Good for the Goose, Better for the Gander

I was looking back at the Performing Arts Research Coalition (PARC) study on the value of arts in the community. I had written about a portion of it back in March.

One of the findings of the study was that people felt the arts had more value to their community than it did for them as individuals. In the cities surveyed, between 79% and 85% of attendees strongly agreed with this idea as did about 33% of non-attendees. This idea that my neighbor needs the help more than I do was recently discussed in a brief Scientific American article which found that people often rate their moral, social and religious behavior better than their neighbors and also feel that they are less biased and fairer in their judgments than the next person.

An additional discovery the PARC study made was that 2/3 of those surveyed strongly agreed (it shoots to 9/10 if you include “agree” responses) that arts education was better for children regardless of the respondent’s age, education, lack of attendance, children at home or income status. However, only 1/2 strongly felt arts had any value to adult lifelong learning. Those who attended most felt most strongly about the value. The difference might be caused by the same personal bias. Since most respondents were adults, they might feel it is better for the kids than for themselves.

The study is very interesting in its exploration of a number of other factors such as: quality of life (more educated, stronger agreement. Though in D.C. more income also had a correlation); pride in the community (higher income in Sarasota strongly agree, older folks in Boston strongly agree, but less than half of respondents in Austin strongly agree); preserves cultural heritage (majority, regardless of attendance, income, education, etc strongly agree); contributes to local economy (lowest percentage of strongly agree. Except in Sarasota, majority did not strongly agree.)

These results show that it may not be wise to make blanket assumptions about how segments of the local population view the arts. In some cases, you can’t even make assumptions about perceptions based on survey results from another city.

It is also interesting to note that the public doesn’t perceive an economic contribution of the arts. I have read a number of articles that felt the practice of discussing the arts in terms of their economic contributions would devalue the arts by positioning them as a tool for economic growth rather than a source of education, self-improvement, inspiration, etc. In most cases, the articles were referring to the way arts organizations present this information to funders, especially government bodies that allocate monies toward funding.

While I found myself agreeing with this idea, it occurs to me today that perhaps the problem is that we have been saying it too much to too few people. I quoted Ben Cameron last week where he listed economic contributions as a value of the arts that the public needed to have presented to it. Seeing the survey data, I wonder if the arts need to spread the word to the public and stop focusing the message strictly to funders. The stats have probably been chanted at legislators for so long they won’t endure as a justification of funding for too much longer. However, the community may not have been exposed to the discussion of economic value enough. The arts community may have put a lot of time and energy into communicating with too narrow a portion of of its constituency.

My Terrible Secret

After These Messages…

Before I reveal my terrible secret, I just wanted to direct readers’ attention to a piece by Richard Florida in which he refutes the criticisms of his Creative Class work.

Now Back to the Show

The terrible secret that I have been harboring is the fact I have never read any of Peter Drucker’s books. For those of you who don’t know who he is, it isn’t as great a sin as I make it out to be. Peter Drucker is probably one of the most respected authorities/writers on management, economics, and societial and political trends. As a person who purports to be exploring how arts managers can apply business trends to the non-profit world, it would probably be irresponsible of me not to have read some of his work.

Honestly, I have wanted to read his books and feel I am long overdue in doing so. Of what I have read of Mr. Drucker by those who admire him, he seems to be the real deal rather than the management theory flavor of the month. (He has been at it since at least 1950.) His work seems to have a degree of sincerity associated with it whereas many other management theories seem to be tinged with uncertainity and desperation. It is almost as if those systems work and people get paid a lot to write and talk about the theories, but no one is quite certain why it works and for how much longer it will.

Currently, I am reading his Managing for the Future. He has actually written a text specifically for non-profit management but they didn’t have it at the library branch I frequent. That will be the next book I read. I haven’t gotten through the entire book and I haven’t seen a lot that would be applicable to the non-profit world, but there was one area he wrote on that did start me thinking.

He speaks of companies in the same lines of work in different countries banding together. They are run independently of one another, but each one handles an area in which they have greater expertise and resources. One handles the manufacturing for both firms, the other does research, product development and marketing for both.

I have been pondering if the same could be true for non-profits. I don’t know if there is any value in international efforts outside of organizations located on the borders. There could be value in local or regional partnerships. In trying to think of divisions of labor, I came up against the insular and protective nature of non-profits that both I and Drew McManus have recently noted. Unless they engaged an outside company to handle marketing and development, I would imagine there would be accusations of staff bias in the areas of promotion and fund raising. Or else one would feel they deserved a larger chunk of the monies since their audience was larger and more affluent and they had more performances.

The Asolo Theatre Company and Sarasota Ballet have both occupied the same building and used the same stage since FSU moved their Film Conservatory back up to Tallahassee. They have completely separate staffs and neither of their webpages mentions the other exists, nor does the other appear on their “other arts links” pages. The separation isn’t as readily apparent in the building though. I was just there last month and unless you are watching very closely, you can’t tell when you are leaving the theatre’s part of the administrative floor and are entering the ballet’s.

They do share a box office staff and might share front of house staff. There is no indication that volunteering to usher for the theatre will include working for the ballet. The ballet does perform in other venues so they might need to recruit an usher corps of their own anyway. The ballet may get scenery via the Asolo Scenic Studios, but it isn’t mentioned as a client. They might share costuming resources as the wife of the ballet’s Marketing and Development Director is listed as a costume designer for the theatre. Considering the co-habitation arrangement was motivated by financial crisis, it is a pity there hasn’t been continued exploration of cooperative and money saving efforts.

The areas I could see non-profits pooling their resources or splitting functions between them would be in box office/front of house, accounting, human resource and benefit management, publications/web administration, set & costume design/construction, concessions, physical plant & grounds maintenance. Though organizations would want their own people performing, they might also be able to cooperate on booking outreach events and creating support materials. Cooperative efforts might not be possible in all these areas, but they are probably places in which there could be the least contention about how resources were allocated. Development and promotion would take far more trust and honesty.

If anyone knows of organizations that have a high level of cooperation or you have additional suggestions, I would be interested as always.

Smart Thinkin’

When I was looking around the Memphis Manifesto website the other day, I came across a June 2003 Smart City interview with Ben Cameron who is currently the Executive Director of the Theatre Communications Group. TCG does advocacy and surveys on theatre, promotes some educational initiatives and publishes drama texts, American Theatre magazine and ArtSEARCH. The last publication has been one of my near companions in my job search efforts.

I any case, I stopped subscribing to American Theatre some time ago because it wasn’t delivering anything new of significance to me. However, listening to Ben Cameron, I wonder if I should revisit the publication. If nothing else, I am going to listen to more of these Smart City interviews.

He discusses that in the past the focus of the arts has been on presenting quality. Trying to figure out how to do it all better than in the past. This has been reflected by one of the key evaluations of the work–the newspaper review which has discussed the merits of performances based on the quality.

He says when he was working for Target Stores as Manager of Community Relations the message he often got was that the focus needs to be on presenting the value of attendance. Certainly, the work has to be of the highest quality, but just like Target, if people don’t see any value in walking through the doors, they never get to see the quality offerings within. He comments that this has only been recently that the arts have begun having a discussion on the value of a cultural experience.

There are 4 areas of value he says:

1) Economic-money spent by the organization and those who patronize the institutions contribute to the economic well-being of a community.

2) Education- arts benefits have manifested in studies showing that high risk students are more likely to participate in math and science, disciplinary problems and absences decrease, graduation rates increase.

3) Community Cohesion- Exposure to cultural expression increases tolerance for racial differences.

4) Civic Vitality- Cites Richard Florida studies of how creative classes contribute to municipal health.

I understandably interested in what he said after the interviewer asked him to discuss a talk he made at a Ford Foundation event that referred to how vaudeville theatre owners reacted to the emergence of film. So much of what he said reinforces topics I have read about and written on.

He echoed a fair portion of the pre-Ford Foundation history of the arts noted in the Leverage Lost… article I cited. (When I originally cited that paper I never realized it would end up having a recurring significance on a weekly basis!) He talked about how the number of professional stock theatres plumetted and how arts production shifted to the non-profit system we have today.

Cameron refers to a book titled The Radical Center: The Future of American Politicsby Ted Halstead and Michael Lind. It is difficult to transcribe the gist of his commentary on the book, but in brief, the authors noted that historically when there is war, technological change and a shift in rural-urban demographics (Civil War, Depression-WW II, etc) the tendency for the American people is to alter the social compact.

Cameron agrees with the authors that we are in the middle of a period when we will reinvent the social contract. Thinking that you can “just keep your head down” and weather the stormy economy may not be a viable strategy for continued success. He feels the challenge faced today is determining what social forces to pay attention to so we are prepared for how the situation realigns rather than waiting and trying to play catch up.

Among the examples he uses of theatres making preparations for the shifting expectations is the shifting of performance times on some nights to 6:00 or 7:00 instead of the traditional 8:00 curtain. They are doing this to in response to people’s work and travel schedules and have met with success. This allows people to go to a performance right from work and still be home to kiss the kids good night by 8 or 9pm.

He also notes that some theatres are opening their rehearsals to the public. People are curious to see the process and learn how things come together. (A subject I broached back in February.) Some theatres are apparently taking the Today Show route and rehearsing on street level in a room with a plate glass window. Others are rehearsing outdoors or inviting people in.

The move has required a revamping of rules and expectations. Cameron gives the example of Anne Bogart’s company (I assume SITI. He doesn’t mention the name.) She tried it for a production and the actors apparently screamed at her at the end of the first rehearsal. She asked them to stick with it three weeks. They had to establish some ground rules for this new way of doing things. Among the questions they had were whether they should be playing to the audience or to the director.

He doesn’t mention the answer, but it occurs to me that as simple as the question might be, it does indeed represent a complex situation. Rehearsals are about the director and actors communicating with one another on many levels. Performances are about the actors and audience communicating. Audiences would have to understand they wouldn’t be getting that communication. Actors would have to remember that a choice they made that got a pleasing audience reaction might not be a valid part of the director’s vision for the production.

The upshot of the decision though is a positive one. The actors told Anne Bogart they never wanted to rehearse any other way in the future. They saw exciting possibilities associated with having the people for whom they were making the work in the same room as them.

Other strategies have been to redesign the physical plant adding cafes, etc to make the theatre a social destination and not just a place you go to see a play. “Theatres thinking not about just how do we make a performance, but asking bigger questions like how do we orchestra social interaction in which the performance is a piece, but only a piece of what we are called to do.”

He goes on to talk about the importance of arts organizations to “open our embrace to the fullest spectrum of the inhabitants of our cities and towns.” He speaks not only about non-traditional casting and producing shows that have resonance with different segments of the population, but also in encouraging people of diverse backgrounds to pursue careers in the management end of the arts where they can make active contributions.

As I stated earlier, an interesting interview that I am glad I listened to out of curiousity. Some fodder for thought.

Blog Goal

I read a short article in the May 6, 2004 issue of Time about a website that embraced a goal that was similar to the one I have for this blog. Unfortunately, the article is not online to link to.

The article was about an American and New Zealander who have created an e-Parliament website ( Their goal is to serve as “a town hall for legislators from around the globe.” They created the e-Parliament to allow lawmakers the ability to common challenges. “[There is] no way for M.P.s to learn among themselves, no Google for politics.” says co-founder William Ury.

They hope to provide members with the ability to address issues more swiftly and effectively by allowing members to search for global colleagues who have already begun developing policy on issues like early childhood education and counterterrorism. According to the article, they are in currently trying to figure out how tools like email, chat software and intranets can be best employed.

This is a project I would like to grow out of my blogging here–collecting feedback and ideas to create a resource for cultural organizations to consult. Nobody is contributing right yet, but I have only been around for a few months. In time, perhaps….