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Info You Can Use: You Can Hack Being An Arts Administrator

Drew McManus is fulfilling one of my ambitions.

When I was first starting out this blog, I envisioned creating some sort of repository of information about arts and arts administration that people could consult.

It should be noted that I was unemployed when I started this blog nearly 11 years ago so I had a lot of time on my hands to be ambitious. That plan never panned out. Getting a job and getting really busy sort of diverted my focus from that.

However, despite being quite busy with his job as a consultant, Drew McManus has deluded concluded that trolling through 990 filings and evaluating the effectiveness of orchestra websites aren’t monopolizing enough of his time.

Drew has decided to create an Arts Administration version of Lifehacker. He is looking for people to be contributors to this effort. If you are interested, sign up on his website.

To my mind, everyone has something to contribute. If you are a student in college, you can contribute tips on engaging your friends and colleagues.

If you live outside the U.S. there are plenty of challenges we face in common and plenty of insights from your particular experiences that can be of value.

In that vein, I wanted to call attention to a course being offered free online by Stanford “How To Start A Start up” It is being hosted by Sam Altman of the venture firm Y Combinator. The course speakers are a who’s who of Silicon Valley.

It isn’t directly arts related, but there will obviously be some commonalities with arts business. Among the topics are building company culture, how to operate, how to manage and how to raise money. Everyone keeps talking about the need for a shift in thinking in the arts and this may spur some different approaches.

After learning about this class, I did a survey of all the Massive Open Online Courses being offered by different entities around the country -MIT, Stanford, Harvard, Coursera etc. No one offers anything related to arts administration that I could see. The only online arts administration program I am aware of is the Certified Performing Arts Executive program at University of New Orleans.

[N.B. Dang it! Nina Simon made a liar of me pointing out this course on arts innovation. It didn’t show up on my search because it started the day before.]

Given the lack of any centralized source of information, tips and tricks related to arts administration, a resource like the one Drew is proposing is sorely needed.

Please consider signing up to make a contribution. With your help, a lot of people will be able to hack being arts administrators

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Beware Starry Eyed Assumptions

I will be traveling abroad for the next couple weeks, but as I am wont to do on these occasions, I have prepared a retrospective of some interesting entries from the blog archives.

Back in April 2007 Drew McManus and I had an interesting crossblog conversation with Bill Harris of Facilitated Systems about how you really need to be careful about the assumptions you make regarding the results of studies.

In this particular case, it was in regard to some results found in a Knight Foundation study that at first blush might lead you to believe people who participated in music lessons as kids were more apt to attend performances when they grew up.

That ain’t necessarily the case. Read the comments on my post as well as those on the entry Bill made.

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Being Well Rounded Is Not A Back Up Plan

Last week Drew McManus wrote a post about the value society places on arts practitioners. He referenced an article he saw in a You’ve Cott Mail newsletter about a teacher who urged kids who wanted to pursue creative careers to have a back-up plan and asked if anyone could provide a link.

I did remember the article and tried my darnedest to find it again. I didn’t have it bookmarked as I had thought, but had done so with a similar article on Salon that started with an anecdote of a parent who was panicked when her son said his favorite subject in school was art.

That article noted that while people assume innovation comes from the science lab, it is the artistic habit which often fuels that innovation.

The external binaries of right and wrong don’t exist in art as they do in most subjects. In math, the answer to the problem is correct or incorrect. In history, a sequence of events is true or false. In art, only the student can decide what critique to listen to and what to ignore. Art is the arena of activity where we develop the skill most required to innovate — the ability to harness our own agency.

Artist and Nobel Prize-winning scientist Richard P. Feynman put it this way as he distinguished between teaching science and art: in physics, Feynman said, “we have so many techniques — so many mathematical methods — that we never stop telling the students how to do things. On the other hand, the drawing teacher is afraid to tell you anything. If your lines are very heavy, the teacher can’t say, ‘Your lines are too heavy,’ because some artist has figured out a way of making great pictures using heavy lines.” In that moment, the art student is learning the validity of their choices, their own direction, and innovative results.

This particular section resonated for me because it seems that education is promulgating the idea of answers being right or wrong as testing becomes more prevalent and valued.

The Salon article goes on to cite a number of scientists who have artistic avocations which they credit with contributing to their scientific accomplishments. This isn’t new, we have often heard about how Einstein played the violin. Probably the biggest failing of the arts community is constantly going to Einstein as their example rather than citing a wider variety of scientists like astronaut Mae Jemison who is quoted in the article saying that the imagination that fueled the creation of sculpture and dance got the space shuttle flying.

To my mind, saying artists need a back up plan is really just an indelicate way of saying they need to be well rounded. I am not trying to inject some political correctness here because the truth is, everyone needs to be well rounded. I think it is Sir Ken Robinson who points out we have no idea what skills people will need 30 years in the future so it is best to teach everyone to be curious and teach themselves.

While there are plenty of artists who engage in a myopic pursuit of their discipline, in my view, the liberal and fine arts education community on the whole does a better job of making its members well rounded than science and business disciplines. Perhaps because few people tell science and business students they need to broaden their experience by having a back up plan.

Just last week a student was sitting in the lobby telling her music professor that she wanted to go to a conservatory so she wouldn’t have to take English and Philosophy courses. He informed her that wasn’t necessarily so since he attended a conservatory and had to take those classes. There was also the issue that as an acting student, those courses would actually inform her work down the road.

Only a week or so earlier, this same student listened to a pianist who had performed a concert for us talk about how she double majored when she was at the Peabody Institute both because she wasn’t sure if she wanted to be a pianist and she had many other interests. While she ultimately committed to the piano, she said she felt that her other course work gave her an advantage over her other classmates in terms of the opportunities she had available.

But last week our student was thinking about the difficult time she was having in class, not about this bigger career picture. Students need to be pushed to take a wide variety of classes rather than taking the path of least resistance. Framing this in terms of “a back up plan” does a disservice to their interests because it diminishes their passion for the arts.

But it also diminishes the “back up plan” by playing into that binary sense of right and wrong. If you think the arts taste sweet, then setting up anything else as the “back up” option when you fail at being an artist makes it the bitter pill that has to be swallowed.

I wouldn’t be surprised if the idea that an interest in the arts results in a zero-sum outcome is what feeds the purist idealism that allowing yourself to be interested in anything else is a sign of lack of seriousness about your art or selling out.

If you really wanted to be an artist but were told you needed a back up plan, wouldn’t you perhaps unconsciously redouble your efforts toward your art and avoid any involvement with any possible back up option?

Then when you succeed, it is your single minded passion and talent in the face of nay sayers that won out. If you fail, then I guess they were right all the time. You meet their expectation of being a failed artist since you never allowed yourself to exercise your other interests.

When you are young, there often is no conflict between an interest in reading Popular Science, making plays to entertain your family, playing baseball, running a lemonade stand and learning to program a computer. But then you are asked to choose…

If you “correctly” choose law, medicine, business or science, there probably won’t be a societal perceived conflict in continuing with your interests. It is only when you choose the arts that you may be pressured to choose one of your other interests instead.

The truth is, interest in the arts is not a zero sum game. If there are physicists who feel their artistic pursuits enhance their practice of science, there are certainly artists who can find their pursuit of science and technology will enhance their creative output.

I am sure there are accountants who also feel their professional practice is informed by their artistic hobbies. Its just that no one believes accounting can be made more interesting. (Though there are unfortunately too many stories of accountants getting creative in the wrong ways.)

If anything, Drew McManus is great example of being able to cultivate interests and strengths in multiple areas as a musician who has built an arts related business on an understanding of technology and analysis of business practices, including financial filings.

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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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