Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Animated Street Art from BLU

Couldn't resist sharing this new video from the graffiti/street artist from Italy, BLU. In this video he uses stop-motion animation techniques to transform street painting into an extraordinary animated film called Big Bang - Big Boom. I think this is especially interesting as it blends multiple art forms - street art, performance art (it is clear that many people had to have watched the creation of this as a work in progress) and eventually a film. When all of this is free, how does the artist make money?  For one, he sells prints, drawings and books via his Web site. This is all part of the convergence going on now: "outsider" artists are now "inside". Renegade street artists are now at the Tate Modern (as was BLU) and are selling coffee table books. Finding the line between "vandalism" and "art" is increasingly difficult. We ran into this in a small way recently with the Philagrafika art fair here in Philadelphia. A participating artist wanted to wheat-paste "broadsides" throughout the historic district on lamposts, benches, etc., as a way of introducing a populist, public art component to this festival of print-making in all its forms. Yet to the City and the local Business Improvement District, this was defacing public property. In the end we found a compromise - the flyers were not wheat-pasted, but tied on with string, which the folks who do the cleaning agreed to leave up. In the old days, the artist would have just wheat-pasted without asking, and the City would have just removed the "vandalism." And graffiti artist Steve Powers has now done A Love Letter For You with the Mural Arts Program, which was originally formed to fight graffiti artists like Powers. This was a brilliant project and another great example of the transformation that has been taking place for many years.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Is There a Creativity Crisis?

An article recently appeared in Newsweek called "The Creativity Crisis" that reported on some really disturbing new research. A test was developed back in 1957, the Torrance test, that is designed to measure creativity in a quantitative way as we also measure IQ. The Torrance test has shown a remarkable correlation between children demonstrating creativity and creative accomplishments in life - the high performers on the Torrance test go on to become inventors, college presidents, authors, diplomats, entrepreneurs, etc. The correlation to lifetime creativity is three times higher for childhood creativity than childhood IQ.

And now - as anyone who reads this blog or follows the news knows - creativity is more highly valued than ever. It is seen as the leading edge of innovation and increasingly critical to global business success. A recent IBM poll of 1500 CEOs found creativity to be the #1 "leadership competency" of the future.

Here is the rub - the data shows that "intelligence" as measured by IQ scores has consistently risen every year, as enriched environments have led to higher scores. In contrast, these new findings show that since 1990 creativity scores have consistently edged DOWNWARDS. And the decline among the youngest - K-6 - has been the steepest. A likely culprit identified is the hours spent in front of the TV and playing video games rather than being engaged in creative activities. Another possible cause is the almost complete lack of creative development in our schools.Nurturing creativity has become a global focus, with countries such as Britain making it a key national agenda for their school system. Even China, notoriously focused on rote learning, has done a 180, and is now trying to infuse their educational system with a focus on creativity. So what are we doing? Focusing on standardized testing and curriculum more than ever!

Another interesting twist to this research is debunking the idea that creativity is exclusive domain of the arts. While there is certainly a connection between creativity and the arts, creativity can be infused into math, science, virtually all academic areas. And the arts can be taught in such a deadly manner that it kills rather than nurtures creativity.

There is also some interesting exploration of the "right brain-left brain" phenomenon that debunks the idea that creativity is somehow handled only by the right brain. Creativity requires BOTH divergent and convergent thinking, dual activation of right and left brain.

The consensus is that creativity CAN be taught - not overnight - but that techniques do exist that if consistently applied, real improvement can be achieved in work and school.

The decline in creativity scores is alarming, but what do we do? What we need are coalitions that bring together the advocates for arts education with similar groups looking to foster science learning, math, engineering and entrepreneurship. Creativity is not an arts issue - it is an education issue and ultimately about creativity economic opportunity for our young people. A few years ago I sat at a table at a gala dinner with someone from the National Inventor's Hall of Fame, and we realized how much our missions and constituencies had in common - he noted that virtually all of their board members were creative people - musicians, writers, sculptors, who were also applying their creativity to inventions. Ironically, this Newsweek article profiles the new National Inventors Hall of Fame public middle school in Akron. With a fifth grad curriculum focused on creativity and experiential learning, in its first year the school has the third best scores in the city, despite an enrollment that has 42% of its students living in poverty.

But not all the news is bad. The recent Americans for the Arts National Arts Index study showed a modest rise in personal creation, one of the few bright spots in what was a mostly gloomy report. And NAAM, the international association of music merchants seems to be seeing steady increases in sales of musical instruments. The low cost of entry for personal creation and distribution has led to an explosion in development of iPhone apps, YouTube videos, DIY indy music production, self-published books, blogs, etc. How do reconcile these trends?  Is the Torrance test perhaps no longer measuring the right things? Or is it the "canary in the coal mine," pointing out a nascent trend that will only become more serious as those K-6 kids grow into adults?

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

The Greatest Sacrifice Arts Workers Make for the Arts

With all the financial challenges arts workers are facing these days - struggling to balance the budgets of their organizations, or dealing with salary and benefit cuts on compensation that was modest to begin with - it is easy to view the sacrifices people make to work in this field as being entirely financial.

Not to minimize the financial sacrifices - they ARE significant - but I would argue they are probably no more significant than a wide array of professions where people choose to devote themselves to the pursuit of "making the world a better place". This includes early childhood workers, teachers, social workers, the whole world of NGOs working in challenged communities, both domestically and abroad. And the sacrifices all these workers make are also not just financial. We all work long hours, and often under trying and unglamorous circumstances (though to outsiders arts work can seem glamorous).

No, I think the more significant - and unique - sacrifice arts workers make is that we lose the capacity for full, innocent and glorious enjoyment of the very art that our passion for drove us to make our life's work in the first place.  What do I mean by this?  Think about your earliest experiences with the arts, your first encounter with Matisse, or Chuck Close; your first time in the audience for Sondheim, or Verdi; that time you first saw Baryshnikov on stage, or Judith Jamison. Remember that childlike joy - even if you were not a child - that total immersion in the art where the whole world disappeared and you were unaware of time, of the person chewing gum next to you? Now tell, me when was the last time you felt that?  Sure, you are still passionate about the art form or all art forms, you still go to museums, or opera, or theatre, but something has been lost. Admit it.

You watch the other people in the museum, or audience members in the house, and a part of you is jealous of them, jealous of the fact that they can spend a day of doing SOMETHING ELSE - trading stocks, managing a supermarket, teaching 5th grade science - and come into the arts experience and be able to give themselves over to it, over and over, for their entire life.

And if you are honest, if you are a museum professional, you know every museum experience is now clouded by your inability to hold back that piece of your brain that is evaluating the exhibition installation, the lighting, the security guards, the signage, the curatorial decisions. And if you are a theatre professional, you are assessing the box office customer service, the curtain speech, the blocking, the casting. Fill in the blanks for your art form of  choice. If you do this for long enough, that piece of your brain is almost impossible to shut off; only the most truly transcendent arts experience is capable of silencing it, and even then maybe not entirely. Sadly, as one whose work crosses over into all art forms, this affliction haunts virtually EVERY cultural experience for me.

I am reminded of this phenomenon whenever I encounter any of those most passionate arts attenders and patrons - every community is filled with them. You know who I am talking about, that couple, perhaps in their fifties or sixties, who are not wealthy, but comfortable enough that they support many organizations in town at a reasonable - albeit modest - level. You see them at almost every opening night, or exhibition opening. They are passionate and knowledgeable about the arts, or maybe just the one or two art forms that really thrill them. They make their money doing something else, and derive great joy not just from experiencing the arts, but also from using their resources to help enable the arts. Perhaps sometimes their enthusiasm or eagerness seems a little naive or even annoying to you as a professional.

Well, I must admit, I increasingly wonder if I would not have been happier going into business or some other profession, and channeling my passion for the arts to being an avid attender/participant, a patron, a board member. I pine for the lost innocence of the cultural experience unsullied by the incessant yap of my "arts manager" brain. I feel like, relatively speaking, I have been able to make a difference in this profession, and am still energized about my work every day (and for that I am most grateful), but I wonder sometimes if the sacrifice has been too great. Do you?

I talked about this issue to a group of several hundred arts managers in NYC quite a few years ago, and of all the talks I have given over the years on a wide range of topics, this topic seemed to strike a powerful and painful chord. It has repeatedly come up since then in conversations with colleagues, so I thought it was time to write about it here.