Enough About Me

The entries over the last couple days have been about me and my family so I decided to get back to researching and exploring implications. Turning to my “Good Ideas” file, I found a monograph co-authored by the Artful Manager, Andrew Taylor for Americans for the Arts, “Cultural Development In Creative Communities.” The monograph discusses how cities are attempting to revitalize themselves by attracting the “Creative Class” described by Richard Florida. Right from the beginning they warned against trying to exactly replicate strategies that other communities had successfully employed . Since I had railed against this in an earlier entry, I was glad to see the injunction so prominently placed.

Something near the end of the paper (page 8) caught my interest. In discussing the evolution of arts and culture in communities, the authors wrote:

“Some have already noted a dark side to the positioning opportunity engendered by Florida’s book: conflicts among major institutions and cultural facilities, small arts organizations, individual artists, and the formal and informal arts as each vies for a piece of this new – or re-made – pie.

This struggle is not new to the cultural development field. Our definition of culture has steadily broadened as the field-including major institutions�has reached out to informal, participatory, neighborhood, and community based arts to embrace them as vital components of a local cultural ecosystem.

Audience research suggests that cultural consumers aren’t very interested in boundaries either, but freely graze as cultural omnivores among a range of choices from country music to opera, bead work to Cezanne, experimental film to the latest DVDs.

As we broaden the definition of cultural activity there is no need�and, in fact, great harm�in defining out existing institutions, audiences, and supporters.”

This monograph provided additional insight to my earlier ponderings about the next evolution in the ways Americans will experience arts and culture. Their assertion seems to be borne out in the trends written on in newspaper and journal articles. What I am reading indicates that the transition to this new format may be rather uncomfortable and since I am trying to eke out an existence in the arts, that worries me.

One of the biggest impacts will apparently be in funding. In a different entry entitled “What About Discussing ‘Worst’ Practices”, Andrew Taylor talks about how important rosy results are to attaining funding:

“Given our funding structure, our advocacy efforts, and our culture of feeling constantly under seige, we seem to lack an open place to discuss what we do wrong. Almost every foundation report I read about a funded project carries good news (underserved audiences were reached, goals were achieved, worlds were changed)….Unfortunately, the system we’ve established has a bias toward vaguely positive spin. Anyone receiving a major grant, and hoping to get another one someday, will want to show how wonderfully they managed the project and the cash. Most publicly promoted research on the benefits of the arts is prepared and presented by organizations with a direct financial stake in showing those connections.”

In a Newsweek article, Douglas McLennan made some related comments on arts funding:

“But for a decade now, public arts agencies that should have been promoting the best artistic vision have instead been following behind the public, trying to find a denominator that, if not lowest, is most common. The arts are not most common. The arts ought to lead. Public arts funding is important�for better or worse, money is how government signals what it thinks is important. ”

What happens when things change? How do you track who is being served when people make their attendance decisions at the last moment when it is most difficult to collect data about them? Does grant reporting move further into the territory of outright lying? Do funders need to change the criteria by which they evaluate programs they underwrite?

Since it costs more to attract new people than it does to retain existing audiences, how are arts organizations going to remain financially sound when attracting new audience members consumes so much more money?

What of the missions of organizations as strictly defining oneself becomes more of a libability as the monograph suggests? Does the focus of arts organizations become so diverse that they dabble in a little of everything in order to attract the widest base, but do no one thing well?

While I think a situation close to what the monograph suggests is inevitable, I don’t think things will be as grim as my questions imply. (Though certainly many of the questions will prove to be pitfalls for some organizations.)

I do think that it is important right now to change the criteria that foundations and granting organizations use in determining who will receive their support. This will be especially true for governmental support. If public art support lags behind as Mr. McLennan suggests, it would not be surprising to see a handful of change resistant arts institutions begin the thrive for a short time as governments reward them for conforming with their views. Disaster would probably follow as the government support was suddenly shifted to catch up with the new public values.

A campaign to gradually shift the expectations of funders to reflect the changing reality of arts and culture would reduce the consequences of support lagging too far behind the trend. It might be good if the new reporting procedures valued institutional self-education and growth and required providing information on successes and failures. Open recognition of areas of weakness would allow organizations more freedom to mobilize their staff to address them. (Rather than exerting effort to mask problems for fear of losing funding.) Discussing these problems at conferences will also help others to avoid them and can make use of the assembled brain power to create solutions for those who face them.

On the other hand, technology may make this whole funding structure obsolete. It is becoming increasingly possible to track individuals by the signals cell phones, etc. give off. Is the ability to accurately assess the complete background of every person being served by a theatre, symphony, pottery class and poetry reading too far off?

The frightening Big Brother implications aside, wouldn’t knowing so much more about one’s audience help to serve them better? As long as a new funding system didn’t reward people in direct proportion to the number of transponders which entered the doors, technology may have some promising implications for better audience relations and the distribution of funds.

About Joe Patti

I have been writing Butts in the Seats (BitS) on topics of arts and cultural administration since 2004 (yikes!). Given the ever evolving concerns facing the sector, I have yet to exhaust the available subject matter. In addition to BitS, I am a founding contributor to the ArtsHacker (artshacker.com) website where I focus on topics related to boards, law, governance, policy and practice.

I am also an evangelist for the effort to Build Public Will For Arts and Culture being helmed by Arts Midwest and the Metropolitan Group. (http://www.creatingconnection.org/about/)

My most recent role was as Executive Director of the Grand Opera House in Macon, GA.

Among the things I am most proud are having produced an opera in the Hawaiian language and a dance drama about Hawaii's snow goddess Poli'ahu while working as a Theater Manager in Hawaii. Though there are many more highlights than there is space here to list.


1 thought on “Enough About Me”

  1. Shifting Funding Criteria

    Yesterday the Artful Manager entry referred to a statement by the board of directors of the Independent Sector calling for a change in the way non-profits were funded. In addition to calling for the support of indirect project costs as…


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