End of An Era, Who Will Pick Up The Torch

Over the last week you may have seen mention that after 10 years in existence,  Createquity will be ceasing operations at the end of the 2017 calendar year.

This is a great pity. One of the goals founder Ian David Moss had as he developed his blogging project into a think tank was to facilitate arts administrators’ ability to understand research findings since they so often didn’t have the opportunity to review, much less finish research reports. Just last week, I cited one of his recent entries as the basis for a post.

It will probably come as no surprise that difficulty finding suitable funding for Createquity’s efforts is the basis for the decision to cease operations. Ian discusses all the options they weighed and opportunities of which they tried to avail themselves.  Ultimately, in summary he says,

These are among the reasons why the arts field has, since the 1980s, dug a formidable graveyard for failed think tank initiatives, some of which have become so buried under the weight of history that I only learned about them for the first time earlier this year.

The project I most regret seeing fall by the wayside is their effort to chart what we know about the benefits of the arts in improving lives.  Createquity graphed out research studies about the benefits of the arts on a scale that indicated the quality of the evidence and whether the research said a benefit existed.  This information is extremely important to know if you are going to advocate for arts and culture and cite research findings. Looking at Createquity’s evaluation, the evidence that supports commonly made assertions about the benefit of arts in educational and social outcomes is weaker than it is made out to be or there is a lack of corroborating research.

Think about it this way. TV news programs often have short segments where they talk about the amazing benefits of dark chocolate, red wine, acai berries, etc., but when you take the time to really examine the evidence you discover you would have to consume three times your body weight daily to realize those benefits.

Funding for arts and culture entities is already tenuous as it is, (to whit, Createquity), the sector doesn’t need to have people denouncing it for making overblown claims. (And as I have often argued, we shouldn’t be invoking the utilitarian value of the arts to justify it anyway.)

There the end of his post, Moss talks about the preparations they are going through over the next few months. They will be publishing summary articles about the work they have done.  (One on cultural equity was published today.)

They intend to make their work available to anyone who might wish to continue where they are leaving off.

Over the next couple of months, we will be polishing up our internal training materials and resources to make it as easy as possible for people in the arts community to carry on aspects of the work we’ve started in their own spaces and in their own names. And in November and December, you can expect to see some parting thoughts from our team to philanthropists and researchers seeking to optimize their investments in the arts in the decade ahead. Our goal in all of this is to activate the latent potential of our work over the past ten years into the most accessible and actionable content possible.

I think there are many who join me in hoping that someone will be able to continue the important work they have started.

Planning Out Your Creative Utopia

About two years ago I started an after (work) hours art show that would provide students and local artists an opportunity to show their work and get experience speaking about it with people who didn’t have the shared vocabulary of visual artists.

Last Thursday we had the 4th iteration of the event, which we have been holding every 6 months or so.  Due to my involvement with the Creating Connection initiative, I consciously tried to employ suggested language about personal capacity for creativity in the promotional materials. I referenced people’s past comments about not realizing their neighbors were so talented or even interested in creating works of visual art.

Our frequent local partners/collaborators, the Creative Cult, had approached me about having a hands-on activity for attendees so the opportunity to create something yourself also figured heavily in our promotional materials. Since we usually have more artists enter than we have space to accommodate, we originally discussed placing the activity in a side corridor off the lobby. However, we had fewer applications than expected so we were able to move their activities to a prime spot.

They got people involved in executing their vision of a Creative Utopia…in cardboard. While the idea was to theoretically rebuild our town with the features that would make it a great place for people to express their creativity, few people felt constrained by that basic concept. And who could blame them.

The cardboard village was dubbed “Cult-topia” since the guys from the Cult provided all the art materials and scrounged up a lot of cardboard in advance.

While young kids were the most enthusiastic and added the most color to the project, there were a lot of people of all ages who contributed to the creative utopia.

One thing we noticed about the event– People lingered a lot longer than in the past, even those who weren’t helping to build Cult-topia. We aren’t exactly sure why. Did they like watching people have fun making ugly buildings out of cardboard? Was it the presence of more cafe tables to sit at? Even though the crowd was the same size as the past, did the ambiance feel calmer and less frenetic because the layout was a little more spread out?

I was reminded of an observation Nina Simon made in her book where she mentions that her museum started offering all-ages participatory activities at their events and exhibitions. She says none of the activities were specifically targeted as family events. Kids and adults just worked side by side at many of the events. Little by little, they noticed the melded events were packed, but the Family Day branded events saw decreasing attendance. She characterized it as the appeal of a room that was large enough to accommodate everyone versus a special segment.

I wondered if something along those lines was in operation in this situation. Did the presence of participatory activities keep all attendees engaged for a longer period of time regardless of whether they contributed or even viewed themselves as someone who would dive in to cardboard construction projects with gusto?

At the end of the night, I was asked if we could leave Cult-topia up on display for a few days. Some might feel it was a mistake to agree to leave a shabby looking project created by committee prominently placed in an art center lobby. This is the type of thing that draws derisive commentary about something not being art, art being dumbed down or the infamous, “I could do that.”

But that is sort of the point. By leaving it up for about a week, we hope to validate people’s capacity to make a creative contribution. No one is saying it is great art. Just that people had a great time putting it together. It is a small step in a journey of 1000 miles.

It can be a risky move and could diminish the organization in the eyes of some. But probably the easiest way to combat the perception that work by “people like me” doesn’t appear at an arts event is to display the work of people like them.

Considering The Essence Of Being Mainstream Or Culturally Specific

Earlier this month Ian David Moss wrote a piece challenging the arts and culture community to evaluate the language and mindset in which we frame artistic and cultural expression and practice.

He make a case that:

Separating our concepts of “mainstream” and “white” could allow us to treat European art forms as just one of many types of cultural expression within a mix of organizations and communities, instead of privileging them as the historical default.

Starting this post off with that may raise a sense of defensiveness in readers and a reluctance to continue reading which is probably why Moss doesn’t bring it up until the last quarter of his post. Nonetheless it is an issue that is becoming increasingly relevant.

Moss says there is something to consider in response by Justin Laing, a former senior program officer at Heinz Endowments, to a post last year about cultural equity,

Moss provides further context noting:

…The logic on researchers’ part is that “culturally-specific” organizations explicitly target a specific demographic population, whereas “mainstream” organizations target everyone.


But many cultural equity advocates see orchestral music as unabashedly and irredeemably white: it originated in Europe, the vast majority of composers presented (even by Latin American and Asian orchestras) are European or European-descended, and most of the people who enjoy it are of European origin. To them, when we talk about culturally-specific organizations, that includes symphony orchestras–and ballets, and operas, and encyclopedic art museums. And it’s not at all obvious to them why certain culturally-specific organizations should continue to receive such a disproportionate share of public and philanthropic support compared to other culturally-specific organizations.

Moss acknowledges there are arguments to be made for the universal appeal of these forms, citing Venezuela’s pride in El Sistema and the fact that many arts organizations have been successful at attracting attendance from Black and Latin communities.

This week Artsjournal linked to a Dance Magazine piece talking about how Philadelphia was a hub for black ballerinas from the 1930s-1950s. (Article has video interviews with some of the women that trained as dancers during the period.) There is a sense of hope that there is a trend in this general direction again.

He points out that while there is crossover appeal, it is also clear that opera, ballet, symphony, et. al are by no means the most popular art forms in the U.S. and are perhaps more appropriately labeled as culturally specific rather than mainstream if they are indeed not serving everyone.

This is where the concept of divorcing “white” from “mainstream” comes in. (Moss’ emphasis)

Were the field to adopt this new understanding, an unavoidable question would face every organization celebrating European cultural heritage in the midst of a substantial nonwhite population: is our foremost loyalty to our art form or our local community? In answering, boards and executives would need to realize that true commitment to the latter could mean dramatic changes, changes that would make their organizations unrecognizable to the individuals who founded them. Yet reaffirming a primary commitment to an art form with clear ethnic roots–which, I want to emphasize here, is an equally valid choice under this paradigm–would be a signal to the world that the organization’s diversity and inclusion efforts can only reach so far. And yes, that may make it untenable to go after large sums of money from foundations and government agencies on the premise of being a local “anchor institution.”

So much of this paragraph reminded me of a post I wrote last year citing a similar piece on the topic written by Ronia Holmes where she writes,

All that being said—I don’t think arts organizations are bad entities filled with bad people doing bad things…They really do believe in diversity, equity, and inclusion, and really do want to offer meaningful, authentic moments of connection.

The problem is that most organizations are not built to do that, and are constantly struggling with it because of expectations that they should be something they are not. Every year, organizations jump through hoops to secure restricted grants that necessitate yet another outreach program or diversity week or community partnership, hoping that if they impress the funders enough they will be given money that can be used for what the organization actually has a mission to do.

If real, authentic, genuine community building isn’t central to your mission, if it isn’t your raison d’être, then you shouldn’t be doing it. Because chances are that not only are you doing it badly, you’re doing it at the expense of your real mission. The mission of most arts organizations—the real mission—is simple: to present an art form. And that’s ok. We need organizations that prioritize preservation, development, and presentation of an art form, and I for one don’t think any organization should be penalized for it.

Both Holmes and Moss are acknowledging the existence of the same dynamics. I can’t imagine they are the only ones thinking along these lines which suggests that perhaps there is both potential and need to have additional conversation and thought in this direction.

It may be uncomfortable to discuss and acknowledge much of what is involved and needs to change, but the general framework of this paradigm is a fair and generally constructive way forward.

(I would suggest, however, that being completely forthright and declaring your mission is to preserve and perpetuate European cultural heritage is not going to be constructive on oh so many ways.)

Does Cultural Track Data Challenge Assumptions About Your Community?

As I promised in my last post, I took a deeper look at the Culture Track reporting over the weekend.  More specifically, I took at a look at both the Top Line deck and Supporting Data documents which are available for download. I didn’t review the raw data.

The Supporting Data document is presented with visual graphs which makes it easy to interpret. Though I also hungered for some analytical commentary from the Culture Track folks about what the greater implications might be.

A few observations from Supporting Data in the hopes of making the opportunity to dig in irresistible for readers.

First of all, the charts seem to belie the idea that Millennials are  abandoning cultural experiences. Except for watching TV (which includes streaming) they lead in every category. This is only one of three pages.


Now you may be saying, sure but participation once a year isn’t a high hurdle.

However, that generation also leads in frequency per month too.


If you remember what I quoted and wrote last week about the perceptions of those who were high frequency attenders, this has some important implications.

People who attend three or more cultural experiences per month are 94% more likely to cite “it doesn’t change” as a barrier to more frequent cultural participation compared those who attend one or fewer cultural experiences per month.

Given that what people define as a cultural experience is pretty broad, the chances that your average attendee is participating in three or more experiences a month is pretty good. Being 94% more likely to feel lack of change is a barrier to participation is pretty significant.

While you shouldn’t take all this information at face value without digging in and questioning the basis of the findings, the fact the data depicted may contradict your assumptions can be enough to get conversations started reevaluating long held beliefs.

The study authors slice and dice the data through a number of different lenses which make for interesting viewing. Most every question is presented in terms of generation, race/ethnicity, community size, education level, marital status and parental status.

So for example, the following information about where people get advertised and non-advertised information about cultural activities is presented in these contexts. (There is also a chart for offline information sources which I haven’t included)


Perhaps of most interest to different arts and cultural organizations, they break down motivators and barriers for participation for 12 different disciplines/cultural activities.

Below is a sample for art museums. There is also a chart with barriers for non-participants for each area.