Thus Rises The Individual Curator and Commissioner

There was an intriguing piece on Wired last week (h/t Thomas Cott) about an alternative approach to funding events via Kickstarter. Andy Baio talks about funding record projects, conferences and festivals by essentially lining up the speakers/performers/resources and then seeing if anyone is interested in buying tickets to the proposed events/project. If there isn’t enough interest, it doesn’t happen.

What was most interesting to me is how this type of approach really empowers an individual to curate a project. You may not be an artist yourself, but you have an idea of what combination of artists and concepts might be compelling and then can set out to bring it together.

While this is sort of my job already, there is something of an expectation that there will be balance in those I invite. I have a certain responsibility to make sure my facility and events are being run in a fiscally responsible manner. An individual isn’t necessarily saddled by those expectations. They can do a project as a one off and no one is concerned about whether their activities are serving the needs of the community.

Makes me wonder if this might be a potential mode of operation for the future. One of many that might replace the non-profit arts organization.

If taken at its face, this approach seems shift some burden to the artists/speakers being invited. If the event doesn’t happen, will they get paid? While Baio doesn’t explicitly mention it, I am guessing you would have to provide some sort of guarantee of payment to the artist/speaker regardless of whether the performance happened or not. Baio alluded to this in a couple places, including his requirements for these projects.

Projects like these have three big requirements.

Strong, achievable concept. Commissioned works should be scoped down to something realistic, because you’re paying for their time, but high-concept enough to capture the excitement of other fans.

Organizer. The funding may come from the crowd, but there needs to be a single person managing the project and handling all the logistics and small details.

Due diligence. The organizer will need a firm agreement from the artist, committing to a timeline, payment, and any other demands. Also, if the project results in a tangible work, determine who owns the rights to it before you start raising money.

While most artists and speakers like being paid, they like to be seen and heard even more so there is also some incentive for them to help promote the cause. It may not occur too frequently at present, but it could certainly become commonplace if the practice of running a project up the flag pole becomes more wide spread.

The other thing, of course, is that it turns your audience into much more active advocates for the work because there is a possibility it won’t happen. We know that many audiences today, especially among the younger generation, tend to wait to see if something more interesting might come along before buying a ticket. Since the performance will occur regardless of their commitment, there is no incentive to commit. The threat that the event might not happen can garner an increased investment in its success even if it is only that people continually check the progress of the funding to see if the event will happen.

A commenter to the piece pointed out a service in Brazil which rewards the early adopters. It sells refundable tickets to a show until the minimum is met. Once the event has secured its funding, it starts selling non-refundable tickets and apparently starts reimbursing the purchasers of the refundable tickets up to the their full purchase price.

Manholes As Destination Tourism (Seriously)

In answer to the perennial question about how the arts can show their value to the community, I came across an answer/inspiration in the form of the Flickr group, Japanese Manhole Covers. There are nearly 3000 pictures of some amazingly artistic manhole covers.

With NYC looking to ban big sugary drinks and Disney announcing that they will restrict junk food ads, it occurs to me that a constructive approach to fighting obesity would be to commission these artists to make manhole covers.

People would get out and start walking around in an attempt to see them all. Heck, people may even include a manhole tour as part of their tourism. I am sure someone will develop a social media app that maps out the locations and people would compete to check in at each of them on sites like Foursquare. (Actually, looks like there is an iphone app for Japan.) Just to keep things interesting, the public works department can switch them around every so often so that people would have to contribute to a remapping effort.

Check out the Japanese covers, some of them are pretty amazing and show a lot of investment and pride in culture and community.

(Clicking on image will take you to the specific photographer’s page rather than the larger pool of manhole photos)

Osaka Castle Artwork on Manhole cover - Osaka, Japan
Osaka Castle Artwork on Manhole cover photo credit: Neerav Blatt

What Would Happen To Wine If Everyone Wanted Free Grape Juice

Hat tip to Adam Thurman for distributing the link to an interesting piece about devaluing artistic content by Todd Henry. Henry wonders about the fate of artists when increasingly the view seems to be that content should be free.

“This means that artists have to shift their business models to give away (or make available for cheap) their main art, and instead focus on selling scarce peripherals. Authors sell lectures. No longer able to make a living from recording, bands sell tickets to concerts and survive off of merchandise sales. Content creators give away their content in order to gain eyeballs and ears,…

The problem is…some people are just great at being artists. They aren’t great at business models, distribution or line extensions. They just want to make great, valuable art and sell it at a fair price. What do these people do?
[…]

Would we have had The Beatles if they’d been told, “Never mind spending years in the studio crafting your records. Those things are just promotional fodder to sell these snazzy Sgt. Pepper t-shirts and posters. You should focus instead on how you’re going to monetize.”

I am currently exploring bringing a show, which heretofore has only existed on YouTube, to our stage. The creative team is actually excited that they might not have to cover most of their expenses out of pocket for once.

Until Todd Henry pointed out that increasingly it is ancillary products rather than the artistic product supporting the creation, it never occurred to me what a bizarre situation it is. These guys from the YouTube show I am talking to mentioned the same thing–T shirt sales helped defray some of their expenses.

But there are a million stories in the naked cit.. -erm, YouTube and not everyone is going to be paid for them. We already know that places like YouTube are eroding the concept that you should have to pay for content. People will clearly continue to create content and try to support it however they can. I don’t think an effort to inspire a shift in attitude is going to gain much traction.

Though who knows, I hear Comcast cable is trying to get people used to the idea of paying for bandwidth consumption. As much as I am resistant to the idea, it could change attitudes about paying for content as well.

To extend the question Todd asks about killing the golden goose, I wonder how many creatives will persist until their abilities mature if few are willing to pay for the content. That might be the real long term threat.

The guys I am trying to present are young and their show is fun. But what happens in a few years when they settle down and look to raise a family and they decide they don’t have time to create content alongside their regular job and family? The fact artists have never been paid well has always been a problem, but if even the possibility of a pittance wanes then unremunerated recognition becomes the only motivator to create.

Artists and other creative types need time to allow their skills to develop. Ira Glass said as much in the speech I linked to last week. As a country, we need creatives to mature into their abilities rather than quit early on.

Bringing Creative Balance To Business (And Vice Versa)

There was an interesting piece in Fast Company a couple weeks ago that seems to bolster the idea that creativity is an important component of business success. University of Toronto’s Rotman School of Management held a design challenge “To help TD Bank foster lifelong customer relationships with students and recent graduates while encouraging healthy financial behaviors.” They invited participants from other MBA and design programs from across North America.

According to the article’s author and competition judge Melissa Quinn,

Both this year and last–the two years that Rotman invited other schools to participate–business school students were slaughtered by the design school students. Of the 12 Rotman teams this year, not one of them made the final round. And while only seven of the 23 competing teams were from design schools (including California College of Arts, Ontario College of Art and Design, and the University of Cincinnati), design teams scooped the top three places in the competition, doing significantly better than their MBA counterparts. So what does this tell us?

It might tell us that MBAs significantly underestimate the skill and expertise a designer brings to the table.

Later in the article Quinn notes that where the design school teams fell short was in providing a sense of the economic value of their plans,

I should point out that only the winning team from the Institute of Design at IIT actually charged a fee for the service they developed (a fact that was not overlooked by my final-round co-judge Ray Chun, the senior vice president of retail banking at TD). Some competitors were able to offer a vague notion that their ideas would generally create economic value, but crisp articulations of a profit model and underlying assumptions were hard to come by.

In talking about how both MBA and MFA training programs need to change, Quinn expressed the idea we in the arts all love to hate: artists need to focus on being more business minded. But you know, when you are pitching an idea to a bank, highlighting economic benefits are pretty much de rigueur.

What really caught my eye in the article was Quinn’s mention that the design school teams’ approach was effective in convincing “a skeptical panel of experienced professionals about a new idea that doesn’t exist in the world today.” When I read that, I had the sudden realization that creative types aren’t going to necessarily do well in a business environment as part of the structure which keeps things running effectively. The value of the creatives would be in bringing those new ideas for products and services to the fore and getting people engaged.

As Quinn mentions, in order to effectively convince people of the value of these ideas, creative types are going to have to possess enough business knowledge to be able to explain how it might be monetized. When I have read about how important creatives will be to businesses in the future, I have mainly thought about how they might influence the culture to be more nimble and responsive, bolster team building and cultivate creative practices.

This is all true, of course. But even more the value will be in, as Steve Jobs has said, creating products and services for which consumers can’t necessarily express a desire.

The process Quinn says the design school teams used was:

“…they shared real user insights to engage us emotionally, used narrative and stories to compel us, drew sketches and visualizations to inspire us, and simplified the complex to focus us. It’s proof positive that numbers and bullet points, while important, aren’t necessarily what drive executive decision making. “

Some commenters to the article, which included members of the MBA school teams suggest that the differences in the presentations were not as clearcut as Quinn depicts them. I wanted to mention this because it appears from the article’s URL that it may have been retitled from “Need To Solve a Tough Business Problem Don’t Hire An MBA.” From the content of the piece, I don’t think that is anywhere near it’s message.

Regardless of who used the techniques, it appears the storytelling and visualizations approach was viewed as more effective at convincing the judges. I think this fact is generally recognized, but perhaps few think of employing it alongside bullet points and numbers. There definitely needs to be a balance between the two because storytelling can easily slip into attempting to use sentimentality to convince and you don’t want to base business decisions entirely on emotion.