All You Need Is A Good SWOT

My college is going through a SWOT analysis process at the moment and each division and department is supposed to fill out a 29 page form detailing where things stand.

SWOT stands for Strength, Weakness, Opportunities and Threats. Wikipedia has a good primer article on it, including a few warnings about how not to use it. I also found a web page that performs some SWOT analyses on familiar corporations.

Essentially, the analysis serves as a tool to get organizations talking about the internal factors (Strengths and Weaknesses) and external factors (Opportunities and Threats) in relation to a project or venture. It doesn’t have to be applied to an entire organization, but perhaps to a sub-area like ticket office operations. Small groups within an organization can employ this process in order to make recommendations to management.

I just thought I would toss this information out there as an FYI. While it does have its weaknesses, the process is fairly easy to use and doesn’t require participation by everyone in the organization to be effective.

Painting Your Pension

Thanks to a newsletter from NYFA I became aware of an innovative pension plan for artists.

The Artist Pension Trust provides pension services to artists “a group whose career trajectories and employment patterns make existing pension programs inaccessible.”

They do this by essentially having artists invest their talent instead of money. Each artist makes annual contributions of work over the course of 20 years. The pension funds come from the sale of the art work. The proceeds of the sales are distributed as follows:

“40% is directed to the pool and distributed pro rata among all the artists…and 40% is directed to the account of the artist whose work was sold. Each artist receives an equal share of the pooled funds generated by the sale of the works held in the Artist Pension Trust, thereby benefiting from the collective success of all of the artists in his/her Trust. Each artist is additionally rewarded according to his/her own individual market success, since 40% of the proceeds of the sale of his/her work can be invested in the artist’s individual account.”

The thing I like about this arrangement is that not only is each individual rewarded for his/her own success, but it also encourages all the contributing artists to promote their fellows. Instead of viewing each other entirely as competitors for art buyers’ money, there is a benefit to openly advocating another’s work.

The remaining 20% of the proceeds will go to the pension fund administration fees. This may seem like an excessive amount until note that the fund has to store the pieces and promises museum quality care and presentation.

How Shall I Educate Thee

I’ve touched lightly upon the problems with the training of theatre professionals a couple times in entries. I never really got into it in the depth that Scott Walters over at Theatre Ideas did in a recent entry.

It is an interesting read just for the simple fact that how artists are trained should be a periennial topic of discussion. I agree with Walters that offering BAs and BFAs in the arts is a disservice to students because the programs have too narrow a focus at a point in a student’s career when they need to have a wide variety of experiences with which to inform their art later.

Walters quotes at some length Tony Kushner’s keynote address to the 1997 Association of Theatre in Higher Education conference (reprinted in Jan 1998 American Theatre) which borrowed Swift’s “A Modest Proposal” title.

Among the sentiments Kushner stated were

“we should abolish all undergraduate art majors…any college or university worth its salt tell its undergraduate students that henceforth they cannot major in theatre, the visual arts, writing, filmmaking, photography or musical composition….[and instead] must prepare to spend the next four years of their lives in the Purgatory of the Liberal Arts.”

There are a few bits of knowledge Kushner feels students should know with which I don’t quite agree. I don’t know that people come across alexandrines enough in their careers that they would remember what it was much less need to memorize the definition in the first place. And I don’t know that my hormone laden brain could have really absorbed the Poetics when I was in college. I came to a greater understanding when I looked back upon it later in life.

I do think that if you are going to get into the arts as a career you are probably better served by someone telling you to get familiar with history, philosophy, psychology, sociology, economics, political science and literature and then come back and you’ll talk.

Even BA programs that theoretically don’t have the conservatory focus and are supposed to provide a well-rounded education tends to have an organizational culture, if not an overt policy, that the Art and all related activites are to receive first priority. Certainly the discipline to rehearse, be prepare for performances, sculpt, paint, photograph, etc are important habits for artists to cultivate. But if the degree calls for a well rounded education, the program focus should be equally distributed.

Just as a disclaimer, I will say I think this is more possible to realize for visual arts, dance and theatre. I don’t know as much about music but I get the sense that you pretty much have to be focussed on your instrument all day, every day or you are doomed. I am not saying this is the way it should be. It just seems to be the way it is. Even dance where a woman’s career is over by the time she is 30 seems to allow a little more leeway when it comes to exploring the forces that might influence the formation and expression of dance.

In fact, Walters quotes an article by a Juillard faculty member saying something quite similar.

The longer students stay in a conservatory the narrower their definition of life in the arts becomes. Julliard’s president, Joseph William Polisi, noticed, as he traveled around, that many graduates were not leading full, juicy lives. He began to feel responsible for too many graduates who were thinking that a life in the arts is only about technique and gigs. Faculty members weren’t be encouraged to send graduates out there to explore other art forms or ask big questions. We weren’t modeling the very life we wanted them to lead.”

“…Ninety percent will be piecing it together in some different way: working in other fields, originating work, collaborating with artists of other fields, starting theatre companies and launching business endeavors. We need to model the way for students and young artists to think and be joyful and make meaning of this hodgepodge that is a contemporary career. [emphasis mine.-Joe]We’re good at rehearsing Shakespeare scenes and improvising the hell out of awkward situations. But we’re not so sensitive to training inner skills that will make a sustainable creative life in the theatre.”

The obstacles to creating a program where a student is prepared to be an artist in all these ways isn’t just in the difficulties related to changing the teaching methods and prevailing culture of a training program. There is also the expectations of the students that need to be surmounted.

There seems to be a real focus on only learning what is necessary these days. In part it is a function of the internet society where you can learn all you want to know about something whenever the need may arise. Students are looking for the minimum training they will need to get a job. With the cost of college these days, it is hard to blame them. My theory about the disparity between male and female enrollment in college these days is not that fewer men are able to get into college, it is that the requisite training/experience for the careers the men want can be found in other places.

If you tell a student that if they want to be an actor, they need to spend four years pondering philosophy, history, literature and all the rest and then they can go on to get a masters in acting and then go get a job, the student is going to take their tuition money to your competitors, independent acting classes, or use it to move to NYC to try their luck.

NALI Continued

My thanks to Philip Horn who was nice enough to send me the spreadsheets I referred to in my last entry.

As I mentioned in my earlier entry, the spreadsheets are a type of evaluation and planning tool that allows artists/agents/presenters look at where they are in their professional lives and where they want to be. I imagine the forms also would help the National Arts Leadership Institute decide what types of classes need to be offered, what regions they need to be offered in and perhaps, who they might tap to be future instructors.

Take a look at this Professional Development for Presenters sheet (Downloadable File in Adobe pdf format).They have the subject areas coded (artistic, business, leadership, etc) and allow the presenter to assess what their knowledge level is in each area and then presumably make plans for filling in those knowledge gaps.

They have a second spreadsheet which can help in making those plans. The Professional Development for Touring Artists (Also downloadable pdf) sheet is formatted slightly differently giving people a tool for planning when over the next few years they plan on acquiring new knowledge and skills, sharpening existing ones and taking action.

Certainly, these sheets are nothing you can’t find in any self-help book these days. However, as I mentioned, if NALI collects copies, they can be useful in planning courses and tapping into those individuals who claim they can teach the subject in their sleep. It is also of value to read the sheets if only to be aware of how much one didn’t know they didn’t know was probably worth knowing.

The Professional Development for Presenters sheet really struck a chord with me because there are a lot of similarities between it and evaluation instruments my college is developing in the course of its reaccreditation and assessment efforts. The big push these days is student learning outcomings which encompasses measuring and assessing beyond grading.

I don’t know how NALI intends to use these sheets, but in classrooms today a student would fill out the form before the start of the course showing where they felt their knowledge in the subject was, then at the end of the course they would get the sheet back and indicate where they felt their knowledge was. At this point, the teacher would also indicate on the sheet where they felt the student’s knowledge was. (In many cases, the teacher also marks the sheet at the beginning of the semester for later comparison. This wouldn’t be viable during a weekend conference though.)

This reveals all sorts of dimensions in a class. A person may get a C but feel satisfied with the class because they acquired the knowledge they sought. (Often my experience as an undergrad) Another may get an A but might be dissatisfied because they didn’t learn anything new having mastered the material earlier.

The process can also help a school, or in this case NALI, realize that what they are teaching and perhaps how they are teaching it isn’t effective if people are leaving with little more confidence in what they know than they arrived. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing. If people think they need to sign up for the “basics” course but turn out to be fairly familiar with the material, NALI can plan future offerings accordingly and rejoice at having a knowledgable constituency.

As Andrew Taylor says in his comments on the previous post it will be interesting to see how well NALI develops.