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Making ‘Em Want To Sing, One Seventh Grader At A Time

I spent the morning talking to 7th and 8th graders about careers in the arts. The assistant theatre manager (ATM) and I sort of tag-teamed the presentation which included slides on some of shows to help communicate the need for good skills in research, reading, writing, communication, collaboration, math, technology and dedication alongside the specific skills you need for each discipline. Since the ATM and I had different career paths that brought us to our current jobs, we talked a little bit about that while quizzing the students on their knowledge and involvement in the arts.

On the drive over today, I couldn’t help feeling I might be selling the students a flawed bill of goods. The radio was full of stories about proposals to liquidate the National Endowments and the bankruptcy of Borders bookstores. Against a backdrop of news that arts and literature were not valued in the country, are students going to believe that the arts have something to offer them? Now granted, many 7th and 8th graders don’t listen to NPR every morning, but the message is still out there, each story contributing to students’ general outlooks and attitudes.

The only bit of sunshine was a story about Portland, OR which discussed that people keep moving to Portland even though there aren’t enough jobs. What keeps drawing them there? The overall culture and atmosphere of the city, including a mention of the music scene. I knew I had heard this sentiment before so I did a Google search before sitting down to write and sure enough, I found stories from 2010, 2009 and even earlier where people talked about the lack of jobs, the cool vibe and the music scene. You can find plenty of blog entries on the subject as well. I was pleased to continually hear a story where the arts were mentioned as an attractive element of a city.

When I got to the school, we discovered we were assigned to choral room. That seemed like a good environment in which to talk about the performing arts. We spoke to the music teacher there and he told us because of the high stakes testing, they no longer had a drama program in the school. This was rather disappointing to us, of course. However, we also discovered that he has over 200 students auditioning for 65 slots in his choral classes. He said it used to be 100 students until American Idol first aired and he got a surge of interest. Then when Glee started airing, he got another surge. Now he has to turn away twice as many students as he can accept. The choral director actually used to teach band at the high school down the street from me, but moved when he started a family because he wasn’t getting home until 10:00 pm and then had to get back up at 5:00 to return to work.

Next door was the band room where the son of one of our college’s retired music professors teaches music. According to the principal, both the professor and his wife come in pretty much daily to help their son teach the class. If music gets cut in their school, (and the choral teacher is getting a masters in another subject area to hedge against that), not only will the school lose its music teachers, but the efforts of two parents as well. If the arts programs get cut from these schools, it won’t be because of lack of interest from students or lack of dedication from teachers.

This school does not serve zip codes where the education reflects the values of an affluent community either. This isn’t to suggest that the parents aren’t pushing their students to do well, merely that the school isn’t in a place where people automatically assume the students will excel and succeed based wholly on the neighborhood. I was pleased to see that the arts didn’t face an entirely uphill battle in relation to communicating the value of the arts in one’s life to their students. There were some good role models and practices in front of the students.

Americans for the Arts has set up an easy way for you to write your representatives in Congress about continuing to fund the NEA and arts education. I like the format because it is much more flexible about allowing you to mix your own thoughts with pre-written text than most email campaigns allow. I have had it bookmarked for a couple days because I didn’t really want to go with a lot of the pre-generated text, but hadn’t quite thought of a way to make what I had to say personal for my representatives. Thinking about what I saw today, I think I finally have something that will create the connection I want them to make.

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Staying Married To The Artistic Process

I came across an interesting article in The New Republic, by way of Arts and Letters Daily that suggested that a shift in business school orientation partially contributed to the loss of manufacturing jobs in the United States. At one time universities focused on training graduates to manage manufacturing businesses and often had mini-factories on campus to give students practical experiences.

The focus since about 1965 has shifted to finance and consulting. While this has been largely beneficial for the economy, (until they started creating bad financial products), it is one of the reasons why the country has become weaker in manufacturing. That has been pretty bad for the country.

“Harvard business professor Rakesh Khurana, with whom I discussed these questions at length, observes that most of GM’s top executives in recent decades hailed from a finance rather than an operations background….But these executives were frequently numb to the sorts of innovations that enable high-quality production at low cost. As Khurana quips, “That’s how you end up with GM rather than Toyota.”

At first this was just an interesting theory to me, but then I realized that this describes exactly what people are afraid will happen if arts organizations are “run more like a business.” The fear is that decisions will rest entirely on return on investment and will be divorced from the manufacturing process as it were.

There was a time I would not have imagined that any arts organization would have a disconnect between the administration and the artists. I assumed that the administrators would be passionate about the arts with which they were associated. Why else would someone work so hard for so little pay?

Nearly five years ago, I cited observations that orchestra administrations were disassociated from the performances and performers. Given all the conflicts and closures since then, I don’t think the overall environment has gotten any better since. I also don’t assume that this situation is necessarily unique to the orchestra world.

In the last week I have heard Michael Kaiser on his Arts in Crisis tour and Andrew Taylor debating the utility of the arts management degree. In both conversations there was an obvious focus on training arts managers well. But the necessity for training boards well was mentioned too.

It seems to me that maybe the need to advocate the intrinsic value of the arts is necessary internally in addition to external constituencies. Perhaps one of the dangers of emphasizing the economic contribution of the arts to the community is that it creates greater expectations for boards and administrators that the art and its creators be ever more economically viable as well.

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Wry Kaiser

Michael Kaiser was in town as part of his Arts In Crisis tour. The session was videoed. I don’t know if it will be placed on the internet, but the content was pretty much the same as when he spoke in Madison, WI. I had watched that video back when Andrew Taylor discussed Kaiser’s visit to Madison. If the video of our local session becomes available, I will post it.

I am not going to give a synopsis of his talk here as I am wont to do. His thoughts are pretty widely disseminated through videos like the in WI and via his column on Huffington Post. I am just going to reflect a little on the experience.

He was a very entertaining speaker and the session was quite enjoyable. I encouraged my Assistant Theatre Manager to go because he hadn’t really heard any of this before. And our discussions after about how we should proceed were pretty productive.

Our mayor is the chair of the culture and tourism committee of the National Conference of Mayors and he is pretty enthusiastic about those causes. (He also bills himself as the “Singingest Mayor In America.” I was surprised that he didn’t take the opportunity today.)

He spoke, I think longer than anyone expected, about how important the arts are. He also stayed for the full 1.5 hour session. This impressed on me how important the topic of the arts was to him because he is always on the go. I have seen him get off a 7 hour flight that crosses the international dateline, speak at a meeting about public transportation and then out to another meeting. Since he was still around as the Q&A started, the moderator brought him back up to the stage to field questions about the arts in the city.

A few observations about the session with Kaiser. The first isn’t predicated on something he said. The session opened traditionally with a welcoming chant and then a hula display. I am not Hawaiian, nor am I practitioner of any Hawaiian performing arts. However, my investment in those art forms were such that I wished they had done a slightly different program. The hula was accompanied by singers playing ukelele. This is something many people are familiar with due to movie depictions. So what I found myself wanting was for a performance on ipu heke–double gourd drum. I wanted him to go away perhaps surprised about Hawaiian performing arts and knowing more than he knew when he arrived.

Later, I was gratified to hear him say that was what he aimed for in his programming–having people surprised at some of the events he put together. His example was the Arab Festival at the Kennedy Center earlier this year. He noted nobody expects you to celebrate Arab art in the current political climate.

At one point he underscored how much the arts are dependent on the kindness of strangers when it comes to arts education. This is no great revelation, I am sure. He gave the example of a 3rd grader who benefits from her teacher loving the arts and providing many opportunities for exposure. When the child moves on to 4th grade, if the teacher doesn’t like the arts, then the child doesn’t get any exposure. If the 4th grade teacher doesn’t like math, they don’t have the option of shirking instruction in that. It occurred to me this is actually the case even in states that mandate an arts component because few schools value the subject enough to monitor compliance or ensure a valuable experience.

For me, the talk solidified and confirmed some thoughts I had over Thanksgiving about how I should be approaching various elements of my job. It was good to have the Assistant Theatre Manager start to move in the same direction. I hadn’t really spoken with him about my thinking yet because I hadn’t entirely figured out how to put it into practice. Today was a good catalyst for that conversation.

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Is This The First Step To Better A Structure?

If you haven’t heard yet, Michael Kaiser, President of the Kennedy Center has decided to turn the Center’s resources, knowledge and expertise toward helping arts organizations around the country weather the current financial turmoil in a program called Arts in Crisis.

I am very hopeful about this effort and I want to encourage people to participate either as a seeker of knowledge or as a mentor. Like many people, I have some reservations. My primary concern was if he and his staff were really equipped to do this. It seems like a big job. I haven’t really been impressed by which is also a service they offer. The discussion boards are barely trafficked, resource area doesn’t have much and job boards are completely empty. I can participate in more lively discussion on blogs and other forums without having to register. There are much better free job and resource sites.

On the other hand, Arts in Crisis effort might be closer to the Kennedy Center, and certainly Kaiser’s true competencies. There are few organizations in the country who have the resources and knowledge to act as brokers of knowledge in this manner. Frankly, if this is going to work Kaiser might do well to tap those other few organizations to get involved and provide guidance, resources and leadership in encouraging people to become mentors. This may mean that Arts in Crisis needs to leave the Kennedy Center’s direct control if another has the infrastructure to marry knowledge with need. The National Performing Arts Conference Conveners and Partners, for example, have databases full of arts professionals and have had more personal and direct contact with them than the Kennedy Center has.

My optimism and hope is that the current necessity is the mother of invention of a method of partnering, mentoring, information sharing and learning that arts and cultural institutions sorely need. If some strengthening network emerges out the road Michael Kaiser and the Kennedy Center have started upon, that will be great.

My concern is that for this to happen there is a lot of resistance to overcome. People might have fear of revealing weaknesses to local competitors or fear of mentoring a competitor only to have them use the good advice to eclipse them. It might be best to match up people who aren’t too far away to drive for site visits but distant enough not to be in direct competition.

There might be fear of helping another organization will mean neglecting your own. Or people might just not think they have anything to offer. One of my initial thoughts was that I wished I had the knowledge necessary to help–forgetting for a moment that I have contributed a respectable amount of constructive feedback for the PACE construction project.

The truth is, a lot of arts professionals with a great deal to offer may not have the first clue about how to effectively mentor and provide feedback to others in the industry. It will probably be important for the Arts in Crisis team to provide training videos and printed materials to assist in the process. My suspicion is that it may take a lot of poking and prodding from discipline service organizations and state/local arts councils to get people to imagine themselves as a mentor and download the materials.

As I said, the best of all possible worlds will be one where the industry emerges with greater strength and unity, confident and having proved they are a force to be acknowledged by governmental entities.

Going beyond that, the ideal would be for many organizations to form productive partnerships and then be able to go out and instruct others in their core competencies. One group might have developed a crackerjack presenting consortium, another might have a great method for developing and producing new works in partnership with higher education writing and performing arts programs, still another might have successfully leveraged their collective purchasing power to share legal, accounting and facilities services.

What will ultimately strengthen us is not depending on the expertise concentrated in a few central entities. It is going to be cultivating collective strengths
and having a system by which others can access the knowledge, even if it is as simple as having a list of the right people to call.

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