sake” entered the cultural consciousness in the mid-1800s, enabling the “work” of artists to be separated, philosophically, from the vagaries of the marketplace. The nonprofit structure developed by the early 1900s, and, several decades later, a number of foundations, followed by the public sector, made critical investments in building an infrastructure that professionalized the arts.

In his new book, Performing Policy: How Contemporary Politics and Cultural Programs Redefined U.S. Artists for the Twenty-First Century, artist-academic Paul Bonin-Rodriguez responds to the shifts that have lately consumed our cultural sector. He argues that the 1990s culture wars forced a rethinking of, and retrenchment from, the elevated status that artists had come to enjoy, and that we must reframe the context and connection of artists to the broader culture; they should rethink their relationship to communities as well as to their own practice. Reflecting on his own evolution as a practicing artist, he writes that artists can no longer segregate the economics of their work from their art and practice. In short, they must confront a new cultural ecology.

From the outset, Bonin-Rodriguez sets a high bar for himself:

Performing Policy demonstrates how a movement in arts and cultural policy begun in the 1990s redefined U.S. artists’ roles in American society and enhanced their prospects for the twenty-first century.

Often arguing in definitive language, he seems to propose that the policy initiatives he cites were broadly embraced by the culture sector. In fact, they were successful but limited in their impact. He even admits that of all the policy discussions he cites, none succeeded in offering a clear “job description for the term artist.” Bonin-Rodriguez then offers just that.

The heart of his argument resides in his preface (describing his own journey and evolution), his introduction (outlining the history and making his argument), and his coda (summarizing his analysis and pointing the way forward). In between these endpoints, Bonin-Rodriguez offers a historical and analytical review of three policy paths that have been pursued in reframing the artist’s societal function and purpose. His review of these three paths then alternate with three case studies that illustrate the reframing.

He writes, for example, of the American Assembly’s “The Arts and the Public Purpose” convening in 1997. At this meeting, a group of committed arts advocates and policymakers responded to the vilification and overall diminishment of the arts that resulted from the aforementioned culture wars. Acknowledging a shift away from the optimistic, post-World War II heights of liberalism, this group argued against the “art for art’s sake” ethos and for one in which the arts imbued value into the culture. Funding programs soon followed the changing rhetorical landscape.

Indeed, the nonprofit organization Creative Capital, formed in 1999, adapted venture capital concepts and made longer term commitments to artistic projects — and linked those commitments to the development of economic skills for their recipients. They sought to

. . .contribute to cultural vitality by focusing specifically on artists… dream[ing of] a freedom of expression properly administered and strategically marketed.
Performing Policy p.73

Leveraging Investments in Creativity, a 10-year funding experiment, focused increasingly on place in the projects it supported seeking to model new methods of cultural support and distribution strategies based on geography, cultural specificities, and the public-purpose roles that artists serve in communities.

This path, Bonin-Rodriguez concludes, traced an evolution — from a focus on space to a focus on place. He points to the recent creative placemaking initiatives begun by the National Endowment for the Arts and now carried on by ArtPlace America and other groups.

Even as Bonin-Rodriguez focuses on the changing context of art and artists in our culture, he acknowledges that such questioning and evolution is not so unique. He observes that the culture wars were really part of a larger societal trend, one reflecting a shift in Cold War rhetoric: from art symbolizing the triumph of Western society and therefore funded as “a tool of the state,” to a Reaganist faith in “privatization and personal responsibility.” He argues that artists, like other workers “squeezed out of the workforce,” have been forced to rely more and more on their entrepreneurial capacities.

Yet this shift, as the author portrays it, ignores the fact that there have always been artists who used their entrepreneurial skills alongside their creative practice to get by. He contends that all of the policy efforts of recent decades successfully built a theoretical framework for arts participation and support in our culture, but did little to ameliorate the volatility and availability of actual funding sources for artists to support their work. Artists, like so many others, must fend for themselves to make a living.

Faced with a continuing disconnect between artists’ practice and what arts policy professionals propose, the author suggests that artists simply accept the new demands placed on them. To succeed and be fulfilled, he proposes that artists must adopt, and our educational system must support, a hybrid role in which artists will not only create art but also produce art. By accepting the increased agency and autonomy of a hybrid role, Bonin-Rodriguez believes that artists can build a career and make a living. Fully engaging and integrating with their communities, taking a politically activist role, artists can bring value to their audiences and build the deep connections their line of work demands. If artists will live the rhetoric of policy makers, in other words, artists will be performing policy.

The book is informative in its historical analysis of attempts by altruistic non-artists to build policy structures aimed at ensuring participation in, and support of, artists in our current culture. Although the author believes this effort was successful, he acknowledges that it is still difficult to make a living as an artist. At the end of the day, as the French say, plus ├ža change: for artists to make a living, they still depend on the tastes and desires of those who fund the art.

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Art Works: Sowing Data Seeds

Last week, the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) released three new reports that provide much good information for a number of critical discussions and are examples of a rich and flourishing NEA research agenda, which potentially could have a great impact on our national dialogue about the arts and culture. Whether the timing is coincidental or not, these reports join a number of other reports and studies that, like the NEA reports, provide hard data about the impact of the arts in our culture or dig into what is happening to audiences. Taken together, they all form a solid foundation for arts leaders and advocates to plan their strategic directions and arguments. As these data releases show, we can finally begin to rely on hard data to discuss the impact and contribution the arts make to our economic life.

The NEA reports provide deep analysis of audience engagement with the arts through 2012, look at the reasons people interested in the arts do not actually participate, and provide some macro data on how the arts fit within our larger economic environment here in the United States. While one of them, A Decade of Arts Engagement: Findings From the Survey of Public Participation in the Arts, 2002-2012, identifies trends in existing NEA data, the other two sets, the eight ACPSA (Arts and Cultural Production Satellite Account) Issue Briefs and When Going Gets Tough: Barriers and Motivations Affecting Arts Attendance, represent a significant advancement by integrating NEA data with data drawn from other government sources. The result is a broader cultural overlay and contextualization of the NEA research and its implications. Similar to its strategy to leverage funding for the arts through collaboration with other governmental agencies and funding sources, the NEA looks to be pursuing a similar plan to leverage resources with regard to its research and the dissemination of information.

A Decade of Arts Engagement, tracking trends in the 2002, 2008, and 2012 Survey of Public Participation in the Arts (SPPA), confirms that there has been a steady decline in participation by the audience in the traditional arts. Additionally, the data show that a core cohort of audience members who purchased the vast majority of tickets are not only declining in number, but are purchasing far fewer tickets when they do attend performances or go to exhibits. This trend is supported by the same trends in other reports, like the Philadelphia Cultural Alliance’s just-released 2014 Patron Loyalty Study: Loyalty by the Numbers. This study looked at 17 Philadelphia cultural institutions and found that 3% of their patrons provided 62% of the group’s earned revenue. Furthermore, when donations were considered as well, this group’s spending declined by 12% during the seven-year analysis of the data. The Philadelphia study, going beyond the NEA report but consistent with other studies (such as the 2008 Oliver Wyman study commissioned by nine leading symphony orchestras), also shows that while significant numbers of new audience members are coming to cultural events, they do not return.

This apparently endemic issue of churn, when considered in conjunction with the declining numbers of audience and the decline in revenue generation that the continuing audience provides is one of the most critical threats to the business model of our arts organizations. While not directly aimed at this dilemma, the NEA’s new When Going Gets Tough (NEA Research Report #59) offers data that is likely to be helpful in plotting a strategy to address this continuing issue of audience engagement.

Overlaying SPPA data on the 2012 General Social Survey (a regular sociological survey conducted by the National Opinion Research Center at the University of Chicago), this report specifically looks at the motivations of both the attendees and those who do not attend the arts. It has deep analysis of a cohort that arts managers will naturally consider to court: those people who express interest in attending arts events, but don’t actually attend. The data is analyzed in every way imaginable and reveals that acquiring such audience members is likely to require niche-driven campaigns that address each target group’s particular but different motivation for attending or not. Put another way, there is no one single marketing or communications strategy that will successfully engage the diverse audience that exists because different cohorts are motivated by different reasons and desires.

For example, socializing with friends or family members was the most common motivation for those attending exhibits or performances and was mentioned by 76% of those attending performances and 68% of those attending exhibitions. However, for those who expressed interest but don’t attend, only 22% of the respondents expressed the lack of someone to go with as the barrier to their attendance. One might conclude, therefore, that socializing is important for those already attending, but this would not be the most impactful strategy with which to engage newcomers. This socializing motivation was confirmed in the Culture Track ‘14 study (the most recent edition of a periodic study done by LaPlaca Cohen) that surveyed 4026 arts participants from all 50 states and found that socializing and relaxing were the main reasons respondents participated in culture.

Despite this large interest in socializing as a motivator for participation, When Going Gets Tough found that amongst racial and ethnic minorities, and first-generation immigrants, other motivating reasons were more important. For those already attending, non-Hispanic blacks and African-Americans, Asian-Americans, and Pacific Islanders most frequently attended performances to support community events and organizations. Non-Hispanic blacks and African-Americans less frequently mentioned socializing among their reasons for attending the arts. But for those interested but not attending, the lack of someone to attend with was cited by a higher proportion of non-Hispanic blacks and African-Americans (32%) and Mexican-Americans (42%) than other ethnic groups (17%). For Mexican-Americans, difficulty in getting to the venue was cited at an even higher rate (47%) than lack of someone to go with.

Some of the other highlights of this report include the conclusion that life stages of people is a better predictor of participation than age alone and that socio-economic status and people’s self-identified class identity have an impact on participants’ motivations to attend or not. Rich with great detail on the complex nature of our audiences, When Going Gets Tough should provide much detail and strategic information to plan how to approach existing and potential audiences by providing some understanding of their motivations and desires.

When Going Gets Tough is not the first time the NEA has looked at barriers to attendance at arts events. In 1982, analyzing that year’s SPPA, the NEA released Age, Desire, and Barriers to Increased Attendance at Performing Arts Events and Art Museums. Although that report does not overlay on the GSS, it does show that the top barriers to attendance were the same as they were in 2012: not enough time and the high cost of attendance. In the thirty years since the first report, however, the occurrence of these leading barriers to attendance has only increased. Similarly, not having a companion with whom to attend the event has increased as a barrier, though much more dramatically, as shown in this chart.

1982 Barriers
2012 Barriers
1. Not enough time
1. Could not find the time
2. Too expensive
2. Costs too much
3. Art form not available
3. To difficult to get there
4. Too far away
4. Could not find anyone to go with
5. Poor performance time
5. Did not want to go to that location
6. Lack of motivation
7. No one to go with
8. Traffic, transport, parking issues

Looking at the reports mentioned above and others, such as the Wallace Foundation’s The Road to Results: Effective Practices for Building Arts Audiences, it would seem that there is a growing body of data and literature that can be marshaled in the critical discussion of audiences and how to deal with their evolution. Perhaps of greatest impact, these analyses reveal information about the motivation of then current audiences in terms of why they attend and, more interestingly, what drives those interested in attending that never do, providing tools for planning by arts and civic leaders.

At the same time that the NEA released A Decade of Engagement and When Going Gets Tough, it also released a series of seven issue briefs that provide macro economic analysis of the contribution the arts make in our culture and economy. The briefs summarize data generated in the first-time Arts and Cultural Production Satellite Account, a partnership between the NEA and the Bureau of Economic Analysis. Detailing the contribution to the gross domestic product (GDP – Brief 1), data on arts and cultural workers and their compensation (Brief 2), the impact of tax-exempt cultural organizations (Brief 3), and the sector’s contribution to the nation’s imports and exports (Brief 5), amongst others, we begin to see the arts and culture sector through the economic lens used to consider other industries. This should provide, or at least be the beginning of developing a vocabulary for the arts and culture sector that will allow us to engage in the conversation on equal footing with other participants in economic and policy discussions.

Though not explicitly stated as a policy, we can see the NEA efforts in this and similar areas to leverage its resources and assets taking root and beginning to sprout. The NEA Our Town funding initiative, along with its sometimes partner ArtPlace, occupies a prominent place in the recently released Community Development Investment Review: Creative Placemaking from the San Francisco Federal Reserve Bank. Together, these two programs are recognized for the effects their concerted efforts have at integrating the arts into our civic planning, which is the focus of this entire issue of the Investment Review.

From all of this, it seems clear that the NEA has a rich and activist research agenda. Some of the current research goals are: quantifying the efficacy of NEA-funded programs, “advance[ing] public knowledge about the arts’ contributions to American life,” “track[ing] the long-term relationship between the arts and livability in communities throughout the nation,” and “address[ing] knowledge gaps concerning the arts’ link to human development at every stage of the lifespan.” In looking at these research questions of great import to the cultural life of the country, one might begin to conclude that the endowment is looking to seed a foundation for a national cultural policy, or at least to ensure that the data necessary to form such a policy exists. What is most exciting about these initiatives and focus is that in the absence of a governmental body to argue for cultural policy, the research and its conclusions are helpful for arts advocates to acquire the ammunition necessary to make their case for greater funding and acceptance of the arts in the United States.

Over the past two decades, we have lived through enormous changes in our arts industries. They continue to evolve at breakneck pace, turning upside down the relationships between creators, distrbutors, and consumers of the art we are creating. Only now, however, through the issuance of government reports such as those mentioned above and the research being reported by private and other public sources, are we beginning to have a picture of motivations of new cohorts of arts creators and consumers. At the same time, and possibly in response to the increasing demand for metrics, we are beginning to see economic analysis in a format that is consistent with that of other industries, allowing the arts and culture sector to engage on an equal footing. In this way, we are joining the likes of other countries, such as Canada, Australia, and Spain, who are ahead of us in striving to understand the contribution the arts make to their economic and cultural life, acknowledging the critical role the arts play in the life of their society. All in all, it is a welcome development that can only bode well for advancing our sector and its place in our society.