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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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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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