Dance Cyberman, Dance

There was a minor uproar recently in the UK over an ad campaign featuring a picture of a ballerina with text suggesting that her next job could be cyber. The implication a lot of people saw in this was that the arts aren’t a viable career path.

And I recall there was a similar ad campaign in the US in the last 4-5 years, but I can’t remember what it was. If anyone recalls, please refresh our memories. I remember President Obama made an ill-advised comment, but I feel like there was an ad as well.

The UK government decided to scrap the ad campaign after criticism from many quarters.

Charlotte Bence, from the Equity trade union, said: “Fatima doesn’t need to retrain – what Fatima needs is adequate state support as a freelance artist, support that so far she has been lacking. Freelance workers deserve better than patronising adverts telling them to go and work elsewhere.”

Earlier the chancellor, Rishi Sunak, denied encouraging workers in the struggling arts industry to retrain. He insisted he was talking generally about the need for some workers to “adapt”, and suggested there would be “fresh and new opportunities” available for people who could not do their old jobs.

According to Arts Council England, the arts and culture industry contributes more than £10bn a year to the UK economy.

The government’s messaging aimed at those working in the arts sector has been heavily criticised in recent weeks. After Sunak’s winter economy plan was released with a focus on “viable” jobs, many in the arts expressed anger at the government appearing to suggest their roles were “luxurious hobbies” that could be given up for other work.

There was a parody of the government ad that came across my Twitter feed today that perfectly reversed the original piece. It featured a Cyberman, a villain from the Dr. Who series. Instead of a dancer getting work in cyber, a cyber’s next job will be in dance.

While, that raises the spectre of robots replacing dancers, if you have ever seen a cyberman move you wouldn’t be terribly concerned at this juncture.

Don’t Forget Lessons Learned About Business Insurance

One of the panel sessions at the recent Arts Midwest-Western Arts Alliance virtual conference was on Reopening. The one panelist that really caught my attention was Anna Glass, Executive Director of Dance Theatre of Harlem (DTH).

She said when the Covid emergency hit, the Cultural Institutions Group, a collection of major arts institutions in NYC area which had been organized some years prior, provided a great resource for information sharing during the crisis.  Apparently there were group calls seven days a week for the first two months to discuss the issues and they have scaled back to four times a week now. The group organized itself into various working groups to help figure out solutions to problems and organize advocacy efforts.

Glass is the co-leader of the insurance working group and spoke about the rude awakening groups like hers had when they discovered how lacking their insurance policies were.  One thing they didn’t realize was that there were caps on the amount of money their policies would pay out. So while DTH face the cancellations of events that annually brought in over $1 million, their policies were capped at $30,000. On top of that, while they were so sure that they could make a business interruption claim based on government action due to Gov. Cuomo’s executive order, they learned their policies would only cover them if there was physical damage to their buildings.

Glass said her insurance working group provided a lot of information to the greater Cultural Institutions Group membership about how to read their policies, make claims, etc. The working group encouraged everyone to make a claim even if they didn’t think they had a chance of having it approved just to make some noise about the issues with business insurance.

Glass said she paying greater attention to her insurance policies and really pushed back on her (previous) insurance broker for “not working for me.” She is determined not to make the same mistake twice.

The brief silver lining Glass sees in all this is that arts organizations in the NYC area are cooperating, collaborating and advocating as a unified groups in a way they hadn’t before. She hopes that becomes an ingrained habit/practice moving forward.

I wanted to bring this up in general for the broader lessons about cooperation and advocacy this has for us all, but specifically to remind people to pay attention to things like insurance policies and contracts moving forward. I am sure it will be nigh impossible to get appropriate coverage for epidemics, but you still need to think seriously about what types of coverage you need and what you will or won’t accept from a policy. There is so much other crap going on right now, it will be hard to effect change but eventually there will likely be a movement to reform insurance coverage.

What I Opposed In Good Times I Praise You For In Bad

Recently I have been talking about how Covid times have brought a greater tolerance on the part of boards/audiences for experimentation with programming choices. I guess I have been talking about it with colleagues and co-workers because when I went to find my post I made so I could link to it, I couldn’t find it.

In any case, Drew McManus posted another episode of his Shop Talk podcast today where he talks with Jeff Vom Saal, Executive Director of Spokane Symphony & Martin Woldson Theater at The Fox and Zak Vassar, President & CEO of the Toledo Alliance for the Performing Arts.

At around the 16 min mark, Drew talks about the difference between creativity and innovation and notes there really hasn’t been a lot of the latter in the orchestra world and in fact many great administrators have been punished by boards and donors for pushing boundaries and taking risks. He says now arts organizations are paying the price for failing to become nimble enough to respond to the current challenges.

Vassar responds by talking about a trustee that recently pulled him aside and said:

“You’re trying to do something that in a good economy I would have voted down everyday of the week. But now is the time to experiment and to be nimble and to learn what we didn’t know and learn how to do it better. Because by the time the economy and the world comes back online, you’re gonna be at least one hare’s run faster on the track than the slowest tortoise…”

Let’s just ponder that for a second. I am not saying organizational staff don’t buy into this sort of thinking as well, but just imagine having a board member tell you that they would have fought you tooth and nail in better economic times, but now that you are really wondering about how you are going to meet payroll, have no audience willing to show up, slimmer fundraising prospect and almost no staff to pursue donations and grants, this is the best time to invest non-existent time, energy and resources into innovating?

I understand that when you feel you have nothing left to lose and find your perceived competitors on a level playing field (or teetering at the edge of the field) it seems like seeking new pathways is the best course of action.

Why were the decisions we are making now problematic when the economy was better and there was more ability to mitigate the impact of failure?

Perhaps the first thing in need of change the organizational dynamics that won’t tolerate change until complete failure is imminent.

We have seen the results of this type of thinking for decades – people rally around an organization at the moment its existence is imperiled. Those cases are isolated and individual. Now everyone is imperiled and we realize there is a need for a broad, communal rally–probably necessitating listening more to the other people at the rally.

Or more aptly in the terms of this metaphor, inviting a lot more people to the rally than in the past and listening to them.

If you have a board member that is either explicitly or implicitly communicating they would have opposed you before, but now they are willing to support you, you need to have a very honest talk that makes it clear there can be no return to those old modes of thinking when the economic picture improves. While the economy may improve, the operating environment and expectations people have will not return to what they were before.

The Most Important People Social Distance In The Penalty Box

I mentioned last week that I was in the middle of virtually attending the combined Arts Midwest-Western Arts Alliance Conference. I will probably have a couple entries of observations on particular sessions. However, I wanted to throw out two smaller bits of information I came across that I didn’t think could fill an entire entry.

First, as much as everyone is talking about streaming being the wave of the future and the only way arts organizations can survive, an attendee from Mississippi noted that a significant portion of the community she served did not have reliable high speed internet.

There was a fair bit of talk at the conference about the Covid environment providing the opportunity/forcing organizations to provide experiences that connected with a greater range of their local community.  For some communities, this means that the live experience may be the only viable experience.

Likewise, it is important to remember that even though contactless payment like tapping and swiping might be the safest, there are a lot of people in our communities who are unbanked or underbanked for whom cash is the only possible medium of exchange. Be sure to consider these challenges when pledging people will find you welcoming and more accessible in the future.

Further up the Mississippi River, in Grand Rapids. MN was my favorite story about leveraging local features and assets to meet the challenges of live performance during Covid-times. Shantel Dow, Executive Director of the Reif Center said they were holding “boat-in” concerts on lake shores where the audience arrived on pontoon boats to watch the land based performance.

She also mentioned they were holding events at an outdoor hockey rink. It is roofed against rain, but open air on the sides to allow for important ventilation and air exchange.  What I really loved was that they were selling the penalty boxes as VIP seating. From the pictures I saw, it looked like most people bring their own chairs and arrange themselves at a safe distance from others around the rink.

I don’t remember the exact number of events she said they had done since Covid restrictions began, but it seemed impossibly high. However, looking at their Facebook page, between the boat-in concerts, the ice hockey arena events and the movies they are projecting on the side of their building, a high number of events seemed within the realm of possibility. I am happy they were able to make so much work for them.


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