How Did We Get Into This Mess?

I got an email from Drew McManus today regarding some of my past posts (I knew there had to be someone out there reading this! Thank god I was complimentary of him.) He had quite a few observations about the subjects of my entries. Perhaps I will integrate some of them in future postings.

One of the things he mentioned was an article he did for Partial Observer which further supplements the (on going) discussion I noted yesterday about the importance of providing interesting information in press kits and releases.

He also made mention of the similarities between breakdown of position duties in my entry, Executives Without Direction, and the American Symphony Orchestra League. Thinking again about how much of an executive director’s focus is on fundraising these days reminded me of a paper I read on the history of arts funding in the US.

I went back and read the article, “Leverage Lost
The Nonprofit Arts in the Post-Ford Era”
by John Kreidler, which appeared in In Motion magazine. (Note: There is a mistake in the link to the 3rd section that takes you back to the first section of the article. The correct link is In rereading the article, a number of interesting points caught my eye.

First, I was reminded that at one time in US theatre history the “executive director” of a proprietary theatre company didn’t have much time to do strategic planning at all because they were acting, doing publicity, backstage work and financial management. Things have certainly improved since then, but obviously, I think there is still a bit to go.

The education aspect also caught my eye. In the article it says of the time between the Industrial Revolution and 1957:

“The rise of public education during the industrial revolution surely contributed much to the development of both artistic labor and arts consumerism during that time.

The studies that link education to arts participation usually use grade levels as the measure of educational attainment. Thus, college graduates are far more likely to attend museums or become poets than high school dropouts. It is quite likely, however, that nonformal educational attainment also correlates closely with arts participation. For example, children who are encouraged to sing in the home are probably more inclined to sing or attend choral concerts as adults . In the 19th century, amateur and church-based choral ensembles flourished, and it is likely that this movement helped to stimulate public demand for the services of professional orchestras that were beginning to form in the latter decades of the nineteenth century.”

It was both amusing and of some concern to me to think that TV, movies and other technologies might indeed be to blame for some of the ills of the world (as is so often claimed) and for the possible degradation of arts appreciation because they supplanted the piano as the center of family life.

The article also talks about how industry created the middle class, provided them increased wealth and leisure time and increased the population of cities. This population shift to cities along with increased wealth and leisure time created environments for creative expression to thrive in many metropolitan areas.

The author illustrates the shift from proprietary ownership of arts companies to formations of arts organizations with boards of directors and professional managers with an orchestra example.

“The experience of American symphony orchestras provides one illustration of the evolution of arts organizations during the pre-Ford era. By the mid 19th century, musical literacy was relatively high among Americans. Children learned to sing and play instruments at an early age, and performance within families was a popular form of entertainment. Amateur choruses began to form, and some of these hired musicians for accompaniment. The musicians, in turn, formed themselves into orchestras, hired conductors and began to produce public concerts as proprietary organizations independent of the choral societies. Many orchestras continued to operate in this manner until the end of the 19th and early 20th century when a transition gradually was made to nonprofit organizations as the primary organizational model. In the nonprofit model, the orchestra came under the control of a lay board of directors, usually prominent citizens, which employed a professional conductor and manager. The conductors were given responsibility for hiring the musicians in the nonprofit orchestras, whereas the musicians had often controlled the proprietary orchestras in the early pre-Ford era. Whether operating as proprietary or nonprofit organizations, however, all orchestras remained heavily dependent on ticket sales in the marketplace for much of their income.”

He goes on to talk about how the dearth of proprietary companies was seen as a harbinger of the end of arts activity.

“The traditional commercial forms of theater, vaudeville and circus declined or vanished in the face of the new medium of movies. Other performing arts forms were also affected by the new technologies of recorded music and radio, and ultimately by television. Some observers viewed these developments as the death of the live performing arts, and while it is evident that many proprietary performing arts organizations dissolved, it is not so clear that the overall output of arts goods and services was declining at all.”

The last sentence implying that the format and organization of artistic expression was evolving into something new while the output remained fairly constant seems an important one. Today arts people see the decline and closing of established arts companies and venues as a destruction of their way of life. The truth may be that there is a change similar to the transition from the proprietary system to the non-profit situation we have today. We just need to be aware of what the trend is toward.

By the same token, during this period there was apparently a loss of attendance to technology. This would certainly be of concern when looking at the implications of the next evolution in the arts environment. The author writes:

“Whereas broad-based audiences, comprised of both commoners and educated, well-to-do elites had once attended proprietary productions of Shakespeare, even in small towns and mining camps across the nation, in the twentieth century the commoners began to gravitate toward the movie houses and other new technologies, leaving only the elite to patronize an assortment of proprietary high art.

Given this substantially smaller base of customers, the laws of supply and demand would allow only one outcome: the high art sector had to diminish substantially in rough proportion to the diversion of demand toward the popularized new forms of art and entertainment, and the remaining high art consumers had to accept increased prices to maintain their favored art forms. In large measure, these increased prices took the form of organizational subsidies (donations), rather than user fees. Prior to the arrival of the new technologies, the basic model of the proprietary arts organization had served reasonably well. At this juncture in history, however, popular art continued to follow the proprietary pattern, while high art, cut off from much of its consumer base, started to adopt a new model: the subsidized nonprofit organization.”

The author continues into the period between 1957-1990 which he characterizes as a sort of golden age for the arts in modern times. The author cities the philanthrophy of the Ford Foundation and the embracing of high culture during the Kennedy administration as the impetus for the formation of the NEA and the widespread rise of corporate and foundation support of the arts.

He also points to education, more leisure time and change in demographics as contributors to an arts boom:

“The era had truly arrived when the baby boom generation appeared in vast numbers on college campuses throughout the nation. This large, mostly white, and relatively affluent generation not only provided most of the discounted labor for the surge of arts production and formation of new nonprofit arts organizations, but also contributed substantially to the enlargement of consumer demand for the arts…”

“…an even more pronounced shift developed in the late 1950’s and early 1960s in reaction to the widely held perception of cultural inferiority that marked the post war years. This shift in favor of open expression (free speech, free art, free love) was accompanied by a complementary change in attitudes toward public service. The notion that work in public service was virtuous, in comparison to work in private enterprise, gained currency…”

“Another planet that aligned at the beginning of the Ford era was the pinnacle of the American public education system, and a heightened emphasis on the liberal arts. A greater proportion of the population was enrolled in higher education than at any previous time and, according to some authorities, the quality of the public educational system reached its peak. It is also significant that, given the values and prosperity of this time, unprecedented numbers of college students chose to study the liberal arts. Comparative literature, drama, fine arts, art history, music and a host of other arts-related disciplines flourished.

Probably the majority of liberal arts students had no particular career ambition in these fields. The number of drama graduates in any given year, for example, substantially exceeded the supply of full time acting jobs in the entire nation. Still, at the time it was widely believed by students that any college degree, even in the arts, was a passport to an entry level job in some reasonably well-paid profession. Until the early 1970s, a seller’s market prevailed for holders of undergraduate degrees, so one could afford to obtain a college degree for its own sake rather than committing oneself as an undergraduate to a business or technical degree. Thus, institutions of higher learning were producing legions of students, many of whom, whether they realized it or not, were becoming prepared to work in the nonprofit arts or to become arts consumers.”

The author then goes into the post-Ford era of 1990-present and talks about issues arts people are very much aware of as elements in the decline of the non-profit system: cut backs in private/government/foundation funding; rise in cost of living/drop in disposable income; expectation of higher pay and job security; dimmer view of public service; decline in education, focus on 3 Rs to detriment of arts education; lack of leisure time; and technology displacing arts attendance as an entertainment activity.

The author pretty much echos the finding of the PARC survey I cited in an earlier entry–education matters. It seems to me that if the other two elements common to past growth in interest of the arts–change in demographics and increase in leisure time–are present and education and exposure are not, there is little hope of a revitalized interest of arts in the future.

What is to be done then? I have made a number of suggestions in past entries about employing technology to this end (quick index found here). There are plenty of constructive solutions discussed by arts administrators. The author of “Leverage” mentions some practices arts organizations can adopt to make themselves less vulnerable to the changes and more aware of shifting expectations.

There was one section of “Leverage” that especially resonated with me.

“This generation also may be reluctant to purchase even a single ticket to a high art event that requires arrival at a set time, and constrains the audience to a silent, passive posture until the performance ends. Rather, the increasing preference may be shifting to forms of performance, such as comedy, literary salons and jazz, that are more interactive, flexible with regard to arrival and departure times, and less constraining on one’s behavior during the course of the event.”

This was almost verbatim the opening of my talk, “Arts in an Age of Technology” (which I originally wrote in 1999. I am sure I didn’t read “Leverage” until 2003) It had additional significance in that it was also a topic Drew McManus addressed in the Partial Observer article I cited above. “The audience � and therefore the community – won because they were presented with a concert experience that included them as opposed to the stereotypical �sit, listen, and go home� occasion most people relate to. ”

While I regret that I am not the genius I thought I was when I first expressed that sentiment back in 1999, it is good to know that others in the arts world are thinking along similar lines. This way I don’t have to bear the burden of evangelizing to the entire world alone!

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 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 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.