Modulating the Flow

A few years back I was reflecting on a study that found arts administrators sought online data and learning opportunities that were relevant to the challenges they face. The problem, as you might imagine, is that they didn’t feel there was enough time in the day to sit down and read articles, much less seek them out. They wanted some sort of information delivery system, but didn’t quite know what those tools looked like.

At the time, I had the insight that this was the same challenge many potential audience members faced. People who may not have participated or attended arts events, upon maturing personally and financially, might desire to start becoming involved but don’t know where to learn about doing so.

At the time my suspicion was that whatever delivery system solved the arts administrators’ problem could probably be used to provide information to audiences.

But now, 6-7 years on, I am not sure a solution as arrived for either group. If anything, the situation has become even more difficult due to need to choose from among a greater proliferation of choices. There is far more information flowing from arts bloggers, forum discussion groups and social media sites like Twitter and Facebook. But there are no consolidated, dependable sources of information to tap into. The individual must attempt to curate their own information.

Even though I am judicious in who I follow on Twitter and via my news reader, it is often all I can do to keep up with the flow of information coming to me. If I weren’t motivated both by a desire for professional development and material to blog about, I think I might give up on making a serious effort to stay current.

But your mileage may vary as they say. If anyone has found a method to gain the professional guidance and information they seek and not become overwhelmed by the experience, please share it.

Likewise, if you know of a good resource for audiences seeking orientation about the arts that doesn’t condescend, let me know as well.

It Only Appears A Mockery of Reality

If you look around at all the negotiations between the boards of symphony orchestras and their musicians and wonder how it can all go bad so quickly, some entries in which Drew McManus recounted mock negotiation exercises he conducted might give some insight.

While I was looking back at old posts for topics to revisit while I moved jobs, I came across an entry that reminded me about the exercises Drew had run. It all seemed so timely that I knew I had to call attention back to them.

Drew recounted his experiences running mock negotiations with Andrew Taylor’s graduate students at UW-Madison in two parts.

The first part was pretty fascinating to read about as the students immediately identify problems with the accuracy of the financials they, as the musicians negotiating committee, were given by the orchestra management.

“students seemed to expect that this was all some mistake and they would receive the “correct” figures at some point. In several cases, students claimed that an organization’s figures simply couldn’t be this messed up but I helped them along with relating a number of real life examples so they could begin to establish a useable frame of reference.”

Upon realizing that Drew hadn’t misunderstood the “mock” part of the exercise to mean he mocked them with absurd scenarios, those playing the part of the musician negotiation committee begin to get very angry. They accused the management of incompetence in the face of what Drew notes are no-win proposals orchestra musicians are often faced with.

Drew had previously run the same exercise with music students at the Eastman School of Music. What happens next may be illustrative of the difference in outlooks between music students and management students.

Instead of coming back to the table with a counteroffer,

With a certain sense of smug satisfaction, they informed management that they believe the organization is being mismanaged and unless they were presented with a better offer, they were going to break away from SimOrchestra and form their own, musician run, ensemble. In a sense, they were going to take their ball and go home.

… I then inquired if they put together a counter-offer that would provide the board with a better idea of what the musicians found acceptable. They informed me that they did not have such an offer and, furthermore, they refused to craft a counter-offer and reiterated that they felt confident that they could create an organization that had an annual budget equal in size, compared to what the board was currently offering them all while creating a better artistic product than is currently produced.

That pretty much brought the exercise to a close. Drew discusses the debrief in the second entry on the exercise. The students were eager to learn how they, as managers of the future, could avoid the mistakes and problems they perceived in the management’s offer, including the error filled financial statements.

Another student was curious how musicians could come back with a counter-offer at all given that the management’s initial offer was so egregious. They said it would be extremely frustrating to present a counter-offer that management would perhaps perceive as ridiculous as the musicians found management’s offer. “So what happens then, do we just keep going back and forth until we meet in the middle?” the student asked.

Unfortunately, the answer is both yes and no. Nevertheless, this question opened the door to another core component of the mock negotiation session: the environment of collective bargaining agreement negotiations isn’t black and white. Instead, there’s an inherent political dynamic which increases proportionally based on the severity of the negotiating atmosphere.


Based on conversations with some of the students later that afternoon and the next day, I observed that they were beginning to understand that, as the managers of tomorrow, they need to be prepared to enter into an administrative world that is neither perfect nor cut and dry. They also learned that they can’t rely exclusively on their academic management skills to get them through the woodshed experiences all organizations face at some point in their development.

Drew also wrote up a comparison between the UW-Madison session and the Eastman School of Music sessions for those who are curious.

As I went back to re-read these these entries in the context of all the contentious contract negotiations that have occurred in the intervening seven years, I wonder if administration and musicians both found themselves in situations as impossible, if not more, than the scenario presented to the students.

Even in the face of an unfair labor practice complaint that Drew notes would have resulted from the musicians walking away from the table as the students did, I am surprised we haven’t seen at least one group of musicians stand up and decide to form their own new organization.

The fact that they haven’t may be a testament to the difficult operating environment orchestras face and a recognition that it isn’t so simple to avoid the ridiculous set of circumstances with which the students were presented.

In Dreams Begin Responsibilities

I had a “where are they now” moment looking back at an entry from 2006 where I mentioned the MacArthur Foundation had given a $250,000 grant to Edward Castronova to develop Arden: The World of Shakespeare.

The idea was to create the environments out of Shakespeare’s plays and allow people to play in as realistic as possible an environment. At the time I commented,

“I wonder if playing the game might not provide good research for actors. Find out how a peasant might have really felt after spending hours of drudgery online. Want to discover real motivation for delivering Henry V’s St. Crispen’s Day speech? Get ye to the Battle of Agincourt. (Of course, you might be felled by dysentery on the way if the game keeps things realistic.)”

So I wondered what ever happened to the game because I hadn’t heard of its release. Turns out, it never got released. The ambitions and motivations didn’t align with player values.

For example, one of the lessons Castronova says he derived from the experience was,

Think About Your Audience
“We put Arden in front of Shakespeare experts and they loved it. We put it in front of play testers and they yawned. We’d get feedback like, ‘I talked to that Falstaff guy for a while and got a quest to go repair something. I logged out and never came back.’ Too much reading, not enough fighting. Arden II will be more of a hack-and-slash Dungeons and Dragons type of game.”

There are probably a ton of audience relations lessons here for arts organizations, but I also saw some common incorrect assumptions shared by amateurs and other inexperienced parties about what it takes to do things full time.

I often have people who rent our theatre complain that the amount of hours we estimate their event will take is inflated, protesting that theirs is a simple show. People don’t realize that even with all the technology available to us, it is not easy to maintain the illusion that things are proceeding seamlessly without a number of people running around backstage communicating with various parties and executing a dozen tasks a minute.

Among Castronova’s other tips are not to be overly ambitious and to have appropriate staffing for the job. The thing is, even experienced groups are just as apt to underestimate requirements.

Performing arts organizations are well aware of the time and resources they need to invest in projects having done them many times over the years, yet they will often create new programs and assign them to already overburdened departments with the assumption that it won’t require too much more effort to take it on.

And that is often true, unless, you know, you want it to look half way decent.

(Title of this entry comes from an epigram to W.B. Yeats’ book, Responsibilities.)

Training Handbook That People Always Have On Hand

Ten years ago, anointed the employee handbook for Ann Arbor, MI’s Zingerman’s Deli as the World’s Best Employee Manual.

In all likelihood they have anointed other handbooks as the “best” since then, but from the sample pages from the handbook they have on the website, you can see that the fun handbook is something an employee would pay attention to. According to the article, Zingerman employees often carry the handbook around with them.

Since then, Zingerman’s has grown to a whole “community of businesses” run by managing partners whose vision the deli’s founders have supported. One of the businesses is actually a training arm that trains employees and conducts seminars for other businesses looking to learn about their methods.

Even if you aren’t interested in the training, the sample pages provide some good examples to emulate for your own staff and volunteer manuals to help keep the training in their minds and hands.