Friday, September 19, 2014

Arts in Education Week Post: The Need for Arts Teachers

Arts in Education Week draws to a close tomorrow, so arts education is on my mind and in the air. A recent blog post by Alan Yaffe - here - that contended arts education advocacy should be focused more on art-making than art-viewing got me thinking. It is true, much energy goes into trying to get K-12 students to attend arts events, and that's wonderful and much-needed. We try to organize class trips, and bemoan the increasing challenges of getting access to buses, to getting the OK to leave school for an arts experience when the pressures of sticking to curriculum and "teaching to the test" are ever-present. And arts groups do all they can to provide "enrichment", to facilitate those out-of-school experiences and to also bring teaching artists or arts education programs into schools.

But ultimately, and I think virtually all arts groups and teaching artists engaged in this work would concur, the most important component is having qualified arts teachers in the school providing consistent day-in day-out arts instruction. And by arts instruction I don't mean just "appreciation" or preparation for an out of school experience, but the actual teaching of the practice of making art. And this is not just visual art and music - the two art forms most commonly offered in schools - but dance, theater, spoken word and media arts.

Increasingly, even when schools do have arts instruction, it is a single music or art teacher trying valiantly to serve an entire school, often providing only the most superficial level of arts instruction to each student, making it impossible to engage in high-level "art-making" education. When I was in Philadelphia, even before the recent massive budget woes, the school district pledged to achieve the goal of having ONE art OR music teacher in each school, and even that anemic goal was considered Utopian, given how far away it was from being attained.

How do we solve this challenge? Arts funders increasingly fund robust arts education programs operated by arts groups - symphony orchestra, dance companies, art museums, etc. - as well as by arts-education-specific organizations. And even if they don't directly fund such programs, increasingly the presence and quality of such programs is an important component of how grantees are evaluated. This is a very positive trend that has supported excellent programs throughout the country. The conundrum is that with rare exceptions funders DON'T fund the actual salaries of qualified arts teachers in schools. Even if it were possible, there is a strong sense that this cost should be borne as part of the school budget - that it is an essential educational expense, and that if funders took the cost on it would be a slippery slope and send exactly the wrong message - that arts were a frill and less important than math, science and other areas of instruction.

So it seems that what is needed is a refocusing or reframing of the arts education advocacy argument to more forcefully target the hiring and support of arts teachers in the schools. For all of the controversy recently around Teach for America (TFA), maybe we need an "Arts Teachers for America" program that recruits and pays artists to spend a couple of years (or more!) after school or grad school in a public school classroom as an arts teacher. Maybe arts conservatories could participate as partners, since a growing number of schools realize they must provide a more well-rounded education to their students so that they are better prepared for a career that will require teaching skills as well as business skills. Maybe the time commitment SHOULD be longer, to blunt the concern with TFA that teachers some in relatively unprepared and then don't actually spend enough time for the full benefit of their engagement to be realized. And even if the commitment is only a couple of years, maybe a significant portion of these artist-teachers would decide to stick with teaching.

Maybe something like this already exists but I don't know of it. Went on the TFA website, and even if they are placing arts teachers it is not mentioned anywhere, though they do reference the need for math and science teachers. There are some AmeriCorps arts programs but they seem to be widely dispersed and local (for example, a program in Maryland that is operated by Maryland Institute and College of Art). What about a major national effort, backed by the federal government and some major national foundations that provides matching funds for the hiring of new certified arts teachers in public school, requiring local investment as well? Maybe engage arts conservatory programs in the effort too. Many of them are frankly grappling with what is the "new normal" for their graduates. Increasingly even graduates from elite music conservatories like the Curtis Institute may find that their students cannot count on a career consisting just of playing for a good living wage for a major symphony orchestra. Their career is likely to now also involve teaching, and even if they secure one of the plum orchestra spots, that job too increasingly involves education and outreach. Not to mention that increasingly artists WANT to do this work - want to be more engaged in the community, to inspire young people; to use the term promoted by Yo-Yo Ma and Damian Woetzel in their Aspen Institute work, they want to be citizen artists. Curtis has in fact just launched the ArtistYear Fellowship program, part of the Aspen Institute's Franklin Project. This is a very promising development, and will place three recent grads in a year-long program of bringing music into Philadelphia under-served communities and schools. But it stops short of a more extended period of actually serving as in-school music teachers with the training to do the job.

A policy statement "Arts Education for America's Students: A Shared Endeavor" was recently endorsed by Americans for the Arts and a wide array of other leading arts education organizations. This document articulately lays out the complex web of players and practices that make for a strong arts education system, and it includes a useful "venn diagram" than shows the interrelationship of certified arts educators, community arts providers, and certified non-arts-educators. And I don't mean to undermine the value of this excellent statement or the importance of community arts providers, out-of-school experiences, etc. What I do mean to do is assert that the toughest - and perhaps most important - piece of this challenge is getting more certified arts educators in the schools, with a reasonable enough workload that they can truly serve their students in a deep, not superficial, way. School budget restrictions, hiring freezes, limitations on principal autonomy - all these and more contribute to how difficult it can be to tackle this aspect of the challenge. But let's acknowledge that it still remains hugely important and we need to have more strategies to tackle it. During my time in Philadelphia I watched the School District strive mightily to dramatically increase the number of arts teachers  - often challenged by being able to find enough qualified candidates - only to then have to turn around and implement massive layoffs when a huge budget gap opened. I observed first-hand that there was no substitute for an extraordinary arts teacher in the school, what a gift it was for those students lucky enough to have one of those teachers. Let's work harder to ensure more kids benefit from that gift...

Thursday, September 11, 2014


Tribute in Light - produced by Municipal Art Society -
I have never actually written about 9/11 in any of my blog posts, and can't say why exactly I feel compelled to do so this year. The obligatory Facebook post or tweet just seemed inadequate. Perhaps it is the timing of President Obama's speech about ISIS that emphasizes how much the terrorist threat remains real, how much this date 13 years ago marked a dramatic change in our world view.

In 2001 I was the President and CEO of the Arts & Business Council, based in New York City. In the early morning of 9/11/01, I was meeting with my board chair, Warren Bodow, and my board member Karen Brosius, then a senior executive in corporate philanthropy and marketing with Altria. We were meeting in Karen's office, on a high floor in the Altria headquarters on 41st and Park. As is often the case in corporate offices, Karen had a news channel - probably CNN - running on a TV in her office but muted. All of a sudden we saw the first report of a plane hitting one of the towers and turned the sound on to see what was happening. Even though initial reporting, as I recall, had not grasped the magnitude of what had happened, thinking it was a small plane that perhaps was out of control, this incident clearly halted the meeting and we all began watching the TV. Of course when the second plane hit, and the jet fuel-fed fires began to rage out of control, the true horror of what was going on became clear.

We walked over to Karen's colleague's office that was facing South with a totally clear unobstructed view of the towers. There we joined perhaps a dozen or so other Altria employees as we gazed out this huge picture window and watched the towers ablaze. Then, of course, we watched, and gasped,and cried, as the unthinkable happened; one by one, the towers fell, followed by the clouds of ash and smoke and debris that billowed and spread out across Lower Manhattan. I still remember glancing over and noticing that someone in the office was actually at their desk working through all of this. That is as indelible an image as the collapsing towers themselves. How could this be? How could any human being continue to do their work when this horror was going on right outside the window?

Once the enormity of what had happened sunk in, I decided I needed to check in with my staff at the office to find out how they were doing; I felt like I needed to be with my team. I had no way to be with - or even reach - my family because transit and phones were not working. The office was down on 27th and 6th, so I began walking south.As I walked downtown I was like a salmon swimming upstream, because I was beginning to pass the first wave of ghostly, white-powder-coated, shell-shocked survivors, making their way uptown. I passed an electronics store and realized we had a TV in the office but no cable or antenna, so I stopped in  to buy an old fashioned "rabbit ears" antenna. Hundreds of people were huddled around the TVs, watching the news unfold. I continued on to the office, where I found my frightened staff, desperate for news of what was going on. We connected the TV and got grainy reception of what I believe was the only station that had not had its broadcast antenna on the top of one of the towers (CBS?).  I was living in Westchester County at the time and it was sometime in the evening before Grand Central Station and Metro-North started running again. We stayed together at the office watching the numbing and often repetitive news coverage. But what was the choice? You could not stop watching and go do work. That seemed inhuman, like the woman in the Altria office. But it also was draining and deeply disturbing to sit in front of the TV and sink deeper into the realization of the extent of the loss. I suppose in the end, the actual loss of life was quite a bit less than it seemed it might be at the time. It initially seemed like tens of thousands of people might have perished given the scale of the destruction. Watching it happen - two 100+ story masses of concrete and steel - come crashing down it seemed like all of lower Manhattan must be flattened. My mother was actually working at St. Vincent's Hospital at the time in the Village, one of the closest hospitals to the site. They mobilized for the expected waves of injured, but ultimately it was a trickle - people either escaped mostly physically unharmed, or they were vaporized. there was very little in-between.

I suppose this had special resonance for me, as it did for so many. There was definitely "there but for the grace of God" aspect to the tragedy for me. I spent a great deal of time in the Towers, in the World Financial Center buildings that survived, and in the concourse underground. We regularly presented workshops in either American Express or Deloitte & Touche offices, usually in the same early morning time as the attack. If we had a workshop that morning I likely would have been in the concourse, and there is a good chance I would have been among the lost.

And the buildings themselves had been a part of my New York life since they were erected. From periodically visiting the observation deck for the unmatched views, to remembering Philippe Petit's famous tightrope walk between the towers. We had a big family birthday celebration for my grandmother in one of the Windows on the World private rooms, and I still remember our disappointment that the building was socked in by fog that day - it was as if the windows were painted white. Then suddenly, as if by magic, the fog swirled and dissipated in front of the window, and that glorious vista looking south and west opened up, and it literally felt like we were dining in the clouds. Soon after the fog swallowed us up again, but it made those few minutes of heaven all the sweeter for how fleeting the moment was.

Some years later, when I was working at the Alliance of Resident Theatres/NY, we had a staff outing to the bar at Windows on the World, the Hors D'Oeuverie - they had famously killer martinis. It was a surrealistically prescient evening. While we sat drinking our martinis and taking in the view (and people watching the largely tourist crowd) we began to notice a commotion by the window. Turns out someone on the observation deck on the other tower had climbed over the protective fence and was now sitting on a small ledge at the top of a sheer 1,368 foot drop. The crowd was mesmerized. . We watched the drama continue to unfold: security arriving and locking down the roof. SWAT team arriving and clearly strategizing what to do. Meanwhile this man calmly smoked a cigarette. And what could we do? We sneered at the callousness of the tourists videotaping it and snapping pictures, yet we were also transfixed. There was nothing one could do to help. Was it more inhuman to keep watching, or to simply get up and go home? So we watched - and drank - pretty much in stony silence, until we spotted a tethered SWAT officer creep out some sort of hatch above the ledge in the facade, just around the corner from the "jumper," who had apparently run out of cigarettes. Another officer was distracting him with an offer of a pack, and as he passed it over the fence, the other officer ran gingerly along the narrow ledge and grabbed the man from behind. And just like that he was whisked away: drama over, tragedy averted, tourists dissipated. And we quietly settled our bill and went our separate ways home.

So as day began to turn into evening on 9/11 and mass transit came back on line, we all began to filter out and head home, haunted by the specter of what had happened, and not really knowing what the future would bring.

In the coming days there was, of course, a "new AB-normal" - impromptu memorials of photographs and notes on fences all over town as people sought to locate missing friends or relatives, prompting spontaneous tears several times a day. News of people close to home who had been lost or lost someone close. And of course, while every life is precious, it does bring it home more powerfully when there is a personal connection. Our event planner's father - a prominent retired arts leader, served on the board of the City's cultural institutions pension fund. That board had been meeting on a high floor that morning and he was lost. The Lower Manhattan Cultural Council had a program that made vacant space available to artists in the towers, and one of those artists was in his studio working that morning - gone. And of course, more and more connections surfaced in the coming days - neighbors in Westchester and friends/acquaintances from all walks of life who were lost, or lost someone dear to them - investment bankers, administrative assistants, and of course all the uniformed service members and first members. Despite the vast size of New York City and the fact that the dead represented just a tiny fraction of the population, it seemed like EVERYONE in NY had some sort of connection.

My organization created a program - Arts For Hope, designed by the agency LaPlaca Cohen, and sponsored primarily by JP Morgan Chase, that I remain very proud of. It worked to help the community heal through the arts. It was disappointing to me that many in the arts community devoted their energies to raising funds to help arts groups recover. As much as I felt their financial pain, I believed strongly in the long run the arts would fare better if they in effect functioned as selfless "second responders" - being there for families, all of those grappling with grief, needing community, even distraction.

And I got deeply engaged in the contentious process that continues to this day of figuring out what the role for the arts was in the rebuilding of the site of the Towers and the entire neighborhood. American Express's River to River Festival was an important early way the arts contributed to bringing vibrancy back to Lower Manhattan. I still remember attending a Dar Williams concert right along the Hudson River just behind the World Financial Center Winter Garden. My then young daughter was with me - perhaps 12 years old at the time - and it was just one of those glorious, magical evenings. Family, great music, perfect weather, a beautiful setting. And I remember thinking for the first time that eventually things would get back to normal, that this City would heal. The Flea Theatre - based in Lower Manhattan - produced The Guys, a profoundly moving play about 9/11, that was made into a movie, and touched so many thousands of people. And I worked with a group of civic leaders to create a dedicated website service for family members of victims that gave them access to donated tickets and admission to just about every cultural and sports event in town. I believe the arts played a big role in the city's - and victim's families - emotional healing. The art project Tribute in Light - illustrated at the beginning of this piece - has also become an annual and iconic reminder - perhaps a better monument in its temporary way than the permanent monument and museum.

So here we are now, 13 years later. In the intervening years I have been divorced, remarried, had another daughter, and moved twice, first to Philadelphia for five years, and last year to Denver. So much has changed in my life. But a piece of me is still in New York, not just because I grew up there and spent the first part of my professional life there. But because of the experience of living through 9/11, the horror as well as the extraordinary bravery and humanity, of the community coming together. I also know that however profoundly this experience affected me, it still does not come close to all those families who on a beautiful September morning, in a flash,  lost husbands, wives, fathers, mothers, sisters, brothers, parents.

And, yes, for the first few months after 9/11 that great lumbering behemoth of a metropolis became a small town, a village, of neighbors taking care of one another.  And the role the arts played in that is one of the things that sustains my belief in its profound social value.

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Some Thoughts About the Arts and Philanthropy - From Aspen

Recently I spent some time with Carolyne Heldman of Aspen Public Radio for her program CrossCurrents, and the segment has just recently aired and been posted to their website. It was a wide-ranging interview covering how I got into the arts/philanthropy/policy world in the first place, my thoughts on the challenges arts groups face, and finally, the work of the Bonfils-Stanton Foundation and the state of the arts in Denver and Colorado. I thought my blog followers might find this worth listening to:

Carolyne was a great interviewer and got me talking about some things I am not sure I have talked about before - at least not to the media. And my apologies in advance to the many groups and programs I could have mentioned in the interview but didn't, or that got edited out. I was particularly aware in listening to it that in talking about Denver and Colorado's great cultural assets I cited all visual arts examples, and there are of course MANY important performing arts groups: the Symphony, Opera and Ballet companies, as well as Central City Opera, Wonderbound, Denver Center for the Performing Arts, and Curious Theatre, just to name a few. Given the Foundation's grant focus on the Denver metropolitan region, I also did not really talk about the out-sized (relative to population) cultural assets of Aspen  itself - from the Aspen Music Festival, to the Aspen Art Museum, to Anderson Ranch, to the Aspen Institute (especially the Ideas Festival) and JAS Jazz Aspen Snowmass, Aspen is truly an international cultural mecca. Even if they went unmentioned on-air, the least I can do is cite them here on my blog. It is inevitable in these conversations that there are some omissions, so I hope everyone will be understanding.

Frankly, I have been doing a lot of thinking lately about the extraordinary cultural assets of the Colorado mountain towns like Aspen, Vail and Telluride, and that combined with the cultural assets of Denver it is a pretty unprecedented concentration of world-class culture within just a few hours drive. Yet, from a consumer and patron standpoint, they have too often operated in different worlds. The cultural patrons and second home owners of Aspen and Vail for the most part fly in directly to those towns from wherever in the US or abroad they reside (whether commercial or private), and while they may change planes in Denver (or rent a car there) they don't really take advantage of the cultural offerings of the City. And this is a shame because the vast majority of them are culturally sophisticated people (and, yes, with wealth) who can and should be appreciating Denver's cultural assets. Also, the audiences for these Rocky Mountain town cultural assets tend to be largely national and international, with a pretty small local contingent - a shame given that these cultural offerings are so accessible to Denverites.

Similarly, the great cultural festivals in the mountain towns tend to overlook Denver artists and arts organizations when doing their programming. Because their audiences come from all over the nation and the world they tend to strive in their programming to present "the best" art, and there is a tendency to view local artists as being somehow lesser. While perhaps many years ago that perspective may have had some basis, in fact, I think some of the local arts groups ARE now world-class, and merit consideration. There is a role for these festivals to play in selectively introducing local artists to such a discerning audience. This came up recently in a story aired by Colorado Public Radio: "Few Colorado artists highlighted in international arts festivals in Rockies."  In that story State Film Commissioner Donald Zuckerman notes that the Telluride Film Festival is not really produced locally, but in Northern California, and that only 20% of its audience is from Colorado. And to quote directly from the CPR story: Garrett Ammon, the artistic director of Wonderbound, believes Colorado’s lack of showing at the big festivals has to do with the fact that perceptions about Colorado artists may still be stuck in the past. “I look at some of these big festivals in the mountains and they grew out of a very different time, when Colorado didn’t necessarily have a lot of cultural offerings," Ammon says. "If you’re looking to bring cultural experiences in, then you’re going to build the systems to do that.”

If would be great if we could get even a small share of the Aspen/Vail/Telluride summer arts crowds to spend some time in Denver getting to know its cultural riches, and would also be great if more of our great local arts groups and artists could occasionally find a place in the programming of the festivals. That said - not a bad problem to have in Colorado: so many breathtaking cultural experiences to go along with the breathtaking setting!

Wednesday, July 9, 2014

Some Thoughts on Denver's Cultural Life and Assets

A few months ago I  did an interview for the "One Day in Denver" film project that the Bonfils-Stanton Foundation supported. This is part of a larger One Day on Earth project, that on April 26 organized filmmakers in 11 cities to capture the issues and essence of their city over a 24 hour period ("Your Day. Your City. Your Future"). Have no idea how much if any of this footage will make it into the final film - there will be individual films for each city, as well as an edited feature-length film that will weave together all 11 cities. But I thought I would share this footage because it may help explain my passion for Denver and its cultural community!

Thursday, July 3, 2014

Art, Sustainability and Agriculture

Andrea Reynosa’s “John Street Pasture,” a public project at 1 John Street in Dumbo, Brooklyn, in collaboration with Brooklyn Grange, Alloy, & Smack Mellon (photograph by Etienne Frossard, courtesy of Smack Mellon)

Since I have written recently (here) about the many artists working at the intersection of art, science and nature, could not resist sharing this recent post from Hyperallergic about a new show and installation organized by Smack Mellon in Brooklyn's DUMBO of artists exploring urban agriculture and sustainability issues - FOODshed: Agriculture and Art in Action.

The project illustrated above - which is part of that group show - is also intended to address soil remediation on this site, which is something Mel Chin has addressed in his work for years, from Revival Field in 1990 through the Walker Art Center, to more recently Operation Paydirt in New Orleans.

Brooklyn (natch) even has an organization called the Center for Strategic Art and Agriculture. And a quick Googling of "art + agriculture" produces a plethora of organizations and programs all across the country, indeed around the world. There is a group, Art4Agriculture, in Australia. And The Fields Project takes its inspiration from a group of artists from the Art Institute of Chicago that in 1898 founded the Eagles Nest Art Colony to "bring art and agriculture together." (This is clearly not a new concept.)

PHOTO: Cribs, Installation by Brenda Baker Farm/Art DTour 2012
And, of course, this is not just an "urban agriculture" phenomenon. There are many extraordinary organizations and artists bring art and agriculture together in rural areas of the country - the "heartland". A great example is the work of Wormfarm in rural Wisconsin, which produces Farm/Art DTour (and a related project called Food Chain), supported by ArtPlace America - "a 10-day 50 mile, self guided tour through scenic farmland punctuated by temporary art installations."

And, finally, in my little art and agriculture snapshot, I would be remiss if I did not mention Colorado's own M12 collective. This is a group of artists based in the high plains of Colorado that "explores the aesthetics of rural cultures and landscapes." They have done projects all over the world. Pictured above is their base of operations, the Feed Store, in Byers, Colorado.

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

What Philanthropy Trends Do Arts Leaders Need To Be Aware Of?

Gary Steuer leading a roundtable at the Americans for the Arts Convention in Nashville, 2014 (c) Americans for the Arts
At this year's Americans for the Arts convention in Nashville, which ended on Sunday, I had the pleasure of hosting two roundtable conversations on trends in philanthropy. As often happens with such occasions it provided the impetus for me to give some thought to what was I seeing in the philanthropic field that arts groups need to be aware of. This is of particular interest to me because I think all too often arts leaders are not watching closely enough overall philanthropic trends and thinking, and therefore are taken by surprise when a funder shifts course in a way that affects prospects for support. Yet these course shifts are often predictable if you are watching the winds, and if you understand where they are coming from, you may have an opportunity to make a persuasive case that your arts program can help get them where they want to go (rather than being left in the wake, to stretch the nautical metaphor further).

To help guide the conversation I prepared a list of recent articles on philanthropic trends/strategies that I felt would be helpful: Strategic Philanthropy, Effective Altruism, Collective Impact, Mission Investing, Giving While Living, and Emergent Philanthropy. I am sure there other "buzz-words" or trends I could have included - feel free to share your own in the comments. I was also informed by a recent talk by Sterling Speirn, former head of the Kellogg Foundation, who spoke at a luncheon for the Colorado Association of Funders - very informative and thought-provoking! (Here is a link to a TedX talk he gave on mission investing.)  Here is my reading list:

Strategic Philanthropy (Outcome-Oriented Philanthropy) -

Effective Altruism -

Collective Impact –

Impact Investing/Mission-related Investing -

Giving While Living – Limited Life Foundations –

Emergent Philanthropy –

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Art, Science and Nature

The focus on STEAM learning has rightfully raised awareness of the significant role the arts can play as part of an integrated curriculum including science, technology, engineering and math. in fostering creativity and innovation in our young people and cultivating a 21st century workforce.

BUT, I want to focus here on the phenomenon - which I would contend just from my anecdotal observation is growing - of artists whose work is grounded in exploration of science, nature and technology. And I am not talking about traditional plein air nature painting, but about work that is based on or uses scientific principles and natural phenomenon, or perhaps educates us about science through the art. I find this thread of art-making to be especially fascinating and thought-provoking. This is something I observed in my time in New York, as well as Philadelphia, that I have also seen bubbling up in Denver. There is even an organization, Art and Science Collaborations Inc. (ASCI) that was founded by Cynthia Pannucci in 1988. Lots of great information on their Web site.

The variety of work is so broad and diverse. Here is a round-up of some work of note - recent and not. Not intended to be definitive, just a flavor of the variety of work that is going on in this vein that I have come to know over the years.

Rachel Sussman's stunning photographs documenting the world's oldest living things:

La Llareta (up to 3,000 years old; Atacama Desert, Chile); (c) Rachel Sussman

Diane Burko's photographs and paintings exploring the effects of climate change:

Khumbu Icefall Everest, I & II, May/June 2010 , Oil on canvas, 48 x 74 inches  (image is one part of a diptych)
(c) Diane Burko

And of course there is Mel Chin's work, from his 1991 Revival Field project, using plants to draw toxins out of the soil, to his "Operation Paydirt - Fundred Dollar Bill" project designed to address the challenge of lead contaminated soil in New Orleans:

Mel Chin, Revival Field, 1991

Mel Chin - Operation Paydirt; 2007 - ongoing

Here in Denver there is Todd Siler, and MIT-trained visual artist whose work explores brain science - how the mind works, how we innovate. He has also used his combined training in art and science to do a lot of arts-based learning work for business:

One of Todd Siler's "Metaphorm" pieces - Mind Icons, 1991

And back when I was in New York, I encountered the work of Mierle Laderman Ukeles, one of the first artists I encountered working in this space, whose was making art to address the issue of waste, sanitation and recycling and since 1977 has been the artist-in-residence for the New York City Department of Sanitation, doing a  lot of work at the Fresh Kills landfill site on Staten Island. For this blog entry I just learned she was actually born in Denver!:

Still from Penetration and Transparency: Morphed, 2001-2002,
6 channel video
part of Phase I Reconnaissance as Percent for Art Artist of Fresh Kills
New York City Department of Sanitation 

When I was in Milwaukee several years ago for the Americans for the Arts conference, I encountered the astonishing work of Chuck Hoberman at the then-brand-new Discovery World at Pier Wisconsin (a combination science museum/aquarium) - his DNA-based "Expanding Helicoid" (video below).  An artist-engineer (hyphenates are common in this work), he is perhaps best known to the general public for his design of the "Hoberman Sphere", a version of which is in many museum gift shops and design stores.

Friday, March 14, 2014

Should We Be Giving Our Product Away?

Image courtesy of Wired
At last fall's National Innovation Summit for Arts and Culture, organized by EmcArts, the Artistic Director of Mixed Blood Theatre in Minneapolis, Jack Reuler gave a great talk about what they have called "radical hospitality." One aspect of that philosophy has been providing free admission to all their performances, recognizing that cost was a significant barrier to building diverse audiences. Here is a link to a video of Jack's talk. And here is a new interview on HowlRound with Aditi Kapil of Mixed Blood, talking about "the business case for radical hospitality." The case for "free" was also made a few years ago by Chris Anderson in Wired Magazine: Free! Why $0.00 Is The Future of Businesslater followed by a book called Free: The Future of a Radical Price.

While for many theatres - or other art forms - such a move may be unthinkable, this strategy may not be as crazy or unfeasible as it may seem. This debate has also come up locally in Denver, raised by reporter Ray Rinaldi of the Denver Post in relation to museums. In a provocative article last year, he proposed (among other ideas) that all museums should be free.

Of course, the Metropolitan Museum of Art has for years had a "pay what you wish" policy that has periodically (and recently) come under fire for not really aggressively making the public aware they are not obligated to pay the posted admission price, which as a result many visitors do (average admission paid is $11 out of a $25 current suggested price). And all the Federal sites are free, from the Smithsonian museums to National Park Service museums and sites. A performing arts example is the long-standing Public Theatre's Shakespeare in the Park in New York City, which is made possible by major corporate sponsorship and philanthropic support; and there are many other orchestra/opera/theatre in-the-park examples. Of course, all/most these entities have compensating benefits - significant federal or city support, publicly owned and maintained facilities, etc.

I am aware of non-public museums that might actually consider free admission, but frankly feel that even a modest admission has two very important effects - 1) it causes the public to VALUE the experience in a way they may not if it is free; 2) many fear that completely free admission would attract large numbers of homeless, especially on days of inclement weather, as has been the case sometimes for libraries. And, of course, most museums truly rely on admission revenue, as performing arts group rely on ticket revenue, though not on average at the same percentage of their budget.

However, this whole debate reminds me of my economics of the arts studies in business school, where one of the issues we talked about was the price elasticity of demand. The professor hypothesized that theoretically if ONE person were willing to pay $100,000 for a ticket, if they placed that high a value on the experience, then the strategy to maximize revenue would seem to be to charge $100,00/ticket. But of course, we would never do this because: 1) theatre - and all performing arts - are communal experiences; the audience shapes the artistic product - sitting in a theatre alone would diminish the audience experience, as well as affect the performers too. 2) maximizing ticket revenue is not the sole goal of a theatre from a revenue standpoint, the objective is to maximize total revenue. Obviously nobody would fund an audience of one. This is an extreme exaggeration to make a point that pricing in the arts is more complex than in other industries. Essentially you are looking to charge the highest average price that will generate the highest total revenue PLUS comes closest to consistently filling the house. And when you do this there will be an area within the price sensitivity chart where the price you have chosen to maximize total revenue is lower than what certain - maybe many - patrons would have paid for their ticket. So it becomes the goal of fundraising to find a way to create opportunities for those patrons to contribute to the organization this gap between the value they place on the performance and the price they were charged.

This is why so-called  "dynamic pricing" has become so popular in the performing arts (and other industries, like airlines and hotels) - charge more to those who want the convenience and predictability of booking specific seats for a specific performance far in advance, but as the date of the performance approaches adjust pricing to drive ticket purchase to empty areas of the house to fill the remaining seats. But again, traditional dynamic pricing does not entirely factor in the important issue of contributed revenue in the nonprofit arts. Will patrons paying top dollar for seats resent someone sitting next to them who has paid half the price? (Of course, assuming they would somehow know this) And will this diminish their desire to provide additional support? Or will people eventually figure this out and take their chances and wait until closer to  the performance to book their tickets, taking advantage of lower prices? Many arts groups have found ways to make this strategy work for them and deal with these nuances. A Colorado-based firm, TRG, has been a leader in promoting this pricing strategy, which while successful for many groups, has not been without its detractors, as covered a couple of years ago in the Denver Post.

So, the question becomes: What if we take this to an extreme, go the Chris Anderson route, the Mixed Blood Theatre route? If you "give it away" - whether free tickets or free admission - can you effectively replace that revenue with other income? Will funders/sponsors support you at higher levels because you have larger and more diverse audiences? Will you be able to capture in voluntary donations from many patrons the equivalent of what they would have paid for tickets? How much money would you save from dropping the machinery if ticketing/admission sales? Can you develop "premium" services or ancillary paid services that generate compensating revenue? At the largest scale, look at Google, which to consumers is entirely free - the search engine is free, Chrome is free, Gmail is free, Google Docs is free, Blogger is free (which allows this blog to be created and distributed) etc. - they are, in fact "giving it away" yet in the last quarter of 2013 they brought in almost $17 billion in revenue, and they now have a market cap that exceeds $400 billion.

Can we, in effect,  develop the arts equivalent of Google?

Thursday, March 6, 2014

Does Art Have a Terroir?

Andrew Taylor's newest blog entry, essentially expounds on another recent blog post written by Sarah Lutman. I have enormous respect for both these thought leaders, and think the issue they explore is critically important, especially in light of the growth in attention to "Creative Placemaking."

Sarah, who used to run the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra, muses about the current state of the Minnesota Orchestra, and uses the analogy of wine to argue for arts groups that are more deeply rooted to and OF their place. In wine, there is vins d'effort - wine of effort - meaning that that is the product of the work of the winemaker, versus vin de terroir - wine of place, or land that is a purer expression of where the wine is from - soil, climate, topography, etc. It does raise the legitimate question of the homogeneity of so many arts organizations, especially in the "classical" arts world. Every orchestra is striving to achieve a generic, global, objective of artistic quality and repertoire.

But what would the Minnesota Orchestra look like if it was striving to be a pure reflection of the soil from which it was made, of the culture and unique quality of Minnesota? Could an orchestra focus on making a special effort to hire local musicians - not traditional blind auditions to hire the "best" french horn player in the country you are able to lure to your city, but maybe cultivate and hire the best french horn player who is either from the community or has come to the community to live/study? Maybe if Bluegrass is your local music form, you become the definitive orchestra that weaves bluegrass into an orchestral approach - turning your violin section into a fiddle section.

I really find this wine analogy intriguing and useful - are too many of our arts organizations "vins d'effort", producing art that is professional, and maybe even occasionally transcendent, but is not OF the place that produced it, in some deeply visceral way? Is this part of our challenge? And even though Sarah raises this in the context of orchestras I think it has applications across all art forms.

I see a positive local example of this in the Denver Art Museum, definitely one of the country's top tier encyclopedic art museums. BUT it is not, nor will it ever be (nor should it perhaps even aspire to be) the Metropolitan Museum, the Philadelphia Museum of Art, the Art Institute of Chicago or Museum of Fine Arts Boston. Its personality, collection and programming reflect this place - this frontier community that is rooted in Western tradition but now a global center of newness and reinvention and merging the built environment and urbanity with natural beauty and wilderness. The Libeskind-designed expanded building itself literally mirrors the mountains that loom beyond. The collection is grounded in probably the best collection of Western art held by any museum, and also very strong Native American and pre-Colombian collections. And even though traditional shows like the current Modern Masters, that showcases the extraordinary modern art collection of the Albright-Knox in Buffalo, are certainly an important component of programming, the permanent collection, the building itself, the family programming, the programming for younger professional/adult audiences, has a quality that is unique to Denver. It is not the Denver Art Museum climbing up some virtual ladder of museum world significance to move up a rung or two. It is a Denver Art Museum aspiring to be the best museum to both serve and reflect this community through great art and the ideas generated by great art. If it does that well it IS a great global museum, but it is also embraced and loved by the community and going there becomes an experience that is part of experiencing Denver. It is not like the museum equivalent of being in a Starbucks or McDonalds where it does not matter what City you are in - where instead of getting your consistently delivered latte or Big Mac you are getting your consistently delivered Renoir or Van Gogh.

Finally, it is important to note - as Sarah does - that this is NOT creative placemaking, as it is being discussed now by ArtPlace and others. One strategy tries to improve a place through arts and culture; the other tries to make art that reflects that community. But I would argue the two are linked in that art that is rooted in place - that is terroir focused - may have a better chance, in today's world of homogeneity, to resonate with the public, to be embraced, to be supported. When THAT happens, art can play a crucial role in fostering residents of a community to become more attached to place, as the Knight Foundation found in the Soul of the Community studies a few years ago. I'll drink to that!

Images: Denver Art Museum, Ferarri Vineyard

Thursday, January 16, 2014

A New Name...A New City

Now that I am fully settled here in Denver, I have decided it is time to change the name of my blog, "Arts, Culture and Creative Economy", which has been at the URL to The full name will now be "Mile High Musings on Arts, Culture, Creativity and Philanthropy" - a bit long for a URL!

I am not sure if websites that have my existing blog or specific entries linked will direct traffic to the new name, so to be safe please update any links to the new URL and help spread the world.

Apologies for any inconvenience, but did not want to promote any confusion with my former position at the City of Philadelphia's Office of Arts, Culture and the Creative Economy. All posts will remain on this blog, and my content focus will not be changing, other than the inevitable shift in geographic emphasis from Philadelphia to Denver, and from culture in a City government context to a foundation philanthropy context.

But I always strive to make my entries broadly relevant beyond just the immediate locality, and the professional confines of my position, and will continue to do so.

Hope you will continue to read and follow!