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Preview: The Artful Manager

The Artful Manager

Andrew Taylor on the business of arts & culture

Last Build Date: Tue, 24 Jan 2012 08:12:23 -0600

Copyright: Copyright 2012

A recurring chrysalis

Tue, 24 Jan 2012 08:12:23 -0600

My colleague Paul Beard was telling me about the Smith Center for the Performing Arts now in development in Las Vegas, and remarked that it was actually two entirely different creatures living in the same space. The day before it opens, it will be a construction site with one set of demands and challenges. The day after it opens, it will be a complex expressive enterprise with a whole different set of operating requirements.

He likened it to an insect that enters a cocoon or chrysalis as one kind of animal, and departs as another kind.

That transformation is part of what makes it so difficult for one leader and one staff to manage the construction phase successfully, and then transition into the expressive phase. It's not only that they're tired from the journey (although, usually they're quite tired). It's that the new animal requires different things than the previous one did...and very few people can deliver in both worlds.

A larva has one job: eat (well, two: eat and don't get eaten). It builds mass and stores energy for the transformation to come. It's body is structured to achieve those goals, and defend it against predators. An adult transformational insect (Holometabola, if you really want to know) has a different job: procreate (and don't get eaten before you do). Its structure and behavior are entirely different, because its goal is different. The pupa, that in-between stage in the cocoon or chrysalis, is tasked with the job of transforming, which takes rather focused energy and protected time to do.

It struck me as we were talking that such transformation is not only true for large-scale cultural construction projects, but also for the daily life of a cultural manager. A theater space, for example, is a warehouse when it's empty...a volume of space to be heated, maintained, sorted, protected, patrolled. Somewhere in the day, as show time approaches, it transforms into a preparation platform full of staff and stagehands, and by evening it's a sanctuary, a collaborative environment, a social meaning machine.

Each of those forms demands different kinds of attention and connection, even different kinds of people. But we don't have the luxury of actually staffing for both, so the same people work in all worlds.

We're used to thinking that if we manage a creative space, it's the same space throughout the day, the week, the month, the year. Or, if we have a defined job at an organization it's essentially the same job when we arrive in the morning until when we leave at night. But even a moment of reflection will confirm that a single space is actually many spaces, wanting different things in each of its forms. And a single job is actually many jobs, demanding skills and abilities that are often conflicting or mutually exclusive during the course of a day.

If we accept that truth, we should also accept at least two things about our work:

  1. We need to discover and define what each moment requires of us, who it needs us to be and what it needs us to do. This will change throughout our day, our month, our season, our annual calendar, our work cycles.
  2. We need to give space and permission for our staff and ourselves to make the frequent transformations required of that world. Transformations require cocoons, even if only for a moment, and they require energy beyond what we expect.
Where are the chrysalides in your calendar or daily schedule? When do you make time and space for you and your team to transform?

SOPA and PIPA untangled

Fri, 20 Jan 2012 10:18:51 -0600

If you use the Internet, you likely have heard or read rumblings about legislation currently in Congress about Internet piracy. SOPA and PIPA were the inspiration for a blackout of several major web sites this week over concerns that the legislation would 'break' the Internet through their requirements, and change the nature of what and how we share online.

If you're interested in the larger dynamics at work, particularly related to creative content in an online world, take a look at Clay Shirky's recent talk at the TED offices. Useful. Thoughtful. Kinda scary, too.

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The rise of the 'edge-pert'

Wed, 18 Jan 2012 08:51:44 -0600

A recurring theme at this year's Arts Presenters conference in New York was boundary crossing. Artists and arts organizations were celebrated for dancing with unexpected partners -- city planners, farmers, inner-city kids, health professionals. Other speakers encouraged such new connections and new commitments to becoming relevant to communities in non-traditional ways. 

There was also much talk about silos, about the insular structures of deep experts in arts organizations, in higher education, in scientific knowledge. Here, again, the call arose frequently to find or build partnerships between such silos, to rethink them in more open, more engaged, and more collaborative ways.

Some suggested we get rid of the silos altogether, which didn't quite make sense to me. Our world demands deep expertise, and tightly connected communities of really smart people who explore a common terrain. That's a silo. And without a silo, at least some of the time, we don't get the obscenely focused training, learning, and inquiry that's necessary for complex and challenging problems. We need to rethink and redesign silos, of course. But eliminate them? No.

All of which led me to invent a new word (I think I invented it, haven't found it elsewhere). Because we can't entirely dissolve silos, we need people who are exceptional at working across and among them.

I call them 'edge-perts': Masters of crossing boundaries of deep expertise. Experts of the edges.

I'll admit that my new word didn't get unanimous praise. My students thought it was pretty stupid as a word, but pretty good as a concept. But whether you like it or not as a pseudoword, it's worth exploring what it might mean.

Often, artists and arts organizations are uniquely positioned to be edge-perts in their community. They're used to working across deep functional expertise (the stage technician, the acoustician, the lighting designer, the professional musician, the dramaturg, the accountant, and so on). And they work in a field that's designed to connect dissimilar thoughts and insights into a new whole. But increasingly, their scope of boundary spanning isn't nearly wide enough, and their missions and skills keep them disconnected.

How would we find, foster, and develop edge-pertise? How might we stretch the current capacity of artists and arts leaders to encompass even more experts -- in agriculture, policy, science, health, education, the environment? And how do we protect the deep focus and occasional isolation required of exceptional creative work while also extending its reach and enriching its connectedness?

Figure it out. Let me know. Edge-perts of the world, unite (and then disburse).

Power, Influence, and Performing Arts

Fri, 06 Jan 2012 07:09:48 -0600

I'm attending the Association of Performing Arts Presenters annual conference in New York this weekend, along with six of my MBA students from the Wisconsin School of Business. For the seventh year running, the student team has been commissioned by Arts Presenters to prepare and present a conference session on an emerging issue in the presenting field, funded by the association's William Dawson Research Internship fund.

The topic this year is 'Power, Influence, and Performing Arts' (you can find past topics online here). And, as in the past, the student team has explored the issue through the lens of multiple other disciplines and domains. In this case, they've gathered insights from Social Network Theory, Social Movement Theory, political science, and theories of personal and organizational influence. It should frame a fantastic conversation among participants.

If you're attending Arts Presenters, I hope you'll join us on Sunday, January 8, 2012, 9:00-11:00 am, in Concourse A (lower level) of the Hilton New York. I'll be moderating. If you can't attend, we'll also work to post insights from the presentation online later.

Sustaining, breakout, and disruptive innovation

Thu, 05 Jan 2012 09:10:05 -0600

'Innovation' is the buzz word at many arts conferences these days, and among many funders. With so many things changing in our environment -- all of the STEEP variables at once (Sociological, Technological, Economic, Environmental, Political) -- innovation in programming, practice, business process, strategy, and such seems a best way through.

But as we're busy innovating, this Co.Design article reminds us that not all innovations are alike.  It suggests three broad types of innovation:

  • Sustaining innovations in products or services are incremental. They help any organization raise the bar enough to stay in the game. In the computer world, this would include incrementally smaller, faster, cheaper laptop computers. 
  • Breakout innovations significantly advance the level of play within an existing category. Think about netbooks, for example, that were quite significantly smaller than laptops.
  • Disruptive innovations change the game. According to the article, they are disruptive "because they disrupt the current market behavior, rendering existing solutions obsolete, transforming value propositions, and bringing previously marginal customers and companies into the center of attention." Enter the iPad and other tablet computers.
Each of these types of innovation demand different decision systems and provide different rhythms of results. If an organization is designed toward one kind of innovation (usually sustaining innovations), it can struggle with the other kinds. Rigid decision systems and hierarchies, for example, might work well for minor improvements in existing services, but likely will block or resist disruptive innovation (as such ideas change everything).

The revenue streams from each type of innovation are also different, with successful sustaining innovations paying of moderately in the short term, breakout innovations rapidly strong and then tapering as competitors join the fray, and disruptive innovations often struggling at first but potentially leading to exponential growth.

The point of the article is that organizations and project teams should flag each type of innovation in their work, and give it the space, oversight, and expectation that type deserves. It also suggests that a portfolio of innovations may lead to the most balanced results.

The idea of sustaining, breakout, and disruptive innovation certainly seems ripe for the arts and culture business. What changes are you making that fit into any of those categories, and are you managing it accordingly?

If you can't get on the radio, get in a cab

Thu, 08 Dec 2011 08:24:40 -0600

VICE online magazine offers a fascinating bit of music history from South Africa with a story about the rise of Kwaito house music in the 1990s. Since emerging artists in this street-wise musical style couldn't get on the radio, they would give their demos to taxi drivers to be heard. Taxis provide a primary means of transport in Johannesburg and surroundings, making taxi drivers and taxi stands hubs of cultural opportunity. And as a local transportation system driven by locals, the network offered a unique distribution system for local musicians.

Drivers with cutting-edge musical tastes would build a client base, and even get people to wait for them over other taxis. And artists would build a new channel to audiences with the cab driver as the curator, rather than the radio station or DJ.

Even today, in the age of the Internet, taxis in South Africa play a key role in music distribution. Says one artist in the video: "if a Soweto taxi driver is playing your song, then you know your song is big."

[via BoingBoing]

Are you ready? Honestly, are you?

Wed, 07 Dec 2011 10:04:59 -0600

So, you're running an arts facility or cultural organization in Anytown, USA, and your computer person (who might also be your office manager) falls ill or quits in a huff -- does anyone else know the system passwords and protocols? Or, a patron falls and breaks an arm -- is your front-line staff prepared and practiced on what to do? Or, a flood or storm or social uprising threatens your building, your collection, your costume or set shop -- who's in charge, who do they contact, how do you gather a response team quickly and effectively to minimize the damage? Or an event is cancelled or delayed due to weather or an artist that's unable to perform -- how do you share the news with staff, board, and audience members in clear and consistent ways?

These, and a thousand other scenarios, are often low on the radar for arts managers or arts organizations, given the pressing demands of just getting their work done with minimal time, resources, and staff. But these scenarios can define (or redefine) your organization's reputation in the community, your trust among donors, your financial health, your stewardship of essential public assets, and worse yet, they can threaten the safety and even the lives of those you serve and employ.

It's not a glamorous or high-profile part of a cultural manager's job, but if you touch lives, own or manage assets, or serve a role in your community, emergency readiness is a baseline requirement for your work.

Given the low profile, poor understanding, and extraordinary need for 'readiness' among arts organizations, South Arts built a coalition of funders and providers to construct ArtsReady, a step-by-step readiness planning and documentation system for cultural organizations, boards, or managers. For $300 a year, one or many members of an organization can step through key questions about their readiness -- in financial management, facility, technology, ticketing, and a range of other areas -- while building documentation for times of sudden need. All data is stored in 'the cloud' so it won't rely on your own IT systems. And the service is also becoming a network of 'buddies' who can help each other when things go south.

The public area of the website is still a bit text-heavy and picture poor, but the inside of the system is clean, clear, methodical, and broken into do-able doses. If you run an organization and you don't have a detailed, integrated readiness plan, you need to try this. If you have a plan, you likely still need this system to figure out if it's robust and all-inclusive.

There's an old insurance-agent aphorism that "people don't plan to fail, they fail to plan." If crossing your fingers and closing your eyes is your readiness approach, it's time to make a plan.

Active culture

Mon, 05 Dec 2011 08:37:16 -0600

A few weeks back, I got to follow NEA Chairman Rocco Landesman around Wisconsin (not in a creepy way) as he made a few whistle stops to celebrate art as a placemaker in communities. Of particular note was his visit to rural Reedsburg, Wisconsin, where an NEA grant is supporting the Farm/Art DTour, a self-guided driving tour of art installations, art/food stands, and pasture performances that launched in October and will return for a second round next fall.

There were the usual speeches about the importance of art and artists to the community, to the local economy, to the sense of place. But while the content of the conversation was much the same as any other 'art is good for communities' session you might attend, this one had a breadth and depth beyond most that I've experienced.

In addition to Rocco, we heard from the local chamber of commerce leader, a featured artist, a representative from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and a family farmer. And all spoke with a tremble in their voice about the powerful exchanges the effort had forged -- between them and the visitors, between them and their neighbors, between them and the land, and within themselves. Those who had lived on their farms their entire lives found new beauty in the sounds and sights around them, because they got to witness others discover that beauty. Those who never had a connection now had a deep connection through shared experience and shared discovery.

The Farm/Art DTour was held alongside the area's Fermentation Fest, a celebration of all things cultured -- from beer to yoghurt to sauerkraut to cheese and beyond. And the metaphor couldn't have been a better fit. Fermentation breaks down complex compounds into more simple substances, releasing energy in the process. Programs like the Farm/Art DTour take highly complex social and political structures (farms, businesses, communities, neighbors) and break them down to elemental connections of people and place and shared purpose.

That's active culture. Come to Reedsburg next October and see for yourself.

Dance v. Powerpoint (advantage: dance)

Fri, 02 Dec 2011 07:15:45 -0600

While a thicket of work projects has kept from blogging for the past two weeks, I couldn't let this week conclude without sharing this fantastic TEDxBrussels presentation by science writer and 'Dance your PhD' founder John Bohannon. Bohannon explains (and demonstrates) the expressive and interpretive power of dance to convey complex information.

Since I work in a business school, and am daily awash in Powerpoint, I wouldn't mind seeing some performing artists take on the task from time to time!

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A new invocation

Mon, 14 Nov 2011 07:59:44 -0600

I hereby nominate this video and this song to serve as an invocation to every professional arts conference in 2012. It's short. It's to the point. It carries an important message. And it sticks with you (boy, does it stick with you).

There are big changes coming in the ways we make, curate, produce, present, distribute, and support the arts. Those big changes will require some big ideas, many of which we'll find difficult or surprising or challenging or even frightening. It's okay to not like these ideas. But let's follow the precept of the song, as we engage what's next.

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Mobile meets local, get used to it

Thu, 10 Nov 2011 08:07:52 -0600

In the world of retail, we used to think of in-person sales and online sales as distinct events. You could go to a store's website and make a purchase. Or you could go to a physical store to make the same purchase. Or, more recently, you could pay for something online and then go pick it up at your closest physical store...more of a bridge between worlds than a merging of the two.

Of course, that distinction was from a time now past, when people didn't carry their Internet access in their pockets, even when they were in a physical store.

Apple's latest innovation, EasyPay, hints at what's to come for the integration of online and in-store shopping. Those with an Apple mobile device and the Apple Store App can use it not only to buy stuff online from wherever they are, but also to learn more about and even buy things while physically in an Apple Store. You can grab an item in the store, scan its barcode with the camera on your iPhone or iPod, get product details, and even complete a purchase on some products and walk out of the store with clerk required (although, I'm deeply interested in the security and theft-protection systems that accompany this approach).

The new synergy makes me wonder, even more, about the anachronistic box office structure in most performing arts venues. With so many audience members carrying mobile devices with cameras and web access (not all, to be fair), why not explore the opportunity of online and physical presence in event selection and purchasing? Every poster in the lobby could have a bar code that triggers promotional content, videos, and program notes (for that matter, every printed ticket could too). Printed programs could offer the same access to purchase tickets to future events, or add-ons to the current event (VIP meet-the-artist events after the show, for example). A mobile app could start and finish the purchase, and the mobile screen could serve as the ticket to be scanned. And on and on.

As ever, Apple seems to be redefining the concept of the physical retail store (no discernible cash registers, no bottle-neck of checkout stations blocking the door, no real preference whether you buy something in the store or just browse to make your purchase later online). And now, no need for an intermediary to complete your purchase.

Who do you know that is pushing similar boundaries with ticket sales? I'd love to know.

The arts at a says Ben Cameron

Wed, 09 Nov 2011 07:30:33 -0600

If you're in the vicinity of Madison, Wisconsin, this Thursday evening, you should make your way to the Wisconsin School of Business where I'll be hosting a public talk by Ben Cameron, Program Director for the Arts at the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation. Ben's insights on the past, present, and future of artists, audiences, and arts organizations are well worth a listen. And his dynamic and gracious speaking style is a joy to experience in person.

"The Arts at a Crossroads"
Ben Cameron, Program Director for the Arts
Doris Duke Charitable Foundation
Thursday, November 10, 2011
5:00 - 6:30 pm
Plenary Room, Room 1310, Grainger Hall
Wisconsin School of Business
975 University Avenue, Madison, WI 53706

If you need some convincing, take a look and give a listen to his TEDx talk on the challenge and potential of the arts in modern times. See you there!

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Zero-based budgeting, on steroids

Fri, 04 Nov 2011 08:19:31 -0600

There are many who wonder weather our current funding and support systems for the arts are equitable, or even aligned with what we would decide together we want in the world. Like all complex systems, the ecology of individual, government, business, and related contributions to artistic endeavor evolved in fits and pockets over hundreds of years. The system doesn't have a central nervous system or an oversight authority, so you wouldn't expect it to show coordination at a system scale. But still, it's worth wondering what you might see if we wiped the slate and designed a funding/support ecology from scratch.In business, this approach is called zero-based budgeting, where instead of making incremental adjustments to departments and programs, you require every unit to build its budget from zero, and justify each dollar not by its tradition in the firm, but by its current need. It's a fairly brutal and exhausting form of budgeting, and it can generate more competition and defensiveness than collaboration and reflective practice. But sometimes, the times require it.An arts writer in in Australia took a shot at this approach for the arts funding ecology in that country, when the suggestion arose during a conference (thanks to Thomas Cott for the link). Her letter from the future (2021) looks back on the implications for Australian arts funding after a fictitional effort to pool all of its resources and realign them with the public good.The result is a bit utopian (no crime there), but compelling. It's not built on the assumption this could ever happen at a system scale, but on the question of what might happen if it did. One favorite passage:When we stopped believing that, firstly, audiences were a homogenous group who could only be engaged by marketing (rather than programming), and secondly, that audiences and artists are different, we started to realise that, actually, artists and audiences are equal parts of the equation.The rest is well worth a reading.Another recent report suggested a similar theme -- that at least part of the arts funding system, in this case organized philanthropy, was misaligned with the greater good. Fusing Arts, Culture and Social Change: High Impact Strategies for Philanthropy, written by Holly Sidford and published by the National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy (download the PDF), points to the seemingly disproportionate investment among foundations. In language that eerily resonates (and, in fact, predates) the Occupy Wall Street movement, the report says: ...the majority of arts funding supports large organizations with budgets greater than $5 million. Such organizations, which comprise less than 2 percent of the universe of arts and cultural nonprofits, receive more than half of the sector's total revenue. These institutions focus primarily on Western European art forms, and their programs serve audiences that are pre-dominantly white and upper income.You'll find comment and reflection on the report online from Nina Simon, Diane Ragsdale, and Michael Kaiser, among others. But I'd also encourage you to read it for yourself to form your own conclusions.Whether in Australia or in U.S. philanthropy circles, there are many reasons that larger, established Western-European-influenced organizations get the larger portion of funding and support. Some of the reasons are obvious (they're much bigger, they're designed and aligned to attract and retain such funding, they're familiar to the funders, they're 'proven' by funding standards, and so on). But those same reasons make funding systems resistant to change, and slow to respond.We can't press a 'reset' button and design a funding system from scratch (funding resources aren't fungible, anyway). But we can wonder toget[...]

Artists in search of a 'liquidity event'

Mon, 31 Oct 2011 09:04:25 -0600

Last night I attended the Madison performance of Little Big Town, an alt-country group whose current national tour is sponsored by Country Financial (which is where I got the backstage invite...thanks Sean). And in the pre-show chat for the sponsor's guests, they were asked about how they managed to endure as a band before they got their break. The answer, of course, was with hope, with scrappiness, and with day jobs. They would rent a cheap van to get to gigs. They would scrape and save and barter and borrow for their equipment. They would follow the same trail as almost any other wanna-be professional ensemble.

It just so happened that their trail led to a record deal, a national tour, a series of featured performances on broadcast television, and a series of hit singles.

Such rags-to-riches stories in entertainment always leave me wondering (because it's my job to wonder): What's the difference between this profitable band and the many nonprofits that tell a portion of the same story (the scrappy, resourceful, hopeful story)?

The answer, of course, is profit.

Little Big Town, and the thousand other bands and ensembles that make music together any way they can, are essentially nonprofits, until they're not. Just as Yo Yo Ma was a nonprofit enterprise until he wasn't. Or Kathleen Battle. Or Cirque du Soleil. They may not be formed as tax-exempt corporations, but they operate with essentially the same principals -- driven by passion and purpose, sustained by the act of making things from nothing.

In venture capital and equity investment, there is a magical moment when promise turns into profit, when founders or owners or early investors harvest the cash resulting from their early passion and productivity. It's called a 'liquidity event,' and usually takes the form of an Initial Public Offering or a buy-out by another company. 

While its easy and convenient to label genres of music and types of performers as either nonprofit or for-profit, as commercially focused or community focused, neither is a particularly productive definition for what's really going on. Artists create work because they are compelled to create. Whether those creations find their way to a 'liquidity event' or not is a matter of the market, the moment, and the media that find what they make.

Participatory practice in the arts

Wed, 26 Oct 2011 08:29:06 -0600

Arts organizations and arts funders have long been discussing the rise of a more 'participatory' interest among arts audiences. Beyond 'butts in seats,' this emerging interest suggests that audiences increasingly engage in expressive activity throughout their lives (online, at home, among friends), and they value a similar engagement in other cultural consumption. The James Irvine Foundation has just released a new report that seeks to define and document this part of the arts universe.

Getting In On the Act: How Arts Groups are Creating Opportunities for Active Participation is essentially a field guide to participatory arts practices -- offering definitions to help you recognize the genus, and then specific examples to identify the species. It's a very handy guide for those who know they want to increase or enhance the participatory elements of their creative work, but need clarity and strategy (and examples) to do so.

The underlying model suggests that people can engage with artistic activity in many different ways. One way of slicing those experiences is by the relative control arts participants have over the art or the experience itself. Beyond the more traditional 'receptive' roles of Western cultural experience (spectating quietly, or spectating alongside some enhancement effort like a talkback or prep session), the report offers three levels of participatory practice, defined by how much the participants influence the outcome of the work.

In 'crowd sourcing,' participants provide some essential input or selection for the creative process (photos, paintings, voting, and so on). In 'co-creation,' participants contribute in a meaningful way toward an artistic effort by a professional artist or team (participatory theater, storytelling, and such). In 'audience-as-artist,' participants actually create and direct the outcome themselves.

The report is careful to state that participatory practice isn't the 'new normal,' and that even traditional forms of audience participation have active components. But for artists, arts organizations, and cultural communities seeking new ways to connect their friends and neighbors to creative endeavor, this report offers a useful map.