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Don’t Blame Arcane Terminology and Practice

Andrew Taylor touches upon a little of what I was thinking about this weekend in his post today. He quotes a recent piece by Marian Godfrey where she talks about how the language used by arts managers and grant makers is alienating and soul sucking.

…like any professional jargon, it puts up barriers and makes people who are unfamiliar with our dialect feel like outsiders, including the very people we are trying to support — artists and engaged people in our communities. I believe we need more humane language to describe ourselves and our visions: words and meanings that are shared by artists, administrators, and the public.

I had been thinking about the specialized language and terminologies used in the arts this weekend. I believe Godfrey was referring to the institutional and general language used to discuss the benefits of the arts as a whole, (I read the whole piece as Andrew Taylor enjoined his readers to do), whereas I was thinking about the terms specific to each arts discipline. As such, I don’t know that I can say I directly disagree with what Godfrey says.

The conclusion I came to this weekend is that while there is quite a bit of vocabulary one must learn in order to comfortably participate in a conversation about a discipline, I don’t think the need to learn a complex set of terms really comprises a significant impediment to becoming an participant or spectator. I think it is just a convenient excuse.

There are plenty of instances where people willingly engage in the time consuming process of learning special terminology. Take MMORPGs like W.O.W. where people will be exposed to terms like: tank, buff/debuff, AoE, aggro, autoloot, cooldown, PvE, PvP, grinding, griefing, among thousands of others. Players are expected to master the terminology, understand the role their character fills and how to use their abilities alongside others to achieve a goal.

Thousands of people happily undertake this challenge every day.

You might argue that people playing online games gain a sense of personal accomplishment that motivates them. But watching sports is often just as passive an activity as watching a performance, (okay, granted you can’t jump up and yell at a ballerina the moment the spirit moves you like you can with an athlete), and requires learning all sorts of arcane rules specific to each game. Often the rules are a little different for each level of play.

People learn these rules and terms because they want to. If they don’t know them, they can seek help from friends or go online to look up the information.

To illustrate this, I intentionally didn’t link to any resource with the gaming terms. Did you look them up or think about looking them up if you didn’t know what they were?

Sometimes this information is collated by the company/team/organization providing the activity. Often these days, people sharing a common interest join together to contribute information to a wiki which exists independently of the organization or activity it covers.

So when people express trepidation about learning the vocabulary and rituals of the performing and visual arts, I think the question really should be why this is so? My impulse is to respond that it is because there are not enough people they are acquainted with either personally or virtually providing a message that it is worth the trouble to learn about it.

I also don’t think there are enough informational resources out there to make it easy for people to learn if they so desire. I just did a Google search for the term “first position” because I can never remember the feet placement for the different positions. I couldn’t find it until I searched for the term “second position.” (Though I did discover A LOT of dance schools are named First Position.)

This is not to say that there aren’t many wikis and specialized dictionaries online which cover arts terminology. American Ballet Theatre has a pretty good dictionary of dance terms. It is just a coincidence that first position doesn’t appear there.

You would have to know to look there though because everyone’s go to source, Wikipedia, only has about 24 terms on it and there isn’t a good dance wiki that I could find. Information sources on theatre terminology are only slightly better.

As much as people say television shows like Glee, Smash and Bunheads don’t reflect reality, they do serve to disseminate the message that singing, theatre and dance are things people should be interested in learning more about.

Like I said, the idea that there isn’t enough of a visible trend and readily available information was something of a primary impression I had. I’d be happy to hear other theories.

While I think some of the terminology and practices might need a change, I do feel fairly strongly that people’s reticence to learn more about arts disciplines can’t be laid primarily at the feet of specialized vocabulary and unfamiliar practices.

People take the necessity of doing this in stride if they are motivated to learn something. Simplifying the language and altering the practices isn’t going to result in a sudden deluge of attendees because the initial motivating impulse will be absent.

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Oh What A Tangled Web…

Today at lunch a musician friend was picking our brains about a fund raiser he wants to do for a cause he really believes in. He outlined his vision and then asked for ideas of places he could hold it. There were a couple assumptions he made about his budget that were unrealistic which we helped him to re-evaluate.

The discussion made me think of an article someone I follow on Twitter recently linked to by Nell Edgington, “5 Lies to Stop Telling Donors.

Edgington lists the lies as:

1. X percent of your donation goes to the program
The distinction between “program expenses” and “overhead” is, at best, meaningless and, at worst, destructive… It is magical thinking to say that you can separate money spent on programs from money spent on the support of programs…“overhead” is not a dirty word…

2. We can do the same program with less money
No you can’t. You know you can’t. You are already scraping by…Politely, but firmly, explain to the donor that an inferior investment will yield an inferior result…

3. We can start a new program that doesn’t fit with our mission or strategy
Yes, that big, fat check a donor is holding in front of you looks very appealing. But if it takes your organization in a different direction than your strategy or your core competencies require, accepting it is a huge mistake…Don’t let a donor take you down that road.

4. We can grow without additional staff or other resources
Nonprofit staffers truly excel at working endless hours with very few resources…But someday that road must end…

5. 100 percent of our board is committed to our organization
If that’s true, then you are a true minority in the nonprofit sector. Every nonprofit board I know has some dead wood…It’s a fact that funders want to see every board member contributing. But instead of perpetuating the myth that 100 percent is an achievable reality, be honest with funders…It is far better to demonstrate that you are tirelessly working toward 90 percent.

I have frequently linked back to a post Andrew Taylor made about 6 years ago where he suggests non-profit organizations aren’t doing themselves any favors by keeping funders expectations high when they report everything went as good, if not better, than planned every single time.

In recent years “overhead” has come to the fore as a problematic measure of effectiveness. I think the whole idea about low overhead being a measure of effectiveness is the root of the other evils Edgington mentions in her article, in the pursuit of portraying themselves as having low overhead non-profits will say they can do more with less money, do more with same/fewer staff and the organization has a super efficient board.

An April article in the LA Times talks about why overhead is such a poor measure of a charity. In that column, Jack Shakely, president emeritus of the California Community Foundation, cites the example of a group that was buying its medicine in Canada but was using the cost of the medicine in the U.S. as a basis to report the difference in price as an in-kind donation in order to make their administrative costs appear to be a smaller portion of their budget.

Writes Shakely (with my emphasis added),

Don’t get me wrong. Low administrative costs could indicate prudence and sound judgment at a charity, but they could just as easily indicate inadequate staffing, insufficient salaries or, shall we say, fudging. Moreover, administrative costs aren’t the primary measurement of for-profit excellence. Are McDonald’s admin costs lower than Wendy’s? Apple’s lower than Microsoft’s?


But our intuitive thinking system wants an answer now, and because we are intuitively inclined to believe that the nonprofit sector is filled with soft, amateurish executives, we latch on to the pseudo-science of administrative costs as a measure of excellence. It’s hogwash; there is absolutely no way of telling that an organization with 5% administrative costs is superior to one with 20% costs based on that criterion alone. In fact, the exact opposite may be true.

As Shakely notes, it will be hard to get donors and funders to shift to better criteria when the overhead ratio appears to be so clean and rational a measure. But as both he and Edgington comment, no funder is going to use any other measure of evaluation if they aren’t told the criteria is unfair and unrealistic.

Think about what you can do to change assumptions as you make your next pitch or write your next grant proposal.

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Be Perfect

One of the ideas I have occasionally touched upon here is the idea that perfection is expected in the arts. That line of thought really started for me with an entry I did in 2006.

Audiences expect a sublime experience for what they paid. Funders expect that everything met or exceeded expectations, a mindset Andrew Taylor suggests arts organizations created and reinforce regularly.

Artists are expected to be exceptional always, yet musician openings at orchestras still frequently go unfilled despite many highly qualified people auditioning.

Come to think of it, that sounds similar in many senses to the current situation where we currently have thousands of jobs going unfilled in manufacturing because employers expect the perfect worker and are generally unwilling to provide training to close the perceived gap.

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An Idea Eight Years In The Making (And Hopefully Not Nine)

Thursday is the 8th anniversary of this blog. I made my first post on February 23, 2004. I wouldn’t normally call attention to an oddly numbered anniversary (though 8 is considered auspicious in China), however an idea I mentioned in my second post may come to fruition. Actually, the bulk of the idea was expressed in a letter to Artful Manager Andrew Taylor which ended up printed on the Artsjournal site.

In that letter I suggested that arts organizations emulate the overtly proselytizing comic book Chick Tracts. While I am generally offended by the tracts, I appreciate their use of illustrations to catch interest and their portability which lend themselves to easy distribution by handing them off to friends or leaving them in public places. I had suggested using the same format, albeit with a less heavy handed approach, to distribute information about the arts.

That idea has been percolating in my mind as I waited for the opportunity to put it into action. That opportunity seems to have presented itself.

If you recall on Monday I mentioned how I haven taken advantage of the enthusiasm my assistant theatre managers have brought to the job to implement some of my ideas. Well this is one of them.

The current assistant theatre manager had an idea to assemble a Student Media Art Collective (SMAC – her idea) to help us promote the performances at the theatre. Our intention is to have discussions about promotion, techniques and art in general. In time we hope to bring in some guest speakers to talk to the group about various topics. I have pretty much left it up to her to organize and run. I just approve the purchase of pizza, distribution of comp tickets and show up at the meetings.

I have to say, I have been pretty impressed with the way she has run it. Even though we want these people’s help promoting the theatre, she hasn’t really mentioned that at all. What she has basically done is created a place for people to meet, eat pizza and talk about their ideas. Today she had us drawing things on file cards and post-it notes.

We have only had two meetings. Between the first one two weeks ago and the one we had today, two of the people have already started collaborating on a project together. They aren’t ready to talk about it yet. From what I have glimpsed of the proposal the one guy wrote, it seems to be some sort of fictional speculation about the origins of chess as a game.

I like the energy that is developing so far. We have provided a forum for these students who are predominantly visual artists that hasn’t been available before. I think it has been good that we have let the participants talk about their ideas rather than pressing our agenda. It has helped people feel comfortable and share their goals with the group.

I had discussed my idea to emulate the Chick Tracts with the assistant theatre manager about a week ago and while I wanted to mention today, I decided to follow her lead in regard to whether we asked them to do something for the theatre. Near the end of the meeting, she invited me to share the basic concept with the group and a number of them really liked it. During the mingling at the end of the meeting, a few approached me with the ideas they had. I was surprised that many of them were interested in producing a hard copy format rather than a digital manifestation as I had suggested. Apparently having something physical to hold is valued a bit more than I had guessed.

I will follow up by sending out some links to some websites that might provide as basis of inspiration for my Arts Tracts. Then I will step back and see what happens in the next two weeks before we meet again. Hopefully something will have been produced by this time next year.

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