Political Activity

While poking around the web today, I came across the Americans for the Arts’ Animating Democracy Initiative. It appears the project ended in March 2003, but the website still serves as a resource for research on “exemplary arts-based civic dialogue projects”

The initiative was a joint project of the Amercians for the Arts supported by the Ford Foundation based, in part, on the premise that:

“In the workings of democracy, civic dialogue plays an essential role, giving voice to multiple perspectives and enabling people to develop more multifaceted, humane, and realistic views of issues and each other. Yet there is growing concern that opportunities for civic dialogue in this country have diminished in recent years. In the renewal of civic dialogue, the arts can play a pivotal role in many ways.”

They worked with 32 organizations in their Animating Democracy Initiative Lab, giving them support to develop a number of projects. Those projects can be found listed here.

The website also provides links to case studies and profiles that Americans for the Arts weren’t necessarily involved in and reference materials in the resource section.

Amen, Brother!

Andrew Taylor has a great entry today on The Artful Manager. He lists generalizations about non-profits vs. for profits that have annoyed me for ages. I am not as concerned about the negative light with which for profits are cast as I am with the pure motives and results attributed to non-profits.

From my own experience with organizations I have had contact (and a handful for which I have worked) I can easily attest that many non-profits have forgotten what their mission is, produce their share of the crass and pandering and have hardly cornered the market on community building. Non profits’ existence hinges so much on casting themselves as benevolent and beneficial in order to receive grant money that the positive image pervades.

To be clear, I am not just talking about arts and cultural non-profits, but health and human service sector organizations like Big Brother’s/Big Sisters, Boys and Girls Clubs, the United Way and a host of less recognizable social service agencies as well. Though certainly there are plenty of instances where arts and cultural organizations act poorly as well. (Witness Drew McManus’ frequently entries on how orchestra management bullox up the works here and here among others.)

The part of Mr. Taylor’s argument that really interested me was his thoughts about why one would seek non-profit status:

“The cause would be my choice of creative expression and the context of a consumer market’s willingness to buy it. When there wasn’t adequate volume or density of consumers to cover the cost of my work, the effect would be a drift toward nonprofit status. When there was a sufficient group of individuals that wanted to buy the work at a price that covered its costs, the effect would be a drift toward for-profit status.”

and a little later…

“Tax status is not a cause. It is not a source of nobility or honor or excellence or any other foundation-friendly word you care to utter. Tax status is a tool, a step, a way, an option. To boldly paraphrase a favorite quote of the gun lobby: ‘nonprofits don’t make art, people do.’ They just happen to choose that tax status sometimes along the way. But they can also choose another if it serves their vision, their purpose, or their art.”

In the course of all the interviewing I have done for jobs, I have spoken to boards of directors who are just starting an arts organization and are looking for a person to run it for them. Because they sincerely want to create an organization that benefits the community, and because they have found government and private entities that will give them the money to do it, they inevitably have formed a non-profit to reach this end.

Even as a person in the profession, I haven’t really questioned this because I don’t really know of any alternatives. If I was starting a for profit business I could go to a bank for loans or find investors but I can’t really think of any place outside of a city like NY or LA that a person could do either and be taken seriously. Unless you are all already wealthy, how can a group of people get together to build a performing arts center without going the non-profit route?

But I agree with Mr. Taylor’s idea–if you think there is enough interest in what you are doing that you could pack the house, why not try to make a profit first and then move to non-profit status if you discover that plenty of people have the interest to pack the house, but not the means to support the organization by themselves.

This is something I will be contemplating. I will be keeping my eyes open for articles that might show that such an idea is viable. If anyone sees one, please direct me to it!

Independent Thoughts

I came across an article on the Inc website titled: An Entrepenure’s Declaration of Independence, by Rhonda Abrams.

Because many elements involved in running an arts organization are similiar to running a small business, I saw a number of declarations included here that an arts administrator would do well do heed.

Among them are: “Independence from 80-hour work weeks”–Many arts administrators end up putting their body and soul into the job. (I know I and some of my friends have at least.) Most people do the job because they love it, but when you aren’t getting much sleep, you end up resenting your work rather than loving it.

“Independence from overly-powerful customers”–read this one as including patrons, donors, board members, etc. The author’s advice is mine as well–diversify your base so falling from grace with one person doesn’t put your programs in peril.

“Independence from overly-dependent employees. If your employees are not allowed, encouraged, or developed to make independent decisions, then you’re going to be constantly burdened by their dependence. Create a working environment that gives employees responsibility and authority, making certain that employees are also given the training and support to handle such authority. ”

That one says it all for me as does the next one…

“Independence from a sour work environment. You started your own business so you could enjoy going to work; you certainly don’t want petty office politics, personality spats, and malicious gossip to ruin your daily life. Treat your employees, customers, and vendors with respect, and they’re less likely to want to declare their independence from you!”

“Independence from constant insecurity”–Probably the one problem that faces the majority of arts organizations–financial insecurity. I am sure a lot of people would be a lot happier if it were much easier to build up cash reserves/endowments for a rainy day.

There are a few more “independence” points the author makes (from overhead, bureaucracy) that give you something to think about and makes the article worth reading. (It is also rather short and an easy read.)

I hope everyone in the US had a good independence day and will perhaps take this summer (which may be a lull period for some) to mull over how you might declare your indepedence from the forces that assail you.

So Many Niches, So Little Money

A while back I noted an article that discussed the fact that while newspaper circulation is down on the whole, ethnic newspaper circulation is experiencing growth.

According to another recent article in the Philadelphia Inquirer, the same is true of magazines and journals. Magazines focussed on to very narrow audiences, (people trying to get pregnant, people who like hybrid cars and living like tycoon Donald Trump are among those mentioned), are beginning to appear more and more often.

As I mentioned in a number of earlier entries, this type of thing makes it very difficult for organizations with limited budgets and a mission to reach a wide portion of the audience. If people are getting their news and information solely from a few sources with limited circulations, it makes it increasingly difficult and expensive to communicate with a fairly large number of people. (Of course, it being able to promote directly to people who fancy themselves tycoons can be useful.)

This is probably one of those cases where reality runs counter to expectations. The advent of email was heralded as the beginning of the paperless revolution, instead paper consumption went up. Now where the internet might be expected to be cutting costs since you can email instead of snail mail brochures and information to patrons, it has created the expectation that one can access information specially prepared and filtered for one’s own interests and view of the world. So now those “savings” have to be employed to put your information in a thousand places instead of a handful.

Don’t you just love progress?