Binding of Art and Science

Some positive movements lately on the job search front kept me from posting yesterday. We will see what develops.

I came across an essay by John Eger titled “The Future of Work in the Creative Age.” It sort of added another piece to the puzzle of how to attain Richard Florida’s creative communities. In a time where outsourcing fears cause anxiety about one’s job future, Eger says the US should focus its efforts on cultivating creativity.

Many, like the Nomura Research Institute, argue that the stage is set for the advance of the “Creative Age,” a period in which America should once again thrive and prosper because of our tolerance for dissent, respect for individual enterprise, freedom of expression and recognition that innovation is the driving force for the U.S. economy, not mass production of low value goods and services.

Today, the demand for creativity has outpaced our nation’s ability to create enough workers simply to meet our needs. Seven years ago, for example, the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers asked the governor of California to “declare a state of emergency” to help Hollywood find digital artists. There were people aplenty who were computer literate, they claimed, but could not draw. In the New Economy, they argued, such talents are vital to all industries dependent on the marriage of computers and telecommunications.

He goes on to mention a couple schools which are rearranging their cirriculum to integrate an arts focus. He also quotes HP CEO Carly Fiorina as saying soon pools of skilled creatives will replace tax incentives and infrastructure as the elements which entice industry to a locality.

He suggests that divorcing the arts from math and science of the last couple decades has actually been detrimental to America’s ability to compete in these areas. He points out that Einstein played violin, Galileo wrote poetry and Samuel Morse painted portraits. They may not have had the time and talent to become virtuosos in these pursuits, but the implication is that they supplemented the quality of the scientific products of these men.

Unfortunately, the subtle influence of arts upon scientific accomplishment and vice versa is one of those areas that resists precise measurement by standardized testing and other empirical measures. Only after a sustained shift in policy are we likely to realize the benefits of a more holistic education and exposure.

Which Reminded Me Of…

I was reading Adaptstration today in which Drew McManus was talking about seeing an orchestra program which was specially designed to show off the technological advantages of HDTV. It reminded me of another article I read back in February where students from MIT were dreaming up ways that technology could enhance an arts attendance experience. One of their ideas was to project a hologram of a conductor in Germany in front of an orchestra in Miami and have them make music with half the world between them.

When I originally read that article in February, it reminded me of some musings I had years before on the future of theatre. With the trend of people deciding to receive their entertainment at home, theatres would have to adapt by presenting their product across the same delivery channels. Arts on television currently doesn’t have much of an audience. However, I was thinking that an emerging holograph or virtual reality technology could provide the answer.

My wild idea was that people could choose to plug in to watch a live performance from home. However, they could not only choose to watch from an audience’s point of view, but also from the point of view of each character via a small camera mounted over the ear like a body mic. In this manner, they could experience what it was like to be up on stage in front of an audience, what it was like waiting in the wings or rushing around to enter from the other side of the stage. Some costume changes might have to be censored out depending how much they revealed.

There would be, of course, the added thrill of taking the point of view of one of the actors who about to be kissed by the celebrity sex symbol so that you feel you are being kissed yourself.

This is the advantage of live creative arts over film. Movies might be able to provide people with the point of view of being in the actual movie. But because films are shot out of order and there are long periods of inactivity for those involved, they can’t provide real time behind the scenes insights and interaction.

When I first envisioned this idea, I figured technology might make it viable by the time I was 70. However, it appears the bright minds are moving ahead faster than I gave them credit for. Be interesting to see how soon it is a reality.

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.

More Power of Blogging Thoughts

Last month I did an entry on Bloggers as the New Arts Critics. This past weekend, Terry Teachout touched upon the same subject in an interview on Studio 360. (The whole interview is very interesting, but for the portion pertinent to this entry, click the forward button on your media player twice to the third segment and move the progress button to about 5:15)

During the interview, Mr. Teachout mentions that he writes so prolifically for his blog in addition to providing reviews and commentary for print journals and authoring books (a fact noted in a recent Washington Post article) because contributing to a new medium and interacting with his readers is so exciting and engaging. He goes on to talk about how he sees serious arts coverage naturally migrating to the web as less time is devoted to coverage in papers and television. He is confident that good bloggers will gain credibility and influence. He says of blogs, “They empower the amateur. Anybody can write one. And whether you have any credentials or not, if it is any good, believe me, it will get noticed.”

He was then asked if more amateurs blogging necessarily meant there would be more talented people in the world rather than just a lot of people churning out a lot of mediocre stuff. Teachout mentioned he now interacts with many very talented people who he had never heard of prior to coming across their blogs. These people don’t have access to the traditional media channels through which to make their reputation but are doing so on the web.

The interviewer also brought up the point that the ease of self-publishing on the web circumvents the reflection and review process that one goes through before submitting work for print publication and removes the outside point of view of an editor. Teachout responds by pointing out that it is also easy (and widely lauded by the online community) to go back and insert an update or retraction in an entry saying you were wrong in your initial assessment.

He did feel that the way Amazon has set up their review process was not conducive to the rendering of honest, quality reviews. He does mention that he can find some really excellent writing among the other reviews, mostly from people who are amateur experts with a passion for the subject matter.

I find this whole conversation on the future of blogging very exciting and intriguing. I had a brief email discussion on this matter with Adaptistration writer, Drew McManus. He pointed out that another article I linked to about publishers sending free books to top Amazon reviewers didn’t address the issue of payola for a favorable reviews. I had mentioned this as a possible dark side of blogging reviewers in my blogger as new reviewer entry. As I said then, how do you guard against it? If you are getting paid nothing and working hard to produce quality work, it is easy to favor those who provide you with even modest considerations.

The obvious answer is for today’s noted bloggers to come up with a policy of behavior that will establish a precedent while blogging with the intent to influence is still young. The problem is that there is no recognized source of authority (and isn’t lack of a dictating force part of blogging’s allure?) for people to organize around. Drew McManus’ opinion is that it will be another decade before companies find a way to make the process profitable for the writers. What happens in the interim? He points to the fact people choose news channels most closely aligned with their own views as a harbinger of the end to an effort of objective reporting.

While the idea that one may soon be able to go through life without having their world view challenged is rather frightening, the silver lining would be more writers would find employment satisfying the demand for niche writing. (I can even imagine someone becoming fabulously wealthy providing material that reinforced opposing views.)

As Terry Teachout said–interesting times and technology to be contributing to and taking part in. Of course there is a reason why the sentiment “May you live in interesting times” is considered a curse by the Chinese.

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