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You Know The Type, They Only Want One Thing–Your Fund Raising Ability

If you ever doubted that executive director positions were all about the fundraising and light on requiring artistic vision, the recent news about the firing of Ft. Worth Opera general director will disabuse you of that notion. It was with some dismay that I read about his firing due to lack of creativity when it came to fund raising.

Now I don’t intend to understate the importance of strong fund raising. I probably would have just scanned the Dallas Morning News piece and moved on with my day. While unfortunate, organization leaders get fired or resign fairly frequently.

Except that as I read on it struck me that Woods wasn’t an idler as general director. Every sentence brought accolades for different accomplishments. He brought the opera to greater prominence, navigated challenges with performance facilities, engaged in some innovative programming that appears to have interested a larger segment of the community, and yes, did a respectable job with fund raising against a shortfall.

Just to be sure the Dallas Morning News writer wasn’t personally biased, I sought other reporting on the firing and they seemed to agree on these basic facts. All in all, he didn’t sound like someone you would want to blithely part ways with.

Certainly, there may be some underlying problems that no one is talking about publicly. The comments by the board in all the articles I came across focus so strongly on their desire to find someone who can handle fund raising and business development as Woods’ replacement that it appears that is about all that matters. Artistic and community relationship building skills seem to be such far seconds that I fear all the accomplishments Woods has been praised for will stagnate and perhaps decline.

The opera seeks to hire a leader to “focus more on business and management … to be creative with the fundraising and development aspect,” he said, adding that, “we just didn’t feel Darren could provide us with that leadership from that aspect.”

[…]

Martinez said Woods has brought the opera “to a point where we felt good artistically.” Now, he said, it’s time to move forward with a new general director who can help shape the company’s future, which includes being a good steward of donors’ money.

That last line made me wonder if the board really did approve of Woods’ artistic choices or if there is something going on that isn’t being spoken of.

Over the history of this blog, (holy crap, is it really going to be 13 years on Friday?), I have often cited studies about how fewer people are interested in taking on executive roles in non-profits. Of those energetic people I know who want to assume leadership positions, few to none have a vision that involves fund raising as their primary role. They get excited by the prospect of making an impact and aren’t afraid of getting their hands dirty, but job descriptions like this, (and lets be fair, Ft. Worth Opera is far from the only one emphasizing this skillset), don’t really fire their imaginations.

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Up, Up, Down, Down, Left, Right, Left, Right, B, A To Preserve Your Culture

Last month I saw a story in the New Yorker about an attempt to preserve the culture of the Iñupiat of Alaska through the creation of a video game. I initially thought that the game hadn’t come out, but apparently it was released in 2014.

It really is a gorgeous looking game. It takes the player through the challenges of an Iñupiat heroic journey story that had previously only been passed down by oral tradition to the eldest child. The whole concept of using a video game to preserve and disseminate cultural heritage is pretty interesting.

One of the central concerns for the Iñupiat who were involved was that their stories would be subject to adaptation and appropriation as has often been the case. The game company invested a lot of time in an attempt to assuage those concerns.

With any creative project in which a group of privileged Westerners look to recount the tales and customs of an indigenous group, there is a risk of caricature, even amiable racism. “We’ve repeatedly seen our culture and stories appropriated and used without our permission or involvement,” Fredeen said. “People were skeptical that the project would turn out like these other examples, all appropriation and Westernization.” To reassure them, the development team assembled a group of Iñupiat elders, storytellers, and artists to become partners in the game’s development and lend their ideas and voices to the venture. “As it became clear to the community that this project was only going to move forward with their active participation, that hesitancy quickly evaporated,” Fredeen said. “We’ve had everybody from eighty-five-year-old elders who live most of the year in remote villages to kids in Barrow High School involved in the project.”

Even though there are concerns and anxieties about people sitting alone in dark rooms in front of screens among those of us who advocate for live arts experiences, I feel like this video game development process contains some important lessons. One of the primary lessons relates to how to go about engaging communities to tell their stories.

Just because stories are told in video game form doesn’t close the door on the opportunity to provide a live experience. There are numerous examples of video games being adapted into movies, most of the results being unimpressive. With the bar set so low, there isn’t terrible risk in attempting to depict the core stories employing other methods and media.

(If you aren’t up on your video game lore, the post title refers to the Konami Cheat Code)

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Viral Needs A Plan

I came across an interview Daniel Pink did with Derek Thompson, Senior Editor at The Atlantic where Thompson gives The 5 Rules for Making a Hit.

Now I want to say from the outset that the title is a bunch of baloney and I hope we all know enough to be heavily skeptical of anything the purports to offer a simple set of rules/tricks to success.

That said, there are some valuable points made. I wonder if Thompson actually packaged his answer in terms of five simple rules or if that was an editorial decision on behalf of Heleo which presented them.

The parts of the article I found valuable dealt with the tendency to equate economic success and public recognition with quality/talent/wisdom/authenticity/veracity, etc.

Rule #2: Virality is a myth — pay attention to dark broadcasts instead

People want to believe that their best work can go viral, because great ideas are self-distributing. You make something that’s inherently wonderful, and then you’re done! No more work. Just give it to a few people, they’ll pass it on, and eventually it’ll become the biggest thing in the world.

But the evidence from network science suggests that virality as most people understand it is a myth. Practically nothing goes viral, even the things that we call viral. Genius needs a distribution plan.
[…]
I see this sometimes at The Atlantic. When most readers see a video or an article go crazy online, they might say, “that thing went viral.” But our website has technology that can tell us exactly how all this information spreads. When an article has exploded, we can see that what’s often happened is that there has been one, or a series of, blasts sending traffic to the piece. Perhaps it’s hit the front page of Reddit, or Drudge, or lots of people are clicking on the article on our Facebook page. The article is going “viral” because of a broadcast.

You can get similar insight into what might be driving traffic to your website by using Google Analytics. ArtsHacker has a number of articles about how to set Analytics up to measure and report on various criteria. Social media services like Youtube and Facebook have their own analysis tools to provide insights into why a post or video is particularly popular.

While you can’t necessarily control what becomes popular with great consistency, you can gain a better understanding of what channels and methods can be effective for garnering the attention you want.

His other rule is:

Rule #5: Keep swinging

People want to believe that quality is destiny. They conflate “good” and “popular” in both directions. They think if somebody writes a great song, other people will inevitably find it and love it; or if a song becomes extremely popular, that means it was inherently worthy.

[…]

Understanding that hits are probabilistic argues for a gospel for perseverance. Sometimes people talk about luck as if it’s debilitating, that nothing you do matters — but if cultural products are probabilistic, think of it like batting. Even with the best batters, there’s a 30% chance they get a hit in every one at bat. As a result the key is to give yourself as many at bats as possible. There is an antidote to luck, in terms of personal effort. It’s perseverance. It’s the only answer.

This one is a little tricky because I think we can all cite examples where perseverance just isn’t enough and the benefits of connections, synchronicity and a good support network of family and friends make all the difference. On the other hand, there is a case to be made that you can achieve a high degree of success through perseverance but it may not conform to the degree success you believe you should have.

If anything, this is a better argument for the fact that failure is a more frequent occurrence in any endeavor than people want to admit. It is just that satisfaction of infrequent hits tend to drive out the recollection of the misses for everyone.

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The Gravity of Culture

Seth Godin made a post last week about maintaining a commitment to quality in your work. (my emphasis)

When you seek the mass market, there are two paths available:

You can dumb down your message and your expectations, and meet your audience where they stand. You can coarsen your lyrics, offer simpler solutions, ask for less effort, demand less work, promise bigger results…
Or you can smarten it up, and lead despite your goal of mass, not chase it.

The very fact that “dumb down” is an expression and “smarten up” isn’t should give any optimist pause.

Culture is a gravitational force, and it resists your efforts to make things work better.

So what? Persist.

My first impulse was to mentally acknowledge he was right about how the impulse to improve isn’t common enough to bring a term like “smarten up” into common usage. I read his comment about culture resisting efforts to make things work better as an indictment of a society that demands satisfying results that require little of them in return.

However, when I got to thinking about it, those who embrace and define high culture often don’t want practitioners of low/pop culture to transition upward. There are a fair number of examples of pop artists who decide they want to pursue a more rigorous path as they mature. They are criticized for lacking the excellence required or expected of someone who has dedicated decades training in some discipline of high culture.

Certainly, some of these people may lack the seriousness, nuance and general quality of a long time practitioner. There may be valid concerns that in their popularity, they are misleading their fans into believing they represent the higher levels of achievement when a perceptible gap exists.

But for others, after 10-20 years of sincerely trying to “smarten up,” they are probably going to be operating at least at or above a level of 80%-90% of achievable excellence. That puts them on par with a lot of people who, like them, have spent decades solely devoted to the high culture discipline.

Except that the latter group will be labeled an X discipline artist while the former pop artist will forever have a modifier like crossover-X discipline artist. Essentially, you get branded if you try to step out of the original lines drawn around you.

So like Godin says, culture can be a gravitational force. It can feel like you are constantly being pulled to lower your standards, but it can also feel like you are being pushed away from ever being recognized as having achieved your ambitions if you try to become more proficient.

Yes, ideally things could get to a place where people and their efforts could be fairly evaluated but will it ever really be possible to create truly objective evaluations that are free from these sort of judgments?

I frequently cite Jamie Bennett’s comment that people have an easier time viewing themselves on a continuum with famous sports figures than they do with famous artists. As I think about it, I wonder if people are getting a message that they shouldn’t try to see themselves on an arts continuum.

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