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If You Give A Teen $100….

Recently James Doeser wrote about a program the Italian government started where they granted a culture voucher worth €500 to anyone who turns 18 before December 31.

It can be used to buy books, pay for entry fees to parks, museums and archaeological sites, and instead of cash for theatre, cinema and concert tickets. The euros in the app are spent by the young people and the arts organisations then reclaim this money off the state.

There is something wickedly disruptive as well as very elegant about this idea. If it works, it will have a profound impact not just on Italian cultural policy but also how other governments around the world approach the issue of arts funding.

Whereas a voucher scheme like the one underway in Italy is an exercise in ‘demand-side’ economics, the vast majority of our cultural policy in the UK is on the ‘supply side’.

While Doeser generally applauds the program as a way to avoid giving additional benefits to people who can already afford them, (it is pretty well recognized that free admission days are attended by people who already attend, not new audiences), he notes some potential issues:

While ‘supply-side’ interventions have their shortcomings, ‘demand-side’ ones are not without complications. There is a host of interesting effects that a scheme of this sort might unleash on the cultural marketplace: ticket price inflation; the prospect of resale (if I am an arts lover and can get €300 of your unused credits for, say, €100 in cash, then we’d both be better off if we can do this deal); and finally whether there will be low take-up and the Italian government is operating like your gym, confident that people will not use their entitlements.

Of course, I got to thinking about how this might be implemented in the U.S.

Ideally, teens would use the money to indulge their curiosity and expanding their horizons buying books, going to museums, taking classes/lessons, buying paint, visiting historical sites, etc,. But the reality is that they may just use the money to pay for additional months of Netflix subscriptions and buying music from the same people they already are without expanding their experience.

There might be a temptation to specify what the money can be spent on that aligned to a definition. However broad the definition was, it would still delineate what was worthwhile and what wasn’t. My only consolation would be that as restrictive as the arts community’s definition of what constituted arts and culture might be, it would still be orders of magnitude broader than that of the politicians authorizing the funding.

Politics aside, allowing the funding to be use for all the activities the NEA defined as arts participation their 2012 survey of public participation in the arts would provide some excellent insight into what types of activities people were actually engaging in. Every time a voucher number was used, it would provide useful data about people’s actual practice rather than their self-perceived practice.

True, if people had a sense that their use was being tracked they may only use it at a museum rather than when they indulged their guilty pleasure marathon viewing of The Three Stooges movies. While their self consciousness may slightly skew the results, it may engender a growing appreciation of arts and cultural activities that may not fully manifest until 20 years later when they are in their 40s.

Certainly, the program could just serve to further enrich big corporations like Apple, Comcast, Google, Time Warner, Disney, etc and not help non-profit arts organizations much at all.

While we can watch what happens with the Italian program, the reality is our cultural norms differ to a large enough degree that we basically can’t use their experience to project what might happen in the U.S. It comes down to something of a thought experiment about how much we trust U.S. teens (or all citizens if you wanted to expand the program) to spend money exploring. How much tolerance would we have for people who didn’t spend the money as we thought they should?

Yes, I know this doesn’t even factor in that there are hundreds of thousands of teens out there that have a much more dire need to use even a $50-$100 subsidy for food, shelter and medical care.

And yes, there is also the fact that right now the goal of most arts advocates is to have federal arts funding equal $1 for every citizen so $50 is a pipe dream. Since the population of 18 year olds is only a small segment of the population, the grant could be more than $1, but it would likely still divert a lot of funding from somewhere else even if the federal budget were raised.

But ignoring the fact that the current federal arts budget is far from sufficient and that social services for teens and families are also lacking in comparison with places like Italy, would it freak you out to think about what the 18 year old population of the U.S. would likely spend $100 culture voucher on?

Parents will likely recognize that the title of today’s entry is inspired by “If You Give A Mouse A Cookie…” While the kid in the story is run a little ragged in the book I bet most arts organizations would be thrilled to have an audience as engaged and participatory as the mouse.

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Frank Discussion About Outreach, New Audiences Efforts In The Community

A couple of good articles on the influence non-profits in the community came out this week. CityLab noted that in some communities, non-profits were exhibiting greater influence and leadership than politicians that represented those districts.

Based on his observations, he argues in the journal American Sociological Review, the role of nonprofits in disadvantaged city neighborhood has been changing. They’re no longer just extensions of the state or representatives of a few interest groups. They’re “legitimate representatives of poor urban neighborhoods,” and in many cases, “supersede” elected officials.

[…]

What’s happening now is that these organizations are directly negotiating for resources from public and private sector entities that hold the proverbial purse strings. Community organizations are now authoritative voices at the table, and often regarded by both private companies and bureaucrats as more invested and deeply knowledgable representatives of the neighborhoods. In Boston, “district-based elected officials, by contrast, attended ribbon cuttings and groundbreakings but were largely absent from substantive discussions of redevelopment planning,” Levine writes.

When I read this earlier this week, I thought it was interesting but didn’t think most arts organizations were deeply involved enough in their communities to wield this type of influence.

As luck would have it, I didn’t have to think too long about how I might express this in a blog post because Ronia Holmes does it so well in a post that came out today on TRG Arts’ blog.

Her post, “Your organization sucks at “community” and let me tell you why” is a must read if your arts organization conducts outreach activities or talks about attracting new audiences. I plan to distribute it to my board and partners in other arts organizations.

She makes some very frank statements which may be uncomfortable to read, but they are reasonable and empathize with the position in which arts organizations find themselves.

Almost too much to quote but I will try to keep it brief:

Disinvested communities are not devoid of arts and culture. In America particularly, communities who historically have been excluded from the table have responded by building their own tables, using whatever resources could be scraped together. Marginalized communities have established organizations that don’t treat them or their cultural output as deviations from the norm to be celebrated for diversity, but as fundamental components of society. The organizations they created, and continue to create, are replete with artists, leaders, decision-makers, and workers who look like and are part of the community they serve, who share similar lived experiences, and have a deep understanding of what programming will truly resonate.

Referring to arts organizations which are not native to these disinvested communities:

Rather than grapple with these deeply ingrained failings, most organizations have opted to substitute narrative for action. They have amended their written missions and values in order to recast themselves as inclusive organizations meant for all. They turn to the community and say, “Now we’ve got a space here for you!”

And they fail to hear this critical question: “Why should we abandon our own table for a small chair at yours?

The following about seeking new audiences really grabbed my attention:

There is a pervasive idea that a “new” audience must be a “diverse” one, and community-building is co-opted as a tactic for patron acquisition. The hard truth is that the disinvested communities targeted by so many outreach programs simply do not have the resources to—or, frankly, the interest in—sustaining these organizations. The model of operation on which most organizations operate need constant and high influxes of cash, and the lion’s share of affluence still rests with white patrons.

The reality is that most arts organizations don’t need a “diverse” audience—they need an audience with discretionary income. Yet the almost maniacal focus on community-building keeps organizations trapped in cycles of trying to sell to—not engage with, but sell to—audiences that don’t have that resource. In the meantime, organizations are unable to concentrate fully on patron retention and loyalty, and identifying and building audiences that are able and willing to fill the funding gaps.

[…]

Every year, organizations jump through hoops to secure restricted grants that necessitate yet another outreach program or diversity week or community partnership, hoping that if they impress the funders enough they will be given money that can be used for what the organization actually has a mission to do.

If real, authentic, genuine community building isn’t central to your mission, if it isn’t your raison d’être, then you shouldn’t be doing it. Because chances are that not only are you doing it badly, you’re doing it at the expense of your real mission. The mission of most arts organizations—the real mission—is simple: to present an art form. And that’s ok. We need organizations that prioritize preservation, development, and presentation of an art form, and I for one don’t think any organization should be penalized for it.

As much as I quoted here, there is a lot I left out. Even though I probably flirted with tl;dnr eight paragraphs ago, I hope this sample is enough to make you want to read more of what she said.

While it is not the final word on the subject, I think we probably recognize the truth in what she says about outreach efforts. The futility of grant chasing has been acknowledged for quite awhile. These are ideas that need continued discussion.

While we would like to be in a position where our organizations are viewed as leaders in the community like those in the CityLab article, most arts organizations really lack the resources and mission to fulfill that role.

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How Do I Know If I Should Be Impressed?

I was intrigued by an article in The Guardian last month that wondered if we enjoy art when it is anonymous, without any preconceived expectations about what we will experience. During the Dance Umbrella Festival at Sadler Wells, one event featured a mix of well-known and unknown choreographers being presented anonymously.

The concept is to allow (or force, depending on your point of view,) people to evaluate a performance on its own merits absent of any bias about whether they are supposed to like what they see.

This idea chimes with broader research in neuroscience on how influential our beliefs are in creating our experiences. For example, put people in a brain scanner and do a blind tasting with two different brands of cola, and you get a fairly even split in terms of preference. But tell them what brand they’re drinking and their brain’s pleasure centres actually light up more if they think it’s their preferred drink. Brand loyalty is a powerful thing. And perhaps what’s true for fizzy drinks follows for Mozart, Godard or Merce Cunningham. Psychologist Paul Bloom writes in his book How Pleasure Works that this leads to a feedback loop. You think you like Pinter. Because of that you get more pleasure from watching his work, which reinforces the idea that you like it. And a fan is born.

The responses to this gambit were a little mixed. Critic Judith Mackrell reeeaallllyyy wanted to know who did what, though she also found it liberating.

Sarah Bradbury at The Upcoming seemed to be able to focus more on the dance and didn’t really reflect much on the experiment.

It got me wondering if there is benefit in doing similar experiments at other events. For example, if you dress actors in Elizabethan clothing and have them perform a period piece by Moliere or Oscar Wilde, would people who subsequently went to see a Shakespeare comedy find they enjoyed it more thinking they had already seen a Shakespearean play?

The reason I suggest Moliere and Wilde is because the language and behavior would be a little more formal and stilted than contemporary conversation so audiences would perceive it as strange, but accessible. Note that I did not suggest outright telling people they were seeing Shakespeare. Outright deception like that is a thorny question I haven’t quite resolved yet.

Thinking along these lines also raised the question of whether people would enjoy a Gilbert & Sullivan light opera if it avoided the stigma of the word opera and was referenced as a musical.

But from another point of view, does calling it a light opera cause people to be more open to seeing opera? The Most Happy Fella really straddles the line between opera and musical. Porgy and Bess is usually placed firmly within the opera category. Would injecting a little category flexibility based on one’s agenda help lower perceptual barriers for opera?

I am not entirely clear how this might work for visual arts, but there might be some good opportunities inherent to leveraging a little ignorance. I recall when I visited the Salvador Dali Museum that many of the works on display are not what people initially envision when they think of his work. Using that sort of anonymity might be a good place to start.

Getting people to consider whether they like the piece more before they know it is a Dali (or whomever) or after may help people recognize that there may be something of value in work they are dismissing simply because a famous name isn’t attached to it. I am not sure this realization will slow people down as they rush past galleries to see the Mona Lisa at the Louvre or a special exhibit at their local museum, but maybe they linger a little longer on the way out.

Works that aren’t instantly identifiable as a particular artist’s can also help illustrate that creation is a process. Dali did a lot of sketching and other relatively unremarkable work before he developed his distinctive style.

Any thoughts on this? Have you ever stumbled across a performance, movie, piece of music or work of visual art that you liked but didn’t know the creator? Upon learning his/her identity were surprised you enjoyed the work of someone you had intentionally been avoiding? Has a positive experience you had acted as a gateway to trying a related experience you were previously pretty sure you wouldn’t enjoy?

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Those Experiences Don’t Need To Be More Like Our Experiences

On blogs like mine that address the concerns of non-profit organizations there is frequently discussion about how we bridle under the suggestion that non-profits need to be run more like businesses.

I was reading a couple articles in the recent issue of Arts Management Quarterly that reminded me that the arts world applies a similar set of standards internally.

An article by Victoria Durrer, Raphaela Henze and Ina Ross, “Approaching an Understanding of Arts and Cultural Managers as Intercultural Brokers,” comments,

Rather than engaging in a more nuanced cultural understanding of consumption in these economies, such approaches pejoratively view and address these customers as being 20 years ‘behind’ American or European consumers in their needs and habits. Similarly, a museum in Asia or Africa is typically viewed as needing to be ‘brought up’ to a level in line with the most recent stage of western modernity.

The authors go on to note that many countries are recognizing the need to raise standards and professionalize operations but the way in which these standards are applied and manifest are quite different than in Western countries.

This perception doesn’t only emerge between arts managers of Western and non-Western countries, but within countries as well. In a separate piece “How Globalization Affects Arts Managers,” Raphaela Henze discusses the situation in Germany,

Many of the arts managers explained that the reason for their efforts is to foster ‘integration’…The term has the paternalistic notion of allowing those that are not familiar with the rules to play the game in case they learn and then stick to the rules laid out by those that are already playing.

My guess is that I didn’t really need to mention she was referring to Germany because we can see how this applies in the U.S.

The implications for the United States are probably clear: Existing ideas about what an arts experience should look like should not be forced upon groups expressing an ethnic or cultural identity that differs from the mainstream, including standards of behavior in those situations. Basically, there shouldn’t be statements that something is or is not a valid experience based on existing standards.

In an even larger perspective, this view needs to applied to all experiences regardless of whether they originate from a group expressing an ethnic or cultural identity. The NEA has already started us down this path by expanding their definition of what an artistic or cultural experience is.

I don’t think this concept is particularly new to anyone. However, not only is it useful to remind ourselves of this necessity on occasion, I think it is helpful to do so in the context of a sentiment we dislike—The proper way to run a non-profit is like a regular business. It gives you something additional to think about when making statements of judgement.

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