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.