Monday, January 25, 2010

NEA Mayors' Institute on City Design - 25th Anniversary Initiative

The NEA has operated the Mayor's Institute on City Design since 1986. This year they are celebrating the program's 25th anniversary (which is actually next year but they wanted to fund projects that happen during the anniversary year) with a new grant program. The program has the snappy but literal title of "25th Anniversary Initiative."

What is great about this initiative is that is open to the cities where a mayor has participated in the Mayors' Institute, at any time over the 25 years. This opens it up to several hundred cities. The guidelines are also very flexible, and could be used to support a wide array of design projects, from planning of arts districts, to promotion of design and the arts as central to a city's livability, to transformation of public sites through cultural activities, to festivals and public art.Grants will range from $25,000-250,000.

And to all those individual arts groups getting excited about this grant program, the applicant must be the City or its designated agency. In effect, only one application per eligible City, that must come from the City itself. We are already brainstorming internally on what we might focus on here in Philadelphia - so many great ideas!

And a special treat for Philadelphia is the fact that right in the front of the guidelines is a quote from our own Jeremy Nowak, President of The Reinvestment Fund, which has been doing so much groundbreaking work on the role of the arts in building community and economic vitality (See "Creativity and Neighborhood Development: Strategies for Community Investment," a collaboration between TRF and Penn's Social Impact of the Arts project, another great asset in this area.)

Thursday, January 21, 2010

National Arts Index 2009 - What does it mean for us?

Yesterday morning Americans for the Arts issued the "National Arts Index 2009," a research project over four years in the making. In it's own words it is designed to be "an annual measure of the vitality of arts and culture in the United States."  It takes 76 national-level indicators and consolidates them into an index of the cultural health of the country. 2003 was set as the benchmark year at 100, and the survey covers a ten year period from 1998-2008. The plan is to now update it every year.

The study is motivated by the desire to have a reliable national measure of our culture sector, one that goes beyond just measuring economic impact or attendance figures, but gets at the nuances that go into cultural participation and vitality.

What has already gotten a lot of pick-up in the news media is the "sound bite" version of the study: The 2008 index score is 98.4, a 4.2 point decline from its 2007 score, and down  significantly from its high point of 105.5 in 1999. The other broad stroke finding is that demand for the arts increasingly lags supply. Between 1998 and 2008 the number of artists, non-profit arts organizations and arts-related employment steadily grew, while attendance and funding delined.

But embedded in the guts of the 136 page report are lots of findings that deserve attention as well. Arts participation is actally slowly but steadily growing. What is declining is attendance at "mainstream" arts organizations, while at the same time personal creation of art is growing, and the number of community-based and culturally-specific arts groups is growing faster than the rate of the growth in the minority population and faster than the growth of nonprofit arts groups in general (AND, they are actually somewhat healthier financially, contrary to stereotype). Attendance at live popular music is stable - not declining, but not rising. Demand for arts education is also up significantly. The non-profit arts model is struggling, with nonprofit arts organizations steadily - and dramatically - losing market share to other causes; that index has declined from a high of 119.3 in 1999 to 98.9 in 2007. The drop-off in market share for the arts in corporate giving is especially dramatic, from 2.53 in 1999 to .85 in 2007. It is certainly even lower now.

Some statistics that feed into the Index show dramatic (if unsurprising) changes. CD and record store sales have essentially fallen off a cliff, dropping by 50% in the past 5 years. The index for "creative industry" businesses, covering a wide array of types of creative businesses, have grown dramatically, increasing from an index of 1.00 in 2003 to 1.25 in 2008. The number of people with visual and performing arts degrees has grown dramatically, in effect following or feeding the comparable dramatic growth in numbers of nonprofit arts organizations that presumably are employing many of them.

As Arthur Brooks of the American Enterprise Institute said at the press conference where the study was released, the study can be an important policy tool if we are open to the implications. We have adopted an attitude in the arts and funding community that it is a tragedy when an arts group dies. As a result we have frankly artificially kept alive too many arts group for both audience demad and funding capacity. This also makes it difficult for new artist-entrepreneurs that want to enter the market. We need to make it easier to "die with dignity," to create a culture that treats arts groups like restuarants - they come and go, shifting with public taste, quality of product, demographic changes, etc. Put the public still is being served their art, even if their "server" may change over time. We also need to meake it easier for artists to come together, make work for a period of time and disband or move on, without having to form an "institution."  We need to figure out how to support and foster not just nonprofit arts and culture organizations, but also new forms of art creation and distribution and art that happens in the for profit realm - digital music, live music clubs, video production, etc. We need to figure out how to better support and celebrate personal practice in the arts - singing, playing music, writing, painting and other forms of visual art creation, faith-based arts, etc.

Also curious about some measures that may or not be in the study. Did it look at digital downloads and file sharing as a measure of cultural participation? NetFlix rentals? Participation in church choirs? Even though live popular music particopation seems flat, I wonder how it breaks down by type of venue - are large arenas slipping while smaller, more intimate clubs are rising?  Even though there is a growth in NUMBER of community-based culturallly-specific organizations, is there a growth in attendance/particiopation at these organizations, and is that participation now "lumped in" with the other measures of participation? If so, if you take them out of the measure of nonprofit arts participation, are the numbers in fact even worse?

This long list of what we "need" to do, does not fit easily with our existing systems. Does it change the priority decisions that Americans for the Arts makes on what to advocate for?  For example, do we need to put as much energy into fostering a focus in Commerce and SBA on creative businesses, and/or on digital copyright issues, as now goes into advocating for more NEA $? What do we do at the local level? What about grant programs that won't or can't support for-profit arts businesses or non-professional activity. Are we focussing enough on the organizations that serve communities of color?

Somehow the story has to be made into a story of opportunity. Demand for the arts is not necessarily oustripping supply. Demand for the type of art our systems have been focussing on delivering in the way we have been delivering it seems to be slipping, even as the supply of these offerings have risen. People still very much want art to be a part of their lives. It is a critical part of the life of our growing immigrant populations, despite budget challenges it is an increasibly important part of the educational experience. Frankly, even with "traditional" arts groups, sales are actually flat or even up this year for most groups, according to what I am hearing, despite the difficult economy (though price per ticket may be down because people are seeking out cheaper tickets or free events). And there is growing research that shows people consider the arts critical in making choices about where they want to live or visit as leisure travellers.

I think the National Arts Index can be a rich opportunity to engage in a critically important dialogue, and I look forward to Randy Cohen from Americans for the Arts, who oversaw this research, coming to Philadelphia to break down the data and start the conversation going locally.

Friday, January 15, 2010

Interesting article in Next American City - can we be "cultural locavores"

This Web article from Next American City - Next American City » Daily Report » The Revolution Will be Locally Funded - proposes that there is an arts  counterpart to the "locavore" movement. “Could we take the tactics from sustainable food production and apply that to art production?” asks Jeff Hnilicka, cofounder of the Brooklyn organization FEAST, short for Funding Emerging Art with Sustainable Tactics.

I think between organizations like InLiquid and events like IgnitePhilly, and the Philly Fringe Festival there is definitely a movement here in Philly that is very place-based and about making, supporting and promoting local art and creative endeavors. Yet, at the same time there is the struggle to support these enterprises in the face of other competitive pressures. How to deal with art collectors who might dabble a bit buying local art but go to NY galleries and Art Basel to buy their "real" art? What about artists who are nurtured in Philly but as soon as they are able to get NY gallery/dealer representation abandon their local roots? And what about galleries that represent ONLY local artists and don't give Philadelphians a chance to experience artists from around the world, and collectors the opportunity to not HAVE to go to NY to buy work by artists of international stature? And the Fringe Festival now has the companion Live Arts Festival that brings in artists from around the country and the globe (as well as also highlighting some of our most innovative local artists such as Pig Iron Theatre. Is that evolution an abandonment of the local commitment or an exciting expansion that allows our local artists and audiences to experience an infusion of new art and energy?

A lot of questions and no answers but I think this dialogue, this balancing of a commitment to local art and artists while striving to be a world-class cultural center, is a conversation at the heart of where Philadelphia and its arts and creative economy scene are now.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Soul of the Community Report from Knight Foundation

A very interesting report called Soul of the Community was issued late in 2009 by the Gallup Poll and the Knight Foundation. It can be found at

The study seeks to answer three key questions:

  1. What makes a community a desirable place to live?
  2. What draws people to stake their future in it? 
  3. Are communities with more attached residents better off?

The study was launched in 2008, and 28,000 people have been interviewed in 26 communities over two years (including Philadelphia – the five county region). One more year will be included in the study with a final report being issued in 2010. The study found that three main qualities bind people to place:

  1. Special offerings such as entertainment and cultural venues that serve as places to meet – the top factor in 21 of the 26 communities. 
  2. Openness – how welcoming a place is to different types of people.
  3. The area’s aesthetics – it’s physical beauty and green spaces

Access to quality education (at all levels, K-12 and higher ed) was also an important factor.

These top three qualities remained consistent over the two year period. Economy eclipsed crime as the top concern in 2008, but neither of these factors was primary in driving the emotional attachment citizens have to their towns and cities. The study also looked at the connection between how passionate and loyal people are to their communities and economic growth. Researchers found a significant connection between the two -  the most attached communities had the highest local GDP growth. With other research Gallup has already shown that at the micro level increased employee emotional connection to a company leads directly to improved financial performance of that company. The same holds true for cities.

I think this research can serve as a persuasive new public policy tool in helping decision-makers understand the role that arts and culture play in a community, including open space and parks, architecture and the built environment. Arts groups play a critical role in providing the connective tissue of a community, creating places where people can come together and share communal experiences. The "openness" finding is also in keeping with Richard Florida's correlation between how welcoming a community is to the LGBT community and how successful it is at attracting and retaining creative workers.

Locally, Philadelphia’s aesthetics are seen as a community strength. However resident perceptions of social offerings and openness both showed need for improvement. This is what has in part been driving Knight’s investments in Philadelphia, such as the Benjamin Franklin Parkway improvements to make it into a more pedestrian friendly cultural destination, and investments in making the community more welcoming to local college graduates. The overall community attachment index, even with these weaknesses, was higher than the comparison group of comparably sized cities. 

The less than stellar performance in perception of social offerings surprised me, and indicates we have some work to do getting Philadelphia's citizens to recognize the assets available in their community and to take advantage of them. The poor openness showing was less surprising, in that Philadelphia is notoriously  insular, a City of neighborhoods filled with families who go back many generations in the City. However - speaking as a relatively new arrival - this is clearly changing. I have found the city to be warmly welcoming. So I think here as well perceptions have not kept pace with reality. The self-image Philadelphians have of their own city tends to be considerably more negative than reality. This was verified in the recent Travel + Leisure magazine poll on American cities, in which Philadelphia was ranked much more highly by visitors than it was by residents.

Monday, January 4, 2010

A Tribute to Peggy Amsterdam

Last week we lost a great human being, a great local and national arts leader, a great Philadelphia region civic leader. It has made celebrating the holidays and looking forward to the new year a challenge for so many of us.

I cannot claim to have been close personal friends of Peggy's, and after her extraordinarily beautiful memorial service, I especially know that is my loss.  But I was a professional colleague and acquaintance of hers for many years, and clearly the nature of my job and hers were intimately intertwined. She was in many ways my professional partner, with the work of the Cultural Alliance complementing and enhancing the work of the City's Office of Arts, Culture and the Creative Economy. A municipal agency cannot really engage in the sort of aggressive advocacy and political action that the Cultural Alliance under Peggy's leadership excelled at. And as many know, Peggy and her team tirelessly fought for the re-opening of the Office after it was closed several years ago in a previous administration.

I probably first got to know Peggy when she was directing Delaware's state arts agency. I was a program director for the New York State Council on the Arts in the late 80's and early 90's and stayed very much connected to the state arts agency world, and later when running the national Arts & Business Council, I was a frequent attender and speaker at the National Assembly of State Arts Agency  conferences.

When Arts & Business Council launched the National Arts Marketing Project in the late 90's, the Cultural Alliance - more than any other local arts entity in the nation - took the learnings of this program and transformed them into nationally-recognized and transformative initiatives: the FunGuide, Engage 2020, research. This was not just Peggy, this was also her strong staff, especially Tom Kaiden, but Peggy gave Tom the freedom to innovate, said yes to the right initiatives, and made the money materialize to turn ideas into reality. That's leadership.

When Arts & Business Council merged with Americans for the Arts in 2005 I began to work much more closely with local arts agencies, including Peggy and the Cultural Alliance. And then in the summer of 2008 Americans for the Arts held its annual convention here in Philadelphia, once again offering the opportunity for me to work closely with Peggy, who (once again with her crack team) pulled off one of the most successful conventions ever.

And of course, when I decided to come to Philadelphia to head the newly reopened Office of Arts, Culture and the Creative Economy, Peggy was right there to welcome me, advise me, encourage me. She made me feel at home right away. She helped organize a beautiful welcoming reception. With acuity and tact (and humor) she shared perceptions of people, issues, neighborhoods, skeletons in closets, etc.

Since last October, we have consulted with each other on an almost daily basis. I have served on her board, and she has served on the Mayor's Cultural Advisory Council. We have fought the battles of the arts tax and the Plan C "doomsday" budget together; we collaborated on a successful NEA stimulus grant program. And we BOTH served representing Philadelphia on the US Urban Arts Federation. When I attended the 2008 Cultural Alliance annual meeting I was blown away by the attendance of 700 arts leaders - I don't think any other local arts agency in the nation gets a turnout anywhere near this for their annual meeting. It is a visible sign of the community Peggy has helped build here.

She became for me a professional partner, a guide to the ins and outs of Phialdelphia, allowing me to make many fewer "newbie" mistakes than I otherwise would have, both most importantly she became a friend. And like those who knew her longer and more deeply than I did, I suspect over the years we will now not be able to share together, she would have become a deep, lifelong friend, the kind you can truly rely on to be there for you, because that is just the kind of person she was. Losing that opportunity is painful, but I am grateful I have had this past year and a half to work so closely with her.

I think the best tribute we can offer to Peggy would be to successfully create a dedicated regional revenue stream for the arts, a cause she fought for virtually her entire time in Philadelphia. Let's assign ourselves this task, and think of it as building a monument, not the traditional public sculpture (of which we have so many) - but a monument that will ensure the continued growth and survival of our extraordinary regional cultural sector. Now THAT'S a monument Peggy would be proud of - The Amsterdam Fund - I like the sound of it...