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Do You Love Opera For It’s Economic Impact?

In addition to responding to comments he makes on the blog, I have had some email exchanges with artist Carter Gillies. Many times in the course of our correspondence, he will say “I think we are talking about the same thing, just in different words.” I am not always sure that we are, but I often get the impression he is operating a few steps ahead of me.

That feeling of disconnect is actually a central feature of a guest post he wrote nearly a month ago for Diane Ragsdale’s Jumper blog.

Since it was a long piece, I bookmarked it for later reading. I am somewhat embarrassed it has taken me close to a month to read it, but I encourage everyone to do so, even if it means coming back to your bookmark a couple months hence. Having read it, a lot of what he was trying to get at in our correspondence became clearer to me.

What Carter does is take a really deep look into the way we define the value of the arts. In doing so, he bolsters the argument that we should avoid talking about the value of the arts in relation to economic, social, educational, developmental etc., benefits.

To heavily summarize what he says, he notes that people in the arts have a clear sense of the value of the arts. People who are not aware of this value and even perceive the arts as valueless, do not share the same language and metrics for evaluating the arts. Communicating the value is therefore as difficult as the challenge of describing a color to a person who in unable to perceive that color. (my emphasis)

The way we mostly talk to these people is we have found that our ends, the things we value in themselves, can be the means to their own ends. They value the economy? Well, the arts are good for the economy! They think that cognitive development is important? Well, the arts are good for cognitive development! We make our own ends the means to their ends.

But this never teaches them why we value the arts. It is not a conversation that discusses the arts the way we feel about them. Its not a picture of the intrinsic value of the arts, because in talking about instrumentality we always make the arts subservient. That’s never only what they are to us. Sometimes we just have to make the case for a lesser value as the expedient means to secure funding or policy decisions. It’s better than not making any sense at all.

I don’t wake up excited to go to work to stimulate the economy. I am not eager to go to a museum opening so I can have my cognitive abilities developed. In this context, it almost sounds ridiculous.

This illustrates the disconnect between shared metrics and terminology. As an arts person, I can understand the argument that I need to pay taxes to help stimulate the economy and contribute to the cognitive development of others, but I can’t convince the government to provide funding for the arts based on why I value the arts. I get them, but they don’t get me. I need to talk about economy and cognitive development to be able to receive that tax money.

Of course, this doesn’t just apply to the arts. When we talk about why we love our parents and siblings, we may talk about how well they treat us but that doesn’t truly explain why we love them. The reasons are just external metrics we know others can understand and identify. The real reasons are ineffable. There will be people with whom you become romantically involved who may treat you much better by those same standards than your family ever did, but you will never love them the way you love your bratty sibling.

Citing Archimedes famous quote, “Give me a lever long enough and a fulcrum on which to place it and I shall move the world,” Carter notes:

In the arts we have thrown facts together, constructing the longest possible lever, but have seemingly forgotten we also need somewhere to place it. Those facts need to rest on values that can act as a fulcrum. The facts without value, or the wrong value, will simply have no leverage. They will fail to motivate.

He suggests what is needed is a change of perspective rather than trying to change minds. While this might be accomplished via the proposal to create public will for the arts that I often cite, Carter also notes that the arts community needs to change its perspective as well.

The confusion we are mired in is thinking that our difficulty is practical when in fact the impediment is structural. We need to better understand this to make appreciable headway. We can celebrate both the good art does and the good art is, a structural difference, the lever and the fulcrum. That is the value of intrinsic value for the arts.

I should note, whether you agree with the practice or not, use of taxes for economic development and education weren’t foregone conclusions. It required a change in perspective to implement both.

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It’s Easier To Destroy The Building Than Fix The Roof

For over a decade now there has been a conversation about how detrimental it can be if an arts organization decides to add new programs in order to qualify for foundation grants and funding. Usually the negative issues revolve around conflicts with core mission and placing additional strain on staff and resources.

Until recently, I hadn’t heard about arts organizations feeling they have gotten caught in a vicious cycle of needing to build multi-million dollar expansions in order to attract more money.

According to a Non-Profit Quarterly piece referencing an article in The Art Newspaper, that is the very situation facing museums. Even in the deepest throes of the recent recession, museums were spending billion on expansions. (my emphasis)

The museums say they need to expand to attract new donors, and that requires enough space to display enough work to pique the special interests of individual prospects.

“If there isn’t room to show these works, you are hamstrung when you want to make the case to a private collector that a particular object would have a suitable home in the museum,” says Neal Benezra, the director of the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. The Art Newspaper agrees, saying, “Patrons are also more likely to stump up for a splashy expansion than for a lower-profile renovation or acquisition.”

In fact, in the article, new galleries, buildings, and wings are described as grounds for friendly competition among the ultra-wealthy. But after the expansion comes expanded operating costs, of course, and…well, the monthly nut becomes bigger and more formidable.

[…]

But large institutions have ended up being in constant capital campaign mode, creating bigger sustainability issues in the long run unless the donor money continues to expand and those donors fall in love with funding operations—a doubtful prospect. Too few capital campaigns and major gifts are structured to include endowments or other funding to sustain the buildings over time.

Not only is there a sense in both articles that there is quite a bit of vanity involved, there was also a suggestion that museums would “become a dumping ground for speculative investments in the art market.”

With the existing concerns that museums are becoming too closely tied to commercial efforts, it may not be unreasonable to fear that people may seek to burnish the value of their collections by having it shown in prestigious museums. Having taken on greater operating costs, wouldn’t museums feel pressured by influential donors (and concerned board members) to accept?

You may be thinking, none of this applies to you because you don’t work for a large, prestigious museum. However, this situation illustrates the dangerous cycle and potential for conflicts of interest, writ large.

Not only that, the sentence I emphasized is related to the more encompassing issue of funders in general not providing support for overhead and operational expenses. There is an implicit suggestion that capital campaigns and major gift solicitations be structured to include support for operations and long term infrastructure maintenance.

It may not be as sexy, but it is necessary and needs to be seriously considered by arts non-profits of all sizes. It is probably easier to carve out a portion of a major capital gift for these purposes than to solicit for it directly.

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Maybe Art CAN Support Your Retirement

One of the more intriguing ideas I have written about here is the Artist Pension Trust. It was started 10 years ago with the goal of providing retirement benefits to the 2000 participating artists, each of which commit to “depositing” 20 works in the trust over 20 years. The trust then sells the works to provide benefits to the members.

When I first wrote about it 10 years ago, the plan was to evaluate the state of the trust at this year. According to a recent piece in the NY Times, the Trust decided to start disbursing funds, in part to reassure participants that it works.

Since its founding, the trust has evolved significantly. This month it will make its first distributions, rather than wait to make a large payout at the end of a 25-year period as originally planned, along the lines of a pension fund.

“This was built as a pension, but we decided to pay as we go along so people can see the model works,” said Al Brenner, a board member. “Also, it’s been 10 years, and in some cases it was right to sell. But we’re extremely cautious and don’t want to sell too soon.”

As I wrote two years ago, some of the participants have withdrawn over the years due to needing money, but the trust still has more applicants than it planned to accept and is looking into creating a new global grouping.

To put this in context, there are 8 regional groupings of 250 in which artists’ works are pooled, plus one global group of 628. So they are looking to accommodate more artists in a 10th group.

I was encouraged to learn that the Trust, recognizing that it has the capacity to provide additional services to artists, doesn’t solely see itself as a money making enterprise.

Along with changing its distribution plan, the trust no longer defines itself as a financial product but as a kind of artist cooperative, providing services as varied as free storage and transport, or a loans-and-exhibitions program that promotes the work of artists internationally.

Indeed, some artists have joined more for the community support than the financial advantages.

“I’m aware the ultimate goal is financial security for the future, but it’s not the reason why I joined,” said Alicia Paz, a Mexican artist who lives in London. “I’m more interested in the networking and the support structure for the now.”

Of course, the real validation of the concept won’t come for another 15-20 years when a large number of participants start to depend on the Trust’s distributions to support themselves in retirement.

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This Radio Story Sounds Familiar

There is a really interesting piece on Slate telling an all too familiar story.

Seeing that the median age of its listeners has been creeping slowly up from 45 to 54, NPR is in the throes of trying to make itself relevant to…yes, you know this one…a younger audience.

In some respects NPR’s problem is worse than that of the non-profit arts. In one case, the person telling NPR’s Foundation they need to appeal to a younger demographic had, unbeknownst to them, been hired away by Amazon subsidiary Audible. He is only one of many that were hired away or choose to strike off on their own.

Just as there is a recurring conversation in the arts that they are too beholden to a narrow segment of stakeholders, NPR also finds itself conflicted between innovation and catering to the demands of its funding sources.

The tumult was touched off in late March, when an NPR executive announced that the network’s own digital offerings—most importantly, its marquee iPhone app, NPR One—were not to be promoted during shows airing on terrestrial radio.

The ban was widely viewed as proof that NPR is less interested in reaching young listeners than in placating the managers of local member stations, who pay handsome fees to broadcast NPR shows and tend to react with suspicion when NPR promotes its efforts to distribute those shows digitally. After the gag order was made public, dozens of public radio and podcasting people set about picking at an old scab—discussing, spiritedly, in multiple forums, whether the antiquated economic arrangements that govern NPR’s relationships with its member stations are holding it back from innovation.

I was totally unaware of the NPR One app but according to Slate author Leon Neyfakh, it is pretty awesome and replicates the car based NPR listening experience- “it makes me wish my commute to work was longer.”

If you have read or participated in any conversations about the problems faced by the arts, you will find that NPR is wrestling with many of the same issues: Trying to appeal to too wide an audience versus focusing on specific segments; losing audience to other media channels (podcasts in this case); addressing serious topics vs. providing entertaining content (which is not to say you can’t do both, but there are some serious topics that require a serious approach.)

In other respects, NPR is way ahead of the non-profit arts in general. They may be playing a little catch up with podcasts and losing talent to other companies, but they are gathering valuable data about their audience behavior via the NPR One app. One of the things they have learned is that people skip the serious news content fewer times than anything else. People see value in one of their core activities and they have the data to prove it.

Certainly thanks to the efforts of many research projects, the arts also have data about what audiences value. The data collection method just isn’t as nimble yet.

Since there are a number of NPR and aligned radio shows/podcasts that take to the road for live shows, I wonder if there is any opportunity for adoption/sharing/development of data collection techniques.

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