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Okay, maybe not too famous, but my comments on the Artful Manager blog postings about the arts manager as an evangelist appeared today on that blog. My thoughts are quoted in relation to “bait and switch” using Chick tracts as an example. (Yikes! As I was grabbing links for this blog, I saw that my full letter was posted on the artsjournal.com site. You can read it here.)
What I wanted to reflect upon today though, is the amount of commentary I am seeing in regard to “open source” as applied to the arts. For a long time it has been used in connection with software development, most notably regarding Linux. However, I have recently seen it discussed in regard to the arts. (Unfortunately, I can’t track down the places I have seen it except in the Artful Manager blog.)
As promised in my statement of purpose for this blog, I have been thinking about how an arts organization might go about putting this into practice. One of the applications of this idea is certainly open book management, a term apparently coined in 1995 by John Case who wrote for Inc. magazine:
“The beauty of open-book management is that it really works. It helps companies compete in today’s mercurial marketplace by getting everybody on the payroll thinking and acting like a businessperson, an owner, rather than like a traditional hired hand.”
The practice has also been extended beyond employees to provide information to vendors and other organizations whose dealings are closely entwined with ones company. The question then is–can the same practice work with an arts organization’s employees, patrons and local arts journalists?
According to the articles written since 1995 in Inc., companies have realized some actual benefits from adopting this approach. The most widely cited result is usually that the practice empowers employees by educating them about where costs are high and places them in a position to suggest alternatives that will cut the expenses.
Most non-profits have to file financials with the state and those filing are available public scrutiny and often accessible online. It is a far different thing though, to eliminate all the searching a motivated person would have to do to acquire this information and publically invite patron and employee review. Certainly there would have to be an effort to educate the public and employees about what they are looking at. As with the commercial application of the open book philosophy, the benefit would be that an employee or patron can make educated suggestions about alternatives.
I have seen some arts organizations use this approach, but only when financial crisis threatened and they desperately needed sympathy and understanding. At that point they were meeting with the IATSE leaders to work things out and were briefing the local arts writers weekly about all the efforts being made to turn things around. Obviously, you want to open your books long before a crisis approaches with an eye toward preventing one. If you do end up in a crisis, it would be beneficial to have employees/patrons/arts journalists who completely understand every element that contributed to the problem and are thus more sympathetic than they otherwise might have been.
Now certainly one of the reasons the open book approach to management works is that employees, vendors and major customers of companies have a fair understanding of the forces which affect industries related that company. This isn’t necessarily true with an entire patron base so opening everything to everyone might prove counterproductive when employees are constantly explaining and justifying decisions to people who understand the business of the performing arts to widely varying degrees.
You also can’t open every aspect of a performance to the public. Direction, design and performance choices can’t be done by committee and retain quality. It is possible to involve arts writers more integrally during the creative process and perhaps get more complete coverage than just a review. (Though certainly many reviewers have a lot to cover and don’t have the time. Also, you may get expanded coverage at the price of your reviews as shown here and one blogger’s reaction here.)
I did read an article recently (which I wish I could find again) that talked about covering the arts like sports. It quoted a portion of a speech by Chris Lavin. I seem to recall that Mr. Lavin’s speech caused quite a debate with many detractors feeling that such coverage would cheapen how people viewed the arts. (I will try to see if I can locate the debate online.)
One of the things I have found interesting in the articles I have read advocating sports type arts coverage is the idea that sports writers have a relationship with the people they are writing about and have strong opinions about relative strengths and weakness of people and teams on offense and defense.
It was sort of amusing to me to think about arts writers going to early practices like sports writers go to training camps and opining about how good the cast was going to be during the upcoming season. It might seem funny to think about an arts writer mentioning the fact that the training program an actor is coming out of is strong on period acting and also stresses Meisner and thus her presence in the Feydeau farce promises good things for the production, but that is the type of indepth analysis readers of the sports pages get every day. Is it crazy to think more people might become interested in the arts if newspapers encouraged their arts reports to write such involved pieces (and gave them the resources to do it)?
Another area where the open source idea has really made head way lately is the internet itself, especially in relation to blogging. Howard Dean’s campaign really brought attention to tools that would enable people to organize grassroots support for a purpose. Non-profit organizations are already picking up on the trend to help them with fundraising.
Certainly, as a conduit of information dissemination and promotion, the internet has a tremendous amount of potential far beyond transmitting spam. Actors/directors/designers can post blogs on an arts organization’s website talking about the progress a show is making in rehearsals, etc. There would be a fair amount of value added to an avid performance goer’s experience if they could read about decisions that were being made, discarded and then perhaps revisited by the various people involved. As a performance continued its run, the actors might reflect on their changing approach to their role.
In fact, access to material that portrays decision making closer to the moment it is happening might enhance the learning experience of acting/directing/dance/design students much more than a Q&A session with an artist where the person’s relationship to the decision making process is much more remote and abstract. Having performed the reflective exercise of blogging about their experience, an artist who is doing such a Q&A session might be able to impart insights of greater value than he/she previously had.
The same section of the website containing the blogs for a certain production could feature an area where patrons could make comments about that production. There is a certain danger inherent to providing people with a forum to discuss their experiences at your organization. Not only do you run the risk of angry people making scathing remarks about the director’s behavior in rehearsal or the quality of your show, but you also suffer some credibility problems if you censor the bad out while presenting the forum as a completely candid representation.
The bogus reviews to discredit or overly praise authors recently discovered on the Canadian version of Amazon is only one example of this problem. Only presenting positive comments or allowing anonymous postings can cause suspicion that something similar to the Amazon problem or the faked Sony movie critic is transpiring.
So, some interesting possibilities for applying open source to the arts. I am sure I will think of some more as the blogging process continues.