Wasn’t Looking For Substantive Discussion of Workplace Equity On An Orchestra Podcast, But There It Was

I may owe some apologies to Drew McManus because I would have never expected that a podcast about the classical music industry would provide one of the best discussions about the complexities of workplace equity that I have heard. (And I have heard a lot, even in the last 10 days.)

The most recent episode of Shop Talk features a conversation with Ruby Lopez Harper, Americans for the Arts Senior Director of Local Arts Advancement; and Dr. Brea M. Heidelberg, Associate Professor & the Director of the Entertainment & Arts Management program at Drexel University.

The fact both guests had an established rapport from having previously worked together allowed them to move quickly to a substantive discussion of workplace equity efforts. For the most part, Drew just stood back and let them delve into the subject.

Even before they brought it up, I was already thinking about what the future might hold when workplace equity programs are no longer the hot priority for funders. It occurred to me that the test-focused values of our education system is reflected in many other aspects of our lives. (Likely the education system is also a reflection of broader values.)

Just as knowledge is only valued until a test approves of our apparent mastery, there is a feeling that once you have taken the equity seminar and received the certificate, the problematic elements have been eliminated and you are now an approved good person.

So it would make sense that there might be a similar transactional approach to funding: Once X amount of dollars has been spent on the problem and Y positive outcomes have been reported, (and as we know, every funded program comes off exactly as planned, at least in final reports), then the bulk of the important work as been done and the funder can move on.

It also occurred to me that the mindset of orchestra musicians, though not necessarily the boards and administration that run the organizations, might be among the best suited for work place equity efforts. Musicians know that the attainment of knowledge and ability is not complete when a passing grade is received but rather it is a lifelong pursuit of self-improvement — much as the pursuit of equity.

Kudos to Drew for pulling this off. This is not an easy topic to get honest, quality discourse on. Take a listen.

As Drew writes,

…it’s more frank than candid and I mean that in the best possible way. Even if you don’t think you’re the sort of person who “needs” to hear this, you do. If you’re white, you’ll probably feel uncomfortable, but again, only in the best possible way. Don’t miss the section on #TraumaEntrapment around the 40min mark.

Books Open Doors To New Worlds…And Maybe Some Arts Orgs

If you are pondering how to create new “entries” for participation with your organization for a broader, more diverse audience, survey results summarized in a Hyperallergic article might offer some clues. A survey conducted by American Academy of Arts and Sciences’ Humanities Indicators project found literary events may be a good programming choice, especially given the scale a lot of places operate on due to Covid:

…higher-income Americans are more likely to have visited art museums or attended art events, but they are less likely to attend poetry and literary events. It also found that Latinx and Black Americans are nearly three times as likely to have frequently attended poetry or literature readings and other literary events as white Americans; the youngest adults among Black and Latinx communities (ages 18-29) are more than twice as likely to attend these events as those 45 and older.

The Hyperallergic piece also cites some political and gender divides in relation to the perceived value of art history and appreciation classes in one’s life. I haven’t tracked down the original study yet to see if it has results for other disciplines.


Economists Don’t Like Economic Impact Studies?

Michael Rushton is singing my song. Today he posted a critique of using economic impact as a measure of the value of the arts. It is “quick and dirty” as he says, so it won’t take much time to read the whole thing.

I have made many similar posts before, but what I appreciated about his post was that he points out not only are arts and culture not so special that something else can’t be substituted in its place, but the economic impact data is not useful for making policy decisions. I had noted the substitution problem 13 years ago, but the issue of usefulness of the data for policy making hadn’t gelled for me before today. (Rushton’s emphasis)

And so, to consider an arts example, suppose a mayor says “we should spend money building a new performing arts center. Construction costs would be $3 million, and the total economic impact of the construction would be $7.5 million”. An economist would say: “you could do a lot with $3 million: you could repair infrastructure, you could expand after school programs, you could lower taxes by $3 million and leave it to individuals to have more money to spend. Any of those options would also have ‘economic impact’. So ‘economic impact’ doesn’t justify spending on the performing arts center. What would justify a new PAC would be if the public benefits from using it exceeded the costs of building it and running it, i.e. a proper cost-benefit analysis. Building a PAC is a cost, it is not the benefit.”

Economists don’t like “Economic Impact” studies – they know that the conception of them is wrong, and they lead to bad reasoning.


…I’ve studied this subject for twenty-five years, and have never seen evidence that economic studies have informed decisions on public spending on the arts.

Second, the numbers don’t give any policy guidance. Suppose I were to tell you that the annual economic impact of the nonprofit arts sector in Bloomington is $73 million. If you were on city council, what would that tell you? That arts support should be increased? Or decreased? That this is a very big number? Or about what one would expect? That we should increase spending on arts program X but decrease it on arts program Y? I have never seen a policy decision where the economic impact number made a difference. (To see this, imagine that I told you “I’m sorry, I made a typing mistake, it’s not $73 million, it is $63 million”. How would that correction affect any arts policy decision?).

Always Pondering The Line Between Constructive Persistence And Futility

Seth Godin made a post on his Medium site last week about persistence. Whenever I see posts praising persistence I always start to philosophize about how one knows the line between constructive persistence and continuing to do something based on sunk cost fallacy thinking–the idea that you have invested so much into doing something you can’t stop now.

In particular, he writes about how 20 years ago he committed to writing one blog post everyday as part of his practice. He admits that doesn’t mean every post will be great, but suggests that the practice has helped make him a better writer.

Certainly this is the type of commitment artists make to their craft. While you might immediately think of classical musicians when I mention this, I know one visual artist that painted every day during his honeymoon (and is still married some 45ish years later); another who sketches at every opportunity, even when he is talking to you; and of course many writers and diarists who have a daily discipline.

But I also know some people who cut back on blogging everyday with a goal of only writing when they had a quality thoughts to share. In my opinion, they achieved that goal. There is definitely a difference between the goal of only expressing valuable ideas and the goal of becoming a better writer, but simply writing every day won’t help you obtain that goal.  I have talked about deliberate practice in earlier posts.

Godin opens his post pretty much directly addressing performers, though it is certainly a metaphor for broader practice.

We’re not entitled to an audience, to applause or to make a living. The work we most want to do, the thing that pushes us to be show up — it might not resonate with the audience we bring it to.

There’s no guarantee, none at all.

But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t show up. The lack of a guarantee is precisely why the work is worth doing, because it’s the guarantee that we’ve been brainwashed to require, and without it, few people have the guts enough to show up anyway.

I don’t know that he provides any insight into  where persistent labor veers into futility, but the last line does provide one criterion for knowing your efforts are meaningful:

Outcomes are important. Figuring out how to serve our audience is essential. But the outcome isn’t the practice, the practice leads us to the outcome.

Find work worth doing, and begin there.

After you begin, persist with the urgency of generosity. Which is the best kind of urgency.

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