The infamous donut post, reblogged

My friend and colleague Linda Essig hit a nerve when she published this blog a few days ago.  It’s a great topic, and affects all of us in the arts.  Enjoy:


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New Rules: Death to the SOBs

Years ago, when I was working for a performing arts center that had a contract to present touring Broadway productions, one of the VPs of the producer was fond of crowing “Death to the SOBs!” whenever he heard about the struggles or demise of a not-for-profit arts organization.  By SOBs, of course, he meant the traditional arbiters of fine arts: Symphonies, Operas and Ballets.  His contention was that the not-for-profit was a failed business model and commercial entertainment – like Broadway musicals – would rule the 21st century.


There are some problems with this basic assumption, of course.  The Broadway industry has not been immune to struggles, and we are seeing changes daily in other commercial products like film and recorded music, as they scramble to keep up with consumer preferences.  Still, we continue to hear about major arts organizations that have served communities for generations closing up shop.  The most recent casualty: the 49-year-old San Diego Opera, according to this article the eleventh major opera company to close or file for bankruptcy since 2008.

We could do postmortems on these organizations until the cows come home, as many of them had developed dangerously unsustainable business practices in recent years in desperate attempts to keep afloat.  It’s easy to criticize a company like San Diego, whose recent budget for just one production was $2.4 million, or the New York City Opera, who ate through their endowment (not-for-profit no-no #1) on their way to extinction.  It’s also easy to sound a death knell for opera – an art form not embraced by the new audiences who are needed to keep the seats filled into the future.  I’ve heard the “we need younger audiences but all the kids want to do is to listen to their iPhones” arguments, and the arguments that a decline in arts education in the schools has led to a decline in the number of people who like the fine arts.  All of these are contributing factors, I believe, but not the underlying cause.  The underlying cause has to do with a poison pill in the basic structure of 501(c)(3) organizations combined with the current corporate climate.

The poison pill is the separation of governance and management – intended by government to be a feature of checks and balances to avoid the commandeering of the mission by a single person.  But what this has evolved into is a system where major decisions are made by the governing body which sometimes has little connection with the day-to-day reality of the organization and/or little knowledge of the special rules governing not-for-profits.  In an organization with a multi-million dollar budget, that often means peopling the board with trustees who are capable of giving or getting very large sums of money — people used to influence and not particularly patient with mission.  Organizations often need to navigate the rocky shoals between wealthy patrons who give to charities the way they give to politicians – as a means of affecting policy – and the charitable mission of the organization.  Case in point: WNET’s struggles with David Koch, who pulled a 7-figure donation and eventually resigned from the board after disagreements over the airing of two documentaries which portrayed him and his brother in an unfavorable light.  Certainly it is understandable that a board member wouldn’t want to be excoriated by a media organization to which he had just donated millions…but the bottom line is that WNET and PBS are bound by their charitable mission to maintain journalistic integrity.  A single board member is not allowed to dictate programming.  Period.

Now I like opera.  I like it enough to have gotten a master’s degree in opera performance.  I am a passionate and vehement arts advocate.  But I cannot justify a budget so bloated that it costs $2.4 million for a single production and still has to charge $200 per ticket in a relatively small city like San Diego (at least, it’s not Los Angeles or New York with high cultural tourism traffic).  To me, the numbers just don’t add up.  Yes, costs are rising.  Yes, we need to pay musicians, technicians and all involved in the production what they are worth.  But if a community can’t support an organization the way it wants to be supported, and the organization is unable or unwilling to innovate, it’s time to let go and allow something else, something more flexible and less dependent on  the 1%, to take its place.

Now that I’ve opened that hornet’s nest, what do you think?

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New Rules – Where is our stage?

Blogger’s note: Welcome to Artini’s first guest blogger!  After he commented on the last post, I asked my friend Bobby Maher to write some thoughts on the issue of “New Rules.”  Bobby is Vice President of Development and Strategy for LEAV, an exciting new arts initiative which I will let him describe. Here is his post:

Last week when I encountered Ellen’s newest blog post, New Rule: I am the center of the universe, I said “yes!” out loud in my office, as is often my reaction to many of her pieces. As a long time follower of the Artini blog, I frequently see my own challenges as an arts administrator mirror those issues Ellen so keenly explores, but the idea that we are undergoing a fundamental shift in the way people participate in and respond to art is of particular relevance to me. So, I want to thank Ellen for so kindly inviting me to do a guest blog today.

As Ellen so aptly points out, the opportunity “…to erase the lines separating technology, live experience and participation, draw a circle instead of those lines, take ourselves out of the center of that circle and put the arts consumer right in the middle” should be at the core of our mission as arts administrators. It has always been our goal to connect people to those artistic experiences we find so valuable, however we have primarily used technology as a tool for marketing or as an analog for other means of communication. Digital marketing has made it much easier to cheaply promote your message, but as a result, consumers and audiences have adapted to the “noise” and are keenly aware when they are being marketed at.

The challenge in marketing an artistic experience to audiences has always been struggling to adequately represent what makes that experience so enriching – so perhaps what digital technology affords us is not merely a means for communicating but a way to redefine the stage and where we make and share our work. Where is our stage?

This past year, with these ideas in mind, some partners and I formed Six Impossible Things, LLC (6IT), and were awarded a grant by the McKnight Foundation and IFPMN to create Leav, a mobile app that allows people to create and experience digital in physical locations.

There is a relationship between art and location. Whether you’re at an outdoor art installation, a play in a historical theatre, or a show at your favorite dive bar, your environment affects your experience. Mobile technology has ensured that you can listen to music or watch a video from anywhere, unfortunately, this encourages people to ignore the world around them, and we wanted to change that and reintroduce the power of place.

Leav uses your phone’s GPS to uncover artistic works commissioned by organizations and 6IT, such as a citywide symphony in which different orchestral parts drift in and out depending on which city street you’re on, or a short film only viewable from 5-6pm in a tree-filled park on a Tuesday in December. Factors like time, temperature, direction, and speed of travel can dynamically interact with the piece’s accessibility and content.

As a creative platform for artists and organizations, Leav provides a unique chance to rethink how people interact and engage with the places they live, work, and play. Leav is accessible and intuitive, giving creators the chance to reach their audiences in a powerful way. It allows artists to reach a wider audience, creating meaningful connections between environment and art that can’t exist anywhere else.
We are excited to be partnering with a number of organizations who see the opportunity to create experiences that both better serve their current patrons and reach new audiences by “creating means for audiences to be active participants instead of passive observers” as Ellen puts it. Instead of spending money creating more flyers and posters for an author’s book tour, or radio spots for the symphony’s upcoming concert, they may commission a new narrative adventure that takes the reader to locations throughout town, or a musical composition that evolves along a crowded highway commute at rush hour – engendering more engaged and active audiences.

Leav will launch in June 2014, and for information on our inaugural artists and what we are doing you can visit and If you would like to support our undertaking to commission 15 new artists to create work for Leav, we are entering the final week of our Kickstarter campaign which will close on March 8 at 11:59 CST. Featured rewards for donors include album downloads and limited edition prints from Leav’s inaugural artists, as well as tickets to the Leav Launch Event, June 14, 2014 – and we have just announced the first round of new artists to be commissioned should we meet our goal.

You can find Leav’s Kickstarter page here.

I tend to agree with Ellen that artists and organizations who fail to recognize the fundamental shift in how people experience and respond to art and continue to believe it is just a matter of marketing harder will not be around in the near future. Leav is one way to engage with communities and share experiences to develop patrons and supporters, but how else can we use technology to rethink making and sharing art in the world, and not just as a tool for telling people about it? What do you think?

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New Rule: I am the center of the universe

We are living in a world that has, as Bill Maher puts it, New Rules.  Part of the work I do with students, community members, arts organizations and (occasionally) the general public is to convince them that these new rules exist.  Not everyone is convinced.  Most people I talk to in the arts world are still under the assumption that we are not undergoing a fundamental shift in the way people participate in and respond to art — that all we need to do is market harder and convince more people to give us more money and we will be just fine.

This is not only misleading, I have become convinced that organizations and artists who continue to think this way will not be around 5 years from now.

Ben Cameron, director of the arts granting program at the Doris Duke Foundation, likens this shift to the Protestant Reformation, in which the reformers convinced a sizeable portion of the Christian world that people do not need an intermediary (a priest) in order to approach God.  This democratization of Christianity was aided and abetted by the invention of the printing press, which made the Bible, in theory at least, accessible to anyone. Our tipping point now is the ever-encompassing internet.


The operative words here are “capable of accessing the entirety of information.”  This means a true democratization of the arts — anyone can access the arts, high quality, low quality or in between, from the past or present, with just a few clicks.  Google Art Project allows viewers to not only look at some of the greatest art works in history, but to zoom in to paintbrush level and also to choose to look at them in context, on the walls of the museum.  Art lovers, even casual ones, have no need to use an artist or a curator as an intermediary to experience art.

Yes, you say, but that’s not the same as a live experience.  That’s not my point.  I’m not trying to say that our task is to draw people away from technology to live experience.  I’m saying we have to erase the lines separating technology, live experience and participation, draw a circle instead of those lines, take ourselves out of the center of that circle and put the arts consumer right in the middle.


Education is feeling this same kind of seismic shift.  Students don’t need teachers or libraries to receive knowledge any more.  Students can access any knowledge they want, at any time.  Thus teachers have become less keepers of the knowledge which they then parcel out to students, and more curators of the students’ education, helping the students evaluation the quality of knowledge, solve problems and think critically (and yet, we are still testing on knowledge of facts.  Don’t get me started).

What does putting the arts consumer at the center of the universe mean?  For some, it means creating means for audiences to be active participants instead of passive observers.  For others, it means creating opportunities for audiences to provide feedback, or even be part of the process of selecting or evaluating the art.  It may mean using technology to provide “behind the scenes” looks at the artistic process, involving audiences during artistic selection, rehearsal and post-performance evaluation and not just inviting them in to see a finished product and then letting them walk away.

We will talk about all of these things in the coming weeks.  In the meantime, your thoughts?

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It’s a sad day. Or maybe not.

On Monday, October 1, the New York City Opera announced it was closing its doors and filing for bankruptcy, according to a story in the New York Times.  This iconic institution, one of the nation’s finest opera companies, was founded in 1944 as an alternative to the more tradition-bound Metropolitan Opera Company — Mayor Fiorella LaGuardia said at the time he wanted to provide “cultural entertainment at popular prices.”  Over the years, the NYCO always seemed closer to the ground and scrappier than its older cousin next door.  They earned a reputation for producing American operas and new works (their last performance was of an opera called “Anna Nicole”) and innovative performances of classic works.

I loved the New York City Opera.  In the seventies, when I was studying voice and hoping to be an opera singer (we see how well THAT turned out), I read everything I could read about the company, idolized Beverly Sills (the diva who ended up managing the company after her retirement) and even saw a couple of performances there in New York.  The NYCO was the location of one of the most amazing operatic performances I’ve ever seen — Beverly Sills as Violetta in La Traviata.  I can still see – and hear – her final aria as her character died while she spun out a perfect, pianissimo but still laser-beam bright, high A as she lay on her back.

Ah well.  So, what are we to make of this?  Also this week, the Minnesota Orchestra failed (again) to come to agreement with its players, leading to the resignation of its conductor, Osmo Vanska.  We’ve talked before in Artini about other struggles in Columbus, San Francisco and Philadelphia as one by one, orchestras and other traditional cultural ensembles go belly up or struggle to stay afloat.

What is the reason for this?  Opinions are as varied as there are music lovers.  It’s common to blame disputes between management and musicians, with musicians invariably blaming management and business leaders invariably blaming the musicians’ union.  To me, these troubles mirror similar struggles facing cities, states and America as a whole these days.  Take Detroit for example.  Some city leaders’ claim that the city is bankrupt because they can’t pay promised pensions sounds an awful lot like a board member of the Minnesota Orchestra complaining that the high cost of musicians’ salaries is to blame for the problem.

But these are complex issues, and we can’t get away with blaming one “side” or another.  These are endemic problems, that are complex and have been building for many years.  Relieving pension liabilities won’t help Detroit in the long run unless the city can find a way to thrive in the 21st century without the manufacturing base that enabled its growth in the 20th century.  Cutting musicians’ salaries won’t help in the long run if the organization can’t figure out a way to keep up with the new ways that audiences are accessing the arts.

In my opinion (and this is just my opinion, I have no stats to back this up), I believe that part of the reason that we are where we are with our larger cultural institutions has to do with the tension between commercial businesses and not-for-profit businesses.  Faced with ever-increasing fundraising needs, large arts organizations have turned to business leaders to staff their boards of directors, hoping that these leaders will have access to wealthy people and corporate funds.  Instead, however, business leaders are often impatient with the arts’ business model, and consider fundraising a failure of the organization.  Unlike many other businesses, however, the arts can’t always innovate from the program side to cut costs — it takes just as many musicians to play Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony as it did in 1824.

The reason so many arts organizations are organized as not-for-profits is that providing culture to the community is considered a public service.  But once you get to the point where, despite contributed income, ticket prices have risen to a point that they rival commercial Broadway shows, it allows people to question whether or not that public service is being performed.  The reputation that large cultural institutions have beyond the circle of ardent arts lovers is that they are pleasure palaces for the wealthy.  And, I must admit this is not far from the truth.  I may anger a lot of my arts friends by saying this, but I don’t believe that the mere presence of a symphony orchestra or an opera company or a museum in a community indicates that the community supports culture.  And, I also don’t believe that if new audiences aren’t flocking to the symphony or opera in droves, that indicates that we have become a nation of cultural idiots.

In my experience, people flock to the arts when the arts are accessible to them.  I’m going to anger even more people now when I ask, does everyone reading this and bemoaning the end of the symphony or opera do their part by subscribing or donating?  Or do you do as I do (full disclosure here), and attend once or twice a year and spend the rest of the season looking at operas on YouTube and PBS and listening to recordings?

It’s tempting to call the demise of the New York City Opera a nail in the coffin of culture.  It doesn’t have to be so.  I think it is an opportunity — an opportunity to rethink the delivery of arts and culture and respond to the tremendous variety of delivery methods currently available to us.  It’s an opportunity to rethink structure — maybe we can’t afford to support an opera company AND a symphony AND a ballet in the same city, but maybe we can support one organization that does all three using a common orchestral ensemble.    It’s an opportunity to consider unusual spaces for performance, innovative delivery methods (as the Met Opera has done by broadcasting performances in movie theaters across the country) and seasons that don’t have to consist of a classic series, a pops series and a holiday gala.

Can this happen?  What will it take?  Please let me know your thoughts.

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Integrating the arts in education

UK magazine Arts Professional has published an interesting article on the results of a report that urges Wales to integrate arts throughout the school curriculum.  Commissioned by the Welsh government and conducted by the Arts Council of Wales, the report claims that a creativity-focused curriculum will provide better results for education than the current emphasis on reading and mathematics.  Says Arts Council of Wales’ Chair Professor Dai Smith: “That the arts may be the game-changer in our current educational practice will seem counterintuitive to some, but the evidence is, I believe, compelling… We must, if we are to succeed economically and thrive socially, ground a quality education in both creativity as practice and culture as knowledge.”

This comes as promising news to those of us who believe that the arts do, indeed have potential to be a stronger partner in educational curriculum.  It also, not surprisingly, has  raised some questions from both teachers and artists.  According to the article, one of the primary objections to the proposals are from teachers, who fear that they do not have the training to incorporate more arts and creative activities into their teaching.  Most of them are probably right — most education students are not required to take enough arts courses in college to provide more than a cursory knowledge of the arts.

Some artists are also questioning the notion of using arts and creativity as a tool to increase competency in other subjects.  Why can’t the arts be offered for their sake alone?  they ask.  Why is the only value to be found in the arts that they help students learn reading and math?

I certainly understand the fear of artists that arts might be reduced to a tool — particularly a tool that is society’s latest fad geared to “prepare students for the workforce.”  Are the arts only good if they help create wealth?  Many artists would argue that the arts are most satisfying when they fall outside the commercial realm, and indeed, much of what we call “fine arts” is organized into not-for-profit systems intended to protect the art against the whims of the marketplace.

But I am equally opposed to increasing arts education if it continues to marginalize the arts and focus education on performance and creation.  This approach assumes that the only valid interaction in the arts is learning to play an instrument or paint — and by high school, most students who don’t evince an immediate passion or talent for the arts have given it up long since.

The arts should be integrated into every part of our lives — not because businesses need creative people, although they do — but because art is part of life and not separate from it.  Those of us in the arts cannot continue to insist that the arts remain so pure that only the most talented, educated or wealthy may apply.  To do so will only continue to ensure that we ARE marginalized, and that in the absence of opportunities to do otherwise, people will seek out reality television and twerking rock stars.

Photo credit: Steven Barber

Photo credit: Steven Barber

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We’re about to expand…

You haven’t heard from Artini in a while because we’ve been busy — we have a new book coming out on November 1!  It’s called Arts Management: Uniting Arts and Audiences in the 21st Century, published by Oxford University Press.

The book is already available for pre-order, and if you are a University professor, you can also order an exam copy by going here:, Ellen&lang=en&cc=us

More to come!

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