Sabbatical blog post: In which I talk to lots of people and learn lots of stuff

I was on sabbatical this semester.  It was wonderful.  A sabbatical is supposed to be for recharging batteries as well as doing projects and research that are hard to fit in while you’re working full time – and that’s exactly what this sabbatical did for me.  Since you read this blog you know that one of my primary interests is innovation in the arts, and how organizations and artists are responding to changes in society, the economy, and technology.  My idea – which turned out to be even more inspired than I originally thought – was to travel the country talking to artists and arts organizations, earning my keep by giving guest lectures for the colleagues who helped me set up the interviews.

During the past few months I’ve met with dozens of people representing multi-million dollar, traditional organizations like museums and symphony orchestras, to small, scrappy DIY venues, to individuals doing good work with a laptop and a dream.  I’ve visited classrooms where students are engaged in doing projects that have them working in their communities, and I’ve talked with people who are working for government and independent arts councils and are on the front lines of what their communities and organizations need.

In keeping with one of today’s trends – what one of my interviewees called the “art is me” movement, I also engaged in some personal creative time.  I enrolled in a MOOC developed by the Milwaukee Art Museum in partnership with Google, which had participants engaging in art in a very different way than most museum enrichment programs I’ve seen.  I did some online learning via classes and videos in knitting and felting.  I took a drawing class.  And, I spent a glorious 5 days on an island in Pugent Sound on a knitting retreat (I also had hoped to learn Photoshop and teach myself to sew, but I guess there’s only so much one person can do in a semester).

I plan to profile many of the organizations, people and trends I discovered in my next several blog posts.  But in advance of that, here are a few broad threads that wove their way through many of my conversations.  We’ll be revisiting these too, but I’d love to hear your thoughts.  Are you hearing these too?

We need to take risks, but we are not in a climate which allows risk.  Immediate money concerns, holding on to current audiences while trying to attract new audiences, being bound to limitations of space, balancing demands of audiences and funders — all of these encourage a conservative focus on programming instead of encouraging us to risk creating art that is new and exciting.  Yet new and exciting programming is what we need to remain relevant.

We need to redefine access.  Access traditionally has meant making our work available and approachable for a variety of socioeconomic demographics, ages and backgrounds.  This, believe it or not, is limiting our thinking by stereotyping both traditional arts audiences and people who don’t participate in the arts.  We continue to want to provide “access” by asking people to join us where we are, instead of engaging people where they are.  We need instead to listen, and to think of access beyond the boundaries of demographic measurements.

We need to rethink collaborations. Collaborations don’t have to mean two arts organizations getting together to produce programming.  I talked to organizations who are banding together for energy savings, and sharing space in creative ways.  I toured facilities who are offering artists different kinds of partnerships which allows them to save on infrastructure and maximize exposure.  I talked to organizations who have been approached by corporations wanting to fund specific projects and who have found ways to make these collaborations a win-win.  There is so much more there than we are currently utilizing.

We need to relax the structures in which we work.  There are some who say the not-for-profit model is “broken.”  Certainly there are some serious issues with not-for-profit that we need to address as an industry.  One of these is taking a hard look at how we assemble and use boards of directors, and the relationship between governance and management in the contemporary arts not-for-profit.  Another is the competing interests of earned and contributed income – which provide a variety of funding sources but also keep us tied to the needs of each constituent group.  Most people I talked to don’t believe the not-for-profit system needs to be scrapped (it’s there for a reason), but it is definitely time to take a good look at what we’re doing, why we’re doing it, and whether changes in the traditional structure would help us make art better.

That’s enough to think about for today.  Again, I’m anxious to hear your thoughts.  Do these trends ring true for you?


About Ellen Rosewall

I am Professor and Chair of Arts Management and author of Arts Management: Uniting Arts and Audiences in the 21st Century (Oxford University Press, 2013). I believe that arts and culture are undergoing a profound change in the 21st century, and I love talking with people about how we continue to bring arts to our communities and individuals give the brave new world of social media, technology and economic changes. Join the conversation!
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4 Responses to Sabbatical blog post: In which I talk to lots of people and learn lots of stuff

  1. Rose Kleiman says:

    Thanks for these thoughts and for your insights into our arts admin program at Butler.

  2. Ann Huntoon says:

    Dear Ellen,

    I took a few moments on this dreary, quiet, blissful Friday to read your latest blog. And, in answer to your question – YES! The CWSO, in searching for space that didn’t drown us in rent, utilities, and bats, was first in line to occupy an art museum at the edge of downtown Stevens Point.

    The quick story is that an emeritus art professor purchased the Point Bakery building in 2001 and opened a museum/classroom/gallery space in 2002. David Smith did a remarkable renovation to the building, but sadly needed to transition into assisted living with his wife four and a half years ago. At that time, and facilitated by his son who is a CPA in Appleton, Dr. Smith gifted the building and all (I mean ALL) of its contents to the City of Stevens Point Parks and Rec department on the condition that the museum would be operated as such for 40 years. After that donation, and in joint venture with UWSP, Brian Borchardt was the curator. His contract expired at the end of December and the powers that be at UWSP eliminated the position from the budget. So…giant word problem presented to the city.

    The CWSO is likely the only arts organization in town outside of the university that has a stable staff and predictable work hours. So – in exchange for VERY reasonable rent ($100/mo + $30/mo for internet and telephone), the CWSO moved into the space, reorganized the upstairs for suitable offices for me, our administrative assistant, and a couple of interns. We are responsible for keeping the public spaces clean (bathroom, hallways and the museum itself) and we need to be open at a minimum from 10-4 Monday thru Thursday. But, that’s just not acceptable for ‘minimum’ and we also now find ourselves (or rather me…) curating the museum in addition to managing the affairs of the symphony.

    So – our partnership is with the City of Stevens Point, and affiliation with the College of Fine Arts & Communication and a responsibility to the community to get as many folks in the door for a variety of purposes. In the process, we’ve done a LOT of cleaning, tossing, archiving, and connecting. We are currently hosting a senior seminar art show for students at UWSP. Our first exhibit in January was for Mark Brueggeman, emeritus art professor at UWSP, who has a large body of work inspired by music – this particular exhibit was “Baroque Etudes – The Solo Suites of J.S. Bach.” The student art comes down on Monday and we’ll do a bit of painting and cleaning in preparation for the next exhibit, which is all about the Wisconsin Idea and currently on display at the new and beautiful ArtStart in Rhinelander.

    (By the way…my grandfather was lifelong friends with Ruth Stolle and I have fantastic memories of traveling up north from Columbus, OH as a young child and spending time in Ruth’s home – she was one of Robert Gard’s friends as well and he even has a chapter in his book, “This is Wisconsin” titled “Ruth,” where the very kitchen that I remember is described.)

    I am learning something new and significant every day and my next project may be learning how to make some time to be at home a bit more and do those things that feed my soul – my garden, a book here and there, and my family – BUT, the opportunity to figure out how these collaborations will work is incredibly gratifying at this point in time.

    So – thank you once again for shedding a different angle of light on what we need to be doing to preserve the culture that we have been gifted. And thank you for sharing your sabbatical with the rest of us!


    Ann Huntoon

    Executive Director

    Central Wisconsin Symphony Orchestra

    800 Main Street

    *note new address! (inside the Smith Scarabocchio Museum of Art)

    P.O. Box 65

    Stevens Point, WI 54481

    Tel: 715-345-7726

    Vice-Chair Group 7-8, League of American Orchestras

    Vice-President, Arts Wisconsin

    Chair, Stevens Point Area Convention & Visitors’ Bureau

    Board Member, Association of Wisconsin Symphony Orchestras

    Immediate Past President, Rotary Club of Stevens Point

    Subscriptions on sale for the 2015-16 season, “A Grand Affaire!”

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