The underbelly of economic impact

A few years ago, I attended the Edinburgh Fringe Festival (or, more accurately, Festival Fringe), an event which started out as an alternative to the more staid Edinburgh International Festival but has since grown to encompass virtually every nook and cranny in the city, with a reported 50,459 performances of 3,314 shows in 313 venues in 2015 (the 2016 Festival ended Monday). We saw dance performances in a conference center, a Swedish comedian in an underground club, a performance of Spring Awakening featuring actual British school children, a screening of Koyaanisqatsi, the groundbreaking Reggio/Glass 1982 film with live music by Phillip Glass Ensemble in a beautiful auditorium,  an avant-garde chanteuse in a temporary venue built just for the festival, a Scottish poet reading Robert Burns at the National Library, and (just because), David Sedaris.


The famous Edinburgh Festival venue, Udderbelly

I loved every minute of the Festival, and of being in Edinburgh. It’s a beautiful, lively city and we absolutely adored the combination of history, tradition and innovation on display simultaneously. We marveled at the relative youth of the assembled masses on the Royal Mile – unlike many other kinds of festivals we have attended, the average age of Edinburgh during the festival seemed to average around 25. We thought, here is art done right.

An article by Patrick Collison in today’s Guardian, however, points out that there may be another side to Edinburgh’s success. Collison talks about high prices at restaurants, hotels and pubs, at the same time that performers are barely breaking even. He says, “The business model for the creative industries is broken. For every performer at Edinburgh working for nothing, read musician on Spotify or writer on the net. Providers of content make peanuts, while the controllers of the infrastructure, such as Google, walk away with extraordinary profits.”

We in the arts are fond of justifying support of the arts by pointing out the economic impact of arts and culture to communities. When I teach my students about economic impact studies, I am always careful to point out that “impact” is defined as “benefit to other sectors,” not the arts themselves. Ticket sales are never considered in impact studies. I used to think this was a positive statistic (“look at the benefit, and that’s not even counting ticket sales!”), but after reading this article, I started to think about trickle down impact. Are arts and culture benefiting from the business they bring to their communities, or are they essentially working for nothing while others reap the rewards?

I do know people who have performed at Edinburgh and, knowing the profit potential, have used it more as a showcase, inviting potential presenters as well as adding reviews and information about their success as marketing boosters. But, as Collinson says, let’s think about the indie musicians on Spotify, the community theater, the fine arts festival. What are they getting in return for bringing business to others?

I have long felt that we in the arts industry need to step our economic impact from “the arts create impact therefore we must exist” to “the arts create impact therefore it is imperative that governments and businesses who benefit should be duty-bound to give some of their profits back to the arts.”  Right now, support from government and business operates on somewhat of an honor system; the entities who get it make sure the arts are included. But wouldn’t it be nice if there was a more formal system in place? Wouldn’t it be interesting if every community was able to work together to make sure that arts organizations and artists had the means to continue making art and making a living?

How can we do this?

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The benefits of kissing

“Do not defend a music program because it’s good for other things [such as raising test scores and making students smarter]. That’s like defending kissing because it gives you stronger lip muscles for eating soup neatly.” Peter Greene, educator.


Roy Lichtenstein. The Kiss II

This week, I have been writing my syllabus for my fall semester course called Arts in the Community. In it, my students discuss the ways that the arts intersect with various aspects of community life: education, the economy, civic engagement, tourism, social needs and community identity.  This fall we will be spending a lot of time on government involvement in arts and culture because…well, we need to.

When we talk about government support of the arts, we need to talk about the value of the arts to society and the best arguments to make to candidates and elected officials about why the arts are worthy of attention.  I share statistics about how much economic value is returned to the community by the arts, how the arts can be used to beautify distressed areas, bring self-esteem to trouble teens, and “brand” a community. These are wonderful things and they are exciting to talk about, since for many of my undergraduate students, this is completely new information.  Most of them have bought the societal myth that the arts really don’t matter to anyone except those who want to buy tickets to the theater or attend art museums.

But then, we come to arts education, and invariably my students research the reasons for arts in the schools and come up with articles that claim that school music and art are good because they “help raise test scores.”

This is where I have to have the intrinsic vs. instrumental talk.

Let’s forget for a moment that the arts are pretty much the antithesis of everything standardized testing is about.  Let’s ignore all of the research that says that children need to develop both sides of the brain – the left, data driven side and the right, creative side – in order to be able to become properly functioning adults, and that schools have cut the arts for years in order to make room for more left brain academics that, some believe, will make us more “competitive” in the global economy  (the result of 30 years of this mentality may be evident in this year’s presidential election, but I digress).

Let’s just focus on the idea that the arts are only worthy in schools if they help students achieve something that is considered more important than the arts.

The arts community was effectively blindsided in the 90s by the culture wars, and the determination of some elected officials to eliminate the National Endowment for the Arts and other arts support. One of the excuses they used was that the arts were a “frill” and a “luxury” that we could not afford in difficult economic times.  So, the arts community started working harder to collect data that would support the value of the arts to society.  We had to concentrate on informing people about the instrumental values of the arts – that is, the ways the arts benefit the economy and other aspects of society, because the arts were clearly not holding their own by thinking of them as a lovely thing which made life more beautiful and gave us meaning.

The intrinsic – or inherent – values of the arts are evident to anyone who has experienced them. But along the way of trying to prove that the arts also had instrumental value and could be of enormous economic benefit to communities (which is true, BTW), we lost the argument that art is good for art’s sake alone.

A billion years ago, when I was just starting my career, I heard a wonderful story from a friend who was student teaching in an inner city school in Minneapolis. Following a visit from a professional string quartet to the school, a young woman approached my friend in tears, saying that she wanted to know more about music.  When my friend asked why, she replied, “Because today I think I understood what happiness might feel like.”

Kissing has many instrumental benefits. Health professionals claim that kissing can lower blood pressure, increase serotonin and dopamine levels which create good feelings, and even help prevent cavities. But I think most of us would agree that when we think about kissing, we are not thinking about avoiding a trip to the dentist.

As we begin this school year, let’s remember the goodness, the soul-filling, the beauty, the incredible wonderfulness of the arts – and let’s share it with our elected officials and the candidates for whom we will vote.

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Freelance arts managers? It just might work…


Earlier this summer I posted about my frustration with arts organizations who seem to be ignoring the help of trained arts managers.  One of the individuals I wrote about (who also happens to be my husband) posed an interesting question:

When putting together an artistic team for a stand-alone event, we seek out contract artists, actors, directors, designers, techies, or whatever we need on the artistic side.  Why aren’t there freelance arts managers we can add to the team?


Certainly there are “freelance” arts managers, except we call them consultants, and they are usually people who have a lot of experience in overarching managerial needs, like strategic planning or fundraising.  I also know event planners, who are called in primarily for fundraising events.  But an itinerant arts manager, working show to show like a director or actor?  Not so much.

Part of the reason for this is certainly because administrative matters often can’t be limited  to a single event.  It’s hard to ramp up sponsorship sales from nothing a few months prior to the event and expect any kind of success.  And most good arts managers believe that planning, market research and relationship building go on 24/7/365, so it may go against our grain a bit to just be called in for a single event rather than putting in place the infrastructure that will lead to long term success.

It seems to me that contract arts managers would be useful for smaller organizations or one-off artistic projects, since larger organizations have enough work to be able to hire full time, year-round administrative staff.  But for small budget organizations, it is often board members who act as de facto managers, which takes their focus away from what a board should really be doing – governing the organization.

But if the planning is sound, the research is done ahead of time, and as much care is taken with administration as with planning the artistic aspects, why not just hire someone and say here- you take care of the room scheduling, the travel details, the printing deadlines and the opening night reception?

What are your thoughts? Arts managers, what are the upsides and downsides of working on contract like actors, directors, curators and techies?

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Thinking outside the opera house box

Recently, travel guru Rick Steves posted a video showing a giant screen attached to the Vienna State Opera House live streaming the opera that was playing inside. A small crowd filled a section of the plaza, sitting in camp chairs, leaning against walls, standing on the periphery.  Steves’ comment, “Europe is inspiring.”


The idea of live streaming performing arts is certainly not new.  Several major cultural institutions, including the Metropolitan Opera and many symphonies, live stream their concerts online.  Some charge (The Met, for example, live streams audio performances, but charges $14.99 per month to subscribe to Met Opera On Demand and also live streams into movie theaters nationwide at a cost slightly higher than the cost of a movie) but some, like the Detroit Symphony, are experimenting with substantial free offerings as a way to engage new audiences.  Several organizations have mobile apps, which offer not only full performances (the Vienna site even offers a choice between watching “raw” or edited footage of live performances) but additional content including program notes, interviews with performers and conductors, and behind-the-scenes features.

This is, however, the first I’ve heard of a performance broadcast live, for free, outside the building where the performance is taking place…but when I posted this, I immediately heard that the Hult Center for the Performing Arts in Eugene, Oregon, is testing this same idea, so I imagine that others are too (let me know if you’ve heard of any!).  It’s a fairly complex undertaking…daunting not only because of the potentially expensive infrastructure and technical logistics but also because of copyright issues, labor contracts and ticket sales considerations.  Do you broadcast a performance even if the inside seats are not sold out, or is it more like a sports deal, broadcast only if seats are not available?  How do rebroadcast rights work for contract musicians?

As complex as the issues are, it’s still wonderful to see performing arts organizations think outside the venue box.  We know that arts audiences today – not just “new” audiences, but traditional audiences as well – are attending live performances in fewer numbers, but we also know that in large part, this is because of their livestyle and entertainment habits, not because they don’t like what is being presented to them.  A giant screen mounted on the outside of an opera house may not be the answer for everyone, but it’s a huge step in the right direction of taking art to where the people are, and respecting the way they wish to access our work.

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Are arts organizations ignoring what could help them the most?

not listening

I had an interesting conversation the other night with colleagues in arts management from other cities.  All of them had decided not to serve any longer on boards of directors for local arts organizations.  They listed a litany of sins, ranging from ignorance of best practices, ineffective board meetings, reliance on volunteers who knew nothing about the arts industry, and seemingly no desire to innovate or improve infrastructure.

One person said this: “I assumed I was being asked onto the board because of my arts management knowledge, yet I am seldom asked to provide insight into my areas of specialty.  When I offer suggestions based not only on best practices but things that really should be done, like separating contributed from earned income on the Form 990 or keeping records of grant expenditures, most of the time I’m ignored, unless I volunteer to do it myself.”

This has been my experience too.  A few years ago, I had a conversation with a volunteer board member whose summer arts education program had underperformed.  The woman was a respected artist and the programming was first rate, but several sections had to be canceled for under enrollment.  She just didn’t understand…she had printed twice as many postcards as she had the year before.  I suggested that perhaps we do some research, try to find out why people weren’t attending.  Was the timing wrong?  Were there barriers?  Was the price point correct?  What would attract new audiences?  Her response was that she didn’t think they needed to research, they just needed to “market harder.”

At that point I didn’t feel as though I could point out that doing marketing research was an important part of marketing, and didn’t she want to “market better” instead of “marketing harder.”

I’ve also spoken to two different individuals in the past few weeks who were overwhelmed with the enormity of the management tasks that went along with their artistic plans.  Both were theatrical professionals who were in the process of mounting summer shows, and well along into the artistic process.  Both were frustrated because they had to take time away from rehearsals to get a poster designed, compile program information, schedule rooms, and other administrivia.  Both had essentially given up on finding sponsors and donors, it was just too complicated, so both had enormous pressure on ticket sales income. And yet, neither had prepared ahead of time by including an arts manager on the team.

I know that artists often have an artistic dream and the passion to make it happen, and go full steam ahead without thinking of mundane matters like IRS regulations and data bases.  It’s been that way since the beginning of time.  But heavens to betsy, why does it seem like it’s so endemic to ignore management best practices?  Why do we hear about so many organizations struggling and saying that “we need more funding” before they are even able (or willing) to put together effective boards, plan strategically and attend to the infrastructure that supports the art?

And more importantly, why am I training talented and enthusiastic arts managers when the very groups that could most use their help don’t seem willing to use them?  And why are arts managers asked to be on boards when those boards don’t want to use their expertise?

I’m thinking of initiating some formal research on this, but help me out.  What do you think is causing this disconnect?

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Taking time



I haven’t blogged for a while.  It’s been a long school year. But now that the grades are in, and my brain isn’t cluttered with term papers, final exams, student problems, and committee work, I feel the urge to create flooding back.  This is going to be a different kind of post – there’s nothing innovative about nurturing creativity, except for the fact that we don’t do it as much as we should.

I spent last week as Writer in Residence with Write On Door County, a wonderful organization which nurtures writing in one of the most inspirational places I know.  Door County is a mecca for the arts; as many people visit to see summer stock theater and visit artist galleries as to comb the beaches or take in a fish boil.  WODC is a relatively new addition to the Door County arts scene, but has already made its mark by hosting workshops and classes for all ages, and hosting writers in residence at its beautiful Juddville cottage. I sang for my supper in the form of facilitating a workshop on memoir writing, which inspired me just as much as the writers who attended.

While school is in session, my creative work is limited to short bursts in the evenings or on weekends – knitting on the couch, felting or painting in my makeshift basement studio – good stuff, no doubt.  But a week in beautiful Door County, with the cherry blossoms bursting and nothing to do but research and write – well now, that is a luxury. I woke up every day eager to get to work, and spent hours at the computer without tiring.  Each day, my co-author and I took a break either at lunch time or before dinner and explored the county.  We ate Swedish pancakes at a local restaurant famous for its goats who live on the roof in the summertime; we meditated by the water at the tip of the mainland; we watched loons float and dive while we ate fish; we got a private tour of high school artists exhibited at the Miller Art Museum; we signed the siding at the Francis Hardy Gallery for the Arts – the only art gallery that I know of that sits on the end of a dock.  Everything we did just fueled our desire to get back to work.  We accomplished a lot.

I have the luxury of being able to use the flexibility of a teacher’s summer to work on creative and scholarly projects (and indeed, it’s part of my job to do so), but I’ve never gone away for a week for the sole purpose of creating.  I plan to do it again.  Often.  I encourage you to do it, too.

“The creative is the place where no one else has ever been. You have to leave the city of your comfort and go into the wilderness of your intuition. What you’ll discover will be wonderful. What you’ll discover is yourself.” — Alan Alda

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DIY your artistic career

We hear a lot about the burden of student loan debt for young people starting careers – but we don’t hear as much about the financial burden of emerging artists.  Like any self-employed entrepreneur, visual and performing artists need supplies and equipment.  That becomes, for most artists, a significant investment.  In addition to consumable supplies, like paint, fabric, or canvas, many artists are also dependent on expensive equipment like musical instruments, kilns, and printing presses.

There are two issues here: affordability and availability.  While in school, the student often has access to equipment, along with studio, rehearsal and performance space, which goes away after graduation. Unless you are connected to a school, your choice is often between purchasing expensive and bulky equipment for your home (assuming, of course, that you have an appropriate space), and finding something else to do for a living.  What does a young graduate, living in apartments and paying off student loans, do?

On my sabbatical journeys last spring, I met with two organizations who are working to solve this problem: Pyramid Atlantic in Silver Spring, Maryland, and ADX in Portland, Oregon.

Pyramic Atlantic Art Center is an organization dedicated to printmaking, paper and book arts.  Their facility includes a papermaking studio, print shop, letterpress studio, bindery, a darkroom, and a wood shop. They have a variety of ways for artists to access the equipment and spaces, ranging from an hourly fee to an “art gym membership” – a monthly fee which allows you unlimited access during open hours, kind of like the gym.  Artists who wish to go to the next level can apply for fellowships or residencies, or rent one of a dozen or so private studios.  The day I was there, there were several artists in the printmaking studio, a lovely exhibit in the upstairs gallery, and volunteers stuffing supply bags for an upcoming school field trip.

ADX (Art Design Portland, a play on the city’s airport nickname PDX) is a similar facility, but the bulk of its footprint is devoted to wood and metal.  The 14,000 square foot facility has all of the big, heavy, scary-looking equipment you’d expect from a wood and metal shop, and the adjoining rooms have laser equipment, long arm sewing machines, and an autocad studio sponsored by AutoDesk.  Founder Kelly Roy says, “In the years following our launch, ADX has incubated over 100 businesses, helped 200 crowd-funded projects reach their goals, and provided a home-away-from-home for thousands of designers, builders, entrepreneurs, hobbyists, designers and artists. What began as a D.I.Y, bootstrapped makerspace has quickly become a local hub for both artists and artisans, pioneering a new model for both education and the modern sharing economy.”  Financial options are similar to Pyramic Atlantic: a monthly unlimited membership, hourly fees, and the option to rent a permanent studio space.

Both Pyramid Atlantic and ADX are taking advantage of the DIY trend and maker movement, and both are providing valuable services not only to budding artists but hobbyists and the community at large.  I was impressed that both facilities had robust corporate programs.  Both organizations offer

ADX's floor plan

ADX’s floor plan

corporate memberships that provide discounts to multiple employees of the same company.  Both facilities hold corporate maker days; Kelly at ADX told me that a company recently came in and built a conference room table as a team-building activity.  

Another aspect important to both ADX and Pyramid Atlantic is collaboration.  Art can sometimes be a solitary activity – alone in the studio or practice room. At facilities like these, experienced artists can mentor beginners, pros and hobbyists can share tips, and everyone can enjoy the camaraderie of just being in the same creative space.  ADX even has collaborative “co-working” office, so that artists can collaborate and everyone can take a meeting without having to invest in office space.

Although they offer similar programs and financial options, these organizations are structured very differently.  Pyramic Atlantic is a 501(c)(3) not-for-profit, a structure, they say, that allows them to keep prices low and offer residencies, internships and fellowships supported by grants and donations.  ADX chose to go the for-profit route, reasoning that this would allow them to stay nimble and respond to changes in the economy and community needs without having to go through a complicated governance structure.  Both structures seem to be working, at least for now – and perhaps provide some evidence that there is not just one path to a goal.

As a proponent of the the theory that arts are for everyone, not just those who can afford them, I hate to see money and access be barriers to artists, any more than they should be for audiences.  These two organizations are changing the artist’s story: allowing people to be creative without a huge up-front financial commitment.  That’s all good.

Thanks to: Gretchen Schermerhorn from Pyramid Atlantic and Kelley Roy of ADX.  

In the entrepreneurial spirit that defines ADX, Kelley is crowd funding a new book about the maker movement and manufacturing renaissance in Portland.  You can find information about that project here.




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