National Cultural Policy

Excerpts of my letter to Drew McManus (much of which is covered in the entry prior to this) and his answers appear today on Adaptistration.

This weekend I came across a couple articles that illustrate the effect of national cultural policy upon a nation. The first was an article from the Minnesota Star-Tribune entitled “Music Education Permeates Finnish Society.” Essentially the article attributes all the exposure and value placed on classical music by the Finns as the reason why there is such a high concentration of musical talent there despite having a national population only slightly larger than Minnesota’s. My favorite part of the article is a comment by an American visitor that he watched 3 television channels one evening. Two had concerts and the third was carrying a debate about whether to build another orchestra hall. In a couple of articles I have quoted, the authors have said orchestras should stop blaming the disappearance of music education from schools as a reason for falling attendance. On the other hand, clearly education and exposure can’t hurt attendance.

The second article I came across was discussing the effect of focusing cultural policy on diversity. While the piece refers to British policy, I saw a number of parallels with the US cultural landscape. As much as I believe diversity is going to be a major influence on cultural programming in the US, I take this article as a warning about the negative aspects.

In the article, “Art for Inclusion’s Sake”, the author, Josie Appleton, believes that by rejecting the old methods for approaching art, current policy has also discarded some valuable principles. The author illustrates this by tracing cultural policy from the 19th century. She notes that Parliment was motivated to fund the creation of the National Gallery by the idea that exposure to the finer things would defuse the unrest among the masses. “In 1841, a Commons select committee saw art as a ‘means of moral and intellectual improvement for the people’. The view was that ‘men cease to become mob when they get a taste’. The National Gallery, said Peel, would help by ‘cementing those bonds of union between the richer and poorer orders of the state’.” The National Gallery was therefore placed centrally in London so that both rich and poor would have easy access.

She notes that the elite was acting in its own self-interest to avoid rebellion and were presenting objects that exemplified their ideal of beauty but there was also an egalitarian sentiment. There was a presumption that everyone possessed the intellect to enjoy and understand the art pieces regardless of social standing or ethnic background.

However, in the 1960s and 70s, the idea that there was a universally shared ideal of beauty began to erode. The concept instead was:

All claims to cultural value were merely the personal opinions of a white middle-class male elite, foisted on to the population in order to maintain power structures. A cultural democracy, by these terms, was a society in which everybody was able to express their opinion and create according to their taste. Only by getting rid of value judgements could culture serve everybody’s needs.

As the 80s arrived, the onus was on cultural institutions to justify their existence in economic terms. This is still very much a factor in the US where organizations justify the value in regard to how much money they bring to the community by their operations and via what patrons spend on food, lodging and gas when they visit. Even the current mania to become one of Richard Florida’s Creative Communities is more about bringing economic prosperity rather than an excitement about how much beauty and truth will enter one’s life as cultural activities become available.

During this time, Appleton says, there was such a push to have art mean as many things to as many people as possible, art lost its meaning altogether.

If you value a painting only because it can tackle unemployment or improve self-esteem, then you have no idea what it is really worth. It’s all about context, about the way in which you are using the painting, rather than the painting itself. ‘Cultural diversity’ policy blossomed as an expression of this situation. Uncertain about how to evaluate artefacts, cultural institutions celebrate difference as an end in itself. ‘Diversity’ here is really a metaphor for cultural disorientation.

She notes that museums have begun putting pieces by the Old Master’s into storage and have started asking people to bring in objects from their own lives and are putting them on display. The aim is to provide a sense of worth to a person by acknowledging that their belongings have some value. “Because cultural institutions no longer believe in cultural value, their collections of Rembrandt and Constable look shamefully narrow and exclusive. By collecting the most everyday things from the most marginalised in society, museums are engaging in self-admonishment, castigating themselves for once being so high and mighty.”

She notes that by using piece of art and artifacts define personal meaning, museums are actually working counter to diversity. If an object is used to learn more about ourselves, we aren’t learning anything about the others who made it, what their lives were like and how they contributed to our current existence. It is self-centered rather than contributing to empathy with people different from ourselves.

This result almost sounds like Orwellian newspeak–“Self-Centeredness is Diversity.” It is this along with an unintentional disempowerment of the participant I see as most worrisome and something to be wary of as arts organizations move into the future. Appleton says:

“This policy also has a low view of its visitors. The assumption is that visitors are uninterested in or unable to learn about the world. Each person is seen as trapped within his or her own private bubble, in constant need of affirmation and recognition. The idea seems to be that if people fail to see their reflection in exhibitions they will feel worthless and excluded…The image is of people wandering around aimlessly, unsure of their right to exist until their family photographs are valued by the museum. With this view of their visitors, it’s no surprise that museums have put the Great Masters in the backroom.”

Another criticism she has for diversity focused policy is that it shifts the criteria for success away from attracting large crowds to attracting large crowds with a certain color skin. For example, “Islamic art is not valued for its intricate, proportioned design, or because it provides us with an insight into one of the great historic civilisations; it is valued because it gets the right kind of punters through the doors.” She asserts that this engenders a segregationist mentality that demeans the intellect and curiousity of different racial groups by assuming they are only interested in collections that reflect their background and experience and wouldn’t understand or care for pieces connected to other traditions.

The situation in England provides some lessons for arts organizations in the US. In a pursuit of diversifying and expanding our audiences, we certainly need to provide a product that is accessible and appealing to our communities on more than a token basis. The most enthusiastic audiences are those who have a relative performing. The problem isn’t just that we can’t possibly present something that has some personal relevance to everyone in the audience. The problem is also that when people come to see their relatives, they aren’t paying attention to how well the show is done or thinking about the themes it is communicating. You aren’t engaged in audience building activities when you program with an eye to pleasing niches. The niche disappears from the seats when the element significant to them disappears from the stage.

This is why education programs like Drew McManus’ docent proposal are so important. Audiences need to be provided with insights into the value contributed by all the nieces and nephews involved with a piece. As the public is able to make choices on television, radio, and the internet that reinforce an increasingly narrow worldview, the arts may end up being the last forum in which a dialogue about wider issues can be presented.

Volunteers to the Rescue!

I have been closely watching a series of articles Drew McManus is writing on the topic “How to Save Classical Music.” He is using the docent program at the Denver Zoo as a case study of how to use volunteer labor to aid in the revitalization of orchestras. He begins by defining the problem, then talks about the Denver Zoo program and has most recently written on how to apply these lessons to orchestras. Volunteer programs are of special interest to me so I have already put a fair bit of thought into his entries. I suspect that additional consideration will so occupy me that this entry meant for Friday won’t be posted until Saturday.

Drew starts out with the premise that while most arts organizations inevitably have education as part of their mission, the focus of education departments is typically on school programs rather than on audience education. He suggests training and empowering docents will provide support in the areas of marketing, public relations, education and outreach. Docents are traditionally individuals who do tours and lectures at museums and cathedrals. Mr. McManus’ suggestion is to minimize the teaching posture and position docents more as knowlegeable companions.

He goes on to discuss the similarities between the Denver Zoo and orchestras which make the comparison valid. He also mentions the problems facing orchestras echoing the sentiments of the McPhee Knight Foundation speech I cited last week. The solution, he says, lies in adopting the Denver Zoo’s aims:

They facilitate people in their community with the tools they need to become an integral part of the zoos mission instead of looking at them as merely check writing automatons. The zoo gives up a measure of its own control over the institution, but in turn they create a passionate group of stakeholders that perpetuate ongoing community interest and involvement with the zoo. They enable members of the community to become involved partners as opposed to static participants. In turn, the zoo entrusts these individuals with the important responsibility of communicating with the public the value of their mission and to create an interest in the actual ‘product’.

Personally, I have always been interested in getting volunteers more involved in the organizations for which I have worked. However, I have been concerned about the administration’s commitment and investment in the volunteers. This is why I would be cautious about starting such a program in an arts organization.

The problem I have faced is that administration often looks upon volunteer help as a forgone conclusion. There is a Field of Dreams assumption similar to the one made about audiences–if you are offering the opportunity to volunteer, then certainly people are going to want to do it so they can be associated with the wonderful things the organization does.

One place I worked had often discussed, but never held, a volunteer appreciation event in the 15-20 years of the program. I felt victorious at having been the first to successfully organize one. When it came time to plan for the next one, I was told money wasn’t the issue but in light of the fact that after 20 years without an event, only 40 out of 350 invitees came, maybe it was better to have it every 2-3 years.

I was extremely annoyed. We had started doing performances at a 1000 seat venue that was much more accessible to major roadways than our other performance spaces, but with which our audience base was not familiar. The first show we hardly had 200 people attend. However, we didn’t abandon doing shows there but worked on increasing awareness of the venue. In my mind, we could have done the same thing by noting the party date 6 months out on every piece of correspondence sent to participating volunteers.

As a result of perceiving an exploitative motivation with little thought of appreciation, I have never proposed additional programs in which volunteers could be involved. I do, however, collect ideas such as Drew’s against the day I am in a position to direct policy.

In the second day’s entry, McManus discusses how the program of the Denver Zoo is structured. I was impressed by the amount of training the docents underwent and how much they were invested in the zoo. One of the biggest complaints the volunteers had was that the program became too formalized and that full time employees assumed functions they once performed. It is to the volunteers’ credit that they feel such ownership for the program. The zoo is so happy with the program they intend to double its size to 600 docents in the near future.

In his third entry, Mr. McManus discusses the problems with orchestras and how the docent program can help. One of the biggest problems, he says, is that orchestras devote an increasingly larger portion of their ticket revenue to market to the same, ever decreasing, segment of the public. When they do try to attract more diverse audiences, “it often comes off looking like a tragically unhip old guy trying his best to look young and cool.”

Educational information that is provided is usually in the form of reams of printed material utilizing arcane terminology and might be supplemented by a brief pre-performance lecture. What it lacks, he says, is personal face to face contact with someone who is passionate and knowledgeable, but like you, doesn’t have all the answers. He also suggested essentially gutting the PR department of everyone except an editor and let docents write press releases.

My reservations about the exploitation of volunteers aside, I found his suggestions very exciting. Certainly the training of docents would have to be well planned and executed. I know that some people volunteer for the social prestige association with an organization or art form brings. People who want to impress others with what they know may only compound the intimidation a novice feels. Excluding a volunteer from being a docent can lead to a whole other set of PR problems.

The benefits for this program could be enormous. You could offer any level of interaction from having docents mingling in the lobby answering questions to offering a low intimidation program people register for in advance. In the latter program you might have a docent contact a person on Wednesday saying “Hey, why don’t I meet you for coffee before the show Friday night, my treat. Then I will make sure you get to your seat, we can talk at intermission and after the show. But if you have to get home to your kids, you can always email me with questions.”

If your worst problem is that the new attendee ties up your docent by wanting to meet for coffee before every concert, is that really a problem? You can always introduce new attendees to each other and encourage them to meet for coffee as a group. (Then hit up the coffee shop for a program book ad at the very least since you are sending so many people his way.) You can also direct people to internet tools like meetup.com (which includes classical.meetup.com and theater.meetup.com) and evite.com that make it easy for those who share interests to organize discussions with people they have never met.

The idea about volunteers writing press releases was very intriguing. I am not as confident about the writing skills of volunteers as Drew is, but I have never tried it. This actually may be the answer to the boring press release thread Greg Sandow brought up. If you have docents submit press releases that highlight why they are excited by the piece or person performing, you excise the boring “professionally” written junk. As Drew suggested, all it takes is an editor (who can resist the temptation to insert boring stuff) to polish it up and perhaps reorder some points so the release starts out with the attention grabbing details.

Drew also suggests that docents could be valuable in attracting new audiences from the diverse communities they live in by disseminating information and generally acting as an advocate for the insititution. My thought was that unless people from these communities were already experimenting with attendance and just needed to be empowered by such a program in order to gain the confidence to volunteer as a docent, there wasn’t much chance of achieving diversity.

I mentioned this to Drew and he agreed drawing docents from the current audience would only serve to continue drawing the current audience. He said instead “the trick is to get the program started with a core group that is not entirely representative of the current audience. A few ideas I’ve had is for orchestras to utilize individuals such as private music teachers who have adult students, retired school teachers.” This sounded like the most prudent course to me.

A variation of the Denver Zoo docent program could certainly be worth the effort to implement. I didn’t check out the Denver Zoo marketing budget, but the fact they estimated it only cost them about $25,000 to run a 300 person docent program is probably a miniscule portion of the budget. However, according to Drew’s survey they heavily depend on the program to enhance the visitor’s attending experience, educate visitors about the zoo’s mission, provide staffing for in-school and summer education programs and provide paid staffers with time to attend to zoo operations. The docents are essentially the public face of the zoo.

I took a quick look at Baltimore Symphony’s 2002 990 return. They reported 1.5 million for marketing. Even if Drew is wrong and a docent program only reduces expenses by 10% instead of 25%, $150,000 is still a fairly significant savings. Imagine what sort of docent training program you might have if you added half of that savings to a current volunteer budget?

To make all this work requires the docents to be invested in and well informed about the organization they represent. This level of investment and information can only be achieved if the docents have control of their program. It is straight from Management 101 that when you assign people responsibilities, you need empower them with the authority to act. The program also needs to receive the full support and cooperation of the organization administration. Essentially this ties in with the concept of open source management I wrote on back in February.

Drew doesn’t think this is likely in symphonies due to an insular nature that resists releasing authority and transparency of information. His fear is that “Without their continuous support and involvement, the program will come across as nothing more than another propaganda tool that orchestra’s are already well known for.”

Drawing from my background in theatre and popular music, I would say it depended on the age of the organization and how entrenched current management was in their ways. If it was relatively young in its institutional development, I would say there was a fair chance such a program might be adopted. Otherwise, I would have to agree with Drew that there would be too much inertia in the corporate culture to make progress. It seems that the biggest contributions of innovation and change in areas of business like the tech sector come from people who admit they didn’t know any better. I imagine it change in the arts world would originate in the same place.

Of course, this is not to say that old dogs can’t learn new tricks. Looking to the tech sector again you have IBM who have shown they can do just that. We should always strive to do better at every age.

Educated Giving

Since I talked about funding yesterday I thought it might be useful for readers to know a bit about how funding decisions were made.

Foundations typically ask for mission statements, information about programs, goals that have been met and financial statements. The information they require is often similar, but just different enough that you spend as much time recasting existing informaiton as you would had you written it from scratch. This is why the paper I cited yesterday encourages foundations to consolidate their reporting.

All this basic information is available to the public by law. The IRS and most states hold this information on file for public viewing. It can be very difficult to find out how to acquire it though.

Another option is to visit Guidestar.org. Many donors and grantors go there to learn about organizations they are considering giving money to or to find out what organizations meet their giving criteria. Anyone can access the information there.

Some of the information is provided by the organizations themselves so the amount available tends to vary from place to place. You can pretty much depend on at least finding the 990 filing. The latest filing I could find for most places was the 2002 filing which covers the 01-02 ficial year. The 990s give information on earned and unearned revenue, revenues and expenses, mortage information, etc. You can also discover the salaries of the highest paid officers and employees. A 990 is a good place to look if you are considering a job with a non profit and want to know about the financial stability of your future employer.

For most organizations, Guidestar also lists profit/loss and balance sheet financial statments. You can get the same essential information from the 990s, but it is much simpler to read in this format.

As mentioned earlier, you can also learn about the institutional missions and goals, the names of people serving on the board of directors and types of programs the organization conducts.

Guidestar is very easy to use. Check it out if you are even the least bit curious about an arts organization.

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 Mr. Taylor noted, it also allayed some concerns I have had.

In an earlier entry, I discussed my fears that foundation funding criteria might not recognize the evolving arts environment quickly enough to sustain the organizations they support. The Independent Sector statement urges foundations to move away from short term project support to long term core support of organizations. It also strives to make foundations aware that in many cases, though they may not be aware of it, their support is crucial to the survival of the organization.

“Funders should be responsive to the capitalization needs of organizations, and to the forms of funding necessary to sustain them. Funders should not assume that an organization will become self-sustaining or that others will fund it after they have ceased supporting it….Where possible, a funder planning to exit a high-performing organization should assist the organization in obtaining funding following its exit.”

This concept seems to reflect portions of the “Leverage Lost..” paper oft cited in my entries. Among the things the author wrote were:

“While these gifts were often significant in the life of a given institution, they were rarely associated with a formally constructed plan for that institution’s progression, and even less often with a grand scheme for systemic advancement of the entire arts field.”

“In addition to the already noted strategic goals of the Ford, it is highly significant that the Foundation viewed itself as a catalyst for these major developments, but not as the perpetual funder. ”

“The most obvious, though rarely acknowledged, reason that it could not last indefinitely was that the institutional money supply could not continue to grow. An early assumption of many arts funders, including Ford, was that high leverage funding would stimulate other sources of contributed income for the arts, most notably from government, that would provide a steady and expanding flow of revenues: the so-called “pump priming” or “seed funding” strategy. Meanwhile, government was using the same logic to justify its arts funding.”

In short, the problem seemed to be that everyone was following the Ford model. Everyone was giving short term money with the idea that it would lead to long term support. The problem was, no one was giving long term support.

The IS paper says that “Reliable, predictable, and flexible support is the lifeblood of nonprofit organizations. ” It goes on to suggest that long term support will enable more intelligent institutional growth that is not diverted by the need to constantly reinvent themselves to look appealing to grantors.

“Because project grants, which are often favored by funders, usually have a completion date, it is not surprising that there may not be many renewals. The focus on project grants encourages grantees to continually propose new ideas to funders that possibly might fit narrow grant guidelines instead of focusing on building institutional capacity.”

In another entry last October, Andrew Taylor also touched upon the destructive effects of this funding model:

‘Grow, Grow, Grow’ – The bulk of foundations, throughout history, have funded projects rather than operations, with an additional bias toward NEW projects. To get funding, arts organizations had to add new projects and increase the scope and size of their activities (and their staff, and their budget, etc.). As a result, many nonprofit arts organizations find themselves bigger and more complex than they need to be.

The IS article also suggests that funders of specific institutions cooperate with each other to develop an unified set of reporting criteria with which to evaluate and perform due diligence. The idea, of course, is to relieve organizations of the burden of producing myriad reports for all their funders so they can focus on institutional development.

The paper also mentions a number of barriers that might prevent foundations from shifting to this model. Among them are lack of confidence that their goals will be met via core support rather than project support, mistrust in an organization’s ability to wisely manage the money and lack of interest or approval of all institutional activities.

Naturally, in return, the non-profits are expected to exhibit excellence of product and strategic planning. Long term support does not imply eternal funding at a constant level.