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Economic Impact Ain’t Everything

Drew McManus cautions a little today against putting a lot of stock in studies about the economic impact of the arts.

I had been thinking along the same lines because so many people were crowing last week about studies showing arts and culture had a $500 billion impact on the economy.

The problem is, between 1998-2008 the impact of arts and culture on current dollar GDP was between 3.5% and 3.7% of the economy. According to a piece from Pacific Standard, arts and culture has been hanging around at 3.2% of the economy since 2009. When you are talking 500 billion, each tenth of a percentage there represents tens of billions of dollars so a .3%-.5% difference adds up quite a bit of lost impact. (Though the report was measuring where things stood in 2011 we are talking about a 2 year “hang.”)

From some of the responses I was reading, it seemed like people thought this was the first time the economic impact of arts and culture had been measured. It does appear that the criteria and methods are more refined than in the past, so the number may be more accurate. But as Drew suggests, people have been attempting to measure economic impact of arts and culture for quite some time now.

And remember, often economic measurements aren’t always your friend and acknowledging their validity can be a two edged sword if someone else can claim bring equal or better results.

A recent opinion blog on the NY Times reminded me that when it comes to economic impact and earnings potential for arts and culture positions, it is important to note that the figures are a result of specific decisions being made:

Is the crisis rather one of harsh economic reality? Humanities majors on average start earning $31,000 per year and move to an average of $50,000 in their middle years. (The figures for writers and performing artists are much lower.) By contrast, business majors start with salaries 26 percent higher than humanities majors and move to salaries 51 percent higher.

But this data does not show that business majors earn more because they majored in business. Business majors may well be more interested in earning money and so accept jobs that pay well even if they are not otherwise fulfilling, whereas people interested in the humanities and the arts may be willing to take more fulfilling but lower-paying jobs. College professors, for example, often know that they could have made far more if they had gone to law school or gotten an M.B.A., but are willing to accept significantly lower pay to teach a subject they love.

Economic impact of arts activity could potentially be greater if more people choose to charge more (or it could be lower because it wouldn’t be as widespread.) Arts and Culture salaries could be higher if people held out for more money (but again, there might be fewer people employed in those areas.) Choices have been made in an attempt to provide more widespread access and because people have been motivated by considerations other than money.

(And by the way, salaries start to even out around mid-career. Note that liberal arts is tied with medical technology, theatre with health care administration, history with business administration, and philosophy is WAY above both of them.)

People may tell you that back in the old days, people stuck with a job no matter how awful it was instead of pursuing what interested them. That may be true to a degree, but this weekend my mother told me that when my grandfather was working in the garage at a car dealership about 4-5 miles from their house, he was unhappy and bounced back and forth between parts manager and service manager and would curse up a storm every night.

Then he got a job at West Point Military Academy in shipping/receiving in the early 60s, and even though it was 40 miles away which required him to get up earlier every day, she never heard him curse after that point.

Not only do I know that my grandfather couldn’t be the only one who did this, I have heard interviews recently with people who lived in towns with good manufacturing bases who talked about how easy it was to quit a job in the morning and have a new one by the afternoon.

People may characterize following your bliss and studying a topic that interests you as an irresponsible and effete decision, but it isn’t unrelated to decisions people have made in the past. There may have been a good many people who stayed in a soul crushing job all their lives, but that may have been more of a choice than a necessity.

This by no means ignores that there are other forces conspiring to place college educated people in low paying jobs. There is more involved in finding employment than choosing a field of study and embracing the realities of jobs in that field.

But the choice to accept a job at low pay also contributes to the job being low paying. Sometimes it is because there are few alternatives but to accept those jobs. Sometimes it is because the applicants concede the organization has important uses for that money.

Salaries and economic impact are not the sole measure of value of people and their labor. Good thing too because we probably all have more value as soylent green.

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Thanks For The Virtual Relationship

I started my current job in May, however I came to interview for the position right before Thanksgiving last year. As you might imagine, I count that date as an important milestone. Given the proximity of this “anniversary” to Thanksgiving, there were a number of cards and loaves of pumpkin bread being distributed to those who welcomed and assisted me in the transition to my new job.

I probably missed a number of people in the process. One person I whose participation in my job search I did want to recognize is Drew McManus. I use the term “participation” because while Drew did directly contribute to my getting this job, he also more indirectly helped with a little experiment I was running.

So this entry is actually less about saying how wonderful Drew is (though he is), as reflecting on what it is we actually value about employees and coworkers.

I actually started my job search a few years back and I asked Drew if I could use him as a reference. At the time, we had never met in person. And as of right now, our only in person meeting was a couple hours for dinner during a lay over I had in Chicago when I was returning from a job interview.

I wanted to see if it was actually possible to get a job based on the recommendation of someone whom you had never met or worked with directly. I listed Drew about third or fourth on my reference list behind people who had actually supervised my work directly on a daily basis.

While it is true to say that we never really met, we have communicated quite often over the years via email and a number of times on the phone, soliciting each other’s advice and discussing the arts environment. We would coordinate on cross-blog projects. I would frequently alert Drew to problems with the website hosting the blog and there were a few times I expressed criticism of some of the changes he was proposing.

So in many respects, our relationship was similar to that of many workplaces where coworkers assist and comment on each other’s work and labor to advance the interests of the company, in this case the Inside the Arts page.

The Adaptistration blog has passed its decade mark and Butts in the Seats will reach that point in February. In some respects, Drew is more familiar with the quality of my work and thoughts on arts administration than my previous four work supervisors. Since I am faithful about scheduling blog posts to cover my absences during vacations, he knows a bit about my work ethic.

Yet we work in a field that emphasizes in-person interactions with our customer base. We want people experiencing the arts in close physical proximity with the performer or actual piece of visual art.

There is a 10 year section of my life’s work that does not exist physically. There are people who have published fewer pages of incoherent ramblings than I have who are recognized poets and authors (or gotten tenure). I can’t quite say for sure if those 10 years of effort even helped me get this job or not.

Do you really want to hire someone who values interactions and creative content that are generated virtually for a job that is so much about the physical experience?

I think most everyone would agree this is pretty much indicative of the new normal and has been for awhile. Even the novelty of this story has waned from what it might have been four or five years back. I have interacted with Drew and others so frequently and so regularly it is difficult to remember or even believe that we have only met physically for two hours.

To some degree, the situation was almost akin to the blind auditions orchestras hold. My value was being discussed based largely on the quality of my work for the benefit of the project and not colored by office politics, personal affiliations or the size of the tip I leave when we go to lunch.

The common joke is that you never really know if the person on the other end of the computer is who they represent themselves to be, but this is also the stuff upon which relationships and trust are, and will be developed.

Even though Drew was last on my list, he received a surprising number of calls and apparently carried on fairly decent length conversations. And I actually got called out for some in-person interviews afterward. I don’t know whether his conversations helped my case, but they clearly didn’t hurt.

One thing I take from this is that while the opportunity to view performances online can undermine the value of live attendance in people’s minds, this experience has shown me that it is possible to develop a seemingly deep relationship with them as well. All the information you put out there on your website and all the interactions you have on social media can make people feel as if they have visited your performance space and experienced an event there, even if they haven’t.

I won’t argue that it isn’t a shallow, illusory relationship which may crumble quickly upon contact with the real life situation. But I think half the barriers to participation audiences encounter are mental and anything that removes or diminishes those perceptions and makes people feel as if they have the ease of a longstanding relationship with you is helpful.

Though again, the image that you put out there has to match the reality fairly closely. You can’t promote yourself as Disney if the reality is the Jersey Boardwalk after a hurricane.

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Of Blogs and Boards

So Minnesota Orchestra Association CEO Michael Henson declared that “blogs are senseless and must be ignored,” and he is right.

At least in the same sense that people think Congress is ineffectual but approve of their own representative. People don’t value blogs themselves, they value the people behind them.

Lynn Harrell hardly posts on his blog, but because of his stature when he posted about Delta taking both his cello’s and his frequent flyer miles, it raised such a ruckus there were newspaper articles about the situation and a segment on the Colbert Report.

The same is true for Bill Eddins, he doesn’t post often, but when he does, people respond.

Drew McManus doesn’t get cited as an expert solely by sitting in front of his computer typing away, he is out there consulting, speaking at conferences, giving interviews…and writing interesting things on his blog.

Emily Hogstad wouldn’t have garnered so much attention about MOA’s pre-emptive domain squatting if she hadn’t developed trust with years productive and interesting work.

Were blogs not to exist, these people wouldn’t be any less smart, talented and worth listening to. The blog medium just makes it easier to do so.

In the same vein, people don’t give to organizations, they give to people. Michael Henson seems to have either forgotten or been unaware of that fact.

Except in this case it is the reverse of the situation with Congress. People don’t value the individual musicians, but they value their relationship with the assemblage of musicians as a whole.

And perhaps unfortunately for Michael Henson and the MOA board, people don’t just value their relationship with the current musicians, but those of the past as well. Henson and the board may think they are bringing a recalcitrant bunch of musicians to heel, but by shutting down the season, they are interfering with a Minnesotan sense of pride in their historical support of arts and culture, including the Minnesota Orchestras of the past.

Now you even have Minnesota Governor Mark Dayton making a statement about the window closing on the two parties after having remained voluntarily quiet on the subject for months.Since there have been calls for the orchestra to return state monies, this may be a harbinger of things to come.

It is heartening that when we have had so many government officials telling artists and organizations what sort of art they should create, the subtext of Gov. Dayton’s remarks is basically to just get back to making art.

There is a conceit expressed by theatre technical staff where they say about actors, “without us, they would be performing naked in the dark.” This ignores the fact that theatrical performances don’t have to occur in a dark room outfitted in fancy costumes.

Sure, audiences LOVE the spectacle, but give them the option of a sun lit live performance in the middle of a cow pasture or an opportunity to listen to a recording of that same group in a 2000 seat concert hall accompanied by a spectacular light show and see where they go. Even if the tickets to the cow pasture are more expensive, people are going to choose the live show over the light show.

Orchestra boards are making the same mistake. They think their job is to get a musical performance for as cheap as possible, but people prefer the substance over the reasonable facsimile.

Now the question of whether people prefer orchestra music over something else is one of programming rather than labor and organizational existence.

Orchestra board members may be important people individually, but as a group they are subsidiary to the musicians themselves. Just as people only come to see the light and costumes in the context of a performance, no one comes to an orchestra concert for the board members.

When board members are feted for the great work they did for the orchestra, it is due to the delight the orchestra brought. The board made it possible for the musicians to deliver that delight, but the board is not the source of that delight.

Boards are praised for helping to construct, support and build arts organizations. Not for making them less. No board has ever been praised for their courage in cutting the oboes.

Boards, like blogs are meaningless of themselves and only gain value by dint of the talent of the people behind them.

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Everyone Wants To Be A Leader

If you do a Google search for Management vs. Leadership, you will likely find the top results imply it is much better to be a leader than a manager. (Though the Wall Street Journal guide says you need to simultaneously be both.)

However, as I noted in a post some years ago inspired by Drew McManus’ thoughts, a leadership approach can be detrimental to your organization.

I searched again this year and if anything there are only more articles that point you toward leadership over managing. Many portray managers as authoritarian and inflexible. However, as I noted in my entry there are those who acknowledge the need for both roles and the capacity of managers to be flexible and creative.

One of those I quote suggests that what might be contributing to the view of management as being detrimental to companies is that there is such a push toward leadership, no one is investing the time to develop excellent management skills.

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