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The Artists, They Live Among Us

I didn’t really know much about Jamie Bennett when he was chief of staff at the National Endowment for the Arts or when he was appointed as executive director for ArtPlace America, but after watching a video of his talk at TEDxHudson, I figure he was the right person for the job.

There were a number of moments during his talk where I nodded my head and thought “this guy gets it.” (And not just because as kids we apparently both had our first Broadway experience seeing the same production of Peter Pan with Sandy Duncan)

He talks about growing up in Honesdale, PA and encountering the idea that art was something done by people who lived far away. He speaks of a colleague performing a study for the Urban Institute who went out and asked people who the artists in their community were, only to be told there weren’t any despite all the participation in singing and dancing going on.

He relates another experience in Aspen, CO where people in the audience readily self identified as golfers and tennis players, but not as artists. He comments that he doesn’t know:

“why we can so easily see ourselves on a continuum with Serena Williams and Tiger Woods, but we don’t think anything we do has anything in common with Sandy Duncan.”

He goes on to list all the encounters he had with artists growing up in Honesdale. He admits it even took him 30 years to realize there were practicing artists in his hometown.

He continues saying what we have probably all realized by now, that this perception of artists as an “other” is deeply rooted in society. He cites a study which found that “Although 96% of Americans value art in their communities and lives, only 27% value artists.”

When he says that the study lead to the formation of United States Artists which took the tagline “Art comes from artists,” people laugh. But I couldn’t help thinking that such an obvious statement might be required.

Since people have a concept of creativity and inspiration as something that flows from the ether into blessed individuals rather than something that everyone can participate in and get better at with some effort, just like your tennis backhand, a blatant statement of the basic definition of an artist could be necessary.

I suspect this sense of special insight has been propagated by artists. If you are going to be poor and starving, it helps a little to be able to wrap yourself in an aura of uncommonality, in touch with the muses the way monks are infused with spirituality.

Bennett likens the situation to the food world which has made people more cognizant of the source of their meals leading to the concepts of eating local and farm to table, among others. He extends that idea to making people aware of the local sources of art, including themselves.

The second thing Bennett said that made me sit up and take notice was that the typical conversation about the arts in this country is about the lack of money and resources. “We open with our lack and spend every conversation with our hand out.”

He talks about the purpose of ArtsPlace America being to turn that around to draw attention to the asset common to every community-artists.

“Not every community has a waterfront. Not every community has strong public transportation. Not every community is lucky enough to be anchored by a hospital or university. But every community has people who sing and dance and tell stories.”

I don’t know that the dearth of resources is what entirely dominates my conversations, but I am going to keep a more attentive ear on what I say in the future.

Bennett goes on to talk about other benefits of the arts in communities. He touches on some concepts that were familiar to me, but provides slightly different insights about the positive ripple effects of arts participation, especially among groups of people who may not be perceived as artists.

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Curatin’ Ain’t Easy

It is ten years this month that Charles Leadbeater and Paul Miller first started talking about Pro-Ams, the Professional-Amateur whose dedicated pursuit of an avocation brought them on par with professional practitioners. I have written a fair bit upon the subject over the years.

When the topic comes up for discussion in the arts, one central question often arises (or lurks shallowly in the subtext) about whether amateurs really can perform to the standard professionals possessed of a keen eye honed by experience and education can.

Essentially, if we let the amateurs get involved, will quality and artistic merit be supplanted by work that panders to popular tastes and doesn’t require any effort to understand?

This is a question that Nina Simon, Director of the Santa Cruz Museum of History and Art has had to struggle with as a practical matter. While she has increased the fortunes of her museum since assuming the director role, her means have not been without criticism.

Recently her programming decisions were discussed in in a Wall Street Journal article, Everybody’s an Art Curator. The article uses Simon’s museum as the basis of discussing a national trend of involving the community in curatorial decisions. The article mentions the departure of one of Simon’s curatorial staff and disagreements with an artist over the context in which her show was hung. The article discusses friction at other museums around the country as they attempt to enact similar programs.

Nina Simon posted about the WSJ article on her Museum 2.0 blog this week, linking to two more in depth considerations of the idea of outsourcing curation broached in “Everybody’s an Art Curator” by Ed Rodley.

As I read all these posts and articles, it occurred to me that there is a high likelihood that a lot of the blame for the weaknesses of involving amateurs probably lies with the arts organization itself.

As Rodley observes:

“I think if you were to look at a large sample of museum projects with participatory elements, you’d find plenty that had poorly thought out and articulated goals and dubious educational value. Which is something that the field as a whole could stand to look at closely.”

Arts organizations have a history of not investing enough patience and resources in a new initiative. Common discussions in the field involve the misguided expectation that new audiences segments will respond positively and feel they are being served on the basis of one event aimed at them a year. What is required are accompanying outreach efforts, conversations, and shifts in making the attendance environment more appealing to your target groups.

Chances are, Rodley is right on the money when he suggests that insufficient attention has been paid to program design.

On the other hand, arts organizations frequently run into a lack of understanding about how difficult their work is to accomplish. I have frequently encountered renters who start a conversation which “Oh it is just a simple…,” having not considered how everything is going to fall into place.

Nina Simon makes a similar observation about the perception that amateur curators are a strategy aimed at reducing and replacing staff.

“Community is not a commodity. We don’t involve people in content development to “boost ticket sales.” It’s neither “quick” nor “inexpensive” to mount exhibitions that include diverse community stories. Yes, community involvement is at the heart of our shifted, successful business model. But that business model requires experienced staff who know how to empower people, facilitate meaningful participation, respond to community issues and interests, and ignite learning. It’s not cheap. It’s not easy. It’s the work we feel driven to do to build a museum that is of and for our community.”

I feel like Simon’s efforts at community involvement actually help educate people about the work that goes into putting a show together. For example,

“Hack the Museum,” a show that invited a mix of outside professionals to live at the museum for 48 hours and build a new exhibit from the permanent collection.”

Yes, the results of their efforts may be mixed. But how exciting is it for people to camp out in a museum for two days and learn the process? I can’t imagine that giving 75 people a tour of the curatorial department would be as effective in helping them understand the process. Nor would it likely engender the investment that the participants felt. Nina made some posts about it here and here and the participants looked like they had a blast.

I am fairly certain she isn’t passing off the work of community participants as professional choices since that would be counter to her goal of convincing all visitors that their involvement with the museum is meaningful.

Those of us who work in the performing arts will often grouse that so much gets a standing ovation or accolades of “as good as professionals” when it doesn’t deserve it. However, the performing arts may have an advantage over visual arts in that there is a rough sense of a continuum between elementary school recital and full blown concert by a professional symphony orchestra.

The criteria by which to judge and classify visual art in terms of quality is less distinct, and not only because so many people think their kids could produce what they are looking at.

How many people outside of the gallery and museum world know what standards are applied in curating a show? Where exactly does your Pinterest page fall between the refrigerator and the walls of the Metropolitan Museum of Art? Where do you go to find out?

You could do worse than a sleepover at a museum.

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Don’t Wait Up, I’m Going Cruisin’ With The Actors

If you are in the entertainment business, it appears Netflix is shaping up to be the major nemesis. HBO is going to let you stream their series without cable as a way to respond to people dropping their cable subscriptions and shifting toward Netflix.  Movie theaters are vowing to refuse to screen the new Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon movie because it will be released on Netflix at the same time.

So what are live performance companies to do? It is pretty difficult to be ready to perform on demand. Sure recording your performance and posting it on YouTube is always an option, but you’re trying to perpetuate the benefits of attending events in person.

Well, I don’t know if it is THE answer, but one possible model for study might be found in a post on the HowlRound website this past July. Jean Ann Douglass and Eric John Meyer do theater in a truck. People buy tickets online and at 4:00 pm on the day of the show, they receive an email about where to find the truck.  Such an arrangement allows for the possibility of having a show centrally located to the bulk of your audience.

Now granted, with a capacity of only 15 people, the scale is a little small. However, as they point out, it allows a great deal of flexibility in positioning a performance.

Another appealing aspect of this work is the freedom it affords us as producers and presenters. We can rent our venue anytime, anywhere across the country

One of the key elements of their performances are bars with bathrooms. While the performance could theoretically be performed in any parking lot, the audience needs restroom facilities. At intermission, the audience is sent off to a nearby bar and when they return, they view a second, entirely different play. Then after the performance, you can have a drink with the performers.

There is a lot of potential for symbiotic relationship between bars, restaurants and other businesses in this performance model. There are probably a good number of places that would be happy to have a guarantee of 15 customers coming in at a known time.

Obviously, weather is a consideration since it can get too hot or cold in the back of a truck. However, I imagine anyone who was really serious about bringing performances into different neighborhoods in on a consistent basis would make the necessary alterations.

As I sit here, I have visions of the invention of entirely new ways to staging shows to accommodate the form of tractor trailers and shipping containers. Not to mention the rise of companies specializing in taming the acoustic qualities of these spaces.

After working wonderful performance halls, it is probably depressing to even contemplate having to resort to such rough conditions to provide the experience of live performance. But let us not forget that wagons were the primary delivery mode for performance once upon a time.

With the convention of performance hall audience behavior out the window, entirely new possibilities might open up with people using electronic devices and social media to interact with the performances. The novelty of going cruising with a performance troupe might be very appealing to people.

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Guest Post: The Overhead Solution

Back in June 2013, I wrote about the release of a letter by GuideStar, Charity Navigator, and BBB Wise Giving Alliance urging funders to discontinue the use of overhead ratios to measure the viability of non-profit organizations. They felt the number was an inaccurate assessment of  an organization’s effectiveness.

Since then, the subject of overhead ratio has appeared a number of times in my posts.

Recently, the GuideStar, Charity Navigator and BBB Wise Giving Alliance have released a second letter. This one is aimed at non-profits asking them to assist in the effort by educating their funders about the true costs of the programs and by providing alternative narratives about program effectiveness.

I was approached by GuideStar with a request to host a guest post on the subject. As this has been an area of interest for me, I was pleased to do so.


A Message From GuideStar President/CEO Jacob Harold

In 2013, I joined with partners at the BBB Wise Giving Alliance and Charity Navigator in writing an open letter to the donors of America explaining that “overhead ratios” are a poor way to understand nonprofit performance. We named this campaign “The Overhead Myth.”

I’m glad to report that the response to the campaign, including the original Overhead Myth letter to the donors of America, far exceeded our expectations. More than one hundred articles have been written about the campaign. It comes up every time I hold a meeting or give a talk. For many in the field, it’s been a deep affirmation of something they’ve known a long time. And, indeed, many leading organizations– the Donors Forum, Bridgespan, the National Council on Nonprofits, and others — have been working on the issue for a long time.

But we also know we have a long road ahead of us. The myth of overhead as inherently “wasteful” spending is deeply ingrained in the culture and systems of the nonprofit sector, and it will take years of concerted effort for us to move past such a narrow view of nonprofit performance to something that fully reflects the complexity of the world around us. That effort is essential, however, if we want to ensure that we have a nonprofit sector capable of tackling the great challenges of our time.

That’s why last week the CEOs of Charity Navigator and the BBB Wise Giving Alliance and I released a second Overhead Myth letter—this one addressed to the nonprofits of America. In that letter, we suggest a set of steps nonprofits themselves can take to help dispel the Overhead Myth. We all share responsibility for allowing things to have reached this pass.  And it will take all of us to fix it.

We direct this letter to nonprofits not because we feel they are the originators of the Overhead Myth but because they are in the best position to communicate with their donors and funders. We want to recruit nonprofits to help us retrain donors and funders to pay attention to what really matters: results.  In the end, that means nonprofits have to throw away the pie charts showing overhead versus program—and step up to the much more important challenge of communicating how they track progress against their mission.

In simple terms, we must—collectively—offer donors an alternative. In the letter, and on the accompanying website, we call on nonprofits to do three things as their part of this evolution:

  1. Demonstrate ethical practice and share data about their performance.
  2. Manage toward results and understand their true costs.
  3. Help educate funders (individuals, foundations, corporations, and government) on the real cost of results.

We have provided a list of tools and resources related to each of these goals. These tools give nonprofits tangible steps they can take to engage their stakeholders around this critical issue. As the sector develops new resources and tactics, we will add them to the website.

We believe it will take a shared effort to focus donors’ attention on what really matters: nonprofits’ efforts to make the world a better place. It doesn’t matter whether you work at a nonprofit or donate a few dollars to a favorite charity every year, please join us as we seek to move from the Overhead Myth to the Overhead Solution.

For more information, or if you have a resource related to this issue that can help advance the cause, please email


– Jacob Harold is the president and CEO of GuideStar, is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit that connects people and organizations with information on the programs, finances, and impact of more than 1.8 million IRS-recognized nonprofits. GuideStar serves a wide audience inside and outside the nonprofit sector, including individual donors, nonprofit leaders, grantmakers, government officials, academic researchers, and the media.

This letter original appeared on PhilanTopic blog and is shared with their permission.

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