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April 22, 2005

If you ran the government

Only time for a short link today, but one well worth your time. The UK's Guardian put a fascinating question to 50 cultural and civic leaders regarding the purpose and function of government support for the arts. The question, in a nutshell, is 'What would you do for culture if you were running the next government?'

It's the kind of question that demands more than just criticism as a response, but positive steps as well. Some of the respondents actually stepped up to the challenge. Take a look.

Posted at 10:11 AM | permalink | Post a Comment!

April 21, 2005

The power of 'slacktivism'

Have you received an earnest e-mail from a friend or colleague lately, with some impassioned call to action, and a request to sign the bottom and e-mail the e-petition on to all your other e-friends? Perhaps the message had to do with the impending destruction of the NEA, NPR, CPB, or other public cultural agency. Perhaps it shared the story of a young cancer victim in England, hoping to gather enough greeting cards to break a world record.

This is the powerful impulse of 'slacktivism,' an on-line trend that combines our internal need to make a difference with the personal inertia that keeps us from actually making an effort. According to this article on the subject:

Slacktivism, the phrase itself a rather lazy haemorrhaging of the two words slacker and activism, is the counter-intuitive idea that you can somehow change the world and topple its complacent political classes without even rising from your chair.

Problem is, the effort required to forward an e-petition is about equal to its effectiveness in influencing public policy, philanthropy, and social causes (ie, zero). According to this diatribe on e-mail slactivism, even the most well-thought-out and directed effort would have no impact whatsoever:

Those in a position to influence anything...accord e-petitions only slightly more respect than they would a blank sheet of paper. Thus, even the best written, properly addressed, and lovingly delivered e-petitions whose every signature was scrupulously vetted by the petition's creator fall into the same vortex of disbelief at the receiving end that less carefully shepherded missives find themselves relegated to.

So where's the harm? It only takes a few seconds, and it doesn't generate any excess landfill waste. Well, just consider the cumulative power of those few seconds, multiplied by a million. Then consider the loss of personal momentum when you've forwarded such a message, and figure you've done your good deed for the day. Finally, consider the fact that many such messages are out of date, out of touch, or just plain wrong.

For example, consider the story of that young cancer victim collecting greeting cards. Yes, there was and is a Craig Shergold. And yes, he did have a brain tumor at age 9. And yes, an actual plea was sent out in 1989 for greeting cards. And yes, he made the world record books by 1991. Problem is, the e-mail didn't stop circulating, and the cards didn't stop coming (and thanks to a revised version of the e-mail, business cards started coming, as well). Now cancer-free and 26 years old, Craig Shergold is still beseiged by mailings from around the world, and frankly wishes they would stop (so does the Make-a-Wish Foundation).

Imagine if even a fraction of that collective energy (and postage) was directed toward a cause that still existed.

Posted at 08:38 AM | permalink | Post a Comment!

April 20, 2005

Building stale metaphors in stone

The design and construction of a new cultural facility is a unique moment in the life of an arts organization or arts community. It's a chance to rethink how arts and audiences connect, how works are produced, how thriving ecologies of innovation and meaningful experience are structured and sustained.

But there's a fascinating tension in cultural facility design between what might be possible with a clean slate, and what our artistic and management traditions tell us will work.

Case in point: the design of the modern box office. I've seen more than one brand new performing arts space lately with a box office that looks like an age-old box office -- fully enclosed, teller windows, separation glass, stanchions and velvet rope to mark the place to stand in line. They are built in beautiful stone and glass, I'll admit, but they are nonetheless ossified evidence of an old metaphor: box office as bank.

In the olden days, box offices were centers of cash transactions, requiring high security, complete isolation between tellers, and immovable blast walls between patron and staff. Even though the cash transaction is all but gone for ticket purchases, the metaphor remains: we are secure, we are separate, we are transactional, we don't trust you...get in line.

Yet if you enter an upscale bank these days, you'll see a different metaphor at work: sofas, sitting areas, carpeting, countertops rather than teller windows. In some cases, there aren't tellers at all, just personal financial assistants at desks or tables. The symbolism isn't intimidation, but personal attention and service. For an example, just check out this bank in Portland, described by its design firm as follows:

Part upscale hotel, part retail (and a little bank), Umpqua's innovative new store invites customers to read the paper, enjoy a free cup of coffee, surf the Internet, and shop for banking products. While some banks discourage customers from entering a bank branch and other banks compete against the Internet to provide convenience and speed, Umpqua's new store inspires and encourages its customers to relax and take their time when making financial decisions.

So, why can't a cultural facility team rethink its ticket office in a similar way? The design consultants will likely point at the current box office staff, saying ''we tried to show them a new way to conceive of their sales area, but they are luddites.'' The current box office staff will likely point at the expensive design consultants, saying, ''they offered systems that would break, that weren't tested, and that cost an arm and a leg to build and operate...we're running a revenue center here. And we know what works.''

Of course, they are both right. The box office must often be a machine of efficiency, and has important elements of transaction. But, as more patrons buy tickets on-line, and as fewer (if any) use cash, the rigid security and separateness of a ticket sales area isn't necessary anymore.

Consider, for example, the new Museum of Modern Art in New York, where the admissions area is just a large social space with several long tables. During business hours, these are the membership and ticketing stations. After hours, all equipment is tucked away to make reception space, and the transaction tables become buffets and bars.

Or, even more radical, why have a box office at all? The same functions could be managed by a killer web site, an off-site phone center, and an on-site roving band of service representatives carrying handheld computers and belt-clip portable printers (like this one or others).

I'm not saying that's the answer. I'm just suggesting that we question the metaphors that shape these buildings (and there are plenty of others worth questioning), before we encode them with stone.

Posted at 12:21 AM | permalink | Post a Comment!

April 18, 2005

Seems like only a decade ago

MIT's Technology Review recently reprinted an article from April 1995 describing the then-emerging World Wide Web, just to remind us all how new the phenomenon is to our hectic world. A mere decade ago, technology students were drafting their first home pages, a few companies were sticking a big toe into this new idea for on-line communications, and a handful of starry-eyed reporters were starting to ramp up their utopian hyperbole about the new age of equality and opportunity.

When the article was written, there were about 10,000 web servers in operation (the Internet-connected computers that hold web content). Just for a little scale, this month a web statistics site found 62,286,451 servers on-line, a gain of 1.7 million servers from just one month before (a million new servers a month is fairly routine these days).

This is not to be all gee whiz about the growth of the web protocol (although, it is pretty gee whiz), but more to remind us all how young this particular form of communication is. It may be pervasive now, but only a decade ago, the web was the realm of geeks. So if anyone at a conference or in a consultancy tells you they know where the web is right now, and where it's going next, you can be sure about one thing: they are wrong.

Posted at 08:40 AM | permalink | Post a Comment!

April 15, 2005

The big cultural nonprofit as nation state

Eamonn Kelly, president and CEO of the Global Business Network (a futurist think tank of sorts), knows something about the future -- or at least how individuals and groups can project dynamic trends into what might be someday. So, it's interesting to hear his perspective on the next 500 years of civilization...especially when he can deliver it in 20 minutes or less.

Boldness or lunacy led him to do just that this past December at the Scottish Parliament Futures Event, and his brief speech is available on-line through GBN.

Two take-aways for me, relating to the world of arts and culture, are his points about how and why countries should be involved in a global dialog, and how we are woefully limited in our perception of solutions. I'll take each in turn.

First, Kelly says that one of his larger 'mind-changes' in how he views the future is in the scope and purpose behind any country's involvement in a global dialog. Instead of focusing global conversations only on improving their own lot, he suggests countries like Scotland should engage in a conversation because they can inform the future for everyone. Says he:

....increasingly I've concluded, with the issues that are in play at the moment in the world, that it's important for Scotland to engage with the global conversation, not just to create a better Scotland. Because I truly believe that Scotland has a role in creating a better world. It's a major shift in my thinking in terms of the aspiration for a group of this sort. The world is in flux at the moment and it's going to be recast and reshaped in the coming decade or two. I truly believe that Scotland and the Scots can play a significant role in helping to recast and reshape the future that we are all going to exist in globally.

Second (at least my second, he has more), he wonders about our limited view of solutions to world conflicts...particularly our obsessive focus on 'nation states' as the appropriate scale of intervention and resolution. Says he again:

In the twenty-first century I think the nation state is becoming an increasingly meaningless concept -- yet it’s the only real form of government we have in the world. If we look at what’s happening in Iraq right now, for example, we are absolutely dedicated to retaining that nation with elections for the whole nation. Nobody is talking about whether we could do elections in cities. Nobody is talking about whether Iraq should be split into regions. Nobody is talking about anything other than the nation state. It is completely locked into our consciousness as the form of government.

How does this relate to arts and culture? For me, these two issues strike at the heart of our current conversations as an industry facing structural challenges and seizmic change. To the first point, for all of our preaching about the arts as an engaged element of a vital society, the true motivation for most conversations I've been in has been to preserve our way of doing things (sustaining a symphony, preserving the nonprofit form, shuffling revenue streams to maintain business almost as usual). But, in fact, arts and cultural leaders have a central role to play in a larger conversation...not always because it is in their organizational self interest to do so.

The second point is much like the first, and I've made it several times before: the large, centralized nonprofit (our version of the nation state) is not the one best way to produce, preserve, deliver, and sustain authentic cultural and creative experiences. If we opened our eyes to other options and opportunities, we could go far in advancing our stated missions even as we reluctantly sideline our traditional means of achieving them.

Preachy, preachy, I know...and probably an awful stretch of global futurism to fit U.S. cultural practice. But this is a weblog, after all, home of the unaccountable provocateur.

Posted at 08:40 AM | permalink | Post a Comment!

April 14, 2005

When you say it with money, you mean it

A reader comment to a previous post let me know about the Canadian $20 note, and its specific emphasis on the arts. I already had a warm spot in my heart for my northern neighbors, after spending two days talking with them about 'the healthy arts leader' and the importance of a supported and engaged workforce in the nonprofit arts. Now I admire them even more.

$20 noteThe Canadian $20 has the queen on the front (God save her, by the way), and a themed series of images on the back, celebrating Canadian arts and culture. The quote on the bill comes from Canadian author Gabrielle Roy, and speaks to the identity and expression that comes to a country and its people through the arts:

''Could we ever know each other in the slightest without the arts?''

It's a far cry from the Federalist practicality of U.S. currency, which says, instead:

This note is legal tender for all debts, public and private.

and

In God we trust.
(Note a really interesting history of that phrase on our currency.)

Currency is a shared fiction, a printed piece of parchment that is worth something because we all believe it to be. How cool to use this bit of symbolism to express the other things a country believes to be important (and to include the arts among them).

What else do Canadians believe in? Here's the breakdown of all the currency in the same series:

  • $100 - Exploration and innovation
  • $50 - Nation building
  • $20 - Arts and culture
  • $10 - Remembrance and peacekeeping
  • $5 - Children at play

Posted at 08:31 AM | permalink | Post a Comment!

April 13, 2005

Reconnecting science and art

A short piece in New Music Box reminds us of the close and symbiotic connections between art and science, despite the efforts of the past few centuries to separate the two:

In the modern world, we have seen scientific knowledge assume a status as the most valuable or authoritative kind of knowledge, while artistic knowledge and intelligence is relegated to a secondary status....Yet equations are metaphors for reality and perhaps have more similarity to art than we might usually accord them.

It's a topic explored in several books, one favorite being Jamie James' Music of the Spheres, where he laments the lost connections that came with the Industrial Revolution:

After the revelations of modern scientific enquiry, educated people will never again be able to face the universe, now unimaginably complex, with anything like the serenity and certitude that existed for most of our history

With all the battles in universities and public schools between emphasizing math or art, science or music, technical or creative writing, we lose the larger point. These are all 'ways of knowing,' and all required for an elegant engagement with our world.

Posted at 08:46 AM | permalink | Post a Comment!

April 12, 2005

A hammer or a sponge

I was part of a fascinating conversation of 'new business models for the arts' the other day. The general set-up was that the nonprofit corporate form is showing some wear, and that the downsides of the model (its tendendency toward undercapitalization, organizational isolation, plodding governance structures, cumbersome and demanding funding sources, etc.) are coming to outweigh the benefits.

Our impulse for framing the question is to ask what other business models are available. If the 501(c)3 is not the future of the arts, then what? But, as is often the case, that impulse question may be leading us in unproductive directions.

Imagine that you're working at a hardware store, and a customer comes in with a basic question: ''Should I use a hammer or a sponge?''

Odds are, since you're a good hardware store clerk, the first response out of your mouth would be another question: ''What, exactly, do you need to do?'' A hammer is quite useful for certain tasks, and quite useless for soaking up water. A sponge is also effective when set to an appropriate use, but not great at pounding in a nail. For some jobs, it would be wise to have both tools, and some others, as well.

The question about the next business model for the non-market-supported arts is quite similar to the hardware customer's question. What business model should you use? What, exactly, do you want to do?

There are dozens of corporate and organizational forms, and thousands of combinations of those forms: S Corporation, C Corporation, LLC, LLP, sole proprietorship, non-stock corporation, unincorporated group, impromptu gathering, municipal entity, quasi-governmental authority, subsidiary, fiscal sponsor, etc. None of these are particularly new. And all of them can be useful tools for advancing a creative cause. Further, the traditional nonprofit form still is quite handy, as well, and will often play a part in the final mix.

As is common in human endeavor (but particularly common to the nonprofit arts) we seem to have confused the tools we use with the job we had in mind. We are not about the nonprofit structure, we are about the artist, the audience, the art, and the places where they meet. We just use that corporate form to accomplish our goals.

So perhaps when we find ourselves considering the next business model for the arts, we should pause our mad dash toward business models and, instead, describe what we want to accomplish, and the barriers and opportunities that stand in our way. There are plenty of tools available to us, and through policy we can even make more. But first, we need to describe the task.

Posted at 08:43 AM | permalink | Comments (2)

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