Believing in evolution

One of the primary purposes of this blog is to write about arts and cultural organizations who are discovering new rules for the 21st century – who are attempting to weather the sea changes going on in our industry by looking at the old forms, structures and program delivery, seeing which ones don’t work very well, and trying new things.


The arts are evolving


The arts industry isn’t the only industry needing to evolve.  Some of our most basic products and business structures — the newspaper, book stores, retail shopping entertainment — seem to be undergoing transformations at the cellular level, letting go of formats that have served them for (in some cases) hundreds of years.  Businesses need to innovate so quickly nowadays that even businesses founded in the last twenty years like Netflix and Amazon (themselves innovators who shaped our consuming habits) are undergoing fundamental changes in the way they do business.

One of the symptoms of the sea change is the number of traditional arts organizations, like symphonies and opera companies, who are either closing their doors or radically restructuring in the wake of declining audiences, donor fatigue, and changing audience participation patterns.  While the demise of any business is mourned in a community, there is a reason that there is a different kind of wailing and gnashing of teeth when a newspaper or a symphony dies than when a restaurant shutters its doors or when a manufacturer moves its operations elsewhere.  Yes, losing that manufacturer can seriously affect the economy of the town, and the wellbeing of all the displaced workers.  But the loss of a newspaper or a symphony is the loss of something each community member has a stake in – without a newspaper, without a symphony, why, we’re back to the Wild Wild West where there are no rules and people spit into spittoons.

I have been asked why arts organizations aren’t as willing (or able) to innovate as for-profit businesses.  After all, some say, look at Netflix, who was on the verge of disaster but instead chose to revolutionize the entertainment industry by producing its own entertainment products and making them available immediately to stream – no need to wait for a season which plays out week by week.  I don’t think that is a fair comparison — after all, there are plenty of for-profit businesses which also fail to innovate and pay the price (Blockbuster, anyone?).  But I also think that there are some elements of traditional arts organizations that make it difficult to be nimble.  For example, most traditional arts and cultural organizations are organized as 501(c)(3) not-for-profit organizations.  Since the early part of the 20th century, this has been a benefit for both arts organizations and their communities; arts organizations have been at least partially shielded from the whims of the marketplace and communities have reaped the benefits of having high quality artistic activities which benefit the community as a whole.

But not-for-profits by their very nature are not as nimble as many businesses.  One of the reasons they are not is that they are dependent not only on the marketplace to sell tickets, but also on donors and grantors for contributed income.  What these two groups of stakeholders want can be very different, and it can be very risky trying something new when you risk losing not only audience, but a big grant.  Another reason is that many arts organizations are caught between a rock (traditional audiences, which many polls show are aging) and a hard place (attracting new audiences who want different programming and are open to new methods of delivery).  Newspapers know this too: it would be a lot easier if they could just get rid of the printed newspaper and move online, but they are dependent on the longtime readers who need the printed paper and the newer audiences have not been convinced that they should pay for a single source of news when you can get articles on social media for free.  Like newspapers, the most savvy arts organizations know that innovation doesn’t just mean convincing younger audiences to come to the same thing you’ve always done in the same way you’ve always done it.  But to let that go – to move toward recording, online delivery and smaller, less formal performances – means also letting go of the audience that is currently paying the bills.

Unlike some, I firmly (let me repeat, FIRMLY) believe that the future of classical music, traditional theatre and ballet doesn’t lie in playing popular music or choreographing Disney movies.  We’ve tried “pops concerts” for at least thirty years and they have not saved the symphonies.  Not that you can’t find high quality art in any genre, but an arts organization saying that they need to dumb down programming to attract audiences has lost the battle on many fronts.  If you do alternative programming, do it the very best it can be done (and PLEASE don’t call it “pops,” old people).

So.  With all of this in mind, let me state that I believe in evolution.  I believe that arts organizations can and should evolve to serve audiences of the future – and that they can do it while maintaining the very highest artistic standards.  There are arts organizations out there doing amazing things, and I am on the lookout for them.  Do you know of organizations that have tried new programming, new technology, new ways of reaching audiences?  Who are breaking out of structural boxes?  Please – share them with me.  I promise to share some with you too – starting next time when we take a look at an exciting new online class being shared by the Milwaukee Art Museum in cooperation with Google.


See you soon!


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Grant writing reminders – part deux

Last time, we discussed a few grant writing reminders from my recent peer review panel experience with the Wisconsin Arts Board.  I have a few more, but I also thank those who commented with other grant pet peeves and ideas.  Here we go, round two:

1. Anticipate the reviewers’ questions.

I know that the letter of the law may ask you to just submit your financial statement or Form 990, but if there are issues that may cause questions on review, don’t be afraid to answer them, even if you think it may not look good.  As your mother always told you, what you imagine is much worse than the truth.  If your donations went way down one year because you lost a major funder who moved on to someone else, say so.  If you had to fire someone and you experienced some disarray because of this, it’s better to be honest about it.  You can answer questions truthfully without airing dirty laundry, and how you solve problems like these shows a lot about your organization.

2. Get your financial information from someone who knows something about the arts and not-for-profit accounting.

A common mistake, especially for smaller organizations who often can’t afford to pay for financial services, is that accounting is accounting and anyone who has had any accounting training will know how to organize a not-for-profit bookkeeping system.

This. Is. Not. True.

Make sure whoever is putting together your financial statements understands that you need to properly segregate contributed income from program service/earned income (ticket sales, tuition, gift shop) and that you have your restricted funds segregated on your balance sheet (don’t know what restricted funds are?  If your accountant doesn’t either, find one who does).  It’s also essential to use proper accounting terminology to avoid misunderstandings.  Many use the term “fund-raising” (incorrectly) to mean revenue generating activities outside of your mission activities (for example, a gala special event or candy sales) but these activities should be separate from donations, grants and other contributed income.  And, FYI, when the form 990 mentions “fund-raising expenses,” it means your expenses raising contributed income – not the expenses of executing a special event or the wholesale candy expense.

If you use accounting software, use a nonprofit module or program.  Quickbooks doesn’t allow for categorizing of contributed income, so unless you know how to program a chart of accounts, it won’t give you what you need.

3. Give reviewers the tools to assess your organizational health.

Here’s what reviewers look for in determining organizational health:

  • The ratio of earned to contributed income.  A high amount of contributed income vs. earned may mean that donors support your mission and want to help make your work accessible, but it may also mean that audiences just aren’t interested and true believers are propping up the organization.
  • Wide variances between budget and actual, and year to year.  ‘Splain, please.
  • An appropriate mix of artistic and administrative expenses.  Many organizations, particularly small ones, put all of their eggs in the artistic basket, spending their entire budget on artistic directors, guest artists and performing spaces.  But if there is no money in the budget for marketing or otherwise supporting the art, the organization struggles.
  • A board that understands what its role is.  A board is not a collection of super volunteers.  It is a governing body.  We need to see evidence that the board is not just slave labor for an artistic director — we need to see that there is a strong collaborative effort to make the big decisions, plan for the future and evaluate current programming.

And finally…

4. Understand where the money is coming from and speak to that.

If you are applying for government funds, that money comes from taxpayers.  Therefore, the grantor needs to know that you are spending those funds to serve taxpayers.  All of those questions about your community engagement are not just political correct-speak – it is just a simple fact that what you do must serve your community in order for you to successfully get this particular grant.  And no, despite the rhetoric about the benefits of art to communities, you do not serve the community simply by existing.  Let me repeat that for the back row.  You do not serve the community simply by existing.   And I hate to be harsh, but you also do not serve the community by occasionally giving tickets (that will probably go unused) to at-risk schools.  Serving the community, in fact, does not mean “reaching out” to people who are different than you are.  Serving the community just means that you are minimizing barriers to participation, you are engaging your community in your art, and you are responding in some way to what your community needs, rather than expecting the community to support you so you can do exactly what you want to do without accountability.

This one is so important that I may write more about it later.  In the meantime…hope you all are able to have a few Thanksgiving-y days off to indulge in rest, family and feasting!

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It’s time for a few grant writing reminders…

I just got back from a few days of serving on the grant review panel for the Wisconsin Arts Board.  This is always an invigorating exercise – not only am I jazzed (no pun intended) to hear and see the wonderful art being made around our state, I really enjoy talking with other panel members and hearing what is important to them.  I always learn something, and I always hope I contribute as much as I get in return.


At the same time, reading and discussing a few dozen grant applications always brings out the face-palming part of me that wonders why, with so much good information out there about how to write grants and technical assistance available at the Arts Board, so many organizations shoot themselves in the foot with poorly prepared applications or stupid mistakes.  So here are a few thoughts from the front.

1. Don’t tell us how wonderful you are, show us.

At least 25% of the applications I looked at described themselves as the “premier” [choral group] [youth choir] [symphony] [community band] [jazz festival] in [the tri-county area] [central Wisconsin] [“our area”].  One organization said it was (changing some words slightly to protect the guilty) “the premier volunteer adult choir in the greater (small city) area not affiliated with an educational institution, church or larger institution.”  You gotta wonder what the competition was for that distinction.

We also listened to the work sample of a group who took pains to remind us to listen for their (again, not direct quote) crystal clear cutoffs, soaring crescendoes, luminescent harmonies and incredible balance.

When panels judge grant applications, they look for objective evidence of an organization’s claims in order to compare them to other similar applications.  Saying that you are the “premier” anything means absolutely nothing unless you were granted that distinction via an award, and actually may hurt you if the panel feels that you are engaging in hyperbole rather than being honest.

I always tell my students, show me, don’t tell me.  On a resume, don’t say you are an organized person.  Tell me about a time when your organizational skills helped you accomplish a goal or pull off a difficult task.  Likewise, in a grant application, telling us what you do and what difference it made in your community gives us far more information than calling yourself names.  It may even be possible – and desirable – to try and avoid descriptive adjectives completely in a grant application unless you are quoting from someone else.

Then again, there was the group that said they were “tied for runner-up” in their category of their paper’s “Best of” awards.  Gotta admire that.

2. Consider your work sample carefully.

Like most government arts grants, the Wisconsin Arts Board asks for work samples.  I was amazed by how many applications in the music category (which was the panel on which I was participating) included no audio or video examples of their work.  Photos tell us nothing – and in fact photos may do more harm than good since they can easily be staged to show us (for example) more diversity or a larger audience than is normal for your organization.  The best applications we saw had prepared a short audio or video clip with tightly edited samples of a variety of musical styles and concert situations.  These days, it’s not all that hard to edit a video using software included on a standard computer.  Use it.

Also, when choosing work samples, think about what your work is showing us.  If you give us just one sample, make it indicative not only of the best singing/playing you can do, but the programming you’re most proud of.  The samples we loved the best showed off commissioned works, collaborations with other organizations, and features that made your organization unique.  It should go without saying that you be authentic.  The boy choir whose sample does not include unchanged voices or the youth symphony that only shows soloists does not give a good measure of what you do.

3. Does your group have fun?  Don’t be afraid to show it! (and if they don’t, why not?)

In a famous quote from the movie Amadeus, Mozart says, “Come on now, which one of you wouldn’t rather listen to your hairdresser than Hercules?  Or Horatio or Orpheus…people so lofty they sound as though they shit marble!”  Profanity notwithstanding, I always think of this quote when reading grant applications that are trying their hardest to make their work sound incredibly serious.  In fact, some of our highest ratings were given to a group that described their work as “what Bach might have done if he were more fun and less dead,” a small community group that said they attracted a number of professionals who liked to play with them because it was fun and not competitive, and a summer camp with a glorious video of teenagers joyfully drumming on an old car.

That’s enough for now.  I may do a few more if I can get my act together in between grading papers, getting ready for Thanksgiving and the end of the semester, and furiously knitting holiday gifts.

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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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