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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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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