Artini: Back to School Edition

“One child, one teacher, one book, one pen, can change the world.” – Malala Yousafzai

Many of you who read Artini know me personally, so you have been subjected for the past several months to many posts on social media about what is happening to education in Wisconsin.  Please forgive one more. And yes, I know this blog is supposed to be about arts and innovation, but it’s all related. Trust me.

In a couple of weeks, I will stand in front of a classroom for the first time in 9 months.  I had a great sabbatical and a wonderful summer, and I think I’m ready to jump back in – at least I would be under normal circumstances.  But I’m heading back into a very different atmosphere than I left in January.

Since the beginning of 2015, the state of Wisconsin has passed a budget enacting $250 million worth of cuts to the University of Wisconsin System, on top of a similar cut in the last budget two years ago (and, to be fair, other cuts in previous administrations before that).  The cumulative effect of these cuts has been devastating.  After years of no raises, furlough days, higher contributions to our health care and pension plans, and departmental budgets sliced and diced, there are precious few ways left to save money while still delivering a product that encourages students to keep attending.  I personally said goodbye to 21 of my colleagues who accepted early retirement buyouts or found other jobs. Some of these positions will not be replaced.  In my unit, Art and Design, alone, we lost our chair (who accepted a wonderful new position as Dean of Art at another school), metals professor (same person), art history professor (retiring in January) and gallery curator (retired in May).  The gallery curator will not be replaced, meaning that a recent grad who was assistant curator will now be in charge of the gallery, and our unique Gallery and Museum practices program is on hold.

The misery does not end with cuts.  Our governor tried to change the beloved Wisconsin Idea, deleting lines in state statute that define the purpose of the University to “serve and stimulate society” and “search for truth” and replace it with “serve the state’s workforce needs.”  That proposal went nowhere fast, as did an attempt later to gut the state’s Open Records Law.  But changes to shared governance and tenure policy did make it into the budget.  This changes the role of faculty, staff and students from co-governors to advisors, with the Chancellor the undisputed CEO of each university.  And although the UW System Board of Regents moved quickly to establish new tenure guidelines outside of state statute, the law now states that faculty members can be terminated for reasons related to budget and program, not just bad performance (and yes, you can be fired for bad performance, even with tenure).

The underlying message of all of these changes was terrifying to faculty.  Put together, these cuts and policy changes said “faculty are the problem.”  We are overpaid, irrelevant, and perhaps even dangerous.  Right-wing commentators and websites – and even the Governor himself – suggested that faculty were lazy at best (“maybe they just need to teach another class”) and radicals at worst.  That we were spending our time indoctrinating our students into liberal ideas and shutting down diverse points of view instead of doing what we are supposed to be doing, preparing our students to “serve the state’s workforce needs.”

One of my colleagues in Madison has been the subject of right-wing harassment, including being named by one blog as one of the “Worst, Looniest, Most Leftist Professors in America.”  Another colleague received an e-mail at her private e-mail address calling her “what is wrong with America today,” and a third was actually told, by a stranger at a gas station (who saw her faculty parking sticker), that if “I had that much money, I wouldn’t be complaining about high gas prices” – when in fact she hadn’t complained but politely nodded assent to his comment about prices. A retired colleague of mine receives voice mails, e-mails and even death threats because, as a political and environmental scientist, he is often contacted by the media to comment on elections or environmental issues.

And I haven’t even touched on cuts and changes to elementary and secondary public schools, or the union busting, or the prevalence of tests so numerous and stressful that teachers are taught how to deal with students who vomit on test day.

All of this brings me back to Malala Yousafzai, whose quote from her speech to the United Nations in 2013 has inspired millions around the world. As we all know, Malala was shot at point blank range on her way to school in Pakistan by a Talib who was trying to punish her for speaking out for girls’ education.  This summer, I read Malala’s inspiring book, and I did a lot of thinking about fear of education.  I also remembered a conversation I had with a young Afghani filmmaker who visited UWGB a few years back, before Malala was shot in 2012 (I wrote about Sahraa Karimi here).  Ms. Karimi had to emigrate to Slovakia to continue her education, and my students asked her about the anti-culture, anti-education atmosphere in Afghanistan at the time.  She replied that the Taliban were even more fearful of culture than education:  “When people are united by culture, they are less likely to be oppressed.”

When people are united by culture, they are less likely to be oppressed.  One child, one teacher, one book, one pen can change the world.

I am indeed a radical, and proud to be so.


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Exercise your creativity this summer

Since it’s Memorial Day, Artini is going to stray off the path a bit today.  Let’s talk about summer fun.  That’s all we want to think abut, right?

I’m moved to write about summer because one of my favorite bookstores had a post this morning that promoted the wonderful workbooks they just got in – favorites of teachers who didn’t want students to “lose their skills” over the summer.

Yes, I have read the research that shows that students lose skills over the summer months. Some studies show that students score worse on a standardized test in the fall than they did on the same test the previous spring (horrors!).  Most experts agree that students can lose between 2 and 3 years of grade level equivalency in math skills over the summer. The biggest loss, it seems, is in computational or factual knowledge. College students are not unaffected — one study I read claimed that students lose about 80% of what was presented in a course shortly after they finish the final exam (in my case, most of the rest disappeared when I sold my textbook back to the bookstore).

This seems to me to be missing the point.  Of course, my educational philosophy is not centered around retaining facts.  It’s centered around teaching skills like critical thinking, curiosity and creativity — and those are things that (a) don’t disappear over the summer and (b) are more fun to practice.

Summer is a time for fun, yes.  It’s a time for long, lazy days – when you can get them.  But it’s also a time to exercise other areas of their brains than you often have the chance to do during the rest of the year.  Let kids be creative this summer, and allow yourself to be creative too.  Creativity and curiosity are a part of play, and an essential part of human development.  Here are some thoughts.

Read.  This mainstay of summer is, in my mind, the only schoolwork activity that is worth it.  Kids (and adults!) have more time to read in the summer, and they can read things they like.  Make a weekly library trip.  Pull out some old favorites.  Reward kids with a Kindle book.  Do nightly chapter reading.  Start a Big Book.

Take pictures. Don’t just take pictures of people standing in front of things on your vacation. Take pretty pictures.  Take pictures of interesting shapes, unusual things, pretty flowers, beautiful sunsets.  Learn some simple photo editing skills to play with your photos. Let the kids have the camera too.

Collect stuff.  Rocks. Sea shells. Antique buttons. Unloved stuff from garage sales and thrift shops that can be made over into new stuff (for a wonderful video on how one woman is remaking old Bratz dolls into “real girl” dolls by taking off their makeup with nail polish remover and practical shoes out of Play-doh, click here).

Create a craft area.  It doesn’t have to be just for your kids, although that works.  But setting aside a table or desk and stocking it with pencils, pens, markers, paper and whatever else you like gives you permission to use that space for creative play.

Make up stories. Use dolls, stuffed animals or toys as starting places for adventures.  Write them down and illustrate them.  Have a “round the table” collective story time where each person starts where the other person left off.  Google “writing prompts” and select one at random.

Learn to do something.  Take a drawing class.  Have someone teach you to knit or crochet. Investigate Zentangling (AKA purposeful doodling). Scour Pinterest for ideas.

Create fan art. Okay, all right, I know you AND the kids are going to sit on the couch and binge watch favorite shows or play video games.  Turn it into a creative exercise by creating art based on what you saw.

As for me, I’m ready.  I’ve got a couple of books with creativity prompts (642 Things to Draw, 642 Things to Write About), a half-empty sketch book, new felting supplies, and a mountain of yarn.  Off I go.

Happy summer!

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To change…or to let go


Yesterday, I spoke at the Creative Connections workshop hosted by Mosaic Arts, our local arts council in the Green Bay area.  It was a wonderful day, full of lively discussion, packed sessions, and intriguing ideas.  I gave what is becoming my stump speech, on change and challenges for the arts in the 21st Century, newly revised to include examples from my recent travels.

After the session, a gentleman from a local presenting organization approached me with questions. Here is an approximate transcript of the conversation that followed:

He: You said that we shouldn’t put words like “Experience the Magic of Mozart” on the poster.  So what should be on the poster instead?

Me: What audiences are you trying to reach?

He: We are always trying to get younger audiences but we have not been successful.

Me: Have you considered…

He: (interrupting) We give free tickets to the schools all the time.

Me: And, let me guess (commiserating).  They don’t use them.

He: No, they don’t!  The teachers don’t come either! That says a lot about the poor quality of music education in the schools these days!

That, unfortunately, had to be the end of the conversation as we were being called into the next session.  But it has stuck with me.  I really want to have a longer conversation with this gentleman, who is a well-meaning, hard working community volunteer with no knowledge of contemporary marketing techniques. Not knowing his name or if he was inclined to jot down the URL for this blog from my slide show, I will take the liberty of saying here what I really wanted to say.

Sir, I thank you for giving your time to your community and helping the arts to happen.  I’m sorry you are struggling.  I’m sorry you haven’t been successful in attracting what you perceive to be the next generation of audience members, which will save your organization.  But I have some questions for you.

First, if you were a high school or college student, would you come to one of your concerts?  Did you go to these kinds of concerts when you were in school?  What makes you think, then, that it’s the fault of our educational system and/or “young people these days” that they aren’t leaping into your arms when you give them free tickets for a weekend concert featuring an artist they know nothing about when they probably have plans with their friends?

And what do you mean by “younger audiences” anyway?  What is the average age of your current audience?  Have you considered the fact that “younger audiences” might be people in their 40s and 50s — people who would be much more comfortable walking into a room of grey-haired people than 20 somethings?

But we also need to get to the crux of the matter.  If you are struggling with declining audiences, have you done the kind of hard thinking about why your organization should even continue to exist? I know your organization well.  Your organization was part of a concert revolution in the early part of the 20th century, the Community Concerts movement that worked to book a series of performers on tour to small towns across the Midwest and, eventually, America.  What a great idea!  Small towns starved for great art would have the opportunity because of block booking and coordinated tour management to see some of the greatest performers in the country.  A subscription-only business model ensured that all costs were paid for before the artists were even booked.  From the 20s to the 50s, people signed up before they even knew who the artists would be.  When I arrived in Green Bay in the early 90s, the series was sold out in subscription, no single seats were ever available.  A few years ago, you started (reluctantly, I understood) selling single seats, but the subscription remains the core of your marketing efforts and, at $82, is a great bargain but far from the $35 for 4 concerts it was in the 90s.  And the subscription model is considered by most marketing experts to be incompatible with most of today’s consumers’ hectic lifestyles.

Although there are several Community Concerts affiliates scattered throughout the United States, most book independently now since the original organization, a collaboration with Columbia Artists Management since 1930, was dissolved in 1993. What is more important, in 1993 our community opened the 2000 seat Weidner Center, followed soon after by the renovated Meyer Theater downtown, the Fox Cities Performing Arts Center in Appleton, and other presenters in other communities throughout our area.  Consumers now have a wealth of choices for live concerts, in venues of all sizes and genres, and can go to them in modern facilities with a variety of amenities, including refreshments and valet parking, while your series still takes place in the area’s oldest high school auditorium.

Your organization has a long and storied history.  But before seeking new audiences or bemoaning young people, you need to do some introspection.  From my point of view, you have three choices.  You can celebrate your loyal subscribers (on your website it says you have over 600!) and do more to encourage their participation rather than seeking to grow. You can figure out what is unique about your organization, and market that.  You can realize that in order to continue selling tickets (and certainly to attract new audiences), you need to change your business model rather than trying to change your potential audiences.

Or, you can decide that your organization had a great history and contributed to our community’s cultural life for many years, and go out on a high note rather than gradually withering away.

As much as I support the arts in communities, I really can’t get behind putting continuing efforts into something that isn’t working.  If it isn’t working, change it – or let it go.  Nobody – nobody will think you failed after nearly 100 years of art.

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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?

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In defense of the art degree

In 2008, Daniel Pink declared in a New York Times article that “the MFA is the new MBA.”  In the 21st century, said Pink, businesses will favor right brained thinking, and the ability to  innovate, and think critically will be the most valuable skills for long-term success.

Fast forward to December 2014, and this headline from the Atlantic: “MFAs: An Increasingly Popular, Increasingly Bad Financial Decision.”  The article highlights the fact that MFAs in visual and performing arts have increased every year in the past decade, and have more than tripled since the 1970s.  It also shares statistics from a list on which ranks artistic careers among the lowest in early career pay although it doesn’t say how those statistics were obtained.  A reference like that wouldn’t be acceptable in an undergraduate research paper, so I take it with a grain of salt when it comes to proving that artistic degrees are a bad investment.

But the heart of the article relies on comments from Jerry Saltz, an art critic for New York magazine, who has been railing against art degrees for some time and who, coincidentally, does not have an art degree himself (full disclosure: I lost respect for Jerry Saltz when he agreed to be head critic on Bravo’s short lived reality show, Work of Art: The Next Great Artist).

The arguments against the MFA, like many criticisms of higher education today, are based on ROI.  Students are leaving school with massive debt, say the critics, and therefore should concentrate on majors that lead immediately to the best-paying jobs.  The inherent flaw in this argument is the assumption that all people who seek degrees are doing so to get a specific job — and, more specifically, that those who obtain MFAs all want to be professional artists.


As a college professor, I do have sympathy for students and their families as they are making the decision to attend college or graduate school.  It’s not the same world I grew up in; when tuition was under $500 per year it was a pretty easy decision to go to school and stay there.  And because teaching assistantships were plentiful in the 70s, I was able to go to graduate school for free, gain teaching experience, and live frugally but comfortably on minimum wage outside jobs.  I’m not saying people should go to college because I did, but I still believe that college, as expensive as it has gotten, is one of the best investments that anyone can make.  As this study from the Brookings Institute points out, college graduates stand to make double what a high school grad will earn over the course of a lifetime.

But I also believe that college is more valuable than just a paycheck.  We make a big mistake when we think of college as a job training program (Scott Walker found this out when he was slammed by the public and press for attempting to change the charter of the University of Wisconsin System away from “the search for human truth” and toward “meeting the state’s workforce needs”).  College – coming as it does at an age when most people are making the crucial transition from childhood to adulthood – doesn’t just create workers, it helps to create adults.  In college you learn:

  1. How to think critically.  In contrast to much of the learning done in elementary and high school, much of college education is about doing research, evaluating sources, putting ideas together and coming to conclusions.  This helps not only in the workplace, but is a valuable skill in evaluating life choices, voting, and raising families.
  2. How to work collaboratively.  Life isn’t a solo performance.  Life involves working with others, in relationships, on committees, in work teams, and in communities.  Group projects and community engaged learning are part of the college experience.
  3. How to evaluate what is put in front of you. As Abraham Lincoln once said, you can’t believe everything you see on the internet.  Yet we are bombarded every day with information, much of which is, frankly, bullshit.  College teaches you how to understand if a source is trustworthy, how to do research to verify information, and how to form opinions without blindly believing everything you’re told.
  4. How to be a good citizen, parent, and responsible adult.  The independence of college is daunting for some, and many can’t handle it.  But in college, students learn to get themselves to class on time (or deal with consequences if they don’t), juggle work, school and sometimes family, make financial decisions, and practice adult relationships.  The aforementioned evaluation skills and critical thinking skills start to come in handy when you are making many of these decisions on your own for the first time.  College provides a relatively safe atmosphere to grow before you need to be on your own, paying taxes, voting, choosing a community, raising a family.
  5. How to develop your own social and political views.  A good college education will allow you to explore many different viewpoints (which is, I guess, the real meaning of “liberal” education) and try out your own.

In addition, an art(s) degree will teach students:

  1. How to take criticism.  In the performing and visual arts, you have critiques of your work, not just by professors, but by other students, other faculty, the public at large, and even professional critics (like Mr. Saltz).  Learning to listen to someone critique something in which you’ve invested not just your knowledge, but your innermost feelings, is a challenge, believe me.
  2. How to defend yourself. Sometimes, critique is useful because it forces you to defend what you believe in.
  3. How to be creative, even within parameters. Creating an art work using a specific prompt, or performing a Shakespeare monologue bringing something different than the thousands of other actors who have performed it, requires a skill far different than memorizing facts.

So perhaps all of those people who are choosing to spend money on an MFA aren’t that stupid after all, Mr. Saltz.  Perhaps they are investing wisely in their futures, and following the advice of Daniel Pink and thinking outside the box when shaping their lives.

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The million dollar question

Every year on the first day of class for my intro course, I ask the students what they think the biggest problem is that arts groups face today.  Every year, the answer is unanimous: Funding.

When I go out to do strategic planning for cultural organizations, or meet with local arts roundtable groups, the topic that comes up most often?  Funding.

We all agree that the arts need more capacity to create.  But, as I dig deeper with my students and local arts organizations, I always ask: is more money really the root of the problem?  And, by assuming that our problems will be solved if only we had more money, aren’t we placing a burden on funders to fund us and deflecting the burden of proof from ourselves?

Last week, I posted about being nimble, and I made a comment about funders which I attributed to Stephen Butler, director of CNY Arts in Syracuse, New York.  The comment was that funders tend to funnel most of their institutional support to large organizations, which leaves smaller grassroots organizations struggling to find operating capital. Steve contacted me and requested a clarification: by saying this, he was not criticizing the funders, he was making a plea for more operating and multi-year grants for smaller organizations.  I heartily concur. But I also feel as though we need as an industry to take a close look at our economic model and figure out if it is, indeed, the correct one for the 21st century.

For most of my professional life, the national average of earned to contributed income in the arts has been about 50/50.  Obviously, this ratio varies among different artistic media and types of organizations: a performing arts organization that sells tickets will have a higher earned income ratio than a free community gallery.  But in most organizations, the presence of contributed income helps the organization keep the art accessible to its audiences.  If we were working on a for-profit model, we would have to charge as much for our tickets as it costs us to put on the performance.  This model works for the entertainment industry, which can amortize its costs through mass production (and, of course, doesn’t always work even then).  But for not-for-profit arts organizations, where the artistic decisions drive the money and not vice versa, contributed income is an important piece of the pie.

Speaking of pies, then, here is the latest chart of arts revenue sources from the National Endowment for the Arts (2012, data taken from 2006-2010).  It shows a significant shift.  Earned income is now over 60% of the national average for cultural organizations, with 14% of that being income from endowments and investments.  That means that ticket sales and other forms of direct earned income (tuition, merchandise and food sales, dues) has dropped to only 41%.

RevSourcesArtsCulture_20130923_v1Now it could be that they’ve just never broken this out before in the same way. Or it could be that the endowment building that many organizations engaged in during the 90s is starting to realize its intended purpose.  But I look at that 41% figure and I get a little nervous.  I get especially nervous when I look at the government funding and realize that it  is currently only about 6.2%, down from 10% a decade ago.

The decrease in earned income and decline in government funding places additional burden on other sources: individuals (many of whom are also buying tickets), corporations (whose pure philanthropy has decreased in favor of sponsorships), and foundations (whose income is also dependent on the success of their investments).  And speaking of additional burden, most of the grassroots organizations I know do not have endowments or even any savings to speak of.  Where do they fall on this chart?

Most people, including politicians, do not understand the need for arts funding.  As Mitt Romney said in 2012: “[F]irst there are programs I would eliminate –  the Amtrak subsidy, the PBS subsidy, the subsidy for the National Endowment for the Arts, the National Endowment for the Humanities. Some of these things, like those endowment efforts and PBS I very much appreciate and like what they do in many cases, but I just think they have to stand on their own rather than receiving money borrowed from other countries, as our government does on their behalf.”  By calling government arts funding a “subsidy,” Romney falls into the common trap of thinking that contributed income for the arts is there only because the arts can’t make it in the marketplace.  I often think that many board members believe this too.

So where do we need to be?  You tell me.  Perhaps I’m wrong in my concern, but 50/50 always seemed like a good balance to me and the new numbers have upset my need for tidiness and order.  Should we be moving toward less reliance on contributed income?  Or will that continue to make arts inaccessible to all but the wealthy?

One thing’s for sure: we need to make a better case for our income mix.  And we need to make it with everyone, from funders, to ticket buyers, to students, and to politicians.

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Jack, be nimble

“It is not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent, but the one most responsive to change.” — Charles Darwin

We talked last time about evolution, and the need for arts organizations to be able to respond to the changes that are taking place in the economy, with our audiences and with our patrons.

Today, I’d like to talk a bit about a buzzword I’ve been hearing a lot lately: nimble.  Being nimble is the ability to respond to changes in the organization’s environment, and to be able to make changes to strategy and resources based on real-time situational needs.  For some, being nimble has surpassed growth as a primary business goal.  Which organization will survive – the biggest? The strongest? Or the one who most easily adapts?  Charles Darwin posited the answer to that question a century and a half ago.

I’m all about being nimble. In today’s economy, it seems to be a given.  We live in a time of such rapid change that many of our organizations and businesses are like Titanic facing the iceberg: not able to do anything but watch the boat crash.

Performance metrics for the arts over the past forty years have most definitely centered on growth.  Grantors asked about it on applications and often made it a condition of funding. Often, funders could come on board only for new programs and initiatives, leaving the organization stuck after a year or so with a program that needed to find different sources of income to survive.  Organizations (and researchers) touted growth statistics while making their case for the importance of the arts in our communities.  For many of us, growth was a measure of getting past the scrappy stage, the time when we had to run on the fuel of volunteers, limited supplies and equipment, and underpaid artists.  Most of us were thrilled when we got to the point in the 90s and 00s when even small communities had union orchestras and fully-staffed art museums.


This is no secret: our big traditional institutions are struggling.  The latest potential casualty is the San Jose Ballet, who announced yesterday that they need a half million dollars to keep the doors open.  I have to think that some of this struggle has less to do with the fact that audience participation patterns are changing and at least something to do with the fact that these institutions have grown to the point where continued existence is unmanageable.  When you have a fundraising goal of eight, ten or fifteen million dollars a year, after a while the fundraising tail starts to wag the artistic dog.

I had a wonderful talk this week with Stephen Butler, director of CNY (Central New York) Arts.  His assessment was that our funding system has turned into a beast that may be our fatal flaw.  Much of the capital supporting the arts flows to the large institutions – partly because they have “proven” themselves with growth and longevity, which leaves little capital for entrepreneurial organizations.  The big institutions can’t move, and the little ones can’t afford to.

I also talked this week with Catherine Underhill, executive director of Symphoria, a reincarnation of the former Syracuse Symphony which folded in 2010.  Symphoria is operating under a $1.7 million budget, much less than the former symphony’s $7 million budget, and musicians are making about 25% what they were making before.  They’re experimenting with a number of things, including operating under a co-op structure where musicians have 50% of the seats of the board and a bigger say in artistic decisions, and offering free admission to anyone under 18 (which, Catherine says, has led to dynamic participation by high school music programs and students).  Catherine says their goal is not to grow – but to find the right size that works for their community.

I don’t believe there needs to be a mentality that we need to save our institutions just as they are or else we are endangering the very future of the arts.  I have been critical of organizations claiming that they deserve the support of the community just because they exist, and that it is unthinkable to allow a cultural institution to die just because it is a cultural institution.  In my (admittedly limited) experience, I have seen several cultural organizations fold and then come back in a different incarnation after having the luxury of planning without assumptions.  Many organizations I have watched come back stronger for having done this – leaner perhaps, but most definitely not wedded to growth as the overriding organizational goal.

No cultural organization is too big to fail, but many are too big to be responsive in the economic and social world of the 21st century.  I hope that we can find some ways to allow organizations of all sizes to find their correct balance of growth and flexibility.

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