Executives without Direction

Short Aside

Before I begin the main portion of my entry today, I just wanted to call attention to an article about how publishers are wooing top amateur reviewers on Amazon by providing them with free books to read and write about. Quite similiar to the idea I put forth in my entry a week or so ago, Bloggers As the New Arts Critics?

On With the Show

One of the things I have been considering lately is the practice of management in the arts, specifically in terms of the position of executive director. In theory, the CEO of most businesses is supposed to be looking at short and long range planning, trying to determine trends and identify opportunities for the future. In practice this may not be generally true, but from my perspective, it almost didn’t seem true at all as applied to the arts.

I wanted to see if my perception was valid and decided to do some research. I couldn’t really bother a lot of executive directors to ask them how much time they spend on management activities as opposed to leadership activities. (I found two interesting articles about the difference between leadership and managment from Inc magazine and the Small Business Administration) Instead, I decided to look at what executive directors were ideally expected to do in the course of their jobs by looking at position descriptions.

I looked at 26 job descriptions for executive director dating back to August 2003 that were listed on the NY Foundation for the Arts website, the Association of Performing Arts Presenters website, and ArtSEARCH. Some of the jobs are currently listed, others I had copied on to my computer over the course of my job search. There was a fair cross section of theatre, dance, music and visual arts organizations (or organizations which encompassed more than one of these areas).

I tallied the expected tasks executive directors were required to fulfill:

Rent/Manage Facilities-2
Strategic Planning/Vision/Direction-6
P/R, Marketing-11
Personnel Management-12
Programming/Booking Events-9
Oversee restoration of building-2
Board Development-1
Outreach/Community-Government relations-6
Volunteer Development-2
Event Management-1

As I expected fundraising was the most often mentioned job. This shouldn’t be a surprise given that non-profits are expected to raise a fair portion of their budgets through donations and grants. However, in 16 instances it was the first thing listed and just as often seemed to be the specific duty of the executive director rather than a function of a development director that the position oversaw.

I have often read that university presidents are discouraged because an increasing portion of their jobs is fundraising rather than leading their schools. I was likewise discouraged to see that so many organizations listed fundraising as an expectation and so few listed long range vision and strategic planning. The implication is that it is more important that the director keeps things running and much less important that he/she shepherds organizational development.

The majority of the responsibilities listed in these descriptions seemed to be more appropriate for a managing director and artistic director. I didn’t look at the specific staff set up for each organization, but from the listing of duties I would feel confident guessing many didn’t have managing or artistic directors or even general managers. In about five cases, it was pretty clear there also weren’t marketing and development directors. In a couple instances, it was evident that the executive director was just about the only paid employee.

Because the executive director has to take on the responsibilities usually handled by artistic and managing directors (and then some), it is no wonder there are few expectations the the person will employ a cohesive vision for the future–there isn’t any time.

In times of economic hardship, it isn’t unexpected that organizations will seek to save money by consolidating job functions into one position. Something valuable is lost in doing this with a chief executive position. When a CEO gets bogged down in dealing with the day to day concerns of an organization, they lose more than time needed to create a vision that will move the organization forward. If the person doesn’t have the time to get educated and consider the potential negative effects of trends upon the organization, they will find themselves scrambling to find solutions in reaction to the consequences.

The ultimate health of the organization depends on the CEO having the opportunity to act in advance to minimize these negative effects. Being in the position of dealing with the picayune daily concerns of an organization and then being forced to play catch up to deal with situations there was no time to foresee can overwhelm and burn out the executive director.

When disaster strikes, 20/20 hindsight can cause boards of directors and executive directors to say, “It was so evident this would be an important variable! You should have seen it coming!” Indeed, it should have been foreseen–if the director had had the time and opportunity to rise above the day to day concerns cast an uncluttered look over the landscape.

The executive director has to be free to be a leader and leave the management of the organization to other people. Certainly, having more time to survey the situation is no guarantee of success. A bad CEO will be a bad CEO with more time on his/her hands. The good CEO will take the opportunity to emerge from the mines and shine in the sun providing a beacon for others to follow along the new paths the executive director surveys from this new perspective.

Buying an “A” in Your Creative Classes

Brief Prologue

Before I start the main portion of my entry, I just wanted to state that I will be helping my sister move for the next week and so most likely won’t have time to make any new entries. Those of you who have joined in late or read me occasionally may want to take this opportunity to catch up. I just added a nifty link to a page that neatly lists my entries and categories thus far.

Entry De Jour

I came across an article by Richard Florida in Washington Monthly, entitled “Creative Class War -How the GOP’s anti-elitism could ruin America’s economy”. In the article, Florida basically says cities like Wellington, New Zealand are going to attract the creative folks of the world because the Bush Administration is promoting situations which stifle the creative class in the US. Personally, I was ready to move to NZ some time ago because of what I had heard. Now that Peter Jackson has shown off the country in The Lord of the Rings, I don’t need much of an excuse to take off. (Jackson and LoTR have been credited with essentially setting Wellington on the road to becoming the next Hollywood.)

My dreams of life in the southern hemisphere aside, I am sort of ambivalent about Richard Florida and his book The Rise of the Creative Class. I am sure this is partly due to the frequency that I hear the book and his name mentioned. The incessant radio play of “Mr. Jones” ruined me on The Counting Crows for life. It is starting to get that way for me in regard to Mr. Florida.

I will openly admit that I haven’t read the book and that I should and will. I have read many articles on his website CreativeClass.org and feel that an article featured on Salon, “Be Creative —or die!” does a good job of summing up his theories.

I don’t think he is wrong per se. In fact, I think he is right on. It just seems that people are hailing him as a guru and wildly scrambling to revitalize their cities according to his vision. Certainly, there are detractors to his theories (links here and here). For the most part, it seems people have drank the Kool-Aid when it comes to assessing his suggestions.

Actually, I think the Kool-Aid reference is apt. As I said, I don’t think he is wrong about what he says. He seems to have done a lot of research that backs up his conclusions fairly well. My problem is actually with the way cities are approaching their anticipated transformations.

I can’t put my finger on exact examples, but the impression I get from reading many of these articles is that governments are going a superficial route rather than making an effort toward long term development. It is almost as if they have been watching a miracle diet pill infomercial and making the phones ring off the hook. Again, this is not to say that Florida is selling a “just add water for a creative class” scheme. It just seems like few people are employing their critical thinking skills to make educated decisions.

I think this is what the two detracting articles I cited above are reflecting. Governments seem to think that if they add gay people, high tech jobs, etc., suddenly they will become the hot, new place to be. The thing is, the hot places to be on Florida’s list: San Francisco, Austin and Boston, were hot before the list came out because they made decisions they felt would better the community. They didn’t make decisions because they read a book that listed good decisions to make. That is what this rush to become home to a creative class feels like.

Once place that may never make it to Florida’s list but that I think is making the right decisions for the right reasons is Liberty, NY. It is a little town in the old Borscht Belt of the Catskills that fell on hard times as the resorts went out of business when people from NY City started vacationing elsewhere.

When the local cable franchise was bought out by Time-Warner, the owner decided to invest the proceeds of the sale back into the community. Now different towns in the county compete for improvement grants administered by his foundation. He is also planning on building a performing arts center on the Woodstock ’69 site in Bethel, NY. The towns are improving due to his largesse and the state’s desire to improve the area in anticipation of adding some casinos nearby. (Not sure the casinos fall into the right decision for the right reason, but it is having a positive effect at present.) Wouldn’t you know it, gays are moving into the area and renovating and restoring historical houses and pride in the community.

Cities and states are complex organisms and there are no simple or one size fits all solutions. This is especially true in this day and age when advertisers are trying to collect information on your specific interests and then deliver a customized pitch right to you. Cities have their own personalities so 90% of what works for Seattle probably won’t work for Detroit. Change has to be heartfelt, embraced by all and accentuate the best parts of the locale’s personality.

I wish all these cities and states the best of luck. I have traveled to many parts of the country and would love to live in a lot of places. I am looking for a job and really don’t care where I live. I am all for you governments making wherever I end up a hot place to work. Just please, please, please…do it because it is the right thing to do, not because Richard Florida says it is.

Media Mutations

I read a couple articles today about changes in the media. The first was about declining news coverage and the second, about the decline of beauty due to the arrival of HDTV.

The first article, entitled Audiences for US Journalists Decline, appeared in The Guardian.

The article began by saying:

Most American news media are experiencing a steady decline in audiences and are significantly cutting their investment in staff and resources, according to a report issued yesterday.

The study on the state of the US news media by the Project for Excellence in Journalism, which is affiliated to Columbia University’s graduate journalism school, found that only ethnic, alternative and online media were flourishing.

“Trust in journalism has been declining for a generation,” said the project director, Tom Rosenstiel. “This study suggests one reason is that news media are locked in a vicious cycle. As audiences fragment, newsrooms are cut back, which further erodes public trust.”

This isn’t surprising news for many arts organizations who find that their local paper is cutting back on the number of arts reviewers on staff as well as the space devoted to reviews and stories. What this means for arts organizations is that they will need to find alternatives for disseminating information about their offerings.

In addition to reaching patrons directly through emails and websites, arts organizations might also identify individuals in the community who produce well written web based critiques of performances and direct audiences to them as they have referred audiences to newspaper reviews in the past. (The positive and negative implications for the relationships that might develop between a blogging critic and an arts organization are very interesting and one I will explore in a future entry.)

The good news of this study is that arts organizations can achieve the elusive goal of diversifing the ethnic make up of their audiences through newspapers. According to the article “Spanish-language newspaper circulation has nearly quadrupled over the past 13 years and advertising revenues are up sevenfold.” With suitable programming, there exists some opportunities to educate and attract new audiences to an organization through newspapers.

Since an organization is going to be producing press releases in other languages, it would be beneficial to offer a duplicate of the organization’s website in those languages as well. Just because more people are reading newspapers doesn’t mean they are ignoring the web.

The second article was from the Chicago Trib and was listed on Artsjournal.com. It talked about how make-up could no longer hide actor and tv personality’s blemishes from the exacting eye of HDTV.

I had a number of reactions to this. First, I was somewhat optimistic at the idea that audiences might buy HDTV sets to get current with the technology and then out of a longing for the illusion of perfection, would flock to the theatre where they could escape the gritty reality of their idols.

Then I got a little depressed wondering if make-up artists failed to find a way to hide the flaws, would a new, more stringent standard of beauty emerge. Would future movies and tv programs be filled with the very few people who were naturally flawless because it was easier than taking additional hours to make masked flaws look natural. These people would, of course, have extremely brief careers as age quickly began marking them up.

Then I got optimistic again. Perhaps after fruitless attempts to fool the new technology, actors and tv personalities would stop trying so hard and we as audiences would come to accept all the normal picayune things which detract from imagined perfection. Perhaps HDTV will help usher in a more inclusive standard of beauty rather than create a more exclusive one. This seems like one of those battles that you win by losing.

Of A Certain Age

I came across a mention of the Performing Arts Research Coalition (PARC) study, The Value of the Performing Arts in Five Communities. This is an interesting study and will probably fuel a number of future blog posts.

The mention I saw today was in regard to the report’s finding that attendance at performing arts events was not strongly tied to age. The report says:

In contrast to education level and household income, age is not strongly related to attendance levels. This finding is interesting because popular discussions often assume that performing arts audiences are mostly composed of older people – a “graying” of attenders. Our findings, however, indicate that in some communities the 65 and over age category is the one with the greatest percentage of nonattenders. Austin again is an anomaly among the communities in the study. Although the relationship between age and attendance is not strong, it is negative. This indicates that in Austin, performing arts attendance is greatest among young people, with attendance declining among older age cohorts.

That put me in mind of a blog I wrote. I keep a file on my computer called “Good Ideas” where I put copies of articles I find on the web that I think might be of use at some point. (Though many times I find I only realize the value of an article months after it appeared and have a terrible time tracking it down again!) I looked in my file and found the entry I recalled was from Terry Teachout’s blog, About Last Night.

He quoted an article by Eric Felten about why it was pointless for advertisers to focus so much on the 18 to 34 male demographic and quoted a passage directly related to the arts.

A few years ago the Chicago Symphony commissioned a survey that found the average age of its concert-goers to be 55. But the orchestra’s president, Henry Fogel, didn’t fall for the actuarial fallacy. Instead he checked similar research done 30 years earlier and found that the average age at that time was also 55. “There is simply a time in one’s life when subscribing to a symphony orchestra becomes both desirable and possible,” says Mr. Fogel, now president of the American Symphony Orchestra League. Acting on this insight, the Chicago Symphony is wooing boomers who, though they may still enjoy their old Beatles records, long for a new musical experience. The orchestra has targeted new subscribers by advertising on, of all places, a local “classic rock” station.

Mr. Teachout goes on to talk about the fact that he himself didn’t become interested in visual arts until he was 40.

The study and the article gave me some reason for optimism. Certainly my tastes have evolved on many fronts as I have gotten older. As an avid reader, I have noticed that I am now intensely interested in books that bored me at one point. My taste in music has changed as I have gotten older. While I am not terribly interested in ballet and orchestra music, perhaps I will be at one point.

If these things are true for me, then there is a strong possibility that they will be true for many people my age. People may age and become more interested and open to experiences in the arts and resupply the older folks in today’s audiences. (From the study, it doesn’t sound like there are as many older folks as we think there are so that is heartening as well.)

Mr. Teachout points out however that he was already predisposed to find pleasurable experiences in the arts. He questions if it is wise to expect people who have never been exposed to the arts to grow into an appreciation of something that is unfamiliar to them, especially given the increased disappearance of school arts programs.

Indeed, most of Mr. Felten’s examples are about television programs and ads that fail to capture their target demographic and perhaps snag older demographics instead. Cars and television programs aren’t alien to 18-34 year olds. They may not have the means and interest in purchasing Volvos and watching 60 Minutes right now. However, when their interests and bank accounts mature, they won’t perceive too many barriers to their enjoyment and acquisition of things they previously regarded as the province of older folks.

Can the same be said of the arts? If you never laughed at a silly play as a child or were never moved by one of the more familiar classical music or opera piece as a teen ager, how likely are you to make the choice to attend an event when you get older? If you feel intimidated by your ignorance of the etiquette and dress code of an arts event, how willing are you to chance going to one without at least some advice from a friend?

Certainly, there are other elements that contribute to attendance that might influence someone who has never attended to start–friends who patronize an organization or the ability to make social contacts that will advance ones career, for example. But arts organizations can’t afford to depend on people’s friend’s and social/business expectations to drive audiences to their doors.

It seems to me that community outreach becomes more and more important these days. It also would seem that the interests of all arts organizations become more and more intertwined. Not all arts organizations can afford to send programs into schools and community centers. Almost all organizations can eventually benefit from the exposure a community gets to the arts if Mssrs. Teachout and Felten are correct.

It might behoove organizations who can’t afford to do outreach to lend some occasional support to those who can. Perhaps it is administrative support, contributing to study guides, constructing travelling sets, helping to book presentations.

Of course, it would also benefit organizations if they did as the Chicago Symphony did took a look at their audience very closely and determined if there were some untapped channels through which they could reach the non-attendees in their target demographic.

Thinking about what these untapped channels to the right people is going to be one of the things I mull over for awhile. I don’t know of many concrete examples like the one given about the Chicago Symphony and classic rock stations. I would love to hear of any unorthodox approaches other people have taken.